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Love or loathe him, Joel Klein is the person most responsible for shaping U.S. schools today

Merrow says "most of the words" about Joel Klein have been good. That sure depends on whom you're listening to. A reader comment sums up many real educators' views of Joel Klein's reign in New York City--and the legacy he passed on to school leaders across the country: Mean-spirited devastation. Other readers had plenty to say too.

Reader Comment: To call Klein an "educator," is an outrageous insult to real educators everywhere

Reader Comment:"Shaping U.S. schools?" Indeed, if you are a hedgefund operator or venture capitalist, these are good times as public dollars hsve been transferred onto private hands with scandalous no-bid contracts, manipulated data showing growth whete none existed, brazen hypocracy, etc. It will take decades for the damage to be undone.

Reader Comment: The Nosferatu of Public Education, and under the thumb of mayoral control, Klein opened a vein in the NYC Public Schools and invited his acolytes to drink from its flow. Once the job was done, and the system rendered near death, he left for pastures far greener than his "multimillion dollar" law practice. Hells bells- in corporate-speak, that was chump change. He now stands to earn billions selling his educational software to privatized schools everywhere, run by his minions, to eliminate the need for well-trained, well-paid, highly qualified teachers. And, after 8 long years of mean-spirited devastation in which he alienated true educators, he took a pension from the dying system! On January 10, 2011, he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal called " Why Teacher Pensions Don't Work," wherein he argues for the elimination of such pensions in order to "save" education from the teachers who serve as its backbone. Read it. Need we say more?

By John Merrow

Who is America's most influential educator? Some would probably name Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, and cynics might suggest Bill Gates, because of his foundation's heavy involvement in education policy, or a teachers' union leader like Randi Weingarten.

In this parlor game, other names would emerge: Oprah Winfrey, anyone? Other competitors for the title would be Big Bird and friends on Sesame Street and Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. Millions of young children learn from the former, and by now hundreds of thousands of students have been -- and are being-- taught by Teach for America corps members.

But the evidence suggests that our most influential educator is a lawyer who only very briefly taught in public school and never had the formal credentials to lead a public school system. Even now, as he earns megabucks working for a media giant, his influence is felt across the nation -- in New Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, New Haven, Conn., New Orleans and elsewhere.

This man is a believer in public education-- which, he says, transformed his life. His father had to quit high school, and he grew up in public housing. He credits his teachers in Queens for giving him "a worldview and a sense of opportunity and purpose."

That's why, when in 2002 Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked him to run the city's schools, Joel Klein turned his back on his million-dollar law practice and budding career as a media executive at Bertelsmann, Inc. to become New York City's schools chancellor.

Much has been made of Klein's influence on the city's public schools over his nearly nine 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.

Combative by nature, Klein could bristle rather easily. Always well prepared, 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 Klein boasted about, particularly after the flabby nature of state tests was exposed and scores were recalibrated, leading to significantly lower gains for many public schools on his watch. 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.

One critic, the anti-testing group FairTest, accuses Mr. Klein of leading New York and the country in "dangerous directions." In a statement, it charges that he "promoted the overuse and misuse of standardized tests to judge students, control curriculum and instruction and rate schools, teachers and principals --even though the tests are inadequate for all these purposes. In doing so, he undermined teaching and learning even while claiming to improve them." It adds that Klein -- and by extension his proteges-- are "part and parcel of a larger trend, exemplified most by No Child Left Behind, that reduces schooling to test prep."

A more comprehensive critique comes from Weingarten, who clashed with Klein when she led the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and who has continued the arguments now that she is president of the national union, the American Federation of Teachers. In response to my question, she offered this analysis:

"Joel had a great opportunity when he became chancellor. He is bright, he had the mayor's trust and he had the power. He had an infusion of new funding from the equity lawsuit, the city's growing revenues and a new teachers' contract that lengthened the school day and significantly increased teacher pay, including new teachers."

But, Weingarten concludes, he failed to take advantage. "He led through divisiveness, and as a result, we lost the opportunity to make this school system an example of sustained and growing student achievement for all to emulate. He disregarded the public schools that were working, preferring instead to focus on charters. He dismantled programs that worked, like the Chancellor's District, and apropos of that rather than using the flexibility embedded in the DOE-UFT contract, he often ridiculed it, even after he negotiated its terms. When his actions did not produce results, he re-organized and pointed fingers, blaming teachers and their union."

However, even his critics ought to give Klein credit for longevity, tenacity and some genuine improvements. The bureaucracy has been streamlined, 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.

But what distinguishes Klein from other reformers -- a point far too rarely forgotten when observers are assessing his legacy -- is his influence beyond the system he ran.

His geographical influence is vast:

School superintendents in Chicago (Jean-Claude Brizard), Baltimore (Andres Alonso), Newark (Cami Anderson), Montgomery County, Md. (Joshua Starr). South Orange, N.J. (Brian Osborne), Christina, Del. (Marcia Lyles) and New Haven (Garth Harries).

Then there's the State Superintendent in New Jersey, Chris Cerf; and the Superintendent of Louisiana's "Recovery School District" in New Orleans, John White, who is rumored to be in line to become that state's superintendent.

It doesn't end there. Two other leaders were nurtured by Klein, although neither reported to him directly. One is the current New York City chancellor, former Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, whom Klein often refers to jokingly as "my other wife." The other is Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C. She is unstinting in her praise.

"Like many of the new superintendents across the country now, I got my position as chancellor of the Washington D.C. Schools in large part because of Joel Klein," she wrote in an email. "His best piece of advice to me was, 'Lead from the front, don't get mired in the middle.' His intolerance and impatience for low expectations and low academic achievement of kids put the fire into a lot of us and certainly helped to keep me motivated."

Although Rhee has moved on to found a national organization, Students First, her policies apparently remain in place, and Walcott has changed little since taking over in New York City.

So are these men and women disciples who wear "What Would Joel Do?" buttons on their lapels? Not likely, because he says he looked for "people who were tough-minded, independent and would tell me what they think (not what they think I want to hear)." Regarding discipleship, Klein wrote in an email, "I hope they ask WWJD but in the end make up their own mind. After all, they're accountable."

In at least two districts, Baltimore and New Haven, the leaders have moved away from Klein's antagonistic posture toward unions. Both have forged new relationships and, coincidence or not, are showing improvement in student performance and graduation rates.

Still, even as the personal stamps are inevitable, Klein's powerful imprint is unquestionable.

As for Klein, he has not left education entirely. He's now working on education technology projects for the News Corporation -- with an ambitious plan to modernize, among other things, the delivery of lessons to students and assessment data to teachers and administrators. [emphasis added] That could be a sweet spot given that his new boss, Rupert Murdoch, recently derided public schools as "Victorian" and inappropriate for today's world.

In sum, Arne Duncan may have the bully pulpit, but Klein has boots on the ground. By my calculations, his proteges have power over public schools that enroll more than 3 million students.

Our public schools currently enroll about 50 million students, which means that around 6% of all U.S. public school students are under his influence. That makes former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, hands down, the most influential educator in America.

Merrow, a two-time Peabody Award recipient, is education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and the author, most recently, of "The Influence of Teachers."

— John Merrow
New York Daily News





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