Save Our Schools, Save Our Society
A Position Paper by Sara Tirschwell on K12 Education
“Sara Tirschwell’s Five-Point Program to Fix Disparities in Educational Opportunity”
One of my top mayoral priorities is to provide quality education to all of our children regardless of neighborhood or borough. Simply stated: NYC must reimagine and redo public K-12 education and close the Achievement Gap by 2030 (1). As a city we must revive our spirits and our economy; in our schools we must move from a pervasive “flight from learning” to a rush to learn (2).
The past pandemic year resulted in a grave loss of learning and human contact for our children. Every second of recovery is precious and must be set against a rigid timeline: June 22nd primaries, the November 2nd election, January 1st inauguration. Just four months later, on April 1st, school principals distribute to teachers “Preference Sheets” which determine programming for the 2022-2023 school year. Therefore, my education vision must be primed for implementation months before Inauguration Day. If we are not fully prepared well before the April 1st Preference Sheet deadline, the momentum for an entire school year of recovery will be lost. My campaign, therefore, began educational planning during primary season so we will be ready to just hit go.
"Now not later" includes the search for the Chancellor. I believe that to restore its greatness, New York City must learn to proudly stand on its own, as part of my philosophy that we must be the masters of our own destiny. Therefore, I will NOT conduct a nationwide search for a new Chancellor. As mayor, I set forth our vision and then we will find a dynamic Chancellor from within our city’s vast talent pool to implement it. I need a good communicator who is fearless, with a fierce intellect, sharp eyes, a sense of humor and people skills. Frankly speaking, I need someone like me.
The First Week
I assure you right now that the entire first week after my election will be devoted to our K-12 education system. My team and I hope to engage Commissioner Betty Rosa, Chancellor Lester W. Young Jr. and New York City-based Regents. We are so fortunate to have these leaders with their collective years of leadership, experience, wisdom and dedication. Dr. Rosa, Dr. Young and colleagues, may I humbly ask you to pencil in four days into your schedule? Through this request I want to also signal that the years of discord between Albany and New York City are over and a new era of cooperation starts for the sake of our children.
In my van heading north to Albany I would like to invite the leaders of the three unions that serve our teachers, supervisors and support staff. In a van isolated from city distractions we will start to form personal relationships and learn to talk honestly and in a spirit of collaboration.
Up in Albany, on Day One we will together review the stark realities of K-12 education in New York City. On Day Two I will outline my K-12 education vision and we will attempt to tap the enormous expertise at the State Department of Education to help us implement it and make New York City a paradigm for breaking the Achievement Gap throughout the state. On Day Three, we will explore our special education program and talk about how to transform it from a mindset of compliance, and check-offs to one of action. We spend far too much time assessing and reporting, leaving little time for teacher-student interaction.
On Day Four, I want to invite the mayors of the 10 New York State cities with the largest black (3) and Hispanic (4) demographic densities to discuss closing the Achievement Gap together. On Day Five, we travel to Washington DC to meet with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
In order to implement the most radical reform proposal in the US for 60 years--and the one most likely to smash the Achievement Gap, we must win over the NYSED, build a strong relationship with legislators who can weaken the UFT stranglehold of the legislature, unite with upstate cities and further weaken the UFT by driving a wedge between it and other union groups such as NYSUT and CSA.
Planning my education vision began early in the primary season and it was gradually introduced to the public in a series of social media posts. Our planning was driven by two thoughts. First, the Achievement Gap is the human rights issue of our times and I am determined to close it in elementary and middle schools by 2030. Second, since the renewal of the economy involves broadening our tax base, which requires fostering a real middle class, a thriving system of education is integral to our long-term vision for NYC.
We have to start somewhere and I believe we should focus our efforts on elementary and middle schools. We must ask ourselves if it is truly access to expensive test prep in eighth grade that is limiting minority access to our specialized high schools or if, as I believe, we are failing to educate in K-8. We will call the years leading to 2030 "The Decade of the Elementary and Middle School." It is here we will take our stand.
My staff and I next engaged in a series of discussions to define deliverables which must be in advanced stages of development well before Inauguration Day.
Deliverable One: Special Education
I will lead a redesign of our special education services. To underscore its significance, I am going to convert Tweed Courthouse to the New York City Headquarters for Special Education and will also house in this landmark building several of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Committees of Special Education. Symbolism matters.
Approximately 200,000 students in New York City have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and are entitled to educational support. A massive bureaucratic structure exists to supervise and support these services (5). As is true with many institutions, we have to make sure the institution serves its clients instead of its own needs (6). The overall imperative of my redesign: we have to move from an outlook of compliance to one of action. I want to see IEPs move from check-the-box mentality to indicators of bold progress.
To aid in this process I want to construct, together with our partners in NYC-based education technology, a database and reporting system that tracks student learning and academic intervention services and provides teachers bells and whistles to ensure that no child falls through the cracks. It must also link students, parents and teachers to a vast ecosphere of educational resources. The system must be fully secure but user-friendly on phones and devices so teachers can input data on-the-go and parents have access.
Special education teachers, armed with this technology, and freed from the burden of constant assessments and reports, I am hopeful about the educational strides you will make and that your job satisfaction will increase. Your success will be enhanced if our Committees on Special Education work more collaboratively with you and with the parents of children with special needs. They need to become partners of education as well as guardians of compliance.
This is the time to accelerate; we must ride the wave of new possibilities flowing from the March 15th actions by the Board of Regents to resolve the backlog of 14,000 unresolved complaints and failures to provide mandated services (7).
Parents of children with special needs: I want your child to be at the center of our educational system and not relegated to some corner or basement.
Deliverable Two: Unprecedented Expansion of School Choice
I want parents in each neighborhood to have access to a school they desire for their child. “Parents as partners” is more than a slogan; for parents to actively engage they must be able to send their child to a school they implicitly trust. To meet this demand, I will establish school choice on an unprecedented scale, setting up several teacher-powered mini-schools within every elementary and middle school building. Each will have unique themes, philosophies, goals and instructional practices; over time each will develop its own culture and will engage in friendly competition with each other. In other words, PS789 down the block will be broken into 4 or 5 semi-autonomous mini-schools, with the teachers having increased latitude in exchange for additional accountability (8). There will be a principal heading each mini-school (APs will be eligible for these jobs). It is clear that, in education, smaller is better and that each school should be no bigger than a principal’s ability to know the name of each child. It is with this knowledge, that mini-schools should max out at ~300 students and that supervisory support agencies for them should max out at 3,000 to 4,000 students (10 mini-schools with equivalent themes), rather than the existing 30K student school districts (9). The smaller size of mini schools will promote a language rich atmosphere that will be ideal for English as a Second language learners.
My stated goal for school reform is to make it easy for teachers and students to work hard. Recognizing that the mini-school concept represents a dramatic departure from past practices, I set up a taskforce to simplify the work by creating toolkits for start-up mini-schools. The toolkit will provide clear guidelines for founding and running the mini-school so valuable teacher time can be directed to teaching rather than administration.
Six Tentative Designs for K-8 Minischools
“The Basic School,” designed around the Julius Rosenwald-Booker T. Washington model (10). No frills, well-organized scope and sequence, led by highly effective and deeply personal teachers strongly connected to the community.
“Media School,” focused on learning through the media and deep reading of the classics of children’s and Young Adult literature. We also suggest an alliance with the National Geographic Alliance and using its considerable resources about geography and the local environment (11).
“The Community School,” designed for highly motivated and independent learners who thrive working on projects that require collaboration (12). Emphasis on community walks, trips, interviewing people, crafts, architecture and building things (13, 14).
“The Newcomers School,” an academy for the intensive short-term acquisition of English by newcomers, and a support center for longterm ESL students. Based on the models of Newcomers High School (15) and the International High Schools (16).
“Sports Academy School,” using intensive self-training through physical activity and sports to structure and inspire learning.
“Performing and Visual Arts School,” blending music, theater, spoken word, dance, and the visual arts into the curriculum.
Deliverable Three: Expanding Gifted and Talented Programs
I want to protect our specialized and screened schools from diluted academic standards and entrance requirements to assure their quality endures while, at the same time, expanding the pipeline to enter them. I also want to establish additional independent G&T schools in various under-served communities in the city.
However, the vision I hold closest to my heart is to form G&T programs within every school in the city. Using the Joseph Renzulli framework that identifies giftedness as the intersection of above-average academic performance, creativity and task-orientation, individual schools can designate which of the above six models will be used to house their G&T program (15).
Deliverable Four: Raising Academic Standards
I want to raise academic standards, particularly in math and focused on K-8 education in low-income minority neighborhoods. This entails:
Building crystal clear standards that parents can comprehend and embrace: In K-8 math I propose programs with clear and sequential goals and incorporate lots of review and practice - rote learning combined with a problem-solving component. I want to facilitate parents working with their children. For parental involvement, a COMPREHENSIBLE curriculum is far more important than the COMPREHENSIVE approaches given to us by the so-called “experts” of the past decades. In terms of English Language Arts, I want to encourage students to read, read and read more. Let’s read with them!
Constructing an on-demand assessment system that can be implemented so parents always know - without mysteries or surprises - how their children are doing and how close they are to reaching standards.
Adapting a menu of schoolwide curricular programs from which mini-schools can select and adapt. One excellent example is the Core Knowledge program which has considerable resources, a proven track record and a strong component of parent involvement (16). It also economizes instruction and the added efficiency gives minischools the time and space they need to fulfill their unique themes. Core Knowledge also incorporates math.
Deliverable Five: Reinstating Day Care, Reforming Pre-K, Removing Layers of Administration at the DOE and Districts, and Restructuring the Principal Role
Early stimulation for children produces out-sized results later. In order to cultivate home-grown talent, right here in NYC, we must make daycare accessible, particularly in low-income neighborhoods - to relieve the burden of working parents, to allow working parents to pursue their own advancement, and to make sure that their children receive the necessary developmental and learning support while their parents are not around. Secondly, increasing the educational elements in Pre-K by introducing reading, problem-solving, listening, art and music is crucial to my vision of leveling the playing field. Investing in our children early is a thoughtful, long-term approach to increasing socio-economic mobility and lets families know that we are their partners, with aligned incentives.
I want to dramatically cut administrative layers currently operating out of Tweed and districts and redirect as many resources as possible to mini-schools, classrooms, teachers and to parents themselves. This means increasing teacher preparation programs, and support for parents.
This also means a shift in the role of the principal. In order for us to close the Achievement Gap, principals must become Chief Instructional Officers and direct their considerable energies at teaching and learning, professional and organizational development and engaging directly with learners. We want principals to restrict their time in offices and move instead to hallways and classrooms. They must become servant leaders and make sure mini-schools thrive in the fulfillment of their missions.
Deliverable Six: High School Re-imagined
The Decade of the Elementary and Middle School is geared toward closing the Achievement Gap in K-8. At the same time, we are going to undergird the high school experience with purpose. Its mission will be to prepare students for college and the world of work. We want to see the appearance of wave after wave of enthusiastic and capable youth at the doorsteps of our economy who will inject energy and fresh ideas into the worksphere.
As a start, I am going to appoint a deputy mayor with the sole responsibility of reinstituting the High School Division and linking the high school experience to our middle schools, the work world, CUNY, the daily needs of New York institutions, our infrastructure and the startup economy. The deputy mayor will work together with the Chancellor to ensure that a culture of work and achievement is set in middle schools throughout the city. Internships, volunteering and community involvement become part of the school day there so that student’s eyes are open to the possibilities - this is an essential element of education.
The deputy mayor will oversee a dramatic increase in internships as a part of the high school experience where students can understand the world of work and be inspired by role models. There is preliminary evidence that such experiences double student income after graduation (17). This entails removing obstacles for students to intern at for-profit companies, including the elimination of the requirement for “working papers” for students under 16, thereby involving businesses throughout NYC (18).
CUNY has received praise for its record of lifting low-income students into the middle class. The deputy mayor will ensure that the high school and CUNY experiences are seamless since one lives for the other; when one thrives, so does the other. They must be structurally sutured together to share leadership, resources and space. The promise of CUNY to our high schoolers means we have to guarantee them an exceptional program by re-funding it. The return on investment is clear.
Instead of focusing only on the 8 specialized high schools as producers of highly educated students, we must turn our attention to the next layers of 50-75 excellent, out-performing high schools, ensuring that there are adequate resources for them (19). We will tap into the why of their students’ successes and replicate best practices in other high schools across the city.
I promise, high schoolers, you will be well-prepared to find work, to go to college, to succeed in college... or start your own company (20).
Deliverable Seven: A New Partnership between the Teachers Union and the DOE
What do teachers want the most? Are they really concerned about those ideological and political controversies that fill newspaper headlines and opinion pieces? Do they wake up thinking about proxy cultural wars? I don’t think so at all. I am convinced that, above all else, teachers want to teach successfully in the classroom, see all of their students succeeding brilliantly, suffer fewer classroom interruptions, witness better student behavior and receive more active support from parents.
I understand that teachers have been terribly abused over recent decades and blamed for situations out of their control. The school reforms over these years have been built on faulty premises and have not resulted, according to NAEP assessments, in the academic breakthroughs expected. Policy-makers and the media should be ashamed of the damage they have caused to the profession.
With this stated, I want to shift the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) from its preoccupation on compliance and defensive self-preservation to one that focuses on the quality of classroom learning. I want to quickly see improved teacher retention rates and job satisfaction (21). These are some of my concerns:
How can we renew and address the syndromes of burnout?
How do we attract more young and talented people into the profession? (22)
Can we set a metric on the number of teachers who leave the building smiling at the end of the day and thinking, “That was worth all of the time and effort!”
Can we take small practical steps to assure teachers that we have their backs? For example, can we divert the money we are saving by eliminating layers of bureaucracy toward programs that support teachers in achieving results in the classroom?
I plan on being the champion of the real teachers who prefer a day of hard work, well done, over grievance battles. I hope the UFT leaders will challenge me for the honors of being the champion of teachers. You will have a struggle on your hands because I care so desperately about our children and teachers.
I believe that within two years we can produce extraordinary progress in closing the Achievement Gap and improving the work-life of teachers. I am planning on a breathtaking fast implementation of my K12 educational vision and am asking for the enthusiastic support of all of our teachers in return for mine. We will certainly move to a Plan B after the two year window if we do not see the profound results we set out to achieve.
Deliverable Eight: Expanded After-school Programs for Middle School Students
From my investment career I have learned the art of leverage. We need to strategically leverage our private sector to develop hope and understanding and to create the buzz of growth. Although worthy on just their own merits, after-school programs for middle school students also have the potential to expand our common civility.
I want to continue to advance the ideas advanced by the de Blasio administration to build after-school centers for middle schoolers to help keep them engaged and committed (23, 24). The New York Department of Youth and Community Development offers various “School’s Out NYC” (SONYC) after-school programs (25, 26). For example, The Child Center of New York offers in over a dozen after-school sites a “mix of homework help and a menu of enrichment activities in the areas of literacy, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), visual arts, performing arts, sports, health and nutrition, leadership and community service.” (27) In addition I will continue to support Cornerstone Community Centers that run out of NYCHA centers and Beacon Centers (28).
We would like to coordinate these services with Supplemental Educational Services services administered by privately-run programs. As a vision for us, Japan has its juku and Korea its hagwon; these “shadow” forms of after-school education also exist in their expat children’s
communities in New York City (29, 30). Such supplemental educational services already exist but, according to a New York State audit, need to expand (31). The more competition to inspire and train young adolescent minds, the better.
The Day After I Win the Primary: Contracts
My team and I are ready the moment after the primaries to begin discussions that might lead to contract negotiations after the elections. There is not a second to lose. Here are my plans:
Mobile App Infrastructure. My education team and I will immediately meet with Ann Christensen and her staff at the Christensen Institute. New York City must become the home of the national infrastructure of “learning apps” envisioned by the late Dr. Clayton Christensen (32) of the Harvard School of Business. We have the talent and scale of size to build and house this project which will allow students to review any subject in any way that meets their learning styles. This will gradually shift the teacher role from the coverer of curriculum to a coach, a motivator of learning and a builder of community. Students will disruptively move from passive consumers of curriculum to autodidactic and self-reliant learners. Our kids will then be self-sufficient learners devoted to their studies; instead of seeking “minimal standards” our students will believe the sky's the limit. This self-efficacy will also be the engine for a dynamically expanding New York City economy (33).
New Standards and Assessments. As mentioned above, I will institute ELA and math learning standards for students that parents and teachers can understand and support. Let’s say the ELA for upper elementary school was a singular “Students will be able to read and respond to the great works of children’s literature.” My team and I will meet with major NYC-based educational tech companies to design ways to track student learning, build student portfolios, assess and prevent any child from falling through the cracks. This can be closely aligned to the Special Education database mentioned above.
Mini-schools. I plan to meet with Ted Kolderie in Minnesota, the “father” of the charter school movement and his colleagues at “Education|Evolving” (34) and “Teacher-Powered Schools.” (35) I want to consult with this organization on how quickly we can implement city-wide teacher-powered mini-schools in every school building. I am hoping Professor Kolderie and his colleagues can become our trainers in forming mini-schools. Our goal is to have the mini-schools open in September 2022 so we need to priority-track this for implementation, professional development, formation and an application process. With school choice enhanced parents will feel much more vested in their children’s education and can engage more deeply.
Mathematics Design. I elaborated above my vision of a K-8 mathematics curriculum that can raise the mathematicity of our students, especially those in neighborhoods with poor histories of academic achievement. Here I call for one of my most important key appointments: a person of strength and conviction, reporting directly to me, to be the “czar” of our mathematics revolution. I am thinking of a person with stature and ambition who will ensure: all children of New York- no matter what zip code, class, race, or gender- will be sought out all over the world for their knowledge of mathematics, engineering and grit leading to a great reinvestment in our communities.
More Charter Schools. There are 94 unused charter school slots in New York State. I will negotiate with our governor and state legislators to have them assigned to our city. Those charter schools could serve upwards of 40,000 students and I want to see their aspirations met. My career has prepared me for the task of these types of negotiations. It’s past time for us to draw down on under-utilized resources and reinvest in our homegrown talent.
A Final Note
We need a unified focus on closing the Achievement Gap. The seas ahead of us are unchartered. We cannot afford to fracture along familiar fault lines or stay stuck in the ideologies of the 30s, 60s, 90s or contemporary versions. Charter schools must honor the heroic work of educators in district schools who have worked so hard within a dysfunctional system based on reform paradigms that have failed over 60 years of effort. District schools must honor the Research & Development possibilities that charter schools provide. I call for an immediate ceasefire.
We are finally confronting the excruciating legacies of unequal access to opportunity. We have to work relentlessly to address these issues. At the same time, we need to figure out what will make our classrooms shine every Monday morning. I want to ask everyone to join me in prioritizing work over rhetoric. It is time for us to start measuring compassion by outcomes, not intentions. I am confident that my approaches will yield very quick results in just two years. For those of us working in the trenches, during the school day we need to put aside political issues and concentrate on the classroom practices. Outside of school hours I, too, will do whatever I can to fight for justice and equity.
Our battle does not end with our kids back into the classroom. They will have suffered much this past year. We cannot settle for more of the same. As your mayor, I’m with you every step of the way.
All of the above policies will make a huge impact but the Achievement Gap is a human-made problem so it can ultimately only yield to human efforts. As mayor I will work one hour each week co-teaching with one teacher in one classroom for one year. The class teacher and I will take full responsibility for ensuring that every student cracks the code and breaks the barriers to unlimited learning. He or she will have my personal phone number and the same access to me as the governor. I will require every deputy mayor and commissioner who wants to work with me to do the same. The crisis of K-12 education is of such magnitude and complexity that we must get into the belly of the beast to understand it and then defeat it. No photo-ops, no drive-by inspections. I will personally engage in the human rights struggle of the decade and, hopefully, will all New Yorkers.
1) NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2021, from
6) Illich, I. (1973). Deschooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin
9) Bottoms, G. & Schmidt-Davis, J. (2010). “Three Essentials to Improving Schools.” Gene Bottoms, SREB senior vice president, and Jon Schmidt-Davis. Southern Region Educational Board. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Three-Essentials-to-Improving-Schools.pdf.
10) Aaronson, D. & Mazumder, B. (2011). The Impact of Rosenwald Schools on Black Achievement. Journal of Political Economy, 119(5), 821-888. doi:10.1086/662962
13) Smith, G.A. & Sobel, D. (2010). Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools. Routledge.
17) Bozick, R. et al (2019). “Preparing New York City High School Students for the Workforce: Evaluation of the Scholars at Work Program.” Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity.
19) Domanico, R. (2019). “New York City's Specialized High Schools: Not the Only Game in Town.” Manhattan Institute.
29) Entrich, S. (2017). Japan’s Juku: Why Academics Should Care (More)! Accessed 20210320 at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322223882_Japan's_Juku_Why_Academics_Should_Care_More. Accessed Mar 20th, 2021 at
30) Zhou, M. & Kim, S.S. (University of California, Los Angeles). "Community forces, social capital, and educational achievement: The case of supplementary education in the Chinese and Korean immigrant communities" (Archive). Harvard Educational Review, 2006. 76 (1), 1-29.
32) Christensen, C.M. et al. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Kindle Store
33) Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.