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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Joel Klein Is Having a Damn Good Month

By Rick Hess — October 30, 2014 2 min read
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Could he have timed this any better? Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, has a book coming out next month. Titled Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, it’s an account of Klein’s decade leading the New York City schools. During his tenure, Klein took a lot of grief for all manner of things--especially for having the temerity to imagine that the Big Apple’s schools needed dramatic, jarring change.

Well, in the past month, two gold-standard studies have been published on elements of New York City reform. Earlier in the month, MDRC released the most recent in a series of evaluations that suggest New York City’s “small high schools” delivered some promising results. After all the abuse heaped upon Klein for trying to break up or shutter troubled high schools, the findings suggest that the new schools were more likely to graduate their students and more likely to see them enroll in college.

Last week, a similarly rigorous Mathematica evaluation of The Equity Project (TEP) found that the school has fostered a powerful professional culture and delivered outsized achievement gains. TEP was one of the many boundary-pushing charter schools that opened on Klein’s watch, most of them targeting low-income students. TEP’s most intriguing element may be that it manages to pay teachers $125,000+ a year by cutting support staff and administration. In a more rational world, the results at schools like TEP would complicate the storyline for all those conspiracy-mongers who denounced Klein’s support for charter schooling as some kind of assault on students and/or teachers.

In education, it’s pretty rare that high-quality evidence finds clear benefits to anything--and two such “I-told-you-so” moments in the space of a month is rarer still. So, I hope that even the haters will take a moment to give credit to Klein where credit is due.

More fundamentally, the findings are a caution about the dangers of being too quick to label superintendents and their efforts as “good” or “bad.” Beverly Hall in Atlanta was, for years, heralded as a brilliant, iconic leader. After the smoke cleared from the massive cheating scandal, it turned out: not so much. It’s taken a decade for the small schools effort in New York City to demonstrate that something about the push seemed to work, and it took five years for the TEP evaluation to reap benefits (a result that surprised me, because I’d heard warnings over the past few years that it would flop). Racing to judge superintendents and their initiatives based on initial impressions or preliminary results accelerates the “spinning wheels” that characterize so many school systems and makes it hard for people to see big changes through to fruition.

Joel Klein helmed a massive, chaotic, dysfunctional school system for a decade--one that, until his tenure, had churned through leaders at a ludicrous rate. Did he “fix” the Big Apple’s schools? Of course not. Did he get everything right? Nope. But he led with courage and conviction, was constantly eager to inquire and learn, showed astonishing fortitude in the face of exhaustive personal attacks, and left New York’s kids a helluva lot better off than when he started. The last month has just provided some additional validation. Like I said, Klein is having a damn good month.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.