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

The 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.