Principal Power Deconstructed:
A History of Reform

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has presided over three major reorganizations of the Department of Education since the state legislature gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg control of the city’s schools in 2002. The maps on the next four pages illustrate the successive changes in school governance in the years since.

With mayoral control, the state legislature eliminated the 32 elected community school boards that had run the elementary and middle schools since 1969, but left in place the 32 districts and their superintendents. As a first order of business Chancellor Klein dramatically reduced the district office staff and minimized the superintendents’ role. Since 2007, he has moved management of the school system to a “network” approach, where principals have no direct boss but instead work with other principals and school support staff to improve their schools. In return for freedom from routine supervision, principals sign contracts with the Department of Education (DOE) agreeing to be held accountable for progress in their schools.

Klein says these changes were designed to reduce the number of middle managers, make the bureaucracy more responsive to the needs of schools, and put decision-making power in the hands of the leaders closest to teachers and children. But these changes controversially abolished the day-to-day oversight of superintendents, leaving parents, local officials and the general public uncertain about who exactly oversees principals—and whom to complain to if there are problems in their schools.

(Currently, each school district has one family advocate assigned to respond to parents’ concerns. The superintendents are also supposed to be responsive, though they have other job duties that keep them busy. Alternatively, the DOE suggests that parents email the chancellor directly.)

The chancellor’s approach and philosophy has been dubbed “Children First” by the DOE. The core tenet is that principals must have both the power to run their schools as they see fit and the responsibility to do it well.

Other big cities have also been experimenting with principal autonomy, which has been studied and promoted by William Ouchi, a business consultant and scholar based at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Ouchi has published two books on the topic and argues that school system management should be built on “five pillars of school empowerment.” These include: school choice for families; principal control over budget, staffing, curriculum and scheduling; a careful system for hiring and training effective principals; a system of accountability; and a “weighted student formula” for budgeting in which school dollars follow the student, with needier students getting more dollars.

Ouchi credits these ideas to the district of Edmonton, Canada, and has written up the results of experiments in Boston, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Oakland and other cities. New York City, however, appears to have adopted the program most wholeheartedly. Chancellor Klein has put in place all of Ouchi’s elements—and has gone further by eliminating everyday oversight by superintendents and creating his school-based network approach to principal supports. An interesting epilogue, documented in Ouchi’s latest book, is that most of these cities have been forced to retreat from principal empowerment for reasons ranging from test cheating scandals in Houston to deep budget problems in Seattle. In a recent interview, Ouchi said that political forces tend to conspire against school autonomy. “Principal empowerment is fragile,” he says. What follows is a brief history of Klein’s district restructuring efforts.

NYC School Districts 1969-2003

NYC School Districts 1969 - 2003

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This map illustrates the district system that Chancellor Klein inherited. The 32 districts were created by the state legislature in 1969 in the wake of citywide protests by black and Hispanic parents who felt that New York City’s central board was unresponsive to their needs. The legislation created community school boards that controlled the elementary and middle schools in the district and, until 1996, also appointed their local superintendents. (The high schools remained the responsibility of the chancellor.) Each superintendent had a substantial staff responsible for day-to-day operations. Today, the districts and superintendents still exist as legal entities, but Klein has all but eliminated their power and influence.

NYC School Regions 2003-2007

NYC School Regions 2003-2007

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This map illustrates Chancellor Klein's first reorganization in 2003. He consolidated the city's 32 school districts into 10 regions in an attempt to improve the quality of instruction and reduce the bureaucratic headcount. He combined strong districts with weak ones, standardized staff development and instituted a citywide curriculum for reading and math. Operations—including budget, payroll, food services and transportation—were handled separately by newly established Regional Operations Centers. Some principals welcomed the regional structure, saying it allowed them to learn from schools in other neighborhoods. Others complained the regions micromanaged details as minute as how teachers arranged their classroom bulletin boards.

NYC School Support Organizations 2007-2010

NYC School Support Organizations 2007-2010

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In 2007, Chancellor Klein disbanded the regions and devolved power to principals, giving them more authority over budget, curriculum and hiring decisions in exchange for accountability, largely measured by benchmarks on standardized tests. Superintendents were banned from visiting schools uninvited, although they remained the principals' ostensible bosses and continued to produce their annual evaluations. The city handed instructional support and informal oversight over to 11 School Support Organizations (SSOs). Some, called Learning Support Organizations (LSOs), were run by the DOE, others by nonprofits or universities. By joining—and paying for—one of these SSOs, principals formed networks of like-minded colleagues. The most popular SSO was the Empowerment Support Organization, which charged relatively little for its services and promised light levels of intervention. The Regional Operations Centers were eliminated and replaced by boroughwide Integrated Service Centers, which took over responsibility for operations.

Early 2010-Present

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In January 2010, Chancellor Klein reorganized the school system once again, collapsing School Support Organizations and Integrated Service Centers into the new Children First Networks, an experiment first begun in 2009. These networks offer services similar to those once provided by the city's 32 school districts, combining instructional support with operations management such as payroll, human resources, legal services, food services and transportation. But unlike the old districts or the regions of 2003-07, Children First Networks are not defined by geography and may serve schools in three or more boroughs. The networks are managed by six "cluster leaders," one of whom oversees a few remaining School Support Organizations that are run by universities and nonprofits.