Two days after reports that city schoolchildren made much-needed gains on state math and English tests, New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein said there is still an educational crisis that cannot be ignored.
“We have racial and ethnic achievement gaps that, to me, are the greatest shame of this great nation,” said Klein, speaking at the Fordham School of Law. “We don’t have to have them, and if we continue doing things the way we’ve been doing them, we will continue to have these gaps.
“It’s going to take an informed and committed citizenry to say ‘no more’ to an educational system that provides education based more on zip code than a child’s needs.”
Klein was guest speaker at the Claire Flom Memorial Lecture, an event sponsored annually by Fordham Law’s Feerick Center for Social Justice in honor of Flom, a founding member of the center’s advisory board and a philanthropist who was devoted to expanding education to the city’s poor.
“I am here to assure you that we do not, in America today, provide every child with an equal education,” Klein said. “Here we are in 2009, and yet we have the average African-American kid, the average Latino kid in high school four years behind his or her white counterpart.”
Klein said that when he was appointed schools chancellor by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, he heard from many who were not optimistic.
“People said, ‘You’re never going to fix education in New York until you fix poverty,'” Klein recalled. “I believe that’s exactly backward. I believe the solution is education. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to address poverty, but education is key.”
Klein pointed at U.S. Supreme Court appointee and Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor as an example.
“We should educate all of our children to enable them to think that what Sotomayor did is possible for every kid,” Klein said. “Look at the story of my life, to grow up in a family where nobody ever went to college. My father never even made it to high school. I would not have been here today if the quality of my education mirrored my family’s income.”
To address these racial achievement gaps, Klein said the quality of teachers must be scrutinized.
“Teachers change lives,” he said. “At the heart of this problem, to be blunt and bold about it, is the fact that the most important thing in a child’s education is the quality of his or her teachers. Every study shows that.”
Klein also advocated for rigorous national standards and tests.
“Testing is a way to measure knowledge,” he said. “Our kids are not going to be competing with kids in Ohio. They’re going to have to compete in a highly competitive global economy.”
James Hennessy, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Education, responded to some of Klein’s statements in closing the event.
“Good teachers are made, not born,” Hennessy said. “Good teaching requires a mastery of the skill of teaching.”
Most teachers in this country majored in education at the undergraduate level, Hennessy said, where a solid foundation in the arts and sciences is not required.
“I would suggest to you to that no other profession has so shallow a foundation in its preparation,” he said. “If teaching is to rise to the level of other professions, professional preparation should be at the post-baccalaureate level and the professional schools should be held to the same high standards of accountability as our schools of medicine and schools of law.
“I would suggest we need national standards for teaching as well as national standards for our children’s achievement,” he said.
Hennessy also called for teachers to be represented by professional associations rather than by “outdated trade labor unions” that represent most school personnel.
“I know I will offend some,” he said. “Professions such as law, medicine and psychology must serve as examples for the development of teaching as a profession.”
Hennessy said it’s important to note the most important challenge teachers face is working with children as they come into their classrooms.
“We know there are vast differences in the out-of-school experiences of our students—differences our teachers are powerless to effect,” Hennessy said. “They cannot change dysfunctional homes. They cannot, by themselves, raise children out of poverty. However these factors cannot be used as excuses for failing to help all children to learn to the best of their individual abilities.”
Claire Flom was raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and educated in New York City public schools. She received her bachelor’s degree cum laude from Cornell University.
In 1965, she founded the Gateway School in Manhattan, a special education facility for young children with learning disabilities. In 1979, she founded the Alliance for the Public Schools, a group dedicated to bringing the resources of universities and professional communities to the public schools of New York.
She became involved with Fordham in the 1970s and served for four terms on the University Board of Trustees.