Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft? But in his eight years as chancellor of New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, Klein learned a few painful lessons of his own—about feckless politicians, recalcitrant unions, mediocre teachers, and other enduring obstacles to school reform.
The Atlantic Monthly - June 1, 2011
Above: Joel Klein in Brooklyn on the first day of school, two months before he resigned as chancellor
IMAGE CREDIT: RAMIN TALAIE/CORBIS
THREE YEARS AGO, in a New York Times article detailing her bid to become head of the American Federation of Teachers union, Randi Weingarten boasted that despite my calls for “radical reform” to New York City’s school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and I had achieved only “incremental” change. It seemed like a strange thing to crow about, but she did have something of a point. New York over the past nine years has experienced what Robert Schwartz, the academic dean of Harvard’s education school, has described as “the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country,” resulting in gains such as a nearly 20-point jump in graduation rates. But the city’s school system is still not remotely where it needs to be.
That story holds more than true for the country at large. Nearly three decades after A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible—even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K–12 public education. On America’s latest exams (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, and many of those students who do graduate aren’t prepared for college. ACT, the respected national organization that administers college-admissions tests, recently found that 76 percent of our high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”