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The Past Is Prologue To The Future

Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward. He formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

It was thirty years ago this month that Joseph Fernandez began his tenure as the New York City Public Schools’ Chancellor. Born and raised in New York, Fernandez led the public school system in Miami prior to assuming leadership of New York City’s schools, the nation’s largest school system. Even before becoming Chancellor in NYC, Fernandez had already been acknowledged a premier leader of a large city school system.  Over nearly four years under Fernandez's leadership in NYC, the schools accomplished a great deal despite significant challenges.  In fact at the end of his first six months on the job, Joseph Berger wrote a story in the New York Times that claimed that Fernandez had “enjoyed a string of triumphs as he maneuvered to gain control of [the school] system.”

Among his many reforms, Fernandez championed the creation of dozens of new, innovative small schools across NYC, many of which ultimately spread across the nation. Decades later, the evaluation results of these innovative schools performed by MDRC as part of a set of longitudinal studies have documented significant gains in achievement.  His successors, who have disagreed sharply about many other things, have all continued to support and sustain the NYC small schools effort.  Fernandez also championed the first diversity curriculum in any US school district. That reform, Children of the Rainbow, attempted to assist early childhood and elementary educators in addressing the challenge of providing equity and excellence for students whose families might be nontraditional, including a book in its appendix titled "Heather Has Two Mommies." In the midst of the AIDS crisis, he began a structured way of providing students in New York City high schools with access to condoms, helping to provide health safety and security for students.

Fernandez also gained a legislative end to the practice of providing principals with tenure to a specific school building, rather than tenure generally, which allowed a lot more flexibility in responding to changing needs across schools. Perhaps most importantly, as a serious recession hit the city (on a scale similar to the fiscal disaster of the mid 1970s, which led to devastating cuts to classroom services and teacher layoffs), he took steps to preserve instructional and support services to students and focused instead on revenue enhancements and administrative savings (all achieved with strong support from labor and local political leaders). He created the mid-winter recess, providing teachers and school staff with an added week of vacation in exchange for significant give-backs that preserved classroom services to children. He championed an early retirement program for teachers. And he raised hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the federal government for special education services by qualifying the NYC schools to become the nation’s first school system to become a licensed Medicaid provider. Fernandez also stood up to corruption at the local level and worked hand-in-glove with key constituencies, including teachers, community organizations and the business community to expand public support for education. 

The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, proved to be a key partner, especially since Fernandez believed that all stakeholders needed to "buy in" before any school improvement effort could be made to help make it both scalable and sustainable. He offered teachers in particular key a role in decision making at both the school and district level.

I had a unique opportunity to work closely with Joseph Fernandez, serving as his key Deputy Chancellor for the length of his tenure as Chancellor. Three decades later, it’s important to review these achievements, to understand how and why they were successful, but also why Fernandez's contract was not renewed and his tenure was not extended. 

First and foremost, as the bar continues to be raised for schools, requiring higher and higher levels of performance, our schools need to embrace investments in both innovation and change. A reputation for being innovative cannot be left solely to charter schools; it needs to become a core and systematic part of how all our public schools function. The most successful and innovative improvement efforts need to spread beyond one school or a small numbers of other schools, but should be designed to benefit all schools and all students, especially those serving low-income students and students of color. 

Second, innovation is not just about instruction. It needs to be embraced at the operational and administrative levels as well. While most school spending schools involves instructional and staffing costs, significant savings can be achieved by reforming how our schools are managed at the district level, with the achieved savings redirected into necessary improvements and increases in classroom services.

Third, diversity and inclusion are not separate from a core instructional strategy, they are integral to it. Diversity must be addressed at the curriculum level and in the way curriculum is taught, but also in terms of diversity at the instructional and leadership levels. As reports from the Albert Shanker InstitueEducation Trust, and others have shown, this can be a key element in increasing student achievement.

Fourth, change is necessary and must be high on the agenda, but it cannot be effectively implemented or brought to scale without support from all  key stakeholders, from teachers to parents to administrators to the community.  Don't leave these key stakeholder out in the framing and shaping of school reform efforts or they may end up becoming a part of the opposition.

Finally, and just as importantly as all four items listed above, it is vital to build large scale community and political support for any school improvement agenda. It was the lack of that political support that allowed the decisions made by such a visionary leader like Joe Fernandez become divisive.  I believe that they were all the right decisions (i.e. support for gender diversity via Children of the Rainbow, or condom availability) and yet they must not be allowed to derail the larger progressive school reform agenda that was so uniquely effective over a quarter century ago in New York City.

As we enter the next decade, education needs to be much higher on our agenda across the nation.  But achieving real results will require us to learn the lessons of history, or else we are doomed to make the same mistakes again. Our children deserve a better future and together we can give it to them. Let’s start now.

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