N.Y.C. Chancellor Asks for Time To Fix Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — October 16, 2002 2 min read

The man heading the New York City schools is quick to admit that he knows case law better than he knows school management. But he has a bold proposal to make nonetheless: If you give me some time, I will turn around the biggest school system in the country.

Chancellor Joel I. Klein delivered that message last week to a select group of education leaders at a luncheon sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The attendees, a who’s who of philanthropy, academia, precollegiate education, and business, were so distinguished that Mr. Klein, a former head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division and corporate executive, confessed within minutes that his lack of education background made him nervous.

Knowing he was not “steeped” in education made assembling a top- notch team of aides of the utmost importance, said Mr. Klein, who was handpicked for the job by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

He spent much of his speech praising that six-person team—which includes Diana Lam, the former superintendent of the Providence, R.I., schools as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning—and said it has an unusual opportunity to make a difference because of the governance change that places authority for schools squarely in the mayor’s hands. (“N.Y.C. Leader Draws Aides From Diverse Professions,” Sept. 4, 2002.)

Since Mr. Klein came aboard two months ago, he has revealed few specifics on how he plans to improve schools, and last week’s luncheon speech was no different. But he did share his views on the magnitude of the change that is needed and where the locus of change should be.

“I’ve said from the beginning that I thought we need major, systemic change,” Mr. Klein said. “I don’t believe that an incrementalist approach is right for the challenge we have.”

The chancellor made clear that he expects change to take place not just within the walls of the district’s new Manhattan headquarters, but on the ground, in each school. “The unit of change is the school,” he said, adding that no such change can happen without high-caliber school leadership.

At the same time, Mr. Klein cautioned, no substantial school improvement can take place without a “significant period of planning.”

Study Under Way

He announced on Oct. 3 that he has assembled a panel of education leaders who will conduct a study of the changes needed in New York schools, trying in particular to get community feedback on what needs to be done. The first phase of the initiative, dubbed “Children First” and underwritten by nearly $4 million in foundation grants, was expected to produce a report within 100 days. Later, the chancellor said, it will produce a “multiyear plan” for running the 1.1 million-student school system.

The study group will examine what Mr. Klein considers to be the system’s four crucial elements: organization, operations and finance, instructional methods, and community input. The panel will make recommendations on how all four can be aligned to produce the desired changes in the $12 billion-a-year behemoth that is the New York City school system.

Mr. Klein admitted that during this planning stage, keeping an eye on New York school reform “is a little like watching the grass grow.” But he urged patience, saying it is important to take the time necessary to do the job right.

One veteran educator, who like many in the room has watched the city’s schools struggle as chancellors have come and gone, leaned over to a colleague and said: “He’s got two years. If he can’t get something done in two years, nothing will happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Chancellor Asks for Time To Fix Schools