The Role of Teachers

It's a tragic fact that the role of teachers has changed.
  • Transcript


Question: Has the perception of teachers in the U.S. changed for the worse?

Joel Klein:I think it's an accurate perception, and I think it's a tragic fact, which is I think teachers should be the most revered people in our society. As you say, they and parents are the transformative people in all of our lives. And I, just today, talking at a meeting about there is going to be a world science festival here in New York, and I was talking about my high school physics teacher, a guy named Sidney Harris, who transformed my life.

So we all know that. Why do I think it's happened? I think a combination of the perception that K to 12 education is not rising in America. There's a sense that we're not on a successful trajectory.

And second of all, I think the system really hasn't encouraged the kind of dynamism and innovation that would attract the excitement. So when I see the kind of work that's starting to take place in various cities throughout the country, I think what you'll see is more and more people getting excited about it.

And what you want to build is an arc towards success. If people really thought that the cure for poverty was education, and believe that would happen, then it would be an excitement, it would attract people into the field. And that's one of the things that's happening now. And if you look throughout the world, in those countries that do really well in educating their kids, those countries attract the greatest talent from their colleges, from the top of their college classes. And there's a real sense of those people are respected, they're revered. People are passionate about the work.

And I think that's part of the transformation that we need to have so that young folks throughout this country say to themselves, "You know, being a teacher is something that really is one of life's great achievements."

And I think we can do that, but it's going to take changing. And part of what we got to change is low expectations. If people come into the school system saying these kids are poor; and what I always like to say, so many people have told me, you'll never fix education til you fix poverty. If you believe that, you'll never fix education. I believe just the opposite. I believe we'll never fix poverty until we fix education in America. And I believe we can fix education.

I don't, again, say how difficult it is to educate kids who come from very challenged backgrounds. Many of my kids come with families that are not fully engaged in their education and in their lives. So the challenges are enormous. But this is doable.

The question is, do we have the political will and the leadership, the kind of people like the Mayor of the city of New York who are willing to do the tough transformative work? And if you do that, you will build what in the world--you're familiar with a positive feedback loop--and when you get in a positive feedback loop, then success breeds success. People want to be a part of it, be excited about it.

Why has David Levin been able to attract so many talented people to KIPP? Because they think they're part of a successful operation. Dacia Toll, why has she brought people to Achievement First? Why has Norm Atkins brought people to Uncommon Schools? And I could go on and on and on.

I've got a principal up in the Bronx, Teach for America principal, came to us after he graduated from Princeton, taught for America, went to Harvard, he got a degree, a joint degree in business and education, just the two things I told you had to meld, he melded them together himself.

He's a principal in a school called Bronx Lab, his name's Mark Sternberg, he's doing extraordinary work, over a 90% graduation rate with a school that's overwhelmingly African American, Latino and high poverty.

Right next door to him in a similar situation, I have a former Army Colonel, an Air Force Colonel who Barbara Kirkwick, who's got an Air Force ROTC program, again high poverty, all minority kids, getting entirely different results. You go to those schools, those teachers are revered. And that's part of the positive feedback loop we need to create.

Recorded on: March 30, 2008