What Did Klein Learn? Not Much, Apparently

I love Joel Klein. He made New York City a magnet for reform-minded entrepreneurs, sent forth more than a few excellent leaders to other big city school systems, and is never afraid to speak his truth. But his Wall Street Journal op-ed today is really lame.

Over the past eight years, I’ve been privileged to serve as chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. Working with a mayor who courageously took responsibility for our schools, our department has made significant changes and progress. Along the way, I’ve learned some important lessons about what works in public education, what doesn’t, and what (and who) are the biggest obstacles to the transformative changes we still need.

So what lessons did he learn “along the way”? One is that education is a “service delivery” business. Wow, that’s inspiring to the classroom teacher. But furthermore, Klein’s been saying that for at least seven years.

Second, he claims that “We know how to fix public education. The question is whether we have the political will to do it.” What, now he’s quoting Davis Guggenheim? I’ve already called a Hubris Alert on this one; I’m sorry, Mr. Chancellor, but when just 21 percent of your eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, I think a little more humility is needed.

And finally, and most depressingly, he says this: “Traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc.—aren’t going to get the job done.” More money and smaller classes, sure, I’m with you, Joel. But better curriculum? Good grief. Klein’s Achilles’ heel has always been curriculum, about which he was proudly (and foolishly) agnostic. It appeared that, a few years ago, he had a conversion experience, when he embraced Core Knowledge and started talking about the need for young children to build their content knowledge. Mr. Klein, I hate to break it to you, but that means putting in place a strong curriculum! We might try that sometime; you never know, it might work.

In a few minutes the baton will be passed to Michelle Rhee, as she announces her new reform advocacy organization. It’s too bad that Klein didn’t make more of his last minutes in the sun.

-Mike Petrilli

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