Retiring NYC Schools Chief Reflects On His Tenure

NPR's Melissa Block talks to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who announced this week that he will be stepping down from his post. During his tenure, Klein took on teachers' unions over seniority, tenure and performance pay — and he drew much criticism in the process.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Now a conversation with the man who has run the country's largest school district for the past eight years.

Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City schools, has become a national emblem of school reform. And yesterday, he announced that he is stepping down from his post.

During his time as chancellor, Klein closed nearly 100 low-performing schools. He took on teachers' unions over seniority, tenure and performance pay. And he drew much criticism in the process.

Joel Klein joins us from the New York City Department of Education. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOEL KLEIN (Chancellor, New York City Department of Education): Great to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And Chancellor Klein, you have made performance assessment and ranking of teachers one of the hallmarks of your time as chancellor. I want you to give us your own self-assessment or report card. What grade would you give yourself in your time as chancellor?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, one of the local newspapers gave me an A grade today.

BLOCK: You'll take that?

Mr. KLEIN: I'll live with it. We've made real progress in the city. Probably the most telling statistic is that in the last eight years, graduation rates have gone up consistently, and I think that reflective of a system that's doing a much better job right now.

BLOCK: Let's talk about another telling statistic and one that's run into some trouble. You have been placing a lot of emphasis on test scores to measure progress, and things were looking really good for a while. The test scores soared. The achievement gap between white students and minority students shrank.

And then came this summer, and New York state said those scores had been wrongly inflated, the exams were too easy. And when they recalibrated things, lo and behold, those passing rates plunged back about 25 percent, back to about where they were when you came in, and the racial achievement gap was as wide as ever. So what does that say to you? What happened there?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I was one of the people who said that the tests should be made more demanding and supported increasing the number of questions you get right to pass the test.

But let's be clear about something, that this has been studied and analyzed by lots of people. And it was clear that we made real progress and indeed closed the achievement gap. But if takes 40 questions to pass the test instead of 30, obviously fewer people are going to get a failing grade. But if a lot more people get 36 or 38 questions right, that's a whole lot better than getting 25 questions right, and that's what happened.

In addition, on the national tests - and nobody thinks they're inflated, they're called the gold standard - in the national tests, there are four of them, fourth and eighth grade, and we, all in, made 29 points' worth of progress. Twenty-nine points is about three years' worth of learning.

BLOCK: But Chancellor Klein, if you look at that, that racial achievement gap being about 30 points different between white and minority kids. Doesn't that say to you something's not working here, hasn't been working - didn't work before and is still not working now?

Mr. KLEIN: What it says is there are 30 points difference on test passage. On the other hand, in terms of the overall scores, we've closed the gap by -meaning not just whether you pass or not but this is a scale of one to four, and in that process, we've closed the gap by about a third for our minority students.

What I mean by that is when you want to break these things down, you really want to look with a sort of much finer tool than simply say, well, you either pass or didn't pass. If the average score for white students is 3.2, and the average score for African-Americans is 2.2, that means that the number of whites passing will be much greater. But if the average score goes up to 2.6, that doesn't mean there's going to be a lot more African-Americans passing, but they'll be a lot closer to passage, and that was demonstrated here.

Second of all, on the graduation rates, our graduation rates for African-Americans and Latinos closed the gap - again, not remotely all the way - but closed the gap with our white and Asian students, and the number of African-Americans and Latinos going to the City University went up substantially.

BLOCK: Joel Klein, before you took over as New York City school chancellor, you were a publishing executive. You headed the anti-trust division at the Justice Department. Your successor in New York, Cathleen Black, is the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines. Like you, she's coming in with no experience in education. Is there a downside there, do you think?

Mr. KLEIN: I don't think so because I've got here now a deputy chancellor, there's actually several of them, who are extraordinary lifetime career educators in this system. What Cathy Black brings, which I think is critical, is the management expertise. What I think has been missing from large segments of public education is the ability to manage, to hold people accountable, to understand budgets, human resources.

We're going to be going through a lot of budget cuts. The problem with public education is it's not operated effectively. It's operated as a political organization.

The person who said it best, and it's my favorite quote in eight-plus years, was Al Shanker, who was the head of the union here in New York, the teachers' union. He said: If education is not about teachers' performance and student outcomes, then we're playing a game about power.

It's got to be about whether students and teachers and administrators are performing. That's a core principle of accountability that applies in the business community, and it applies as well in the academic communities.

BLOCK: Well, Chancellor Klein, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. KLEIN: My pleasure, thank you.

BLOCK: Joel Klein is stepping down as New York City schools chancellor. He'll be joining Rupert Murdock's News Corporation.

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