Joel Klein to Education Reformers: Play Politics

In New York last night, former schools chancellor Joel Klein gave his prescription for rescuing American public education: play politics. Like it or not, he told a small audience at the downtown loft of Atlantic Media president Justin Smith, education is as mired in politics as health care or the decifit. In order to pull America up from the lower rungs of global academic achievement, he said, reformers have to be realistic about how politics work. That means mobilizing parents, raising money, and influencing elections.

Since he stepped down as chancellor last year, Klein has been approaching these goals from a different angle. By recounting his eight-year tenure for the latest issue of The Atlantic, he explained last night, he hopes to bring education to the forefront of public discussion. Klein was pleased that the issue is already starting to gain momentum, thanks to documentaries such as Waiting for Superman and high-profile investigations of educational atrocities like New York City's now-defunct "rubber rooms" (exposed in the New Yorker by Klein's friend Steven Brill, who was in the audience).
Klein was a controversial pick for chancellor in 2002, having spent most of the prior 30 years working as a lawyer in Washington. He was a relative outsider to education, which irked some skeptics but allowed him to take on entrenched interests like teachers unions and Albany politicos with a vigor that most schools officials can't afford. In conversation with Atlantic editor James Bennet last night, Klein said that reformers were kidding themselves if they believed they'd be able to achieve transformational change by working with unions. When Bennet asked whether kids would be better off without teachers unions, Klein artfully skirted the question--with a smile on his face.

The New York native is now working with News Corp. to develop innovative entrepreneurial approaches to education, many of them digital. He used a few graphs to show the baffling track of public education over the past decades: per-pupil spending and the number of teachers have skyrocketed, while student achievement has remained decidedly stagnant. Klein wants to capitalize on innovations in online learning to take education more in the direction of manufacturing--which, he pointed out, has used technology to cut down on labor while increasing product quality.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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