Thoughts for the New NYC Schools Chancellor, Cathie Black


Amy Ellen Schwartz writes:

Cathie Black’s appointment as New York City Schools Chancellor came at a difficult period. While her predecessor, Joel Klein, enjoyed swelling public coffers and large increases in per pupil spending, Chancellor Black takes office at a time when the budget is shrinking, certainly significantly and maybe substantially.

At the same time, while Chancellor Klein claimed standardized test results “proved” his reforms were working, the recent adjustments in those metrics have fueled doubt about whether – and to what extent – his hallmark strategies such as replacing large comprehensive high schools with new, small schools and increasing school autonomy “worked”. Even more, the turmoil created by opening and closing schools – and the attendant expense — raises questions about the sustainability of these reforms.

Bottom line: Cathie Black faces considerable challenges in the months ahead and it behooves us to help her succeed. In that spirit, I offer the following suggestions.

Beyond “What Works”: While education officials and policy makers tout the importance of finding out “what works”, we need more than that. We need to figure out “what’s worth the money” or what gives the biggest bang for the public buck. Is the high cost of new small schools worth the money, or would we do better to invest in\mid-size schools or schools-within-schools? Unfortunately, relatively little attention has been paid to the costs of interventions and reforms and so the evidence base is thinner than it should be – this is a gap that needs to be filled.

Special Education is Critical:
Between 2002 and 2008, full-time special education students increased by 20 percent, from just over 82,000 to over 98,000. (That’s an increase from 7.5 to 9.5 percent of total enrollment.) At the same time, direct per pupil expenditures for special education increased 31 percent. Together, this means that Special Education eats up a larger and larger share of the budget, threatening to crowd out spending and services for general education students. (My forthcoming paper with Leanna Stiefel provides more detail.) While federal and state rules and regulations place significant restrictions on classification, services, and so on, the school district can and must find ways to deliver required services in the most cost effective way possible.

Don’t overestimate the value of value-added: Although evaluating the efficacy of teachers and schools using test score based value-added measures has undeniable intuitive appeal, the usefulness of these measures in improving schools now is much more limited than the publicity might suggest. For one thing, value-added measures can only be calculated for a fraction of teachers in NYC public schools. (Currently, only about one in five.). More importantly, however, it seems unlikely that value-added scores will identify significant numbers of previously unidentified “bad teachers” that can then be dismissed to make way for (or save the jobs of) otherwise-hidden ‘great teachers”. I am certain that value-added analyses have an important role to play in education policy and practice in the long run – and equally confident that the short-run returns will be fairly small.

Moving Matters:
Chancellor Klein was fond of saying that much of his reform efforts were guided by a desire to create a system of good schools and not a good school system. In practice this meant that accountability fell to individual schools for the students currently enrolled. Who, then, is responsible for making sure that students enroll in schools that can provide the services they need? That they choose “well”? In a different vein, a growing body of research shows that student mobility between schools- prompted, say, by family dissolution, foreclosure, or behavioral or academic problems – harms their performance and, potentially, affects their peers. Helping students navigate between schools, adjust to new environments, and succeed will mean attention and accountability for the school system and not just a collection of good schools.

One of my colleagues once claimed that every home in New York City was within walking distance of one of the best public schools in the country…. and one of the worst. As a parent and alum of the New York City public schools, I wish Cathie Black the best of luck in her effort to make all of our schools better.

References

Stiefel, L., Schwartz, A. E. (2011). “Financing K-12 Education in the Bloomberg Years, 2002-2008″ in Jennifer A. O’Day, Catherine S. Bitter and Louis M. Gomez (Eds.), Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation’s Most Complex School System (pp. 55-84). Cambridge MA: Harvard Education Press.
Stiefel, L., Schwartz, A. E., Conger, D. (2010). “Age of Entry and the High School Performance of Immigrant Youth.” Journal of Urban Economics, 67:303-314