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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam

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Mayor Bloomberg and Klein earlier this month.  

Bloomberg considered a long list of candidates for the job. “I actually remember going through my entire phone directory,” he tells me one day at City Hall. Some of the names he contemplated were predictable, such as Chicago schools superintendent Paul Valles. But others apparently weren’t. “Bloomberg’s first choice was Ray Kelly,” NYU education historian Diane Ravitch says. “He told me he was trying to get Kelly to do it, but then he realized he needed him more for the police.” Weingarten, meanwhile, claims that Bloomberg offered her the job one night over dinner. “He asked me to do it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sure you’re joking.’ ”

I ask Bloomberg about the Kelly story. “Never in a million years,” he scoffs. “Ray wouldn’t have any interest, and I don’t think he’s right for that job—I’m his biggest fan, but no!” About Weingarten, though, he issues a non-denial denial. “I’m not knocking Randi, but if you want an outsider to change [the system], she would not be the person . . . And it was obvious to me that you had to have an outsider. You needed somebody who was willing to shake things up.”

“Bloomberg’s first choice was Ray Kelly,” Diane Ravitch says. “He asked me to do it,” Randi Weingarten claims. (She says Bloomberg offered her the job one night over dinner.)

After Bloomberg heard about Klein’s interest from mutual friends, an hour-long meeting was arranged at the mayor’s home over Memorial Day weekend. “Mike and I are similar in our analytic approach,” Klein says. “We look for management solutions.” Bloomberg agrees. “There’s lots of experts in education who don’t like that Klein is not a professional educator,” he explains. “But this is not a lightweight when it comes to academics, so the fact that he didn’t take a few education courses—he’s taught before, and he can read the books like everybody else can.”

In choosing Klein, however, Bloomberg was taking a hell of a gamble. On the day he gained control of the system, the mayor had baldly proclaimed, “I will make the schools better. I want to be held accountable for the results, and I will be.” Now he was entrusting the fulfillment of that pledge to a virtual stranger—and one who was inevitably going to raise some hackles.

The Bloomberg-Klein era in education began with an emblematic flourish. Since 1925, the old Board of Education headquarters had been housed in a Soviet-style structure at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. Bloomberg ordered that the newly christened Department of Education be located in the Tweed Courthouse, just behind City Hall. As Daily News education reporter Joe Williams writes in his new book, Cheating Our Kids, the move was “symbolic and practical: The mayor need only walk a few yards to take his chancellor to the proverbial woodshed.”

Ensconced inside Tweed with a senior team composed almost entirely of non-educators, Klein turned to Big Philanthropy to help finance his retooling of the system. He amassed a heaping pile of dough, including $51 million from (of all places) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and millions more from local capitalists. Tapping such sources was for Klein a matter of principle. “Generally the rich don’t have a stake in public education,” says Leslie Koch, head of the Fund for Public Schools. “We wanted to change that.” But Klein’s pursuit was also born of necessity. “Joel called and said, ‘I’ve got a big problem,’ ” billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad tells me. “He said, ‘I got thousands of employees, but I don’t know what they do. And there’s no way to use public funds to figure it out.’ ”

Flush with cash, Klein hired an army of consultants to plot his reform agenda. Soon they uncorked a flurry of initiatives under the rubric Children First. There was a plan to streamline the bureaucracy, replacing the city’s 32 community school districts with ten regional authorities. A plan to open 50 charter schools over the next five years. A plan to phase out abysmally performing large high schools and launch 150 smaller ones. And a plan to establish the Leadership Academy, a privately funded training program for aspiring principals. To help, Klein sought out some A-list pals: Welch became chair of the academy’s advisory board, Parsons the vice-chair. Klein also enlisted Caroline Kennedy to keep the dollars rolling in. (Since 2002, some $275 million in private money has been sunk into the public schools.)

In January 2003, Klein announced that for the first time, the city would adopt a uniform curriculum in reading and math. Implementing it would fall to Diana Lam, Klein’s choice as his deputy for academics. A career educator who had run the school systems in Dubuque, San Antonio, and Providence, Lam had a national reputation as a sparkplug who had nudged up test scores everywhere she went. She was also a magnet for political controversy and a proponent of “constructivist” pedagogy—an approach long championed by Teachers College, in which rote instruction is downplayed in favor of letting students, working alone or in small groups, “construct” their own understanding.


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