Earlier this month I published a post by Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, that challenged former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein’s take on education reform in an op-ed Klein had written earlier this month for The Washington Post.

Below, Klein responds to Pallas.

Pallas writes the Sociological Eye on Education blog for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, non-partisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. Pallas has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and served as a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education.

Before becoming chancellor in 2002, Klein had been a lawyer in public and private practice, serving as the lead prosecutor in the antitrust case United States v. Microsoft. He quit as chancellor late last year and is now executive vice president at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Any reader of my blog will know that Klein and I have wildly different views of effective school reform, and that I find intolerant — and just plain wrong — his branding of people who don’t agree with him as “apologists” for the status quo.

Still, I don’t always agree with guest posts but publish them in the interests of a good debate. Toward that purpose, here is Klein’s op-ed, Pallas’s criticism, and below, Klein’s response to Pallas.

Don’t count on this being the end of it.

 By Joel Klein

Aaron Pallas, an ed school professor at Teachers College, appears to be unwilling to acknowledge that our public schools are failing to effectively educate huge numbers of our kids, or that there’s much we can do about it.  He struggles to debunk existing examples of demonstrable success perhaps fearing that we might otherwise ask why do we keep doing so poorly when we have proof that we can do so much better.

To that end, last week Pallas penned a piece in this column challenging my assertion in a Washington Post op ed that our “schools can get much better results with th[e] same kids than they’re now generally getting.”  Employing a locution that I never used, and that cannot fairly be inferred from what I said, he tries to portray my view as placing “the emphasis on what schools can extract from kids.”  (His italics.) 

No, Professor Pallas, I don’t think knowledge resides in kids and, like iron ore, all we need to do is carefully extract it.  What I do think is that our schools, and especially our teachers, need to do a much better job of educating our kids – that is, teaching them the skills and knowledge they will need to be successful in the 21st century.  As I put it in my piece, “teachers matter, big time.”

To illustrate my point, I used a recent, powerful example, involving the well-known KIPP charter schools.  KIPP followed its 8th grade graduates, who were overwhelmingly from poor (85%) and minority (95%) families, and found that, ten years later, 1/3 of them had graduated from college, a rate that was about four times their expected graduation rate and the same as that of white students. 

Pallas tries to dismiss this compelling demonstration of what a great education can accomplish on the ground that the study didn’t explain “how children are selected into and out of the [KIPP] program and its schools.”  In fact, just a couple of weeks ago in this very column, Ryan Hill, executive director of the KIPP schools in Newark, rebutted this argument at length, relying on his own knowledge and experience as well as on a carefully designed research study by the well-respected Mathematica group.

  Based on this analysis, Hill shows that the success of KIPP students is “not the result of having especially highly motivated parents, high entering test scores, or any other unusual advantages over their peers in district schools.”  Their success is instead, Hill explains, “a credit to their hard work, and to their caring teachers’ ceaseless drive to find better and better ways to serve all our kids.”

But let’s assume Pallas’ insinuation had some basis -- that KIPP did, in fact, have an advantage through its selection or discharge processes.  That still couldn’t possibly explain a college-success rate of four times the expected rate for the demographic group at issue.  Let’s give it a discount, and say it’s only three times (or even twice) the expected rate.  That’s still an enormous tribute to KIPP and its teachers. And it immediately raises the question: why aren’t other schools getting the same results?

As I also said in my op ed, there are many other examples proving that essentially the same kids can achieve at very different levels depending on the school they attend.  I’m sure Pallas is familiar with this research, but let me provide a few recent examples: a study by MDRC showing that the new small schools in NYC significantly outperformed other high schools in the city across all demographic groups; studies by Margaret Raymond and Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University showing that charter schools in NYC significantly outperformed nearby district schools; and a study by Tom Kane at Harvard showing the same for Boston’s charter schools.

  All of these studies were done by, in Pallas’s words, “reputable social scientist[s],” applying rigorous research protocols, including comparing only those students who actually applied to the schools in question, some of whom were admitted by lottery, and others of whom didn’t get in despite trying. 

Unsatisfied with challenging the basic premise that our schools can achieve much better results, Pallas went on to take a gratuitous shot at the performance of NYC’s schools under my tenure as chancellor.  He relies on NAEP scores, which I will come to in a moment.  But here, too, Pallas chooses to ignore significant research, this time by James Kemple, who heads the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University.

  Applying a “rigorous analytic method,” Kemple found “compelling evidence of strong positive effects on student outcomes from the constellation of [NYC] reforms” adopted during my chancellorship.  These positive effects were observed in every area studied – 4th and 8th grade English language arts and math, as well as high-school graduation rates.  In addition, the improvements “grew over time,” and “accrued to both general education students and to students with disabilities, with especially large effects for the latter.”

The increase in graduation rates alone is remarkable and, to my knowledge, unmatched anywhere else in the country.  After a decade of being flat, they went up more than 20 points under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Indeed, the State of New York has kept track of graduation rates for the past five years, during which time the city went up 14 points, while the other four large cities in the state (which started at the same level as the City) went up an average of 3 points.   That’s dramatic evidence of NYC’s success.

Pallas ignores all this, and focuses on the City’s NAEP results, the national tests that are administered throughout the country to 4th and 8th graders in math and reading, on a sampled basis.  Without describing the actual results, he concludes that NYC achieved “modest growth.”  Here are the facts:  in the fourth grade, NYC went up 11 points in math from 2003-2009 and 11 points in reading from 2002-2009 (4th grade reading is the only NAEP test NYC took in 2002). 

According to the National Council on Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, 10 points is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning, meaning that kids in the 4th grade in NYC are now a year ahead of where they were 6 or 7 years ago.  Indeed, NYC’s fourth graders are performing at the same level as the nation as a whole, which is quite an accomplishment given that the City educates a much more challenging population of students than does the nation.

The results in eighth grade are mixed: from 2003-2009, the city went up 7 points in math – almost 3/4s of a year -- and was flat in reading (though it did go up 3 points from 2007-2009, suggesting the benefits of the good results in the fourth grade were starting to show up in the eighth grade as well). 

Rather than use the actual numbers demonstrating significant gains on three of the four NAEP assessments, Pallas compares NYC’s performance to other large cities, and finds that the City didn’t outperform them.  But many of the comparison cities implemented reforms that were similar, if not identical, to those adopted in NYC.  In any event, the fact that others experienced significant improvement on NAEP in no way detracts from the big increases in NYC.  No one has suggested that gains on NAEP don’t reflect real progress.

To similar effect, Pallas claims NYC’s NAEP scores didn’t close the racial and ethnic achievement gaps in the City.  That’s only true because the City’s white students showed the same large gains as did its minority students.  Surely, we don’t want to close gaps by slowing the progress of white students.  More to the point, the City’s African-American and Latino students did, in fact, close several gaps on NAEP when compared to white students throughout the nation, which is what ultimately matters.

As I have said elsewhere, NYC is not remotely where it needs to be.  There are still far too many students who aren’t graduating and, according to newly articulated state standards, far too many who aren’t college ready.  But the progress that has been made under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership is clearly substantial.  That progress didn’t come from what Pallas calls “unproven reforms.” 

On the contrary, those reforms, based largely on sound principles of accountability and parental choice, led to the progress that was achieved.  And the reason there wasn’t more progress is because the defenders of the status quo – supported by the nihilist rhetoric of Pallas and others – blocked or limited more of precisely these kinds of effective reforms.


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