Why education reform may be doomed. Salon, 10/13/12.
Some of my teachers were superb, some not so, but with backgrounds like ours, Klein and I would probably have succeeded no matter what shortcomings our schools might have had.
The major one, that neither race nor class nor disability “matter” if the teacher is “of high quality,” is anti-reality. Race matters. It only seems to “not matter” to those who ignore the privilege of whiteness, a privilege that may give you a step up or at least make a solid step to stand on, unlike others who because of a lack of white maleness have stairs that disappear into the floor like the bottom of an escalator.
A problem with, and convenience of, these myths is how poorly and dangerously they oversimplify system A or person B or group Q and offer to the lazy or not-knowing mind a series of talking points and deeply held and -defended “beliefs” not based on any discovery of facts or observations of people or anything with more than one option or end, beliefs that are simple to grasp and confirm some already-held prejudices, biases, and, especially, fears. If it is the fault of the poor that they are poor, we as a society, as a collective, have no obligation to do anything but sneer at them and keep them down because they are “obviously” not “good” enough to not be poor. If the students are failing, it’s not because the once-a-year standardized test is a poor measure of what students have learned when and where and from whom and what the teacher did or did not do, but because the teachers are bad for belonging to unions which we all agree with corporations and hedge fund managers and plant owners and stockholders, right?, that unions are bad and have never helped a single worker or profit-maker ever in history. If a neighborhood is poor, it’s not because wages are low and expenses high but because the neighborhood isn’t ambitious enough and therefore should be allowed to rot.
The myth of the self-made man become hero-savior to save the black and brown children from their unionized teachers hides a whiff of white man’s burden. And economic exploitation. Millions of dollars of federal and state funds every year. Not enough supervision at any level. All fed by the myth that “business” has and can solve all problems and has the perfect model for all professions, industries, cultural institutions, etc. No matter how often you say it or how far you spread your proteges, it’s still not true.
For Klein’s life story to serve his argument, he can’t merely have grown up in a housing project but in a home that failed to support middle-class values of academic ambition and striving. To support his program, he’s had to suggest he had an “inner city” upbringing on “the streets” and was raised in a dysfunctional home we typically associate with the truly disadvantaged. This is where his misrepresentations and distortions come in. The discrepancies matter because they go to the heart of what’s wrong with his reform agenda.
Educational values were not absent from Klein’s family. His father, Charles Klein, like many of his generation, left high school during the Depression, but the notion that his parents couldn’t read or didn’t know about college is misleading. His mother, Claire Klein, was a bookkeeper. With fierce competition for scarce jobs, Charles did well enough on a civil-service exam to land work at the post office, remaining for 25 years in a secure job he hated to ensure he could send his children to college. This was not the commitment of semi-literate parents with little knowledge of higher education.
Klein did live in public housing after his family moved to Queens in 1955 when he was nine years old. But he fails to say—perhaps because he truly doesn’t realize—that some public housing in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Woodside Houses project where his family resided, was built for white, middle-class families. The poor and the problems poverty causes were unwelcome. This distinction is critical to understanding Klein’s history and why it undermines his current policy prescriptions.
Returning World War II veterans like Klein’s father confronted a housing shortage. To address it, New York erected projects like Woodside Houses, an attractive six-story development with trees, grassy areas, and park benches. Residents were not on the dole but paid rent that covered their housing costs; apartments were not subsidized and were not part of the national low-income housing program.
Certainly it seems absurd for him to claim that his parents had less influence on his eventual academic success than Mr. Harris, who first encountered him only late in high school. Yet this is the position of Klein, Rhee, Duncan, and their allies: Teachers alone determine whether children succeed, and home environment is merely an obstacle for teachers to overcome. Maybe there’s a case for this approach, but Klein’s biography doesn’t prove it.
Rothstein picks apart Klein’s biography piece by piece, and reveals the flat-out lies and purposeful deceptions to the public and, it seems, Klein to himself. Only by analyzing and checking facts will we see how flimsy the basis is for the destruction of public institutions and the undermining of neighborhoods in the name of “saving” them.