Monday, December 28, 2009


By Helen Zelon

The New York City public school system has always been led by teachers. Until the chancellorship of Joel I. Klein.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected, he vowed to improve the city’s

schools, initiating far-reaching overhauls that began with mayoral control: The

demolition of the independent and often mayor-opposing Board of Education, the

creation of a Department of Education, and the formation of the mayor-vetted

Panel for Educational Policy. Critical to Bloomberg's vision was his appointment

of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, the former head of publishing giant

Bertelsmann and U.S. Department of Justice antitrust attorney who sued Microsoft

– and won.

Historically, educators lead departments of education. But of the 16 individuals

on Klein’s leadership team, only two are educators. In the Bloomberg era,

lawyers and MBAs dominate: not only did Klein have a career in law, James

Liebman, the Chief Accountability Officer who developed the school progress

reports that now drive school survival and principals' job security, is a law

professor at Columbia. Stephanie Dua, who heads the Office of Strategic

Partnerships – and is CEO of the DOE-linked Fund for Public Schools – worked as

a management consultant at the global business consultancy McKinsey & Company.

Garth Harries, former Chief Executive of Portfolio now charged with reviewing

special education services, came to the department via Stanford Law and

McKinsey. Deputy Chancellor Christopher D. Cerf trained as a lawyer and worked

with the Edison Learning Company, in 2006 the world’s largest for-profit schools


Others come from the political sphere: Micah Lasher, the department’s chief

lobbyist, founded the KnickerbockerSKD political communications firm, with

clients including Caroline Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo and the Fund for Public

Schools. Brian Ellner was a Bloomberg campaign staffer and one-time Manhattan

Borough President hopeful who now serves as Klein’s director of Public and

Community Affairs.

“I was elected largely on the basis of my business background. I think New

Yorkers expect me to run city government in much the same way I ran my company,"

said Bloomberg in his 2003 State of the City speech, with “the incentive and

desire to do more, do it better, and do it with less.”

Under his leadership, the art and practice of education has shifted perceptibly

to the business of education – market-driven, "incentivized" and data-steeped.

Enter the Microsoft slayer

“It’s not an accident that the mayor selected the country’s leading antitrust

litigator and not a teacher” to lead the DOE, says Eric Nadelstern, who holds

the title of Chief Schools Officer. “What the mayor understood [is that] when

you have a system with so much vested interest, somehow, you have to break

through that.”

Klein’s nomination as chancellor required special state waivers, to permit him

to assume the post without advanced academic credentials in education or

experience in education leadership. “You can make the argument that the head of

the schools should be an experienced pedagogue,” Klein said at an education

journalists' roundtable last fall. But fixing the schools posed “a massive

management challenge," he said, and the mayor needed “to try outside


So Bloomberg “hired the Microsoft guy,” is how a former member of the DOE

cabinet under Klein summed it up. “He’s a guy who breaks up monopolies. The

problem was the problem of monopolies – the lack of competition, market failure.

The whole thing had to be blown up.”

Klein doesn’t disagree: “The DOE was fundamentally a monopoly,” he explained at

the roundtable. “The mayor wanted someone who was not a career educator, not a

captive to the organization.” The mayor got what he wanted – Klein's seven-year

tenure is the longest chancellorship in memory.

Product over process

It's not as though the city's public schools were perfect when teachers rose to

the highest levels of leadership. School quality and safety varied wildly by

neighborhood. Local political clubs controlled school boards. Bureaucracy was

impenetrable to all but the most crafty or connected. Teachers were grossly

underpaid; their professional growth was hobbled. And most critically, students

were failing by the tens of thousands: dropping out, or being neglected by

low-functioning schools.

Bloomberg spelled out the first phase of his school reform agenda in a major

education address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2003. “Woefully inadequate”

public schools that failed too many students presented “the opportunity to

rewrite that bleak scenario and chart a new course of success,” the mayor said.

Primary among his goals was “ending the bureaucratic sclerosis” with “one

unified, focused, streamlined chain of command ... freed from the dead hand of


The chancellor sits at the top of that chain, Bloomberg said, and “will dictate

the curriculum and pedagogical methods” for the city’s schools. He dismissed

Klein’s inexperience in education, touting instead his legal prowess: “No one is

better qualified to navigate the legal labyrinth that constantly frustrates


“Bloomberg came from Wall Street and the business community,” said the former

DOE cabinet member, who, like many current or former educators interviewed, did

not want to be named for fear of professional or personal retribution. “They

think entirely differently about organizational structure and dynamics. They

needed the market approach to shake things up. In that respect, Joel delivered

exactly what he promised.”

Yet the wholesale restructuring in 2003 that eliminated the city’s 32 districts,

substituting 10 regions in their place, gutted existing structures for

communication and professional development, say school leaders and education

advocates. Reforms were needed, but went too far, spearheaded initially by

consultants from McKinsey and later by Ron Beller, a former Goldman Sachs

partner who was considered “their hit guy,” said the former DOE cabinet member,

who worked with Beller during the reorganization. “There’s nothing like a trader

at an investment bank for the sharp, bright edge of the marketplace – a brutal

clarity, applied to the school system.”

CEOs and investment bankers allied forces with Klein, as did business titan Jack

Welch and high-profile management consultants like Noel Tichy, who with Welch

created the GE corporate training center that later served as a model for the

NYC Leadership Academy for school principals. Sir Michael Barber, former advisor

to Tony Blair, also joined the effort, as did activist philanthropists like Eli

Broad and later, Bill Gates. More than a dozen private-sector business leaders

participated in the Klein-Bloomberg reform efforts, in a kind of “patrician

liberalism,” according to United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo

Casey, citing a long American tradition “of elite reform from above” by

individuals sincerely motivated to serve the greater good, but with little

personal stake in the system, in the form of their own children in the public

schools, for example.

“Their theory of change is one that distrusts educators,” says Casey. “You don’t

work with people in schools but impose various frameworks upon them and

experiment. It’s a system designed for noneducators to be able to manage that

system.” The new system focuses more on the "product" of greater efficiency,

better graduation rates and higher test scores, than the process of teaching and


“For the longest time, the people who ran the education department were

educators,” Casey says. “These folks aren’t educators. They don’t know how to

have education conversations. They’re lawyers and MBAs who never spent a day in

the classroom or running a school.”

“When you have folks who don’t know or understand education, they think the

union is trying to trick them,” says Casey. “What was a common language, and a

common ground for conversation between the union and civic leaders, is not



Teaching and learning downgraded

The 2003 restructuring centralized processes at the DOE, only to be undone in a

second wave of reorganization in 2006.

“Phase I involved depoliticizing the system, building coherence, and building

capacity,” Klein said in September. Dissolving districts to create far larger

regions shattered previous structures. Imposing a universal curriculum

standardized content and teaching practices citywide. And developing like-minded

teachers, principals and leadership expanded the DOE’s ability to bring its

vision to the schools. “We built a system we knew would migrate to a very

different state,” he added, which led to the second wave of reorganization at

the DOE, in 2006, which decentralized power (in particular, the power of the

principal’s pocketbook) out of DOE and to the individual schools, creating the

empowered “principal as CEO” model that is the norm in schools today.

“It’s a social-Darwinistic view of schools,” says UFT VP Casey. “They talk about

'empowerment.' A more accurate characterization is the devolution of

responsibilities onto a school – if a school’s not functioning, it has to be the

responsibility of the people in the school” and not the DOE.

The position of Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, long a premier post

in the education universe, has lost its luster and its strength in the

Bloomberg-Klein reforms, critics say. “That position is the one that keeps

turning over,” says Pedro Noguera, Professor of Teaching and Learning at NYU’s

school of education, who also chaired a city task force on middle school

performance. “That position doesn’t have a lot of power. It’s almost

superfluous, now.”

Turnover in the role has been steady under Klein. His first pick for Deputy

Chancellor, Diana Lam, was forced to resign following an investigation for

nepotism. His second nominee, Michele Cahill, was thwarted when the state denied

her the same waiver of educational credentials that it had granted Klein.

Finally the post went to Carmen Fariña, a respected longtime educator who rose

through the leadership ranks. With nearly four decades of service in the city’s

schools, Fariña brought enormous credibility to the position, and helped to

advance and defend reforms like the universal curriculum and the DOE’s plan to

end social promotion.

Yet she did not participate in planning meetings, or help to develop the

"blueprint" reforms she was asked to execute and present to the public. And she

was discouraged from going out to spend time in the schools. Instead, Fariña was

expected to manage Teaching and Learning from her desk at Tweed Courthouse. (As

a local superintendent, Fariña routinely visited four schools a week.)

“To me, the only thing I can judge is what you can see in the classroom,” said

Fariña, who retired in 2006. “Schools doing excellent work in class instruction

don’t always see it reflected in their Report Card.”

Her successor, Marcia Lyles, recently accepted a position as head of a small

school district in Delaware, leading Klein to appoint his fifth Deputy

Chancellor in seven years: Santiago Taveras, who is considered "interim."

(Leaders at a Manhattan high school where Taveras once worked have spoken of his

shortfalls in curriculum planning, even with “a great deal of support.”)

'Contempt for the profession'

The DOE’s increasing focus on data management as an instructional tool, and as a

tool to motivate and reward leadership, in the form of $25,000 bonuses for

principals at the schools making the greatest gains on state standardized tests,

means that teachers have become technicians, according to the founding principal

of a highly regarded and high-performing elementary school in Manhattan.

“Education is a communal effort – it’s a people business, it’s all about

relationships. Data is one small piece of it,” said the principal.

“The brightest college graduates” – the same students sought by Klein-favored

teacher-training programs Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows –

“don’t want to become teachers because it’s so scripted, so formulaic,” she

added. “There’s too much structure; they’re expected to become technicians.

Teachers want to be decision-makers, find the teachable moments, explore the big

ideas. If you’re driven to follow someone else’s agenda, you’re not honoring the

child. Eyes only on test scores means no eyes on the children.”

“There’s not enough focus on access to good teaching,” said NYU’s Noguera.

“Higher-order thinking, the ability to write well, the ability to read and

analyze complex text. The real issue is how to make sure kids are getting good

instruction. With pay pegged to [test] scores, the drive is to test prep.

Assessment is a tool, not the solution.”

The extent of the reforms, many say, is a direct reflection of the diminished

role of educators in the upper echelons of the DOE. Consider the department’s

endorsement of unconventional educator-training programs, for example, which one

veteran high school principal says shows "contempt for the profession." Teach

for America and the city's Teaching Fellows program both recruit top grads and

career-changers and thrust them into the classroom while earning their Masters

degrees in education. Many of these unorthodox recruits end up teaching only

briefly, studies show, before going on to other career options. “The idea that

teaching is charity work, where young people parachute in for two or three years

– what does that do for children?” the principal asked.

“They have no idea of the human relationships and of the community educators

need,” said the Manhattan principal. “That’s not a business model. Business is

about selling things, not about people.”

“Klein’s vision of the public schools is not one of a lifetime career, where you

work with children all your professional life,” says UFT Vice President Leo

Casey. “It’s a Peace Corps mentality – you spend two years teaching, then you’re

off to your ‘real’ career.”

In fact, Klein himself did a brief stint as a math teacher, during a break from

law school in 1969. He also has spoken out often on teaching reform – and

recently shared with the New York Times his desire to “slowly, over time,”

reduce the numbers of teachers by 30 percent, while raising teacher salary by 30

percent as well. (The teachers' contract will expire in October.)

Klein recognized teachers as "welcome assets" to learning, but envisions an

education world where students will “basically work it out on their own,” and

where, in two or three decades, schools will be “a hybrid model where there is a

physical school, a place where they go and have clubs and sports activities and

drama, but then, for their academic course work, they might take most of it


“He is so enraptured with accountability, Report Cards, and driving the test

scores up that he’s forgotten that the primal scene for all education reform is

in the classroom,” said Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern, who writes

frequently on local education. “It matters what you do in a classroom. Teacher

quality and a curriculum stressing strong content knowledge are the keys to

raising achievement.”

Fewer teachers earning more may personify the business-efficiency model, but

“teachers are not like lawyers or MBAs,” says Casey. “They’re not motivated by

money or power. They want to make a difference in the lives of kids.”

“Teachers are viewed by the chancellor as the problem, not the solution,” said a

former Klein cabinet member. “He’s always been averse to having people with

education experience around him. You don’t need teachers at the table to fix the

school system.”

But businesses have gone bust

Mayor Bloomberg first took office in the city’s boom years, when business

culture dominated. Now, as financial edifices topple daily, many ask whether the

paradigm of competition, incentives, and free-market reform still pertains. “The

Mayor’s alliances cross political lines, from corporate leaders, through the

financial and publishing industries, real estate, insurance, technology. He

relies on, and rewards, corporate leaders for education initiatives,” says one

prominent scholar. “Why should we have such respect for the business model,

given the chaos it’s created in the country at large?”

“Bloomberg and Klein are geniuses at marketing their products,” says Stern, of

the Manhattan Institute. “But then, so was Enron. If all these investment banks

were cooking the books, it's becoming clearer to me that this is also happening

in the education world.”

“It is absolutely bizarre that the head of the DOE has no education background

or experience,” said State Assembly Member Rory Lancman of Queens, sponsor of a

bill to make the DOE a city agency subject to local laws, which do not now

pertain to the mayorally-controlled entity. “No one would accept a police

department head without a background in law enforcement. The Chancellorship

should not be someone’s first job in education.”

Klein’s long-term goal is a financial one, according to one veteran

administrator: "Half the number of public schools, double the number of charter

schools – there will be less people in pension plans, and less money spent per

capita each time a charter school opens."

“There is no other agency that’s so out of whack, in terms of who runs it and

what the agency is for,” says State Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem, whose

district has experienced conflict over the number of charter schools versus

traditional public schools. “People with no credentials whatsoever regarding

education are in charge of the system and telling people how it should be run.”

- Helen Zelon

Editor's Note: In preparing this article, City Limits spoke with former and

current DOE staffers and cabinet members, former and current school principals,

academics, and critics on the left and right of the political spectrum, nearly

all of whom requested anonymity out of concern for possible detrimental

consequences for speaking candidly on the record on a sensitive issue. “The

incredible concentration of political and financial power leaves no room for

dissent or difference,” said one person.

Many expressed worry that their schools might suffer or their programs might be

jeopardized, given the depth and reach of Bloomberg-funded civic and

philanthropic projects citywide. The mayor’s broad and deep connections across

political, financial, social and philanthropic networks limit comments to those

kept off the record – and, critics say, strongly influence largely favorable

coverage in the mainstream media.

The DOE, despite prior verbal agreement to review and consider questions related

to this article, declined comment, and would not address the near-universal

desire for anonymity.


Anonymous said...

Do you have any of the stats regarding education improvements since the system was transformed(i.e. test scores & graduation rates)? I think those should be the key measures of success. Higher graduation rates and tests scores are the ultimate success factors that should be considered when passing judgment on NYC's education reform.

ed notes online said...

Not when the stats are juked by artificially pumped up test scores and credit recovery push out grads. You must be a data muncher but when you munch artificially created data, you end up with indogestion.

Yourtime said...

That's the most one-sided piece of reporting
I've seen in a long time. For years and years the city school system was run by "educators" who did little but empower themselves, leaving a legacy of horrible schools and un-educated students. While I don't believe the "business model" translates directly to education, I do think outcomes matter. Where in this article is there any mention of whether students are any better off since Bloomberg and Klein took over.

Unknown said...

I also think that it is the most one-sided piece of report which i have seen after a long time and it's bad time for teachers of New York Public school.

International Business School