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Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Professor David Bloomfield on the Toxic State of New York City's Public Schools

David Bloomfield [Photo Credit: Paula Vlodkowsky]

David Bloomfield has been a widely-known speaker on the NYC Department of Education for many years, and his opinions are, in my opinion, well worth reading.

Betsy Combier
Editor, NYC Rubber Room Reporter

Opinion: A Leadership Perspective on the ‘Toxic’ State of Our Schools

By , City Limits, September 5, 2023.

I have been teaching educational leadership in the CUNY system for almost 25 years. My former students are now peppered throughout the New York City Public Schools and often honor me by reporting back about their current experiences. As would be expected, they have a broad range of opinions about the state of our schools, but recently, many of these stories coalesce into a perceived environment that one ex-student summarizes as “toxic.”

Mayor Eric Adams, it should be remembered, came into office with a scant record on school policies. His expertise and campaign focused on criminal justice. He chose David Banks as his schools' chancellor, a former principal with no experience even as a district superintendent but who has a long association with Adams, is the partner of now-First Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright, and the brother of Deputy Mayor Philip Banks.

As one of his first acts, Banks appointed a Florida superintendent, Desmond Blackburn, to a new post, deputy chancellor for school leadership, to supervise the Department of Education’s 45 district superintendents who, in turn, supervise the DOE’s more than 1,500 principals. Banks also demanded the resignation of all district superintendents, at first refusing to let any reapply, then relenting after widespread criticism. But the message was clear: the new cohort of superintendents would be controlled by Banks, Blackburn, and Blackburn’s new special assistant, Tracey Collins, the mayor’s partner.

Amid this tight inner-circle and superintendent churn, Blackburn soon resigned, followed by the DOE’s chief strategy officer, chief technology officer, chief communications officer, and executive director of the Office of Safety and Youth Development, all within the first one and a half years of the Banks’ chancellorship.

Before he left, Blackburn instituted what has become known as “the hot seat,” where superintendents are interrogated on their district’s performance. Modeled on the police department’s CompStat system of precinct accountability, the DOE’s version, according to Blackburn, is “supposed to be purposely agitating” as superintendents are grilled in front of peers and supervisors.

But the DOE is not—or at least should not be—a paramilitary force like the NYPD. Superintendents, as professional educators, are not generally prone to top-down directives and supervisors’ intentionally-inflicted, semi-public agitation. Rather, in the education context, the idea of a collaborative “learning organization,” in Peter Senge’s phrase, is a preferable, more supportive, and lasting form of supervision for system improvement.

As reported by my former students and others, this recipe of cronyism, turnover, and intimidation has produced the toxic culture now facing principals. Faced with myriad, frequently changing Central demands—such as the quickly introduced then as quickly abandoned Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) screening tool—and overwhelming administrative paperwork, the need to implement new reading curricula dictated by the chancellor, enroll high numbers of new immigrants, reduce high rates of absenteeism and disciplinary problems, address post-pandemic interrupted learning, and care for student mental health issues, principals are not faring well. Many are contemplating retirement before they had planned.

Take the reading issue. The profession is designed for principals to serve as schools’ instructional leaders. Yet, in selecting three phonics-based reading curricula for the coming year, Banks—over the principals’ union’s objection—handed the choice of which will be taught to his hand-picked superintendents who almost universally chose a single product, the cheapest. Even if there were apt reasons for Banks’ delegation, the result has been catastrophic for principal morale and the odds of program success.

Schools within a district can have high variability. Principals know their staff, students, and families and, attuned to this, curriculum selection is a key professional responsibility. To take away that discretion is an insult and, one long-serving principal told me, was the deciding factor in their quitting. If they were no longer trusted to choose key, system-approved reading texts and attendant professional development, the job had become intolerable. Even waivers from this directive were mishandled. Principals could choose their own curriculum if 85 percent of students met proficiency standards. Reportedly one principal, done in by an over-scrupulous district obsession with numerical data, failed to meet the mark with an 83.5 percent rate because of a high number of students opting-out of state tests.

Enrollment of immigrant students is another point of toxicity. Not, as might be assumed, the difficulties of teaching newly arrived students. Those are tasks principals normally handle, even welcome. But the centrally-driven, disproportionate enrollment of immigrant middle and high school students selectively concentrated in our highest needs schools is another breaking point. Our many screened schools are immunized from accepting these students so, instead, Borough Placement Centers repeatedly send immigrant students to the same open-enrollment schools despite resources so stretched that adequate instruction, including special education, and other supports are impossible to provide. But the principal is held accountable, berated for underperformance by a stressed superintendent after their own “hot seat” quiz. And so it goes.

These challenges pale compared to the increasing, everyday needs of students. The pandemic has brought a host of student challenges that shrinking budgets fail to address. Principals need more instructional and support staff, but disappearing federal dollars and lower enrollments frequently result in less money. Fixed costs and pressures for improved performance demand the same or greater expenses. Quick and dirty solutions encouraged by central policies, such as NX grading to provide students with empty credits, save money but at the price of lower educational quality. The temporary help of district-based coaches and other itinerant personnel fails to adequately solve these problems and adds to managerial confusion because of mixed reporting lines and sudden redeployments.

With the start of a new school year, Adams and Banks have a chance to learn from the toxicity now besetting our schools. There is some indication that this is the case. A promise to “reinvent” special education and a new consent decree to improve services for students with disabilities may make a difference. A “Blueprint for Public Safety,” despite its criminal justice focus, includes over $200 million for education, recreation, and mental health services.

But these targeted initiatives don’t get to the heart of the problem. Banks needs to show more openness to outside voices, improve staff stability, and demonstrate trust in decentralized decision-making to create a healthier mix of resource and educational strategies at the school level. Most of all, he needs to earn support from principals who have been alienated by insular leadership; frequently changing top-down mandates; burdensome paperwork; brutalized supervisory policies; and inadequate professional delegation.

Without the renewed confidence of principals, the administration’s agenda for improved student outcomes cannot be achieved.