Friday, December 08, 2006

Comments on how to reform a district ("Bucking Tide of School Reform, a Superintendent Gets Results")

Am I just being paranoid, or does the NY Times go out of its way to find stories that undermine and disparage that remarkable, revolutionary school reform efforts that Bloomberg and Klein have undertaken in New York City? 
There have been plenty of hiccups to be sure, especially in the execution, but let's be real: this is, by far, the biggest school system in the country (encompassing -- I was going to write "educating" but, sadly, that's not true -- 2% of U.S. K-12 public school children) and it was (and, to a lesser extent, still is) a terribly broken, dysfunctional, bureaucratic, unaccountable system filled with WAY too many mediocre people (or, to quote from my friend in my last email: "people who suck"). 
Now add extremely well organized and powerful adults in the system, who benefit hugely from it and will fight to the death to protect their perks and the status quo, and it's truly amazing that ANY reform takes place.  The idea that reform would happen smoothly is truly ludicrous!
I know that there are plenty of nits to be picked, but I also know that Bloomberg and Klein "get it" -- their hearts are in the right place, they have the right mindset and framework, Bloomberg has made bold school reform among his very top priorities and they're being remarkably courageous in many of their actions, so let's not complain that our glass is 10% empty.  I just got back from Los Angeles last week and heard from school reformers there -- what they would give to have a mayor like Bloomberg and a Chancellor like Klein!!!
So, moving on to my comments about the article earlier this week that triggered this rant...  Here are the first few paragraphs of the article:

Kathleen M. Cashin is responsible for some of the roughest territory in the New York City school system — vast stretches of poverty and desolation from Ocean Hill-Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn to Far Rockaway in Queens, all part of Region 5, where she is superintendent.

Already this school year, two of her students have been shot dead, including a 16-year-old killed last week. The area has more homeless shelters than any other part of the city. For generations, the local school districts she now runs were marred by racial strife and corruption.

Yet in the last three years, Dr. Cashin has produced one of the school system’s most unlikely success stories. Since 2003, her elementary and middle schools have consistently posted the best total gains on annual reading and math tests, outpacing other regions with similar legacies of low achievement.

“It’s not a job, it’s a lifework,” she often tells her staff. “You are saving children’s lives.”

Dr. Cashin’s results should be an easy reason for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to gloat, a triumph in their takeover of the nation’s largest school system. But in many ways, her success raises questions about the thrust of their recent efforts to reshape the school bureaucracy.

While Mr. Klein has derided the “status quo crowd” and sought to bring outsiders into the administration, Dr. Cashin is a lifelong city educator. While Mr. Klein wants to free principals from the control of superintendents like her, Dr. Cashin believes even the best principals need an experienced supervisor.

Where Mr. Klein insists that school administration must be reinvented to reverse generations of failure by generations of educators, Dr. Cashin, a product of the old system, insists she can get results with a clear instructional mission, careful organization and a simple strategy of every educator’s being supported by an educator with more experience.

In short, Dr. Cashin stands, in a way, as the antithesis of Mr. Klein’s mission to slash midlevel bureaucracy and let principals sail on their own, a challenge to the notion that changing governance structure is the key to turning around schools.

I've done some due diligence on Kathleen Cashin and she has indeed made improvements -- but the real story is much more nuanced than this article makes it out to be.
First of all, the performance of her district, while better than before, hardly calls for hosannas.  It outperformed other districts, but not dramatically in most cases, and the high school graduation rate is BELOW most others (which the NYT story didn't mention).  This district is not doing well by any objective standard -- it's just gone from being truly awful to merely lousy.
Second, I don't buy the argument put forth in the article that her district's improvements are entirely due to her -- and especially due to her bucking of the new system.  Klein has implemented big changes over many years that are beginning to move the needle in the right direction across the city -- if I recall correctly, in both NY state and national data, NYC showed more improvement than all other large cities in the state and nearly all nationwide -- so why wouldn't Cashin's district be benefitting as well?
Finally, and more importantly, it's critical to understand HOW Cashin has achieved the gains we've seen in her district.  Generally speaking, there are two approaches to reforming big, broken systems, whether we're talking about General Motors, the old Soviet Union or the NYC public school system: you can either keep the existing system in place, but wring incremental improvements out of it by exercising extreme command-and-control, or do the opposite and try to reform the broken system by changing incentives, setting up accountability systems and pushing power and control down to the local level.
Cashin is a classic example of the former, whereas Klein has adopted the latter.  Turning to Cashin first, according to a friend who's in the know, she is "a total control freak" and runs her district with an iron fist.  If a principal tries to buck her in any way, she fires and blackballs him/her.  Cashin's educational pedagogy has merit, however, so imposing it on a district that had no sound educational approach at all yielded some incremental improvements, as noted in the NYT article.
BUT, there are severe limits to Cashin's approach.  Fundamentally, the system and the biggest problems within it -- lack of human talent and motivation -- haven't changed at all.  So, my prediction is that Cashin's district will not show much if any incremental improvement and will remain merely lousy -- UNLESS Klein's reforms kick in.
Klein's approach is, at its core, the exact opposite -- and is, obviously, the one I think has the most long-term promise.  But it also has real risks -- trying to reform a deeply entrenched broken system in the face of massive resistence (not to mention mostly hostile media coverage) is REALLY HARD and messy, as noted above.  If too much autonomy is pushed down the school level before the accountability and motivational systems and human talent are in place, the results would be disastrous.  That's why I like Klein's incremental approach with Empowerment Schools: it started with just a few schools, was expanded to 48 schools last year and is now 321 schools, approximately 1/4 of the schools in the entire city.
This debate between total centralized control at one extreme and total school-level autonomy at the other is a huge and important one, and every school organization is dealing with it, be it KIPP or the NYC school system.  To be clear, I don't think the answer is extreme autonomy, but something perhaps 80% of the way toward that end of the spectrum.


Bucking Tide of School Reform, a Superintendent Gets Results
Published: December 4, 2006

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