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Former top official gives scathing review to DOE's current state

The city Department of Education is politically motivated, riddled with waste, and making policy choices that won’t lead to improved student achievement.

Those claims are frequently lobbed by longstanding critics of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies. But now they are coming from a chief architect of the Department of Education’s current structure: Eric Nadelstern, the number-two official until he retired in January 2011.

Nadelstern designed the department’s network school support structure upon the premise that principals should mostly be left alone, as long as they deliver performance results. When he left, Nadelstern said he was confident that his deputies would carry on the work they had been doing with him.

But in a working paper about the network structure published late last week by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group associated with the University of Washington, Nadelstern says the department has lost its way. Instead of thinking about what would be best for students, officials have considered what would be best for Mayor Bloomberg, he says. Rather than trusting principals to make the right choices for their schools, officials are mandating instructional changes. The department is frittering away federal funds centrally rather than distributing them to schools. And instead of using the network structure to support schools, the department is using a “ruthlessly efficient structure for micromanaging” them, he writes.

All together, Nadelstern says the changes have him lying awake at night with worry. “A new mayor will probably mean a new chancellor. With equal numbers of superintendents and networks, it is not hard to envision how easily the city’s schools can be returned to a geographically organized system of local districts,” he writes.

The portion of Nadelstern’s paper that assesses the Department of Education’s current state is excerpted in full below, followed by the complete paper.

Can the Movement Outlast Its Leader?

In retrospect, it is easy to see that our work began to unravel the summer before Joel Klein’s departure and my retirement in January 2011. Key staff members to Mayor Bloomberg had advised him not to run for a third four-year term and left soon after he narrowly won reelection. These people were replaced by political operatives who had not lived through the reforms of the previous decade and who saw their primary role as creating opportunities for Bloomberg to step onto a national political stage after he left city government. Education reforms would now be evaluated on the basis of whether they contributed capital to the mayor’s political aspirations.

In November 2011, Klein announced that he would be leaving at year’s end, and that Bloomberg had selected Cathy [sic] Black, a longtime publishing executive, to take his place. Black proved unequal to the task, and was soon replaced by Dennis Walcott, who had been deputy mayor for education throughout the Bloomberg administration. By that time, after 39 years with the New York City public schools, I retired and accepted a position as professor of educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. One of my deputies became the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, and the other became chief operating officer. As of this writing, seven members of the chancellor’s cabinet have worked for me at one time or another time.

With that kind of continuity, I would have hoped that the reform work would continue, but that was not to be the case. Hundreds of millions of federal Race to the Top dollars flowed to the district, but the money didn’t go directly to schools; it was controlled by central office administrators, who thought they knew better how to spend it. During the worst recession since World War II, which significantly reduced funding for schools, the central office wasted millions of dollars—proving yet again that it is the part of the district least likely and able to innovate. Millions more are now being squandered on the failed assumption that imposing a core curriculum from central office will significantly alter classroom teachers’ behavior so that more students can be more successful.

While the network structure had proved to be an excellent vehicle for principal and school autonomy and empowerment, it has now also proven to be a ruthlessly efficient structure for micromanaging schools. School autonomy appears to be a thing of the past. In its place, the central office is using networks to once again attempt to control what takes place in 70,000 classrooms each day. Fortunately, the mandates are largely ignored when teachers close their classroom doors each morning, just as they always have been.

Another regret I continue to harbor is that networks were not given more autonomy on my watch. I had hoped that, after a period of scale-up and capacity-building, we could devise a way for networks, at least the most successful ones, to spin off from the Department of Education and function as independent educational management organizations. As it often does, the clock simply ran out.

These days, I lay awake nights thinking about the next administration. In 2013, New York City will elect a new mayor. After 20 years of Republican administrations, it is more than likely that this heavily Democratic city will elect a Democrat as mayor. A new mayor will probably mean a new chancellor. With equal numbers of superintendents and networks, it is not hard to envision how easily the city’s schools can be returned to a geographically organized system of local districts. How long after that will it take for politicians to reassert their privilege to receive constituent services once again?

Early in his tenure, Klein told me, one of the borough presidents asked him who he should go to with requests for constituent services. When Klein asked what he meant, the borough president explained that from time to time, he would need to secure a job for a loyal constituent, or get a constituent’s child into a good school. Klein responded that when he redesigned the school system, he forgot to create an office of constituent services. That “omission” is not likely to recur in the next administration.

Despite my regrets and fears, I am proud of what we were able to accomplish. We proved that networks of schools can play an invaluable role in efforts to improve student achievement. In the process, we established a different way to organize schools that supports school-based autonomy in return for greater accountability for student learning. Students and their families can choose from hundreds of good schools that did not exist just a few years ago. And the high school graduation rate moved from 50 percent, where it had been stuck for decades, to 65 percent today.

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