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NYC Mayor abandons failed* $773 million ‘school improvement’ plan–We all abandon the children it purported to help.

One could imagine NYC’s Black and Latino elected, appointed, civic and religious leaders on hearing this news would be U-hauling the “no mas confidence” guillotines over to City Hall. After all, the children most hurt by this debacle look a lot like them! Well, we’ll see what happens.

Mayoral Control of Schools promised to remove the deleterious stench of politics from public education. But the truth is that “politics” as a corrupting operating principle in our public-school systems has, in fact, been “supersized” under mayoral control, leaving the least politically organized parents in the place they have always been, ignored and underserved. If elected school boards were problematic (and they were), the solution was surely not to consolidate public education’s political machinations into the hands of the city’s biggest politician.

The $773 million tragedy…

Tragedy #1: Large numbers of children were irreversibly educationally harmed. Tragedy #2: Lots of money was wasted to produce so little. Tragedy #3: We already know (and have known for years) everything we need to know about radically transforming failing schools and dramatically raising student academic achievement scores for Title 1 (poor) students (see Community School District 29, Queens 2000-2003). The present political/economics of public education’s “school reform-improvement” schemes are about putting millions into the pockets of smooth-talking, “closing the gap” edupreneurs who scavenge-hunt underperforming school districts. And yet in city after city, across this nation, the only “gaps” they seem to close are the ones that exist in their bank accounts.

It’s about the quality of instruction!

We know it has always been about the quality of instruction. Our “weakest” students need our most effective, experienced and efficacious teachers. Struggling schools can’t support both high numbers of struggling (often inexperienced) teachers and struggling students; and asking them to do so is being either professionally cynical or pedagogically uninformed. Further, Title 1 schools will really struggle to “consistently” raise student academic achievement if we don’t invest in making those schools full health, counseling and social services support schools.

Public schools unfortunately are structured on the premise that children can only be properly educated if they have the “right” parents. A parent desperately wanting their child to succeed but is lacking “parent-push” and “best practices” parenting skills; parents without the information on how to “maneuver” their child through the system’s undermining/learning “minefields;” the children of these parents can only achieve academically by way of some school-level, powerful intervening force that stands up and fights for these students. To have the best chance of succeeding, struggling students must attend a school where the adults in the building essentially step in and serve as that “pushy,” “mindfully maneuvering,” knowledgeable, advocating parent.

Invest and Focus on the Principalship!

We know principals play a critical role in the success or failure of a school. An effective principal can make a school achieve at its “personal best” even with a roster of not a lot of “stellar” teachers. Conversely, an ineffective principal can hinder a school’s success even though the staff consists of a majority of good teachers. To hold principals accountable, we need to establish some very clear and high leadership standards that go beyond the principal’s job description. As a superintendent, I saw the “unofficial rubrics” and “real job requirements” of the “effective principal” expose the school leadership gaps between principals who led demographically similar schools. Principals can do a lot more if we offer them more professional support. Acquiring a principal’s license is one thing, being a good principal is quite another.

Principals need the coaching and supervision of superintendents who themselves were excellent principals. The principalship is (literally) a lonely professional journey, therefore, principals need mentors and “critical friends” who are retired exemplary principals. We should help principals acquire and develop a bank of “talents;” e.g., knowledge of curriculum, instruction, operational effectiveness-efficiency, standardized assessment analysis, “people (leadership) skills” and strategic planning. All schools need an “assistant principal of operations” who can take responsibility for the daily “heavy” bureaucratic-administrative duties related to school operational management; allowing principals to spend more time in classrooms doing formal/informal observations; moving around the school building analytically studying the school’s operational environment; having the time to coach, talk and listen to students and staff members. With schools, you can’t lead effectively what you don’t experience effectively first-hand.

Principals need the authority (including staff hiring) that matches their responsibility, or they have very little chance of succeeding with our most vulnerable children. Good principals shouldn’t be forced to invest so much time and energy in “breaking rules” and working to “outmaneuver and outsmart” unhelpful, external political stakeholders and/or school system bureaucracies just so that they can give their students a chance to learn. If we really want to help underperforming schools then let’s start with some political courage, commitment and a good strategic plan. I’m sure that won’t cost $773 million.



Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.”[http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]         

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