Joel Klein's legacy, Cathie Black's challenge: Secretary of Ed. Arne Duncan grades N.Y. schools big
Ohmygod. This is not an Eggplant. Arne Duncan is identified as "Guest Contributor." I had the same feeling as a Daily News reader: This sounds like a eulogy. Maybe it's intended to make up for what Juan Gonzalez wrote in his Joel Klein Won't Be Missed sendoff in The Daily News. Much better writing than this boiler plate deception.
by Arne Duncan
The success and future of education reform in America does not depend on any one individual. Yet few leaders have done as much to advance education in the last decade as New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein. I have no doubt his legacy will persist after he departs the chancellor's office.
I fully expect the incoming chancellor, Cathie Black, will continue Mayor Bloomberg and Klein's mission to improve student outcomes. One challenge will be to do more with less --to accelerate progress at a time when New York and most districts are faced with declining or level funding in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
At the same time, progress requires a rethinking of the century-old factory model of schooling, where both teachers and students were treated as interchangeable widgets. Instead, teachers want and deserve meaningful evaluation, time to collaborate and real opportunities for professional development. They should be treated as highly-skilled professionals.
The United Federation of Teachers has negotiated cutting-edge labor contracts in the city in the past. And I have every faith they can do so again. The American Federation of Teachers, the UFT's parent union, has already done so in cities around the country, like Pittsburgh, New Haven and Washington.
No one, however, should minimize the real progress made these past eight years.
When Joel Klein became Chancellor in 2002, New York City public schools -- like many urban schools - were struggling. Only 30% of African-American boys in the city graduated. Failing students were automatically promoted to the next grade. Graduation rates had largely stagnated - and no one was taking responsibility.
The school system's 32 school districts were mostly thought of as patronage factories and New YorkĂ˘€™s public schools sometimes seemed to serve the interests of adults better than its children. It was almost impossible to let go a teacher accused of gross misconduct or incompetence. Parents had little choice in where they sent their children to school. And principals had little or no say in the teachers assigned to their schools.
As soon as Chancellor Klein took office, he started hearing two refrains that haunted him, which formed what he labeled the "culture of excuse" in big-city public school systems. The first refrain was "Chancellor, I taught the students but they didn't learn." The second refrain was: "Chancellor, youĂ˘€™ll never fix education in America until you fix poverty in America."
Klein knows, as I do, that great teachers can transform a childĂ˘€™s life chances -- and that poverty is not destiny. It's a belief deeply rooted in his childhood, as a kid growing up in public housing in Queens. His father, a postman, never finished high school. His mother, a bookkeeper, never attended college.
Yet Klein got a terrific education from great teachers in Queens -- and went on to earn a scholarship to Columbia. It was his teachers, the chancellor says, who let him "stand on their shoulders to see a world that I couldn't have seen in the family that I grew up in." It was his teachers who pushed him to have higher expectations, to compete against the prep school students headed for Columbia.
Joel Klein never lost that sense of urgency about education as the great equalizer. He understands that education is the civil rights issue of our generation, the force that lifts children from public housing projects to first-generation college students. The chancellor could have made more money in other jobs with shorter hours -- but nowhere could he have had the same impact on children's lives over the last eight years.
With the leadership and staunch support of Mayor Bloomberg, Klein concentrated relentlessly on improving educational outcomes for New York students. The City's on-time graduation rate increased 15 percentage points, reaching a high of 63% in 2009. During his tenure, New York City students out-gained students elsewhere in the state -- and made substantial achievement gains in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In place of a culture of excuses, Klein sought to build a culture of performance and accountability. He insisted on more transparency and better data on school performance, increased parental choice and encouraged innovative charter schools, and provided principals with more autonomy to select staff and run schools.
The chancellor wasn't one to shy away from tough decisions. He ended "social promotion" for third- through eighth-graders, so students were no longer automatically promoted to the next grade when they were failing. He closed more than 90 persistently underperforming schools. He shut down 20 large, failing high schools, replacing them with more than 200 small schools with higher graduation rates. Working with the teachers union, he signed a deal to close the "rubber rooms," where teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings got paid for years at a time but did not work.
His pushy persistence didn't always succeed. By Klein's own admission, he did not do enough to consult parents and teachers to build community support for reform.
And he would be the first to acknowledge that, despite progress, New York's public schools still have a long way to go before they provide a quality education to all students. As good jobs vanish for those without a college education, it is unacceptable that more than a third of high school students in the city are not graduating on time, or that many students still must take remedial courses when they arrive at City College.
I have said that America is in the midst of a "quiet revolution" in school reform. And this is very much a revolution driven by leaders in statehouses, state superintendents, local lawmakers, district leaders, union heads, principals and teachers.
America has an unprecedented window for reform because courageous state and local leaders are now collaborating on problems that the experts said were too divisive to reform. Joel Klein may have been one of the pioneers -- but parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, governors and union leaders are clamoring to improve education across the country.
To date, 37 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted higher standards to stop the insidious practice of dummying down academic standards. Meanwhile, the $4 billion Race to the Top program challenged states to craft concrete, comprehensive plans for reforming their education systems -- and the response was extraordinary. Forty-six states applied, with New York being one of the proud winners. Klein and Mike Mulgrew, head of the UFT, both showed courageous leadership in support of the state's effort. But even states that did not win awards now have a state road map for reform.
Yes, challenges lie ahead -- and the urgency to get better in a hurry is greater than ever. But Joel Klein helped show that no educational challenge is too big to tackle. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if school reform can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere.
Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education.
New York Daily News