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 on Wednesday of the legacy of the far-reaching—and controversial—initiatives that he and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have pushed over the past eight years.
At an invitation-only conference here on Nov. 10, the authors of 11 studies commissioned by the New York City Education Reform Retrospective Project held different facets of those initiatives, which are known collectively as Children First, up to the light. The studies, paid for by the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Austin, Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the Salisbury, N.C.-based Robertson Foundation, found the initiative has led to some systemic improvements in student achievement and teacher quality, but also some capacity problems and resentment among some teacher, parent and community groups. The gathering came the day after the announcement that Mr. Klein will step down in mid-December.
“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.”
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 virtually toothless Public Education Panel. The Children First initiative, launched the same year, began with the elimination of 32 community districts —each with its own superintendent and board—and the creation of 10 regional systems that provide services and support while giving schools considerable autonomy.
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. By 2008, the highest-poverty schools were actually hiring fewer teachers on temporary licenses than wealthy schools.
“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 to recover students who had dropped out; developed a student-information data system accessible by parents; and assigned teacher mentors and parent coordinators, among other initiatives.
While researchers noted that it was next to 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 New York City. Moreover, the improvement in test scores in the 8th grade was linked to an increased likelihood that those students would graduate from high school four years later.
“The increases in test scores over time is not just an artifact of test-taking strategies,” Mr. Kemple said. “This test score continues to be an indicator of higher likelihood of graduating from high school.”
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 costs for special education, and support experimental initiatives in technology and models of schooling.
Though the state’s federal Race to the Top grant may provide some new funding, Ms. Steifel said, she didn’t think the revenue growth seen in those early years is likely to continue because of the troubled state and national economic picture. Tighter budgets could reduce willingness to go along with future changes, particularly in negotiating teacher contracts.
Mr. Klein admitted as much in a conversation with reporters late Wednesday after the conference, saying the most critical issue for sustaining the agenda would be to quickly eliminate the city’s policy of “last hired, first fired” before budget cuts begin, so that principals could protect younger teachers they recently had chosen, even at the expense of losing more expensive veteran teachers if staff cuts were needed.
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. But “in our view, the administration may have failed to fully appreciate an alternative theory of community engagement as a means to sustain education reform,” Mr. Henig said.
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. Bloomberg and Cathleen P. Black, the mayor’s choice as Mr. Klein’s successor, to backpedal on some initiatives in the future.
Monica Major, who represents the Bronx borough on the city’s Panel for Education Policy, said she believed the city education department “lost because they had the opportunity to build trust, to engage parents. You are not going to move forward until parents really feel they are being engaged, being listened to.”
Mr. Klein admitted that he “didn’t do as good a job as I should have in getting the buy-in we need.” Yet the chancellor ended his discussion with researchers defiant in response to suggestions that his team should have designed and implemented the Children First measures more collaboratively.
“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. “Whether you agree or disagree, the most aggressive forms of school reform are going on in places like Chicago, D.C., and New York, and that’s not coincidentally because there was mayoral control and the ability to drive the system, and I think you need that in K-12.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week