The End of an Era: Ravitch v. Klein

Diane Ravitch took some parting shots at Joel Klein last week with a short post on the New York Review of Books’ blog headlined “New York’s New School Czar.”  (See Joel Klein resignation roundup.)

“America’s leading historian of education” (New York Times) and a burr under Klein’s saddle for most of his eight-year tenure, Ravitch is more restrained here than usual.  She offers a rather dry history of the education governance structure of the metropolis for the last century, managing a sly aside that for most of that time the head of the school system was “the leading educator in the city, someone who held the respect of his peers throughout the school system.”

Her litany of complaints about the academic results of Klein’s “radical restructuring” is somewhat familiar – “inflating” test results and “taking shortcuts” to boost graduation — except for the charge that “the recalibration of the state scores revealed that the achievement gap among children of different races in New York City was virtually unchanged between 2002 and 2010, and the proportion of city students meeting state standards dropped dramatically, almost to the same point as in 2002.”

Though it ain’t over until it’s over, especially in New York City, Klein does get a bit of a last laugh here.  The same day that Ravitch’s NYRB blog essay appeared, Education Week reported that the independent New York City Education Reform Retrospective Project had just released a series of mostly complimentary studies of the Klein regime.

“I think Joel Klein and his colleagues have gotten much more traction on reform than any previous leadership team,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean of the education and management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “This is the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country.”

“While changes in the hiring, transfer, and compensation systems for teachers were controversial,” reported Ed Week, “a study led by James H. Wyckoff, the director of the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, found they significantly improved the qualifications of teachers in the city’s highest-poverty schools. In particular, the gap in the average qualifications between teachers in the wealthiest and poorest 10 percent of schools shrank by half from 2000 to 2005. By 2008, the highest-poverty schools were actually hiring fewer teachers on temporary licenses than wealthy schools.”

And on academic performance?  James J. Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, who conducted a study comparing the city’s school reform efforts to a “virtual” control group modeled from other urban districts in the state, including Buffalo, Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, “found New York City students improved significantly faster than the control group on both the New York state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress during the reform period, from 2002 to 2010.”

And, as if to rebut Ravitch directly, Kemple reported that “the improvement trend continues even taking into account New York state’s recent recalibration of test scores.”  Said Kemple:

The increases in test scores over time is not just an artifact of test-taking strategies. This test score continues to be an indicator of higher likelihood of graduating from high school.

Several studies did find fault with Klein’s often autocratic – sometimes nonexistent — communications with parents and staff during what everyone agrees has been a massive reorganization of the system.

But on that point Klein was feisty to the end. “I don’t think you can do school reform by plebiscite,” he said. “It’s why I opposed school boards and why I fought for mayoral control.”

Those “still festering” resentments (as one researcher called them), however, may have had something to do with Klein’s decision – or, as the amplification of that theory would have it, Michael Bloomberg’s decision — to leave sooner rather than later.  And if so, according to this theory, the choice of media guru Cathie Black to run the system makes perfect sense. Perhaps Black will be The Great Communicator that the city’s education system now needs.   Even Diane Ravitch says she’s willing to give the newest non-educator “a chance” and suggests that “we must all wish her good luck.”

Okay.  Good luck, Ms. Black.

-Peter Meyer

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