For this special issue, The Nation asked a range of experts and activists to answer a series of questions on race, politics and educational inequities. The interviews, excerpts of which follow, were conducted by longtime progressive educator Herbert Kohl.
How can we respond most effectively to right-wing assaults on the premises of public education?
The way that you deal with the right is by fixing the schools. The first thing we have to do is admit the truth, that the schools are underserving important populations of kids, primarily kids of color and low-income kids. Too much of the left’s rhetoric around public education has been: Everything is fine. Everything is getting better. SAT scores are going up. More people are going to college. We haven’t talked about the serious problems–the problem, for example, of the wide and growing achievement gap that separates low-income students and students of color from others. And it’s an utter disconnect. Parents hear our voices and then they see what’s going on in their schools, and they say, These guys are on Mars. What schools are they talking about? That’s not what’s happening in my schools.
You see things like 94 percent of the African-American parents in LA Unified [School District] rate their schools as fair to poor. And we keep saying, No, everything’s fine. So the left has to re-establish credibility with folks by saying that we recognize these schools aren’t doing what they should be doing. And we should also admit that more money won’t answer all the problems. That there are structural changes that have to be made.
Luis Garden Acosta:
As people who care about democracy, we ought to be careful about how we look at those who seem to oppose what we stand for. My own life in the Catholic Church and growing up in Brooklyn relating to different cultures and ethnicities and classes has taught me that there is no monolithic conservative movement. Often when I sit down with parents who sound like they are are right-wing, I begin to realize that what they are really saying is, “I’m afraid for my child and I don’t have respect for the system. I can’t believe in it anymore because it hasn’t protected my neighbor’s child and maybe my child will be next.” And we find that we have common ground, we share a commitment to the development of our children and to principles of democracy.
It’s just that the discussion is so politicized and so polarized by opportunists, political leaders who really don’t want to do much about anything besides talk about it. Of course, there are some who really believe that there ought not to be a public school system, who really believe that public money should be used for the expression of religious tenets and on and on, and we would have real difficulty creating any kind of united front with them. But I do believe that we have suffered, our movement has suffered, from not trying to reach out more effectively.
The voucher movement, in particular, has attracted support in communities of color. How do you respond to that?
I would argue that the problem with vouchers is, first, that they rely on market forces to operate. We’ve never seen market forces really work well when it comes to people of color and low-income people. If market forces worked well for low-income people, they wouldn’t be poor. If market forces worked, rotten milk wouldn’t cost twice as much in a bodega in East Harlem as fresh milk does downtown. People could get home mortgages. People wouldn’t pay $1 million for car insurance. The market fails these people again and again. So why do we think the market is going to work in educating their kids?
The second piece of it is that institutions receiving public money to educate kids need to be held accountable to the public. And private schools are not accountable to the public. And so one ought not to send funds to institutions that the community cannot hold accountable.
Luis Garden Acosta:
Some people in our communities are feeling that the prevailing system has not supported them and that the teaching profession and the educational system as a whole don’t really care about their children–that teachers would not be caught dead having their own children in the very schools that they teach in, and that administrators would prefer not to send their children to public schools.
So we are looking for change, for real change that would create some equity in how we raise our children in this country. Some people say that the only way that you are going to find equity is by creating your own private institutions or sending your children to private institutions. That is very appealing to parents who feel that their children won’t be safe from violence and won’t grow up to be productive and resourceful in public schools. So they think, Well, vouchers might be a good idea. Except when they look at it further, they begin to see that the people who are offering the voucher concept as a way out do not have their best interests at heart. They’re only offering a voucher of $2,000 or $3,000 for the kind of education that clearly costs $10,000 a year or more. In fact, what they want to do is to do away with the kind of resources that are put into the public system. They want to eliminate it and give us an apartheid-like, segregated private experience that is even worse than what we have now. I think our people are beginning to realize that the voucher movement is a major fraud and deception that cruelly rips at their right to a public education.
What about charters and school choice–do you see these issues differently from vouchers?
In places like Philadelphia, where the school system is very entrenched, charter schools have particular appeal to communities that want to control their schools. I look at some of the charter schools that the Latino community has put together here, and I think, it’s not systemic change; it’s only going to reach however many hundred Latino kids who can get access to an education that’s meaningful with people who care about them. But that’s three or four hundred more kids than before. So in that sense, I’m leaning toward support of charter schools.
Luis Garden Acosta:
It’s important that people understand that charter schools are public schools. Not all charter laws speak to our vision of a charter, but the kind of charter that we are envisioning for El Puente is the kind that really grounds the school in the community. Charter schools are in fact what we asked for in 1969, when we [in Ocean Hill-Brownsville] demanded community control of our schools from the school board. We want full and total control and responsibility and accountability for the education of our children. We want to be able to do this in a way that really focuses on the school, and we want to be accountable but to call the shots and not be dangling like puppets while some central administration office pulls the strings.
I wouldn’t support vouchers but I do support school choice, and the only way that school choice seems to be able to happen right now, particularly in Atlanta, is through charter schools. I believe charter schools need to have an oversight committee that reflects in part the population of the children, but also that involves maybe university people and others who can bring resources and feedback, who will come in and say what isn’t working. The charters often negotiate out of doing any kind of testing, and then there is no incentive for the school to change. And no incentive for the teachers not to say: The reason this isn’t working is that these weren’t the children we expected.
I would prefer that charter schools within the public sector have unions rather than prohibit unions, but I think it would be wrong not to permit teachers and other workers in charter schools to choose whether or not to form a union. I also think charters ought to be prohibited from selecting students and barring other students, such as those with learning difficulties, or from low-income or minority backgrounds. There ought to be a level playing field so that they compete under circumstances that are similar to those that exist for other public schools.
Charters are just schools. There are bad charters and there are good charters. Three things make for a good school: good teachers, rigorous curriculum and high standards. A charter may or may not have those things. But both charters and vouchers are very incomplete solutions to what ails the public schools. Even the biggest charter-voucher fans will admit that they’ll only take care of a very small percentage of kids. You’ve still got kids left in the same boat as they were before. So they’re sideshows. And they’re sideshows that suck up all the oxygen in the discussion about what needs to be done to improve education for low-income and minority kids.
What are some of the major problems in urban schools and what can be done about them?
So much of the difficulties that urban kids, particularly minority urban kids, face in education is a function of lowered expectations. Because there’s this implied proposition that “those children” can’t do it. Whereas the reality is, there are countless examples of schools that are effective on a very high level in neighborhoods where, simply looking at the demographics, there should be no such expectation.
The most important thing we can do to make the schools better is to insure that low-income kids and kids of color have teachers of the same caliber as more affluent kids and white kids. If I could pick one thing, one lever to pull that would begin turning around the schools and win back the confidence of low-income parents, minority parents, in public education, it would be big, big attention to teacher quality in our schools.
What are the steps that the states can take? They can eliminate pay differentials between high- and low-poverty schools. They can forgive state student loans for well-qualified people who teach in high-minority or high-poverty schools, to make those schools more attractive to people. They can give signing bonuses to well-qualified people who agree to teach in hard-to-staff schools. And they can give staying bonuses to effective teachers who are already in the schools.
Then, at the district level, we have to sit down with the teachers’ unions and talk about how the contracts–and sometimes the seniority provisions in those contracts–put the very newest teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools and allow the experienced teachers to transfer themselves out of those schools and into the “more desirable” schools. What can we do with union contracts to help insure that all kids have access to fully qualified and experienced teachers?
At the school level, teachers have to stop fighting among themselves about who gets to teach which kids. That’s one of the things we see all the time–teachers tie their own prestige, their imagined prestige, to the kids they’re teaching. And it’s the youngest, most inexperienced teachers who get to teach the difficult, low-track kids. Because tracking segregates kids, the low tracks are very black, brown and poor, and the high tracks are very white and affluent. So you have the least qualified teachers teaching the kids who need the very best teachers. And the kids who need the least, frankly, are getting the cream of the crop.
Who should be held accountable for the failure of schools?
The adults who run them. Even those of us who call ourselves progressives and liberals and left have bought the argument that, because of poverty and racism, you can’t expect these kids to succeed. Now people never say that out loud. But the way you hear it is in the shock, amazement, awe when people hear stories about black kids achieving at high levels. They go, Oh, my God, that’s so amazing. Well, you know, it wouldn’t be so amazing if a white kid did it.
What we’ve done by buying that argument is let the adults who run these schools off the hook. We’ve let the teachers off the hook. We’ve let the principals and the school boards and the superintendents off the hook. Poverty and racism present real challenges. But every day in every part of this country, there are people who prove that those challenges can be overcome. The Texas system, for example, holds schools accountable for improving the performance of all kids, broken down by race and income, in a more serious way than other states. In California, where the demography is fairly similar, you talk to teachers and you hear these horrible things–they really do believe demography is destiny and that you can’t teach these children. In Texas the teachers don’t believe that anymore because they know they have to teach these kids, their jobs are tied to it. Because it’s a requirement, they’ve come to accept that it’s possible.
What is the role of teachers’ unions in the transformation of the schools?
Luis Garden Acosta:
Working with the UFT [United Federation of Teachers] leadership here in New York City, I saw how effective they were in supporting the New Visions Initiative [an effort to engage communities in creating new, small schools beginning in the early nineties]. They were right there. They pushed. They supported development of small schools, almost charterlike schools, and whenever there were roadblocks in regard to the contract or in other kinds of regulations, they would step in and try to work it out. So clearly, I thought, they could be effective in leading–along with parents and young people themselves and leaders of the community–the transformation of our schools.
But I don’t believe the transformation of the schools in the past was at the top of the union agenda. Too often the union has been mired in the day-to-day issues of security, benefits and salaries. Not that they shouldn’t have the best salaries possible. I believe that they are underpaid. But it’s been too much about that, at least as the public has perceived it, and not enough about the transformation, expertise and sacredness of their profession.
I would like to see the union call for a strike until all classrooms have a ratio of at least one adult teacher to twenty students. It’s like you would want doctors to say, We refuse to work in a hospital where we know 90 percent of the patients will die because the equipment is bad and we don’t have the kind of space and working conditions that will allow us to save patients. You’d want to believe that healers would strike–would use their powerful organization, the AMA, to make sure that they have a fighting chance to use their expertise and practice their profession. I would like to think that teachers would do no less. What can be more sacred than the development of an individual? Yet we haven’t seen that kind of a strike. That’s what is missing from the teachers’ unions.
From the beginning, we in teachers’ unions ought to have defined our mission and our enlightened self-interest differently. We inherited a tradition that essentially said that the primary function of the union is to serve its members and to promote their economic and professional interests. A deeper, more sophisticated and ultimately more moral and pragmatic way to think about it–which would double, even triple the effectiveness of the union–would be to say that teachers’ unions ought to serve not only the members but also their clients, on the assumption that if students do well then their teachers will do well. No community will long tolerate teachers doing well while their students are not.
What is the value of a curriculum sensitive to race and culture–for example, an Afrocentric curriculum–in teaching children of color?
I sat down recently and talked with a group of boys at an all-boys middle school program. I asked them what made their school different, and they said, Well, this school is Afro-centric. I said, What does that mean? And one of the boys said, What it means is, you’re taught to think for yourself. In the regular public schools, he said, you have to sit there and learn what the teacher is saying and memorize it. But here, if you disagree with what the teacher is saying or with what a book says, as long as you have evidence you can question it. And that is what, in a sense, Afrocentrism can be: where kids are taught that they have to use critical thinking in order to interpret the society in which they live and the media and the books and everything else. They can’t develop critical thinking if you’re asking them to learn things that run counter to their experiences, and they just have to learn it, no matter what, for the tests.
More than thinking about Afrocentric curriculum, the thing we have to figure out is how you beat the racism out of black, white, Latino, Latina teachers, who have been inculcated with this idea that kids of color can’t learn. You have to put the success stories in front of people’s faces. You have to give them evidence, again and again, that these kids can learn. And that their teachers are not magicians. That they are mere mortals who are achieving good results for low-income kids and kids of color.
How important is it to recruit more teachers of color?
There should always be a goal of improving the likelihood that students can see, in the adults in front of them, the reflection of their own experiences and possibilities. This can be accomplished without quotas and without restricting access to teachers who are not of the same racial makeup, but whose commitment and expertise would be enriching to students. What I think works best is an ongoing affirmative-action effort that seeks out the very best teachers and, when all things are equal, makes the extra effort to hire African-American and Latino teachers.
There’s a demographic shift going on, and it’s happening all across the country. It’s particularly pronounced in New York City: the aging of the white teaching force and its replacement by a teaching force of color. But we are also doing recruiting in a way that has never been done before by this city school system. We are sending recruiters to the traditionally black colleges. We are on the Internet in a way that no other system is. We have taken out ads on CNN, in the airports. We have done all sorts of innovative endeavors to recruit minority teachers on the theory that we’re a district where 86 percent of the children are nonwhite. I am very conscious of the need to have role models, but I’m even more conscious of the need to have credentialed, quality teachers. We have 78,000 teachers, and 11,000 lack teaching credentials. That, in my judgment, is an abomination. And it will impede us from performing at the levels the system is capable of attaining.
At the same time, we are banking on the altruism of college kids, because urban education is the equivalent of the Peace Corps of the sixties or the civil rights movement of the fifties. Attracting and keeping these young people is a matter of making the system less bureaucratic, more humane and more attuned to the needs of both the young teachers and the kids.
When people from outside the community are teachers, do they have to know more than just what’s inside the school?
Sometimes I tell my graduate students to imagine that they have just gotten word that they have to leave tomorrow to go teach in Eritrea, which they’ve never heard of. I ask them, What are you going to have to do in order to teach when you get there? And they go through a long list of things. The culture, the relationships between parents and children. They need to know the music, the literature, the stories and how people feel about them coming there, how people feel about Americans in general. Then I ask them, How would you find out? And they say they would live in the community. They would get an informant, a friend, somebody who could help them learn about it. They would go to the religious places, the shopping places, where people congregate. And I ask, how much of this information do you know about the children you teach? I try to get folks to understand how knowing the community and knowing the parents and the children is connected to teaching. They know that, but yet they don’t seem to carry it over in their world. I think we all really know somewhere deep inside that in order to teach people, we have to know who they are and how they feel about us.
Does the “standards” movement have promise in improving education for poor children and children of color–and has it delivered on that promise?
My reaction to standards initially was, finally, someone is saying kids can achieve at high levels. There is no question that teacher expectation is low. But at some point, standards became a code word for a reinvention of tracking and exclusion, and what was supposed to be accountability of schools became punitive to students. Now we have things like graduation and promotion requirements and high-stakes testing, so kids can’t go forward if they haven’t reached these standards, but what happens to the schools, teachers and districts that didn’t guarantee that these kids had access to the things they needed to meet the standards? Where’s the opportunity to learn?
Luis Garden Acosta:
As Gandhi said about Western Civilization, it would be a good idea. We ought to have standards in education. The problem is equating high standards with norm-based, high-stakes exams. Frankly, there is a good reason why private schools and schools that pride themselves on mastery and schools that promote young people to go to the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords of this world do not believe in those high-stakes tests, and yet, those of us who are poor and only have access to the public school system as it is today must endure what in effect becomes a real barrier to the education of our young people.
The promise of the standards movement, I think, is terribly important. Until there were public standards, there was implicitly a multistandard system. A system where you had a set of standards for white kids and a set of standards for minority kids, a set of standards for affluent kids and a set of standards for poor kids. But folks who think the work of the standards movement is over are absolutely wrong. That was the easy part, writing the standards. Now the real work is about resource allocation, as in the distribution of good teachers between high- and low-poverty schools and high- and low-minority schools so that all kids can meet the standards.
High-stakes testing to me is a way to insure that children are brought up to the highest level of performance that they are capable of, and it forces them to be rigorous in their thinking and to dedicate themselves to particular tasks. Those are the kinds of skills you need to be a full human being, just as much as having creative ability. It is very important to have the critical faculties that are tested by high-stakes testing. I’m not saying that we should use any old test or tests that can be beaten by test-cram courses. But I do think it’s important that we hold ourselves to a high level of performance.
What role do the arts play in education, and is that role in jeopardy, given the current obsession with standards?
In Georgia, in the schools that aren’t doing well in reading and math, they are actually taking away arts and having kids spend more time on those subjects. But there’s plenty of evidence that kids who engage in the arts do better on standardized tests anyway. Some kids who do poorly in reading have the most creativity. If you don’t include the arts, you’re going to prevent so many kids who are so talented from ever communicating.
What happens when art gets removed from poor communities and communities of color is that you have no way of naming your experience. And it’s not like the mass media or anybody else is naming that experience.
I don’t see any incompatibility between high standards and creativity. But it was a terrible, terrible error to let the arts languish, particularly in urban communities, where the arts are so vibrant. There are more museums and theaters and creative arts people in the urban centers than anywhere else, and if you can hook the young, outgoing, interested, interesting teachers to those communities and make them see the inherent relationship between the creative act of teaching, on the one hand, and the arts, on the other, I think there’s a shot at making the system perform in ways we haven’t begun to consider. When I came onto the board, I brought with me two or three people, one of whom is looking at arts connections and cultural connections precisely because that’s one of the key ways to enhance the system.
The idea that you could have no art or no music in New York schools is very revealing about what we think is important for poor children. The arts can be the hook that lures kids in, opens their eyes, catches their imagination in much the way that for other children sports or student government does. The mind is enormously subtle and variegated, and how you draw people in to be playful, to be intellectually venturesome, is what education is all about.