Failing Schools Need Courses in Readin’, Writin’ and Accountability

The fights that matter most to the quality of the public schools here, as in all communities, are mostly those fought close to home.

Joel I. Klein, the accomplished attorney who was Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s unconventional choice as schools chancellor last year, understands he can effectively educate the 1.1 million students in his care only if he shatters the cozy arrangements that have kept the New York City school system focused more on providing jobs for adults than on opportunities for kids. After 11 months on the job, Klein has the scars to prove his commitment to that cause.

But he also recognizes that decisions in Washington can tip the odds for or against success.

Mostly, Klein’s a fan of the education reform bill that President Bush signed into law last year. The law provides a powerful tool for local reformers, like Klein, by requiring states to more precisely measure student performance and then intervene in schools that fail to improve it. That should pressure the entire system to demand results.


Yet it’s quickly clear during a visit here that schools, especially in big cities, won’t achieve the gains the bill envisions without more federal intervention -- not only to provide more money, but to accelerate the process of local reform. “If you are going to put demands on the system, which I am all for,” Klein says, “you need to help us meet those demands.”

The challenges facing America’s schools are enormous. Overall student performance hasn’t improved much by any measure in the 20 years since a celebrated educational panel during the Reagan administration declared that mediocrity in the schools left us “a nation at risk.”

California was just forced to shelve its planned exit exam for high school seniors because it feared so many would flunk. And in big cities everywhere, schools are struggling to provide even rudimentary skills to the low-income kids who need help the most.

Which is why it’s so discouraging that education has fallen through the floorboards as an issue in the early stages of the 2004 presidential race. The average kid sunning at the pool this summer is spending roughly as much time talking about school as the Democratic presidential candidates.

Bush has devoted some attention to the issue lately -- with appearances touting initiatives to test private school vouchers and restructure Head Start. But he’s given no sense of how he wants to build on the No Child Left Behind Act he signed last year, and administration insiders don’t see planning for major new efforts underway.

The Democrats have been even more derelict. Of the six major Democratic contenders, only Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has delivered a comprehensive speech on education reform (a subject he returned to Friday in Arizona). Some of the other candidates have floated individual proposals, but none of the Democrats has integrated ideas into a plan comparable to the competing blueprints Bush and Democrat Al Gore offered in 2000.

What’s worse, when the Democrats have addressed education, they have shown signs of reverting to the simplistic, liberal thinking that dominated the party before Bill Clinton. Both Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have suggested that the 2002 law overreached in mandating how states measure performance. Most Democrats have displayed more enthusiasm for increasing funding than for toughening accountability.

Time with Klein makes clear that approach is myopic. In conversation, it’s apparent his greatest challenge is to impose more accountability for results on principals, teachers and the rest of the school system’s 150,000 employees.


“In public education,” he says in a measured understatement befitting his days as a federal prosecutor and an assistant attorney general under Clinton, “the normal merit approach to service is very limited.”

It’s achingly ironic that Klein’s headquarters is now in the 19th-century courthouse built near City Hall by legendary political boss William Tweed. Tweed’s power rested on a patronage system that guaranteed jobs for even his most unqualified supporters. Klein presides over a $12-billion system whose work rules and union contracts make it dauntingly difficult for him to fire even the most incompetent. Last year, Klein initially hoped to remove 50 principals in woefully under-performing schools; he was only able to dismiss one. Just 132 of the system’s 78,000 teachers last year were removed for inadequate performance.

Wherever he can, though, Klein is aggressively forcing change. With private funds, he’s established a Leadership Academy to recruit and train new principals. Like other innovative chancellors, he’s significantly increased his investment in teacher training. Starting in September, he will have two full-time coaches for teachers in every school. He’s reduced the number of regional district offices by two-thirds, saving money and increasing his leverage over personnel decisions, like removing principals.

In all, Klein is trying to redirect the system from “an entitlement view,” where principals and teachers advance solely through seniority, toward one that rigorously measures and rewards performance. Without such accountability, more money probably won’t help much.


But it’s wishful thinking to believe that higher expectations alone will save the schools here or anywhere else. Schools also need more resources to close the gaps that now impede improvement.

The experience of New York and other big cities suggests several areas where new federal dollars could help: expanding access to preschool through matching grants to states; increasing the supply of trained teachers through a “teacher corps” (touted by both Edwards and Gephardt) that would use college scholarships to encourage young people to teach in high-need communities; and subsidies to help cities cope with the crushing costs of school construction and repair.

Washington could also revive one of Gore’s best ideas from 2000 and give states grants to increase teacher pay -- if they reform local laws to hold teachers and principals more accountable for student performance.

Although just developing, the 2004 campaign debate over education shows signs of regressing into a choice between more accountability (Bush) and more funding (the Democrats). The lesson from Joel Klein’s alternately tumultuous and inspired first year in New York is that the schools won’t make the grade without both.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ Web site at