PROFILES IN EDUCATION
Eric Nadelstern, CEO, Empowerment Schools
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
“The resources are now where they belong,” says Eric Nadelstern, CEO of Empowerment Schools for the NYC Department of Education. No doubt the 496 principals now so empowered, enjoying new “freedom and flexibility,” would agree. The facts on the ground have changed—dramatically—not to mention motivation for both school administrators and their faculty and staff. The empowerment idea, one of eleven autonomy zone and learning support organization initiatives launched by the Chancellor, has been making itself felt as an important psychological as well as structural force for improving teaching, student achievement and accountability. Schools are now grouped into 22 self-selected networks of 20-25 schools, each, with each network having a Network Leader and a support team of four, selected by the principals themselves. The job of the team, Nadelstern says, is “to get to `yes’ as quickly as possible when a principal calls with a request or problem as a means of removing obstacles to student success.” No more revolving door delays, top-heavy central bureaucracy, educational outsiders basically making major educational decisions. The inherent principle behind empowerment is power to the principal and partnering with partners of choice.
“By shifting responsibility, resources, authority and accountability from the central office to the schools themselves,” Nadelstern says, and with principals working directly with teachers they hire and community and school representatives they choose, “more students will be more successful.” Empowerment means broader decentralized authority over educational programming and curriculum, greater local discretion over budgets and a significant role for principals in also determining and evaluating their collaborative teams. Is the new philosophy, the new premise, working? Nadelstern, who attended NYC public schools and City College, an educator who, unlike many others, really knows The System—old and new (half his 37 years were spent as founder and head of the International High School at LaGuardia Community College, the first city school to convert to charter status), cites recent data. Empowerment schools did better than others, citywide, 1.5% on the State ELA Exam, compared with 0.1% for the city, and 8.8% in Math, where the city average was 8.1%. Moreover, Empowerment schools not only outperformed non-Empowerment schools but, in the last year, outperformed themselves!
On the financial front the figures are also telling. Where, under the old structure, schools got 50 cents of the educational dollar, with principals having discretion over 35 cents, schools now get two-thirds of every dollar, and principals have discretion over 50 cents to work with, over 75% of which goes toward hiring and retaining “innovative and thoughtful teachers.” From the central department’s perspective, the goal is to have principals primarily determine how their school’s budget should be spent. Empowerment has meant nothing less than a change in school culture and school support. How have the principals themselves responded to empowerment? To judge from last year’s questionnaires, alone, Nadelstern says, forms filled out three times a year, the consensus was “satisfaction.” He also points to a number of long-term studies under way nation wide that show that autonomy-based schools are proving attractive and effective, with New York City out front in development.
The future looks promising for empowerment schools, with a new parents councils in each network taking shape, in collaboration with Family Engagement CEO, Martine Guerrier, that aims to strengthen the 20-25 schools in each network, individually, with each other, and with other networked schools. Plans to share best practices, perhaps online, are also under consideration. Nadelstern does, however, wish that presidential candidates and the media covering the various presidential debates would pay more attention to what’s going on in the small school movement, particularly as No Child Left Behind undergoes reform. Perhaps, after primary day, this primary passion will get the attention it deserves.#