If Kathleen Cashin can win the respect of the late Sonny Carson and Father John (now Monsignor) Powis (two guys I met almost 40 years ago as a rookie teacher in Ocean Hill) as well as the folks of of her native Bay Ridge, than not only does she deserve to be chancellor, but she deserves to be mayor. This is from a 10/02 piece in the NYTimes:
For much of 1968, J.H.S. 271, a junior high school in the impoverished central Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, served as the command center for one of the great, agonizing racial psychodramas in New York history. It was from here that a ''planning council'' of activists and parents ran the local schools in an experiment, financed by the Ford Foundation, in ''community control.'' The premise of community control was that ghetto children were failing in school, not because of the terrible problems of inner-city life but because of neglect, even hostility, from the system's overwhelmingly white teachers and administrators. Community control, or, as it came to be known, decentralization, would empower those who cared most about the children -- parents, elders, neighborhood leaders -- to guide their education.
It was not an absurd premise, but it was probably inevitable, at that turbulent moment, that community control played itself out in strictly racial terms. The planning council -- that is, the newly established local school board -- sent dismissal letters to 19 teachers and administrators, all but one of them white and Jewish. The teachers' union responded by going out on strike; a judge forced the local board to take back the teachers; and soon young men wearing Black Panther berets and bandoliers were terrorizing the teachers on the steps of J.H.S. 271 while police officers and demonstrators were fighting pitched battles in front of the school on Herkimer Street.
Black activists and their supporters demanded community control for the entire system, citywide. And with the threat of riots hanging over the city, their demands could not be resisted. In 1969, the New York State Legislature rewrote the law governing the city's schools, granting virtually total control over elementary and middle schools to local school boards. (High schools were kept under central administration.) Overnight, the New York City education system was turned upside down.
Today, the school, which is now called I.S. 271, still stands on Herkimer Street -- a long, low, grim building protected from the street by hurricane fencing, though whether the fencing is designed to keep students in or intruders out isn't clear. A poster in the main hallway features photos of students with the all-too-telling caption, ''Graduates Who Rose Above the Ruins.'' It is the ruins that the visitor is likely to notice. In 2001, 13.5 percent of the school's eighth graders passed the state math test. This past summer, the building was filled with children assigned to summer school after having failed classes during the year. The school's interim principal until the fall term, JoAnne Finkel, admitted that many of her eighth graders will be forced to repeat the grade, though she observed with no little relief that most of the overage kids will be sent somewhere else.
It is safe to say that whatever effect decentralization had on the school and on Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and on poor communities throughout New York, was negative. Among all the experiments forced on a reluctant city by the turmoil of the 60's, community control was arguably the most harmful. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tried, and failed, to eliminate decentralization. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tried again -- and succeeded. Earlier this year, the State Legislature undid community control, placed the independent citywide Board of Education, which ran the system, under the mayor's control and scheduled the demise of the local boards for the end of the current school year. This is widely considered the greatest legislative achievement of Bloomberg's first year in office.
Until next June, however, the local board of Ocean Hill-Brownsville -- District 23, in the system's parlance -- is still meeting and still making life difficult for Dr. Kathleen Cashin, the talented and dedicated woman who serves as the district superintendent. In short, it's a little premature for an autopsy. Nevertheless, as this 30-odd-year experiment breathes its last, it is worth understanding how community control operated in practice in the place where it was born, whether its failure was preordained and exactly what the role of local communities is in education. And as New York finally makes straight the labyrinthine ways of its school system, it is worth asking whether governance has anything at all to do with the real problems of the schools in places like Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
''Community'' was a word to conjure with in the 1960's. As far back as 1963, the Kennedy administration began toying with the idea of ''community action'' in hard-hit areas, and L.B.J. soon made it the centerpiece of the War on Poverty. Entire programs, notably including Head Start, were designed to be run by the beneficiaries themselves. As Nicholas Lemann writes in ''The Promised Land,'' a history of the black migration to the North, ''community action's rhetoric of empowerment fit perfectly with the idea that ghetto society was not in any way weak or flawed or in need of middle-class outsiders to take it by the hand.'' The ''community'' needed only political power to effect its own transformation. And this was precisely the rhetoric of both the local activists in the decentralization struggle and the Ford Foundation, which represented the world of elite opinion. The problem ''is not with the learner,'' the Ford Foundation official who supervised the community-control experiment wrote at the time. ''It is with the institution.''
The general distrust of bureaucracies and the belief in the self-sufficiency of communities merged with a larger crisis of faith in education. Many of the educational critics of the 1960's, including Herbert Kohl and John Holt, were less interested in the schools' effectiveness than in the power structure that they felt the schools reflected and reinforced; perhaps ''effectiveness'' was itself an instrument of middle-class authority. And so while it may seem obvious in retrospect that decentralization was a political solution to an educational problem, the debate took place at a time when all great issues were understood as being fundamentally political in nature.
And then politics took its revenge. In ''The Great School Wars,'' the educational historian Diane Ravitch quotes an expert in school management as testifying at the time that the plan ''has built-in political patronage, it has built-in inefficiency and squandering of public funds in procurement of construction, it has built-in destruction of a merit system.'' The decentralization law gave local boards throughout the city control over tens of millions of dollars (a figure that has reached more than $100 million today); and it gave them control over the hiring and firing of principals, assistant principals, innumerable low-level employees and the district's own superintendent. Especially in poor communities, with high rates of unemployment, this was a jackpot of incalculable size. And so, inevitably, local politicians came to see the school board in exactly the same way that the sachems of Tammany Hall viewed municipal government in the days before the Civil Service exam -- as a giant patronage mill.
The struggle over community control had attracted at least as many dedicated idealists to Ocean Hill-Brownsville as it had troublemakers. But the reality principle asserted itself as soon as the new law came into force. The first local board president was Assemblyman Sam Wright, the neighborhood strongman. Wright controlled the board in a loose alliance with the teachers' union, which had fought decentralization every step of the way. The Rev. John Powis, the ''worker priest'' who helped lead the fight for community control, watched in dismay as Wright's forces brought in as the first superintendent Nellie Duncan, whom Powis recalls as ''a nice woman from Bed-Stuy'' -- the adjoining black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant -- but not a great educator.'' Wright was kicked off the board when he was convicted of soliciting $5,000 from an educational-materials company, but his allies remained in control.
The pattern was set: local satraps fought for control of the board -- usually through proxies running on ''slates'' -- and then used majority power to distribute patronage and install a compliant superintendent. In 1978, a slate loyal to Representative Major Owens captured the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board. One of the winners was Martha Rodriguez-Torres, a young teacher whose mother had been a local activist and Owens supporter. Torres is now the principal of one of District 23's most successful schools, but at the time she was, she acknowledges, an operative. ''You commit to a particular platform,'' Torres explains, ''and sometimes you don't even ask questions.'' I asked what her slate's platform had been. ''The major item was getting rid of the superintendent,'' Torres recalled blandly. And what was wrong with Nellie Duncan? ''She was politically connected to the opposing group.'' Out went Duncan, in came an Owens loyalist, Carlos Edwards. When I asked Torres if Edwards improved the schools, she said, ''No.'' Nothing disturbed the district's place at or near the bottom of the city on test scores.
The people who really cared about the schools in the neighborhood simply gave up on the board. For one thing, an incredibly complicated voting system, devised to ensure minority representation, had the perverse effect of making it virtually impossible for an individual running alone to win a seat on the board; you had to join a slate, and slates were devised in the clubhouses. And it was obvious that the boards had nothing to do with education. As Wilma Carthan, director of community affairs for a local health center and a highly respected force in the neighborhood, points out, ''you don't have to know about curriculum development'' to be a board member. A 1987 study found that only one-quarter of board members citywide had children in their district's schools. The study also found that 37 percent of board members conceded that patronage was a problem in their district, while an additional 22 percent said that patronage occurred but was ''not a problem.'' They had been Tammanyized.
Starting in the late 1980's, New Yorkers began to hear a cascade of tales about school board corruption -- the Bronx board president who took bribes (including a white cashmere coat), the Brooklyn rabbi who siphoned off millions. But the financial damage has paled next to the educational damage that comes of several generations of mediocre or outright incompetent superintendents and principals installed by boards. When I went to see Monsignor Powis, now pastor of St. Barbara's, in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn bordering Ocean Hill-Brownsville, he told me that District 23 was lucky. His superintendent in Bushwick, he said, ''failed as an assistant principal, failed as a principal, and now he's superintendent.''
Powis, once decentralization's most fiery white advocate, added, ''I would be satisfied with the new chancellor if in his first year he gets rid of at least 10 or 12 superintendents.'' Harold O. Levy, who stepped down in August as the last chancellor under the old dispensation, told me that he would have fired far more superintendents than he had, but he was afraid that the local boards would have insisted on someone even worse.
The local boards, however, were only the most awful symptom of a systemwide ailment. The structure devised by the State Legislature in 1969 made the New York City schools chancellor answerable to a citywide central board whose nine members were appointed by the mayor and the borough presidents. What this meant, in effect, was that the superintendents put in place by the local boards were not responsible to the chancellor; the chancellor was not responsible to the mayor; and the central board was not responsible to anyone. As Joseph Viteritti, a professor at New York University and at one time the special assistant for management policy to Schools Chancellor Frank Macchiarola, says: ''The chancellor had to spend an extraordinary amount of time bringing together five members'' -- a working majority -- ''of a disparate board in order to get anything done. Once you did adopt policy, you needed to implement it -- and then you needed the cooperation of local school boards, over which you had no power. And if they didn't agree, you wouldn't be able to implement policy.''
Decentralization essentially turned the district superintendents into minichancellors. Levy told me a story that his predecessor, Rudy Crew, told him: when Crew took over in 1995, he called a meeting of the 32 superintendents, and a number didn't even deign to show up. ''It was a matter of principle for them not to respond to any central authority,'' Levy says. Crew was so infuriated that he immediately began lobbying state legislators to strip boards of their power over personnel decisions; in 1996, he succeeded. The new law stipulated that the chancellor would confirm recommendations for superintendent made by newly established local, independent committees; the local boards would then simply rubber-stamp the chancellor's choice. This was the beginning of the end for community control.
As it happened, in 1996 a new majority had unseated the old in District 23. The reconfigured local board immediately sought to replace the superintendent, Michael Vega, who had ruled since 1982, presiding over a district that ranked dead last in the city in reading scores. But the board deadlocked over a successor. Then the new rules took effect. The community -- the real community -- suddenly saw a role for itself. The most dedicated parents, along with community activists like Wilma Carthan, joined the selection committee. And the members quickly fixed on Kathy Cashin, who had had great success as the principal of an elementary school elsewhere in Brooklyn and who was well prepared, eager and nervy enough to take on the board. Cashin, however, was also white, and the board president, Joseph Gabriel (nephew of the local assemblyman), made it plain that he would not accept a white candidate. After all, this was Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
As Denise Harper, a parent who served as the committee's co-chairwoman, recalls: ''I told Gabriel to go somewhere, sit down and shut up. And a few of the other parents had the same attitude. They said: 'Our district is last in the city. They could be Greek from Hong Kong and we don't care, if they know what they're doing.''' Harper says that she and others got threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, the committee sent Crew a list of three candidates, with Cashin on top. Here, for a moment, was a sign of what ''community control'' could have meant had it been born under a very different star.
The district board, however, was not about to surrender to a choice whose only merit was merit. Chancellor Crew accepted Cashin, but the board, in an act of open defiance, insisted on a black candidate instead. Crew suspended the board and appointed three trustees with instructions to vote for Cashin. At a wild board meeting in March 1998, Sonny Carson, a notorious rabble-rouser who led protests during the community-control struggle, shouted that Cashin should ''go back where she belongs.'' Carson was ignored, the trustees voted Cashin in and parents lined up to greet and kiss her. The community had finally wrested the schools away from the local board -- a thought that confounds the simpler notions of political change associated with the 60's.
The board has not, however, gone quietly into its senescence. Four members of the board have been suspended since 1998. The most recent, Reginald Bowman, who runs the tenant association of the local housing projects, was president of the board until he was suspended this past July. The Board of Education's Office of Special Investigations concluded that Bowman had knowingly signed falsified time cards submitted by his secretary on 22 occasions, purposely overspent the school-supply budget two years running and converted supplies to personal use. Bowman rejects all the allegations and accuses Cashin of waging a campaign of ''character assassination'' against him. He may have tried to exact his own form of revenge. A few weeks before Bowman was formally suspended, an otherwise unidentified ''coalition of parents and educators'' sent Chancellor Levy a letter accusing Cashin of treating the community ''how Master treated the slaves way back when'' and demanding her immediate dismissal. (Bowman says he had nothing to do with the letter.) It was as if the spirit of Ocean Hill-Brownsville past was trying to make a comeback.
People in Ocean Hill-Brownsville often say that the schools have already made more progress under Kathy Cashin than they did in all those years of homegrown, ethnically correct leadership. In the last three years, district scores have gone up 4.7 percent in literacy and 6.2 percent in math -- pretty modest, but not compared with years in the doldrums. Those in the neighborhood whom I talked with were inclined to give all the credit to their superintendent. Parents in particular spoke of Cashin with reverence. ''All the things that are happening are happening because of Dr. Cashin,'' Natalie Williams, the mother of a first and a sixth grader who is active in the parents' association at their school, said to me.
Cashin's stature in the community demonstrates how much leadership matters, and her accomplishments show what inspired leadership can do in the absence of crippling obstructions. With the board stripped of its power over patronage, Cashin fired incompetent principals, replacing them in several cases with assistant principals who might otherwise have languished for years. And though her predecessor, Michael Vega, had allowed principals to run their schools as they saw fit, Cashin did not. She installed Core Knowledge, a demanding, fact-based curriculum, in several elementary schools, as well as a ''balanced literacy'' program mixing some ''whole language'' instruction with phonics. The principals seem to have welcomed the direction. Alice Gottlieb, the principal of P.S. 137, says that she had never heard of Core Knowledge before Cashin brought it to her attention, though she was immediately attracted to its old-fashioned rigor.
Cashin is a formidable, and formidably ladylike, figure -- tall enough to look a bellowing board member in the eye and self-possessed enough not to flinch while doing so. She practices a rigorous self-control in the face of inanities and distractions; Denise Harper marvels at the poker face she wears during interminable board meetings. When I visited Cashin in her office over the summer, she told me: ''Large-scale change has to have a strong element of top-down assertiveness. The bottom-up is the balance.'' Top-down, she went on to say, also means prescriptive. ''Having clearly defined lessons is the key,'' she said. ''The mistake we make is just giving them standards. It's nice to have standards, but that's the what. How do you do it? How do you teach it?''
Her teachers now have lesson plans for each class, though Cashin says that she is delighted when teachers want to argue with the content of the lesson. Over the summer she and her staff worked on breaking out every single skill required in the state's fourth- and eighth-grade English and math tests, and then reshaping instruction to focus on those skills.
Cashin is not only a leader but also an expert. She reads the educational literature and knows the difference between good and bad pedagogy. Community control was born at a time when questions of expertise paled beside what appeared to be large questions of justice; but those abstractions now look like yesterday's cultural politics. Even Sonny Carson astonished me by saying of the superintendent, ''Anything she wants me to do, I will be right there to support her.'' Carson actually conceded that his demand for a black superintendent was ''a mistake.'' Perhaps we truly have reached a point of depoliticization in education.
Cashin has also put an end to the false polarity between ''the community'' and ''the system.'' She is a ubiquitous figure in the neighborhood. She meets constantly with parents and listens to their concerns, as her predecessors, for all their official community-approved status, did not. And that turns out to be quite enough ''control'' for the members of the community who really matter -- the handful of mothers at each school who volunteer for everything, and the larger circle of parents who make sure that their kids do their homework, come what may.
"The governance question is the beginning of reform,'' says Seymour Fliegel, a former superintendent and now the head of the Center for Educational Innovation. ''Some people think it's the end of the reform; it's what you do with the governance.'' Rudolph Giuliani seemed to think that mayoral control was not just the means but the end. Virtually the only reform he ever proposed for the schools was a very divisive bid to let parents use vouchers to opt out of the system altogether. The comparison with the Police Department is instructive: Giuliani and his initial police chief, William Bratton, knew exactly what they wanted the police to do differently -- to use statistics as a means of accountability, to stop tolerating low-level crime, to aggressively remove guns from the street -- and they used their authority to transform the culture of the police force. Giuliani had no such plans for the schools. Does Bloomberg?
The answer appears to be no. Joseph Viteritti, whom the mayor has consulted on school issues, says that the Bloomberg administration has not had a clear agenda, though he hopes one may develop soon. Diane Ravitch, the educational historian and policy expert, who has also spoken with Bloomberg and his leading officials, says that she has the same impression. I put the question to Dennis Walcott, the deputy mayor in charge of education, and he said: ''The mayor has been very clear that it is his commissioners, and in this case the chancellor, who articulate the vision. You don't want a City Hall that's micromanaging how educational policy is carried out.''
And yet the man the mayor chose as the new chancellor, Joel I. Klein, is a high-powered attorney with essentially no background in education. Where is the equivalent of Compstat or the Broken Windows theory to come from?
Bloomberg is a technocratic figure who tends to think that if he gets the process right, he will get the content right. This is not an entirely unreasonable belief in the case of the schools, for the very act of creating a clear system of accountability and authority should embolden the system's actors to do what they think is right rather than whatever will keep them out of trouble. Nevertheless, reform is not self-implementing. Kathy Cashin has succeeded, insofar as she has, not only because she cares about doing the right thing but also because she has a very specific idea of what that right thing is, and she has been willing to use her authority to shape classroom instruction according to that idea. Agnosticism about means is enjoying a vogue in educational circles, in part because it grants individual school leaders great autonomy. But some things work better than others, especially in troubled, inner-city schools. You need, as Cashin says, top-down and bottom-up. Perhaps, as Diane Ravitch suggests, the system should centralize decisions about curriculum and pedagogy.
One of the mothers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville said to me, ''If you want a good laugh, go to a board meeting.'' And so, in early August, I did. The meeting of the local board was held in the district's conference room, an oversize classroom. Six of the nine board members had gathered, and they sat at a long table facing the audience, which consisted of eight or nine mothers and their restless children. Dorothy Ellis, an 81-year-old retiree who had reluctantly replaced Reggie Bowman as board president, or so she said, opened the meeting with what appeared to be a routine motion to approve the minutes of the previous meeting. The motion proved surprisingly controversial. Another board member, Marie Monk, observed with elaborate courtesy that since only three board members -- two shy of a quorum -- had attended that meeting, the minutes could not be official and thus could not be approved. There was some discussion as to whether the logjam could be broken by substituting a word other than ''meeting.'' No such word was found. The minutes were not accepted.
Ellis then invited Superintendent Cashin to present her own agenda. Cashin proceeded to crisply and enthusiastically run down a long list of bullet points. Ellis graciously thanked the superintendent. After a wrangle among the board members over who would head the various committees to study this or that problem, Ellis began a rather mysterious monologue on ''the sunset law.'' Several of the city's local boards, including hers, were planning to challenge the new governance law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act, and Ellis had been doing some research into it. ''We do have rights under the New York State and federal Constitution,'' Ellis solemnly explained to her baffled audience. ''We are dealing with a contract with the superintendent; that contract has been violated and ignored. I believe the federal Constitution protects this under Article 1, Section 10.'' A confused discussion of ''contracts'' and ''the sunset law'' ensued.
Cashin commenced, involuntarily, to yawn. Some of her aides looked on in open stupefaction. Denise Harper rolled her eyes and wrote scathing notes for her own amusement. After two hours, the meeting clanked to an end, with a promise of further enlightenment and debate.
Harper called me the next day; she felt that she had to explain the board's performance. The board members had apparently been cowed into respectability by the presence of the news media. It had been, she said, the shortest and most professional meeting in memory. She remains hopeful, as do the other parents and indeed nearly everyone I spoke with -- save some members of the local board -- that the Justice Department will dismiss any legal challenge, and that Ocean Hill-Brownsville will soon be liberated from community control.