A new era is dawning in the troubled New York City school system - the result of a profound shift in thinking that may influence urban systems across the nation.
After decades of corruption, neglected school buildings, and miserable student test scores, this behemoth network - the largest school system in the country, with 1,100 schools and more than a million students - is shedding 30 years of politically tainted management and introducing a future where educational standards will be set and school districts held accountable for achieving them.
The dramatic shift has attracted the support of a mayor and governor who have in the past refused to increase funding to the schools because they felt the system was so flawed.
It comes at a time when there is near consensus among educators that the key to improving learning is to focus on the quality of teaching as well as the quality of what is being taught.
Now, as President Clinton talks of ways to upgrade education nationally and as many of the country's largest school systems struggle to revamp the way they're serving their students, New York is putting in place many of the very measures education leaders say are needed.
"If anything's going to turn urban systems around, it's standards," says Richard Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University, who has studied New York and other urban school systems. "We've got to find an administrative structure that pays attention to equity and also tries to pay attention to quality."
Last month, New York Gov. George Pataki (R) signed into law a sweeping reform bill that takes school management out of the hands of 32 independent district boards and shifts it to the city's school chancellor. The new law gives the chancellor the power to hire, fire, draft curricula, and set policy - tasks all formerly left to the community school boards.
The reform allows the school chancellor to step in when schools are failing. It puts in place school-based budgets that are to be drafted by parents, teachers, and principals. It sets out clear guidelines for what constitutes grounds for hiring and firing superintendents and principals. And it establishes a clear line of responsibility for a child's education from chancellor to superintendent to principal to teacher.
But passage of the overhaul legislation is just the beginning of reform. Governor Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have since pledged more money and attention to New York City's schools. Mr. Giuliani has called for an increase of $200 million - the first time he has hiked the schools budget since taking office. And Pataki unveiled a five-year plan to help the city schools catch up with the rest of the state.
In addition, the legislature is expected to take up bills calling for an overhaul of the state's special-education programs and allowing the creation of charter schools this year.
"This is a monumental shift," says school chancellor Rudolph Crew. "All of these are issues that go to the heart of the distribution of education. It's all about giving kids and families good, positive choices to education."
Critics of the governance legislation say wresting power away from the often corrupt schools boards was a step in the right direction, but that the law doesn't go far enough to ensure that innovative schools aren't hamstrung by more restrictive centralized standards.
"This will not move education ahead for the majority of students as people expect," says Robert Berne, an expert on the city's schools and vice president of academic development at New York University.
"Schools at the bottom will certainly see an effect. But it's not clear to me that schools doing reasonably well will necessarily become higher-performing as a result of these changes."
Dr. Berne warns that the creativity that grew out of some independent district management may be squelched. "We now have a traditional top-down, bureaucratic structure, which does not value innovation in the way that the school board leadership enabled it to do."
Dr. Crew says the new law allows standards to be set from the top, but leaves room for each school or district to find their own way to meet them.
"In the absence of having a common set of standards, the system is simply a loosely knit-together set of schools with no clear-cut line of academic excellence," Crew says. "There is no way of measuring student outcome, or the value of a new idea, or the value of more money.
"But there is a recognition of the need ... to give people great variance in how we go about meeting that set of standards," he says.
Pursuing a vision
The story of New York's turnaround began in October 1995, when Crew was hired away from the Tacoma, Wash., schools to head New York City's massive system. He arrived on the job to find he had little power to make his vision of urban education a reality.
In the 1960s, in an attempt to defuse the racial conflicts that dogged New York's system, the state legislature passed a law empowering 30 locally elected school boards to hire, establish curricula, and set school policy for the primary and secondary schools in their districts. It was intended to allow schools to meet the needs of their students at a more manageable level and to give parents more say in their children's educations.
In reality, the structure created a situation in which many of those elected to the district boards were more concerned about their future political careers than the needs of students. Few parents voted (only 5 percent of city voters turned out in last year's elections). Teachers, principals, and superintendents spent much of their energy staying on the good side of the district board members to ensure job stability.
"For years, we have had a situation in this city where many of these community school boards were ... hiring principals for political reasons or selling jobs," says Sandra Feldman, president of the New York City teacher's union. "We had people running schools who weren't competent to be running schools. It made teachers' jobs very difficult."
By the time Crew arrived, the failings of the decentralized system were well-known. Giuliani had long refused to increase the school budget because he said it would be spent on patronage, not legitimate student needs. Until a few months ago, Giuliani was pushing to have the city take over the schools.
Crew, by all accounts a politically astute and capable administrator, began pushing for a change in the way the city's schools were governed. This December, through an alignment of political leaders with common interests, the dramatic reform law was approved in the legislature.
"This basically takes up what the intentions of the original legislation were and adds to that a dimension of accountability and giving people a set of tools that were not a part of it before," Crew says.
Today, Crew has the power, the state and city's political support, and the backing of the city's teacher's union. Only time will tell if the structure put in place will allow New York's teachers to teach, its students to learn. With a system this large and a reform this dramatic, experts say educators nationwide are watching.