Classroom Technology Opinion

Get to Know a C.E.O., with Joel Klein

By Tom Segal — August 09, 2013 12 min read
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When we think of education technology and the reform movement as a whole, certain ideas always seem to rise to the top of the conversation: content disaggregation, tablets in the classroom, teacher training and professional development, mobile learning, data collection and analysis. While there are myriad ventures, startups, nonprofits, foundations, and political groups collectively working to spread this movement, perhaps no single entity is taking on ed-tech reform as holistically as Amplify, the new education division of News Corp. By delivering the hardware, software, data tools, and teacher training necessary for a true new age classroom all bundled together, Amplify seeks to bring our K-12 classrooms into a new era of learning, one with high standards, numerous options, and data-driven decisions.

The person tasked with guiding this audacious venture into rethinking the learning experience from all angles is Joel Klein, a man whose accomplishments are as impressive as they are diverse. From lead prosecutor in the antitrust case United States v. Microsoft, to serving in the White House Counsel’s office under President Clinton (his wife actually represented Bill during his impeachment trial), to running the largest and most influential school district in the country as New York City’s DOE Chancellor, it’s safe to say that Joel has left his mark on the world. Yet if you ask him, the best is yet to come.

Despite a wealth of academic merits that would point to a seemingly high intellect (magna cum laude from Harvard Law is generally nothing to sneeze at), Joel has made at least one questionable decision in his professional career that I am aware of: he let me, the same lunatic that can’t stop writing creepy letters to Jaime Casap, ask him a series of questions in what we in the Biz call an “interview.”

Luckily for all you loyal readers, I secretly recorded this interview and have decided to post it below. What’s say we get to know Joel Klein:

Elevator pitch: what is Amplify, and what problem are you trying to solve?

Amplify is an education technology company that really wants to change the teaching/learning experience: the way teachers teach, and the way kids learn. We are doing that by bringing together a deep knowledge of the classroom experience, of pedagogy, and of practice, and marrying that with very talented engineering people and creative people to create a user experience in the classroom that we think will transform teaching and learning.

The problem we are trying to solve for is a problem that everyone is very familiar with, and that is the fact that our schools today are not remotely getting the results for our kids in terms of what they really need for the 21st Century. The number of kids that are not prepared for college - that are not able to do college-level work in America - is remarkably high, particularly in a global economy where more and more kids are entering that space. We are going to have to change (and change significantly) the way we build educational experiences for our kids.

What do you say to those who tell you that “for-profit” entities should have no place in the K-12 learning experience?

Well, I would say they have no knowledge of history. There have been for profit organizations in the K-12 space repeatedly, whether it’s textbook publishers, or whether it’s people who built the buildings, or whether it’s people who have supplied infrastructure, whether it’s IT people, and so forth. I just think that’s an ahistorical view of the world.

My own view is that it’s not if you are organized as a for-profit or a not-for-profit, it’s really whether you bring value to the educational experience. That seems to me to be the way you’d want to measure this. When it comes to K-12 in particular, I think we need an all-hands-on-deck approach. I think the system is smart enough to be able to sort out those things that bring value to the system from those that don’t. We surely wouldn’t want to shut out any segment of this economy. Would we really want to say that we wouldn’t want Apple to sell iPads to school districts, or that we wouldn’t want to have major publishers able to sell high-quality textbook learning? I don’t think so.

What role does Amplify have to play in retraining teachers to fully maximize a one-to-one tablet learning experience? How do you scale training of this sort to a massive learning population?

That’s a great question, Tom*. I would say we are doing it in several ways. First of all, I want to emphasize that we think that the training piece and the support piece and the real partnership piece is critical to everything we’re doing. Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Can I get your tablet without the appropriate professional development and support?’ I said, ‘No. We don’t work that way. We think it’s an integrated learning experience, it’s not just about hardware and software.’

So how we are doing it is at multiple levels. One, we have our own team inside. Second of all, that team leverages up components of the company, helps get them in a professionally developed mode so that we are prepared when we go in, for example, to Guilford, North Carolina where we are now rolling out some 15,000 tablets to all the middle school kids (this is Greensboro). Basically, we spent a heavy chunk of time working with some 400 teachers getting them prepared. That’s just the on-boarding process. Then there’s constant call center availability, constant information that we will be able to feed them on their tablets, constant professional development that they can do online.

So it’s a multi-leveled, multi-tiered system, and we know when it’s going to be high-touch and it’s going to need lots of people on hand, we know when it’s going to be online - that’s obviously much easier to scale. You need an integrated, fully fleshed-out system, and that’s what we are in the process not only of becoming but of expanding and growing.

Now that we have had over a decade to digest the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), what do you think are the tangible positives and negatives to come out of the federal initiative?

That’s a complicated question and I think I’d answer it this way: the one thing NCLB did very, very effectively is to really disaggregate data so we could see the challenges we had, so that we didn’t let anybody looking at the middle obscure what was going on at either end of the spectrum. That, I think, put a focus on K-12 that was very important.

Second of all, NCLB introduced a really important notion of accountability. Schools would be held accountable for performance; school districts would be held accountable for performance; states would be held accountable - and that has an important consequence. For the first time, people were looking at and measuring performance. Those two things, to me, were critical components that moved the dialogue forward.
Now, as I remind people, NCLB was really one of the last great truly bipartisan efforts in America. You had Ted Kennedy and George Miller working hand in glove with President Bush to bring meaningful education reform.

I think it fell down in a couple areas. Probably the one that is most apparent to me is that it let states set their own standards and their own assessments and measurements of outcomes. As a result, to be quite frank about it, we didn’t set rigorous enough standards, and most states didn’t adopt really meaningful testing, so we had a grade-inflation in the process. I think the new Common Core [State Standards Initiative] and the testing regimes coming in behind it, PARCC and SBAC, are aimed to address that.

But on balance, I think NCLB certainly moved the ball down the field, and ten years later we have learned a lot from it and are ready for the next steps.

What is Amplify’s strategy regarding M&A? Is News Corp. focused on building from within, or will more acquisitions like that of Wireless Generation be on the horizon?

Right now, we are doing a lot of internal development. When I first came to News Corp. in 2011, we spent a lot of time looking around at potential M&A partners and, quite frankly, we didn’t find people that we thought had the skills to move forward in the way we wanted to move forward. So we opened up our own what we call “access” or “tablet” business and our own learning or digital curriculum business. We did acquire Intel-Assess which was an assessment company in California, and we don’t foreclose the fact that we might partner with or make acquisitions in the future, but I wouldn’t say it’s top of mind or, certainly in terms of a large one, I wouldn’t say it’s top of mind. There might be some smaller ones, but I wouldn’t rule it out either if the right opportunity came our way.

What features does Amplify have in its initial release vs. the long-term vision of the product?

We have the Amplify Access Tablet out there, and in its initial release it has several core things. It obviously has important device management which is critical to schools. It has tools in there that teachers and kids really like: things like the ability to do a quick poll of the classroom and see if the kids are getting it or not, or do a little quiz or some writing assignments. It has features that enable teachers to put together lists or learning objects that they want. It has content built in there, Sal Khan’s Khan Academy content and CK-12 and Encyclopedia Britannica. Those are core features that are in 1.0.

As we move forward, obviously there will be more and more data analyses, customization tools, and some of the answer to your question, Tom, is that as we work with our schools and the school districts and the teachers, we will see what they want, the things that they want to use more of. One of the great things about tablet-like experiences is you can actually see the things that work, the things that people are responsive to, the things they want to get more of, and those are things we will constantly learn. We will enrich the products. We will think about ways to take what we are doing and think about partnering with others or other platforms.

The same thing is true with our Amplify Learning product, which is a digital curriculum that we will be bringing to the market in Spring 2014 that we have been piloting. That will have a very rich curriculum, lots of learning process materials so that you can move a kid through the classroom, through various experiences, it will be multimedia, they will be engaging, and it will be supported heavily by the games we’re developing. We recently rolled out quite a few of these games just to give people a sense of where we are going. That’s going to be a very, very rich experience in terms of curriculum, games, the ability to bring various supports, videos and other things, into the learning experience, quests we are developing so that kids can get deeply engaged in applied learning.

As we learn from the user experience, both of those products will constantly be enriched, be upgraded, and of course on the curriculum side, we will be rolling out more and more grades. We are starting in the middle schools with math, science, English, and language arts, but we will be rolling out more grades and more content over time.

What are your thoughts on New York City’s iZone initiative? Can this serve as a model for other large school districts in terms of technology adoption?

When we were in New York, we focused heavily on something called the “Innovation Zone.” One of the things I wish is that the entire district was an innovation zone. One of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing now is to try to bring an innovation culture to K-12, something that it’s really been resistant to. When we talk about the last frontier in terms of a particular revolution, education is behind everything else including Healthcare, which is itself behind lots of things like Media and Entertainment, day-to-day activities, the way we shop, everything. It’s been so directly effective.

I couldn’t help but think, and I’m sure you thought about it yesterday, that the Washington Post was sold for $250 Million. A decade ago people would have found that unimaginable, but the fact of the matter is that the world is changing dramatically, and what we need to bring is an innovative culture to the K-12 space. I think Amplify will be at the cutting edge of accelerating those developments, and I think that’s absolutely critical. Others will join us, including I hope your portfolio companies**, but in the end what I really would like to see is a field that is much richer in terms of innovation, in terms of new developments, and in terms of willing to try things that can’t be guaranteed to succeed but if they succeed can potentially change the way we do the teaching/learning process. That’s where I see us positioned.

I like to put it this way: I think we are the education company that’s best at technology, and a technology company that’s best at education.

As technology continues to permeate the classroom and the idea of adaptive content gains significant footing in K-12, how do you foresee the teacher evaluation process evolving over time? Where can Amplify play a role?

That is not our space, so I would say that we are really aiming to empower teachers to better deliver the materials that they need to deliver, give them the supports, the tools, enable them to be more effective and more efficient. That’s where I see us going.

My own guess is the things you’re talking about in terms of adaptive learning, time-on-task, those kinds of things - as we get more sophisticated, that will make the measures in teacher assessment more effective. Right now some of the concerns are that it’s a largely one-dimensional enterprise, and as things get richer, I think we will have more ways to look at the problem. But this is not where Amplify plans to focus its efforts.

What teacher was most influential in your development and why?

That’s a great question*, and I’ve thought about this a lot as a former school chancellor. The teacher that had the greatest impact on me was a guy named Sidney Harris. He was my physics teacher in New York City. Not to belabor the point, but the first thing he did was to point out to me that I really was underestimating what I was capable of. He created the opportunity for me to literally stay after school with him on his time to work and study Einsteinian physics, the special theory of relativity and so on. He used that as a way to convince me to spend a summer at the National Science Foundation program on physics, something that would not have happened if it wasn’t for Sidney Harris. It started by lighting me up in his classroom.

When he saw how I responded to what he was teaching me in physics class, that’s when he decided to do the Einstein work with me, and that’s what got me convinced that I wanted to go spend a summer away from my friends in New York City at the Northfield Mount Hermon School up in Northern Massachusetts learning physics from a guy named Boyer, who was a Muhlenberg College Chairman of the Department of Physics. That really set me on a different career path in life, and it’s always convinced me of the power of remarkable teachers to truly change people’s destiny.

I’ve had a lot of first runner-ups, but no one who quite touched my life the way Sidney Harris did.

*They don’t call me the Walt “Clyde” Frazier of ed-tech blogging for nothing, Joel.
**Free plug for the Rethink Education Portfolio! Go Team Rethink!

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.