Curing What Ails the Classroom
As icons of bureaucracy go, 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, was among the most powerful in the country. The labyrinthine building housed the New York City Board of Education for so long that the address itself became synonymous with cronyism and entrenched interests. So when the state granted the mayor direct control over New York City's more than 1.1 million students and 1,450-plus schools in 2002, the Livingston Street building was among the first to go.
In short order, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sold the building and moved school headquarters to the Tweed Courthouse, close enough that he could rap knuckles without leaving his City Hall office. "At the beginning, the Board of Education sort of rolled their eyes and thought 'this too would go away,'" says Bloomberg. "Bureaucracies always assume that elected officials who want to change everything will quickly forget about it and get on to helping their own political careers."
But Bloomberg, who has consistently touted school reform as his top priority, didn't forget. Since the takeover, the city has instituted a controversial uniform reading program, cut administrative costs, and partnered with private groups in everything from facilities management to school construction. The on-time graduation rate has climbed to the highest in nearly 20 years, the achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts is narrowing-if slightly-and social promotion has been eliminated.
The founder of the media company that takes his name, Bloomberg built an estimated $4.8 billion personal fortune by developing an innovative computer system that provided traders with the most up-to-date information."As an entrepreneur," he wrote in his autobiography, "I've learned to know what I don't know, get access to the people who do know, and then study hard."
One of those who knows is Bloomberg's handpicked school chancellor, Joel Klein. A product of the New York City schools himself, Klein is a veteran litigator who successfully pursued federal anti-trust claims against Microsoft for the Clinton Justice Department. He made the radical career switch because he was passionate about the issue, he says, and anxious to stop a cycle of mediocrity. "Public education transformed my life. My father had to quit high school, and we grew up in public housing, and the teachers in Queens really gave me a worldview and a sense of opportunity and purpose," he says. "Second, God has been good to me. And ... I feel like if we don't figure out how to educate all our kids-we've got so many kids in this city who leave the school system unprepared for anything."
Makeover. A systematic worker, Klein started from the premise that the most crucial people in a school system are teachers, and the most important change agents are principals. "Schools are the basic unit that needs changing," Klein says, "and if we can empower the principals to lead their schools, we can reform the system from the top down and the bottom up." At the same time, Klein keeps in touch with the troops by visiting two or three schools a week, typically unannounced. "I'll ask [students] things like 'How many of your teachers care about you?'" he says. "It's a very illuminating question."