NYC Schools Chancellor Steps Down

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced his resignation on Tuesday. Klein has led the nation's largest school system for 8 years and is a leading figure in school reform. Klein will be replaced by publishing executive Cathleen Black. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Beth Fertig of member station WNYC about Klein's tenure.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The country's largest public school system will be getting a new leader. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced today that he is resigning after eight years on the job. Klein has been a major player in urban school reform. He will be replaced by a publishing executive named Cathie Black.

And for more on this story, we're joined now by Beth Fertig, who covers education for member station WNYC.

Hi, Beth.

BETH FERTIG: Hi.

SIEGEL: Tell us about Chancellor Klein and what he accomplished.

FERTIG: Well, the main accomplishment has been really shaking things up. New York City has been a Petri dish for education reform over these past eight years. Klein created hundreds of small schools, most of these are high schools, which do tend to have higher graduation rates than the big failing schools they replaced.

The goal was to give parents more choices and to make them feel like they could stay in New York City. So Klein also opened a hundred charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. He changed the management structure so that principals have more control over their buildings. In exchange, though, they're given grades - A through F letter grades - and they're held more accountable and really in the hot seat.

But there's a lot of mixed opinions about how much he accomplished because graduation rates went up, it's now about 60 percent in four years, but that's still not very high. And while test scores went up, there's a big debate over how much that really means because the state changed its standards this year and made the tests harder to pass and then the scores fell.

SIEGEL: Now, the New York City Public Schools are under the control of the mayor of New York City. Joel Klein didn't have to answer to a school board. What impact did that have on his reforms?

FERTIG: It means he had total control, because the mayor convinced the state legislature to give him control over the schools eight years ago, which was something that had eluded previous mayors - they just feud with the board of education. So once the mayor appointed Klein, he had free rein.

But a lot of parents and politicians felt like he had too much control, that he was opening and closing schools without involving them - any community notification. And a bunch of parents and the teachers' union even sued this year to stop him from closing 19 schools, and they won.

SIEGEL: Now, as we've mentioned, Joel Klein's successor is a woman named Cathie Black. She's a publishing executive. She does not have experience in education. Why Cathie Black?

FERTIG: Mayor Bloomberg said he wanted a world-class manager. Now, this is a school system with a $23 billion a year budget. It's got 135,000 employees, a million students - it would be the ninth or 10th largest city in America, Robert, if it stood on its own.

So Bloomberg, he went out on a limb when he chose Joel Klein eight years ago, because he was an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department. Cathie Black now comes in from the Hearst Corporation where she manage magazines, but she's not a teacher, and her own two children went to private boarding schools.

But the mayor says he wants her to focus on jobs, improving graduation rates by getting kids more prepared for college and careers. And he says there's lots of people who know education but don't know how to manage a big system.

So it's a change of philosophy or, you know, sticking with the same philosophy that Bloomberg's had all along. Although there's many critics out there who are still saying he should have chosen an educator. If you're going to improve the schools, you need a real educator.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Beth.

FERTIG: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Beth Fertig of member station WNYC.

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