NEW YORK — The recent resignations of high-profile school chiefs Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., raise questions about the future of education reform at a time when school districts across the U.S. are adopting policies the two icons of change pioneered.
Klein stepped down on Tuesday after eight years at the helm of the nation’s largest school system, while Rhee left Washington last month after District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid. Klein and Rhee have championed holding teachers and principals accountable for student performance, weakening union protections and closing down failing schools.
Klein called his overhauls “the most far-reaching” in the country at a conference Wednesday in New York. “If (school change) is not controversial, it’s going to be meaningless.”
Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that what happens next will depend on replacements for the two leaders and the agenda of the mayors who hire them.
“The departure of two of the most visible break-the-china leaders is important and it raises the question of staying power — whether successors can build on these efforts, or whether they’ll reverse course and opt for something more conventional, is going to be a big story over the next two years,” Hess said.
New York, Washington and Chicago, where CEO Ron Huberman resigned last week, have operated as Petri dishes for national education reforms in the past decade.
Huberman’s predecessor in Chicago, Arne Duncan, is now the U.S. Secretary of Education, and his encouragement of small schools in the country’s third-largest school district led to a new wave of high school reform that Huberman had vowed to continue.
Changes championed by these leaders include incentive pay for teachers based on test scores, greater school choice and new data systems that track the performance of students, teachers and schools. Research on these steps, which have proved unpopular with teachers’ unions, has been mixed.
Still, policymakers intent on changing the way public schools operate have adopted many of the overhauls across the country.
“I think the legacy of both Michelle and Joel is that tough but necessary decisions yield results,” said Tim Daly, the president of The New Teacher Project, which works with school districts across the country to train and hire effective teachers. “Michelle and Joel did things that were not only necessary but overdue.”
Klein, a former antitrust lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, will be replaced by publishing executive Cathleen Black. Klein, appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be remembered for reshaping the system’s massive central bureaucracy of 32 local districts. He garnered both praise and protest for his support of charter schools and for his efforts to close 91 failing schools and replace them with 474 smaller ones.
Klein also increased teacher salaries by over 40 percent in exchange for greater accountability, and he linked school funding to student characteristics like their low-income or special-education status. He also started a controversial system of giving report cards to schools based on their test-score progress.
Rhee, who stepped down last month after three and a half years, made national headlines by firing 241 teachers based on their students’ test scores. She also fired or didn’t renew contracts for at least two dozen principals, including one at the school her daughter attended. Rhee took the blame for Fenty’s failed re-election bid.
“I think many of the reforms that Rhee and, in particular, Klein put in place will stand the test of time and hold up pretty well moving forward,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the country’s largest urban school systems. “Time will tell.”
Already the measures are gaining traction beyond New York and Washington.
For example, Race to the Top, a federal competition that awarded money to states with the best plans to overhaul their education systems, prompted many states to adopt new data systems that will use student test scores to grade schools and teachers.
Both Klein and Rhee say their achievements include higher graduation rates and increased test scores, although critics question how accurately the statistics convey the true story and whether the scores are inflated.
What happens in the immediate future will depend on how new leaders in these cities respond to their mayors, who have the power to hire and fire the school chiefs.
“A lot of support for mayoral control has been tied to the notion that mayors can provide stability,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The D.C. case most clearly — and Chicago as well — shows that mayors can introduce instability as well.”
The upcoming departures of Fenty and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley mean that the tenure of their school leaders is also over. Henig added that “mayoral control is not a reliable solution to the problems of large city districts.”
In New York, Bloomberg handpicked Black, chairwoman of Hearst, to take over Klein’s job, and in Washington, Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, has been named as interim superintendent.
Like Klein, Black has no background in education, and Rhee only had minimal teaching experience before becoming D.C. Schools Chancellor in 2007. Critics of mayoral control worry that politicians will appoint non-educators to lead school systems, something that proponents such as Bloomberg see as an asset rather than a liability. They also fear that stakeholder voices — students, parents, teachers, community members — will go unheard in a system where the mayor holds the reins.
Pedro Noguera, an urban sociologist and professor at New York University, said there are lessons to be learned from Klein and Rhee’s tenures about the limitations of mayoral control and the mistake of seeing it as a panacea.
“Even if you are doing the right things, if you don’t engage with people in your communities, you will spend your time fighting,” said Noguera, whose research takes him into hundreds of urban schools. “How many shoes can you step on?”
Justin Snider and Liz Willen contributed to this article.