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Early thoughts on Joel Klein, Cathie Black and education reform in New York York

By Dana Goldstein

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. In 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 about 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 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 protege, former D.C. Schools 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 Michael 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 —f olks like Teach for America founder and chief executive Wendy Kopp and New Leaders for New Schools co-founder and chief executive John Schnur — one wonders why it would be necessary for someone with 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 Black hails — has been hemorrhaging jobs, and Hearst and USA Today are no exception to that trend.

Dana Goldstein is a contributing writer to the Daily Beast and the Nation, and is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. Read more of her work at

By Dana Goldstein  | November 9, 2010; 6:46 PM ET
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This is really out of my area of expertise so my comment is tangential. I doubt you noticed the irony of this sentence (which you didn't write):

" . . . one wonders why it would be necessary for someone with Bloomberg’s policy priorities to turn to the corporate world to fill an education executive position."

Why is experience, skin in the game as they say, necessary in education administration but not in the world of business or finance?

Why in the world should we take the advice of Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, or Christina Romer, (or even my other BFF Karl Smith, sorry Karl) as "expert" when what they are really expert at is teaching and researching, not business or finance?

Wouldn't someone like Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs (I know fox in the hen house!)or Phil Swan of IBM bring all the positives in economics background and fewer of the negatives? These are men whose perspectives and experience are indeed global.

My personal choice, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO would of course be taboo to many Americans so we won't even go there.

Oh well, I tried to liven up an empty thread. Forgive me.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 9, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

The thought of Joel Klein leaving to go help News Corp get into education is truly terrifying. Perhaps even more terrifying that putting a glossy magazine editor in charge of educating a million children. Remember folks, whatever he may call himself, Bloomberg is at heart a Republican.

Posted by: Ulium | November 9, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Textbooks are big business. Maybe a publishing exec is apropos.

Posted by: zosima | November 9, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

Textbook publishing is big business and a huge branch of it is the testing industry. It's beyond disgusting. These people are parasites on the brains (and souls) of children.

Posted by: harold3 | November 9, 2010 11:21 PM | Report abuse

They are a thousand times worse than the fast food industry that only feeds off childrens' bodies.

Posted by: harold3 | November 9, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

The tradition of NEVER asking education professionals [read: classroom teachers] about the administration of public schools is, once again, honored here. Joel Klein came from the financial world. His favored staffers were lawyers and testing industry people whose ignorance and interest conflicts were of little help in improving schools, despite the purity of their motives. On wishes Ms. Black the best. She and the children will need it.

Posted by: ixam | November 10, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse

NewsCorp is hardly a mainstream media corporation. No doubt that NewsCorp is going to push for more "reforms" that puts public money into the hands of for-profit companies, a la David Brennan of Ohio. Free marketeers see us taxpayers as cash cows passively standing by waiting to be milked. Unfortunately too often they are right.

Posted by: BernieO | November 10, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

It's a typical attitude for managers, the assumption that "management" is a generic skill that is independent of what, specifically, is being managed. This is why they cross industries at will, generally bomb when they do, and yet the assumption never goes away.

Posted by: pj_camp | November 10, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Great article. You aren't afraid to tell the truth - thanks.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 11, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

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