THE reforms being championed by Chancellor Joel Klein could finally lead to significant improvement of the city’s schools after many frustrating years of spending increases and academic stagnation. While Klein no doubt has his flaws, education reformers should throw their support behind the chancellor to improve his chances of making these proposed reforms a reality.
Klein’s major proposals are truly revolutionary.
* First, Klein supports a radical revision of the teachers-union contract that would eliminate counter-productive work rules and ease barriers to firing bad teachers. As Eva Moskowitz’s City Council hearings made clear, the union contract in New York is a monstrosity, making it nearly impossible to get rid of lousy teachers, driving up costs by strictly limiting the kind and amount of work that teachers do and creating processes that hinder any effective management of the school system.
The single most important thing that a city schools chief can do to improve academic outcomes is to destroy the stranglehold that the teachers union has on the school system through the contract. Klein is trying to do just that. He has proposed an eight-page contract that exorcises the devil in the current contract’s 200-plus pages of details. And he has already taken steps to eliminate deadwood by asking supervisors to identify low-performing teachers and principals.
Reformers should be dancing a jig that they finally have a chancellor who has recognized this enormous problem and is trying to address it head-on.
* Klein has also made a big push to enforce academic standards by ending the social promotion of third graders who haven’t acquired basic skills. New York students suffer under the existing system of being pushed to the next grade regardless of whether they learn anything or not.
If students are just passed along, no educator really has to care whether students learn or not; it’ll be someone else’s problem next year. But if students repeat grades when they haven’t been taught the basic material, teachers will have much greater incentive to make sure their students learn: High retention rates would produce unwanted media attention and parental ire.
It does students no favors to pass them along if they don’t have the skills to benefit from the next grade’s instruction. Reformers should be thrilled that they have a chancellor who expects that students can learn and is willing to impose consequences if they fail to do so.
* Klein’s reductions of bureaucratic waste have also been impressive. He more than halved the number of special-education administrators to shift more dollars for disabled students into their actual care.
Of course, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and New York Times columnist Michael Winerip howled in protest, suggesting that New York can’t do with less than two special-ed bureaucrats in central administration for every school in the city. Apparently, they have as low expectations of school-system employees as they do of the students.
Even if transitions are difficult, reformers should be pleased that they have a chancellor who is looking to trim the fat.
*Klein’s proposed addition of 50 charter schools should be music to reformers’ ears. Not only would it expand education options in the city, but it gives the chancellor leverage in his union contract negotiations.
Charter schools do not have to have unionized teachers and even those that do have operated under more reasonable contracts. If the unions are not willing to compromise with Klein on the big contract, they could face a future in which large numbers of students and jobs leave the traditional public schools for non-unionized charters.
I could go on, but it should already be clear that Chancellor Klein has an impressive reform agenda. True, he has yet to deliver on all parts of this agenda, and he’s had to make compromises to advance reform at all. Nor do all reformers agree with all of the reforms he has pursued. But to fail to support Joel Klein is to place in jeopardy a very promising set of reforms that New York schools badly need.