What I Learned at the Education Barricades

"Over the past eight years, I've been privileged to serve as chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the nation's largest school district. Along the way, I've learned some important lessons about what works in public education, what doesn't, and what (and who) are the biggest obstacles to the transformative changes we still need."
Published on December 27, 2010

Over the past eight years, I’ve been privileged to serve as chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. Working with a mayor who courageously took responsibility for our schools, our department has made significant changes and progress. Along the way, I’ve learned some important lessons about what works in public education, what doesn’t, and what (and who) are the biggest obstacles to the transformative changes we still need.

First, it is wrong to assert that students’ poverty and family circumstances severely limit their educational potential. It’s now proven that a child who does poorly with one teacher could have done very well with another. Take Harlem Success Academy, a charter school with all minority, mostly high-poverty students admitted by lottery. It performs as well as our gifted and talented schools that admit kids based solely on demanding tests. We also have many new small high schools that replaced large failing ones, and are now getting outsized results for poor children.

Second, traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc.—aren’t going to get the job done. Public education is a service-delivery challenge, and it must be operated as such. Albert Shanker, the legendary teachers union head, was right when he said that education has to be, first and foremost, about accountability for "student outcomes." This means there must be "consequences if children or adults don’t perform."

When Mayor Bloomberg and I started, there was zero accountability. Instead, bureaucrats, unions and politicians had their way, and they blamed poor results on students and their families. When we talked about managing the system with organizational practices that work in every other sector of our economy—like accountability, incentives and competition—we were told that education isn’t a business. Maybe so, but whether it’s health care, education or any other service, poorly-structured, nonaccountable delivery systems cost a fortune and don’t work.

To counter the dysfunction, we turned the system upside down. We empowered principals, giving them new authority over budgets, hiring and other programs. In return, we held them accountable for student outcomes, rewarding them for success or removing them and closing their schools for poor performance. To attract and retain strong teachers, we raised salaries substantially and paid more to our best teachers who agreed to transfer to low-performing schools. We also increased choices for families by replacing almost 100 failing schools with about 500 new, small schools designed with community and charter management groups. Multiple studies showed that these new choices yielded significantly better results. Competition works.

Our embrace of charter schools was especially controversial. But why should any student have to settle for a neighborhood school if it’s awful? The debate shouldn’t be about whether a school is a traditional or charter public school. It should be about whether it’s high-performing, period. Low-income families deserve the ability to make the best choices for their kids, as more financially secure families always have.

Changing the system wasn’t easy. The people with the loudest and best-funded voices are committed to maintaining a status quo that protects their needs even if it doesn’t work for children. They want to keep their jobs by preserving a guaranteed customer base (a fixed number of students), regardless of performance.

We have to rid the system of this self-serving approach. We must stop protecting ineffective teachers and stop basing layoffs on a last-in/first-out rule. With federal stimulus dollars running out, budgets are only going to get tighter and layoffs will be necessary. When that happens, do we really want to lose the talented and energetic new teachers we have hired in the last few years?

Finally, we need to innovate, as every successful sector of our economy does. The classroom model we have used since the 19th century, in which one teacher stands in front of a room of 20-30 kids, is obsolete. We should be making the most of new technology and programs that help teachers deliver personalized instruction and allow students to learn at their own pace. In New York City we’ve experimented with new models and seen great promise, but it will take larger investments to see real results.

As I leave the best job I’ve ever had, I know that more progress is possible despite the inevitable resistance to change. To prevail, the public and, most importantly, parents must insist on a single standard: Every school has to be one to which we’d send our own kids. We are not remotely close to that today.

We know how to fix public education. The question is whether we have the political will to do it.

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