Since leaving his position as New York City schools chancellor in December of last year, Joel Klein has been busy casting stones in every direction. Recently, he lobbed an attack on American public education in the June issue of The Atlantic, attributing his failure to achieve meaningful education reform to the teachers’ unions, school leadership, and even the goals and aspirations underpinning our public education system.
While Mr. Klein deserves some praise for his efforts at reform, he has only himself to blame for his ultimate inability to bring about real and lasting improvements to his school system. To suggest, as he does in The Atlantic, that his failures translate to the failure of public education reform in America is an insult to those of us in districts across the nation who are making demonstrable gains in student achievement year after year. If he did not succeed, it is because he did not bring the right skill set—vision, leadership, and appropriate experience—to the job of transforming the largest school system in the country.
It is vital to understand the shifting landscape of public education before undertaking any reform efforts. The current expectation of ensuring that all students graduate college- or career-ready does not represent a raising of the bar. It is a new bar altogether. Never before have our public schools been accountable for delivering an entire population of young people academically prepared to compete globally. Since World War II, public education has traditionally focused on producing a small but world-class academic elite to drive innovation; the rest would leave school with the basic skills required to staff the manufacturing sector that was the engine of our economy.
That was then. Today, all students must be given the opportunity to excel academically in order to qualify for jobs in the knowledge economy of tomorrow. There is consensus among educators that teachers are key to student success, and that meaningful reform will require changes in how we hire, evaluate, support, and compensate our most critical partners. Mr. Klein understands this. But his combative approach while in office to such changes ignores the reality that reform cannot be something we do to teachers. We must work with teachers to develop and implement collaborative strategies to achieve common goals.
Highly effective teachers are the foundation of student growth and achievement; without them, there is no such thing as a quality education or reform.”
There is no denying that it is a difficult task to pursue reforms in New York City schools without union support. The United Federation of Teachers is the strongest, wealthiest, and most politically savvy local teachers’ union in the country. It is the house that Albert Shanker built, Sandra Feldman refined, and Randi Weingarten strengthened. But for Mr. Klein to argue that the UFT’s intransigence destroyed his effort to reform public education ignores the UFT’s embrace of some significant reform initiatives, not the least of which is the operation of teacher-led charter schools in the city—a fact he conveniently appears to have forgotten.
The difficulties Mr. Klein’s administration faced in achieving collaboration with the UFT in New York City do not extend or apply to the majority of school districts in the United States. It is particularly irrelevant in Memphis, where I serve as deputy superintendent. In our school system, the union—the Memphis Education Association—and the administration have crafted a synergistic and collaborative relationship. Other examples exist in award-winning jurisdictions like Maryland’s Montgomery County and North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg, whose superintendent, Peter Gorman, is headed to work with Mr. Klein in the education division of News Corp. While it is true that we all face challenges, and administrations and the unions don’t always agree, there is too much at stake to throw our hands in the air and declare failure.
Blaming labor unions and the teachers they represent for the failures of our education system is in vogue. But there is no evidence that improved results in one school demand a villain in another. And there is no group less deserving of castigation than the men and women who devote their lives to the difficult task of teaching our children. We must find ways to continuously improve the effectiveness of our teachers without sacrificing their pride, dignity, or right to due process protections.
In Memphis, with the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, teachers, administrators, and community leaders are innovating in nearly every aspect of education policy and practice to accomplish exactly that kind of continuous improvement. Our work to attract, support, reward, and retain highly effective teachers in all classrooms may be unprecedented in American history. A new compensation system is under development in Memphis, as is a more rigorous process for achieving tenure. The goal is clear: to guarantee an effective teacher in every classroom. Highly effective teachers are the foundation of student growth and achievement; without them, there is no such thing as a quality education or reform.
Mr. Klein realizes the value of such teachers and wants their ranks to swell. But no district can cultivate a flock of top talent by questioning teachers’ dedication. Teachers have an interest in maintaining job protections not because they desire to maintain the status quo, as Mr. Klein writes in his essay, but rather to shield themselves from capricious hiring and firing decisions.
School systems must also be focused on the growth and development of their teachers if there is a reasonable expectation of effective teaching every day for every student. Most teachers want to be, and indeed believe they are, effective. But all need increased levels of support to deliver on new expectations. In Memphis, we have designed an evaluation tool that helps teachers identify growth areas and recommends specific development opportunities to close gaps.
It is heartbreaking to read Mr. Klein’s recent words and learn that after more than eight years of service in public education, he sees the state of education through the veil of partisan politics. The image he paints in The Atlantic of Democrats stuck on the teat of labor unions while Republicans busily champion a privatization agenda to save the neediest children is simplistic and disingenuous. Equally discouraging is his belief that the provision of 40,000 seats in charter schools in New York City even begins to answer the need for a career- and college-ready education for 1.2 million children in the school system. Pointedly, this remedy is simply not scalable to all children. The private operation of public schooling depends on winning a seat in a school via lottery. No child’s future or the future of a community should be linked to the luck of winning a lottery.
The agenda Mr. Klein promotes of providing alternatives to neighborhood public schools risks forcing our educators to compete for bodies in seats and public funds. Those students not fortunate enough to nab a spot at a top school would be left to languish in forgotten institutions while districts turn their attention to the few shining stars. This would destroy the very essence of the American education system, in which all of our children—of every race, creed, and socioeconomic status—are offered a fair shot at academic achievement.
In Memphis, where poverty is prevalent, recent collaboration between teachers and administrators is producing a positive impact on the graduation rate, student growth, achievement scores, the recruitment and retention of effective teachers, and the state’s accountability targets. There is still plenty of work to be done. The pockets of failure that burden public education are historical. To correct nearly a century of intentional neglect of some children in public education is a challenge. To declare public schooling a failure, as Mr. Klein in effect does, ignores the genius of public education reform in the United States, and it minimizes the accomplishments in Memphis and other reform-oriented school districts.
Before adopting his current mantle of despair and blame, Mr. Klein achieved some important improvements in New York City. The accomplishments of American public education, in the aggregate, have been significant, and the current array of reform efforts have the aspirational goals of a quality education for all. There is no failure in such an equation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Collaboration Is Essential in Public Education