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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/11/2011

Joel Klein's snow job

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marc Epstein, a history teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y., for the past 15 years, and a former dean of students. His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing, have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and he blogs for the Huffington Post. Epstein earned a PhD in Japanese - American Diplomatic history.

By Marc Epstein
If you’ve been watching the news you can’t help but notice the tough time Mayor Michael Bloomberg had with the Christmas blizzard that hit New York City.

After days of telling angry New Yorkers’ to consider taking in a Broadway show and stop complaining, the mayor’s vaunted PR machine demonstrated that it was no substitute for a snowplow. Consequently, the mayor’s approval rating dropped from 55% to 37%. Bloomberg discovered the truism of the old TV commercial that used to end with “You can’t fool Mother Nature.”

The blizzard interrupted another “snow job” that was dumped on New York by Joel Klein before the real snowstorm hit.

In a series of interviews, a valedictory letter to his principals, a segment on the PBS News Hour, and a scrapbook full of clippings from the editorial pages of the New York press, Klein was variously described, and described himself, as America’s most significant educator, a radical, an innovator, and a transformational figure. For the past eight years he has claimed historic academic achievements for the nations’ largest school system that were reflected in higher test scores and record graduation rates!

So with all those seeming accomplishments his sudden departure remains something of a puzzle. His stated goals were to eliminate civil service seniority practices, teacher tenure, close “failing” schools, terminate teachers from closing schools, and expand privately managed funded schools. Klein enjoyed carte blanche from the mayor to pursue these policies and high praise from the president himself. So why end this quest now?

My guess is that it is because Klein’s and Bloomberg’s proud boasts of “historic” success dried up once The New York State Department of Education recalibrated the tests scores and New York City’s results fell like a lead balloon. Overnight, Klein’s claims of pedagogical wizardry evaporated. And with that admission, the New York City “Miracle” went up in smoke.

As a result of this legerdemain, a generation of school children will have passed through the system with marginal literacy skills, when the billions lavished on outside consultants and malfunctioning computer systems designed to track their meaningless “progress” were put in place.

We now know that New York City’s gains on the state tests were illusory. The proportion passing the state reading tests fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and Klein’s beloved charter schools had pass rates no different from the regular public schools.

The inflated graduation rates have been exposed too. With the recent news that 75% of the high school graduates require remedial reading and math when they enter community college, the Klein Era diploma has been rendered meaningless. So ill prepared are these students that the percent who graduate from college is in the single digits.

Despite the collapse of the New York City scores, the pundits and the chattering classes continue to heap praise on Klein. In their complete indifference to facts, the media sound like a claque that talks only to one another. The truth is what they say it is, with hardly a word of dissent tolerated or printed on their Op-Ed pages or in their news reports.

Most of those celebrating the progress made in the schools know about as much about the inner workings of a New York City public school as they the do the interior of a Sea Wolf class nuclear submarine.

They have unquestionably bought Klein’s self-congratulatory narrative about public education, as well as his narrow-minded views about teachers and unions. This narrative, as airtight as the most intricate Ptolemaic treatise, posits that a sclerotic dysfunctional bureaucracy ran the school system, and its classrooms were filled with incompetent teachers. That accounted for the dismal graduation results prior to mayoral control.

The Klein "spin machine" managed to convince his boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with New York’s opinion makers, that only he was capable of rescuing public education from the clutches of entrenched union and political interests before it was too late.

He accomplished this feat by appealing to liberal, conservative, and libertarian interests that love the rhetoric for their own particular ideological reasons, and don’t want to be bothered with the details.

The reality is something else, but why bother hunting down a story when you can “do lunch” with Joel Klein at a restaurant that serves yogurt at $23 a cup and get the scoop from the Wizard himself?

The question a good reporter should be asking was how did Klein manage to pull the wool over eyes of so many? Was it Bloomberg’s vast media machine or the power of Bloomberg’s fortune shrewdly integrated with the power of the political office he holds?

In part he succeeded because the media was not interested in the details of education administration and were willing to buy the myths spun by a Bloomberg PR machine that would be the envy of most heads of state.

Fail to clear the snow, threaten to close firehouses, or reroute a subway line, and the public outcry is deafening. But restructure the largest bureaucracy in the state four times and the press scarcely manages a yawn.

For conservative/libertarians like Rupert Murdoch, the lure of charter’s, vouchers, coupled with an attack on the hated teacher’s union proved irresistible.

For those on the left, the promise of a Peace Corps-like army of Teach for America volunteers and Teaching Fellows joining hands to close the Achievement Gap, the “civil rights issue of our day,” combined with a kaleidoscope of educational “choice” for disenfranchised students, made Klein’s spiel seductive music to their ears.

Any failures that popped up were airily dismissed because Klein was fine-tuning the mechanism. All Klein had to say to stave off criticisms as one reorganization followed another was that he was bringing accountability to a system that had been unaccountable for decades. Editorial hosannas would follow, drowning out reports of chaos and bewilderment that leaked out from those working inside the system.

Whether or not any of the several reorganizations accomplished anything went largely unexplored. The increase in the annual education budget –from $12 billion to $23 billion—more than the entire economy of some nations—went unnoticed.

As the reorganizations were implemented the school system lurched from tight centralization to extreme decentralization, the lines of communication between schools and central administration became increasingly frayed. Outside evaluators from England would evaluate schools. The pedagogy emphasized bulletin boards, students working in groups with differentiated “footprints,” teachers acting as facilitators, and computer tracking of student progress.

In short, classroom “reforms” represented every combination of a pedagogical game of pick-up sticks one could ever conceive of. Klein left behind a school system in which academic gains have been meager, parents have been shut out, and graduation rates are meaningless. The annual budget has nearly doubled, low-scoring students are shuffled from school to school, discipline problems are hidden, teachers are demoralized, and principals are scared of every twitch in the data, as incompetents rule the administrative roost. What is there to celebrate?


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 11, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership, Guest Bloggers, Marc Epstein, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  joel klein, joel klein legacy, klein's legacy, michael bloomberg, new york city schools, nyc schools, school reform  
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Brilliant summary of the Bloomberg/Klein failure in New York!

BTW- Wasn't there a near-riot at the school board in the spring/summer last year when the new, or better yet, accurate data was released by the state?

Posted by: Nikki1231 | January 11, 2011 5:16 AM | Report abuse

Tell it like it is. Wake up America.

Posted by: mia_101mail | January 11, 2011 5:43 AM | Report abuse

Same thing can be said for Michelle Rhee.

Posted by: ericpollock | January 11, 2011 6:54 AM | Report abuse

This is all true, but also old news. This piece would have been gangbusters last May.

And the beat goes on in NYC schools where over a million kids continue to not be appropriately educated.

Will anyone ever be able to turn this or thousands of other urban school districts across the country into functioning successful models? Considering the clientele, their myriad problems, their lack of respect/value on education, and their lack of support from home, I SERIOUSLY DOUBT IT.

Until poor/minority families begin to embrace the value of an education, from parents to children to extended families, sadly, NOTHING is going to change for this ill-served cohort of our society.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 11, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

"In their complete indifference to facts, the media sound like a claque that talks only to one another. The truth is what they say it is, with hardly a word of dissent tolerated or printed on their Op-Ed pages or in their news reports."

Scary, isn't it.

Posted by: efavorite | January 11, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Fantastic article!

Posted by: lacy41 | January 11, 2011 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Same smoke and mirrors from Michelle Rhee in DCPS.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | January 11, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

The same story could be written for the New York transplant currently running the Baltimore school system. I wish the public, school board, and media would also critically question the reform methods and outcomes there. No one cares or is even bothering to take a hard look at anything. The emperor truly has no clothes.

Posted by: beads70 | January 11, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Great article!

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 11, 2011 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Do conflict of interest policies apply to current and former chancellors in NYC? I'm curious if Murdoch aquired inside information from Klein before making the deal for Wireless Generation with $360M in cash. Now Klein has a sweet deal with Murdoch's News Corp. and a base salary of $2M per year. How many Wireless Generation student licenses will it take to generate over $360M in revenue for News Corp.?

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | January 11, 2011 8:49 PM | Report abuse

I have said much of this for some time now. You, however, have made the argument far more eloquently and cogently. For years I was baffled by the fact that no one had undertaken a careful analysis of the Klein reforms. Instead, the spin and the administration went unchecked. The sad part is that there was a real opportunity for true learning to occur for our kids. In the end, for all the reorganizations (I mean realignments),we are basically in the same place we started. I am left to wonder what has happened to the educational journalism?

Posted by: audjedd | January 12, 2011 12:34 AM | Report abuse

"Despite the collapse of the New York City scores, the pundits and the chattering classes continue to heap praise on Klein. In their complete indifference to facts, the media sound like a claque that talks only to one another. The truth is what they say it is, with hardly a word of dissent tolerated or printed on their Op-Ed pages or in their news reports."

The most important fact that the liberal media elite feigns indifference toward is the fact that ethnoracial groups have substantial differences in average IQ. It is of course impossible to get Blacks (ave IQ = 85) to show the same academic achievement as Whites (ave IQ = 100). Therefore leaders like Klein and Rhee need to game the system and pretend like they are making great progress in getting Blacks to become smarter. Of course they never actually are able to get Blacks to become smarter, but everyone probably secretly realizes that smartness is a natural biological inborn inherited trait. Just as school systems can not force higher IQ ethnoracial groups (Chinese, Korean, Hindu, or Jews) to become as dumb as gentile Whites--similarly it is impossible to force lower IQ ethnoracial groups (Blacks and Hispanics) to become as smart as Whites. Look at the students selected to attend high-performing public high schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Sci, and Hunter College School in NYC, or Thomas Jefferson HS in Fairfax County, and you will see that these higher IQ ethnoracial groups are greatly "over-represented" and that the lower IQ ethnoracial groups are greatly "under-represented". The same ethnoracial group disparities are seen for students selected by elite colleges and professional schools. Everything makes perfect rational sense once we begin to acknowledge the truth of ethnoracial group IQ differences, but when these group IQ differences are purposely ignored and denied (thank you Franz Boas for Boasianism, the greatest intellectual hoax ever perpetrated!) then our society starts to build up these false doctrines of equality and false expectations of what urban school superintendents can really achieve. Just as Whites will never become as fast as Blacks in sprinting, Blacks will never become as smart as Whites. It is just all part of the history of modern human evolution, you can't change what mother nature has wrought. Just accept the reality of human ethnoracial group differences and learn to live with it.

Posted by: rifraf | January 12, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I salute Ms. Strauss and Dr. Epstein. It is unfortunate that this article could not have been circulated as widely as possible before the current appointment of another unqualified chancellor in the person of Cathy Black. The snow storm has shown us that Mayor bloomberg is more concerned about trying to do the job of a chancellor rather than that of running the city. It is also unfortunate that everyone has forgotten how the UFT and other unions loaned NYC money to avoid a financial crisis at one point. It is also unfortunate that many people refuse to respect teaching as a profession. How many other jobs can you name, where you must have at least a college degree in some related area in order to start that are not considered a profession ? Finally: everyone wants job security but when teachers ask for tenure some people say, "Oh no ! Teachers can't have that." Even though every first year teacher is better qualified than Cathy Black. What a message to send to the children. "You don't need to study. Just be a friend of the mayor."

Posted by: EdwardBrooklynNY | January 12, 2011 11:03 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful article.But it leaves something out.

It is impossible to believe that the schools would be failing so badly if they were actually meant to succeed. The inevitable conclusion is that they are failing by intent. Of course, that then begs the question "Why."

Numerous political and economic reasons come to mind. Failing schools help to keep the prisons (an important industry in this country) full. They create a huge underclass to do menial labor at the lowest possible wages. The resulting uneducated population is not likely to vote incumbents out of office. The list is easy to add to.

Yes, this is a cynical view, but one that is hard to avoid.

Posted by: kikodylan | January 17, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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