Joel Klein
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein plotted big ideas throughout his tenure — and sometimes revised them.

When NBC New York broke the story that Joel Klein was about to resign yesterday, the news organization’s report summarized his tenure this way:

He is credited with ending the practice of social promotion but had a somewhat controversial reputation throughout his tenure.

The rest of the description closely mirrored Klein’s curiously incomplete Wikipedia entry, which highlights a 2005 First Amendment spat over a teacher training lecturer as a main feature of his chancellorship.

Wikipedia, use this instead: Klein brought a penchant for radical transformation to the New York City public schools, redrawing the basics of how schools are run, opening hundreds of new schools and closing dozens of others, and reeling in millions of new dollars in new funding.

His constant rallying cry — that improving public schools required erasing much of the existing cultures and structures, and that this project was the next frontier of the civil rights movement — inspired dozens of young, bright-eyed bureaucrats and teachers. But the same stance alienated many more educators and parents, who found his dismissal of past efforts at change disrespectful and a sign of his limited experience with the business of instruction.

The chancellor oversaw real improvements in the schools — at least of the sort by which he judged himself: concrete numbers. Handpicked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, Klein took the reins of a school system that, by any measure, was not serving its students. Test scores were low. School crime was seen as a major problem. Just 44 percent of students graduated from high school in four years.

Now, as he moves into a new position at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Klein leaves behind a system where more than half — and as many as 60 percent — of students graduate on time, and where state test scores are inching upward. But he also leaves behind questions about how much true learning is reflected by those metrics — and about whether his organizational changes left more collateral damage than benefits.

Here is a short(-ish) history of Klein’s eight-year tenure.

The early years, 2002-2003

Klein began with his head down, turning down interview requests while he undertook a study of the school system that included a goal of interviewing 5,000 people between August and January. He was plotting to release a plan that by November he had named “Children First.”

In mid-January, he made his announcement: He would centralize both the way schools were run and what they taught, a decision he would defend throughout his tenure, even as he dismantled much of the tightening. He was empowered by a new mayoral control law that was one of Bloomberg’s first political victories. The law tightened the mayor’s authority over the city schools, completing a late 1990s reversal of trends that, starting in the 1970s, had doled out power to community boards of education. The citywide curriculum he proposed dictated even the placement of rugs in elementary school classrooms.

Though that curriculum would quickly fade, other stances introduced by Klein stayed put throughout his tenure. From the start, Klein made it clear that he saw the United Federation of Teachers and Randi Weingarten, its powerful president, as an impediment to progress, inaugurating frosty relations with Weingarten. In the past, the union had been almost a co-manager of the school system, he and his inner circle felt; he intended to change that.

Klein also christened his career-long effort to reshape the pedigrees of city school principals; began closing down large high schools and replacing them with new small schools; and introduced the language of get-tough accountability with an announcement that he would abolish the “social promotion” of third-graders who hadn’t actually learned. The decision was a win in the editorial pages, but academics noted that, despite Klein and Bloomberg’s grandiose language, the two men were actually repeating a favorite mantra of school reformers throughout history.

Klein’s early years also saw the birth of bitter resistance to his leadership style and policies that would grow steadily over the course of his tenure. In June 2003, state lawmakers challenged the city’s move to replace an elected school board with an appointed panel and to strip authority from the 32 community school districts. Later, lawmakers explained that they felt Klein and Bloomberg had not faithfully enacted their interpretation of mayoral control, taking more power than Albany intended to give them.

Concern that Klein was bulldozing forward without input from parents came almost as soon as he announced his plans — as did his recurring defense that rule by “plebiscite” would lead to “gridlock.” By 2004, Bloomberg famously fired three members of the Panel for Educational Policy, which had replaced the school board, because they planned to vote against his proposed promotion rules.

The same year, Diana Lam, the top aide overseeing Klein’s curriculum efforts, resigned after a report disclosed that she had given her husband a job. Soon, the centralized curriculum would also be gone.

Visions and revisions, 2004-2007

A key pivot away from pure centralization happened in 2004, when Klein placed a handful of schools into what he called an “autonomy zone.” The idea was the brainchild of Eric Nadelstern, a former principal and district official who became one of a small number of old-guard educators to come into Klein’s confidence. The curious alliance between Klein and Nadelstern, who had been a fierce critic of testing and centralization, seemed to shift Klein’s thinking.

The autonomy-zone schools tested a Nadelstern-designed formula of giving schools more flexibility in curriculum and budgeting in exchange for greater accountability if they didn’t succeed. The power-to-the-principals principle embedded itself in a new teacher contract that Klein and Bloomberg crafted with Weingarten in 2005. The contract, inspired in part by an organization run by a little-known woman named Michelle Rhee, exchanged pension sweeteners for a new freedom that allowed both principals and teachers to have a say in where teachers worked. (Before, seniority had ruled hiring decisions, giving veteran teachers the power to “bump” more junior ones out of a position.)

By 2006, the new teacher marketplace was in action, and Klein had designated 330 schools as “empowerment” schools following the autonomy model. The tight side of the new management formula sharpened with the January 2006 appointment of Columbia University law professor James Liebman as the system’s first chief accountability officer. Charged with figuring out new ways to measure a school’s success, Liebman developed the controversial progress report metric that assigns each school a letter grade based on students’ test scores.

A major reorganization in 2007 expanded on the empowerment schools initiative, requiring all schools to buy into a “school support organization” that would provide back-office and curriculum support. (Eventually, Nadelstern would be named the system’s Chief Schools Officer.)

Klein said the near-constant organizational changes were all part of a single overarching evolution. But the shifting lines of authority confused parents and school staff alike, who struggled to find people to answer basic questions. The symbolic climax came in 2007, when new bus routes meant to save the city money ended up leaving cold children wait for yellow rides that never arrived. And throughout all of the changes, his critics charged, Klein shut out parent input when making decisions. The challenges weren’t quieted when, the same year, Bloomberg appointed a “parent in chief” to ease complaints.

Twilight, 2008-2010

Klein has said that he was among the people surprised by Mayor Bloomberg’s decision in 2008 to seek a third term. With an end to his boss’s administration seemingly in sight, Klein had been elevating his gaze to the national scene — and even once exploring his own run for mayor.

The same year that Bloomberg announced his surprise run, Klein joined with the Rev. Al Sharpton to create the Education Equality Project, a group aimed at casting the achievement gap as a civil rights issue. Before the rise of D.C.’s lightning-rod chancellor Michelle Rhee, Klein took center stage to promote controversial policies such as eliminating teacher tenure and value-added evaluations for teachers and schools. The Obama administration included many of Klein’s preferred policies in its own education platform, and Klein seemed to be offering his name for a job as Obama’s secretary of education. After all, his arch rival Weingarten had recently left New York for the national stage, becoming the president of the national American Federation of Teachers.

When Obama selected Klein’s warmer compatriot Arne Duncan of Chicago instead, he returned to New York City, where Bloomberg was fighting for renewal of mayoral control of the public schools. (The law was slated to sunset in 2009.) The fight became a very public review of Klein’s tenure, and rumors flew that the mayor would trade his head for an extension of the governance system — and that Bloomberg might not be sorry to see Klein go.

Throughout it all, Klein kept an uncharacteristically low profile. Reporters who had grown used to attending multiple press conferences in the basement of Tweed Courthouse each week to watch Klein unveil new initiatives and statistics suddenly had to search for their own stories. And though education became a major part of Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection campaign, New Yorkers heard little from Klein during the campaign.

The administration won the mayoral control fight, but Klein returned to work to face another distraction from his favorite work of inventing new policies: an economic crisis that threatened massive layoffs. A series of budget cuts caused much of the new funding that had poured into the city to flow back out of school budgets. And the teacher hiring freeze Klein imposed in May 2009 to cut costs impeded his efforts to improve the city’s pool of teachers. He was also forced to play defense when advocates successfully sued to stop him from closing 19 schools earlier this year.

At the same time, statistics casting doubt on Klein’s bold claims of success stacked up. Several years after the first wave of small schools opened, the innovations, though promising, had proved no panacea, and the Gates Foundation pulled back on its investment in the schools. This summer, the state declared that inflated test scores overstated improvements in the city and across the state. And the city was plagued by persistent questions about whether its emphasis on accountability gave principals and teachers an incentive to cheat.

Klein’s one refuge came in the form of a new idea: the enchanting possibility that the Internet could prove the “disruptive” intervention in public education he’d long sought. The chancellor regularly cited Clayton Christensen’s book “Disrupting Class,” which imagines what individualized education might look like. And he allowed a top aide, Joel Rose, to begin work on a project called the School of One that has tried to build that vision in New York City classrooms. He also promoted John White, a Teach For America-bred official who shares Klein’s love of big ideas, and charged him with launching a new “innovation zone” that would expand the School of One’s principles.

But exactly how much innovating could happen in a third Bloomberg term and a dire economy remained unclear, and several high-level officials streamed out of the department last summer.

Klein’s legacy

Will history look at Joel Klein as an innovator who unfortunately irritated some adversaries while working for students and schools? Or will he seen as tone-deaf lawyer, unconcerned with facts or feelings as he drove toward his own goals?

Another possibility is that he will be remembered in both of these ways. That was what New York University professor Pedro Noguera suggested at a panel discussion last year about Klein’s leadership.

“I think a lot has improved in New York City because I go to lots of schools that are doing better, lots that are focused on learning,” Noguera said. “That said, it’s a highly punitive culture. This attempt at closing schools is a sign of a system that blames educators.”