A schools chief learns about reform and politics the hard way

Earl Kim *93
Earl Kim *93
Ricardo Barros

It’s been a busy and bruising few years for Earl Kim *93, the superintendent of schools in Montgomery Township, just north of Princeton. Like other schools chiefs during the recession, he has had to steer the district through budget cuts that forced layoffs, larger classes, and program reductions. He has coped with a hurricane that left district schools flooded and teachers unable to get into their classrooms. He has managed all the sensitive issues that crop up in any fast-growing, affluent school system with high-achieving students and demanding parents.

But on top of all that, Kim increasingly finds himself a major player in the battle over public education that is raging across the United States but is especially potent in New Jersey because of Gov. Chris Christie’s pitched struggles with the teachers union.

Equitable funding. Teacher evaluation. Tenure. Student testing. Kim’s positions have led bloggers and at least one newspaper columnist to call for his ouster. People have been so riled up that earlier this year, when Kim was preparing to testify before a state Senate committee against a Christie initiative on teacher evaluation (not long after testifying in a Supreme Court challenge to state funding cuts), one veteran of New Jersey’s public-education wars, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, advised him that he might need “protection.”

“I thought it was tongue-in-cheek,” says Kim, a former college wrestler and ex-Marine. “But I’ve since learned that the powers-that-be don’t like me testifying anywhere against a position the [Christie] administration holds, and it really is a blood sport.”

When, exactly, did public education become a blood sport? Granted, there were vicious battles over busing in the 1970s. But now the whole American system of public education, which once made us so proud, seems to have become suspect. Perhaps it’s all those reports that show how far our students now lag behind their peers in places like Finland and Singapore — though Kim points out that once you adjust for poverty, we are still doing fine — or perhaps it’s a reflection of how both students and parents fret over college admission. Maybe it’s our economic clout, which we feel slipping away. After all, notes Montgomery school board member Andrea Bradley, New Jersey school budgets are “the only ones communities get to vote on.” Adelle Kirk ’93, another board member, thinks education has become such a bitter battleground because the private sector continues to feel pinched while teachers are getting raises, however small; meanwhile, teachers feel frustrated that the public doesn’t understand how much they do for how little. “It’s a very negative climate,” says Montgomery teacher Bonnie Lieu ’06, who believes that union activists and ordinary teachers have been “lumped together” in the eyes of the state.

Public education has become a proxy for a slew of hot-button issues, like taxes and the relative merits of the public and private sectors. Russ Walsh, the Montgomery district’s director of human resources and staff development, believes it’s all those anxieties, rolled into one troubling puzzle we all think we know something about because we’ve been there: schools. “I can’t understand why politicians don’t cast this in a larger light,” says Walsh, meaning that the problems of education are reflections of larger problems in society, including great challenges tied to poverty. “Perhaps because the problems are too big and they don’t want to deal with them.”

At first glance, Montgomery would seem to have virtually none of the problems that cripple New Jersey’s big cities. Just 20 years ago, it still was mostly rural, a bucolic slice of the state’s midsection where rolling farmland nestled up against the long ridge known as Sourland Mountain to the west. “You didn’t move to Montgomery for any reason other than the schools,” says Bradley, who came with her ­family in 1997.

The district’s schools continue to be a real lure. In the 14 years since Bradley moved to Montgomery, the district has grown tremendously and now has more than 5,000 students. When the Bradley family arrived, there were fewer than 100 students in the high school’s graduating class; last year’s class had 430. Many of those newcomers had different expectations from the people they found there. “There was a switch from being old-time Montgomery — predominantly farmers — to a culturally diverse community,” says Bradley, who went to Stanford and became a lawyer, as her husband did. “We have lots of double-income professionals, people who work at Plasma Physics [PPPL] and in big pharmaceutical companies.” In other words: The district has parents who’ve gotten a good education themselves and demand the same for their children.

In many ways, Kim, four years into the job, would seem to have one of the country’s most enviable superintendent jobs. Though families in his community have struggled with layoffs, Kim need not worry about the crushing poverty of inner-city districts. The vast majority speak English as their first language. High school students outshine their peers statewide and nationally in their performance on the SATs and Advanced Placement exams, and most easily pass the state tests required for graduation. More than 86 percent of members of the Class of 2010 went on to four-year colleges.

Still, Kim has spent much energy on issues of educational equity — seemingly a higher ­priority for low-income school districts like Trenton and Camden than high-achieving, suburban Montgomery. A few years ago, when state budget cuts forced yet another hard look at Montgomery’s spending and there was talk of instituting an “activities fee” for extracurriculars, Kim opposed it, arguing that there was no real distinction to be drawn between classroom activities and extracurricular ones: Students find what they need in different places. This year, he testified before the state Supreme Court, arguing that New Jersey’s ­education-funding cuts violated the state constitution. The court later reinstated state aid, though Kim’s more affluent district did not share in the windfall.

Last June, Kim became the target of a columnist at New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, because he opposed a plan to change the way schools are financed in the state. The plan would result in increasing the tax burden on low-income school districts — known as “Abbott” districts because of the state’s landmark 1985 Abbott v. Burke school-financing case — while easing the burden on ­wealthier districts like Kim’s own. Responding to a letter from the plan’s Senate sponsor, Kim laid out his reasoning: “The research is pretty clear that the return on investment to a child who is lesser advantaged is far greater than the return on a dollar spent on an advantaged child,” he wrote. In case the economic argument failed to persuade, Kim appealed to the more nebulous notion of “Rawlsian fairness” — a brave move, since the sacrifice implicit in John Rawls ’43 *50’s ­conception of “justice as fairness” is a tough sell during a recession.

Indeed, the justice argument made little headway with Kim’s critics. “Let me offer a hint to this overpaid bureaucrat: An employee of the school board has no say whatsoever in such public-policy matters as the proper amount of property-­tax relief,” wrote Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine. “If he did, however, he should not be advising his superiors to take a course of action that deprives the taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars that could lower their property taxes and help keep them in their houses.”

Rutgers University professor Bruce D. Baker, who teaches about school finance, jumped to Kim’s defense. “In the politics of state school finance, self-interest is often hard to overcome,” he wrote in his blog, School Finance 101. “It is a rare administrator who is able to balance these conflicts well — to not take the easy way out and accept an absurd or even unethical policy position simply because it drives more dollars to their constituents.” Kim, he wrote, was the exception.

The whole affair left Kim feeling not defeated, but disappointed that there seems to be no hope for honest debate on a critical subject. “Just having a different view leads to this kind of escalation,” he says with a sigh. “It’s not a climate in which you can have a discussion. You get called out.”

Earl Kim *93, center, with teacher Bonnie Lieu ’06, left, and board member Adelle Kirk ’93.
Earl Kim *93, center, with teacher Bonnie Lieu ’06, left, and board member Adelle Kirk ’93.
Ricardo Barros

Though he has never been afraid of a battle — he wrestled at Cornell and was a Marine platoon commander in the South Pacific (he also competed on the Marines’ military pentathlon team) — Kim is nothing if not disarmingly polite. Those who work with him say he never loses his temper. Walsh believes Kim’s actions stem from his sense that, but for certain breaks, he might have fallen through the cracks himself.

Growing up in Honolulu, Kim saw his parents split up when he was in ninth grade. He and his brother went with his father, while his sister went with his mother. As a student at the private Iolani School, Kim became a troublemaker.

Kim likes to tell a story to illustrate why he cares so deeply about education. One day he got kicked out of class. He was outside in the courtyard performing the customary punishment of pulling weeds when he was spotted by a teacher who knew him only slightly. Puzzled to find him performing this task, he asked Kim, “What are you doing out here? You should be thinking about which colleges you want to apply to.”

Coming, as it did, out of the blue, that vote of confidence touched Kim, and while it did not reform him instantly, it is part of an important pattern in his life: “I have been affected by chance encounters with wonderful teachers who literally changed the trajectory of my life,” he says.

There was one other big influence on Kim from his childhood, though he would not feel it as such for decades. That was his paternal grandfather, Henry Cu Kim, who worked as a security guard in a pineapple-canning plant. He was unable to communicate with his grandson because cancer had taken his vocal cords. After Henry Kim died in 1967, Kim’s lasting memory of his grandfather was of a silent old man who sat watching him play.

So both he and his father were stunned to receive, in 1995, a letter from the Korean government. It asked permission to exhume Henry Cu Kim’s remains to be buried in a cemetery reserved for generals and patriots in Korea. Apparently the silent old man had been something of a secret agent fighting the Japanese occupation of his country. Only when Kim belatedly read his grandfather’s autobiography did he learn how his grandfather had trekked across Mongolia, Russia, and Europe before sailing to New York City. Juggling as many as 10 aliases, he ended up in, of all places, Hastings, Neb. There, he worked with a team of Korean expatriates dedicated to winning Korean independence.

“It’s a neat story,” says Kim. “It is one of the drivers in my life, feeling the obligation to live up to what my parents and grandparents sacrificed. My brother chose medicine. I just happened to choose education.”

In telling his own life’s story, Kim often emphasizes the good fortune he’s had, rather than the hard work he’s done. Knowing he could attend college only if someone else paid for it, Kim explored the ROTC program, applying to colleges he found on the back of an ROTC pamphlet. He chose Cornell, where he majored in history and joined the Marines’ ROTC program, selecting it over the Navy’s program.

“Someone told me that in the Navy, I’d sleep in clean sheets,” Kim recalls. “Clean sheets didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the Marines’ promise that I would be taught leadership skills.”

After Cornell and four years of active duty in the Marines, Kim decided he wanted to be a teacher; furthermore, he wanted to teach in the inner city. He made cold calls to both Trenton and Camden high schools and told them he was interested in teaching there. Camden turned him down, but he was invited to visit Trenton Central High School. An assistant principal gave him a tour of the school, at the end of which he was told to go down to the office to fill out the necessary forms for a job. He taught math, helped coach the wrestling team, and oversaw a variety of student activities, all while attending evening and Saturday classes to earn a teaching certificate. “I was very mission-oriented,” he says. “You told me what the students needed to know, and I’d pound it into them, the Parris Island way.”

His three years in Trenton gave Kim more firsthand experience with the problems of poor districts than most superintendents ever get. He insists that the teachers he worked with in Trenton were as dedicated as those in Montgomery, despite the additional challenges. One huge obstacle to their success, he says, is turnover — not just of students, but of teachers (44 percent in Trenton last year, largely because of budget cuts) — and administrators, who had their hands full. “You never saw an administrator because they were always dealing with disciplinary issues,” he says. “We had a police substation in Trenton High!”

Teaching high school, Kim came to believe that solving the most difficult problems facing public schools required educators and policy makers to communicate, but the educators weren’t being heard because “they didn’t speak the same language the policy makers did.” He wanted teachers to have a voice. And so he enrolled at the Woodrow Wilson School, where he tailored his own program of study that included macroeconomics with now-Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, labor economics, and higher-education policy. Kim still reads studies in economics journals — studies that most people in education never see.

The lessons that Kim learned in the Marines, in Trenton, and a few miles up Route 1 in Princeton stuck with him. Arriving in Montgomery as superintendent in 2008 after a stint as the schools chief in Verona, N.J., he brought a belief and trust in public-school teachers, who find themselves belittled in many school-reform quarters these days. “The philosophy in the Marine Corps was to give responsibility to the lowest level possible, to the people closest to the ground,” Kim explains. “In the same way, the organizational structure of Montgomery schools is designed around teams of teachers working together, making professional judgments based on what is in front of them — the children. You have to have trust that they’re going to make the right judgments.”

He challenges the notion that New Jersey school districts amount to a failure. It’s not that there isn’t dysfunction in the Abbott districts, and elsewhere, he says — there is. But he points to the most recent Quality Counts report, the annual report card published by Education Week, which shows that New Jersey has been making progress, and closing the achievement gap between white and African-American students. “To say that reform or school improvement isn’t occurring in New Jersey is a narrative that somebody’s created,” says Kim.

Kim is eager to challenge other beliefs that have become accepted as fact by many in today’s public-education wars. Take, for example, the claim that nothing is more important in a student’s academic success than the quality of his teachers. That claim is the primary justification for a New Jersey executive order calling for a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals, and is at the center of debates over merit pay across the country. But Kim — leader of a statewide group of education reformers hoping to have input into the new system — says that’s true only if you exclude all external factors. Individual teachers, he insists, make a difference of only three or four percentage points in student performance. In some cases teachers and schools together can explain about 50 percent of a student’s performance, he says, but other factors, such as “family and income and the dog barking outside the schoolhouse when they are taking the test,” will have a huge impact too.

He also challenges plans to weed out bad teachers by basing as much as half of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores — the kind of plan promoted by some of the nation’s best-known education reformers, such as Michelle Rhee, former head of the Washington, D.C., public schools. Unfortu­­nately, says Kim, “our test-making has not caught up with our thinking about what makes for a good assessment.” First, he argues, existing standardized tests don’t measure the ­higher-order reasoning and critical-thinking skills that are so important. He believes that a large number of teachers — about one-quarter — are assessed incorrectly by commonly used tests. “It’s literally, to my mind, malpractice to base anything important on them. I don’t know how these people are going to do it in good conscience.” He contends that today’s mania for testing has produced a host of unintended consequences, including the cheating scandals that have come to light in a number of cities, because educators fear their jobs are on the line each time their students sit for a test.

A far better predictor of success in life, Kim says, are non-cognitive skills, those hard-to-describe qualities we all got from that small handful of teachers who excited us about a subject and whom we still recall fondly decades later. “Based on our analysis, it turns out they are more predictive” than standard tests, says Kim, alluding to a study conducted in Montgomery of the college “persistence” — the ability to stick with college through completion — of Montgomery graduates. (Catherine Che ’11 did the number-crunching as part of the analysis for her senior thesis in economics.)

Kim isn’t suggesting we scrap standardized tests altogether, only that we work hard to improve them while recognizing that they are just “our first pass at measuring teacher effectiveness.” Instead, if the tests suggest that there’s a problem “because some group of kids is underperforming versus others in their grade level or course, then we look deeper — at practices in the classroom, at preparation and planning.” Indeed, Montgomery is combining teacher evaluation with teacher development, and has created a program in which teachers themselves will monitor each other’s practice, provide help to those who need it, and, when necessary, decide who needs to go. “When teachers really believe they are the guardians of professional teaching practice, they will enforce this,” he says. “They don’t want bad teachers in this district.”

Not everyone buys all that Kim puts forward, of course. Laura Waters, who writes a blog on issues on New Jersey education called, tellingly, NJ Left Behind, admires Kim and his willingness to take a stand on important issues. Still, she thinks “it’s a cop-out” to take the focus off what schools can do. In that, Kim would not disagree.

Kim worries about the declining attractiveness of teaching as a profession. Already, he says, four “very good teachers” left his district’s classrooms this year to work at private schools, which, Kim says, “pay better and don’t have to deal with the noise you’re hearing coming from our state and federal governments.”

They may not be the last. The exodus is expected to include superintendents, especially since the state has capped pay at $175,000 (Kim, whose contract expires in 2013, says that bonuses and other allowances in the law would have “kept me whole”), and more than 300 New Jersey school superintendents face substantial pay cuts.

Frustrated by the school battles, and above all by what he perceives as the Christie administration’s unwillingness to discuss the issues fairly, Kim, too, has been wooed away, back to Hawaii. After worrying all through the year that his outspokenness would hurt Montgomery in Trenton, he accepted an offer last month to become the headmaster of the Kamehameha School’s flagship campus in Honolulu. “I do believe,” he says, “that I am not meeting the needs of the current administration. Better to go where I’m ­needed, eh?”

Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.