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Joel Klein

Joel I. Klein became New York City schools chancellor in July 2002 after serving in the highest levels of government and business. As Chancellor, he oversees more than 1,500 schools[…]

There is a need for educators at all levels of the system.

Question: Is there a role for educators in running school systems?

Joel Klein: I think the answer is there is a need for educators at both levels.

At the highest level, you need somebody who understands academic standards, who makes sure that they’re rigorous, somebody who understands pedagogy, and how it’s done.

But you also need managers. And if you try to do this either/or, you’re gonna get it wrong.

And the problem with the educational establishment is they want all people who are reading from the same hymnal.

And my view is the way you create an environment for robust and dynamic change is, you bring together people who are reading from different tracks and you integrate those efforts to make sure that you’ve got educational pedagogical expertise, but that you also have managerial expertise, that you have leadership.

Michael Barber, who did a lot of this work for Tony Blair when Blair was Prime Minister in the UK, he’s written a book recently called “Instruction to Deliver,” and he lays this out in chapter and verse. And I haven’t read anything that better addresses the set of issues that you’re talking about which is fundamentally it’s not an either/or equation. And we’ve got to stop presenting it that way.

By the same token, there’s real resistance in the educational establishment to bringing in people who have the managerial and leadership and other qualities that are going to be necessary to do the transformative work.

If you thought the status quo was okay, you wouldn’t worry about it. But I submit to you, anybody who looks at the numbers, looks at our racial and ethnic achievement gap, looks at the growing achievement gap between America and our global competitors. If you look at all of those things, the recent tests that came out, America versus the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries where we did not perform well. If you look at college graduates, if you look at engineers, if you look at mathematics, in India and China, if you look at all of those metrics, you cannot remotely think the status quo is where we need to be in K-12 education. And if you get purveyors or worshippers as the status quo, or small bore incremental change, you’ll get the status quo or small bore incremental change.

It takes a visionary like Michael Bloomberg who’s really willing to do transformative leadership with all the noise and all the heat that attends that, in order to really change a system that has fundamentally been stultified, non innovative, non aligned in terms of the traditional meritocracy and incentives that effective organizations always have.

Question: What role will the teachers' unions play in reform?

Joel Klein: I think the union has a somewhat different job, and you have to create an environment in which you can work productively. But the union's job is to protect its workers and the school system's job is to maximize the outcomes for our students; number of kids graduating, kids performing at grade, so on and so forth.

And what Al Shanker saw and wrote about, who was probably the most prominent teacher labor leader ever in America. He started the United Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers and he understood that you would have to move from a trade union model to a professional model. And that's happening here in New York, it's happening in other cities. Is it happening as fast as I'd like? No. But it's certainly happening.

And over time, what I think you need to do is to convince teachers of several things that they will find increasingly congenial. One being part of a successful enterprise. There's an enormous amount of reward too, that some of my schools today, particularly schools in high needs neighborhoods, that are doing some incredible work.

The teachers who are part of that feel the psychic benefits and rewards of succeeding with populations that a lot of people say you can't succeed with.

Second thing you need to do is create rational economic incentives. Those teachers take on the tougher jobs, they have to be rewarded. Those teachers who really have the expertise in science and math, which is so valuable to our country, in which there are always shortages in the school system, they have to be rewarded differently.

And I think over time we need to create an alternative pay structure in which we front load, so the young talented people who may not stay 25 years, but they may stay 5 or 10 or 15 years in the system, and they get rewarded in the earlier years.

So I think you need a whole series of rational human resource policies that will support people and over time they will move.

As I said, I would always like to see it happen more quickly, but you have an established work force, grown up under certain rules, and the union, its job is to protect that workforce.

My job is to create opportunities so that the union and its workforce sees that there could be a better, brighter, more exciting future. And that's a kind of almost Galion dialectic, right. I mean if you think about it, you got a thesis/antithesis and then you try to find a synthesis that moves you forward.

But what will it take? It will require bold thinking and strong union leadership. So recently we put together a school-based pay-for-performance program here in New York that we're now implementing in 200 of our highest need schools. When I started five and a half years ago, that would have been impossible. Now it's possible and I believe in five years from now, much bolder, much more innovative structures will come into play.

Just recently in "The New York Times," we're opening a charter in this city and the starting salary for teachers is gonna be $125,000. That's like radical, that's entirely different. Will it work? We don't know. Should it be tried?  And maybe you attract a different breed of cat with different set of incentives who's willing to tackle this in a different way, and maybe the results that come out of that is that you have somewhat fewer teachers, but that you have teachers who view their job differently and whose commitment and whose talents are different. And that's the kind of thing you wouldn't have seen when I started this job six years ago. Just that kind of innovation wasn't part of the equation, now it's happening in a variety of ways throughout the nation. 

Recorded on: March 30, 2008



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