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Outgoing NYC Schools Chief Klein: School Reform Momentum Will Continue

November 23, 2010 at 9:17 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with Joel Klein, outgoing chancellor of New York City Schools, about his sometimes-controversial eight-year tenure and what will become of the national school reform movement with several high-profile departures.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the man who has led the New York City schools and the national debate over education reform. Jeffrey Brown has our interview.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joel Klein took over as chancellor of the nation’s largest school system eight years ago, without prior experience as an educator, but with a big promise to shake things up. That, he did.

Among much else, he closed many failing schools, supported the growing charter school movement, put more power in the hands of principals, and, from day one, battled teachers unions over core issues, such as tenure and seniority in hiring and firing.

All of this was and remains controversial, and, as he steps down to move into the private sector, his accomplishments and legacy are hotly debated.

Joel Klein joins us now from New York. So, Mr. Klein, eight years later, what do you see as the most significant change in New York schools?

JOEL KLEIN, chancellor, New York City Public Schools: Oh, I think the fact that our families have many more choices. We have opened up almost 500 schools, Jeffrey, over the last eight years. That’s more than most cities have.

And, in doing that, instead of saying to families you only have one choice, we have given families throughout the city multiple choices. And in independent studies by world-class researchers, the new schools we’re opening, including more than 100 charter schools, are getting better results than the schools that they replaced, better results indeed than comparable schools.

So, I think that’s probably, first and foremost, the most important thing. The second thing is that we have built an accountability system that’s based on progress. So, we compare apples to apples, not where a child starts, but, wherever a child starts, how much progress she makes.

And, in doing that, we certainly have focused the system on progress, on improvement, and on outcomes. And we have gotten results. We now have 20 percent more students, 20 percentage points more students graduating from high school. In New York, that’s about 15,000 kids, and approximately 10,000 more going to the City University of New York.

So, those are the key things.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the measures of success that you touted early on was the rise in test scores. And now that seems to be more of a question mark recently, as the state adjusted those scores downward somewhat.

Where does that stand in terms — how do you see that adjustment? And do you stand by the — they focus on test scores as the way of judging success?

JOEL KLEIN: So, first of all, I appreciate you’re asking me, because I think there’s some confusion on that.

I supported making it harder for students to pass the state tests. I was out there before the state was out there on that issue. I knew, as a result, if you make it harder, if it takes 40 questions, rather than 30, it’s going to be more difficult for people to pass. And we, like everyone else in the state, went down some.

But, if you look at the analysis, there’s no question we have made real progress, both on the state and on the national tests, Jeffrey. On the national tests that are given in New York City and given throughout the country, we have made big progress on those.

A recent study by an independent researcher, a fellow who graduated from Harvard, last week came out and said, on the state test, we have outperformed the rest of the state. So, I think we have a strong record. And I would be the first to say focusing on test scores is not the only thing.

But, on the other hand, when you inherit a school system like I did, where some 45 percent of the students were graduating, where many of them were performing — performing way below passing levels, you have got to focus on achievement and outcomes. You also want to focus on higher-order thinking, on problem solving and the other things. But children who can’t read and can’t do math are not going to be higher-order thinkers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, the area I want to go to that got the most attention over these years is the kind of constant battles with the teachers union. We reached out today to Union President Randi Weingarten, who told us that — quote — you seem to “constantly vilify and blame teachers.”

Now, that’s a refrain we heard a lot, where teachers felt like they were being made the enemy. And I wonder, as you look back now, do you — do you regret at all taking any of what — what struck a lot of people as a sort of confrontational stance?

JOEL KLEIN: No, I don’t, because I think our children are suffering.

And Randi can say I’m vilifying teachers, but the fact of the matter, I believe, is, we made teachers the heroes of the system. But any system that treats teachers like assembly line workers, which is what education does in America today — I mean, it’s built on tenure, lockstep pay and seniority. You reward people for staying another year, regardless of whether they do good or poor work.

That’s not a system that is going to succeed. Systems that succeed are systems that are built on excellence, that reward people for excellence and have real accountability for non-performance.

So, I don’t think it’s about vilifying, quite the contrary. I believe that teachers are the heroes in the public education system. But, if you don’t treat them based on performance, based on excellence, then you’re going to fail.

Al Shanker said it best. He said, if it’s not about student outcomes and accountability for teacher performance, then we’re talking about power. And all too often, quite frankly, Randi and so many others want to talk about power, who is in control, who is making this decision and that decision.

And, you know, as a result, our children pay a huge price. I think it’s time for us to focus on improving the outcomes in K-12 education, because, if we don’t, our nation, as well as our kids, are going to pay a big price.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when you’re looking at this system that has been in place for a long, long time — you said recently at a forum assessing some of the changes of the last few years that you — quote — “didn’t do as good a job as I should have in getting the buy-in we need.”

You were referring to dealing with parents, teachers, the community at large. How important is that? Where do you — you know, this is self-assessment. Where do you think you perhaps fell short, and why, in that regard?

JOEL KLEIN: Well, I think that is a fair point.

And, again, I think the system moved to change — Randi herself said when my resignation was announced that the system is better today than it was when we took over eight years ago. So, I don’t think there’s any question about the improvements.

But I think that I said at that conference was that I should have been out more in the community explaining things to some of the people, so that we got strong buy-in, because there will always be resistance. The defenders of the status quo will always be out there, Jeffrey, because the status quo serves a lot of adult needs in public education: lifetime pensions, lockstep pay. You get more money next year, whether you do a good job or you don’t.

When you have a system like that, there are going to be a lot of defenders. And I was candid in saying that I should have built more support. I think that’s going on as we speak. I have been spending a lot of time in communities.

But I think that’s an area where it would have been more helpful, because, in the end, the politics of education, those things matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, where are we now in this school reform movement, of which you’re one of the leaders?

Here in Washington, Michelle Rhee, another — another national figure, she’s gone after an election. And now you’re stepping down. You know, only a few years ago, there was a lot of energy, a lot of attention around this. Can it be maintained now? Where do you see things headed?

JOEL KLEIN: I think it will be maintained. And, in fact, it’s an entirely different world.

I think, eight years ago, when I started, it would be impossible to have the discussion that you and I are having this evening. Eight years ago, when I started, all of the status quo things that I thought undermined excellence and undermined student achievement were things that were taken for granted in the system.

Now, because of the work of a lot of people, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, President Obama, you — what you’re seeing is a very different discussion in America. People are talking about things like real accountability, things like real choice.

You know, middle-class families have lots of choice in public education. They often choose where they live based on the school they want. Why should people who grew up in poverty not have choices? Why should the unions oppose charter schools that give families real choice?

In New York City, I have got 40,000 people on a waiting list for charter schools. How can anybody, in good conscience, deny those people an option or a choice, something that they would insist on themselves?

And I have to say, I think Arne Duncan, as secretary of education, and President Obama and Race to the Top have focused on the right issues, on real accountability, on real choice, on using data to drive instruction.

So, I think the discussion has moved. I know lots of my colleagues now throughout the country are moving forward. Just last month, Michelle Rhee and I designed a so-called manifesto, front page of The Washington Post “Outlook” section…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JOEL KLEIN: … in which some 15 — 15 superintendents signed on. So, I think the movement is alive, robust and excited.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Joel Klein is the outgoing chancellor of the New York City Schools. Thanks for joining us.

JOEL KLEIN: Thank you, Jeffrey.