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David Choi: Put Teachers in Charge of Their Classrooms

After months of standoff with the de Blasio administration, the recent decision by Success Academy Charter Schools to close its free, full-day pre-K programs has created a stir in the education community. The Success Academy controversy dates back to its refusal to enter into contracts mandated by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) that would govern the operations of its pre-K programs. On appeal to the state government, Success Academy’s lawyers claimed that the DOE had exceeded its authority in conditioning the payment of funds on the execution of an “overly onerous” and “bureaucratic” 241-page contract. Even if it was within the DOE’s authority, they further argued, the contract was inconsistent with New York’s Education Law. In February, the state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, ruled for the DOE.

As these things so often do, the latest development in this protracted affair has devolved into familiar, and emotional, refrains about the successes or failures of the New York-based charter school network. Others have lamented the fact that many parents will now have to scramble to find alternative pre-K schools, many of which may not be able to match the quality of what Success Academy can offer. However, the significance of Success Academy’s decision to cancel its pre-K classes does not end with the approximately 100 students who would have attended them in the upcoming school year. What is of much greater consequence to all students is the underlying philosophical debate about school regulation.

In fact, the pre-K controversy is just another chapter in the ongoing discourse about the appropriate role of government in education. On mandating the execution of the contract, Mayor de Blasio has stated, "Every other charter school organization we've worked with has signed a contract, all the religious schools have signed a contract because they all understand it is a commitment to uphold the standards we've put forth on behalf of the people. We have an obligation as the government to set those standards." In a scathing article aimed at the New York City mayor, Campbell Brown, former CNN anchor and a member of the Success Academy board, responded: "[I]t appears that the mayor values bureaucratic conformity and control more than our ability to help students perform remarkably across grades and schools."

If there is unmistakable anger among those in support of Success Academy, there is also a hint of pride on the part of the de Blasio administration in having upheld its standards for pre-K programs. It’s understandable. In fact, the administration’s stance reflects a longstanding belief that the law must prescribe how schools operate in order to ensure a certain level of quality. This is at the core of education reform in the United States through the latest iteration of federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

While well-intentioned, such reform doesn’t work. In his book “Life Without Lawyers,” Common Good Chair Philip Howard writes:

All these reforms have been based on an unspoken assumption: that better organization is the key to fixing whatever ails schools. The theory is that by imposing more organizational requirements—better teacher credentials, more legal rights, detailed curricula, the pressure of tests—schools will get better. That’s the theory. The effect, however, is to remove the freedom needed to succeed at any aspect of teachers’ responsibilities—how they teach, how they relate to students, and how they coordinate their goals with administrators.

Such requirements also leave teachers frustrated and unhappy. Lack of classroom autonomy and little influence over school decisionmaking are consistently cited as some of the major reasons for teacher job dissatisfaction.

Teaching is a distinctly human exercise. Just think about your favorite teacher from childhood. She didn’t take cues from a manual to walk through the elements of the Pythagorean Theorem or to lead a lively discussion on the hubris of Oedipus. He did not need zero tolerance rules to earn the respect and attention of his students. Such teachers simply had a knack for engaging the classroom with their own unique style, and any formal requirements would have only gotten in the way.

As professionals, teachers must be empowered to exercise their judgment because they cannot be successful without it. In their interactions with students, teachers must constantly make choices throughout the school day, and no rule created in advance can account for the nuances of each and every situation. Therefore, a necessary measuring stick for any school regulation, whatever the source, is to ask whether it allows teachers to rely on their best instincts.

So, how does the DOE’s contract measure up? As an initial matter, one is left to wonder why a contract governing a pre-K program should be 241 pages long. Any time you have too many rules, people tend not to follow them, often because they simply cannot remember them all. If one ventures to keep track of, and comply with, all the rules, it requires administrative cost and takes time away from other things, like, say, instruction time.

The terms of the contract are absurdly specific. For example, the contract requires the school to provide students with access to blocks and dramatic play materials for "at least 2 hours and seven minutes per day" and to limit daily computer use to 15 minutes. What if completing an interactive online activity required a child to spend 20 minutes on the computer? What if holding other events like field trips—which are also limited by the contract, by the way—meant students could only spend exactly two hours playing with blocks? Short of breaching the contract, there is no sensible answer.

However, for Success Academy, it was a losing battle from the start. In her decision, Ms. Elia noted that the Education Law requires all participating pre-K programs to demonstrate quality in various areas, including curriculum and learning environment. She ruled that the DOE’s contract terms could be seen as reasonable ways to carry out the law’s requirements. Just last week, a New York state judge also rejected Success Academy’s petition in state supreme court. As long as we believe the government should impose organizational requirements in order to improve our schools, the result will usually be the same: less freedom for teachers on the ground.

It’s time for a philosophical shift. This is not to suggest that the law should not hold schools to high standards. Ineffective teachers should be held accountable. If Success Academy’s pre-K programs fail to prepare children for kindergarten, the DOE should be allowed to take reasonable action. However, we cannot allow the fear of a few bad actors to prevent the vast majority of good teachers from using their best instincts to teach their students. Teachers must be free to decide how best to meet the standards we demand from them. Until then, true education reform may only be a pipe dream.

David Choi is a senior attorney with Common Good.