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.”

'It's a new day'

In Newark, will homegrown change replace outsider-led reform?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Uncommon Schools
Incoming Superintendent Roger Leon at an Uncommon Schools/North Star Academy-Newark Public Schools joint training for principals.

Just a few years back, Newark stood at the epicenter of an explosive nationwide campaign where traveling “change agents” tried to reshape urban school districts. Today, it could become the face of a different, homegrown model of change, led by a lifelong Newark resident named Roger Leon.

Leon was chosen this week to become the next superintendent of the Newark school system, which serves 36,000 students and has a roughly $1 billion budget. But long before that, he was a principal trying to revitalize long-floundering schools. Back then, he would gather together his staff members and deliver a simple but stirring message.

“‘All of the problems that exist here in this building — there’s a solution,’” he would say, recalled Havier Nazario, who was a teacher at Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School when Leon was principal. “‘It’s right here in this room.’”

That message stood in sharp contrast to the one that Nazario felt was conveyed amid the upheaval under state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, who stepped down in February when the state returned control of the district to Newark’s elected school board.

“There was this perception that we were backward — that everyone in Newark from teacher to principal was incompetent,” said Nazario, now the principal of South Street School in the Ironbound section. “That we needed an army from all over the place to come in and fix us.”

When the board voted unanimously in favor of Leon Tuesday night, positioning the longtime educator and administrator to become Newark’s first locally selected superintendent in over 20 years, it sent a clear signal: No more outside armies. We want someone who believes the solutions are in the room.

Not long ago, Newark came to epitomize the so-called “education reform” movement, which promised to transform districts by closing troubled schools, opening charter schools, and rewriting the rules around teacher pay and tenure — actions that have been linked to the district’s recent academic gains. Yet the city has also morphed into an emblem of the movement’s pitfalls: outraged parents, top-down policymaking, and disruptive outsiders, like Anderson, who were eventually run out of town.

Now, the question for Newark’s incoming schools chief is whether he can establish a new model — one that maintains the upward trajectory of test scores and graduation rates while avoiding the excesses and backlash of the reform era. And, crucially, a model that rejects the corruption and complacency that the state cited when it seized control of the district in 1995.

Just as the recent reformers hoped to turn Newark into a “proof point” for their theory of change and a template for other districts to adopt, Leon has suggested that he will make Newark into a model of homegrown, educator-driven and community-embraced change — though what exactly that will look like remains unclear.

“I want us, together, to help Newark serve as a lighthouse,” said Leon, a 25-year veteran of the Newark school system, at a public forum last week. “A beacon of light and hope for our urban districts.”

Newark’s recent wave of reform began in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million investment in the city’s schools. The money helped bankroll a series of sweeping changes that included performance-based teacher pay, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of nearly a dozen district schools.

The policies sparked a battle that pitted the self-styled reformers against teachers, their union, and parents. Anderson, who had been recruited from New York, resigned in 2015. She was replaced by Cerf, the former state education commissioner who had helped craft Newark’s reform blueprint. When he took over, he made it his mission to create buy-in for the changes among community members and elected officials in an effort to prevent their dismantling when the district returned to local control.

“The continuation and preservation of the work,” Cerf told reporters in January, “depended a great deal on there being a collective sense of engagement and ownership.”

As further insurance, Cerf made A. Robert Gregory, a respected Newark principal who shared parts of his vision, his second-in-command, which helped position him to become interim schools chief when Cerf stepped down. Gregory was then selected as one of four superintendent finalists, along with Leon and two outside candidates.

While the board had indicated that it preferred a local candidate, it was unclear until the last minute which Newarker would come out on top. After the board interviewed the four men privately on Saturday, Gregory got the most votes in an informal poll, Chalkbeat has reported. But by the board’s closed-door meeting on Tuesday, enough members had changed their votes to give Leon an edge.

Once it was clear that Leon had a majority, the board members agreed to unanimously back him in their public vote. While they may have disagreed on their preferred candidate, they wanted to present a united front in favor of a locally chosen leader — and against state-imposed reformers.

“To unify the board at this time, it’s the right thing to do,” said board member Tave Padilla. “It’s a new day.”

Now that Leon has been tapped to take over as superintendent on July 1, speculation has started about the direction of his leadership. A district spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview for this story.

Critics of the reform movement have celebrated Leon’s selection as clear evidence that the board intends a clean break from the past. They note that, unlike the recent state-appointed superintendents and some of their top deputies and consultants, Leon is a Newark native who attended and taught in the city’s traditional public schools. He coached Science Park High School’s famed debate team, and has established close ties with parents and community leaders across the city — support that was on display when the audience erupted into cheers after Tuesday’s vote.

They also point to Leon’s reportedly fraught relationship with Cerf as an indication that he did not endorse the entire reform agenda, even though he served in both Anderson and Cerf’s administrations. In a Facebook post this week, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called Leon’s selection “a unanimous blow to the corporate charter and reform-for-personal profit war machine.”

Cerf, in an email, said he has “always respected Roger” and will support him and the board’s decision.

“NPS has seen record achievement gains over the last several years,” he said, “and I know Roger is committed to building on those foundations to achieve greater and greater success for Newark’s students.”

If some supporters portray Leon as anti-reform, his record is actually more complex.

As principal of the Horton School in the late 1990s, he hired about 20 teachers who had completed alternative-certification programs, according to an Education Week article from 2000. Teachers unions sometimes attack such programs, which include reform-friendly programs such as Teach For America, as a back door that allows unqualified educators into the classroom.

As an assistant superintendent for the past decade, Leon served under four state-appointed superintendents. Under Anderson, when he was responsible for overseeing several elementary schools, he developed a reputation as a demanding manager who made unannounced school visits and scrutinized school documents to see if they were in compliance with district rules, according to a former district employee. Several of the principals he oversaw left the system, the employee added.

Whatever policy preferences Leon may have as superintendent, he is likely to find — like other leaders who took over districts after they underwent massive overhauls, such as nearby New York City — that it’s impossible to simply turn back the clock.

Over the past decade, the share of Newark students who attend charter schools has tripled, to 33 percent. While Leon is not likely to spur on the sector’s growth, he also cannot halt it. Instead, he will have to manage its impact on the district’s budget and perhaps find ways for the sectors to collaborate. (Leon got an early start on that this week when he spoke at a principal training jointly hosted by the district and the Uncommon Schools charter network.)

Charter critics and some school board members have pushed to scrap the universal enrollment system, which allows families to apply to both charter and district schools. But many families have come to like the system, according to surveys. And it would be hard to revive the previous system, where families were assigned to their nearest district school, since some neighborhood schools were shuttered.

Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal who called Leon “extremely intelligent,” said she did not expect him to immediately unwind every policy instituted under state control.

“I’m sure that he is astute enough to distinguish between those things that have been put in place that are working but need to be improved and bolstered,” she said, “and those things that should be changed and replaced.”

Leon will soon shoulder the burden of leading a district that has made recent gains, but still struggles with deep-rooted problems including widespread student poverty, absenteeism, and a shortage of qualified teachers. All the while, he must try to prove — to state officials, but also to observers across the country — that a return to local control does not necessarily mean a pause in progress.

But for now, he seems to be basking in the moment. On Wednesday morning, the day after he was chosen to lead the system where he was educated and spent his entire career, he stopped by his childhood elementary school. Then he made his way to South Street School led by Principal Nazario, who he had years ago coached on a debate team, taught in class, and later managed as a teacher.

At South Street, Leon was named honorary “Teacher of the Month,” then presented with a school notebook and water bottle and given a round of applause, Nazario said.

“He looked at me like, ‘Wow, I’m living the dream,’” he said.

Superintendent search

Newark board was leaning toward different superintendent candidate before unanimous vote for Roger Leon, source says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Newark Public Schools Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory

When the Newark school board decided on a new superintendent Tuesday, its members offered a public display of unity. One by one, all nine voted in favor of Roger Leon, a longtime veteran of the school system, drawing cheers from the audience.

But earlier, behind the scenes, the board had been divided.

On Saturday, after conducting lengthy interviews with all four superintendent finalists, the board held an informal poll to see where the members stood, according to a person with direct knowledge of the meeting. At that point, A. Robert Gregory, the district’s interim superintendent, had more support than Leon, the person said. The other two finalists were from out of state and did not appear to gain traction with the board.

On Tuesday, the board took another unofficial poll during a closed-door session, according to the same person, who spoke to Chalkbeat on the condition that they not be identified. By then, multiple members had switched their endorsements from Gregory to Leon, who now had the most support. At that point, the full board agreed to back Leon in the official vote.

Board chair Josephine Garcia did not respond to an email about the board members’ shifting support or the decision to display a united front to the public on Tuesday. But shortly after the 9-0 vote for Leon, a reporter said to Garcia that she must have “badly wanted” a unanimous vote on its first major decision since February, when the board regained control of the district after a decades-long state takeover.

“Yes, absolutely — and we got it,” she said. “We’re showing unification.”

It’s unclear what prompted some board members to change their minds. But some superintendent search firms advise boards to agree to unanimously vote for the candidate favored by the majority of members so that the new superintendent is seen as having the full board’s support. And while school boards in some districts conduct public interviews with superintendent candidates, it’s not uncommon for boards to keep the details of their searches and deliberations private.

What’s certain is that the major decisions in Newark’s search happened before Tuesday’s public vote and behind closed doors.

Well before the vote, a superintendent search committee was tasked with choosing three finalists to present to the board. However, after the three were chosen, at least one committee member was unhappy that a particular candidate had been left off the shortlist, Chalkbeat has reported.

At that point, the former board chair, and later Garcia, asked the state education commissioner to amend the rules so that the committee could name a fourth finalist. Two of the committee members objected to the request, and insisted that the group should stick with the chosen finalists. But the commissioner agreed to amend the guidelines, and a fourth person was added.

The committee has not publicly disclosed which finalist did not make the first cut.

All four finalists introduced themselves to the public at a forum last week, where the audience could listen but not ask questions. And they each met with the full board on Saturday during lengthy closed-door interviews that stretched from the morning well into the evening.

Some people have complained about the search process, saying it lacked transparency and meaningful public input.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting, before the vote, the president of the Newark NAACP referenced a pledge by board chair Garcia earlier in the meeting to promote transparency.

“The goal of transparency by the board, as stated by chairperson Garcia, has to be upheld,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory. “If it’s not upheld, then you get this frustration building.”