BY CLARA HEMPHILL AND KIM NAUER
WITH HELEN ZELON, THOMAS JACOBS, ALESSANDRA RAIMONDI, SHARON MCCLOSKEY AND RAJEEV YERNENI
New York City has been the proving ground for a grand experiment in school governance since 2007, when Schools Chancellor Joel Klein replaced a tightly controlled top-down administrative structure with one that gave principals new powers to shape the culture and practice of their own schools. The chancellor's "Children First" reform is designed to free principals from day-to-day supervision and allow them latitude in matters such as hiring, curriculum and budget. In exchange, principals must demonstrate steady improvement in student performance as measured mostly by standardized test scores.
The report offers one of the first broad analyses of the Bloomberg administration's reorganization of school management, explaining how principal empowerment and school accountability are intertwined, and how this management structure is shaping children's lives. The report identifies important gains as well as troubling problems. Findings include:
- The new freedom for principals has allowed some schools to flourish, reversing decades of poor performance and low expectations. The schools of District 7 in the South Bronx, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, have improved significantly since Klein became schools chancellor in 2002. At the same time, some principals are floundering without sufficient supervision. (see "Measuring Progress in the South Bronx.")
- Most important, the city's accountability system, particularly for elementary schools, is deeply flawed, sometimes rewarding mediocrity while failing to recognize gains made by schools that are striving for excellence. (See "What Makes an 'A' School?")
- Following the city's 2007 decision to give principals wide-ranging authority to run their schools without day-to-day supervision of superintendents, the city Department of Education has relied heavily on statistical data to monitor and evaluate schools. The elementary school Progress Reports, for example, are largely based on yearly gains on state reading and math tests. But the current tests can offer only a rough guide to whether a child is performing at grade level, not the statistical precision necessary to measure year-to-year progress.
- While New York State designed its reading and math tests to measure "proficiency" (that is, how many students achieved state learning standards for their grade), the city uses them to measure "growth" (that is, how much progress students made each year). For technical reasons, this leads to unstable results.
- More than half of the city's elementary schools and 43 percent of its middle schools had swings totaling more than 50 percentage points in their city Progress Report rankings over a three-year period. (See "Progress report Rankings Swing Dramatically in Elementary and Middle Grades.")
The study builds on interviews with hundreds of principals and school administrators, on-site visits to several dozen schools (with a special focus on District 7 in the South Bronx) and analysis of volumes of school performance statistics.
The report also offers the following recommendations to the city's Department of Education and the Bloomberg administration:
- Don't oversimplify school quality with a single letter grade such as "A" or "F"; instead, provide parents with multiple grades on important aspects of each school.
- Rely less on purely statistical measures and include methodologically sound qualitative assessment in school evaluations.
- Give more guidance to inexperienced principals and assign more experienced principals to the toughest city schools.
- Form a technical advisory board with expertise in psychometrics to evaluate the efficacy and fairness of standardized tests.
- Close failing schools only after providing parents and communities with a clear plan for something better to put in their place.
This report was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the Sirus Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation and the United Way of New York City.