Rhee and Klein Talk Reform
Given the guests and their advertised topic, the elements for a provocative evening seemed to be in place. "Can the New York City School System Serve as a Model for DC?" That was the question posed to the cities' two chancellors, Joel Klein and Michelle A. Rhee, by the local alumni chapters of Columbia and Cornell universities. It promised an opportunity to see mentor (Klein, Columbia '67) and protege (Rhee, Cornell '92) reunite to trade notes on the two most closely watched public school overhauls in the country.
But when last night's the session at Bell Multicultural High School ended an hour and twenty minutes later, hardly a word had been devoted to the issue. Neither the moderator--David Johns, an education policy advisor to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy--nor procession of questioners from the audience was interested in pursuing it.
Perhaps the relative size of the New York (1,500 schools, 1.1 million students, 136,000 employees, $22 billion annual budget) and District systems (120 schools, 45,000 students, 3,500 teachers, $800 million budget) limited any serious discussion of modeling.
In any event, the answer is in some ways self-evident. Klein recommended Rhee--whose teacher headhunting non-profit consulted for him--for the job in 2007 and by many accounts they remain in close touch. They are clearly still simpatico when it comes to what they regard as the fundamentals of school transformation. Both said they are trying to revamp bureaucratic cultures historically oriented to the needs of adults rather than children. Both say they seek effective, high-achieving schools and that they don't much care whether they are charter or traditional public. And both are in search of concessions from powerful unions that would allow them to leverage more control over hiring teachers and retaining the best of them--even those that are not planning careers as educators.
"I'd rather have a great teacher in a school system for two years than a mediocre teacher for 20 years," said Rhee, assailing the idea of "retention for retention's sake."
Klein, who has run the New York system for seven years, cites a steady growth in high school graduation rates and statewide standardized tests. Critics--most prominently New York University's Diane Ravitch--accuse him of overstating both his accomplishments and the significance of mayoral control of schools, a change both cities have made.
Klein said he showed up primarily to call for broader support of Rhee. When she deflected Johns' request to grade her performance on a 1-to-10 scale, Klein jumped in.
"I give Michelle a 10," he said.
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