University News

NYC education chancellor: U.S. schools ‘in crisis’

Contributing Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010

Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, is not quite sure how he got his job, or how he has kept it for eight years. The nontraditional education reformer spoke Thursday about the problems in the American education system, and the difficult, but necessary, task of improvement.

Klein’s speech, delivered to a crowded Salomon 101, was the latest installment of the Noah Krieger ’93 Lecture Series. Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, introduced Klein as the guy who has the “tough job” of overseeing 1.1 million students, 136,000 employees and a $21 billion budget.

Klein opened his speech by telling the audience he would speak “candidly and controversially.”  

“When I stop doing controversial things, you ought to get yourself a new chancellor,” Klein said he once told Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City.

According to Klein, the “America we are” needs controversial action, and Klein said he is not a “Chicken Little kind of guy” in this respect.

He cited America’s 70 percent high school graduation rate and low standing in international tests as evidence that “we are in crisis,” especially compared to the rest of the world. “The rest of the world is not going to wait for us to catch up” if we continue to undereducate, Klein said.

Despite increases in the education budget, the system has not improved, Klein said, due to its stagnancy. He argued that radical changes need to be made, and this will be controversial and difficult.

Klein outlined his vision for improvement in “three big ideas.”

His first idea was to make teaching “the most valued and exciting profession.” He said this will not happen by maintaining tenure, lockstep pay — a provision in teacher union contracts mandating teachers receive the same compensation across subjects — and seniority. According to Klein, the teachers in the world’s best educated countries come from the top 30 or even 10 percent of their college classes, while in the United States, teachers generally come from the bottom third of their classes.

Not everyone that wants to teach will be good at it, Klein said. The effectiveness of a teacher is the most important feature of the education system, and programs like Teach for America are working to answer this problem.

The second idea Klein raised was to create more choices in the educational system — “we need schools to compete for their students.” Competition can drive the system forward, and Klein said he wants schools always to have to improve.

Klein’s third idea is to bring new technology into schools. Klein said that schools have been ignoring the technical revolution, and thereby denying themselves of new resources that will enhance teaching.

Klein argued that individualized education, something that technology can help to provide, would greatly improve the school system. With this goal in mind, Klein has broken up several large high schools in New York City into smaller schools, so that students cannot be anonymous.

Demographics, Klein said, have been believed to be a major factor in education. Klein, on the other hand, argued that they are not. He said students at public school in Harlem are performing as well as students in gifted and talented programs in the rest of New York. While some argue that education cannot be fixed until poverty is repaired, Klein believes the reverse — that good schools can solve poverty.

“Demographics are not important. It is about education,” Klein said.

Audience members at the event ranged from Brown students attending for a class requirement to octogenarian education activists. Klein engaged with the audience and took questions at the end of his speech. He answered queries about some of the more controversial actions he has taken, like breaking up large schools and the competition he advocated among teachers.

Klein said he placed such importance on the value of education because of its economic and social benefits. “If it weren’t for the American dream, I wouldn’t be here today.” But he said it has been said that the American dream may be becoming the American memory.

“The answer to that,” Klein concluded, “depends on whether or not we can transform K-12 education.”

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