Exit Interview: Schools Chancellor, NYC (Ep. 16)

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Joel Klein (Dario Cantatore, Getty Images)

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?

The new episode of our Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, read the transcript, 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.)

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.


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.


"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?"

No reason, except managers who really don't know what it's like in the trenches are going to make some foolish decisions. The optimal situation is to have experience in both areas.

David Chowes, New York City

People who come from the private sector on average have a higher probability of seeing the horrible situation in the schools than those immersed on the system for years.

Add: no major (in college) in "education" -- useless. And: both Klein and Black never attended a graduate program in education -- doing that is pernicious!

What bother me is Joel Klein is taking a position in Murdoch's 'evil empire.' Sad.


In my opinion, the best person to run a school should NOT be a teacher! What is needed is someone who can come in with fresh eyes, bold ideas (that are not first eviscerated by fears of what the Teacher's Union will think), and a willingness to truly run the school based on what works and WHO works.

I know that Teacher's Unions can be--and are--important in some ways. But too often we hear the word "Teachers" and think it's all about educating our children, when these unions are really about doing what is best for the teachers...and sometimes that's not that same thing as what's best for the students.

We need people who come in from the outside, unbeholden to any special interest, dedicated to one thing: the academic success of our children. When you limit school leadership to teachers, you almost ensure that that person will be beholden to teachers, will walk timidly so as not to rock the boat, and will do only incrementally better (if at all). We need bulls in china shops, nothing less, if we are to again reclaim our status as the best in the world.


Eric M. Jones

The US ranks 28th in Math, 23rd in Reading, and 27th in Science, so how could Joel Klein (not coming from a teaching background) do any worse? We do have some great high school football and basketball teams though.

Give it up. Learn Mandarin to survive.


I believe that people who are already in the school system, or involved in it in some way or the other, do not know what is really happening. Living in the Dominican Republic, a country where a high percentage of the population receives little or no education, has clarified this in many ways. The teachers in the public system believe they are doing a great job and that the students are receiving a good education, but it is the total opposite. These teachers that work in the public system sometimes could care less about the students' education and only care whether they are getting paid enough (we have a really bad public education system) the same happens with the government since they think that they have more important things to spend their money on. In order to help this situation what my country needs is maybe people from the outside who really want to make a change and only have in mind the children's education and wants them to succeed. We need people like Joel Klein who could really make a change. All you need to be a great teacher is to love what you do and who you are helping, if you do not have this drive then your teaching experience will not be the same.


Jeff S

A Principal's main job is to improve instruction within a building. He or she is most assuredly not a Chief Executive Officer but rather the Chief Instructional Officer. He or she has to be able to fairly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a teacher, and work with that teacher to imrove instruction. Perhaps it might mean giving a demonstration lesson. The term Principal comes fgrom Principal teacher. I am sorry. If one has not had the experience in the classroom, one is not qualified to be a Principal. Period. Is a non physician qualified to lead a department in a hospital? Most assuredly not. This was one of Joel's biggest crimes against the schools and education in the city. His vision of the role and expectations of Principals was simply wrong and his use of the Leadership Academy and the fact that the vast majority of Principals who "graduated" from the Leadership Academy were incapable of properly evaluation and improving education is ample evidence of that.



"I didn't pretend to be some great expert on learning theory"
- It showed.


Leo Katz

Eight long years and no noticeable improvement. Who says a lawyer can operate a school system?


I love my dogs. I am what you would call a dog person. But this is the first time I've heard of someone making a career move so they could spend more time with their... dog. Maybe NOW I have heard it all...

fast marty

he and bloomie are big on metrics, via standardized tests that result in "teaching to tests" -- pablum. that way, they can cook the books regarding the stats, just like what's been going on in the 81st Pct and, who knows, other police commands. heckuva job, Kleiny!


"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?"

This says so much about the lack of focus on instruction within the DOE. Everything is about managing the worker bees, not improving the instruction delivered to the students. If you do not understand how students learn and have knowledge of best practices, how can you improve a school? How can you evaluate a teacher? How can you design a plan for professional development?

f tripoli

when administrators start asking teachers what they NEED to succeed, rather than telling them what they NEED TO DO to satsify the latest hysterical reaction to "the problems of education"... then we will begin to move forward, and quite rapidly...

life's lessons

The principal didn't have to have been a teacher, but it sure wouldn't hurt.

My dad built several businesses over his life time, food service, hospitality, resort and related retail mail order, and always believed that the people who would eventually be in management should at some point work the shop floor, the front gate, the cash register, the back kitchen.

Much of what's wrong with American management is that it has lost respect and appreciation for the working professionals that show up every day and get the job done.

Banking is probably the best example of this. How many CEOs that destroyed banks and the lives of their mortgage holding former homeowners, had earlier in their careers sat across a desk and worked out a mortgage for someone or, or stood at a teller window, or watched a building completed and jobs created following a successful construction loan?

Many of out management class are simply too distant from the everyday grind to perceive and respond effectively to, what are primarily management problems.

These new executives with no background in the field they are managing should take some time to understand the professionals they are directing.

Guest teach a class on Friday mornings.

Walk right in to a different class room each Friday, pick up the teachers lesson plan and present the materials.

It's not as easy as it looks.

Recognize the pre-existing discipline problems in so many classrooms that constantly hinder education.

Take note of the broken equipment, overcrowded classes.

See what your teaching staff sees everyday, so that better manage them and improve schools.



The idea that just because some teachers are too wedded to old, ineffective ideas, that means that we should definitely bring in an outsider to lead a school system is ridiculous. There are teachers with bold ideas too. And it shouldn't stretch anyone's imagination to believe that most teachers ARE in their jobs for the sake of the academic success of children.

What a teacher can bring that an outsider can't is experience in dealing with the day-to-day problems of educating and learning, which can be tremendously complex. That experience can, in the best cases, be distilled into a kind of wisdom that transcends the value of a leader who is merely a capable manager.

I think the interviews with Ms. Black on her first day reveal exactly this - while she may prove a competent manager, her insights into what it will take to improve schools sounded pretty trite.


Here's my take. Reagan was an actor, Bloomberg a businessman, and did the nation and city benefit by their background? That's debatable. The new chancellor, handpicked by the businessman can be a good pick. However, when she uttered the words that she will follow the same path as Klein, she revealed herself as a thoughtless clone, almost robotic who will follow the Gipetto like mayor. Maybe she could host a PTA party in her fabulous Park Ave apt.

Nancy S.

Comment #3 is very wrong. You can no more manage a school without having strong classroom experience than you can run any business without knowledge and firsthand experience in that area. It is a foolish assumption to think that you can give direction when you don't know what you're talking about. My advice is to spend several weeks in a classroom and discover it's a lot different from the common perceptions.

R. Schauer

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.


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.


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,..


Joe Melton

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.