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The Legacy of Joel Klein: Part Two

January 5, 2011

by Norm Fruchter

As Cathie Black takes the helm of the NYC public school system, education expert Norm Fruchter looks back at 8 years of Joel Klein.

Joel Klein summed up his administration’s accomplishments by saying, “We played big and we got big results.” Chancellor Klein radically restructured the city school system based on three key principles – leadership, empowerment, and accountability. All these changes justify Klein’s claim of “playing big.” Are the results equally “big”?


Klein came to the job vowing to instill accountability, which had been sorely lacking at all levels of the system. However, Klein’s version of accountability has generated severe distorting pressures on the city’s schools. Klein instituted a results-based accountability system focused almost solely on school-level state testing outcomes and graduation rates, minimizing broader, more qualitative measures such as the Quality Review Reports that often conflict with the quantitative accountability measures. (Of the 26 schools that the DOE has just announced to be phased out, 18 received Proficient ratings on their most recent Quality Review Report.) All schools were graded on achievement formulas that included a value-added measure based on only one year of testing results, a truncated time-span so prone to variation that psychometric experts have universally counseled against its use. What resulted was a grading system with enormous and unpredictable year-to-year variations. Two prominent city sociologists demonstrated that the consistency of annual grades was no better than what a crapshoot would produce.

The accountability system radically reduced the domains emphasized in elementary and middle schools. Only English Language Arts and Math results in grades 3-8 were used to assess and grade schools; student capacity in Social Studies, Science, Foreign Languages, Art, and Music was not considered. The range of skills tested was also radically constricted. Reasoning and analytic capacity, critical thinking, independent judgment, intellectual flexibility, imagination, and understanding what it takes to sustain and improve a functioning democracy were not tested. (The accountability system’s measures of success were broader at the high school level – graduation rates, rates of credit acquisition, and rates of Regents diploma attainment were included in the assessment measures.)

Thus an accountability system employing very unreliable measures and a radical simplification of student capacity assesses, and judges, the effectiveness of the system’s 1600 schools. Based on those results, the staffs of individual schools deemed successful are awarded bonuses for superior performance while another set of schools judged poorly performing are sanctioned and ultimately closed, reorganized, or forced to implement a variety of transformation processes.

Given these severe consequences, principals understandably focus immense energy trying to produce acceptable scores on the required tests. What has resulted is a concentration on the tested subjects, English Language Arts and Math. Both local and national studies suggest that teaching time for Social Studies, Science, Foreign Languages, Art, Music, even physical education has been systemically reduced, not by leadership fiat, but by the autonomous actions of hundreds of principals.

Worse, there are indications that the intense pressure to produce good school-level test scores has generated an epidemic of teaching to the test, accompanied by a variety of test preparation and skills drilling strategies, many characterized by mind-numbing and boredom-generating classroom activities. Though the accountability system did not mandate this systemic reduction of instructional quality, its spread was inevitable, and predictable, given the sanctions meted out to schools that produced poor testing results.

Norm Fruchter is a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform

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