Why education reform may be doomed

Former school chancellor Joel Klein's dishonest new book reflects the corruption endemic in our school system

Published October 13, 2012 12:44PM (EDT)

Former New York City schools chief Joel Klein during an interview in his New York office.   (AP/Richard Drew)
Former New York City schools chief Joel Klein during an interview in his New York office. (AP/Richard Drew)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect This is a story about a story, of how a fiction about impoverished children and public schools corrupts our education policy.

The fiction is the autobiography of Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Klein transformed the city’s public-school system by promoting privately managed charter schools to replace regular public schools, by increasing the consequences for principals and teachers of standardized tests, and by attacking union-sponsored due process and seniority provisions for teachers. From his perch as head of the nation’s largest school district, Klein wielded outsize influence, campaigning to persuade districts and states across the nation to adopt the testing and accountability policies he had established in New York. Deputies he trained when he was chancellor now lead school systems not only in New York but also in Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Newark, and elsewhere.

Klein resigned in 2010 to develop a new division at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to sell tablet-based curriculum to public schools. His prominence in national education policy, though, has not diminished. He is chair of the Broad Center, which is funded by Los Angeles billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad to train and place school superintendents who’ve been recruited not only from the education sector but also from leadership positions in government, the military, and corporations. The center’s graduates have included the Obama administration’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, state school superintendents in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Delaware, and district superintendents in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Seattle, and dozens of other cities. Earlier this year, Klein co-chaired, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Council on Foreign Relations commission that concluded that the country’s public schools are in such crisis that they threaten national security. Klein has also become a contributor to The Atlantic; his latest piece, in August, denounced “ideological foes of business’ contribution to the public good” who resist efforts of private firms to sell innovative products to public schools.

Klein and his allies hold teachers primarily responsible for the achievement gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children. In a 2010 “manifesto,” Klein and one of his protégés, Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., summed up their campaign like this: “The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income—it is the quality of their teacher.”

As proof, Klein—and others for him—cites his life story in what has become a stump speech for his brand of school reform. Again and again, Klein recounts his own deprived childhood and how it was a public-school teacher who plucked him from a path to mediocrity or worse. He offers his autobiography as evidence that poverty is no bar to success and that today’s disadvantaged children fail only because they are not rescued by inspiring teachers like those from whom Klein himself had benefitted.

This has become conventional wisdom in national education policy. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has declared, “Klein knows, as I do, that great teachers can transform a child’s life chances—and that poverty is not destiny. It’s a belief deeply rooted in his childhood, as a kid growing up in public housing. … Joel Klein never lost that sense of urgency about education as the great equalizer. He understands that education is the civil-rights issue of our generation, the force that lifts children from public-housing projects to first-generation college students. … In place of a culture of excuses, Klein sought [as chancellor] to build a culture of performance and accountability.”

Here is Klein’s autobiographical account in his own words, faithful to original context, culled from numerous speeches and interviews that Klein has given and continues to give:

grew up in public housing in Queens and grew up in the streets of New York. I always like to think of myself as a kid from the streets, and education changed my life. … I stood on the shoulders of teachers to see a world that I couldn’t have seen growing up in the family that I grew up in.

My father had dropped out of high school in the tenth grade during the Great Depression. My mother graduated from high school and never went to college. No one in my family had attended college … or knew about college. I had no appreciation of reading or cultural activities. …

By most people’s lights, we were certainly working-class, poor. … I grew up in a pretty unhappy household. …

Teachers set expectations for me that were not commensurate with my background or my family’s income. …

Nobody in [my] school said to me, ‘Well, you grew up in public housing, your parents don’t read, you’ve never been to a museum, so we shouldn’t expect too much from you!’ … I wanted to play ball, I had a girlfriend at the time. I thought school was OK, a little overrated but I thought it was OK. … Mr. Harris, my physics teacher at William Cullen Bryant High School, saw something that I hadn’t seen in myself. … I realized, through him, that the potential of students in inner-city schools is too often untapped. We can fix that. Demography need not be destiny.

From the day I took the job as chancellor of the New York Public Schools, friends told me that I would never fix education in America until you fix the poverty in our society. … I’m convinced now more than ever that those people have it exactly backwards—because you’ll never fix poverty in America until you fix education.

I reject categorically the principle that poverty is an insurmountable impediment, because I see that we have surmounted it time and again.

I never forget and never will forget who I am, where I came from, and what public education did for me. I am still the old kid from Queens.

The lesson Klein, Duncan, and others draw from this autobiography is that poor children today fail because their teachers, unlike the 1950s Mr. Harris, are overprotected by union contracts, have low expectations for poor students, and so barely try to teach them. To correct this, Klein and others who call themselves “school reformers” hope to identify ineffective teachers and replace them with new ones who rest their security not on union rules but on an ability to rescue children from material and intellectual deprivation.

Unlike a politician’s biography, which gets vetted by the press, Klein’s account has never been questioned. That’s too bad, because in nearly every detail the story he tells is misleading or untrue. The misrepresentations call into question the reforms he and his acolytes promote.

As a policy analyst, I have often criticized those who dismiss the powerful influence of poverty on academic achievement and the belief that better teachers can systematically overcome that influence. In making this critique, autobiography influences me as well, because as it turns out, Klein and I grew up in similar circumstances—third-generation, educationally ambitious, Queens, New York, Jewish households, with parents who had nearly identical jobs and incomes. I’m just a few years older than Klein. We attended neighboring schools; I even had the same physics teacher, Mr. Sidney Harris, whom Klein credits with his rescue. We both attended Ivy League colleges (he went to Columbia, I to Harvard), but unlike Klein, I have always considered myself lucky to have come from an academically motivated family and would never dare suggest that I had material or intellectual hardships that were in any way comparable to those faced by poor minority children from housing projects today. Some of my teachers were superb, some not so, but with backgrounds like ours, Klein and I would probably have succeeded no matter what shortcomings our schools might have had.

Klein is right that “demography need not be destiny.” Human nature and environments are variable, children are complex, and so although disadvantaged children on average perform more poorly than typical middle-class children, some disadvantaged children do better and some do even worse than their circumstances would seem to predict. A few respond exceptionally well to teachers and schools. Some poor parents are literate, take education unusually seriously, seek the best out-of-school enrichment, and read to their children at home. These are the few low-income minority children whom some high-profile charter schools serve. It’s when poverty combines with chaos at home, adult illiteracy, neglect, unaddressed health issues, constant dislocation, and a neighborhood pervaded by addiction and crime that most children in these environments become, in sociologist William Julius Wilson’s phrase, “truly disadvantaged.” It’s these children whose academic performance we must help to improve and who are the target of most self-described school reformers.

* * *

For Klein’s life story to serve his argument, he can’t merely have grown up in a housing project but in a home that failed to support middle-class values of academic ambition and striving. To support his program, he’s had to suggest he had an “inner city” upbringing on “the streets” and was raised in a dysfunctional home we typically associate with the truly disadvantaged. This is where his misrepresentations and distortions come in. The discrepancies matter because they go to the heart of what’s wrong with his reform agenda.

Educational values were not absent from Klein’s family. His father, Charles Klein, like many of his generation, left high school during the Depression, but the notion that his parents couldn’t read or didn’t know about college is misleading. His mother, Claire Klein, was a bookkeeper. With fierce competition for scarce jobs, Charles did well enough on a civil-service exam to land work at the post office, remaining for 25 years in a secure job he hated to ensure he could send his children to college. This was not the commitment of semi-literate parents with little knowledge of higher education.

Indeed, while serving as assistant attorney general in the Clinton Justice Department, and before becoming schools chancellor, Klein recalled how he was inspired to become a lawyer: He sometimes skipped school, he told an interviewer, so his father could “take me to the federal courthouse in Manhattan, and we’d just watch cases.” This is not the typical father-son activity of public-housing residents with “no appreciation of reading or cultural activities.”

Klein graduated high school at 16, because, like me, he was placed in a New York City program that compressed three years of junior high school into two. These “special progress” classes, at Klein’s Junior High School 10 and my nearby Junior High School 74, were not for would-be truants and gang members but for academically advanced students with ambitious parents who were impatient with the regular curricular pace. Special-progress classes were even more racially and academically segregated from other students than their contemporary version, “gifted and talented” programs that retain middle-class parents in the public-school system by separating their children from most low-income and minority-group peers. Klein may recall that he was not academically engaged until inspired by his high-school physics teacher. But in the 1950s, you weren’t assigned to seventh-grade special-progress classes unless you were already performing well above grade level.

Klein excelled academically in high school before encountering Mr. Harris. The Bryant High School yearbook for the class of 1963 tells a very different story from the one Klein recounts. It describes him as a member of the National Honor Society in his junior as well as senior year. He was also a member of the math team, served as an editor of the school newspaper, and was elected student-government president. To top it all, the “Senior Celebrities”page of the yearbook named him class scholar.

Klein’s family was also not poor by any reasonable criteria. Charles Klein’s annual post-office salary in the 1950s was about equal to the national median household income. The median national salary for full-time female clerical workers was about three-fourths of the national median household income. Thus, so long as Claire Klein worked, the Klein family income would have been substantially in excess of the national median. Indeed, Charles Klein was well-off enough to take his family on an annual summer vacation to the Catskills. In 1971, Charles Klein saw his son Joel graduate from law school and obtain a prestigious clerkship at a federal appeals court. Charles then retired with a defined-benefit federal pension to a Florida apartment near the beach—an option unlikely for public-housing residents as we now know them.

The conventional definition of disadvantaged students today is eligibility for free lunch, because their household income (for a family of four) is about half the national median. These are the children about whose achievement we worry and by this definition, Klein was not poor. Even if his mother earned nothing, the family was not economically oppressed. Klein didn’t overcome demographic odds; he fulfilled them. He was a student who then, like now, enjoyed family resources and values that predict academic success.

Klein’s most egregious autobiographical distortion is that he grew up in public housing. That’s because, as Klein must know, the words “public housing” evoke an image of minority unemployment, welfare dependence, unwed motherhood, truancy, gangs, drug dealing, addiction, and violence. Klein, though, grew up in racial privilege, dramatically different from the segregated world of most youngsters in public housing today. (Click here to read Richard Rothstein's related piece on the role of public housing in racially segregating communities.)

Klein did live in public housing after his family moved to Queens in 1955 when he was nine years old. But he fails to say—perhaps because he truly doesn’t realize—that some public housing in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Woodside Houses project where his family resided, was built for white, middle-class families. The poor and the problems poverty causes were unwelcome. This distinction is critical to understanding Klein’s history and why it undermines his current policy prescriptions.

Returning World War II veterans like Klein’s father confronted a housing shortage. To address it, New York erected projects like Woodside Houses, an attractive six-story development with trees, grassy areas, and park benches. Residents were not on the dole but paid rent that covered their housing costs; apartments were not subsidized and were not part of the national low-income housing program.

Rather, for prospective tenants in Woodside Houses and its sister projects, the New York City Housing Authority enforced 21 disqualifying factors. Excluded were single-parent families and those with irregular employment history, out-of-wedlock births, criminal records, narcotics addiction, or mental illness—in other words, any family with the qualities we now associate with public housing. Couples had to show marriage licenses to apply. To filter out undesirables, inspectors visited applicants’ previous homes to verify good housekeeping habits, sufficient furniture, and well-behaved children. Neighborhood public schools serving complexes like Woodside Houses thus didn’t have to contend with unruly adolescents; they had already been weeded out by the Housing Authority.

New York City claimed it did not segregate its projects, but Woodside and similar complexes in white neighborhoods accepted only a token few black tenants because Housing Authority policy was to respect “existing community patterns.” So when the Kleins moved to Woodside Houses in its predominantly white neighborhood, 87 percent of their fellow tenants were white. The few nonwhites were also middle-class, owing to the rigorous screening they endured. By contrast, South Jamaica Houses in a black Queens neighborhood was only 12 percent white, and its low-income tenants were subsidized.

So Klein’s entire autobiography is a sleight of hand.

He was not a child of the streets. He was not an academically unmotivated student. He did not come from a deprived family background. He did not grow up in public housing as we understand it today.

I sent Klein a detailed set of questions that focused on the discrepancies between the public record and the life story he has told. He responded by e-mail: "I appreciate the time and effort put into trying to reinterpret and recharacterize my family’s history and to construe the conditions of public housing, public education, and public-sector employment 50 years ago. I happened to be there, however, and it was as I’ve described it over the years—a humble, challenging environment, positively influenced by parents who set great examples through hard work and by many teachers including one who truly inspired me and changed my life. I do not compare my family’s situation to anyone or anything, nor do I view socioeconomic need as a downward contest for credibility in addressing the challenges in education today."

* * *

In misrepresenting his childhood, Klein has distorted the world of both our fathers. Mine, already out of high school and at City College of New York when the Great Depression hit, was also fortunate to land a job in the post office, working second jobs at night. Permanently traumatized by the insecurity of the Depression, he remained unhappily in the federal civil service so he, like Charles Klein, could see his children through college, after which he was rewarded, also like the elder Klein, with a secure federal pension. My mother, like Klein’s, was a bookkeeper.

I never lived in public housing, but my parents’ small single-family home in a white Queens neighborhood not far from Woodside had monthly mortgage payments about the same as the rent Charles and Claire Klein paid to the Housing Authority. Our family income was similar to the Kleins’; both families were middle-class.

At Bayside High School, I also had Sidney Harris for physics. (After I graduated, he transferred to Bryant.) I don’t doubt that he was an excellent teacher and inspired Klein, but he did nothing similar for me. I was instead motivated by my Latin and journalism teachers. Like the 1963 yearbook at Bryant High School, my 1959 Bayside yearbook has few black faces. Klein and I both attended almost entirely segregated, white schools.

My family was not wealthy. But my parents supplied me with plenty of picture books to play with in my crib. My father didn’t take me to watch court cases, but one night we went to Brooklyn to retrieve a set of encyclopedias from a second cousin who was about to discard them. My mother and father took me to the Museum of Natural History and the Planetarium, and at the dinner table, my father frequently posed a counterfactual to explore the day’s events. “Let’s assume …” was his favorite phrase. Such unintended exercises in reasoning and critical thinking, and other similar activities, play an essential role in preparing students for success when they get to school.

My public-school education in the 1950s was OK but not as good as that received by many of my college peers who came from more affluent communities. What made my education complete was the academic support I received at home—support that Klein now takes for granted, discounting the enormous contribution his parents made to his cognitive strengths. Parents who have similarly sacrificed, keeping jobs they hated to ensure their children could attend college, might conclude that Klein’s parents raised an ingrate. Certainly it seems absurd for him to claim that his parents had less influence on his eventual academic success than Mr. Harris, who first encountered him only late in high school. Yet this is the position of Klein, Rhee, Duncan, and their allies: Teachers alone determine whether children succeed, and home environment is merely an obstacle for teachers to overcome. Maybe there’s a case for this approach, but Klein’s biography doesn’t prove it.

My high school initially refused to process my application to Harvard. When my father took a day off to make a holy fuss, the Bayside principal, Dr. Samuel Moskowitz, said that he wouldn’t waste his staff’s time, because “boys from here don’t go to Harvard.” So much for the high expectations of this supposedly golden, pre–teachers’ union era. Today, tenacious parenting still predicts success for students from middle-class or, less frequently, from impoverished households.

Children like Klein and me were privileged, not perhaps in money but in what sociologists term “social capital.” Nobody I know of from my special-progress class dropped out of school; my fellow students typically went on to become college professors, doctors, business executives, accountants, writers, and lawyers. Sure, we loved to play street stickball, but we were not “kids from the streets,” as Klein would have it. We were surrounded by peers with middle-class ambitions and goals.

It would be obscene for me to claim I overcame severe hardship and was rescued from deprivation by schoolteachers. It is more obscene for Klein to do so, because his claim supports attacks on contemporary teachers and a refusal to acknowledge impediments teachers face because of their students’ social and economic deprivation. It’s a deprivation that he never suffered but that many children from public housing do today.

A few superhuman teachers may lift a handful of children who come to school from barely literate homes, hungry, in poor health, and otherwise unprepared for academic instruction. But even the best teachers face impossible tasks when confronted with classrooms filled with truly disadvantaged students who are not in tracked special-progress classes and don’t arrive each morning from families as academically supportive as mine. Instead, they may come from segregated communities where concentrated and entrenched poverty, unemployment, and social alienation over many generations have been ravaging.

When Klein was appointed chancellor he did seek advice, not only from his friends as he reports in his autobiographical accounts but from analysts like me. I was one of those who told him, as he puts it, that we “would never fix education in America until we fix the poverty in our society.” I suggested that he might win more lasting achievement gains by establishing school clinics to ensure that all children had good health care and by directing resources to early-childhood literacy programs and after-school enrichment. I urged him to use his influence to protest government-created residential segregation that concentrates the most disadvantaged children in schools without middle-class peers and where the accumulation of impediments to learning is overwhelming.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that First Amendment free-speech rights protect a politician’s false claims to have earned military medals. Klein, too, has a constitutional right to fabricate a life story. But it is up to the rest of us to consider what light the fact of his misrepresentation sheds on the merits of policies he advocates.

Klein is not the sole author of current school-reform policies; many others share responsibility.

But his less-than-honest autobiography has been accepted unquestioningly by allies like Arne Duncan who use it, as he does, to support needless test obsession for millions of schoolchildren, on the theory that more accountability for teachers will cure our social ills. Klein’s story has contributed to the demoralization of tens of thousands of teachers who are now blamed for their low-income students’ poor test scores. Klein and Duncan’s conclusion that public schools must be failing because they don’t perform the miracles they allegedly performed in the past has helped justify a rapid expansion of charter schools. Most charter schools have done no better for disadvantaged children than the schools from which they came, while stripping regular schools of their most motivated students. Contemporary reforms have produced much turmoil in public education but little or no meaningful improvement. Meanwhile, social inequality has grown and with it, challenges to educators hoping to narrow the achievement gap.

Klein and Rhee have recently founded an organization called StudentsFirstNY to raise millions of dollars from New York City’s wealthiest. It will support candidates in the city’s upcoming mayoral race who adopt an agenda that puts “the interests of children” over “special interests” (read: teacher unions) and commits to expanding charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure, and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The group’s mission statement incorporates the fanciful Klein autobiographical tale, saying that “while there are many factors that influence a student’s opportunity to learn, a great teacher can help any student overcome those barriers and realize their full potential.”

Klein’s actual biography tells an important story, just not the one he imagines: It’s more evidence that student achievement mostly reflects the social and economic environment in which children are raised and that the best way to improve academic achievement is to address these conditions directly.

By Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein is a Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute.

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