Joel Klein’s Sad and Cynical Atlantic Essay

I don't disagree with everything in Joel Klein's Atlantic magazine cri de coeur on school reform. For example: Yes, it would make sense to front-load teacher salaries to attract high-performers to the profession and convince them to stay beyond two or three years. And I agree it's a bad thing when politicians use their influence to get donors' kids into competitive public schools, or to protect the jobs of well-connected but incompetent principals. 

That said, I was stunned by the nasty tone of much of Klein's essay, which, in its first three-quarters, depicts teachers simultaneously as lazy dolts (in the classroom) but also as canny and malicious political operators, ready to rush into the streets every time the union calls on them to defend their vampirically-expensive pension and pay packages:

The two national unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—together have some 4.7 million members, who pay hundreds of millions of dollars in national, state, and local dues, much of which is funneled to political causes. Teachers unions consistently rank among the top spenders on politics. Moreover, millions of union members turn out when summoned, going door-to-door, staffing phone banks, attending rallies, and the like. Teachers are extremely effective messengers to parents, community groups, faith-based groups, and elected officials, and the unions know how to deploy them well. …

…the unions, in turn, are very clear about what [they want]. They want, first, happy members, so that those who run the unions get reelected; and, second, more members, so their power, money, and influence grow. As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly put it, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” And what do the members want? Employees understandably want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say, 55) with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits; for their part, the retirees want to make sure their benefits keep coming and grow through cost-of-living increases. The result: whether you work hard or don’t, get good results with kids or don’t, teach in a shortage area like math or special education or don’t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you’ve been around for another year, in which case you get more. Not bad for the adults.

Often, critics of teachers' unions try very hard to draw a distinction between the big bad unions and individual teachers themselves. Here, Klein doesn't even gesture toward such an acknowledgement of teachers' individuality, he simply equates the union with "members"/"employees," and paints them all with the same broad "bad for kids" brush.

I have to say, there's a sort of honesty here. A March 2010 Gates Foundation/Scholastic poll of 40,000 teachers found that on issues such as evaluation, pay, and benefits, most teachers are roughly in line with their unions. A 2007 poll of teachers conducted by the think tank Education Sector found that only 11 percent believed a union was "something you could do without." So if you hate teachers' unions' policy preferences, then you really do hate the preferences of most individual educators.

But then, in the final quarter of the piece, Klein abruptly shifts tone, writing nicely about how we really need to attract higher-achieving college students to teaching, by paying them more and making sure schools themselves are safe and functional environments. If we don't do that, he argues, we'll continue to lose Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows recruits before they hit their stride in the classroom, and we'll never know their full potential to transform the profession.

I agree with Klein on these points, but his incredibly negative depiction of the current teacher corps is hardly the career's best calling card. Who wants to make a longterm commitment to a profession supposedly populated by underachievers concerned more with their own retirement packages than with the needs of poor children? Then there's the inconvienent fact that if you support higher pay for teachers, you really ought to be working in partnership with unions, not against them, since teachers' unions have historically been the most effective advocates for increased education funding. 

Upon further reflection, I realized that Joel Klein does respect, very much, young teachers who spend a year or two in the classroom via alternative certification programs. But he seems to believe that the public school system is currently so deeply dysfunctional that almost no talented or ambitious person would choose to remain in an urban classroom longterm. It seems that for Klein, once a teacher earns tenure, she becomes a dreaded "member" (of the union), and can no longer really be understood as a respectable, autonomous professional. 

What a sad and cynical argument–and what a terrible insult to the thousands upon thousands of tenured urban teachers who are both intelligent and dedicated. It's anecdotal evidence, sure, but not only do I have such a teacher in my own family, right here in New York City, but as an education reporter I've met such teachers in Providence, Washington, D.C., Newark, Denver, Colorado Springs, Los Angeles, Albany, and every other city I've visited. Even when these teachers support merit pay or think traditional tenure is too much job security, they still want an organized voice in how their schools are run, and they tend to hate — just hate — the way their profession is depicted in the media.

I wish we could tell those teachers' stories instead of scaring people away from the profession by depicting it, constantly, as pathologically dysfunctional. That's something I've tried to do in my journalism, and that I hope to do more of in my book. In the meantime, I am sure we will have to read a lot more articles like Klein's.

One thought on “Joel Klein’s Sad and Cynical Atlantic Essay

  1. Aaron Lowinger

    Where Joel Klein’s article is most relevant is in its point that the system is failing the children. Your counter-argument here attacks the rampant vilification of teachers (as well as all public employees) but fails to consider how the public education system affects the students and will affect the future of our country. With black drop-out rates they way there are now (in my city of Buffalo, 75% of black males don’ graduate) the schools appear to be grooming grounds for the further bifurcation of American society between the haves and the have-nots.

    Klein insists, in a rather optimistic way, that teachers CAN overcome environmental factors (economy, home life, etc) and reach their students. His criticism of unions, as it seems to me, stems purely from the fact that teachers have SOME political power, whereas urban students have NONE.


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