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New York: The Obsolete Factory
Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti
It is difficult to imagine an organizational structure as hapless or incorrigible as the New York City public school system. By any reasonable measure of educational effectiveness, the system is not working well. Sprawling, rigid, machinelike, uncompromising, it is the premiere example of factory model schooling. Its centennial in 1996 passed uncelebrated and unremarked, possibly because its multitude of embarrassments made celebration unseemly. The school system has become a symbol of unresponsive bureaucracy that somehow rebuffs all efforts to change it. It is the creature of another era, designed as a machine in which orders flowed from the top and were quickly implemented below with no regard for the ideas or opinions of either its workers or customers.
The system worked well enough in an earlier age. In its first half century, the percentage of graduates increased in each decade, and steady progress seemed the order of the day. The economy also had good jobs for students who left school without graduating. But today, progress has stalled: little more than 50 percent of the youngsters who start high school reach graduation, and the economy has few places for high school dropouts. What is needed today are schools that educate almost all who enter; what is needed is a school system that is equally intolerant of social promotion and of school failure. What is required today is something that the current system has never supplied: the ability to provide a high level of universal education.
Today the system retains its original structure, with additions that were grafted on in 1969 (creating decentralized local school boards) and 1996 (removing the hiring powers of the local boards). Now the system is both centralized (with a central board) and decentralized (with thirty-two elected school boards). Its structure defies reason, with authority so broadly dispersed that no one is ultimately accountable for the quality of education. Mired in bureaucracy and entrenched in local politics, this cumbersome system stands as an obstacle to meaningful change at a time when other cities are reforming their school systems. The organizational structure consumes resources needlessly, wears down energetic educators, and marginalizes even the best-conceived efforts at innovation.
The situation is not entirely hopeless. New Yorkers point with pride to the extraordinary number of students who become Westinghouse scholars, and to the system's educational jewels, like Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the Bronx High School of Science, and La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, which sits across from Lincoln Center. Also noteworthy are the success stories found in educational experiments like the public choice program in East Harlem or the Wildcat Academy in lower Manhattan, which serves some of the city's most troubled youth. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. Far too many students in New York City are assigned to schools that are too large, too decrepit, too overcrowded, or too dispirited to provide good education. Wave after wave of reform has washed over the system, promising changes that never materialized.
New York City has always exhibited an extraordinary capacity to produce and attract talented people. However, even the most gifted educators and boldest leaders are no match for a system that has outlived its usefulness and lacks the capacity to change. In 1996 the Board of Education swore in its eighth chancellor in twelve years. Each time the position becomes vacant, the city indulges itself in the hope that some man or woman with magical powers will arrive on the scene to successfully navigate the political and managerial minefields on behalf of one million school children. But each administration ends with more casualties. Chancellors are the most obvious casualties of a system that has proven to be ungovernable. More damaging to the city, however, is the demoralization suffered by the many dedicated professionals who toil in more than one thousand schools and are confronted with a culture of bureaucratic regulation that makes it impossible for them to perform their jobs well. Most tragic of all are the many thousands of youngsters whose lives are blighted because they are not well educated.
Although never the subject of song or story, the bureaucracy at 110 Livingston Street is justly fabled. With nearly 120,000 employees and a budget of approximately $8 billion, it is the largest government agency in the United States outside of Washington, D.C. Atop this massive structure sits a seven-member Board of Education, appointed by six political authorities: two members are appointed by the mayor, the others by the five borough presidents. Even at the highest level, it is impossible to discern who is ultimately responsible for what happens in the school system. The most important function of the board is to appoint a chancellor, who acts as the system's chief executive officer. Usually when the board is called upon to select a new chancellor, the process degenerates into an embarrassing spectacle that reveals the political divisions among its six appointing authorities.
There is no simple way to describe the bureaucracy at 110 Livingston Street. Even metaphors fail, for no one living species in the animal, plant, or marine kingdom suffices to capture its essence. Like a huge dinosaur, it is not particularly smart, has an insatiable appetite, moves awkwardly, yet exudes great power. Like wisteria, it is impossible to control; clip it back and it grows more vigorously than before. Like a giant octopus, its many tentacles reach fearlessly into every aspect of the school system. Livingston Street oversees personnel, budgetary, and building functions; determines who gets what supplies; oversees maintenance of the system's enormous inventory of buildings; supervises student transportation and the delivery of school breakfasts and lunches; and operates numerous educational and "support" functions, including special education, bilingual education, and school safety. It also runs the high schools.
The numbers of children served in the school system clearly require a large budget, but the system's administrators never seem to be able to manage the budget so that schools are well maintained, teachers are well paid, and materials are in good supply. In early 1996, newly appointed Chancellor Rudolph Crew released a fifty-five-page reorganization plan designed to "create the opportunity for cost savings" and "minimize, if not completely eliminate, organizational redundancies and inefficiencies." The proposal resulted in a net savings of $271,503 from a budget of $8 billion. One of the great misfortunes associated with the large expenditure of resources by the city school system is that the average classroom benefits relatively little. According to the board's own systemwide figures, only 42.2 percent of the school budget was spent on instruction in 1995-1996.
This diversion of funds from the classroom to administrative and support functions in the bureaucracy is typical of large American cities, but it stands in bold contrast to better-functioning systems in Europe and Asia, where the majority of professionals are in the classroom. Certain nonclassroom costs are unavoidable, like the expense of heating and repairing buildings, and the salaries of bus drivers, librarians, custodians, security guards, and cafeteria workers. Yet it is also clear that most of the necessary functions are overadministered and undersupervised. Some of these functions (school meals, for example) could be managed with greater efficiency by individual schools, and others could be delivered by municipal agencies (financial auditing by the Comptroller's Office, for example, and the screening and training of security guards by the Police Department).
There is a substantial body of research in the field of organizational studies that correlates organizational size with performance. It shows that economies of scale accompany growth to a certain point; then the pattern reverses, and "diseconomies" are associated with exceptionally large institutions. By most measures, Livingston Street has passed the threshold of inefficiency. It has a long history of mismanagement, waste, and corruption. An overview of the major divisions of the board suggests the complexity of the overall organization, which tends to be managed by inertia rather than by plan.
DIVISION OF SCHOOL SAFETY
The Division of School Safety is one of the largest urban police forces in the country. With a $70 million budget, it deploys a 3,000-person security force throughout city schools. Although unarmed, members of its uniformed force have been granted special officer status by the New York City Police Department, which empowers them to make arrests. The executive director of the division decides what kind of security is provided to each school. The principal has no control over the school's security detail, whose members are appointed by central authorities and report to them. The division has been the subject of numerous studies and investigations. In 1992, the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District issued a report documenting financial improprieties and nepotism in the upper ranks of the division. School safety officers themselves have been arrested for drug abuse, the sale of narcotics, and sexual misconduct with students. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has sought to transfer school security to the Police Department, while the Board of Education insists that the function must remain within its control.
BUREAU OF SUPPLIES
The Bureau of Supplies administers a $160 million budget under which everything from pencils, books, and chalk to computers, desks, and filing cabinets are purchased and allocated. In 1994, the U.S. Attorney, in cooperation with the Special Commissioner of Investigation, uncovered a system of fraud in which more than $125,000 was diverted for private use. Instead of using the funds to purchase school supplies, twenty-five employees conspired to apply the money toward personal expenses, financing, for example, vacations to Puerto Rico, mortgage and credit card payments, and jewelry purchases. A report prepared by the Special Commissioner described these findings as the "tip of the iceberg" and documented a procurement and purchasing system that invited corruption. In another incident a local news reporter for CBS made a video recording that showed employees from the bureau loading their private vehicles with items taken from the storehouse. People familiar with the workings of the school system often joke about the dead bodies buried in the bureaucracy. In early 1995 the figure of speech turned to reality when the remains of two skeletons were found in the furnace room of a warehouse. Investigators have tied the discovery to corruption within the bureau, but the case remains open. Many school principals believe that they could purchase supplies for their schools at lower cost than does the Bureau of Supplies and could be sure of having them available when needed instead of at the bureau's convenience.
OFFICE OF FOOD AND NUTRITION SERVICES
The Bureau of Supplies is administered by the same school official as the Office of Food and Nutrition Services. Despite the widely publicized incidents of corruption that were uncovered in the division, the chancellor and the Board of Education permitted the executive director to retain his position. In June 1995 the Special Commissioner of Investigation uncovered gross mismanagement practices in Food Services. Outdated and rancid food was being served to schoolchildren while funds were stolen by employees. Two-year-old turkeys, sixteen-month-old ground beef, and twenty-month-old beans, cheese, and corn were among the items being served in school cafeterias. The investigation was inspired by incidents of food poisoning among students. Mismanagement aside, there is reason to wonder why a single agency sets the menu for more than one million children every day and why this agency delivers precooked meals to schools that have their own kitchens and staff. Intelligent experimentation in a limited number of schools would quickly determine whether schools could do a better job of preparing nutritious meals than does the Office of Food and Nutrition Services, but the will to try something different has been lacking.
SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION AUTHORITY AND DIVISION OF SCHOOL FACILITIES
A number of units within the school system are responsible for the quality and condition of its thousand-plus school buildings. Among these are the School Construction Authority (SCA) and the Division of School Facilities. The SCA, which commands a $4 billion capital budget, oversees the construction and renovation of school buildings. It was created in 1988 as a separate authority with its own board because of dissatisfaction with the Board of Education's Division of School Buildings. That division, which had responsibility for construction and renovation as well as maintenance, had been plagued by allegations of incompetence and impropriety. The Division of School Facilities, which supervises maintenance and custodial services, is the remnant of that former unit. In 1994 school custodians signed a new contract with the city, which promised to give principals increased authority over custodians and to demand more accountability. These organizational and contractual changes, as bold as they seemed at their inception, have proven to be largely ineffectual. The overwhelming majority of schools continue to have custodians who report to "central," not to the principal; and the handful of schools that have "privatized" custodians have no role in selecting the company that provides these services: the central bureaucracy is in charge of that, too.
Most teachers and principals would agree that custodians have more control over the quality of their everyday lives than any other building personnel. Custodians have long enjoyed an unusually exalted position in the schools. They belong to one of the most powerful labor unions in the system and enjoy civil service protections, yet they operate as private entrepreneurs with the authority to hire their own employees. Functioning as a "quasi-independent contractor," each building custodian is given a budget ranging from $80,000 to $1,200,000--depending upon the size of the school--from which he hires helpers, buys equipment, and draws a salary.
For many years, few restrictions were placed on the employment practices of custodians, and it was customary for them to hire relatives. Some custodians have worked their way around more recent nepotism rules by hiring each other's relatives. Although the 1994 contract was supposed to give principals more supervisory authority over their building custodians, these personnel still report to the Division of School Facilities, which determines their assignment, retention, and terms of employment. Principals do evaluate their custodians, but the report is of little consequence. As recently as March 1996 an audit of the division's $188 million payroll by the city comptroller detailed widespread waste, mismanagement, and fraud in the overtime paid to custodial helpers. Previous inquiries had documented instances when custodians did not show up for work and maintained other jobs while under contract with the school system.
In June 1995 a blue-ribbon panel composed of executives from the real estate, financial, and corporate sectors prepared a thirty-eight-page report for Chancellor Ramon Cortines, documenting the deplorable conditions in school construction. Buildings were literally collapsing, the panel reported; crumbling walls, leaking roofs, and falling plaster were common. The study warned, "Unless immediate steps are taken to fix the buildings, we believe that school children, teachers and staff will be hurt or even killed." In spite of the alarming warning, no immediate action was taken.
In April 1996 reports emerged in the press concerning the mismanagement of the Board of Education's $170 million leasing program for private space to accommodate increasing enrollments. The Manhattan District Attorney launched an investigation of a $12 million lease agreement that had been negotiated by an employee who had resigned from the board to work for the landlord who won the contract. In some instances, the board leased space from tenants who made a huge profit by subletting, or from individuals who did not even own the building until after completing a lucrative contract with the board. Almost simultaneously, an inquiry by the state senate disclosed "serious problems"--delays, cost overruns, and dangerous conditions--in thirty of fifty-four building or renovation projects under the direction of the SCA. When leasing is necessary, it makes more sense for the board to engage commercial agents who are paid only for their performance, rather than using their own inexperienced employees.
DIVISION OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION
The Division of Bilingual Education administers programs to children with limited English proficiency. These programs are supposed to help approximately 150,000 immigrant students learn English. Under state law, students are not permitted to spend more than three years in bilingual programs unless the board applies for individual waivers from the state Department of Education. In 1994 the Board of Education released a report showing that tens of thousands of students had been permitted to languish in the programs for up to six years. The study indicated three-year exit rates of 37.9 percent for students entering in second grade, 15.0 percent for those entering in sixth grade, and 11.4 percent for those entering in ninth grade. The study highlighted great disparities in exit rates between bilingual programs, where classes are taught primarily in the students' native language, and English as a second language programs, where classes are conducted primarily in English. The board's report showed that students in ESL programs entered the English-speaking mainstream much faster than students in bilingual programs. A 1974 consent decree made it very easy for students to be assigned to bilingual classes. Any student who has a Hispanic surname or comes from a home in which no one speaks English is given an English language test. Students who score in the bottom 40 percent are assigned to bilingual education, even those who know more English than Spanish and hear English spoken at home. Once placed in bilingual education, the student finds it difficult to withdraw. The negative findings about the effects of bilingual education, as compared with English as a second language instruction, led to no substantive changes.
Shortly after the release of the board's 1994 report, the Bushwick Parents Association filed a suit seeking to end a practice whereby the state education commissioner routinely issues blanket waivers of the three-year limit at the request of local bilingual coordinators. The group, representing 150 Brooklyn families, complained that many of the teachers in the program do not speak English and contended that local administrators strive to keep enrollments high in order to protect their jobs. Although their claims have merit, the Bushwick parents face an uphill battle in court. Because the state commissioner was "following procedure," the practice was upheld by the trial court. The bilingual program continues to operate in response to the requirements of its administrators, rather than the students or their families. In a more rational setting, the program would be judged by its results, and its supposed beneficiaries would be allowed to choose whether to participate or enroll elsewhere.
The Decentralization Law enacted by the state legislature in 1969 was actually a political compromise that perpetuated the centralized bureaucratic system and parceled out control of the elementary and middle schools to elected local boards in thirty-two school districts. An outgrowth of the community power movement of the 1960s, the law was explicitly designed to create an institutional mechanism for giving parents access to and participation in educational decision making. By the middle of the decade, black and Hispanic children were a majority of the enrollment in the school system. Many parents within minority communities believed that the centralized bureaucracy was indifferent to the needs of their children. Political activists, especially antipoverty workers in minority communities, wanted to create power centers with control over budgets and hiring rather than continue to trust the closed system that had prevailed for more than a half century.
As the ancient Chinese curse augurs, the reformers of the day had their wish granted. Politics they wanted, and it was politics they got. The transfer of power was grudging and only partial. Demands for community control set the stage for one of the most divisive political struggles in the history of the city, with a variety of community activists on one side, bolstered by Mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation, arrayed against the teachers union on the other. Because most of the community activists were black and the educators were predominantly white and Jewish, the contest had an ugly racial and religious undertone that tainted local politics for years.
The decentralization law requires that school board elections be held every three years to elect nine-member boards in each of the thirty-two districts. School board elections have seldom drawn a turnout of more than 10 percent of eligible voters. The 5.2 percent turnout in 1996 was the lowest yet. Some would argue that the low turnout is a function of the electoral system itself--a confusing proportional voting scheme, using paper ballots that are cast in early May rather than on election day in November. It is also true that the communities are artificially drawn and that few eligible voters know or care who is running for the local school board. Or the participation rate may be a true barometer of the confidence that people have in the voting process and the boards that are elected. Whatever the reason, school board elections can hardly be viewed as models of democratic politics. The low turnout makes the elections fair game for organized interest groups, such as unions, political parties, and small bands of opportunists who see school politics as a well of patronage.
In 1993, the Special Commissioner of Investigation completed an inquiry into the school board election process that revealed "widespread fraud and corruption as well as administrative mismanagement." In one Manhattan district an undercover investigator was allowed to vote fifteen times under fifteen fictitious names; another did the same ten times in a neighboring district. This corruption spills over to the actual governance of the districts, where school boards control more than $100 million in funds, as well as the power to appoint district superintendents, administrators, principals, and thousands of paraprofessionals. It is not uncommon for teachers and paraprofessionals to be forced into political servitude by local board members--collecting petitions, fund raising, electioneering--as a price for professional advancement.
The story of wrongdoing within the districts has been told many times. One can pick up a New York newspaper almost weekly and read about jobs that were sold, nepotism in the hiring of principals, teachers who were pressured to attend political events for board members, money that was misappropriated for private use, or sex scandals or drug abuse involving school board members. Every year the chancellor goes through the almost ritualistic practice of suspending school boards for some kind of misconduct or just plain incompetence. The event usually attracts a great deal of media attention and head shaking by local politicians. But more often than not the same board members who were removed by the chancellor for malfeasance subsequently manage to get reelected in a political process that defies any form of accountability. The persistence of scandals involving local school boards finally prompted the state legislature to pass legislation in December 1996 that removed from the local boards the power to hire their district superintendent and shifted that decision to the chancellor. Decentralization has now been transformed to recentralization; the local elected school boards have been allowed to continue existing, albeit with greatly curtailed authority.
School decentralization in New York City is a conspicuous example of distorted public priorities. It allowed the elementary and middle schools of the city to develop into arenas for adult ambition and greed rather than as institutions dedicated to the well-being of children. A survey conducted by the Daily News in 1995, to which 236 out of 288 school board members responded, indicated that only 38 percent had children in the school system. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents did not know the size of their district budget or such basic information as enrollment data or test scores. Nearly half could not identify the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. New York may be unique in the way it permitted local politics to take the place of meaningful parent participation.
In its twenty-seven-year history, decentralization has produced change, but not necessarily change for the better. One of the first casualties of decentralization was the Board of Examiners, which administered examinations to teachers and administrators. Whatever the shortcomings of the examination system, there was at least consideration of merit in decisions about hiring and promotion. With the elimination of the examinations, such decisions are now routinely based on race and ethnicity at both the central board and the new local school districts. Meanwhile, the old factory still thrives at Livingston Street: issuing orders, writing regulations, imposing requirements; controlling all purchasing, maintenance, hiring, and assignment of personnel. For teachers and principals, the shift from decentralization to recentralization will scarcely be noticeable because most of the major functions of the schools never left Livingston Street. The old factory was always in control.
In January 1997 the commissioner of education released a new "state report card," measuring the performance of every public school in New York State. The devastating report revealed a dramatic performance gap between New York City schools and those in the rest of the state, a gap that persisted even when the socioeconomic characteristics of students were considered. Only 59 percent of third-graders and 64 percent of sixth-graders were found to be reading above the minimum competency level, compared with 90 percent of the third-graders and 91 percent of the sixth-graders in the rest of the state. This meant that 89 percent of all elementary schools in the city failed to meet the state's minimum expectation for performance (requiring 90 percent of a school's students to be reading at standard).
The math results were more positive--88 percent of the third-graders and 84 percent of the sixth-graders in the city meeting the standard--but they still showed city children to be lagging behind the rest of the state, where 99 percent of third-graders and 98 percent of sixth-graders met minimum standards. These disparities were also evident at the high school level, where only 32 percent passed the English Regents exam, compared with 52 percent in the rest of the state, and 45 percent of the ninth-graders passed the math Regents exam. The data are particularly disturbing when viewed in light of the large number of youngsters who never finish high school. Only 44.3 percent of high school students graduate within four years, less than 60 percent in five years.
The State Board of Regents regularly publishes a list of poorly performing schools throughout the state. As of 1996, a statewide list of ninety-eight such schools included ninety in New York City. The total could easily be doubled with the addition of city schools that have consistently demonstrated poor academic performance. When the state commissioner first published a list of the poorest performing schools in 1985, the criteria were more rigorous and there were 393 identified in New York City. These ninety institutions, now called Schools Under Registration Review (SURR Schools), epitomize the high tolerance for persistent failure exhibited by policy makers in the city and state. At the end of 1995, a newly appointed state education commissioner ordered the city Board of Education to take corrective action in sixteen of the schools or run the risk that those schools would be closed or reorganized. He set a deadline of two years for fourteen of the schools, and gave the other two an extra year to show improvement. Many of these schools had been on the failure list since 1989. No mention was made of the other seventy-four schools on the list. In July 1996 the regents announced that standards would be upgraded for determining when schools might be placed on the list and ultimately be eligible for closing.
Imagine being the parent of a child in a SURR school. If she had entered first grade in 1989, she might have spent all of her elementary school years in a failing institution. If she had entered school more recently and was in one of the sixteen institutions slated for corrective action, then she minimally might expect to spend about half her elementary school experience in a school recognized by state officials as totally inadequate. When we look at the performance goals set for these schools by the state, the prognosis for the child is even more discouraging. For PS 154 in Harlem, the 1995 target was to get 34.6 percent of the children in the third grade at or above the third-grade reading level; for PS 157 in the Bronx, the hope was to have 26.9 percent of the third-graders reading at or above grade level; and PS 304 in Brooklyn aspired to boost 12.3 percent of its third-graders to that standard. Most communities would find these low aspirations insulting.