Harlem — When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected, he vowed to improve the city’s schools, initiating far-reaching overhauls that began with mayoral control: The demolition of the independent and often mayor-opposing Board of Education, the creation of a Department of Education, and the formation of the mayor-vetted Panel for Educational Policy. Critical to Bloomberg's vision was his appointment of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, the former head of publishing giant Bertelsmann and U.S. Department of Justice antitrust attorney who sued Microsoft – and won.

Historically, educators lead departments of education. But of the 16 individuals on Klein’s leadership team, only two are educators. In the Bloomberg era, lawyers and MBAs dominate: not only did Klein have a career in law, James Liebman, the Chief Accountability Officer who developed the school progress reports that now drive school survival and principals' job security, is a law professor at Columbia. Stephanie Dua, who heads the Office of Strategic Partnerships – and is CEO of the DOE-linked Fund for Public Schools – worked as a management consultant at the global business consultancy McKinsey & Company. Garth Harries, former Chief Executive of Portfolio now charged with reviewing special education services, came to the department via Stanford Law and McKinsey. Deputy Chancellor Christopher D. Cerf trained as a lawyer and worked with the Edison Learning Company, in 2006 the world’s largest for-profit schools network.

Others come from the political sphere: Micah Lasher, the department’s chief lobbyist, founded the KnickerbockerSKD political communications firm, with clients including Caroline Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo and the Fund for Public Schools. Brian Ellner was a Bloomberg campaign staffer and one-time Manhattan Borough President hopeful who now serves as Klein’s director of Public and Community Affairs.

“I was elected largely on the basis of my business background. I think New Yorkers expect me to run city government in much the same way I ran my company," said Bloomberg in his 2003 State of the City speech, with “the incentive and desire to do more, do it better, and do it with less.”

Under his leadership, the art and practice of education has shifted perceptibly to the business of education – market-driven, "incentivized" and data-steeped.

Enter the Microsoft slayer

“It’s not an accident that the mayor selected the country’s leading antitrust litigator and not a teacher” to lead the DOE, says Eric Nadelstern, who holds the title of Chief Schools Officer. “What the mayor understood [is that] when you have a system with so much vested interest, somehow, you have to break through that.”

Klein’s nomination as chancellor required special state waivers, to permit him to assume the post without advanced academic credentials in education or experience in education leadership. “You can make the argument that the head of the schools should be an experienced pedagogue,” Klein said at an education journalists' roundtable last fall. But fixing the schools posed “a massive management challenge," he said, and the mayor needed “to try outside strategies.”

So Bloomberg “hired the Microsoft guy,” is how a former member of the DOE cabinet under Klein summed it up. “He’s a guy who breaks up monopolies. The problem was the problem of monopolies – the lack of competition, market failure. The whole thing had to be blown up.”

Klein doesn’t disagree: “The DOE was fundamentally a monopoly,” he explained at the roundtable. “The mayor wanted someone who was not a career educator, not a captive to the organization.” The mayor got what he wanted – Klein's seven-year tenure is the longest chancellorship in memory.

Product over process

It's not as though the city's public schools were perfect when teachers rose to the highest levels of leadership. School quality and safety varied wildly by neighborhood. Local political clubs controlled school boards. Bureaucracy was impenetrable to all but the most crafty or connected. Teachers were grossly underpaid; their professional growth was hobbled. And most critically, students were failing by the tens of thousands: dropping out, or being neglected by low-functioning schools.   

Bloomberg spelled out the first phase of his school reform agenda in a major education address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2003. “Woefully inadequate” public schools that failed too many students presented “the opportunity to rewrite that bleak scenario and chart a new course of success,” the mayor said. Primary among his goals was “ending the bureaucratic sclerosis” with “one unified, focused, streamlined chain of command ... freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy.”

The chancellor sits at the top of that chain, Bloomberg said, and “will dictate the curriculum and pedagogical methods” for the city’s schools. He dismissed Klein’s inexperience in education, touting instead his legal prowess: “No one is better qualified to navigate the legal labyrinth that constantly frustrates change.”

“Bloomberg came from Wall Street and the business community,” said the former DOE cabinet member, who, like many current or former educators interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of professional or personal retribution. “They think entirely differently about organizational structure and dynamics. They needed the market approach to shake things up. In that respect, Joel delivered exactly what he promised.”

Yet the wholesale restructuring in 2003 that eliminated the city’s 32 districts, substituting 10 regions in their place, gutted existing structures for communication and professional development, say school leaders and education advocates. Reforms were needed, but went too far, spearheaded initially by consultants from McKinsey and later by Ron Beller, a former Goldman Sachs partner who was considered “their hit guy,” said the former DOE cabinet member, who worked with Beller during the reorganization. “There’s nothing like a trader at an investment bank for the sharp, bright edge of the marketplace – a brutal clarity, applied to the school system.”

CEOs and investment bankers allied forces with Klein, as did business titan Jack Welch and high-profile management consultants like Noel Tichy, who with Welch created the GE corporate training center that later served as a model for the NYC Leadership Academy for school principals. Sir Michael Barber, former advisor to Tony Blair, also joined the effort, as did activist philanthropists like Eli Broad and later, Bill Gates. More than a dozen private-sector business leaders participated in the Klein-Bloomberg reform efforts, in a kind of “patrician liberalism,” according to United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey, citing a long American tradition “of elite reform from above” by individuals sincerely motivated to serve the greater good, but with little personal stake in the system, in the form of their own children in the public schools, for example.

“Their theory of change is one that distrusts educators,” says Casey. “You don’t work with people in schools but impose various frameworks upon them and experiment. It’s a system designed for noneducators to be able to manage that system.” The new system focuses more on the "product" of greater efficiency, better graduation rates and higher test scores, than the process of teaching and learning.

“For the longest time, the people who ran the education department were educators,” Casey says. “These folks aren’t educators. They don’t know how to have education conversations. They’re lawyers and MBAs who never spent a day in the classroom or running a school.”

“When you have folks who don’t know or understand education, they think the union is trying to trick them,” says Casey. “What was a common language, and a common ground for conversation between the union and civic leaders, is not there.”   
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Teaching and learning downgraded

The 2003 restructuring centralized processes at the DOE, only to be undone in a second wave of reorganization in 2006.

“Phase I involved depoliticizing the system, building coherence, and building capacity,” Klein said in September. Dissolving districts to create far larger regions shattered previous structures. Imposing a universal curriculum standardized content and teaching practices citywide. And developing like-minded teachers, principals and leadership expanded the DOE’s ability to bring its vision to the schools. “We built a system we knew would migrate to a very different state,” he added, which led to the second wave of reorganization at the DOE, in 2006, which decentralized power (in particular, the power of the principal’s pocketbook) out of DOE and to the individual schools, creating the empowered “principal as CEO” model that is the norm in schools today.

“It’s a social-Darwinistic view of schools,” says UFT VP Casey. “They talk about 'empowerment.' A more accurate characterization is the devolution of responsibilities onto a school – if a school’s not functioning, it has to be the responsibility of the people in the school” and not the DOE.

The position of Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, long a premier post in the education universe, has lost its luster and its strength in the Bloomberg-Klein reforms, critics say. “That position is the one that keeps turning over,” says Pedro Noguera, Professor of Teaching and Learning at NYU’s school of education, who also chaired a city task force on middle school performance. “That position doesn’t have a lot of power. It’s almost superfluous, now.”

Turnover in the role has been steady under Klein. His first pick for Deputy Chancellor, Diana Lam, was forced to resign following an investigation for nepotism. His second nominee, Michele Cahill, was thwarted when the state denied her the same waiver of educational credentials that it had granted Klein.

Finally the post went to Carmen Fariña, a respected longtime educator who rose through the leadership ranks. With nearly four decades of service in the city’s schools, Fariña brought enormous credibility to the position, and helped to advance and defend reforms like the universal curriculum and the DOE’s plan to end social promotion.

Yet she did not participate in planning meetings, or help to develop the "blueprint" reforms she was asked to execute and present to the public. And she was discouraged from going out to spend time in the schools. Instead, Fariña was expected to manage Teaching and Learning from her desk at Tweed Courthouse. (As a local superintendent, Fariña routinely visited four schools a week.)

“To me, the only thing I can judge is what you can see in the classroom,” said Fariña, who retired in 2006. “Schools doing excellent work in class instruction don’t always see it reflected in their Report Card.”

Her successor, Marcia Lyles, recently accepted a position as head of a small school district in Delaware, leading Klein to appoint his fifth Deputy Chancellor in seven years: Santiago Taveras, who is considered "interim." (Leaders at a Manhattan high school where Taveras once worked have spoken of his shortfalls in curriculum planning, even with “a great deal of support.”)

'Contempt for the profession'

The DOE’s increasing focus on data management as an instructional tool, and as a tool to motivate and reward leadership, in the form of $25,000 bonuses for principals at the schools making the greatest gains on state standardized tests, means that teachers have become technicians, according to the founding principal of a highly regarded and high-performing elementary school in Manhattan.

“Education is a communal effort – it’s a people business, it’s all about relationships. Data is one small piece of it,” said the principal.

“The brightest college graduates” – the same students sought by Klein-favored teacher-training programs Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows – “don’t want to become teachers because it’s so scripted, so formulaic,” she added. “There’s too much structure; they’re expected to become technicians. Teachers want to be decision-makers, find the teachable moments, explore the big ideas. If you’re driven to follow someone else’s agenda, you’re not honoring the child. Eyes only on test scores means no eyes on the children.”

“There’s not enough focus on access to good teaching,” said NYU’s Noguera. “Higher-order thinking, the ability to write well, the ability to read and analyze complex text. The real issue is how to make sure kids are getting good instruction. With pay pegged to [test] scores, the drive is to test prep. Assessment is a tool, not the solution.”

The extent of the reforms, many say, is a direct reflection of the diminished role of educators in the upper echelons of the DOE. Consider the department’s endorsement of unconventional educator-training programs, for example, which one veteran high school principal says shows "contempt for the profession." Teach for America and the city's Teaching Fellows program both recruit top grads and career-changers and thrust them into the classroom while earning their Masters degrees in education. Many of these unorthodox recruits end up teaching only briefly, studies show, before going on to other career options. “The idea that teaching is charity work, where young people parachute in for two or three years – what does that do for children?” the principal asked.

“They have no idea of the human relationships and of the community educators need,” said the Manhattan principal. “That’s not a business model. Business is about selling things, not about people.”

“Klein’s vision of the public schools is not one of a lifetime career, where you work with children all your professional life,” says UFT Vice President Leo Casey. “It’s a Peace Corps mentality – you spend two years teaching, then you’re off to your ‘real’ career.”

In fact, Klein himself did a brief stint as a math teacher, during a break from law school in 1969. He also has spoken out often on teaching reform – and recently shared with the New York Times his desire to “slowly, over time,” reduce the numbers of teachers by 30 percent, while raising teacher salary by 30 percent as well. (The teachers' contract will expire in October.)

Klein recognized teachers as "welcome assets" to learning, but envisions an education world where students will “basically work it out on their own,” and where, in two or three decades, schools will be “a hybrid model where there is a physical school, a place where they go and have clubs and sports activities and drama, but then, for their academic course work, they might take most of it online.”   

“He is so enraptured with accountability, Report Cards, and driving the test scores up that he’s forgotten that the primal scene for all education reform is in the classroom,” said Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern, who writes frequently on local education. “It matters what you do in a classroom. Teacher quality and a curriculum stressing strong content knowledge are the keys to raising achievement.”

Fewer teachers earning more may personify the business-efficiency model, but “teachers are not like lawyers or MBAs,” says Casey. “They’re not motivated by money or power. They want to make a difference in the lives of kids.”

“Teachers are viewed by the chancellor as the problem, not the solution,” said a former Klein cabinet member. “He’s always been averse to having people with education experience around him. You don’t need teachers at the table to fix the school system.”

But businesses have gone bust

Mayor Bloomberg first took office in the city’s boom years, when business culture dominated. Now, as financial edifices topple daily, many ask whether the paradigm of competition, incentives, and free-market reform still pertains. “The Mayor’s alliances cross political lines, from corporate leaders, through the financial and publishing industries, real estate, insurance, technology. He relies on, and rewards, corporate leaders for education initiatives,” says one prominent scholar. “Why should we have such respect for the business model, given the chaos it’s created in the country at large?”

“Bloomberg and Klein are geniuses at marketing their products,” says Stern, of the Manhattan Institute. “But then, so was Enron. If all these investment banks were cooking the books, it's becoming clearer to me that this is also happening in the education world.”

“It is absolutely bizarre that the head of the DOE has no education background or experience,” said State Assembly Member Rory Lancman of Queens, sponsor of a bill to make the DOE a city agency subject to local laws, which do not now pertain to the mayorally-controlled entity. “No one would accept a police department head without a background in law enforcement. The Chancellorship should not be someone’s first job in education.”

Klein’s long-term goal is a financial one, according to one veteran administrator: "Half the number of public schools, double the number of charter schools – there will be less people in pension plans, and less money spent per capita each time a charter school opens."

“There is no other agency that’s so out of whack, in terms of who runs it and what the agency is for,” says State Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem, whose district has experienced conflict over the number of charter schools versus traditional public schools. “People with no credentials whatsoever regarding education are in charge of the system and telling people how it should be run.”

- Helen Zelon

Editor's Note: In preparing this article, City Limits spoke with former and current DOE staffers and cabinet members, former and current school principals, academics, and critics on the left and right of the political spectrum, nearly all of whom requested anonymity out of concern for possible detrimental consequences for speaking candidly on the record on a sensitive issue. “The incredible concentration of political and financial power leaves no room for dissent or difference,” said one person.

Many expressed worry that their schools might suffer or their programs might be jeopardized, given the depth and reach of Bloomberg-funded civic and philanthropic projects citywide. The mayor’s broad and deep connections across political, financial, social and philanthropic networks limit comments to those kept off the record – and, critics say, strongly influence largely favorable coverage in the mainstream media.

The DOE, despite prior verbal agreement to review and consider questions related to this article, declined comment, and would not address the near-universal desire for anonymity.