Opinion

Lessons of nope: Joel Klein fails to educate us on how to fix our schools

Part memoir, part policy brief, and part sales pitch, Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools (HarperCollins, 2014) is an odd book. Klein was at the center of a whirlwind of activity in the New York City public school system, serving from 2002 to 2010 as the first Chancellor under mayoral control. His unprecedented autonomy allowed him to engage in bold experiments regarding the governance and operation of the city’s schools, expanding choice at all levels of the system by closing failing schools and opening charter schools, decentralizing authority, and creating a new accountability system to drive innovation. As the leader of the nation’s largest public school district, he’s earned the right to write a book reflecting on his experiences.

But I’m not sure that he’s earned the right to write a book this uninteresting.

Lessons of Hope book coverLong-time observers of public schooling in New York City will find little that is new here. Virtually all of the events that Klein describes are well-known, and were reported contemporaneously in the press. There’s not much evidence of evolution in his thinking or his strategy, and some of the logic is back-filled to support what unfolded. And, for a town that thrives on oversized personalities and high drama, there’s precious little color. Klein doesn’t add much to existing media profiles of public figures such as Diane Ravitch or Randi Weingarten, and former mayor Michael Bloomberg comes off as steely and demanding, supportive but bland. Klein’s account fails to demystify the years of his tenure, and provides precious few novel insights into what transpired.

Klein has fashioned his story as David vs. Goliath. Goliath, of course, was the teachers unions, political hacks, entrenched interests, and “defenders of the status quo.” Klein—who clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, was a Clinton White House insider, earned $2 million per year as chief of U.S. operations of Bertelsmann, and had the unbridled support of a mayor who spent $109 million of his own fortune to win a third term in office—was David.

It’s odd imagery, because it enables Klein to portray himself as a naïf, constantly surprised by public resistance to his bold, rational proposals. Klein and his team made their share of mistakes, but they were not politically naïve—no White House litigator could be. Rather, they were arrogant. David carried a slingshot, not a Blackberry, and didn’t ignore hundreds of parents, students and teachers seeking to air their views at the meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy. David also did not have a press office with a dozen professionals tasked with churning out positive news stories and challenging any criticisms—sometimes via personal attacks.

Klein may well believe much of what he’s written; powerful men come to believe the myths that they’ve helped to construct. And I suspect that his regrets about missteps are genuine, though of course what counts as a mistake is situated in a frame that cannot see beyond its borders. He had scant appreciation of New York City’s neighborhoods, and little use for parents or rank-and-file teachers, who receive little attention in the book.

As was true for most of his administration, the story is one of unrelenting progress, and I’m not alone in wishing that the Klein-era Department of Education in New York City had been more tempered in the self-congratulatory tone that accompanied every release of test scores or graduation rates. Some of the “accomplishments” he describes are downright embarrassing: a byzantine and unstable school accountability system that no one could understand, yet drove the closing of dozens of schools; a $95 million student information system designed to facilitate information-sharing that teachers largely ignored, and that will be scrapped in the coming months; an expensive principal training academy that turned out graduates who were no more successful than principals prepared through less-costly means. Each is portrayed as a big win, occasionally with reference to an academic study that provides some narrow evidence of success. But the social and human costs associated with these marginal gains lay outside of the narrative.

There are a few false notes in the story, to my ear, and one stands out: Joel Klein’s departure from the New York City Department of Education. He tells us that:

I had told Bloomberg that I always intended to serve two terms only, never thinking a third would be possible. When I learned he hoped to stay beyond 2009, I assured him that I would serve through a reasonable transition period if he won. But, now in my mid-sixties, I had other things I wanted to do, and I intended to make way for someone who could move the reform effort forward with new energy and a fresh perspective. (p. 248)

This wasn’t obvious from the outside, however, and Klein’s abrupt departure in November 2010—more than a year after Bloomberg’s re-election—was a surprise, as surely as Bloomberg’s decision to replace Klein with Cathie Black, who was uniquely ill-suited to the job. Whereas much of the book positions Klein as the one pulling the strings, his account of his move is strangely passive:

On November 9, 2010, the Mayor again surprised the city, announcing that I would be stepping down at the end of the calendar year and would be replaced by Hearst Corporation executive Cathie Black. On the same date, News Corporation announced my appointment as executive vice president in the office of Rupert Murdoch. I would also run a newly formed education division and join News Corp’s board of directors. (p. 264)

If Klein had been fired, there’s a big clue as to why. As the city’s scores on the New York State English Language Arts and math tests skyrocketed, comparing the proficiency rates of white and minority students suggested that the racial/ethnic achievement gap had closed substantially. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein trumpeted this news, testifying in Washington, D.C., and the mayor, who campaigned hard on education in his third race, pointed to this as a signal accomplishment.

As Klein relates, however, when the state raised the bar for proficiency in the summer of 2010, not only did proficiency rates plummet across the board—suggesting the progress was not nearly as great as had been claimed—but the magnitude of the achievement gap rose. If, as Klein tells us, Michael Bloomberg truly was a data junkie, finding that the data on which he had been relying were not trustworthy could well have infuriated him, and sparked a desire for a change in leadership. (Though this still doesn’t explain Cathie Black. Perhaps nothing ever will.)

One wonders who the intended audience is for this book. If it’s old-hat for informed New Yorkers, it’s simply irrelevant for much of the rest of the country. The subtitle of the book is How to Fix Our Schools. But there are nearly 15,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools in the nation, and the vast majority of them don’t have their capacity to innovate stymied by Big Bad Teachers Unions.

What, then, are the lessons that Klein offers to the rest of the country? If U.S. schools in general are failing, as he asserts, what are some possible action steps? Recounting the endless reorganizations in New York City, the expansion of charter schools, and the positioning of school principals as mini-CEOs provides little guidance for the typical school district or school leader.

Klein’s book is at its best when he discusses education policy at an abstract level, contrasting U.S education practices with those in other countries. But the rhetoric is largely hortatory, with few specifics on how to move forward. We need better teachers? “The education schools and unions are, so to speak, fat and happy,” he tells us (p. 288). Okay, I’ll go on a diet and watch Bambi a few times. But that’s not going to fundamentally alter teacher labor markets in the United States.

Having reached the end of Klein’s 289-page book, this reader was still searching for the “inspiring blueprint for national reform” that the dust jacket promises.

Letters

Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and… See Archive

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