Ten Lessons From NYC To Improve Education
1. Invest in Leadership.
The position of principal is the most pivotal when it comes to reforming schools. The legitimate role of a central education authority is to recruit the best principals, support them, develop them, reward them when they do good work, protect them from external political interference, and hold them accountable for high levels of student achievement. Look among your best teachers to find your next principals.
2. Devolve responsibility, resources and authority to schools.
The central relationship in a school system is between students and teachers in classrooms. Everyone else exists to support that work. Those closest to the students and their families, principals and their teachers, should have the authority to make the important decisions about how students learn best, along with the resources necessary for success. Closing at least 50% of the regional offices and devolving the resources saved to the schools, is a good way to begin.
3. Make everyone directly responsible and accountable for higher levels of student performance.
Most school systems are designed around compliance to the next higher authority. The real measure of a school system must be whether students are succeeding. Everyone in the system, from teachers, to principals, to regional office staff, to central office employees must understand their responsibility to improve student performance. All decisions regarding staff retention, granting of tenure, promotion and bonuses must be based on demonstrated ability to improve student performance. Such data must be readily available, and everyone who works in the system must know exactly what they are accountable for, and what their annual student performance targets are. Such targets should reflect student attendance, retention, course and exam pass rates, promotion and graduation.
4. Reward success and exact consequences for failure.
Teachers and principals who successfully improve student performance should receive bonuses and promotions. Those who persistently fail to do so should be replaced. Students who perform well should receive cash incentives. The lowest performing schools should be closed.
5. Create small schools.
The most significant variable in determining student success is school size. Schools of no more than 400 students should replace large low performing schools. This can be accomplished by phasing out large failed schools and replacing them with several new small schools that occupy the same building.
6. Reduce teacher load.
Each teacher at the secondary level should be responsible for no more than 100 students. This can be accomplished by doubling instructional periods, and providing students with fewer, longer classes. This type of scheduling change does not require a significant infusion of additional resources.
7. Focus on improving student learning.
The principal’s primary responsibility is to create a relentless school wide focus on improving student learning. Student performance data, in the broadest sense, should inform that work on a daily basis. Evidence of such improvement must extend beyond test scores to include excellent examples of student work (research papers, literary essays, original scientific experiments, applications of conceptual mathematics, works of art, etc.), which must be visible throughout the school.
8. Partner with the private sector.
In a competitive global economy, the distinctions between public, not-for-profit and private sectors within national borders lose the significance they held for most of the 20th Century. It will take all three segments of society to build 21st century school systems. Not-for-profit organizations and private companies should be asked to sponsor schools, and provide seed money for promising innovations. Involving these sectors is also the key to the sustainability of reform.
9. Reform the central office.
Schools cannot be reformed unless the central office undergoes transformation as well. Such reforms must include direct responsibility and accountability for student achievement. Large insular divisions and offices should be replaced with cross-functional teams responsible and accountable for a limited number of schools. These teams should work for, and report to, the schools.
10. Be bold!
When asked what Great Britain should have done differently in its school reform efforts, Sir Michael Barber, former education advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by saying, “We weren’t bold enough.” Large failed governmental agencies cannot be transformed through incremental change. Such organizations need to be rebuilt from the idea on up. #
Eric Nadelstern is CEO, Empowerment Schools, NYC DOE.