Friday, January 19, 2007

The new school reform proposals for NYC -- WOW!

I was traveling the past couple of days and am behind in sending out my school reform emails (two more dopey WSJ Op Eds by Charles Murray need a good ripping -- I'll get to all of this!), but I can't let another moment go by without commenting on the UNPRECEDENTED, REVOLUTIONARY school reform plans laid out this week by Bloomberg and Klein.  I don't want to go too crazy with the hyperbole, but I really am stunned and overjoyed...
Run, don't walk, to read the presentation about these reforms, which I've posted at: predict (and hope!) that it will be come a model for cities across the country for years to come.  I've also included three articles from the NYT about it below.
The highlights:
- Reforming the tenure system so that it's no longer automatic -- so that terrible teachers don't get tenure, which makes them virtually impossible to remove.
- Adopting weighted student funding, to address the outrageous funding disparities among schools.  (This shows how critical more money is: without it, this proposal would be politically a nonstarter because it would be a zero-sum game, taking money from schools in wealthier areas.)
- Pushing power down to the school level and making principals entrepreneurs -- given them real power and control, but also making them accountable.
- Greatly reducing the bureaucracy and giving principals the power to get services from other vendors rather than being tied to the bureaucracy.
- Setting up sophisticated measurement systems, both for students and schools, and then publicizing the results.  Giving each school a letter grade is HUGE!
- Giving more money to good schools that are making real progress (instead of the current system, under which the worse a school performs, the more money it gets!).
I've long felt that Bloomberg and Klein have been doing the boldest, most spot-on reforms of any major city in the country, but they've just taken things to a whole new level.  As one of my friends, who's been in the trenches of school reform for a decade, just told me: "Fewer than 1% of the school superintendents in America would have the guts to propose even ONE of the three pillars of reform that Klein just proposed."  Another friend wrote:

I just finished reading the document on their plans and it is shockingly bold.  What they are doing is using every tool within their power to restructure the school system and it is impressive.  For example – did you realize that schools are being graded A-F and that schools in A or B will get paid an extra $750 -$1,500 to take kids from D or F?  Also they are moving to weighted average student funding.  While they can’t eliminate tenure, they are going to force principals to make a conscious choice to tenure a teacher, rather than just the teacher equivalent of social promotion.  This is an incredibly important, aggressive, bold thoughtful development.

(Charter school advocates may wonder why charter schools are not mentioned, but this proposal only deals with reforming the current system -- separately, Bloomberg and Klein are fighting to lift the charter cap and Bloomberg highlighted this in his speech.)
What's remarkable about this plan is not each piece by itself -- nothing in it is completely new; in fact, EVERY piece has been proven to work in other schools, school systems (including ones like KIPP), cities or states.  What's remarkable is that ALL of it is being introduced at once.  This is not only the right thing to do -- kids need better schools and teachers NOW, before yet another generation is robbed of the opportunity to get a decent education -- but it's politically brilliant.  The forces of the status quo are going to pull out all the stops to derail this plan, but it's far better to make them fight 20 battles at once, rather than letting them beat you up and force you to make compromises on each item, which is what would happen if you tried to do this sequentially.
Now comes the hard part: first, overcoming the opposition and then actually making it work.  Both are going to be brutally difficult. 
If this plan runs into trouble, I predict it will be for one or more of the following three reasons:
1) The forces of the status quo muster the political muscle to kill or neuter major elements of the reform plan;
2) The teacher union contract prevents reform in critical areas -- in particular, removing ineffective teachers.  I'd guess that at least 20% of NYC public school teachers fall into the category of "teachers who suck" (as opposed to the "badasses" at opposite end of the spectrum, to once again use my friend's marvelous phrases!).  It would be fantastic to reform the tenure process such that only good teachers got tenure, but even if this happens, the impact on teacher quality will only be very gradual. 
Everyone -- and I mean everyone; students, parents, other teachers and principals -- know who the terrible teachers are, but even if principals have the incentive to remove them (and, critically, the measurement tools to document how terrible they are), can they be removed or are the union protections too strong?  Time will tell...
3) Principals who have spent their careers in a command and control system, when suddenly forced to become entrepreneurs and are held accountable for OUTCOMES (i.e., student learning), might crash and burn in large numbers.  One of the biggest problems in the system is WAY too many lousy principals, who have strong union protection (and, just like teachers, everyone knows who they are).
I think there's a historical precedent that will likely play out again: when Giuliani and Bratton set out to reform the NYC police department nearly 20 years ago (which at the time was as bureaucratic, dysfunctional, unaccountable and ineffective as NYC's school system is today), they pushed power down to the precinct level and then held precinct commanders accountable.  Guess what the turnover was within the first two years?  TWO-THIRDS of the precinct commanders didn't cut it.  But this was great news, as younger, more competent, go-getters were promoted and crime is down 80%!!!
January 18, 2007
News Analysis

In Sweeping Schools Vision, Big Risks for Mayor

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg yesterday effectively doubled his bet that the nation’s largest school system is capable of unprecedented improvement, wagering the education of the city’s nearly 1.1 million students and his own legacy on a far-reaching decentralization plan that puts enormous pressure on principals to raise student achievement.

The mayor’s announcement, in his State of the City address, made clear that by the end of his second term he hopes to leave behind a school system irreversibly changed and virtually unrecognizable from the bureaucracy that existed before he took office.

It will have new rating systems for schools, principals and teachers, a new finance system designed to break the lock that many schools in middle-class neighborhoods have had on highly paid veteran teachers, and a sharply increased role for private groups in helping to run schools. It will also make it harder for teachers to get tenure.

But Mr. Bloomberg’s plan, while cementing his place at the forefront of urban education reform in America, also carries huge risks, raising questions about whether yet another reorganization will bring such swift and noticeable improvement in test scores and graduation rates that it can mute critics who say the administration is using constant change to mask mediocre results.


Bloomberg Seeks Further Changes for City Schools

Published: January 18, 2007

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg laid out ambitious new plans yesterday to overhaul the school system by giving principals more power and autonomy, requiring teachers to undergo rigorous review in order to gain tenure and revising the school financing system that has allowed more-experienced teachers to cluster in affluent areas.

The plan, which would also increase the role of private groups, represents the most sweeping changes to the system since the mayor reorganized it after gaining control of the schools in 2002. Although the mayor has chosen to spend some of the city’s current surplus on tax cuts, he said he could invest more in schools with money promised by Gov. Eliot Spitzer to equalize state education aid across New York.

The administration can undertake most of the education measures unilaterally, without City Council or union acquiescence.


Overhaul of Schools Would Let Teachers Rate Principals

Published: January 19, 2007

Pressing the case for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s latest round of changes to the city school system, Chancellor Joel I. Klein yesterday detailed how the new powers being granted to principals would be accompanied by new evaluations of them: teachers for the first time would be able to rate their supervisors.

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