Small gains add up: Klein's impressive achievement
Never has so much venom been spilled over so little. Joel Klein's departure as chancellor of New York City's schools is sure to produce another round of exaggerated denunciations, just as his tenure over the last eight years has.
No, Klein didn't transform New York City's schools into paragons of excellence overnight -- but neither is he a villain, undermining the foundations of public education. Indeed, his willingness to break with the status quo -- closing failed schools, supporting the expansion of charter schools -- and his emphasis on educational results were vital to bringing a marked change to a long-stagnant system.
In context, his achievement was impressive: In a nation where academic achievement has been stagnant for four decades despite a tripling in per-pupil spending (adjusted for inflation), and where the urban picture has typically been even more gloomy, he delivered steady progress.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the US Department of Education's national measure of student achievement, New York City students have been making solid gains in math and reading.
In 2003, when Klein became chancellor, only 21 percent of the city's fourth-grade students were proficient in math, trailing the national average of 31 percent. By 2009, 35 percent of Gotham's students were proficient at math, nearly catching the national average of 38 percent. New York City's 14-percentage-point gain was twice as large as the 7-point gain nationwide.
The improvement in fourth-grade reading was similarly strong. Between 2003 and 2009 the percentage of the city's fourth graders who were proficient at reading jumped from 22 percent to 29 percent. That 7-point gain far outstripped the national improvement, up just 2 points from 30 percent to 32 percent.
The performance of New York City's eighth graders was less dramatic: Proficiency in the math NAEP rose from 20 percent to 26 percent, tracking the US rise from 27 percent to 33 percent. In reading, city eighth graders remained statistically unchanged, mirroring the national rate.
The large gains in fourth-grade performance and more modest improvements among eighth graders didn't win over Klein's fierce critics. The vitriol with which they denounced him was severe, even by New York standards.
Local gadfly Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, for one, declared that the "Department of Education under Joel Klein has been run like a ruthless dictatorship -- with no input from parents or educators, and no thought of how the policies he has imposed on our schools have been destructive to our children and their futures."
Yes, the switch to mayoral control reduced direct democratic input into school policy -- but that hardly makes it a "ruthless dictatorship," since the mayor remains democratically accountable. Similarly, having the mayor appoint the police chief in no way makes Commissioner Ray Kelly a dictator.
In addition, most sensible people wouldn't consider steady improvements on an independent and respected national test to be the destruction of our children and their futures. Most people like test-score gains.
Even more respectable people, like education historian Diane Ravitch, were susceptible to this Klein Derangement Syndrome. Once an enthusiastic supporter of Mayor Bloomberg's drive to gain control of the schools, Ravitch is now a staunch critic of mayoral control, principal autonomy, accountability testing and just about everything else that Bloomberg and Klein have championed.
To be fair, Ravitch has correctly noted that the city's results on state exams overstate the gains when compared with the NAEP results. She and other critics have also rightly worried about distortions in the city's reported graduation rates. And we can't yet point to research that proves that Klein's reforms caused the clear improvements.
But Klein can hardly be faulted for tooting his own horn. Politicians tend to do that -- especially when facing regular attacks by the likes of Leonie Haimson. It certainly doesn't erase the real gains made on his watch. We can only hope that the incoming chancellor, Cathie Black, can maintain this regular progress. Over time, steady gains add up to a genuine miracle.
Jay P. Greene is a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. Stuart Buck, a UofA distinguished doctoral fellow, contributed to this article.