Does Joel Klein Matter?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Literature contains any number examples of the “magic child” myth- the one with mystical abilities that will become a great leader. Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker and Thomas “Neo” Anderson are recent examples from science fiction, but there are many others.


For some reason, we tend to buy into the messianic myth with school leaders as well.


The oddest thing (to me) about the back and forth we’ve had here and elsewhere about instructional versus incentive based reform seems to center around Joel Klein’s tenure in NYC. I think Klein will ultimately be seen as a fairly inconsequential figure.


Let me hasten to say that I briefly met Klein at a conference a few months ago, and he seemed like a good guy, so this is nothing personal. He seems to have good intentions. Some have lauded his reforms; others have indicted him for making poor instructional choices. It seems perfectly plausible to me that Klein deserves praise for some things and criticism for others.


In my book, however, there are usually only two types of urban superintendents: those that have failed, and those that will fail. Rick Hess’ Spinning Wheels made this case convincingly- school systems cycle through superintendents as pseudo-messiahs as a method for kicking the can down the road. New savior arrives, tries to implement reforms, and receives a pink slip about three years later.


The new-new savior finds a group of half implemented reforms lying around, discards them to put in his or her own new program. Repeat process indefinitely. Longtime teachers learn to ignore the flailing at the top, knowing that “this too shall pass.”


Klein obviously departs from this model. He has a legal rather than an education background, and assumed control under the auspices of Mayor Bloomberg taking over the schools. His tenure has already lasted far longer than average.


It has never been a tenet of those of us in the choice movement that a gigantic schooling system would substantially improve if only they had the right superintendent. We emphasize market mechanisms, not benevolent dictatorships. In fact, we’ve seen some celebrity superintendents in the past: Roy Roemer in Los Angeles, Mike Moses (former state Education Commissioner) in Dallas.


No revolutionary improvement there, either.


Don’t get me wrong: I’m hoping for the best with people like Rhee and Klein. One might think that, for instance, that it shouldn’t be inconceivable for Rhee to improve the governance of the DCPS, but the track record here is not awe-inspiring.


If the critique of Klein is that he received a huge windfall of money but has failed so far to produce big results, what can one say other than: why would you expect anything else? Surely hope cannot have so completely triumphed over experience.


We should be persuaded by the evidence that instructional choices are very important. Incentive based reforms are also important. If a NYC chancellor does a little bit of one and none of the other, the results are likely to be underwhelming.


In other words-this too shall pass. Wake me up if and when Klein does anything truly radical- like a Jack Welch program for firing the bottom 10% of teachers and bureaucrats each year or widespread parental choice. Until then, I’ll hope for the best but not expect too much.

2 Responses to Does Joel Klein Matter?

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Your list of urban superintendent categories (those who have failed and those who are going to fail) left out one important category: those who push for reforms that might actually prevent failure, and are therefore fired before they have a chance to fail.

    As a famous urban reformer has said, you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

  2. […] Matthew Ladner wonders if we are buying into the messianic myth with school leaders. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: