Friday, October 12, 2012

Sleight of Hand: Joel Klein’s Misleading Autobiography that Corrupts our Education Policy

“Sleight of Hand” describes Joel Klein’s father, a federal postal employee who passed a civil service exam and later retired with a secure federal pension; and his mother, a bookkeeper. The Klein family income was about at the national median income, perhaps much higher. The public housing project in which young Joel lived was almost all white and attractively landscaped.---Richard Rothstein

When I and Joel had our hug when he announced he was leaving the DOE it was based on a blog post I wrote that we both came from similar backgrounds and had some similar history -- before he went bad. Basically, as Rothstein points out, we both came from a lower middle Jewish working class background -- his dad was a postal worker and mine was a garment worker while his mother worked as a book keeper and mine staid home after 25 years as a garment worker after I was born.

I never would claim my background was deprived --- there was no question I would go to college from the day I was conscious and for Klein to misrepresent himself as equivalent to poor kids of color for political reasons is shameful.

Leonie had a comment:
Not the only misleading thing Klein has ever done or far, but an interesting addition to a long list. 
Here is Rothstein's post:
From: Richard Rothstein
Date: October 11, 2012 9:36:14 AM EDT
Subject: Sleight of Hand: Joel Klein’s Misleading Autobiography that Corrupts our Education Policy
Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I have today posted a blog summary of an article on-line in The American Prospect. The article reports that Joel Klein has used a misrepresentation of his own upbringing to support a flawed school reform agenda. 

Klein’s misrepresentation (his claim that although he lived in public housing as a youth, he overcame severe socioeconomic disadvantage as the result of efforts of yesteryear’s excellent teachers) is possible because Americans have mostly forgotten how public housing was once created for white, middle class families like Klein’s. And so we have also forgotten how federal, state and local policy combined to segregate our metropolitan areas by race. We mistakenly view this segregation as the accidental, “de facto” result of market and demographic forces. This misunderstanding of history makes it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to address the concentrated disadvantage in inner-city ghettos that prevent children from succeeding in school.

The blog post is reprinted below.

Richard Rothstein

            “Sleight of Hand,” an article in the November-December issue of The American Prospect, describes how federal, state, and local housing policies, including the public housing program, were designed a half-century ago to segregate our major metropolitan areas, and how the residential patterns created by public policy at that time persist to this day.

The article does so by way of describing the childhood of Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor and now C.E.O. of a Rupert Murdoch company selling technology and software to public schools. Klein has often used his life story to prove an educational theory – that poor quality teachers are the cause of disadvantaged children’s failures. The life story is that he grew up poor, in public housing, “a kid from the streets” with little interest in education until a high school teacher “saw something that I hadn’t seen in myself.” And this life story, Klein and his allies imply, proves that if only disadvantaged students today had the kind of teacher from whom he had benefited, they too would excel and succeed.

          Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “Klein knows, as I do, that great teachers can transform a child’s life chances—and that poverty is not destiny. It’s a belief deeply rooted in his childhood, as a kid growing up in public housing. … He understands that education is …  the force that lifts children from public-housing projects to first-generation college students.”

          As an education policy analyst, I had heard Joel Klein tell this story about his deprived childhood many times during the last decade. But I never really paid attention. Then, a few years ago, I started to research the history of residential racial segregation, attempting to understand how it came to be that many low-income African-American children are concentrated in urban ghettos where their disadvantage is so overwhelming that even the best teachers and schools cannot overcome it. I learned that 60 years ago when Joel Klein was growing up, public housing projects like his had been constructed not for low-income people but for two-parent middle class families with stable employment histories and solid credit. Unlike the public housing projects we know today, rents in these projects were not government-subsidized; residents paid market-rate rents, sometimes more. After World War II, with returning veterans like Joel Klein’s father flooding an already tight housing market, public housing was often the most desirable residence available for stable employed men and their families. These middle class public housing projects were located in white neighborhoods and intended for whites only (a token number of middle class blacks were admitted in northern city projects), while public housing projects for low income blacks were sited in distant inner-city ghettos in those same northern cities.

Many of these public housing projects did not merely reflect existing patterns of racial segregation; the projects helped to create or reinforce those patterns.

          Earlier this year, Joel Klein co-chaired a commission of the Council on Foreign Relations that again denounced our public education system and our teachers as failures - such failures, in fact, that they constitute a threat to our national security. In March, I watched a PBS Newshour report on the commission’s findings, and saw Klein again repeat his story, telling interviewer Jeffrey Brown that he had grown up in public housing in a family where nobody knew about college, but he was rescued from mediocrity, or worse, by great public school teachers. If only there were teachers like that today, he implied, children living in public housing projects would succeed as he has. Listening to this interview, with my new understanding of the history of public housing, I came to suspect that Joel Klein’s oft-repeated autobiography was, at best, misleading.

          If my suspicions were correct, rather than proving, as Klein would have it, that ‘demography need not be destiny,’ his life story would actually support the opposite claim – that Joel Klein’s academic and professional success fulfilled conventional demographic predictions for children of his middle class upbringing.

And if my suspicions were correct, Klein’s life story would not support a claim that good teachers alone can overcome the effects of poverty on the achievement of disadvantaged children, but actually support the opposite claim - that if we want disadvantaged children to succeed, our nation must do much more to narrow social and economic inequality and undo the residential segregation of our major metropolitan areas. We cannot expect teachers to overcome the obstacles disadvantaged children face, while the rest of the nation ignores them.

          “Sleight of Hand” shows that, indeed, in no meaningful sense can Joel Klein be said to have had a deprived background, comparable to that of children from the projects today. It shows that in no sense can Joel Klein accurately attribute his success, not to an advantaged middle class family, but only to his teachers.

“Sleight of Hand” describes Joel Klein’s father, a federal postal employee who passed a civil service exam and later retired with a secure federal pension; and his mother, a bookkeeper. The Klein family income was about at the national median income, perhaps much higher. The public housing project in which young Joel lived was almost all white and attractively landscaped. Applicants to live in his project were screened by New York City Housing Authority investigators who visited these applicants’ previous homes to ensure that they had good furniture and that their children were well behaved. And while Klein claims that his depressed ambitions from a life of hardship were raised only when he encountered an inspiring high school teacher, the record shows that his educationally motivated family produced a young man who was already academically very successful by the sixth grade, if not before.
          My interest here is not in whether Joel Klein is a truthful person. Joel Klein’s integrity is of no real importance in itself. Rather, my interest is in two important policy issues elucidated by Klein’s actual life story. First, Klein (and other prominent school reformers) have used his personal story to undermine our nation’s faith in public education and its teachers, who, allegedly, have now ceased producing successes like his own. Because these reformers claim that Klein’s story proves that teachers alone, if only they were competent, can overcome their students’ poverty, the reformers also implicitly undermine support for social and economic reforms that could actually get disadvantaged children to school more ready to learn. It is important to understand the flaws in the Klein story in order to rebuild support for policies to narrow inequality. In fact, while there will always be a few children who “beat the odds,” most who come from severely racially isolated and economically disadvantaged backgrounds will be unprepared to take advantage of what even the best schools and teachers can offer, and these children will fail. Joel Klein’s story does nothing to disprove this reality.

          Second, most Americans today have forgotten (or never learned) how the so-called “de facto” racial segregation of our major metropolitan areas was the deliberate creation of public – federal, state, and local – policy and why, therefore, we have a public obligation to undo this segregation. "Public Housing: Government-sanctioned Segregation," a sidebar to The American Prospect article, provides some greater detail about how this purposeful federal policy segregated the races so definitively that we continue to live today in the separate neighborhoods that this policy intended to ensure. Joel Klein’s actual life story, not the version of which he boasts, provides an important window into these policies and our collective public responsibility for them.

This public housing history will be expanded further in “Race and Public Housing: The Federal Role,” in the November/December 2012 issue of Poverty & Race, the newsletter of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, available here shortly.”

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