oel Klein's new book
More than halfway through Joel Klein's forthcoming book on his time as the chancellor of New York City's public schools, he zeros in on what he calls "the biggest factor in the education equation."
It's not classroom size, school choice or the Common Core.
It's "teacher quality," he writes, adding that "a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle."
We keep coming back to this. As we wrestle with the urgent, dire need to improve education — for the sake of social mobility, for the sake of our economic standing in the world — the performance of teachers inevitably draws increased scrutiny. But it remains one of the trickiest subjects to broach, a minefield of hurt feelings and vested interests.
Klein knows the minefield better than most. As chancellor from the summer of 2002 through the end of 2010, he oversaw the largest public school system in the country, and did so for longer than any other New York schools chief in half a century.
That gives him a vantage point on public education that would be foolish to ignore, and in "Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools," which will be published next week, he reflects on what he learned and what he believes, including that poor parents, like rich ones, deserve options for their kids; that smaller schools work better than larger ones in poor communities; and that an impulse to make kids feel good sometimes gets in the way of giving them the knowledge and tools necessary for success.
I was most struck, though, by what he observes about teachers and teaching.
…Such challenges of the status quo aren't welcomed by many teachers and their unions. Just look at their fury about a Time magazine cover story last week that reported — accurately — on increasingly forceful challenges to traditional tenure protections. They hear most talk about tenure and teacher quality as an out-and-out attack, a failure to appreciate all the obstacles that they're up against. They hear phrases like "rescue a child from a life of struggle" and rightly wonder if that, ultimately, is their responsibility.
It isn't. But it does happen to be a transformative opportunity that they, like few other professionals, have. In light of that, we owe them, as a group, more support in terms of salary, more gratitude for their efforts and outright reverence when they succeed.
But they owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks. Klein and others who bring that up aren't trying to insult or demonize them. They're trying to team up with them on a project that matters more than any other: a better future for kids.