"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.
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.
The other thing that I find worked for kids who come from challenging environments is high expectations. Believe me when I tell you that the schools are filled with people who set low expectations, and the kids live up to it. And how you create an environment of high expectations. And then, as we move forward, what I would like to see is much, much more connection to the use of technology, so that you can individualize what's going on for the kid and move away from a kind of standardized, one-teacher-and-26-kids-in-a-classroom approach.
The current economy's impact on schools:
Look, nobody likes these cuts, obviously, and we've—as you say—over the last six years, we've invested heavily in increasing teacher salaries and creating new schools. We'll have to be smarter. I think there will be some difficult times ahead for us. People who, you know, will have to, in certain instances, give up programs that they want. But basically, what we've tried to do is streamline the bureaucracy—we've already cut about $350 million, and by the time this next round is over, it will probably be another significant chunk—and then let schools decide. We've gone to student-based budgeting. So, I don't budget schools; I budget students. And then, if you've got a lot of special-ed students, more for that; if you've got a lot of English-language learners, more for that; if you've got level 1 students, more for that. And so, the kid carries the dollars through the system.
And then I say to our principals, you figure out how to budget this thing. So, if you want additional teachers and lowering class size, that's a strategy. If you want extended day, if you want to bring in professional development coaches—and the same principles will apply in a budget-cutting or belt-tightening environment. But don't get me wrong, I mean—that's going to create challenges. And I don't think we are, as a people, overinvested in education. I don't think we're wisely invested in education, but I think if we invested wisely, we could continue to invest and get good returns.
More from the Education Summit: