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Lessons—For Urban Schools Chiefs, Goals Hopelessly at Odds

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON DECEMBER 29, 1999 ]

For Urban Schools Chiefs, Goals Hopelessly at Odds

By  Richard Rothstein

The sudden firing of Rudy Crew as New York City schools chancellor last week may have been a shock, but no one should have been surprised. It reflected conflicts common to large urban districts.

The big three — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — have centralized authority in leaders who are expected to pursue two contradictory objectives. They must hold every subordinate educator accountable for a single, centrally defined goal: higher test scores. At the same time, they must inspire bottom-up initiative, professionalism and creativity in principals and teachers. They can’t do both. Conscientious chancellors who understand this inevitably end up showing insufficient enthusiasm; those who don’t wind up making fools of themselves.

Those politicians and advocates who demand uniform standards are the same ones who urge more local control, varied charter schools and professional autonomy. They say these can be reconciled by holding educators accountable for results, while allowing discretion in how to achieve them. But the more one-dimensionally they define results, the less varied the paths to them can be. They like to say they are working on a business model, but this is not how private industry does things. No successful corporation evaluates managers or judges products only by short-term sales.

Dr. Crew’s dismissal followed nearly identical events in Los Angeles, where, on a 4-to-3 vote in October, Mayor Richard J. Riordan’s loyalists on the school board forced out Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. Dr. Zacarias had pledged to abolish social promotion, to focus on tests and to punish low-scoring schools, but the board’s majority was impatient with the pace of reform. He was Los Angeles’s fourth failed superintendent of the decade. His temporary replacement, Ramon Cortines, was Dr. Crew’s predecessor in New York.

In a desperate plea to save his job, Dr. Zacarias promised to raise scores by five percentile points a year, for five years. Most Los Angeles students are poor, and many barely speak English, but Dr. Zacarias improbably proposed to make them more literate than the vast majority of American children.

He also vowed to divide the school system into 12 semiautonomous districts. But autonomy would have inevitably conflicted with single-minded pursuit of his “5 percent plan.” This pandering to the board’s two conflicting obsessions — test scores and decentralization –embarrassed even his own supporters.

In Chicago, Paul Vallas has led the schools for four years under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s control. But with scores still far below New York’s, tranquillity may soon end. Some experts recently charged that the city’s vaunted abolition of social promotion had not lifted achievement. And a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that Chicago scores had been so tainted by “teaching to the test” that nobody could say whether real progress had occurred.

Giant urban districts were created 100 years ago to limit ethnic ward leaders’ power to dispense school jobs as patronage. When personnel and purchasing policies became rule-bound, both malfeasance and responsiveness were replaced by honest mediocrity. But principals and teachers still had freedom to design instruction. Some did it well; others failed miserably.

Now we have added curriculum and testing to the functions where local discretion can’t be trusted. Chicago now distributes scripts to replace teachers’ lesson plans. The scripts are of good quality and, so far, voluntary. But while they can prevent bad teaching, they can also prevent more creative teaching.

Dr. Crew’s apparent indecisiveness about whether he wanted to remain chancellor may have reflected regrets about his past obsequiousness to the priorities of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Staking all on one test, the chancellor then found that held-back students and fired principals were innocent victims of a test publisher’s arithmetic errors. But it was Dr. Crew’s willingness to define accountability by this one-size-fits-all measure that left the victims unprotected.

In a farewell statement, Dr. Crew properly boasted of having created an “accountable, performance-based system focused on student achievement.” It’s too bad he didn’t also include a protest: While high scores are important, schools should also evoke students’ varied creative, moral, intellectual and vocational ambitions. Only some can be measured by multiple-choice questions.

No chancellor can define the perfect balance between these outcomes, but the pendulum has swung too far. The board has determinedly focused on basic skills, and schools would now benefit from a period of politicians’ benign neglect.

Candidates for urban school leadership may make such pleas. But in today’s frenzied climate, those who do so are unlikely to be hired.

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