Q & A with a Joel Klein Advisor: Keeping America Safe One Reform at a Time

On March 20, former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined forces to release a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” a Council of Foreign Relations set of recommendations that link what they believe are the failures of America’s public education system to national security. The two co-chaired a 30-member, independent task force for the council, a non-profit think tank on American foreign policy and international affairs. The task force suggested the following three essential education reforms for educators:

  • States should adopt the common core standards, a unified set of education principles for English language arts and mathematics. The standards should expand to include science, technology, and foreign languages;
  • Local and state school systems should provide students and their families the opportunity to choose schools;
  • State governors should join with the federal government to establish a “national security readiness audit” that holds educators responsible for meeting national expectations in education.
Klein and Rice repeated this message in a CNN op-ed. According to the project director, Julia Levy, the Task Force has plans to work with parents, educators, and policymakers to spread the report’s message. Levy said that they are still developing outreach plans.
The Report’s Facts and Figures

  • Five states  – Minnesota, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas, Hawaii – have not adopted the common core standards;
  • 75 percent of U.S. citizens between the age of 17 and 24 are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records, or have inadequate levels of education;
  • One-third of graduate students in science and engineering programs are foreign nationals;
  • 8 out of 10 Americans speak only English;
  • At the elementary level, Finland spends about 30 percent less than the United States; Finland achieves some of the strongest academic student performances in international testing;
  • A cited report estimated that in 2020, there will be 6 million more high school dropouts than jobs available. It also predicted job shortages for 1.5 million workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher;
  • Another report found that 64 percent of companies can’t find qualified candidates with experience in management, science, and computer engineering.


Meet Julia Levy, the Project Director

Julia Levy, the former communications director for New York City’s public schools during the Klein years, spoke about the report on March 29 with School-Stories’ Rose D’souza.

Q: How did you become involved with the project?

A:  I used to run communications for one of the co-chairs, Joel Klein, when he was the chancellor of the New York City public schools.  He asked me if I’d be interested.


Q:  There are three main policy recommendations that the report offered, and one of them was the “national security readiness audit.” What would the audit look like? 

A:  The Task Force thinks it is important to keep the country focused on the importance of education. To do that, we need to make sure that everyone, from policy makers to parents to educators at the school level, has the information they needed to make good decisions.

The recommendation builds on elements of existing policy. For example, ‘No Child Left Behind’ requires a lot of data to be collected and analyzed. We also recommended tracking some things that go beyond traditional test scores. For example, monitoring how many students are learning foreign languages is one of the skills we thought was very important to protect national security and prepare people for the future.


Q:  I recently sat in a Grade 9 self-contained classroom for special education students who are struggling with  language skills. Most of the students can barely read or write on grade level. How do you convince parents and policymakers that they need to help students to learn foreign languages when their kids can’t even learn basic English skills?

A: That’s a really good question. The argument we made as a Task Force is that of course it’s important for children to learn the basics of literacy and numeracy, of course people need to read and write and think creatively and solve problems. But if we are not at least giving students the opportunity to learn foreign languages or to learn about technology or to learn science, we’re really not thinking long term.

The Task Force did not recommend that every student should learn Chinese or other strategically important languages. But people should have the chance to learn languages, and schools should definitely be offering these opportunities to students.

One thing we focused on in the report is how the State Department had a severe language shortfall in Afghanistan. This is a real problem because it means we didn’t have officers ready to conduct our diplomacy. It is similarly important for people to be prepared to succeed at U.S. companies that have offices around the world.


Q:  Is there one particular language that you would suggest schools to teach?

A: In the report, we referenced a Government Accountability Office report about our shortage areas in language instruction. We also referenced the overall levels of language instruction in American schools. The Task Force didn’t call for instruction in particular languages. The point was that with more that with 80 percent of people in this country speaking only English, there’s a problem, especially if you compare us to our international peers where many more people are growing up able to communicate in more than one language.


Q:  There were a few people who were part of the Task Force who kind of disagreed with some of the points. The American Federation of Teachers’ president, Randi Weingarten, said that she didn’t agree with the opt-out option for school choice. She suggested that public schools should actually have more resources given to them instead of having school choice, such as charter schools being created. One of the policy recommendations is an emphasis on school choice, what do you say to people who criticize school choice?

A: Everybody who served on the Task Force actually ended up signing the report, which means that they agreed to the general thrust of what we were saying, which was really great especially given that a lot of people on the Task Force don’t generally agree with each other. When you do sign on, you have the opportunity to write a dissent, which is what you are referring to.

I think the conversation we had as a group on school choice is really fascinating because it’s usually painted in a really political sense. You’re either for school choice or you’re against school choice. What I think came through in our conversations is that even people you generally think are against school choice are not against all choice. Randi Weingarten, who you just mentioned, said that she supports public school choice, which means allowing families to choose a different public school for their children to attend. Other members of the Task Force believe in more expansive school choice where, for example, families can have access to school vouchers.

What we said as a group is that it’s important that they have a conversation to talk about the best way to provide choice because the worst kind of inequity is forcing a child to stay in a school that’s not good for him or her, that’s failing.


Q: Would the report’s recommendations require the state and federal governments to provide more resources?

A:  Not necessarily. The United States spends more than $500 billion on education each year. It might take additional resources to accomplish the necessary reforms, but it might be possible to go a long way by spending money more wisely on efforts that work.


Q:  Final thoughts?

A:  I think the way that we were able to get to consensus could be a model for future conversations in this country. If we continue on the trajectory that we’re on, it’s not just going to be bad for individuals, it’s going to be bad for the whole country. I don’t think we can afford that.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

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