Intent on preserving the Bloomberg administration’s education legacy, the Department of Education has hired a favored consulting firm to craft a plan that would safeguard a signature policy.
The city has hired the Parthenon Group to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the system through which principals choose support organizations to provide professional development, curriculum, and budgeting help.
The consulting firm, which has previously studied school closures and small schools for the department, is charged with crafting a strategic vision to ensure that Children First Networks are preserved when another mayor takes over next year.
“While there is no set of actions that can perfectly ensure ‘sustainability’ of the network model, the goal of the project will be to identify a series of steps that can bolster the odds of sustaining those elements the DOE views as most essential,” the firm wrote in its bid for the project. The confidential bid was submitted in April and obtained by GothamSchools.
Those steps could include recommending parts of the networks to sacrifice as “low-hanging fruit” in order to save the broader structure. They could also include launching pilots that the next mayor would inherit when he or she takes office in January.
Advocates of the networks say they empower principals and ensure that teachers and students get the help they need. But critics argue that the arrangement has left the school system fractured and inefficient. Nearly all of the Democratic candidates have criticized the current structure and said they would move away from it if elected.
The Parthenon project’s details reveal the extent of the department’s machinations to stop a new administration from changing the direction of the city’s schools. The department has previously worked to extend the Bloomberg administration’s education policies by getting the Panel for Educational Policy to sign off on school space-sharing agreements that would begin in 2014 and on contracts for network providers that would extend through the next mayor’s first term.
According to the $375,000 bid, which officials said would be privately funded, Parthenon is first studying the evolution of the networks since they launched in 2007, from providing exclusive support to helping the city enforce compliance in its schools. Then it will tackle the politically charged question of how much local communities should play a role in school governance. The entire project would take about two months and wind up in mid-June, according to the bid.
The $90 million network system consists of 55 organizations, some run by external nonprofits, that receive funding based on how many schools elect to contract with them. The structure was designed in part to create a marketplace in which principals migrate to the organizations that provide them with the best services, allowing the least popular and lowest-performing ones to shut down. The city has dissolved five networks in the last two years and will close three networks at the end of the school year.
Proponents of the current support system say it is better than what existed prior to 2002, when Bloomberg began to remove geography as a variable for determining support. They said political favoritism was rampant under that structure because school district boundaries often overlapped with political jurisdictions, allowing elected officials to hold sway over student enrollment and hiring policies.
“Every assembly member, every City Council member, every Congress member was regularly on the line trying to get students into a certain school” and get people hired for job openings, said Eric Nadelstern, recalling his time as a regional superintendent in the Bronx. Nadelstern also helped devise the network system when he was a deputy chancellor for the department.
But critics, including many leading Democratic mayoral candidates, say they’d like to see some support services restored to the district level. They say that decoupling geography from support has had the unintended effect of isolating schools from community-based organizations, parents and religious organizations that often anchor neighborhoods.
“We need to start to create schools within geographic areas that talk to each other again, that there’s a place for parents to go, that principals have a superintendent they can work with to be able to support and help them out,” Bill Thompson, a former president of the Board of Education, told teachers at the United Federation of Teachers mayoral forum last month.
Last year, the City Council — led by Speaker Christine Quinn, who is running for mayor — grilled education officials on the ways it held networks responsible for how its schools perform. And an audit by Comptroller John Liu, also a candidate, into one of the city’s 55 networks found that it did its job, but criticized the city for being unable to correlate a school’s performance to the support it receives.
Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky acknowledged some of the concerns raised by the system’s critics were legitimate. But he said, “We don’t want the main function of the Department of Education to be in response to political needs.”
“I think that the question that the candidates will need to answer for principals is, does this shift mean that you’re going to take away my autonomy?” he added. “Is this really about geography or is this about moving autonomy away from principals?”
Polakow-Suransky said he hoped the work that comes from the Parthenon Group would help inform the candidates during the campaign and beyond.
The first phase, underway now, is a review of the current system and involves interviews with Polakow-Suransky and other department leaders, network leaders and executives, and principals. A second phase involved crafting the “future vision” for networks under a new administration.
A longer-term phase of the project that Parthenon pitched involves managing the implementation of its vision during the 2013-2014 school year. That phase would cost more than $400,000, but Polakow-Suransky said he anticipated that part of the project being completed in house.
Over the course of the Bloomberg administration, the New York City Department of Education has thoroughly transformed the structure through which it supports schools. A gradual series of organizational changes reflected several consistent trends: toward increased flexibility for schools on matters of curriculum and instruction; toward greater autonomy for Principals in selecting their own support structure; toward tighter integration of instructional and operational support; and toward clearer performance management of the support structure itself. Today’s structure – in which schools select a Children First Network of their choice, blending instructional and operational support – is meant to embody the administration’s fundamental principles of empowerment and accountability.
As this administration nears its close, the DOE faces the chance that a new administration, like so many others, will begin by re-examining the organizational structure. There is a broad sense among DOE leadership that many of the shifts of the past decade – to strip away burdensome requirements, layers of bureaucracy, and channels for local political interference – are essential to preserve. Yet many critiques of the current structure exist, and certainly some aspects of the system are working better than others. In this environment, there is a risk of adopting an all-or-nothing “the current system or the old district system” mentality that obscures a range of intermediate choices and tradeoffs that may exist. An effective strategy to sustain the network model must be nuanced in identifying the underlying values inherent in the structure, and the specific aspects of it that are (or are not) driving impact for schools.
Parthenon proposes to support the New York City Department of Education with an assessment of the network model and a strategy for how to prepare for the next administration in a way that protects the core of the reforms. We recognize that this project is one of several similar efforts taking place systemwide to reflect on issues of sustainability, and we would hope to conduct this project in alignment with those efforts.
The deliverables of this project will be:
- An assessment of the current network structure that crystallizes the core values, key strengths, and challenges of the system
- A future vision that articulates what is essential to preserve in the current structure, what should be preserved but tweaked, and what (if anything) are “low hanging fruit” to be changed
- A plan for the next 6-12 months that identifies specific actions for NYC DOE to take to support its future vision
Parthenon proposes to take two months to complete the deliverables outlined above. From an activities standpoint, we will divide the work into two phases: the first month to undertake an accelerated process of primary research and data analysis that brings information to bear on the long-term questions of network structure and sustainability; and the second month to assemble a plan for the path forward for the remainder of this year and beyond.
Phase 1: Analysis of the current network structure (3 weeks)
The purpose of Phase 1 is to collect as much input as possible in a short timeframe to inform the future vision and the path forward to support that vision. Practically, this means talking to and/or surveying a wide range of participants in the current system, and digging into any available data on the way that networks operate today. In general, we seek perspectives on several key conceptual questions:
- What do participants in the network structure see as the core values and practices that are most essential to preserve?
- When the network structure is working at its best, what are the key elements and conditions that enable success?
- Across the range of functions that the network provides, where is the greatest need / demand from schools? What is the network performing relatively well and not well?
- What is the balance today between each network having a unique vision vs. networks as conduit for shared DOE priorities? What is the ideal balance in the eyes of different groups?
- What are the biggest challenges to network effectiveness, and is it feasible to believe that these can be overcome at scale?
The deliverable from Phase 1 is an interim presentation that provides an assessment of the current network structure, and tees up potential actions and decisions to be considered in Phase 2.
Discussions with key stakeholders (e.g. network leaders, cluster leaders, PSO partners)
- Discussions with DAPS leadership and other divisions as desired
- DAPS Leadership: Shael Suransky, Josh Thomases, Adina Lopatin
- OSS leadership: Justin and Elizabeth (individually or as a pair) and rest of the leadership team as a group
- DOE Cabinet members: Corinne Rello-Anselmi and Saskia Thompson; others as needed
- Interviews with cluster leaders and PSO partners
- All five Cluster Leaders
- Select PSO Executives (likely 2 of the partners)
- Network leader focus group: one group of 5-10 Network Leaders
- Principal focus group: one group of 5-10 principals and/or a meeting with the existing DAPS Advisory Group pending the timing of this project with existing meetings
- We would also be interested to discuss the feasibility of a very short (less than 5 minute) survey to be distributed to all Principals, to provide more nuanced feedback input on network performance than the Principal satisfaction survey can offer
Analysis of current network configurations and performance
- Review the current configuration of all networks and identify segments of networks based on how/why schools have affiliated
- We start with a hypotheses that at least 80-90% of all networks can be grouped into ~5 segments based on their membership and how/why the schools came together
- Variables that may affect segmentation include: grade level, geography, instructional model or philosophy, prior relationships, what the schools are looking for (e.g. a hands-off or hands-on approach), and others
- Do any of these segments correlate with network performance (either student achievement gains or qualitative network strength)?
- Which particular networks could be held up as exemplars of what the DOE is aiming to achieve with the current structure? What is unique about them?
- How many of the networks have affiliated for “the right reasons”?
Review of Principal satisfaction data
- Understand relative network performance across functional areas (e.g. HR, budget, transportation, etc.)
- To what extent does Principal satisfaction correlate with other dimensions of network performance? (i.e. is the original hypothesis valid that strong service/support to schools leads to the best school outcomes?)
Phase 2: Future Vision and Action Planning (1 month)
Using the input and analysis from Phase 1, our team will work closely with key leaders from the DOE to craft the two final deliverables of the project: a future vision for the network structure, and an action plan of specific steps the DOE can take through the remainder of this administration to help realize that vision.
The goal of the “future vision” deliverable is not to outline a new proposed organizational structure, nor to suggest specific org structure steps for the DOE to take. On the contrary, we begin from an assumption that, at this point in the administration, it would not make sense to pursue any broad changes to the organization. Our purpose in driving toward a future vision is to help align the DOE leadership team (inside and outside of DAPS) around a more detailed view of how they believe the organizational structure could or should evolve as we move beyond this administration.
- Can we articulate each component of the current network structure into one of three categories:
- The core, essential values or practices that must be preserved (some would say, for example, the Principal’s autonomy to self-affiliate)
- Elements that should be preserved, but where room for compromise might exist (for an existing example, how the DOE has already moderated its view on the components of network performance management)
- Elements where the DOE might agree that change is needed – i.e. the “low hanging fruit” of any future evolution
- Within this vision and categorization, it will be important to address several particular issues that we can anticipate will be important to a future administration. For example:
- The role of geography in determining network affiliation
- The role of the community superintendent relative to the network
- The role of the network in receiving or addressing parent issues
- The needs of elementary vs. middle vs. high schools
Based on this future vision, the remaining deliverable is an action plan to propose and outline specific steps for the DOE to take over the next year. While there is no set of actions that can perfectly ensure “sustainability” of the network model, the goal of the project will be to identify a series of steps that can bolster the odds of sustaining those elements the DOE views as most essential. Generically, we believe that several types of strategies should be considered in this regard:
- Strategic pilot efforts: Using 2013-14 for a limited set of pilots that could provide a model for changes to be considered by a future administration. We imagine that planning for potential pilots may be a particularly critical output of this project, and recognize a couple of concepts already under an early stage of consideration, such as:
- A pilot or pilots to test differentiated, higher levels of empowerment for some Principals
- A pilot or pilots to examine alternative ways of structuring the Superintendent-Network relationship
- Internal communications: Increasing Principal support of the networks to bolster their defense of the aspects of the structure that are most valuable
- External communications / transparency: Building awareness and understanding of key aspects of the network model among stakeholders in the field and the community
- Policy: Considering policy levers that create a visible signal for how the DOE views the future of networks (e.g. actions to target the compensation and/or prestige of cluster and network leadership relative to other positions in the Department)
Relative to Phase 1, the activities of Phase 2 will be less geared around broad research and analytical efforts. Instead, Parthenon will focus on drafting key strategy documents aligned with the deliverables above, and will work closely with relevant leadership in DAPS to refine these drafts toward a final product. We anticipate that weekly working sessions with the DOE working team will be critical to the process during this phase.
Team Resources and Professional Fees
The Parthenon team will be led by Chris Librizzi, Partner, who has been involved with all of Parthenon’s engagements with the DOE over the last eight years. Chris will be supported by a Project Manager who will lead some of the team’s day-to-day activities. For Phase 1, the team will include one Principal and two Associates to drive the significant research and analysis that we have outlined above. For Phase 2, the team will be reduced to one Principal and one Associate as we focus our efforts on drafting and refining final deliverables. All team members will be allocated to the project with 50% of their time.
Professional fees for this engagement would be $375K total for Phase 1 and Phase 2. In addition, Parthenon would bill any project-related expenses, the vast majority of which relate to travel. These expenses would only be billed as incurred, and are capped at 18% of professional fees.
Appendix: Potential Additional Support for Phase 3 Implementation Planning
At this point, we are seeking support for the activities and deliverables described in Phases 1 and 2 above. However, we recognize that the ideas surfaced through the 6-12 month action plan in Phase 2 may create an urgent need for implementation activity to take advantage of the brief window that exists for the DOE to push new ideas into reality. Should the DOE feel that there is a need for additional support, we would be eager to extend our engagement into a “Phase 3” that helps drive toward implementation. At a high level, Parthenon’s involvement with an implementation phase could take several forms:
- Periodic advisory and facilitation support: This would consist of Parthenon team leadership (Chris Librizzi and/or our designated Project Manager) staying connected with relevant DAPS leadership and providing a light level of ongoing support, which could include: periodic (e.g. weekly) calls to serve as a sounding board and brainstorm next steps; facilitation of critical stakeholder meetings where an outsider presence is valuable; or presentation of the project findings to external groups. Parthenon would provide this level of support with no additional professional fees.
- Development of a tactical project management plan and early implementation support: This option would use the 6-12 month action plan deliverable as a foundation, extract the highest-potential and most urgent ideas from that plan, and transition into a next phase of developing the tactical project management plan for executing on the idea – including key workstreams, owners, key milestones, required materials to be developed for the field, etc. Parthenon would then work to embed this project management plan with each individual owner and play a supporting role in launching each major workstream, before transitioning full ownership to DOE staff. We estimate that this would require one additional month of support. Consistent with the pricing of Phases 1 and 2, this would involve an additional $180K of professional fees.
· Project management through the launch of school year 2013-14: One potential outcome of the proposed engagement is a series of new pilots that help to illuminate potential future organizational models. Depending on the DOE’s internal bandwidth to manage the development and launch of these pilots over the next few months, Parthenon could play a more active project management role through the start of the school year to coordinate and lead the various internal workstreams. Assuming that Phase 2 is complete by mid-late June, we anticipate that this role would involve roughly 2-2½ months of support. Practically, we would likely staff this effort differently from the Phase 1 and 2 work, and assign one Principal to work on the effort with a 100% allocation, with some support from an analyst and from team leadership. This option would involve an additional $300K of professional fees.
These three options certainly do not represent all potential permutations or structures for follow-on implementation support. We would welcome the chance to discuss the potential needs of the DOE team in greater depth, and to adjust these scenarios as needed.