Yale School of Management

New York City School Chancellor Speaks at SOM Education Leadership Conference

Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, began his keynote speech at the third SOM Education Leadership Conference by asking a straightforward question. "Is there anyone here who can say that every school in New York City is good enough for their child?" he asked. When not a single hand went up, he added, "What does that say? What it says is that there are all sorts of schools in our country, particularly in urban areas, that are good enough for other children, but not our own."

Klein, who was appointed chancellor in 2002, has become a controversial figure in American education. A proponent of charter schools, he has vowed to close underperforming schools and clashed with teachers and some parents groups. "Too many people, for too long have been making excuses for why we can’t prepare students," he said. "For far too long, skin color, poverty, zip code haven determined a child’s education."

Klein devoted most of his speech to a broad discussion of the state of public education and the reforms necessary to prepare students for a complex world. His appearance kicked off the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference, which is one of several large conferences organized by Yale MBA students each year. With 500 people from around the country registered to attend, the students had to move this year’s events to the Omni Hotel in New Haven because the previous year’s site — the New Haven Lawn Club — was too small. "Someone said that next year we’ll need to be in the Yale Bowl," joked Dean Sharon Oster, who introduced Klein. Oster praised Klein’s willingness to experiment in New York Schools, saying, "If something doesn’t work, you need to be brave enough to say that it didn’t work."

The conference, which is organized by the SOM Education Club, was titled "Levers of Change" and sought to focus on the huge impact people can have by correctly exerting even a small force. Sabrina Silver '09, a co-leader of the Education Club, noted that pulling the event together took the students a year. Panels debated how to attract and retain top teaching talent, new ways to keep students from dropping out, the role of unions in education reform, and what needs to be done to make American schools competitive in a global economy. Speakers hailed from foundations, universities, for-profit and nonprofit education organizations, state government, charter schools, and unions.

As the first speaker of the day, it was Klein’s role to set the tone and inspire the attendees. The thrust of his speech was to challenge people to not accept excuses for the lack of performance by students, especially in inner cities. "From day one of this job I’ve been told that we won’t fix education in America until we fix poverty," he said. "Wrong. We won’t fix poverty in America until we fix education." He said there are currently programs in cities across the country that are seeing remarkable results in individual schools. It’s the job of reformers, he said, to find ways to make these ideas scalable. This begins, he said, with attracting better teachers.

Klein’s critics have said that he wants to emphasize younger, cheaper teachers as a way to save money and diminish the power of teachers unions. He contends that what he’s looking to do is find ways to bring in the kind of talent not usually seen in urban public schools. In addition, he advocates allowing principals greater autonomy to determine curriculum and to allow them to find things that work. He cited New York’s results under his tenure as evidence that such an approach works. "Black kids in New York City are two years ahead of those in Los Angeles and D.C.," he said. "They face the same challenges, so why? We need to explore the differences that drive changes." He noted that the New York school system was named the best urban system in the country last year. But the honor, he said, isn’t a reason to declare victory. "The work ahead is a lot longer than the road we’ve traveled," he said.

Student organizers said they were thrilled with the conference, which included fifty-seven speakers on eleven panels and cost $30,000 to present. "Nothing so far in our Yale SOM experience compares to having created such an amazing event," said Paul Holzer ’09. "It’s one thing to learn about management in the classroom, or even through an internship. But to organize an event like this took our MBA education to a whole new level. And from all the feedback we received, it’s clear the conference had an impact on the larger debate."