cross-posted at the Washington Post
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein stepped down today after eight years on the job, and will be replaced by Hearst chairwoman Cathie Black. Over the coming days we’ll see many assessments of Klein’s legacy; what’s clear is that he succeeded in projecting an image of order, organization, and improvement in the nation’s largest public school system, which educates 1 million children and employs 80,000 teachers. Klein oversaw the establishment of some 100 new charter schools; broke up large comprehensive high schools into smaller, themed schools; and raised the on-time high school graduation rate to 60 percent in 2010 from about 44 percent in the class of 2004.
What’s less clear is how well-prepared the typical New York City public school grad is for higher education or the workplace; much of the district’s proudly-touted gains on state tests disappeared earlier this year when New York declared the tests too easy and recalibrated proficiency rates. On NAEP, the only national test of students’ skills, New York City fourth graders have improved modestly, but eighth graders are stagnant.
Like his protégée, former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Klein sometimes botched relationships with neighborhoods, teachers, and the teachers’ union. In March, a judge ruled in favor of the United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP, blocking Klein’s attempt to close 19 low-performing neighborhood schools. Just a few weeks ago, the courts also prevented Klein from releasing to the media “value-adding” ratings for individual teachers, a controversial calculation of how well educators “grow” their students’ standardized test scores from one year to the next.
The question now is why on Earth Mayor Bloomberg has tapped Cathie Black as Klein’s successor. Her entire career has been spent in the publishing industry, she sends her own two children to private boarding school in Connecticut, and she attended parochial schools herself. Nor does Black have any longstanding philanthropic or political interest in education reform, as far as I can tell at this early hour.
While Klein was also criticized for lacking an education background, he at least had a history of public service, having worked as a distinguished Justice Department attorney. What’s more, with a new generation of aggressive education reformers reaching maturity—folks like Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp and New Leaders for New Schools co-founder and CEO John Schnur—one wonders why it is necessary for someone with Mayor Bloomberg’s policy priorities to turn to the corporate world to fill an education executive position.
It’s also rather deliciously ironic, as an education journalist, to see Klein leave the job to go work for one mainstream media company, News Corp (which hints it wants to get involved in education reform), as Black enters from another, Hearst (and previously, USA Today). At the press conference announcing the resignation and succession plan, Mayor Bloomberg said, “Jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s exactly what Cathie Black knows about,” referencing the importance of preparing New York City school children for work in an increasingly competitive and demanding global economy. The legacy media, of course—the world from which Cathie Black hails—has been hemorrhaging jobs, and Hearst and USA Today are no exception to that trend.