Joel Klein vs. Jonathan Zimmerman (in defense of Diane Ravitch)

Historians in the News
tags: education, school



In response to:

He Transformed the Schools, But... from the March 5, 2015 issue

Joel Klein, former leader of the NYC school system:

To the Editors:

Jonathan Zimmerman reviews my book about school reform in New York City under Michael Bloomberg, Lessons of Hope [NYR, March 5], and finds that we inherited a “profoundly ineffective” system and got “results”: by “almost every way we can measure, the overall quality of New York’s schools improved.” What’s not to like? For Zimmerman, it’s that we alienated core constituencies in the process.

Unfortunately, that’s the heart of the problem. You can’t do major reform without upsetting these interests. The teachers union, bureaucrats, and local politicians who controlled the prior system—and ran it to their advantage—inevitably push back hard. Power doesn’t give up prerogative cheerfully.

Zimmerman appears most concerned that I “alienate[d] a substantial fraction of [the teachers].” Here, I partially agree, admitting in the book, “We should have found better ways to connect with teachers.” But that isn’t as easy as Zimmerman suggests. Their union blocked us from communicating directly with teachers, choosing instead to present its own sustained, venomous PR attack on us. Equally challenging, several essential changes upset teachers: closing schools means looking for new jobs, while eliminating automatic placements based on seniority makes it harder to find them. Most troubling, our efforts to hold teachers accountable threatened job security and lifetime pensions.

Zimmerman faults me for suggesting why Diane Ravitch, once a strong supporter of Bloomberg and his policies, may have switched her positions and became our fiercest critic. Zimmerman doesn’t present the full picture. Early on, Ravitch pushed me to hire her partner to run a training program. When I didn’t, she wrote a bitter e-mail concluding, “I despair for your initiatives.” Soon thereafter, Ravitch described herself as our “most caustic critic.” What caused such sudden vitriol? Zimmerman doesn’t say. Ravitch’s attacks continued unabated, even as we adopted policies that she had espoused. Yet in all her writings, she never mentioned the hiring decision.

Zimmerman accepts Ravitch’s explanation that “my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality.” But Zimmerman ignores his own recognition that these ideas—especially charter and small schools—were working well in New York City. And many of Ravitch’s reversals are not so easy to explain on the basis of how “ideas were working out.” She had repeatedly said things like urban school districts “are jobs programs for adults at the expense of the children”; that charter schools “are public schools”; and that, in schools enrolling “high proportions of poor students, performance is appallingly low.” On these, and many other views, Ravitch reversed herself without explanation.

I join Zimmerman in hoping we can find less contentious ways to reform our schools—but not if doing so comes at the expense of our kids.

Joel Klein
CEO, Amplify
New York City

Jonathan Zimmerman replies

I have a great deal of admiration for what Joel Klein accomplished as New York City schools chancellor. But we disagree—deeply and fundamentally—in our estimation of the people who do not share that admiration.

Klein casts these objectors as self-serving cynics. He is an advocate for “our kids”; they are advocates only for themselves. And here he includes Diane Ravitch, insisting that her opposition to him stemmed not from her honest evaluation of his reforms but rather from his refusal to hire her partner. According to Klein, my own review showed that his reforms were “working well.” Clearly, then, Ravitch must have had some ulterior motive for her change of heart.

But my review did not say that all of Klein’s reforms were working well. I explicitly noted that some of them had succeeded, as best we can tell, while others—including his teacher accountability systems—had not. Most of all, I emphasized that people of equal virtue and knowledge can interpret these reforms in different ways. But Klein’s black-and-white view of the world won’t allow any such gray. Instead of addressing the substance of Ravitch’s critiques, which she has detailed in two long books, he simply quotes her older statements in support of his opinions. Then he repeats the charge that she reversed her views “without explanation,” which is simply false. Klein has every right to challenge Ravitch’s revised ideas, but he should do so on their merits and evidence instead of assuming—prima facie—that they have neither.

My review criticized Klein not for his own good-faith works on behalf of our schools, but for his refusal to believe that his foes were also working in good faith. Nothing in his reply suggests that I was wrong.




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