• Home
  • High Schools
    • National Rankings
    • State Rankings
    • High School Notes Blog
    • in
  • Community Colleges
  • Colleges
  • Grad
  • Online Education
  • World Universities

A Conversation With NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein

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

+ More

So, to me, what you need in education is bold action, and school board politics are not the politics of bold action. It's too easy for interest groups, in small-bore elections, to impact outcomes. So, what [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg did, following on what a couple of other mayors did, I thought, was really significant in terms of saying the mayor's got to be responsible, and the city's got to know. I mean, no one would think of turning safety over to a board; the chief executive of the city should be responsible for safety. Well, why shouldn't he or she be responsible for education?

And its impact is enormous, because, basically, if you're going to get bold action, the person with the most political capital to spend—the person who is going to lead from the front—is more likely to do it. And if you look around the country, where have you seen some of the boldest actions? You've seen it in places like Boston, Chicago, New York, and certainly, now, in D.C. And I assure you that the kind of things that are going on in New York and D.C. wouldn't go on in a school board environment.

On the private sector's role in school reform:

It's not the amount of money, although we've been very fortunate, and in the six years that I've been doing this, we've raised $350 million. That's a lot of dollars, and from my end, from being in business, I view that as our R&D money—as our venture capital. When I wanted to start a leadership training program, I happened to take the view that the way to reform the school system is to reform the school. People don't go to a district or a region or all the other things: They send their kids to a school. So, to me, school reform is all about a system of great schools, not a great school system. In order to do that, you have to have great school leaders. The magic ingredient in the quality of a kid's education is the teacher. The magic ingredient in school reform is the quality of the school leader. If you don't have great leadership, it will not happen at the school—I don't care who runs the district and what the finances are. So, we've started a $70 million, three-year leadership academy. And I didn't want to, and I think I would have had a hard time, taking that $70 million out of my operating budget. So, I was able to go to the philanthropic and business community to raise that.

I'm a big believer in charter [schools]. When I started, we had 16. Now we have—next year, when we open school, we'll have over 100. There was a lot of pulling teeth to get that done. I'm a big believer because I believe competition works, and there's not a person in this room who hasn't had a choice in public education for their kid. I mean, you may have been happy with the school in your neighborhood, but if you weren't, you'd find a choice, and I believe kids who grow up in poverty deserve choices, too, so, we've been really big on these charters.

When I came to New York, it turned out the Gates Foundation was supporting new, small schools, and with the support of the Gates Foundation, we have developed a wholly different and entirely different approach to our high school portfolio. Basically, what we do now is highly differentiated, small schools—what we call transfer schools for kids who didn't make it at their first schools; we're working on a very sophisticated approach to career and technical; we have learning-to-work programs for kids who have dropped back or dropped out that we try to re-engage; we have young adult borough centers where kids can come in the evening to pick up credits; et cetera, et cetera. And the Gates Foundation has given us well over $100 million over the last six years to implement what I believe is the most radical high school restructuring to have taken place in this country.

On school size:

The size depends on the nature of the challenge. As I said, Stuyvesant High School, which attracts kids from all over our city, is large but has got a highly motivated and highly prepared student body. On the other hand, I've got lots of schools in the Bronx and in Brooklyn where kids were coming two, three, four years behind, and in that environment—3,000 or 4,000 kids—it won't work. We were getting 25, 30, 35 percent graduation rates. We broke those schools down—a 3,000-person school into six 500-kid schools—and we're getting entirely different results.