Harold O. Levy ’74 became the chancellor of the New York City Board of Education in May, and though his new position affords him a car, a driver and a bodyguard, Levy accepted the job because of his interest in public education.
Levy spoke to the University Board of Trustees and the University Council yesterday, describing his ongoing experience as chancellor of the largest school system in the country. He also gave his perspective on Cornell.
“The enormity of this enterprise continues to amaze me,” he said of the New York City public school system, which is responsible for 1,100,000 children and 79,000 teachers.
“We serve 800,000 meals a day,” he said, comparing the scale of his operation to the U.S. Defense Department. One difference, though, is “our meals are better,” he said.
Levy said he tries to set goals for the school system that are “do-able and achievable.”
Since becoming chancellor, he carried through a superintendent evaluation in which he demanded the names of the five worst principals and demanded improvement within five months.
Following the evaluations, he said, “they got it in their heads that I care about quality.”
Levy also instituted a summer program for city students who were not promoted to the next grade level. Previously, the promotion policy was based on age, not on learning — and a summer program did not exist to catch those who fell behind.
Aside from the technical difficulties of finding teachers and books for the venture, “I had very little hope that the summer program would work,” he said.
Levy doubted teachers could do in five weeks of hot weather what they could not accomplish during the school year. But there was “fine attendance,” he said, and 41 percent of the students advanced a reading level.
“That made the summer worth it,” he said.
Teacher quality is another of Levy’s goals.
“There are many people who become teachers who basically have nothing else to do,” he said, noting a national need for more qualified teachers and students.
“It’s not that the children can’t do it,” he said, “the problem is we don’t have the teachers who can do it.”
Levy said that it is essential to have high quality, certified teachers, but he cannot hire teachers only out of teacher colleges, because there simply are not enough.
When Levy arrived at the Board of Education, he spent the first week getting through the bureaucracy of simple operations, such as cleaning the building.
“If you let the little things go,” he said, “then you won’t get the big things done.”
As an undergraduate in the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), Levy wrote his thesis on collective bargaining in higher education.
“ILR prepares you for a pre-professional, educational discipline [that] I think few people ever go into,” he said. “I am very grateful to Cornell.”
Levy was elected interim chancellor by the Board of Education in January, and he was unanimously appointed to the permanent position in May.
Before then, he was director of global compliance for Citigroup and a member of the New York State Board of Regents, where he helped develop new graduation requirements.
“We’ve been fans of his ever since he came aboard,” said Richard Jahn ’53. “He gave us evidence early on of someone who was willing to sacrifice one of the best jobs in New York City to take on one that sounded like one of the worst.”
Don Follett ’52 added, “It’s so refreshing to hear someone who’s dedicated, and has ability and takes responsibility like that. It’s a great feeling to know there’s someone like that around.”
Archived article by Inna Bruter