Horace Talks with Eric Nadelstern: New York City’s Autonomy Zone

To learn more from a uniquely informed perspective on how Essential schools can thrive in large urban districts, Jill Davidson, Horace‘s editor, interviewed Eric Nadelstern, the Chief Academic Officer for New Schools at the New York City Department of Education in charge of the city’s thirty-school Autonomy Zone. The founding principal of the International High School at LaGuardia Community College, a longtime Essential school, Nadelstern has also served as the Deputy Superintendent of New and Small Schools in the Bronx, the Deputy Regional Superintendent of Region Two in the East Bronx, and citywide Senior Instructional Superintendent for school improvement and restructuring at the city’s Department of Education.

Horace: What can districts can do to increase the success of Essential schools?

Eric Nadelstern: School districts have exactly the kinds of schools they’re designed to have. If you want something different to take place at the school level, then something different has to take place at the district. We encourage our new small schools to create cross-functional interdisciplinary teams responsible and accountable for a cohort of students. This is opposed to the more traditional high school model where subject area departments stand in isolation with little articulation across disciplines, which leads to something less than a coherent experience. School districts are organized similarly, as different departments that don’t articulate with each other. And when you ask people in those organizations which schools they are accountable for, the likely response is, “All of them.” We are finding ways to create much more clearly defined lines of responsibility and accountability. When I was Deputy Superintendent in the Bronx, we were creating district office cross-functional teams that were responsible and accountable for no more than four to six schools. After initial resistance, the people involved felt much more connected to the reality of what kids and teachers were experiencing.

Horace: Tell me about the Autonomy Zone.

Nadelstern: We opened in September with 30 schools in autonomy zone: 14 new small schools, 13 existing schools, all secondary schools. The remaining three were charter schools that already had autonomy and chose to work with us because they wanted to be part of something larger with like-minded schools. Those schools recognized the value of affiliation, an interesting development in history of charters in the city.

The charters already had contracts with the state, but the other 27 schools signed contracts that made them accountable for student achievement, educational equity, fiscal integrity, equity – they should represent the population, not skew toward better prepared students – and academic achievement. What they get is freedom to choose their own methodologies – they can create longer instructional periods and deviate from curriculum sequencing dictated by citywide curricular mandates. They can figure out within state parameters the broadest possible flexibility to grant credit for project-based work and non-seat time school experiences.

Horace: So the schools in the Autonomy Zone have supportive expectations?

Nadelstern: They want to be held accountable – they’re professionals. And there are broader conversations about nature of accountability. Principals of older Coalition schools would like a more descriptive, less quantifiable form of accountability based on more complicated forms of assessment. The older small Coalition schools have had a very hard time adapting from a non-high stakes testing environment to a high-stakes testing environment. That’s easy to understand – we felt what we were losing something seminal in what made our high schools effective and unique. But the Autonomy Zone isn’t an initiative to forward everyone’s agenda. What it is, most narrowly defined, is an opportunity to demonstrate that if you give principals a chance to make the important decisions that they and their teachers need to make about how kids learn best, then more kids will be more successful. It’s an opportunity for school faculty to be prepared to be held accountable for those results.

Horace: The success of the schools in the Autonomy Zone seems to depend heavily on skilled leaders.

Nadelstern: If you want a proactive leadership where school leaders exercise their best judgment, then you have to create the circumstances for that to happen. Perhaps there isn’t a leadership shortage – perhaps there’s a shortage of opportunities to exercise effective professional judgment and leadership. As a principal, I learned that the position where people bring their problems to you and you spend your day solving their problems is very seductive and powerful, but in the final analysis, it’s not the job of an educator. The job of an effective educator is to provide people with the encouragement, opportunity, and moral support needed to understand that they and their colleagues hold the solution to most of their problems. To support that, we then have to create positions and organizational structures outside of schools that don’t drain the schools of resources.

Horace: Is the Autonomy Zone the right structure for all schools? Could all schools function with this level of autonomy?

Nadelstern: That’s the 64 thousand dollar question. Is autonomy a reward or a prerequisite? Most of my colleagues believe that autonomy is a reward, that you have to earn it. I believe that autonomy is a prerequisite, that the people closest to kids and the classroom – principals, teachers in consultation with parents, and at high school level, the kids themselves – are the people who are best positioned to determine what kids need to learn, how they can best learn it, and how to assess that learning. This needs to be scalable to the entire school system. There is no school that would not benefit from this relationship, even if it means that as a result of this construct it was determined within a few years that a school doesn’t deserve to exist and should be closed down to give other people an opportunity to do a good job. Even that is a valuable contribution.

Horace: Is the Autonomy Zone a threat to the existing bureaucracy?

Nadelstern: The mistake most people in my position make is that we come in thinking that if we’re only smarter, better intended, and more hard-working, then we will do a better job than the people who came before us. The people who came before us were also smart and hard-working. The resulting structure isn’t a result of people interfering with what’s going on in schools. It’s what happens when people attempt to support what’s going on in schools. The Autonomy Zone demonstrates an entirely different way of thinking about the legitimate role of the school district. The Autonomy Zone has only four administrators, all of whom have other responsibilities. Nobody has fulltime direct commitment to the autonomy zone and that’s how it should be – we’re using our resources effectively.

Horace: So what is the legitimate role of a school district if a school has the structures in place to govern itself and evolve?

Nadelstern: The Chancellor says he’s not interested in creating a successful school system – he’s interested in creating 1,300 successful schools. If you follow that thought through, the legitimate role of the school district would be to channel available resources directly to the schools as much as possible. Anything you create in terms of structures outside of schools diminishes resources available to schools. The current New York City restructuring initiative to transform 40 districts into 10 regions has saved a quarter of a billion dollars a year that now go directly to schools. The purpose of the district is to channel the resources available, recruit the best people we can find to be school leaders, hold them accountable for results, support them, incent them, and protect them.



For more on the New York City Public Schools’ Autonomy Zone, see http://www.insideschools.org/nv/NV_autonomy_feb05.php