Seven years ago, Anthony Lombardi, principal of P.S. 49 in Middle Village, Queens, did something highly unusual. He started acting as if he actually ran the place.
There was nothing special about the school that Lombardi—a newly minted principal with dark eyes and a stocky wrestler’s build—had been appointed to manage: about 480 students, around half of whom were too poor to afford lunch; a mosaic of races and ethnicities; fair-to-middling test scores. But in time, he raised the numbers to the point where last year, P.S. 49 made the state’s list of the 200 most-improved schools. He pulled it off, he says, in part by removing the teachers he decided weren’t pulling their weight. Not that he really had the power to do that. “Nobody works for me,” he says in his thick Astoria accent. “I’m a union member, not management. I don’t hire or fire anybody, technically.”
On his desk, not far from the copy of Who Moved My Cheese? and the wall with three portraits of Frank Sinatra, Lombardi keeps a manual titled Regulations and Procedures for Pedagogical Ratings, an imposing volume that includes details on the procedure for evaluating and disciplining members of the United Federation of Teachers. From these pages, he has concluded that “it’s impossible to prove incompetency.” Give a teacher an “unsatisfactory” rating, and you’re stuck with that teacher for a two-year review. The teacher is stuck, too; he or she can’t leave voluntarily. “That’s what tenure is—it’s due process,” Lombardi says. “But when you say you’re against tenure, it’s like saying you’re against the Constitution.”
So what else could he do? Without giving anyone a “U,” Lombardi has shown the door to eight teachers—nearly a third of his classroom staff. First he raised teaching standards; then he lowered the boom. He launched a demanding new reading-and-writing program designed by Teachers College—an “education philosophy,” as he calls it, that gives kids blocks of time to read at their skill level and write in journals. It also presents teachers with a daunting workload, requiring more time for preparation and attention to each child’s progress. It’s the kind of approach that private schools use—usually with classes far smaller than P.S. 49’s average of 26 kids.
Michael Bloomberg: “There was just no structure that said, ‘We’re going to measure you based on how well the kids learned.’ All of us behave differently if there is accountability.”
Lombardi spent hours observing his teachers at work—taking notes not on how well their kids tested but on whether the teachers asked questions that required more than just yes or no answers, or bothered to involve all the students. The ones who punched in and out, the ones who didn’t seem to care, were targeted. “I’ve set a high expectation,” Lombardi says, “and when they haven’t met it, they had to make a professional decision if they wanted to be a member of this staff.”
He created a paper trail—memo after memo explaining the ways they were failing. Your lesson plans are poor and skeletal in nature . . . The lesson was inundated with stops and starts . . . Many students sat for the entire period without being motivated to join the lesson. Then came the heart-to-heart chats. “I’d sit there with the teacher—and the union rep—and tell them, ‘You’re in danger of a U rating and noncompliance to our program.’ Then I’d set up a plan of improvement. Some might have felt the expectations were too high. That’s why they’d transfer. Then I’d have the chance to place a teacher that could meet the challenges.”
How did he know the new teachers would be better? He let the school’s successful teachers judge them. Taking advantage of a provision in the UFT contract that allows a school’s faculty to vote on certain policies, he formed a hiring committee of teachers and parents (and himself) to scrutinize candidates. Today, he’s thrilled with his teaching staff. “Do we talk about work rules? Not really,” says Carmela Naumann, who teaches second grade. “Do we talk about him as our boss? Absolutely.”
As a model for the school system, Lombardi’s approach has its drawbacks, to be sure: Most of the teachers he considered unqualified are, after all, still teaching—foisted on unwitting principals who weren’t shrewd enough to have their own hiring committees. Still, this year, P.S. 49’s citywide ranking bounded to 90th place, up 29 spots from the previous year. Reading scores shot up 25 percent, to the point where 72.8 percent of the students at this school read at grade level—not too shabby in a school system where 80 percent of eighth graders can’t.
“It took me years to get this place right,” says Lombardi. “I used the system of rules to my advantage. You have to be able to work within the parameters of a broken managerial system—or what was broken.”