Joel Klein – What the school reform debate misses about teachers

Joel Klein has resigned as chancellor of NYC Schools, terminating an eight-year stint in one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Perhaps the resignation liberates his commentary a bit:

As the debate rages over public unions and, in particular, over their role in school reform, an unfortunate dichotomy about America’s teachers has emerged. On one side, unions and many teachers say that teachers are unfairly vilified, that they work incredibly hard under difficult circumstances and that they are underpaid. Critics, meanwhile, say that our education system is broken and that to fix it we need better teachers. They say that teachers today have protections and benefits not seen in the private sector – such as life tenure, lifetime pension and health benefits, and short workdays and workyears.

Both sides are right.


Not true, but you can see a glimpse of Klein’s political skills there. He did succeed to push the unions back an inch or two, but the oppressive weight of the rules and the heavy chains of regulations remain firmly in place. E.g., in the coming layoffs it is sensible to retain strictly on the basis of first in last out? As Klein says “that’s nuts”.

But that is exactly the obsolete factory-labor scheme favored by the unions. “Don’t talk to us about competence – only seniority matters!”

(…) Whatever the criteria, the key point is that we must evaluate and differentiate – with consequences. We do teachers an enormous disservice by perpetuating the myth that we can’t evaluate their performance and that, consequently, neither excellence nor poor performance matters. Teachers are far too important to our students and the future of our country to treat them as interchangeable cogs or widgets.

For an illuminating Klein interview I recommend the Freakonomics Radio “Exit Interview“.