Levy Takes Finals

This is the ultimate end of the school year at 110 Livingston Street. Everybody has one foot out the door. Harold Levy, the schools chancellor Mike Bloomberg never seems to talk to, understands that his days are numbered, even if his contract is extended this week (“Is this the postmortem?” he joshes as I sit down in his office). The seven appointed members of the Board of Education are expecting to see the board dissolved or retooled after their terms expire on June 30 (“I hope this is the end of an era,” board president Ninfa Segarra says with a sigh). No one knows for sure if the mayor is really taking over the school system, or if (or when) the teachers will strike. People at Livingston Street say morale has never been this low. Of course, they say this sort of thing a lot. But this time, it’s a little different: By September, the players down at the schoolyard may have changed completely.

Wry as ever, if a bit more somber, Levy, who famously dropped into the schools saga two years ago from a high-paying job at Citigroup, boasts that he’s kept his pledge not to speak out about all of the political albatrosses that sunk his predecessors – like privatization and mayoral control – even as the mayoral-control issue appears to be putting him out of a job. His passion continues to be tinkering with the system, using statistical knowledge to make sure that kids are actually learning. “I get accused of micromanaging, to which my answer is, ‘Not enough,’ ” he says with a Cheshire-cat grin. “I know more about what goes on in the schools on a data level now than most bank presidents do about their banks.”

He admits this much: that the politics of the place is martyring him, just as it did those before him. With the newfound freedom of a senior in May, he barely hides his contempt for the board, and especially for his bête noire, Segarra, whom he accuses of blaming every pitfall on him, starting with the horrifying capital-budget overruns that became public last year. “She managed to portray it as my fault, that she had uncovered this, never quite saying I told her!” he says, his voice tightening. “And I said, ‘It’s obvious I can’t say anything more to you.’ ” (The old rules of the schoolyard still apply: Segarra’s response is basically “He started it.” “He told people he’d quit if I became board president,” she says from her new perch as executive director of the Police Museum.)

This is the way things have been for a while at Livingston Street: The chancellor does his best to ignore the board … and the board does its best to outwit the chancellor. Is it any wonder City Hall wants to end the impasse? The irony of the Levy era, however, is the surprising fondness with which Livingston Street’s permanent government of pedagogues and curriculum formulators have come to look in retrospect upon his predecessor, Rudy Crew. Crew’s tenure, so criticized at the time, is now looked on as a kind of golden age, with an impressive list of accomplishments: getting rid of social promotion (at least nominally), mainstreaming more special-education kids, creating a special chancellor’s district for failing schools, setting higher standards for elementary education.

Levy is a big Crew fan, too. The difference has been in emphasis: While Crew beat the education drum, Levy beat the management drum. Levy has also handled some real crises. He created the first successful summer-school program in the schools’ history (40 percent of the kids went up a reading level afterward). He introduced new tactics to fight the critical teacher-recruitment problem. He’s created 23 new innovative high schools that will open in the fall. He’s brought in outside consultants to look at how to improve testing. He’s ratcheted attendance up to 90 percent systemwide. But to the permanent government, these were side projects. While Crew talked endlessly about standards, Levy thought standards could best be served by looking at the system in a more meta way. “I made a judgment I would continue Rudy Crew’s policies because they were working, but I took the job to change a culture,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, this place is now riveted on management stuff. When the superintendents and I sit down together, I can ask them, ‘What are you doing in math in the third grade in P.S. 54, because it looks like the math scores for non-English-speaking students are going down and the scores are going up for the general population?’ We know that now.”

This approach suited some superintendents just fine. Others noticed something lacking. “I think he’s a good guy,” says Betty Rosa, superintendent of District 8 in the Bronx. “But some people learn the parts to the whole; other people learn the whole to the parts. That’s how I’d contrast them. Harold Levy is the parts to the whole, and Rudy Crew was the whole to the parts.”

Ninfa Segarra – whom Giuliani appointed – seizes on this as Levy’s Achilles’ heel. “We see there was groundwork laid under Rudy Crew in the early grades – more time on tests, more time on instruction, the right kind of professional development, the right kind of testing,” she says. “But those kids are now in middle school. What are we doing when the kids get there? Because once they enter a dysfunctional middle school, it all goes down the tubes. We at the board even created a task force on middle schools, but we couldn’t get him to focus on it.”

If Levy is the ultimate manager, Dr. Judith Rizzo, the deputy chancellor for instruction, is the archetypal educator. A former principal from Boston, she came in with Crew in 1996 and, in a deliberate gesture of continuity, was retained by Levy. (It was she who, on general orders from Crew, pulled off the end of social promotion, the mainstreaming of special-ed kids, the chancellor’s district, the higher elementary-education standards.) Now she’s leaving to head an education institute in North Carolina. To many in the system, her departure is more profound than Levy’s or the board’s. “It’s been horrendous,” one observer says of her and Levy’s relationship. “He’s had a tremendous lack of respect for her. It was sort of like ‘I can’t get rid of her because there’d be all this criticism, but I can’t work with her because she’s not my style.’ “

It’s clear that Rizzo has been marginalized under Levy (he brought in not one but two deputies to focus on management, David Klasfeld and Tony Schorris). Part of the problem was a culture clash: Levy’s a top-down, boardroom guy, driven by timetables and procedures; she’s a born-and-bred pedagogue, fluent in education-ese, not exactly interested in meeting corporate-style objectives. With Carmen playing on her office stereo, Rizzo is a bit more blunt about it, albeit without uttering Levy’s name. “I mean, anybody can take a bunch of data and say ‘Oh, look at this’ and ‘Thank you, good-bye, and see you in a couple of months,’ ” she says. “But it’s really important to do follow-up and make sure that there’s support for those superintendents.”

But Levy is Mr. Follow-Up, isn’t he? “There’s follow-up, and there’s follow-up,” Rizzo says. “Look at special education” – a Rudy Crew–era accomplishment. “People said it could never be done. A chancellor can make change – if he or she is focused, has the commitment, and aligns all the resources to do it – not plays around at the edges and does little piddly things here and piddly things there.”

To which Levy, like so many chancellors before him, can convincingly plead poverty: “There are pieces of the puzzle that I’ve tried to work on, and where I’ve seen problems, I’ve tried to do something. But you’re limited by your resources.”

Mayoral control is supposed to magically solve Livingston Street’s money troubles, its political squabbles, its education problems. There’s an implied, perhaps quixotic expectation that if Bloomberg gets control, he’ll come to understand just how much cash the system really needs and will stop bleeding it. (Never mind Albany, which still holds the purse strings, and the teachers union, which isn’t going anywhere.) Beyond that, Rizzo envisions a City Hall education agency working hand in hand with agencies like children’s services and foster care to “create wraparound services for our children.”

But there’s a wider chasm here that one hopes mayoral control can bridge – the culture clash. When we talk about the school system, we go on about unbelievable incompetence: subterranean test scores, astounding disorganization, and cost overruns. But there’s more to this than just getting the place running well. There are thousands of professionals in the system who do their jobs, and kids who show up wanting to learn. A chancellor – or education commissioner, or whatever the new boss is called – is going to have to inspire them toward greater reforms. Otherwise, it’s like teaching to the lowest student: Everybody loses.

“You can’t slow down for a second on the instructional front,” Rizzo says. “You have to keep your eye on the prize all the time. The mayor said he wants to show an increase in achievement in three years, ‘and if I don’t do that, you can put me out of office.’ I think that’s a fair enough deal.”

That’s accountability – still a largely unexplored management technique in the school system, despite Levy’s best efforts. But can the system be trusted with a mayor who, like Levy, is not an educator? At this particular moment, Livingston Street is ready to try anything.

“To say that mayoral control will politicize the school system is naïve,” says Rizzo – like Levy, a senior about to graduate, with one foot out the door. “The school system is political. It is the essential political institution. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”

E-mail: robert_kolker@newyorkmag.com

Levy Takes Finals