Joel Klein on His New Gig & Ed Innovation

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

New York City Chancellor Joel Klein announced late last year that he’d be stepping down from his post and taking up a newly created position as CEO of the Education Division at News Corp. Last week  I had the chance to chat with Joel about his new job and the promise of educational innovation.

Rick Hess: Joel, what can you tell us about the new job?

Joel Klein: I’ll be the CEO of the Education Division at News Corp. It’s a just-launched division in which we’ll be looking at a variety of possible acquisitions and opportunities. I’ve only been in place about four weeks, so this is very much in the early stages. I stepped down as Chancellor on December 31 and started this position on January 3, so we’re just getting started.

RH: How did the job come about?

JK: Well, I started having discussions with [Rupert] Murdoch when I was thinking about leaving [NYCDOE]. We talked about what Murdoch had in mind and he asked if I’d run the thing. I’ve known him a long time and, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I’ve considered him a friend for quite a few years…We had a lot of interaction during my tenure as Chancellor, as he gave us millions for our leadership academy and other initiatives.

RH: What will you be focusing on at News Corp.?

JK: The education division’s guiding principle is that we’ve got to change from a 20th century–or even late 19th century–model of classroom instruction to a more individualized, differentiated model. We’ve got immense new opportunities to do this now. Much, much more digitized content is available today than was ever the case before. Technology and digitization offer a very powerful way to supplement a teacher’s delivery of instruction with multiple modalities.

We’re seeing this now at School of One, Rocketship Academies, Carpe Diem in Arizona…and global models that are moving in this direction. Jeb Bush just held a major conference on this. But really doing this right is going to take private capital, a shift away from a standard one-teacher-and-thirty-kids classroom to a much more customized, differentiated model.

This is what we did [in NYC]. I was at the School of One recently and was talking to an eighth-grader who, mid-year, was doing ninth grade work. Traditionally, that kid would be stuck doing eighth-grade material and getting bored. There’s a lot that can help this happen. The Common Core will facilitate it, budget cuts will facilitate it…but it will take private capital to make it work. And that’s one of the things we’ll be able to do.

So what we’ll be looking at will be highly data driven, differentiated, customized, and looking to make much, much more use of software, virtual classes, and digitized lessons.

RH: Practically speaking, what’s the strategy for doing this?

JK: There’ll be acquisitions, some of it will be building and starting from scratch. There will be some joint ventures. That’s kind of what we’re looking at now. I’ve been talking to people and coming up with what I think will be a coherent strategic plan, but it’s still very much in process.

RH: News Corp. made a lot of noise in the education space just a few months ago when it decided to acquire Wireless Generation in a deal that valued the firm at about $400 million. What does that acquisition mean for where you’re headed?

JK: Wireless is obviously an important part of my team and division. News Corp. thought, when it came to Wireless, that this is a company that has a tremendous platform capacity that can play a critical role in supporting instructional delivery. It’s got very sophisticated data systems, and they’ve [made giant strides] in the customization and individualization that I’m talking about. So it’s a good [fit for] what we’re looking to do.

There are also a lot of other people at News Corp. who are highly involved in digital content and who bring a lot of expertise. In the next few months, I will be putting together a team. That will include a lot of people from Wireless, but I’ll also be doing some hiring–not a lot, but some–in the next couple, three months. We’re going to look to work with districts–and nations. I’ve already heard from a number of people in the field who are interested in our [getting engaged] in doing transformative work.

RH: What, if anything, should observers take from News Corp.’s decisions to get into education?

JK: We’re at a point, not just at News Corp., but more broadly, where sophisticated new software platforms are making possible highly interactive and individualized instruction. But I don’t think these things happen overnight. It’s a process. This is a time, right now, maybe stimulated by some of the budget issues, when these changes can happen. In the simplest terms, if you see some of the high-quality interactive programming that now exists, or if you see what’s happening with Florida Virtual, with maybe 250,000 students using it and a public organization that’s making money–which is quite rare–then you’ve [got to think] that this an opportunity for dramatic change.

RH: What kind of changes do these efforts imply for schools and classrooms?

JK: Just recently, a university professor called me and said he’d met with twenty students [and gotten into a discussion about the merits of online instruction]. He’d asked them whether they would rather take a course in justice with the professor who taught it at the university, who was supposed to be pretty good, or an online course with Harvard’s Michael Sandel. All twenty students, all of them, said they would rather take the online course. It [resonated], because I had a similar experience in my youth, watching videos of Richard Feynman teaching at Cal Tech.

We’re talking about a world where the digital revolution that’s hit the rest of the world now gets to take off in education too. We aren’t talking about an adult-less or teacher-less world, but a world where the technological advances that have swept the globe start to take over education. And a lot of people, including in the private equity world, are starting to think about that.

The more we can stimulate a view that we need to think about innovative delivery systems, the better. We’re locked into this one model of a teacher with a classroom of students–but there’s an enormous win-win in programs [that free us from that model]…The teachers in these innovative programs [that permit new approaches to staffing, grouping, and instruction] are excited and energized. They tell me their work is easier and more rewarding, and it lets them build in the basics instead of just focusing on them. Clay Christensen’s idea that we need to disrupt the class is a very powerful idea, and I give him a lot of credit for pushing it out.

RH: And any last words for folks wondering what News Corp. will be doing next?

Tell them they should stay tuned.

-Frederick Hess

NB: There’s more! Part II of this interview with Joel Klein, on lessons learned and the changing education landscape, appears here.

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