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To raise graduation rates, the de Blasio administration needs a comprehensive strategy

Like many parents and teachers, I have great hopes for what the de Blasio administration could do for the city’s schools.

The Bloomberg administration, in which I worked as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Chancellor Joel Klein, redesigned our public education system from one that seemed perfectly designed to graduate half of our children (the graduation rate for more than half a century) to one where 66 percent now graduate. But that is not enough. In the 21st century, nothing less than high school graduation with post-secondary learning opportunities qualifies as success for students, and the de Blasio administration could help more students cross that threshold.

But if that is the new administration’s plan, it hasn’t said how it will get there. Like a great many others, I now await a comprehensive plan capable of transforming an organization designed to graduate two-thirds of our students to one that will finally approach, if not achieve, universal high school graduation.

Bloomberg and Klein made progress by attracting accomplished and energized talent from many different fields and implementing a strategic plan based on leadership, empowerment, and accountability. The Department of Education accepted responsibility for training the next generation of school leaders by creating the New York City Leadership Academy. Principals were empowered to form their own networks of schools facilitated by network leaders in lieu of centrally appointed districts lead by superintendents. Principals and their teachers were held accountable for student performance gains.

In contrast, what we’ve heard from de Blasio and his chancellor, Carmen Fariña, are disconnected ideas, many of which have been tried before, that don’t add up to a compelling and comprehensive district improvement plan. Such a plan would include fresh thinking about structure, staffing, resources, and accountability; would consider student and teacher needs — and would focus on raising achievement.

So far, Fariña’s initiatives have not globally addressed the entire school system, and they have not made student performance their central ambition.

Sure, universal pre-kindergarten, de Blasio’s flagship education initiative so far, is welcome, but not because the data suggests that an additional year of the same leads to outsized results — but because working families need to leave for jobs each day secure in the knowledge that their children will be well cared for until they return home each evening.

In and of itself, pre-K is not a game-changer. Neither are Fariña’s favored strategies: partnering strong schools with low-performing ones, extending the experience requirements for school leaders, carefully controlling school autonomy, and bringing back instructional leaders from retirement — some of whom appear eager to return to the imagined perfection of a past that failed half of our children.

As the chancellor prepares to lay out her vision for the school system this week, it’s not too late for her to shift her focus to student achievement — and to think as broadly as the school system’s needs require. Here are five guiding principles that I hope she will consider:

  • There is enormous talent within the New York City public schools at all levels of experience. Those with the longest tenure are not necessarily best positioned to determine future policy. Similarly, there are remarkably talented individuals who have not yet had the privilege of working with the chancellor. That should not be held against them.
  • Those closest to students know how their kids learn best. Principals, in consultation with their parents and teachers are best positioned to determine what students should learn, how they should learn it, and how to assess that learning.
  • Everyone in the system needs to be held accountable for the performance of students. A system structured in ways that make such accountability impossible is a poorly structured school system. For instance, every member of the chancellor’s cabinet needs to be responsible and accountable for students’ performance in several hundred schools in addition to their functional responsibilities. How better to connect policy with practice?
  • Charter schools often provide good examples of the above principles. Similarly, charter management organizations offer an excellent model for how the system should organize itself.
  • The legitimate role of the central office is to find the best principals available, recruit them, support them, develop them, protect them from outside interference, and above all, to hold them accountable for the highest level of student achievement.

I hope that I will hear these ideas or ones close to them in Fariña’s speech, which comes nine months after she took office. But I will feel heartened if she presents other plans that also are broad in scope, reflect imaginative thinking, and similarly put student achievement front and center. This city and its students deserve no less.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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