The Third Toughest Job In America

Joel Klein thumb

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 7:02 PM EDT

Joel Klein
If Joel Klein's boss—the mayor of New York—has what has famously been called the second toughest job in America, Klein surely must have the third toughest. Klein is Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, where he's responsible for 135,000 employees, 1.1 million students and a budget of more than $20 billion. To put the management challenge in perspective, the number of people on his payroll is half as large as that of Microsoft's—a company he knows well, having led Uncle Sam's anti-trust lawsuit against it a dozen years ago, as an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice.  

<br></br>Unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Klein manages a force made up largely of rock-ribbed union members with every incentive to oppose the boss's efforts.  Moreover, Klein's work takes place under a media microscope, with every move subject to public criticism. BNET editor-in-chief Eric Schurenberg met Klein at his New York City offices in late summer, a few days after Klein had to suspend an education policy panel meeting after it was shouted down by audience members angry over tougher testing standards for students. How much do they pay this guy?*

BNET: When Mayor Bloomberg offered you the role of schools chancellor, you already had a comfortable job as CEO of Bertelsmann. Why take on this headache?

KLEIN: Two reasons.  First, if my public school teachers in Astoria [in Queens, New York] had low expectations for me, I would have ended up in a very different place. I was so inspired by my 11th-grade physics teacher that I almost became a physicist; that's an indication of the power of a teacher to change a student's life. So I have a personal sense of gratitude.

The second reason is that this seemed like really important work. A failing education system puts our competitive future as a nation at risk; it also risks turning us into a society polarized between education haves and have-nots. I figured if I can make any kind of contribution in this, it would be really fulfilling.

BNET: What surprised you when you got there?

KLEIN: I was stunned at how comfortable everyone was with the status quo. Geoff Canada [founder of the Harvard Children's Zones] says, "We all say we are getting poor results from our schools, and then we all go home at 3pm." You can't imagine that happening anywhere else. The second thing that shocked me was the number of high school students that couldn't read. We'd had these kids in the system for a decade and we couldn't teach them to read words on a page? That was jaw-dropping.

BNET: What's the toughest part of running this organization?

KLEIN: Having to redesign the plane while you're flying it. You can't shut down a school system when you want to improve things, the way you can shut down a manufacturing plant to bring in new technology.

The other tough part is driving reform down to the level of the unit that matters, the school.  Joel Klein can declare, "We've got to do things very differently," but that doesn't mean 135,000 employees will all say, "Wish I'd thought of that." I've always said from day one that the indispensable pre-requisite for a great public education is a great school leader. And a great school leader is someone you've got to find, develop, support and make sure she's aligned with where you want to go. Because if she's not, it's not going to happen at the school.

BNET: Can public schools be fixed?

KLEIN: Warren Buffett once joked to me that the way to fix public schools is to eliminate private schools. I responded that you'd have to go one step further and assign students to public schools randomly, otherwise you'd have zip-code based excellence.

Ultimately, what will make public schools better is competition. I don't believe every charter school is a great school, but no one has to attend one. For that reason, they put competitive pressure on the local schools. When schools can long longer tell the neighborhood kids they have to go there, schools will realize they have to take their game to the next level.

BNET: If you could do anything you wanted as chancellor, what would you do?

KLEIN: Well, after I stopped laughing, I'd create a system in which teachers were hired and promoted based on excellence and merit. The countries that have the most successful education systems recruit students from the top third or top 10% of college graduates. Only about 14% of our teachers come from the top third of college grads.

Also, that new workforce needs new technology. It's a joke, but it happens not to be funny: In any industry besides education, if you fell asleep 50 years ago and woke up today, you'd have no idea what was going on.  In education, you could pick up right in the middle of the same conversation.  The words innovation and education are almost never used in the same sentence, and that has to change. In New York, we're experimenting with technology that allows us to focus on each kid and instruct her as an individual rather than as an anonymous member of a classroom of 30. Our preliminary results are very robust and exciting. They'd surprise you.

BNET: So what's stopping you?

KLEIN: The status quo has tremendous defenders, and they're not irrational. The system, being a monopoly provider, runs for the benefit of the providers—the adults—not the children. If you're a teacher with 20 years of seniority, why would you want merit pay? You might not prevail in such a system, whereas in the lockstep status quo you know you'll come out ahead.

The single best counterargument I've heard to this was from a 1993 speech on education standards by the great political leader, Albert Shanker [president of the American Federation of Teachers for 22 years]. He said, "If there's no accountability for student education outcomes, then we're simply playing a game."

BNET: The teachers unions must love it when you quote Shanker back to them.

KLEIN: It's a great speech.


*Joel Klein's annual salary: $250,000

For more on this topic, read this piece Schurenberg wrote for TheFiscalTimes.