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Mike Bloomberg Goes to the Principal's Office

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Today, of course, reform is in the air. No one could have predicted that in the space of a year, Mike Bloomberg would be able to assume control of the once-sovereign school system and defang the patronage-bound school districts. But all of that was a prelude to what amounts to the most audacious attempted overhaul in the history of public education: Jack Welch consulting on the training of principals; Caroline Kennedy passing the hat for private-sector donations; standardized reading and math curricula imposed systemwide on the largest, most diverse student population on the planet. Teachers, some of whom were given just a few days to learn the program, worry that their new bosses know nothing about teaching. Parents scratch their heads over an entirely new bureaucracy, just as many of them finally had learned how to play the angles of the old one. But the most profound cultural change in Bloomberg’s schools shakeup lies in giving (or at least attempting to give) principals like Anthony Lombardi real power—license to approach the job as if they were running a small business.

For Bloomberg’s chancellor, Joel Klein, the Eureka! moment came on a chilly day last December when he was paid a visit by a Washington, D.C., policy wonk named Marc S. Tucker. Klein—the trust-busting former federal prosecutor under Bill Clinton who led the charge against Microsoft—had rebuilt the chain of command in the Tweed Courthouse but was looking for a way to get the message into the classrooms of all 1,200 schools. Tucker, the founder of a Clinton-era think tank called the National Center on Education and the Economy, had shuttled in to meet the new chancellor at the behest of California billionaire Eli Broad, who had donated $4 million to Klein’s efforts to rethink school reform—and, just last week, an additional $4 million to train new principals. After an hour’s chat, Tucker handed Klein his book, The Principal Challenge. “I gave him a copy thinking he’d give it to someone else,” Tucker remembers. “But he called me the next day and said, ‘That book expressed everything I felt is important in school leadership.’ ” When I asked Klein which of the dozens of education books that he read were of any use to him, Tucker’s was the only one he remembered by name. “It echoes my own thinking,” Klein said.

The book argues that if schools were businesses, they’d be out of business, mainly because the line managers have been hobbled. Principals spend so much time toeing the line, following picayune government regulations, that they can’t begin to think about education. The teachers teach; the principal is a clerk, a teacher’s pest. They can’t fire bad custodians, let alone poor teachers. And as academic standards rise and testing becomes the ultimate arbiter of success, principals have neither the power nor the skill to raise their schools’ test scores. The final insult comes from the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, which says that if a school’s scores keep falling, it can be closed, with blame laid at the feet of you-know-who. Is it any wonder principals nationwide are quitting in droves?

The notion of emulating the private sector was no revelation to Klein, but at last here was the primer on how to do it. Corporations don’t rely just on M.B.A. programs; they have corporate universities to mold managers who live and breathe the company message. What if schools grew their own “instructional leaders,” as Tucker called them—a new generation of principals all fluent in the same curricula, and all given enough training and authority to really help their teachers teach? What if they could be held accountable for results, and everyone would know who was responsible for mobilizing teachers? And what if it came cheap? Fix the principals, and, Tucker’s book promises, you can “produce steady gains in student performance without substantial increases in school budgets.”

Anthony Lombardi: “When you tell a teacher ‘This is not good enough,’ it becomes painful. Everybody’s in favor of reform—until they’re the ones being reformed.”

This year, Klein launched a Leadership Academy to train principals (funded with an expected $75 million in private donations), and, for the first time, allowed principals some leeway in how they spend their budgets. Coming soon, according to the plan: Principals become line managers—instructional leaders who help their teachers teach, not just mind the store. “I can’t go out and recruit or train 80,000 teachers myself,” Klein explains in his soft Queens mumble. “But a single principal can actually influence a school’s worth of teachers.”

Of course, empowering principals doesn’t necessarily endear you to the head of the principals’ union; if they become managers, they’re no longer labor. “We have what I consider a reign of terror on principals,” says Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “I believe—and I have it on good authority that my belief is not wrong—that Joel Klein does not believe that principals should be in a union. It is a desire to make people so upset and so frightened that as soon as you turn around and offer them something out of the goodness of your heart, they’re going to feel indebted to you. It’s almost like the Stockholm syndrome.”

It’s true, at least, that the start of school has brought some hard knocks for principals. “The good news is that I had control of my budget, and the bad news is that the budget was not enough to maintain what I had last year,” says Jane Ginsburg, a principal Klein often hails for making P.S. 82 in Queens the highest test-score gainer in the state. “I lost one school aide and one paraprofessional. But even in a crisis, I suppose I am happy that the decision about where to cut was still mine.”

Whenever mike Bloomberg talks about the fire he’s lit under the nation’s largest school system, he likes to start by recalling the impossible dreams of other mayors. His favorite is the one about the cops: the revolution in crime fighting during the nineties. “Everything that you can tell me that’s a problem in changing the culture of a school system,” he says, gesticulating wildly at a table in the City Hall bullpen with his characteristic mix of confidence and impatience, “I’ll tell you the same thing was said about changing our culture in our police department.”

A decade ago, Commissioner Bill Bratton and his deputy Jack Maple made the seismic decision to hold precinct commanders personally accountable for reducing crime in their precincts. Using the CompStat crime-tracking system, they charted which precincts were improving and which weren’t, and those that weren’t were targeted at regular meetings. Commanders were reassigned and resources redeployed to high-crime neighborhoods. Suddenly, crime wasn’t viewed as something inevitable, a product of broken families or endemic poverty—good police work could make a difference. Bloomberg intends to do something similar with the schools: Shift resources from the bureaucracy into the classrooms, make the principals accountable for the performance of their schools, make test scores go up as far as the crime rate went down, and win back the middle class with the results. “If we make this a success like the Police Department is a success,” Bloomberg says, “you will have more people coming and wanting to join this school system.”

Where does the new curriculum fit in? Call it the analogue to the police’s zero-tolerance strategy on crime. Some of the worst schools were once written off by many in the system; expectations simply lowered over time (while savvy parents steered their kids to schools that got more resources and attention). Today, Balanced Literacy—very much like the reading program Lombardi implemented on his own—and Everyday Math have their critics, but they were, until this year, the kind of curricula used in the wealthiest school districts. Now they’re everywhere, and struggling schools have new programs, books, and teaching coaches. “For the longest time, we’ve had educational apartheid,” says Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, one of Balanced Literacy’s creators. “The middle-class kids have been taught one way and the poor kids another. To have teachers doing all the same work with kids is unbelievable and wonderful.”

Of course, the police are a seductive comparison for another reason: Just as many people—including cops themselves—doubted that crime rates could ever significantly drop, so does skepticism run deep about improving the schools. The traditional explanation for school failure from insiders is twofold: The resources are woefully inadequate, and many students are unreachable, poisoned by poverty and neglected by apathetic parents. (“Class size” is a popular code for the former, “school safety” for the latter.) Consider Harold Levy, the previous chancellor, who told me recently that the Board of Education’s own statistics proved the discouraging reality that student performance is held hostage by the kids’ social circumstances. One study compared state reading scores with three different variables of city school students: kids who spoke English as a second language, who received federal Title I money for school lunches (meaning they were poor), and who were in special education. There was an 83 percent correlation between the lists. “I looked at this, and I was heartbroken,” Levy says. “It means we only have 17 percent of the kids’ reading scores to play with.”


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