Joel Klein

"We have a 19th-century classroom model in the 21st century."


As chancellor of New York City's Department of Education from 2002 to 2010, Joel Klein oversaw dramatic changes to the largest school system in the country. He worked hard to increase choice and accountability by increasing the autonomy and accountability of principals and championing charter schools. He also fought, with mixed success, to make it easier to hire and fire teachers and to eliminate onerous work rules. Klein recently left public service to head News Corporation's education initiative. For a video version of the interview, go to reason.tv/video/show/joel-klein-on-education.

reason: What is at the very top of your education reform list?

Joel Klein: I think there are three big things at the top of the reform agenda. Number one, professionalized teaching. Teaching right now is basically an assembly line, right? And we have got to reward excellence, have consequences for nonperformance, but really make teachers the heroes and not lock them into an assembly-line mode.

Number two is to give all families choice. You know, middle-class families—we all want choice, but for some reason we think poor people should only have one school, the neighborhood school, and if that doesn't work, tough. So I want to open up choices: more charter schools, more public school options.

And number three, to use technology and software in a very different way to help instruct our children. We have a 19th-century classroom model in the 21st century. 

(Interview continues below video.)

reason: And your next gig is going to be pushing new methods of learning?

Klein: Exactly. Using technology, software, distance learning, platforms, individuation, so that we focus on each child, rather than think one teacher can figure out the sweet spot in a class of 26 kids.

reason: What are the big outcomes that would come from this?

Klein: I think the big outcomes are to really dramatically increase the number of people graduating from high school, ready for college. Right now, throughout the country and in New York, we have far too few kids graduating, period, and even those that are graduating are not college- or career-ready. So we've got to change that.

reason: What are the big obstacles to the types of changes that you're talking about?

Klein: Politicians, a lot of times. The bureaucrats. People who do well under the existing status quo, whether it's the unions, whether it's the politicians, whether it's the bureaucrats, vendors—those are the groups that will protect a status quo that serves their needs, even if it doesn't serve the needs of the students. The way I see this is, we have got to move to a customer-focused school system. When I say "customer," I mean our students. Right now, they're the ones who essentially are conscripted into a single school.

reason: Virtually every other aspect of American society has shifted to a customer-focused worldview. Why is it taking education so long?

Klein: Government tends to be different. But think about it: Our college system is customer-focused, and still today America's college system is respected throughout the world. Our K–12 system is not customer-focused, and as a result of that we're paying a price. The reason is because there's a political group that supports the status quo, because it works well for them.