Will Education Reform Continue Without Rhee and Klein?

The recent resignations of two school chiefs in New York and Washington, D.C. raise questions about the future of education reform in their absence.

The recent resignations of high-profile school chiefs Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., raise questions about the future of education reform at a time when school districts across the U.S. are adopting policies the two icons of change pioneered.

Klein stepped down on Tuesday after eight years at the helm of the nation’s largest school system, while Rhee left Washington last month after District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid. Klein and Rhee have championed holding teachers and principals accountable for student performance, weakening union protections and closing down failing schools.

Klein called his overhauls “the most far-reaching” in the country at a conference Wednesday in New York.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that what happens next will depend on replacements for the two leaders and the agenda of the mayors who hire them.

“The departure of two of the most visible break-the-china leaders is important and it raises the question of staying power—whether successors can build on these efforts, or whether they’ll reverse course and opt for something more conventional, is going to be a big story over the next two years,” Hess said.

New York, Washington and Chicago, where CEO Ron Huberman resigned last week, have operated as Petri dishes for national education reforms in the past decade.

Huberman’s predecessor in Chicago, Arne Duncan, is now the U.S. Secretary of Education, and his encouragement of small schools in the country’s third-largest school district led to a new wave of high school reform that Huberman had vowed to continue.

Changes championed by these leaders include incentive pay for teachers based on test scores, greater school choice and new data systems that track the performance of students, teachers and schools. Research on these steps, which have proved unpopular with teachers’ unions, has been mixed.

Still, policymakers intent on changing the way public schools operate have adopted many of the overhauls across the country.

“I think the legacy of both Michelle and Joel is that tough but necessary decisions yield results,” said Tim Daly, the president of The New Teacher Project, which works with school districts across the country to train and hire effective teachers. “Michelle and Joel did things that were not only necessary but overdue.”

Klein, a former antitrust lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, will be replaced by publishing executive Cathleen Black. Klein, appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be remembered for reshaping the system’s massive central bureaucracy of 32 local districts. He garnered both praise and protest for his support of charter schools and for his efforts to close 91 failing schools and replace them with 474 smaller ones.

Klein also increased teacher salaries by over 40 percent in exchange for greater accountability, and he linked school funding to student characteristics like their low-income or special-education status. He also started a controversial system of giving report cards to schools based on their test-score progress.

Rhee, who stepped down last month after three and a half years, made national headlines by firing 241 teachers based on their students’ test scores. She also fired or didn’t renew contracts for at least two dozen principals, including one at the school her daughter attended. Rhee took the blame for Fenty’s failed re-election bid.

“I think many of the reforms that Rhee and, in particular, Klein put in place will stand the test of time and hold up pretty well moving forward,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the country’s largest urban school systems. “Time will tell.”

Already, the measures are gaining traction beyond New York and Washington.

For example, Race to the Top, a federal competition that awarded money to states with the best plans to overhaul their education systems, prompted many states to adopt new data systems that will use student test scores to grade schools and teachers.

Both Klein and Rhee say their achievements include higher graduation rates and increased test scores, although critics question how accurately the statistics convey the true story and whether the scores are inflated.

What happens in the immediate future will depend on how new leaders in these cities respond to their mayors, who have the power to hire and fire the school chiefs.

“A lot of support for mayoral control has been tied to the notion that mayors can provide stability,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The D.C. case most clearly—and Chicago as well—shows that mayors can introduce instability as well.”

The upcoming departures of Fenty and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley mean that the tenure of their school leaders is also over. Henig added that “mayoral control is not a reliable solution to the problems of large city districts.”

In New York, Bloomberg handpicked Black, chairwoman of Hearst, to take over Klein’s job, and in Washington, Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, has been named as interim superintendent.

Like Klein, Black has no background in education, and Rhee only had minimal teaching experience before becoming D.C. Schools Chancellor in 2007. Critics of mayoral control worry that politicians will appoint non-educators to lead school systems, something that proponents such as Bloomberg see as an asset rather than a liability. They also fear that stakeholder voices—students, parents, teachers, community members—will go unheard in a system where the mayor holds the reins.

Pedro Noguera, an urban sociologist and professor at New York University, said there are lessons to be learned from Klein and Rhee’s tenures about the limitations of mayoral control and the mistake of seeing it as a panacea.

“Even if you are doing the right things, if you don’t engage with people in your communities, you will spend your time fighting,” said Noguera, whose research takes him into hundreds of urban schools. “How many shoes can you step on?”

Photo (cc) via Flickr user The White House.

Sarah Butrymowicz and Sarah Garland both write for the Hechinger Report.

This article was produced by the Hechinger Report. The nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet is affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Justin Snider and Liz Willen contributed reporting to this article.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

As world leaders meet to discuss new ways to tackle climate change at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, they might miss one very big part of healing nature – nature. In a new short film, youth climate change activist Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot, a writer for the Guardian, talked about how we need to use nature as a solution to climate change.

There's a huge push to curb emissions, but it's not the be all end all of handling climate change; we also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While we don't have technology to do that for us, there is another solution. "There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It's called a tree," Monboit says in the film. Researchers found that we could get rid of two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that we've emitted during the industrial era just by growing trees. That amounts to 205 billion tons of carbon. Right now, deforestation of tropical forests is responsible for 20% of current greenhouse emissions.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Climate Action Tracker

In 2016, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to combat climate change by taking action to curb the increase in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement requires countries to report on their emissions and what steps they're taking to implement those plans. Now that the countries are coming together again for the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, it's worth taking a look at what kind of progress they've made.

The Climate Action Trackerkeeps tabs on what each country is doing to limit warming, and if they're meeting their self-set goals. Countries are graded based on whether or not their actions would help limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

According to a recent article from National Geographic, The Gambia, Morocco, and India are at the head of the class. "Even though carbon emissions in The Gambia, Morocco, and India are expected to rise, they'll fall short of exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius limit," the article reads. Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, on the other hand, get a big fat F. "Projected emissions in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States are far greater than what it would take to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less