The Best of Bloomberg's School Reform

How the Mayor Is Resuscitating Our Sick System

In the single, feverish year since Joel Klein took over as chancellor of America's largest and most intractable public education system, he and the mayor who appointed him have forced more school change than has occurred here since the Revolution of 1969.

That's when Brooklyn blacks set fire to the state capitol, lobbying in a rather unorthodox manner for community control and settling for decentralization, which was the last breathless experiment in school governance. This attempt to make decentralized schools accountable to communities was formally dumped in September by Mike Bloomberg, without so much as a look over his shoulder at its historic pluses and minuses.

The first New York City mayor to adopt education reform as his most urgent mission, Bloomberg wants to make the city's 1,200 schools accountable to a community of two—Klein and himself. The fact that Bloomberg earned his reputation by building a corporate colossus, and Klein by breaking one up, prepares them, they apparently think, for the Holy Grail of management challenges: turning around a $12 billion bust-out that stiffs most of its 1.1 million underaged consumers.

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First of a Two-Part Series

Part Two: The 10 Worst Bloomberg School Reforms

Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani did little but play hard-rock musical chairs with chancellors and posture about social promotion or vouchers. Like their fellow modern mayors—murder-rate-driven David Dinkins and bankruptcy-driven Abe Beame—they had no real plan to make dysfunctional schools triumph. Even the decentralization sea change of 1969—when John Lindsay was mayor—was hardly the golden boy's idea. It was a runaway train that nearly crushed his re-election bid that year.

Indeed, for a politician, Bloomberg's school upheaval is as wild a crapshoot as invading, say, Iraq. But for a citizen/mayor, which is what our billionaire, pro bono leader sees himself as, it is nothing less than the mark he will leave on this world, far loftier than Bloomberg L.P., which is, after all, just one more clanging corporate cash register. If the next generation of New York children demonstrably benefits from all this Bloomberg bustle, learning like Klein and the mayor did in their own public-school days, it will be a legacy worthy, not just of this genuinely unprecedented initiative, but of a committed lifetime.

As with so much else in the Bloomberg era, his willingness to bet the mayoralty on schools was presaged in his memoir, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, published in 1997, long before he even thought about running for public office. "Unbridled enthusiasm and belief that anything's possible may not be the real world," he wrote in a chapter on his management style, "but trying things with low probabilities of success and big payoffs is a lot better than the alternatives." His school reforms have already earned him one 60 Minutes showcase with Lesley Stahl. Should they actually work, they will make him as celebrated as CompStat made Giuliani.

The difference, of course, is that Giuliani had next to nothing to do with the formulation of CompStat, the "computer-statistics" sessions at NYPD headquarters that rammed accountability down the excuse-me throats of precinct commanders and is widely cited as a cause of the city's crime-rate plunge. The police commissioner who designed it, Bill Bratton, said Giuliani found out about it by attending one of the early bombastic meetings, calling Rudy's debut visit "a learning experience for him."

But Klein and others involved in the school plan agree that Bloomberg has participated in the detailed design of every intricate element of it, first moving Klein and his minions to within a few feet of City Hall, then meeting weekly and for hours, even doing breakfasts at Gracie Mansion. From his elegant conference room in marbled Tweed, Klein told the Voice that he brought "packages" of reform concepts to talkathons with the mayor. "He'd ask questions about everything," said Klein, adding that Bloomberg "was more deferential" on the new, standardized curriculum that's now in place in a thousand schools, but took charge of developing the organizational structure, with 10 regional and 113 local subdivisions replacing the old 32 community districts.

Rudy Crew, who was chancellor for most of the Giuliani years and saw him socially far more often than Klein sees Bloomberg, says Giuliani never talked to him "about teaching and learning, only about governance and budget." The former mayor, said Crew, "had no pedagogical commitment, no educational philosophy, no grounding in a belief system." Klein, on the other hand, says Bloomberg "understands what most people have reduced to a platitude," namely, that there's "no more critical domestic issue to our city and nation than public education." The mayor's "heart is truly invested in this," insists Klein. People outside the administration who've had long dinners with Bloomberg, discussing every municipal issue, say his most passionate can-do moments are when he talks about schools.

Of course, the critics of this remarkably fast-paced change, led by union leaders and legislators, have turned the predictable whine of no-consultation into a believable mantra. A section of Bloomberg's memoir explicating the "successful strategies for a systems developer" anticipates the head-down, straight-ahead style of his school transformation:

"Companies in the end need direction, not discussion. Fortunately, our competitors never work this way. They work toward getting consensus and approval and closure. They try to define it all up front. Ridiculous! You can do a six-month software project in 12 months. You can probably do a 12-month project in two years. Humans need to see results in time frames they can handle. The great system advances are pushed on users, not demanded by them. You can't run governments or companies successfully by polling or asking for suggestions. Someone must have a vision and take others along, not the reverse."

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