TOPICS > Education

High Hopes: Chancellor of the New York City Public School System

September 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JOHN MERROW: Running the New York City public schools has to be one of the toughest jobs in America. It’s the largest school system in the country, with 1.1 million students, many living in poverty. Most of the students cannot read or do math at a basic level, but this school year began with a new sense of optimism. For one thing, New York’s new mayor, Mike Bloomberg, has taken charge of the public schools. With the blessing of the state legislature, he abolished the school board. Then he set out to find the right person to run the system.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: We need somebody that is innovative. We need somebody with impeccable integrity. We need somebody with management skills. We have found exactly that person in Joel Klein. (Applause)

JOEL KLEIN: We must put in place systems– not just ideas, but systems– that will lead to good educational outcomes.

JOHN MERROW: The mayor’s choice came as a surprise. Joel Klein, a former assistant attorney general and briefly CEO of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, has practically no experience in public education.

ARTHUR GREENBERG: I was kind of surprised, because there had been, as usual, a lot of speculation about who it might be. That was not a name that was speculated upon. No one knew anything about him. So for a lot of reasons, I was curious.

JOHN MERROW: Arthur Greenburg has been involved in the New York City public schools for 34 years, as a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent.

ARTHUR GREENBERG: I think Klein is going to have a lot to learn. He seems to be very, very smart and interested in learning stuff. But it’s necessarily going to be more difficult for him, not having that kind of background.

JOHN MERROW: But non-educators have enjoyed success in other cities: Retired Army General John Stanford in Seattle; former U.S. Attorney Allen Bersin in San Diego; former city budget director Paul Vallas in Chicago; and even Klein’s predecessor in New York, banker Harold Levy. Anthony Coles, deputy mayor under Rudolf Giuliani, says outsiders have the freedom to make changes.

ANTHONY COLES: Essentially, what the Board of Education needs is revolution. And I think it’s very hard for an insider to be a revolutionary. The longer you spend in a bureaucracy, the more difficult it will be to change that bureaucracy.

JOHN MERROW: Klein is best known for bringing new rigor to the antitrust division of the Justice Department under President Clinton. As head of the division, he argued 11 cases before the Supreme Court. Most famously, he fought and won the administration’s case against Microsoft.

JOEL KLEIN: No company, no matter how powerful or how successful, can refuse to play by the rules and thwart competition for America’s consumers.

JOHN MERROW: Now Klein is taking on the New York City public schools.

JOEL KLEIN: Public education is each and every American’s birth right, and that has been the history of this country. We have 1.1 million kids here in New York in public education. It served this country for 200 years. There’s no reason to believe it can’t continue to serve this country.

JOHN MERROW: He has his work cut out for him. Of the 486 schools New York state lists as “failing,” 331 are in New York City. But Klein is not one to back away from the challenge, says his Harvard law professor and longtime friend, Alan Dershowitz.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Joel loves challenge. And the very fact that people say this is a job that nobody can succeed at is the perfect job for Joel. People said he couldn’t bring down Microsoft. He’s taken every job that he’s had, and he’s turned adversity into success.

JOHN MERROW: Klein is not an educator, but he attended New York City public schools from kindergarten through high school. We went with him to his old high school in Queens.

JOHN MERROW: What were you like in high school?

JOEL KLEIN: What was I like in high school?

JOHN MERROW: You were on the honor roll.

JOEL KLEIN: I was a little dorky, probably. I worked hard. I loved sports in high school. I spent a lot of time with the basketball team, covered the basketball team for the student newspaper. Oh, I get a kick out of this, yeah. See, I told you, I looked rather dorky, didn’t I? There you go.

JOHN MERROW: Oh, here we go.

JOEL KLEIN: I just want you to know, I wasn’t wearing that hat in order to cover up my bald head. In those days, I actually had hair.

JOHN MERROW: At the age of 16 and a half, Joel Klein graduated from high school. He went on to Columbia University, and then Harvard Law School.

JOEL KLEIN: I wanted to be a lawyer. I had big dreams, and I believed, as people told me– teachers, parents– that, you know, you should go for it.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Oh, his drive clearly comes from being born in Brooklyn. That’s where it always comes from. You know, it comes from having parents who were Depression parents. It comes from being born after the Holocaust.

JOEL KLEIN: My father was a postman. He had dropped out of school in tenth grade because of the Depression. But he always wanted me to get the education, to have the opportunities. My mother, she actually graduated from high school, but did not go to college. But they both had this sense that education was the key.

JOHN MERROW: Since starting his new job in mid-august, Klein has been visiting schools and talking with teachers…

SPOKESPERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, the chancellor, Joel I. Klein. ( Applause )

JOHN MERROW: …Including this meeting of 3,500 new teachers.

JOEL KLEIN: People say to me, what is your priority, chancellor? My priority is to make it as good as it can possibly be for those of you who are in the classroom instructing the children.

JOHN MERROW: You said in at least one of your speeches, the code word is going to be “discipline.”

JOEL KLEIN: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: What does that mean?

JOEL KLEIN: It means several things. First of all, it means discipline in the department. What I mean by that is, we can’t be all things to all people. We’re going to have to make some tough choices in terms of where we put our dollars, where we put our focus, what our priorities are. Second, I mean discipline in the classroom. I expect classrooms to be run in a disciplined fashion. If there’s no discipline, there’s no learning going on.

JOHN MERROW: Among the many problems facing the New York City schools are a 20% dropout rate, a 40% passing rate on state tests, and schools that are so overcrowded that classes have to be held in hallways and on staircases.

PROTESTOR: What do we want?


PROTESTOR: When do we want it?


JOHN MERROW: Some say he won’t be able to tackle any of these problems unless he resolves the traditionally difficult relationship between the chancellor and the teachers’ union. Over the past two years, New York teachers rallied to renegotiate their contract.

ANTHONY COLES: The core problem with the system is, it’s about adults. It’s about teachers’ contracts, it’s about union contracts, it’s about protecting jobs, and it’s not about educating kids.

JOHN MERROW: Do you think Joel Klein will have the guts…

ANTHONY COLES: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: …To take on the union?

ANTHONY COLES: I think this is someone who took on Microsoft, someone who has a career of public service. And you don’t take on the job of chancellor of the Department of Education unless you’ve got a lot of guts.

JOHN MERROW: Anthony Coles said a major obstacle for Joel Klein is teacher unions.

JOEL KLEIN: I don’t believe it. I believe that we can work together with the union to create the kind of thing that we need to do here. Most of all, the teachers are the front-line warriors in this battle. I can’t succeed if the teachers don’t succeed.

JOHN MERROW: Some educators say that a much greater obstacle than the unions is poverty.

ARTHUR GREENBERG: I don’t think any leader by themselves can cure the ills of urban education. First of all, it’s very pernicious. You can look not only at every major urban center in the United States and see that poor children don’t do well in school, but you can see this throughout the world.

JOHN MERROW: In fact, approximately 35% of New York City public school students live in poverty. Joel Klein says schools cannot use that as an excuse for failure.

JOEL KLEIN: In the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, there are schools that are working for poor kids. So my job is to replicate that success. It would be a lot easier if every kid grew up in a stable family, which had a very solid income and no issues of health and none of the other problems. It would make the job easier. But I reject, I reject categorically the principle that poverty is an insurmountable impediment, because I see that we have surmounted it time and again.

JOHN MERROW: What’s your measure of success? Test scores?

JOEL KLEIN: Test scores are a measure, because we get measured by them. After all, federal law now, state law, they require us to meet certain testing standards. And I understand tests can be reductionistic, but you need to have measures of accountability. Those are the ones that we’re living under, and we will perform in accordance. I think we have got to get to the point where the number of kids who are graduating, who are staying in school, who are reading and so forth is significantly different from what it is right now.

JOHN MERROW: To emphasize his point about performance, Klein is offering district superintendents bonuses of up to $40,000 if test scores improve in their districts.

JOEL KLEIN: Who are you? What grade are you in?

STUDENT: Fourth.

JOEL KLEIN: Fourth. Do you like it?


JOEL KLEIN: Good. You do a lot of homework?


JOEL KLEIN: You do a lot of reading?


JOEL KLEIN: Good. You look terrific. You really do. Keep it up, okay?

JOHN MERROW: As former chancellor Rudy Crew said about the job, “you don’t know how wide that horse is until you get up and try to ride it.” But if Klein is nervous, he’s not showing it.

JOEL KLEIN: First of all, I don’t know what it means to say failure. Look, this public school system gave me the opportunity to do almost everything imaginable in life: Working in a White House, running a division of the Justice Department, arguing cases in the United States Supreme Court. That all came from somebody who grew up here in Astoria. This is the job that I want to do. I will want to do it next year and the year after and the year after. And if I retire in this job, I’d be a very happy person.

JOHN MERROW: Joel Klein is setting a high goal for himself. He’s New York City’s fifth school chancellor in ten years.