Departed Chancellor Had One Thing Right: No Magic Wand To Get School Change

I have been following the back-and-forth debate over the legacy of Joel Klein’s service in New York City as Chancellor. I have no wise words on that legacy to offer here but I do want to make a comparison between his tenure and that of Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.

Apart from the substantial difference in the size of districts and tenure, Klein served eight years and Rhee only three, both were mayoral appointees and advocates of charters and more parental choice among schools. They accepted “no excuses” from teachers and principals, fought for pay-4-performance schemes, and thought that unions were major stumbling blocks to the kinds of reform they championed. Rhee’s brief tenure as a sprinter school chief will be remembered, I believe, as one where hostility to teachers and unions dominated reform talk and, ultimately, failed–yes, even with what pundits called a “revolutionary” contract in D.C. including IMPACT–the process of evaluating teachers–and pay-4-performance.

Klein, however, staked his reputation on choice, closing many large, failing secondary schools  and the creation of new schools. While there will continue to be disputes over the gains and losses from schools shut down and those opened, it is that significant difference in overall reform direction–focusing attention and resources on better schools in New York City while in D.C. targeting teachers (e.g., getting rid of tenure, dumping lousy teachers, and paying higher salaries to high-performing teachers) that I believe is most important.

Surely, Rhee was interested in school change and saw appointing principals as the path to that end. Klein believed that CEO-style principals were the engine of school change also but knew that principals had to work closely with teachers in order for any basic change in a school to take hold. As Klein put it in an exit interview with a reporter,

“Schools have to turn around from within. There’s not somebody in central office who waves a wand on this stuff. That’s why I want to give people choices.”

Whether Klein learned that crucial insight the hard way through experience, read the research, listened to veteran principals and teachers, I do not know. Possibly, these new schools siphoned off motivated parents and their sons and daughters, leaving other students stuck in large high schools. Whatever the case, Klein knew that while fairy queens may wave wands, surely, Chancellors do not.

Building the capabilities of teachers and principals while providing resources to schools (before current fiscal retrenchment strangled efforts) helped many new staffs work together in making schools succeed–not administrative directives or walk-throughs from district officials and prestigious consultants.

In D.C., the slow poisoning of the reform air that teachers breathed in the District made it harder for many principals to get teachers to collaborate. Surely, there were stand-out principals in D.C. but the overall hostile climate to teachers–recall the Time magazine cover with Rhee holding a broom–made in-school cooperation for turning around a school increasingly difficult.

When turnarounds do occur, more often than not, a principal and staff figure out, with district office support, what model, what program, what people best fit a school’s history and neighborhood. Then they work with parents day in and day out to tailor the different components to fit the school, adapting their approach every time a pothole in the road appears. This happens one school at a time. Success spreads when district officials make it possible for turnaround teachers and administrators to share their wisdom with parents and those staff members who are ready and willing to improve.

Such a slow, labor-intensive process stumbled in D.C. Yes, cooperation occurred in occasional sites but a climate hostile to teachers stifled district-wide diffusion. Rhee and other edu-preneurs along with so many state, federal policymakers and foundation officers, sad to say, sought reforms “going to scale” with a sure-fire model in place not in five years, not in a decade, but in the next couple years. Not one school at a time. Yet as Charles Payne observed, expanding one or two apparently successful schools across a district is like saying: “Let’s pretend to do on a grand scale what we have no idea how to do on a small scale (p. 69).”

So this substantial difference between Klein and Rhee, departing Chancellors who ran in the same crowd of reformers, gives the new school chief in New York City a stronger basis for continuing a slow but steady process of school-by-school change while the next Chancellor in D.C. had better look for a magic wand at Amazon.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

4 responses to “Departed Chancellor Had One Thing Right: No Magic Wand To Get School Change

  1. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    This is an excellent description of the process as it happened in Washington DC with Rhee. There were fireworks with the school board, with the outside influencers, and with those who supported vocational schools as well as the standoff and mocking of the teaching staff in the press by Rhee.

    It was an educational soap opera made for the movies. So much of what we believe these days comes from the media, so Rhee had the blessings of the elite, the movie, the national press and the story was defined first as her being Joan of Arc, then made saintly in the Newsweek article. It was all too much to take given the very low level of change going on. I think that sadly there was a racial tone that began to appear that reflected in the results of the election.

    I worked for change at Ballou High School with the Clinton Administration.
    I know we did not create miracles, but we tried. We volunteered and participated as best we could mentoring teachers, . DC schools are a political plum, so what happens gets lost in the political arguments and is below the radar of reality. Most reporters want to be loved by the administration so it is interesting to see that a few strike out to define and share the problems. Thank you for your insights, and sharing,

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. Jane Remer

    Well, yes, that’s the difference between the Klein and Rhee approach. But I don’t like the gloss over the brutal fact of massive, every single year change of structure and organization that put almost all the eggs into the standardized test basket and have distorted the balance of subjects in a curriculum that still evades a high percentage of our poverty-struck kids…I work in these schools, I see how one child, through no fault of his own, suddenly goes haywire, stopping teaching and learning dead in their path, for everyone in that classroom and often the rest of the school. Until Americans address the issue of poverty, class and the distribution of power, we will never glimpse the promise of the democracy our founders envisioned, even in its faulty patches.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jane, for the comment. Klein and Rhee as well as many others who work on the assumption that schools alone can improve student achievement–I call them the “no excuses”crowd–have had a political platform for the past decade. The other side, “The Bolder Broader” approach that organized politically a few years ago does recognize the ill-effects of poverty on children, schools, and learning and wants far more integration of community services with daily schooling. This back-and-forth has been going on for over a century. Your points have echoes in what teachers said in New York City and other urban districts for decades.

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