Lessons Of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools
One has to do a good deal of Google scrolling to find a balanced assessment of the man who ran a school system that has about as many students (1.1 million) as Dallas does residents. And managing the former is surely the harder task, as the decent folks of the Big D are not compelled, en masse, to take standardized tests that will govern their fates; nor must they have lunches that align with federal nutritional standards; nor do they demand free music classes and gym, along with free busses and comments on their homework. Not to keep picking on a fine Texas town, but the total municipal budget for Dallas is about $2.8 billion; it was $23 billion for New York's schools when Klein departed. Klein's task was immense, and impossible. Most reasonable observers, however, will agree that he deserves well above a passing grade, if not quite high honors. Without him, the schools would be worse. Much worse, maybe.
This week, Klein publishes his account of the eight years he spent at the Tweed Courthouse, the stately quarters of the Department of Education that stand next to City Hall. The book is called Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, and everything from the bland title to the bland cover (a tipped apple; get it?) is calculated not to offend. The goal here is instead defensive, coming at a time when the city's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, threatens to undo many of Klein's reforms. Lessons of Hope offers little of the salacious gossip that sometimes propels political memoirs to best-seller status; the solutions it suggests have already been tried by many, and remain disputed by some. Still, Klein could help galvanize a conversation we have to keep having if we want to outpace the likes of Tajikistan: How do we save the worst schools in our biggest cities? Can those schools even be saved?
I certainly thought so when I joined the Department of Education in 2006, four years after Bloomberg, an outsider to politics, appointed Klein, an outsider to education, to head the city's schools…
…The spirit of buzz, of true possibility, thrums through Lessons of Hope. Klein and his deputies, most of whom were also outsiders (and some of whom didn't last), had essentially been handed a corpse and told to make it run a marathon. When Klein took over, the graduation rate of New York City high schools was 47 percent; the average SAT score of city teachers was a depressing 970; the central bureaucracy beyond Kafkaesque, compelling no one to take responsibility for anything. Klein's first agenda was called Children First, suggesting the true focus of schooling had been lost.
In the years that followed, Klein unleashed a flurry of agendas and initiatives.Lessons of Hope is rife with them: the Leadership Academy, the Education Equality Project, Project HR, the Empowerment Zone, the iZone, small schools funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of these worked; others didn't. But to have not tried them would have relegated Klein to the status of a mortuary assistant.
…Improving the quality of New York's teachers was one of Klein's imperatives, and he is explicitly proud of having accomplished as much, taking on the disastrous "trade union" model of public education. Early on, he turned attention to the fact that union protections were so ferocious, Jeffrey Dahmer probably could have kept teaching after, well, you know. At the very least, he would have been given a desk job in a Bronx district office. Seniority governed everything: where you taught, how much you were paid for teaching. Nothing was as irrelevant as the quality of your teaching.
Klein told me that his greatest regret as chancellor is not having articulated to teachers more clearly why their union rules were injurious to their profession. On several occasions in Lessons of Hope, Klein admiringly quotes Albert Shanker, the legendary teachers union boss, and perhaps the most ardent defender of the profession. Even he knew, toward the end, that something was amiss in the classroom. At a speech before the Pew Forum in 1993, four years before his death, Shanker said, "In our system, we have a large number of teachers who have not reached even very low levels of literacy and numeracy. Some of our professional development programs are designed to get teachers to understand fractions and how to read." But Shanker was speaking to his own flock, which he had led since 1974. How could an interloper like Klein tell teachers that they'd done a lousy job, that the profession needed a blood letting, followed by a blood transfusion? Truth is, he probably never could.
Firing teachers was hard enough; opening charter schools proved even harder. Klein presided over the largest infusion of charters—public schools that can take private funds, and operate with fewer restrictions—in New York history. About 100 of them opened during his tenure, run by not-for-profit operators like KIPP and Uncommon Schools, which refused to treat poverty as an excuse for scholastic mediocrity. Eva S. Moskowitz, a onetime member of the City Council and staunch early critic of Klein, started a charter network called Success Academy, whose students are mostly black and brown. Those students often test far above their wealthier, whiter peers, thus shredding the noxious these-kids-can't-learn belief deep at the heart of all union recalcitrance. The popularity—and success—of Moskowitz's schools led to a 2010 documentary called The Lottery, a reference to the inane state law dictating how charters must select their student bodies. That same year, another documentary, Waiting for Superman, compellingly portrayed charter schools as beacons of civil rights and equality, opposed by unions for reasons of self-interest and ignorance. The film makes Randi Weingarten look roughly like the pedagogical version of Bull Connor.
…Klein could have gotten every child in New York into the Ivy League, and there would be some still calling for his head. His legacy, as such, is a good one."He took on an incredibly difficult job, basically presiding over a dysfunctional enterprise and did as much as anyone could do to push it in a more promising direction," says Frederick M. Hess, director of educational policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, crediting Klein with recognizing that the 20th century model of education, which was really just a vestige of the 19th, would not work in the 21st.
Dana Goldstein, an education journalist whose recent book The Teacher Wars is generally sympathetic to the unions, told me that she credits Klein with "presiding over an era of increasing optimism and higher expectations for public schools in New York City. His reforms brought new talent into the system at every level, from classroom teachers to the top of the bureaucracy." She thinks, though, that Klein placed too great an emphasis on testing and that his push for choice (i.e., smaller schools; charter schools) left some schools as a "last resort for those families unable to maneuver complex bureaucracies." (Ravitch, for one, remains uncowed in her convictions: "I don't think the kids are better off, and the system is now so fractionalized that it is almost unmanageable," she says of Klein's time at Tweed.)
But Klein's biggest boosters are the numbers themselves. Earlier this fall, The New York Times published a hammer of an editorial titled "Small Schools Work," describing an MRDC study that effectively validated one of Klein's signature approaches. "[P]oor, minority students who attend small specialized schools do better academically than students in a control group who attend traditional high schools," the editorial said of the study, warning de Blasio away from his reflexive objection to school choice.
And, earlier this month, AEI's Hess published a blog post for Education Weektitled "Joel Klein Is Having a Damn Good Month," highlighting not only the MRDC study but another, from Mathematica Policy Research, that analyzed the astonishing gains made by a charter school in upper Manhattan called The Equity Project, which had opened under Klein. "In a more rational world," Hess wrote, "the results at schools like TEP would complicate the storyline for all those conspiracy-mongers who denounced Klein's support for charter schooling as some kind of assault on students and/or teachers."