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.

There are two ways to correct this enormous power imbalance—first, by “Hatching” the union. Federal employees under the Hatch Act cannot fund or participate in elections of federal officials. Unions would fight Hatching legislation, but in the 24 states that allow referenda, a well-organized citizen group could circumvent the union-controlled legislature.

The other way is by providing sufficient competition through charter schools. Klein gives much-deserved credit to Michelle Rhee for her courageous fight last year to win a contract that forced D.C. Public Schools teachers to relax their sacred tenure and seniority rights. However, the D.C. charter schools deserve credit too, for, as Rhee and union leadership have both publicly admitted, the fact that 57 schools with 29,000-plus students had taken 40 percent of the union’s jobs forced the realization that DCPS needed the power to reward merit and fire incompetent teachers, so the public schools could compete effectively and stop job losses.

Mike Peabody
Founder and Chair
Friends of Choice in Urban Schools
Washington, D.C.

Joel Klein’s notion of measuring students’ learning outcomes based on success from one year to the next, rather than against an absolute standard, is a good one. But he then ruins a good idea: “Those teachers and principals whose students do well should get substantial merit pay”; the rest should be fired. Where are evaluations of why the teacher is failing and attempts to correct the failure? Treating teachers like Division I football coaches (if your team wins, your pay goes up; if it loses, you’re on the street) is not treating them as professionals.

Bill Houghton
Sebastopol, Calif.

Joel Klein replies:

Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew ignore the fact that unions protect the interests of their members, often at the expense of children. For example, as I write this, the union is suing New York City to prevent 7,000 overwhelmingly minority children from attending charter schools they chose. Why? Because the charters aren’t unionized, and the union fears the competition. This year, 64,000 NYC families applied for 13,000 charter seats.

Weingarten and Mulgrew opposed many of the NYC reforms, so they predictably downplay the achievements. The City made big—not “modest”—gains in math and reading, going up a total of 29 points on the naep tests in those subjects, while the nation went up 16 points and the rest of New York state was flat. Even Diane Ravitch, a relentless critic of NYC, has acknowledged that the City made “significant progress” on the naeps.

Moreover, research by James Kemple at NYU, taking into account the state’s “recalibration of the scores” that Mulgrew refers to, found “compelling evidence of strong positive effects on student outcomes from the constellation of [NYC] reforms.” As The New York Times editorialized, “Critics used [the recalibration] to dismiss all the city’s reforms as meaningless. But fair-minded people can see that the city has indeed improved student performance.” Only a few years ago Weingarten said, “The work you see in [NYC], as compared to around the country, is really terrific.”

Al Shanker’s widow, Edith, challenges the accuracy of a quote I attribute to Shanker. This quote has been cited countless times, often prominently during his life. If it’s inaccurate, why didn’t Shanker or the AFT ever dispute it? Indeed, Richard Kahlenberg, Shanker’s biographer, calls him “a leader who said he would represent children when they started paying union dues.” Kahlenberg also quotes Shanker as saying, when asked whether a teachers’ strike hurts students, “I don’t represent children. I represent the teachers.”

Least Metaphorical Tweet of the Month

Joel Klein’s Atlantic article (0611) on school reform LITERALLY brought me to tears. Speaking as a liberal-ish, a pox on teachers unions!


‘E’ for Effort

Readers offered their own ideas for fixing our schools:

■ Stop teaching to the test
■ Involve parents in discipline
■ Provide more teacher development
■ Depoliticize the system
■ Beef up college-admission standards
■ Reduce class size
■ Address the truancy problem
■ Increase teacher pay
■ Decrease teacher pay
■ Look to Finland as an example

By the Numbers

Responses to Joel Klein's article on school reform


“The Agony of Crist” (July/August Atlantic) said that Marco Rubio was a Florida state senator before becoming a U.S. senator. Rubio served in the Florida House of Representatives.

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