Expose: Former NYC School Chancellor Joel Klein Is Not Telling the Whole Truth About His Personal History
Continued from previous page
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.