Interview with Joel Klein
As CEO of new ed-tech company Amplify, is former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein taking on his biggest challenge yet?
He was head of the massive New York City school system, sued Microsoft for antitrust on behalf of the U.S. government, and, most recently, launched Amplify, an education company owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. He has also been on the short list for U.S. Education Secretary—and could be again if a Democrat wins the White House in 2016. But first Joel Klein has to get Amplify's new tablet, learning software, and instructional games into the hands of as many teachers and students as possible-and make a profit. It may be his biggest challenge yet.
Q | What are the biggest differences between growing Amplify and being head of New York City's Department of Education?
A |The press and politics are very different. The chancellorship puts you right in the middle of things on a daily basis; Amplify, not so much. At Amplify I get to wear jeans more often.
Q | Is New York's DOE notably different under Chancellor Dennis Walcott than it was during your tenure?
A | Our styles are a bit different, but substantively we're on the same wavelength. And we were both privileged to work for a mayor with strong views that naturally helped shape our agendas.
Q | What did you accomplish as head of the city's DOE?
A | There are so many new district and public charter choices for families, and they have changed the landscape completely in New York. The work is by no means done, but this city has made and is making really meaningful progress.
Q | Who do you see as the next New York City schools chancellor?
A | Hopefully, someone who is committed to building on the progress of the last 11-plus years. The city needs bold leadership if it's going to move forward; feel-good platitudes won't get the job done.
Q | Some districts have applied for their own NCLB waivers—is that something you would have done if you were still schools chancellor?
A | I think I would put politics aside and do whatever I thought was right for kids. That said, I think that New York City's needs are not the same as other districts seeking waivers.
Q | What is the difference between the current push toward tablets and software and previous ed-tech efforts?
A | The extensive adoption of new Common Core standards that will benefit from digital content that can go national. Plus, the likely flow of digital millennials replacing baby-boom teachers over the next few years will help.
Q | How close did Amplify get to winning the Los Angeles USD contract?
A | We didn't bid on LA. As for other districts, the whole country is moving in this direction. [Amplify's one district win, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, suspended the use of its tablets in October for safety reasons. Amplify has offered to replace the district's 15,000 tablets, but no agreement had been reached at press time.]
Q | What lessons were learned from districts like LAUSD and Guilford County in terms of hacked tablets, the need for keyboards, and so on?
A | There are two central challenges: Can you use technology to meaningfully impact teaching and learning? And can you successfully navigate the logistical hurdles of doing it in a school environment? The technical aspects of doing that in schools can be quite challenging.
Q | Which happened first-the push to create learning software and instructional games, or the push to create a tablet customized for student learning?
A | Replacing old, dusty textbooks with rich digital curriculum was our first priority. But you need something to access that content on. We thought it made sense to release the tablet first and follow it with the curriculum.
Q | How is Amplify going to be insulated from the rest of News Corp, in terms of sharing information, and how does Amplify protect district information?
A | We're an education company, not a marketing company. Using private student data for anything other than improving classroom education is not only against our company philosophy, it's illegal. With the district's approval, we maintain personally identifiable information under strict protocols for security during the term of our work.
Q | What might you do with student data?
A | All of this data belongs to the district; they—and only they—control who has access to it. Our job is to help them make sense of it. We may use anonymous, de-identified data to help improve the tablet, games, and curriculum and make them more effective in the classroom. But only with the district's permission.
Q | What has the media gotten right about Amplify-and what if anything has it missed or misinterpreted?
A | For the most part, I think we've had very thoughtful coverage looking at the potential promise of our work and the tough questions we all need to consider. The one thing that folks tend to get wrong is assuming you have to use our curriculum with our tablet, or vice versa. You don't. You can use our tablet, games, and curriculum together or separately.
Q | Your former DOE deputy John White said earlier this fall that reform is in trouble and could become the status quo that everyone hates-what do you think of that assessment?
A | If education reform were easy, we'd be done already. While I think we'll never get this work done fast enough, we've got to be patient, committed, and steadfast. Sure, there will be some obstacles and some setbacks along the way, but I think that overall reform will continue.
Q |Your name came up in 2008 when Barack Obama won-would you consider the job of education secretary in 2016 if the right person wins the White House?
A | There are few things as rewarding as public service. I've been lucky to serve both my country and my city. Right now, I'm very happy and very focused on my current job as CEO of Amplify, and 2016 seems like a long way away.
—Late Fall 2013—