Schools Showcased to National Educational Leaders
extraordinary three-day education conference was recently convened
in Brooklyn by the New York City Board of Education. Among the
hundreds of education leaders attending were five-member school
teams—principal, teacher, parent PTA head, union president and
district superintendent—from the 15 largest urban areas in the
Titled “Exemplary Educational Practices,” the conference was designed
to showcase to educators from around the country the progress
and changes made in New York City schools in the past few years
and to encourage dialogue about mutual goals and problems. The
conference included visits to selected model public schools in
all five boroughs, panel discussions among superintendents about
the ways their cities are tackling key problems and numerous workshops
and presentations about how particular schools in the city are
meeting today’s challenges.
don’t share well,” commented Randi Weingarten, president of the
UFT, New York City’s teacher union. The conference was an “experiment”
to see if that culture could be changed, for the benefit of all.
New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy explained that New
York City is “super-typical,” with 1.1 million students taught
by 78,000 teachers in 1,200 schools; the issues found here are
the same ones found everywhere, only magnified. If practices and
innovations work in this largest and most difficult of cities,
they should work elsewhere.
The issues: Standards and Recruitment
Two panels of superintendents discussed key educational challenges—”Building
a Standards Based System” and “Improving Teacher Quality: Recruitment,
Retention and Professional Development.” The seven-person panel
on standards, moderated by New York Deputy Chancellor for Instruction,
Judith A. Rizzo, agreed that time, patience and much fine-tuning
will be needed to make standards meaningful and fully integrated.
The teacher quality panel discussed methods of recruiting and
Rizzo advised that standards are not about tests, they are about
reducing variability in teaching and learning so that all students
have access to a good education. Diana Lam, Superintendent of
Providence, RI schools, addressed the equity factor, saying that
while in the past, expectations were higher for middle class students
than for the poor and minorities, today all pupils are expected
to learn and achieve at high levels.
The panel on teacher quality, led by Weingarten, repeatedly came
back to the issue of finding and retaining leaders, especially
principals and superintendents. On average, superintendents hold
their positions for only three years, leading to instability and
what Chancellor Levy called, a “hunkering down mentality.”
Levy spoke about a relationship between professional development
and management training, explaining that superintendents must
take the role of creating a feeling of movement and positive change
in order to retain their employees—teachers. So many new hires
are required that traditional recruitment methods will not suffice,
and because people often have multiple careers, districts should
not expect long-term commitments. But once these career-changers
have chosen teaching, they can become teaching fellows, along
with retirees, and share their varied experiences.
Big City Superintendents Start in New York
New York is a training ground for school superintendents. An “Alumni
Superintendent” panel brought together four top New York City
educators who left to become superintendents in other urban centers.
They discussed the lessons they learned in the trenches of New
The participants agreed on the similarities of problems across
the nation. Anthony Alvarado, now a superintendent in San Diego,
stressed that “instructional capacity” is the key to success on
both coasts. “Interaction with teachers is how children learn,”
Barbara Byrd-Bennett brought 45 years of interaction with New
York schools (including time spent as a pupil, she emphasized)
to her position as head of Cleveland schools. In New York she
learned that leadership is political and has layers and multiple
definitions, but it always includes the principle of “can”—a positive
attitude towards getting things done.
Carmen V. Russo, superintendent in Baltimore, brings pragmatism
from New York. She learned about politics, media, collaborations
and partnerships, and the need to build cohesion around an education
agenda. She learned that “to be a good partner, you have to be
a good listener,” and that different neighborhoods see things
differently. Personal visits to schools and communities help instill
a sense of a group’s needs and priorities. The most important
thing she learned in New York was that small learning communities
work best, and that huge high schools should be broken down.
While the conference was held in New York and was focusing on
its schools, it also underlined the important need for dialogue
between urban educators from around the nation. Chancellor Levy
exhorted attendees to “shed the negative and be self-indulgent.”
Everyone learned something from everyone. While superintendents
from cities around the country were showed how New York addresses
issues, New Yorkers were also introduced to new ways of thinking
about familiar problems.
are not the harbingers of social deterioration,” said Levy. He
stressed the need to “publicize educational victories and enter
the public debate.”
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