Joel Klein: One-on-One
The former NYC Chancellor talks about his new education mission.
For eight years, Joel Klein was responsible for 1.1 million students, trying to bring about as much change as quickly as he could without capsizing New York City's 1,600 public schools. It may be hard to believe, but a year and a half after he left that job, his latest educational venture is even larger in scope. Now the senior vice president in charge of News Corporation's education division, Klein is a leading voice for strengthening STEM education throughout the United States.
After chairing a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year, Klein concluded that the country's shortage of majors in the sciences and engineering is creating difficulties for the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies and posing a threat to the country's national security. Following up on that work, Klein will be one of the keynote speakers at this year's STEM Solutions conference, presented by U.S. News. (For more information on this leadership summit, which will take place in Dallas from June 27 to 29, visit usnewsstemsolutions.com.) Klein took some time to sit down with Scholastic Administrator and talk about his new passions, and what he misses about his old job.
Q: Let's start with your most recent educational venture-the task force you chaired found that the failings of the country's educational system are harming its national security. Some of the reaction to this pronouncement was quite negative. Overall, do you think your message was clearly received?
A: We knew that education and national security were two highly divisive topics when we began. We didn't expect public consensus on our findings, but I believe we did succeed with our goal of advancing the discussion.
Today, unequal educational opportunities are creating a growing gap between the educated and the undereducated, dividing Americans and tearing at the fabric of society. All citizens must be prepared to compete in an increasingly interconnected world, and we must produce citizens who can lead our engagement in the world.
Q: Are people starting to tune out criticism of public schools? Or is their experience with the schools they know not jibing with what they are hearing from national experts?
A: There are public schools setting new agendas and driving real change for our students. And there are others, both public and private, that continue to fail to educate students. Experts agree that we have a broken system. But there is hope. If we're prepared to commit to thinking differently about what we're doing so that we truly transform teaching and learning, the payoff for our children and society would be massive.
Q: This conference is about STEM. How important is STEM to the future of our nation's children and our nation as a whole?
A: STEM is a critically important building block for our children's futures. Our nation's sustainability is heavily reliant on innovations in science and technology, and our success in STEM education is probably the best predictor of engineering and scientific prowess. These areas of study are the key to individual students' ability to participate in tomorrow's workforce, and thus the future economic development for our nation.
Unfortunately, we're doing poorly when it comes to advanced achievement in math and science relative to other countries. For example, 16 countries now produce at least twice the percentage of advanced math students that we do. We have to do more to ensure that all students have access to quality STEM education.
Q: Going back to your time as New York City schools chancellor, what were some of your greatest successes and biggest regrets after your eight-plus years of running the nation's largest school district?
A: We helped to create a system of competition and choice in New York City at a level that you would be hard-pressed to find in almost any other American school district. We opened over 400 new public schools, while closing more than 100 failing schools. We began with 16 charter schools and ended with over 130 charter schools concentrated in high-poverty areas. That's a powerful number that has fostered real change in low-income communities.
We also built an accountability system based on progress, allowing us to track student development from a child's starting point, and understand his or her educational trajectory. In doing this, we helped build a system focused on improvement and outcomes.
Together, these changes brought real results. Graduation rates increased over 20 points, and the number of students entering the CUNY system post-high school graduation increased from 16,000 to 25,000.
Q: With your experience now, what things might you have approached differently?
A: In hindsight, there are things I wish we had done more of, such as increasing career training opportunities. And I wish we had been more effective in engaging the public-both to hear their concerns and to get their support.
I also feel that there were things we could have pushed harder on. We should have been bolder.
We waste money and fail students by having a system where it's virtually impossible to reward a great teacher or remove an ineffective one. It's just not a sustainable model.
Q: NYC is such a huge district, are there a lot of lessons that smaller suburban and rural districts can learn from NYC?
A: Change can only come by educational leaders tackling the hard, controversial issues, whether in big districts or small. You have to seek to transform the system, and be comfortable with the fact that everyone won't agree with your decisions. Incremental change won't work. You don't need to be a big school district to support excellence or innovation. That's why I am excited to be working with a team to foster a fundamental shift from top-down, one-size-fits-all learning models.
Q: Two of the hottest education issues today remain teachers' value-added ratings and charter schools. Should teachers' rankings be public, and will charter competition improve public schools?
A: We must hold ourselves-and our teachers-accountable for the success and failures of our nation's students. Our most important task is to ensure that every one of our students has a great teacher. It is critical, therefore, that when we have measures of a teacher's performance, we use that indication to do what's right for kids. One indication will never tell the whole story, and sometimes it is hard to discern definitive evidence from data alone-such as with a teacher who is "average" according to these numbers, for example. But the data can always help inform our analysis. Where teachers have performed consistently toward the top or the bottom, surely the data tell us something very important. While I believe strongly in public accountability, I'm not naive about the impact that public rankings could have on our teachers, which is why I hope that no one misuses the data or views it as an opportunity to scapegoat teachers.
My experience in New York City is evidence that competition and choice drive better outcomes. To begin with, the new options often outperform the old, and give kids a better education. In addition, to the extent that the charter model drives improved performance in the public school setting, our teachers and our students are also better off for it. There have been several high-quality studies of the city's charters showing dramatically better results.
Q: You've been out of the job for a year and a half now. What's the part that you miss the most?
A: I miss being in schools, working with an enormously talented, committed group of reformers and waking up each day knowing I am fighting for kids.
What I have now is the rare opportunity to foster change from outside the system. In my current role I have the exciting challenge of working to build solutions for our nation's K-12 educational system, working side-by-side with some of the greatest minds in education, innovation and technology.