Joel Klein's Hidden Legacy

Much has been made of Joel Klein's influence on New York City's public schools over his eight years as chancellor. Most of the words have been kind, and deservedly so. After all, he took on a huge and hidebound system and began whacking away on day one, pausing only occasionally to catch a breath.

Combative by nature, Mr. Klein could bristle at the drop of an inference. Always well prepared, Mr. Klein dazzled with numbers, and, when the numbers didn't support his case, he found other ways to attack.

His critics -- and there are many -- discount the academic achievements Mr. Klein boasted about, particularly after the flabby nature of the tests was exposed, leading to a re-grading of many public schools here. They say he was obsessed with test scores and didn't pay enough attention to genuine learning. He maintains that he was the first to raise doubts about the tests.

But even his critics ought to give him credit for longevity, tenacity and some genuine improvements. Graduation rates are up, and thousands of adolescents are now attending high schools where they are more than just a number. On his watch, the New York schools opened about 125 small high schools and are in the process shutting down dozens of 'dropout factories,' scary, huge places where most students were poorly served. Because he encouraged charter schools, thousands of kids, mostly poor and minority children, are now better served.

Mr. Klein also refused to let anyone say 'I taught it, but they didn't learn it,' and he wouldn't let teachers or administrators blame families or communities for academic failure.

It would be interesting to add up the number of times Mr. Klein trotted out his familiar accusation: that unions and their three-legged stool of tenure, seniority and lock-step pay are the chief obstacle to improvement. I heard it dozens of times, and I wasn't even covering him (although we did produce two profiles of the Chancellor for the NewsHour during his tenure).

Might his combativeness have gotten in the way from time to time? No question, and many hope that his successor adopts a new approach.

But -- and I have buried the lede -- the lasting legacy of Joel Klein might not be in New York City but elsewhere, in New Jersey, Baltimore, D.C., New Haven, Conn., Rochester, N.Y., and Christina, Del. In each of these places, someone closely connected with the chancellor became the top educator. In fact, all but Michelle Rhee in D.C. actually reported to Mr. Klein, and they worked closely when she led the New Teacher Project. As is well known, it was Mr. Klein who advised incoming D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to hire her.

The others: Deputy Superintendent Christopher Cerf is now the state superintendent in New Jersey. Andres Alonso is superintendent in Baltimore. Garth Harries leads the schools in New Haven, J.C. Brizzard is superintendent in Rochester, and Marcia Lyles heads the Christina, Del. schools.

By my rough calculations, well over 1.5 million students are now in schools led by the five former deputies of Mr. Klein. Add to that Chancellor Rhee's 44,000 students in Washington, D.C., and Mr. Klein's 1 million-plus students for a total of 2.6 million students, give or take a few thousand.

Since our public schools currently enroll about 50 million students, that means that more than 5 percent of all US public school students were either directly or indirectly under his influence. I conclude that, in terms of his impact on schools and school systems, Joel Klein is the most important educator that most of America has never heard of.