He Transformed the Schools, But…

Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Joel Klein visiting a classroom at Public School 189, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, circa 2002

“Most people want to make sure tomorrow is just like yesterday.” That’s what the famed psychologist Bruno Bettelheim said to Joel Klein over four decades ago, when Klein spent a fellowship year with him at Stanford. But Bettelheim sensed something different about his young disciple. “You’re not like that,” he told Klein. “You only want to look ahead.”

Klein recounts this episode at two different points in his new memoir, which looks back at his nine tumultuous years as the chancellor of New York City’s schools. He inherited a system that was bloated and profoundly ineffective, particularly for children from the city’s poorest families. So he resolved to shake it up. Arriving during a period of enthusiasm for the federal No Child Left Behind law, which enshrined “accountability” as the new watchword of American education, Klein closed neighborhood schools where students performed poorly on standardized tests. He opened new and smaller schools staffed by a young generation of principals, handpicked and trained by his administration. He unleashed an avalanche of charter schools, funded by a mix of public and private dollars. And he went toe-to-toe with the powerful teachers union, eroding the seniority rules that had formerly blocked principals from hiring the staff they preferred. Balding and bespectacled, Joel Klein does not fit our conventional image of a revolutionary. But it’s entirely fair to call him one.

It’s also fair to credit Klein for getting results. In almost every way we can measure, the overall quality of New York’s schools improved under his administration. Some of the new charter schools recorded astonishing gains in test scores among underprivileged children, confounding the much-heard myth that schools can’t do anything to alleviate the educational effects of poverty.

But the most remarkable change occurred in the dozens of small public high schools that Klein opened to replace the larger ones he had closed. In a study that came out after his book was published, the nonpartisan research firm MDRC found that students at the small schools—drawn mainly from poor and minority communities—graduated and attended college at nearly a 10 percent greater rate than their peers in a similarly underprivileged control group. And they did so at a roughly 15 percent lower cost per student, mainly because more students at the small high schools graduated within four years.1

On the charter school front, too, there’s been some very good news recently for Klein’s legacy and—more importantly—for New York’s children. A study published in October by Mathematica—another nonpartisan research group—showed that children who attended the Equity Project charter school for four years, when compared to students of similar backgrounds, made test-score gains equal to about one and a half additional school years in math and an additional half-year in both science and…

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