The Joel Klein Exit Interview

Joel Klein (Dario Cantatore, Getty Images)

Freakonomics Radio

Exit Interview: Schools Chancellor, NYC: Joel I. Klein spent the past eight years running the biggest school system in the country. So what’d he learn?

Listen Now

The new episode of our Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed or listen live via the link in box at right) also introduces a new format: the exit interview. This week’s guest: outgoing New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. (If you have suggestions for future exit interview subjects, be they well-known or simply interesting, please let us know in the comments below.)

Courtesy: Joel Klein Chancellor’s best friend?

Klein?spent the past eight years running the country’s biggest school system. He came to the job as an education outsider, having spent most of his career as a Washington lawyer, including stints at the Department of Justice and in the Clinton White House. He is leaving the schools job to run a new education unit for Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp., where he will get a nice little bump in pay. Besides the salary increase, Klein acknowledged he left the schools job so he and his wife could spend more time with their beloved dog, Roger.

Klein’s tenure as schools chancellor was eventful, to say the least. He eliminated community districts; closed low-performing schools and opened up lots of new ones (including many charter schools, which he put his full weight behind); tangled repeatedly with the teachers’ union; and changed the shape of the relationship of the Department of Education with its teachers, parents and students. He was also eager to experiment, whether with pay-for-grades schemes or the School of One program we discussed in an earlier podcast.

DESCRIPTION The School of One pilot program, which creates a learning “playlist” for every student.

Klein was a pretty candid interview subject. He made it plain that for all the battles he fought, and even won, there are still a lot of obstacles to turning public education into a performance-based enterprise:

I was able to see this in a way that I think people who grew up inside the system were unlikely to see it. Before there was Freakonomics, I actually believed in incentives and thought that they affect the way organizations work. It just seemed to me that everything in K-12 education was misaligned. We incentivize all the wrong things.

Klein is being replaced by Cathleen Black – who, like Klein, comes to the job from outside the realm of education (she was chairwoman of Hearst Magazines). This has been a noisy issue but Klein says it shouldn’t be:

I used to say that the managing partner of a law firm necessarily shouldn’t be a lawyer. Lawyers are not steeped in management, in human capital and creating incentives and creating an organization that is a problem-solving organization – those are not the things that people have been trained to do. You can be a great teacher and actually a poor principal. One of the things that always struck me is we thought people had to be a teacher first before you can be a principal. Why shouldn’t there be people who can come in who have the management skills, appoint a strong deputy, put together a team and get the work done?

In the podcast, Klein also grades himself on the various aspects of his job. His worst performance? Public relations, he says.

Audio Transcript

Stephen DUBNER:  I have been told that really this whole leaving the job is just really all about spending more time with the dog.   

[Man laughing] 

[Female voice] From American Public media and WNYC, this is the Freakonomics Radio exit interview.  Have a seat.  Here’s your host Stephen Dubner.  

DUBNER:  Joel Klein spent the last 8 plus years running the New York City Public School system.  It’s the largest system in the country.  1.1 million students, 16 hundred schools, a 23 billion dollar budget.  He spent much of his career as a high voltage Washington lawyer arguing cases before the Supreme Court, fighting antitrust battles for the Department of Justice and serving as Deputy Counsel to President Bill Clinton.  He also had a brief stint in the media business heading up US operations for Burdlesman and now he’s heading back to the media business as executive Vice President in charge of educational ventures for news corp.  Klein’s tenure as school’s chancellor was very eventful.  So what did he learn?   

Chancellor Klein, welcome to our exit interview as you surely know many firms conduct an exit interview when an employee is leaving to find out their experiences so I just want to stress that you’re here of your own accord, this is not mandatory, you should feel free to be candid.  Nothing you say here will be used against you, will be forwarded to future employers unless of course they’re listening to this program so you’re okay with that, are you ready to proceed? 

Chancellor Joel KLEIN I’m ready 

DUBNER: Alright, so after 8 years as Chancellor of the New York City school system you are resigning, you’re leaving us.  Why? 

KLEINI don’t know, I think I had planned to do it for 8 years when I started, this is sort of what I talked to the Mayor about.  I faced the decision really before the Mayor’s reelection whether I wanted to stick around for the full term or not, he asked me to stay through the election and we kind of agreed on that.  I’m ready and you know, it’s hard to say exactly what that means.  I feel like I’ve done the things I should, I think the city would benefit from bringing in a new Chancellor who will have 3 years working with the Mayor on this and as far as I’m concerned I’ve always wanted to have a career after this and I found a job I’m very excited about. 

DUBNER:  Now you came to the job as Chancellor of Education New York City Schools with a great interest in education, K to 12 education with a robust set of beliefs in what was right and what was wrong but not as a veteran educator so what was that like for you coming in to take a professional job running schools, 1.1 million kids, a massive, massive job in something that you had not worked in before.  How did that experience unfurl?   

KLEINI think it had its complications as well as its benefits and I think that’s inevitable.  I was able to see this in a way that I think people who grew up inside the system were unlikely to see it.  I mean, before there was Freakonomics I actually believed in incentives and thought that they affect the way organizations work and it just seemed to me everything indicated to how education was misaligned.  We incentivized all the wrong things and so that was something I think coming from the outside you could see.  On the other hand, I didn’t pretend to be some great expert on learning theory or development of the brain or certainly what it was like day to day in the trenches.  I taught for a short period of time, I taught a lot actually law school but I had taught 6th grade math way, way back when but didn’t pretend to be a veteran teacher in any way.  It seemed to me the greatest disadvantage was it enabled critics to say he’s not an educator.  That I think is a mistake.  I think because somebody’s taught for a few years or 5 years or 10 years, I don’t think qualifies them to run a huge complex organization.  In fact, I always used to say I didn’t think that the managing partner of a law firm necessarily should be a lawyer.  Lawyers are not steeped in management, in human capital and creating incentives and creating an organization that ‘s a problem solving organization.  Those are not the things that people are trained to do.  You can be a great teach and actually a poor principal.  I mean, one of the things that always struck me is people had to be a teacher first before you become a Principal.  It seemed to me to make no sense.  Why shouldn’t there people who can come in who have the management skills appoint a strong deputy, put together a team and get the work done.   

DUBNER:  A couple people who have worked for you discussed the fact that a lot of management positions in the Department of Ed were filled by people from a corporate or consulting background as opposed to typically typical schools and typical in New York City education veterans.  Why?  Why did you do that and how did it work? 

KLEINSo I did it because I wanted to mix of skills.  I mean, I hired a lot of people from business schools.  I mean, it’s 23 billion dollar organization, why would we think that a social studies teacher would be the primary person to do budgets.  Why would we think a social studies teacher would be the primary person to do human resources.  You need human resource policies, recruitment policies so I wanted people who came from different backgrounds, second of all, I wanted people who really were part of a performance culture, who really thought that excellence and driving themselves and pushing forward and I wanted them to come from whatever background.  I’ve got more in my current cabinet now, I’ve got more senior educators than anybody else ever had.  I’ve got probably 4 people that have got maybe 150-180 years among them in the system but I’ve also got some people who come from a very different background.  That’s the way you assemble the team.  But where I could find talent, whether if ti was from the business schools or the law schools or the Kennedy school or even occasionally school of economics, I would go for these people and bring them in.   

DUBNER:  You sound as if you feel that you’ve accomplished an awful lot.  There are a lot of people who would second that, that you’ve accomplished an awful lot, tried a lot of things, failed at some but kept trying others and so on but how does your feeling now about your accomplishment compare with your expectation of that accomplishment. 

KLEINI feel good about it but you know, I think if you ask me, there are still some of these arcane rules that make no sense.  We’re looking throughout America at layoffs.  State and municipal government, they’re in trouble economically.  They looking at layoffs.  It’s hard to look you in the eye and say we’re going to do layoffs last in, firs tout.  I mean, that is by definition not going to get us the right teachers.  Nobody thinks that…and I’m not saying, we’ve got some veteran teachers who are terrific and we should keep them around.  They might be our first priority to mentor others but only group think says all veteran teachers are better than all the new teachers, the recent teachers that you’ve recruited.  So that kind of rule drives me nuts.  I spend over 100 million dollars right now as we’re talking on a group of people who can’t get hired as full time teachers in the system and they do basically substitute teaching but I don’t need substitute teachers that I pay for full time teachers so there are rules like that.  Rules in terms of some of the technology and the other things you talked about with the School of One where these arcane regulations that I wish didn’t exist and I still wish every single family in this city had at least one choice that nobody had to take whatever the school system served up.  Middle Class people, friends of yours would never agree to a school system in which they automatically went to the neighborhood school, whether it was good, bad or indifferent and yet poor people who don’t have the options can’t move, can’t afford private school, poor people we say to them just take one and you’re done whether it’s good or bad and it seems to me competition even in an incomplete fashion will help drive forward the system.  We made a lot of progress in that regard but I think there’s more we could have made.   

DUBNER:  Alright, let’s dial it back then; pretend you’re walking in, it’s 8 years ago, 8 ½ years ago and you know then what you know now and you’re driven by this desire to be bolder…tell me a couple things you’d do off the bat if you were staring over? 

KLEINWell one of the things now I would do off the bat, I would be much more heavily invested in these technology and learning platforms.  A simple little thing, I’ve now seen a whole bunch of students working with a tutor online and they’re texting away and it’s working, I mean, I talk to the kids, I see the results so that’s something we should have done more.  

DUBNER: Were you reluctant to believe in that kind of use of technology coming out the gate? 

KLEIN: I wasn’t but there were rules when you started.  Basically you had one teacher, you know, etc. etc., I mean, you could make the argument that using those tutors is violation of the contract or something like that but I would have pushed those things a lot harder.  I would have spoken out even more than I did on some of these arcane rules that make no sense.   

DUBNER:  If there’s been (9:22) in your administration, in your term probably most people would say it’s the Teacher’s Union.  There’s all kinds of competing issues.  How did you do then, in your view, with the Teacher’s Union, how did you do? 

KLEIN: I think we did okay, we got some important things done, we eliminated forced placements so that schools could hire people, we didn’t dramatically change the tenure rules which I think need dramatically being changed both in terms of who gets tenure and what tenure means in this system.  I think we’ve got to professionalize teaching and it’s still too much of a trade union assembly line Detroit model and we’ve got to move that.  And I always like to say about the Teacher’s Union and my relationship, it’s like that old song, you know, The Glory of Love, you give a little, you take a little and you let your poor heart break a little.  That’s the story of, that’s glory of love.  That’s the story of and glory of labor management relations in the public sector.   

DUBNER:  Coming up we ask the Chancellor to grade himself on how he ran New York City schools.   


[Female voice] We’re back with the Freakonomics Radio Exit Interview.  Here’s your host Stephen Dubner. 

DUBNER:  We’re talking to Joel Klein who last week ended his 8 year run as New York City School’s Chancellor.  You oversaw or undertook directly a lot of change.  There was eliminating community districts, there was putting you weight behind charter schools and all kinds of programs, pilot programs like School of One that we’ve talked to you about before, closing low performing schools, opening up a lot of new schools and especially changing really the shape of the relationship between the Department of Ed with teachers and the relationship with parents the relationship with students so I’d like you to give yourself a couple grades for me.  I’ll let you break it down how you want.  There are administrative tasks, there are public relations, there are in the classroom tasks, there are financial tasks so tell me how you think you did in the different major departments that you were responsible for? 

KLEINSo I think administratively we ran the department well, made some errors in that, some serious administrative errors but I think overall I’d give ourselves a good grade on that.   

DUBNER:  A good grade being what?  A B+? 

KLEINB+, A-.  I think on leadership which is really the overall realm, there I think we get an A.  I think it’s the most comprehensive, most integrated education reform in the country.  I don’t have any doubt about that.  You know, there were pieces throughout the country, some of them going on right now, others, but in terms of an 8 year run and restructuring the culture, restructuring the components, that’s what I thought the most important piece we did that.  In the public relations I would have to mark us down some.  It’s not about public relations, I mean, people say you don’t listen but that’s not true, I listened, I disagreed with a lot of people, I didn’t do as good enough job explaining to people why I thought for example closing the school that was persistently failing children was something we needed to do.   

DUBNER: Um, you’ve had some interesting jobs in the past.  You’ve worked in the White House, the Department of Justice, Bertelsmann; how did this compare? 

KLEINThis is the best.  You know, this was my passion, it was my thing and I wanted to do it.  I’ve had great jobs, I mean, I loved the Clinton White House, (12:50) was terrific, I practiced long before the United States Supreme Court is an appellate advocate, I tried a lot of cases in my time.  This thing was my thing and you know, I believed, I trained all my life for it and I believe it was as rewarding as anything I could have done.   

DUBNER:  Alright, and final question; I understand that you have a dog that you love very much, a Shih Tzu yes?   

KLEINYes I do.   

DUBNER:  What is this Shih Tzu’s name? 

KLEINThe Shih Tzu’s name is Roger.  

DUBNER:  Roger, it’s a male?  

KLEIN: It’s a male. 

DUBNER:  And I have been told by people with whom you work quite closely that really this whole thing, this whole leaving the job as Chancellor of New York City Public Schools is just really all about spending more time with the dog.  

KLEIN[Laughing]  Well, the truth is, it’s really about spending more time with the dogs mother, my wife who is the person that I really want to spend more time and the two of us will spend more time with Roger.  But you know, Roger is moving into his adolescence now and as you probably know, dogs in their adolescence need a lot of time so we’re going to give him the appropriate focus he needs 

DUBNER: I wish you the best of luck and thanks for stopping by. 

KLEIN: Thank you, it’s a pleasure Steve.   




Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. R. Schauer says:

    Joel Kline failed. The reason he failed is our knowledge base has moved beyond simply reading and writing and math skills…way beyond. Stidents are no where near where they should be academically. Klein fails to acknowledge that charter schools are NOT the answer. The answer lies with school boards who are able to overcome the groups attempting to control education and move us forward. Diane Ravitch’s new book on education is a great place to start. Follow that with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. We are way off course.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Erwan says:

    Worked in a Clinton administration. And now for Rupert Murdoch. I suppose you do it for the money. Ethics who cares (it’s all for show anyhow). Have a good time watching the dog wag his tail.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. steve says:

    one of the biggest problems with the school system is that the teachers are allergic to feedback. You don’t have to have a phd in management to know that if you do not look around at the impact of your decisions, you can’t adjust them to fit the environment. it is like driving a car with a black curtain over the windshield. sounds like this guy had some good ideas,..

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Joe Melton says:

    Hire consultants from Korea and Finland to come here and set up a whole new system.
    Require the wearing of school uniforms in all grades through high school.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Donna Bogner says:

    As a classroom teacher, my principal encouraged me to become an administrator, because, as he said, That’s where you can make things happen for kids.” I told him that I preferred to stay in the classroom where I could REALLY make it happen for kids, but that I appreciated his support to make the financial and administrative decisions that allowed me to make it happen.

    If you’ve never been in the classroom, you have an education in itself if you spend a day observing what goes on (and, in some cases, what doesn’t go on) there.

    If we spent half as much time and money on classroom materials and got the same kind of parental support as we do for football and basketball-and the stadiums that hold the fans-we could have a first-rate education system. So long as we pay administrators and coaches three times what we pay the average classroom teachers, you will get what you pay for.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Shane says:

    When is someone going to tell the truth about education? The parents’ attitudes are the major factor in educational outcome. It’s that simple.

    You may not have to be a teacher to be an effective Superintendent, but politicians aren’t the best choice, and may in fact be the very worst choice.

    The hard truths about education are truly politically incorrect.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Joanne says:

    Good riddance to Mr. Klein. Unfortunately, we can’t fully enjoy his exit because of his equally unqualified replacement. The bottom line is that Mr. Klein’s dog probably gets more attention at home than many NYC students. Single parent families, families with two working parents, poverty, crime- all these factors account for children’s failure in school and all the standardized tests and charter schools in the world will not change that. The countries that exceed us in education are not doing so with charter schools but by addressing poverty. Why is that little detail always ignored by the “failing schools” crowd?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Tim Niles says:

    This argument has been ongoing in the engineering area as well. Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm, early in his career was bothered by the treatment of engineers in business (this was on the East Coast) and opted to swerve into higher education. My opinion was the same, at the start of my EE career, for a lot of reasons, but the largest was due to having done something truly extraordinary – writing software to automate the testing process for printed circuit boards, on MY OWN TIME – but was deliberately stopped from implementing it by an autocratic SOB who was protecting his dog-eat-dog organization against change that would decrease the ‘competition’ among three managers (by moving the 13 test engineers to some other task.) – and decided to get an MBA.

    I did this not for money or power, I did this to try to avoid corporate bureaucrats. Every time I myself have taken a management position, the first thing I know is that on a consistent basis I must be able to look into a mirror and say to myself “Well, now I’m the bozo.”

    People who acquire positions of power without a significant foundation of either education or practice are almost always going to make grave mistakes AND use their power to serve their own purposes rather than that of the organization or those individuals who DO something.

    They almost always make the prime mistake of confusing control with accomplishment, and image with substance.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0