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Rage Against the Regime: The Reform of Education Policy in New York City

by Priscilla Wohlstetter & David M. Houston - January 30, 2015

This commentary traces the transition of education policy from the Bloomberg-Klein years to the current administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina a year into their tenure.

In the last century political scientists tended to portray policy subsystems as either generally resistant to change or flexible and constantly shifting, or some combination of the two, with periods of relative stability interspersed with moments of rapid reordering (see, for example: Hartz, 1985; Mettler, 1998; Moe, 1989; Baumgartner & Jones, 1993; Stimson et al., 1995). In a more recent study of federal education programs, Patrick McGuinn (2006) argues that the pace of change falls somewhere in the middle. Policy subsystems are not quite as stable as some believed; rather they shift over time in their priorities and values. Moreover, these shifts happen gradually, often confronting obstacles and resistance along the way. The new administration in New York City embodies such a shift in the area of education policy. The arrival of Mayor Bill de Blasio in January 2014 and his appointment of long-time educator—Carmen Farina—as Schools Chancellor altered the foundation of the prevailing policy regime in New York City. The rage against the Bloomberg era, as evidenced by public opinion, de Blasio’s decisive victory with 73% of the votes cast, and the liberal Democratic administration’s active departure from its predecessor’s priorities, has initiated a powerful—although not unopposed—transition to a platform that favors equity over efficiency, traditional school district structures, and the interests of teachers unions and life-long educators.

In this commentary, we examine the ideas, interests, and institutions that structure governmental activity in K-12 policy in New York City. What are the paradigm shifts between the Bloomberg-Klein administration and the de Blasio-Farina administration? How have power arrangements among key stakeholders changed? What are the consequences of the new policy regime for public policy?

In 2002, Michael Bloomberg, a business entrepreneur, was voted in as New York City mayor with 66% of the vote. Soon after Mayor Bloomberg took office, the New York State Assembly established mayoral control of New York City schools. The new mayor appointed Joel Klein, a seasoned anti-trust lawyer, as Schools Chancellor, and the two began taking steps to restructure the entire district system, based on principles of efficiency, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

At the very center of their reforms was decentralized management. Principals were empowered as “CEOs” of their schools and gained responsibility for budgeting, staffing, and instructional programming. The basic idea behind the move, modeled after the for-profit sector, was that a sweltering and inflexible bureaucracy had overburdened school principals and consequently stifled initiative, creativity, and achievement. Accordingly, the chief aim of the reform agenda was to unfetter school “CEOs” by granting them greater autonomy and freedom from bureaucracy to lead their schools. As Bloomberg and Klein pursued greater CEO autonomy, they simultaneously worked to rebuild and empower the central office. As Paul Hill describes, the reforms served to “…strengthen both the top [central office] and the bottom [CEOs] of the organization, but weaken the middle” (2011, p. 20). Specifically, reorganization efforts eliminated elected community school boards and reduced the size of district offices run by local superintendents, trimming numbers from about 100 per office to far leaner staffs of five or fewer individuals (NYC DOE, 2013; Hemphill et al., 2010). By “weakening the middle” in this way, such reforms helped strengthen efficiencies by eliminating a significant part of the “burdensome” bureaucracy and NYC DOE cutting costs by over 30% (NYC DOE, 2012).

Campaigning on a platform of change from everything “Bloomberg,” the new mayor appointed a life-long educator as his Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, and almost immediately the power shifted toward teacher union interests and other traditional players. Under Farina—herself a former teacher, principal and superintendent—the position of local superintendent regained clout and new regulations require that superintendents have at least ten years of experience, reflecting traditional seniority values (Decker, 2014a & 2014b; Wall, 2014c).

The district governance system of the Bloomberg era has been redesigned into a more traditional bureaucratic structure. The power of school support networks, which were created to assist principals, has declined under Farina. At the same time the “boss” role of local superintendents has been restored. Sitting superintendents were asked to reapply for their jobs under a major staffing overhaul of the city’s 32 community districts. Superintendents have started to hire new staffers to assist principals with instructional matters and training sessions—activities that previously were handled by networks. Chancellor Farina considers superintendents as her “eyes and ears” in the field, not only responsible for supporting schools but also for evaluating them (Darville, 2014d; Decker, 2014a & 2014b; Wall, 2014c).

In the previous administration, as part of the district redesign, Joel Klein led the creation of the $95 million Accountability and Reporting Information System (ARIS), designed by IBM, which was meant to improve student achievement. ARIS debuted in 2008 and promised to consolidate student test scores, grades, attendance, and contact data all in one place for educators and parents. While ARIS helped monitor student test scores, it couldn’t offer more detailed information about students, such as up-to-date grades and homework assignments. As Chalkbeat reported, “City officials noted…that only 3% of parents and 16% of teachers had accessed the system during the 2012-2013 school year” (Charles, 2014). This past November the NYC DOE announced it was scraping ARIS and its replacement would be designed internally by the city, an obvious attack on IBM whose system had a grand price tag but was rarely used by its intended audience.

The accountability system has also been reshaped in other ways by Chancellor Farina (Danville, 2014b). Schools no longer receive annual progress reports that evaluate New York City schools using A-to-F letter grades. While over time the DOE added a greater variety of data, students’ state test scores largely determined the grades schools received. The new administration has decreased the influence of standardized tests, and progress reports have been replaced with more informative, less technocratic data–a quality snapshot for families and a quality guide for staffers. More qualitative ratings based on surveys and formal classroom observations of teaching have been added, and neither features an overall rating which, critics charged, led to competition and harsh consequences in the Bloomberg era. Schools were closed because of underperformance, and school principals received bonuses if their student scores demonstrated the requisite progress. This “succeed or perish” culture, fueled by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and School Improvement Grants, has been replaced in the de Blasio-Farina era.

As an alternative to closing struggling/failing/troubled schools, city officials announced plans last summer 2014 to spend $52 million on four-year grants for community schools (Brody, 2014; Darville, 2014c). The NYC DOE identified 45 high-poverty schools and matched them with social service partners to create community schools in an effort to boost attendance, prevent dropouts, and improvement student achievement. The providers will bring health and dental clinics, counseling, immigration services, tutoring, and other programs to students and their families. Schools Chancellor Farina expressed confidence in this initiative for two main reasons: 1) school principals were involved in deciding which services would be offered and helped select the providers; and 2) teachers and parents on school leadership teams also had a voice. Indeed, early in his term, Mayor de Blasio exercised his right to appoint five new members, parents, advocates, and educators, to the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), pledging a fresh start to deepen engagement with parents and improve relations with school communities. In the Bloomberg era, the PEP was more a rubber stamp of the Mayor’s policies and accountability was considered a top-down mandate that left out the very same groups this administration is including—principals, teachers, and parents (Cramer, 2014).

Mayor Bloomberg in the final years of his administration refused to negotiate a teacher contract with the United Federation of Teachers. The administration tended to view the teachers union as an impediment to reform, and his emphasis on test scores and pay freezes angered teachers. By contrast, Mayor de Blasio, who is considered friendlier to labor, negotiated a new contract between the UFT-DOE. The nine-year labor deal, approved by more than 77% of the votes cast, raised pay by 18% including retroactive raises which total about 8% (Baker, 2014). According to Michael Mulgrew, President of the UFT, the agreement gives teachers and parents a greater voice in how their schools are run, and how they can better serve their students. It also lengthens the school day: teachers are given an additional 40 minutes to reach out to parents every Tuesday for in-person meetings, phone calls, and emails. Quite an improvement over the old contract in which teachers had a shorter day and met with parents during normal school hours, when many parents could not attend (Darville, 2014c).

As part of the new contract, the DOE and the UFT also agreed to a new program—Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE)—which allows schools to design and implement “innovative practices” that fall outside DOE regulations or the UFT contract. Key criteria for selection into the PROSE program, according to the Chancellor and UFT president, was “the extent to which schools’ proposed initiatives are driven by teachers, school leaders and other school community members” (Farina & Mulgrew, 2014). Indeed, a vote of the teachers and evidence of parental support were required for selection. The schools in their applications must also describe how their administrators and teachers have collaborated previously (Wall, 2014a). For the 2014-2015 school year, 62 schools were approved by a joint panel composed of district and union representatives. Staff members of these schools created a range of plans, including alternative approaches to evaluating teachers, staggering the school day to accommodate students’ needs, and changing the contractually- required student to teacher ratios to allow for a combination of small group learning and larger lecture-style classes.

In the previous administration, Chancellor Joel Klein created the city’s Innovation Zone in 2010 as a way for schools to experiment with new approaches, especially ones that involve technology and tailoring instruction to meet students’ needs. The iZone partners with app developers from across the country and the technology giants, Amazon and Google, to bring innovative ideas to New York City schools. Many of the ideas feature advanced technology, such as School of One, which uses algorithms to create personal “playlists” of math activities for students based on their abilities. But iZone schools have also experimented with longer days and courses that allow students to progress at their own pace—ideas with which schools in the PROSE program are experimenting. Some observers suggest policy churn is now setting in. Chancellor Farina has been silent on the iZone and expresses innovation more through the PROSE program. Meanwhile, the federal grants that have supported the iZone, Race to the Top, and Investing in Innovation, are drying up, and, perhaps related, there has been an exodus of iZone directors and other staff. Finally, Chancellor Farina chose to move the iZone to another division. Proponents had lobbied to put the iZone under the oversight of the DOE’s new “chief strategy officer.” Instead the iZone was shifted to the school support division, where the school support networks are housed (Wall, 2014b).

Not all of the de Blasio administration’s policy changes have proceeded unopposed. The new mayor’s early decision to rescind three requests for public space from Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy (a network of charter schools in New York City) and one of the mayor’s fiercest rivals, was met with formidable resistance, ultimately resulting in de Blasio yielding on the issue (Darville, 2014a; Harris, 2014). Furthermore, although our commentary focuses on K-12 concerns, the headliner of de Blasio’s education platform was universal pre-K. On this signature issue, the mayor won a major policy victory, but he had to alter his original vision in order to achieve it. De Blasio’s campaign featured a promise to raise taxes on wealthy New Yorkers in order to pay for expanded pre-K access. While the policy was ultimately realized, the funding mechanism was not. Governor Cuomo insisted that the initiative include no new taxes (Grynbaum & Kaplan, 2014).

Power and influence on all things education is on the move in New York. Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Farina are turning the tables on the politics of their predecessors in City Hall. Their first year in office has generated considerable benefits for traditional education actors, such as teachers and district superintendents, who often felt excluded and diminished during the Bloomberg era. But change does not happen all at once, and political tides are not nearly as inevitable as their natural equivalents. The education policy regime in New York City under the de Blasio-Farina administration has gradually begun to shift in its priorities and values; however, there has been no rapid reordering as some political observers predicted, given the Mayor’s strong election results. Instead, reform by the new administration over the past year has been slowed somewhat by resistance, mainly around public space for charter schools and universal pre-K, which were overcome with assistance from Governor Andrew Cuomo, allowing the gradual shifts in New York City’s education paradigms, power structures and policies to continue on their way.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 30, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17841, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 5:19:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Priscilla Wohlstetter
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    PRISCILLA WOHLSTETTER, PhD, is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • David Houston
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID M. HOUSTON is a Doctoral Research Fellow in of Politics & Education in the Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University. Teachers College, Columbia University
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