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New York City
November 2002

We Welcome Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to Education Update
By Joel Klein

Every individual I meet on the street says, “I wish you good luck.” When they have had a drink or so they say, “Do you realize what you have gotten yourself into?” The answer is, yes, I realize it. This is not a job for someone who wants to make marginal or incremental changes. By the same token, significant change in a massive complex organization is very hard to achieve.

Organizations evolve in the way that they do because there are all sorts of gravitational pulls just like the earth has mountains and oceans created over years and years of gravitational and environmental pulls. Archimedes said, “If I had a lever I could move the world.” I wish I had a lever that I could move this world with because, when you’re dealing with certain problems, it is harder to figure out how to do some things than it is to figure out what to do. I am not about to figure out how to do a couple of small incremental changes. Systemic change is going to take longer than six months or even a year.

The education system has been polarized and undermined by political controversies. It is enormously significant that the mayor was able to bridge those controversies and effect the change in governance. Our most unpolitical mayor has said that he wants responsibility for the education of our children and has been given the authority to act.

People know that that is a politically risky thing for a mayor to do. The mayor has communicated to the city that he is putting the city ahead of politics. I think that augurs well for what we are doing.

No matter who you are or what your leadership qualities are, you are not going to penetrate an organization like this unless you bring in people who have no stake in the existing system and who have the kind of leadership skills to effectuate the sort of reform that we’re talking about. Essentially I hired five people as my core team and added a sixth later. I hired them because I had in mind a vision of the mission or indeed the crusade that we are about to go on. First of all, you need an ace instructional person, who has gotten results in literacy and in math, who has raised school district scores and who has broken a little china in the process. If you are not prepared to break a little china — or a lot of china — in this business, it is very hard to be effective.

This is not a place for people who are trying to win a popularity contest. I did a national search and came up with Diana Lam. She is an ace when it comes to teaching and learning. The work she did in San Antonio is in many respects a national model. And it says a lot about her that she was willing to give up a career of number one jobs to become a deputy chancellor. We also needed a systems person, and I hired Michele Cahill from Carnegie. She has spent her whole life working to creating opportunities for the less fortunate. And it seemed critical to get somebody who could align resources with the mission. After all, you may have some elaborate design but if you don’t get the bucks behind it, you are going to be spinning your wheels. I found Kathleen Grimm who used to do budgeting in this city and understood budgeting in this state.

I brought in — and I guess this was my trick appointment – Marcelite Harris as chief of staff. She was an African American two-star general. This says a lot about her. The Air Force has not been historically congenial to women, much less to African American women. I brought her in partly because she is a unique national treasure, but more importantly because she has a quality that a lot of educational operations lack: she understands what it is to accomplish a mission.

In education, there are lots of wonderful ideas. Educators have seminars and they have retreats, they have meetings, and then they have more retreats and more meetings, and really wonderful things emerge. But then the question is how does that idea get down to the place where the teacher and the student meet. What I want to do is figure out how we drive change through the system In finding Marcy Harris, I have found the kind of leader who can take the good ideas and drive them through this enormously large, complex, labyrinthine system we call the New York City Department of Education.

The fifth person I hired was Tony Shorris. He is a superb manager and the person I needed for continuity. I did not want to put in a management team in which I did not have somebody who knew the system, was able to advise me on where he thought the problems were, somebody who has a tough mind.

The sixth member, who I appointed later, is Caroline Kennedy. She represents a few things. First, we have got to get the entire city and its resources behind this enterprise. There are key people in America today who would like to see the not-for-profit, philanthropic business community abandon the public school system. My job is to insure that doesn’t happen.

During the 1990s, most people in the business community had the view that the school system was broken and all the infighting and politics made it unlikely that they could prudently invest in the system. The signal they are sending me now is that we are with you on this. We need all that energy flowing into the system if we are going to succeed. But we need it to flow in a way that is constructive and effective. We cannot simply have 1,000 points of light, we need to have a laser beam that both makes use of the resources and focuses them in a way that maximizes their effect.Who can better accomplish this than Caroline Kennedy by her willingness to say, “Yes I am behind this effort, I believe we can get an education for every child in New York, not just for some children?”

I am enormously proud of the team. And bringing it together took a non-trivial amount of my time. I believed then, I believe now and will always believe that if I did not get that piece right it was going to be impossible to accomplish the rest.

Some of the initial things that I did I wanted to do quickly because we were beginning the school year. I extended the school year by a couple of days. With the mayor’s strong support, we immediately put in place an office of school safety and planning. The other thing I did, which was a little more controversial, was to provide bonus incentives for district superintendents, based largely on test scores.

Tests are not the be all and the end all. On the other hand, for better or for worse, there is no other metric by which we can measure fundamental performance. And it is very hard to say that we are doing a great job of educating kids, but most of them fail math and reading tests. Furthermore, given the current structure of federal and state laws, these tests guide our system whether you like it or not. That is a reality of current American education.

If so many of our kids are reading below grade level on tests we need to systemically address that. One of the important signals with the incentive plan was I want people to be focused on this. No education is complete just if you pass your tests. On the other hand you must empower these kids and teach them to succeed. Schools used to try to figure out who the smart kids and the not-smart kids were and then just educate the smart ones. We have got to change that or we are really going to be stuck with two Americas. And it is not going to be a pretty picture.

I also wanted my superintendents to know that if they put in the extra effort, if they accomplish what I think they can accomplish, they will all be rewarded. We will also create rewards for the school districts and so forth. This is the first step in a multi-part effort.

Then, I decided to put together a comprehensive plan. Anybody who has been in business as I have realizes how resistant to change a large bureaucratic very, very costly structure like ours is. They also know that, without coherent meaningful planning, you will not get the job done. If I announce tomorrow that we are going to downsize this by 80 percent, move all this money and so forth, there would be a wonderful headline. But in three days, the plan would be dead.

I do not know enough, and indeed no one knows enough, to understand how money in the system is spent, where we are getting bang for the buck and what restructuring we need. So we are conducting a four-quadrant analysis, looking forward to a comprehensive plan designed, not for marginal but for systemic reform. The four parts are instruction in the classic sense, finance, organization and community involvement.

I want to hear from the affected groups, advocacy groups, parents groups in particular, and community groups, business groups. I want them to weigh in for two reasons. First of all, it is very important to hear what they have to say. A lot of knowledge out there is not at the Tweed Courthouse.

The second reason, and this is probably the most important, is that when we develop this plan we need the city behind us. We need the communities, the parents, the people in the city to say, “The time is now. This has to happen; the traditional constituencies that have made the system work for people other than children are going to have to take second seat.” If we do not get that kind of support, change is not going to happen. I am a guy who is about good news and bad news. The good news is I will empower you. The bad news is, if you then screw up, I will fire you. That is the way I think about this job: empowerment, accountability.

The core unit in the educational system is the school. Parents do not send their children to school systems. They don’t send their children to districts, they don’t even send them to a teacher. They send them to a school and they want their children to be in good schools.

The paradox of New York is that, although people frequently say we do not have a good school system, we have many, many good schools, some of them in neighborhoods where people say it is hard to or impossible to educate people. So this is about reversing expectations and creating a culture in which we believe, because we know it to be true, that all children can learn, that the school is not some kind of baby sitting operation. We need to focus the entire system on taking us from 300, 350, 400, good schools to 1,200 good schools.#

Joel Klein is New York City Schools Chancellor.

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