As Klein Departs, Academics Discuss His Legacy

Did the city's public schools really improve under Chancellor Joel Klein? Now that Klein has resigned to take a job at News Corporation, the debate has only intensified. Mayor Bloomberg announced Klein's departure yesterday and the appointment of media executive Cathie Black to replace him. Coincidentally, a conference was scheduled today by academics who have spent the past year studying Klein's reforms. WNYC's Beth Fertig was there.

Who are these experts and what are they saying about the city's schools?

The city's public schools have been getting a lot of national attention because of the reforms made by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. This is the country's largest school system. And their reforms were really ambitious. Together they completely overhauled the management structure, they opened hundreds of new schools including over 100 charters, and they put a lot of stock in test scores to measure results. So when you do something on that scale, as we saw, it generated a lot of controversy and interest from around the country.  The American Institutes for Research got funding from a few foundations in order to hire a bunch of education professors and researchers who could study what happened here. And that's what we heard today.

Were there any new conclusions, things we didn't know?

A few things stood out. There's an assistant professor at NYU who looked at school choice. What happened when the mayor and the chancellor opened all those new high schools. And he found for the most part it didn't make the schools more racially or geographically diverse. It didn't make them less diverse, either. Kids applied to the most popular high schools. And when they didn't get in, they wound up going to schools in their neighborhoods, with other kids like them. Something like 80 percent stayed in their zip code. Although high achieving kids, blacks, girls and Bronx residents were the ones most willing to travel long distances in order to go to a different school.

What about test scores and the debate over progress?

That came up -- the academics agreed the city schools did make progress when you look at the scores and there's a debate about how much. But they weren't really focusing on test scores. Most of these people looked at things like community engagement or teacher qualifications. A professor from the University of Virginia found the city did get more qualified teachers after it gave them a raise and hired a lot of career changers from the Teaching Fellows program. And then Klein was there -- he came at the end to talk about his accomplishments. And some of his regrets.

Did he have any?

Yes - surprisingly. Joel Klein has been very forceful over these past eight years about the need to shake things up. And today he defended that when he said "if it's not controversial, it will be meaningless." But he also acknowledged he could have handled some things differently. Especially when it came to getting public support. He said:

"I buy and accept the fact that we did not, I did not, do as well in terms of building community support, explaining what we were doing, making sure our voices and supporters were heard effectively."

Did he elaborate?

No, but we know he got into big trouble this year when he tried to close 19 low performing schools and then lost a lawsuit by the teachers union and some parents on the grounds that he didn't provide enough community notification. And there was a lot of talk about that today at the conference. One panel spent the whole morning discussing how parents felt left out of the chancellor's reforms.

People must have been talking about Klein's departure and Mayor Bloomberg's choice of Hearst Magazines chairman Cathie Black to succeed him. What were you hearing?

Yes, there was a lot of scuttlebutt. Because along with the academic crowd there were also folks from inside the Department of Education. And they were shocked by Klein's departure. A lot of people expected him to leave because he's been there so long. But they only learned about it half an hour before he made the announcement and I'm talking about top people in the Education department.

Then there's the shock over choosing Cathie Black -- someone from publishing. People were really surprised by that. Even though Klein came from the U.S. Justice Department and the publishing world. But Bloomberg likes choosing people who have been managers in the private sector. One thing I kept hearing, though, is that this is a very challenging time for a new chancellor. Leanna Stiefel, an economics professor at NYU, looked at how much more money the city schools got from the state between 2002 and 2008. It was about $5,000 more per pupil. She said Cathie Black isn't going to have that advantage now with budget cuts.

"She's going to have less money, less leverage, less ability to try new things. On the other hand, maybe this retrospective will be helpful to her. I mean she can try to consolidate and do a few things differently."

And she has to deal with the teachers union, they've been without a contract for a year.