Interview With New York Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein on School System Reform

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

Before D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took over the city's public schools two years ago, he paid a visit here to learn about a school system at the center of urban education reform.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) had taken charge of the 1.1 million-student system in 2002, naming a litigator with little professional education experience to turn it around.

In seven years as schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein has emphasized accountability and school choice. He has granted principals more autonomy and money in exchange for results, piloted a performance-based teacher compensation plan and raised millions of dollars in private funds to support his initiatives, including $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create smaller, more personalized high schools.

His stubborn, top-down style has earned him friends and foes alike, as has his willingness to challenge the unions and popular thinking about public schooling.

When Fenty asked who could lead a similarly ambitious turnaround in the District, Klein suggested Michelle A. Rhee, who had helped recruit thousands of high-profile teachers to New York and improve the school system's hiring practices. Fenty named her schools chancellor in June 2007.

Klein remains a supporter and confidant as Rhee negotiates with the teachers union and puts her stamp on D.C. schools.

Below are excerpts from an interview this month with Klein.

Why do you think Michelle Rhee was the right person to turn around D.C. schools?

The teaching corps matters. Michelle understands that. Most of what happens in education is throwing in more resources and lots of professional development, but the kind of significant restructuring that needs to take place is not going to happen unless we reconceptualize the whole profession of teaching.

I'm a big believer in what Michelle is trying to accomplish. She has enormous nonprofit support. I think she has the analytic and the managerial and leadership skills -- all three packaged -- to pull it off. D.C. is in such poor shape. It's very hard to argue against not doing things very differently.

There are major [achievement] differences between high-poverty African Americans in New York City and high-poverty African Americans in D.C. In the fourth grade in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our African Americans, the most high-poverty kids, are two grades ahead of D.C. And it's not like our kids are where they need to be. So it's a big issue. It's going to take big thinking and big, bold proposals to change it. Small changes aren't going to do it.

How do you think teaching should be reformed?

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