Klein’s Private Farewell to NYC Principals

I’m going to miss Joel Klein. Love him or hate him (and I love him, especially when we disagree on something), the New York City chancellor has cut a huge swath in K-12 schooling for nearly a decade. My friend Diane Ravitch thinks he exemplifies what’s wrong with 21st century schooling. Me? I think he’s been a principled, relentless, and creative champion of school improvement and that he has had an enormously salutary effect on American education.

Anyway, a source was kind enough to share Klein’s final weekly memo to NYC’s principals. It’s classic Klein and makes clear that there’s a slew of unfinished business ahead (giving lie, I’d think, to the notion that his successor need only “execute” Klein’s agenda). I thought it worth sharing some choice passages, though I excised much of the warm “thank you” stuff (the full letter is much fuzzier than it appears here). Klein writes:

Dear Colleagues,
This is my final letter in Principals’ Weekly. It has been a privilege and honor to have worked with you for eight and a half years to serve the public school children of New York City. For someone whose own life was changed by public schools in this city, to return as Chancellor has been an experience that reminds me of some of the most meaningful words I’ve ever read. They come from the T.S. Eliot poem, Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

…As I leave, I’m proud to say ours is now a very different–and much better–school system. Bob Schwartz, Academic Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently described Children First as “the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country.”

I agree with him, and we have the results to prove it. The most important is that many more students are now graduating high school and going to college compared to when we started. After at least a decade of stagnation, the City’s graduation rate for regents and local diplomas increased by nearly 20 points from 2002 to 2009: we had 31,000 graduates in ’02 and almost 50,000 in ’09…On national and state tests we’ve made consistent and significant progress. On NAEP, which tests 4th and 8th grade math and ELA nationwide, we’ve gone up 11 points in both fourth grade math and reading, and 7 points in eighth grade math, during our tenure. Over this period scores in the nation as a whole went up half as much…

That is a strong record of accomplishment, and it wouldn’t have happened if you, your teachers, and the other members of your team didn’t make it happen…But despite this substantial progress, our schools are still not remotely where they need to be. Our graduation rate and test scores remain way too low. And these levels of under-achievement will become even more apparent as we face the necessary challenges presented by more demanding standards coupled with more rigorous tests: college- or career-readiness will require much more from our high school graduates…Meeting these challenges will be made even harder by the budget cuts that loom on our horizon…In particular, there are three critical issues now confronting our school system that I hope you will do everything in your power to help address.

The first is the issue of phasing-out schools and replacing them with new ones. Proposing to phase out a school is the hardest decision we make. But, unfortunately, it’s a necessary one. Schools that persistently have graduation rates below 50%, or where a low percentage of students are on grade level, after years of numerous efforts to turn them around, are unacceptable. I don’t think any of you would send your own children to one of those schools. That’s a pretty telling fact…

Second, we have to eliminate the [Absent Teacher Reserve] pool. ATRs were the price we paid for ending the harmful practice of forced placement, where thousands of teachers each year would transfer into schools automatically. Many of you have told me that the best thing we did was to stop this destructive practice. But, after several years, the cost of the ATR pool has gone though the roof–now, it exceeds $100 million per year. We cannot afford it, and it’s wrong to keep paying this money. It amounts to supporting more than a thousand teachers who either don’t care to, or can’t, find a job, even though our school system hires literally thousands of teachers each year…

Third, I fear that, next year, for the first time in recent memory, we will have to lay off teachers. I wish it were otherwise, but the economics of our state and city make this virtually impossible to avoid. If we have layoffs, it’s unconscionable to use the last-hired, first-fired rule that currently governs. By definition, such a rule means that quality counts for zero. Our children cannot afford that kind of approach. They need the best teachers, not those who are longest serving.

Klein concludes: “Let me close by offering to each of you, your school communities, and your loved ones my very best for the holidays and a wonderful 2011.” That’s a terrific sentiment, approaching this weekend of family, warmth, and joy, and one that I’d like to wish to each and every one of you.

-Frederick Hess

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