Joel Klein Isn’t Poor, and Other Distractions in the Current Education Debate
Heather Harding
Monday, October 22, 2012 - 9:21am

So Joel Klein grew up in public housing but that doesn’t qualify him as poor in the ways we now understand public housing as code for poverty-striken? Hmmmm. And because his experience didn’t neatly fit some current definition of “dysfunctional home we typically associate with the truly disadvantaged” poverty, his narrative about the impact of teachers on his life trajectory fails as advocacy for teacher quality and effectiveness because it’s a “misleading” “sleight of hand”? I just can’t buy this.

I have two objections and a short personal story.

First, the role of social class on educational attainment and learning is far more complicated than we are currently allowing for in the education-reform debate. Second, the story of educator impact is universal, and teacher effectiveness is central to all of our work no matter what side of the current debate we find ourselves on as individuals.

And now that personal story:

I grew up in a female-headed, single-parent household starting at age 7. My mother and I lived in public housing and received public food assistance; I was on free and reduced lunch my entire schooling career, and we lived without amenities like cable TV or a telephone. My father, who was sometimes absentee but always loving, served time in prison. Upon reflection, my opportunities in school were defined by my second- and third-grade teachers, who ensured that I was admitted to the gifted and talented program. Many teachers throughout my K-12 career put me on a path toward attending a top-tier university. No doubt about it.

But my story is complicated. My mother dropped out of college just shy of her senior year to have me, but she had a solid college educational experience. My father—who lived in another state, but with whom I’ve always had a strong relationship—has a master’s degree. I spent every summer with my dad or his family in New England, where my grandmother instilled in me very middle-class cultural norms about education, aspirations, and ways of being. So I find that despite my “low-income background” status, I had a lot outside the classroom to support my education.

Richard Rothstein’s critique of Joel Klein depends on a one-dimensional view of the challenges of poverty and class. We can’t perpetuate this limited view; we can’t rest on a deficit perspective to solve the very big problem of educational inequity. I’m not advocating for Klein’s memory of “coming from the streets” as validation for his reform policies, but I do think we have to shift our focus to what really matters: ensuring that all kids have access to transformational teachers. Let’s stop bickering over who deserves to advocate for a quality education and build stronger alliances to figure out how to get there.

Category: Education News

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