Managing by the Numbers: Empowerment and Accountability in New York City's Schools


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:

  1. 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.

  2. Rely less on purely statistical measures and include methodologically sound qualitative assessment in school evaluations.

  3. Give more guidance to inexperienced principals and assign more experienced principals to the toughest city schools.

  4. Form a technical advisory board with expertise in psychometrics to evaluate the efficacy and fairness of standardized tests.

  5. 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.

Child Welfare Watch: A Need for Correction

Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System

Half the children housed in New York State’s juvenile correctional facilities suffer from mental illness, yet there is not one psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse on the staff of the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the facilities.

That’s one of the findings of a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School entitled A Need for Correction: Reforming New York’s Juvenile Justice System., Coming in the wake of a federal Department of Justice investigation that found widespread use of excessive force by staff at four OCFS facilities upstate, this new report identifies shortcomings in mental health services and explores possible solutions, including the expansion of alternatives to incarceration for juvenile delinquents.

The report was released today, in conjunction with a forum from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., at Theresa Lang Community & Student Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor. The forum included a panel discussion on the juvenile justice system with two legal experts, a child psychologist, a state legislator and a member of one of the unions representing OCFS employees.

The new report acknowledges that OCFS has made improvements in the past two years, including tripling the number of social workers and psychologists who work in the juvenile correctional facilities. But the report found many shortcomings in psychiatric care and describes how a combustible mix, of mentally ill youth and fatigued line-staff (some of whom routinely work 16-hour days) can lead to violent confrontations.

The report examines alternative-to-incarceration programs that offer supervision and guidance to juvenile delinquents at home, in their own communities. Family Court judges have relied increasingly on these programs in the past decade, leading to a dramatic decrease in the number of youth admitted to juvenile justice facilities, from 1,938 in 2000 to 813 in 2008.

The report contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board aimed at helping policymakers address issues of mental illness and juvenile justice.

Child Welfare Watch is published jointly by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future. This edition is made possible thanks to generous grants from the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

The New Marketplace

How Small-School Reforms and School Choice Have Reshaped New York City's High Schools


The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School today issued a report on the city's public high schools, revealing that Chancellor Joel Klein's high school reforms created valuable new opportunities but also caused collateral damage. Klein's reforms created 200 new small high schools and expanded high school choice, but weakened large high schools attended by tens of thousands of vulnerable students at risk of dropping out.

"The New Marketplace: How Small-School Reforms and School Choice Have Reshaped New York City's High Schools," explains that the majority of city teens continue to attend large high schools, despite the small schools initiative.

The 72-page report is the result of an 18-month investigation by 10 reporters, researchers and editors. Its findings include:

  • Attendance and graduation rates are higher at new small schools than at the large schools they replaced. Principals and students report the new schools are safer. Yet many small schools remain fragile, with attendance and graduation rates declining. (See "Handle with Care")

  • As the city closed the lowest-performing large schools to make way for small schools, thousands of students, including many new immigrants and children with special education needs, were diverted to the remaining large schools. Many of those schools suffered overcrowding and declining attendance and graduation rates. Some were subsequently closed. (See "A Case of Collateral Damage")

  • Twenty-six of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed. Of these, 19 saw their attendance decline and 15 saw their graduation rates decline between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2007. Fourteen saw both attendance and graduation rates decline.

  • The expansion of school choice under Klein gave thousands of students entrée into schools they wanted to attend, decreasing the number of students rejected by all their high school choices from 31,000 in 2002 to 7,445 in 2009. (See "Winners and Losers: High School Choice")

  • However, the school-choice system depends on well-informed adult guidance. Many students lack adequate support in choosing and ranking their schools, and guidance counselors are under-equipped to support them. Special needs students and children of immigrants have a particularly difficult time getting the information they need to make an informed choice.

  • Thousands of students have been assigned to schools they did not choose or that are not appropriate for their educational needs. Students are assigned to schools up to 90 minutes from home, each way, by bus or subway. The more extensive the system of school choice, the more it sorts children into those who can navigate the admissions process and those who cannot.

The report also offers a number of recommendations, including:

  • The city should not limit its high school reform efforts to the creation of small schools. Midsize and large schools can be effective and should be supported.

  • The DOE should recognize that large high schools still serve the majority of students in New York City, and support them accordingly.

  • The city must ensure that the "default schools"—schools where kids who are not picked by the school choice process wind up—get the support they need to be successful.


Executive Summary

The Graduation Challenge: What's Next for NYC's High Schools?

Handle With Care: The New Small Schools

Winners and Losers: High School Choice

Collateral Damage: Large Schools Suffered

Culture Shock: Immigrants and Choice

Help Wanted: Small School Staff Turnover

Technical Note


The New York Times, 4/29/12:
On Report Cards for City Schools, Invisible Line Between 'A' and 'F''

Gotham Gazette , 10/14/11: Gates' Agenda and Money Shape City Schools

The New York Times, 6/17/09:Success at Small Schools Has a Price, a Report Says

New York Daily News, 6/17/09:Study shows larger city high schools posting declining graduation rates

New York Post, 6/17/09: Burden on Big Schools

WNYC, The Brian Lehrer Show, 6/22/09: Smaller is Better?

New York Post, 11/1/09: No School Left Behind

Queens Chronicle , 11/12/09: No Quick Answers for Overcrowding

The New York Times, 11/17/09:Schools' Grades Reflect Persistent Disparity

Child Welfare Watch: Hard Choices

Caring for the children of mentally ill parents

The Center for New York City Affairs and the Center for an Urban Future today issued a joint report documenting the issues facing poor and working class parents with mental illness and their children.

Child Welfare Watch, Vol. 17, “Hard Choices: Caring for the children of mentally ill parents,” looks at issues facing parents with psychiatric problems who come in contact with the city’s child welfare system. Today, adults who struggle with mental illness are as likely as anyone else to become parents. Yet the city’s human services programs are neither structured to support single and low-income parents with mental illness who are trying to raise their children, nor able to systematically evaluate a parent’s ability to care for her children despite her illness.

Highlights of the report’s findings include:

  • In New York City, as many as one-fifth of parents who come in contact with the foster care system have a diagnoses of mental illness. A parent who comes in contact with the foster care system is much more likely to have her children enter foster care if she has a mental illness. Experts estimate that between one-quarter and three-quarters of parents with serious mental illness lose custody of their children.
  • Last year, New York City children were removed from their homes in 56 percent of Family Court abuse and neglect cases that involved an allegation of mental illness, while in cases that did not include such an allegation, children were removed and placed in foster care only 35 percent of the time.
  • Some parents with mental illness can safely care for their children if given the proper supports. Supported-housing programs such as the Emerson-Davis Family Development Center, in Brooklyn, offer single mothers with mental illness the opportunity to live with their children while receiving help and supervision. But programs like this are extremely rare, and nationwide, there is little coordination or communication between the mental health system, geared to treat adults, and the child welfare systems designed to protect children.
  • In many cities, including New York City, Family Court makes critical decisions about a parent’s fitness based on mental health evaluations. But these evaluations can be highly subjective and often offer contradictory diagnoses. Inaccurate diagnoses can hurt families by minimizing the problems of a parent who is seriously ill, or by exaggerating the problems of a parent who is able to cope.
  • How successfully women with mental illness care for their children depends not just on their particular diagnoses, but also on the level of support they receive at home, their awareness of their own illness and their willingness to accept professional help, researchers in Chicago found. The Chicago court system has used this information to create a more reliable method of evaluating a parent’s fitness.

The report features the stories of families affected by mental illness and the foster care system, including: a young parent who asked for help with her depression only to have her children removed; another young mom who is learning effective parenting and coping with her bi-polar disorder with the help of preventive support services; and a teen’s experiences growing up with parents diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In addition, the report found that many New York City foster children with severe mental illness who need long-term residential care do not get the help they need. Meanwhile, residential programs designed to serve upstate children with severe mental illness have beds sitting empty.

And, in light of the rising wave of municipal and state budget cuts which will hit human services hard, including many preventive family supports, the 17th issue ofChild Welfare Watch looks at how the stress of poverty has profound implications for a parent’s mental health, as well as for the brain development of young children.

The report also contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board aimed at helping policymakers address issues of mental illness and parenting.


Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families:

Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades and Improve Supports for Children and Families

The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School today issued a report on the New York City public schools which documents high rates of chronic absenteeism at the elementary level. The report also examines possible solutions for elementary schools dealing with this crisis. 

While New York City has long struggled with attendance problems in the high schools and middle schools, problems at the elementary schools have been largely overlooked until now.

Last year, more than 90,000 children in grades K through 5 (more than 20 percent of enrollment) missed at least one month of school. In high poverty neighborhoods, the number was far higher, approaching one-third of primary grade students.

“In many neighborhoods, the challenges of child and family poverty are immense. Addressing these issues directly, alongside absenteeism, may not only improve school success in the long-term, but also strengthen families and improve the quality of children's lives.”


The implication for these students' long-term success is enormous, but this is only part of the story. This report also describes how chronic absenteeism at an early age can result from problems at home, and how strong partnerships between public schools, community organizations and other institutions can make a difference.

In many neighborhoods, the challenges of child and family poverty are immense. Addressing these issues directly, alongside absenteeism, may not only improve school success in the long-term, but also strengthen families and improve the quality of children's lives. The report suggests a targeted approach to addressing chronic absenteeism and family instability in 100 city schools with the goal of strengthening schools by strengthening families. 

Key findings of the attendance analysis include:

Last year, in 12 of New York City's 32 school districts, well over 25 percent of primary school children were chronically absent from school, missing more than 10 percent of the school year.

In five of these districts, fully 30 percent of the primary school children, kindergarten through fifth grade, were chronically absent.

In six of these districts, between 8 and 11 percent of primary school children missed 38 or more days of school during the 2007/2008 school year.

And in 123 individual New York City primary schools at least 30 percent of the children were chronically absent.

Researchers and child protection professionals have found that chronic early absenteeism is at times a signal of much more serious problems in a family, such as domestic violence, child abuse, mental illness and criminal justice system involvement, all commonly associated with child welfare involvement.

This report also examines the role of schools in the child welfare system, including:

  • the training and reporting mechanisms that are the formal links between child protective services and the Department of Education; and

  • the huge variation that exists across the school system for outreach to parents whose children are missing school or who may be struggling with poverty, health issues and other high-risk factors.

This report provides data on school-based attendance "407" alerts, which are generated automatically to inform school leaders when a child has crossed a threshold of absenteeism, and which require action to determine the reasons for these absences. Our data show that schools are attending to the types of extended absences that trigger these alerts more quickly today than in years past. However, the data also show that the structure of the "407" system masks the full extent of chronic absenteeism, especially in the early grades. The report also offers case studies of community-based organizations and schools that have worked to engage families, to offer them support, and to identify just what their students and families need.

Finally, the report has synthesized workable ideas from school principals, attendance teachers, social workers and city officials. These recommendations offer direction for the field in addressing the intertwined problems discussed in this report. The report suggests an approach for targeting schools with the greatest need, describing a possible structure for supporting practical assessments of the problem, followed by effective working partnerships between principals and skilled community-based organizations.

Child Welfare Watch: Homes Away from Home

Foster Parents for a New Generation 

The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future today issued a joint report on child welfare documenting the city’s increased reliance on foster families to care for children with emotional and mental health issues.

Child Welfare Watch, Vol. 16, “Homes Away from Home: Foster parents for a new generation,” finds that foster parenting is harder than ever, as fewer foster teens, especially younger teenagers, are placed in institutions and a fast-growing percentage are moving in with families.

The city’s foster care system has made significant headway helping create family homes for young people who once would have spent months or even years in group homes and residential treatment centers. But city officials and nonprofit leaders face tremendous challenges in creating effective support systems, crisis teams and training programs that can help foster parents care for these children.

The report documents how foster parents are adjusting to their increasingly demanding role, and how the system is struggling to meet their needs. Highlights include:

  • Foster parents today are taking care of more than 1,000 children who, if they entered foster care a few years ago, would likely have been placed in group homes or residential treatment centers. (See “Greater Expectations: Foster parents confront new needs, and new demands.”)
  • While the city strives to place far fewer teens in group homes and residential treatment, so far the greatest success has been with younger teens. Older teens are just as likely to be placed in institutional, non-family programs as they were four years ago. (See “The Changing Face of Foster Care: The end of an era of institutionalized foster care for teens?“)
  • Although studies show between 50 and 70 percent of children in foster care have emotional and mental health problems, access to counseling and mental health care remains a severe gap in services, especially for teens in foster homes.
  • Today, most pregnant and parenting foster teens live with families, yet there are no citywide standards for how foster parents should be trained to help young mothers, nor does the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) systematically measure whether pregnant teens are getting basics such as prenatal care. (See “High-Risk, Low Priority: The needs of teen parents in foster homes are often unmet.”)
  • The percentage of children placed in foster boarding homes in their neighborhoods has dropped to 11 percent, a level not seen since the late 1990s. This runs counter to a target of 75 percent of community-based placement set by ACS in 2001. The vast majority of children who enter foster care are sent to live in unfamiliar neighborhoods, even as nearby foster homes are filled by children from other communities. (See “Hide and Seek: The rate of children in foster care living near their families and communities is plummeting.”)

The 16th issue of Child Welfare Watch also reports on new efforts to recruit foster homes and create bonds between parents and foster parents. And the report features daily diaries of three city foster care moms who share the unvarnished hazards and happiness of their lives with children. (See “Behind Closed Doors: Diaries of three foster moms.”)

The report also contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board aimed at helping policymakers better support foster families and the children they shelter.


Child Welfare Watch: Against the Clock

The Struggle to Move Kids into Permanent Homes 

New York City is charging a growing number of families with abuse and neglect, leaving Family Court overwhelmed and more children spending longer periods in foster care. This edition of Child Welfare Watchreports on the difficulties of moving children out of foster care in a timely manner in the wake of Nixzmary Brown’s murder, two years ago tomorrow.

New York City’s Family Court is in crisis, with case backlogs growing and judges unable to hold many routine hearings in a timely manner. The number of abuse and neglect filings against parents by city attorneys has leapt a remarkable 150 percent since the child abuse murder of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown in January 2006, and the court has been unable to handle the increase. Despite the Permanency Law of 2005, which aimed to get children out of foster care faster, kids in New York City are staying in foster care longer. For children in foster care for the first time, the median length of stay before returning home rose from 8.2 months in fiscal year 2005 to 11.5 months in fiscal year 2007.

On the two-year anniversary of the murder of Nixzmary Brown, the Winter 2008 issue of Child Welfare Watchexplores the challenges of moving the city’s foster children into safe, permanent homes quickly, a decade after federal laws sought to improve foster care systems nationwide.

Highlights of the report include:

  • The large increase in petitions filed in Family Court by city attorneys is driven in part by an increase in foster care placements. Such placements are up more than 40 percent since 2005. An even larger factor is the unprecedented increase in requests for court-ordered supervision of families under investigation. These families are expected to participate in services while remaining under city oversight.
  • After a 10-year decline, the number of New York City children in foster care living with relatives is becoming more common. Last year, the number of foster children living in these “kinship” homes grew by 18 percent. Yet because it is still a form of foster care, the NYC Administration for Children’s Services can’t consider kinship care a “permanent” home for children.
  • Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia offer subsidized guardianship as a way to support relatives raising kin’s children outside the foster care system. A pending federal bill could it available in all states, including New York.
  • There were 752 “legal orphans” children with no legal ties to birth parents and not placed in pre-adoptive homes in New York City in 2006. Although controversial, reversing their parents’ loss of parental rights may help some of these older children find safe, permanent homes.

“The Administration for Children’s Services policy agenda contains many elements that deserve wide support,” the editors conclude. “But the mayhem in Family Court had better be addressed soon, or these latest reforms will likely stumble.”

The 15th edition of Child Welfare Watch also looks at proposed legislation to help parents in prison and residential substance abuse treatment centers hold onto their children, as well as a city program that asks foster parents of infants to prepare to adopt as they simultaneously help the babies’ parents bring their children home.

Child Welfare Watch: Pressures and Possibilities

Supporting Families and Children at Home

New York City’s family support system is at a critical juncture. The city has increased its investment by more than $70 million per year in preventive family support services since 2005. But those investments have coincided with a surge in abuse and neglect reports and a 53 percent increase in the number of children placed in foster care in 2006.

The Summer 2007 issue of Child Welfare Watch, published jointly by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future, explores the transformation of the city’s network of nonprofit family support agencies as they become increasingly central to the Bloomberg administration’s strategy for protecting children from abuse and neglect. The latest issue of the Watch uncovers tensions shaping the work of family support in New York City.

Among the highlights in the report:

  • City referrals to “general” preventive programs have leapt by 28 percent since 2004 and many family support agencies are now operating at or above their city-funded capacity.
  • The roles of child protective investigations and family support services are overlapping more and more. Each month, about two-thirds of families joining preventive services programs are referred by the child welfare system, whereas previously fewer than one-half were referred by the system.
  • The Administration for Children’s Services’ emphasis on the prevention of abuse and neglect has been accompanied by tightly targeted funding to help nonprofit agencies serve hard-to-help populations, including families that have recently reunified with children leaving foster care.
  • The number of children placed in foster care in one year increased 53 percent to more than 7,250 placements in 2006 following the murder of Nixzmary Brown.
  • In an effort to ease the spiraling paperwork burdens of frontline workers, New York State may scrap its bug-ridden child welfare computer tracking system after a decade of problems and more than $400 million in state spending.

In addition, the 14th edition of Child Welfare Watch explores new administration efforts to build community collaboration and includes a close-up view of the work of two Brooklyn family support workers and the families they strive to help.

The issue also contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board that can help policymakers create a more inclusive safety net for families.

A Schoolyard in Brooklyn

Strengthening Families and Communities Through the Innovative Use of Public Space 


As part of PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg recently proposed opening 290 city schoolyards to the public during non-school hours. A Schoolyard in Brooklyn offers a proven model for how to do it right, strengthening families and communities along the way.

The report tells the story of the schoolyard at P.S. 503/506 (formerly P.S. 314) in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that became a community plaza with activities for all ages. Now known as Neighborhood Center, it offers an affordable and proven model for reclaiming urban community space and many of the city's poorly used schoolyards and parks.

Run by the Center for Family Life, Neighborhood Center has encouraged vibrant intergenerational outdoor cultural life, promoted safe recreation for young people and supported the development of social networks and friendships.

While the authors commend the mayor's initiative, they point out that "simply unlocking the gates," as City Hall has proposed, is not enough. The city cannot assume, they argue, that just throwing open the gates will benefit communities, families and children. City and school administrators and local residents, they say, need to heed the lessons of Sunset Park.

The authors' recommendations include:

  • define clear roles and responsibilities for maintenance and management of these public spaces;

  • tap community-based organizations to play the role of schoolyard organizer and manager; and

  • establish schoolyard management as an element of Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) contracts with community-based organizations.


This report was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation and the Sirus Fund.