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Joel Klein Discusses Ed Reform and His Latest Book “Lessons of Hope”

February 5, 2015  • Institute Contributor

Above, watch the full conversation with former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

From 2002 to 2011, Joel Klein served as the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the largest public school system in the United States, serving over one million students and over 1,600 schools. His new book, “Lessons of Hope,” details the struggles Klein faced while turning around the New York City school system. Klein recently sat down with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson to discuss school reform, both in New York City and across the nation. 

In 2002, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city’s school system, and one of his earliest moves was to appoint Klein. Although he was educated in New York City public schools, Klein was an outsider to the education establishment, having instead served in the White House counsel’s office under President Bill Clinton and as United States assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s antitrust division. Despite resistance from powerful groups, once in charge of overseeing New York City’s public schools Klein managed to streamline the bureaucracy, increase school choice, improve test scores, and increase graduation rates. 

Klein found a school system that was “so broken in so many ways.” His first step was to focus on principals, a position he said was “the weakest point in the food chain,” with the bureaucracy pushing down on them from above and the teachers union pushing up from below. Instead of assuming that “if someone’s a good teacher, they’ll be a good principal,” Klein decided to focus on leadership empowerment and accountability among principals. Calling it the “toughest negotiation of his career,” Klein won the right for principals to select their assistant principals and to hire teachers. “If you can’t put together a team, you can’t do the work…” he said. “The issue of how you select leaders and how you train them is critical.” 

Klein also insisted on increasing school choice in New York City. “I would go as far as I could go to bring high-quality charter schools,” he said. Although he recognizes charter schools are controversial, Klein argued, “It’s only controversial when it comes to poor people… Anybody of any means and opportunity insists on choice. Most things that are good enough for affluent people are usually good enough for poor people.” Wealthy families can afford to send their children to private schools or move to more expensive areas with better public schools. Choice among schools also increases competitive pressure, forcing schools to improve. However, choice also requires adequate capacity. Accordingly, during his tenure as chancellor, Klein created 600 schools to replace and expand upon the 150 he shut down.

Klein continues to stoke controversy when applying his experience in New York to national school reform efforts. When it comes to national curriculums or standards like Common Core or Core Curriculum, Klein said, “Standards seem to me to be essential. But these standards, like any set of standards, are imperfect.” However, he believes they are necessary and that these standards are “quite good,” because today over half of high school students are graduating without being ready for college. 

Klein is also a proponent of meaningful teacher evaluations because, “Not everyone should be a teacher. It’s too important… The most important thing I won, no question, was the right to hire,” he said. “The most important thing I lost was the right to fire.” Like schools and principals, Klein believes that underperforming teachers should be removed from the system.

However, Klein would also like to increase longevity among qualified teachers. Klein found the pattern of teacher burnout after two to three years to be “sub-optimal.” He would prefer a system where teachers remained on the job for six to eight years. In fact, one of Klein’s happiest memories about his tenure was the increase in “lifetimers.”

“We’re demanding and expecting too much of teachers without giving them help and support,” he said. Klein, who is currently CEO of the education tech company Amplify, hopes that the rise of digital tools will aid teachers by providing visual or multimedia support that is directly linked to text. For example, Klein found that many students had difficulty reading, or were reluctant to read the writings of the freed slave and orator Frederick Douglass, but when he paired the text with a filmed dramatic reading of Douglass by actor Chadwick Boseman, the desire to read Douglass increased.

Of course, such questions of teacher tenure are often overshadowed by the presence of teachers unions. Were it up to him, Klein said he would like to see the teachers unions move away from a system based on seniority, tenure, and lockstep pay and instead transition into professional organizations. Such organizations could pursue benefits for teachers, but school systems could more easily remove inferior teachers. 

Looking at the number of hot button issues Klein touched upon during his hour-long discussion, it is no wonder that his time as chancellor is still debated among those his policies affected, both positively and negatively. As the 2016 elections approach, education and school reform will undoubtedly be a topic of heated debate. Perhaps only then will it become clear how many of Klein’s “Lessons of Hope” have been transformed from the opinions of an outsider to the policy of mainstream politicians.