The Best of Bloomberg's School Reform

How the Mayor Is Resuscitating Our Sick System

Here are the 10 best elements of Bloomberg's education reform, which he calls "Children First." Next week, we'll do the 10 worst.


1. The Leadership Academy is ending the timeless tradition of dropping sink-or-swim principals into New York's tough schools. Fueled by up to $75 million in private funding, the Academy is taking on 90 new principal trainees a year, exposing them to crash courses in managing a school, pairing them for full terms with top principals. Sandra Stein, a Baruch professor who ran the system's most successful training program in District 2, and Robert Knowling, a corporate recruit, are making this program go. Klein & Company are recruiting the trainees, as well as other new principals, valuing the experience assistant principals (APs) bring, but also tapping educators, and even a lawyer, from outside the system.

Details

First of a Two-Part Series

Part Two: The 10 Worst Bloomberg School Reforms

2. Klein says he "absolutely" wants "to be known as the Principals' Chancellor." He's given them the power to select their own APs, taking it away from superintendents—a first step on the way to making principals real managers. Central fiscal and operational staff are dealing directly with principals, cutting out the old district intermediaries and giving principals discretionary authority over the slice of their budgets not predetermined by salaries. Principals also hire and fire the 1,185 new Parent Coordinators, many of whom may become their in-house community buffers. In addition to negotiating a 9 percent raise in April with the superintendents union, Klein also proposed paying $75,000 in privately funded bonuses to successful principals willing to transfer to low-performing schools.

3. Beyond empowering principals, Klein is building personal relationships at the front lines, refusing to be boxed out by his own new bureaucracies. "I had two-hour brown-bag lunches all summer, 15 or 20 principals at a pop; I must have had 400 principals here," he says. "Many of them tell me that in their 25 years in the system they've never met with the chancellor. I have from those meetings 40, 50, 60 principals who write me e-mails." Principal committees, working with the chancellor on safety, for example, have come out of those meetings. A one-week training program was instituted for new principals just taking over schools. "We call principals administrators," says Klein derisively. "That's Coca-Cola without the fizz. I call them leaders."

4. While determined to make principals his partners, Klein will not let the Council of Superintendents and Administrators (CSA), the union that represents over a thousand principals and 3,000 APs, set the leadership agenda. Incredibly, the CSA has filed complaints opposing Klein's attempt to give principals the power to select APs or to collect $75,000 bonuses. It succeeded in killing the bonuses, which were voluntary, because Klein could not make them "pension-able." CSA president Jill Levy says she's grieving the change in principal hiring powers because "principals are asking APs inappropriate questions" in job interviews—like "Are you planning to have a family?" As "baffling" as Klein finds what he calls these "nonsense" grievances, the union has even filed "improper labor practice" challenges against what it called "the chilling effect" of his attempts to survey principals, meet with them after hours at Tweed, or form a Leadership Advisory Council consisting of principals.

5. The new standardized literacy and math curricula, equipping classrooms with 8 million new books and instructional materials, has debuted so successfully that 120 of the 209 schools exempted from the program have asked to join part of it. So many exempt schools wanted it that some had to be put on a waiting list. One of the draws is that the program has created 14,500 classroom libraries filled with $122 million in new books and curriculum materials, supplemented by 80,000 CDs and handbooks for teachers. When United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten charged that her elementary school members were being asked to master two new systems, Klein offered to allow schools to delay the introduction of all or part of the math program. But only 25 of 700 elementary schools postponed it totally for a year, while another 395 postponed it just for grades 3 through 5.

6. The first attempt ever to standardize core learning in 900 city elementary and secondary schools is a necessary response to the turmoil of the system's 50 different math and 30 different reading programs. With 20 percent of students changing schools each year, and only half of the middle school teachers in the same school as they were two years ago, the reasonable skepticism about one size fitting all has finally given way to the need for a modicum of coherence. In response to Bush administration critiques of Klein's original phonics program, a second, highly structured phonics option was added, and students are now being tested to determine which program each should get. Weingarten is right to worry about stifling teacher creativity, though she often overstates it. But Bloomberg is also right that drowning the schools with double-period doses of new, standardized materials may jump-start achievement.

7. The creation of a chain of command fixated on instruction and unencumbered by other administrative responsibilities is connecting classrooms to the managerial totem pole for the first time. The 10 new Regional Superintendents and the 113 Local Instructional Superintendents, who oversee up to a dozen schools, will not have to bother with the operational details that ordinarily bog down school bureaucrats. Their only job—with LISs rating and managing far fewer principals than the old district superintendents—is to penetrate classrooms. Nearly 1,200 new coaches, trained in the new curriculum and dispatched by twos to every school enrolled in it, report to the LISs. Everybody is on a non-tenured short leash, with only year-to-year commitments, subject to evaluation and replacement.

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