Thursday, December 07, 2006

School Reform--NY Style

On Monday, the NY Times featured an article on Dr. Kathleen Cashin, the regional superintendent of Region 5 of teh NY City School system. The piece, which adoringly discusses Dr. Cashin's successes, and rightfully so, tries to cast the education debate in New York City as Cashin's way versus Klein's way, with Klein being Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
Dr. Cashin’s results should be an easy reason for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to gloat, a triumph in their takeover of the nation’s largest school system. But in many ways, her success raises questions about the thrust of their recent efforts to reshape the school bureaucracy.

While Mr. Klein has derided the “status quo crowd” and sought to bring outsiders into the administration, Dr. Cashin is a lifelong city educator. While Mr. Klein wants to free principals from the control of superintendents like her, Dr. Cashin believes even the best principals need an experienced supervisor.

Where Mr. Klein insists that school administration must be reinvented to reverse generations of failure by generations of educators, Dr. Cashin, a product of the old system, insists she can get results with a clear instructional mission, careful organization and a simple strategy of every educator’s being supported by an educator with more experience.
But if you read a little further, Dr. Cashin's ways are more authoritarian than the decentralization approach favored by Mr. Klein and Mayor Bloomberg. While Klein and Bloomberg prefer giving principals more autonomy to address the peculiar needs of their individual schools and students, Cashin takes the opposite approach, detailing curricula and lesson plans, effectively rendering moot the role of the principal as an educator and making the individual school administration almost trivial.
"We are relentless," Dr. Cashin said in a recent interview. "The secret is clear expectations. Everything is spelled out. Nothing is assumed." She provides her principals, for instance, with a detailed road map of what should be taught in every subject, in every grade, including specific skills of the week in reading and focus on a genre of literature every month. (emphasis added)
Dr. Cashin's methodology certainly does free up administrator and teacher time from planning a curriculum and developing lesson plans in order to focus on teaching. But here underlying message is not all that different from other school reform efforts, including those of Mr. Klein. Being relentless in the pursuit of learning for students, setting clear expectations of students, of teachers and of administrators and parents, and making no assumptions about anything. These are common element in just about every school reform proposal out there. Without clear standards and expectations, little success can be achieved by design.

What Cashin has done is to choose an alternative means to the very same end. Instead of holding individual principals accountable for their school's performance, Cashin has chosen to take such responsibility for herself. By relegating the school level administrators generally obsolete, she has fashioned an relatively autocratic scenario that has produced results. Clearly such an approach has worked for her and her schools. While no one can argue with her success, it does raise the question as to whether or not her process is replicable.

No doubt that Dr. Cashin is a forceful personality, such traits seem readily apparent from just the article. But in her feifdom, she has created a cult of personality, her personality, that may not be replicable on a broader scale or anywhere else for that matter.

But it may not need to be replicable on a broader scale. Perhaps Dr. Cashin's approach can work hand in hand with that of Mr. Klein as a sort of carrot and stick approach. A need for school leaders of both types will always exist and it need not be a zero-sum game between the two approaches. After all, the goal is a better education for our kids and sometimes you need a iron fist inside and velvet glove to achieve your goal.

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