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Summer 1999
   
How Businessmen Shouldn’t Help the Schools
Sol Stern
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On April 29 I became a New York City "Principal for a Day," along with about 1,000 of the city's business executives, a dozen or so local politicians, and such luminaries as bad-boy actor Billy Baldwin, Diane von Furstenberg, Norma Kamali, and First Lady Hillary Clinton. With two children of my own in city schools, I had become intrigued with this highly regarded program, which attempts to improve public schools by linking them with private-sector companies and managers. I even dared to hope that the executives who became Principals for a Day might be able to spur the public schools into becoming more innovative and productive.

I found, alas, that the businessmen left their managerial street smarts in the office, wasting a golden opportunity for reform. They came to their schools with the best intentions and bearing gifts, yet unwittingly they conspired in propping up an indefensible, failing system.

The guiding genius behind Principal for a Day is 36-year-old Lisa Belzberg, daughter of one of Canada's richest families and wife of Matthew Bronfman, son of Canadian tycoon Edgar Bronfman. Attractive and articulate, with degrees from Barnard College and the London School of Economics, Belzberg worked for political campaign consultant David Garth and then became producer of the Charlie Rose TV talk show. She moves easily among the city's movers and shakers; her name on an invitation draws willing supporters to the program.After serving as a Principal for a Day five years ago, when the program was still small and run entirely by the Board of Education, Belzberg found a cause. She created Pencil (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning) as a not-for-profit organization with 13 employees and a half-million-dollar budget. Pencil took over the struggling program and expanded it into the largest and most successful operation of its kind in the country.

Belzberg sends her own children to an exclusive Jewish day school but bubbles with enthusiasm about the public schools. "I truly believe in the notion of public education in this country," she told me. "It is the one place where everyone can be accepted. There are beautiful things going on in the system. . . . I believe that by putting the private sector into the schools, we are bringing the city together."

In the past few years, companies such as NBC, Primedia, and HBO have poured millions of dollars' worth of computers, books, and furniture into their assigned schools through Principal for a Day—as well as offering students a host of internships and tutoring programs. While these gifts are undoubtedly useful to the individual schools that receive them, there is little evidence that Principal for a Day has brought about any systemic school improvement.

But the program has brought about a bonanza of glowing publicity for the public school system. For years I found myself bemused by the gushing columns by journalists from all four major New York dailies about their Principal for a Day stints. Somehow, none of these normally skeptical writers ever seemed to visit a poorly performing school or to serve with a less than stellar principal or to observe a lazy teacher. This year, the favorable media buzz began even before we honorary principals were sent off on our assignments. A New York magazine profile depicted Belzberg as an angel of mercy, mobilizing private-sector relief for the city's worthy but allegedly underfunded schools. The magazine favorably contrasted her efforts to the sinister influence of billionaire investor Ted Forstmann ("a friend of Newt Gingrich"), who had just raised $170 million for private school scholarships—privately funded vouchers—to allow 40,000 poor children to escape failing public schools nationwide. "Under the guise of fair competition, Forstmann is abandoning public education," the magazine intoned. The article failed to note that Principal for a Day was honoring New York magazine's owner, Primedia, for its donations of books to the public schools.

Even if you believe the dubious proposition that providing private scholarships to thousands of poor kids trapped in failing public schools is the equivalent of "abandoning" public education, that leaves unanswered this key question: What should business leaders be doing if they really want to help save public education? Is donating books and computers the answer?

I was assigned to I.S. 59, a junior high school in Springfield Gardens, Queens, a solidly middle- and working-class black neighborhood near the Nassau County border. Surrounding the vast rectangular school building are small one-family homes with neatly kept lawns. The building houses over 1,500 students, virtually all of them black, most from intact families, and comparatively few who are in poverty.

When I called the principal, Antonio K'tori, to arrange my visit, I could sense his disappointment in getting a writer rather than a businessman. "What can you do for us?" he asked in a somewhat forlorn voice.

Thrown off guard, I replied, with a chuckle, "Maybe I could fire some of your teachers."

K'tori took it in good humor. He told me that he had only a handful of below-par teachers, because over the past several years he had forced several others—by methods unspecified—to transfer or retire. This led us to the constraints the teachers' union contract places on the school principal's managerial autonomy. K'tori told me that, despite the contract's well-known restrictions, he felt he could run a successful school.

K'tori, 38, grew up in England, the son of Sudanese parents. Short, trim, and impeccably dressed, with an authoritative, no-nonsense manner, he starts off each day with a personal message piped over the school's intercom system into every classroom. The day I visited, the morning ritual began with the Pledge of Allegiance. Then K'tori called for a "moment of reflection," followed by a short pep talk about how important it was for students to study hard for their upcoming tests.

Following the same six-hour routine that most Principals for a Day go through, I was introduced to the students over the intercom, and then I offered a few words of encouragement. I sat in the principal's office with K'tori as he handled discipline issues with several students and their parents. I visited several classes, had lunch in the school cafeteria, and spoke at a career class about journalism as a profession. I couldn't shower the school with computers or books, but K'tori did ask that I write a positive story.

In truth, I found much that was positive, sometimes even inspirational, about I.S. 59. First, notwithstanding a few progressive-education platitudes, K'tori is basically a traditionalist. He imposes a dress code, he says, "because it takes the children away from the feeling that school is unimportant and that they can get here any way they please." All of his math and science classes are tracked for ability. He believes in high standards and thinks that his children should be able to pass the state- and citywide tests. He is usually in the building by 6 am and often stays well past 8 pm every day. "The school is his life," one of his secretaries told me. Why does he do it? "Because education is the most important gift I can supply to these children," he told me.

According to Board of Education test statistics, K'tori's incessant prodding of his students and staff about academic achievement pays off. In 1998, 57 percent of his students scored at or above grade level in the citywide reading test, compared with  49.8 percent of students in schools with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. In math, I.S. 59 scored 66.9 percent, compared with 61.6 percent for similar schools. Moreover, a significant number of the students are doing accelerated work. Almost 20 percent of I.S. 59's eighth-graders take and pass the difficult Sequential 1 mathematics and earth-science Regents tests, normally given in high school.

By chance, I wandered into an advanced seventh-grade science class and watched John Como, 29, teach a magnificent lesson on human genetics and DNA. The 35 students—all black, all wearing neat school uniforms—were totally enrapt, answering Como's probing questions and asking intelligent questions of their own. Here was a scene, I thought, that certainly confirmed Lisa Belzberg's insistence that "beautiful things" are happening in the city's schools and that more New Yorkers should be made aware of that fact.

Just as certainly, however, Como's employment status is an indictment of the system's dysfunctional personnel policies—and New Yorkers should know about that, too. After high school on Long Island, Como enlisted in the navy and served on an attack submarine during the Gulf War. He then went to Tulane on an ROTC scholarship, graduating with a B.S. in molecular and cell biology. Returning to the New York area, he turned down the opportunity to work in industry and opted to try teaching for a while. The Board of Ed granted him a temporary license, provided that he go back to school and take 12 education credits within the next three years. Then he'd have to earn a master's degree in education to become permanently certified.

Anyone who walks into Como's classroom could testify that he is already a master teacher. With his military background, his knowledge of a difficult academic subject, and his energy in the classroom, Como should be worth his weight in gold to any school. Yet despite his three stellar years in the classroom, the city and state education bureaucracies are still hounding him to complete this or that education course and go through a seemingly endless maze to get his permanent teaching credential, exemplifying the public education system's absurd credentialism. So despite his talent, Como is mired at the bottom of the salary scale, earning about $32,000 per year. Out of that munificent sum, he has to fork over $600 per year (after taxes) in compulsory union dues and then thousands more on his education courses and on various fees to the state to process his license applications. For the time being, he told me, he gets "a great deal of satisfaction" from his job and will stay on. For the long term, he says, "I don't know what I am going to do."

After leaving Como's classroom, I struck up a conversation in the hallway with a math teacher with graying hair, who identified himself as "Mr. Denmark—like the country." He had been at the school for more than 30 years and seemed embittered with the school system as well as with his own union leadership for accepting a contract with insufficient raises. Without embarrassment, he told me that, since the city didn't show any appreciation for teachers, he had decided that he would work to the contractual minimum (six hours and 20 minutes a day) in return for his nearly $70,000 salary. His tenure protection means that, as long as he meets his assigned classes for 42 minutes and does a reasonable job of keeping to the prescribed curriculum, there's not much that his principal or anyone else can do about it.

Even more perversely, despite Principal K'tori's enormous responsibility and 80- to 90-hour workweek, his annual compensation is only a few thousand dollars more than Mr. Denmark's. He's probably earning about $20 per hour—and that's for running a $9 million enterprise with 140 employees. We should celebrate K'tori's dedication and idealism—but this is not the way to build a system that attracts excellent school leaders. Little wonder that the city is losing some of its best principals to the suburbs. Mayor Giuliani has offered raises of nearly $30,000 in return for the principals' giving up tenure and accepting that, as managers, they should work under contracts renewable on the basis of their performance. So far, however, the principals' union has rejected this offer, holding fast to the prevailing public school culture of protecting jobs rather than accepting accountability.

Near the end of the day, I spent a final few minutes with Principal K'tori. There wasn't time to discuss all my impressions, so I returned to his very first question when we spoke by telephone a week earlier. I asked him to name the one thing he would ask for if he had a Principal for a Day with the power to grant his wish. He'd request money for an after-school remedial program for the under-performing students in the school, he said.

This was an excellent choice and reflected K'tori's educational values. Despite I.S. 59's overall good numbers on standardized tests, too many of its students remain way behind in crucial academic skills. More important than new computers or other hardware, K'tori recognized, nothing would be as valuable to his at-risk children as extra time with a talented and productive teacher.

Still, if I could wave a magic wand, it's not the gift that I would offer. Instead, I would grant K'tori the authority to control his own budget and his staff. On the books, I.S. 59 spends about $9 million per year; but it is the central Board of Education, not K'tori, that allocates those dollars to the various school functions—making our school system one of the last examples of a command-and-control economy since the Berlin Wall fell. Board bureaucrats get to decide that I.S. 59 will have so many teacher and assistant-principal positions, so many cafeteria workers, so many clerks and secretaries, so many security guards, and so many custodial workers. If, instead, Principal K'tori could decide on the most efficient allocation of staff and resources, he could easily find a way to pay for that extra remediation. To put it another way, were public education a rationally managed enterprise, K'tori would have the authority to allocate the school's resources and staff to accomplish his educational mission, rather than have the central authority's bureaucratic rules subvert that mission. Private school principals enjoy just such discretion—one reason that their schools are almost always more cost-effective and productive than public schools.

As I left I.S. 59 and drove back to Manhattan, I wondered why the business executives who served as Principals for a Day were either unable or reluctant to grasp this fundamental management issue—the bedrock principle of their own professional lives. I was soon to get an answer.

My visit to I.S. 59 turned out to be only the first part of the program, and perhaps not its most important part. After the school bell rings, the Principals for a Day, plus many of the real principals, gather for a town-hall meeting and awards ceremony. Two years ago New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. hosted the event in the Times building. This year, with the number of participants swelling to more than 1,100, the event took place in a large, ornate hall at the New York Public Library.

There was a special irony in that choice of venue. Eight days earlier, in the same hall, Ted Forstmann's Children's Scholarship Fund had staged its own gala to celebrate the granting of its 40,000 scholarships to poor public school kids. I had attended the Forstmann event, and the comments of Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III at that ceremony still reverberated in my mind. The two civil-rights leaders had pleaded for a new civil-rights agenda for the twenty-first century—the right of poor minority children to be able to choose a school that really would educate them. Another theme, sounded by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Forstmann himself, was that when public schools have to compete with private schools for students, they tend to get better, so that vouchers ultimately improve public education, not "abandon" it. In his remarks, Mayor Giuliani had stressed that 168,000 poor New York City families with kids in the public schools—fully one-third of all those eligible—had applied for the Forstmann scholarships, an astonishing indictment of the existing system.

I hardly expected to find much support at the Principals for a Day gala for using vouchers to spur competition in education. Still, I did wonder if any of the business executives had taken note of the

Soviet-style workplace practices in the schools they visited. Before the ceremony, I found myself in a seat next to a Principal for a Day named Amy Larkin, president of a consulting company that puts together private/public ventures. She told me that she'd been assigned to an elementary school in Brooklyn with a new young principal, who was being sabotaged by the old-guard clerical and secretarial staff. She was surprised to learn that the secretaries and clerks—just like the teachers—were covered by rigid civil service and union protections and couldn't be fired or transferred. At that point a woman nearby, who identified herself as a real elementary-school principal from District 2 in Manhattan, said that every new principal had to figure out how to come to terms with her clerical staff. The principal then confided that her own school secretary was 70 years old, had Alzheimer's disease, and couldn't remember anything she was told.

Any hope that the Principals for a Day would get to air these issues quickly evaporated. It became clear that this event was part political rally and part revival meeting to drum up support for the New York City education system as it is, and for the people who run it. Seated in the first two rows of honor were Chancellor Rudy Crew, Board of Education president William Thompson, United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and principals' union president Donald Singer. Sprinkled among them were the eager politicians—including Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer—who hanker to run for higher office as candidates of the no-change-in-education interests. Next to Chancellor Crew was Hillary Clinton, also primed to run for political office in New York as the anointed candidate of the same public education establishment.

Casual and elegant, Lisa Belzberg opened the meeting by asking everyone to pull together to "combat negative perceptions of the system." Without explaining what was so positive about the system, she went on to say that "long after vouchers and charters and Rudy versus Rudy, Chase Manhattan will still be there, and so will our schools, and we will still have the responsibility of educating our children for the workforce." She then turned the microphone over to Charlie Rose and sat down at the front of the stage, her legs draped over the edge.

"All of you have had a remarkable experience," said Rose, who surely does these events better than anyone else in the world. "We now want to hear what happened to you today." Rose then worked the crowd, offering the mike to anyone who wanted to stand up and speak.

Larry Greengrass, a senior partner in the law firm of Mound, Cotton, and Wollan, recounted his visit to P.S. 176 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where, he said, he was thrilled to find a huge banner welcoming him, and where the "entire fifth grade" put on a performance for him. "The most amazing part of the day," he said, occurred when he sat in on a conference about a pupil who may have been the victim of abuse. "It was inspiring to me that there were all those professionals working so hard to help one kid," he said.

Jolie Schwab, a senior general attorney for ABC, spoke of the "dedicated and talented" teachers at the junior high school she had visited. She then addressed Chancellor Crew directly, concerned that "our teachers were leaving for the suburbs." Union boss Weingarten nodded approvingly as Crew stood up and took the mike. "What you saw," Crew told Schwab, "is what it is like every day. And it's true that our teachers are being cherry-picked by the suburbs. We have become a training ground for teachers for the suburbs." In fact, no hard evidence exists that teachers are stampeding to the suburbs. Nevertheless, Crew went on, to prevent this calamity, the teachers had to get the salaries they deserved. The audience broke into applause.

Not to be upstaged, principals' union chief Donald Singer stood up to say that the city's talented principals were also leaving for the suburbs. Turning directly to Crew, he urged: "Let's get a contract [for the principals] now." More applause. The same executives, of course, would have laughed instead of clapping, if someone had proposed that because they were losing some talented middle managers to a competitor, they should give equal raises to each and every one of their managers, regardless of merit.

After another honorary principal recounted how nervous she'd been to get on her school's elevator with two of its minority students until they expressed their friendliness, Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of B.M.G. Entertainment, told of his visit to Midwood High School in Brooklyn and of the difficulties its principal was having keeping up the maintenance of his grand old building. Zelnick announced that he had committed $25,000 of his company's resources to help out. "We used to build beautiful schools in this city," Zelnick said. "It's time to say to the federal government and the state: Why don't you start putting up some money?" More applause. Everyone in the room seemed to have erased from his memory bank the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars of school construction money had disappeared into a dark hole because of the featherbedding work rules and rank incompetence at the Board of Education's School Construction Authority ("Why New York Can't Build Schools," Spring 1998). Instead of trying to figure out how to eliminate the operatically flamboyant waste that virtually defines the system, the assembled business executives, despite their M.B.A.s and years of real-world experience, were applauding a proposal to keep shoveling money to the very people responsible for the failure. Only in public education.

Inevitably, Charlie Rose turned the mike over to the First Lady. She told us of her visit to I.S. 226 in Queens, where, characteristically, she conducted her own little town-hall meeting with some of the students. "It was interesting to hear the students talk about how they are always stereotyped," she said, leading her to remark, somewhat vaguely, that we all "have a lot of stereotypes about public schools." In a preview of what looks likely to be one of her Senate campaign themes against Mayor Giuliani, she said, "Let's not scapegoat and point fingers at an entire system." She then went into high policy mode: we can't improve the public schools without new money for "reducing classroom size" and for "new facilities," she said. Touting her husband's plan to spend federal dollars to hire 100,000 more teachers, she compared it to the Clinton administration's successful effort to put more cops on the street. "If you have more police, you have a better chance of reducing crime. If you have more teachers, you can do a better job of teaching the students," she remarked, ignoring the fact that more cops on the street didn't get results until they were properly managed.

It went on like this for 40 minutes, as one after another of these highly successful men and women stood up and heaped praise on the "hardworking" and "dedicated" people who were doing such a "great" job educating our children. Were they talking about the same school system that I have gotten to know so well? The system that virtually guarantees lifetime jobs for all its teachers and principals, regardless of how little or how much they work? The system in which fewer than half the children who enter high school manage to graduate in four years? The system that, year after year, has almost 100 schools on the State Education Department's Schools Under Registration Review failure list? The system in which two-thirds—67 percent—of all fourth-graders can't pass a very basic reading test administered by the state?

After the meeting, Donald Singer of the principals' union told me that "you can't apply the principles of marketplace competition to the schools, because education is not a business." Of course he believes that: his union exists to shield members from the risks of the marketplace. But why do so many Principals for a Day also accept it? I was dumbfounded that these shrewd, talented business people, some of whom manage the most entrepreneurial and competitive companies in the world and rightly boast that they can manage anything efficiently, would willingly draw down an iron curtain of denial when it came to the enterprise of public education.

In a more personal way, I was also angry. Few of the executives who were gushing about the schools they visited would actually consider sending their own children there, just as Hillary Clinton wouldn't send her daughter to the Washington, D.C., public schools that she says shouldn't be "scapegoated" and "stereotyped." They seemed to be saying that the public schools were doing an excellent job for other people's children. As one of those other people, I resented being told that the quality of the education my children were receiving is good enough, when it isn't. I also knew that the fault in my kids' schooling had nothing to do with a shortage of computers, the size of their classes, or lack of funds. After all, next year the city will spend some $10.1 billion on the schools—averaging out to around $9,200 per pupil—and a good part of that will be wasted.

I don't begrudge these executives the extra money they spend on their children's private school education. What I want for my children's schools has nothing to do with money. I want a system based on the fundamental idea that the interests of schoolchildren come first, ahead of the interests of the system's employees, with their lifetime job security. Even in just a five- or six-hour day in the public schools, any Principal for a Day who'd taken Management 101 should have been able to figure this one out.

A few days later, I telephoned a handful of the Principals for a Day—among them a senior manager at American Express, a vice president of Goldman Sachs, and a senior vice president of Home Box Office. Clearly, they had volunteered for the program out of decent motives and genuine concern about the city's future. Clearly, too, one of the reasons they had been so impressed by what they saw was that their expectations had been so low. When I asked if they were disturbed that, because of the union contract, it was practically impossible to fire an incompetent teacher or even check on a teacher's productivity, several responded that of course it troubled them. But, they said, they didn't feel they knew enough about such issues to speak out publicly. In response to my suggestion that the public schools could be improved if they followed more competitive, market-driven personnel policies, Richard Plepler, the HBO v.p., said, "I simply do not have good enough baseline information to make a judgment like that." Yet Plepler, who identified himself as a friend of Lisa Belzberg's, didn't hesitate to make the judgment that more money for higher teacher salaries and smaller classes would improve the public schools.

In our discussion after the town-hall meeting, Belzberg told me, "I am not in the business of trying to reform the system." On the contrary, she envisions the (by now) thousands of business executives who have participated in Principal for a Day and "who have influence in this city" becoming a force to help persuade elected officials to pour ever more resources into the existing public school system. She cited two examples in which some of the Principals for a Day had already tried to exercise such influence: the school construction bond act that was on the state ballot two years ago but failed to get a majority of the voters, and the school governance bill that passed the State Legislature two years ago, essentially recentralizing the school system and giving Chancellor Crew expanded new powers—with results that are hard to cheer.

For all her enthusiasm and goodwill, Belzberg's priorities are upside down. Business executives are better off allowing the education establishment and the unions to fight their own battles in Albany for more money and power—something they excel at anyway. As for the Principal for a Day program, let businessmen be businessmen. The business community should prod the public schools to change their dysfunctional workplace habits. The executives should bring to the schools the same unsentimental management hardheadedness that has made American enterprises the envy of the world. Who, more than a businessman, has the authority to say that no enterprise can prosper that doesn't hold individuals accountable, rewarding merit and punishing failure, keeping everybody's attention focused on results, recognizing that employees can't flourish unless customers do, and giving managers the authority and responsibility for making their operations succeed? Who understands better than a businessman that centralized, top-down management bureaucracies belong to the days of tail fins, not e-mail? Businessmen shouldn't be embarrassed to judge the schools by the same standards that make them successful in their own companies—and to insist, as Principals for a Day, that their tax dollars get spent with the same efficiency as their investment dollars.

One can almost hear the unions sputtering in protest. No, of course this doesn't mean that the public schools should be turned into profit-making enterprises. What it does mean is that the system should be managed with one preeminent goal in mind—to get the most out of every tax dollar spent on the schools and to get an effective teacher into every classroom. With their foot already in the schoolhouse door, and their bona fides as generous public school supporters established, the Principals for a Day could press the system to contract out some functions (such as lunch and custodial services) by competitive bidding in order to save money for the classroom. Instead of seeing more and more taxpayer funds wasted on school construction boondoggles, the business executives could develop innovative proposals for bringing in the private sector to build and maintain school buildings. They could map out an incentive-laden personnel system that would reward productive employees and weed out malingerers. They could help convince Chancellor Crew that the best way to keep his high-performing principals from leaving is, first, to allow them to control their schools and, second, to reward them with bonuses for improving their kids' academic performance. The executives could even lobby the Board of Education to hang tough with the teachers' union next year and negotiate a labor contract that monitors teacher productivity, a contract that finally helps children more than it coddles nonperforming teachers.

If the Principals for a Day could persuade the powers that be to try some or all of these elementary business practices, they might actually help save public education in this city. If they don't, if they continue to insist that they are not "in the business of reform," they will become increasingly irrelevant to the 1.1 million children who presently have no choice but to rely on the public schools as they are. As we used to say in the sixties, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

 

 

 
Glamorous, yes—but the Principal for a Day program drafts businessmen, who ought to know better, into the wrong army.
City Journal Summer 1999.
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.


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