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Thompson: Joel Klein's Heedless Rush to Impose Transformative Change

Screen shot 2014-11-24 at 11.47.57 AMThere is an old saying that tough judicial cases make bad law. Applying the legal maxim to education, challenging school districts like New York City, because of its size, might or might not resort to extraordinary measures. If leaders of those systems, rightly or wrongly, take extreme (not to mention extremely expensive) measures, they should not necessarily be seen as precedents or best practices to be scaled up nationwide. 

Even though I would be afraid of allowing Joel Klein to offer guidance for my 90% low-income school system, which spends around $8000 per student per year, it might or might not be valuable to go deeper into Klein’s Lessons of Hope for insights from his years at the helm of NYC’s schools. By the way, Klein had as much new money to spend, per student, as our district spends in total. So, the next step might be a discussion of whether Klein’s approach was cost effective.

The prime issue, however, is whether it makes sense to eschew incrementalism and only aim for radical or “transformative” change.

Joel Klein does not claim he was the most mild-mannered of federal prosecutors, but he is most explicit in describing his time in the White House as preparation for his job as Chancellor of the NYC schools. During the Clinton administration, he experienced “a constant mix of strategy, hardball negotiation, and insider backbiting.” Clearly, he assumed that this take-no-prisoners mentality was necessary in order to produce rapid and disruptive change.

The cornerstone of the Klein approach to school improvement was his assumption that he must ramrod “transformational change.”  When he first met UFT President Randi Weingarten, Klein asked for her view of the appropriate pace of change. “Sustainable and incremental change,” was Weingarten’s reply. Klein didn’t seem to ask himself whether he should learn more on that subject from this far more experienced person. He responded, “No, no, it must be radical reform.”

The part of Lessons of Hope that has generated the most buzz are Klein’s lengthy quotations of emails with Diane Ravitch and his speculation that the personal dispute caused her to shift gears and oppose school reform in New York and elsewhere.  Even if those pages were to be read in a purely political manner, it seems questionable that a newcomer like Klein would not enthusiastically welcome the “smart and experienced” Mary Butz into his principal leadership team. As was often the case in these pivotal decisions, Klein sided with his inner circle because Butz’s approach “didn’t emphasize the type of transformational leadership that we thought was necessary.” (emphasis mine)

 

Klein quickly ramped up his school closure process. Even if one accepts his premises on what it takes to turn schools around, starting with high schools as opposed to elementary schools, was a questionable decision. Klein tackled this far more complex challenge after being advised that high school students don’t have time to wait. (emphasis mine)

Similarly, when Klein announced a massive small schools initiative, funded by the Gates Foundation, he defended their ambitious schedule because “kids couldn’t afford to wait for better options.”

In January of 2003, Klein announced his Children First initiative. The purpose of the reorganization was shutting down the old districts, and establishing ten new ones to “wrest operational control from the balkanized school districts and to standardize education citywide.” Klein knew it would be seen as a centralized power grab, but he was comforted by the analogy that his reform was like “changing the tire while the car is moving.”

Even though Klein, a novice to education, had been on the job for only six months, he claims that the system had already completed “exhaustive internal analyses and extensive community outreach” before initiating this sweeping agenda. The mayor (another non-educator) “was excited by the scope and breath of what we were proposing.” (emphasis mine)

There is an old saying that if you don’t have time to do something right the first time, when will you have time to redo it. Klein would redo his supposedly comprehensive plan in 2004, shutting the districts down and creating the ironically named “Empowerment Zone.”

I could go on, but this last issue encapsulates the disruptive rush to transform. Before he knew about the existence of the longstanding “reading wars” over whole language and phonics instruction, Klein’s team chose one side of the battle. Klein later wished he had studied the issue and come down on the other side. Presumably, the “us” versus “them” mentality can speed up school improvement because reformers need only take the side that is the opposite of their enemies’ side.

Joel Klein was obsessed with political combat and committed to rapid, radical changes. He knew that the pace of his changes invited errors, but he claimed that he dared not slow down. Had he been more patient, Klein says, his enemies would have been able to push back.

Lessons of Hope concludes in two (or should I say three?) ways. Klein celebrates his victories. He revels in his enemies' defeats. He then calls for transformative technological change.

Here we go again.

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