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Joel Klein's 200 Club

The plan to standardize the school system’s curriculum for all but 200 schools is making anxious the very people the system needs most if it’s to improve: the middle class.


You tromped to dozens of open houses, mastered the eccentricities of district borders and residency variances, and found your daughter a terrific public-school kindergarten. But now she is 7, she’s in first grade, and school has truly begun: books, homework, tests. The stakes are way up.

Fortunately, she’s thriving. She’s writing whole paragraphs where most of the words are legible and correctly spelled. Better still, she loves learning. The school isn’t perfect, but its scores on standardized exams are climbing steadily, the principal soaks up parental input, and you’ve actually enjoyed volunteering for goofy fund-raisers. So you’ve been thinking of yourself not just as a smart parent but as a righteous citizen. You don’t even wonder anymore whether you could have afforded private school.

Then, in mid-January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg scrambled your fragile sense of satisfaction that gambling on public school was paying off. In a bold attempt to rescue the students mired in mediocre and failing public schools, the mayor and schools chancellor Joel I. Klein unveiled a sweeping reorganization intended to touch every school in the city. For three decades, the school-management structure has produced embarrassments like P.S. 92 in Harlem, where an appalling 80 percent of the third-graders flunked last year’s reading test. So who cares if trying to fix this mess scares a few privileged parents? Mike Bloomberg and Joel Klein, for two.

So far, the mayor and the chancellor have emphasized the flow-chart efficiencies of their plan. But they are also subtly trying to market the public schools to the middle-class parents who are the glue of any good school—“middle class” being not a code for “white,” or even an income category, but for an attitude. Endless debates rage about pedagogical theories, but the efficacy of one method for improving schools has never been disputed: Attract and keep aggressive, educationally ambitious parents, the people who read to their kids every night, volunteer for committees during the day, and help stock the school library on the weekend. “Get those families into your school and their energy drives the place,” says the principal of one of Manhattan’s best public elementary schools.

So Bloomberg and Klein hired Caroline Kennedy to raise money. And Jack Welch to advise the principal-training academy. The symbolism—rich people care about the public-school system—has been hard to miss. And parents appreciate the gestures—though they’re savvy enough to know Welch won’t make much practical difference. Still, the reorganization is alienating much of the very audience Bloomberg and Klein need to charm. These parents, idealistic and hopeful that weak schools will be lifted up, are nevertheless rattled by the prospect of their own kids being lost in a giant experiment. “I wouldn’t be so anxious about this reorganization,” Wendy Rogers says, “if my son weren’t in school right now.” Her son, Miles, is in first grade at a rising Brooklyn elementary school—precisely the kind of good-but-uneven place that’s a long shot to make Klein’s list of schools that can ignore the new mandates.

There’s plenty of anxiety, too, at top-flight schools like P.S. 234 in Tribeca, P.S. 199 near Lincoln Center, and P.S. 321 in Park Slope. Parents fear that all the time and money they’ve invested to help their schools craft excellent, sometimes idiosyncratic, curriculums implemented by passionate teachers will be swept aside, to be replaced by . . . well, no one’s quite sure what.

Parents, however idealistic, are rattled by the prospect of their own kids being lost in a giant experiment.

Klein’s driving idea is to create a lean and rational bureaucracy that supports standardized instructional methods instead of woolly patronage deals. There’s a satisfying tidiness to his decreeing that one reading and one math curriculum will be used in 1,000 city schools. But applying those tools to 1,000 different populations will be unavoidably messy. Especially since Klein and his team, led by deputy chancellor Diana Lam, have spelled out almost none of the details. They haven’t discussed, for instance, what will become of the vast special-education and bilingual programs.

Not only are multiple layers of sclerotic bureaucracy supposed to be eliminated, but dozens of principals are likely to be fired or shunted into other jobs; teachers at every level retrained; even the delivery of school lunches is supposed to be streamlined. And the entire transfiguration is to be accomplished by September, while George Pataki tries to slash $478 million from the city’s school budget.

An elite 200 schools, meanwhile, are to be exempted from the revamping—though the selection standards are still secret. The number strikes education experts as not only arbitrary but low: “Of course, it depends on your definition,” says one former Board of Education analyst, “but there are easily 300 good schools.” Steve Sanders, who heads the State Assembly’s education committee, says, “If you’re counting how many provide a quality or excellent education, the number of ‘successful’ schools should be two or three times higher.” To cull 200, Klein won’t pick the schools ranked highest in test scores, because such a group would be so white as to be politically untenable. Instead, he’s grading on a curve that factors in socioeconomic criteria. Klein’s calculations will make college football’s Bowl Championship Series rankings look as simple as the directions for slice-and-bake cookies.

In Greenwich Village, Michele Farinet, the PTA co-president at P.S. 41, is practically apoplectic over the possibility of missing the cut. “If we’re not in the top 200, then it’s not really a list of top schools,” she says. “And there’s no in-between? Everyone else is branded a failure? This turmoil affects people. People will be very upset if we lose our freedom.”

One of the new regional administrators describes the 200 club as a public-relations device. “The mayor and the chancellor have set this up so they can have some victories,” says the executive. “A year from now, they want to be able to say, ‘Fifty more schools are moving up into the exempt group! Look, we’re succeeding!’ ”

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