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Living in Dialogue: Survival of the Fittest

This is the second of two posts on Joel Klein’s spin and misstatement of facts. The first is here. I mostly want to check the supposedly objective facts of Klein’s Lessons of Hope, but I have to start this one by challenging one of his interpretations of facts. Klein rejected the science-based proposals for expanding social services in high-challenge schools. He and his advisor feared that socio-emotional supports of students would reinforce teachers’ desire to “act with empathy” for students. Had he and his staff person taught in the inner city, I hope they would have learned that teaching is an act of love, and to recognize the wisdom of neuroscientist Sarina Saturn, Nicholas Kristof, and Sheryl WuDunn and why we need a pedagogy of empathy.

Backing up a paragraph to the advice Klein received on why he should not prioritize social services, a dubious form of logic and/or revisionism was illustrated. Rewriting history, his advisor said that early efforts to provide supports for students “led to the now common cry that schools cannot do it all.”

Many times, I’ve heard teachers make that protest, but we complain about being “deputized” to single-handedly overcome the legacies of poverty. It was not the help that was occasionally offered to teachers that led to the widespread complaint of teachers that we “can’t do it all.”

I won’t challenge Klein’s claims that his expensive reforms benefitted some students. But, he ignores the overall human costs of his policies. Do we want to abandon the students left behind in even more challenging environments? And, were the schools targeted by Klein really failing?

I am not surprised that many small schools, for instance, did great things. Others surely did some good things. It is the human cost of those policies, the damage done by the “downward spiral” that his policies (and those of other market-driven reformers) created for those remaining in neighborhood schools, that bothers me. Do we want a Chancellor to heedlessly create a system with even more racial and economic segregation?

Similarly, Klein claims that his Leadership Academy was a great success. We can debate the benefits of a principals’ academy which trains persons, who did not need to have teaching experience, to lead schools according to the theories that Klein and company espoused. But, Klein is silent about the costs. Aaron Pallas reminds us that the $80 million price tag for training, coaching and supporting 288 principals averages about $350,000 per school leader.

Klein routinely used anecdotes from individual parents, an occasional conversation with a student or, surprisingly often, cocktail parties. I won’t question his accounts of perceptions of elites, but he often tells a story that logically would argue against – not for – his policies. For instance, Klein visited two co-located schools. Students entered through different doors and “the same segregation governed the entire day.” The privileged Lab School “enjoyed the best of everything;” the neighborhood school, which shared its building, did not. Consequently, this led to 4th graders not liking the kids in the other schools. Klein was told by a young student, “They tell us, ‘When we get older, we’re going to buy your school and throw you out.”

Using a logic that escapes me, Klein thus condemns segregation and spins his choice programs as an antidote. Had he checked the facts before implementing his choice program, Klein might have asked aboutChicago’s 2001 to 2006 closings and how they increased sorting and the negative effects on lower-skilled students. Klein rushed through policies, however, that predictably made segregation more destructive.

Similarly, Klein protests how the most troubled high schools “often functioned as dumping grounds for students who had fallen many grades behind” as well as for excessed teachers. Teachers in those schools thus faced “insurmountable odds.” Nowhere in Lessons of Hope are the facts about the way that Klein’s reforms ramped up the dumping ground dynamics. For instance, his small schools “took in higher percentages of students meeting standards and ready to do high school work, and lower percentages of students at risk for dropping out.” The reliable Chalkface NY described a school slated for closure which saw its special education students increase from 7% to 25%. Between 2008 and 2009, alone, high schools slated for closures saw a 525% increase in homeless students.

The best example of the brutality of the competition, where small schools have the advantages while the Klein administration undercut higher-challenge schools, is the dumping of “Over the Counter” students on highest-poverty schools. But, since Lessons of Hope begins with an anecdote regarding Robeson High School and the supposedly high-performing P-Tech, this data is particularly relevant. Gary Rubenstein persuasively challenges Klein’s claims about P-Tech’s supposed gains, but I’m less interested in estimating the possible gains of students at favored schools than the damage done to dis-favored schools. The already challenging Robeson saw its homeless population increase ten-fold after it was targeted for closure.

And, this gets to the worst aspect of the Klein administration. School reformers aren’t alone in cherry-picking facts and misstating evidence in order to score political points. The Klein administration was extraordinarily brazen in misrepresenting the truth, but I don’t mind his exaggerations regarding his successes. My complaint is the way that Klein damaged some schools and students so, apparently, they would be seen as failing in their competition with favored schools.

The Klein administration promised to move beyond the competition-driven policy of “earned autonomy,” where some schools are granted the autonomy to offer engaging and holistic instruction. Schools that were not deemed as worthy would be micromanaged and endured mandates for scripted and teach-to-the-test instruction. These soul-killing mandates, of course, forced low-performing schools to fail even more badly.

If anything, Klein put the Social Darwinism of earned autonomy on steroids. He was not content to grant favored schools a head start in the race for survival. His administration turned the most vulnerable students into collateral damage in that battle. Klein now makes incredible claims about the supposed benefits of his gold-plated reforms, but he ignores the costs. He forgets about his policies’ huge costs in money and educators energy but, more importantly, he ignores the damage done by them to students. We teachers can’t allow others to forget those children.

What do you think? Is Joel Klein representative of corporate reformers? Why do they ignore the human costs of their experiments? Why will they say anything to win edu-political battles?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...