School & District Management

More Power to Schools

By Lynn Olson — November 20, 2007 16 min read
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David Weiner experienced something unexpected last year as a school principal: A district employee lost her job because a group of principals rated her performance unsatisfactory.

“It’s the first time in my career I’ve seen a person not return to her job because they weren’t supporting the schools,” said the principal of Public School 503 in Brooklyn.

Such experiences may become more common under New York City’s massive—and risky—experiment to turn the traditional education hierarchy on its head.

This fall, for the first time, each of the district’s 1,456 public schools gained unprecedented control over budgetary and instructional decisions that previously resided with the central office. That decisionmaking includes the power to select a school-support organization to meet their needs, rather than taking what the central office delivers.

In exchange, the city’s department of education this month released “progress reports” that grade every school from A to F, based primarily on the test-score growth of their students over time. Successful schools will get additional dollars, while unsuccessful ones can be closed and replaced with new schools.

The goal, explained School Chancellor Joel I. Klein, is to “stimulate innovation, dynamism, and differentiation—something you don’t hear about in public education.

“With empowerment, we’re changing the role of the principal,” he said in a recent interview. “The principal used to be in many ways the agent of the bureaucracy. Now, he is really the leader of the school.”

The push to empower schools reflects a sharp departure from the first few years of Chancellor Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s school reform strategy, known as Children First.

In 2002, the state legislature gave the mayor unprecedented control over the 1.1 million-student school system, replacing what had been widely viewed as a convoluted and ineffective governance structure.

The law abolished the locally elected boards that had governed the city’s 32 community districts since the late 1960s. It gave the mayor the power to appoint the chancellor. And it enabled him to appoint eight of 13 members on the central board of education, which was also barred from daily management of the schools.

Chancellor Klein’s initial agenda was to regain centralized control of what he describes as an incoherent and politically driven system. He grouped the community districts into 10 regional offices designed to support and supervise schools. The school district also adopted a uniform mathematics and literacy curriculum for grades K-8. It ended social promotion in key grades. It created 150 small schools to replace large, failing high schools. And it invested heavily in centralized professional development and support, including adding math and literacy coaches and parent coordinators at every school.

The emphasis on providing direction and support from the center arguably contributed to student-achievement gains on state tests that led the New York City public schools to win the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education this September. Though results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that, at least in reading, those gains occurred between 2002 and 2005, just prior to and during the early years of the Children First reforms.

But from the start, Mr. Klein maintains, he and Mayor Bloomberg envisioned a second phase of the improvement efforts built on the core pillars of “leadership, empowerment, and accountability.”

That shift began as far back as 2004, when the city’s education department launched a pilot program called the Autonomy Zone, which gave 26 self-selected schools freedom from regional control in exchange for meeting specific student-performance targets.

Mr. Klein expanded that initiative in 2006, when 332 principals from across New York City—including Mr. Weiner—volunteered for their buildings to become “empowerment schools,” gaining increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability.

Starting this school year, all principals in the city got to choose the type of support their schools need: either becoming an empowerment school or selecting from about a dozen school-support organizations.

The schools pay for their services with money moved out of the central office. In fiscal 2008, the education department plans to give schools an average of $166,000 in additional funding, which was previously controlled outside the schools. A new “fair student funding” formula attempts to have more money follow the child based on his or her needs.


New York City’s strategy attempts to shift the locus of power from the central office to the schools. In the past, the central office determined what resources, professional development, and instructional supports schools needed. Now, the district’s regional offices have been disbanded and every school can choose a “support organization” that meets its needs. Here’s what schools chose for the current school year:

35 percent of schools
Empowerment-Support Organizations:
These self-affiliated networks of about 20 schools each hire their own team to provide instructional and operational support.

54 percent of schools
Learning-Support Organizations:
Four former regional superintendents within the New York City school system head these internal support organizations.
• 27 percent of schools chose Integrated Curriculum and Instruction LSO;
• 12 percent, Community LSO;
• 8 percent, Leadership LSO; and
• 7 percent, Knowledge Network LSO.

11 percent of schools
Partnership-Support Organizations:
These external nonprofit providers, selected by the New York City Department of Education after a competitive screening process, offer packages of services to schools. Some work only with specific grade levels, such as elementary and middle schools or high schools.
• 5 percent of schools chose New Visions for Public Schools.
• 4 percent chose the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association.
• Fewer than 1 percent chose one of the following: Replications Inc., the City University of New York’s Center for School Support and Success, Fordham University, or the Academy for Educational Development.
• Three of the nine original PSOs did not attract enough demand from schools to remain eligible providers.

Each principal also had to sign a performance contract that would base additional compensation—and continued job security—on the achievement of students in his or her school.

The idea, according to Mr. Klein, is to offer differentiated support for schools based on their needs—from principals who embrace autonomy and empowerment to those who want a more structured approach. “So instead of you and me sitting here and saying, ‘Here’s the structure for 1,400 schools,’ I have a dozen structures,” he said.

But the sharp turnaround in strategy has generated enormous controversy, particularly among those who question the strong focus on test scores and whether the curricular and instructional changes undertaken during the first few years of Children First are rooted deeply enough.

Three months into the experiment, most schools and their support organizations are still getting their sea legs, particularly now that the informal networks for getting things done in the system have been cast adrift.

“Most people went with what they knew or who they knew,” said Ernest A. Logan, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents New York City’s principals. “Some people who have been very good at getting what they wanted anyway are still getting it, and more. Those who were not as astute at making the system work for them are still having some of the same problems.”

“This whole new world of organizations providing support and not management of the schools is a very new concept,” noted Bill N. Colavito, a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, a partnership-support organization that is working with 53 schools throughout the city.

“This is a process that’s going to be, and has already proven to be, very effective for principals who are very effective already,” Mr. Colavito said. “What we’re finding is, just the way that you differentiate instruction in a good classroom, you differentiate the kind of support that you provide across networks.”

Paradoxically, said John Garvey, who directs the City University of New York’s Center for School Support and Success, which is working with 13 schools citywide, “some of the principals who really are not nearly at the top of their game are very reluctant to seek out assistance. They feel, in some ways, that it’s a confession of their limits.”

“I’m hoping that, over time, we can unfreeze the situation,” he added.

But other principals describe their newfound authority—and the ability to get things done without waiting for permission—as liberating.

Public School 503, a 763-student elementary school, was one of two new schools opened in 2006 to replace a large, failing elementary school on the same site. That year, parents and teachers at the school voted to become an Empowerment School.

“It was very scary at first,” recalled Mr. Weiner, a 32-year-old dynamo of a principal. “It ended up being the best move the school made. The progress we’ve made in the last year has been tenfold what we would have made as a regional school.”

Previously, for example, the school had been allocated one or two English-as-a-second-language teachers for some 250 pupils.

The school used its freedom to increase that to six, one for every grade. Those teachers can work in classrooms alongside grade-level teachers and meet with them during common planning time. The school also chose its own professional-development providers. It selected Teachers College, Columbia University, to support its reading and writing program, including the use of new, periodic assessments. In mathematics, teachers were unhappy with the district’s Everyday Mathematics curriculum, so they switched to a different provider. When that didn’t work out, the school piloted three separate math curricula before settling on one.

“Teachers feel empowered,” said Nina Demos, the literacy coach at PS 503. “I feel like our decisions are more closely aligned with student needs.”

“It’s not for everybody,” she added about being an empowerment school. “If you are capable of using the advantages of it, then it’s wonderful.”

In contrast, the 725-student Public School 255, also in Brooklyn, decided to select Judy Chin’s “learning-support organization” as its provider. Linda L. Singer, the school’s veteran principal, said that after some careful research, it selected the Integrated Curriculum and Instruction group because the school felt that Ms. Chin shared its values.

“She was doing everything that we were doing,” said Ms. Singer, including the school’s strong focus on the arts. “She was very organized, and that’s how we are. We don’t shoot from the hip.”

Besides, Ms. Chin had been very successful as the superintendent of the school system’s former Region 3, and the popular neighborhood school did not want to jeopardize its success. “We felt that in this changing time, we did need some support,” said Assistant Principal Susan M. Ehrlich. “The difference here is we can pick and choose what we feel we need help with.”

While the support organizations can suggest and reflect, they cannot force schools to change. The onus for improving rests with the schools themselves, based on New York City’s new accountability system.

The system provides schools with a wealth of new data about student achievement and learning conditions on site, all of which is supposed to come together in the Children First Intensive.

The CFI is modeled after an approach developed by New Visions for Public Schools, one of the nonprofit groups now serving as a support organization for 63 schools citywide. It requires every school to form an “inquiry team” of teachers and the school’s principal. That team must identify 15 to 30 struggling students and use all the data now at the school’s command to craft a targeted instructional approach for each child.

The 3,400-student Hillcrest High School in Queens began piloting the approach with New Visions in 2004. That year, it targeted some 15 to 18 Hispanic male students, all of whom were performing at the lowest levels on the state tests, and used data and interviews with them to identify reasons for their underachievement. The school used the data to set weekly goals and, where appropriate, linked students to subject-area tutoring. In June, all the students met their individual academic goals.


A key pillar of the Children First strategy is to give schools greater decisionmaking authority in exchange for rigorous accountability for results. The key components of the new accountability system include:

School Progress Reports:

Assign each school a grade from A to F based on four components: 55 percent is based on the progress individual students make over the course of a school year; 30 percent on the proportion of students scoring proficient or above on state tests (and, at the high school level, on graduation rates and participation rates on college-admissions tests); and 15 percent on the school environment, based on attendance data and survey data from parents, teachers, and students in grades 6-12 collected for the first time last school year. Schools can also earn extra credit for closing achievement gaps by raising proficiency among struggling students who are African-American, Hispanic, Englishlanguage learners, or enrolled in special education.

Quality Reviews:

Every public school participates in an annual school quality review conducted by an external inspection team, modeled in part after inspections in England and Hong Kong. The reviews, conducted initially by outside consultants but eventually by New York City principals and administrators, focus on a school’s use of data to adjust teaching practices and improve student learning. By June, the first round of reviews had been completed across all 1,456 New York City public schools.

Periodic Assessments:

Every school is required to give “no stakes” periodic assessments in mathematics and reading five times a year to gather data on students’ strengths and needs. Schools can choose from a menu of assessments approved by the city’s education department or developed by an outside vendor, or create their own.

Children First Intensive:

Every school is required to form an “inquiry team” that includes the principal and three or four teachers. The team must identify a group of 15 to 30 struggling students and use data from the periodic assessments and school-level observations to develop a targeted instructional approach for each pupil.

Achievement Reporting and Innovation System:

The New York City Department of Education signed an $80 million contract with IBM and Wireless Generation to create this integrated data system, which will give schools access to all of the district’s historical and current studentperformance data and permit them to share effective practices through a Web-based interface.

Incentives and Sanctions:

Under the new accountability system, bonuses will be distributed to principals of successful and improving schools, while principals of poorly performing schools could face dismissal, and chronically failing schools could face restructuring and, ultimately, closure. Schools with progress reports of A or B and Quality Review scores of “proficient” or better are eligible for monetary rewards and bonuses. Schools with progress report grades of D or F (or C for three years in a row) are subject to target setting and improvement planning and, if they don’t improve, leadership change (after two years) and restructuring or closure (after four years).

The results from that study led, in part, to a decision to foster more personalization by dividing the school into nine small learning communities, starting this fall, most of which are led by a teacher.

This year, Hillcrest High has chosen to form nine separate inquiry teams, one for each academy, to focus on writing across the different subjects. New Visions has been able to provide the school with data on the percentage of students in each academy who are on track, nearly on track, or off track to graduation based on their accumulation of course credits and scores on the state Regents tests required for graduation.

Each team will pick 12 to 15 students who are most at risk of not graduating and give them a brief writing assessment, developed by teachers, to look at their strengths and weaknesses. Based on those writing samples, teachers will design interventions both for those students and for the school as a whole.

Mark Dunetz, the New Visions leadership-development facilitator selected by Hillcrest High, works at the school three days a week, largely to help staff members develop the writing assessment and analyze that and other data provided by New Visions.

“We’re at the point here in really being able to use data in a much deeper, richer way,” said Principal Stephen M. Duch.

Within each small learning community, teachers now share two free periods a day. Three days a week, the free periods are used for common planning time; two days a week, teachers provide focused academic support for individual students.

“It’s asking the schools to turn the entire equation on its head,” Mr. Dunetz said of the Children First strategy. “It’s an attempt to ground decisionmaking at all levels in concrete information about the needs of students and instructional objectives.”

But for schools new to the process, the question is how rapidly or effectively they will be able to engage in such work—especially with the threat of the progress reports hanging over their heads.

“One would have difficulty finding fault with the ideas behind this,” said Jacquelyn Ancess, the director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, located at Teachers College. “But I think that there aren’t safeguards with regard to these ideas.”

“The schools are getting more money. They have direct control over their budgets. And for principals who are strong instructional leaders, this is a good thing,” she continued. “For principals who are new, which I think is about half of them, or who may not be particularly good instructional leaders, it’s problematic, because there are no safeguards to prevent them from making bad decisions.”

Said David C. Bloomfield, an elected parent member of the Citywide Council on High Schools and the program head for educational leadership at Brooklyn College: “I think the chancellor and the mayor deserve accolades, because too often we’ve been working in an obsolete managerial system. But the execution is too fast, too rapidly brought to scale, before the systems are tested, let alone in place.”

The progress reports, in particular, have come under withering criticism, after some high-achieving schools earned C’s and even F’s for failing to move student performance sufficiently in one year, while several schools on the state’s failing list earned A’s and B’s.

Mr. Bloomfield—as well as The New Times—has called for abandoning the letter grades as too simplistic and counterproductive. Of particular concern is the possibility that the grades will have a chilling effect on otherwise high-performing schools.

“Accountability is where people’s heads are,” complained Ann Cook, the co-chairwoman of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of about 40 schools across the state that are working on alternatives to the Regents exams. “There’s not a lot of emphasis on instruction. Everybody is waiting for the ax to fall.”

Probably the most confusing question is the role of the 32 community-district superintendents and nine high school superintendents, who by state law still have the right to hire and fire principals in their geographic areas, but who no longer work directly with those schools. Instead, many of those administrators are now spending long hours working as “student-achievement facilitators” with schools throughout the city.

“A lot of parents feel terrible because the one place they could go if they had a problem with their kid’s school or principal—and they tried the principal and it didn’t work—was the district superintendent,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit group that advocates smaller class sizes for the city’s schools. “They can’t do that anymore, because the district superintendent is not in their offices and is not supposed to deal with parents. Essentially, they’re being diverted to these new ‘district family advocates’ who have no authority over principals whatsoever and are not in the same management structure.”, an online newsletter for New York City parents, recently wrote: “There’s no question that for parents—who weren’t consulted about these changes—there is a new set of bureaucracies to navigate. Whatever the faults of the 10 geographical regions, they were generally ‘one-stop shopping’ for families seeking information or services. … Adding to the confusion, many familiar faces in the districts have retired or been reassigned.”

Norm Fruchter, the director of community involvement for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, in Providence, R.I., contends that mayoral control has sharply limited democratic participation in the school system. “Bloomberg has a corporate sense of government bureaucracies, that they have to be responsive and they have to be efficient, but democratic participation interferes with that,” he said.

“I give the mayor a lot of credit that he wanted to take on education,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local teachers’ union. But, she added, “The biggest criticism that history will judge both the mayor and the chancellor with is not enough respect or understanding for the educational process.”

“There’s too much of a push to go to the outside, corporate experts and the management-consultant types, as opposed to listening to educators who have a track record of success,” she said.

Chancellor Klein insists the administration has consulted with many people, “but in the end, we made the decisions. And it wasn’t a school-board type of process. It was a mayoral-control type of process. And I do think that, given where public education is today, having that kind of process matters.”

Only time will tell whether phase two of Children First will result in a deeper focus on teaching and learning—and an acceleration of student progress—as Mr. Klein expects, or as a distraction from those very issues.

“In inverting the traditional structure of how we support schools, we’re going to create conditions that lead to the rapid expansion of capacity within the school building,” predicted Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions.

“I think we have a long history of believing that outsiders, whether it’s nonprofits or districts or vendors, can change the DNA of schools,” he said. “But I think a fair examination of that history doesn’t suggest it’s worked. So I think the chancellor is right in saying we need to shift the paradigm.

“We need to create a culture of accountability,” he continued, “and then give principals and school communities the authority to figure out what they need to be successful and hold them accountable for their choices.”

With Mayor Bloomberg’s second term ending in 2009, and the state legislature set to revisit mayoral control, it’s clear that the administration wants the key pillars of its reform initiative—leadership, empowerment, and accountability—firmly in place before then.

“I did feel the model was going to continue to lead us on a steady-state path, rather than an accelerated path,” Chancellor Klein said about phase one of Children First. “The hardest part of my job is, when do I put my foot on the gas, and when do I put it on the brake? My sense was that this was the work of our second term. Could we have waited a year longer, or a year shorter? Those are judgment calls.”

“Given the state of public education,” he argued, “we should be bold. I think we need to take a certain amount of risk-taking to create very different outcomes for kids. If we keep doing the same thing, we’ll get the same results.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as More Power to Schools


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