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

Jessica Klein

Clara Hemphill and Kim Nauer
Center for New York City Affairs, The New School
June 2010

This paper takes a close and levelheaded look at New York City’s “Children First” initiative, a district restructuring plan implemented in 2007 by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. As the authors explain it, Children First “centralized authority over what is to be achieved, and decentralized responsibility for how to achieve it.” More literally, this meant giving principals greater autonomy over curricular, budgetary, and personnel decisions and abolishing NYC’s geographic school districts, but holding principals to higher expectations when it came to achievement, school safety, and graduation rates, among other things. In other words, Bloomberg and Klein set out to reverse the customary “tight-loose” structure of public education systems. How is it going? Hemphill, Nauer, and their team conducted interviews, visited several dozen schools, and analyzed achievement data. What they found is a flawed system that’s nonetheless working. Achievement has improved since 2007, especially in the worst schools, where the new data-based accountability structure has turned around a culture of low expectations. But breaking down geographic barriers disconnected schools from their neighborhoods and in some cases left less-effective and/or rookie principals floundering and parents and teachers feeling alienated. The biggest problem, though, is the city’s grading system for schools, which has allowed for dizzying swings from one year to the next. But the city is aware of and working on this (see the chapters “Building A Better Yardstick” and “Beyond Numbers”), so while the authors say the system is imperfect, the reader comes away fairly optimistic. The city would do well to use this report as a guide. Read it here.