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This Month's Interview: Joel Klein

No need to rule with an iron fist, New York City's Chancellor is all about accountability.

November/December 2008
Klein on his way.
Klein on his way.

He once led the antitrust case against Bill Gates’s Microsoft, but Joel Klein is now known as Chancellor—yes, that’s what they call him—of the New York City school system. Klein reports directly to the mayor and supervises more than a million students in a thousand-plus different schools. But he’s also focused on national issues. With the Reverend Al Sharpton, Klein leads the Education Equity Project, which urges increased focus on accountability.

Q What’s the most persistent misconception about school reform in New York City?
A That our reforms are top-down. We’ve actually put in place the most decentralized system of school governance in the country.

Q What “signature” reforms should New York City schools be known for?
A Empowering principals and teachers, holding schools accountable, and using a “portfolio” approach to create schools and programs that give our families options.

Q What’s the most important program or policy that other administrators might adopt?
A Our accountability system. It tracks students’ progress as they move from grade to grade and school to school, and it measures how much schools contribute to student learning—as opposed to what students bring to schools.

Q What’s your position on unionizing charter schools?
A It should be up to the employees voting in an open and fair election. We have unionized and non-unionized charters in New York City and, either way, what matters to me are the results.

Q Where do you stand on national standards and universal preschool?
A I strongly support national standards and tests; they should be the bedrock of an nclb accountability system that is based on year-to-year student progress. And preschool is critical. We are missing the early years, and this is important for high-needs kids, who come to school with many disadvantages. But it must be done well, with great teachers and real quality assurance.

Q Is too much being made about the “divide” between Democrats on education?
A The divide is between those who are and aren’t ready to enact radical reform, which means taking on a power structure that has controlled the debate for decades, defined the problems in education as something education can’t fix, and bestowed influence at every level.

Q What elements of the NYC program have been claimed by McCain and by Obama?
A McCain signed on to our Education Equality Project and accurately framed education as “the civil rights issue of this century.” Obama has supported performance pay, expanding alternative certification to attract the best possible candidates, and making it easier to terminate low-performing teachers.

Q Would you be interested in joining Obama’s cabinet?
A I have the job I want and hope to remain here as long as the city will have me.

Q So who would you choose as U.S. Education Secretary?
A Someone with Michelle Rhee’s talent and passion. Or someone outside the box—maybe a venture capitalist. •

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