Interview with Joel Klein, Chancellor (2002-present)
New York City Department of Education
Hedrick Smith: You have the interesting experience of a layman coming into a
field of specialists. You're not unique. There are others, like Alan Bersin. What
do you do when you have not been an educational professional? How do you get your
ideas for what you want to do?
Joel Klein: I think the first thing I did was set out to find good people to
work with me, people who actually had some of the experience and expertise. Now,
remember, one of the reasons you've seen recently so many what they call “nontraditional” superintendents
or chancellors is because of a sense that the major issues in education are not
simply technical issues, but really reorganization, reincentivizing a system
that hasn't worked. This is the system throughout the United States in large,
urban areas that simply hasn't worked very well for vast numbers of children.
So, what you do is you bring in people with educational expertise and experience,
and you build a team. And then those people obviously reach out to members of
the community. I've met often times with the people in the universities here,
at the education schools. You study the literature. You have advisors, and it's
through that process that you bring a lot of the experience, expertise to the
But I continue to believe the really challenging issues in public education
are not the issues that are, if you will, within the ambit of expertise. They're
much more in the ambit of organization, management, accountability and, in the
end, properly creating incentives.
Smith: Do you turn to people who may not be folks that you are going to put
on your team? I mentioned the name of Alan Bersin. I think maybe Alan Bersin's
somebody you turned to, or Tom Paysant, Tony Alvarado, people who've been around
a long time, working at these problems. Can you talk a little bit about any of
that kind of expertise?
Klein: Sure. One of the first things I did, even before I think I actually
took the job, is I went out to San Diego and met with Alan Bersin, someone that
I knew from my time in the Clinton administration, and Tony Alvarado. And I spent
the day with the two of them and their teams, talking about the issues. I spent
time with Roy Rohmer, who's also a nontraditional superintendent who's in Los
Angeles. I still spend time with these people – with Arnie Duncan, in Philadelphia, just recently.
I was talking to some other superintendents on a pretty regular
basis, and Tom Paysant, whom you mentioned.
And you ask them about, you know, “What do you think about this?” “How are
you tackling this kind of issue?” There're a lot of people willing to help. Barbara
Byrd-Bennett, who had actually been in New York, who's now the superintendent
in Cleveland, she's been very helpful to me. So, there are a lot of people willing
to give you their views – and their candid views, which I appreciate.
Smith: Now, when you get all done, what do you consider the hallmarks of your
reform effort here in New York, gathered from these various sources?
Klein: First and foremost, is accountability. This is a system that has had
no accountability. And very few systems that we know that work well have zero
accountability. Basically whether you perform well or you perform poorly, you're
fundamentally treated the same. And that's been an organizing principle.
The second thing, I think, that's been critical is the focus on leadership.
You know, I went out, Rick, and created probably the most dynamic and certainly
the largest Leadership Academy for training principals in the United States.
We raised close to $75 million from the private sector to support this effort.
I believe, and I believe it deeply, that a great principal is critical to restructuring
education. Leadership matters. Teachers, others in the school building, guidance
counselors, parents, they will tell you the difference between a great principal
and one who is, shall we say, not ready for the job; and principals as administrators,
as managers, or principals as instructional leaders, principals as instructional
leaders, but with a focus on both. You've got to have the leadership qualities.
Again, it goes back to the issue you started with, in a way – the question
of expertise. There is an expertise, obviously, in effective instruction.
Although, quite frankly, as you know as well as anyone, there are lots of arguments
about the different, if you will, pedagogic techniques. And I actually have some
views about that. But no question, though, that running a school requires leadership
skills. How you build a team, how you get your teachers to support what you're
doing, how you get your community, your parents, how you bring in the resources
that you need to help run it – those are major leadership issues. And we created
this academy. We've got people like Jack Welch, Dick Parsons working with us
on this academy and really focusing on leadership. I think it's critical.
The third thing we did was focus on a core curriculum. Biggest problem we have
in New York City is our students, many of them, are not ready for basic math
and reading. I mean we have kids in high school – this is hard to believe – we
have kids in high school who can't read. And one wonders how this happens; it's
because the system just pushes people through the system without, again, any
So, we focused on trying to shape a core instructional approach and realign
our administrative resources to implement that instructional approach. And we've
had enormous, I think, success in the reorganization – not that it's
been easy. But we now have a local instructional leader responsible for ten or
so schools, with a real focus on why are our children not learning reading and
math. That's key.
The next thing we did which, I think, will be a hallmark, is our New Schools
strategy. And that has two components. One, we welcomed charters. I am a guy
who believes we need innovation. We need people with fresh blood and different
ideas side by side with the current system. And so we've been very user-friendly
to charters, and I'm glad to say we're having real success in attracting people.
If you read in the papers, you'll hear about Amistad, which is really an extraordinary operation – a
middle school charter in New Haven that's doing outstanding work with very hard-to-serve
kids. They're coming to New York, and I'm proud of that. KIPP Academy, some
of the others.
And then a lot of our secondary schools, which had two, three, four thousand
students and graduation rates that were pitiful – 25, 30% – we're restructuring
them to make them smaller, academically more rigorous and focused on student
achievement. And we've gotten a lot of support for that. I'm really proud of
it, especially given my past. Bill Gates and his foundation have supported us
in a major way, so that's been a very successful initiative. And we know something
about that initiative, which is, right now the schools we've opened under that
initiative have much higher attendance rates. I mean much higher. And they have
higher promotion rates. It's early, but the early data are very encouraging.
Smith: And you picked – what some of your other staff people call a “thinking
curriculum.” Instead of picking a scripted curriculum, you've picked balanced
literacy. You picked an open-ended kind of curriculum. Why?
Klein: I think there're two dimensions, and everyone wants to do this as a “tastes
great, less filling” debate. You know, it's either/or. And I just don't see it
as either/or – which is, I think the basic skills do take a certain amount of
discipline and drill and ability to do the times table. I think children need
the times table. I think children need to develop, basically, issues about grammar,
vocabulary. I think those are important, and I think there's no way to shortcut
At the same time, I think if you stop there you're thoroughly going to shortchange
children. And I looked at these scripted programs. First of all, I listened to
the people in the city – people like Carmen Farina, who's gotten incredible results.
I mean people don't want to look at the numbers she got, who'll disagree with
us because she's gotten incredible results in the school district that she was
working, with this program. I listened to other people in the city who had had
experience. Second, I looked at some of the cities that were using the scripted
programs, and what you found was that they would do okay, typically, in the second
grade, the third grade; but then as children got to the fifth grade and the sixth
grade and the seventh grade, they fell off. And they fell off dramatically. And
I say this not entirely facetiously: I don't see my job as getting children a
third grade education. I see my job as getting people to successfully graduate
And one of the things people need is, first of all, to learn beyond the reading
techniques. They've got to learn to develop a passion and excitement
about literature, an ability to discuss it. In math, people have got to learn
the critical thinking skills – that's going to be required of them in the job
market in the 21st century.
So, one of the things we did, for example – and it cost us a great deal of
money – is we put a classroom library in every classroom. And one of the things
that always excites me when I walk into a school is when a kid comes up to me
and says, “Chancellor, I just picked out this book to read.” And I say, “Why?” And
the child tells me exactly why, rather than the old days where we would just
give a kid – like when you and I probably went to school – Dick and Jane and See
Spot Run and all of this. And I think Dick and Jane and See
Spot Run has a role to play in terms of learning the basic structures;
but I think it's much, much more important not to stop there and to put in place
a more robust curriculum.
So, now, if you're go into our classrooms, you will see children talking to
each other about their books and why they're reading this and what they learned
and discussing things like what's the main theme. And you'll hear the students
say to another, “No, I think the main theme of this book is thus and such.” So,
critical thinking and a passion for education has got to be a part
of the educational equation.
Now, some people want to say, “Well, you don't do phonics, but that's just
wrong. We do do phonics. Indeed, we have very rigorous phonics programs.
But I think a scripted approach is not going to get us where we need. And, frankly,
I think it doesn't realize that the key variable in the end is the quality of
the teacher. And if you harness a teacher to a script, I think you're going to
undermine teaching and learning, ultimately. I think we have a high-quality teaching
corps in this city as a general matter, and I think you'll see that reflected
in some of our test results. And I think we need to work with them through professional
development and through support, and I think we can actually accomplish this.
It won't be easy, and it's a lot easier to script it, I think. But imagine
saying that. I mean do you know any great university that scripts its teaching
force? It's just not a way, it seems to me, to find a key to success here.
Smith: I'm sure you know – people have told you that one of the things that
drew us to New York – not just the Yankees and the size and the great city – but
was a guy named Tony Alvarado and what he began to do back in District 2. But
listening to you, the Leadership Academy, professional development, a wide-open “thinking
curriculum,” emphasis on the principal as the key change agent – I mean so many
of those things sound like you've built on what Tony Alvarado was doing in District
2 and expanded it?
Klein: I think there's a lot of truth to
a lot of the ideas that Tony developed – Tony
and Alan Bersin together, took to a new level and I hope we're taking
to yet a new level. But I think there's a lot of sound, basic thinking in the
ideas you're talking about. …For example, before I met Tony Alvarado I said to
most important thing I could do in my chancellorship is” – at the time I came
here, we had about 1200 schools – I said, “If I leave this system with 1250 great
principals, that's the most single, important thing I could do.” And then I read
a thing called The Principal Challenge, which actually made
the same points about leadership and about how American business
and then the American military went through the same kinds of transformations.
So, I think Tony, I think Alan, I think a lot of people were on the mark when
they focused on some of these core ideas.
Smith: And also, you've got two different approaches here. You talk about the
open-scripted, “thinking curriculum,” and you've got people like Eric Smith and
others down in Charlotte who've run a district on more scripted curriculum. I
don't know whether or not you had Charlotte in mind when you were talking about
doing well in first, second, third, fourth, fifth grade; but it begins to peter
out in seventh, eighth grade.
Klein: Charlotte's actually done reasonably well across the board. It faces
a different set of challenges. Now the district, for example, I looked hard at
because it was the one that was most mature, was San Diego at the time. Not San
Diego. I apologize. It was Sacramento, which had been on one of these prescriptive
programs. And then I started to look at others and see that they flattened out.
And I was just reading an article recently I had seen in The New York Times about
a school district where they were all excited about their third grade results,
but they had fallen right off the table in the fifth grade. So, that was part
Second, it struck me...that trying to script our teachers is not likely to
be an effective, long-term strategy. And third, I looked at the results that
people like Carmen Farina were getting. Remember, we had on-the-ground people – someone
else that probably you've heard of, Shelly Harwayne who followed Tony, and there
are others. And then I said, “Look, this is not ideology. There are some kids
who need very, very structured programs,” and we have highly structured programs.
We brought in a nationally recognized program for phonics. But I used to say
to some of the people who raised these issues, I said, first of all, if a child
comes to the first grade reading, why am I going to give him a scripted phonics
program? We need differentiated approaches for different children. If a child
can't read, I don't think listening and reading by himself will do it. I think
you need very structured phonics, phonemic awareness, decoding programs.
But I reject the notion that we can't walk and chew gum at the same time, or
that if you don't polarize this debate somehow you're not playing straight. I
think we do both. And the purists on either side would probably say
we don't – we do too much of one or too much of the other. I don't think so.
And one of the things that is very important to me, Rick, is I've studied Carmen
Farina's results in reading, and where she's getting the biggest bang in her
school district – the one she ran for several years – is in the eighth grade,
where you're seeing real gains, sustained gains. And I think eighth grade gains
are a pretty good sign of what we're looking for in this system.
Smith: In talking about standards and the need for accountability, that, of
course, is a hallmark of No Child Left Behind. Has that helped you? Has that
Klein: Well, in a way, New York was ahead of No Child Left Behind. Rick Mills,
our commissioner, was a big advocate of standards, and still is. He's vigilant
about them. He believes in testing as a means of measurement and accountability,
and has pressed very hard on it. And our city has been there –
Smith: Because New York State was on accountability standards several years
before No Child Left Behind?
Klein: We've had city and state testing going on, I think, since 1999. And
so I think we were one of the states to come into compliance with NCLB. I think
standards are very important. I think there's a false sense of security when
we try to explain away why students aren't doing well on tests or other things
that enable us, in the short term, to feel good; because you can promote a child,
even though the child hasn't learned very much.
Smith: Well, my question would be whether or not standards put the focus on
the child as opposed to on the adult. I mean the adult is teaching a curriculum,
and they say, “I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, and I've finished the year.
They can move on.” That's one thing. But if you have tests, and you got a whole
bunch of kids in a class, in a school, in a neighborhood, they're not doing well,
then you can see what the school's doing. … We've heard other people say, “The
standards help us. The use of standards helps us focus on the children
and what we're delivering to the children, rather than on the agenda of the adults.”
Klein: Oh, I think that's absolutely right. And we, in New York, put in place
a third grade promotion policy which said if you didn't pass the test – except
for an appeal that's very rigorous – if you don't pass the test we're not moving
you into fourth grade. And this was met with a lot of noise, but we actually
had a very successful launch over the summer. A large number of students passed
the test. And then the following year we put in place a fifth grade promotion
policy, which we're working on now.
And one of the things I'm proudest of with that policy – we opened up a Saturday
academy for struggling readers, struggling math students in our schools in the
fifth grade, who're supposed to be going on to middle school next year. And,
you know, on every Saturday in New York, close to 10,000 of those kids are in
school, working away on math and reading; because they now know they're not going
to be just simply promoted to move them out of the elementary into the middle.
So, you're absolutely right in terms of accountability.
It also, I think, begins to raise these issues about differentiation – which
teachers are really getting very good results, which are not. And you'll hear
from me and others about merit pay as a way to begin to differentiate in the
system. And I think this is a very important strategy, and I'm pleased to see
so many people now seriously talking about it.
Smith: Well, Saturday class, maybe summer school, as well – that's more time
on task. I mean that's one of the hallmarks of the KIPP program. …Those kids
are going to school 50% more time than most kids in public school. They're going
to school a longer day, they're going a half day on Saturday, and they're going
three weeks in the summertime. When you add it all up, it comes to about 50%
more time in class.
Klein: For students who need it – struggling students – it's absolutely critical.
It does take more time. You know, we won this case called the Campaign for Fiscal
Equity and the city's entitled under the court ruling so far to it looks like
four, five, $5½ billion of additional money. And one of the things that
I want to spend that money on is to start children earlier – half day at age
three, full day at age four – so we get them into the academic, instructional
milieu at an earlier age. For many of these students, they're not getting the
kind of help at home that they need, and we need to get them involved. And, second,
to do just what you're talking about – extend the day and extend the year.
Now, that's not true for every student. Some students may not need an extended
day. You have to differentiate. But I'll tell you this: if you don't get kids
on grade and ready for education by the third grade, you're going to be playing
a catch-up game that is very, very hard to work. And that's what's happened to
public education all along, because it's very painful to think about holding
young children back. So, we just push them through the system. Then they get
to high school, and they can't read. And again, I'll keep saying this, because
people don't believe it – I have students in high school who cannot read. I'm
not even talking about understand; they cannot read the text in front of them.
Smith: We are hearing it from people who take an entirely different approach – Bob
Slavin with a very scripted program, Success for All. We hear it from people
in Charlotte. We hear it from the San Diego people. No matter how you cut it,
if you've got kids who're simply not making it – language problems, high mobility,
minority kids, no backing at home for the education – it's going to take more
people, more resources, more money, more time in school, more reading coaches.
Whatever it is, it's going to take more resources to do it. Is that a message
you would agree with?
And secondly, is that a message the American public is hearing? Are people
understanding – because there has been an attitude here for a while that you
can't just throw money at the problem. But there has been a tendency to put more
resources behind the kids who're actually doing very well – better science labs,
having more qualified teachers, more experienced teachers, beautiful buildings,
whatever. What it sounds to me is that you're saying – and lots of others are
saying to us – is, “We've really got to put lots of extra resources on the kids
who're having the most trouble, so we can get them up into our system.”
Klein: I think that's a critical issue. We need to put the resources in there
in a smart way. One of the things I've seen in education, and you see it throughout
the country, is people plow in additional resources in a way that doesn't get
any improvement. That's happened time and time again. But the kind of thing you're
talking about – for example, increasing time on task, starting children lower
at an early age – those things, I think, will get us a real return.
Smith: Talk professional development. You've got a hundred minutes every two
weeks that you're doing. That costs money. You had to sign a contract. You put
teachers into professional development; you have got to put substitutes in the
classroom in order to train them. Those are big investments. My question to you:
are those investments worth it? Are they paying off? Do we need to understand
that it's going take those kinds of investments in order to reach the kids who
are having the biggest struggle?
Klein: I think it will take those kinds of investments. I think those investments
are paying off, but I think they need to be done well. For example, you talk
about professional development. I have no doubt that effective professional development
is going to have a large return on investment, but that doesn't mean all professional
development is effective. You can waste people's time, too.
And one of the things that's important for me and for my team is to keep monitoring
the professional development to make sure that the systems we're using, the approaches
we're taking are getting results. If they don't, then you're just throwing money
at the problem; and this is where, I think, differentiation works.
Smith: When you look at those examples you turn to…Bersin and Alvarado…Carmen
Farina, of course… what is it about what they did that made their professional
development, their selection of principals, their emphasis on an open curriculum – what
made that work? What were the keys to that?
Klein: This is the great question. What made Jack Welch a great manager and
other people who didn't? I mean, we look at this all the time. What are the keys,
I think, in education – first of all, the ability to identify others with leadership
quality. There's no question about it. You pick the wrong school leader, it's
very hard to have effective professional development.
Second of all, I think there is a rigor to the work that a Carmen Farina or
a Tony Alvarado does. There's a rigor in the sense that they know there are no
shortcuts. That's a little bit why I have some questions about scripted programs,
as if you can rely on shortcuts. There's a rigor in the sense that if you think
about this conceptually, if you can move your teaching force, through professional
development, to let them work at a higher level – that's the way you're going
to move your student body. You know, why does a team in baseball or basketball – why
do they practice – right? What's professional development? It's a form of practice.
It's a form of training. Why do they work out? Why do they invest in all of these
activities? To make the team stronger, to make them play at a better level. And,
again, some training is not very effective; and some is very effective.
Now, one of the things we need to do, too, is work with the education schools – and
I'm doing this right now – to make sure that their training is aligned with our
training. There's no purpose to have students go to education school and not
have that training aligned with our needs in the school system. So, we need to
do a better job in there, too.
But there's no question that as a strategy, in the end, what happens for a
child is a product of what happens between that child and his or her teacher.
There's no magic. You know it; I know it. I can remember the teachers who changed
the way I thought, who pushed me to new levels, who taught me a great deal about
science and literature. And, frankly, I've forgotten a lot of them who really
didn't have much of an impact, and that's true from when I was in the first grade
to when I was in college or law school. And what we need to do is invest in actually
increasing the talent of our teaching pool and then leveraging it. One of the
reasons why I'm a big proponent of creating positions like master teachers and
paying more money is because talent can teach other people and bring them all
up, and that's what this has got to be about – a rising tide.
Smith: Let's move from that to the Leadership Academy. You've mentioned it,
and we've ticked off on the list, but who's going to the Leadership Academy?
What is that Leadership Academy about? What's your strategy there in that Leadership
Klein: I think it's a variety of things.
The first thing is we have people apply, so like for 90 positions we get 1000,
1200 people apply. And actually this is not “who you know” stuff. Knowing somebody
is not what this is about. And you'll get people from other cities who apply
for this in significant numbers. You'll get some very young people. Some people
say, “Well, too young to be a
principal.” I don't know about that. David Levin, who's at KIPP is doing a fine
job. Desha Towle, who's at Amistad, is doing a fine job. So, I don't
have the view that you've got to be in the system 20 years to be
The other thing we do is we take some very seasoned people, no question about
it. We take some teachers who are six, seven years into their experience. I just
heard from one young lady today who was a math coach. I met her two years ago,
when she wanted to talk to me about math coaching – about a year and-a-half ago.
I urged her to apply to the Leadership Academy. She got in. She's doing incredible
work. So, we look for people and then screen them. And we screen them along lines
of talent, instructional ability, their past.
Smith: Your looking to build principals, by and large?
Klein: No, what we do is we train them. We invest – you were talking about
professional development – we have a 15-month training program that has two dimensions.
It's practical and like boot camp. You ask them. One of the things I loved is
they would be here the first year – their summer program was here. They would
be here 12, 14 hours a day. You don't hear about that in our system.
You know, people are always looking at the clock. But I was thrilled. They were
here 12, 14 hours a day.
I remember we heard some grievance that they were only supposed to work seven
hours, and I said to them, “Well, you're by the contract, if you want to leave
after seven, go ahead.” I said, “But if you want to be a principal, you ought
to think about that. Your choice.” They all stayed. They all have a passion.
Second thing we did: we mentored them, let them walk side by side, footstep
by footstep with other principals who are master principals now, who are at the
top of their game – watching a great principal. Then we worked with them to prepare
and open their schools. And they take some tough assignments. And we're having
real success. It's early, but we're really hearing from the field that this is
So, then we ramped it up. We took another 90. We'll take another 90 next year.
Smith: Talk to me a little bit about these local instructional superintendents.
They seem to me like a key engine for spreading best practices.
Klein: Absolutely. … If you don't have best practices permeate the system – we've
got 1350 schools and in any business, if I were running a business, all the time
I would be looking for best practices and how to export them from my most successful
business to my second, to my third, so that you constantly improve the system.
Smith: What are these local instructional superintendents doing? Exporting
best practice from one of their schools in their group to others?
Klein: Well, what they're doing, actually – they work together. We have ten
regions, and each region will have ten or eleven local instructional superintendents,
and each local instructional will have ten or so schools. So, it's a kind of
ten-ten-ten, we like to refer to it as. Now, what they're doing is both bottom-up
and top-down. If you've got ten schools to worry about you can spend time in
there. You can actually get to know what's going on. You'll see an art program.
You say to one of the other schools in your network, “Boy, you ought to look
at this art program,” and you bring people in. And then you'll tell your regional
superintendent, “You know, they've got a phenomenal art program,” or, “They've
got a reading interview.”
Smith: We're in a school and they've got some third and fourth grade teachers
who apparently the local instructional superintendent thinks are pretty good.
She's got a number of third and fourth grade teachers from other schools that
are struggling coming in to watch these teachers.
Klein: It's what it's all about, right? It's what you've got to see it in action.
Look, when you want to be a great basketball player, you watch other people who
play the game. You study the tapes. You learn. And it's the same thing here.
It's so much easier to walk into a classroom where you have high-quality teachers
and have other young teachers, in particular, who're just learning the ropes,
sit and observe. So, a local instructional person who has a span of control of
about ten schools can actually do this and then can breed the best practices
through the region. So now you're talking about, in a region, maybe as many as
a hundred and twenty or so schools. And it's obviously different at the high
school from the middle school, but still.
And then the regional superintendents meet together. And you know the kind
of discussions they have? They say, “Look, this intervention program, we're not
getting great results. What are you using? Is that working better for you?” “How
are you selecting your principals?” “Are you thinking about this approach?” So
you've got people working together in this ten-ten-ten to export best practices.
Is it perfect? No. We need to do a better job on the communications side, but
Smith: You said a moment ago “watching the tape.” We were in a school the other
day, and they're literally watching the tape. The teachers taped each other,
and then during their hundred-minute meeting they sat down and watched the tapes
of themselves teaching and talked with a dozen other teachers. And they're critiquing
the tape. They're watching themselves. They're swapping ideas – what worked,
what didn't work.
Klein: It's going on, and it should go on more. I was just talking literally
yesterday to Carmen Farina about this, about how we need to do more taping. And
then because you can run with computer technology, they can all have these tapes
on their computers. This is one of the things that I think has a tremendous potential.
When I got out of law school, I was out in California. I taught a class at
Stanford law school on human relations in legal practice. And one of the things – here
you are a young lawyer, you're trying a case, you're doing a negotiation, you're
seeking a job interview – and I used to videotape everything. And people were astonished,
people were astonished, seeing themselves. When I did a moot court,
if I was going to argue a case in the Supreme Court I would tape myself, and
I would want to listen and watch and hear. I used to play it back time and time
again – an audiotape – listening to my argument, listening to other people asking
my questions, to see what I thought about it.
This is obviously a very powerful technology, and we're doing a good deal of
it and will continue to do much, much more of it. And the fact that you saw it
in one of our schools is really heartening to me.
Smith: You said, in effect, New York City and New York State were actually
ahead of No Child Left Behind. But No Child Left Behind has got all these different
gradations. You've got to move all these 13 different categories of people up – is
that a help or does that become a burden? Do people start getting focused on
that? I've heard some people say, “Look, it's stimulating us. It sets standards.
We needed benchmarks.” You sort of said, “We had the benchmarks, anyway.” And
other people saying, “Look, we have some schools that are really making some
headway. But if you look at the No Child Left Behind yardstick, some of these
subgroups are actually holding us back, because we're looking at that, and we're
taking our eye off a larger ball.”
Klein: I think both sides have an element of truth. I hate to be Solomonic
about this. I do think it's very important to continue to insist on
standards. I would suggest – and I think other people would agree with this – I
think No Child Left Behind has to look much more at what we call “value added,” which
is how much progress a child is making. Right now, I think there's too much focus
on whether a child is performing at grade level, because that may reflect certain
things that are very troubling. For example, strategically, I could take all
the higher-performing kids, put them in one school, and then lower performing
kids in another school. The one school would look great; the other would not.
So, what, to me, is the key variable – and I'd love to see this in No Child
Left Behind – is to move toward not what a child knows, but what a child learns
from year to year. If special ed. kids are moving forward steadily and they're
really getting a learning experience, then we should reward those schools; if
English language learners are, we should reward them. If struggling students
are moving forward, we should reward them.
But there's too much tactical maneuvering. I was astonished – when I became
chancellor, people told me that they would just take some of the special ed.
kids from the various schools and put them all in one school. Then the scores
at all the other schools would go up, because you removed special ed. kids. Now,
that's kind of silly.
Klein: So, if you looked at what we call the change year to year, what did
this student know in the third grade, how did he do on the third grade test versus
the fourth grade test versus the fifth grade test, then you will see real longitudinal
progress. And I think that would be a much more focused and robust way.
The other thing you point out, which is true – you don't want to lose the forest
from the trees. If a school is generally – even under the current standard – doing
quite well, the fact that they may have fallen down in one aspect shouldn't lead
to a negative label. Because labeling in this game has consequences. So, I think
we should look at performance metrics, but we don't want to slice the
salami too thin here.
Smith: I started to ask you about the challenge ahead. What is the
challenge ahead? What we hear and what I sense from you, and what we certainly
hear from Congress and the President at the moment: high school. We've done a
lot of work in elementary school. And we've done a fair amount of work in middle
school, but the high schools are still a pretty tough nut to crack. But maybe
that's not your challenge. What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?
Klein: High school and middle school are both very big challenges. There's
no question about it. I think the biggest challenge in a school system, ultimately,
are the issues reflected in the Teaching Commission's report by Lou Gerstner
and others, which is, one, we need to think about effective ways to attract high-quality
people into the teaching profession. We need to think about the economics of
it. We need to think about the training at the education schools. I think it's
very, very important. And we need to think about a reward structure that really
does reward excellence.
This Teaching Commission has a line in there that is so powerful to me, which
is: teachers view this as a calling, and they want great things for their kids.
But a system that does not reward excellence is unlikely to inspire it. And I
think we have to move toward a system that rewards excellence. I would support
pay-for-performance. I would support differential pay for hardship assignments.
And I think that's the way to build the human capacity.
In the end, Rick, ours is a human enterprise. Technology, labs, buildings,
all can facilitate; but teaching and learning is the interface of a student and
a teacher. And the quality of that relationship is the most critical thing. We've
got to create environments that maximize the chances of success. But one of the
reasons I focus on leadership is great leaders attract great people to work with
them, no matter where they are. And that's one of the things we are trying to
do in this system.
But I think a multiyear effort to really transform the profession from one
that fundamentally does not reward excellence to one that stimulates, supports
and rewards excellence is one we need to endeavor and work on together.
Smith: I want to raise a very important question with you. Memphis, after three
years Gerry House's reform gets junked; San Antonio, same thing; big question
mark hanging over San Diego.
Klein: Question mark? It's over. Alan's gone. You don't need to go out there.
Alan Bersin has signed a negotiated agreement. He's gone. It's a tragedy. It's
a tragedy that a man of that talent and quality, who has done some
of the most serious and important, transformative work in education fundamentally
got beat by the politics of it.
Smith: Got beat by the…?
Klein: -- by the politics of it. They had a change on the board, and basically
they bought out his contract.
Smith: This is America – I mean this is one big city; but this is an American
experience again and again. How many years does it take to really get traction
on the kinds of problems you and I have been talking about for the last hour,
and you've been working on for the last many months?
Klein: I've been working on it for two and-a-half years. How many years do
I think it takes?
Klein: A decade. I think, in a decade you can actually restructure the system,
create new incentives, new rewards; find a dynamic, new approach to labor-management
But I think, in the short term, there's going to be enormous resistance. One
of the things that I thought was brilliant about what Michael Bloomberg did when
he secured mayoral control right at the outset – he had no illusions about what
it takes to transform a system like this – but he knew that under mayoral control
we would have a mayor and a chancellor together for two terms at a minimum: eight
years. And I believe it's going to be this mayor, and I hope he keeps me as his
chancellor. But I think eight years would be a minimal amount of time. I'm committed
to stay here for that duration, and it pains me to see politics lead to this
kind of new chancellor every two and-a-half years.
Smith: But wait a second. The implication of what you're saying is that school
boards and school politics may be one of the biggest problems inhibiting and
obstructing effective school reform in America.
Klein: I absolutely believe it. We had a school board in New York before Mayor
Bloomberg had the courage – and I believe it took real courage – to seek mayoral
control. We had a school board in New York that each borough present appointed
one, and the mayor appointed two. They would pick a chancellor, and as soon as
there was any political noise in the system, the chancellor would go. Wonderful
people served in this job, but they would get recycled every two, two and-a-half
You can't do this job in two, two and-a-half or three years. Tom Paysant has
had a decade, and I think he has really built into the DNA of the system some
significant change. Alan Bersin served for six-plus years, and I think he would've – if
he had stayed three or four more years –completed the critical work that he needed.
It pains me to see him gone.
So, I don't think this is a job for two or three years. I really just think
that's a bad idea. And unfortunately, I think a lot of times school board politics
end up either leading you to make all sorts of political compromises that are
not in the best interest of children, or end up short-term chancellors. And I
don't think that's the way to change public education, frankly.
Smith: How will you know in your own mind, privately, when you're looking in
the mirror – not when you're talking to a bunch of parents, when you're talking
to the mayor – how will you know when you have succeeded? What are your own internal
Klein: Dramatically different graduation rates – high school graduation rates.
That is, to me, the critical thing. Right now so many of our students are simply
exiting the system. They're not graduating the system. One in two, for as far
back as people could look at, didn't get any form of diploma, basically. And
I think we have to change that number dramatically. To me, at the end of K to
12 education, a student should be prepared for one of two things: certainly,
one, either to go on to college, where he or she can succeed; or to be able to
sustain himself or herself independently in the workforce. When we dramatically
change the number of the students in our school system that are capable of either
one or both of those options, then I will have succeeded.
Until then, there will be interim things: the test scores year-to-year, parental
satisfaction – parents understand when the school's working for their kids. They
are things I look at as interim benchmarks. But as I said to you when we started,
I don't see this as being about a third grade education. You need to have a third
grade education to succeed in high school, but it's really about exiting high
schools and being ready for college or the workforce – one or the other.
Smith: When you have a guy like Alvarado in District 2, he's dealing with 25,000
kids – you can do a lot more personal things there. You're dealing with a million
kids – you've got a much larger operation here. When you talk about accountability,
you've got a whole lot of people pressing down on the system. Some become mechanistic;
it becomes about compliance. Eventually, this stuff does not have the same kind
of yeast, the same kind of ferment, the same kind of passion and insight that
you're talking about. Are you at this point in the curriculum?
Klein: Yes, I agree, and I think it's happening less and less each day, but
there's no question. And that's because you have to work with a variety of people
in that ten-to-ten-to-ten alignment we talked about. If you have a weak link
somewhere in there, that will translate itself into mechanistic, compliance-based
education. That won't work.
Have we eliminated it? No. Are we making progress? What do you think – I meet
my regional superintendents and I ask them all the time, “Do you have the right
local instructional people? If you don't, there's no substitute. This is not
cookbook.” Obviously, in any large-scale transition you've got to be prepared
to look at the people in the links of the chain.
Tony had the same problem in District 2. Sure, District 2 was smaller; but
District 2's bigger than many school districts in the United States. He was
not a one-person show; he had to work with other people. If he had a weak link
in the chain, then that link would take its toll.
And so I think we keep trying to work to correct that. But I admit that there're
times when people do use a cookbook when they should use human ingenuity.
The second thing you've got to understand is there's a lot of resistance. In
a system that's been doing things a certain way year in and year out, when all
of a sudden you're trying to move it to a different level, in a different direction,
there's going to be resistance. Sometimes you hear people say, “Well, just let
the teachers teach.” We should support our teachers in teaching, but the idea
that you just “let them teach” – I've seen the results of years of
letting every person do his or her own thing, and those are results we can't
countenance going forward.
So, the issues of management you're talking about, of making sure you have
the right people, who are able to lead and excite and stimulate – that's why
the leadership program. A couple of weekends ago I spent with my 75 senior leaders
out at Crotonville, which is the GE Leadership Center, with Welch; and we were
working with them on “what is leadership?” How do you export best practices?
Almost every issue you've talked to me about we were discussing – even the issue
which you raised implicitly, which I think is a wonderful one, is, in looking
for a principal how much do you look for leadership skills and how much do you
look for instructional expertise? And it was a very interesting set of discussions,
but all the things you're asking me about are about leadership, human resources
and creating a teaching force that plays at its next level – which we can do.
Smith: The second thing you're talking about, really, is revamping labor-management
relations. You're talking about rewarding excellence. If you're going to produce
excellence, you've got to reward excellence. You're talking about pay incentives
for master teachers, recognizing quality in performance. But you've got a union
here. You've got … some experienced teachers who seem to have their heels dug
in, or verbally they go along with you, but it doesn't seem to change. How do
you get over that hurdle?
Klein: Well, hard work. I think it's going to take hard work. And obviously,
we've got to negotiate these issues. Look at the paradigm in America today, everybody's
talking about these issues. Denver just implemented a pay-for-performance system.
Governor Schwarzenegger just gave a major speech on pay for performance. This
mayor and this chancellor have been talking about pay for performance and about
some of the other issues. So this takes some time, but can you imagine a system
that's built on lockstep pay, lifetime tenure and seniority?
What kind of cases do we lose? I had a case recently where a principal appointed
a reading specialist to teach kids in an after-school program. Again, some of
the things we've talked about. She picked the best reading specialist in the
building, and we lost a case saying she didn't pick the one with the most seniority.
Now, you can't even say this with a straight face! It's not rational. Is that
right for kids? Of course not. Nobody even disputed that the teacher that was
chosen was the best teacher – just not the one with the longest experience. And
as long as we operate under that model, I don't think we can realign.
Smith: Part the tragedy for Alan Bersin in San Diego is that he and Tony got
into a confrontation with the union. The union went out and actually campaigned
against him and campaigned against the board members that were supporting him.
Now, it was more complicated than that, but that was a major factor there. Alvarado
was able to negotiate with the union here in New York. He was able to appoint
distinguished teachers, or “master teachers,” run them longer days, higher pay – things
like that. And then you get in another culture, and – same guy, same ideas – and
you wind up with a head-to-head. I mean are there things that have to be negotiated
out? Can you tough it out, or do you have to negotiate?
Klein: I think you've got to be prepared to tough it out. I think, otherwise,
if you don't make some fundamental changes, then, you're not going to see some
You pointed to a thing about Tony. The difference between New York : you can
always do things on a sort of project basis, on a demonstration. You know what
I mean? There's a lot of that. What Tony tried to do in San Diego, and what
Alan was trying to do in San Diego was to do it systemically, and that's what
I'm trying to do here in New York. I don't have just District 2. I've got, actually,
32 school districts plus all my high schools. So, in my view, we need systemic
And I will tell you one of the most powerful articles I have ever read was
a speech that Al Shanker, who is the head of the UFT here in New York and the
head of the national organization, the American Federation of Teachers – he gave
at the Pew Forum in 1993, so that's well over a decade ago – in which he said
if we don't move to pay for performance, we are going to pay an enormous price.
He said if we don't restructure the incentives, we are not going to achieve what
we want. And he said something that was so important. He said unless we are talking
about student outcomes, everything else is about power, and power will not enable
us to succeed.
So, I don't want to kid you. This is hard stuff. But I actually believe slowly,
steadily – we won't get everything in the negotiations – but I think we'll get
some changes and we move forward. I wish it would happen more quickly. Nobody
likes tough labor negotiations. Nobody likes polarization. But if we don't see
some changes, then I think the alternative is worse.
Smith: So, you're saying the difference between District 2 – I just want to
be clear about this – that was an experiment; whereas, San Diego was systemwide?
Klein: See, what Tony did with District 2 was obviously to say, “We're going
to focus on a small part.” District 2, percentage-wise in New York, is relatively
small. Don't hold me to this exact number, but let's just say in terms –
Smith: Twenty-five thousand out of a million.
Klein: -- twenty-five thousand. Well, you take out the high schools. But say
25,000 out of about 800,000 or 750,000. It's a small piece of the overall puzzle,
and so you can always have a demonstration. I have one going on in the Bronx
now with 36 master teachers, which we negotiated with the union. But when I said, “We
need to have several thousand master teachers citywide,” that has different implications.
And that's what I think happened in San Diego, which was they were going to
do a system wide transformation; and that's what we need to do in New York.
And I think that is harder.
A lot of times what people try to do is sit on small demonstration projects.
I don't think that's an effective way to transform the system. I think unless
you change the culture throughout the system, you won't get it done.