Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced further plans last week for centralizing the New York City school system by abolishing its community school districts and requiring most schools to adopt a unified curriculum.
Declaring that the system is at “the dawn of a new movement,” the mayor unveiled a host of other initiatives: smaller class sizes, employee layoffs to streamline services, and phonics-based reading instruction among them. Many of those changes will be in place by September, he vowed.
“We must have the courage to stand up to the apologists, to the entrenched, self-serving special interests, to the self-promoters and doubters and the apathetic,” he said during a Jan. 15 address at the New York Urban League’s Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
Mr. Bloomberg announced the changes alone, unaccompanied by his hand-picked schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein. The mayor’s action underscores his apparent intention to lead the charge for improving New York’s schools, under a state law adopted last June that handed him tight control of the formerly decentralized district. (“N.Y.C. Mayor Gains Control Over Schools,” June 19, 2002.)
The mayor, a Republican who won his post in 2001, has said repeatedly that he would stake his political record on the school system’s success.
While Mayor Bloomberg may be making history, it’s unclear what effect his “command and control” structure will have on the system, said Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who wrote a history of the city’s public schools.
“The mayor promised radical change, and he is bringing about radical change,” she said. “Whether it will improve the situation, only time will tell.”
Throughout his speech last week, the mayor focused on three areas: organization, curriculum, and parent involvement. But the education plan’s linchpin is transforming the school system’s administration divisions.
The community school districts and other district departments, which Mr. Bloomberg called “Byzantine administrative fiefdoms,” will be replaced by “one, unified, focused, streamlined chain of command,” he said.
New York’s 1.1 million students and 1,200 schools will be divided into 10 regions, each led by one superintendent. Within each region, or “learning support center,” 10 instructional supervisors will oversee up to a dozen schools. The superintendents and supervisors will focus solely on instruction, the mayor said, and reading and math specialists will be sent from district offices to schools.
Current staff members will fill the new positions, which will fall under the direction of Diana Lam, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning and a former superintendent of the Providence, R.I., schools.
The regional superintendents will work from offices in the district’s new headquarters behind City Hall in Manhattan, joining the chancellor and his top administrators. From there, the mayor said, the superintendents will provide “accountability from the top on down.”
Six support centers, led by regional managers, will handle human resources, budgeting, and other support functions. Mayor Bloomberg said he expected the new centralized structure to lead to a “significant” reduction in nonpedagogical staff members.
In all, shifting administrative employees out of classrooms currently used as offices should free up roughly 8,000 classroom seats, the mayor noted, which equals about a dozen schools.
Since it was apparent that New York City’s community school district structure was failing, the mayor’s centralized approach makes sense, said Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. Nationally, he added, there’s been a “seesaw” from centralized administration to decentralization and back.
Still, Mr. Usdan offered this warning: “None of this structural stuff is a panacea.”
Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the local union that represents New York principals and district-based administrators, said she did not believe that the mayor was targeting her members for potential layoffs.
Instead, she said, the education plan would create a “clean slate” to build a new administrative framework. Ms. Levy, who said she planned to meet with Chancellor Klein this week, said her 5,000 members have specialized skills that are essential for the district.
Beyond shuffling the administrative deck, Mr. Bloomberg’s initiatives reach into classrooms with a standardized reading, writing, and mathematics curriculum for 1,000 of the city’s 1,200 schools. The city’s top-performing 200 schools will be given discretion in choosing their curricula, training teachers, and setting budgets, the mayor said.
In grades K-3, schools must use a phonics-based reading and writing program, the mayor said; pupils will receive a minimum of 135 minutes of daily literacy instruction and an hour of math.
“In September, we will bring coherence to the way the majority of our schools teach reading and writing, so that citywide, our teachers will employ strategies proven to work,” the mayor said. “For these schools, the chancellor’s office will dictate the curriculum and pedagogical methods.”
To encourage reading in grades 4-9, classroom libraries will be established. And in middle schools, the size of English classes will be reduced from 33 to 28 students.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate, noted that the union was already a strong proponent of a unified curriculum. The UFT unveiled its own English/language arts curriculum last fall, which received Mr. Klein’s endorsement. (“N.Y.C. Teachers’ Union Designs English Curriculum,” Sept. 18, 2002.)
Ms. Weingarten called the mayor’s approach “refreshingly positive,” but said in a statement that she expected “real implementation problems.”
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of the Cleveland public schools and a former superintendent of the district overseeing New York’s lowest-performing schools, said adopting a uniform curriculum was “doable,” but would require intensive hands-on supervision.
Replacing the city’s 32 locally elected community school boards with “parent engagement boards” could be among the most sensitive aspects of the mayor’s plan. Those boards emerged in the 1960s, after black and Hispanic activists lobbied for more community control of schools. The state legislation that gave the mayor control of the city schools specified that the community boards would be abolished.
Membership on the new boards would be reserved for parents of local schoolchildren, which Mayor Bloomberg said would protect the boards from being compromised by politicians. Creation of the parent-engagement boards must be approved by the state legislature.
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the lower house of the legislature, said a state taskforce was scheduled to make a recommendation about how best to replace the community school boards next month. The 20-member task force has considered the mayor’s model, said Mr. Sanders, who is a co-chairman of the group.
“It’s not enough to say that ‘Mr. and Mrs. Parent’ will be on the board,” he said. “It’s not something that parents can buy in to if they don’t have some meaningful responsibility and influence.”
Mr. Sanders said he believes that the mayor’s plan to abolish the community districts themselves must be approved by the legislature. A spokesperson for Mr. Bloomberg has argued that the mayor has the power to make such a change.
The school system also will hire 1,200 parent coordinators, each of whom will serve as an ombudsman at one of the city’s schools.
Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City reform group that advised the mayor and the chancellor on the new plan, said the mere fact that Mr. Bloomberg had made education his centerpiece was enough to restore some hope for academic progress.
“The [mayor’s speech] is a 30,000-foot view,” Mr. Hughes added. “Now, the mayor’s got to land the plane.”