Joel Klein was both change agent and lightning rod during his eight-plus years as chancellor of the New York City Schools under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Klein closed hundreds of failing schools and opened hundreds of new ones, improved the city's teaching corps, and jump-started the charter-school movement there, demonstrating that even in a huge, hidebound urban system, bold and determined leadership can yield real progress.
Now the CEO of Amplify, the educational division of News Corp., Klein has a lively new book out — "Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools" — about his struggles in Gotham.
So what advice does the former chancellor have for Governor-elect Charles D. Baker Jr. and Marty Walsh, Boston's freshman mayor, as they try to improve education here?
"You need to start by lifting this charter-school restriction," Klein said in a sit-down last week. "If I did nothing else, the first thing I would do is open up that pipeline and go out there and encourage the KIPPs and the Match Schools, and the Roxbury Preps — the known [charter school] successes — to bring more to the city."
With Boston and several other municipalities bumping up against the charter cap, that would require legislative action. And that, in turn, would mean persuading Beacon Hill Democrats to put the needs of urban students over the interests of the teachers' unions.
Klein, a Clinton Democrat, credits President Obama and some Democratic mayors with having done that, but adds: "My party . . . needs to do some things better. And this is an area where you can do things better."
Second, school principals need to have more autonomy in staffing and running their schools — and to be held accountable for the results. That's important, he says, because real educational quality can't be created by top-down fiat; it has to take root at the school level. In Massachusetts, however, the empowered-principal model is mostly confined to failing schools selected for district or state turnaround efforts.
When I mentioned the intensifying union opposition to charters, which aren't automatically union schools, though they can be unionized, Klein labeled that opposition "the normal reaction of a monopoly school system to competition."
That's why oft-repeated (and often inaccurate) anti-charter arguments need to be viewed with skepticism; they aren't an even-handed critique but rather ever-evolving expedients in an ongoing anti-charter campaign.
Klein draws on his New York City experience for an example of that kind of argumentation — one that's also relevant here. When the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, a Stanford University think tank, released a study critical of charter results nationwide, the report was widely cited by charter foes. But when subsequent CREDO evaluations showed impressive charter results in certain cities, its research methods quickly came under attack from the anti-charter forces.
"The CREDO study was the thing, until it started to show New York and Boston in particular . . . were doing well. Then all of a sudden those studies became methodologically problematic," Klein says in amusement-tinctured tones. In Boston, two other university studies have also demonstrated strong charter results, only to be similarly discounted by charter foes.
For his part, Klein takes a broader view of the charter debate.
"So we are worried about a few charters coming in and creating some opportunities, and we are hearing arguments about how they may not have precisely the right mix of kids," he says. "But they have overwhelmingly minority kids from high poverty communities whose parents are dying to get them in. If it weren't for politics, this wouldn't be a very difficult argument."
No, it wouldn't.