School & District Management

Klein-Era Initiatives Assessed by Scholars

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 16, 2010 4 min read
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Often it’s left to the history books to judge the results of big-city education reform efforts years later, but outgoing New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein got a preview last week of the legacy of the far-reaching—and controversial—initiatives that he and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have led over the past eight years.

At an invitation-only conference here on Nov. 10, the day after Mr. Klein announced his plans to step down next month, authors of 11 studies commissioned by the New York City Education Reform Retrospective Project held different facets of those initiatives, known collectively as Children First, up to the light.

The studies, which were financed by various private foundations, found the initiative has led to some systemic improvements in student achievement and teacher quality, but also some capacity problems and resentment on the part of some teacher, parent, and community groups.

“I think Joel Klein and his colleagues have gotten much more traction on reform than any previous leadership team,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean of the education and management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “This is the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country.”

The Tenure of Joel Klein

—Seth Wenig/AP

View a news timeline of stories, photos, and video from key events during the tenure of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.
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Mayor Bloomberg appointed Mr. Klein as chancellor shortly after gaining control of the city’s school system in 2002 and replacing the board of education with a strictly advisory Public Education Panel. Children First, launched the same year, began by eliminating 32 community districts—each with its own superintendent and board—and creating 10 regional systems that provide services and support while giving schools considerable autonomy.

Teacher-Quality Gap Shrinks

Under the initiative, the Bloomberg administration negotiated a new teacher contract that did away with seniority-based teacher-transfer decisions and gave principals more authority to hire and fire teachers.

While changes in the hiring, transfer, and compensation systems for teachers were controversial, a study led by James H. Wyckoff, the director of the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, found they significantly improved the qualifications of teachers in the city’s highest-poverty schools. In particular, the gap in the average qualifications between teachers in the wealthiest and poorest 10 percent of schools shrank by half from 2000 to 2005.

A Chronology of Children First

Soon after New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gained control of the city’s public school system, he and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein launched a series of sweeping initiatives known as Children First.

• Bloomberg gains mayoral control over New York City schools

• Joel Klein appointed chancellor
• Public Education Panel (PEP) replaces N.Y.C. board of education

• Children First Initiative launched
• 32 community districts restructured into 10 regions
• Parent coordinators required at all schools
• Policies implemented to end social promotion
• Leadership Academy launched
• Office of New Schools created by district

• Autonomy Zone formed (29 schools)

• District establishes accountability office
• District and UFT agree to “open market” transfer system.

• Schools select among 11 School Support Organizations (SSOs)
• Children First Initiative
• Distribution of parent survey begins
• Autonomy zone renamed “Empowerment Zone,” expanded to 332 schools

• Fair Student Funding formula takes effect
• Children First Initiative launched systemwide (at least one team per school)
• Online student-data site launched
• Schoolwide performance bonus begins

• Online parent link to student data system created and rolled out
• Gifted and Talented admissions process revised
• District reaches goals of opening 200 small high schools and closing 20 large comprehensive high schools

SOURCE: The New York City Education Reform Retrospective Project

“There’s a really dramatic shift after 2003 to a really different workforce in New York City [schools] than there had been in place before that,” Mr. Wyckoff said.

Under Children First, the city also closed nearly 100 low-performing schools and replaced them with small schools and new “alternate path” high schools; developed a student-information data system accessible by parents; and assigned teacher mentors and parent cordinators, among other changes.

While researchers noted that it was impossible to tease out the effects of individual parts of Children First, James J. Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, compared the city’s school reform efforts as a whole against a “virtual” control group modeled from other urban districts in the state, including Buffalo, Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester.

The study found New York City students improved significantly faster than the control group on both the New York state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress during the reform period, from 2002 to 2010. The improvement trend continues even taking into account New York state’s recent recalibration of test scores, which showed little growth for city schools. Moreover, improvement in 8th grade test scores was linked to an increased likelihood that those students would graduate from high school on time.

“The increases in test scores over time are not just an artifact of test-taking strategies,” Mr. Kemple said. “This test score [trend] continues to be an indicator of higher likelihood of graduating from high school.”

Sustaining Change

Yet several studies also called into question the sustainability of community—and particularly parent—support for the initiatives.

For example, New York University researchers Leanna Stiefel and Amy Ellen Schwartz reported that during Mayor Bloomberg’s first six years in office, the city schools saw a funding increase, after adjusting for inflation, of about $5,000 per student, compared with a little more than $3,000 per student on average in the rest of the state during that time. The additional money helped grease the wheels for more-flexible teacher contracts with pay raises, deal with rising special education costs, and support experimental initiatives with technology and new schooling models.

But such revenue growth is not likely to continue, Ms. Steifel said, because of the troubled state and national economic picture, which could reduce willingness to go along with future changes.

Mr. Klein’s elimination of the old neighborhood districts was intended to reduce corruption, but it also closed down the lines of communication to which parents and community members were accustomed, according to a study led by Jeffrey R. Henig, the politics and education program coordinator at Teachers College, Columbia University. He added that the administration’s approach “fueled resentment that went deeper and broader than the administration anticipated,” and that those “still festering” disagreements could force Mr. Klein’s successor to backpedal on some initiatives.

Mr. Klein admitted at the forum that he “didn’t do as good a job as I should have in getting the buy-in we need.” Yet he ended his discussion with researchers defiant in response to suggestions that Children First should have been a more collaborative effort.

“I don’t think you can do school reform by plebiscite; it’s why I opposed school boards and why I fought for mayoral control,” Mr. Klein said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Klein-Era Initiatives Assessed by Scholars


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