Similarly to Michelle Rhee last month, outgoing New York City School Chancellor, Joel Klein published his version of theEducation Manifesto, titled What I Learned at the Education Barricades in the Wall Street Journal today. Both of these leaders, along with the movie producers of Waiting for Superman and The Cartel, are part of  what appears to be a quiet education revolution going on in America at the moment. 

Rhee and Klein have affected large improvements in public education in their cities, by introducing more accountability, incentives, and competition into what has largely developed into a web of special interests that’s tying America’s children up in failure. Countering claims that poverty is at the root of America’s educational failure, and challenging traditional proposals of more money, better curriculum, and smaller class sizes as ineffectual by themselves, Joel Klein sought to transform the NYC education system by cutting some of the political web that’s entangling our prospects of educational success:

We empowered principals, giving them new authority over budgets, hiring and other programs. In return, we held them accountable for student outcomes, rewarding them for success or removing them and closing their schools for poor performance. To attract and retain strong teachers, we raised salaries substantially and paid more to our best teachers who agreed to transfer to low-performing schools. We also increased choices for families by replacing almost 100 failing schools with about 500 new, small schools designed with community and charter management groups. Multiple studies showed that these new choices yielded significantly better results. Competition works.


Changing the system wasn’t easy. The people with the loudest and best-funded voices are committed to maintaining a status quo that protects their needs even if it doesn’t work for children. They want to keep their jobs by preserving a guaranteed customer base (a fixed number of students), regardless of performance.

We have to rid the system of this self-serving approach. We must stop protecting ineffective teachers and stop basing layoffs on a last-in/first-out rule. With federal stimulus dollars running out, budgets are only going to get tighter and layoffs will be necessary. When that happens, do we really want to lose the talented and energetic new teachers we have hired in the last few years?

As we ponder what to expect from his successor, Cathleen Black, who, similar to Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein has relatively little, or no discernible, experience in education, we should keep in mind that the biggest obstacle to better educational performance is not lack of experience, but the power of the political web to tie education down to mediocrity. In the long term, our best bet is on school choice, which institutionalizes incentives and competition, regardless of the political leader at the time.