As Michael Bloomberg’s term in office comes to an end in New York City, mayoral candidates are quick to denounce many of his education policies. A recent poll found that a majority of residents disapprove of the outgoing mayor’s handling of public schools, and the current crop of candidates are unhappy with school closures and the school grading system currently in place.
Eric Nadelstern, former deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Bloomberg and currently a professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, spoke to The Hechinger Report about his thoughts on the future of public education in New York City and his book 10 Lessons From New York City Schools, about his 40 years of experience working in public education.
Question: There’ll be a new mayor in the city soon. Any trepidation that some of the policies you talk favorably about in your book might end?
Answer: Sad to say, but I think they’ve changed already under the old mayor. I see networks being redirected away from school support to more central office compliance matters which disturbs me. I see the core curriculum being mandated in a way that was reminiscent of the old days in the way superintendents mandate curriculum rather than rolled it out in a way that creates a lot of options for schools on how to creatively engage around it or not if they choose to. And those decisions and policies trouble me.
Certainly under a new mayor I think two main areas in greatest jeopardy are the issues of school closings that also creates the opportunity to open new schools as well as whether the non-geographic network structure may return to the old-time district structure headed by superintendents. Politicians in particular favor the old structure because they could exploit it to their benefit more easily.
Q: What changes are you talking about?
A: I think now more than any time in the mayor’s 12-year tenure, City Hall is directing education in a more directed, unedited, and obstructive way. They always had authority, but when Joel [Klein] was chancellor he would filter their input in a way that would allow his staff to continue doing the good work they were engaged in. I think when you put a deputy mayor in charge of the schools, and the deputy mayor is simultaneously chancellor of the New York public schools but continues to hold his deputy mayor portfolio, that proves more problematic. Mayoral control does not mean that the mayor or his cabinet at City Hall should become the direct leadership of the school district. There needs to be little more of separation there; separate both by creating different positions and maybe by giving the educational priorities panel greater authority.
Q: On the New York City Leadership Academy, an independent organization started by Klein that trained teachers to become administrators: How do you make sure good school leaders stay in the NYC school system?
A: My recollection in years past is that the [New York City Leadership Academy] has a requirement that the students have to put in at least three years of service. I think the future probably involves having the department develop collaborations with a broader range of principal preparation programs and then have the opportunity to track the student outcomes in schools led by principals coming from a variety of different institutions using different approaches. Then using that both as a learning opportunity for holding institutions at the department it collaborates with and then also steering it in the direction of those programs that are the most successful.
Accountability can’t be just for students, or for students or teachers or for students and teachers and principals. But it also has to be for everyone involved in every aspect of public education – those who work in schools, those who work in central offices, publishers who provide the materials that are used and the exams and the exam-scoring capacity, and universities. Universities need to be not only equal partners but they have got to be equally accountable.
Q: You criticize principal prep programs in institutes of higher education in your book; what do you find wrong with them?
A: I think the model is wrong. I think that the idea that teachers who ultimately teach in a wide variety of districts come to a single location in a form of a brick and mortar building all receive the same quality of education that will prepare them for the range and variety of districts and schools they could possible work in is a very outdated 20th century idea. I think what the 21st century demands is partnerships with schools and universities, where universities customize their offerings for the needs of a particular set of schools or the needs of that particular district and are willing to partner with school practitioners in helping prospective schools and students meet those needs and deliver those services where teachers interact with students on a regular basis, which is namely in schools not in institutions of higher education.
I think we’re in a transitional stage but that ultimately the future and success and continuation of higher education depends on our ability and capacity to change with the changing needs of schools and school districts. My prediction is that the changes will be something along the lines of what I just described. As I direct the summer principal academy at Teachers College I’m guided by that thought. We have already started partnering with cities around the country and the next stab is really to figure out how to customize the work we do to meet the specific needs of communities as diverse as New Orleans, Indianapolis, Miami, New York City, or a small rural district in New Hampshire. How do we take what we know principals need in order to be successful and tailor that so that their success is not meant in a general sense but it’s targeted to a particular district’s needs for the particular kinds of schools serving very specialized populations based on who attends that school?
Q: What do you make of the many people in the education sector who are weary of big businesses they believe are infiltrating public education just to make more money. Do they have a point?
A: You know what I say in the book which is a deeply held belief that in the 20th century when America monopolized the world’s resources, we could afford firewalls between sectors in society so that public not-for-profit and private were separated from each other and it was very hard to collaborate across those barriers. The ability of the country to succeed in the 21st century rests in large measure, I think, on our willingness to tear down those barriers and to have all sectors of society to work together to try to solve problems as complex and important as educating our children.
What educators fail to understand though – when most educators talk about collaboration with the private industry what they’re talking about is give us money and other resources. Private industry will participate in public education, but will participate in and on its own terms, which is generally how do we make profit for shareholders. And I think through that competition with the public sector the result of that will be improved schools. I’ve got a deep conviction that choice and competition leads to innovation and improvement over time.
Q: You are in favor of closing down failing schools, yet many parents in the city are against such measures. How do you convince them you’re right?
A: Many of the schools we closed had graduation rates barely at 30 percent. But that means close to a third of the kids were successful and it’s often the parents of a third of the kids that were succeeding in that school that fight most vociferously to keep the school open, that’s the first piece. The second piece is more complex, that is most of the people I socialize with when seeking a school for their children, public or not, look for the best possible schooling based on their aspiration for their children and their perception of their needs, not necessarily the school closet to where they live.
We have convinced poor people that there’s a value in sending your kids to the school closest to where you live. I know there are wealthy people who share that value and therefore have the opportunity to purchase expensive real estate approximate to schools they consider to be good schools. But for the most part in New York, middle class parents are okay for their kid to travel somewhat in order to ensure the kid winds up in a better school. So, the City really needs to take a more active role in ensuring that all kids have an equal opportunity to get into any school that can meet their needs–I would say by lottery–and then expending the resources necessary to provide the transportation so that poor students are not sentenced to a terrible school down the block.
Q: In your book you talk about 10 lessons, or strategies, that if applied can lead to real school success. What is one strategy that, if applied in earnest today, can turn schools around?
A: I’ll tell you what the central issue is. Most superintendents including every chancellor I’ve ever worked for except Joel Klein thought the job was [to] identify two or three packaged off the shelf curricular programs and instructional approaches, apply them uniformly throughout the system and hope that students will do better. In fact, the best of those leaders were able to get a short term bump in fourth grade reading scores, they had no impact on eighth grade outcomes and they couldn’t alter high school graduation outcomes.
What I came to learn under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein was that the legitimate role of the central office was to create a robust pipeline – to go out and find the best people you can to be principals, to support them, to develop them, to protect them from outside interference, to provide them with incentives when they do good work but ultimately to hold them accountable for the decisions they make in the school. The important decisions about what kids need to learn and how they could best learn it are best made at the local level and then to hold them and their school faculties responsible for the outcomes, not micromanage the inputs. In other words, not tell them how to do it. That is a critical difference in how to go about managing a larger school district that I think too few people in this country understand and appreciate and even fewer can implement.
Q: Are you excited by any of the mayoral candidates’ education plans?
A: Thus far I was pretty uniformly disappointed by the quality of the debate around the needs of public education. Most of the leading candidates have very superficial thoughts. They break into two camps: those that will say anything in order to get votes and those that have focused on a few disconnected ideas like give everyone an iPad or tax the rich to pay for pre-school. No one has evidently a comprehensive understanding of the needs of children or the problems faced by public education in a way that would provide confidence that they are capable of solving the problems or even attracting the people capable of solving the problems.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.