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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam

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With its corporate-tinged approach to management and progressive educational slant, Children First contained something for everyone to hate—and inevitably, they did. Conservative academics such as Ravitch and the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern assailed the new core curriculum for being light on phonics and heavy on fuzzy math. So did researchers from around the country, pointing to reams of evidence that a highly structured, heavily scripted approach to reading has proved more effective, especially for students of average or lower socioeconomic status. Klein’s people retorted that such “drill and kill” techniques would dull the appetite for learning; also, that it was “offensive to say that middle-class kids can learn one way but lower-class kids have to learn a different way,” as one official put it to me.

Teachers, meanwhile, complained less about the curriculum than about the DOE’s heavy-handedness: about a top-down regime in which everything that took place in the classroom—from the duration of lessons to the size of the “reading rugs”—was specified by the new Tweed bosses. And liberals took umbrage at the panoply of moguls around the Leadership Academy and at Klein’s taste for the social swirl.

The unions moaned about much of this, too, but their laments were more visceral. After decentralization, the teachers and the principals unions had stepped into the power vacuum created by a hopelessly balkanized system and had come to play a central role in education policy. Now Klein was shutting them out, concocting his schemes behind closed doors. Weingarten, a lawyer who fancies herself a reformer and not an old-line labor hack, was enraged by his refusal to treat her as an equal. “The chancellor decided we were the enemy, not a partner,” she says. “That was when the relationship started to rupture.”

Relations were equally rocky with Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Levy objected to the Leadership Academy, which she saw as a breeding ground for “brainwashed” anti-union principals. Railing against Klein as an “opportunist” who was “delusional” to boot, she nevertheless reserves her harshest words for Bloomberg. “I had to scrounge for a meeting with him, and then he didn’t shut his mouth for 45 minutes,” she says. “He sat there in his pressed shirt and his unruffled demeanor, dictating to me how the schools should be run . . . I wanted to puke on his shoes.”

Over dinner one night in Tribeca, Klein and I discuss the harsh reception that greeted his maneuvers. Besuited and vaguely rabbinical, with a shiny bald pate and a caramel Hamptons tan, he speaks quickly—and offers no apologies. On criticisms of the curriculum: “You got a couple of pundits, like Ravitch, who knows nothing, she’s never educated anyone. That’s the same rap you can put on me, but now I’ve spent a lot of time on this, and I think my initial instinct was correct: There is no magic curriculum.” On the insularity of his deliberations: “You can’t do reform by plebiscite; it leads to the politics of paralysis.” On micromanagement: “I’ll admit that we have people who implemented things in a ham-handed way. But we’re trying to change practice. [Klein deputy] Carmen Fariña had the best quote: When somebody said, ‘Let teachers teach,’ Carmen said in the New York Times, we tried that—it doesn’t work. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t somebody somewhere who said that the size of the rugs matters. And that person is an idiot.”

I ask if Klein realized that by attaching boldface names such as Kennedy and Welch to his agenda, he was courting controversy.

“I wanted it!” he says. “I knew that if I weren’t making a lot of waves that I was basically tinkering, that I was being an incrementalist, and I didn’t want to be an incrementalist.”

Whatever the merits of Klein’s approach—of not merely breaking eggs to make an omelet but flinging them at the old guard—the resentments he’d unleashed reached critical mass in March 2004. A few weeks earlier, at Klein’s urging, Bloomberg had announced the new policy of halting “social promotion” of third-graders who failed to score above the bottom level on citywide math and reading exams. To get the policy approved by the Panel for Educational Policy, Bloomberg had to fire a pair of his own handpicked appointees who objected to it—a gambit instantly dubbed by the tabloids the “Monday Night Massacre.” That same month, a nepotism scandal arose around Diana Lam, who was nailed for having tried to secure a job under her auspices for her husband. After an internal investigation and a stubborn attempt by Klein to save her, Lam was forced to resign.

In the wake of the twin fiascos, the administration was floundering. As 2004 rolled into 2005, public support for Bloomberg on education was mired at 34 percent; for Klein, it was even lower. And then, to everyone’s surprise, the wind began to shift.


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