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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam


Fariña is a lifelong educator of considerable repute. After 22 years as a teacher, five as a staff developer, ten as a principal, and three as a superintendent, she became Klein’s No. 2 for academics in the wake of the Lam scandal. She is seen as someone who never drank the Klein Kool-Aid—which is why her confidence about the direction things are headed is taken seriously even by Klein’s critics.

Fariña’s confidence is rooted in her conversations with countless teachers. She believes that they have adapted to the new curriculum and are actually happy with it. “What you’re also seeing is much smarter teachers among the new generation,” she says. “And when I talk to principals behind closed doors, they’re all seeking how to get better—visiting other schools, picking people’s brains about what works—and you never saw that before.”

Could Klein run for mayor if the schools are fixed? “That would be a very reasonable platform, sure it would be,” he says. “I think about it a lot.”

From outside Tweed, another kind of transformation is also evident: Klein and his team seem more open to criticism (while still being loath to admit it). NYU’s Tobias points to the promotion policy. “The original plan was to use a single test to determine if a student would be promoted,” he says. “A lot people, including me, thought that was a terrible idea. But then they quietly modified the policy to let in other evidence, like what the teacher says and the student’s portfolio. And this, along with giving help to low-performing kids, makes it one of the most enlightened performance-based promotion policies that’s been implemented anywhere.”

Despite all this, Klein still faces a host of daunting challenges. There’s his small-schools initiative, which foundered during his first term when it set in motion what he calls a slew of “unintended consequences,” the most visible of which was overcrowding of several large high schools. There’s the middle schools, where the problems are grave and ingrained. There’s the Leadership Academy, which despite many indications of promise has yet to demonstrate its value. And there’s lackluster performance across the system in science and social studies.

“What’s left for him to do? I could go on forever,” Klein’s friend Dick Parsons says. “But you can’t fall prey to the idea that you can’t fix anything before you fix everything. And I think Joel sees that.”

But Klein sees something else as well: He doesn’t have much time left.

When Klein lived in Washington, he was the consummate Beltway creature—a regular on the cocktail circuit, a tennis partner to the likes of Alan Greenspan and Antonin Scalia. But Klein says that one of the attractions of being chancellor was the appeal of being home. “I know the streets of New York, I know the neighborhoods,” he says one day at Tweed. “I can go back to Bensonhurst and talk to people about what it was like at P.S. 205. I can walk into DiFara’s—the best pizza place in New York—on 15th and J in Brooklyn, and I can talk about education, about immigration, about what makes New York a special city.”

As Klein unfurls this reverie, I jot down in my notebook: He wants to be mayor. Klein’s commitment to stick around for two terms has been in place since the start. But even so, he has never taken his sights far off the future. “I was prepared to risk failure with this job,” he says, “because I knew there was life after being chancellor of Education in New York.”

As for what that life might hold, his friends have no clue. “Joel has not progressed on a linear path,” says David Boies. “Would you have predicted that he was going to head the antitrust division and try to break up Microsoft? Or that he would become an executive at Bertelsmann? Or that he would become the chancellor of the schools? None of this, nothing about Joel, was or is predictable.”

Over dinner, I put the question to Klein. “It depends on whether I succeed or not,” he says. “Part of me thinks I want to go back to Washington and become attorney general. That’s the job I’ve wanted since I was old enough to remember.”

Since we’re well past our first glass of wine, I ask about running for mayor. Let’s say that you succeed with the schools—wouldn’t that be a reasonable platform?

Klein blushes faintly. “That would be a very reasonable platform, sure it would be,” he says, grinning broadly now. “I think a lot about it.” Klein then catches himself and offers some caveats: “I don’t love the life in which you’re constantly in the political eye, and I don’t like to raise money, unlike the mayor.” But when I note that he’s a hometown boy, a working-class kid made good—no small electoral advantages—he grins again and says, “I agree. And in that sense, it’s another reason why I think I’ve trained for this all my life.”

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