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Manhattan Institute

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Children in The Lurch


Children in The Lurch

September 6, 2007
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyNYC

There�s a cafe on the Upper West Side that I work in regularly even though I haven�t lived near it for years. There is something about its feng shui and color scheme that I find strangely relaxing. Also, the food is great and nowadays they have free wireless.

However, the service at this place is awesomely poor. The superlative fascinates me whether positive or negative, and I must admit that the flabbergasting torpidity of this cafe�s staff mesmerizes me.

I am sure a few women have given birth waiting in line there. I have done my taxes in less time than it takes a lot of the cashiers to make change. When you place an order, the baristas tend to look at you blankly for a few seconds, as if you had ordered in a language they hadn�t spoken in years and had to work to comprehend.

Ask for white bread, and expect a nice slab of whole grain. Ask for the soup of the day and the cashier may be unaware that there even are soups of the day. When the soup comes, you may get splashed with some.

The place has been this way consistently for the five years I�ve been patronizing it. The staff have now turned over completely at least twice since 2002, and yet the clueless service lives on. There is the occasional competent worker (Max, if by chance you�re reading this, that includes you). But only that.

It�s cultural, and I don�t mean in terms of class or race: the staff come from all walks. There is a culture of bad service at the cafe. Not a deliberate one. However, new workers watch veteran ones working at a certain lowly level and take it as ordinary. Many new workers have never even witnessed good service. Those who have internalized the local standard at this cafe, and the Principle of Least Effort takes over.

The manager, who has been there at least since 2002, is a chipper, well-fed fellow who seems alert enough. He has his strengths: I have watched him get a leaky ceiling fixed with dispatch. But that same day a blissfully tuned-out staffer gave me a full plate of food and a nice iced tea � when I had not ordered any food. The manager has never been on top of this kind of thing.

The only way to make this cafe normal would be to fire the manager or fire most of the staff and start with new people. Supervising a staff is clearly just not in the manager�s blood. Trying to light a fire under the staff would create anti-authoritarian resentment and foot-dragging.

In the same way, as school starts this week, I am much more interested in the autonomy the Bloomberg administration has granted to principals than in the $700 million of new funding everybody is so excited about.

Money is nice. But the problem with the New York City school system is cultural. Throw money at a bad school and you get a well-funded bad school. In 1985 in Kansas City, $1.4 billion were devoted to building 12 new schools in the urban area, with broadcast studios, olympic-sized pools, and even fencing lessons. Average classroom size was cut in half; per-pupil spending doubled.

The results? Dropout rates doubled. The schools required security guards to combat theft and violence. Lousy teachers from the old regime were still on duty.

The problem with the schools was cultural, not financial. Principals need to be able to get rid of teachers who don�t do their jobs. Principals themselves need to be subject to removal, such as the one at Jamaica High School that the Bloomberg administration has dismissed. Teachers need procedures for getting perpetually disruptive kids out of their classrooms.

Changing a culture is hard work. It requires close-up engagement and high adaptability to local conditions. Principals need the autonomy they are being granted.

Those who find the funding issue more interesting are settling for the Principle of Least Effort like the cafe workers. Insisting that money is the main issue fits easily into an us-against-them mental schema. Acknowledging that culture is key requires us to get past playing �Cowboys and Indians� and make tough decisions. At my cafe, it doesn�t really matter whether the folks up in �corporate� decide to shake things up. The soup is so good I didn�t mind last week when I was given my bowl of it without a spoon. But pretending school system culture is barely worth discussion leaves too many New York City children in the lurch. Some of them are now working in my cafe, receiving my request for a napkin as if I had rendered it in Aramaic.