Newsroom

Joel Klein’s bumpy learning curve on the path to radical change

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein plotted big ideas throughout his tenure — and sometimes revised them.

When NBC New York broke the story that Joel Klein was about to resign yesterday, the news organization’s report summarized his tenure this way:

He is credited with ending the practice of social promotion but had a somewhat controversial reputation throughout his tenure.

The rest of the description closely mirrored Klein’s curiously incomplete Wikipedia entry, which highlights a 2005 First Amendment spat over a teacher training lecturer as a main feature of his chancellorship.

Wikipedia, use this instead: Klein brought a penchant for radical transformation to the New York City public schools, redrawing the basics of how schools are run, opening hundreds of new schools and closing dozens of others, and reeling in millions of dollars in new funding.

His constant rallying cry — that improving public schools required erasing much of the existing cultures and structures, and that this project was the next frontier of the civil rights movement — inspired dozens of young, bright-eyed bureaucrats and teachers. But the same stance alienated many more educators and parents, who found his dismissal of past efforts at change disrespectful and a sign of his limited experience with the business of instruction.

The chancellor oversaw real improvements in the schools — at least of the sort by which he judged himself: concrete numbers. Handpicked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, Klein took the reins of a school system that, by any measure, was not serving its students. Test scores were low. School crime was seen as a major problem. Just 44 percent of students graduated from high school in four years.

Now, as he moves into a new position at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Klein leaves behind a system where more than half — and as many as 60 percent — of students graduate on time, and where state test scores are inching upward. But he also leaves behind questions about how much true learning is reflected by those metrics — and about whether his organizational changes left more collateral damage than benefits.

Here is a short(-ish) history of Klein’s eight-year tenure.

The early years, 2002-2003

Klein began with his head down, turning down interview requests while he undertook a study of the school system that included a goal of interviewing 5,000 people between August and January. He was plotting to release a plan that by November he had named “Children First.”

In mid-January, he made his announcement: He would centralize both the way schools were run and what they taught, a decision he would defend throughout his tenure, even as he dismantled much of the tightening. He was empowered by a new mayoral control law that was one of Bloomberg’s first political victories. The law strengthened the mayor’s authority over the city schools, completing a late 1990s reversal of trends that, starting in the 1970s, had doled out power to community boards of education. The citywide curriculum he proposed dictated even the placement of rugs in elementary school classrooms.

Though that curriculum would quickly fade, other stances introduced by Klein stayed put throughout his tenure. From the start, Klein made it clear that he saw the United Federation of Teachers and Randi Weingarten, its powerful president, as an impediment to progress, inaugurating frosty relations with Weingarten. In the past, the union had been almost a co-manager of the school system, he and his inner circle felt; he intended to change that.

Klein also christened his career-long effort to reshape the pedigrees of city school principals; began closing down large high schools and replacing them with new small schools; and introduced the language of get-tough accountability with an announcement that he would abolish the “social promotion” of third-graders who hadn’t actually learned. The decision was a win in the editorial pages, but academics noted that, despite Klein and Bloomberg’s grandiose language, the two men were actually repeating a favorite mantra of school reformers throughout history.

Klein’s early years also saw the birth of bitter resistance to his leadership style and policies that would grow steadily over the course of his tenure. In June 2003, state lawmakers challenged the city’s move to replace an elected school board with an appointed panel and to strip authority from the 32 community school districts. Later, lawmakers explained that they felt Klein and Bloomberg had not faithfully enacted their interpretation of mayoral control, taking more power than Albany intended to give them.

Concern that Klein was bulldozing forward without input from parents came almost as soon as he announced his plans — as did his recurring defense that rule by “plebiscite” would lead to “gridlock.” By 2004, Bloomberg famously fired three members of the Panel for Educational Policy, which had replaced the school board, because they planned to vote against his proposed promotion rules.

The same year, Diana Lam, the top aide overseeing Klein’s curriculum efforts, resigned after a report disclosed that she had given her husband a job. Soon, the centralized curriculum would also be gone.

Visions and revisions, 2004-2007

A key pivot away from pure centralization happened in 2004, when Klein placed a handful of schools into what he called an “autonomy zone.” The idea was the brainchild of Eric Nadelstern, a former principal and district official who became one of a small number of old-guard educators to come into Klein’s confidence. The curious alliance between Klein and Nadelstern, who had been a fierce critic of testing and centralization, seemed to shift Klein’s thinking.

The autonomy-zone schools tested a Nadelstern-designed formula of giving schools more flexibility in curriculum and budgeting in exchange for greater accountability if they didn’t succeed. The power-to-the-principals principle embedded itself in a new teacher contract that Klein and Bloomberg crafted with Weingarten in 2005. The contract, inspired in part by an organization run by a little-known woman named Michelle Rhee, exchanged pension sweeteners for a new freedom that allowed both principals and teachers to have a say in where teachers worked. (Before, seniority had ruled hiring decisions, giving veteran teachers the power to “bump” more junior ones out of a position.)

By 2006, the new teacher marketplace was in action, and Klein had designated 330 schools as “empowerment” schools following the autonomy model. The tight side of the new management formula sharpened with the January 2006 appointment of Columbia University law professor James Liebman as the system’s first chief accountability officer. Charged with figuring out new ways to measure a school’s success, Liebman developed the controversial progress report metric that assigns each school a letter grade based on students’ test scores.

A major reorganization in 2007 expanded on the empowerment schools initiative, requiring all schools to buy into a “school support organization” that would provide back-office and curriculum support. (Eventually, Nadelstern would be named the system’s Chief Schools Officer.)

Klein said the near-constant organizational changes were all part of a single overarching evolution. But the shifting lines of authority confused parents and school staff alike, who struggled to find people to answer basic questions. The symbolic climax came in 2007, when new bus routes meant to save the city money ended up leaving cold children wait for yellow rides that never arrived. And throughout all of the changes, his critics charged, Klein shut out parent input when making decisions. The challenges weren’t quieted when, the same year, Bloomberg appointed a “parent in chief” to ease complaints.

Twilight, 2008-2010

Klein has said that he was among the people surprised by Mayor Bloomberg’s decision in 2008 to seek a third term. With an end to his boss’s administration seemingly in sight, Klein had been elevating his gaze to the national scene — and even once exploring his own run for mayor.

The same year that Bloomberg announced his surprise run, Klein joined with the Rev. Al Sharpton to create the Education Equality Project, a group aimed at casting the achievement gap as a civil rights issue. Before the rise of D.C.’s lightning-rod chancellor Michelle Rhee, Klein took center stage to promote controversial policies such as eliminating teacher tenure and value-added evaluations for teachers and schools. The Obama administration included many of Klein’s preferred policies in its own education platform, and Klein seemed to be offering his name for a job as Obama’s secretary of education. After all, his arch rival Weingarten had recently left New York for the national stage, becoming the president of the national American Federation of Teachers.

When Obama selected Klein’s warmer compatriot Arne Duncan of Chicago instead, he returned to New York City, where Bloomberg was fighting for renewal of mayoral control of the public schools. (The law was slated to sunset in 2009.) The fight became a very public review of Klein’s tenure, and rumors flew that the mayor would trade his head for an extension of the governance system — and that Bloomberg might not be sorry to see Klein go.

Throughout it all, Klein kept an uncharacteristically low profile. Reporters who had grown used to attending multiple press conferences in the basement of Tweed Courthouse each week to watch Klein unveil new initiatives and statistics suddenly had to search for their own stories. And though education became a major part of Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection campaign, New Yorkers heard little from Klein during the campaign.

The administration won the mayoral control fight, but Klein returned to work to face another distraction from his favorite work of inventing new policies: an economic crisis that threatened massive layoffs. A series of budget cuts caused much of the new funding that had poured into the city to flow back out of school budgets. And the teacher hiring freeze Klein imposed in May 2009 to cut costs impeded his efforts to improve the city’s pool of teachers. He was also forced to play defense when advocates successfully sued to stop him from closing 19 schools earlier this year.

At the same time, statistics casting doubt on Klein’s bold claims of success stacked up. Several years after the first wave of small schools opened, the innovations, though promising, had proved no panacea, and the Gates Foundation pulled back on its investment in the schools. This summer, the state declared that inflated test scores overstated improvements in the city and across the state. And the city was plagued by persistent questions about whether its emphasis on accountability gave principals and teachers an incentive to cheat.

Klein’s one refuge came in the form of a new idea: the enchanting possibility that the Internet could prove the “disruptive” intervention in public education he’d long sought. The chancellor regularly cited Clayton Christensen’s book “Disrupting Class,” which imagines what individualized education might look like. And he allowed a top aide, Joel Rose, to begin work on a project called the School of One that has tried to build that vision in New York City classrooms. He also promoted John White, a Teach For America-bred official who shares Klein’s love of big ideas, and charged him with launching a new “innovation zone” that would expand the School of One’s principles.

But exactly how much innovating could happen in a third Bloomberg term and a dire economy remained unclear, and several high-level officials streamed out of the department last summer.

Klein’s legacy

Will history look at Joel Klein as an innovator who unfortunately irritated some adversaries while working for students and schools? Or will he seen as tone-deaf lawyer, unconcerned with facts or feelings as he drove toward his own goals?

Another possibility is that he will be remembered in both of these ways. That was what New York University professor Pedro Noguera suggested at a panel discussion last year about Klein’s leadership.

“I think a lot has improved in New York City because I go to lots of schools that are doing better, lots that are focused on learning,” Noguera said. “That said, it’s a highly punitive culture. This attempt at closing schools is a sign of a system that blames educators.”

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”