« Questions From the Past | Main | Questions for Deborah »

The Collapse of the Annenberg Challenge


Dear Diane,

Every few days I have a new object for “the worst ever” prize. Our new American-as-apple-pie identification with torture is the one that keeps me up at night. It seems so unbelievable that it has gone on for so long, so publicly, and is so unstoppable. The gulag of our time—here in America.

But in answer to your query, the collapse of the Annenberg Challenge in 1995 remains painful for me to remember and too long to tell well. ("In Schools We Trust" has a chapter on it and other similar efforts.) I was just recently going through the documents from that period and recalling my disbelief and joy—could it possibly be (I kept pinching myself) that all the powers-that-be have signed on to such a serious and visionary effort to innovate on a sufficient scale to really influence future policy? We had the state commissioner, two successive NYC chancellors, the chair of the school board, and the head of the teachers' union signed on! We had both NYU and Teachers College prepared to develop the needed database, to document process and assess the outcomes over a minimum of five years, as well as track graduates over far longer.

The NYC Annenberg “idea” was to take a stab at the “accountability/governance” conundrum. Was there a way to do what’s right on the ground—which requires lots of “local” latitude—and still be accountable on a broader public scale.

The four nonprofit partners to the project came from different political and pedagogical wings of the reform movement, but were all interested in tackling the conundrum. Small schools were a part of it because we each, for our own separate reasons, thought that the kind of changes in attitude and practice needed required the consent of all those involved. Size would make this easier by making everything more transparent, and decision-making more direct. Ditto for choice—for staff and families. Self-governance was a given, because what we were exploring involved freedom from some of the constraints imposed by labor, management, and old habits.

Of course, you can see immediately how this might echo the business mantra! Less regulation, “trust us”. I worried about it, but I figured we were mom and pop stores, if you will; pre-corporate-style capitalism—and operating under a public umbrella.

Our definition of choice was that it belonged to families, not schools, to do the choosing, and to the community of professionals, not principals, to select their colleagues. Self-governing involved figuring out systems of governance that balanced professional and constituent voices and votes. Small sizes meant being small enough for all the staff to sit around one table and be heard; small enough so that part of our accountability would lie in the sheer transparency of the work. Dropouts would be noticed, by name.

Our definition of accountability was a system of multiple measures by which constituents could assess their work in public and transparent ways. We did not presume each Network would develop one standard approach; instead each Network was charged with developing its own intra- and external accountability system. But we did assume that we needed public review of each Network’s practices so that their systems of accountability met professional standards. A shared board of representatives would ensure the project’s financial and educational integrity, and provide a forum for important cross-learnings that came out of the work.

The aim of what we called Networks for School Renewal was to create a largely unregulated “learning zone” made up of networks of four to seven schools each, which would serve a total of 50,000 students (5 percent of the system) in an “open, collaborative fashion, working closely with the Board…the Chancellor’s office, and the UFT, and consulting regularly with…all the major stakeholders…so that our work can have a galvanizing effect on the system as a whole.” It was to be a controlled setting to study what did and didn’t work.

Alas, a new chancellor (and as a result a new school board chair) and a new state superintendent came on board, and didn’t like the idea. Forget it, they said. Alas, too (from my viewpoint), the Annenberg Foundation and the sponsors saw no other solution but to take the money and salvage what they could. Some of the old terminology was borrowed by the new chancellor, e.g. a “learning zone” for failing schools. Choice continued to thrive on a small scale as each of the sponsors used the resources to help small schools get started.

Ten years later, a new administration—under direct control of New York's mayor—resurrected the idea, calling for more “empowerment”, more choice, and more small schools—and networks, too. However, the empowering was for principals directly “accountable” to the central system. The new “networks” of 20-30 schools were accountable not to their constituents, but to the mayor. The system offered choice—a vast array of schools, with many free to choose their students. It is a kind of General Motors with competing automobile divisions accountable to a single CEO. Instead of moving toward more direct voice “from the field” via a range of democratic avenues, the Bloomberg Mayoral Plan insures as few intermediaries or dissident voices and as little public review as possible. Instead, we have a single mayoral package of reform, accountable to the mayor alone.

Sadly, and inevitably, it also took the wind out of the sails of most of the early innovators who were literally made invisible (official NYC history claims small schools started with Klein/Bloomberg), whose experiences were ignored, and whose innovations were severely curtailed. Part of my pique is no doubt personal! (There are some positive side effects as well—for another time, including the Boston Pilot ntwork.)

It was a lost opportunity to explore under public aegis how the ideas of small, self-governing schools, accountability, and choice might work in a big urban community. The time will come for another try. New words, new ideas, and new innovators will invent their own new form of the Annenberg Challenge, someday.



Thank you for your testimonial.

I'm hoping that people will take this as it is meant - a sincere question, not another round in a blog debate.

Erin recently commented that the days of individualistic "mountain climbers" in education are limited, and the test prep people will win if .... Rather than get into a specific debate, I want to know whether we are being too pessimistic. To concede to the top down accountability that seeks to tame iconoclasts and beat down freethinkers in public schools, it seems to me, would be tantamount to conceding to a 21st century America without individuality. We should not allow those thoughts to enter our heads. Sure, it could happen. But the opposite could happen also.

Many of us have been fighting a type of strategic withdrawl in the face of NCLB. But NCLB advocates can't be happy with their progress. The fact that they complain so much about our resistance shows something.

My intuition tells me that the primitive accountability pendulum has swung about as far as it can go.

The BloomKlein/Rhee approach seems to assume that the Baby Boomers will be the last holdouts, and that young educators will see market-driven systems as normative. That does not fit my experiences with young people.

We all need to reread Catch 22, as well as some great Russian novels to put things in perspective. But it wouldn't hurt to listem more to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. Everybody got a hungry heart.

The kids coming up will demand more. Sure we could lose. We could go to war with Iran also. But given a choice between the Debbie Meiers of the world vs. "escape from freedom," the kids will do just fine.


People who have thrived in business know the power of systems. Large businesses need to operate very differently than a mom/pop shop because all the people involved can not sit down at a table to work out all the issues.

So the political discussion (in both political parties) today revolves around "testing and accountability." And many of the proposals for "fixing schools" involves puting in systems for accountability based upon test scores, much like the efforts by BloomKlein/Rhee.

There is nothing wrong with accountability. In fact it is a necessary part of any large organization.

But what would these BloomKlein/Rhee type systems be accountable to?

Certainly there has been no mention of student learning, just performance on some vague standardized test. This is the tail wagging the dog.

When students learn well then the testing is easy. School systems that enable quality learning do so with a primary focus on student learning, not in punishing teachers for not performing.

Once these types of "testing and accountability" systems are put in place, do you think that "mountain-climbers" will be tolerated/encouraged/lauded or even allowed to teach?

Erin Johnson

Nobody appointed me umpire, but I'm was hoping that I wouldn't be encouraging a debate vs. a discussion. The type of issue I'm addressing is Deb's comment;

"...our accountability would lie in the sheer transparency of the work. Dropouts would be noticed, by name."

I left out the spefic context, which was small schools.

You wrote:

"When students learn well then the testing is easy"

That is so true.

Accountability FOR THE MOST PART is just a word designed for political advantage, but that predates my teaching career. At minimum, we need to capture a word. And you are right, as you explained recently, that we can't fight the something of NCLB without something as concrete.

But those aren't my points either. My point is that we seem to assume that the politics of accountability have been winning, are still winning, and will continue to win. Isn't it equally easy to conclude that NCLB-type accountability has largely failed, its "brand" is being discredited, its advocates still have better lobbying efforts, but it is an idea that's come and gone.

And people are ready for a real vision.


When presidential candidates from both parties agree that "something needs to be done" and that something involves more "testing and accountability," then, yes, I would assume that the NCLB-type accountability is winning.

Erin Johnson

Dear Debbie,

I love sitting in on your and Diane's conversation--that veers in so many interesting directions and then always gets back to the big issues of education.

I have a couple of questions for you. I taught for ten years at a large comprehensive high school in NYC, Seward Park H.S., so I have to say, even though I have taught as well in a small school, my heart, in many ways, is in big schools. Obviously, I agree that small schools potentially enable teachers and students to know each other well but big schools have other qualities--more choice of courses, an opportunity for a variety of activities--arts, journalism, sports that can engage kids who might be turned off by academics, and then pull them in.

I guess my feeling is that you can have good big schools and good small schools and what it has to do with is school capacity--an outstanding principal (one who is an instructional leader, energetic and smart, etc.) engaged, experienced and skilled teachers; continued professional development, good support services to meet a variety of student needs, small classes, etc.

So here are my questions:

I know how strongly you feel about small schools (300 and under) but can there effective big schools if the capacity I listed above is there?

Could "small learning communities" (I know this is educational jargon) within a bigger school function the same way?

What do you think of this notion of school capacity as I laid it out?

Since, as you said that you never expected the small schools in NYC to serve more than 50,000 students (out of 1.1 million students), did you always imagine them within a system of big, middle and small schools? Or under a different administration did you hope that small schools would become the model for the whole system?

What do you think?

Jessica Siegel

What in the world are you talking about? "Identification with torture"? "The gulag of our time—here in America."? Have you been smoking something illegal, or just not wandering far off the kooky side of the intellectual Reservation?

I cannot imagine why a thoughtful person would put these words to print; save in some anti-Huffington sarcasm--yet I don't thinks that's where you were headed either. What's up here?

Dear Debbie,
Thank you for your insights on the Annenberg Challenge in New York. I'd be interested in hearing more about the comparison between the reforms envisioned by the Networks for School Renewal collaboration and the reforms since mayoral control. In particular, New Visions for Public Schools has maintained a central role in the development of small schools in New York during both periods. In your view, has this organization changed at all to work within the system of mayoral control? If so, how?
-Sarah Reckhow

To Ed Jones! I'm as intrigued with your response as you are, aparently, by mine. So we're either very far apart, or we're "mishearing" each other.

Yes, I do feel "implicated" as an American, and I do imagine myself in this Kafkian prison/torture system we've created for anyone our leader(s) consider a dangerous enemy. Why shouldn't I?

I grew up at a time when I comfortably associated such stuff with fascists and communists--although I accepted the idea that probaby on occasion "we" did stuff like that too (ala spy novels). There is no going over the top for me on both a system of justice and a condemnation of torture. Tell me why I should speak more moderately about it?

How great to her from you--as the heroine of one of the great books about a fascinating big high school (Small Victories by Sam Freedman)). Everyone should read it. But remember, you left beccause it gave you no life but school. But remember, that you probably had to "sacrifice" some classes in order to pour your fullheart into others (or at least many teachers do--160 per day is just too many). But I think we cannot move toward this any faster than we can reasonaby persuade people it's better for them--because there are trade-offs. Many approaches will be tried, and in the end there is probaby no formula for success. And probably there are kids who do better with more anonymity, more electives/extra-curriculars, etc. But in many cases these are achieved at the price of those who do not get any of the advantages of what big schools can offer that small ones can't. I think that we're improving the odds by getting the size right. But you can reproduce the worst regardless of size.

One of the prices that comes with getting small is the "department" as a vital center of adult lives in school. The description Freedman offers of your English Department at Seward Park made me envious. Maybe that's what I want school-wide discourse to be like.

Sarah. I think some of the differences I've had with New Visions is related to how closely they've been tied into the system, and to the major players in NYC's business and educational hierarchies. But that's also been their strength. And that strength was useful to us during the NYC Annenberg days. They've also had many wonderful school people on their staff over the years, and many of the best small schools owe their hard-fought-for success to them. I wish... But if wishes were horses...

Erin. Who knows who is "winning"? Actually I read an amusing piece about Texas--where apparently they are now all anti-NCLB! But we're in a kind of flux, and it may be that the best parts of the NCLB approach will be lost and the worst parts will remain! Much of worst aspects of NCLB's mindset preceded it--especially (by many years) the idea that "accountability" equals testing. One reason I got involved with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards is that they pioneered a more complex approach for setting standards for adults which I hoped would seep down to how we thought of standards for our students. There's a great new report out by a group of NBPTS teachers which I hope to quote from in one of our blogs soon, which makes this point.



Political winds change constantly, but do you really disagree that they are blowing in the direction of the Bloomberg/Klein model of schooling? Even outside of NYC, how many examples of quality ed reforms are currently taking place? If you know of some, please give examples of alternative educational reforms as any reasonable alternative model should be greatly encouraged.

Also, I realize that you have long championed small schools. But would you consider that those very important/critical teacher-student relationships can also be developed in a larger school system as well?

Erin Johnson


Michelle Rhee has done wonders to rattle the cages of the educational establishment, specifically the teachers' union. She’s created a whole new ball game in the nation’s capital and the union doesn’t like it one bit. TOO BAD!

Her termination of questionable central office administrators, principals, assistant principals, teachers and para-professionals will reverberate through the DC system for quite some time and I would contend, that’s a good thing.

Beyond these actions, what teacher, worth a dime, would not jump at the opportunity to earn more money under her new proposal for their efforts/performance in the classroom? Also, which teachers would opt to remain in the antiquated seniority system of pay? The answer to these two rhetorical questions says much about the individuals themselves.

As long as teachers unions, with their infinite efforts to maintain the status quo, continue to campaign against accountability for their students, and especially themselves, our schools will continue to struggle to get our neediest students the help they need and deserve.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments