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New York City Gives Model for Reform-Research Cycle

New York City's massive Children First initiatives under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and outgoing schools chancellor Joel I. Klein already have a head start on being among the most well-documented urban system reforms of the No Child Left Behind era, as a series of new studies highlight.

Yet while attending the research preview in New York on Wednesday, I was struck by how well the city has set itself up for cycles of reforms, research, and renewal that could become the model for school systems nationwide, regardless of what people think of the specific initiatives set up by Klein and Company.

"You cannot pull off education reform without being comprehensive and without being in a constant cycle of improvement," said James S. Liebman, a Columbia Law School professor and the designer of New York City's accountability system. "So you're going to put research at a disadvantage from the beginning because it has to keep changing. ... You contract with researchers to study something and by the time they finish studying it, it's moot because everything has changed."

Mr. Liebman said he is working on a model for future evaluations based on his experience in New York. The goal is to help other district officials and researchers structure both reform initiatives and evaluation studies which take into account that changing environment. Hopefully, districts will end up with more accurate insights into what works and doesn't work in comprehensive reform packages like New York's.

Children First was and remains a giant interconnected web of federal, state and local policies, labor agreements, new curricula and materials, and personnel training and resources all playing off one another, which would normally make it next to impossible for researchers to evaluate individual aspects. Yet the city's education department rolled out several initiatives, such as teacher pay and evaluation data reports and student incentive programs, as randomized pilot programs before expanding them districtwide, making the initiatives' effects easier to study.

"The DOE had enough forethought and was brave enough to do these prospective studies," noted Jonah Rockoff, an education economist at Columbia Business School in New York. As a result, he said, "the DOE has become a bit of a laboratory for people across the country to look at what works."

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