Chancellor Walcott is right: we need to set a new tone to solve the problems confronting New York City’s public schools. For the past few months we’ve been distracted by issues that have prevented us from addressing the complex issues that truly affect the quality of education children in our city receive. We need a new tone and a new direction.
We’ve spent too much time debating whether or not we should layoff teachers based on seniority or on some measure of their ability, whether or not we have too many or not enough charter schools, and whether or not Cathie Black is qualified to lead the largest school system in the nation.
Chancellor Walcott has started out on the right foot. His messages to teachers have been constructive and conciliatory; he’s demonstrated that he is knowledgeable about the budget and he’s impressed members of the legislature with his command over the issues confronting the schools. He’s even made waffles for schoolchildren.
Now the hard work begins and the Chancellor will need more than a positive message. For all his strengths as a leader, Chancellor Klein left his predecessor a host of problems, and many of the key figures from his management team have departed. In his last year we learned that the huge gains in test scores that we thought had been achieved were not as impressive as originally reported. We also learned that 80% of public school graduates were required to take remedial courses when they enrolled at CUNY. The state of New York has identified 54 schools that must be transformed or turned around, and Mr. Klein left behind no strategy for providing meaningful help to these schools. The very fact that over 100 schools were closed under his leadership is the clearest evidence that many of the reforms that he and Mayor Bloomberg promoted were not effective in improving the schools needing the most help.
Under these circumstances Mr. Walcott cannot merely stay the course. He will need a new approach, one that will make it possible for Mayor Bloomberg to fulfill his promise to improve public education.
In the spirit of adopting a more constructive tone, here are a few friendly suggestions for the new Chancellor:
Stop pitting charter schools against public schools. Charter schools were originally intended to serve as laboratories for innovation and changes that were more difficult to pull off in the heavily regulated public schools. The Chancellor should actively encourage the development of charters such as the new ones recently authorized by SUNY, which will serve homeless children and at-risk students, including those who were once incarcerated. He should also actively encourage schools that will take responsibility for turning around failing schools, like Democracy Prep did recently when it took over Harlem Day Charter School. If he wants to reduce some of the polarization in the city he should not allow charter schools to displace public schools that are functioning well.
Develop a team at the DOE that can intervene effectively in struggling schools by assessing the schools’ weaknesses and strengths, and applying interventions that research has shown are effective. Shutting a school down should be the last resort, utilized only when other measures have failed.
Focus on the most vulnerable students: students with learning disabilities, English language learners (especially the long-term ELLs) and over-age and under-credited high school students. These students have the highest rates of failure and many of the “best” schools have avoided serving them. Provide schools that serve these students with additional resources and create incentives for teachers with a track record of effectiveness to work in them.
Reach out to parents and develop strategies to include them in decision-making on matters pertaining to school and district governance. Schools improve when parents are involved and parents will be more likely to play a constructive role if they are treated with respect.
Use your high performing schools (especially those that serve the most disadvantaged students) as professional development schools, where teachers and principals from struggling schools can see and learn from professionals who have figured out how to generate and sustain success.
Work with the union to devise a fair system for evaluating teachers and negotiate a process for removing those who are ineffective or uncommitted as expeditiously as possible.
Recruit and retain experienced administrators to work with you in managing the system. Joel Klein had trouble retaining experienced educators, in part because he never seemed to value the experience that they bring to the job. There’s nothing wrong with recruiting talent from a variety of fields but you will need people who understand curriculum, assessment and how to create conditions in schools that foster excellent teaching and life-long learning. And don’t be afraid of hiring people who will disagree with you or who may challenge your assumptions. That’s the only way you will be able to solve some of the complex problems facing our schools.
There is much more that can and should be done, but this is a good place to start. New York’s public schools don’t need a savior or a superman. We need a leader with the maturity and vision to draw on the talent and resources in this city to create the best urban school system in the nation. I hope Mr. Walcott can be that leader.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the school that Democracy Prep took over. Democracy Prep took over Harlem Day Charter School not Harlem Village Academy.
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