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MAY 2005

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein Delivers Rudin Lecture at CCNY
By Liza Young

Amidst the magnificent wood panels and murals at CCNY’s Shepherd Hall, President Gregory Williams introduced the Rudin Lecture Series as a forum to discuss the big ideas and major issues that we face, not only as an academic community, but as a civil society. Delivered by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the lecture addressed one of the most critical issues of the day, the reform of the New York City public schools.

Dean Alfred Posamentier of CCNY introduced Chancellor Klein indicating that he is a product of the NYC schools in Queens as well as Columbia University and Harvard Law School, both magna cum laude. Klein has had an outstanding career in the field of law. In 1969, he took a break from his law studies to qualify as a math teacher. He then served briefly as a sixth grade math teacher. According to Posamentier, Klein is innovating today like few of his predecessors have. “He’s introduced a new small schools system throughout the city. He’s introduced a citywide standard curriculum in math and literacy. And perhaps most important, he has focused in a major way on parental involvement, which I believe is one of the most critical factors in a child’s development. What does he have to show for this? Well the percent of schools on the State’s watch list dropped from 55 percent to 24 percent during his tenure. There’s also been a significant rise in the percent of high school students graduating. We at City College are partnering with the Department of Education in a number of ways. The most significant of course are the high schools that are on our campus: the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College.”

As Klein took the podium, he underscored education as the single greatest challenge facing our nation today.

He quoted Bill Gates: only one third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship. Only two thirds, most of them low income and minority students, are trapped into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family, wage, or job.”

The following is excerpted from the Chancellor’s remarks: “As far back as anyone in this room can remember, the graduation rate in our city has been about 50 percent, frequently a drop below it, never above it. And more importantly, the rate of students getting regents diploma has been fewer than one in five for as far back as people can remember. The number of African American and Latino students who get a regents diploma in our city is fewer than one in ten.That gives you some dimension of the crisis. We stand here today just over 50 years since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education. In that case the court put an end to the really despicable practice of racial apartheid in our schools, that separate was no longer equal education. But that was only the beginning. The more important part of Brown was that it promised every kid in America an equal educational opportunity and here we are today fifty years later and we haven’t remotely begun to meet that standard.

If we continue to have a system which confines them to failure, particularly kids who are from poor neighborhoods, particularly kids who are in families of immigrants, particularly kids who are African American, if that continues, the challenge for our nation will be so daunting that we will not be able to fully comprehend it.

To me, when you think about school reform, you have to think about the end state you would like to see. The one thing that I’m convinced about is that there are no short-term solutions. The vision I have is that every one of my schools has to be a school that everyone of you will be proud to send your children to. It’s a simple vision, and I want you to think how many of them today are schools you could send your children to. We are not remotely close to that vision. I believe deeply, that what’s happening in New York is the most important thing happening in school reform in the US. Now if you look at what Michael Bloomberg did, you can see what the core elements are in this transformation and I’m going to package them under five labels that I think are absolutely critical.

The first is leadership; second is accountability; third are standards; fourth is equity, which includes merit based decision making; and the fifth is innovation.Those are, in my view, the transformational levers for real school reform. Leadership has to take place at the school. A necessary, if not a sufficient condition of a great school is a great school leader. We have undervalued school leadership in America, in our city, for as far back as anyone can remember. But I can show you the same school with two different principals and they are two different schools. One of the key innovations that we did was to develop a leadership training program that was dissimilar to anything the system had seen and it became critical because we need to get great leadership, particularly in our low performing, challenging schools.

The second thing is the whole issue of accountability, which if you come from outside the school system, leaves you aghast; there’s zero accountability in the system. Whether the system does well, or doesn’t do well, whether individuals perform well, or don’t, they are treated all the same; the system that does not reward excellence, is unlikely to inspire. The third transformative thing, and one my friend Merryl Tisch has worked very hard on, with real vision and leadership, is standards. The cheapest game in America today is, “Let’s lower the standards and increase the graduation rate.” A global economy is going to increase the demands on our kids. So it may not be popular in some corners, but the mayor was absolutely right to put an end to this insidious practice of social promotion. And so by saying to the system, it’s not about holding back, that’s not what’s going to get children to succeed, by saying to the system, we have standards and we are going to look at you in terms of the standards by which your students perform, you interlock accountability and standards.

The fourth issue and the one which I’m enormously proud that is happening in our school system is a focus on equity. For too long I’ve heard about what we need to do in the poor communities and cities. If you look across the series of our initiatives, you will see a focus on equity and on merit based decision making. One of the ways to see this was to change our high schools admission policy. We had two kinds of high schools, a high school for those kids on their way to success and for the large majority of kids in high schools we dump them into a school in which graduation rates and regents rates were just abysmal, and we left them there, three, four, five thousand kids, with low expectations and low success rates. So we undertook to break up these schools into small rigorous academic learning communities where kids would be known. That isn’t easy work, but in those high schools where we’ve invested our money and a lot of Bill Gates’ money, we have 92 percent African American and Latino kids, attendance rates are about eight percent higher than high schools overall and our promotion rates are significantly higher than high schools overall. People trained at the leadership academy I mentioned will be moved to our hard-to-serve schools.

Finally—and if you don’t have this with all the rest, you won’t get there—you need innovation. The system resists innovation; it likes a cookie-cutter type approach. We have brought in several critical innovations. We have raised over 200 million dollars to support the innovations.

Our innovations include small schools and leadership training, particularly leadership in struggling schools. A third innovation has been charters, a classic example of the dysfunctionality of public education. We have supported charters, and I have pledged to make NYC the most charter friendly school place; a charter school is just like a public school in that it serves our kids at no cost. A charter school, however, has a different bargain; it has no guaranteed lifetime, which brings us back to the issue of accountability and standards. Charters have real performance standards to meet and concomitantly, a fair amount of freedom to experiment in meeting those. In lots of school systems, people say “charters are not us.” But we must not use this “we/they” language. Our job is to educate 1.1 million children. The risk of failure of some of these charters is an important part of their potential for success. We have now brought in over the last two years, 25 new charters, many of them in Harlem, the South Bronx, in central Brooklyn. People who are outside of New York are coming—it’s almost like watching Silicone Valley develop as we are going to become the innovation capital when it comes to education.

One other key innovation is that we put a para-coordinator in each and every school, a 50 million dollar investment, but we need to re-engage parents, particularly parents who feel the school system has not worked for their children, and we need those parents to start convincing their kids what my father and Jack Rudin’s father and so many others convinced their kids, which is that public education is your ticket out to live a different life than the life your parents may have lived. We need to re-engage our families and make sure that they believe something that my father, who dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, believed, which was that the key to a different life is public education.

We’ve got some good results to report: our graduation rate has increased in the last two years, from 54 to 56 percent; our Black and Latino rate has gone up as well although it’s still low; number of schools that met federal targets went up 20 percent over the prior year; and the number of schools on the State’s watch list is the lowest it’s ever been since that list was started in 1989. Those are the beginnings of a very long path, and those numbers won’t consistently day in and day out drive in the same direction. The question is whether we as a city have the conviction, the fortitude and the willingness to fight to implant a vision which we all know is morally imperative; that every single school in our city is a school that every person in this room will be happy to send their children to. If we don’t do that, we are not only morally at fault, but we will imperil this nation which we love so much.#



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