Mike Bloomberg Goes to the Principal’s Office

Agents of Change: Schools chancellor Joel Klein, left, and the mayor.Photo: Globe Photos

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.”

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.”

Klein, unlike Levy, is not a root-causes guy. “I don’t want to give us an excuse,” he says, “because I think there’s a lot that we can do.” He and Bloomberg are saying the problem might actually have to do with the way kids are taught. “By and large, we have a system with people who have life tenure, lockstep pay, and seniority,” Klein says. “Unless we’re prepared to be serious about changing the culture, we will not change the results with any significance.”

Skeptics will argue that the mayor knows nothing about what it’s really like to stand in front of a classroom, that he’s scapegoating teachers to make up for a lack of funding (and it’s true that the NYPD got more resources ten years ago).

“I know something about running nonprofit businesses,” the mayor responds. “I ran a university. I ran a hospital. This is an organization that is accountable for its actions, has to justify getting the moneys that it spends, and in terms of showing that there is value produced for those moneys—let’s say reading scores, if it’s a kid in a school, whatever it is—there are metrics that you can use to measure virtually anything. There was just no structure that said, ‘We’re going to measure you based on how well the kids learned.’ And all of us behave differently if there is accountability and openness.”

And any labor strife is, he figures, part of the cost of doing business.

Randi Weingarten: “These reforms are built on a Jack Welch model of command and control and intimidation and fear, and that’s just not the way teachers work.”

“They don’t want any change!” Bloomberg says dismissively. “I mean, they were running the school system, they were getting everything they wanted, and they had no accountability. Why would a rational person want to give that up?”

’They’re experimenting on kids, and I think that’s horrible,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT, whose voice tends to grow softer, more reverential, whenever she mentions children. “We’re not dealing with widgets here. These reforms are built on a Jack Welch model of command and control and intimidation and fear, and that’s just not the way teachers work. And when we raise legitimate concerns about this, they demonize the messengers. I think the mayor, for reasons that I still don’t understand, really believed that the union used to act as co-chancellor.”

There’s a beat before she adds: “If the union did act as co-chancellor, I believe that the school system would have been much better off.”

Before their mutual freeze-out, the billionaire mayor and the tenacious labor leader had a collegial, if complicated, relationship. Weingarten had advised Bloomberg on the campaign trail and had even visited him at his home. It was at a restaurant in Soho, a month after he took office, that she remembers him popping the question: He asked her if she wanted to be the schools chancellor.

“I didn’t know whether he was kidding or not,” she says coyly. “You know, he may have been teasing. I don’t know whether he was flattering me. But you know, he used to think that I knew what I was talking about.”

In February, Weingarten said that her fabled predecessor, Albert Shanker, would be “singing in the streets” about the reforms. Now she’s filed close to 9,000 grievances against the Department of Education and a lawsuit to get a referendum on the ballot for smaller class sizes. She has argued that by not trying harder to build a consensus with teachers—or, you might say, treating teachers as employees—the mayor is playing games with children’s lives. Even in a school system that’s used to standoffs, this is a watershed moment. “It used to be that the chancellor and the mayor were at war with each other,” says Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation. “Now the mayor and the chancellor are at war with the heads of the unions.”

Weingarten opened contract negotiations by proposing a pilot project in which teachers and principals “democratically” run schools together. “If they’re not interested in having teachers being part of how to teach kids, they’re not interested in teaching kids,” Weingarten says. Which prompts Bloomberg to scoff: “Can you imagine Ray Kelly listening to the head of the PBA about policy in policing? I don’t think so. No group operates without management. That’s been one of the problems—they never had any. It’s a world where they’re much more socialistic. Until it comes to contract time, in which case they’re the ultimate capitalists.”

Weingarten simply can’t fathom a mayor who equates teachers with cops. “You know, I am always insulted when the mayor says that,” she says. “Teaching is about trying to unlock kids’ minds—what police do is they try to lock up prisoners. Policing is like the Army—it is a kind of paramilitary institution. And I would hope that teaching would never become a paramilitary institution. The mayor’s managerial thrust is to infantilize the teaching force.”

What does she make of the efforts of a principal like Lombardi? Weingarten jumps in before I can finish the question.

“Anthony Lombardi runs his school like a tyrant,” she says, seething. “And anyone who sits in that school understands that. He has railroaded people out of that school for years. He wants sheep.”

Lombardi is aware of his reputation in union circles; he’s just never thought that teachers and the union were one and the same. “I don’t want to come off as a tyrant,” he says. “This job is often lonely. 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. But I knew what I had to do.”

In his first year at P.S. 49, Lombardi wasted little time trying to create, as he describes it in management-speak, an “alignment of expectations and accountability.” Loosely translated, that means the teachers couldn’t shake him off with a stick. “We went from having a principal visit a classroom three or four times a year to having him there all the time,” remembers Mary Shannon, a third-grade teacher. “That was very nerve-racking at first. The constant scrutiny—every time the door would open, your heart would sink and you’d turn red.”

The UFT rep had a busy time of it, too. “There were a lot of emergency meetings at the time—‘He’s coming into my room, he’s looking at my lesson plan,’ ” Shannon says. “But he knew the contract up and down and wasn’t really doing anything wrong. And the big difference is, all the kids knew him, said hello to him, wanted to show him their work.”

It helped that with every new edict came extra training for the teachers. Lombardi took the unusual step of adding a professional period each week, and rearranged the other planning periods so teachers in each grade could meet together, sharing tips. And four years ago, when Shannon suggested the school use the Teachers College literacy approach, he let her lead the way. “When I first heard about this, I thought it was nuts,” Lombardi admits. Parents also wondered why there was no textbook—how the teacher knew how well the child was doing if they were just reading books. “But then I saw it made sense to make sure a child understands what they’re reading. But it’s not for the weak-hearted. It challenges the teachers to view the students as readers and writers.”

“It is a lot of work, a lot of prep time, a lot of being intuitive about kids, a lot of record-keeping so you don’t forget what you’ve learned about a student,” says Lillian Licitra, who teaches fifth grade. “But after a few months, teachers enjoy it because the children are reading without frustration, which is keeping them motivated. And the one-on-one conferencing makes the kids feel special—it’s like they’re getting their own private tutoring.” Lombardi has to stay proactive, too, helping teachers make time for spelling or grammar lessons when the students are falling behind.

Shannon notes that it takes a lot of fine-tuning. “As soon as you say, ‘Oh, I finally know what I’m doing,’ they send you something new,” she adds with a sigh. On the other hand, she prefers a philosophy to a script. “Teaching out of the Basal Reader,” she says, “is one of the most boring things you can do.”

This year, P.S. 49 is following Klein’s edict to launch Everyday Math, a program that stresses real-life examples over rote computation, and is finding it’s similarly demanding. “Oh, God, it’s pretty challenging,” says Susan Dowling, a fifth-grade teacher. “Let’s say it’s about multiplication. First, you teach them what multiplication means, then you play a game, then you meet with a kid or two on the side while keeping an eye on the rest of the class. It’s more about sifting through the lesson—it’s up to you to see what your class needs.”

Klein has supplied most schools implementing the new programs with coaches to train teachers. The P.S. 49 math coach, Elisabetta Bamonte, was trained on Everyday Math for just two weeks before turning around to assist teachers. Recently, she faced off with parents at a meeting in which she had to explain why their children aren’t learning, say, actual times tables. But the parents, she says, were less worried about the quality of the program than their ability to help their kids.

“A lot of the homework,” Bamonte reassured the parents, “is for children to go home and explain it to their parents.”

What would Lombardi really need to be the boss of his school? He dreams of having a way to grade teachers with more than just an S or a U. He’d also like a full review of tenure. “The labor force needs some protection—there should be checks and balances to make sure a principal is fair,” he says. “But the contract shouldn’t allow poor practices to go on in classrooms.”

Klein has done his own digging into the UFT contract. He wants to override seniority and move the best teachers into the worst schools, and to change the notorious Circular 6 rule that keeps teachers from having to provide discipline in the halls and the cafeteria. He wants to regulate teacher sabbaticals, and merit pay for the best teachers—and, while he’s at it, wipe out the Great Society–era system of standardized pay altogether. “Every year, we’re short in math, science, English, and special-ed-certified teachers,” Klein says. “And one way to deal with that would be pay differentials. Anybody in industry would do that—I mean, that’s the way colleges do it.”

Never mind the curriculum: These changes would forever transform the schools’ teaching culture. Weingarten understands this, as does the mayor. Even if he doesn’t get everything he wants, Bloomberg is betting on a new generation of teachers to buy into it.

“A lot of the yelling and screaming is simply people’s abhorrence of something new,” the mayor says with a shrug. “They’re afraid. Sometimes justifiably so, because they’re not doing anything and they’re going to get caught. But if you get a bunch of teachers who want to collectively make a difference, they’re not going to listen to the contract. They’re going to do it because they want to. Will you get every kid ready for Harvard, Yale, or Princeton? No. Can you do certain things to give the basics to virtually—well, almost every kid, because there are just some who just, you’re never going to get there? Yeah, that you can do. I think that is a realistic expectation—to have them reading at eighth-grade level.”

It’s a little sad that such a modest goal can send a school system into a frenzy. Which is, of course, Bloomberg’s point.

“In the end, I will get reelected by an overwhelming majority and there will be very few people running against me, because the schools will be better,” he says.

A pause. Then his eyes brighten.

“It’s already certainly better than what it was.”

Mike Bloomberg Goes to the Principal’s Office