Klein, like many “leaders” in education, thinks democracy is over-rated. He knows better than parents what is good for their kids. He now works for Rupert Murdock.
Departing Schools Chief: ‘We Weren’t Bold Enough’
By JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ Published: December 24, 2010
JOEL I. KLEIN invited me to breakfast last year at an Upper East Side haunt, one of those places where a bowl of yogurt goes for $23 and waiters circle the room sweeping up crumbs like pigeons at a feast.
was covering the New York City school system at the time and thought maybe Mr. Klein, the chancellor since 2002, planned to resign and was giving a little notice. We had come to know each other via e-mail, bantering about the news media’s coverage of education, his refusal to join Twitter (“I truly do have a day job,” he said) and which A-through-F grade he would give the latest production of “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera.
But when I asked Mr. Klein about his future on that summer morning, he said he was enjoying the job too much to leave. Instead, he wanted to talk about the city’s rising test scores, about his belief that reporters had not done enough to highlight the success of charter schools and about another favorite topic: love.
“I couldn’t survive if I didn’t have someone to go home to when I got beat up,” he said.
Last month, Mr. Klein, 64, did announce his resignation. After more than eight years in the job, he is one of the city’s longest-serving chancellors; his last day is Friday. Mr. Klein is joining Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation as an executive vice president in charge of educational ventures.
Before leaving, Mr. Klein sat for an exit interview of sorts, after a visit to the Urban AssemblySchool for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx.
Some parents and teachers have derided Mr. Klein as a tyrant, a political opportunist and a tone-deaf bureaucrat. When I asked if he had neglected them, he seemed insulted. He pulled a stack of greeting cards from his briefcase: “Thank you for being my advocate,” wrote a third grader at a charter school in Harlem.
“I don’t think this is about charm school or diplomacy,” Mr. Klein said. “I think it’s about the tough work of changing the system that serves the needs of adults and doesn’t effectively serve the needs of kids.”
He acknowledged some regrets, but mostly in the way a nervous job applicant might say his biggest weakness is that he works too hard. “We weren’t bold enough,” Mr. Klein said, adding he “should have spent more time really engaging people so they really understand the things that drive me.”
Over all, he said, he was proud of his legacy as a disruptive force.
“People say it was noisy,” Mr. Klein said. “If it’s not noisy, it means you’re not doing anything.”
Below are excerpts from the interview; audio clips are at nytimes.com/nyregion.
What has been the hardest part of your job?
There was really a deep belief that there’s only so much you can do, particularly for high-poverty kids. That poverty is, if not destiny, a significant hindrance to effective education. And changing ideas, changing hearts, changing minds — those things are difficult. And not surprisingly, people are going to push back. It’s a lot easier for the school system to say we graduated 45 percent of our kids because our kids had lots of problems and there’s only so much education you can do. It’s a lot harder to say we graduated 45 percent of our kids because we blew it; we didn’t do the job that we needed to do. That kind of ownership is a major kind of transformation.
Are you bothered by the fact that after eight years, there are still schools in the city that are failing huge numbers of children?
I’m always haunted by schools that I think are getting poor results. The question is really the capacity of the system. I mean, we’ve closed almost 100 schools; that’s, like, unprecedented. So even though there are more that I wish we had been able to restructure and phase down, we’ve created probably 450, 480 schools under my watch.
What regrets do you have as you prepare to step down?
There were things that I wish we had pushed harder on and faster on. Everybody always said I was impatient. I guess I would say I wasn’t impatient enough.
What should you have accomplished specifically that you did not?
It bothers me a lot to leave a system that spends over $100 million on A.T.R.’s [absent teacher reserves], people who don’t have a job teaching in the system, and basically we’re paying them when we could spend that $100 million, if we had to have layoffs, to hire people systemwide. Teaching is built on, basically, I think things like seniority, life tenure, lockstep pay, lifetime pensions that really undermine a culture of professionalism. I think teachers would feel really respected if we created the kind of profession where teachers were the American heroes, where excellence was truly rewarded.
What was your greatest success?
Empowering poor people with choice has been a powerful stimulus to reform in this city, and no place more so than in Harlem, quite frankly, where 40 percent of our students now start school in a charter school. And that’s as robust a competitive environment as you’ll see in public education.
Your daughter, now grown, attended private schools. Would you send your children to public schools today?
There are schools in this city that I would send my children to without a moment’s hesitation, and others that I wouldn’t. Schools have to turn around from within. There’s not somebody at a central office who waves a wand on this stuff. That’s why I want to give people choices.
Do you think Cathleen P. Black, your successor, is ready for the job?
When I met her at Hearst, I said, “If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to sit in a church basement and be yelled at by people, this is probably not the ideal job for you.” My impressions of her are, one, she’s a quick study, and two, she’s very tough.
What is your sense of her leadership style?
We had a cabinet meeting the other day. She was asking good, tough questions. She asked each person to go around and say what are the couple of things that they’re dealing with that have the most potential to raise concerns, that could be noisy. Things like tenure, the phase-out issues, threats of litigation. She’s kind of asking, “Well, what are we doing? Why is this a vulnerability? How do we make sure that we’ve got it covered? Is there something we need to do? Do we need to get City Hall involved in this? Should I be talking to someone about that?”
You two have been in constant touch during the transition. What have you learned from her?
I don’t usually do a meeting where I say, “Tell me the two things that are on your mind right now, the two things that are keeping you up.” I thought that was a very effective way for her to cut to the chase and get on the table, right away, the big issues. I tend to set an agenda and sort of have people focus on those issues.
Your style has been criticized as brash and insensitive. Do you think you adequately listened to outside voices?
I probably could have spent more time, or should have spent more time really engaging people so they really understand the things that drive me. The number of people who have said to me, “Now I understand that; I didn’t understand that,” when I’ve had the time to talk it through with them has made an impression on me.
How do you respond to reports that some people in City Hall came to see you as a political liability?
These are nameless, faceless, in my view, gutless people. I don’t view my job as a political job. My job was to change the school system. I think we did that. I think we did that at an unprecedented level in the country. Thankfully, the mayor never saw me as a political liability, or at least certainly never expressed that to me.
You’re famous for your knowledge of the best pizza places in the city. Which are your favorites?
You’re always going to hurt people saying this. Probably for me my favorite pizza places are Lucali in Carroll Gardens, where I spend a lot of time, and Luzzo.
You and your wife, Nicole K. Seligman, general counsel for Sony, have very busy careers. How have you made your marriage work?
My first and best adviser is Nicole. We spend a lot of time together, the weekends in particular. We think nothing of going to one of these great pizza places and sitting there for two, three hours and talk about anything under the sun. I consider myself as blessed and fortunate as anyone to have her. In the toughest times — in a job like this there are tough times, and there are times when it gets very ugly — I just can go home and know that my world will be fine because of Nicole Seligman.
How do you think a young Joel Klein would fare in today’s school system?
I’m a big believer that the education system’s got to meet a kid at least half way. And in some of the schools, I think I would have fared very, very well. In other schools, and I worry about this — I was talking to somebody about it who wrote me last night about one of the schools on our closing list, and he was very emotional. Basically, he said, “I went to that school. You should try to fix it.” It’s been there for a decade with 40 percent graduation rates, and that includes local diplomas. It’s quite clear that the school isn’t going to work. It’s noble to say keep it going, but if you get captured in a school like that, I think the outcomes are very different.
What was your experience attending Queens public schools as a child?
I had grown up in public housing in a family in which people told me to pay attention in school. But it was not a family that was a learned family; it was not a family that went to museums; it was not a family that read. My father never read a book in his entire life. Teachers really helped me see a world that I didn’t see. I just find it amazing at the deepest human levels that a kid like me could come back and be a chancellor of a school system that he grew up in and that changed his life.