The Best of Bloomberg’s School Reform


In the single, feverish year since Joel Klein took over as chancellor of America’s largest and most intractable public education system, he and the mayor who appointed him have forced more school change than has occurred here since the Revolution of 1969.

That’s when Brooklyn blacks set fire to the state capitol, lobbying in a rather unorthodox manner for community control and settling for decentralization, which was the last breathless experiment in school governance. This attempt to make decentralized schools accountable to communities was formally dumped in September by Mike Bloomberg, without so much as a look over his shoulder at its historic pluses and minuses.

The first New York City mayor to adopt education reform as his most urgent mission, Bloomberg wants to make the city’s 1,200 schools accountable to a community of two—Klein and himself. The fact that Bloomberg earned his reputation by building a corporate colossus, and Klein by breaking one up, prepares them, they apparently think, for the Holy Grail of management challenges: turning around a $12 billion bust-out that stiffs most of its 1.1 million underaged consumers.

Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani did little but play hard-rock musical chairs with chancellors and posture about social promotion or vouchers. Like their fellow modern mayors—murder-rate-driven David Dinkins and bankruptcy-driven Abe Beame—they had no real plan to make dysfunctional schools triumph. Even the decentralization sea change of 1969—when John Lindsay was mayor—was hardly the golden boy’s idea. It was a runaway train that nearly crushed his re-election bid that year.

Indeed, for a politician, Bloomberg’s school upheaval is as wild a crapshoot as invading, say, Iraq. But for a citizen/mayor, which is what our billionaire, pro bono leader sees himself as, it is nothing less than the mark he will leave on this world, far loftier than Bloomberg L.P., which is, after all, just one more clanging corporate cash register. If the next generation of New York children demonstrably benefits from all this Bloomberg bustle, learning like Klein and the mayor did in their own public-school days, it will be a legacy worthy, not just of this genuinely unprecedented initiative, but of a committed lifetime.

As with so much else in the Bloomberg era, his willingness to bet the mayoralty on schools was presaged in his memoir, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, published in 1997, long before he even thought about running for public office. “Unbridled enthusiasm and belief that anything’s possible may not be the real world,” he wrote in a chapter on his management style, “but trying things with low probabilities of success and big payoffs is a lot better than the alternatives.” His school reforms have already earned him one 60 Minutes showcase with Lesley Stahl. Should they actually work, they will make him as celebrated as CompStat made Giuliani.

The difference, of course, is that Giuliani had next to nothing to do with the formulation of CompStat, the “computer-statistics” sessions at NYPD headquarters that rammed accountability down the excuse-me throats of precinct commanders and is widely cited as a cause of the city’s crime-rate plunge. The police commissioner who designed it, Bill Bratton, said Giuliani found out about it by attending one of the early bombastic meetings, calling Rudy’s debut visit “a learning experience for him.”

But Klein and others involved in the school plan agree that Bloomberg has participated in the detailed design of every intricate element of it, first moving Klein and his minions to within a few feet of City Hall, then meeting weekly and for hours, even doing breakfasts at Gracie Mansion. From his elegant conference room in marbled Tweed, Klein told the Voice that he brought “packages” of reform concepts to talkathons with the mayor. “He’d ask questions about everything,” said Klein, adding that Bloomberg “was more deferential” on the new, standardized curriculum that’s now in place in a thousand schools, but took charge of developing the organizational structure, with 10 regional and 113 local subdivisions replacing the old 32 community districts.

Rudy Crew, who was chancellor for most of the Giuliani years and saw him socially far more often than Klein sees Bloomberg, says Giuliani never talked to him “about teaching and learning, only about governance and budget.” The former mayor, said Crew, “had no pedagogical commitment, no educational philosophy, no grounding in a belief system.” Klein, on the other hand, says Bloomberg “understands what most people have reduced to a platitude,” namely, that there’s “no more critical domestic issue to our city and nation than public education.” The mayor’s “heart is truly invested in this,” insists Klein. People outside the administration who’ve had long dinners with Bloomberg, discussing every municipal issue, say his most passionate can-do moments are when he talks about schools.

Of course, the critics of this remarkably fast-paced change, led by union leaders and legislators, have turned the predictable whine of no-consultation into a believable mantra. A section of Bloomberg’s memoir explicating the “successful strategies for a systems developer” anticipates the head-down, straight-ahead style of his school transformation:

“Companies in the end need direction, not discussion. Fortunately, our competitors never work this way. They work toward getting consensus and approval and closure. They try to define it all up front. Ridiculous! You can do a six-month software project in 12 months. You can probably do a 12-month project in two years. Humans need to see results in time frames they can handle. The great system advances are pushed on users, not demanded by them. You can’t run governments or companies successfully by polling or asking for suggestions. Someone must have a vision and take others along, not the reverse.”

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.

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.

8. To allow the instructional chain of command to focus on instruction, the six Regional Operations Centers (ROCs) are doing the dirty work, managing everything from money to maintenance. The pressures of everyday decision-making are already testing this linchpin separation of powers, but Klein must stick with it. The redesign has already saved $100 million by halving the old-line district bureaucracies and reducing the overall number of six-figure positions. Weingarten ridicules the supposed mismatch of 10 instructional and six operational regions: “Excuse me, Mr. Mayor, who was smoking what on the day this arrangement was dreamed up? Imagine having one office planning budgets and another planning instructional programs!” Decades of aligning them may have been convenient for union influence-peddling, but Noreen Connell, the head of the Educational Priorities Panel, says that Bloomberg’s reorganization creates the possibility of “real administrative accountability for learning.”

9. The reorganization is challenging many of the fiefdoms that have ruled schools. The old Board of Education and Community School Boards are gone. The centralized and disconnected division of high schools has been melded into a unified system. The LISs are increasing the number of non-unionized executives, which has resulted in another grievance from the CSA, whose existence revolves around defining top-level titles as nonmanagerial so it can represent them (asked if principals should be unionized, Klein declined to answer, calling it an “idle fight” and “Sisyphean exercise”). The decision to make the UFT-represented coaches appointees of the LISs prevented them from assuming tenured positions in the school, creating a new fiefdom. That, too, has prompted CSA attacks branding the coaches as “spies,” though Klein insists that “no coach will be hired without a principal’s approval.”

10. While parents are far from certain that the plan empowers them, the hiring of the nation’s first army of parent coordinators and the creation of new community councils dominated by parent supermajorities offer the hope of new forms of parent involvement. Principals alone hire and fire the coordinators, but parent bodies can screen and recommend candidates. The coordinators are aided by 45 parent support staff in the 10 new regions and 32 old districts, with some parent centers open at night and weekends for the first time. Eleven-member councils led by nine parents will do formal, though only advisory, evaluations of RSs and LISs. While the legislature, pushed by the CSA, prevented the councils from doing the same with principals, Klein says that “one of their important functions would be to hear from the community councils on principals,” adding that he wants them and parent-led School Leadership Teams “to give me input on them.”

Beyond the bold outlines of the Children First plan, the Bloomberg team is dramatically reshaping schools. They just announced the opening of 58 new, small high schools this year, with the goal of starting 200 small schools that service a third of all high school students. Despite a crushing budget gap, they’re lowering reading class size in middle school from 35 students to 28.

The contract Bloomberg signed with the teachers union last year granted the largest pay raises in history, up to 22 percent, and made it possible to offer competitive salaries to teachers transferring in from other systems. It also added 100 minutes to each teacher’s workweek. Klein is insisting that half of the extra time be spent on professional development—especially with all the new curriculum demands—while he says Weingarten “wants 20 minutes dispersed throughout the day in two, three-minute segments.” Weingarten is grieving that, even as she derides Klein for not sufficiently training teachers in the new curricula. She’s questioned the parent coordinator program without revealing that she pushed hard to get the designation to represent them.

The mayor and Klein’s willingness to weather CSA and UFT firestorms pushed Weingarten recently to announce, on the front page of the Times, that she might be willing to let teachers in their schools vote on retaining or dropping the hundreds of micromanaging work rules in her contract. The offer did not include changing stalwarts like the salary schedule, which requires the system to pay phys ed and physics teachers the same amount. But it might be a step in the right direction, eventually stripping the straitjacket off the system. With negotiations for a new teachers contract just beginning, that could be Klein and Bloomberg’s greatest contribution.

Next week: The downside of the Bloomberg revolution.

Research assistance: Michael Anstendig, Tommy Hallissey, Cristi Hegranes, Abigail Roberts, Sarah Ruffler, and Jessica Silver-Greenberg