Joel Klein’s false stories

“Sleight of Hand,” an article in the November-December issue of The American Prospect, describes how federal, state, and local housing policies, including the public housing program, were designed a half-century ago to segregate our major metropolitan areas, and how the residential patterns created by public policy at that time persist to this day.

The article does so by way of describing the childhood of Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor and now CEO of a Rupert Murdoch company selling technology and software to public schools. Klein has often used his life story to prove an educational theory—that poor quality teachers are the cause of disadvantaged children’s failures. The life story is that he grew up poor, in public housing, “a kid from the streets” with little interest in education until a high school teacher “saw something that I hadn’t seen in myself.” And this life story, Klein and his allies imply, proves that if only disadvantaged students today had the kind of teacher from whom he had benefited, they too would excel and succeed.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “Klein knows, as I do, that great teachers can transform a child’s life chances—and that poverty is not destiny. It’s a belief deeply rooted in his childhood, as a kid growing up in public housing. … He understands that education is … the force that lifts children from public-housing projects to first-generation college students.”

As an education policy analyst, I had heard Klein tell this story about his deprived childhood many times during the last decade. But I never really paid attention. Then, a few years ago, I started to research the history of residential racial segregation, attempting to understand how it came to be that many low-income African-American children are concentrated in urban ghettos where their disadvantage is so overwhelming that even the best teachers and schools cannot overcome it. I learned that 60 years ago, when Klein was growing up, public housing projects like his had been constructed not for low-income people but for two-parent middle-class families with stable employment histories and solid credit. Unlike the public housing projects we know today, rents in these projects were not government-subsidized; residents paid market-rate rents, sometimes more. After World War II, with returning veterans like Klein’s father flooding an already tight housing market, public housing was often the most desirable residence available for stable employed men and their families. These middle-class public housing projects were located in white neighborhoods and intended for whites only (a token number of middle-class blacks were admitted in northern city projects), while public housing projects for low-income blacks were sited in distant inner-city ghettos in those same northern cities.

Many of these public housing projects did not merely reflect existing patterns of racial segregation; the projects helped to create or reinforce those patterns.

Earlier this year, Klein co-chaired a commission of the Council on Foreign Relations that again denounced our public education system and our teachers as failures—such failures, in fact, that they constitute a threat to our national security. In March, I watched a PBS NewsHour report on the commission’s findings, and saw Klein again repeat his story, telling interviewer Jeffrey Brown that he had grown up in public housing in a family where nobody knew about college, but he was rescued from mediocrity, or worse, by great public school teachers. If only there were teachers like that today, he implied, children living in public housing projects would succeed as he has. Listening to this interview, with my new understanding of the history of public housing, I came to suspect that Klein’s oft-repeated autobiography was, at best, misleading.

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 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 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 Klein accurately attribute his success, not to an advantaged middle-class family, but only to his teachers.

“Sleight of Hand” describes 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 Klein is a truthful person. 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. 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. 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.

This public housing history will be expanded further in “Race and Public Housing: The Federal Role,” in the November/December 2012 issue of Poverty & Race, the newsletter of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, available shortly.”