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Thompson: Klein Book Exposes Klein's Flaws & Failures In NYC

Anyone seeking to understand the failure of Joel Klein to improve New York City schools should carefully read Alexander Nazaryan's latest article in Newsweek, Joel Klein's Book on American Schools Tries to Find a Way Forward. Even though the Newsweek reporter’s review of Klein’s new book, Lessons of Hope, obviously aspires to hagiography, read between the lines and he inadvertently captures the essence of the tragedy of school reform.

Nazaryan notes that a Google search may not find “a single kind word about Joel I. Klein.” His revisionist review tries to explain why Klein should not be dismissed as “a tone-deaf autocrat, too comfortable in the parlors of the Upper East Side, not comfortable enough in the school auditoria of East New York and the South Bronx, where jeers often announced his arrival.”

To borrow from Nazaryan’s rhetoric, Klein was a reformer who didn’t successfully “reform much,” but he sure spent a lot of money. In 2003, for instance, the city’s average NAEP 8th grade reading score was 252. In 2009, it was 252. According to Nazaryan’s former employer, The Daily News, Klein took over a system that spent below $11,000 per student. By 2010-2011, that number rose by about 75% to $19,000. Who knows how much additional foundation money was lavished on schools that Klein used as gladiators to defeat neighborhood schools in the race to the test score top?  Moreover, during most of Klein's years, NYC schools benefited from an incredible economic boom. 

Nazaryan makes it seem like Klein had no other option than risk-taking and unleashing the full “brunt of his reforms” on teachers and students. Klein was opposed by UFT President Randi Weingarten, who was supposedly the “pedagogical version of Bull Connor.” Showing that he is oblivious to social science research, cognitive science and education history, as well as the position of Weingarten’s union, Nazaryan indicates that Klein had no choice but to turn students into lab rats because he had to shred “the noxious these-kids-can’t-learn belief deep at the heart of all union recalcitrance.” While doing so, Nazaryan seems to indicate that his knowledge of school improvement comes from the notorious, fact-challenged “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman.”

Like Klein, Nazaryan was a newbie when he helped establish a new small high school.  His only preparation was a “harrowing year of teaching middle school English.” After four years, mostly at a “mini-Princeton” selective school, Nazaryan turned to journalism as “a path out, or up, or whatever” from public schools.

I would never criticize Nazaryan for choosing a mission “to teach motivated children Latin and the classics.” But, why would he, Klein, or anyone else think that such an experience would say anything about what it would take to improve high poverty schools?

Nazaryan is aware that his elite school had an unusual amount of freedom, as he says that one of Klein’s experiments was offering schools a variety of types of freedom. But, Nazaryan and Klein are wildly cavalier about the reckless experiments that fail. Neither seem very concerned, for instance, about the infamous dumping of large numbers of “Over the Counter” kids, or high-risk and mobile students on the large high-challenge schools, not the favored small schools.  As long as the preferred winning schools were encouraged to offer engaging instruction, these elites couldn’t be bothered by administrators who used their autonomy to impose teach-to-the-test malpractice.

So, what other option did Klein have?

Had Klein listened to education researchers, not just Big Data devotees and like-minded think tanks, he might have realized that the challenge of urban education is improving schools that serve critical masses of children from generational poverty and trauma. Klein barely attempted to tackle that issue. Rather than generously funding opportunities for a favored few, while undermining the highest-challenge schools (that his favored schools were competing against,) he could have invested in full-service community schools and wraparound services. Instead, Klein encouraged more self-segregation,

In other words, Joel Klein’s reign embodied the essence of school reform, as it was described by Karen Lewis. Read between the lines of Nazaryan’s defense of Klein’s brutal competition-driven reform, and the fundamental principle of corporate reform jumps out. These market-driven, test-driven reformers are building schools that turn out Masters of the Universe and Walmart greeters.-JT (drjohnthompson)  


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