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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Klein urges public school reform

Former New York City public schools chancellor and current News Corporation executive vice president Joel Klein described the "crisis" facing the American school system in an increasingly globalized economy and explained how competition and innovation can improve the quality of schools in a lecture in Moore Theater on Thursday. Klein, who lectured to an audience of approximately 350 people, is the sixth speaker in the Summer term lecture series, Leading Voices in Politics and Policy.

The public school system's powerful aversion to innovation is preventing Americans from successfully competing in an increasingly global economy, Klein said.

"I'm quite convinced that in the absence of real competitive dynamism, innovation and professionalization of teaching, we're not going to change the basic outcomes," he said.

In 1983, the government doubled its investment in K-12 education, reacting to the "extraordinary rhetoric" about the mediocrity of the schooling system, according to Klein. Despite the increased investment, student performance and outcomes have "flatlined."

"That should trouble people enormously because we don't have, going forward, a big dollar investment plan," he said.

The system's massive benefit and pension responsibilities are currently limiting the amount of money that can be used to improve schools. Although 70 percent of U.S. citizens receive a high school diploma, only about 40 percent are prepared for college, according to Klein.

Klein argued that there are two major factors in the American approach to education that demand dramatic change. The first is the decrease in the number of available technical and agrarian jobs due to the technological revolution. The second is that, in the increasingly globalized economy, "the rest of the world is eclipsing us," Klein said.

Until the 1980s, growth in educational attainment paralleled growth in technological advancements, according to Klein. Now, technological advancement is outpacing educational improvements two to one, and the middle class created in the second half of the 20th century will be "increasingly hollowed out," Klein said. The school system in its current state will create a widening gap between a powerful entrepreneurial class and an unemployable under-class.

"We've got a massive problem of people not having the skills for the jobs that are available," Klein said. "So if your education line is flat and the demand on your workforce is going up exponentially, you are going to create this enormous gap, and that's the gap that I think that threatens the kind of nation that we want to be."

Historically, the United States government believed it could create a more egalitarian society via increased and enhanced education. In addition, the U.S. was the first country to make secondary schooling compulsory.

At the country's 200 most competitive colleges and universities, two-thirds of the students are from the top quarter of the socioeconomic spectrum while only 15 percent are from the bottom half, Klein said.

"If we have an increasingly large under-class, it will not only polarize our society but it will make the economics that we face entirely different," he said.

Klein said that although many assume there is something inherently "wrong" with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, his friends told him that he would not be able to fix the education system until he fixed poverty. He added that he vehemently disagrees with this suggestion.

"We'll never fix poverty in America until we fix education," he said. "It's broken and fixable."

The school system has "major defenders of the status quo," Klein said. Firing teachers, closing schools and moving toward merit-based pay are perceived as "very, very threatening" actions to those working within the system, he said.

The question people must now ask themselves is whether improving the education system is worth a fight, Klein said. If people do not recognize the importance of change, the system will not improve because of the "centrifugal force toward the status quo," he said.

Klein proposed encouraging competition and innovation and changing the way teachers are recruited and paid as ways to improve the education system.

"If we really want to have a future where the American dream doesn't become American memory, we have to talk openly and honestly and critically with each other," he said.

American colleges are largely considered the best in the world because they must compete for the top students, who may choose where they would like to attend, according to Klein.

He said he believes K-12 schooling should function similarly currently, the only students with choice are those whose parents can afford to move or send their children to private schools. Low-income students in neighborhoods with poorly performing schools rarely have a choice of where to attend.

Harlem is now the "greatest choice zone in the world" with its high number of charter schools, Klein said. There is a pervasive myth that parents in low-income neighborhoods do not care about their children's education, but Klein said this is untrue.

When he became chancellor of the New York City public schools, he was shocked that no one ever "talked about excellence," he said. In the school system, innovation is viewed negatively because it is seen as "experimenting on our kids." Failure to implement change, however, will only continue to bring mediocre results, he said.

While teachers' unions are not the sole hindrance as some suggest there are successful, entirely unionized education systems around the world, and there are areas of the United States that are not unionized but still have mediocre results the unions do need to be more willing to accept change, Klein said.

The school system also needs to "recruit, train and reward" good teachers. People must accept that not everyone can teach, and most of today's teachers are coming from the bottom tier of college graduates. Instead of reacting defensively, those in the system must work to incentivize the recruitment and retention of good teachers.

In New York City, for example, Klein sought to lay off teachers based on lack of merit and to abandon the ingrained system of firing the most recent hires. Klein also recommended the institution of merit-based and subject-based pay, saying that it is not an insult but rather an economic reality that math and science teachers should be paid more than physical education teachers.

In response to an audience member's question, Klein said the nature of the system is also "wasting the critical years" of when children are 0 to 5 years old.

Additionally, the system must stop placing some students in special education and instead address the enormous "continuum of student need," Klein said.

At this year's Commencement ceremony, during which Klein received an honorary degree from Dartmouth, College President Jim Yong Kim lauded Klein's "remarkable career," citing his dedication to education reform and innovation while handling the "enormous" responsibility of managing over 1,600 schools.

"You put your creativity to work, building a system of great schools by empowering leaders and excellent teachers," Kim said at Commencement.

Klein grew up in New York City and attended the city's public schools. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University and earned his law degree from Harvard Law School.

Klein founded his own law firm with several other partners and went on to serve in the White House Counsel's office under President Bill Clinton and as the United States Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division.