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Straight Up Conversation, Part II: Joel Klein on Lessons Learned & the Changing Ed Landscape

New York City Chancellor Joel Klein announced late last year that he'd be stepping down from his post and taking up a newly created position as CEO of the Education Division at News Corp. On Tuesday, I had the chance to chat with Joel about his tenure, his takeaways, and changes in the reform landscape during the past decade.

Rick Hess: As you look back on your years as Chancellor, what comes to mind when you think of your most successful efforts?

Joel Klein: I'm not a guy who likes to spend a lot of time looking backward, but there were a couple of really critical things we did. One was creating a much more competitive schools environment. We created competition and choice [in NYC] in a way I think you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the country. That meant doing several things. We opened some 350 new public schools, creating real choice and opportunity [for families].

There's also what we did with charter schools, [especially by] concentrating them in high-poverty areas. We went from sixteen charters to 125. Over seven years, we were adding charters at a clip of twenty a year, which, if you're concerned about quality, is a pretty good number. There are 40,000 students in charter schools today, with another 40,000 on wait lists--and they're concentrated in high-poverty communities....That's a powerful, powerful model that we consciously set out to do, to create options in high-poverty communities where they'd been absent.

There's also our success putting out data on school performance and quality reviews, and [what we did with] parent and teacher surveys.

RH: What else belongs here?

JK: [Very important] was how we transformed our basic compact from the center-run, cookie cutter school system, which most districts are, to a system of individual schools that are good or great and which empowers principals and holds them accountable...That's a big, big change in education. In the past, principals were largely the agents of the bureaucracy, with little discretion and power. We flipped that.

There's what we started to do in innovation. The iSchool, with technology that brings in teachers from other parts of the city to teach. The School of One. The New American Academy. Quest to Learn, which is run by a brilliant game theorist, and is built around quests and games. If you look around the city, you see schools that you didn't see in districts five to seven years ago.

There were also some of the things we were able to do with the unions, though we didn't do as much [on that count] as I'd like. Eliminating forced placements as early as we did, before almost anybody else, by moving to mutual consent. And some of our changes in process for removing ineffective teachers.

RH: Is there a single part of the city where you think your efforts had an outsized impact?

JK: Maybe the most exciting thing is the transformation in Harlem. Today, I think 40 percent of people who start school in Harlem are in charter schools, and those parents have multiple choices and real options. Now, Harlem families can say, "I can go to one of 25 charters here." People from those charters are knocking on doors and talking to families as they try to [attract] students...I remember joking with [Harlem Children's Zone founder] Jeff Canada that I'd borrow his initials from HCZ and use them for "Harlem Charter Zone."

RH: Looking back, what were your major missteps or mistakes?

JK: There were two or three things, really. Mainly, I should have been bolder.

There were things we should've changed in the contract that we [weren't able to]. We really have to change the relationship of teachers to the school district, from what I view as an assembly line trade union model to a professional model. In the middle of budget cuts, we've got 100 million dollars we're wasting on the absentee teacher reserve, we've got to pay downsized teachers as subs, and we had a system where it's virtually impossible to remove an ineffective teacher. This is not a sensible way to run the system.

Also, I could have done better probably in terms of how you go through significant change and engage communities and make sure they understand that you're aware of their concerns. I did a lot of outreach but I could've done a better job there. [At the same time] I've no illusions that better outreach would have [quieted] the concerns. You get a lot of pushback and noise when you do innovative things. It's not about having a good bedside manner, it's about being a leader who is willing to transform.

You want to do everything you can to bring people with you, but I don't want to be seen as saying somehow if all the adults are happy that that's a good indicator [of school improvement]. Strong protectors of the status quo do not go quietly into the night because you show up with charm.

RH: On the teacher question. When you look back at the big 2005 agreement with the UFT, did you get everything you could've or should've out of that deal?

JK: We got everything we could've, I don't think everything we should've. We ended forced placements, we recaptured a period of the day--got it redirected, though not as a teaching period--and we extended the school day. We ended a lot of low-level grievance policies. The arbitrator agreed with us on ending forced placements but said we couldn't terminate people who couldn't find a job within a year. So we wound up having to still pay those people. That was better than forced placement, but...

There were two major things we didn't get. One was tenure, but tenure is a legal requirement in the state and that was going to be hard to bargain in any case. The other was I would have liked to see meaningful due process rather than the Kafkaesque legal proceedings we have to go through now.

RH: Drawing on your experience, are there questions that need to be asked or conditions that must be in place before someone agrees to take a big-district superintendency?

JK: You need to have a range of power and support from a school board or a mayor. They have to be willing to stand behind you and stand tall and you have got to have the management [authority] to do the job. I've always said this to superintendents who have asked over the years. I think [D.C. Mayor Adrian] Fenty and Michelle [Rhee] got this right. It was better that they did what they did and lost than if they had done a lot less and Fenty had gotten reelected. The world has changed because of their efforts in D.C. As Chancellor, I was always thankful that the mayor was strongly behind me.

Also, superintendents need the flexibility that allows you to lead. Somehow, people seem not to focus on this, but you can't keep doing the same thing and expect different outcomes. The only thing that people inside the system can agree upon is that we need more money. But money is in short supply. And more money alone isn't going to get us different outcomes. So superintendents need the support and flexibility to operate differently.

RH: Now that you're on the outside, what role do you see yourself playing in the education conversation?

JK: Well, I'm not running a district. I have a job running a division at News Corp. I think we'll do things that are complementary to what school districts are doing. I also intend to speak out, to support what Michelle [Rhee] is doing [with Students First]. I've been doing some work with Jonah Edelman and Stand for Children. I'm chair of ERN [Education Reform Now] New York. I've written a couple op-eds and am speaking out, and I plan to continue to talk about these issues and help organize and support change.

RH: Finally, looking back over the sweep of the past decade, what's changed in the school reform landscape since you became Chancellor?

JK: I give the President and Secretary Duncan a lot of credit here, because I think Race to the Top made a huge difference. It helped me lift the charter cap here in New York, led to changes in laws [regarding teacher evaluation and tenure] like those in Colorado and Louisiana, to collective bargaining agreement changes in various cities, and to Common Core national standards--and they are a de facto set of national standards when you look at all the states involved.

Over the last eight years, there's been a shift away from the idea that kids who grew up in poverty can only be educated so much. There was a notion that poverty was destiny--that kids who grew up in poverty [couldn't succeed]. I think now we're past that. There's now a consensus that poverty [need not] determine a kid's future. Now we're asking the question of why, when we see some schools--like Uncommon Schools or Harlem Success Academy that are getting by any reasonable assessment very different results--why all schools aren't doing that. And I think this is a very different discussion that ten years ago wouldn't have happened. Harlem Success Academy performs at the same level as a gifted and talented school [in NYC]. Now we know this is possible and the questions are about the elements of scalability.

[And finally] there's been a big shift in the sense of urgency. The agreement among the President and Duncan, and Jeb [Bush] and [Newt] Gingrich is very emblematic--there's wide agreement on basic reform and the need for it. So I view all of that as positive. Then there's the popular attention to [the problems] and the need for reform. There's Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, "Education Nation" on CBS, Michelle's rollout on Oprah...all made a lot of noise. That's big stuff in education, and ten years ago you wouldn't have seen that.

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