Book Review

New York City Public Schools From Brownsville to Bloomberg: Community Control and Its Legacy

Heather Lewis, Foreword by Warren Simmons, Teachers College Press, 2013, 199pp. ISBN 978-0-8077-5451-1, USD $43.16

Vandeen Campbell
Graduate Center, The City University of New York

New York City Public Schools From Brownsville to Bloomberg explores what works well for children in poor communities, where underserved schools are the norm and not the exception. Historically oriented, Lewis offers a revisionist account of the community control movement, decentralization, and ultimate recentralization under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This work is a committed effort to re-present and re-interpret the historical impact and complexity of the work of community organizing around schooling, a history, Lewis argues, that is buried in political rhetoric. She writes, “This book argues that the history of the decentralization era is integrally linked to the community control struggle that preceded it but contests historians’ assumption of inevitable failure” (p. 9). Although briefly covering the roots of community control in the late 1950s, Lewis centers her discussion on the period of community control of schools from 1966 to 1970, including the experimental districts that were created between 1967 and 1970. She further reconstructs the rise and fall of the decentralized school system from 1970 to 2002, followed by a brief chapter on the conditions leading to recentralization. This final chapter includes a narrow discussion of the nature of the recentralized New York City public system after Bloomberg’s election in 2002.

New York City Public Schools From Brownsville to Bloomberg could be considered a case for the open systems perspective of organizations (Scott & Davis, 2007) 1 in its analysis of the community control movement, its official political form, and its ultimate demise. It follows, therefore, that the public education system, its politics, and the community can be viewed as part of the institutional environment of each public school. For the Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and East Harlem communities during the period covered, parents and community groups are key players in their local school system and have defined a collective normative order 2 that their children, although poor and minority, should also experience educational achievement. As a part of the school’s open system, the two groups exert pressure on the schools and the Board of Education to achieve their desired collective normative order. Additionally, pressure from the state, through The Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, further buttressed their efforts.

Other players in the institutional environment such as the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Council of Supervisory Associations (CSA) also demanded that their conflicting interests were represented. While the UFT fought for a unified school system and a leadership role in it, decentralization directly undermined that position, which intensified the battles between the UFT and the Governing Board. Like the UFT, the CSA fought for centralized hiring of principals, which further limited the powers of the Governing Board. Ultimately, the structure of organization in the city’s education system reflects complexity in the environment. This resulted in the highly ambiguous decentralization bill. Lewis summarizes the conflict:

The forces supportive of community control pushed for a strong community control bill that would preserve the demonstration districts and give them the authority necessary to fully realize their political and pedagogical possibilities. The UFT’s president, Albert Shanker, pushed state legislators to create larger school districts…to provide ‘maximum democracy’ and less likelihood of a takeover by ‘extremists’ (p. 55).

The open systems perspective is by no means the analytical framework used in the book. In fact, Lewis essentially provides evidence to demonstrate the political and self-determination of primarily Black and Latino parents, educators, and activists to control community schools, governance structures, and student outcomes in response to persistent school failure. The story is largely told from the perspective of participants in the movement in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn and in East Harlem.

But in the context of a highly bureaucratic and institutionalized school system today, it is useful to analyze how the districts functioned as organizations in institutional environments. One unstated lesson from Lewis’ book is that, as subsystems, the districts were embedded in varying and multiple environments as well as task environments within the complex educational system. The need to integrate these subsystems with a common goal, yet sufficiently differentiate them to survive in distinct local environments is fully substantiated in this book. Although Lewis is optimistic that elements of the system and subsystems can unite and are not inevitably dysfunctional, her work may actually lead to the opposite conclusion. The system is too complex, too macro-level, and too open to manage all moving parts and result in successful governance and student outcomes. This conclusion can hold true in both the decentralized and centralized eras.

Among many, the two themes of humanism and efficiency emerge as recurrent and dominant. Lewis, in framing the work in the Bedford-Stuyvesant school district writes,

Although the goals of humanistic education and the efficiency movement seemed incongruous to some educators, District 13’s leaders would use the latter to begin to reverse the inhumane conditions they found in the district’s schools in the early 1970s. For them, this constituted the first step towards meeting the academic and social needs of students in one of the city’s poorest and least well-served communities (p. 85).

Since the themes of humanistic education and efficiency are positioned as lessons for current and future educational reform in New York City Public Schools From Brownsville to Bloomberg, a note of caution is warranted. Humanistic education, within the critical pedagogy tradition, characteristically promotes emancipatory knowledge, which “aims at creating the conditions under which irrationality, domination, and oppression can be overcome and transformed through deliberative, collective action” (McLaren, 2009, p.65). Efficiency, as an approach to educational organization and instruction, values technical and practical knowledge that can be measured and quantified (McLaren, 2009).3 Humanistic education would teach technical and practical knowledge, with emancipatory knowledge and ultimate social action as the central purpose of education (Shor, 1992). Given the theoretical distinction between the humanistic and efficiency approaches to education, it might be necessary to re-define what it means to “reverse inhumane conditions” if a deeper lesson is to be learned from District 13 in the era of decentralization.

Lewis pays particular attention to reform strategies employed in Districts 4 and 13, some of which re-emerged in recentralization. In District 13, these include teacher accountability through thorough and (often) public evaluations; rationed autonomy that is dependent on demonstrating proficiency; a systems management approach to educational leadership; a behaviorist approach; principals as instructional leaders; curriculum learning objectives; tracking student and teacher performance through an instructional management system; school audits; school differentiation based on performance; and new district-based routes to teacher leadership and training master teachers to become principals.

In contrast to District 13’s highly structured system, instructional creativity and philosophical diversity in leadership were encouraged in District 4. This resulted in a parallel development of three groups of schools—alternative, traditional, and bilingual schools. Embedded in a system of school choice, with somewhat underdeveloped accountability, the district also employed other strategies such as budgetary flexibility and raising external resources to fund alternative schools. Still, with alternative schools in a quest for greater autonomy, the cohesion within District 4 was undermined. Additionally, the three groups of schools tended to align along racial and ethnic lines in leadership and/or school population, with predominantly white leadership in alternative schools, Latino bilingual schools, and African America traditional schools. For Lewis, the difficulty in balancing autonomy and accountability emerged as central in the conflict between the three sub-systems in District 4.

There is an inherent conflict in New York City Public Schools From Brownsville to Bloomberg that reflects current struggles in New York City’s education system. What Lewis presents as promising practices in Districts 4 and 13 have thwarted other aspects of the legacy of community control and decentralization during recentralization under Bloomberg. Lewis begins to delineate these issues, with particular attention to the network structure under the Child First reforms that replaced geographically based school districts and limited community activism. However, the potentially problematic implications of scaling up other strategies that Lewis previously celebrated such as school choice, instructional managements systems, and school audits remain unexplored.

Overall, this is a riveting and informative book, accessibly written, and complete with photographs and board notes from the community control movement. It also includes maps presenting the various districting plans in the time periods covered, and a wide range of sources cited, including public and personal archives, oral history interviews, and newspapers. The photographs in particular invite the reader to view this movement as a civil rights movement, and are consistent with the book’s primary purpose of refocusing the lens through which educational stakeholders view the community control and decentralized era.

Ultimately, the book calls for caution with the new non-geographically based organization of New York City public schools. Lewis ends with an epilogue and writes, “In the post-Bloomberg era, reformers should consider how to restore the connections linking schooling, health, and community development so that black and Latino parents and residents can participate in the revitalization of their schools and communities” (p.145). This is a call for students of educational organization and governance to explore current movements in community involvement and the possibilities within and beyond public school institutional environments.

Image of Michael Bloomberg

Image credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank, Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/dMD8BU

References

McLaren, P. (2009). Critical Pedagogy: A Look at the Major Concepts. In A. Darder, M.P Baltodano, & R.D. Torres (Eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed.) (pp. 61-83). New York, NY: Routledge.

Scott, R.W. (2001). Institutions and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Scott, R.W. & Davis, G.F. (2007). Organizations: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice‑Hall.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


  1. Viewing schools from an open systems perspective, an analysis of its processes and outcomes would not only consider internal dynamics. Instead, other systems with which the organization interacts are included within boundaries of the organization. There is no isolation. Given that the education system, its politics, and the community all elaborate rules and requirements to which the school must conform, they therefore comprise an institutional environment for the school.
  2. The collective normative order is evaluative and maintains obligations as a source of legitimacy (Scott, 2001).
  3. See McLaren (2009) for a discussion of these three forms of knowledge.