Guest Post: A Review of Joel Klein’s new book

Below is a review of Joel Klein’s new book written by a very knowledgeable person who wishes to remain anonymous.

By John or Jane Smith

Lessons in Lying: Joel Klein and Corporate Reformer Propaganda

Joel Klein’s book, Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, surfaces many questions. Foremost among them “does Mr. Klein ever tell the truth?” After reading the first chapter, in which Mr. Klein speaks about his childhood, readers may be somewhat forgiving of his propensity to stretch the truth. As a child his father threatened to “leave and never come back” and “took his frustrations out” on young Joel. “The beatings, while rare, were severe and left an indelible mark.” As a teen he seems to have been unable to get a date because he was “socially uncomfortable” and felt “too intimidated.” But excuses must not be made on Mr. Klein’s behalf. Readers should expect to be told the truth and should hold Mr. Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, accountable for meeting this expectation.

The lies start in the preface. Mr. Klein describes a 2008 stabbing, thankfully the victim survived, that occurred at Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn. He shares with the reader what he was thinking “as I drive from lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge” to visit the school. He was thinking that the school “will have to be closed and replaced.” Let’s start with the small lie. Mr. Klein did not drive himself. He had a chauffeur for his entire career as Chancellor. In fact, early on in his tenure, the New York Daily News reported, “Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who is chauffeured around town in a city car by a bodyguard/driver, has extended the fringe benefit to six of his top deputies – costing taxpayers nearly $600,000 a year.[i]

The big lie is that Paul Robeson did not need to be closed. It was sabotaged by Mr. Klein’s policies. “Robeson took in hundreds of students who would previously have gone to larger high schools but were instead displaced when those schools were closed down. Many such students had a history of truancy and were much older than Robeson students in the same grades…gang activity became more visible at that time, because more students were now coming to Robeson from outside the neighborhood… Enrollment shot up from 1,355 in 2002-03 to 1,530 in 2004-05. Daily attendance declined from 83 percent in 2002-03 to 71 percent in 2007-8. Then, as the school’s reputation suffered, fewer eighth graders selected Robeson on their high school applications—and enrollment began to shrink, falling to 1,176 by 2008-09.[ii]

Mr. Klein goes on to brag about how Robeson was “transformed” by being shuttered and replaced by a school called P-Tech. Robeson was not transformed. The challenging students who had gone to Robeson were not allowed entry to P-Tech. The most challenging students were instead deliberately sent to the next school being set up for failure.[iii] Additionally, despite all the press, the data on P-Tech show that it is not doing a very good job even with the, relatively, more privileged and advantaged students it serves. It performs worse than 96% of its peer schools on the science Regents, worse than 86% of its peer schools on the United States History Regents, worse than 100% of its peer schools on the Global History Regents and worse than 100% of its peer schools on the English Regents.[iv] Where it does do slightly better than its peer schools is in credit accumulation. Students earn credits at P-Tech at a rate higher than in most of its peer schools. So students are failing the Regents exams, but somehow earning credits for their coursework. Of course, this educational strategy will definitely boost its graduation rate. If this is the lesson than Mr. Klein believes his new small schools have to teach, educators may not want to learn it.[v]

After the lies in the preface, Mr. Klein goes on to lie about his childhood. He mentions growing up in “a sprawling public-housing complex,” presumably to draw parallels to the lives of the children he discriminated against by shoveling all of the most challenging students into only some schools without providing sufficient supports. This lie has already been analyzed by Richard Rothstein in The American Prospect. “Klein’s most egregious autobiographical distortion is that he grew up in public housing. That’s because, as Klein must know, the words “public housing” evoke an image of minority unemployment, welfare dependence, unwed motherhood, truancy, gangs, drug dealing, addiction, and violence. Klein, though, grew up in racial privilege, dramatically different from the segregated world of most youngsters in public housing today… Klein did live in public housing… when he was nine years old. But he fails to say—perhaps because he truly doesn’t realize—that some public housing in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Woodside Houses project where his family resided, was built for white, middle-class families. The poor and the problems poverty causes were unwelcome. This distinction is critical to understanding Klein’s history and why it undermines his current policy prescriptions.[vi]” Mr. Klein seemingly has no compunction about repeating this distortion. He must know that he will not be held accountable for it.

Another small lie. Mr. Klein mentions that he “took time off [from Harvard Law School] and decided to try my hand at teaching.” Most readers would not suspect that he is referring to less than two months of teaching in September and October of 1968.[vii]

Throughout his book Mr. Klein meets very few career educators that he respects. Yet every single businessman (yes, they are all men) that he meets he has the utmost respect for. This includes his boss at Bertelsmann, a publishing company he left, though some believe that he was essentially fired after the ouster of his boss[viii], in order to take the Chancellorship. Somehow excluded from the story Klein tells is the fact that his boss, Thomas Middelhoff, was sentenced to “three years in prison for embezzlement and tax evasion.[ix]

Mr. Klein firmly believes that businessmen can show educators how to innovate and lead. That is why he spends many, many pages talking about the Leadership Academy, a fast track principal training program he developed. “The right choices… started with Robert Knowling who became the CEO [of the Leadership Academy].” Mr. Knowling, the CEO of Covad Communications, had resigned under pressure when the company’s stock dropped 84% that year. The stock price rose when his resignation was announced.

Among the other businessmen Klein recruited was John F. “Jack” Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who “we chose…to head the board.” Yes, the very CEO who is known for cooking the books and whose company settled accounting fraud charges with the SEC. Welch “was joined by Richard Parsons,” the former president of Time Warner. Yes, the very president who is known for his involvement with what is perhaps the worst merger of all time, Time Warner’s merger with AOL at the peak of the internet bubble.

It is reasonable to think that there exist practices and strategies in the world of business that would be relevant and helpful to educators. But a more discerning eye than Klein’s is needed to identify them. This uncritical submissiveness to businessmen can perhaps explain the poor outcomes of the program. According to the New York Times “an analysis…shows that schools run by graduates of the celebrated New York City Leadership Academy…have not done as well as those led by experienced principals or new principals who came through traditional routes…The Times’s analysis shows that Leadership Academy graduates were less than half as likely to get A’s as other principals, and almost twice as likely to earn C’s or worse. Among elementary and middle-school principals on the job less than three years, Academy graduates were about a third as likely to get A’s as those who did not attend the program. While Academy graduates do tend to be placed in some of the city’s lowest-achieving schools, the report-card system has built-in controls to account for that, emphasizing progress over performance and comparing schools with similar demographics.[x]

A doctoral thesis found that “investigation revealed no significant differences in student outcomes or principal performance between graduate and non attendee principals of the New York City Leadership Academy. The results offer no evidence that participation in the Leadership Academy is an effective means of preparing principals for successful leadership.[xi]” Another paper found that “the performance drop associated with the transition is larger at the schools hiring an APP [Leadership Academy] graduate, and these relative performance trends are not reversed until three years later, and then only for English.[xii]

Klein, perhaps unsurprisingly, ignores the truth. Instead he chooses to focus on a single report whose first footnote reads “Initial funding for this evaluation was provided by the NYCLA [New York City Leadership Academy] through grants from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.” The Leadership Academy and its donors funded the study Klein cites! And even so he misrepresents the findings, which conclude that the Leadership Academy does not amount to much. “On balance, we find that APP principals performed about as well as other new principals. If anything, they narrowed the gap with comparison schools in English language arts but lagged behind in mathematics.[xiii]” Klein does not address the fact that fewer than 60% of Leadership Academy graduates could be included in the report since over 40% did not meet the study’s criteria of remaining in the same school for 3 years![xiv] Klein also forgets to mention “the fact that the research organization Mathematica had originally been commissioned by DOE to do an in-depth, multi-year study of the Leadership Academy. Yet after several years of analysis, this study was cancelled by DOE, just months before the results were supposed to be released.[xv]” Anyone suspicious?

All this was years ago, when the Leadership Academy first started and was funded by outside donors. Now it is funded by public dollars to the tune of $10,000,000 a year. Klein took himself and his deputy off the Leadership Academy board a month before the New York City Department of Education awarded them a contract using public funds.[xvi] Since public dollars started paying for this program “the number of graduates from the Aspiring Principals Program has declined, the number actually hired as principals in the city’s public schools has also dropped steadily.[xvii]” So public money is paying for a program whose graduates are in less and less demand.

The lack of demand for the graduates of Leadership Academy and its poor outcomes may have something to do with how the program is run. Leadership Academy supervisors bully the participants and devote inordinate amounts of time and effort to encouraging the aspiring principals to turn on each other. When called on their behaviors in a court of law, the Leadership Academy supervisors show a bald-faced willingness to lie. As a judge wrote “when people change their stories, juries can infer that they are lying.[xviii]” It is no wonder that graduates from the program demonstrate little ability to lead school communities. Look at who their teachers are.

Klein uses many pages of his book to praise charter schools and bash the United Federation of Teachers. Here too, he ignores the truth to suit the desires of his patrons, in this case the billionaires he names; Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Julian Robertson and the Walton family. He repeatedly cites an already debunked report that was funded by the Waltons.[xix] Yet, his praise of charter schools is inconsistent with his chapter praising the school reports cards, also known as Progress Reports, developed during his tenure. The most recent Progress Report data were released this month. And here is what they show.[xx] The charter sector, which now accounts for 9.2% of all elementary and middle schools in New York City, has 3.7% lower student growth in English and 3.5% higher student growth in Math than peer schools. Focusing, specifically on the students who are most academically challenged (students in the city’s bottom 1/3) the charter sector underperforms their peer schools by 6.2% in English and by .4% in Math. And these numbers do not even begin to take into account the extremely high attrition rate that some charter management organizations such as KIPP and Success Academy are notorious for.[xxi]

The critical mistake made by Mr. Klein in his years as chancellor is captured by a line he was fond of repeating, a version of which appears in this book. “Our goal is not a great school system; our goal is a system of great schools.” With such a goal it is no wonder that the gaming of metrics, outright cheating, profound systemic inequity, and self-interest were widespread under his leadership. So as not to repeat all the relevant data and research here, readers should refer to the comprehensive analysis in this essay.

With such a goal each school is incentivized to avoid the most challenging students in order to look like a “great school.” For example, the Progress Report data show that the charter sector serves proportionally half as many incoming overage students and half as many English Language Learners as the public school sector, though such tricks are not limited to charter schools. With such a goal there is no commitment to truly ensuring the success of every single child. The school system, as a whole, must be designed to do just that. It is only toward the end of the book, with 37 pages to go, that Mr. Klein briefly discusses initiatives such as Young Adult Borough Centers, Learning to Work, and the opening of more transfer schools for overage and undercredited students. This betrays his misplaced priorities. Setting communities, schools and teachers against each other will never create a system focused on every single student. Collaboration, professionalism, and the development of social capital within and between schools will.

Throughout the book Mr. Klein claims that the frequent re-organizations of the school system under his tenure were part of a long-term strategic plan. To most observers the constant organizational changes betrayed the total lack of vision and direction exhibited during his leadership. In 2003 Klein re-organized all of New York City’s schools into ten regions. In 2007 he re-re-organized the schools into four school support organizations. In 2009 he re-re-re-organized the schools into approximately sixty networks. Perhaps this was really all just a long con and in 2002 Klein really had a plan for what he was doing. In order to get the reader to believe that, Klein will need to show the document, dated to 2002, outlining this strategy. Since such a document is unlikely to be produced, we can only assume that the chaos was due to the lack of a coherent vision.

The book closes on a rather ironic note. Klein attempts to portray himself, and his benefactor Rupert Murdoch, as leaders in innovating education through technology. Mr. Murdoch, the CEO of News Corporation, was implicated in a phone hacking scandal in Great Britain. As a result a parliamentary report found that he was “not a fit person” to lead his company. After Mr. Klein was fired by Mr. Bloomberg[xxii], Mr. Murdoch hired Klein on a 4.5 million dollar annual contract to run Amplify, News Corporation’s education technology division. Ironically, every single technology initiative initiated by Mr. Klein when he was chancellor has proven to be a total boondoggle. From the $67,000,000 Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) which “is not meeting its overall goal[xxiii]” to the $95,000,000 Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) which is now being scrapped as a total failure[xxiv] Klein has shown absolutely zero aptitude for overseeing education technology. One can only wonder why Murdoch offered him the job…


[ii] (page 58)

[iii] shows that this was a standard strategy within the New York City Department of Education under Klein.

[iv] http://scho In math, its best subject, P-Tech performs a bit better than average for its peer schools.

[v] For a comprehensive review of the study Mr. Klein loves to cite claiming that his new small schools boosted the graduation rate see




[ix] -sentence.html













[xxii] According to a story in Newsweek “Nobody had expected Klein to resign, and there were rumors that Bloomberg had been upset with the pace of reform, in particular with test scores that had not risen at the pace the famously impatient mayor sought.”



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18 Responses to Guest Post: A Review of Joel Klein’s new book

  1. FYI: Klein cannot be trusted to tell the truth about his childhood either —

  2. Pingback: A Scathing Review of Joel Klein’s Book on New York Public Schools | GFBrandenburg's Blog

  3. Zulma, retired NYC math teacher says:

    Thank you Gary for clear breakdown of Klein’s pathology of lies.

    I know you had to spend money to buy that book of garbage, but, at least, the public who care about public education and the children will not need to waste their hard-earned money on Klein’s fictional character of himself. Will post your blog on my FB so others can read about the faux-educator who called himself the chancellor.

  4. Gordon Hall says:

    This review is hyperbolic. And that might be the point, but I take strong issue with this kind of hyperbole.

    There are many legitimate criticisms to be made about Joel Klein and his tenure as chancellor, but framed in this way, I can only assume that the author has some equally alienating competing agenda.

    Small turn of phrase that speaks to this point “to draw parallels to the lives of the children he discriminated against.” This whole sentence presumes that Klein is some cartoonish child-hating villain. I feel like the author thinks I need a cartoon villain to be motivated to action. These issues are serious enough without Voldemort-style villainy. Klein’s POLICIES led to discrimination, it’s ugly and reductive and, simply inaccurate to paint it any other way. Maybe most important, it clouds the issue, and turns the entire discussion into an argument about who cares about children more. This is a waste of time. We ALL care about children. We disagree about policy, not priority.

  5. Pingback: A Review of Joel Klein’s Book, Posted on Gary Rubinstein’s Blog | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. Taking one line from Newsweek and then saying Bloomberg fired Klein is a big leap and my strong hunch is that it’s not supported by fact. More likely, Klein is known to have expensive tastes and wanted to cash in when he was still young enough to do so. Also Bloomberg is believed to have consulted with Klein on ousting Cathy Black, something that would have been unlikely if the mayor had fired Klein.

  7. A says:

    Gordon: What exactly is your point? POLICIES can be discriminatory. People who set such policies are discriminating. It is a logical tautology. Do you disagree with logic?

  8. Pingback: Links 11/26/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  9. Gordon is right, I think: and its even more complicated: We disagree not just about policy but about the actual effects of policies (assuming we can even disregard distance issues between policy and implementations and the even bigger distance between implementation and measurement of outcomes, which of course we cannot). A: Policies may indeed have non-intended discriminatory consequences, but that does not mean that the people who decided on them are purposefully discriminating. Intentionality counts for something. A lot of well intentioned policies and practices have unintended consequences, including ones entirely opposite to their intended effect (SADD and Virginity Pledges are obvious examples in education, there are many more). Klein made many obvious mistakes than in retrospect even appear absurd decision making. And Klein, a person with lots of achievements to his credit, did not have the academic or educational background to lead an educational system. One has to wonder about a system that has managed to put obviously educationally incompetents like Cathie Black also as Chancellor, who had even less intellect or experience relevant to running an educational system (regardless of her success in other arenas), but this doesn’t mean they were racist or discriminatory. I dealt with a large share of the MBAs, superintendents in NYCDOE, who were woefully unqualified for the task, who had no educational vision, and who made me wonder (a lot) how in hell they got these positions, but I avoid ad hominem attacks and stick to the issues. For example, a very large number of the 2,3 and 4 star general in NYCDOE did not have the statistical knowledge to really understand the models and number crunching that went into the systems touted Progress Reports. I doubt Klein really understood them. And yet the models (and their underpinning reliance of score gains), now shown at so many levels to have enormous flaws, was running the show and too much of the decision making. This is one of the big problems – not whether Klein lied in his biographical sketches, not whether he was discriminatory, but the serious problems with the drivers of decision making under his helm, and how so many of his generals really did not have the technical knowhow to make much sense out of them, see when they were leading the system astray, or the many obvious absurdities they generated.

  10. A says:

    Gabriel: The question of intent is entirely distinct from the question of whether or not a policy discriminates. Conflating the two confuses the point you are trying to make. Additionally, as you point out, there is plenty of data out there showing that not only don’t the set of policies implemented by Klein work but they also discriminate against specific groups of students. For someone to continue to defend such policies, as Klein does, in the face of the evidence is morally wrong and a discriminatory act.

    • A: my sense (actually my profesional judgment) re your pt about evidence pointing to discriminatory consequences of Kleins policies, is that he (and some reasonable people), with good intentions, is convinced the data points in a different direction. Some of this (I think) is attributable to him not really understanding statistics, models, and the enormous limitations of measures of educational outcomes; some is attributable to a reasonable view that one has to stick to certain policy guns for a long time before they can change NYCDOE, and some is that he (and other reasonable people) simply disagree on the significance, import or weight of certain kinds of data (which contradict the effectiveness of some of his policies). In the educational research and policy world – in addition to an incredibly messy and complicated system which we feebly try to study and understand, there are policy winks, policy hacks and outright ministers of misinformation who add an incredible amount if noise, nonsense, statistical stupidity and just sheer absurdity – all “good” sounding. A chancellor with now technical knowledge, no research experience, and no real world practical experience is going to be steered in all directions by all this noise. Which is why I think no one without deep technical knowledge and experience in education should ever lead NYCDOE. Klein was over impressed by a handful of technocrats and business world academics. But this doesn’t make Joel evil, discriminatory (in intent, in practice, or in his retrospective capacity to justify and defend his decisions). And hindsight is incredibly easier than managing the ship on the run , the picture isn’t clear from the helm, especially when you don’t know the field.

  11. A says:

    Gabriel: It seems like we agree on the basics, Klein’s policies largely failed to improve educational outcomes for all of New York City’s children. You seem to want to make some excuses for him; ignorance, lack of experience, etc. But as the review of his book shows, he lies about so many of the little things; from driving himself to growing up “in the projects,” that your charitable approach does not have much to rely on. It is also unclear what your intentions are by pointing out that education research is complicated. That is not much of an excuse. A complicated body of evidence around evolution does not excuse those who insist that it is not a scientific fact and that creationism should be taught in public schools. Same with the field of education policy. Competing claims do not excuse intellectual laziness or a refusal to critically analyze the data.

    • A: I agree he and any other leader should not be excused for their lack of knowledge or expertise in what are complex matters, in a complex system, with lots of noise surrounding all aspects of decision making. Klein was lots of things and out of his field of expertise, with no statistical knowledge or research experience to help him navigate the rivers of information and accountability (and misinformation) he set in motion. He had an undeserved and exaggerated valuation of certain kinds of information. The “expert” ears surrounding him were themselves technically limited and led him woefully astray. But Joel Klein was not lazy, and I am also convinced he had, despite his flaws, deep interest in children’s well being and in fixing a NYCDOE that was (and still is) seriously messed up. I disagree with many decisions he made and let others make (some of this is deeply personal – in fact he fired me) – but I refuse to take potshots at him (or bother about irrelevant childhood stories that none of us can recall with any accuracy) . I think that too much of what is going in Diane’s pages is full of weak thinking, poor research, getting more and more political and less academic. The few minutes I have to engage in this I do because I fear the progressives and the academic educators are straying in their attacks, this is both a strategic as well as an intellectual blunder. I’ve got to go run a school but that’s today’s 2 cents!

  12. A says:

    Gabriel: When a public figure knowingly misleads about basic facts such as where s/he grew up or about whether or not they had a chauffer it is rational to conclude that they also knowingly mislead about other, more important, issues as well.

    • A: Like I said in my first post, I disagree. I don’t say this to defend Joel, who hardly needs defending, and much less from me. I’ll finish his book tonight and assess whether the basic little facts issues, are indeed associated with misleading about bigger, truly relevant issues, but I have to say I disagree with you about its import. Many people, from all walks of life, lie about little things but not about big things. If you have followed Joel’s writings and public speaking its pretty obvious that his technical grasp of many things (including much of the “accountability” train he promoted and built) is pretty limited (this, by the way, is painfully common in many educator-leaders – my NYC superintendent clearly did not understand what a linear regression was, much less statistical tests of any level of sophistication, my guess is she didn’t even read educational research at all, perhaps never). And this is not uncommon. I’ve worked under 6 chancellors in 3 states and 3 continents and I’ve never met one that knows even elementary statistics or that reads primary educational research. So I’m not being charitable with Joel, this problem of technical and academic insufficiency, is huge in education leadership. His lack of deep understanding of much of the nuances of data and research in education, was limited enough that it placed great constraints on his fundamental capacity to make better decisions (and appointments) – and to be over impressed with bogus models and strategies brought in by economists that seem sophisticated at one level (but were not) and which made assumptions about data quality and research findings, that simply do not exist in education. The “data driven accountability” nonsense (and there are technical reasons why it is nonsense), led the NYCDOE ship astray, wasted hundreds, if not billions, on projects that have done more damage than good, that took vital resources from more important challenges. How to properly dismantle it, what can we glean from the mistakes that were made, is anything salvageable, and what alternative do we have for reforming urban education is what we should be talking about. Worrying about Joels little lies on matters irrelevant to the educational issues we care about, also dismisses some good ideas Joel’s had: the need for smaller and alternative schools, more authority and power for principals, decentralizing the mess DOE was (is) in, the importance of parental choice for the poor (the middle class already have choices) – throwing the baby with the bathwater. In my judgement, Joel, despite being technically limited, and out of his field of expertise, had great intuitive understanding of the challenges confronting bureaucratized NYCDOE, and, I have to say this, I remain convinced he had the kid’s best interest in mind. Ok I had way too much coffee today and my english teacher is going to kill me in her grave for all the run-on sentences

  13. Joe Nathan says:

    For what its worth, I don’t agree with everything Klein says or has done. Some things yes, some things, no.

    However, Anonymous attempts at character assassination are not acceptable in serious journalism. The person(s) writing this should have the courage to offer her/his name. There is a deep antagonism toward Klein reflected here – and responsible journalists indicate what the affiliation is of people who attack others.
    At least Rubenstein signs his name. This allowing people to know that he has chosen to work in a school that screens out the vast majority of students and a school that is part of a law suit from communities of color because of alleged discrimination. I could not work in such a school. Clearly it’s fine with him.
    Rubenstein rails against mis-use of testing but works by choice in a school that relies on how students to do on one test.
    No surprise that an anonymous person has chosen to work with him.

  14. Pingback: A entrevista de Joel Klein na Revista Exame | AVALIAÇÃO EDUCACIONAL – Blog do Freitas

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