Current Events

NYC Chancellor Joel Klein Speaks About the Importance of a "Good" Teacher

January 27, 2004, at a breakfast sponsored by Crains NY, Chancellor Joel Klein describes his strategy for education reform, and distributes The Teaching Commission's report "Teaching At Risk: A Call To Action"

52 Chambers Street, Room 314 New York, NY 10007
212-374-5141 - Fax: 212-374-5584 - Weekend Pager: 917-925-7361 Joel I.Klein,Chancellor
Speeches & Testimonials



Thank you, Kathy. Together with your members in the Partnership for New York City, you have been instrumental in our efforts to transform our schools, particularly in the establishment of the New York City Leadership Academy, a key part of our reform agenda. Thank you for your friendship, your guidance and your support.

I also want to thank all of the many members of the New York City business community who are here this morning and have been so supportive of the changes we are making to create a system of 1,200 great schools in this city.

Finally, thank you to Crain's and the Partnership for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.
As you know, the Department of Education, with Mayor Bloomberg's leadership, is undertaking a massive effort to transform our schools and give our children the education they need for success in the 21st century.

That's because -- by any measure -- our system is woefully broken. To be sure, there are great things going on in many classrooms across the City. There are many terrific people working very, very hard. But the fact is that, overall, the system is not meeting our children's needs. Let's face it -- most of the people here in this room would not want to send their children to a large majority of the public schools in this city.

And the real crisis here -- as in other major urban school districts across the nation -- is in the failure of our schools to properly educate children who grow up in poverty, most of whom are minorities.

In New York City, almost three-quarters of our students fit that description, and in other large cities, like L.A. and Chicago, the percentages are even higher. On average, many of these minority students are performing at very low levels, many leaving school without the ability to read, write or do math well enough to function effectively in today's workforce.

Here in New York City, for example, only about 9% of the African-American and Latino students who entered high school in 1998 graduated four years later with a Regents diploma, and only about an additional 30% received a so-called local diploma, which is based on lower standards and which the State of New York is committed to eliminating. In short, at a minimum, about 6 of 10 of our African-American and Latino students are leaving school unprepared.

This is tragic. And, as I said when I spoke at the New York Urban League's 2nd Annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium, it is unjust.

It's been 50 years since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education and found that education "is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms." Yet still -- we have not fulfilled that vision in our schools.

It's not for lack of trying. As we all know, we have had decades of reform, and yet very little has changed. Far too many of our children continue to pass through our schools without getting the skills they need to succeed in higher education or in our increasingly demanding, knowledge-based economy.

Our failure to fix our schools is particularly perplexing because we know they can be fixed. Even in urban districts. Even in neighborhoods where the families are struggling economically. A study recently completed by Eric Hanushek and his colleagues found that replacing an average teacher with a very good one nearly erased the achievement gap in math that had been documented between students from low-income and high-income households. What's more, Kati Haycock and the Education Trust have highlighted examples across the nation of high poverty, high achieving schools.

And there are some of them right here in our own city. I've seen them.

So why -- in the face of countless reform efforts and evidence that it can in fact be done -- have we not succeeded in reforming our schools?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question lies largely in the social framework of our community. We tolerate a broken public school system in a way that we would not tolerate a broken police force because -- at least on the surface -- we are not all equally affected by poorly performing public schools. Many of us, for example, can afford to simply opt out of a poorly performing public school system and send our children to private or parochial school or move to another public school district.

This abdication of responsibility for our public schools says a lot about us as a society. Who are we when we fail to provide the youngest and neediest members of our community with the skills they need to forge successful and fulfilling adult lives? Are we making good on the moral vision -- and the clear social obligation -- set forth in the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education when we tolerate poorly performing public schools?

But while we reflect on those moral and social issues, we also need to face the fact that our failure to fix our public schools compromises our nation's ability to compete in the 21st century economy. To compete, we will require a highly skilled workforce, and our schools are not producing one.

In addition, our failure to provide our children with an adequate education continues the cycle of poverty -- and its corresponding problems, including health, welfare, housing and crime -- that tears at the fabric of our society.

We must make a change. A real change -- one that can and will succeed.

How do we do that?

First of all, transforming our schools requires us to examine and make changes in virtually every aspect of the system. And there can be no sacred cows.

It was important, for example, to overhaul the management structure of the system. And we did it.

It was important to introduce a new, core curriculum in reading, writing and math. And we did that too.

We created a new focus on parents, established the Leadership Academy, committed ourselves to the creation of 200 new, small and rigorous schools (many of them charter schools), and rolled out new initiatives to make our schools the safe and orderly learning environments they should be.

Of course, as many of you know, through Caroline Kennedy, who runs our Office of Strategic Partnerships, and Leslie Koch, the CEO of the Fund for Public Schools -- both of whom are here this morning -- we also worked hard to involve the business community in our efforts in an unprecedented way: with a more systematic approach to school-based partnerships, with the involvement of the City's media industry and with a reform agenda where private sector support can be the catalyst for change throughout the system. In the last year alone, companies and individuals -- many of them here in this room this morning -- have contributed more than 150 million new dollars to public education in our city. We thank you for that vote of confidence.

But to really effect a transformation in our schools, we need to do something even more dramatic than anything I just enumerated. We need to change the culture in our schools. This is as critical as it is difficult to do.

Indeed, I believe that culture far outweighs program design as a determinant of student performance. What our system respects and what our system rewards ultimately determines how well our children learn.

I suspect that many people here this morning will agree with me when I say that the organizations that succeed are those that value and support excellence.

Yet that's the tragedy of public education. It doesn't.

Just this month, a high level panel called "The Teaching Commission" released a report entitled "Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action." The Teaching Commission is chaired by Louis Gerstner, the former Chairman of IBM, and is comprised of a diverse group of education notables, including, among others, Matthew Goldstein, the Chancellor of the City University of New York, Frank Keating, the former Governor of Oklahoma, Vartan Gregorian, the President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Sandra Feldman, the President of the American Federation of Teachers.

The Teaching Commission's Report highlights what is abundantly clear from all of my school visits and even from my own experience as a student: and that is that good teachers make good schools. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of quality teaching to the educational process. Recent studies have shown that the most effective teachers are able to boost their students' learning by a full grade level more than students taught by their least successful colleagues. Nevertheless, our schools -- despite their complete dependence on quality teachers and quality teaching -- do far too little to promote or support this kind of excellence. As The Teaching Commission's Report found -- and I'm quoting now: "[t]he public school system currently offers virtually no incentives to reward excellence, and a system that does not reward excellence is unlikely to inspire it."

Exactly. Today, our system is built on principles of non-meritocracy and non-differentiation, and those two principles are killing us. At the heart of the problem are the three pillars of civil service: lock-step pay, seniority and life tenure. Together, they act as handcuffs and prevent us from making the changes that will encourage excellence in our system. Indeed, they undermine virtually all innovation in our schools, inhibit the creation of accountability, and lead, in general, to enormous problems and inequities in our system.

Let me give you a few examples.

First, right now we have a system in which our least experienced teachers are highly disproportionately assigned to our most challenging schools. What's more, because of the difficulties associated with removing teachers and the resulting problem of sub-standard teachers being shuffled through the system, some of our most ill-equipped teachers end up in the most challenging schools. This makes no sense. It means that our neediest children are getting teachers who cannot meet their educational needs.

Second, and as a consequence of the last point, we are losing teachers -- our most valuable resource -- in droves. The three-year attrition rate in New York City schools is about 40%. For those of you in the business world, just imagine if you lost 4 out of 10 of your bankers, software developers or accountants after three years. That's just an outrageous waste of human talent. When I ask teachers why they leave, or when teachers write me tear-stained emails explaining why they are leaving, they invariably tell me it's largely because of a lack of support. What's so sad is that we could correct this trend of new teachers leaving the system if we were permitted to ensure that new teachers start in our stable, high-performing schools where they can get the mentoring and guidance they need before taking on our most challenging assignments. No organization that succeeds does it the way we do.

Third, we have far too many uncertified teachers in shortage areas like math, science, ELL and special education. Because of the lock-step pay requirements, however, we are unable to offer premium pay to attract individuals who can work elsewhere or in other fields. The impact is felt, once again, in our highest needs schools since, all other things being equal, teachers in shortage areas can choose not to teach at those schools. Colleges and universities offer premium pay to teachers in high-demand areas. And we should do it here, too.

Fourth, the work rules that currently govern our schools inappropriately constrain teachers' ability to work with students in the lunchroom or in the hallways of their schools. Under the work rules, teachers are exempt from hall and lunchroom duty. This simply is the wrong model of school management. Schools are communities with shared visions in which the example set by a teacher sets the tone for the entire school. I frequently hear from teachers who think that their participation in hall duty or lunchroom duty "would make a significant difference in [their] school's atmosphere." But in today's system, the work rules -- and not the leaders of our school communities -- determine when and where teachers will work.

Finally, in our system, principals are prevented from choosing their own staffs. As we move toward holding our principals more accountable for the quality of education that is provided in their school buildings -- and I believe that such accountability is critical to transforming our schools -- we should also empower our principals and allow them to make decisions about hiring, firing and promoting teachers. As we all know, in the absence of such authority (especially in a small organization like a school), our schools can become destabilized.

And without clear accountability, we have become, not surprisingly, an excuse-based culture. I cannot tell you how often I hear it. And I know you've heard it, too. When our schools are not performing, people blame the kids. Or the parents. Or the tests. Or the principals. Or the supervisors. Or whomever. Just someone else -- anyone else.

Our challenge is to move from this excuse-based culture to a culture based on excellence. The entire Children First reform agenda is centered on this transformation.

If we want excellent performance from our children, we must focus on how to get them excellent teachers and principals and administrators. For example, we all hear loud and urgent calls in this city for lower class sizes. And let me be clear: I want to lower class size, too. It's time for the State to fulfill its obligation to the City and give us the funds we need to make lower class size a reality. But the truth is -- and we all know it -- that you would rather have your child in a class of 30 with a great teacher than in a class of 20 with a mediocre teacher. Under our structure, however, we can't pay a great teacher one-and-a-half times as much to have her teach one-and-a-half as many students. Our system is out of whack with the realities of what can and must be done.

Happily, I can report that change is in the air. After decades of excuses, we are finally moving forward in the transformation of our public schools.

Mayor Bloomberg took the first -- and very important -- step. It is a remarkable thing to see a Mayor stand before a City and say that he should be held accountable for the performance of his City's schools -- that the voters should take school performance into account when they cast their ballots in 2005. You won't see a lot of mayors do that. But that's what real leadership is about. And following Mayor Bloomberg's example, we are working hard to find ways to instill accountability and leadership into our public schools.

There are also encouraging signs that the teachers' union is beginning to recognize the need to develop a new paradigm for the way in which our teachers are recruited, supported, compensated and retained. According to the New York Times, Randi Weingarten, the UFT President, is considering experimenting with a "thin contract" that eliminates most work rules. This past September, Ms. Weingarten remarked to the Times: "What if you had trust, fairness and collaboration substitute for lock-step rules?" I agree. That's the way it should be done.

In addition, in a speech she recently made before the Association for a Better New York, Ms. Weingarten proposed some reforms designed to improve teacher quality in our schools. Most significantly, she suggested ways to expedite the process of removing incompetent teachers from the classroom, saying that "even one incompetent teacher in our schools is one too many." Ms. Weingarten also told the ABNY audience that "the UFT is open to performance pay" and suggested measures to professionalize the City's teaching staff in an effort to retain the best and the brightest among them. I hope that this is the beginning of what becomes a new compact with our teachers that can yield system-wide change and, in turn, create a culture of excellence in our schools. I know it will take a lot of hard work to achieve this, but I am optimistic that we will succeed.

Throughout our country, a consensus is steadily emerging that the only way to effect fundamental change is to pull together and create a new paradigm for teaching that puts the needs of our children before all else.

Several of the nation's teachers' unions have come together to form an organization called the Teacher Union Reform Network (or "TURN"). On its website, TURN states that it "recognizes that the past adversarial relationship among union leaders, teachers and administrators must be replaced with a compact that says 'we are all in this together'" and that unions needs to be "restructur[ed] promote reforms that will ultimately lead to better learning and higher achievement for America's children."

Moreover, The Teaching Commission's Report, which I think is truly a watershed document, embraces many of the recommendations I have been advocating. For example, the Report recommends that we compensate teachers with performance pay -- based on "student achievement" as well as "teacher skills" -- in order to boost performance. It also recommends that we offer premium pay for teachers who fill positions in hard-to-staff schools and in subject areas where there is a shortage of licensed teachers. And the Report urges "school districts [to] give principals say over personnel decisions...." According to the Report, principals must have "the responsibility and ultimate authority to hire, fire and promote teachers." To that, I say, "Amen."

I want to recommend The Teaching Commission's Report to everyone here this morning. We are fortunate today to have with us the Commission's Executive Director, Gaynor McCown, and she has graciously provided us with enough copies of the Report for the members of our audience.

In closing, I want to emphasize that culture-based changes like those I am proposing are difficult to implement and that the transformation I am describing will take time and will encounter resistance. There's no doubt about it: change is difficult. And change of the magnitude that is required here in New York City and in other major urban school districts across the nation is particularly hard. Sadly, the status quo will have its defenders even if the status quo doesn't serve the educational needs of our students.

But none of this can stop us. Because if we are not prepared to make dramatic, system-wide changes, and if we withdraw when faced with the inevitable resistance we will encounter, people will say of us what has been said of the last several decades in public education: "So much reform, so little change."

The choice is ours. Will we finally create a system of 1,200 quality schools in which all of our students have an equal educational opportunity? Or will we continue to tolerate a grossly imbalanced system in which there are islands of excellence in a sea of troubled waters?

Our mission could not be clearer. And all of us, including those of us in this room, must stand together to get it done.

Finally, let me address those of you in this room directly. I'm often asked how individuals or corporations can get involved in our reform efforts. And the answer is: "in any number of ways." For example, you can log on to the website of the Fund for Public Schools and explore volunteer, mentoring and corporate partnership opportunities. You can call our Office of Strategic Partnerships and speak to any of our talented and dedicated staff. Just yesterday, with Infinity Broadcasting, we announced the launch of "Adopt a School -- Kids are Everyone's Business," a new program that encourages New York City businesses and their employees to get directly involved with an individual school. It's an excellent program from which both our schools and your businesses will benefit. But whatever else you do, get behind this transformation. Spread the word. We all have a shared interest in the future of our schools. We need your help.

Thank you.