Joel Klein on His Record as Schools Chancellor, Rupert Murdoch, and Cathleen Black

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Joel Klein.
Joel Klein. Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images

Yesterday's announcement that schools chancellor Joel Klein was resigning, to be replaced by Cathleen Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, shocked the city. This morning John Heilemann caught up with Klein by phone and asked him about his decision to step down, his controversial tenure, and what he'll be doing in his new post as lieutenant for Rupert Murdoch.

Given that you've always said that being chancellor was the best job you ever had, a lot of people thought you'd stay through the end of the mayor's third term. Why leave now?
I had decided when I signed up for this thing that I would do it for two terms. At the end of those terms, I'd be in my mid-60s and would want another challenge. The opportunity that News Corp. has offered me is one that's going to be very different three years from now. I think what you're going to see in educational software and new solutions and online learning is going to be game-changing. I now have a chance to do this with one of America's leading corporations, which has the depth and resources to make it real.

Was this totally your decision or was there any push to get you out?
Totally my decision. I talked to the mayor about it before the reelection. I went to him about three or four months ago and said I thought we were ready. Sharon [Greenberger, who was appointed in April as the DOE's chief operating officer] was in place and doing great work. She's a terrific chief operating officer and I thought this was the perfect time for the transition.

The Times this morning had a blind quote saying Sharon was "imposed over Joel's objection." Is that not true?
That’s absolutely preposterous. Part of my thinking, in terms of both the issues I was facing and long-term for the department, was that I needed to bring in a great long-term operating officer. I took the mayor to lunch at Nam, in Tribeca, and I said to him that I thought Sharon, who I had worked closely with at the school construction authority, was the right person. He agreed and thinks she's terrific. Both of us went ahead and recruited her aggressively. Anybody who says she was imposed on me is simply fabricating.

Clearly there's still a lot left to do in terms of fixing, improving, and transforming the school system. What's the biggest thing, in your view?
The first thing is professionalizing teaching. I've long said that the whole teacher model is built on three trade-union concepts: seniority, lockstep pay, life tenure. I think all of that undermines what you want, which is a professional workforce rewarded for excellence, not seniority, accountable for student performance. If you had that, it would transform the teaching profession and I think that’s the most critical thing.

The second one is something I'm going to be working on. We've got to move away from this sort of twentieth-century model of one teacher trying to master all the content and information and deliver it to 25 children, who are performing at different levels. The ability of technology to both improve the instruction and the quality of it through new learning platforms, and differentiate among students, those things are going to be truly revolutionary in public education.

You placed a lot of emphasis on standardized testing and test scores, but your critics claim that the gains you touted evaporated when the tests were toughened up and scores regressed this year.
When people say that the test scores changed, what happened was that what was necessary to get a passing grade was very different. Whereas it used to be if you got 30 questions right you'd get a passing grade, now it's 40 questions right. That obviously meant fewer kids were going to get a passing grade, but in fact many more kids were getting both 30 and 40 questions right this year than when I started. Second of all, if you look at the federal test scores, the national test scores, in the fourth grade we went up eleven points in both math and English. That’s over a year's worth of learning — those are huge gains. Also seven points in eighth-grade math. The only place we didn’t make significant gains were in eighth-grade English, but this past year we picked up three points and I think that’s a harbinger of things to come. Finally, there's been approximately twenty points gained over the last eight years in graduation rates, and that’s unprecedented. In the decade before we got here it was entirely flat. We now know that something like 60 percent more people are going to city universities than when we started in 2002. It's fair to say we're nowhere near where we need to be. But the idea that there hasn’t been progress on numerous fronts, I just think is inaccurate.

Did you have any role in picking Cathie Black as your replacement?
I never go into details on things like this, but I met with Cathie, I met with the mayor, I gave them my views, and I'm pleased with her appointment.

You had no education background when you became chancellor. Neither does she. Why wasn't this the time to appoint someone with a more traditional education background?
First of all, unlike when I started, we now have a team here of deputy chancellors, several of whom have extensive experience. These are veteran educators in the system who will be able to not only support but improve the educational and instructional mission. Cathie will inherit those people. Second, the issues that will face her — issues with the budget, teacher evaluation, dealing with how you move those agendas at the same time as dealing with budget cuts from the city and federal government — I think she has the skills to deal with. Those skills are not uniquely found in an education system. Indeed, those are exactly the skills I found missing when I got here.

How did your new job with Murdoch come about?
Just to put it into context, I knew him before I took this job. He's been a strong supporter of what we're doing and he's been very generous in his philanthropy; he made a huge contribution to the Leadership Academy. In the last several months, as I started to think about things I want to do and knew that the time was right for me to move on, he's been looking at issues involving education, new technologies, new delivery systems, and so forth, and we had a few discussions about that. When I knew the mayor was focused on a particular individual, those discussions continued ... [and] this past Sunday we kind of sat down and said this is something no longer casual but real.

What kind of ambitions does Murdoch have in education?
I think what he's come to is the view that we're going to see a huge transformation in the field of education and it's going to be driven in terms of innovative solutions by private markets. I think he wants to position News Corp. to be a part of that and it's something I'm eager to do.

So he's thinking about starting to acquire properties, or make investments in the field, or what? Have you gotten that far in thinking about how you want to go about this?
No, and that's something we'll address once I get there.

Last question: It seems to me one of your greatest strengths as chancellor was your willingness to be disliked. I can't help but wonder whether you're looking forward to a job where you're going to go to work everyday and not have a bunch of people calling you a jerk.
I won't miss being called a jerk, that's for sure. I will miss, and I plan to stay involved in other ways, some of the fights on behalf of kids.

I think there's actually a masochistic part of you that's gonna miss the abuse — you might not be able to resist getting back in the ring again.
Well, if you need to editorialize, you should feel free to do so.