Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

New Schools in New York City: Incremental Changes in Transformative Initiatives in the 21st Century

by Thomas Hatch, Jordan Corson & Sarah Gerth Van Den Berg - 2021

Background: After the turn of the 21st century in New York City, mayor Michael Bloomberg launched major initiatives to open new small schools and new charter schools as a central piece of a strategy to transform schooling and produce dramatically better results. Although more than 550 new public schools and charter schools were established in New York City between 2003 and 2015, with some increases in graduation rates, the focus on new schools has subsided, many aspects of schooling remain the same, and significant inequities in performance persist.

Purpose/Objective: This article explores the confluence of factors that help to explain how some new practices emerge even as many aspects of what Tyack and Cuban called the “grammar of schooling” endure.

Design/Analysis: To achieve this objective, this article undertakes a historical analysis that highlights the intersection among the goals, capacity demands, and values in the new school initiatives, and the needs, existing capabilities, and values of four intermediaries involved in creating new small schools or new charter schools. This analysis looks particularly at the different choices these organizations made about when to connect to and distance themselves from these initiatives (when to “bridge” and “buffer”) and the role those choices played in the extent and nature of their own growth and the evolution of the new schools initiatives.

Findings/Conclusion: Even with political support and initiatives that were supposed to provide some freedom to innovate outside conventional constraints, these intermediaries had to find ways to fit within the needs, demands, and values of the school system at that time. At the same time, the intersections in the evolution of these organizations and the wider system also help to explain how they were able to influence the evolution of the policy environment, sustain themselves, and create some new practices, products, and services even as the focus on new school creation subsided.

New and “alternative” schools in New York City have often challenged the structures and practices of conventional education (Pellicano, 1985). After the turn of the 21st century, those efforts took a more systemic turn. New mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, his longest serving chancellor of the Department of Education (DOE), sought to make creating new small high schools and new charter schools a central part of their strategy to “ignite a revolution in New York City’s schools” (Klein, 2011, para. 6). As Bloomberg declared, his goal was to “transform a school system in which half of the students do not graduate from high school in four years” (Bloomberg, 2004). Although Bloomberg and Klein never defined what would constitute “innovation” or systemic “transformation,” their policies and rhetoric repeatedly made clear that they were aiming to go beyond the status quo and to change the education system so profoundly that it could never return to previous practices and structures (Cramer, 2010). Whitmire’s (2016) description of Klein’s efforts in New York City put it this way: Klein “didn’t want mere tinkering; he wanted big change,” and he wanted to make the changes in the educational system in New York City “bulletproof” so that they could resist any efforts to overturn them.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to look back and see some of the ways in which the New York City public school system has and has not changed in the wake of the ambitious reforms in “the nation’s most complex school system” (O’Day et al., 2011). Between 2003 and 2013, more than 550 new public schools were established in New York City (Whitehurst & Whitfield, 2013), with many taking on unconventional structures and practices. More than 200 of these new schools were new small high schools, and more than 150 were charter schools. New small schools created during this period (and city schools as a whole) showed increases in high school graduation rates as well as increases in students’ enrollment and persistence in postsecondary education (Kemple, 2015). Charter school students also showed significant learning gains in terms of outcomes, with about half of New York City charter schools outperforming comparison schools (CREDO, 2017). Overall, high school graduation rates in New York City increased substantially, from 57% for students who started high school in 2002 to 73% for those who started in 2010 (Mirakhur & Hill, 2018).

At the same time, as early as 2011, even Klein conceded that Randi Weingarten (at the time the head of the United Federation of Teachers) had “something of a point” when she declared that he and Bloomberg “had achieved only ‘incremental’ change,” not the radical transformation they had set out to achieve (Klein, 2011). By 2013, new school creation had slowed considerably, and when the new mayor, Bill De Blasio, and his chancellor, Carmen Fariña, took over at the start of 2014, they had already stated their opposition to the expansion of charter schools and reversed many of the Bloomberg administration’s policies that supported the growth of new small schools.

Even with some evidence of improved performance overall, more than 15 years after the launch of the new schools initiatives, test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have shown little or no gains; even with increases in high school graduation rates, only 21% of students who entered high school in 2007 graduated with a credential indicating that they were ready for college-level work (Zimmerman, 2019). Furthermore, more than 10 years after the Bloomberg administration’s launch of the initiatives to close large high schools and replace them with new small schools, a comprehensive evaluation of that initiative explained, “While the reforms of the past decade appear to ‘have lifted all boats,’ the system is still characterized by wide disparities in student outcomes, based on race and socio-economic status” (Kemple, 2015, p. 52).  

Given those results, debates about the “success” of the efforts to create new small schools and new charter schools and the extent to which the system was on the way to transformation have continued (see, for example, Kelleher, 2014). Looked at in terms of the forces and factors that Tyack and Cuban (1995) and others used to explain how efforts to transform schools often end up contributing to more limited “incremental” changes, however, New York City’s mixed results are largely predictable. In this article, we examine the confluence of factors that help to explain how the creation of a substantial number of new small schools and charter schools can contribute to both stability and change in the system overall.


To do so, we focus on the relationships between key actors in the evolution of initiatives to create new small schools and new charter schools in New York City. This historical analysis looks particularly at the extent and nature of the growth of four of the “intermediary” organizations (or “external support providers”) involved in launching small schools or charter schools. In the process, we highlight how these organizations managed to adapt to the changes in the policies of the Bloomberg and De Blasio administrations and, in some cases, to influence the development of those policies at the same time. The intersections in the evolution of these organizations and the wider system help to explain how new practices, products, and structures can develop even as many of the forces that reinforce the conventional grammar of schooling continue to hold sway.



In Tinkering Toward Utopia, Tyack and Cuban (1995) argued that the “grammar of schooling” has persisted for almost a century despite repeated efforts to make ambitious, large-scale changes in the conventional structures and practices of schools. That grammar is reflected in a series of conventional structures and practices, including an “egg-crate” design for school buildings that separates students into different classrooms; grouping students by age to study in discrete subjects aligned to traditional academic disciplines; classroom organization and procedures that foster teacher-directed instruction; and outcomes that require measurement through grades and test scores. As Tyack and Cuban (1995) described it, again and again, reformers claimed that their efforts “would undermine the foundations of the old order and provide the blueprint for a new order in the schools. But this did not happen” (p. 87). At the same time, Tyack and Cuban acknowledged that some changes in schooling occur as part of a reciprocal process in which schools also change reforms, leading new policies and reform initiatives to adapt to, and often conform to, the status quo. This process can produce hybrids—mixes of reform initiatives and conventional practices—but it also leads to slower, more incremental changes than many reform efforts promise.

We extend this work on stability and change in schools by showing how a process of co-construction (Mehan et al., 2010) can contribute to incremental improvements while also creating opportunities for new and unanticipated developments. In this view, “agents at all levels contribute to the policy-making process and that process is characterized by continual interaction among agents and actors within and between levels of the system” (Mehan et al., 2010, p. 100). To explain how the efforts to create new schools in New York City evolved, we unpack this co-construction process by looking particularly at the negotiation and “fit” between the goals, capacity demands, and values in reform proposals, and the common needs, existing capabilities, and values of the key actors in the systems and subsystems targeted by the reforms. These key actors include the students, educators, and parents, and the community, business, and political leaders involved in the schools and school systems that are the subject of the reform proposals. Among these actors, Tyack and Cuban highlighted the important role that “policy elites” play in this process. Who counts as a policy elite changes over time and place, but in general, policy elites include politicians, funders, and business, community, and education leaders who have the political, financial, social, and cultural capital to influence policy and shape reform proposals. These elites play a critical role in launching reform initiatives but have difficulty sustaining them unless those efforts also meet the needs and match the interests of the students, teachers, and parents in the schools and communities where those reforms are supposed to take place.

As Tyack and Cuban (1995) demonstrated, a reform proposal like the Carnegie unit could be adopted on a wide scale because it solved a problem for both students and schools, and the policy elites and other reformers who developed the proposals. Policy elites at the time included a “group unified by shared values and training” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 17), consisting of leading education administrators, higher education leaders, and businessmen and philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie. The Carnegie unit met the needs of these policy elites because it provided a consistent way of determining what “counted” as an adequate preparation for college. At the same time, that metric also made it possible for schools and students to know whether they were providing or receiving adequate high school preparation.

Even reform proposals that match the needs and values of elites and key actors “on the ground,” however, only find their way into widespread use if key actors have the capacity to carry them out. Capacity depends on the availability of the materials, expertise, and relationships needed to reach a particular goal, such as improving student learning (Hatch, 2013). From this perspective, reforms like the Carnegie unit could spread because schools had the capacity to develop mechanisms to assess and monitor how much time students were spending in different subjects; schools did not have to make substantial changes to the design or operation of courses or in the way that teachers taught their classes. In contrast, those reforms that depend on changing beliefs and long-standing instructional practices may be much more difficult to establish on a wide scale; implementation demands new knowledge and changes in beliefs that depend on the development of new materials and preparation and professional development activities and other supports that are not easily or quickly produced (Cohen & Mehta, 2017; Hatch et al., 2021). Finally, a match between the values reflected in the reform proposals and the values in the local community and society as a whole also supports wide adoption. For example, the adoption of the Carnegie unit benefitted from the embrace of efficiency and standardization in education that was sweeping through many sectors of society in a rapidly industrializing nation.

Several critical considerations influence the match between reform proposals and needs, capabilities, and values of key actors and contribute to the difficulties in making substantial changes in conventional practices and structurers. First, there are many different key actors, and even policy elites frequently disagree about goals, strategies, and values. Parents, students, and teachers all have different needs and goals, and those “on the ground” in schools often include both those who support and those who resist reform proposals (Hatch, 1998). These differences mean that the “match” between reform proposals and local actors is subject to constant negotiations that contribute to adaptations, the emergence of hybrids, and incremental rather than widespread radical change.

Second, as Cohen and Mehta (2017) noted, the needs, values, and capacities differ not only among key actors, but also in different regions and “bounded” subsystems. As a consequence, some alternative approaches (e.g., Montessori schools; Advanced Placement programs) can take off if they meet the needs of particular subgroups. However, these developments in subsystems, or what we call “niches” within the larger education system, do not change many of the broader structures and conditions that sustain conventional school practices and produce inequitable opportunities and outcomes. The subsystems and niches in which key educational actors operate are a part of a whole set of interconnected systems—district, state, and federal education systems, and “quasi-systems” such as groups of education providers, universities, and others that stretch beyond education. The need to fit with prevailing needs, values, and capabilities among the different actors in all these systems exerts a stabilizing and conservative force.

Third, rapidly changing policies (“policy churn”) in education and a turbulent environment with unpredictable changes in economic, social, and cultural conditions serve as another conservative force that sustains conventional practices. Along with the interconnected nature of schooling and other aspects of society, this policy churn supports the exploitation of conventional practices over the exploration and development of new ones, even as it allows for the emergence of unconventional approaches in niches (March, 1991). In turbulent conditions, for example, it seems reasonable to focus on increasing the efficiency of current practices that appear to be working rather than to invest in exploring new ideas that may or may not be productive.

This tendency to favor exploitation over exploration reflects a basic dilemma of organizational development: The demands for increasing efficiency and improving performance in the short term are substantially different from those needed for making and sustaining radical changes over the long term (Garud & Ahlstrom, 1997; Herriott et al., 1985). In education in particular, key aspects of the grammar of schooling, such as the focus on testable, academic outcomes in traditional subjects, encourage schools and related organizations to concentrate on making existing operations and routines more efficient rather than pursuing more radical alternatives. Ultimately, these organizational and environmental pressures discourage organizations from taking the kinds of risks that can lead to new discoveries and transformative changes (March, 1991; Levitt & March, 1988).


In this article, we extend the examination of the fit between the goals, capabilities, and values of key actors involved in ambitious educational reform proposals by highlighting the role that intermediary organizations have played in the development of new schools in New York City. Intermediaries include not-for-profit and for-profit organizations that offer a wide variety of resources and services for schools and school systems to help them improve their performance (Datnow & Honig, 2008). These organizations are referred to as “intermediaries” because they help to facilitate sharing and development of resources and expertise by connecting schools with researchers, policy makers, and other individuals and organizations that operate outside schools (Honig, 2009; Kerr et. al., 2006). Intermediary organizations serve all sorts of functions in education, but the intermediaries that are the focus of this analysis began by establishing one school or a small set of new schools before developing the resources and capacity to manage larger networks of schools that included small schools, charter schools, or both.

Intermediary organizations were not a focus of Tyack and Cuban’s analysis when Tinkering Toward Utopia was published in 1995, but they were in the midst of a period of rapid growth in the 1990s (Hatch, 2001). This growth was fueled by federal policies and the emergence of the small schools and charter school movements across the country, which relied on intermediaries to help schools develop the capacity to implement new school models and a wide range of new structures and practices. In particular, the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s provided funding that helped to establish intermediaries, such as New Visions and NYC Outward Bound, involved in the creation of new small school in New York City and nationally. Although the new small schools pursued many different instructional approaches, they sought to provide more “personalized” environments with lower student-to-teacher ratios and greater opportunities for teachers to get to know their students (Sizer, 2004). Following the opening of the first charter school in Minnesota in 1992, the charter school movement also expanded. Although many of the earliest charter schools were independent “mom and pop” organizations, intermediaries such as KIPP and Achievement First, which operated networks of charter schools, soon emerged. These intermediaries grew out of the success that their founders achieved with the launch of their first schools. The attention and funding that followed allowed them to begin replicating their charter school models around the country.

On the one hand, intermediary organizations could be viewed as members of the policy elites who provide them with access to funding and other forms of capital. On the other hand, each intermediary has its own goals, interests, and values that may or may not match those of its funders or the dominant policy elites. We treat intermediaries as distinct actors and focus on the choices that intermediaries make about when “bridge” and “buffer” are part of their evolution (Honig & Hatch, 2004). Bridging occurs when organizations strive to advance their goals by selectively engaging with the demands in the surrounding environment and creating opportunities to access resources, to influence the development of policies, and to shape the terms of compliance. In contrast, organizations buffer to advance their goals by ignoring some external demands. In turn, buffering can protect organizations from negative feedback and other pressures that can discourage them for pursuing their own goals and practices. These choices about when to engage and when to ignore external demands are critical elements of the process of co-construction that helps to explain how the initiatives to support new small schools and new public charter schools played out in New York City. These choices show how these intermediaries managed to survive—and, in some cases, grow—and contributed to the development of new tools, resources, and organizations even as the interest in transforming the entire system through new school creation came and went.



We conducted a historical analysis to explore the relationship between the evolution of the four intermediary organizations and the evolution of new small schools and new public charter schools in New York City. Given that one recent analysis found more than 100 different intermediaries at work in New York City (only counting those focused on improving reading outcomes in primary schools; Hatch et al., 2019), selecting a representative sample of intermediaries goes beyond the scope of this analysis. Instead, we chose to focus on four intermediaries well-known in the New York City context. As Table 1 shows, New Visions, NYC Outward Bound, Achievement First, and Ascend Public Charter Schools reflected key aspects of the new schools initiatives of the Bloomberg administration. First, reflecting the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to stimulate the development of new “alternative” schools within the public system and within the charter sector, two intermediaries focus on new small schools (New Visions and NYC Outward Bound), and two focus on charter schools (Achievement First and Ascend). Second, because the new school initiatives embraced many different kinds of schools and school networks of different sizes, we selected intermediaries that supported different kinds of instructional approaches and were of different sizes: two intermediaries that grew to operate larger numbers of schools (New Visions and Achievement First) and two intermediaries that were still relatively small in 2013 when Bloomberg left office (NYC Outward Bound and Ascend). Third, given the aim for long-term systemic impact, we focused on organizations that had all been in existence for at least five years, with some evidence of success more than a decade after the significant expansions of new small schools and charter schools in the city that began after Bloomberg took office in 2003.

Table 1. Growth and Approach of Selected Intermediaries




New Visions

Launched 75 new small schools by 2005; expanded to manage a network of 300 new and existing schools by 2010; operates a network of 77 schools by 2016

Schools commit to ambitious, rigorous instruction; student-centered learning; effective organizational management; and school–community partnerships

NYC Outward Bound

Opened 1 school by 2000; launched network of 4 schools in 2004;

Grew to 11 schools by 2010 and 13 schools and dozens of “associate schools” by 2016

Focus on developing deep understanding of content, positive character, and high-quality work through learning expeditions, collaborative projects, formative assessments, and exhibitions

Achievement First (Charter Schools)

Began with 1 charter school in New Haven CT in 1998; opened 4 charter schools in NYC by 2006; expanded to 9 schools in NYC by 2010; grew into a regional network with 32 charter schools, 19 in NYC by 2016

Focus on generating high levels of student achievement and a “rigorous” and “relentless” commitment to high academic and behavioral expectations

Ascend Public Charter Schools

Opened first charter school in Brooklyn in 2008; expanded to 3 schools by 2010; By 2020, they had a network of 15 charter schools in Brooklyn

Begins with a focus on results and a “no excuses” approach; shifts to a Common Core-aligned liberal arts, college-preparatory curriculum

To carry out this analysis, we reviewed research literature and local media descriptions of educational policy and policy changes in New York City since 2001; collected and reviewed publicly available documents produced by each organization; and conducted semistructured interviews with three to five key members of each organization and four local experts knowledgeable about the small schools and charter schools movements in New York City. Interviews explored the evolution of goals, demands, and values of the new school initiatives and emerging capabilities, and values of the four organizations. We looked particularly for convergence and conflict in goals and approaches of these intermediaries and the initiatives of the Bloomberg and De Blasio administrations, and for instances in which the intermediaries took steps to connect to (bridge) or distance (buffer) themselves from the initiatives and support of the DOE. Given this focus, this analysis is not meant as an evaluation of the original intentions of these intermediaries or of the policies of the Bloomberg or De Blasio administrations. Instead, this analysis illustrates the role of intermediaries in the co-construction of educational reform efforts and shows how this interaction can contribute to new developments within some networks or niches and to stability and change in education systems overall.

In the remainder of this article, we first describe key developments in the education policies during the three terms of the Bloomberg administration and the first years of the De Blasio administration, and the ways that many of those policies interacted with the work of the intermediaries. Second, we outline the ways in which the intermediaries responded to some of the major changes and demands in the policy environment and the role those choices played in their own evolution, particularly their choices about how big to grow their networks and how quickly. We then examine how the choices made by each of the organizations enabled all of them to develop a variety of new products and services for their own schools and others (and new sources of revenue), even as the push for the creation of new schools and new school models began to wane.


By the time Bloomberg became mayor in January 2002, the stage was already set for the expansion of efforts to develop new schools in New York City. First, Bloomberg’s goal of transforming the education system through developing new schools meshed with those of the small school and charter school movements that emerged in the 1990s. Those movements shared a theory of action that grew out of a dissatisfaction with the perceived failures of earlier reform efforts that often relied on changes in one aspect of schooling at a time. That theory suggested instead that improving the performance of schools in the United States on a large scale depended on wholesale school “restructuring” and developing new school models that could make comprehensive changes in many aspects of conventional school operations at once (Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986). Bloomberg’s beliefs in the power of entrepreneurship and disdain for bureaucracy also fit right in with the reliance of

both small schools and charter school advocates on gaining autonomy and freedom from burdensome bureaucratic regulations as a key strategy for making those wholesale changes (see for example, Kolderie, 1990; Sizer & Wood, 2009).

Second, intermediaries such as New Visions and NYC Outward Bound had already developed in New York City in the 1990s. Individual charter schools were also beginning to gain a foothold, with 18 already in operation in New York City by the fall of 2002. Third, the administration leveraged policy elites who shared Bloomberg’s beliefs in innovation and accountability. Several, including the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, made substantial investments that helped to build the capacity for creating and spreading small schools and charter schools across the country and in New York City.

In short, as a successful businessman, a deep-pocketed philanthropist, and then leader of the largest urban school system in the United States, Bloomberg represented a “trifecta” of the policy elites central to Tyack and Cuban’s analysis of educational change. Bloomberg, however, was also able to use the power of the mayor’s office to bring the goals and values of those policy elites to public policy, and he had the growing capabilities of new small school and charter school intermediaries to build on. These initial conditions set the stage for the Bloomberg administration’s ambitious initiatives and the explosive growth in new schools that followed.


Developing an Infrastructure to Launch New Small Schools and Charter Schools (2002–2005)

In the fall of 2003, Klein and his colleagues at the DOE took the first steps that signaled their belief that creating large numbers of new small schools would be critical to transforming schooling in New York City. First, the DOE announced a commitment “to increase quality options for students in underserved areas” by closing 16 large high schools with low graduation rates and replacing them with 150 new small high schools (Partnership for New York City, 2005). Reflecting the intertwining of Bloomberg’s education initiatives and the existing small schools movement, this new small high schools initiative built expressly on the work of the New Century High School Consortium. That consortium, funded by the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Open Society Institute and administered by New Visions, was already involved in starting a number of new high schools in the city. As Bob Hughes (then president of New Visions) recalled, Klein’s initial invitation came when they met for the first time at the opening of one of New Century’s small high schools in 2002: “It’s a beautiful day and he sees what we’re doing,” recalled Hughes, who had taken the top job at New Visions in 2000, “and he turns to me and he says, ‘Can you create 200 more of these?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ because you always say ‘Yes’ to the new chancellor” (Meyer, 2015, para. 15). Although this might have been a spur-of-the-moment agreement, it was a crucial bridging choice by Hughes that positioned New Visions to be a partner that would engage with the administration’s demands; New Visions would also benefit from government funding and be put it in a position to shape subsequent policies.

In turn, the DOE significantly expanded New York City’s infrastructure for new school creation by establishing the Office of New Schools in 2004. This office supported the establishment of new schools of all kinds (though with an application process and criteria that favored the creation of small schools) and offered technical assistance to those who sought to open and run these schools. That initiative also benefitted from the match between the Bloomberg administration’s goals and values, and those of local and national policy elites. In fact, the Office of New Schools was launched as a public–private partnership supported in part by $100 million from philanthropists, foundations, and private companies. Together, these partners shared the hope that these new schools would create new models for schooling, spurring innovation across the city (Kelleher, 2014).

Just as the Bloomberg administration took advantage of the efforts to create new small schools, it also sought to use the work of successful charter school operators to build the capacity for new school creation. Charter advocates found out about the Bloomberg administration’s interest in supporting new charter schools in the fall of 2002, on the second day of a meeting of the operators and funders of the first wave of charter schools in the city. James Merriman, then at the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York, remembered Klein’s appearance as “a bit of an odd thing.” “The first day we looked at where we had come since the charter law [in New York] was passed in ‘98 and the first schools were opened in ’99,” he explained. “While it was clear there was this burst of enthusiasm, there weren’t that many high-quality operators, and the lack of access to facilities either by way of rental assistance or in-kind rental assistance was a critical problem.” Then Klein joined the conversation. “Klein came and made clear that chartering was an important part of what they were going to do, and there was space in district buildings and, in his view, rent for that space should be paid in terms of those who could support student achievement.”

Klein followed up by inviting the leaders of charter networks with a record of raising student achievement to expand into New York City. Doug McCurry, cofounder of Achievement First, one of Klein’s early invitees, explained, “Klein wanted high-performing charters and wanted them to grow. I think that’s an obvious, but perhaps not obvious to everyone, strategy: Figure out the people who are getting results, and have them come work in your system.”

Responding to some of these leaders’ concerns about the challenges of opening and running charter schools in the city, Klein provided assurances that he would make conditions amenable to charter expansion (Klein, 2014). Klein and his colleagues at the NYC DOE then made good on that promise by developing a Charter School Initiative in 2003. That initiative relied on the fact that New York State’s Charter Schools Act of 1998 granted the chancellor of the NYC DOE (along with the State University of New York and the Board of Regents) the power to authorize charter schools. Using that power, the NYC DOE sought to create a context in which charter operators could open 50 new schools at the K–8 level. The initiative aimed to “to introduce innovative, high-quality educational alternatives, primarily for students from low-income, high-need communities, and to create healthy competition that will have the effect of improving all public schools” (Partnership for New York City, 2005, p. 27). Klein and colleagues also championed charter schools as another key mechanism for developing innovations that could spread and help transform the educational system in New York City. As Klein put it, “I wanted to make New York the Silicon Valley for charter schools” (quoted in Whitmire, 2016, para. 2).

To create that context, the Charter School Initiative provided rent-free facilities for co-located charter schools and construction assistance for charters in private facilities, and streamlined charter school oversight. The Charter School Initiative also contributed to the infrastructure for charter expansion by committing to the development of the NYC Center for Charter School Excellence (now the NYC Charter School Center), a complement to the Office of New Schools. Much like the Office of New Schools, elite donors seeded the NYC Charter School Center with more than $40 million to provide start-up and technical assistance grants and facilitate charter school networking and sharing of “industrywide” solutions.

Expanding New Schools and Supporting “Autonomy” (2005–2010)

Just a few years after the DOE began its efforts to create large numbers of new schools, Bloomberg and Klein launched Children First, a series of major initiatives to restructure the public schools under their control (see O’Day et al., 2011). Among these initiatives, by 2006, the DOE turned the whole system into an “empowerment zone,” giving principals autonomy over key aspects of budgeting, hiring, and instruction. The DOE also dismantled its own infrastructure for supervising and managing schools by shifting authority so that principals no longer reported to superintendents. Instead, the DOE put in place a series of network arrangements that culminated in 2010 in the organization of all schools into 55 “Children First Networks,” in which schools could solicit services from a wide range of support organizations (Fruchter et al., 2015). To hold schools accountable, the DOE also created school progress reports based largely on students’ standardized test scores and boiled down into a single A–F letter grade. Altogether, the DOE gave schools and principals autonomy in return for accountability and sought to create a competitive environment in which support organizations had to attract schools that would pay for their services. This effort was designed expressly to “turn the system on its head” (Childress et. al. 2011, p. 90). A crucial part of this autonomy for accountability “bargain,” however, meant that the DOE could use failing grades to close those schools it felt were not making adequate improvements.

Once again, these developments at the DOE benefitted from explicit efforts by the Bloomberg administration to connect to and build on the work of the intermediaries. In particular, Klein expanded the relationship between the small schools’ work, the DOE, and the funding community by hiring Michelle Cahill, a founder of the New Century High Schools work, and Eric Nadelstern, founding principal of a pioneering small high school, as senior members of the Children First leadership team. Sometimes referred to as “pulling the environment in,” this bridging effort helps to align the interests and increase the collective capacity of key actors (Honig & Hatch, 2004).

The success of intermediaries such as New Visions and NYC Outward Bound in getting new small schools up and running early in the 2000s may also have helped Bloomberg and Klein develop the “existence proofs” and political capital they needed to pursue such an ambitious agenda. In the New Centuries work, New Visions garnered the support of the two most powerful education unions in the city—the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of Supervisors and Administrators—and required the new schools they worked with to have local community partners. In the process, New Visions forged alliances with key “on the ground” actors, and many new schools were able to open despite considerable opposition from many community groups and others who viewed the rapid and unilateral changes and the DOE’s decisions about which large high schools to close as undemocratic and unresponsive to local input (Fruchter et al., 2015).

To build the charter sector, the Bloomberg administration relied on private funders, the Charter School Center, and the expansion efforts of intermediaries such as Achievement First and, later, Ascend. For the charter intermediaries, however, close association with the Bloomberg administration was something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they benefitted from the Bloomberg administration’s assistance in finding space in New York City public schools. On the other hand, when charter schools accepted assistance, they often encountered community resistance to the top-down ways that the Bloomberg administration made those decisions. The contentious process of finding space for charters also fueled their political opponents who constantly lobbied the legislature to limit the growth of charter schools.

Another convergence of interests helped to withstand this opposition, however. Because charter schools were developing outside of the NYC DOE’s regular reporting structures, they were somewhat divorced from the massive changes of Children First. Nonetheless, the DOE used its newly developed progress reports and letter grades to evaluate charter schools and “regular” public schools. Many in the charter sector welcomed this move because it fit with their own focus on producing high test scores and their embrace of principles of performance management. They also used the results of the progress reports to publicly highlight high levels of performance of many charter schools in comparison with comparable schools (Merriman, 2012). These public demonstrations of success in turn bolstered political support for charter schools. Within this context, the Bloomberg administration and the charter operators, their funders, and their students and families were able to encourage the New York State Legislature to double the cap from 50 to 100 charter schools in 2007, and then to double the cap again in 2010. With those increases in the caps, 99 new charter schools were able to open in New York City by 2010 (Winters, 2018).

From a Focus on New School Creation to School Partnerships (2010–2015)

The support for new schools, the expansion of the empowerment zone, and the establishment of the charter sector effectively turned what had been “protected niches” for a small group of new and entrepreneurial schools into systemwide conditions for new school creation. Those conditions remained largely in effect during Bloomberg’s third and final term, which began in 2009. By the time Bloomberg’s term ended in 2013, however, mayor-elect De Blasio had already made clear his desire to address the education “status quo”—except this time, the status quo was represented by the Bloomberg administration’s focus on closing failing schools and opening new ones, on increasing accountability, and on supporting charter schools. Where Bloomberg and Klein’s goals and strategies suggested that schools could be improved by granting them autonomy, holding them accountable, and closing those that did not improve, De Blasio and Chancellor Fariña adopted policies that reflected a belief that even struggling schools can be improved with appropriate assistance and supervision. Instead of closing schools and opening new ones, the DOE under Fariña created a “Renewal Schools” program that allocated more than $90 million to support 94 of the lowest performing schools. As a centerpiece of those efforts, the De Blasio administration shifted to supporting networking and partnerships between higher- and lower performing schools. To support that move, the Office of New Schools was reorganized into the Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships and no longer took applications for new schools. Further, the DOE phased out the progress reports and reestablished much of the authority of superintendents by putting them in charge of redrawn districts. While principals retained control over budgets and hiring for the most part, the network structure was disbanded. However, the DOE allowed the formation of some “affinity groups”—schools and networks linked by values and identities not geography—that continued to operate relatively independently from the districts.

Although De Blasio and Fariña openly argued against many of the policies and practices supporting charter schools established by Bloomberg and Klein, local operators, the families served by charter schools, and elites like private funders and business leaders proved to be a powerful coalition. Their support contributed to the passage of a new state law that required New York City to help charter schools pay for private space, however, in something of a compromise, that law also froze per-pupil public funding for charter schools. In 2015, the cap on charter schools in NYC was lifted entirely, although the total number of charters that could be authorized by the state was capped at 460. Consequently, the growth of new charter schools continued at about the same pace. By 2017, the number of charter schools operating in New York City had grown to 216, with 29 others approved but only 30 more charters available under the cap (Winters, 2018).


The Bloomberg administration’s investment in developing the infrastructure for new school creation fueled the growth of New Visions, NYC Outward Bound, and a variety of other new and existing intermediaries. For New Visions and NYC Outward Bound, the nature of that growth reflected critical choices about when and how to engage with the Bloomberg administration and their policies. On the one hand, New Visions embraced some of the same goals and values related to innovation and performance, pursued a number of bridging strategies, and morphed from an “incubator” of new small schools into a “network provider” that at one point supported a group of more than 300 new and existing schools. On the other hand, NYC Outward Bound, with some overlap in goals but an alternative instructional approach, concentrated on buffering and on opening and sustaining a small group of 13 schools over the same period.

New Visions: From New School Incubator to Network Leader

Early on, New Visions’ goals focused on creating new schools (particularly high schools), highlighting “disciplined innovation” and to use “continuous data-driven feedback” (Foley et al., 2007, pp. 3–4). Furthermore, New Visions chose not to endorse a particular instructional approach for its schools, but it did establish some expectations for all its schools; these included a shared commitment to promoting ambitious, rigorous instruction; supporting student-centered learning environments; and using a variety of measures, including test scores, to benchmark the development of their schools (New Visions for Public Schools, 2007). That approach meshed well with the Bloomberg administration’s focus on performance management, data-based decision-making, and raising test scores and graduation rates. Under these conditions, New Visions supported the development of 75 New Century High Schools by 2005 (Foley et al., 2007).

The Bloomberg administration’s subsequent efforts to create the empowerment zone and establish a new competitive marketplace for school support organizations gave intermediaries like New Visions an unanticipated opportunity to pursue a new revenue stream. New Visions’ openness and encouragement for schools to pursue their own themes and instructional philosophies positioned it well to become a network provider for a much larger group of schools. New Visions chose to take advantage of this opportunity to become a network provider, under contract with the New York City DOE, that could market its services directly to both new and existing schools. New Visions no longer had to rely as much on funding from private philanthropy, but it did have to develop its capacity to help improve and “turn around” schools, not just start new ones. New Visions also had to adapt to the use of the new progress reports as a public measure of the success of each of its schools and its overall network, but it also sought to “shape the terms of compliance”—another key means of connecting to and influencing external demands (Honig & Hatch, 2004). To do so, New Visions drew on support from its elite funders and used its power as a large network advocate for changes to the progress reports that would better fit the wide variety of instructional approaches its schools pursued (see for example, Corcoran & Pai, 2013).

In 2013, with the De Blasio administration’s decision to abandon Bloomberg’s network structure, New Visions faced another crossroads. Rather than continue to try to open more schools and try to fund and support a large network, New Visions chose to shrink and focus on expanding its offerings of services and resources to a smaller group of 77 schools that recommitted to working with New Visions. In conjunction with several other network providers, New Visions was able to advocate for the conversion of this smaller network into one of the “affinity groups” that the De Blasio administration allowed to operate somewhat more independently.

New Visions then concentrated on expanding its infrastructure to support that network by developing:

An urban teacher preparation “residency” program for both public schools and charter schools

A two-year master’s program for school and district leaders

A program for coaching assistant principals

A curriculum for core high school courses

Support for the design and implementation of intensive literacy instruction

Software applications and tools to improve administration and scheduling

A data system for monitoring performance and supporting continuous improvement

Many of these resources were made freely available to schools outside their network. Notably, the data system they developed was later adopted by the NYC DOE for use with all the city’s high schools.

NYC Outward Bound: From Adventures in the Wilderness to Learning Expeditions in Schools

New York City Outward Bound also grew, though at a much slower pace. The choice to grow slowly reflected the ways in which NYC Outward Bound’s goals and values overlapped with and differed from the Bloomberg administration, as well as the challenges in developing the capacity to carry out an alternative instructional approach. NYC Outward Bound’s goals at the time—to “play a significant role in helping to transform the educational landscape in New York City”—echoed key goals of New Visions and the DOE (NYC Outward Bound, n.d.). NYC Outward Bound, however, adopted a specific set of student learning goals—developing a deep understanding of content, positive character, and high-quality work—and an alternative approach to instruction and assessment that grew out of a wilderness education program developed by the national organization Outward Bound in the 1940s. Learning Expeditions—large-scale projects in which students work collaboratively over a period of several months to explore real-world problems through both classroom work and fieldwork outside school—serve as the centerpiece of that approach. The expeditions rely on formative assessments and culminate in exhibitions, products, or performances that demonstrate what students have learned. In 2004, NYC Outward Bound used seed funding from the Gates Foundation and the support offered by the Office of New Schools to expand from working with one Expeditionary Learning school to launch its own network of four schools. In 2010, it had expanded that network to nine schools, and it opened its last two network schools by 2016. In contrast to New Visions, however, NYC Outward Bound decided not to become a network provider. Instead, NYC Outward Bound sought to build its own capacity to deepen and sustain an alternative instructional approach that was at odds with the Bloomberg administration’s rising demands for accountability and focus on test scores.

To build its capacity and to create a somewhat protected niche, NYC Outward Bound chose to affiliate itself with other schools and organizations that had similar philosophies and learning goals. For example, NYC Outward Bound joined the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which provided some of its schools with a waiver from some of New York State’s exam and assessment requirements. Although its schools were still subject to the NYC DOE’s progress reports, the small size of the network, the popularity of the NYC Outward Bound schools, its success reflected in indicators such as high graduation rates, and its alliances all helped to provide some protection and a “buffer” from the demands and requirements of the NYC DOE and New York State. To deal with the shift back to a superintendent structure after De Blasio took office and maintain their somewhat protected status, NYC Outward Bound schools leveraged their success and community support to establish an “affinity group” with other schools that relied on student-centered learning and alternative assessment approaches.

Like New Visions, NYC Outward Bound also shifted its focus away from opening new schools; instead, it looked for ways to deepen its work and expand its influence beyond its own network. In particular, NYC Outward Bound sought to improve its graduates’ persistence in college by developing a “to and through” college program that offered coaching and advisement from its alumni. In 2014, it also began working with number of “associate schools” by “unbundling” its services (what one interviewee described as “pulling the strands apart”), which opened a new source of revenue. By 2020, NYC Outward Bound was serving more than 40 associate schools that were using these resources and professional development services to implement particular aspects of the Outward Bound approach without having to start a new school or pursue comprehensive, whole-sale school transformation.


The initial work on charter schools in New York City set the stage for Klein and his colleagues to expand the political support, funding, and infrastructure for charter school creation; that infrastructure enabled leading charter operators like Achievement First and, later, Ascend to significantly expand their own networks. Although Achievement First and Ascend technically operated “outside” many of the regulations of the DOE, their choices about how closely to align themselves with the Bloomberg administration allowed them to develop their networks in different ways. Achievement First established a large regional charter network by connecting directly with Klein and taking advantage of supports for charter schools that the DOE offered, but Ascend built a smaller, local network by opting for more of a buffering approach that did not rely on DOE supports. In turn, the success of both intermediaries, and that of some other charter operators, achieving relatively good outcomes on conventional measures of performance helped to develop and sustain political support even after De Blasio took over.

Achievement First: From Amistad Academy to a Regional Network

Achievement First was a particularly good partner for Bloomberg and Klein because their goals and values fit well with the Bloomberg administration’s belief in performance management. Launched initially as Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1998 by Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry, Achievement First set out “to prove that urban students can achieve at the same high levels as their affluent suburban counterparts.” When Klein offered them the opportunity to expand into New York City, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse. As a case study of Achievement First’s development put it, “Klein offered Achievement First everything that they wanted from the City of New Haven but couldn’t have: a facility, charter status, over $10,500 in funding per student, and personal support from the Chancellor of Schools” (Ahmed et al., 2007 p. 10).

As Achievement First expanded, however, its growth was threatened by increasing competition in the charter market in New York City and the constant threat that the legislature would continue to limit the number of charters. In response, Achievement First began to focus on building the infrastructure to support an expanding network One key step, McCurry explained, was to focus on “growing and developing people” through a collaboration that established a teacher talent pipeline expressly for Achievement First, as well as KIPP and Uncommon Schools, two similar charter management organizations. In 2007, that collaboration launched what eventually became the Relay Graduate School of Education, which created a teacher certification program aligned to the charters’ instructional approaches. In addition, Achievement First began to develop key products and services such as a custom-built interim assessment program, a performance management system for teachers, and formalized a coaching scope and sequence to help its teachers master that system. With these moves, like NYC Outward Bound, Achievement First was able to build its capacity to manage its instructional approach across a growing regional network and to limit its reliance on external resources and support—for example, “suspend ties to their environment” (Honig & Hatch, 2004, p. 24).

In contrast to New Visions and NYC Outward Bound, however, Achievement First continued to expand its networks even after De Blasio took office. In fact, by 2016, Achievement First had grown to serving 11,000 students, a number bigger than 95% of U.S. school districts and that Toll and McCurry had envisioned as a “proofpoint” that their school model could work at scale. Achievement First also continued investing in developing the infrastructure to sustain its network, which, as McCurry explained in 2016, allowed “[us to] change our theory a little bit.” Those changes included making sharing and learning from others outside its network a core tenet in Achievement First’s strategy. With that shift, Achievement First joined in partnerships with New York City public schools as part of De Blasio and Fariña’s effort to link higher and lower-performing schools and support the sharing of “best practices” among them, despite De Blasio’s anticharter rhetoric.

Ascend Public Charter Schools: The Emergence of a Neighborhood Network

Ascend started later than Achievement First and grew more slowly. Beginning with one school in 2008, Steven Wilson established Ascend to demonstrate that high achievement for underserved students can happen at or below the average per-pupil costs in New York City. Wilson’s belief that “applying the rigors of business management to schools would generate sharply better results” fit well with the Bloomberg administration’s embrace of performance management. Ascend also benefited from the political support for charters in New York City. At the same time, Wilson also explicitly set out to develop Ascend’s charter schools in one neighborhood (Brownsville, Brooklyn) where they would not have to rely too much on support from the Bloomberg administration. By focusing on an area with many underperforming public schools and without many other charter schools, Ascend saw itself as filling a niche and meeting the needs of families in the neighborhood. Having witnessed the opposition that many charter schools faced when the NYC DOE co-located them in public school buildings, Ascend also figured out a way to take advantage of tax credits and investment funds from community development financial institutions to find and renovate spaces in private buildings. Along with the flexibility granted to charters to operate outside many of the DOE’s construction requirements, these arrangements enabled Ascend to tailor these spaces to their own specifications. This, Wilson suggested, was “a very cost-effective way of creating new high-quality seats in overcrowded markets like New York City.”

Ascend also licensed the curriculum, assessments, and information systems of SABIS, a global network of schools. Consistent with some of the same goals embraced by the Bloomberg administration, the SABIS curriculum focused on “essential knowledge,” direct instruction, and monitoring student mastery on conventional standardized tests. In addition, Ascend adopted the same “no excuses” philosophy to student discipline relied on by other charters, including Achievement First (Wilson, 2019). By deciding to import this instructional infrastructure—rather than develop its own—Ascend was able to focus on key operational issues such as securing grants and finding appropriate facilities.

All these moves enabled Ascend to operate in a somewhat protected niche within the charter market in New York City. Within this context, Ascend demonstrated some success by 2011–2012, with more than 60% of its students demonstrating proficiency in both ELA and math—almost twice as high as other public schools in the surrounding area—and gained community support relatively quickly (NYC DOE, 2013). Despite these results, growing concerns about the “no excuses” approach and the intense academic focus of many charters both inside and outside their network threatened their growth. Internally, some teachers and leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with the packaged SABIS curriculum and what they perceived as a stifling school culture. In response, Ascend chose to jettison the SABIS curriculum, limit its reliance on external providers, and build its internal capacity to replicate its new approach.

To build a more positive school culture, Ascend abandoned the “no excuses” discipline policy and adopted the Responsive Classroom approach, which emphasizes community development and social-emotional growth. Wilson explained that required them to send staff out to Responsive Classroom trainings initially, but those staff members then led the development of their own “in-house” training to make the approach more sustainable. Like Achievement First, Ascend also sought to address the challenges of retaining teachers and school leaders that many charter schools faced by establishing their own “pipeline” for hiring by creating teacher fellowship and leadership programs.

To replace the SABIS curriculum, Ascend also set out to create its own “liberal arts” curriculum, explicitly designed to appeal to families looking for a college-preparatory education and to align with the Common Core. This decision to shift to focus on the looming Common Core standards meant that Ascend was already prepared to implement its new liberal arts approach right after its scores on the New York State tests plummeted in 2013—the same year that New York State implemented new Common Core-aligned tests. With these changes, by 2016, Ascend had expanded to nine schools serving Grades K–9 with plans to add six more schools, including a high school; the percentage of suspensions dropped by 24% in its lower schools and 48% in its middle schools, and its performance on state tests outpaced that of neighborhood schools.


Although new small schools and new charter schools expanded rapidly in the 2000s in New York City, by 2015, policies had shifted from a focus on creating new schools to improving existing schools. Under these conditions, New Visions and NYC Outward Bound stopped creating new schools, and all four intermediaries began focusing more and more attention on developing their own resources and services. In turn, sharing those resources and services provided new ways for these intermediaries to expand their influence among schools that did not adopt all aspects of their comprehensive models and, in some cases, enabled them to develop new sources of revenue.

In the process, despite some “autonomy,” the development of these intermediaries depended on their efforts to manage their relationship with the DOE and other key actors. New Visions and Achievement First’s choices to take up the opportunities offered by Klein and the DOE subjected them to demands and expectations they might not otherwise have faced; however, those decisions also put them in a position to have a wider impact on the DOE and the system as a whole. NYC Outward Bound and Ascend, in contrast, focused more on buffering— taking actions that protected them from or limited their interaction with the DOE. Where Achievement First and New Visions were able to build large networks relatively rapidly, Ascend and NYC Outward proceeded more slowly within their (somewhat) protected spaces.

Whatever their choices, as they evolved, all four intermediaries created a variety of new resources and practices that could be considered “innovative” in the sense that they were new contributions to the schools and education systems in New York City. New Visions new administrative software was adopted by the DOE to facilitate scheduling and tracking of students’ progress. These tools met the needs of school leaders who for years had been left without useful information about who was on track for graduation, and they fit well with the values of continuous improvement and data use embraced by many funders and policy makers. Ultimately, New Visions expanded those tools into a comprehensive data portal that (as of 2020) the DOE made available to all New York City high schools. Where New Visions’ staff once focused on creating new schools, they now have a unit of almost 30 people dedicated to tool creation. NYC Outward Bound’s new “to and through” college program addressed a challenge its own graduates faced, but now provides a model for addressing the growing concern with college completion among policy makers, funders, and the broader public. Achievement First joined in the founding of the Relay Graduate School of Education to address a shared need among many charter providers for establishing a pipeline of capable teachers aligned to their approaches. Relay now prepares teachers and leaders for all kinds of schools, not just select charters, and serves as a model for a whole new sector of alternative preparation programs that have grown around the country. Ascend’s approach to locating in private facilities provides a workaround for many charters facing the problem of finding space. In the process, all these organizations are contributing to the development of the infrastructure of materials, management resources, professional development activities, and supply chains that can support improvement in their own schools and schools more broadly in the future.

These kinds of organization–environment interactions produce what can be seen as “joint accomplishments of actors who are participants in different social practices, not simply products of policy makers working in isolation from educators” (Mehan et al., 2010, p. 99). Metaphorically drawing from a debate in evolutionary biology, we describe these accomplishments as “spandrels” that result from unanticipated or unintended consequences of a design or plan (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). For example, New Visions’ decision to become a network provider meant that it had to develop the means and mechanisms for addressing the concerns and problems of conventional schools. As Mark Dunetz, New Visions’ current president, described the work at the time, this decision created a “laboratory for doing deep work on the day-to-day of everything happening in schools.” Developing the capacity to meet the needs of many kinds of schools helped New Visions survive as the funding for opening new schools dried up and put it in position to be an early contributor to the work on continuous improvement that now informs the latest Gates Foundation network initiative.

Again, even with considerable success, these organizations cannot entirely escape frequent changes in policies, politics, and expectations. Bloomberg and Klein’s approach to accountability meshed with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Program at the time, but their approach suffered as Race to the Top ran its course, and the public and political opposition to testing grew. Ascend succeeded initially by focusing on the standardized tests that were the focus of many accountability policies at the time, but its growth may have stalled had it not prepared for the Common Core. Achievement First and Ascend grew as part of the wave of performance management and support for charter schools embraced by policy elites, but their development in the future will have to contend with continuing opposition to charters and mounting concerns about racism and segregation. Protests about racism and “draconian discipline policies” (Fisher, 2016) at Achievement First have already led to a reexamination of its whole approach (Barnum & Darville, 2019). At Ascend, founder Wilson was removed after an investigation following his comments about race and civil rights in a blog post.

All these developments make it clear that even with political support and regulations that were supposed to provide some freedom to innovate outside conventional constraints, these intermediaries survived and grew because they developed specific resources and services that responded to the needs of a cross-section of students, parents, educators, and policy makers in a particular context. They found a way to fit within the needs, demands, and values of New York City’s education system at the time; but by finding a way to fit, they, like all key actors, remain subject to the demands of the very system they seek to transform.


Some things clearly changed in New York City after Bloomberg became mayor. More than 550 new schools were created; whole new sets of organizations—school support organizations and teacher education and leadership preparation programs—have emerged; and new school models, new tools for analyzing data, new open-source curriculum, and new kinds of coaching and professional development offerings abound. But the emphasis on starting new schools and replicating them in New York City and around the country changed as well. The Gates Foundation has long since given up funding for new small schools. Instead (with former New Visions president Hughes as director of K–12 education), the Gates Foundation now focuses on funding partnerships between networks of schools and school support organizations and on developing and disseminating “high-quality” instructional materials. Even with continued support from funders like the Walton Foundation, there are some signs that the growth of charter schools may be slowing (Lake, 2017). At the same time, organizations such as Uncommon Schools, Success Academy, and NYC Outward Bound’s national partner, Expeditionary Learning, are all producing curricula and other resources and making those resources widely available to schools across the country.

Although New York City is a unique context, these broader developments suggest that the theory of action, and goals and strategies of wholesale restructuring and system transformation that emerged at the end of the 20th century across the United States have evolved as well. The development and sharing of tools, practices, and services suggests a belief that the components of what once were comprehensive, whole-school models can be “unbundled” and used to support improvements in conventional schools. In some ways, this approach seems more consistent with the efforts to improve specific aspects of schooling that preceded the focus in the 1990s on “restructuring.” But even if the pendulum has swung “back” to a more piecemeal approach, some aspects of the context have changed. Notably, these intermediaries and other schools and organizations have contributed to the expansion of a larger infrastructure that supports incremental improvements in New York City and beyond. In turn, the development of that infrastructure has created a new platform for the next wave of initiatives, including, as Mayor De Blasio announced at the end of 2019, a design competition for the creation of 40 new and restructured schools (funded primarily by private funders).

Nonetheless, all these developments take place among the interdependent sectors and changing conditions that continue to sustain the grammar of schooling. Both alternative and conventional schools still have to operate in a society that segregates and systematically disadvantages students by race, income, and other forms of difference; they have to meet the need for schools to house children during the working week; they have to operate with the limited funding that favors the organization of groups of children in isolated classrooms under the supervision of one or two adults; and they have to do it all with a focus on a narrow set of outcomes presumed to prepare students to go to college or get a job. Under these conditions, schools can change, and some changes in conventional schooling may emerge, but the more radical those changes are, the less likely they are to take hold quickly or spread widely (Hatch et al., 2021). Consequently, substantial changes in dominant structures and practices of conventional schooling are most likely to take hold when they converge with societal changes—such as those of the industrial revolution or other developments that transform work, living, and childcare arrangements. From this vantage point, ironically, transforming schooling depends on learning how to fit into, as well as challenge, the conditions that support the status quo.


Achievement First. (2020). Learning together and apart [Annual report].



Ahmed, F., Elias, J., & Oster, S. (2007). Achievement First: A high-performing network of charter schools faces political and patron pressures. Yale School of Management. https://www.achievementfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Yale_SOM_Case_Study.pdf


Ascend Learning. (2021). About us. https://www.ascendlearning.org/about/


Barnum, M., & Darville, S. (2019, February 28). “Not a proud moment”: How turmoil at one school could shake up the Achievement First charter network. Chalkbeat. https://chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2019/02/28/achievement-first-amistad-discipline-no-excuses-changes/


Bloomberg, M. (2004). Education address by mayor Bloomberg: “No time like the present to invest in our future.” https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/072-04/education-address-mayor-michael-bloomberg-no-time-the-present-invest-our-future-


Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. (1986). A nation prepared: Teachers for the 21st century. The report of the Task Force on Teaching as a Profession. Carnegie Corporation.


Childress, S., Higgins, M., Ishimaru, A., & Takahashi, S. (2011) Managing for results at the New York City Department of Education. In J. A. O’Day, C. S. Bitter, & L. M. Gomez, (Eds.), Education reform in New York City: Ambitious change in the nation's most complex school system (pp. 87–108). Harvard Education.

Cohen, D., & Mehta, J. (2017). Why reform sometimes succeeds: Understanding the conditions that produce reforms that last. American Educational Research Journal, 54(4), 644–690.

Corcoran, S., & Pai, G. (2013). Unlocking New York City’s high school progress report. New Visions for Public Schools. https://www.newvisions.org/page/-/Prelaunch%20files/PDFs/NV%20Publications/Unlocking%20NYCs%20High%20School%20Progress%20Report%20Corcoran%20Pai%2032813.pdf

Cramer, P. (2010, November 10). Joel Klein’s bumpy learning curve on the path to radical change. Chalkbeat. https://chalkbeat.org/posts/ny/2010/11/10/joel-kleins-bumpy-learning-curve-on-the-path-to-radical-change/

CREDO. (2017). Charter school performance in New York City. Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Datnow, A., & Honig, M. I. (2008). Introduction to the special issue on scaling up teaching and learning improvement in urban districts: The promises and pitfalls of external assistance providers. Peabody Journal of Education, 83(3), 323–327.

Fisher, J. (2016, August 11). Schools that accept “no excuses” from students are not helping them. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/08/11/schools-that-accept-no-excuses-from-students-are-not-helping-them/

Foley, E. M., Klinge, A., & Reisner, E. R. (2007). Evaluation of New Century High Schools: Profile of an initiative to create and sustain small, successful high schools. Final report. Policy Studies Associates.

Fruchter, N., Arvidsson, T. S., Mokhtar, C., Beam, J., & Simmons, W. (2015) Demographics and performance in New York City’s school networks: An initial inquiry. Brown University, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Garud, R., & Ahlstrom, D. (1997). Technology assessment: A socio-cognitive perspective. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 14(1), 25–48.

Gould, S. J., & Lewontin, R. C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossia paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences, 205(1161), 581–598.

Hatch, T. (1998). The differences in theory that matter in the practice of school improvement. American Educational Research Journal, 35(1), 3–31.

Hatch, T. (2001). Incoherence in the system: Three perspectives on the implementation of multiple improvement initiatives in one district. American Journal of Education, 109(4), 107–137.

Hatch, T. (2013). Innovation at the core; R&D. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(3), 34–38.

Hatch, T., Ahn, M., Ferguson, D., & Rumberger, A. (2019). The role of external support in improving K-3 reading outcomes in New York City. Urban Education, 1–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085919877932

Hatch, T., Corson, J., & van den Berg, S. G. (2021). The education we need for a future we can't predict. Corwin.

Herriott, S. R., Levinthal, D., & March, J. G. (1985). Learning from experience in organizations. American Economic Review, 75(2), 298–302.

Honig, M. I. (2009). “External” organizations and the politics of urban educational leadership: The case of new small autonomous schools initiatives. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 394–413.

Honig, M. I., & Hatch, T. C. (2004). Crafting coherence: How schools strategically manage multiple, external demands. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 16–30.

Kelleher, M. (2014). New York City’s Children First: Lessons in school reform. Center for American Progress.

Kemple, J. (2015). High school closures in New York City: Impacts on students’ academic outcomes, attendance, and mobility. Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

Kerr, R., Garvin, J., Heaton, N., & Boyle, E. (2006). Emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27(4), 265–279.

Klein, J. (2011, June). The failure of American schools. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/06/the-failure-of-american-schools/308497/

Klein, J. (2014). Lessons of hope: How to fix our schools. HarperCollins.

Kolderie, T. (1990). Beyond choice to new public schools: Withdrawing the exclusive franchise in public education (Policy Report No. 8). Progressive Policy Institute.

Lake, R. (2017, February 17). Is charter schools growth flatlining? Center on Reinventing Public Education. https://www.crpe.org/thelens/charter-school-growth-flat-lining

Levitt, B., & March, J. G. (1988). Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14(1), 319–338.

March, J. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 71–87.

Mehan, H., Hubbard, L., & Datnow, A. (2010). Organizational change and educational reform. National Society for the Study of Education, 109(1), 98–112.

Merriman, J. (2012, October). NY Charters ace another test. NY Post. https://nypost.com/2012/10/08/ny-charters-ace-another-test/

Meyer, R. (2015, May 2). New York City’s small schools revolution. Education Next. https://www.educationnext.org/new-york-citys-small-schools-revolution/

Mirakhur, Z., & Hill, K. (2018). Persisting students: Exploring the pathways and outcomes of students who don’t graduate in four years, but remain enrolled in NYC high schools. The Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

New Visions for Public Schools. (2007). Reforming high schools: Lessons from the New Century High Schools Initiative.

New York City Department of Education. (2013). Charter schools: Charter renewal recommendations for seven charters authorized by the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) [Memo]. https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/1213p12a3%5B1%5D.pdf

NYC Outward Bound Schools. (n.d.). Our history. https://www.nycoutwardbound.org/about-us/

NYC Outward Bound Schools. (2021). 2020 Impact Report. https://www.nycoutwardbound.org/read-our-2020-impact-report/

O’Day, J. A., Bitter, C. S., & Gomez, L. M. (2011). Education reform in New York City: Ambitious change in the nation's most complex school system. Harvard University Press.

Partnership for New York City. (2005). Progress report on New York City school reform.

Pellicano, R. R. (1985). The decentralization of New York City’s public schools. Urban Education, 19(4), 441–451.

Sizer, T. (2004). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sizer, T. R., & Wood, G. (2009). Charter schools and the American dream. In L. Dingerson, B. Miner, & B. Peterson (Eds.), Keeping the promise? The debate over charter schools (pp. 3–16). Rethinking Schools.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Harvard University Press.

Whitehurst, G., & Whitfield, S. (2013, October 8). School choice and school performance in the New York City public schools—will the past be prologue? Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/school-choice-and-school-performance-in-the-new-york-city-public-schools-will-the-past-be-prologue/

Whitmire, R. (2016, November 22). How Joel Klein found his disruptive force—and reshaped NYC education. The74. https://www.the74million.org/article/a-founders-excerpt-how-joel-klein-found-his-disruptive-force-and-reshaped-nyc-education/

Wilson, S. (2019). Beyond “no excuses”: Lessons from a charter school network’s transformation. CPRE. https://www.crpe.org/thelens/beyond-no-excuses-lessons-charter-school-networks-transformation

Winters, M. A. (2018). Principal turnover in New York's charter and traditional public schools, 2008–18 [Issue brief]. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Zimmerman, A. (2019, February 6). NYC’s graduation rate went up in 2018. But the gain may have little to do with student learning. Chalkbeat. https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/ny/2019/02/06/nycs-graduation-rate-went-up-in-2018-but-the-gain-may-have-little-to-do-with-student-learning/                               


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 10, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23848, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 5:06:35 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles
There are no related articles to display

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Thomas Hatch
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    THOMAS HATCH, Ph.D., is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University; director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST); and founder and managing editor of internationalednews.com. His research includes studies of school improvement efforts at the school, district, and national levels. His latest book, with Jordan Corson and Sarah van den Berg, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021), focuses on efforts to create more powerful learning experiences both inside and outside schools in developed and developing contexts. His other books include Managing to Change: How Schools Can Survive (and Sometimes Thrive) in Turbulent Times (Teachers College Press, 2009); Into the Classroom: Developing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Teachers College Press, 2005); and School Reform Behind the Scenes (Teachers College Press, 1999).
  • Jordan Corson
    Stockton University
    E-mail Author
    JORDAN CORSON, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education and affiliated faculty member of both Migration Studies and the M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University. He recently completed his doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he defended his dissertation, Undocumented Educations: Everyday Educational Practices of Recently Immigrated Youth Beyond Inclusion/Exclusion. He has published in the fields of education and philosophy, anthropology and education, and teacher education. Jordan is the coeditor of the forthcoming volume Pop Culture and Curriculum, Assemble! (Dio Press).
  • Sarah Gerth Van Den Berg
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    SARAH GERTH VAN DEN BERG is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research explores the design and theory of curriculum involving nontraditional spaces, materials, and processes. She has published in the fields of curriculum studies, participatory arts-based practices, and out of school learning.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue