Joel Klein: Give Black a Chance

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Joel Klein, New York City's outgoing schools chancellor, reflected on the accomplishments and challenges of his eight and a half years in office and talked about the possibility of a Cathie Black-led Department of Education.

As outgoing New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein prepares to hit the dusty trail toward News Corp, he's quick to defend his replacement Cathie Black from what he says is premature criticism.

Many New Yorkers, and the majority of an advisory council, are not happy with Mayor Bloomberg's choice of Black for this post, citing her lack of experience in K-12 education. However, Klein said that's not really an issue: he came from a similar non-education background, but he was successful because he relied on a strong team of hand-picked advisors with a wide range of expertise while in office. It's what any effective chancellor should do, he said.

I had support and I think that's important, having the people around you who can provide the knowledge and expertise. Right from the beginning, I wanted strong people in technology because so much needed to be done in that area. Strong people in finance, strong people in pedagogy. People build a team, and the good news right now is that the team we have in the department is extraordinary and I think will provide the support that Cathie Black needs.

Cathie Black asked for "patience" from New Yorkers as she becomes familiar with the issues facing K-12 education in the city. That particular comment, and her particular choice of words, has been a sticking point for her critics. According to Joel Klein, though, there's no way an incoming chancellor wouldn't need lots of time to get up to speed.

It's a process in which you grow more expert every day. I've been doing this for eight and a half years and I still have things I want to learn. The first reading program I adopted didn't work. Paradoxically, that was precisely the program recommended by the so-called educational expert. When people are steeped in an organization, sometimes they really get internally focused. I was an outcome, results-driven guy from day one. We've had some disputes about how you measure that exactly, but we've moved this organization to a results-driven organization, and that’s a big cultural change. I don't think people who grow up in an organization are likely to be able to affect that cultural change...No human being has all the skills. But if you don’t understand the comprehensive challenges and you focus only on the pedagogical issues, then I think you’re really gonna miss the forest for the trees.

And it's a big, scary forest. Klein said he was most proud of the 20 percent jump in high school graduation rates during his tenure, but there's still a long, long way to go in making sure that all of New York City's children are prepared for higher education.

I don't think people understand the challenges our children will face in the 21st century, the skills that will be demanded of them. If you don't make it through higher education these days or at least definitely have the job skills the markets are demanding, you're not going to be able to succeed. Too often the disruptive noise of changing status quos gets in the way. In terms of things I wish I'd done differently, I wish we'd pushed it harder, pushed it more aggressively, and that Id spent time developing more of the political support.

Also on Cathie Black's too-long to-do list may be the unhappy task of dealing with teacher layoffs. Should that come to pass, Klein said he hopes that the Department of Education will reform the process. The current state law governing teacher layoffs targets those to be fired based on seniority, or lack thereof. Klein says that's a mistake.

I think you can devise a fair system. But to simply say the last person we hired is the first to go makes no sense. No other industry would do that, and I think it's not appropriate for public school teachers. We really ought to think about how we professionalize teaching and focus on excellence. I think teaching, if you focus on excellence, will increasingly become seen as a profession, as a highly desired profession. 

Can a schools chancellor who's never worked in a school affect that sort of systemic change? Joel Klein thinks so, and not just because that was his background. He brought up examples of other chancellors and superintendents like Arne Duncan from Chicago, or Michael Bennet from Denver—people with management background and little education experience, but who were still considered successes in office.

These people, every single one of them, would not have been qualified for the credentials that are required. I think people are looking at the wrong issue in this. Right now in this department I've got six deputy chancellors who among them have close to 200 years of experience, and it seems to me [Cathie Black] will have all the support she needs at every level, indeed deeper levels of expertise because of the way we have structured it.

At one point the conversation turned toward rumors that Klein really left office because he had lost the confidence of Mayor Bloomberg, that perhaps their relationship had soured and Bloomberg no longer wanted him. Klein was adamant to the contrary. He said that Bloomberg wanted him to stay, even asked him to do so, but that he respectfully declined to pursue other opportunities. Any controversy, he said, is manufactured.

In all those discussions there's no question what the mayor's preference was. Now were there people at city hall who groused? The nameless, gutless, faceless people who do this kind of thing in the newspaper, who don't have the courage to stand up? I'm sure there are. I worked in the White House for President Clinton and I saw this happen all the time. But in terms of the mayor and myself, our relationship was solid, it remains solid, and I meant it sincerely when I said that this was the best job anyone's ever given me, and for that I am deep in his debt.

Listen to the entire conversation on The Brian Lehrer Show.