City Journal

Stephanie Gutmann
Fernandez's Quick Fix
Chancellor Jodeph Fernandez breezed into town bearing big promises and a new reform: school-based management. It didn't working and it cannot be fixed
Autumn 1991

Stephanie Gutmann is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City. The research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.

Picture winter 1990: The city is broke. The public schools are a disaster, as usual, and there are rumblings about even scarier problems, like crack babies, waiting in the wings. The central Board of Education’s most recent chancellor, Richard Green, has served only 14 months before dying of asthma—or was he simply worn out by his task, another victim of the city’s schools?

If an ad-agency casting agent were searching for someone to play “savior of New York’s school children,” he couldn’t have found a better candidate than Joseph A. Fernandez. Tall, wide-shouldered, with round wire-rim spectacles and slicked-back FDR hair, Chancellor Fernandez had been an inspiring presence in New York ever since he left Miami to accept a three-year contract making him New York’s highest-paid public official. He was fond of issuing blunt, quotable statements like, “What’s been missing here is accountability. Nobody has held anybody’s feet to the fire.” Reporters loved it, and so did a lot of other New Yorkers.

Besides the promise of official feet-roastings, New Yorkers were excited about Fernandez because he came to town bearing a new version of education reform, called “school based management/shared decision-making,” or SBM/SDM—SBM for short. Fernandez had implemented SBM in Florida when he was superintendent of schools for Dade County.

In theory, SBM transfers power from principals and the central bureaucracy to a team composed of teachers’ administrators, and sometimes parents and students from a single school. The team meets periodically to decide matters ranging from budget and curriculum to spending and even hiring and firing.

What does this have to do with reading, writing, and ’rithmetic? In theory, quite a bit. School-based management is inspired by perhaps the single most firmly documented insight of the best education research of the past several decades. Again and again, education researchers in search of “effective schools” have reached the same conclusion: Good education depends not so much on any particular educational method as on good management. Good schools are well-managed schools.

Well-managed schools have clear goals, the primary one being high academic achievement. A well-managed school has strong leadership and a staff that understands and shares the school’s goals. The staff is a team of professionals that does not simply follow rules, but actively and enthusiastically promotes team goals. “Team” is a key word. In a good school, the staff is “on board.”

School-based management is supposed to be a way of achieving the well-managed school, of building good organizations. By giving power back to schools, SBM is supposed to free them from the dead hand of central bureaucracies. By giving teachers a share in decisions, school-based management is supposed to build team spirit and teacher morale. Chancellor Fernandez has complained that large schools are run on “the factory model,” and that teachers are treated like clock-punchers, not professionals. With SBM, he says, you treat “the people in the trenches as professionals.”

What actually happens under the SBM label varies tremendously from state to state, from school district to school district, and even from school to school. In New York City, P.S. 41 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, has been “doing SBM” since 1987. On his first day in office, Fernandez visited the school for a photo opportunity, declaring it an exemplary model of SBM in action. Ten months later he tapped P.S. 41’s principal, Herbert Ross, to become his director of school-based management.

At P.S. 41, four teachers, two assistant principals, and a teacher’s aide met once a week for 45 minutes to make major decisions about school policy. Some of the decisions included eliminating grades and replacing them with progress reports, and starting a parent involvement room. The SBM team worked with teachers on a program called “Open Doors,” which encouraged parents to participate in class by demonstrating a special skill, giving a lecture, or just helping out. (This was the program that had one Mrs. Carolyn Key doing the “mashed potato” for a group of fourth and fifth graders as part of a lesson about dances of the Sixties and Seventies.) P.S. 41 was considered very successful, because decisions were made fairly, smoothly, and efficiently, because teachers, parents, and students raved about the school, and because the school’s reading scores were significantly higher than the district average: 62.4 percent of P.S. 41’s students were reading at or above grade level, as compared with the district average of 35.2 percent.

When Fernandez left Dade County, there were not yet any numbers from Florida’s SBM experiment to show the program’s effect on reading scores, math scores, attendance, dropout rates, graduation rates, or teacher morale. Still, to many New Yorkers weary of incompetence and corruption, SBM sounded great. It was new; it was draped in the most up-to-date rhetoric from the human potential movement; and it had this powerhouse salesman.

There were a few curmudgeons out there. “It goes against my natural disposition to be a contrarian in these times in which New York City is ushering in a harmonious new age of the love-in.... [But] the annals of school history are littered with innovations, many of them recycled old innovations refurbished to new terminology,” warned a retired elementary school teacher on the New York Times op-ed page. But in general, SBM was given the full great-white-hope treatment in the press. The headlines trumpeted: BLUNT NEW CHANCELLOR SHAKES UP BUREAUCRACIES, and FERNANDEZ WANTS TO EMPOWER LOCAL SCHOOLS TO MAKE DECISIONS. New York dailies called SBM “a new system of democratic governance” and “the educational equivalent of perestroika.”

Since Fernandez’s tenure began, more than two hundred schools have signed up for SBM. Feedback has begun to trickle in, and hard questions can now be asked, such as: Just what kinds of programs are being promoted under the SBM banner in New York? Will SBM allow staff, parents, and students more voice in school policy? And, at the most basic level, will it improve the schools?

The early returns suggest the answer to these questions is no. The evidence is mounting that SBM is at best a half measure that promises far more than it delivers. It often increases rather than decreases bureaucratic interference with schools. It throws more power to the teachers’ unions rather than to teachers. It can exacerbate destructive tension between parents and schools, undermining rather than building agreement on educational goals. It erodes the strong leadership that good schools need by taking power away from principals. And, in the process, SBM postpones the kind of dramatic reform that the New York City school system so urgently needs.

The trouble is partly due to the vagueness of the SBM plan disseminated here in New York. “Circular 41,” the document outlining the regulations governing SBM in New York City, says that “schools whose proposals for SBM are accepted will have opportunities to try something new; to redefine roles, relationships, and responsibilities; to share in decision-making. Although there are a few specifics embedded in the document, most of it is just that cryptic.

Herbert Ross of P.S. 41 spent just five months as Fernandez’s director of school-based management before he quit or was fired. (The chancellor’s office says he left by “mutual agreement.”) Retired now, he doesn’t want to say why he left, but he was quoted in New York Newsday as saying mildly, “The chancellor’s main initiative didn’t have leadership for ten months.... The bedrock of the chancellor’s administration wasn’t well thought-out.”

This is not just a New York phenomenon. After surveying many reports from around the country, professors Betty Malen, Rodney Ogawa, and Jennifer Kranz, authors of a recent study on SBM, were left with the impression that SBM is an “amorphous” and “elusive” concept, whose emphasis is “more on the spirit of the approach than the details of the arrangements.” What is school-based management? “The problem is, nobody really seems to know,” the study concluded.

In New York, SBM has created a vacuum of authority, fostering disputes rather than harmony. What is the scope of the principal’s authority in an SBM school? Does he still have veto power over decisions the committee makes? Does the Board of Education have an enforcement apparatus in case the principal acts high-handedly? What issues are open to SBM teams, and how much power do they have? Sandra Ham, a CUNY graduate student who has been studying SBM, recently attended a large public meeting with Chancellor Fernandez, where teachers, administrators, and parents tried to get specific answers to these key questions.

“Chancellor Fernandez kept reiterating that there’s no one formula,” said Ham. The audience seemed dissatisfied, but the chancellor and his aides “got out of giving concrete answers by throwing it back to the audience, saying, ’That’s what you’ll have to decide.’”

An SBM proposal is supposed to be approved by a team consisting of the principal and democratically elected representatives of the school’s staff and parents. In practice, however, the SBM process tends to be co-opted by a small faction of education insiders. Karen Gutwirth, an SBM team member at P.S. 90 in Queens, says her school had a big meeting where several people said they’d heard about SBM and wondered if they could try it at their school, but they were told that the principal was handling the arrangements.

“That was the end of it,” says Gutwirth. As far she knew, the proposal was prepared by the principal and approved by the president of the PTA and the United Federation of Teachers chapter chairman.

“In every case I know of,” says Marilyn Gittel, a CUNY professor who has been following the process, the school staff wrote the SBM proposal without parent input: “Plans were submitted by school staffs; parents weren’t even involved. . . .” A lot of parents have noticed this trend and have made it clear they are annoyed about it. To quell the muttering, the Board of Education threw a huge oneday lunch and pep rally, called “The Chancellor’s Institute for Parental Partnerships,” at a midtown Manhattan Hilton. Entertainment was provided by a distinguished panel (including Commissioner Thomas Sobol and Chancellor Fernandez), who handed out plaques and made upbeat speeches. Cost for the day: about $65,000—$25,000 of which went to a consultant for planning.

But a chicken lunch apparently didn’t assuage parent activist Audrey Tumbarello, who in a workshop called “Parents as Partners,” grabbed the mike and told the audience, “It’s like a big cookie jar. The principals take out what they want, and the teachers and the school boards take their share, and then there’s nothing left for parents.... You have to stay on their good side to get the goodies from the system, and to stay on their good side, you don’t challenge them too much.” She was rewarded with tumultuous applause, and whoops and cries of “That’s it! “ and “Tell it! “

Disgruntled parents also point out that one of the few specific requirements in Circular 41 is that each school’s SBM team is to have “a majority of nonsupervisory pedagogues”—in other words, teachers or teacher’s aides. Under no circumstances can parents be allowed to outnumber teachers on SBM teams. Prior to the document’s circulation, several parents’ groups met with Chancellor Fernandez and asked him to increase parent involvement. “On three separate occasions,” says John Fager of the Parent Coalition for Education in New York, “Fernandez said no, he wanted to let each school draw up a plan of how it wanted to proceed.” Then, instead of granting schools autonomy in the matter, the chancellor issued Circular 41, which forced all schools to favor teachers over parents.

“We thought that was the height of cynicism,” says Fager. One community school board created an SBM team with a parent majority, only to be summoned to the central board headquarters in Brooklyn and informed by the chancellor’s special assistant, Askia Davis, that it was in violation of the chancellor’s plan. So much for liberating schools from the central bureaucracy.

All Fernandez has done, according to Erica Zura, a member of District 13’s community school board, is to create “another layer of bureaucracy that serves to empower a small number of people.” Zura took her complaint to a public meeting attended by the chancellor. When she asked him why he decreed that teachers comprise the majority on SBM teams, Fernandez snapped, “Because principals and teachers have unions.”

That was more than a flip remark. The one consistent thread running through Fernandez’s reforms, including SBM, is that the powerful United Federation of Teachers always gets what it wants, regardless of who else gets hurt—including parents, principals, the city’s pocketbook, or school children.

Norma Rollins, who was on Fernandez’s transition team and now consults with the central board on policy, was one of many sources who used the term “partners” to describe the current relationship between the chancellor’s office and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). “When policy is being decided, administration officials will say, ’That’s a collective bargaining issue,’ which translates into: ’We have to run that by the union.”’

“Nothing happens at the policy level without the support and approval of the union,” says an especially bold principal named Harvey Newman. “There is no initiative that the chancellor dare undertake without union endorsement.... The union has become management.”

Last September, a glimpse of the UFT’s power was caught when Mayor David Dinkins agreed almost immediately to a 5.5 percent wage increase for teachers. Of course, “concessions” were asked of the UFT in exchange for the wage raise. But one of the key concessions—an arbitration procedure supposed to speed up the hearing process for teachers charged with impropriety—turned out, in fine print, to be voluntary. Thus, the concession is really a benefit: A teacher charged with impropriety can choose either speedy arbitration or the old, convoluted hearing process. Someone who feels he has a good case can therefore choose the fast way, while someone who wants to stall for time (and exhaust his prosecutors) will go the other route.

A month later the mayor’s office began to panic about the cost of the raise. Dinkins told the Board of Education it must cut $90 million from its $6.5 billion budget. There were more negotiations about money-saving lay-offs or furloughs. The UFT finally proposed a five-day wage deferral, the deferred wages to be paid back in two installments—one in 1995 paychecks without interest, the other in 1996 paychecks with interest. For this sacrifice—in effect, a $40 million loan the union makes to the city—the UFT was granted substantial concessions: a policy change allowing teachers to take sabbaticals immediately before retiring; no layoffs before June 30, 1991; and a Board of Education pledge to create new early-retirement incentives.

These small details passed without much notice in the press. But they amount, as one former Board of Education executive put it, to a “massive rip-off of the public purse.” According to Michael Petrides, the only Board of Education member to oppose the deal, the city’s concessions to the union will cost the city more than the $40 million loan it received. Small wonder that, when the ink was dry, UFT President Sandra Feldman issued an open letter to union members exulting over the union’s victory.

Similarly, Fernandez’s SBM plan seems crafted to address the concerns not so much of parents, students, or teachers as of union reps. Marilyn Gittel, professor of political science at CUNY, wrote in a recent op-ed piece published in New York Newsday: “In order even to apply for SBM status, the 210 New York schools that have done so were required to get the approval of two teachers’ union officials, two [principals’ union] officials, and one parent.” SBM teams may request waivers of union contracts if necessary to accomplish their school goals, but all waivers are subject to the approval not only of the chancellor, but of the union. One SBM team, which tried three times over a period of months to get a union waiver, has yet to receive even the courtesy of a reply.

In other words, for all his reputation for standing tall, Fernandez has apparently thrown in his lot with the most powerful players in school-board politics, the United Federation of Teachers. It is not hard to understand why. Eighty-five thousand mostly middle-class members strong, the UFT is the largest union local in the country. UFT members vote; they phone-bank; the union collects about $30 million a year in dues, which its leaders like to spend on issues and politicians. Fernandez probably owes his appointment to the UFT: He was the UFT leadership’s candidate for chancellor and had a long history of union chumminess in Florida. Fernandez’s SBM plan for Dade County, for instance, was partly designed by the United Teachers of Dade. Indeed, Fernandez was so eager to implement SBM there that he went on the road in 1985 with Pat Tornillo, head of Dade County’s teachers’ union, talking SBM to groups of business leaders, educators, and legislators. When questions arose about this unusual closeness, the New York Times quoted Fernandez as saying: “I want to reassure you that because we wear the same color suits, the same color socks, and because I roll over in the morning and say, ’Pat, what are we wearing today?’ doesn’t mean we are in bed together.”

The UFT backs SBM partly because it is a small but sweet pot of spoils (SBM teams can get up to $20,000 from the central board for expenses), and partly because the union likes Fernandez’s rhetoric about “teacher empowerment.” On most SBM teams formed so far, the teacher representatives include the school’s UFT chairman.

SBM is also a union job-generator. There is extra pay for teachers who attend SBM training, for example. There is also a cadre of “facilitators,” trained and paid for by the city, who are sent on request to SBM schools to, you know, “facilitate” decision-making. One couldn’t expect other human beings to have some natural aptitude for this kind of thing, so potential facilitators are, of course, sent away for several weeks of intensive training in facilitating at certified institutes of facilitation—with training paid for by the Board of Education.

The UFT appears to have of a lock on these positions. Donald Singer, president of the principals’ union, says he has tried and failed on many occasions to get facilitator positions for his members.

SBM claims to give decision-making back to the schools and to reduce bureaucratic interference. In practice, however, school-based management does not really shift much power away from the central office on Livingston Street, since ultimately anything can be vetoed there. Moreover, SBM actually imposes another layer of bureaucracy between principals and teachers, in the form of a set of rules by which outsiders tell them they must interrelate. And since SBM teams tend to be union dominated, SBM effectively gives the union more control over individual schools.

By throwing in his lot with the teachers’ union, Fernandez has blocked any chance for real reform. SBM is supposedly inspired by the “effective schools” research that says schools need autonomy; bureaucratic control destroys team spirit and effective leadership. But the source of the bureaucratic control is irrelevant. A recent Brookings Institution report by John Chubb and Terry Moe, for instance, showed that direct interference by central administrators and indirect interference by union-imposed contract rules turn out to be equally harmful to the schools’ performance.

By helping the teachers’ union preserve and expand its lock on the school system, Fernandez is taking a bad situation and making it worse. But the problems with school-based management go much deeper than particular flaws in Fernandez’s design.

Neither autonomy, nor leadership, nor consensus can be created by directives from the chancellor’s office, no matter who is in charge there, or what program he designs. The goals of school-based management are laudable, but they cannot be created by administrative flat, which is what school-based management necessarily is. As long as bureaucratic power exists, it will be used—if not to obstruct successful schools, then to try to help failing ones; if education bureaucrats are not busy making good situations bad, they will be busy making bad situations worse.

Trying to explain P.S. 41’s success, Herbert Ross says, “It’s just common sense. There’s no magic secret. I think [whether SBM succeeds] is primarily a reflection of who runs the school and how he or she chooses to get direction.” In other words, it is a function of leadership. Ross didn’t set out to “implement SBM,” he set out to improve his school.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” notes Ross. “It happened piece by piece over the years, after, for example, certain teachers who didn’t fit in with the school left voluntarily. We had so many things in place, except maybe the name [like SBM].” At P.S. 41, the leadership came first, the label came later. The basic, unfixable error plaguing SBM is that it tries to reverse the process: to impose the label and hope the leadership comes along.

One problem of many New York City schools that SBM leaves untouched, or makes worse, is that principals have far too little power to exercise effective leadership.” Principals can’t even tell a custodian what to do,” says Samuel Freedman. “They can’t even make their own hiring decisions.” New York’s is a system that encourages principals to think of themselves as administrators, rather than leaders—with deadly results to schools’ effectiveness. It also makes it difficult for schools to create consensus—to bring together principals and teachers who agree on basic educational methods and goals. SBM is supposed to foster harmony by giving elected teacher and parent representatives a voice on the SBM team. But research has shown that only when principals are allowed to act as leaders, gathering together like-minded teachers and supportive parents, do schools flourish. Committee meetings do not necessarily generate consensus, as anyone who has attended one knows.

When people report success with SBM, it is often of the everybody-felt-listened-to-and-appreciated, nobody-pulled-anybody’s-hair-out type. Newsday ran a terrific day-in-the-life profile of one team which captures this quality. Here the designated “reflector” on an SBM team in Queens reflects to the group at the end of a session:

“What was good about the meeting was that almost everyone began to put his cards on the table and was honest—that’s going to help us get to the point of trust,” [the reflector] said. “This is a slow process; we are getting someplace—even if it is at a turtle’s pace. Remember to listen. It’s very important. Don’t just wait for someone to finish to hear your own voice. And watch your body language. I saw a lot of body language going around the table.... But I thought it was a good meeting.”

The problem is that grooving together, however desirable in itself, doesn’t seem to do much for the schools’ principal clients: public school children.

The long-awaited Dade County SBM/SDM evaluation released last January showed math and reading scores down since the installation of the program, with teacher morale also down by most measures. Teachers’ “satisfaction” with their own schools actually dropped between spring 1989 and spring 1990—or over a year with the SBM program. The most damning statement from the report could be this one buried deep in the middle of the 31-page booklet:

Most substantial reductions in mean ratings were noted for statements affirming that the project had produced a more satisfactory work environment, that the time spent on the project was ’worth it,’ given the results, and that SBM/SDM has the potential to improve schools.

In other words, after two years of hands-on experience with SBM Fernandez-style, teachers in Dade county don’t much like it and no longer believe it will work.

That experience dovetails with experience in other parts of the country, in which SBM groups seem to end up making safe, small decisions or acting, as Malen et al. put it, “more as ancillary advisors or pro forma endorsers than as major policymakers or primary policy actors.” Moreover, “while school-based management creates opportunities to be involved in decision-making, it does not substantially alter or influence relationships.”

Translation: Before SBM, the schools were run by central bureaucracies that were unresponsive to the needs of parents and students, and which got in the way of education-and after SBM they still are.

SBM attempts to placate dissatisfied parents and frustrated teachers with an illusory power, a toy lever that doesn’t really connect to anything, a shiny parental empowerment toy which will distract critics long enough for Fernandez to finish his contract and move on ... perhaps to Washington.

For all the rhetoric about “revolutionary experiments in power-sharing,” SBM has turned into an occasion for more bureaucratic mud pies, more fun with titles and memos, more occasions to award cronies with little fiefdoms within the system. SBM is not a reform but a sop, handed down to give disgruntled education consumers the illusion of some power over their children’s education, while the unions and the board of education hang on to the controls and siphon off the tax dollars before they reach the classroom.

So, since in 1991 nearly everyone agrees that schools can be improved only by letting the people closest to the action run the show, and since nearly everyone has agreed that the people who make decisions should be accountable for them, why don’t we stop everything right now and make public schools more like private schools? Why don’t we have a real revolution?

Real reform requires a real shift in power. Schools can become well-managed, creative organizations only when they are truly self-governing. But how can individual schools in a public school system, run with public monies, be self-governing? To whom will they be accountable if not to the central office? How can we ever have real school-based management? If principals and teachers run the schools, who will sort the good from the bad?

Well, how about parents and students? How about letting them choose, and leaving wasteful, corrupt, or ineffective schools to their fate? As Herb Ross said, “If I were to take all the parents who want [their kids] to come to this school, it would be an embarrassment to my colleagues.” Good idea. Some of them deserve to be embarrassed, or even to have their schools shut down and their jobs eliminated. No one wants to go to failing schools. No child should have to.

The only way out of the endless cycle of pseudo-reform and real disappointment is to let the people who want to go to Herb Ross’s school go to Herb Ross’s school—and let embarrassed colleagues be damned.

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