Thanks much, Joel!
Though New York City’s academic achievement gains over the past eight years remain subject to some dispute, on Joel Klein’s watch the nation’s largest city also ended up among its most impressive when gauged by the kinds of structural and policy changes that comprise intelligent, promising modern-day school reforms. (New Orleans and the District of Columbia are the only real rivals for that title. For more on that, check out Fordham’s recent study on reform-friendly cities.)
Klein won his spurs not only as perhaps the most creative/persistent/productive reformer among America’s big city superintendents—his only rivals would be Paul Vallas and Michelle Rhee, probably followed by Arne Duncan while in Chicago—but also as a force to be reckoned with at the national level. Smart, tireless, shrewd, and well-connected, he seemed to be involved with everything nearly everywhere. He imported programs, ideas, and people to New York. He exported “proof points,” ideas, writings, and more. He teamed up with strong figures across the spectrum from Jeb Bush to (aaargh) Al Sharpton.
Joel made a couple of dubious initial personnel choices and got off to a slow start on the curriculum front, but he learned fast, generally hired well, and never rested on yesterday’s accomplishment when tomorrow’s challenge loomed. Despite ceaseless pushback from the country’s most powerful teacher union, led by the smart/tireless/shrewd Randi Weingarten, he made a series of profound structural changes in the system, along the way harnessing the powers of data, of choice, of decentralization, of technology, and much more. Of course, it helped that (until the last year or so) he had pots of public and private money to spend. It helped that he kept the job for eight years. It helped that he had the steadfast backing of a formidable mayor. But much of what looks promising today in New York City’s public-education system is owing to his own personal qualities.
Cathie Black has big shoes to fill and we wish her well. We wish Joel well, too, as he goes to work with another formidable figure. (Rupert Murdoch is cut from very different cloth than Michael Bloomberg.) And we thank him for demonstrating that even the biggest job in American urban education isn’t too big to tackle and, much of the time, prevail.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.
“New York Schools Chancellor Ends 8-Year Run,” by Sharon Otterman, New York Times, November 9, 2010.
“Joel Klein’s bumpy learning curve on the path to radical change,” by Phillissa Cramer and Elizabeth Green, Gotham Schools, November 10, 2010.
“Black Isn’t Blank Slate,” by Barbara Martinez, Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2010.
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