1 Joel Klein: Making the Grade
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Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. —HYMAN RICKOVER, U.S. Admiral 1 JOEL KLEIN: Making the Grade © the ne w yo rk city de par tm ent o f e duca tion Against all odds, hard-charging Chancellor Joel Klein has overhauled NewYork’s long-embattled public schools—with dramatic results. 17 WANTED: Superhero. Dynamic professional to lead big-city public school system. Must balance anemic budgets, repair crumbling classrooms, transform underperforming students and attract, and retain bright, but underpaid teachers. Must mollify demanding parents, aggressive unions, community activists—not to mention the Boss in City Hall. Be prepared for long hours, protracted legal and political battles and relatively low pay. Must show progress immediately or face termination. Previous education experience not necessary. WHY WOULD ANYONE take such a tough, thankless job? It’s been called the hottest kitchen in America. Yet those who oversee the country’s bigcity schools occupy one of the most critical positions in any community, with, in many cases, a larger budget, more employees, and more physical facilities than almost any other area business. Despite its importance, this bastion of educational purgatory has chewed up both neophytes and experienced hands. The Herculean job “consumes all of you—your personal life, your professional life. I was totally exhausted,” recalls Gerry House, who held the top post in Memphis and Chapel Hill, N.C., and is now president of the Institute for Student Achievement in Lake Success, N.Y. Everyone, it seems, has a stake in a city’s educational system— teachers, parents, students, business and political leaders—and all look to the superintendent to solve problems overnight, problems magnified 18 bright triumphs by poverty and race. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for today’s big-city school czars to stay in the saddle long enough to make an impact, where school reform typically takes at least five years to show results. “A keep-your-bags-packed kind of career” is how Michael Casserly, executive director of the Center of the Great City Schools, describes what may be the toughest job in America. But nowhere are the perils of leading the country’s urban schools more daunting than in New York City. For years, the Big Apple’s schools have been a toxic zone—a land mine of mean-spirited politics aggravated by contentious ethnic and social enclaves. No wonder that since the ’60s the shelf-life of New York’s educational top guru—or “chancellor” as the position is called— has shortened to a paltry two-and-a-half years. The all-too-familiar problems of urban poverty, crime, and unfamiliarity with the English language—or the fact that the job may simply be too big (New York has 1,450 schools, 1.1 million students, 83,000 teachers and a $15.4 billion budget)—may make the assignment too difficult for any individual to manage. If Gotham’s school system were a corporation , it would rank in the top third of the Fortune 500. For years, though, the real killer was the city’s Byzantine accountability structure within which chancellors had to operate—a nightmarish mishmash of citywide and local school boards and districts. Despite spending more on each student (almost $12,000 a year), New York City’s schools were plagued with struggling test scores, crumbling infrastructure, continual budget problems, and low morale. When the idea of managing the Big Apple’s chronically troubled system was floated by Paul Vallas, the highly respected CEO of New Orleans’ schools and the former education chief of Chicago and Philadelphia , he quickly ruled himself out, admitting, “I’d get eaten up there.” Why then did Crusader Joel I. Klein, a former federal trustbuster and business executive, decide, at age fifty-six, to take on this incredible challenge? “Call it my profound love of our public schools,” he told me. “I owe my teachers and this city’s schools more than I can ever repay.” The self-made son of a postman and a bookkeeper, raised in Bensonhurst 19 joel klein : making the grade and Astoria, Queens, is the proud product of Gotham’s public schools, before graduating magna cum laude from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. “Next to global terrorism,” he contends, “reforming our public schools is the single biggest challenge confronting the nation. We simply have to get it [public education] right!” This lifelong Democrat, who served in the Clinton...


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