Letters to the editor

Responses and reverberations
Grading School Reform

Joel Klein’s take on the public education system, “The Failure of American Schools” (June), received more letters than any other article so far this year. Union leaders, teachers, parents, and students alike wrote in. Many attacked Klein; a few praised him; others offered their own theories about what’s plaguing U.S. education.

Joel Klein takes historical revisionism to an entirely new level. His relentless campaign to pin blame on the teachers union for failing to transform New York City schools during his tenure as chancellor is yet another attempt to avoid taking any responsibility. If he had worked with the city’s teachers instead of fighting with them, he would have been far more successful. Collaboration trumps conflict, as evidenced in so many school districts that view respect and cooperation between union and administration as the essential starting point for reform. Baltimore; Douglas County, Colo.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Marlboro, N.Y.; New Haven, Conn.; and Pittsburgh, to name just a few districts, have overhauled teacher evaluations, changed compensation systems, and improved teacher preparation and support mechanisms—all through collaboration. Constantly berating teachers and their unions, as Klein and like-minded sideline commentators so enjoy doing, won’t help prepare one child for life, school, and career. Teachers and their unions are willing to work with anyone who is equally passionate about doing what works to make a difference in the lives of kids.

Randi Weingarten
President American Federation of Teachers

Joel Klein mentions unions, politicians, and poor teachers as the primary culprits in the failure of American education, but he doesn’t tackle the three sacred cows of American education: June, July, and August. During those months, students, especially from poor districts, forget much of what they’ve learned—it’s been shown that while disadvantaged students can learn as quickly during the school year as their wealthier classmates, they tend to fall behind over the summer. Their parents are less likely to send them to math camp, visit the library, or read with them. A relic of our agricultural past, the summer break robs our youth of years of education.

Scott Cole
Ashland, Ore.

Joel Klein fails to note some major failures of his own stewardship of the New York City Department of Education. Principal among these was his embrace of test preparation rather than real learning, a strategy that saw schools lose music, art, even science in favor of relentless drilling for state math and reading tests. The shortcomings of that strategy became clear last summer, when the city’s skyrocketing gains on state tests disappeared following the recalibration of the scores: rather than two-thirds of city students being rated proficient in English, far fewer than half were, while math proficiency dropped nearly 30 points.

Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, regarded as the gold standard, showed that despite extravagant claims by Mayor Bloomberg and Klein himself, particularly of closing the black/white achievement gap, NYC’s gains during this period were modest at best.

Michael Mulgrew
President United Federation of Teachers
New York, N.Y.

I almost completely agree with Mr. Klein. As a teacher in the South Bronx, I was appalled at how the union simply protected the worst teachers. But his statement that “the average NYC teacher works fewer than seven hours a day for 185 days” is a distortion. Great teachers work at least twice as long—planning curriculum, tutoring students, and so on.

TheAtlantic.com comment

Joel Klein trots out a supposed quote implying that my late husband, Al Shanker, cared only about “protecting” teachers, even “bad” ones. Using this alleged, unverified quotation—“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren”—Klein plays fast and loose with Al’s reputation as a union leader and sterling educator.

Edith Shanker
New York, N.Y.

Joel Klein’s article throws the brightest light I have seen on the teachers unions that have blocked education reform since the late ’60s, when these unions got the right to strike. It seemed only fair at the time for teachers unions to have the same rights as industrial unions. However, granting those rights was a major error, for industrial unions know they can push employers only so far without losing their jobs when their companies fail. Teachers unions are in a monopoly position and have no such constraints, and when they strike can not only shut down the schools but cripple an entire city, since parents must then stay home. And unlike industrial unions, they can effectively elect their own bosses—the school committee and members of the state legislature—by staffing and financing their campaigns.

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