"The school was a mess - low graduation rates, gang violence bleeding into it from a neighborhood now often a battleground, and a faculty close to the breaking point." This is not, as one might assume, a story from a poor community in a developing country.
It is, rather, straight from New York City, as told by Joel Klein, who ran the city's education system during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's three-term administration.
In the early 2000s, when Klein first took his post, New York was facing challenges that I would argue are similar to those of any city in Latin America. Low achievement - especially in lower income communities - along with a lack of accountability, the inability of parents to choose better options for their children, and sprawling bureaucracies all made changing the system nearly impossible. In his new book, Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, Klein draws on his experience transforming the system into one that focuses on "making schools serve the needs of children, rather than the needs of the adults."
While many education reformers seem to use their writing to try to appease their critics, Klein, admirably, doesn't take that tack. Instead, he offers a whole-heartedly defense, emerging from his time in office even more motivated to explain why reform is more necessary than ever, why reforms can't be linked to political cycles. "Klein has produced a great playbook for education reform at the city level," says Esteban Bullrich, current Minister of Education for the City of Buenos Aires - a system very similar to New York in size and number of students.
"All sorts of stats - surveys, studies, reports - are very important, but above all you need leadership," continues Bullrich. "You need to build a competent team, the support of your boss, the mayor, as well as higher level officials like the state governor and the president. You need to deal with a range of stakeholders: the business community, union leaders, the media, parents groups, all of whom have competing interests and viewpoints. This kind of political leadership is key for sustaining reform and generating real improvements for students."
In that vein, Klein articulates a clear strategy for failing school systems, based on four pillars of change. The first two deal with injecting more choice and flexibility into the system, by promoting independent charter schools while closing others that fail their students. A third plank is to implement policies that "empower principals and enable them to be the real leaders of their schools," while the final step is to bring innovation to a system that has for too long operated like a monopoly - rejecting new participants, new technologies, and new pedagogical methods.
Klein's methodology should be particularly interesting for reformers in other cities around the world. A major initiative was creating what he called the "iZone," or clusters of schools that received specialized funding for attempting new ways of teaching. In this way good - and bad - ideas could be tested on a small scale without imposing them on the city at large.
The iZone approach speaks to the general truth that improving education is, at least at first, better done at the local or state level. This is especially true in Latin America, where the sprawling nature of federal education bureaucracies in big countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina make national-level reform extremely difficult. Colombia - under the leadership of the current Minister of Education Gina Parody and her deputy Luis Enrique Garcia - may be an exception, but there have been a number of successful recent local initiatives, such as that launched by Bullrich in Buenos Aires or Claudia Contin in Rio de Janeiro.
While Klein delves into his policies, he returns again and again to the theme of leadership, focusing on team building, impact evaluation, and coalition building almost as if he was writing a campaign or business strategy book. In this sense Lessons of Hope is unique in the education reform genre, joined perhaps only by Steve Brill's Class Warfare. The education space is full of policy wonks, but it is rare to get such insight from the inner trenches of the political battles fought to implement that policy.
That is a lesson that Klein admits he learned the hard way. He regrets the chances that slipped away: "If we had somehow been more strategic about our outreach," he recalls, "we might have garnered greater support and that would have made us more effective."
It is Klein's hope that a new generation of reformers can benefit from his trial and error. Communication and strategic planning is key to the success of any structural reform, especially one as fraught and complex as education. Policymakers following in his footsteps would do well to take such lessons to heart - as would education leaders in Latin America and around the world.