News of Joel Klein’s resignation as Chancellor of the NYC Department of Ed was everywhere last night. One of the best reports in the mainstream media was this one from Lloyd Grove at the Daily Beast. As is often the case, the best analytic overview came from Philissa and Elizabeth over at GothamSchools.org.
I had the privilege of working with Klein and his staff for several years at the start of his tenure, designing and implementing the city-wide interim assessment program as well as a new model for math professional development in one of the city’s most academically-troubled Regions (New York’s a big system: our Region had about 70,000 kids and 6,000 math teachers).
I first met with Klein in his Bertelsmann office, after his appointment was announced by Bloomberg in 2002 but before he took over. It was clear at the outset that he was committed to drastic change, willing to accept the personal and political consequences, and confident in the value of experimentation, innovation, and simple “omelet-making” as the necessary components of improvement in a system that had successfully resisted it for the past, oh, zillion years.
I won’t highlight the long list of innovations he introduced, many of which were copied and are now taken for granted not just in the US but around the world. Many news stories have cited them.
Instead, I want to note what a pleasure it was to watch the rise of talented, dedicated deputies from the bowels of the system to positions of real authority. At the same time, the continual influx of really smart, really talented people from outside the system into all levels of his administration—people who would never have considered working for any previous regime—was one of his most remarkable achievements, and one of his least visible but most significant legacies. The quality of people working in large urban districts around the country has never been higher, largely due to the template and talent pool that Klein created, to the benefit of literally millions of kids.
Not all of Klein’s ideas were good ones, and not all the good ones were well-implemented. The indifference in the first few years to how initiatives were perceived by parents or teachers was needless and strange, and much of the resistance and controversy he faced again and again could have been easily avoided by some common-sense, common courtesy efforts at explanation. As the father of two teenagers who grew up in NYC public schools under Klein’s tenure, I often found myself defending to other parents reforms that were clearly in the best interests of most kids (if not their specific kids, but that’s another story), but that Tweed hadn’t deigned to explain properly.
Like everyone else, I have no clue how his successor, Cathie Black, will compare. On the surface she seems cut from the same cloth of assumptions as Klein, which is probably a good thing. Almost certainly, she will not survive the next mayoral election, which is probably a bad thing, given the allegiances and alliances of the likely winners of that election. As everyone has noted, she will have enormous shoes to fill.
I’m eager for the books to come chronicling his tenure. Done well they will be important documents in the history of American public education. As a parent, though, and as someone fascinated by and committed to public school systems that work, I just want to say thanks, Joel, for everything you’ve done. Because of you and the hard work of the people you promoted, we all think differently about what we should expect from schools.