Joel Klein’s Legacy

Much has been made of Joel Klein’s influence on New York City’s public schools over his 8 years as Chancellor. Most of the words have been kind, and deservedly so. After all, he took on a huge and hidebound system and began whacking away on day one, pausing only occasionally to catch a breath.

Klein in his office, December 2010

Combative by nature, Mr. Klein could bristle at the drop of an inference. Always well prepared, Mr. Klein dazzled with numbers, and, when the numbers didn’t support his case, he found other ways to attack.

His critics—and there are many—discount the academic achievements Mr. Klein boasted about, particularly after the flabby nature of the tests was exposed, leading to a re-grading of many public schools here. They say he was obsessed with test scores and didn’t pay enough attention to genuine learning. He maintains that he was the first to raise doubts about the tests.

But even his critics ought to give him credit for longevity, tenacity and some genuine improvements. Graduation rates are up, and thousands of adolescents are now attending high schools where they are more than just a number. On his watch, the New York schools opened about 125 small high schools, in the process shutting down dozens of ‘dropout factories,’ scary huge places where most students were poorly served. Because he encouraged charter schools, thousands of kids, mostly poor and minority children, are now better served.

Mr. Klein also refused to let anyone say ‘I taught it, but they didn’t learn it,’ and he wouldn’t let teachers or administrators blame families or communities for academic failure.

It would be interesting to add up the number of times Mr. Klein trotted out his familiar accusation: that unions and their three-legged stool of tenure, seniority and lock-step pay are the chief obstacle to improvement. I heard it dozens of times, and I wasn’t even covering him (although we did produce two profiles of the Chancellor for the NewsHour during his tenure).

Might his combativeness have gotten in the way from time to time? No question, and many hope that his successor adopts a new approach.

But—and I have buried the lede—the lasting legacy of Joel Klein might not be in New York City but elsewhere, in New Jersey; Baltimore; Washington, DC; New Haven, CT; Rochester, NY; and Christina, Delaware. In each of these places, someone closely connected with the Chancellor became the top educator. In fact, all but Michelle Rhee in Washington actually reported to Mr. Klein, and they worked closely when she led the New Teacher Project. As is well known, it was Mr. Klein who advised incoming DC Mayor Adrian Fenty to hire her.

The others: Deputy Superintendent Christopher Cerf is now the State Superintendent in New Jersey. Andres Alonso is Superintendent in Baltimore. Garth Harries leads the schools in New Haven; J.C. Brizzard is superintendent in Rochester, and Marcia Lyles heads the Christina, Delaware, schools.

By my rough calculations, well over 1.5 million students are now in schools led by the five former deputies of Mr. Klein. Add to that Chancellor Rhee’s 44,000 students in Washington, DC, and Mr. Klein’s 1 million-plus students for a total of 2.6 million students, give or take a few thousand.

Since our public schools currently enroll about 50 million students, that means that more than 5 percent of all US public school students were either directly or indirectly under his influence. I conclude that, in terms of his impact on schools and school systems, Joel Klein is the most important educator that most of America has never heard of.

20 thoughts on “Joel Klein’s Legacy

  1. I must admit that I always associated Mayor Bloomberg with running NYC schools – possibly because of media engagement; my bad probably. But what did he do that is innovative – asking with no hidden message (I don’t know). I must say that I read and discuss widely about K-12 and, as noted, don’t associate things with Joel. There must be things, however, if his deputies are being hired elsewhere.


  2. Hello John,

    This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read on that elusive entity America’s public schools. For 17 years I have worked with an inner-city Boston public school, which is an amazing contrast to my days at Taft. It proves that such schools can be made to work. But it takes a Joel Klein to cut through the the underbrush!

    Your old Taft buddy, John


    • Thank you John for a typically-thoughtful piece. As you know, we are Andres Alonso’s philanthropic partner in Baltimore and are thrilled by what he has done for our schools and our city. That by itself would be enough of a legacy.
      Tom Wilcox
      Baltimore Community Foundation


  3. John,

    That 125 “small” high schools now exist in the City and some of the larger “comprehenisve” models have been closed is indeed an important and lasting accomplishment and Mr. Klein should be given high marks for those successes. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the multi-decade ground work laid by so many New York City Educators who fought tooth an nail for kids to be known well in such a vast system. They are also experienced transformers who have often been silenced by the instrumental and political demands of testing, standardization, and the impersonal pedagogy of large schools. Many of these folks have been at it much longer than Mr. Klein and deserve much credit for creating places in NYC where kids have a chance at being known well.

    Don Ernst
    Little Rock


  4. Dear John, A thoughtful salute. Joel Klein’s commitment cannot be questioned. There is no doubt that he worked tirelessly to make the schools better. But his assumptions were always shaky. I think Klein and Bloomberg started well, though under the grip of testism and an assumption that teachers unions and ordinary educators and principals were suspect, and parents and communities could essentially be disregarded. Still, Klein brought in a fresh outlook and new people, and under his baton many new initiatives happened, some of lasting value. As time went on, Klein hardened his stance on testing—trying to extend the testing mania to preschoolers, for example, and ignoring the mounting evidence that a focus on test scores destablilizes substantive learning and corrupts the system’s judgement; he also slipped more into the corporate mode of school reform savaged so expertly by Diane Ravitch. The new crop of administrators Klein and co. credentialled have not done particularly well, though a few have been outstanding. Klein and his administration did nothing to meet teachers halfway or to listen to genuine neighborhood and community voices in an era when the school system became even more impermeable to outsiders and the less powerful. The schools are now a maze of choices and options that heavily favor the privileged and families with knowledge and time to choose. There is a real question in NYC as elsewhere about the whereabouts of poor kids in areas where the big schools have closed. The obsession with tests at the same time that the tests have been shown to be faulty and jiggered says a lot, and might even be an epitaph. Reformers who live by shoddy test scores will die by them–and for all their good intentions, they may deserve that fate. jf


  5. Someone wrote me directly and commented on Joel Klein’s “echo effect,” a nice phrase. The real test of his legacy will be what happens next. Will Chancellor Black seize the opportunity to build some bridges with teachers (and their union)? One could argue that Joel did what needed to be done, trying to put the focus on children.
    I confess to some ambivalence here, because I am not sure that anyone in education has accurately and persuasively defined the problem. Instead, many seem to believe that the symptoms–low test scores, poor graduation rates–are the problem, when they are instead the evidence that something is wrong.
    Remember how AOL used to flood our mailboxes with floppy discs, inviting us to have a free trial? They had defined their problem as slipping membership and attacked it by recruiting. In truth, their problem was an inferior product, and they should have been improving it. Declining membership was the symptomatic behavior, not the real issue.
    Correctly diagnosing the problem is essential, and it’s easy to mistake symptoms for the problem.
    So what is public education’s core problem? Is it ‘bad teachers’ and ‘evil unions’ (as Waiting for Superman posits)? Or could it be the job itself, with its low prestige, poor working conditions, and daily humiliations?
    I shouldn’t go on here, because this is the subject of my new book, “The Influence of Teachers,” which will be out in mid-February, and I want you to BUY it….


    • The problem of schools is quite blatant, yet no one wants to acknowledge it because the solution would require too dramatic a change in paradigm. When astronomers up until Copernicus were scratching their heads wondering why there were problems in explaining the motions of planets, they did not think to attack their Earth-centric assumptions and instead tried to “reform” their approach by adding the concept of epicycles to explain their observations. Perhaps forcing hoards of kids the same age to endure a prison-like environment where they have no rights, no voice, and are not permitted to study things that interest them is not the best way for children to learn? I know that sounds like an absolutely insane proposition, but the weird thing is that there is actually a tremendous body of research that supports this. The current focus on teachers is wildly misguided. Like administrators, parents, and children, they are simply unwitting participants is an system that does not and cannot ever work effectively. Obviously a better teacher will make a classroom more tolerable, just as a slave master who only relies on implicit power and does not whip his slaves also creates a more tolerable atmosphere. The fundamental evils are still unaffected.


  6. The article states that Klein was an educator well he was a antitrust lawyer. I do not consider him an educator if he was then Klein would have listened. Listening to students and parents is a key tool for making a classroom run smoother. Perhaps the school system would run better with a bottom up approach. klein has also put in a lot of principals with the anti-teacher, anti-union , anti-community approach. He has placed non-educators as teachers, assistant principals, principals and now Cathie Black. She came in with the same approach as Klein so Bloomberg is behind it all. The boldheaded dictators. Teachers cannot speak up because they are mistreated by this administration just check the attrition rates since Klein. Is this success?


  7. Excellent insight, John, and well stated.

    Managers in large organizations are generally paid for shorter-term, less important accomplishments, but a manager’s lasting legacy isthe performance of those we have been given the opportunity to lead and develop. Thanks for bringing that to the fore.

    Although I see things through the eyes of a CEO, I am obliged to acknowledge the parallel with the real contributions of our teachers, and also the parallel of teachers being paid for less important short-term accomplishments. Managers and teachers live very different lives, but the legacy opportunity is one big thing they have in common.


  8. New York City’s public schools are great because of Joel Klein – our sons and our daughters receive the best education because of him – their lives will be better because of him – I know this sounds exaggerated, but it is not!


  9. yes, New York City’s public schools are perfect … I worked a year in France and I want to say that their schools have disappointed me – it puts too much emphasis on textbooks and on the theoretical … I missed our schools!


  10. If you look at the numbers you will see that the failure rate of those hundred 25 new schools is the same as the spirit of the large schools. if this is a problem with small schools is the ability to find things like full size science labs, orchestras and arts programs. these monies are eaten up by all of The Additional administration costs. full sets of administrative staff for each Little school will shrink the amount of money available to the children.


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