David Banks, the founder of New York City’s first all-boys high school, was thrilled about the freedom—and cash—he got by signing on as one of the first crop of what the district is calling empowerment schools.

First and foremost, he would be exempt from meetings that took too much time away from running his school, the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx. “That was my primary motivation for joining,” Banks says.

Second, the extra $100,000 he received would give students after-school tutoring and more classes to catch up in earning credits. Banks also hired a second foreign language teacher, promoted one of his teachers to assistant principal and switched the school to 80-minute periods from the traditional 45-minute classes, giving kids more instruction time.

“Before, we would have had to go through all kinds of bureaucratic changes” to switch schedules, Banks notes. Hand-picking his own assistant principal would have been difficult too; even if the position were approved. “I would not necessarily have gotten who I wanted,” he says. “Ultimately, it would have been the [regional] superintendent’s decision.”

Many of the freedoms Banks and 331 other New York City principals are taking advantage of this year sound similar to those granted to a select group of higher-performing Chicago schools under AMPS, the Autonomous Management and Performance Initiative.

But New York’s plan goes much further than Chicago’s, in both size and scope, offering support for schools as they seek to improve, rewards for making progress and sanctions for failing to do so.

Yet caveats have emerged: Is this too much autonomy too quickly? And ultimately, how will students benefit?

‘Pressure and support’

In Chicago, only 90 top-performing schools were pegged for increased autonomy. New York recently decided to go whole hog, eliminating regional offices and giving each of the district’s 1,400 schools the chance to join the empowerment program. (Schools that opt not to join the empowerment initiative can choose to continue receiving support from the district or from an outside partner.)

To hold schools accountable, each will receive an annual “grade” based on students’ academic progress as well as other performance indicators. Schools will also be subject to quality reviews that include site visits by education experts.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ardent champion of school autonomy, announced the plan in his Jan. 17 State of the City speech. The savings from eliminating regional offices will be funneled back to schools, he said, and the system will begin phasing in lump-sum or per-pupil budgeting, a method to address equity in distributing funds to schools. (This year’s empowerment schools got additional funds, but were not switched to per-pupil funding.)

Joseph Palumbo, senior executive with the educational consulting group Focus on Results, spent several days meeting with top New York officials last year as they were crafting a plan to roll out the empowerment program. A multi-faceted strategy is what’s needed to make autonomy work, he observes.

“All the things they have in place are the right things that need to be in place,” he says. “The key is, will there be a good balance of pressure and support?”

Top officials wanted to take the initiative citywide as soon as possible, given the dismal academic performance of many students, particularly minority students, Palumbo adds. “They felt a sense of urgency that they needed to make radical changes to shake up the status quo.”

However, one noted educator warns against viewing autonomy as a quick fix.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric around this, but there’s little evidence that changing [structural] dimensions has any impact on student learning,” says Allen Grossman of Harvard University’s Public Education Leadership Project, which is working with nine urban districts, including Chicago, to improve achievement through better district management.

Structure is important, he explains, but the question of who makes decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. The first question to ask is, “What is going to support the best teaching and learning?”

Some observers wonder if the school system is rolling out empowerment too quickly.

“There was a strong campaign to get the [first] schools signed up,” says Ray Damonico, senior education adviser for the non-profit Metro New York Industrial Areas Foundation, which works with schools. “Some of them heard they would get more money and jumped on the opportunity without thinking about what they were getting into.”

“We’re literally changing the tire while the car is moving,” says Jill Herman of Urban Assembly, a non-profit group that is managing one of the new networks of empowerment schools under a contract with the New York City Department of Education.

Will students benefit?

The lion’s share of the annual grade that schools receive will be based on progress in raising student test scores, rather than overall performance. Schools will get extra credit for raising the scores of students scoring in the bottom third citywide.

“It’s making [schools] pay attention to their bottom third,” says Herman, a former principal. “People are beginning to try and figure out where kids are stuck. You can’t fix things if you don’t know what’s wrong.” Finding instructional techniques that help low-achieving students should help improve teaching and learning across the board, she adds.

Eric Nadelstern, CEO of empowerment schools, says the success of the autonomy zone program (the precursor to empowerment) shows that expanding principals’ power makes sense academically.

“On attendance, retention, course pass rates, promotion rates, graduation, college acceptance, all the indicators—for both years [the 48 autonomous schools] outperformed all the other schools in the system and exceeded their own previous performance,” says Nadelstern.

One major concern is oversight of services for kids with special needs, says Janella Hinds, special representative for empowerment schools for the United Federation of Teachers. “What happens if we don’t have anyone watching to make sure class size [limits] are met or that students are receiving speech services?” she says. “Where there are very small numbers of kids who need services, the administration may be tempted not to follow the mandates.”

Principals a driving force

Giving principals, rather than bureaucrats, power to choose their own curriculum and professional development makes sense educationally. But giving principals responsibility for, say, choosing custodial contractors runs the risk of overburdening them, skeptics say.

“We have some wonderful young principals, but many of them are overwhelmed,” says Jill Levy, outgoing president of the Council of School Administrators, the union for New York City principals. “They’re spending so much time with management that they’re having problems with the instructional end of things. We want to make sure that the department [of education] doesn’t just dump on them the responsibilities the department used to have.”

Eagle Academy’s Banks initially questioned whether less-experienced principals would be able to handle the added workload. But, he says, the support team strategy “seems to be addressing that issue.”

Younger, entrepreneurial principals were a driving force behind New York’s push to give school leaders as much power as possible, says Nadelstern. Nearly 200 graduates of the Chancellor’s Leadership Academy, which stresses independent leadership, currently work in the district as principals or assistant principals.

“We’ve charged them with reinventing public education, but it doesn’t work to put them in the same old governance structure,” Nadelstern points out. “Every time they tried to do something ‘outside the box,’ they didn’t get the support they needed. They told us they needed more authority.”

Successful principals, says Palumbo, “figure out the managerial and operational tasks that they need to delegate, to make sure there’s enough toilet paper in the bathrooms so they can focus on instruction.”

So far, some principals in the network Herman works with love empowerment because “there’s nobody coming in like the wicked mother-in-law with white gloves to check on them.”

“But some of them feel lost,” she adds.

‘Biggest unknown’

Under empowerment, the department can retake control of a school, fire a principal or ultimately, shut a school down if it consistently fails to meet achievement targets. But skeptics wonder if the threat of such sanctions amounts to anything more than waving a big stick.

“That’s the biggest unknown,” says Damonico. “Schools have had accountability systems before and it didn’t work. We’re being asked to believe now that sanctions are going to be automatic. A lot of people have promised that [before] and it hasn’t happened.”

Nadelstern concedes, “It is a complicated process to instill real accountability in a [school] system that has spent decades avoiding it.” But, he says, schools that show little or no progress in a couple of years will get new principals. If the school still makes no improvement, it will be shut down. “That’s our sense of how it should work.”

Harvard’s Grossman notes that there’s more to accountability than structure. Teachers need to have high standards, for example, and principals need to be responsible for student learning. Schools also must have a culture with “a focus on results, not effort.”

“That’s what makes accountability happen,” says Grossman.

While empowerment is only months old, some promising signs of success are emerging.

Teachers at many schools are working with principals to identify instruction strategies that work best for students, says Hinds.

In Urban Assembly’s network, says Herman, “Principals are getting together on their own, meeting in schools and sharing ideas. That’s another form of professional development.”

To contact Lorraine Forte, call (312) 673-3881 or send an e-mail to forte@catalyst-chicago.org.

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