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Schools Chancellor David Banks promises to empower NYC principals, borrowing from an old playbook

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New York City schools Chancellor David Banks shakes hands after giving a speech at Tweed Courthouse, the education department’s headquarters. Banks wants to give principals more autonomy in the hopes of driving better outcomes for students.

Courtesy of the New York City Department of Education

Since taking control of the nation’s largest school district less than three months ago, Chancellor David Banks has repeatedly promised to transform New York City’s schools “from the bottom up.”  Giving principals more autonomy is one way he wants to do that, according to Banks, who often touts his 11 years as a principal in the Bronx.

Handing more power to principals in the hopes of driving better academic outcomes is not a new idea: It was a guiding philosophy under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that sparked some radical overhauls of the education department. 

But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration came in with a sharply different vision, and spent the past eight years reining in school leaders’ authority.

Now, the power dynamic could swing again. Eric Nadelstern, one of the architects of the city’s previous experiment to empower principals, said he has recently been in touch with officials in the Banks administration. Education department officials did not immediately comment on conversations with Nadelstern.

“I think he understands the benefits of it. I think he’s experienced the benefits of it,” said Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under the Bloomberg administration who is now a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I think he’s in the process of, ‘How to do it again and more effectively?’” 

Whatever path he ends up taking, it will be one informed by his own close-up experiences: In addition to his experience as a school leader, Banks also launched a network of six schools before becoming chancellor, overseeing more than 1,600 schools. Those close to him say he still has deep relationships with New York City principals. 

Nadelstern said his advice would be to start small.

“The New York City Department of Education is the most intransigent bureaucracy in the world,” he said. “What you can do is: Build something off to the side. You can nurture it and grow it… to demonstrate that what you’re proposing is successful.” 

Here’s a look back — and a look forward — at the role of principals in New York City schools. 

What did principal autonomy look like?

The impetus for empowering principals has been summed up like this: “Principals must have both the power to run their schools as they see fit and the responsibility to do it well.” That’s according to a 2010 report by InsideSchools, an education policy think tank and school review site based at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. 

To do that, former Chancellor Joel Klein — the first person to head the education department after the state legislature granted Bloomberg mayoral control — set about totally rearranging the way the department was set up. Twice. 

Principals were given new, wide latitude over budgeting, curriculum, and hiring. In exchange, they signed contracts that held them to strict accountability measures, defined heavily by test results. School leaders could earn bonuses — or see their school closed. 

This philosophy — which came to be known simply as principal “empowerment” — was spearheaded by Nadelstern. 

“There’s a joke in New York City public schools that goes something like, ‘Hello. I’m from central; I’m here to help,’” he said, nodding to the similar quip about the federal government. “If you remove central as a factor, then quite simply, schools do better.”

What were some of the challenges?

Such a dramatic shakeup of the school system was not without downfalls. 

The Bloomberg-Klein approach came to be criticized for an over reliance on tests, which were used to judge schools in ways that could fluctuate wildly and, some said, even encouraged cheating to inflate key metrics. Plus, the move to empower principals coincided with the opening of a slew of new schools, with inexperienced leaders who may have needed more support than they got with a hands-off approach. 

A lack of central guidance over school curriculum choices was “one of the major shortcomings,” said Tom Liam Lynch, a former education department official in the Bloomberg administration who now leads InsideSchools. Without more unity over curricula, it can be impossible to ensure schools are using high-quality materials, or know how to best support teachers.

“If we are responsible for the equitable education for a million students, then we have to have great clarity over why we’re teaching what we’re teaching,” Lynch said. 

For Nadelstern, the original vision was for principals to share their newfound power with teachers, families, and students, by including them in school decisions from programming to which disciplinary approaches to take.

“That never happened,” Nadelstern said. “If I had to do it over again, I’d be much more explicit about it.”

The tide turned after de Blasio took office. Principals said they found themselves bound by paperwork, bureaucratic hassles, and micromanagement. Principal satisfaction with the chancellor went  from a high of 91% in 2014 to a low of 77% in 2018, according to school surveys. 

What might it look like this time around?

Banks has said very little about what his vision for principal empowerment might look like. But he has already hinted that his approach will be different. 

Banks has suggested that autonomy will not be handed out freely, but given to “principals who know what they’re doing.” He also wants superintendents, who oversee school leaders, to play more of a supporting role for principals, and he plans to give their offices more funding to do so. That could signal that he believes the city’s previous approach left some principals to flounder. 

In what could signal another departure from the past, Banks may be looking to temper the emphasis on standardized exams. He has called for allowing students to show they’ve mastered content in other ways, and also for school programming that is more interesting to students — something that many critics say fell by the wayside in many schools to make room for test prep. 

Curriculum is also on the chancellor’s radar: Banks has lauded the city’s efforts to create culturally responsive and relevant materials, and blasted the approach to literacy instruction used in many schools today. 

Taken together, his vision could add up to something that looks much different than principal empowerment of the past.

Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the Council for School Supervisors and Administrators — the union representing principals and other school leaders — said it’s only “common sense” to lead from the bottom up. But he’s waiting to see if the chancellor’s talk will be followed by real changes. 

“We’ve been mired in this bureaucratic, wheel-spinning exercise for the last several years,” Cannizzaro said. “The hard part is the implementation… People now are waiting to see exactly what this is going to look like in practice and if it’s going to be implemented right.”

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.