Thursday, November 16, 2006

New York City; more phony school reform

NY. Times. April 9, 2006
The New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, is once again rethinking the nation's largest school system.
He has hired Chris Cerf, former president of Edison Schools, the commercial manager of public schools in 25 states. He has retained Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm that revamped the school system in St. Louis and is rebuilding the system in New Orleans. And he has enlisted Sir Michael Barber, a former adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain who is now at McKinsey & Company in London.
These consultants, often in pinstripe suits and ensconced in a conference room on the third-floor mezzanine of the headquarters of the Education Department in Lower Manhattan, are working with a small army of city education officials, all led by Mr. Klein's chief of staff, Kristen Kane. The effort is being paid for with $5 million in private donations.
Together, the consultants and officials are re-examining virtually every aspect of the system, not quite three years after Chancellor Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg charted perhaps its most exhaustive overhaul and made it a laboratory for educational experimentation, closely watched across the country.
They are evaluating everything from how textbooks and paper are bought, to how teacher training programs are chosen, to how students, teachers, principals and schools are judged. They are running focus groups of dozens of principals, and they are studying districts in England, Canada and California.
A top goal is to find ways to relax much of the very centralization put in place by the Bloomberg administration and give principals a far freer hand, provided schools can meet goals for attendance, test scores, promotion rates and other criteria.
An ideal system, they suggest, would put schools near the top of the organizational chart and potentially eliminate or change dozens of administrative jobs. Hypothetically, principals, now supervised by a local superintendent, might choose either to keep that overseer or to use the money to hire a different achievement adviser. Support services, like counseling programs, could be outsourced.
"This is entire system reform," Mr. Cerf said over a cheeseburger lunch at a downtown bistro. "This is the most important and urgent thing going on in American public education today. If it can be done well and right here, it will be a national pace car for change."
Chancellor Klein, in an interview last week, said: "I see this as truly an evolutionary restructuring."
Even some principals who are avid supporters of Mr. Klein wonder, however, if the effort is futile. State and federal mandates limit the authority of principals and are largely outside the chancellor's control. There are also the constraints of union contracts, which regulate so much of the workings of schools, like teacher schedules.
"How much can the system support increased autonomy and authority of school leaders without making the commensurate changes with respect to the external demands," asked Anthony Lombardi, the principal of P.S. 49 in Middle Village, Queens. "Ideally there should be a balance of accountability, autonomy and contractual flexibility."
The search for a more flexible structure comes four years after Mr. Bloomberg won direct control of the schools. He reorganized the 32 community districts into 10 instructional regions under tight central direction. The system has imposed new promotion rules and introduced targeted help for struggling students; achieved sharp gains on state reading and math tests in most grades; and opened dozens of small high schools.
William G. Ouchi, a business professor at U.C.L.A. and the author of "Making Schools Work," praised the city's effort and said he believed it would succeed. But Professor Ouchi, who advised Mr. Klein during the first restructuring, also said the new effort was an acknowledgment of failures in the mayor's first term.
"I think it was a normal human error," said Professor Ouchi, who calls the current structure too rigid. "Those of us who study large organizations for a living know the first reaction of a new C.E.O. is to grab the reins of power and control everything, because they don't want anything to go awry."
Mr. Klein and his aides say a tighter fist was needed at first to stabilize the sprawling and often dysfunctional system. The decentralization they envision now, they say, entails the daily operations of schools, rather than the system's management.
"It isn't that the strategic direction is going in a totally new way, or that we have a clean slate and are starting from scratch here," Ms. Kane said.
"We feel have made a significant amount of progress over the last couple of years, but we have got to continue to change. We are not at all satisfied with all of the student achievement results, putting aside whatever improvements have happened."
She and other officials cautioned that the process was in its earliest stages and the final decisions, to be made by Mr. Klein and approved by the mayor, are still a long way off.
In his quest, Mr. Klein has turned to a team of outside experts, including Mr. Cerf, a longtime friend.
Mr. Cerf, 51, like Mr. Klein, 59, is a former clerk at the United States Supreme Court and worked in the Clinton administration. As president of Edison, the nation's largest private operator of public schools, Mr. Cerf helped the company's founder, H. Christopher Whittle, navigate many troubles, including an outcry over its handling of schools in Philadelphia.
Mr. Cerf, an expert on tracking school performance, was also an informal adviser to the chancellor in the mayor's first term and now works for the Public-Private Strategy Group, a consulting firm based in Montclair, N.J.
The firm of Alvarez & Marsal is widely regarded as having expertise on public school budgets. Sajan P. George, 36, a specialist in municipal finance who is leading the firm's work in New York, helped Orange County, Calif., out of bankruptcy in the 1990's and once assisted the Australian government with a review of the horse- and greyhound-racing industries.
And then there is Sir Michael, who served as Prime Minister Blair's top aide for putting into effect education, health, criminal justice and transportation initiatives. He is regarded as a leading thinker on holding educators and public officials accountable for student achievement.
Sir Michael, as a senior education official before joining Mr. Blair's cabinet office, served on a committee nicknamed the "hit squad" because it shut schools that were failing to meet national standards. Britain, which has a strict national curriculum and exams, has developed a system of inspecting schools every three years.
"As it happens, the English education reform has been through a lot of the stages they are now going through," Sir Michael said in an interview..
At Mr. Klein's direction, the consultants' most immediate mission is to create a framework for expanding the "autonomy zone," a pilot group of 42 schools whose principals were largely cut free of administration this year after agreeing to meet performance targets. Mr. Klein announced in January that 150 more schools would enter the zone this fall.
The consultants are also working to fulfill the chancellor's pledge to redirect $200 million from administrative budgets to schools.
But to hold principals accountable, the department must have a way to judge performance. So the officials and consultants, led by James Liebman, a former law professor at Columbia, are looking to develop more sophisticated measures of performance and to vastly increase the amount of data available to administrators and teachers."

OK. total reform 3 years ago. And now, major reform of the reform.
Consultants certainly make a good salary from this.
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