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 language arts. Significantly, the school’s rate of student attrition and its fraction of pupils receiving special-needs services were similar to what we find in comparable New York schools.2

According to one common critique, charter schools inflate their test-score numbers by rejecting special-needs applicants (as well as English-as-second-language speakers) and by pushing out underperforming students. But there’s no indication of that at the Equity Project, or at several other charter schools that started during Klein’s term as chancellor. It will take a long time to calculate the full effect of Klein’s efforts. But it’s already clear that he made a positive difference, especially for poor children who had been profoundly underserved by previous administrations.

So how did he do it? One way was by attracting new talent into the teaching profession, which has too long enlisted mediocre graduates from second-tier colleges and universities. Not every school could come up with the $125,000 salaries offered by the Equity Project charter school, which trimmed administrative positions and technological learning aids in order to compensate the teaching staff. But Klein did raise citywide pay for teachers, and his smorgasbord of experiments—especially the small school and charter school reforms—clearly drew different kinds of educators into New York’s classrooms.

He also brought in a new group of principals, many of them groomed at his new Leadership Academy. Klein’s book is vague about what this academy actually taught, other than the latest jargon from American business schools; its advisory committee was chaired by General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who hosted the first class of novice principals (at his Jack Welch Leadership Center) and instructed them to focus zealously on “targets” and the proper “incentives” for meeting them.

We still don’t know whether the incentives Klein put in place—including a controversial grading system for schools—actually affected the performance of the people who work in them. But his efforts have obviously lured better-educated teachers and principals, which should be lauded by anyone who cares about big-city education. Given our poor track record of changing anything in New York schools, you would think that Klein’s record of achievement would make him a hero among teachers, parents, and the city’s liberal-leaning citizenry.


But you would be wrong. Klein was a sharply polarizing figure, as despised by his critics in the teachers union and the press as he was beloved in charter schools, small schools, and corporate boardrooms. And part of the reason lay in his revolutionary spirit, which proved to be his weakness as well as his greatest strength. Revolutionaries are indeed looking forward, all the time, steadfast in their commitment to progress. But that also makes them almost constitutionally unable to understand people who might not share their vision of the future. Some of the empirical studies that Klein cites in defense of his reforms have been challenged by other studies; the truth surely lies somewhere in the middle, but you would never glean that from reading his book. Most of all, Klein shows the revolutionary’s impatience with historical traditions and practices that stand his way. If you’re not part of the solution, he thinks, you’re part of the problem; you’re either on Joel Klein’s school bus, or you’re not. There is no middle ground.

One tradition that Klein hopes to leave behind is local school governance, or what he calls the “historically quaint notion that communities should control their kids’ education.” Under Michael Bloomberg, Klein’s patron and New York’s previous mayor, New York eliminated its community school boards and many of its school superintendents, and centralized control of the system in City Hall. It’s hard to shed a tear for the demise of the community boards, which were mostly sources of inefficiency and corruption. And across our history, local control has reinforced some of America’s worst inequalities and bigotries. By electing their own local boards—and by funding their schools via property taxes—Americans have all but ensured that “zip codes determine the quality of a child’s education,” as Klein correctly notes.

Most notoriously, local control also helped buttress racial segregation and white supremacy. The hate-filled mobs that gathered outside Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 to protest the admission of black students justified their stance in the language of local control. We have our way of doing things down here, they hissed, and nobody outside of our community has the right to interfere inside of it.

But there is another side to local control, which also helped encourage America’s early and enormous commitment to public schools. By 1850, the United States educated a larger fraction of its population under the age of fifteen than any nation on earth. Citizens were more likely to send their children to school—and to tax themselves for the privilege—in places where they could vote for a school board or serve on it themselves; the less direct their influence on the schools, meanwhile, the less willing people were to pay for them. The school was often the only public building in a village or town, serving as a site for weddings, funerals, holiday celebrations, and political debates as well as for the education of children. So it was also America’s chief emblem of community, the place where people gathered to decide who they were and what they wanted to become.3

Klein acknowledges that many Americans cherish their local school “as a symbol of pride and continuity.” But in his calculus, that’s mostly a problem to be solved rather than a tradition to be fostered. Over and over again, Klein expresses surprise that communities rallied to defend the schools that he wanted to close. By every available metric—attendance, graduation rates, and especially standardized test scores—the schools were abysmal.

But a community does not live by test scores alone. That’s why Bruno Bettelheim, Klein’s revered mentor, insisted that the one-room schoolhouse of the nineteenth century was “the best school we ever had.” In an era before IQ tests and other ostensibly scientific measures of ability, many of the schools expected the same level of effort and achievement from every child in the community. Indeed, the school often was the community; its patrons shared a “common background,” Bettelheim wrote, so they were equally invested in the institution.4

Then came the first great wave of school centralization, in the early twentieth century, when rural one-room schools were consolidated into central districts and citywide boards replaced the neighborhood committees that had governed urban education. That pattern came under attack in the 1960s from underserved minorities across America, who made “community control” their motto; condemning big- city bureaucracies as racist behemoths, they won new district boards that shared power with the central administration.


Under Bloomberg and Klein, New York’s school system accordion- compressed once again. They eliminated not just the community school boards but also the citywide Board of Education, replacing it with a panel that was firmly under the mayor’s control. Klein claims to have ushered in another era of decentralization, vesting an unprecedented level of authority in school principals. But they are his principals, selected and trained by his office, and many of their schools were placed inside existing ones. That created inevitable tensions between the newcomers and the people who were already there, who did not sense a return of local control. They instead saw a chancellor imposing his own will on the community, all in the guise of devolving power to it—even though, as we have seen, the small schools were much more successful than some of their critics would have predicted.

But the biggest problem for Klein was the teaching force, which was lukewarm to him at the start and hostile by the end. No matter how much we prattle on about “leadership,” which has become both a cult and a cliché in school reform circles, no reform can succeed without the support of the people who actually teach in the schools. Even as he lured new talent into New York’s teaching profession, Klein also managed to alienate a substantial fraction of it.

In previous debates about school governance in New York, most teachers were squarely on the side of the centralizers: during the community control battle of the 1960s, most famously, teachers went on strike to defend the principle that the city Board of Education—not the neighborhood boards—should have the power to hire and fire school employees. In the Klein years, however, many teachers came to see the central administration less as their guardian than as their foe. The key sticking point was another one of Klein’s business-minted reforms: the evaluation and compensation of teachers based in part on their students’ test scores. This “value-added” reward system has become a national trend in urban education, reinforced by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program.


Brandon Stanton/Humans of New York

Vidal Chastanet, a student at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, January 2015. Vidal’s praise for his school’s principal, Nadia Lopez, which appeared with this photograph on Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog, led to a fund-raising effort for an annual class trip to Harvard and an expansion of the school’s summer program; within days, more than $1 million had been raised.

Here, too, Klein acknowledges his enemies but doesn’t seem to understand them. He brushes off the criticism—by teachers—that “teaching to the test” in order to improve scores can discourage serious and imaginative learning. Perhaps reflecting his background as a media lawyer, he attributes teachers’ opposition to biased newspaper reporting and to the constant barrage of invective from the union. He also suggests that some teachers were so “beaten down by the bureaucracy and its top-down rules” that they closed their minds to any new ideas. But most teachers viewed Klein’s own efforts as yet another top-down directive, dressed up in the rhetoric of teacher “empowerment” and “professionalism.”

In countries like Finland and Japan, which routinely outpace the United States on standardized reading and math tests, teachers are not ranked and rewarded according to the their students’ performance on these tests; the practice would be seen as an insult to their professional training and authority. As Klein acknowledges, we desperately need to attract our most able college graduates into teaching. But it’s difficult to see why they would choose a profession that links their promotion and salary to children’s scores on standardized tests, especially when we still lack statistically dependable ways to determine each teacher’s “value-added” influence on those scores.

We should also ask what serious profession would submit to the leadership of someone who was not systematically inducted into it. A career attorney, Klein boasts that he was a “total outsider” to education before assuming the chancellor’s position. The claim speaks volumes about the low status of education, which (along with politics) is the only profession where lack of experience can be a credential instead of a flaw. Indeed, Klein understates his own background in the field, apparently as a way to burnish his qualifications for it. He took a year off during law school to teach math in a Queens public school; he also took education courses at my own institution, New York University. Later, in Washington, he served on a panel to advise Mayor Anthony Williams about the woeful D.C. public schools. Even if he wasn’t an “expert” on education, Klein certainly knew his way around it.

He was also the Justice Department antitrust lawyer in charge of breaking up Microsoft in the 1990s. According to his champions, that was Klein’s true credential for taking on another giant monopoly: the New York City public school system. But schools are not businesses, and students are not products. Borrowing from corporate gurus like Jack Welch, Klein assumed that he could get better outcomes by creating better incentives for his employees. We simply don’t know whether the test-score gains that Klein recorded were linked to these incentives. But we do know that many teachers were outraged by the statistically suspect “value-added” reward system—by which they were or were not rewarded according to the progress of their students—just as many communities were devastated by the closing of their schools.

The great triumph of Joel Klein was the rise in student learning, as best we can detect it, in a city where too many children were learning next to nothing. And the great tragedy was his rupture with the teachers and with a large part of the citizenry, including many people in the places that seemed to benefit the most from his efforts. In any systemic change, of course, a certain degree of dissent is inevitable: when you’re steering a huge ship in a new direction, some people will refuse to get on board. But it’s hard to see how the Klein-era reforms can be sustained in a broad and meaningful way when so many crucial constituencies continue to despise them.

Klein knows all of this, but he won’t give any ground. The least appealing part of his book is his assault on education scholar Diane Ravitch, who was formerly a proponent of accountability and school choice. But she switched sides in response to No Child Left Behind, becoming a perpetual thorn in Klein’s side. Quoting the private e-mails he received from Ravitch, Klein implies that she changed her views because he refused to hire her partner to direct his new Leadership Academy for principals (although for a year she was a consultant to it). But he never comes right out and says it, pulling his punches in the parting shot:

I never fully grasped why this got so out of hand, and why the attacks became so bitter and personal. What was clear is that Ravitch radically changed her positions on virtually every issue in education. Scholars, of course, have every right to alter their thinking…. But when someone this influential experiences this kind of sea change in thinking, it is important for her to be specific about which facts have changed, or why her interpretation of those facts was so wrong for so long. In this instance, Ravitch’s conversion seems to have been absolute, sudden, and largely unexplained.

This is attack by innuendo, not by argument. As Klein knows very well, Ravitch devoted an entire book to explaining her change of opinions on school reform. “Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated?” she asks on its second page. “The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality. The long answer is what will follow in the rest of this book.”5 Ravitch spends the next three hundred pages exploring a vast body of research, all of it, in her view, showing the failure and perverse consequences of reform-by-testing and school choice. She has done the same in the pages of this publication and many others, including a follow-up book that came out in 2013.6

It is entirely fair to criticize Ravitch’s use of evidence, which can be as slanted and partial as Klein’s,7 as well as her Twitter feed and her popular blog, where she has lobbed tart and sometimes hyperbolic rockets at Klein and other school leaders. But it is simply false to say that Ravitch hasn’t provided specifics to defend her change of mind, when she has spent nearly a decade doing precisely that. And it is unfair to reprint a set of e-mails from Ravitch about her partner’s possible direction of the principals’ academy, and then conclude that Ravitch’s conversion remains unexplained, when the e-mails are obviously presented as a way to explain it.

The Klein–Ravitch war of words is sadly emblematic of the larger school reform debate, which has descended into petty name-calling and vast conspiracy theories. At community meetings and political rallies, Klein and his foundation backers—especially Bill Gates and Eli Broad—are routinely flayed as diabolical enemies of public education who are not-so-secretly plotting to destroy our schools in the guise of saving them. “It is one thing to challenge their preferred policies on the merits; it is an entirely different thing to seek to impugn their motives,” Klein writes, in defense of Gates and Broad. He’s right. And that’s why it is so regrettable to see him doing the same thing, depicting his own foes as ignorant victims of union propaganda or as jilted cynics trying to protect their careers.

Our public schools were founded to teach democracy, which is premised on the belief that people of equally good motives can reason from the same set of facts to different conclusions. In the heat of our revolutionary moment, however, some contemporary school reformers—and some of their more jaded critics—seem to have lost that essential democratic faith. Each side casts the other not as decent people who might see the world in a different way, but as unknowing fools or biased charlatans. The lack of goodwill and understanding here is palpable. It should make all of us worry about the future of our schools, and also of our democracy.