On Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope

I recently read Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope. As the last former chancellor of New York City Department of Education, Klein has a valuable perspective. His book, which is essentially a memoir of his time as chancellor, is great for those who want to get a detailed view point of someone who has made radical (mostly exceptionally positive) changes to a local, but large school system.

Under Klein’s leadership, New York City’s families were able to receive many benefits, such as the expansion of smaller schools and the overhaul, restructuring and closing of very big and deeply troubled schools. Klein also made  an aggressive push for princnipal authority, which I loved. It was shocking to read that principals couldn’t pick their own assistant principals and that senior teachers could have more say in where they teach simply because of their time spent in the field. Even more shocking, the politics that comes with one of the largest unions in the country is unreal. I believe in unions and disagree with the idea that if teachers do their jobs well, they wouldn’t need policy in place to provide job security. Teaching is far too complex. Students’ lives, personalities and learning capabilities vary, and there are countless other factors that affect teaching outside of a teachers control, which makes teaching difficult and deserving of protection. But, the United Federation of Teachers union’s contract goes beyond a level of reasonable protections. I’ve written about this before, and this book only gave me added confirmation: teachers’ unions and their contracts make it suchu that teaching truly isn’t a profession. Klein talks about this a lot and it’s certainly true if anyone takes some of the ridiculous rules aprroved under teachers’ contracts in the last fifteen years. Teachers have too much protection that can create in imbalance between teacher protection and learning quality, with more weight being put on teacher protecion. If the goal for teachers is to improve education, than to a certain extent, the union and it’s members are counterproductive.

Klein also introduced me to some amazing educators and administrators, such as Shimon Waronker and Jim Liebman. Jim Liebman’s efforts, though not directly concentrated in the classroom, helped  streamline student information that was previously unavailable to teachers and parents. He also led a well organized human resources effort designed to help teachers receive an assortment of student information that could help them better understand their students’ academic history. I thought this was not only thoughtful but imperative for a healthy relationship with teachers. It’s a strategic move that acknowledges that teachers need to be supported in many ways; an effective, efficient HR team and informative student data being a couple  of them.

Shimon Waronker transformed M.S. 22 as their principal. Later while attending Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Waronker thought of a truly innovative way to better the current school structure. In the school Waronker envisioned, a handful of teachers would work with the same group students throughout their elementary school experience. It was exciting to read and think about, and later in this review, I play around with a suggestion inspired by this model.

But first, let me step back and revisit the union issue. As Klein consistently bumped heads with the UFT throughout his tenure, he routinely outlines some of the obstacles they put before him throughout the book. One particular issue the UFT was in favor of, but I don’t understand what long term good could come of it, is social promotion. I’ve suggested readings on this a couple of times before. I continue to believe that it doesn’t makes sense to promote a student who is behind his grade level. He’s not ready for the next learning level,  which hurts students who are at grade level (by learning at a slower pace to accomodate the students who are academically behind), and in the long run, the student himself. We need to do more about how students are perceived when it comes to grade “promotion.” We need to be careful   about the language for sure, but I think the answer really does lie in classroom and school structure.

I understand the negative stigma that comes with “getting left behind” or “held back.” As Klein and Shimon Waronker think about different school structures, maybe the answer to this left behind stigma is a new grade school structure. Shimon Waronker’s model, mentioned in a previous paragraph, could be a possible solution. Klein was enthusiatic and open to this kind of structure, and we certainly need educational leaders who are willing to think outside the box when it comes o improving the quality of education students receive.

While there were some extraordinary and much needed changes made during Klein’s administration, there were also some low points. While, Klein admits to some of the more public facing mess ups, there are some areas that I don’t think he thinks he did wrong.

On Accountablity and Professional Developemt

Klein undoubtedly is a fan of accountablity. With such a large education system and such heavy and some ludacris teacher protections, how can anyone blame him. I certainly don’t. Like any job, employees should be held responsible for the quality of their work because, at a minimum, good quality of work is what they’re paid to do. However, for reasons mentioned earlier in this opinion, teaching and gaging the effectiveness of any teacher is far more complex  than in other professions.  Not everything can be quantified and I don’t think our accountability measures can be truly effective because of this. I hoped that Klein would use this push in accountability to provide teachers with deep assesments and professional development. I wanted their to be a section dedicated to other ways accountability can be used, outside of holding teachers responsible for their work that is so difficult to evaluate to begin with. More explicitly, I wanted a detailed section dedicated to PD as a result of his accountability agenda. I wanted a examples and stories that followed a teachers growth prior to and after being held against Klein’s accountability measures. This folds into a more deeper look at Klein’s PD efforts. 

On Professional Devlopment

First off, let me start by saying that it’s amazing that Klein provided math and education coaches for schools. Lord knows it’s neccessary, and I can imagine it as a very useful resoure. It shows that education leaders actually want to see change. Jim Liebman’s programs also are a great contribution to professional development. Both should be applauded. But with the increase in accountability, which includes erroneous methods that may be more faulty than acknowledged, their should be an even larger push in increased quality professional developemt. I have written about and heard too many teachers say that professional development can be a waste of time, that it doesn’t take individual teachers weaknesses into consideration and even that it repeats too much material ripped out of a graduate student’s textbook, information that some teachers have seen many, many times before.

In an effort to explain why teacher quality is so low, Klein puts some pressure on the schools of education that attract, accept and are producing inept graduates. He also points to the fact that the UFT puts limitations on merit pay, which detracts smart people form joining the profession. While both these points may be true, they both entail fallacy, to a certian extent. He almost makes ut seem as if good teaching is something people are born with. These arguments don’t take proper, insightful and personalized professional development  into consideration. Klein’s low-performing-education-graduate-school-student argument suggests that if a teacher doesn’t graduate at the top of her class, if she graduates near the bottom of her class, she’ll just be a mediocre teacher, if that. There doesn’t seem to be room for quality OF to make that teacher better at teaching. What I wanted him to say in response to the quality of the teacher pool is that in addition to his suggestion that schools of education play their part by increasing their standards and strengthening their curriculum, we as the teachers’ employers will try to equip every teacher with the unique professional development to become a phenomanal teacher who earns her bonuses and high salary based on the quality of eduaction she provides her students. Unfortunately, this argument never came.

As for his higher-salaries-will-attract- smarter-teachers argument, that also may be so, but it’s flawed because it assumes that smart people know how to teach what they know. They too could benefit from high quality professional development. He’s clearly in favor of higher performing students, possibly because they could be an easier and more inexpensive group to train. But this doesn’t match up with the reality of the high demand for teachers, which can’t only pick from the top of the graduating class to meet that demand. With that departments of education must face the fact that

This brings me to my next accountability-professional development-realted issue. There are some points in the book where he compares the quality of education at some charters schools to the quality of education at some traditional schools. He said that some of the better performing charter schools that raise students’ test scores proves that minority, low-income students can overcome poverty with the right education and that public schools should stop making excuses for their students’ learning capabilities.

This is an unfair comparison because teachers in charter schools often have a few important advantages teachers in traditional schools don’t have. They inlcude:

1) Size matters: charters tend to have exponentially smaller school systems that make it easier to provide teacher specific professional development and student specific learning. The teacher to student ratio tends to be more manageable than traditional schools. A teacher with fewer students is more likely to teach to her students abilities.

2) In school support: charter schools tend to have the budget flexibility (in terms of allocation) to provide its teachers and students with better in school services, such as experienced and knowledgeable nurses who are capable of identifying potentially serious health issues and program coordinators whose main focus is to improve either social or academic programming.

3) Money: it always comes back to money. Because class sizes tend to be smaller and teachers tend to receive more focused and useful professional development, some charter schools tend to be more productive. Top that with the fact that charters attract a high-level of philanthropy, while also receiving public dollars for each student and you have a recipe for a more sucessful and goal-oriented school.

4) Students: while most inner-city charter schools take in a large number of minority and low-income students, these students tend to be either smarter or have “willing to learn” mentalities than their public school classmates. Some of their parents tend to be more able to focus on school quality options and are more aware that other options are available for their child and are able to go through the application process, as you need to apply to charter schools. Klein’s traditional-schools-make-excuses-when charters are producing the better-results-with-the-same-kids-argument is weak because they aren’t the same kids. It’s too simplistic to call all kids from low-income minorities the same because of those two attributes. This argument completely ignores nuances of poverty and family capabilities. It lumps all students into one bucket, and it doesn’t acknowledge that charter schools may be attracting a certain type of student or certain types of families within the larger umbrellas of low-income and minorities.

With that said, some traditonal school teachers and principals are not making excuses, but actually have less money, control and support to do better for their students. A huge part of this is the beauracratic system and not  the schools. They’re operating under a completely different system and set of circumstances. All things are NOT equal between teachers at these two school structures. What is equal id that they have the passion to enter a challenging and needed field. Because they’re working under different conditions, both should be held accountable, to a certain degree. But the results of the accountability efforts should not be compared without regard to the difference in conditions.

On Competition

Okay. I swear I’m almost done. My last complaint sort of rides off of my last point. Klein consistently called the NYC public school system a monoply. He was right in saying that and that’s why Bloomberg brought him on. What I do not understand is througout the book he uses the word competition to describe the relationship between the various types of schools that he helped create, but mainly charter schools and traditional public schools. I think there should be competition, as to drive out the underperforming schools and provide families with more options. But their is only an emphasis on competition and hardly any emphasis on a concious effort to encourage different school types and structures to collaborate and work on how to make all schools in the system better. In other words, why didn’t I read about a policy or push for a policy that pushes leaders and teachers at all levels and at various schools to find time for constructive collaboration and exchange ideas on an ongoing basis? Perhaps there are dilemmas an underperforming school, be it charter or public, can help the sucessful school solve and vice versa. I need to read into whether this was a mandate for those who wanted to open up charter schools. If it was,Klein failed to emphasis it.

Learning, collaboration and brainstorming should be key and should be constantly happening between all schools that receive tax dollars. Ideas should constantly be exchanged and expressed from people at all levels of experiences, school structures, environments and backgrounds.

I’m deeply troubled by why the opening of various types of schools wasn’t used as a learning experience for surrounding schools but rather encouraged to be competitors. If for whatever reason this collaboration idea was some how knocked by unions, I wasn’t under the impression that it bothered Klein at all. I want competiton and collaboration. I want to try to continue to make public schools better. I think they’d benefit from those two “C” words. I think a healthy balance could be nice. I also think that, based on the tone of Klein’s book, the lack of emphasis on professinal development and the emphasis on competition, that he’s given up on public schools. And as somone who is truly innovative, creative and passionate about education, I really hope he hasn’t.

Despite some of what I perceive to be major faults, hearing Joel Klein’s side of his tenure is extraordinarily insightful and imperative for all parents, teachers and students effected by his administration. This book is undoubtedly a must read for anyone (which should be everyone…) interested in education policy.

One thought on “On Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope

  1. Pingback: Soho Forum Debate on School Choice

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