Lacking an official background in public education is different than a lack of knowledge of critical educational issues. An education leader can succeed without the former, but not the latter.
As a business executive, Joel Klein brought useful management ideas to the job of chancellor. He knew that employees have to be evaluated on performance so he fought to reform tenure and seniority provisions in teacher union contracts. He also knew that product quality, in this case student achievement, is critical so he insisted on tougher accountability systems, such as introducing an A-to-F grading system of schools based on test-score progress. These were important achievements, but they were undercut by his lack of understanding of crucial components that contribute to both teacher performance and student outcomes.
Take the issue of curriculum. A 2003 article in City Journal sharply criticized Mr. Klein’s adoption of a reading program “over the heated objections of seven of the nation’s foremost reading researchers, who sent Bloomberg, Klein, and [the-deputy chancellor Diana] Lam a memo blasting the curriculum as ‘woefully inadequate’ and lacking ‘the ingredients of a systematic phonics program.’”
Eventually, Mr. Klein realized the error he committed. As The New York Times article on the chancellor’s departure notes, he “stumbled along the way, as when he adopted a reading curriculum of questionable efficacy early in his tenure only to reverse course after it did not produce good results.”
A person with a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t in areas like curriculum and pedagogy would have avoided paths that led to such disastrous results. Sure, Mr. Klein did a self-correction, but only at the expense of years of ineffective instruction for the children he sought to help. He therefore set himself up for the very failure he wanted to cure.
Joel Klein’s experience demonstrates that for an outsider to succeed in education, he or she needs some inside knowledge of what works in education.