Curing What Ails the Classroom
Taking a cue from business, Klein and Bloomberg established a principal leadership academy based on a corporate leadership school started by former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch, who is also an adviser to the program. The 15-month curriculum relies on problem-based learning to teach management techniques. "[Welch] talked to our senior leaders," Klein said, "and he basically said that the challenge we face here is greater than the one he faced when he took over GE, and we have far fewer tools in our toolbox."
As logical as Klein's ideas sound, they represented a radical change; previous reforms had been centered on the classroom-on higher pay and better teaching methods. In shifting the emphasis to the school leaders, Klein and Bloomberg were rejecting the traditional journeyman approach to school administration. And that did not come without opposition. Randi Weingarten, the head of the New York teachers union, gives Bloomberg credit for his boldness but faults him for dismissing a more teachercentric approach.
Still, New York managed to avoid a teachers strike by agreeing to a contract that gave teachers a 15 percent raise in exchange for productivity increases and givebacks. Says former New York Mayor Edward Koch: "Bloomberg's not a charismatic figure, but he has a common decency and calm demeanor that allow him to get things done without raising tensions."
Thick skinned. Centralizing authority and increasing accountability have been hallmarks of many big-city reform efforts. But firing principals and running charter schools is not for the faint of heart. As Bloomberg and Klein have learned, radical change requires leaders who can build public support and also withstand withering criticism. When the local school boards were dissolved, for instance, parents were troubled by the lack of connection with the education department. And some teachers have been demoralized by rules that compel teaching a specific curriculum.
"There's a tremendous amount of gravity that undercurrents the status quo," says Klein. But it comes with the territory. "If you're going to hold your finger to the wind ... you're not going to be an effective leader," he says. "If you're not prepared for that dimension, you're not going to be able to successfully lead-certainly if you want to lead large-scale complex reform or change."
Another big-city reformer who can take the heat is Paul Vallas, a veteran of the Chicago public schools who assumed control of the Philadelphia school system after losing a primary bid for governor of Illinois. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I came in the door," says Vallas, "because I had come from a district with exactly the same problems, and twice as large. There were no new discoveries to be made."
So far, his initiatives show promise. Citywide, 42 percent of students scored at advanced or proficient levels on state math tests and 38 percent in reading, compared with rates of 22 percent in math and 24 percent in reading just four years earlier. The achievement gap between ethnicities is narrowing, and school violence is down. Moreover, the number of schools that have met their goals as established by the No Child Left Behind Act has jumped to 166 in 2005-06, from 153 in 2004-05. The fact that 103 city schools are still failing to meet goals shows how much work Vallas has yet to do.