School & District Management Opinion

The Collapse of the Annenberg Challenge

By Deborah Meier — July 17, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Every few days I have a new object for “the worst ever” prize. Our new American-as-apple-pie identification with torture is the one that keeps me up at night. It seems so unbelievable that it has gone on for so long, so publicly, and is so unstoppable. The gulag of our time—here in America.

But in answer to your query, the collapse of the Annenberg Challenge in 1995 remains painful for me to remember and too long to tell well. (“In Schools We Trust” has a chapter on it and other similar efforts.) I was just recently going through the documents from that period and recalling my disbelief and joy—could it possibly be (I kept pinching myself) that all the powers-that-be have signed on to such a serious and visionary effort to innovate on a sufficient scale to really influence future policy? We had the state commissioner, two successive NYC chancellors, the chair of the school board, and the head of the teachers’ union signed on! We had both NYU and Teachers College prepared to develop the needed database, to document process and assess the outcomes over a minimum of five years, as well as track graduates over far longer.

The NYC Annenberg “idea” was to take a stab at the “accountability/governance” conundrum. Was there a way to do what’s right on the ground—which requires lots of “local” latitude—and still be accountable on a broader public scale.

The four nonprofit partners to the project came from different political and pedagogical wings of the reform movement, but were all interested in tackling the conundrum. Small schools were a part of it because we each, for our own separate reasons, thought that the kind of changes in attitude and practice needed required the consent of all those involved. Size would make this easier by making everything more transparent, and decision-making more direct. Ditto for choice—for staff and families. Self-governance was a given, because what we were exploring involved freedom from some of the constraints imposed by labor, management, and old habits.

Of course, you can see immediately how this might echo the business mantra! Less regulation, “trust us”. I worried about it, but I figured we were mom and pop stores, if you will; pre-corporate-style capitalism—and operating under a public umbrella.

Our definition of choice was that it belonged to families, not schools, to do the choosing, and to the community of professionals, not principals, to select their colleagues. Self-governing involved figuring out systems of governance that balanced professional and constituent voices and votes. Small sizes meant being small enough for all the staff to sit around one table and be heard; small enough so that part of our accountability would lie in the sheer transparency of the work. Dropouts would be noticed, by name.

Our definition of accountability was a system of multiple measures by which constituents could assess their work in public and transparent ways. We did not presume each Network would develop one standard approach; instead each Network was charged with developing its own intra- and external accountability system. But we did assume that we needed public review of each Network’s practices so that their systems of accountability met professional standards. A shared board of representatives would ensure the project’s financial and educational integrity, and provide a forum for important cross-learnings that came out of the work.

The aim of what we called Networks for School Renewal was to create a largely unregulated “learning zone” made up of networks of four to seven schools each, which would serve a total of 50,000 students (5 percent of the system) in an “open, collaborative fashion, working closely with the Board…the Chancellor’s office, and the UFT, and consulting regularly with…all the major stakeholders…so that our work can have a galvanizing effect on the system as a whole.” It was to be a controlled setting to study what did and didn’t work.

Alas, a new chancellor (and as a result a new school board chair) and a new state superintendent came on board, and didn’t like the idea. Forget it, they said. Alas, too (from my viewpoint), the Annenberg Foundation and the sponsors saw no other solution but to take the money and salvage what they could. Some of the old terminology was borrowed by the new chancellor, e.g. a “learning zone” for failing schools. Choice continued to thrive on a small scale as each of the sponsors used the resources to help small schools get started.

Ten years later, a new administration—under direct control of New York’s mayor—resurrected the idea, calling for more “empowerment”, more choice, and more small schools—and networks, too. However, the empowering was for principals directly “accountable” to the central system. The new “networks” of 20-30 schools were accountable not to their constituents, but to the mayor. The system offered choice—a vast array of schools, with many free to choose their students. It is a kind of General Motors with competing automobile divisions accountable to a single CEO. Instead of moving toward more direct voice “from the field” via a range of democratic avenues, the Bloomberg Mayoral Plan insures as few intermediaries or dissident voices and as little public review as possible. Instead, we have a single mayoral package of reform, accountable to the mayor alone.

Sadly, and inevitably, it also took the wind out of the sails of most of the early innovators who were literally made invisible (official NYC history claims small schools started with Klein/Bloomberg), whose experiences were ignored, and whose innovations were severely curtailed. Part of my pique is no doubt personal! (There are some positive side effects as well—for another time, including the Boston Pilot ntwork.)

It was a lost opportunity to explore under public aegis how the ideas of small, self-governing schools, accountability, and choice might work in a big urban community. The time will come for another try. New words, new ideas, and new innovators will invent their own new form of the Annenberg Challenge, someday.


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