June 3, 2020

The hope and the hopeless

Within the same 24 hours we’ve seen a story of hope that lifts the spirits of education activists who contend that poor students of color can succeed, and conversely, a story of shame that deflates believers of urban school districts as portals for widespread academic success.

First, the story of hope.

Urban Prep Academies in Chicago are generating the kind of buzz that we want for all of our children:

For a remarkable fourth consecutive year, all 167 seniors at Urban Prep Academies schools have been accepted at four-year colleges or universities this fall.

Students of the two Chicago public charter high schools — located in the city’s Englewood and University Village neighborhoods — gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the achievement of their schools, which some have dubbed “Hogwarts in the Hood” for their impressive, seemingly magical rates of success, CBS Chicago reports.

At the same time, sadly, all the wrong kind of buzz and a story to prove the hopeless right is coming out of Atlanta:

The supposed transformation of Atlanta Public Schools overseen by former Superintendent Beverly Hall resulted from a criminal enterprise that victimized thousands of struggling students for years, authorities alleged Friday.

Capping a series of investigations that spanned four years, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Hall and 34 others on charges that they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests from at least 2005 to 2010. Further, the grand jury charged, Hall, several top aides, principals and teachers engaged in the scheme for their own financial gain. And with investigators closing in, the jury said, Hall and others lied to cover up their crimes.

Responses to these two stories are predictable.

Activists for better schools seize on the Urban Prep story because they see it as vindication for their nearly religious belief that students, regardless of how poor or how black, can succeed at very high levels when adults work hard to make it happen.

Contrarily, education traditionalists are capitalizing on the scandal in Atlanta because, for them, it substantiates their belief that when poor children of color show great academic results in the current reform environment it can only be the result of fraud.

One advocacy camp lives in hope, the other in hopelessness. Their primary arguments bifurcate into two ceaselessly discordant ways of seeing the world.

Of the two camps, Planet Ravitch, led by the polemicist Diane Ravitch, is the most rigid, caustic, and resistant to an alternative future. She is the Rush Limbaugh of education commentary, yet, because of her devotion to unionism, she is elevated above many more authoritative voices. Given the consistent subtext of her messages, that children are the problem, and her anglophile view of public education overall, I see no value in pretending she is a friend to black or brown education. Since the 1960s she has pushed assimilation as a core principle, and denounced culturally affirmative education. It’s a position she still has not reversed today.

In her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” she reveals a high-level of not-getting-it.

Let us instead read, reflect on, and debate the ideas of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Lewis Carroll, and many others whose writings remain important because of their ideas, their beauty, or their eloquence. Let us be sure that our students read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other basic documents of our nation’s founding and development.

While I thank her for graciously including Martin Luther King and W.E.B. Du Bois on the list of readings that she feels should be standard for all American children, I’d like to point out that her list sucks. Where is Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes? What about authors that speak to the humanity of America’s diverse students?

In Ravitch’s world there is one way to order a school system; one way to prepare teachers; one way to create a school; and that way is her way. Like the petulant teenager unable to see how the world revolves around something other than self, she spends all of her time invalidating the views of others while avoiding any of the high-stakes responsibility assumed by those she criticizes. At least the movement of individuals creating new schools, or helping to fix old ones, are accountable by virtue of having actual students in their care. Though Ravitch loves to lament about school reformers who have never taught a day in their life, there is no record of her having any success with students.

That is not an omission, it’s a credibility killer.

We should be outraged by the glee with which some of our nations teachers, and their pop icons like Ravitch, spread stories of our failure. It’s as if they need us to fail for their movement to have authority. The reality is that many schools nationally are succeeding with poor kids and kids of color. These schools are both traditional and non-traditional. It is being done, so endeavoring to prove poverty and race are insurmountable can only be a premise for those incapable of getting the job done.

In short, the loser’s movement.

In the perfect world, folks like Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Deb Meier, Gloria Landson-Billings, and the rest of the ebony and ivory tower would demonstrate rather than merely illuminate. They would start schools based upon the premises of their many finger-waving books, and they would prove themselves to be more than critics of what is wrong in the reform world, or consultants for some abstract level of educational perfection that only exists in the socialist fantasies they discuss at wine and cheese parties.

Clearly, we have a choice to make in which movement we want to join.

Those of us that believe our children are brilliant, worthy, and under-appreciated by the dominant education system must give fuel to the side characterized by the Urban Preps of the world.

Those that believe our children, because of the color and social status, are doomed until the impossible task of overhauling capitalism is complete, well they can clearly join the Ravitch hate club.

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