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A Conversation With NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein

Klein discussed the roles of city government and the private sector in school reform.

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"America's High Schools: What Works? What's Next?" These questions were the focus of U.S.News & World Report's first education summit held in October 2008 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. U.S. News invited Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools, to discuss these questions based on his experience with the NYC school system—a system that encompasses 1.1 million students, 83,000 teachers, and a $15 billion budget. Last year, the New York City school system was awarded the Broad Prize for Urban Education, one of the nation's most prestigious awards for improved urban school districts.

The following are excerpts from Klein's conversation with U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly.

On what works in high school reform:

The most important thing that we can do to change high school outcomes is improve the education of kids before they get to high school. People who have a high school-only strategy are going to fail. And the second most important thing is, we have got to finally crack open the nut and say, these are the standards and these are the assessments of what it means to have successfully completed high school. Anybody can get you a high school degree; all they need to do is keep lowering the standards, and more and more kids will graduate. We're fooling ourselves, and it's time to get serious about national standards and national assessments. Some of the things we did do there were very powerful, like this alternative certification, where we brought in every year 2,000 teachers from Teach for America and other programs like that. Those things have had a huge impact. But I just think that we're kidding ourselves if we don't understand the dimensions of the challenge and that it's going to take bold, controversial leadership that's willing to take risks—and when you take risks, not everything you do is going to turn out exactly how you want it. But the status quo is not working for poor kids; it's not working for a lot of kids in America.

On No Child Left Behind:

I think it's been very influential. Accountability implies there will be winners and losers, but in the absence of it, you're not going to move large systems forward, so, for that, I give NCLB good marks. I do think we could change the accountability system. I do think having 50 different states with 50 different sets of standards and 50 different assessments makes no sense. Look around, globally. The world in which Intel competes is a world in which there's going to be increasing global competition, and our competitors are demanding more and more rigor in their standards. You know, I know the old song that we'll never have national standards; you know, the Republicans don't do national, and the Democrats don't do standards. But this is a time of change in our nation. And we've got to get serious about this, and I really think there is an opportunity here. One way to ensure national assessments is to do it at a national level and to bring people together and to make the kind of investments, and one way to ensure the best standards is to really benchmark our standards against global standards.

NCLB does focus on testing, and while I think these tests need to be improved, I will tell you the amazing thing in our city is, if I show you eighth-grade test scores, I can predict, almost to a percentage point, what the likelihood-of-graduation rate will be. So, people want to debunk testing a lot, and I'll be the first to tell you that tests need to be improved—that's why I want national assessments—on the other hand, we're kidding ourselves if we don't think these tests are giving us a reasonably accurate prediction of whether we're getting our kids ready for—at least in New York City—ready for graduation with a regent's diploma, which is a meaningful standard.

On the role of city government in school reform:

We know for a fact that large, urban cities are not working, and they're particularly not working for kids that grew up in poverty, kids of color, recent immigrants. And those kids, no matter what you look at—you look at the NAEP scores over the last 25 years, since "A Nation at Risk"—basically, that gap has not moved. And it's being intensified by a global achievement gap as well.