You have just started on a job that has been described as one of the toughest in America. You are the fifth chancellor to be selected in the last ten years. All of your predecessors worked hard; all had terrific ideas and initiatives. But three were asked to leave the position, and one died in office. You face a series of profound challenges. Student achievement has been stagnant for six years, while spending in the system soared, then declined slightly. Some of the board members who called you to service believe that the central headquarters of the organization you now head should be largely abolished. The system has been in political tumult for well over a year, with the majority of the board’s members often in conflict with the mayor. The process by which you were selected reflected the fractured politics of the system and at times resembled a sideshow, with political ambitions, ethnic politics, and personal invective taking precedence over reasoned debate.
We write to you because we believe that you can make a difference in the lives of our city’s children. But in order to do so—to succeed where your predecessors have failed—you must fundamentally change the role of the chancellor and the public’s perception of it. In the pages that follow, we will argue that you must become the agent of the system’s transmutation, and that you are going to have to behave in ways that, according to conventional wisdom, would ensure your downfall. When a new chancellor takes office, the city has traditionally expected a strong leader with a plan of action that will fix the system from the top. That approach may once have worked, but it no longer does. We believe you must take a different tack, leading the transformation of the system into one characterized by local control, choice, and a wide diversity of educational ideas.
Too much of the system’s current organization exists either to protect you from criticism or to deflect criticism of the schools themselves. The system’s central headquarters is a paragon of flak catching. Further, many of the offices in your bureaucracy were created to prevent bad things—patronage, corruption, discrimination—from happening. But there are now so many such offices that they also prevent good things from happening—and the bad things still happen anyway. If you are to lead the system toward improvement, you will have to convince your own organization of the need for innovation and creativity to replace monitoring and caution as the primary goals of the system.
Our observations in two broad areas, the school system’s academic performance and the city’s political culture, inform our recommendations as you begin your term in office.
Understanding the System
Three points are crucial in understanding the system you have inherited. First, student achievement is modest and not improving. In May 1986, students in New York City’s public schools sat for their annual standardized reading and mathematics tests. Forty-nine percent of them scored above grade level on a newly minted mathematics test. Though 65 percent scored above grade level in reading, the test then in use was outdated, and reading scores dipped to 48 percent when a new test was introduced three years later. Of the students who entered high school in September 1982, only 41 percent would graduate in June 1986.
In May 1993, New York City’s students also took reading and mathematics tests. Forty-nine percent scored above grade level on a new mathematics test and 49 percent also scored above grade level on the reading test. The most recent graduation report indicates that 39 percent of those students who entered high school in September 1988 had graduated in June 1992.
In terms of the school system’s bottom-line indicators, then, nothing has changed over the last seven years. The system changed chancellors twice during that period and is now in the midst of a third transition, but the leaders of the system, with their management teams and reform programs, have not been able to improve the system’s performance in any measurable way.
Though New York City’s public schools are by no means the worst in urban America, they are not performing up to the public’s expectations or to the needs of the city’s young people, and they have been unresponsive to system-wide improvement efforts.
But even more important, many of those who will judge you—the people of New York city who have gone through its schools—remember a time when the schools did much better. The unselective working-class high schools of the 1940s, which one of the authors of this letter attended, graduated 80 percent of their students in four years, and half of those received Regents diplomas. Today in such high schools, perhaps a third of entrants will graduate, and only 10 percent of them will earn Regents diplomas.
The second point is that the school system is spending more than ever. Successive chancellors have succeeded in this area: they have increased spending in the system by more than 58 percent (in current dollars) during the last six years. In fiscal 1993 the system’s budget was $2.4 billion more than in 1986. In per-pupil terms, spending has gone up to more than $7,400, an increase of about $2,100, or 40 percent, since 1986. Only in fiscal year 1992 did the system’s spending per pupil decline, but it rebounded to slightly above its 1992 level by 1993. The much-talked-about $750 million budget cut endured by the system in recent years was largely a by-product of budget negotiation hyperbole.
Third, the city’s politics are changing—and the schools are in the middle. The bureaucratic organization you have inherited was created to protect schools from local partisan politics and give the system an ethos of professionalism. Twenty-five years ago, the system was decentralized in response to discontent within black and Hispanic communities regarding the depressed state of the schools in their neighborhoods. The decentralized system that emerged from the racial polarization of the 1960s was an amalgam; by no means did the city’s central powers cede control of schools to the communities. Nor has it resolved the tensions between the Manhattan elites and the city’s working and middle classes, which have defined the city’s politics for generations and led to the dismissal of your predecessor. Today the divide between Manhattan and the outer boroughs is not only racial and economic but also cultural and religious. For education, the latter may be the more significant conflict. One of your predecessors, Frank Macchiarola, has written:
One of the most profound differences between Manhattanites and outer borough New Yorkers involves their attitudes toward religion. In the outer boroughs, religion is based on God’s law, as expressed in the traditions of Christianity, or Judaism—or, with the influx of new immigrants, of Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. Manhattanites, on the other hand, tend to follow a secular religion. They get their sermons daily on the editorial page of the New York Times, where they learn less about what they ought to do and more about what others should do....
Because of its secular nature, the Manhattan faith never runs afoul of the First Amendment. Thus, while the Constitution prohibits prayer in the schools, it allows Manhattanites to proselytize: if their values are supported by the central Board of Education, they can impose measures like the Rainbow Curriculum, regardless of how they offend the religious values of outer borough parents.
It is appropriate that these words were written by former chancellor Macchiarola. One could reasonably assert that there have been two distinct eras in the school system’s most recent 15-year history. The first was dominated by Macchiarola, who headed the system from 1978 to 1983. He was, by nature and upbringing, an outer borough man. He did not shy away from the messiness of local politics, and often used his influence within the local political system to further his goals for the school system.
When Macchiarola left the chancellorship, then-Deputy Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., a Manhattanite, attempted to succeed him. Though he garnered the approval of the Board of Education, the state education commissioner refused to grant a waiver that would have allowed him to serve despite his lack of formal training in education. Nonetheless, by 1985, Wagner was back in the school system as a member of the Board of Education. He served as president of the board from 1986 through 1990; it was under his leadership that chancellors Richard Green and Joseph Fernandez were selected. The battle over the Rainbow Curriculum and former chancellor Fernandez’s contract symbolized the larger conflict between Manhattan and the outer boroughs—between the contrasting cultures of highly educated professionals, many with children in private schools, and traditional working-class parents in the outer boroughs.
Our point is certainly not to argue that the views of Manhattan and its media elite were wrong and those of the outer boroughs were right. It is, rather, to suggest that these debilitating conflicts can be reduced by further devolution of power to the community school districts, so that neither point of view can impose itself on the other. This will not eliminate conflict, but it will remove it to more limited fields of combat. In many districts there will be sufficient agreement, based on a common culture, that more attention can be given to the fundamental issues of schooling.
The bitterness of the cultural and political battles have wearied many of the combatants, and there is a growing constituency for a transformation of the city’s school system into smaller, community-based organizations. We support that movement, and we urge you to support it as well. Beyond the obvious benefit of defusing the discussion of divisive social and cultural issues, a rationale for real decentralization is firmly grounded in what we now know about effective education. The factors that are widely known to be associated with school success are found in schools that are autonomous from external influences, that have a clear vision of the educational enterprise, and that put academic excellence at the core of their existence.
The findings of national research on school improvement are congruent with the recent history of New York City’s public schools. Those things the central bureaucracy has controlled—spending more money, making the curriculum more demanding, and infusing the curriculum with multiculturalism in order to make it relevant to students’ ethnic or racial backgrounds—have all been tried in New York and have all failed to bring any significant level of systemwide improvement.
The central administration has tried many types of reform over the past 15 years. Each of these efforts has been hampered by the need to contend with the interest-group politics that engulf the central Board of Education. As a result, each has ended up in the service of adults, not children, and the results have been predictable—the schools have not improved.
The most interesting and effective school-improvement efforts in the city have occurred outside the sphere of the central board. In individual schools, inspired educators have enjoyed success under the most difficult of circumstances. They have sought assistance, and found response, from the many foundations, institutions, and well-to-do individuals who abound in the city and want to help the schools. The alternative schools of choice in East Harlem’s Community School District 4, for example, have achieved national and international acclaim for their academic success. Working largely outside the mandates of the central board, these schools were able to leapfrog over half the districts in the city on standardized measures of achievement. Individual schools in other districts achieved similar success. The Mohegan School in the South Bronx, described by Kay Hymowitz elsewhere in this journal, adopted a core curriculum based upon the work of E. D. Hirsch. The School for Writing and Publishing in Harlem is one of many new schools that have been created in Community School District 3 since that district adopted a policy of school choice under superintendent Anton Klein. The Frederick Douglass Academy, the initiative of Lorraine Monroe and superintendent Bertram Brown, is bringing an elite secondary school experience to the children of central Harlem.
The crucial question, then, is how to apply the lessons of these successful schools to improve education citywide.
Transforming the System
Several legislative proposals for further decentralization have been introduced within the past few months. One, reflecting the work of a legislative commission that spent a year studying decentralization, would introduce electoral reforms into the community school districts, curb the power of local boards over district superintendents, and institutionalize school planning councils. Two alternative proposals would transfer power from the central headquarters to either borough or community school districts.
We favor decentralization to the community school districts, with political reform built in, and we think you should support that approach as well. Community school districts in New York City are large districts by national standards, and we see no reason to deny New Yorkers the same local control of school politics the rest of the country enjoys. We think, however, that the key to effective decentralization is to employ a true system of school choice in the city school system. This approach has the added advantage of being something you can accomplish without political action in Albany. This is an important consideration, because the State Legislature has so far been unable to agree on any of the various bills before it.
We see school choice as the best route to real decentralization and school autonomy, because it does away with much of the rationale for the current bureaucracy. A well-designed choice system removes the veil of irresponsibility that cloaks everyone associated with the system. The bureaucracy was designed to protect schools and children from corruption; a program of true choice acknowledges that corruption will disappear only when teachers and parents are given control over their schools. By giving real choice to parents and teachers, you can send a powerful message to the entire community that you are committed to fostering local control of schools. Rather than stifle the good people in the system with rules and regulations designed to keep the bad people at bay, you will empower the good people with good ideas to crowd out the bad.
A large part of the challenge facing you is somehow to move the broad middle of the school system—those students, teachers, and principals who are neither corrupt nor stellar but who are well-intentioned and willing to move with the tide. The bureaucratic approach has sent the entirely wrong message to these people; it has encouraged them, above all, to be cautious. From their perspective, taking risks presents only danger—nothing will happen to them if they just stay the course. Choice, on the other hand, would establish rewards for success and impose costs for failure. It would tell the people in the middle that better achievement is possible and that the status quo is a dangerous place. Others will be moving ahead, and their schools will suffer if they are left behind.
We do not argue that choice in itself is a program for reform, but rather that it is a fundamental precondition of meaningful reform. Choice replaces bureaucratic control by simply saying that no parent can be forced to send his child to a school that he does not like. That little escape clause, that political pressure valve, solves by itself the conundrum of allowing innovation and leadership while retaining public accountability. Choice makes the schools directly accountable to the public they serve, rather than indirectly accountable through thousands of bureaucrats, lobbyists, and activists.
Choice offers an alternative model for the city’s public schools. It is a model that frightens many supporters of the public schools, both within and outside the system. But given the current state of the system—its stagnation despite the infusion of additional resources, and the cultural and political divide that has placed a stranglehold on its governance—it is hard to see an alternative to choice that holds out as much promise.
Choice has taken a variety of forms, both in New York City and elsewhere. Last year New York’s central Board of Education adopted a policy that, in theory, allows parents to move their children into any school district with available seats. This policy was a step in the right direction but is limited in its scope. As it now stands, the policy only prevents superintendents from barring transfers out of their schools ’ Given the overcrowding in many of the city’s districts, refugees from poor schools will have no place to go unless a robust system of educational entrepreneurship creates innovative new schools in the city.
The kind of choice that would be meaningful to the city’s schools and that would threaten the system’s bureaucracy is firmly based on what we know to be wrong with the city’s schools. This kind of choice is “transformative”; it has three key features.
First, it recognizes that the school bureaucracy itself is a major impediment to meaningful school improvement. The introduction of transformative choice to the New York City school system must include a significant reduction in the size and responsibility of the central bureaucracy. This reduction must go beyond the head count of employees and include the rollback of regulations and policy initiatives.
Second, transformative choice permits, indeed demands, the establishment of new schools to broaden the kinds of education available. Teachers must have the freedom to create innovative schools, and parents must have the freedom to choose them. To use the language of economics, transformative choice requires free entrance into the market.
Third, transformative choice must have a way not only of rewarding success but also of recognizing failure and requiring exit from the market. Schools would have to close because they do not attract students; principals would lose their positions, not for any gross dereliction in office but simply because their schools failed to perform; even teachers might lose their jobs, not because the money runs out but because they are not good enough.
School choice is controversial because it has come to us at different times under at least three very different and widely divergent ideologies—the ideology of community control, the ideology of equity for Catholic schools, and the ideology of the free market. People ask: What can choice be if it finds support in so many different, ordinarily antagonistic quarters? The common element, we believe—for community organizers, for Catholics, for free-marketeers—is that in each case proponents of choice are arguing for the creation and support of communities. Some might argue that markets dissolve communities. The truth is just the opposite. Giving control over a school to its leaders and ensuring that students and parents are there by choice is the best way to encourage the creation and maintenance of communities. If choice is effective in raising academic achievement, the primary reason will be that it creates a sense of community in schools where this has become difficult or impossible under the present system.
A community is a complex of people and rules linked by common values. The concept is amorphous, but we know it when we see it. When James Coleman talks about community in schooling, he has in mind such characteristics as a degree of control over who enters, sanctions if rules are broken, acceptance of authority, some principle of government, and constraints on what is allowed in school—not only those constraints that are codified in law but also those arising naturally from the wish not to incur the disapproval of other members of the community. The members of a community voluntarily agree to accept its rules, its constraints, its culture.
Contrast this vision of effective choice with the reality in so many of our city’s schools: widespread disrespect for authority, resistance to school rules, the use of outside force to maintain order, the difficulty in disciplining or expelling those who break the rules. In the end, we believe that these issues are more important to successful schooling than whether a Rainbow Curriculum or a new systemwide pattern of school organization is implemented or not. The current system has shown an inability to deal with basic issues of schooling while spending far too much of its resources on matters of concern to only small interest groups. With greater power in the hands of the district, and greater power in the hands of parents through choice, we will not eliminate conflicts around schooling. But when conflict emerges at the district and school level, the number of combatants will be reduced, and they will know one another better.
We believe we can transform the New York City school system through choice, allowing individual schools and parents to take responsibility for success or failure. This will increase the power of parents, but who else better deserves, or is in a better position, to use that power in the interests of children? The chancellor can no longer aspire to the role of decisive, untiring, all-powerful administrator whose edicts set the course of a thousand schools and a million children. Rather, we believe you must enable many courses to be taken, many alternatives to prosper, many ideas to be tried. You will sometimes have to play the role of shepherd, reining in schools or districts that go astray. But your most important role will be to nurture creativity and difference rather than to set a single course for all.