As New York City welcomes a new leader of the public school system, educators and parents are sure to promote their agendas for improvement. I have a list of my own, and most of them do not break the bank. Here are some thrifty steps I think the new chancellor should take:
- Convene a citywide conversation about what counts as a good education in New York City's public schools. Although test scores and graduation rates may indicate that the system is on the right track, there is much more to a good education that prepares young people for life after high school. But the voices of parents, business leaders, and other taxpayers have not been heard in shaping a vision for what students should know and be able to do when they leave school. By convening an inclusive conversation, the new chancellor can signal that the voices and interests of stakeholders matter.
- Develop a new system for holding schools accountable for their performance. The School Progress Reports developed by the Bloomberg administration assigned high-stakes letter grades that were hard for parents to understand, and the grading system created a culture of fear within schools as the grades were applied inconsistently to determine which schools to close. A new accountability system can still strive to inform the public while serving as an early-warning system for schools in need of intensive support from the Department of Education. Strengthening and expanding the Quality Reviews, which provide an in-depth look at curriculum, teaching and leadership within a school, may be an important part of this new accountability system.
- Redesign the school support system. The current system of school support networks is inconsistent, working well for some schools and poorly for others, especially those with relatively inexperienced principals and/or histories of low performance. Developing a new support system that brings together the best features of the current support networks, which serve schools with common features and interests, and of the old community school districts, which had clear lines of authority and served schools in the same communities and neighborhoods, should be a high priority.
- Forge new connections between schools and community and neighborhood social services. Mayor de Blasio made a campaign promise to expand pre-kindergarten and after-school programming, and he has pledged support for a community schools model. The new chancellor will need to work with his administration to build strong community-based schools that are not hemmed in by the existing "silo" structure of city agencies and funding. Although universal pre-K will require new revenues, much of the funding needed for schools to function as comprehensive service centers is already present and simply needs to be reallocated.
- Tweak the school choice process. School choice in New York City, particularly at the high school level, is designed to maximize individual choice. But because New York City has high-poverty and low-poverty neighborhoods – and parents and children prefer schools that are not far from their homes – school choice in New York City can result in some schools having a high concentration of high-needs students, which in turn can reduce the opportunities for success for all students in these schools. The new chancellor can redesign school choice to cap the number or proportion of high-needs students in each school, while still providing good choices for all.
A large, sprawling bureaucracy such as the New York City Department of Education cannot turn on a dime. But leadership transitions create windows of opportunity for constructive change. Mayor de Blasio and the new chancellor can build on the successes of the last dozen years and create a new social compact joining the Department of Education with parents and communities.
They bring high energy, intelligence and commitment to the task. Let's help them deliver on this promise.