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
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
"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."
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
"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