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Testing His Legacy: Klein Experiments With Change

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During the past eight years, Joel Klein frequently reorganized and revamped the school system. Some call him impatient but others say his urgency was just what the system needed. In the second part of her five-part series, NY1 education reporter Lindsey Christ looks at the pace of change under Chancellor Klein.

Call it what you may, Joel Klein's tenure was one big experiment built on scores of small experiments. Could a Chancellor reporting directly to the mayor turn around the nation's biggest public school system? Klein changed the system, and then changed it again and again and again.

"People talk about Joel's impatience. Joel's impatience is not impatience just to be impatient. It's impatience is for a system that has constantly failed our children," said Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott.

In less than a decade, Klein overhauled the bureaucracy three times, going from 32 districts to 10 regions to 11 support organizations then to 60 networks. He changed the curriculum, the role of principals, teacher recruitment, enrollment and admissions -- from elementary to middle to high school. And then he changed it all again. And almost every day, it seemed he repeated the same line.

"We have a long way to go, I don't want to kid anybody, but we are definitely making real progress," Klein once said.

But some say so many changes meant Klein never waited to see what worked.

"I don't know if the average parent in the New York City school system really has a clear view of what Joel Klein's reform agenda was. I think a lot of the changes that were made create a big jumble of confusion for parents," said Kim Sweet of Advocates for Children.

And union leaders said teachers usually weren't involved.

"If you have no voice there that understands the classroom then it's inevitable that the decisions your making are not supporting that, which is really where the difference will be made for children," said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

"What I would have like is to see Joel take some of those incredible examples of the great work that kids, and principals and teachers are doing and point a spotlight on those things instead of being urgent about what we weren't doing well," said former United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

But Klein and his supporters say constantly shaking things up was the only way to try to stimulate evolution.

"You have such a short time to make a difference in education," said Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone. "The chancellor's lifespan, and Joel has been here longer than anyone else, it's still just a blink of the eye. So you've got to do whatever you can right away with urgency and with passion. And I think that's what he did."

"New York schools are better today than they were when he came here. A long way to go, but he'd be the first to say the work is undone," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"I do have a certain impatience. I mean our children are not remotely performing where they need to perform," Klein said.

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