In late January, young men and boys from Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy filled the front rows of a Baltimore City school board meeting. The school commissioners and CEO, who had determined that Bluford had failed the boys academically, would be voting that night to revoke the school’s charter and possibly shut it down altogether.
“Don’t Kill Our School” and “He Who Closes a School Opens a Prison Door,” read hand-made signs in the room. The students, in their blue blazers, cardigans and neatly-knotted ties, watched intently.
This set piece could be replayed in almost any urban center in the country today as part of the larger national drama over “education reform” – a drama that has become one of our proxy conversations about race, class, social mobility and the meaning of democracy.
Those conversation are generally riddled with emotional outbursts and conspicuous silences, thanks to the gap between our professed ideals and the realities of classrooms and young citizens.
So it was with that meeting at Baltimore school headquarters. Not only does the scene obscure those individual young lives, it misses the context of this current iteration of reform and how we have come to this poignant place where young boys make an immediate connection between school and prison doors.
Three recent books are helpful in drawing attention to some of the elements left out of the conversation:
Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, brings a passionate microscope to one of America’s most profound education reform experiments in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In Michelle Rhee’s new memoir-manifesto, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Baltimore is a central, formative experience.
And Barbara Miner’s absolutely necessary Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, tells the story of the public schools of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (This is the state that in 2011 became the epicenter of teacher organizing and the struggle to define the “public” in public education.)
The debate over schooling in New Orleans since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina makes the conversation in Baltimore look mannered and deliberate by comparison. However, journalist Sarah Carr wants the reader to see New Orleans as “ordinary rather than extraordinary” in her detailed chronicle of a year in the life of a young teacher, a veteran administrator and a high school student and her family.
In Hope Against Hope, Carr presents the city after a profound natural disaster not as exceptional, but as a place “whose decayed infrastructure, overwhelmed social services, long-simmering racial tensions, and gross inequities make it perversely American.” We are, she’s saying, all New Orleans.
The characters that Carr beautifully sketches will be recognizable to anyone who has been down in the trench, putting in work in Baltimore’s schools. For example, here is Aidan Kelly, the idealistic Teach for America product from Harvard. Carr nicely renders the trials and tribulations of a young teacher learning how to teach for the first time.
Of the 250 Teach for America teachers who came to New Orleans with Aidan, only 81 remained in the classroom five years on. Only 25 remained at their same school. Aidan himself leaves the classroom to become his school’s “Director of Curriculum and Instruction.” And while Carr shows Aidan, with painful self-reflection, blaming himself for his student’s inadequate test scores, “he remained optimistic that strong results would convince skeptics in the end.”
The student Carr gives us, Geraldlynn, never completely buys in to KIPP Renaissance High School’s program, despite her mother’s hopes to provide her daughter a path to college and out of poverty.
Carr vividly captures KIPP’s struggle to reproduce its behavioral and test score success in elementary and middle school at the high school level and its struggle to deal with students who in their rejection of KIPP see what they do as an act of cultural survival.
Then there’s Mary Laurie, the indefatigable, aging administrator struggling to manage “reform.” Along with her management of “adequate yearly progress,” she works just as hard to make sure the school is a safe place, and that kids get something to eat and are acknowledged for their humanity beyond being data points in somebody’s spreadsheet.
“In every child, I see my own children,” she observes.
Carr’s work is one of portraiture, not policy but the hard home truth in her conclusion is arguably just what’s missing in all the debate over “reform.”
“For too long, some have used poverty as an excuse for not improving schools. Our leaders should not now make the opposite mistake and use the success of a relatively small number of schools serving low-income children as an excuse for not addressing poverty’s many dimensions.
“Improving the quality of education in low-income communities is a crucial part of reducing inequality. But unaccompanied by broader changes throughout American life, the wide gaps in opportunity, educational attainment, and income that have come to define our society will persist.”
How Baltimore Forged “Radical” Rhee
Michele Rhee has the burden of having come to personify a particular view and programmatic approach to education reform.
But it’s a branding she has pretty much sought out – first as Chancellor of schools in the nation’s capital, and now in leading StudentFirst, a lobbying organization she founded to help promulgate her vision of education reform.
This story of Rhee is well known and two-thirds of Radical is a detailed outline, a policy brief of her anger (her “rage” as she calls it) at bad teachers, teachers’ unions, teacher tenure and all things that allow bad teachers to exist – those bad teachers who keep students from realizing the American dream.
But what makes Radical an interesting read is the third of the book where Rhee narrates her personal journey from ambitious Korean-American to widely-recognized school leader to self-styled civil rights champion – a “radical.” It’s fascinating to see the degree to which she claims the American democratic language of opportunity and justice and feels misunderstood to be cast as a mere school reformer.
“In America in 2012,” Rhee declares, “birth determines possibilities. . . America is near the bottom in terms of social mobility. . . Where you live and the color of your skin largely determines your lot in life. In my mind that is nothing less than criminal. And it will come to define who we are as a nation unless we do something dramatic.”
An interesting note for local readers: Rhee says her desire to do something dramatic to redefine America began when she was a teacher in Baltimore.
She recalls sitting in her car with an eight-year-old girl from her classroom at Harlem Park Elementary in front of high-rise public housing in West Baltimore that she identifies as the “Franklin Street projects.” (Perhaps she means Lexington Terrace which became Franklin Terrace in the Wire) and she observes with arch meaning, “one of the most dangerous places in all of Baltimore.” She writes:
Today was different. China was staying with her dad, who lived in the towers; as I pulled up to the entrance, she was begging me to walk her up to her dad’s apartment. I didn’t respond. While I couldn’t imagine sending this tiny eight-year-old up into that building alone, I was terrified of walking into the building and back out again on my own. It was one of those moments that define a person. Half of me wanted to push her out of the car and peel out of the parking lot. The other wanted to grin widely, grab her hand with confidence, and head into the building.
Here is the origin story of her rage, a combination of self-loathing at her own cowardice and the profound disappointment with the lived hypocrisy of American democratic ideals.
But equally telling in Rhee’s own memoir writing and in her policy promulgation, is the absence of any historical context and understanding of what it means to live within the structural inequality of public housing on West Baltimore’s Franklin Street and how such inequality came to be.
Rhee means for the reader to come away with a sense of how viscerally offended she is by the grotesque inequality in America today. But it bears noting too that Michelle Rhee did not take the hand of that young girl and walk her to father’s apartment.
From Brown v. Board to Scott Walker
Barbara Miner begins her story of Milwaukee public schools in 1957 when baseball great Hank Aaron was 23. In that year, Aaron was tearing up Milwaukee County Stadium as a member of the Milwaukee Braves, leading the team to the National League pennant and a World Series victory over the New York Yankees.
Miner quotes Aaron from his autobiography, reflecting on having his picture on the front of the paper the day after his home-run helped the Braves win the pennant. “On the same front page,” Aaron observes “was a picture of a riot in Little Rock, Arkansas. It seemed that Little Rock, like much of the South, wasn’t leaping into the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education.”
Tales from the Heartland is filled with such compelling details. Miner’s extensive narrative history of school reform begins with Brown and ends with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate collective bargaining from the state’s teachers union and the massive protests that followed.
In between, the reader is given a nuanced social history of white resistance to integration, white flight, the internal struggles within the black community, the widespread use of vouchers, divisions among reformers and the longer, sad trajectory of the abandonment of education as a public good. Miner writes:
Milwaukee’s plight—as is true in so many other American cities— is rooted in complex and interdependent issues of housing, jobs, and schools, all of which are shaped by race and class. . . Among these issues, public education plays a unique role. It is fundamental not only to the individual hopes and dreams of students and their families but also to this country’s vision of an informed citizenry and a vibrant democracy. . . The Milwaukee story is the Wisconsin story is the nation’s story.
It’s the kind of storytelling that is necessary if we are to make sense of the young Baltimore boys from Bluford Drew Jemison who on a January night organized to save their school.
We tolerate a profoundly unequal society with life chances unfairly distributed. We assure our young people that education, public education, is a dependable institutional path to full participation in American democracy.
Our “reform” history, and our present reality, tell a different story.
Michael Corbin is a former Baltimore City public school teacher. He teaches in the writing program at Goucher College.