course correction

Joel Klein says curriculum is his legacy's lone dark spot

photo (22)_editThe further away Joel Klein gets from the New York City school system, the firmer he is about the changes he brought during his tenure.

But there is one blemish on a generally positive self-assessment, which Klein disclosed Thursday night as part of a 60-minute conversation with CUNY Institute for Education Policy Director David Steiner. A lone regret, he said, was an early decision to push schools to adopt a uniform curriculum that embraced philosophies of progressive education over more traditional instruction.

“This was, in candor, not my background,” said Klein, a former U.S. Attorney General who taught math for a year in the late 1960s.

Klein spoke in detail about his nine years as chancellor of the Department of Education, which ended in 2011. Acknowledging few regrets or need for do-overs, he defended his least popular work around school closures and co-locations in Machiavellian terms — necessary for the long-term benefit of students, but disruptive to long-standing policies that created many enemies.

“What you’re telling them is, ‘hop on my back and there will be a bright future out there,'” Klein said. “And, as Machiavelli explained, that’s a hard message to make.”

Klein told Steiner that he could have done a better job communicating his policies, a source of deep frustration for parents and communities that were raised often during the campaign by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio (and even during the mayoral transition by his own former staff).

But he was just as quick to point out that those who accused him of not listening were often people who simply disagreed with him.

“We sat down for three hours,” Klein said, recalling a meeting he had with one of those critics. “They told me exactly what they thought and I said, ‘I really understand you. I even understand where you’re coming from. I just disagree.’ And he said ‘you don’t listen.'”
What Klein called a “fair criticism” was charges that New York City has been late to adopt a content-based approach to math and English.

The recommended curriculum emphasized the development of learning strategies over learning more basic content. The math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, stressed concepts instead of more basic operations. For reading and writing, schools adopted a “balanced literacy” approach that encouraged students to develop skills by reading and writing at their own pace and with a variety of literature available to them.

Many high-performing schools around the city still use versions of both. But Klein said he sought a course-correction for English after he began to believe the curriculum wasn’t offering younger students enough knowledge in other content-specific subjects, such science and history, that are important in middle and high school grades.

In 2008, Klein started a pilot with 10 schools using a curriculum called Core Knowledge that focused on developing vocabulary skills and included more nonfiction texts. Significant gains in early grades by students in the pilot schools became one reason city officials recommended Core Knowledge as part of its instructional alignment to the Common Core learning standards.

“While I wish I got there a lot sooner, I’m sure happy I got there,” he added.

After the event, Klein dodged questions about who will take his old job when de Blasio takes office. A leading contender is Carmen Farina, a former curriculum developer who headed the city’s instructional office under Klein when the progressive curriculum was still being recommended to schools.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.