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Charter Schools and the Future of Public Education

Question: What have you learned works and doesn’t work with charter schools?

Joel Klein: I’m a big supporter of charters, fundamentally, for two reasons. One for innovation, and, two for competition. And I think the system needs both. We need choices in high needs communities. The people, they have choices in their kids’ education, they can move to a different neighborhood, they can go to a different school.

But charters are the choices for people in our high poverty neighborhoods. And that kind of competition does put pressure on the system so that you hope a rising tide will basically lift the boats.

But the other thing it does is it provides for innovation. So different models that you can learn from. And then the trick is to look at those models, see which ones are working and why, and try to replicate them.

One of my friends who is a very successful business executive told me that the education system, like much of the business system, suffers from NIH.

I said “What’s NIH?”

And he said “Not Invented Here.” And every culture thinks that’s indigenous to itself.

But in fact the way you succeed and learn is by looking at things that succeed elsewhere, and then you incorporate them into your culture, which strengthens your culture.

Now what are some of the things we learned from charters?  We’ve learned, for example, that they need flexibility in hiring and firing. And they’d be the first to admit, sometimes they make mistakes, just like any of us. And they need the flexibility to be able to address those mistakes.

Second they work very, very rigorously on mentoring their people. So if you’re a young rookie teacher and they have a good senior teacher that they think is compatible with you, you watch that person. This is the way, when I was a practicing lawyer, the way I learned to argue cases. I would spend as much time as I could looking at the top advocates in the nation, learning from them, asking them to watch me and critique me and brutally critique me, honestly, and then watch me the second time to see did I learn from their critique.

Well that’s the same kind of thing a lot of charters do. What they do is high expectations are indispensable. If they sense that you’re part of a culture in which you don’t support high expectations, they won’t tolerate it. They have extended day. A lot of the kids that we’ve been talking about who face a lot of challenges, they need more time in school. They have extended year, they don’t spend a lot on bureaucracy, they welcome assessment, they want to know what their kids know, and what their kids don’t know, because only by knowing what each kid knows and doesn’t know can you address how to teach that kid with differentiated instruction.

And they work with their teachers to differentiate. So that if some kid is very good at long division but doesn’t get fractions, you need to work with the kid on fractions, keep doing long division with them ain’t going to do it.

But on the other hand another kid could be really good at fractions but not at long division. So you’ve got to be able to differentiate, and charters that work, use the data.

Our accountability system; we learned a great deal, for example, from the accountability system that Achievement First had. And even their red dot, yellow dot, green dot, to indicate on which of the skills, for example in English language arts, which of the skills the kids have mastered, which they’re okay in, which they’re not getting, and how you differentiate. And using assessment and embracing a culture in which you understand that kids need to perform and that tests are not the only measure but a measure of performance. When people tell me, “Well you’re teaching to the test”--if the test tests the right skills, you want to make sure the kids learn them.

And my kids in New York who are not passing basic tests, it’s not because somehow they get it but they can’t pass the test. It’s because they can’t read, they can’t do elementary math, they don’t understand scientific principles, they don’t know history. And if that happens, that’s a kid who’s not going to be successfully educated.

Question: How do we nationalize best practices from charter schools?

Joel Klein: In New York what we're doing is something we call "knowledge management"; creating a platform in which the system can disseminate best practices.

If you're working with a lot of kids who are recent immigrants, and they're fourteen years old, and they present a lot of challenges, language challenges, sometimes interrupted education challenges, what schools are doing different things, and how do you learn about that? We've created this platform called ARIS, which is fundamentally an Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, so that people can access information, we can share what we know are central. But schools can share with each other. It becomes an amazing peer-to-peer platform. And if you think about the Internet, think about how empowering that has been on knowledge management and knowledge sharing. Well, the schools ought to be a part of that. Now how you take that national, I think there's gotta be a combination of either a real public commitment to that at the national government, or some public/private partnership.

I was recently asked by the New York Times in an interview, if I had a billion dollars in philanthropy and education, how would I spend it?

I would spend a considerable chunk of that investing in sophisticated research and knowledge management so that you could create a national platform so that we didn't have to argue about urban legends and urban myths but really argue about a knowledge-based system of transforming information so that people could access it, learn from it and improve it. And that's generally the kind of thing you can do through this sort of platforms that we have in New York City. But you need a centralized system and rigorous academic research standards so that people can really measure and hold variables constant. There's so many urban myths in education, and you need people who are willing to challenge those myths.

Recorded on: March 30, 2008 

The system needs innovation and competition, says the NYC schools chancellor, who announced yesterday that he is stepping down.

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