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."
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.
Running a school system is perhaps an unlikely job for a former city budget director who once spoke with a stutter and says he would have been assigned to special education classes had they existed at the time. Yet Vallas says he understood that "there is a potential in all students that isn't always realized-that they are often victims of a system that doesn't always serve them as well as it could."
To make sure his system does perform, Vallas makes careful observations-soliciting thoughts from parents, union representatives, and teachers-and then uses them to make new assignments. "I am always gathering data," he says. "Once you know what's going on, then you can find the right people to fix what doesn't work." And he expects results. "Anyone who's worked for him feels an absolute need to be accountable," says Phil Hansen, a former elementary school principal and retired chief accountability officer for the Chicago public schools. "I've been paged while sitting in church and late on a Saturday night."
Challenges. Like Bloomberg, Vallas has also managed to avoid the paralysis that comes when contract negotiations fail. As a teenager, he coordinated a group of 30 busboys, chefs, and wait staff at his father's restaurant, and that taught him some valuable lessons, he says, including the importance of compromise. "The first order of business is always sitting down with the teachers and principals to find out what their solutions are. I did that in Chicago, and I did that here," he says. "That's probably why I've never had a strike or a slowdown and it's rare for issues to go to arbitration."
To be sure, challenges remain. Graduation and literacy rates in Philadelphia and New York are still dismal, and there is a huge and ever widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots.But there is a commitment to both the fixes and the fixers: Vallas's contract has been extended through July 2009, and he reportedly turned down an offer to head the Los Angeles school system. Mayoral control in New York will be reconsidered in the coming years as well. In the end, however, the success of education reforms can be measured only with years of hindsight. "Fixing education is a long-term thing," says Bloomberg. "Whether it takes a long time to do it, or it takes a long time to see the results, doesn't really matter.
Bloomberg on Klein
When I needed a chancellor, I went down my address book from A to Z, and I wrote down the names of anybody who I could conceivably think of somebody saying "oh he or she should be chancellor" so that I would give everybody a fair shot. And I looked down the list, and there was just no question. Right away, Joel Klein stood out. I interviewed maybe 10 people. The other nine-their names were in the paper the next day. Klein's name wasn't in the paper. That's one of the reasons to pick him. But he's also smart, and he cares. He worked his way up. Phenomenal academic background, management background, great feeling for people. I think what's important is that he leads from the front. A lot of people think that management is about doing a poll, finding out what people want, then giving it to them. That's leading from the back. Great advances are made exactly the reverse.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.