Audio Feature: A Retrospective on Joel Klein Featuring NYU Steinhardt Faculty

Chancellor Joel Klein has led the NYC Department of Education since 2002 and will step down at the end of 2010. A new book by Harvard Education Press includes 11 evidence-based analyses from scholars who have looked retrospectively at Klein’s tenure. The project was spearheaded by the American Institutes for Research, and was first presented at a conference in New York City in November 2010.

Five of those scholars are on faculty at NYU Steinhardt. This conversation features the researchers talking about their analyses of Klein’s time at the helm of the nation’s largest school district. Leanna Stiefel and Amy Schwartz discuss school finance under Klein; Sean Corcoran discusses school choice; Leslie Santee Siskin talks about the DOE’s approach for reform at the high school level; and Jim Kemple describes his research on student achievement. Their work will be published in a new book, Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation’s Most Complex School System, in spring 2011.

Stiefel, professor of economics and education policy at NYU Steinhardt and Wagner, discusses her work with Schwartz on how school finance in New York City has changed since 2002. “What we found was pretty astounding,” she said. “Between 2002 and 2008, adjusted for inflation, [New York City] received an additional approximately $5,000 per child. This is really a lot of money, when you consider that states like California spend maybe $10,000-$12,000 per pupil [compared to $18,000-$19,000 in New York] and haven’t had raises like this in a long time.”

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Corcoran, assistant professor of educational economics, and co-author Hank Levin of Columbia Teachers College offer context for New York City as a laboratory for school choice and provide some descriptive analysis of the high school choice policy that began under Klein, in which 8th grade students choose and rank up to 12 high schools in a complex matching process. “One pattern we found across the board is that students tended to apply to a program that was more advantaged than the school from which they came,” said Corcoran. “Many of them don’t get that first choice program, so we find that students end up in a program that looks a lot more like their middle school than the one they put down as their first choice.”

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Siskin, research associate professor, describes the DOE’s approach to high school reform under Klein. “New York City has been a place where there have been a lot of exemplars of success, small schools that have done remarkably well providing for their students—lots of reform that provided a kind of latent capacity in the system,” she said. “The DOE reform effort had two prongs: one to focus on the bottom, to concentrate on those schools they called totally failing, or drop-out faucets; and a second –slower and more quiet—to build on the latent capacity that was there in the system.”

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Kemple, research professor and executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, contributed a paper that attempts to isolate the effects of Klein’s reform from other reforms that were already underway locally and nationally. He said, “The effects of the reforms extend to both English Language Arts (ELA) test scores and math proficiency rates in grades 4 and 8 and also to high school graduation rates. The effects on test scores accrued to both general education students and special education students and students with disabilities, with especially large effects on the latter group.”

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Schwartz, professor of policy, education and economics, and director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy, here responds to the question of what the most significant change might have been under Klein. “One of the important things is how the DOE changed the relationship with teachers,” she said. “They invested a significant amount of money in reforming the HR system, changing the way they dealt with hiring and firing, seniority transfer rules. These were really hard things to change. It was maybe possible to do in the context of a great deal of money sloshing about. Making changes is hard; money greases those wheels.”

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The panel closes with a conversation about the reform era under Klein. “Much of what has been undertaken over the last nine years is not necessarily new in concept but perhaps in degree,” said Kemple. “To quote some of the architects of reform, this era [under Klein] sees the school as the unit that matters most and tries to build a system of great schools rather than a great school system.”

“When you think about [these reforms] from the parent-child perspective, it says no child has the guarantee that the school they attend will be open next year,” said Schwartz. “From the parent perspective, the articulation between schools is entirely on them to make. There is a system perspective, but NYC looks very different than other school districts from the experience of parents and schoolchildren. I think that’s going to be a real challenge. How do you have a ‘system of good schools’ that still delivers good education to kids who actually have to move between schools as they go from kindergarten through 12th grade?”

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Download the entire audio from Steinhardt’s audio podcast page.