Learn, Baby, Learn

So here we are, in another education crisis. A rocky couple of weeks for schools chancellor Harold Levy, whose honeymoon has been declared over, and a bilious argument over whether the private, for-profit Edison corporation should take over the operations of five terrible schools. Parents’ voting on the Edison project ended last week; you may well know the outcome by the time you read this.

Whatever the fate of those five schools, that still leaves about 1,195 others. A few are good or even excellent; most are mediocre or poor. What can the chancellor and the experts and, most crucially of all, the next mayor do about them?

I have a news flash for you: The endless schools crisis can end. And it isn’t complicated. In fact, the solution to the problem is simple. It doesn’t come from the left, which mostly talks about more money. It doesn’t come from the right, which gets too focused on things like this Edison-schools experiment.

Here’s the answer, neat, clean, and mostly nonideological: The schools will improve when somebody’s job is on the line if they don’t. It really is that simple.

Let me try to illustrate the problem with an obvious example. Say the reading scores in P.S. blah-de-blah are terrible. What happens? Who is held accountable? Reasonable questions. To which the answers are, nothing and no one. Typically, schools are placed on failing lists and told to shape up, but they sit on those lists for five years or more, with successive chancellors warning them that someday – any day now, surely! – judgment will be at hand.

The next mayor must have weekly meetings with the chancellor, the superintendents, and the principals, and people must be called on the carpet.

Punishment of poor schools, in other words, is almost entirely theoretical. You have the principal, who is supposed to be responsible for whatever learning does or doesn’t take place in his or her school. Then you have the district superintendent – there are 32 of them across the city – who is supposed to be the principals’ immediate supervisor. Then you have the chancellor. This, in theory, is the chain of command.

But in practice there is no chain of command. District superintendents can’t just fire principals, and chancellors can’t really remove superintendents. Okay, they can, sort of, but usually only under very extreme circumstances, like if they’re doing a Wicked Uncle Ernie number in the playground. And so P.S. blah-de-blah’s scores are lousy, year after year, but no one in charge pays any sort of price. No one is fired. Life goes on. Until someone’s career is on the line if those scores don’t go up, nothing will change.

I should say here that, in the past five years, things have begun to move in the right direction. But considering where they were, that isn’t saying much. Five years ago, the chancellor had no authority whatsoever over the 32 superintendents. Chancellors used to call meetings of the superintendents, and maybe twenty would show. Why should they? He wasn’t their boss. Then in late 1996, Rudy Crew got a school-governance law passed that finally gave the chancellor the authority to fire superintendents. But it’s a recent development, and chancellors – perhaps fearing controversy and bad headlines, or perhaps staring at a thin bench – have been cautious about exercising this new power.

As for principals, until last year, they were completely untouchable. They had “building tenure,” which, once they got it, meant they could not be fired. That changed with last year’s principal contract. (And by the way: Why are principals unionized? They’re managers. Bosses. I’ve never crossed a picket line in my life, and I never will. But principals should not be in unions.) Anyway, in the most recent contract, they gave up tenure and agreed to live with multiyear contracts (three years, mostly) in exchange for a big raise. Which was fair, because New York City principals are underpaid. But if we pay them more, we have a right to expect that they’ll produce, and that they can be given the boot if they don’t.

So in theory, three years from now, when Principal X’s contract is up for renewal, and his school is still a mess, he can finally be fired. It’s a start.

This is a mayoral election year. and this is what the next mayor must do: He must do for the schools what Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton did for the Police Department. You know all about the “broken windows” theory. But for my money, the real reason crime was reduced so fantastically is that Bratton reorganized the NYPD bureaucracy to make precinct commanders directly accountable for crime in their areas.

Over the preceding decades, mayors and commissioners had set up many special units and divisions, to fight the drug trade and so forth. Those units didn’t report to the precinct commanders; they reported to someone else. So if street drug sales spiked up in the 77th Precinct, the commander could blame the special unit and the special unit could lay it on the precinct.

Bratton said, “Enough.” He and Giuliani and Jack Maple began the famous comstat meetings, at which precinct commanders were called to account for the crime in their areas. The mayor and the commissioner got in their faces, every week. Why did you have twelve muggings at this intersection? Commanders knew that if they didn’t lower that number, they were out. Once it was clear that their careers were on the line, things changed, fast. Conversely, good ideas were rewarded, and replicated.

Giuliani talked a good education-reform game, but he never put the same zest into schools that he did into policing. The next mayor has to. It’s true, of course, that the mayor does not control the Board of Education, nor is he the chancellor’s boss. But he is the mayor. He has the bully pulpit and the authority, and if he wants to make something happen, it can happen.

He must have weekly meetings with the chancellor, the superintendents, and the principals (there are 1,200 of them, so they’d have to be split up into groups of manageable size), and people must be called on the carpet. They can monitor some numbers on a weekly basis – attendance figures, incidents of violence, extent of parental involvement. They can swap ideas about what works. Most of all, they can let principals know they’re being watched. Where money is needed, by all means hand it over – remember that another reason crime went down is that David Dinkins raised a tax to hire about 10,000 new cops. Comptroller Alan Hevesi has suggested possibly reimposing that same tax, which has since been repealed, to improve teacher pay. That’s good, but it’s only half the picture. The mayor and the chancellor have to monitor the situation – weekly – to make sure the money is being spent properly.

Dennis Smith, a professor at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, has proposed just such an “edstat” setup. Smith sat in on comstat meetings and conducted research on other city agencies that used a comstat model. Henry Stern’s Parks Department used a comstat approach to measure parks’ cleanliness and safety. Within two years, Smith says, “the number of clean and safe parks went from 40 percent to 80 percent.” At the Corrections Department under Bernard Kerik (now the police commissioner), “they radically reduced the pattern of violence at Riker’s Island” by aping comstat.

This is an idea no one should have any reason to oppose. Teachers-union president Randi Weingarten told me last week she thought it was worth looking into and surprised me a little by agreeing that the mayor should be a part of such meetings (she is against mayoral control of the schools but acknowledges that “the mayor is de facto in control anyway”). Good educators should be for it. Anyone who wants the schools to get better should be for it. A mayor who wants to go down in history as the man who turned around the schools should be for it. So let’s go.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Learn, Baby, Learn