Last night, my daughter Vanessa and I heard the Chancellors of the New York City and District of Columbia school systems--Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, respectively, discuss their work, their progress thus far in reforming their systems, and their ideas on education and school reform in general. The panel was sponsored by the Columbia and Cornell Clubs here, since Klein is a graduate of Columbia and Rhee of Cornell.
Klein was full of ideas, from the "school of one" to focusing all attention on the individual school as a unit, and held forth on the need to hold everyone in the system accountable for their impact on student success. Rhee tends to agree with Klein but emphasized the record of failure to be overcome in D.C., where superintendents tended to depart almost annually. She said she cannot claim to have succeeded yet and will not do so until grade levels for math and reading and test scores confirm improvement.
Much of the evening was devoted to questions for the two Chancellors. Although they both do not favor maintaining the tenure system for teachers, they emphasized the need to reward good teachers and principals, and to hold inadequate ones accountable. They also disclaimed opposing the unions and Klein referred to the late AFT President Albert Shanker's book on the need to upgrade school performance. Rhee stressed the need for system members--teachers and central office staff--to work harder to achieve reasonable goals, despite inadequate facilities that may not be improved as speedily as anyone would want.
Both have received a great deal of national attention and have probably solidified the view that mayoral control of schools (as opposed to an independently elected or appointed school board) is needed to bring substandard systems up to par. In D.C., Rhee has followed a sorry history of false starts and the few capable leaders have generally left for more favorable locales. It is to be hoped that she is not caught up in the growing conflict between the Mayor and the Council here, and that she recognizes the need for transparency, which has not always been the case during her first two years here.