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Outgoing NYC Schools Chief Joel Klein’s Tenure Drew Praise, Criticism

November 10, 2010 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Many were surprised to hear New York City schools chief Joel Klein was stepping down to rejoin the private sector after eight years heading up the nation's largest public school system and being part of a U.S. school reform debate. Gwen Ifill talks to Sarah Garland of the Hechinger Report for more on what his departure means.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: After eight years as head of the nation’s largest public school system, Chancellor Joel Klein announced yesterday he is leaving to rejoin the private sector. Klein, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be replaced by Cathie Black, a former magazine and newspaper publisher.

Klein’s tenure has garnered both praise and criticism, and it has helped drive a national debate about school reform.

Sarah Garland, staff writer for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on education, has been following all of it. And she joins us now. Welcome, Sarah.

SARAH GARLAND, Hechinger Report: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So, what is the significance of Joel Klein’s departure, given everything he was trying to accomplish in New York?

SARAH GARLAND: Well, I think what will happen is that it won’t be as — a drastic change. Bloomberg has brought in someone who is very likely to carry on what Joel Klein was doing.

For him, you know, he’s moving on into the media world. But I do think, at least for the next three years, Bloomberg will be trying to consolidate what he’s done in New York.

GWEN IFILL: When Joel Klein came to this job, he came to it saying he would apply business principles to the job of trying to turn around a troubled public school system. Is there any way to measure how well that’s worked?

SARAH GARLAND: You know, there have — I was actually at a conference today where academics were looking back at the record of test scores and graduation rates.

And, in terms of graduation rates, there were significant gains. And, no matter how you measure it, conservatively or through the administration’s eyes, you saw a 20-point gain in the graduation rate. And so that was very significant.

I think there was also problems, at the same time with test scores. There were gains, but, this year, you had a change in the tests that they had used previously to measure progress. And, so, the gains that they thought that they had made were cut down significantly. And, so, that caused some problems for Bloomberg and also for Klein.

GWEN IFILL: So, on one hand, they could say that they have some good news, but also some unclear news.

What about things like, Joel Klein tried to create a network of smaller schools in New York City? Is that something that he can claim success at?

SARAH GARLAND: You know, there was mixed reviews on that.

I think that the small schools did have some important results. You saw higher graduation rates at some of those schools. And one of the reasons that they actually implemented that — this was a very huge reform where they opened up dozens of these small schools — the reason they did that is because they had seen that those were schools where you could get low-income kids graduating at higher rates.

At the same time, there was a lot of scrutiny of these schools and the way they were opened. And what often ended up happening is that, at first, in the early years, they didn’t have to accept English-language learners and special education students. They were sort of given a break. And that was changed.

But it meant that those higher-needs students, who are harder to educate, ended up going into the big dropout factory type schools and making things there worse. And so they got a lot of criticism for that.

GWEN IFILL: As it means that, here in Washington, D.C., another — and Michelle Rhee was very close to Joel Klein, called him her mentor — that there was some resistance from school unions and from parents even.

SARAH GARLAND: Yes. They had — I was listening to actually Joel Klein talk today at this conference and spoke with him briefly as well. And he admits to the fact that he didn’t do very well when it came to getting community support, which is very important in terms of making sure what he did actually is long-lasting.

Because he was at — because he came in through mayoral control, where the mayor controls the school system, these reforms could basically be voted out. And so, because he didn’t get as much support as he wanted from the public, that sort of — it basically endangers their agenda.

GWEN IFILL: His approach, however, did gain some national support, some national following.

SARAH GARLAND: Yes, absolutely. I was listening to an official today from Charlotte who was saying — basically compared New York City — made the comparison that they were like an older sibling, and so they were now trying a lot of the reforms that New York had done, and looking to what New York did well and also what didn’t work out so well, and copying what they have done.

And many of the reforms made it into some of the federal — federal moves that Arne Duncan is making and the Obama administration has embraced. So, closing failing schools, for example, is something that has become national policy this year.

GWEN IFILL: Cathie Black, the magazine publisher, who has never worked in the public schools, hasn’t worked in the schools, sent her own children to private school in Connecticut, she was appointed in that same mold of going outside the way things are always done. How was that received today in New York?

SARAH GARLAND: People are pretty shocked, I think, all around.

Even in the Department of Education, there was very — I was talking to someone who is sort of a top official today who had no idea that this was happening until a few minutes before the rest of us found out. So, I think there is a lot of shock.

Joel Klein was saying, you know: She’s going to go through what I did, which is the scrutiny of her past and people criticizing her for not being an educator.

I think there’s a lot of surprise, but, again, Bloomberg was looking for somebody not necessarily who comes from the education world, but somebody who can implement the way he sees reform being necessary, which is bringing this business model that’s transforming principals into CEOs and that sort of mind-set.

GWEN IFILL: His vision — yes, his vision of education reform. Sarah Garland of The Hechinger Report, thank you so much.