Richard Rothstein’s American Prospect investigation into the details of Joel Klein’s childhood (no, I’m not kidding here) is really not worth reading, but it unfortunately exemplifies two of the most toxic aspects of the current education reform conversation (fwiw it also contains some interesting information about the history of post-war public housing in NYC):
Personality over policy: The point of Rothstein’s very long article seems to be that Joel Klein’s education policy views are invalid because his childhood was less poor than it has sometimes been represented as being. At a surface level, this is idiotic. Whether Klein grew up in abject poverty or simply in circumstances much more humble than the financial and political status to which he has risen has absolutely nothing to do with whether the education policies he proposes work. Nor did Klein or anyone else ever claim himself as the sole data point for the power good teachers and schools can have on kids’ lives. There’s, um, actual research on this.
What’s more troubling, though is the extent to which our national education debates have come to focus on the character, motivation, experience, and relationships of those who hold different views--rather than on the substance of those views or evidence about how different policies and practices do or are likely to impact kids. This is toxic. It’s possible to have a reasonable and respectful argument about the merits and drawbacks of different approaches for evaluating and compensating teachers, assessing student learning, or improving school performance. It’s not possible to have a reasonable and respectful argument about whether so-and-so secretly wants to destroy public education, or whether so-and-so is a bad person because they receive funding from Bill Gates/teachers unions/hedge fund managers/etc.
Condescending to low-income parents: Rothstein suggests that Klein’s personal story has little bearing on education policy debates because he was not “raised in a dysfunctional home we typically associate with the truly disadvantaged.” Critics of the reform movement in education today often argue that it’s ludicrous to expect schools to overcome the myriad disadvantages of poverty, dysfunctional families, mental health and substance abuse challenges, crime, and so forth facing many of our most disadvantaged students. They’re not entirely wrong about this--children from highly troubled family backgrounds or with significant trauma or mental health issues need additional resources and supports to succeed, beyond those our educational system has traditionally offered, that most schools today are ill-equipped to provide. And we need to do something about this. But they are hardly the only kids our education system fails. A quick look at the numbers makes that clear. Spend some time in D.C. or any other large urban district and you’ll find that there are many low-income parents who love their children, care deeply about their education, and even make great sacrifices in the hopes their children will have a better life--yet are constantly frustrated and stymied by educational systems that fail to deliver remotely adequate education to their children. Surely these parents who are trying to do the best for their kids deserve all the help public policy can give them. But arguments like Rothstein’s ignore these parents entirely. At worse, they suggest poor parents don’t love their kids or care about education. Alternatively, they imply that their children must be condemned to remain in schools Rothstein would never allow his own children to attend--in the name of equity for children who are even worse off. That’s just offensive.
I honestly could give a rodent’s patootie that Rothstein is saying mean things about Joel Klein. I’m sure people have said much worse things about him. The real tragedy is that the type of cheap personal arguments Rothstein makes here are becoming increasingly emblematic of our entire education debate.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.