Joel Klein's Book on American Schools Tries to Find a Way Forward

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Joel Klein ran New York City’s schools from 2002 until 2010. Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The Internet may encompass all there is in heaven and Earth, as well as a decent part of hell, but one thing is notably missing: a single kind word about Joel I. Klein, who ran New York City’s schools from 2002 until 2010. He is variously portrayed as the cold-hearted underling of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, at whose pleasure he served for two-and-a-half terms, until stepping down abruptly; a corporatist lackey who would have turned the public schools over to the Koch Brothers, if only given the chance; 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; a reformer who didn’t reform much.

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. I had never seriously considered teaching, but something had recently changed, and the profession suddenly seemed alluring, respectable, even a little glamorous. A new teacher’s contract, hashed out by Klein and United Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, included what amounted to 43% in pay increases; that also helped. I went at the job with a missionary zeal, heartened by the fact that many other recent college graduates were doing the same. Mr. Kotter, that bugbear of the urban classroom, that lifer nonpareil, was nowhere in sight. We were doing good stuff, we graduates of Bard and Ohio State, saving the world, or at least saving East Elmhurst and Coney Island.

“There was a lot of buzz,” Klein told me about his start as an education czar when I met him at the offices of Amplify, the educational innovation outfit, owned by media overlord Rupert Murdoch, that he has headed since leaving Tweed. “New York was a happening thing; people wanted to be a part of it, were excited about coming here,” says Klein, a man who dresses uptown but still speaks outer-borough. Furious wisps of hair, like plumes of brain smoke, emanate from the back of his balding head.

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.

I certainly benefited from Klein’s efforts. After a harrowing year of teaching middle school English, I helped start a small and selective high school carved out of an enormous elementary school building in the ailing neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Our mission was to teach motivated children Latin and the classics; our mandate was, effectively, to do whatever we needed to turn the place into a mini-Princeton. If there was a Duke graduate who knew his Virgil but lacked some obscure departmental credential, we hired him without a second thought, knowing that Tweed had our backs (Klein visited the school in 2007; I think we shook hands).  

I am aware that our freedom at that school was unusual, even under Klein. But every other school in the city had some similar, if lesser, latitude. Because what was the other option? To keep telling ourselves that endemic poverty would consign the children of New York—those not wealthy enough to afford private tutors or art camp—to the ghetto-prison pipeline? To convince ourselves that things were going to get better on their own? That the mulish teachers union would come around without threats and proddings?

Klein, to his credit, had no such illusions. During our conversation at the Amplify offices, he casually alluded to “the fierce urgency of now,” a memorable Obama trope from the 2008 campaign (the words are originally Martin Luther King Jr.’s). You feel it in his book, a constructive restlessness, a quiet outrage at how things are: at the impossibility of firing incompetent, even criminal teachers; the micromanaging of principals by myopic bureaucrats; the lack of data about what students were learning, or whether they were learning at all. “We would inevitably try some things that wouldn’t work,” Klein acknowledges in his book. And yet failure was still preferable to inertia.  

10_31_klein In his new book, Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, politely rips the status quo. Harper

Joel Klein was born in the Bronx a year after the end World War II, his childhood spent at a “sprawling public-housing complex in Woodside, Queens, where more than a thousand families crowded into twenty large apartment buildings.” In the most frank passages of Lessons of Hope, Klein describes his father as a postman “unhappy with his job and frustrated by his circumstances.” Klein writes that his father sometimes beat him severely. “School—orderly and predictable—became a haven for me.” It was also the stage on which he’d have to act out his father’s unrealized ambitions.

Klein went to William Cullen Bryant High School, in Queens, and then to Columbia University, in Manhattan, where his patrician classmates shunned him with taunts like “Dere goes Klein. He’s goin’ ta da moobies.” Law school at Harvard proved the better experience, educating Klein in “countless ways.” He came under the tutelage of Alan M. Dershowitz, then became an appellate lawyer in Washington. Appointed to the Justice Department by President Clinton, he oversaw the successful antitrust case against Microsoft.

Klein brought the same trustbusting spirit to Tweed, where he arrived a “total outsider” enchanted by Bloomberg’s vision of a school system entirely under his own control (the state granted mayor oversight of the schools in 2002), subsumed by his reformist vision and answering to one but the parents themselves. Once again, Klein’s mission was to break a trust, this one even more crucial to American life than Microsoft. And far more pernicious. “[O]ur public schools are structured and organized in exactly the wrong way,” he writes in his new book. “School systems in America are government-run monopolies dominated by unions and political interests and not subject to the kinds of accountability and competitive incentives that breed successful organizations.”

History is often kinder to reformers than the present ever could be. The press questioned his appointment, with The New York Times quoting one education professor at Columbia who complained, “He has no history with the education people. He doesn’t even know the rhetoric.” Others weren’t critical but just plain clueless, wondering why Joe Klein, author of the political roman à clef Primary Colors, had been given the run of New York’s schools.

Joel Klein’s primary foe was Randi Weingarten, the smart and canny head of the UFT (today, she’s the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teacher’s union). I was a member of her union then, but like most of the young teachers who entered the Department of Education in the early aughts, I thought my required membership in the UFT an ironic vestige of labor’s influence, joking about wearing a union windbreaker (hilarious, I know). Others took the membership more seriously: namely, older teachers, many of them ethnic whites for whom teaching had been an entrance into the middle class. Many of them had taught during the bad old days, and the even badder, older days, when a city teacher was some ghastly combination of babysitter and corrections officer. To them, everything Klein did was an affront to a profession he neither respected nor understood.

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.

Many were swayed by Klein’s argument for more charters in New York. But not all. The second antagonist in Lessons of Hope is Diane Ravitch, once one of the nation’s smartest and most vociferous supporters of the reform movement. Shortly after Klein took over, she became a unionist firebrand harshly critical of his efforts. In his book, Klein suggests that her conversion was nothing more than retribution after he refused to hire her partner, Mary Butz, for a principal-training program. (Ravitch told me this is “untrue.”)

Whatever the case, Ravitch spends a good portion of the aughts battling the charter movement on her own blog and in receptive outlets like The New York Review of Books, whose editors can afford the Dalton School, SAT prep courses and the luxury of progressive opinions. And union crowds, too, love Ravitch’s catchy evocations of a “Billionaires Boys Club” dismantling public education, presumably for their own profit. And it is true, many a hedge-funder has funded many a charter school, though this strikes me as an incredibly inefficient way of making money. In any case, I hope their rapacious charters arrive in my neighborhood by the time my daughter starts school.

 

November 9, 2010: I was on the floor of the New York Daily News, on what should have been an unexceptional autumn Tuesday, when Joel Klein announced his resignation as chancellor of the public schools. I had left teaching a year earlier, after seeing the first class of the school where I’d taught gain admittance to colleges like Wesleyan and Brown. But like many mid-career teachers, I felt myself on a plateau. Journalism provided a path out, or up, or whatever.

Nobody had expected Klein to resign, and there were rumors that Bloomberg had been upset with the pace of reform, in particular with test scores that had not risen at the pace the famously impatient mayor sought. Klein’s replacement, the magazine executive Cathleen P. Black, was a surprise, and then a disaster. She left after three months, and Klein deputy Dennis M. Walcott took over.  

Today, the mayor of New York City is Bill de Blasio, a fairly standard outer-borough Democratic machine hack who cleverly, but not very convincingly, donned the vestments of an Obama progressive. On education, de Blasio is dismayingly retrograde, appointing as his chancellor Carmen Fariña, a longtime member of the city’s moribund education establishment. She appears to be against data, testing, charters and rigor—pretty much everything Klein stood for.

He nevertheless feels confident that the brunt of his reforms will remain. “Status quos have defenders. When you change the status quo, new sets of defenders come around,” he told me, a somewhat surprising statement, since “status quo” is used solely in the pejorative in Lessons of Hope. But it’s a fair point, especially since the new normal so thoroughly trumps the old one. De Blasio learned as much last spring, when he tried to block Moskowitz from opening several new charter schools around the city. She promptly held a rally in Albany, attended by thousands of children and parents, as well as by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The union’s counter-rally was pathetic in comparison. The normally stubborn de Blasio backed off, Moskowitz got her schools, and he hasn’t bothered her since.  

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 Week titled “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.”

But the paranoids will remain, and if they don’t go after Joel Klein, they will go after someone else who has the hubris to take a swing at the UFT, to say things parents would rather not hear. If nothing else, Joel Klein told the school system uncomfortable truths. This always rankles, yet this is always necessary. “Too many of our schools are failing,” he writes at the end of Lessons of Hope. “We who can choose would never deem them acceptable for our own children. That should mean they are not acceptable for anyone’s child.” For while destiny may exist, it finds too comfortable a home in our worst schools.