Official Transcript: New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein - Keynote
National Charter Schools Conference: Leading Change in Public Education
June 23, 2009
Thank you James, and thank you for the incredible work you and your colleagues are doing in the Maya Angelou here in the District. I want to thank all of you for being here today. I am a proud member of the board of the Alliance. I want to thank Nelson for his leadership and for the opportunity to say a few words to you today. You have a lot of work ahead of you, so let me try to keep you on schedule.
You know when I think about school reform, for some reason I’m always reminded of those old light bulb jokes. Some of you may remember them, you know: “How many of these people does it take to change a light bulb? Five, one to hold the bulb and four to spin the ceiling.”
For me, the light bulb joke I love the most is of is: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is, only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change. And if you understand that, you understand everything you need to know about school reform.
You see folks, when it comes to school reform, the light bulb doesn’t want to change. She likes it the way it is. And that, to me, is why there is so much wisdom in Duke Professor Charles Payne’s title which is Education: So Much Reform, So Little Change. And if you look at the past certainly 50 years and the 25 plus years since A Nation at Risk, that is what the theme has been. But it is not by happenstance.
The system has, as Nelson said, enormous defenders. Indeed in many ways the system works well for the adults. It works well for the politicians, for the trade associations and groups. But it doesn’t work well for our children, particularly our neediest children. And for me, I just want to focus the discussion with two core concepts today.
The first and most important thing about the work we do in New York: it is not about a great schools system; it is about a system of great schools. You see schools are the place where kids go to get an education. Systems, districts, all these other things – they’re political entities. They are for big-ball players who want to exercise real power and authority. But for a child, and for that child’s parents, it is the school that matters. And they don’t care whether the label on it is a traditional PS or a charter. What they want to know is: is it a great school or isn’t it a very good school? And those are the questions that should drive the discussion.
And second, despite what people tell you, we know how to measure it- what a really good school is. It’s all about student progress. Too often in America we talk about great schools based on the selective criteria of the admissions and the fact that they attract high-performing students.
In New York City, we view schools based on the progress they make, and we cluster schools with similarly situated kids. So if you have the highest needs kids, and you are making progress, you get every bit as much recognition as a school that has traditionally high-performing kids, but they too have to make progress.
I’d like to frame this discussion off of three core points because if you get these, I think you understand not just where the charter system fits in but what we really need to do to transform public education.
First point: we have a crisis in public education and I don’t use that word loosely. Today in America, fifty-five years after Brown vs. Board, your skin color, your family’s income, your zip code too often determine your quality of an education. And as a result, we have gaping, gaping racial and ethnic achievement gaps. You can argue whether it is three and a half or four years in the tenth grade, but these achievement gaps now, twenty-five, after A Nation at Risk, have barely moved and that is wrong. We promised in Brown every child would get an equal educational opportunity and that doesn’t happen in America. Indeed when it comes to the most important resource in a child’s education, the effectiveness of that child’s teachers, we know there are massive inequities in the system.
Second, that current ethnic and racial achievement gap is gonna be exacerbated by what is happening globally. So while we still have domestic gaps, we’re also experiencing global gaps. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at 2 Million Minutes comparing high-school education in the U.S., India, and China. Look at the PISA results and see where America performs. Look at where our highest performing students are. This to me is a crisis: our competitiveness, our democracy and our economy depends upon and effective education.
Next - and the most important thing I hope I can convince you of today -it doesn’t have to be this way. We, for too long, have made excuses about why children in high-poverty neighborhoods and high-needs communities are not performing well. It is time to put an end to those excuses and to start focusing on performance and achievement in public education.
Let me give you a couple of examples. In New York City and D.C., I looked at low-income African American students in the fourth grade on national tests. In New York City low-income African American students in the fourth grade are two years ahead of low-income African American students in D.C. That is not about the family. That is not about poverty. That is the difference that education can make.
Now, low-income students in New York City have a long way to go. But the fact that in the fourth grade they are that far ahead of their counterparts in D.C. tells you a lot. And you can look again at various schools with the same kids. I told you in New York we look at that all the time. The exact same school, the exact same kids in two different schools getting entirely different results.
From the day I took this job, people said to me, “Chancellor, you’ll never fix education in America until you fix poverty in America.” And now, seven years later, I’m here to tell you they’ve got it exactly backwards, folks. We will never fix poverty in America until we fix education in America. [Applause]
And we should stop the excuses and get on to the business of fixing it. But that takes me to the third framing point today. And that is that if we keep doing the same-old, same-old and expect different outcomes, it is not going to happen. And as much as resources matter, if they are poorly spent, as too often they have been in public education, we will not get different results.
And we need -Yes, feel free, at anytime to interrupt with applause, at any point. I mean if it takes away time from my speech, that’s ok. -
In all seriousness, what we need is bold, transformative leadership that understands that we won’t succeed until we put the needs of our children first. I always say to people, “It’s easy. If I gave you five kids from my city who are in the lowest performing schools right now, and told you to find a solution, you’d figure it out. The question is: When can we take that to scale?”
And so, to me, what is striking is the debate at least since A Nation at Risk has the been the same, arid, programmatic debate and a lack of willingness to look at bold and new and different ways to deliver this educational service- particularly in the high-needs communities where we have the greatest failures, but really across the entire system.
And let me just highlight that and talk about how charters came into that discussion in New York. Fundamentally there were four core concepts that Mayor Bloomberg used to build the children first reforms. And remember it was all about a system comprised of great schools. And those concepts were: Leadership, Empowerment, Accountability, and Choice or Competition. Right, those four core concepts. Now three of those concepts are the backbone of the charter movement: Leadership, Empowerment and Accountability – which is very different from what most public schools experience.
There is a big belief in public education that that factory model will work. That somehow we’ll figure out from central the precise right mix of this or that, or we will be able to tell you the exact right class size or how many assistant principals for how many students. And that model has dominated. And we’ve talked about important things like class size and important things like curriculum and like programmatic changes in afterschool and preschool, but all of that discussion has not led remotely to the kind of change we need.
And so in New York we chartered a very different, and indeed a very empowering model. We build it on the backbone of accountability, and if you don’t, you will fail. In New York City, as I said, we look at student progress year to year. We compare apples to apples. If you are working in a high-needs community with a lot of English Language Learners and special education kids, we compare you to schools that have the exact same cohort. And we see what they did in moving those kids from third grade to fourth grade to fifth grade and so on. And we look at like schools, and you know what you find? Some schools make a lot of progress, some schools make some progress, and some schools move their kids in the opposite direction. That is not about the kids –that is about the school.
We put a letter grade A-F to make sure parents understand precisely what is going on. And there are consequences. I know the Secretary was here yesterday talking about closing schools. We have been closing schools over the last six years in New York City – something close to 100 different schools. And let me tell you that is not easy work. But it is necessary work. And we have replaced those schools with a variety public and public charter schools in their stead.
We say to our principals, yes there are consequences for non-performance. Consequences in terms of your job – both rewards you can get up to an additional $50,000 in pay – but also consequences in terms of termination or school closure. We sign an agreement with all our principals. And in return for that bargain, we empower our principals so that they can try different things at the school. How do we know what the right mix of A, B, C, and D is? Every one of our schools has needs and needs to budget intelligently and we need to learn from differential approaches.
We put an extraordinary focus on leadership because leaders attract talent and leaders support talent. Leaders develop talent and create a culture in which high expectations are not just talked about but are bred into the DNA of the organization. So in many ways we have borrowed from the wisdom of the charter movement to import management strategies that we think will work. And I think we are getting the results.
But a core part of that strategy from day one, and very few superintendants in America today would say that they do this, a core part was to attract charters- high-performing demonstrated excellence - to our city. Indeed, early on we announced that we wanted New York City to become the Silicon Valley of the charter movement.
And why did we do that? People always say, “Well you run the public schools, Chancellor. Why you trying to attract the charter schools?” Well let me let you in on a secret, folks. See, I went to public schools in New York, in a very, very working class community. I lived in public housing. And I got a terrific education because of teachers in Queens. I like to say, my teachers in Astoria let me stand on their shoulders to see a world I couldn’t see from the first floor of the Woodside Houses. It’s not about me. It is about my kids. And most kids and families want choice and want excellence. And if you bring it, those families will react.
And so what has happened? When we started there were 17 charters. Next year when we open schools in New York City, there will be 100 charter schools. And that is even though we had to fight against a cap. [Applause] One year we were stymied and now we are regularly opening twenty-plus charter schools. Over 30,000 children now in our charter schools and another 30,000 on the wait list. Trust me our parents, get it.
What we did to make that happen was that we went out and affirmatively recruited people. We brought in some of the best EMOs and CMOs. We now have 11 EMOs and CMOs and I’m particularly proud, for example, that we went and recruited people like Achievement First and Uncommon Schools. [Applause] How you doing guys? No, no, but these guys had no schools in New York. Now in 2009-2010 Achievement First will have 9 schools, Uncommon will have 10, KIPP went from 1 to 6. We’ve developed internal CMOs. Today in Harlem, in a single community, we have close to 25 charter schools and literally, at every lottery, thousands and thousands and thousands of people lined up around the block to apply.
And we now have, and what do we do? We not just supported them, and welcomed them and made them a part of the system, but we gave them space. I don’t understand. Public school space is to serve my kids. Not to serve anybody else. [Applause] So, when we open next year some three quarters of our charter schools, of our 100 schools, will be in public school space. And again, I don’t have a horse in the race. I’m in it for great schools for my kids and the label on the door doesn’t matter. And if you are doing great work, then we will make space for you.
We have supported charters politically, and we did a smart thing, to make sure there was no bureaucratic capture, we created an independent organization, the Center for Charter School Excellence you know James Merriman who runs that - doing a terrific job. But they have become the voice and they push back against us and we went out and raised 40 plus million dollars to support their efforts because we thought it was important to preserve their independence and their ability to push back against a large, complex system.
Now, I don’t want to go into lengthy details about the results, but we now have very powerful data. And I just want to give you the New York City example because I know there are a lot of numbers out there people are always looking to discredit good work. Good work sets the challenge for all of us. When you see kids reaching goals, closing achievement gaps that they didn’t in the past, it leads to one question and one question only: why isn’t it happening for all children?
So, let me give you a couple of core numbers. Our charter schools in New York City are currently about 95% African American and Latino and currently a little over 70% free and reduced price lunch – high-needs population. Our city schools are about 70% African American / Latino, 70% high-poverty and our state school, including the city, are about 30% African American / Latino and about 45% high-poverty. So what you see in those demographics is that the hardest challenges are in our charter schools. And yet, when you look at the numbers grades 3-8 all in, what do you see? Our charter schools significantly out-performing our city schools and out charter schools even out-performing our state schools. [Applause]
So, I want you to get your head around that, right? My charter schools are 95% African American and Latino, 70% free and reduced price lunch. The state of New York is 30% African American and Latino and 45% free and reduced price lunch. You are talking something like two to three times returns of poverty challenge that our charters are doing. And our charter schools have the same three-day score in English Language Arts as the state and are out-performing the state by a considerable amount in Math. Don’t tell me we can’t close these achievement gaps, folks. We ARE closing these achievement gaps. [Applause]
Now, as important as that is, some of our charters are really trail blazers. And this to me is really critical because I want to show people charter schools that are truly performing at the very top. So, I look each year at all the numbers. And if you look at those charters and those public schools that are 100% proficient and above, you’d expect about 6% of my schools that have grades 3-8 would be charter schools that were 100% proficient or above- in fact it is closer to 40% of those that are 100% proficient or above are charter schools. Again, showing that at the top of the heap, our charter schools are also performing with our very best schools.
We in fact have three schools- two in the elementary level, Harlem Success and the new Icon charter in the Bronx, and one middle school – Williamsburg Prep. Those three schools would be ranked in the top 5, 6, 7 schools in the entire city in terms of their most recent performance. Let me just give you, and this is the high note before I draw to a close, let me just single out Williamsburg Prep this year. Williamsburg Prep fundamentally 100% African American and Latino- it is an Uncommon School, and trust me it’s an uncommon school, 82% of the kids in that school are free and reduced lunch. This year, based on scale score, looking at all the levels, one, two, three, four, -in grades 6, 7, and 8, Williamsburg Prep is performing at the level of some our most, most high-performing schools in the city. These schools that will have 10, 11, 12% free and reduced lunch. So, Williamsburg Prep, if you were to say what are the top 10 middle schools, Williamsburg Prep fundamentally 100% minority school, 82% free and reduced lunch would be in the top 5,6,7 schools in New York City based on grades 6-8 math and ELA scores. Again, don’t tell me that we can’t close these gaps in America. The question is: do we have the will?
And that is where I’d like to leave you today. As important as this meeting is, and as critically important as your work is – we in this movement are not going to prevail unless we organize the people we serve. This has got to be a consumer driven movement. And so today I charge each of you not just to lobby, to do the political work, but to do the organizational work. Our parents, our communities, they have got to get behind the work we are doing.
There will come a time in America where every kid in every zip code will get an equal educational opportunity, but that time will not come until we develop the political will, and yes the political power to change this discussion. It has changed a lot in the last decade, but the road ahead for our kids is a lot longer than the road we have already traversed and unless each of you double down on your commitment to do the hard work of organizing the political forces necessary to transform the discussion.
I find it hard that time and again people want to talk to me about whether a new school is a public school – and I’ve opened up 400 or so public schools – or a public charter school. People seem to think that label is somehow critical to the discussion. The discussion we need in America is whether that school is a great school or something less. And if it is anything less, how do we get it there?
We have got to do the hard work of transforming that discussion by organizing our communities and our constituents. Thank you for the work you do for the children of America.