August 3, 2020

Has the charter school field become too woke for its own good?

In this post I will treat you as if you are a thinking person. I’ll give you facts about the cancellation of an educator, and you can evaluate it for yourself.

The case involves a white male charter school leader who caught figurative hands for saying the wrong thing publicly.

Steven Wilson, the leader of a successful charter school network in New York wrote a piquing blog post making the case that children – especially those falling outside of aristocracy – have long-suffered the tradition of “anti-intellectualism.” In his winding review of education history he made the case for “intellectual joy” using a classical liberal frame.

He was fired.

His board of directors for 5,500 student Ascend Public Charter Schools, Wilson’s former employer, issued a statement claiming his dismissal was not the result of his one blog post – hinting that there were other problems.

Chalkbeat reported them saying:

We want to be clear: our decision is not the result of a single event or a simple reaction to recent unrest,” Bator said in a statement to Ascend staff. “Rather, events and unrest caused us to take a serious look at the whole of Ascend, now and for the future, and to see that as we continue to evolve as a school network, our leadership can and should evolve as well.

A petition on issued by ” The Ascend Public Charter Schools Community,” demanded Wilson’s ” white supremacist ideology” be addressed.

On June 4th, 2019, Ascend Public Charter Schools published an article written by Ascends Chief Executive Officer, Steven Wilson, on the blog portion of their website entitled, “The promise of intellectual joy.” This article contains offensive and oppressive content that perpetuates white supremacist ideology and propagates destructive messages about the community that Ascend serves.

The school’s website says their approach is to “develop children’s potentials” and “encourage critical thinking and questioning.”

“Liberal learning liberates,” they say.

The Ascend schools:

…offer a rich, Common Core-aligned liberal arts curriculum coupled with the uniquely warm and supportive Ascend school culture. Blending exciting and rigorous academic study with a nurturing environment, our model assures that our students are instilled with the knowledge, enthusiasm, character, and determination to succeed in college and beyond.

Though Wilson found himself isolated in the bear trap of racial blow back, he wasn’t without supporters. Several months after his provocative blog post, two prominent education reformers – one black and one white – pushed back on the petition written by ” an anonymous author” calling for his head.

They pointed out that Wilson’s work has lifted the students he serves out of the typical academic desolation so characteristic of New York public schools.

At Ascend Steven and his team have built a network of 15 public charter schools educating 5,000 students in some of the most impoverished communities in Brooklyn. Ascend has not only closed the achievement gap, it reversed it. Its students, 96% of whom are black or Latino and 84% economically disadvantaged, are more likely to be proficient on the New York State exams than their white peers and middle-class peers statewide.

Additionally, in an article for National Review, dauntless school reform stalwart Rick Hess works to rescue Wilson’s classical – and, yes, white – idealism by lodging three points:

1) the charter school field is captive to a dangerous form of “woke” group think,

2) Wilson has paid his “woke” tithes by committing his life’s work to better schooling for marginalized kids (and being on the front line of issues like “restorative justice”), and…

3) while perhaps too “sweeping,” Wilson’s characterization of the tradition of anti-intellectualism, specifically in the civil right community who Wilson claims were resistant to rigorous academic work for nonwhite students, has a plausible element of truth to it.

A statement by Wilson made in 2017 after President Trump’s post-Charlottesville bothsiderism regarding neo-Nazis and Antifa protesters certainly adds support to Hess’ second point.

Wilson wrote on the Ascend Facebook page:

We now know where his sympathies lie: with the American Nazis and white supremacists who spew anti-Semitic and racist epithets, brandishing assault weapons. In an appalling failure of moral leadership, he refuses to distinguish between those invoking the slogans and ideology of the greatest genocide in modern times, and protesters condemning their hateful speech. What more need be said than that the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke tweeted his congratulations to the president?

We live in terrifying times. President Trump has emboldened and legitimized racists everywhere, and similar demonstrations by hate groups are now planned in cities around the country. By refusing to unequivocally condemn these odious acts, President Trump has taken aim at the very idea of America: equality. It is to this idea that Ascend is devoted.

In other writings it’s clear that Wilson is an evangelist for the power of “content” over “progressive pedagogies” that expect children to simply discover what they need to learn on their own. If you aren’t a studied education practitioner his traditionalist focus could easily look like cultural chauvinism. If you are a charter school leader who has looked at how to structure a school from all angles, Wilson’s argument is one of many that have merit.

So, this is the part where I treat you like a thinking person. Seeing the facts of the case, what say you? Is Mr. Wilson a white supremacist sympathizer or a pedagogue misunderstood by a mobocracy?

Read Wilson’s blog post below and let me know what you think.

The Promise of Intellectual Joy by Citizen Stewart on Scribd

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