New York City Schools: A Retrospective with Joel Klein – Transcript

KleinEvent-Steiner-and-KleinEvent date: December 12, 2013

[Note: This is an edited transcript. Readers are encouraged to watch the full, 54-minute video here. The time stamps are approximate, but are a good guide for finding the original discussion in the video.]



[00:00:15.11] Peter Meyer: … This is our ninth public event in a whirlwind year and it is also an honor to have a guest here tonight, Joel Klein, who was one of the longest serving chancellors of New York City schools, a man whom education journalist John Merrow called the most influential educator in America. As we await a new administration in New York, and in particular the appointment of the next schools chancellor, it seems like the best possible moment to review what has, and has not, been achieved under the current regime. In the ongoing challenge of providing a high quality education to every child in New York City….


[00:02:24.26] David Steiner: …. Let me begin by thanking Joel. This is a moment of transition, and what better moment to look back…. Let’s just for the moment suggest that whether it’s dropout rate, whether it’s graduation rate, whether it’s comparative scores to the rest of the state, we’re looking at wonderfully strong indices. How do you square that with the recent opinion polls of 2013, but also 2012, where a plurality of the citizens of New York, at least under these polls, are at best lukewarm — and actually in some cases, in these polls, a majority of them claim… that things got worse…. [A]s you think about that duality, of all of these numbers rising and yet of the reaction are posing. What’s going on?


[00:05:33] Klein: I’m not going to avoid your question, though I’d like to [laughter].…There’s a couple of things. First of all, lots that happened was noisy. And noisy things, people don’t get caught up in the numbers. There is no emotional appeal to a 20% increase in graduation rates. It may affect the lives of 15,000 kids each year, but it’s not something that grabs you. On the other hand, when you get into issues like closing down a school, this is like co-location…. When you do things that are not win-win’s, like sharing space, which is absolutely essential…, that causes noise…. And what people hear is that this was discordant and this was noisy and therefore it was problematic…. I mean when I left the chancellorship a poll showed that I had a positive chancellorship by about 11% … It was something like 46 to 35. Not definitive. But I do think the hardest piece of it, and I don’t blame you for this, because I think it was the right move, … was realigning the tests…. People woke up and all of a sudden my kid is no longer proficient and lots of kids in the city are not proficient. 26% reading and 30% in math, and so that, you know, that takes, as we say, ‘splainin’, and you don’t have a lot of time in these kind of things to explain. So I think that’s a large part of what happened.


[00:07:26] Steiner: Let me follow up, and many of you may not know this, but [Chancellor Klein] and I had a difficult conversation when Merryl [Tisch, Chancellor of the Board of Regents] and I [raised the cut scores needed to pass the state tests] and of course more recently, John [King, Commissioner of Education for New York State] and Merryl, and the Board have done so again. All of you are aware of even stronger push back. Do you think that this is ultimately the right thing to do? Is it moving too quickly? Is it threatening the reforms?

[00:07:59] Joel Klein: I think it is the right thing to do — it’s past due for us to get serious about teaching kids the kinds of things they’re going to need to be successful…. You know, we can’t sustain a world in which six out of ten kids, or five out of ten kids going to college have to be remediated. It’s a losing hand to play…. Now, what I didn’t like the first time… I didn’t feel there was adequate explanation that people understood. So it’s one thing to say, well it’s 60% proficient, now it 40% proficient… I always felt that some of this was just the politics of it. You know, the Mayor had run very successfully in 2009 on some very big gains that we had had…. Then… all of a sudden, the press kept saying the mayor exaggerated the gains. Even though those were the gains that the state, which set the cut scores and the benchmarks, fed us… Looking forward I think we need to do two critical things…. [W]e’ve got to get our students college and career ready…. And second of all, we’re not going to do that unless we get both the kind of curriculum that would get our kids where we need, and the teachers working with that curriculum. To me we might as well move this agenda quickly rather than slowly.


[00:09:54] David Steiner: I remember calling the commissioner in Tennessee when we got Race to the Top, because they had gotten it first, and said, “What would you have done differently in the last six months?” He said, “Communication, communication, communication.” One of the push-backs around the kind of lukewarm public reactions to the reforms has been that somehow you didn’t reach the parents en masse in a way that made them feel included in the reforms….

[00:10:41.23] Joel Klein: …First of all I certainly could have done a better job of communicating. But I remember once we had a meeting with somebody and they were, “You know, we don’t communicate, we don’t communicate.” So the Mayor said, Well give them a meeting…. We sat down for three hours. They told me exactly what they thought and I said, “I really understand you, I even understand where you’re coming from… I just disagree.” They said, “You don’t listen.” I said, “No, no, no. I listen. I just disagree.” They said, “We don’t want people who listen, we want people who hear us!” [laughter] …. So I’m a little skeptical of this….



[00:11:45] Joel Klein: You know, politicians used to be able to game the system so that your kid could get a seat at PS9 and my kid couldn’t get a seat. That doesn’t happen anymore. If it happens, it’s a very rare event. Now those people understood when we eliminated what they used to call constituent services that weren’t going to be good for them. When the union sees that we’re going to try to really hold people to account, they understand the significance of that. When communities learn that we may close down schools which serve lots of functions other than to educate kids, they get that. But what you’re telling them is to hop on my back, there’s a great future out there. As Machiavelli explained, that’s a hard message to make.

The other thing that’s very hard in politics, and I’ve thought a lot about this, is how do you at the same time say to people, give them hope while you’re knocking the status quo. It’s a very difficult political move. It’s much easier in one sense to say, Things are great… Your kid’s getting a great education. And the fact that Steiner says he’s not, or John King says that he’s not proficient, that’s because he’s an idiot and he set the thing wrong. I’d much rather hear that if I’m a parent… So I think we need to be a little careful. It’s always nice to say if only I communicated better. Some things are difficult to communicate because they are painful to transition….


[00:14:10.08] David Steiner: …. So we’re waiting for the NAEP [exam results], the National Assessment of Education Progress…. [If the results from] 2009 to 2013 are essentially flat, then there’s a problem.

[00:15:07.03] Joel Klein: So it’s a couple of things…. New York State this year went up eight points in four NAEP’s. That’s more than it’s gone up in the whole time as a state that I’ve been here. Now compared to Tennessee and D.C., which went up 20 points, which is wholly unprecedented. Eight points used to be a lot of points to go up on the NAEP. Second of all, whether you look at it from the beginning to now, anyway you want to slice it, NYC so outperformed the rest of New York State on the NAEP it’s amazing. Over the course of my years, from 2002 to 2011…. NYC went up in three out of the four significantly, and two in the lower grades went up a full grade. The State of New York was actually flat and negative….

[00:16:07.29] In New York City, while I wouldn’t say our results were stellar, our results were certainly solid. In eighth grade math we got a six-point gain, which is a half a year’s worth of learning, and for fourth grade in English and math we got a year….


[00:18:40.13] David Steiner: …. The question of charter schools, the co-location, is obviously on everyone’s mind because the new Mayor has publicly announced a different point of view. Focusing not only on the charter schools but on the general record…what you did…what would you say worries you the most in terms of losing an element of that reform as you look forward. Is it the charter schools? Is it something else? What makes you nervous as you look back on the things that you think made a really big difference when you look forward?

[00:19:23.18] Joel Klein: I would not say it’s any particular single thing. The charter schools do worry me and worry me profoundly. I mean it’s…one statistic that’s irrefutable and ought to bother everybody, which is 70,000 families…mostly families of poverty and overwhelmingly families of color in this city, [70,000] applied for 20,000 charter seats. Now, if you’re supposed to be someone who cares about that constituency the idea that you’re going to try to tamp that down seems to me to be an enormous mistake. So, that does worry me. The second thing that worries me is the signal goes out to the schools that we won’t close schools no matter what – well, everybody is going to take a deep breath, a sigh of relief, and say we’re back to the good old normal days. That worries me. The third thing that worries me is…and I don’t want to get locked into letter grades and the imperfections of letter grades, but I sure as hell hope that accountability is a part of the system going forward.


[00:20:22.16] David Steiner: So let’s talk about the letter grades…. Even some of your own senior staff are wondering whether there could be some meaningful changes in ways that would make them continuous but without the letters and bringing together the quality review with the progress reports.

[00:20:49.20] Joel Klein: …. Two points to make. Yes, there are always more effective ways and putting other things in [might work]…. I don’t apologize for the fact that measuring progress apples to apples [is hard]…. We were trying to figure out what the schools brings to the kid not what the kid brings to the school. So telling me that a gifted and talented program performs at a very high level doesn’t give me a whole lot of information. However, I do think there are better ways and certainly college readiness metrics and taking into account quality reviews. Although quality reviews you gotta be a little careful, because grade inflation on subjective evaluations is pretty easy, but I still think what people have said, there are better ways to do things….

We made changes and I would hope nobody wrote these things on tablets. On the other hand, where I do disagree is this notion that we take away the grade. That’s exactly what everybody wants, right? I remember when I started people used to say you had 320 SINI’s. I said, what the hell is a SINI? And how do I explain that to the people of the city of New York. They said, well a SINI is a school in need of improvement. So I mean what — you know if you called those things what they are, which were failing schools, then parents and teachers and others get a message.

All schools in New York were in need of improvement…. [T]ell me one that wasn’t in need of improvement. And so, I’m a little worried that we’re afraid of calling things the way they are because of what I think is the old self-esteem crowd. Which is, you know, let’s just make everybody feel good….


[00:23:11.00] David Steiner: …. There is a lot of rhetoric about our failing education system and as you know, there is pushback from folks like Diane Ravitch and David Berliner and others saying this is, and I’m quoting, a “manufactured crisis.” And they point to the fact that we have had for many years the world’s most productive economy. And I want to square this once and for all in front of at least this audience…. There is this claim that somehow we’ve got a disastrous education system, when in fact we have this massively productive economy so there’s a disconnect.

[00:23:51.08] Joel Klein: So great you asked this because I actually was on a show today with Tom Friedman who said, “I don’t worry about America, I worry about Americans.” And my response to Tom Friedman was, you start to worry about enough Americans, you better worry about America….

[I]t’s a profoundly important issue. America has had the strongest economy in the second half of the 20th century and even now, although not so strong…. [W]e’ve created the greatest middle class the world has ever seen. So we were not only good at baking a big pie, we were baking a pie in which people got a bigger and bigger slice, became more and more hopeful, and bought into something called the American dream. Indeed, at that point, we didn’t have this kind of 99% versus the 1%, two America’s and all this baloney. We were sort of in this together, and if you read… Larry Katz and Claudia Goldman [The Race between Education and Technology, 2008]…, from the beginning of the 20th Century to 1980, in that period of time America’s educational attainment grew at the same pace as technological advancement. From 1980 to 2010 our technological advancement has doubled our educational attainment. And what that means is the top people are doing just fine. The economy is going to be fine, [except] the people who need jobs and who need pay increases, and have skills — when I started public school in New York 60% of the American workforce were high school dropouts. Today it’s about 6% and declining.

And we all know there are lots of jobs out there that go unfilled because people don’t have the skills. So the people who say the economy will be fine… ignore the fact that our kids won’t be fine. And kids who are now in third grade New York who can’t read and are not going to get out of school prepared for our higher order complex thinking and all the other things. Those kids are going to pay a huge price. So when people say something like, well these PISA scores don’t matter because — I mean it’s embarrassing. People in Vietnam are a whole hell of a lot poorer, they spend much less money than we do, and they beat us in math by about 20 points in the PISA….


[00:28:11.26] David Steiner: So in your multiple conversations with your good friend Michael Mulgrew [president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers [UFT] union], what didn’t happen? What could have, should have, would have happened that could have helped you make an even greater difference for the non-charter schools?

[00:28:29.07] Joel Klein: Oh millions of things. I mean, we still are tethered to a fundamental trade union model. And you and I and everybody, including the people in the trade union, [know that] until we professionalize teaching, and I mean professionalize it – you can’t sit here and intelligently think that LIFO [Last In First Out] is good. That doesn’t mean that people who have more experience don’t gain from it, but these are the kinds of rules that grew up in a trade union model, an assembly line model. In a coal mine model, in a steel mill model. And we apply it to a profession. And it just does not work…..


[00:30:16.03] David Steiner: … Any effort to touch what’s called the Triborough Amendment [which regulates labor unions].

[00:30:26.12] Joel Klein: It’s not going to happen…. The thing works. What I always said is the problem with public education is not that it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work for the kids. It works precisely the way it was designed to work, and for people who wanted certain interests protected it works remarkably well….


[00:31:00.13] David Steiner: On this question of content and curriculum, as you know it’s close to my heart. One of the criticisms, not only of what happened here in New York, but one might say generally and nationally, is that schools are frightened of content. We’re in love with critical thinking about nothing in particular….

[00:31:30.04] Joel Klein: It’s fair criticism… So if we just generate self-esteem and then kids will become good performers…. [W]e will read to the kids and then they’ll go home and they will read and they will live happily ever after…. I actually reached out to Don Hirsch and said to him, You know Don, this is a deficiency and I need your help. We piloted the thing and now you look at the Common Core and the best parts are tethered to core knowledge. To see a New York Times article that discusses the resurrection of Hirsch is to me phenomenal. While I wish I got there a lot sooner, I’m sure happy I got there and I think that’s going to have national impact….

[00:33:00] David Steiner:… Is there a real risk that one more time we’re going to come up with a dumb set of tests and we’ll lose this reform?

[00:33:50] Joel Klein: Yes. It’s always a dynamic process. But if we get Common Core and if Common Core is implemented properly. It doesn’t have to be literally what Hirsch is talking about, but it’s got to be knowledge based — you know your thing before about critical thinking about absolutely nothing. I mean, they used to say to me in meetings, teach kids critical thinking. I said if you don’t teach them to read, and you don’t teach them history, and you know — most of the critical thinkers I know were pretty good at Algebra and the best of them were also ok at Calculus…. So, the answer to your question is, Yes I am concerned about that. I am always concerned about the edu-establishment and political correctness. If they did more of what Don [Hirsch] wants and tethered these tests to a knowledge based curriculum… we would be further along….


[00:35:00] David Steiner: Let’s talk about early childhood education. I’m struck by two facts. One that it has attracted a great deal of public support…. On the other hand, all the good data I’ve seen says it has been…a waste of money because the gaps reopen. Are we going after the right thing?

[00:35:50] Joel Klein: I got killed the other night at dinner when I made that point about Head Start. So, now I can say Dr. Steiner told me this. [laughter]…. First of all, it’s an easy one. Everybody says it makes sense.

David Steiner: It’s like being against apple pie.

[00:36:00] Joel Klein: Exactly. Exactly. Second of all, we have these kids for thirteen years. So, adding a 14th year, if it’s the same as the other 13 in and of itself isn’t going to do anything. The whole issue is the quality of what happens. Head Start became a jobs program and a babysitting program. And once you did that, there was nothing called learning that was going on.

[Y]ou think about the vocabulary differential. There is no reason Head Start couldn’t help those kids develop greater vocabularies during the time those kids…just like my kid developed vocabulary from her fourth to fifth year. So the answer, which is doesn’t sound like rocket science but it will get sacrificed in the politics — the answer is not to be against Pre-K, the answer is to be in favor of high-quality Pre-K.

How do we measure that? If we measure that by every community group that comes forward who knows a politician who wants to run a Pre-K program and then gets away with it and says it’s high quality because people in the neighborhood listen to a politician…. Then we’re going to blow it again. Now on the other hand if we use that time — one of the most malleable times in a kid’s brain, between two and five, if we would use that time, particularly for kids who are struggling at home — to stimulate intelligent discussion and thinking. Then I think it could be very beneficial….


[00:37:37] David Steiner: One question is to connect your current work, if I may, with your work as chancellor. How do you see that bridge help us link the work in New York City with what you’re trying to do now at Amplify.

[00:37:50.12] Joel Klein:…. A combination of two things. Everybody is so focused on evals and all these other things. Fine and dandy. We have a workforce of over 3.2 million teacher in America and that’s going to be our team in the field. And one of the things I thought was, how do we make them better at what they are doing? And quite frankly, how do we engage kids better, and what are we doing to make the job easier? So… a lot of what I’m trying to do now, whether it is working with core knowledge, whether it is developing digital curriculum, is using videos to engage kids in learning. Helping teachers think. Not every teacher is going to have to try to figure out what are the three or four really important questions about Frederick Douglas or Tom Sawyer? ….

We have a game where you have a library under siege. In order to prevail you have to do more and more reading. I’ve done enough testing with kids right now to know that this kind of thing reinforces the kind of habits [that are important to learning]. So I thought there was an opportunity here — and I hope I’m right about that….

The second thing I thought was, there is something about a world like America — I mean, all of these people will tell you… [that] Americans will be fine because we have the most innovative [economy] — you know, there are the Apples and the Amazons and the Googles and the Facebooks. All in America. But I tell you, there are no Apples, Googles, and Facebooks in K-12. I mean we’re still — you know we have a 19th Century, not even a 20th Century, classroom model. So the idea that we might try and see if innovation can — no guarantee that it will – [help kids learn]…. So that’s a combination of things that excited me. It also seemed to me a way forward. Anything we do can only be successful if teachers become proselytizers of it. For the first time instead of saying to teachers, well…you know this is really about which of you aren’t going to be here tomorrow. This is something that really may empower them and excite them.


[00:39:51] David Steiner: …. Some things you’ve said this evening speak to this. We want a professional labor force of teachers. We want teachers who can take responsibility for what’s going on in their classroom. You gave a lot of empowerment to principals. But teachers are facing this extraordinarily heavy eval system and at the same time we’re looking at Canada or Finland, or wherever…and saying here’s a model where teachers are really regarded as professionals, and are given deep learning time and can actually plan together. Finland actually got rid of its accountability system almost immediately because it was losing some of its top teachers who just wouldn’t tolerate it. Are we — for political or historical reasons — creating a train wreck here?….

[00:40:48.29] Joel Klein: I don’t know. The problem is we have a dysfunctional model and are trying to operate within it. Again, I assume people who are running charter schools do evaluations, you have to. I mean anybody who works in the real world looks at your workforce and says, you know these are people who are doing really well. These people I need to help. These people, quite frankly, aren’t going to make it. You want to be as humane as possible about that.

But once we start with a state that has… somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand teachers, you’re going to try to find one eval system? It just strikes me as trying to build on top of something that’s poorly foundationalized. If I were to tell everybody in this room to read a speech that I bet most of them haven’t read in a long time, it’s Al Shankar’s 1985 speech on the professionalization of teaching. Now, if you had really bold energetic, creative teacher leadership right now, they would do what Shanker said and precipitate a second revolution. The Ed schools would have to get behind it. It would actually be a requirement that in order to – just like in Finland and Canada — in order to get through an Ed school you really have to be somebody who… is near the top.

Rigorous demands in who we bring into the teaching profession. Professionalizing them. Not trying to micro-manage them. I mean one of the criticisms was that I thought was also fair was telling them how long a mini-lesson is. When I practiced law, if somebody told me how long a mini-lesson was, I’d shoot ’em. So…I think… the problem is we’ve got a broken model. As long as we have a trade-union, seniority lockstep — I mean every day… If I pay my Phys Ed teachers the same as I pay my Math teachers I’m not going to have the right math teachers…. The trouble is you’re building on the wrong model….

You know, the experience that they had in D.C. under the Michelle [Rhee] system, that’s been independently evaluated…it doesn’t suggest we’re losing the best. If the results they got on NAEP could be replicated elsewhere, we’d all be pretty campers right now. Twenty points in D.C. is a big damn deal.


[00:43:25.05] David Steiner: And then the last question before we take from the audience. If somebody had been able to give you a piece of advice at the beginning of your chancellorship that you wished you had heard. Which will be the position that somebody will face in the next couple of weeks in New York City. what would you have liked to have been told, or briefed on, or made to understand at the beginning?

[00:43:53.05] Joel Klein:.… [W]e’ve already discussed this, but I guess what I would’ve liked to understand is…and Saul [Stern] could have done this…Don Hirsch could have done this for me…is the curriculum thing really matters…. Tony Blair said this to Michael Barber and it strikes me as about right.The biggest criticism I would say of us… [is] we weren’t bold enough. I mean, the noise bothers me least of all. When I get up in the morning and think that there are more kids that are having better lives because we were unafraid to break china. When I think to myself, if I hadn’t opened up 180 charter schools, those 20,000 parents would not have gotten in to good schools… If I hadn’t done that…got sued by the unions and the NAACP — I’m pretty happy about that. I’ll take that trade-off every single time….


[00:46:17] David Steiner: Well let’s push it further. What is your position on eliminating the Blaine Amendment to allow real school choice options for New York families? [The Blaine Amendment refers a provision in 38 of the 50 state constitutions forbidding direct government aid to educational institutions that have religious affiliation.]

[00:46:25.16] Joel Klein: I would support real choice options. I would…. I’m a big believer that choice is something all of us want in every aspect of our lives. And when it comes to schools, it really strikes me that kids who grow up in high poverty communities are basically told one and done. Whereas none of the rest of us — when somebody says to me they send their kid to a public school called Stuyvesant, this doesn’t seem terribly heroic to me…. I used to ask this question of people all the time…. What percentage of my schools would you send your kids to? Most of them would say maybe about 5, 7, 10%. Whose kids should go to the other 90% of the schools? The answer was always OPC…other people’s children. I don’t think so.

[00:53:42.23] David Steiner: Thank you so much.

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