The Failure of American Schools

Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft? But in his eight years as chancellor of New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, Klein learned a few painful lessons of his own—about feckless politicians, recalcitrant unions, mediocre teachers, and other enduring obstacles to school reform.

During my tenure, I fought to break this institutional stranglehold of defenders of the status quo. I did so because I believed that our kids are not getting the education they deserve, that we have clear examples showing dramatically better results, and that we won’t achieve those results if we just keep tinkering. Since 2007, my colleague Michelle Rhee, in Washington, D.C., has been making the same noises. The response, often from friends as well as opponents, was that we were unrealistic: complex systems don’t change easily, impatience is immature, and directly challenging the educational establishment is not a winning strategy. “You need to be more collaborative and less controversial,” we were repeatedly admonished.

That’s bad advice. Collaboration is the elixir of the status-quo crowd. Consider one of the most cherished mantras in public education today—“We’ll never fix education until we fix poverty.” This lets the school system off the hook: “We can’t do too much with these poor kids, so don’t blame us (but give us more money).” Sure, money, a stable family, and strong values typically make educating a child easier. But we also now know that, keeping those things constant, we can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kid, based on his or her education. Texas and California, for example, have very similar demographics. Nevertheless, even though Texas spends slightly less per pupil than does California, it outperforms California on all four national tests, across demographic groups. The gap is around a year’s worth of learning. That’s big. And the gaps are even bigger when we compare similar demographic groups in large urban districts. Low-income black students in Boston or New York, for example, are several years ahead of those in Detroit or Los Angeles on the national exams.

At the individual school level, the differences can be breathtaking. One charter school in New York City, Harlem Success Academy 1, has students who are demographically almost identical to those attending nearby community and charter schools, yet it gets entirely different results. Harlem Success has 88 percent of its students proficient in reading and 95 percent in math; six other nearby schools have an average of 31 percent proficient in reading and 39 percent in math. And according to the most-recent scores on New York State fourth-grade science tests, Success had more than 90 percent of its students at the highest (advanced) level, while the city had only 43 percent at advanced, and Success’s black students outperformed white students at more than 700 schools across the state. In fact, Success now performs at the same level as the gifted-and-talented schools in New York City—all of which have demanding admissions requirements, while Success randomly selects its students, mostly poor and minority, by lottery.

These school-level differences ultimately reflect the effectiveness of a child’s particular teachers. Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, has shown that, while some teachers get a year and a half’s worth of learning into a year, others get in only half a year’s worth of learning with essentially the same students. Imagine the cumulative impact of the best teachers over 13 years of elementary and secondary education. Indeed, even if California raised its performance to Texas’s level, Detroit to Boston’s, the neighborhood schools in Harlem to Harlem Success’s—that is to say, if our least effective teachers performed at the level of our most effective—the impact would be seismic.

Critics are strangely eager to discredit these differences. Writing last year in The New York Review of Books, the educational historian Diane Ravitch argued that schools like Harlem Success aren’t the answer, because, as a group, charter schools in the U.S. don’t outperform public schools. To make her case, Ravitch relied on a study by Margaret Raymond at Stanford; but curiously, Ravitch failed to mention that Raymond applied precisely the same analysis to New York City (where the school district was atypically supportive of charters), and found that charter schools there were getting significantly better reading and math results with their students than were comparable traditional public schools. And even Ravitch had to acknowledge that some charter schools are getting “amazing results.” If that’s the case, then instead of relying on the kind of group-think that pits charter schools against non-charter schools, shouldn’t we be asking why some schools get much better results, and focus on how we can replicate them?

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Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, oversees the News Corp venture Amplify, which creates digital products and services for teachers, students, and parents.

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