School & District Management

Chancellor Pledges Autonomy for Some N.Y.C. Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — January 31, 2006 3 min read

New York City will quadruple the number of schools that get additional freedom in exchange for good performance, the district’s chancellor has announced.

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The expansion of the city’s “autonomy zone” was among a host of proposals outlined last month by Joel I. Klein, who was chosen nearly four years ago by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to lead the nation’s largest school district.

The educational priorities for the mayor’s second term, detailed in a Jan. 19 letter from Mr. Klein to the city’s principals, revolved around the district’s three watchwords: leadership, empowerment, and accountability.

The city’s education department plans to continue training principals through its Leadership Academy, which has trained and placed more than 100 principals in the city’s 1,400 schools in the past two years. The 1.1 million-student district will also give some principals more authority over monetary and staffing decisions, and hold all of them accountable for results on a wider variety of measures.

That expanded authority has existed for principals in an “autonomy zone” of 58 schools since 2004. If those schools meet academic and attendance goals laid out in performance contracts, they can exert more authority over such issues as what type of professional development to use, and how to spend their money. Under Mr. Klein’s plan, another 150 schools would be added to the autonomy zone next fall.

Chicago has begun to explore a similar strategy. Last June, it offered 85 of its better-performing schools the chance to skip certain requirements for staff training and curricular initiatives, as well as more freedom to manage their money. Those schools are also less subject to central-office oversight.

Mr. Klein cast New York’s expansion of the autonomy zone as part of its effort to devolve more decisionmaking power to school sites. One step already taken toward that end is a provision in the most recent teachers’ contract that lets principals decide whether to hire teachers who want to transfer into their schools.

Still More Needed?

The moves are part of the district’s effort to build what it calls a system of great schools, rather than a great school system. Efforts to produce strong school leaders and allow principals greater freedom for good performance is accompanied by initiatives to improve graduation rates, provide more secondary school options, open more charter schools, and expand prekindergarten programs.

Noreen Connell, the executive director of the Education Priorities Panel, a coalition of groups advocating better schools in New York City, lamented that Mr. Klein’s letter lacked any plan to improve middle school performance, which district officials acknowledge is lackluster.

She applauded the chancellor’s promise to cut $200 million from central and regional administrative spending and channel it to schools. The panel analyzed district spending in the last few years and found that savings at the middle levels of administration were offset by increased spending at the central office.

“These proposals are good mid-course corrections,” Ms. Connell said. “They’ve been claiming the resources have gone to the schools and it’s not true.”

Mr. Klein’s letter reiterates accountability measures that he announced in June. The district will use a “value added” approach to evaluating schools’ progress, meaning it will assess how much year-to-year progress students have made, as well as their absolute scores on standardized tests. It will also evaluate schools based on qualitative measures of their learning environments, such as parent involvement and school culture. (“N.Y.C. Schools to Measure Gains, Not Just Raw Test Scores,” June 15, 2005.)

The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents the city’s principals, issued a brief statement agreeing with Mr. Klein’s recognition that school leadership is important, but noting that the principals have as yet been unable to win a new contract.

The United Federation of Teachers found it “encouraging” that Mr. Klein sought to redirect more money to the classroom, but said in a statement that it would wait to see whether it was actually used for things students and teachers need. The union also asked Mr. Klein to see that class sizes are reduced, vocational options expanded, and full-day, universal preschool is available to 4-year-olds.

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