Joel Klein Discusses Testing Issues, Parental Involvement in City’s Schools

Innovation and meaningful change were among the topics of discussion for New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, the special guest of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein on a recent broadcast of CUNY TV’s “CUNY Honors,” excerpted here.

  Picure of Chancellor Joel Klein
Chancellor Joel Klein

Chancellor Goldstein: I am struck by your focus on leadership because I so much agree with you. You show me a great school and I am going to show you an inspired leader.

Chancellor Klein: Well, I do agree with your premise. I think the leadership is all the difference in the world. The principal has to be the instructional leader in the building.

If you are there doing something else, it is not going to send the right message. Second, you’ve got to be a situational manager. What we are doing is teaching people a combination of instructional and business skills in a way that, for example, will help them understand that the most important asset any leader has is time. If you dissipate it, you won’t effect change in a system. The third thing we are doing is having a very problem-solving curriculum. We are not big on traditional didactic classroom teaching as a way to really get to students.

Q: I am particularly impressed with the notion of a common curriculum, which is so fundamental in mathematics and in English. This is revolutionary in this city and quite exciting.

A: We had forty, fifty math curricular and thirty-five different literacy programs. We have—especially in our poverty areas—enormous mobility inside the city. So you may have a young teacher move from school to school two or three times and face a new curriculum each time. So why not try to make it easy? If we were getting good results from all these curriculums, I’d say “let a thousand flowers bloom,” and we’d have a beautiful garden. But instead we have been getting very different outcomes.

Q: With the changes, profound changes, organizational management changes and really deep educational changes, how are you going to know two years from now, three years from now, that these alterations are having the effect that you want?

A: Standardized test scores. I don't want to exaggerate their significance, but they are a reasonable measure in terms of whether we are raising performance. We have the data and indeed the federal and state governments are going to use these tests to define our future. We will also look at our graduation rates, the rates of students passing the Regents exam, our attendance rates. We will be very transparent about it. My view is that you put this data out there. You don't try to spin it.

Q: There is another ingredient here, and that is the role of getting parents very much involved in the learning process and in the life and vitality of the schools. What are you going to be doing that is different from what others have attempted, and how is that going to be conceptualized and organized?

A: You are absolutely right about this-and this comes from my own experience in life. This is the way parents, my parents saw the role of public education in my own life. People used to say, well, your parents read to you at home, but my parents didn't read to me at home. But they conveyed to me that, frankly, if I wanted to live a different life, an economically more secure life than they had lived, then education was the medium to do so. They conveyed that I would be unfortunate if I didn't seize it. Even though I was a young kid, I had to understand that. So a core thing we are doing is putting a parent coordinator in each school. This is a new position, and this is going to be somebody whose full-time job it is, and we are going to have a training program for them as well. The parent coordinator will relate to the parents in the building.

Q: What are some of the things that get you upset, surprise you, make you just want to bang some heads together?

A: The fundamental problem is that too often in the system the interests of others take precedence over kids. Let's face it, whether it’s vendors or whether it’s interest groups, whether it is a particular constituency, or how we hire–all those kinds of issues come up in the system and overwhelm the children, who, after all, are not an organized constituency. And I think that has been at times dismaying, frustrating. But keeping the focus on the needs of kids is critical. The second thing that surprised me, I think in a very positive way, is how many times, despite common wisdom, you will find in very tough neighborhoods high-functioning schools, where you will have a principal who has created a learning environment that is exciting, that works for the teachers. There is an alignment, not a we/they confrontation, that works. You can tell walking into a building, you can tell whether the principal knows the kids in the building.

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