Klein Should Listen to Experts He Cites

Editor’s Note: Education Post believes that open, honest dialogue among people who don’t always agree is a needed step toward finding solutions to our educational challenges. Dr. John Thompson, a well-known presence on social media who mostly opposes reforms we support, reached out to engage with Education Post and submitted a “book review” of Joel Klein’s new book, “Lessons of Hope.” Dmitri Mehlhorn recently submitted a separate review in a larger piece contrasting unions and reformers. We offer them both for your consideration.
When I read brilliant scholars like Anthony Byrk, E.D. Hirsch and Richard Elmore, I don’t expect to agree with them on every page. But, I would never prejudge them or doubt that I will be continually learning from them. I can’t say that I approach the words of Joel Klein and his advisors with the same mentality. But, I have made an extra effort to read Klein’s “Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools” with an open mind, and understand where he was coming from when he imposed “transformational” change on New York City schools. It is regrettable, but predictable, that a non-educator, a former prosecutor, and an opponent of incrementalism would seek advice from Alan Bersin, a former prosecutor who brought sweeping, top-down reforms to San Diego. Neither is it surprising that Klein, or anyone else who would take over an urban district during the NCLB era, would surround himself with advocates for test-driven, accountability-driven and competition-driven school improvement.

An Indictment of His Own Policies?

I only read three exceptions in “Lessons of Hope” to this pattern of Klein listening solely to reformers who believe the same way he does. But what could Klein have heard from Bryk, Hirsch and Elmore that he would not recognize as an indictment of his own policies? In perhaps the most inexplicable passage in his book, Klein cites Anthony Bryk’s finding that school improvement requires trusting relationships. Because each person or group involved in school improvement is dependent on the actions of the others, Bryk explained that teachers, principals, parents, students and administrators must work together and build trust in each other. How that principle is compatible with Klein’s brass-knuckled approach is beyond me. On the other hand, Klein’s policies completely ignored the findings in Byrk et al.’s “Organizing Schools for Improvement,” which explained why “truly disadvantaged” schools face far greater obstacles than more normative high-poverty schools. There is no hint in “Lessons of Hope” that Klein understood that Hirsch has long criticized the primitive, NCLB-type, test-driven accountability that propelled his reforms. Klein, who sought to use test score growth to evaluate teachers, seems unaware that Hirsch later said that if he was younger, his mission would be a campaign against value-added evaluations. And, then there is Klein’s brief but perplexing reference to Richard Elmore. Back then, I was one of many enthralled by Elmore’s explanation of how education reforms are like the waves on the surface but how they rarely affect the bottom of the oceans. Why would Klein make transformational change his sine qua non if he understood Elmore’s wisdom? Why commit in a single-minded fashion to an impossible goal?

A Warning Against the A-F Grading System

Rereading Elmore for clues, I found his observation, "You cannot break a monopoly by being nice." I had not known of that statement, and it is compatible with Klein’s claims that education is a monopoly to be broken up. It is harder to reconcile Klein’s hasty approach, however, with Elmore’s judgment about school transformation: “It's hard, it's bumpy, and it takes as long as it takes.” Elmore’s work, like that of Tony Byrk, should have been read as a warning against Klein’s A-F grading system, as well as his approach to identifying successful versus highest-challenge schools. Inevitably, Klein’s accountability system would reward some schools merely because they did well with the lucky hand they were dealt. Others would be punished for low performance and further damaged because bureaucrats were incapable of recognizing the full set of challenges that they faced. If Klein understood why it was so difficult for the best of education researchers, such as the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research and Elmore’s team at Harvard Graduate School of Education, to identify which schools actually faced the same problems, would he have been as trusting in the metrics devised by non-educators? Above all, if Klein had had more diversity on his team, and if he had really come to grips with the way that power corrupts, would he have been so trusting of a scheme where some administrators, schools and teachers were granted complete autonomy, while others were micromanaged and punished? I ask these questions in the belief that educational monocultures are unhealthy for children and other living things. I hope they will encourage dialogue.
John Thompson
Dr. John Thompson earned his doctorate at Rutgers in U.S. History and taught in the Oklahoma City Public Schools for 20 years, where he was an award-winning inner city high school teacher. His book, “A Teacher’s Tale,” is scheduled for publication in 2015.

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