Enabling School Leaders to Lead

Opinions here are my own and not those of the NYC Department of Education, where I serve as Deputy Chancellor.

The concept of principal “empowerment” lies at the heart of New York City’s comprehensive reform effort. In short, the idea is to put as many resources and as much authority as possible in the hands of school leaders and then the hold them strictly accountable for achievement gains. Towards this end, New York has dismantled significant parts of the bureaucracy and used the savings to devolve nearly $350 million directly to schools. While the NYCDOE continues to set the core curriculum and (needless to say) requires schools to comply with applicable legal and contractual provisions, principals (and their teams) are given broad latitude over such matters as scheduling, professional development, and budget. Indeed, schools are given the discretion to purchase “support services” directly from the district or even from outside organizations depending entirely on their own judgment about the school’s particular needs in meeting its ambitious achievement targets.

Although frequently mischaracterized as “site based management,” this is a far cry from “letting a thousand flowers bloom.” As noted, many key areas, such as core curriculum, are “held tight.” The biggest difference, however, is the most serious and consequential accountability system in the country. There is no greater path to madness than holding someone accountable and then not giving him or her the authority to deliver. By the same token, a central lesson from the early years of the charter school movement is that autonomy without meaningful accountability is equally misguided.

What is the big idea behind empowerment? Simply put, our view is that a “command and control” approach to system reform has proven moderately successful at eliminating the most embarrassing failures – raising the floor, so to speak. In the end, however, urban school districts that pursue this course inevitably encounter a “ceiling effect.” As Sir Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s former Education czar, noted his recently-published book, two additional points must be added to Jim Collin’s now famous continuum: Awful and Adequate are predecessor states to Good and Great. Top down management has proven reasonably promising at moving school systems from “awful” to “adequate.” Little empirical evidence, however, suggests the likelihood of further progress. “You cannot mandate greatness,” Joel Klein has observed, “it has to be unleashed.” Only by empowering schools with broad decision-making authority within the context of real accountability for results can we stimulate innovation and maximize the creative powers of our committed educators. Only then, can we move school systems to the next level.

–Guestblogger Chris Cerf

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