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The belief that centralization leads to greater efficiency is organizational fallacy. While it streamlines decision making and reporting, it does nothing to stimulate either processes. A centralized structure limits the organization’s vision to its executives, negating the meaningful firsthand experiences and voices of lower level directors and managers. I am curious to know the data on the relation between centralization and success. 

An even greater fallacy is the belief that an accountable and efficient school system is born from the unquestioned adoption of a typical corporate model. To quote, Jim Collins (author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors):

We must reject the idea—well-intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become "more like a business." Most businesses—like most of anything else in life—fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great. When you compare great companies with good ones, many widely practiced business norms turn out to correlate with mediocrity, not greatness. So, then, why would we want to import the practices of mediocrity into the social sectors?

In 2002 when the mayor gained control of the Board of Education and it became known as the Department of Education, the general public was in love with hot “pop ed” (pop education like pop psychology, generalizations and oversimplifications of weighty concepts) terms like “accountability” and “testing.”

In its name, the mayor replaced the 30-year old administrative system of 32 community school boards with a system based on 10 regions. This was done in the name of accountability. However, as Jeff Coplon points out in his New York Magazine article, “Five Year Olds at the Gate”:

By gutting the “bureaucratic dinosaurs” of the community school districts and their seasoned apparatchiks, the chancellor lost his middle management in the field. There was no one to notice the sudden glut of maternity stores in the Village – or see where a new school might be needed most or how soon.

The waiting list mentioned in Coplon’s article is not the first time the centralization of New York City’s educational services proved half-baked. Another illustration of Coplon’s point is described in a 2007 NY Times article about the DOE’s decision to change bus routes mid-year. The result was elementary school children across the five boroughs waiting out on some of the coldest days that winter.

Writing about the phenomena of “over-centralization,” entrepreneur, Ed Lee, makes this interesting observation in his blog, Dismounting Our Tiger: “centralization is always driven by short term gains and paid for with long term risks.”

In the Bloomberg-Klein centralization model, the immediate gains are claims of higher test scores and graduation rates. The potential long term risks include the loss of thinking and problem solving skills as rote memorization and fact regurgitation become greater priorities. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills cites thinking and problem solving among the skills necessary to retain our position in a globally competitive workforce.

When the time came to vote on continued mayoral control of New York City schools, there seemed to be no doubt that the status quo would be upheld. Who could have foretold that infighting in the New York State Senate would inadvertently wrest the schools away from the mayor and force the reconstitution of the former Board of Education structure?  

Then again with only seven seats and two appointees from the mayor’s own office and four others sympathetic to the mayor’s policies, the newly reconstituted Board of Education will probably behave in much the same manner as the now defunct Department of Education. As the BOE/DOE works through the legal issues of reconstitution, it is my hope that they also re-examine the pedagogical consequences of their decisions.

At this moment in time, we have had experiences with two forms of educational administration (that of the Board of Education and that of the Department of Education). In reconstituting the Board of Education, the powers-that-be are presented with a valuable opportunity to draw from their experiences and the public’s criticisms and build a better system of public school management.

If the new BOE is truly about “our children” (as Bloomberg says), it should draw from the best of its former self and its incarnation as the DOE. Throwing new ideas out wholesale and mindless replicating its former self is no victory for those who sought to free the schools from mayoral control.

There were plenty of things wrong with the Department of Education, just as there were plenty of things wrong with the Board of Education it replaced. Moving forward with the reconstituted BOE is an opportunity to implement a new, more effective “hybrid” model of management and organization, not a watered down version of mayoral control or the old BOE.

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