Joel Klein’s Misleading Autobiography: What the former chancellor of New York City schools’ sleight of hand tells us about education reform
October 17, 2012
This is a story about a story, of how a fiction about impoverished children and public schools corrupts our education policy.
The fiction is the autobiography of Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Klein transformed the city’s public-school system by promoting privately managed charter schools to replace regular public schools, by increasing the consequences for principals and teachers of standardized tests, and by attacking union-sponsored due process and seniority provisions for teachers. From his perch as head of the nation’s largest school district, Klein wielded outsize influence, campaigning to persuade districts and states across the nation to adopt the testing and accountability policies he had established in New York. Deputies he trained when he was chancellor now lead school systems not only in New York but also in Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Newark, and elsewhere.
Klein resigned in 2010 to develop a new division at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to sell tablet-based curriculum to public schools. His prominence in national education policy, though, has not diminished. He is chair of the Broad Center, which is funded by Los Angeles billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad to train and place school superintendents who’ve been recruited not only from the education sector but also from leadership positions in government, the military, and corporations. The center’s graduates have included the Obama administration’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, state school superintendents in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Delaware, and district superintendents in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Seattle, and dozens of other cities. Earlier this year, Klein co-chaired, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Council on Foreign Relations commission that concluded that the country’s public schools are in such crisis that they threaten national security. Klein has also become a contributor toThe Atlantic; his latest piece, in August, denounced “ideological foes of business’ contribution to the public good” who resist efforts of private firms to sell innovative products to public schools.
Klein and his allies hold teachers primarily responsible for the achievement gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children. In a 2010 “manifesto,” Klein and one of his protégés, Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., summed up their campaign like this: “The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income—it is the quality of their teacher.”
As proof, Klein—and others for him—cites his life story in what has become a stump speech for his brand of school reform. Again and again, Klein recounts his own deprived childhood and how it was a public-school teacher who plucked him from a path to mediocrity or worse. He offers his autobiography as evidence that poverty is no bar to success and that today’s disadvantaged children fail only because they are not rescued by inspiring teachers like those from whom Klein himself had benefitted.
This has become conventional wisdom in national education policy. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has declared, “Klein knows, as I do, that great teachers can transform a child’s life chances—and that poverty is not destiny. It’s a belief deeply rooted in his childhood, as a kid growing up in public housing. … Joel Klein never lost that sense of urgency about education as the great equalizer. He understands that education is the civil-rights issue of our generation, the force that lifts children from public-housing projects to first-generation college students. … In place of a culture of excuses, Klein sought [as chancellor] to build a culture of performance and accountability.”
Here is Klein’s autobiographical account in his own words, faithful to original context, culled from numerous speeches and interviews that Klein has given and continues to give:
I grew up in public housing in Queens and grew up in the streets of New York. I always like to think of myself as a kid from the streets, and education changed my life. … I stood on the shoulders of teachers to see a world that I couldn’t have seen growing up in the family that I grew up in.
My father had dropped out of high school in the tenth grade during the Great Depression. My mother graduated from high school and never went to college. No one in my family had attended college … or knew about college. I had no appreciation of reading or cultural activities. …
By most people’s lights, we were certainly working-class, poor. … I grew up in a pretty unhappy household. …
Teachers set expectations for me that were not commensurate with my background or my family’s income. …
Nobody in [my] school said to me, ‘Well, you grew up in public housing, your parents don’t read, you’ve never been to a museum, so we shouldn’t expect too much from you!’ … I wanted to play ball, I had a girlfriend at the time. I thought school was OK, a little overrated but I thought it was OK. … Mr. Harris, my physics teacher at William Cullen Bryant High School, saw something that I hadn’t seen in myself. … I realized, through him, that the potential of students in inner-city schools is too often untapped. We can fix that. Demography need not be destiny.
From the day I took the job as chancellor of the New York Public Schools, friends told me that I would never fix education in America until you fix the poverty in our society. … I’m convinced now more than ever that those people have it exactly backwards—because you’ll never fix poverty in America until you fix education.
I reject categorically the principle that poverty is an insurmountable impediment, because I see that we have surmounted it time and again…