New York Takes New Course in Running Schools after 30 Years of Politicized Community Boards and Low Standards, the Nation's Largest School System Is Undergoing Fundamental Change

Article excerpt

A new era is dawning in the troubled New York City school system - the result of a profound shift in thinking that may influence urban systems across the nation.

After decades of corruption, neglected school buildings, and miserable student test scores, this behemoth network - the largest school system in the country, with 1,100 schools and more than a million students - is shedding 30 years of politically tainted management and introducing a future where educational standards will be set and school districts held accountable for achieving them.

The dramatic shift has attracted the support of a mayor and governor who have in the past refused to increase funding to the schools because they felt the system was so flawed. It comes at a time when there is near consensus among educators that the key to improving learning is to focus on the quality of teaching as well as the quality of what is being taught. Now, as President Clinton talks of ways to upgrade education nationally and as many of the country's largest school systems struggle to revamp the way they're serving their students, New York is putting in place many of the very measures education leaders say are needed. "If anything's going to turn urban systems around, it's standards," says Richard Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University, who has studied New York and other urban school systems. "We've got to find an administrative structure that pays attention to equity and also tries to pay attention to quality." Guidelines, responsibility Last month, New York Gov. George Pataki (R) signed into law a sweeping reform bill that takes school management out of the hands of 32 independent district boards and shifts it to the city's school chancellor. The new law gives the chancellor the power to hire, fire, draft curricula, and set policy - tasks all formerly left to the community school boards. The reform allows the school chancellor to step in when schools are failing. It puts in place school-based budgets that are to be drafted by parents, teachers, and principals. It sets out clear guidelines for what constitutes grounds for hiring and firing superintendents and principals. And it establishes a clear line of responsibility for a child's education from chancellor to superintendent to principal to teacher. But passage of the overhaul legislation is just the beginning of reform. Governor Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have since pledged more money and attention to New York City's schools. Mr. Giuliani has called for an increase of $200 million - the first time he has hiked the schools budget since taking office. And Pataki unveiled a five-year plan to help the city schools catch up with the rest of the state. In addition, the legislature is expected to take up bills calling for an overhaul of the state's special-education programs and allowing the creation of charter schools this year. "This is a monumental shift," says school chancellor Rudolph Crew. "All of these are issues that go to the heart of the distribution of education. It's all about giving kids and families good, positive choices to education." Critics of the governance legislation say wresting power away from the often corrupt schools boards was a step in the right direction, but that the law doesn't go far enough to ensure that innovative schools aren't hamstrung by more restrictive centralized standards. "This will not move education ahead for the majority of students as people expect," says Robert Berne, an expert on the city's schools and vice president of academic development at New York University. …