The Legacy of Joel Klein: Part One
A Four-part Series Assessing His Accomplishments: PART ONE
by Norm Fruchter
“We played big and we got big results,” Joel Klein told the NYC Education Reform Retrospective conference on November 10th, in a talk summing up his administration’s accomplishments after 8 1/2 years as Schools Chancellor. During those years he radically transformed the city school system. The 40-year-old foundations of decentralization, the citywide school board and the 32 elected community school boards and their appointed superintendents, are gone. The privileges of teacher seniority are much reduced; teacher hiring decisions (when not restricted by a hiring freeze) are now primarily a free-market school-level function. The high school landscape has been radically altered.
Since 2002, some 20 large, poorly performing high schools have been closed, some 200 new small high schools have been created, and the high school admissions/assignment process has been revised to expand student choice. More than 100 charter schools are currently operating in the city, and 100 more are being planned. The teaching force has been bolstered by a significant percentage of new teachers from non-traditional sources, and the percentage of uncertified teachers has been significantly reduced. The central administration has been constantly restructured to manage “a system of great schools,” as Klein described his goal, based on three key principles – leadership, empowerment, and accountability. All these changes justify Klein’s claim of “playing big.” Are the results equally “big”?
Leadership and Empowerment
Restructuring leadership involved developing a cadre of new principals, primarily through the Leadership Academy, a training institute founded in 2003 which has graduated almost 400 aspiring school leaders. Developing such leadership has always been a critical system need, given the sheer number of NYC schools (1600 currently). But during the past eight years, the creation of many new small schools, the pressure on principals to perform well on annual testing, and more frequent school closures has significantly reduced the extent of principal experience across the city system.
This leadership inexperience could be mitigated by a strong system of principal and school supports. But Klein’s restructuring concentrated on empowering principals rather than supporting them. Autonomy, defined as increased principal authority over budgets, hiring, curriculum, and instruction, became one of the hallmarks of Klein’s regime. But authority without adequate support forces principals to rely on their own varying resources.
Klein’s team did experiment with different structures to attempt to provide the necessary supports. First, administrative regions were created encompassing networks of schools; then school support organizations were created after the regions were dissolved. Currently a new form of school networks is being implemented to provide the necessary supports to individual schools. Thus far none of these structures has worked.
Individual principals with the talent, experience, contacts or capacity (and often with demographically advantaged student populations) can improvise the supports necessary to prosper, even when systemic supports are unavailable or ineffective. But the many schools whose principals cannot manage without effective support are often defined by Klein’s accountability system as failing efforts and are closed, reorganized, or forced to cede some of their building space to charter schools. A dispassionate analysis of NAEP city results across the past eight years will indicate that conferring autonomy to empower individual principals has failed to narrow the significant racial and class achievement gaps the Klein regime inherited from previous administrations.
Norm Fruchter is a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform