Education and Politics

Question: Are you satisfied with the political discourse on education in this election year?

Joel Klein: I’m not satisfied with the current discussion on public education.  Whether you wanna call it a Marshal Plan, the fact of the matter is we have racial and ethnic achievement gaps that have bedeviled this country for as far back as anybody can remember. And small bore reforms are not going to remediate that. Feel good proposals won’t change that. We’ve had those for a long time.

What it’s going to take is some very serious restructuring, rethinking and real leadership. Second of all we have an increasing challenge vis a vis the global environment. I was on a group that came out with a book called “Tough choices for Tough Times” and that did the kind of global comparison, the competitiveness challenges that we face.

If you look at just recently there was a test of 15 year olds throughout the world, in math and in science, and America came in like 21st and 25th out of 30 OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries.  And that’s not a place where we can be comfortable. In math, in science, in engineering, in technology--we are not doing the kind of work that we need to do in transforming the educational process to a 21st century process. We’re not doing the work we need.

So, for a whole host of reasons, I would like to see a debate that started to focus in a much, much more aggressive way with the nature of the challenges. They make us uncomfortable but focus on the real nature of the challenges. Why is it that our K-12 education system has not been doing the work that everybody thinks we need to do and come up with robust, meaningful, if difficult and challenging, and sometimes even costly, new measures to address the nature of the problem that I think is out there.

Question: Would that come in the form of massive spending?

Joel Klein: I think it's got to be policy. And then coming in behind policy is appropriate resources. But I, for example, would put a lot of federal money into creating incentives to get many more science and math teachers to come into the system, and particularly to teach in our most challenging schools. We know there's a shortage of science and math teachers, and we know that in the absence of good science and math teachers, our kids won't learn science and math.

I would create many more programs, externships for those kids--they should be working in labs in the summer, so on and so forth.

I would use incentives to reward excellence. I believe performance-based pay. The federal government should be doing things like that. I would support far more innovation.

I think there's too much blocking of charters [charter schools]. That doesn't mean all charters will succeed. But I think we need to tolerate the risk that some charters won't succeed--because we know many public schools haven't succeeded.

I think we need to experiment with new models. Everybody's got this model of one teacher in a classroom of twenty-five kids or something like that. But I don't think that's a model. I think we need to think about models in which kids cluster together, do more inquiry-based learning, team-based learning.

Why can't we use lectures that are delivered through distance learning? I always think about the lecture at Harvard by Steven J. Gould. It was such a brilliant--I can remember how brilliant it was, and not everybody is Steven J. Gould, and not everybody can lecture like he can. If you look at Richard Fine and the work he did at Cal Tech in his lecture of physics; now there's no reason that we can't use that, followed up by a real world, in-the-classroom teacher.

Now talking about some of those things and differentiating, so that some classes could be quite small, like they are in college, particularly in high school, they could be almost tutorials.

On the other hand, it could be some large lecture classes.

So these are all areas where we need to be much more dynamic and innovative and when people say, "Well, we don't know for sure that this one or that one will work." The answer is we don't, but we'll never find out if we're afraid to try. And if we continue with the same kind of stereotype thinking, homogenous, everybody's gonna be 1 to 25 and that kind of model doesn't work. 

Recorded On: March 30, 2008

 

Klein says all the talk falls short of the grand plan needed.

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