Education Reform: The Last Refuge of A Scoundrel

Joel Klein

Someone once observed: When Samuel Johnson said that ”patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he overlooked the possibilities of the word “reform.” I would add that there’s no refuge of a worse scoundrel than that of education reform.

Take Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City public schools. Last week he had an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal and wrote the following:

…It’s little surprise… American kids don’t get the education they deserve. When I demanded reform as chancellor, I was regularly told by friends and foes alike that impatience is immature, challenging the educational establishment is a losing strategy, collaboration is necessary, and controversy is bad. It was bad advice, typical of the status-quo thinking that dominates American education.

Consider the common refrain that “We’ll never fix education until we fix poverty.” This lets school systems off the hook. Of course money, a stable family and strong values typically make it easier to educate a child. But we now know that, keeping those things constant, certain schools can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kids…

At individual schools, differences can be breathtaking. One charter in New York City, Harlem Success Academy 1 … has students who are demographically almost identical to those in nearby schools, yet it gets entirely different results.

Eighty-eight percent of Harlem Success students are proficient in reading and 95% are proficient in math. Six nearby schools have an average of 31% and 39% proficiency in those subjects, respectively. More than 90% of Harlem Success fourth-graders scored at the highest level on New York State’s most recent science tests, while only 43% of fourth-graders citywide did so. Harlem Success’s black students outperformed white students at more than 700 schools across the state. Overall, the charter now performs at the same level as the gifted-and-talented schools in New York City, all of which have demanding admissions requirements. Harlem Success, by contrast, selects its students, mostly poor and minority, by random lottery[my emphasis]…

As a former public school teacher of 35 years’ experience, I reacted with acute skepticism to that last line. Aside from the long history of school reformers’ serially cooking the books to get the fabulous test result numbers they claim (think Michelle Rhee in Washington), there is also the spurious assertion that they get these amazing results with the same students the regular public schools must deal with.

Today, the Journal published a letter from a New York parent with first-hand knowledge of the school district’s admission procedures for charter schools:

Harlem Charter’s Parental Advantage

In “Scenes From the New York Education Wars” (op-ed, May 10), Joel Klein asserts that Harlem Success Academy “selects its students, mostly poor and minority, by random lottery.” Yes, but it is a random lottery among the self-selected. The random lottery is drawn not from among the community at large, but from among those families who make the effort to apply for admission. While this is not an onerous requirement, it does impose a minimal level of commitment and effort that the community’s most troubled families would not satisfy—think Mary, the mother portrayed by Mo’Nique in the movie “Precious.”

Once chosen by the random lottery, there are further conditions for families to satisfy. When my child was chosen to be offered a seat in a Harlem charter school, the admissions packet we received included a commitment card to be returned by a specified due date, a set of 20 forms to be completed, and an announcement indicating that a parent and the child must attend a mandatory 5-hour enrollment meeting on a specified Saturday in May as a condition for accepting the seat. These requirements are not onerous enough to deter a family that is committed to a child’s education, but almost certainly they would screen out a family that is not so committed. So while the charter school students may be “demographically almost identical to those in nearby schools,” as Mr. Klein notes, I would expect there to be critical psychographic differences.

To achieve well on standardized tests, charter schools benefit from filtering mechanisms unavailable to nearby district schools.

Daniel K. Cooper

New York

Joel Klein’s spectacular disingenuousness in misleading readers to believe that there is no selectivity at the Harlem Success Academy is matched only by the spectacular credulity of the usually skeptical Journal editors who ought to know that if it’s too good to be true, it always is. Unfortunately the Journal’s editors have a great deal of intellectual capital invested in education reform which Jacques Barzun defined as a belief in a “teaching magic that relieves the student of the burden of wanting to be taught.”

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