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Demagogues vs. Democracy: False Choices in Urban School Reform

August 5, 2010

Joe Clark and his baseball bat.

Michelle Rhee and her broom.

Recently, master teacher Patrick Ledesma wrote about compelling media images and narratives like these that inspire the public to care about public school reform. The most enduring stories seem to be those of the bullies. They have successfully appropriated the term “sense of urgency” for themselves, casting their critics as laggards or defenders of an indefensible status quo. He encouraged defenders of teacher professionalism and civility to share their own equally compelling narratives. If we are to have a chance at convincing the public that they should care about how teachers are treated, or that bullying isn’t a necessary precondition for turning around low-performing schools, then we need to offer counter-examples.

As a teacher, I wholeheartedly agree, and have recently decided to devote at least a small portion of my professional life to promoting these underappreciated perspectives. However, I think the problem is less that the “nice” teachers haven’t shared their stories of effective, respectful work environments. I think the bigger problem is that the public has been deprived of the full story, where the bullies are concerned. Because bullies have convinced enough members of the public (and virtually all of the mainstream media) that real reformers don’t waste valuable time with “consensus-building” or smiling, they’ve largely escaped the kind of scrutiny that would reveal the sham they’re promoting.

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether or not marinating in other people’s stress day-in and day-out might have a negative impact on impressionable young minds, or whether or not humiliating low-income children and their teachers would be a fair price for higher test scores. When it comes to these get-tough tales, the stories can depart pretty significantly from reality. Some of the changes these kinds of leaders produce have turned out to be pure illusion.

Take the case of Joe Clark, the principal at Eastside High and the “hero” portrayed in “Lean on Me”. In real life, Joe Clark was reportedly even more pompous and abusive than he was in the movie. In January of 1989, Mother Jones published an article that profiled him alongside George McKenna and Deborah Meier. In it, he was quoted as saying he deserved “to be crowned Lord of Lords and King of Kings” for restoring order to Eastside by wearing down unruly students and teachers. Further revealing his Messiah complex, he stated that his trademark bullhorn gave him a sense of omnipresence. He was also quoted as saying that he hoped the school deteriorated after he left: “I hope Eastside blows up after I leave…and it will, in a twinkling of an eye. I want the nation to know what it took to bring this place from disgrace to amazing grace.”

Some community members appreciated Clark’s style, and he was celebrated in many contemporary media outlets. Leaders like Ronald Reagan and former education secretary William Bennett sang his praises. (For the folks keeping score at home, yes, that’s the same William Bennett who would later muse that the national crime rate could be reduced if all Black babies were aborted.) Bucking the trend, the journalists at Mother Jones acted like journalists, and investigated the situation more thoroughly instead of just taking his word for it that he had made miracles.

In doing so, they discovered that much of the success Clark had at Eastside—especially those miraculous test scores from the movie’s climax—could be attributed to the relatively large number of troubled students who dropped out or were pushed out of the school under Clark’s reign. The school board, union leaders, and others who opposed him at the time were not against him because he was taking tough action to improve the lives of poor Black and Brown youth, but because of the poor Black and Brown youth he quite literally turned out into the streets (66 in 1987 alone). These weren’t all menaces and gang-bangers as he would have everyone believe, though some certainly became as much when denied their right to an education. Likewise, while the test scores increased somewhat, they remained quite low when compared to other New Jersey schools. The school’s college acceptance rates barely changed. It took a particularly egregious talent show strip-tease incident to begin to defeat the persona he constructed. Yet by and large, his myth persists.

Keep in mind, too, that the test score increases associated with the Joe Clarks of the world—then and now—may not necessarily tell us much about the learning students do under their rule. Are they learning critical thinking skills during all of this, or just test-taking skills? (Yes, you can do both, but it’s not necessary to temporarily raise test scores.) Are these students prepared for an intellectually demanding 21st Century world, with its complex dilemmas that can’t be conveniently resolved by picking one of four possible choices? Are they engaged citizens or productive workers in the new economy? Do they love learning? Who knows?

As a person who values means as much as their ends, I don’t understand why so many people are willing to sacrifice basic norms of decency or respect for increased student achievement in low-performing schools. I can’t see how it’s ever all right to intimidate students with baseball bats, or handcuff them to desks, or harass and/or fire teachers en masse, even if it’s being done in the name of so-called reform. Regardless, none of that is necessary in the first place. Bullies like Joe Clark have only short-term spikes in test scores—if that—to recommend their behavior. Meaningful, sustainable improvements in learning are the result of sustained action, coordinated by dedicated individuals who respectfully collaborate to serve the best interests of children. That doesn’t mean they all like each other, or that conflicts don’t occasionally arise, but that these differences are managed productively. Numerous studies—as well as the living examples of the thousands of high-functioning learning environments where trust and respect are the order of the day—bear that out, if only we care to look.

Professionalism and respect are not luxuries undeserved by the teachers and students in low-performing schools. Present-day school officials (and their defenders) who argue otherwise are presenting us with a false choice, and they should be called out for it. Members of the general public who idolize dictators like Joe Clark should be asked if the environment he created would be considered acceptable if it were they, or their children, who experienced it. And the current crop of school “leaders” who emulate him should be asked whether they’re trying to serve the needs of children, or if they are—like he was—merely fueling their own delusions of grandeur at poor children’s expense.

A version of this post appeared on The Answer Sheet on August 10, 2010.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010 7:14 pm

    Sabrina: This is a brilliant blog; and thank you for writing it. I hope to spread it widely among my contacts.

  2. August 6, 2010 8:31 am

    What a wonderful post! Thank you for writing it. I have no experience in education at all, but I do write a lot about the influence of business and the market in social change – one of the themes of the times – so I recognise the parallels. Keep it up.

  3. bob permalink
    August 6, 2010 4:48 pm

    There are many like this often in more subtle forms, but they bully to get their needs met. Unfortunately the public has bought into people like this including Secretary Duncan. Their plans are not in reality and do not come from a vast experience in the art of teaching. These meddlers who lack knowledge and seek fame is the equal of new surgical procedure being proposed by Bill Gates. Mr. Gates maybe highly intelligent but I prefer expereinced surgeons to propose the procedures. Education it is time you start listening to the experts, the teachers working their tails off each day for the students!

  4. September 4, 2010 10:14 am

    Very thoughtful article. The press often overstates issues to garner attention to the issues. It is well known that the teachers unions have made it very difficult for any reasonable school reform to take place. In many cases, their leadership tends to serve the short-termed needs of the adults (and often they are financial), over the needs of what is best for real teaching and learning to take place. Some posts mention surgeons and other “professions.” These professions do not have unions. Teachers unions with their enormous amounts of money and political agendas have blocked some of the most innovative approaches to school reform in the country which is why some of the most successful inner city schools are found in charter’s like KIPP Schools, and faith based schools like the highly successful Cristo Rey networks. One only need visit the “Ron Clark Academy” in Atlanta – (a charter) or Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone to see students not only complete high school, but be accepted to college and COMPLETE a college education. Michelle Rhee did not start out as a bully but sometimes obdurate people who make it impossible for leadership in education to take root, need to be dealt with in the same manner in which their union leadership treats them. Please everyone watch the film “Waiting for Superman!” it shows how many people in inner cities will do ANYTHING to get their children out of the public system to better charter and faith-based schools. Teachers would do well to take on their union representatives and have them know that often their agendas’ do not represent the needs of teachers who more often than not want to be validated as the professionals they are and not treated as factory floor workers. Education in America is a complicated and emotionally explosive issue. In my view Michelle Rhee’s mission is about the students. Although union leaders say they are about the students, they are not. They are about themselves.

    • September 4, 2010 11:07 am

      There are entrenched interests on all sides, I’m afraid. Teachers and students often get trapped in the middle.

      As for the idea that unions are the problem– while I’m the last to say that they’re perfect, in a situation where teachers are actually harassed for exercising good professional judgment (as is the case in too many low-performing schools), they still serve a useful purpose.

      The biggest barrier to improvement, IMO, is a reform regime that favors spending money on gimmicks and tests instead of making sure the basics are covered.

  5. cameron permalink
    March 2, 2011 4:39 pm

    What a dopey article. You deride Mr. Clark and attribute his success to other factors that have nothing to do with him at all. Yet, the bottom line is that the the school was successful while he WAS there. If his tactics weren’t any good, then why was the school so bad before he got there? And why did the school return to crap after he left?

    • March 2, 2011 4:58 pm

      1. Who says “dopey”?

      2. His school wasn’t successful when he was there, that’s the point. The appearance of success was manufactured by pushing out less- successful students.

      3. The school struggled before, during, and after his tenure because the real problems they face have to do with poverty and inequality, as well as educational problems that weren’t adequately addressed before these students arrived in high school.

      4. “Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things.” –Russell Baker As I note in the post (which it appears you haven’t actually read…), it’s not OK to treat people poorly “as long as it gets results.” One, in most cases the so-called results are illusory at best (or, really, outright non-existent, as in this case). And two, other schools have been far more successful using more in-depth, respectful approaches to teaching and learning. The only reason we’ve ever heard of this guy is because his methods are flashy, and because it appeals to a racist/ classist appreciation for keeping “those people” under control. Ask yourself if anyone would praise a principal who trolled the halls of a Whiter, wealthier school wielding a baseball bat. That person might land on a magazine cover, all right…in a prison uniform!

      • Dan permalink
        April 5, 2011 7:53 am

        Why are you getting all thoughtful on Joe Clark and do not attack the actual reasons for his actions. The public education system is not working because of politics and the lack of parent involvement. What would you have done if you were placed in that school and were given a year to meet state standards? What would you have done if you had no one to back you up in the process? If the politicians didn’t really cared about educating urban area students? This is still a reality, I believe that although his methods were not all acceptable; he had no other choice. When safety becomes an issue, then everything else must go out the window. It’s so easy to criticize, and to talk after the fact. Have you ever taught? Do you know what it is like to have all these policies and crazy standardized tests and paperwork all over you and have little time to actually educate? It so easy to sound smart and try to post facts here and there. The system is wrong, attack that. Talk about the real issues.

      • Dan permalink
        April 5, 2011 7:59 am

        Why aren’t parents held accountable for their childrens’ education? Why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that students that perform better is because they have a different approach to education at home. Why aren’t you talking about the fact that some parents are lazy and they use schools as daycare centers. This is the real issue. If you didn’t like his methods or other people’s methods nowadays then demand more from the state. When kids are not even well fed, do you think they want to read a book? When parents come to school drunk or they are been bullied, do you think they worry and think about science? I don’t fully agree with Joe Clark’s methods, but I also don’t agree with people who are quick to point their finger and throw facts that could very well be biased. There are many factors to education, and your blog is just one more of those that don’t really matter. I responded because I see that things don’t change. At the end teachers and students are left to struggle together while politicians and some lazy parents just ask for results.

  6. April 5, 2011 10:17 am

    Sabrina is right on about Joe Clark and his record of abuse and failure. I taught in Paterson for 30 years, mercifully at the other large high school across town, not at Clark’s Eastside. I saw close up his self-promoting, authoritarian nonsense and the media myths created around it to promote an earlier version of the top-down, “get tough,” ignore-the-root-causes-of-real-school-failure reform plans we now see everywhere. Below is an excerpt from one of two Rethinking Schools articles I wrote about Joe Clark back in the day:

    [From School Reform to Reform School, or Joe Clark: The Sequel, Rethinking Schools, Fall 1995]

    “As the principal of Paterson, N.J.’s troubled Eastside High School in the early ’80s, Clark became a national figure for his “get tough” rhetoric and authoritarian approach to the problems of city schools. He made headlines with wholesale expulsions of students he labeled “leeches” and “parasites,” basball-bat discipline, and inflammatory denunciation over his bullhorn of anyone who questioned his dictatorial ways. After someone in the Reagan White House read a profile of “Crazy Joe” in Reader’s Digest, Clark became the darling of Reagan and his Education Secretary William Bennett, who endorsed him as a model of the no-nonsense school administrator urban schools needed. “Sometimes you need Mr. Chips, sometimes you need Dirty Harry,” Bennett said.
    In educational terms, Clark’s reign at Eastside was a total failure. The dropout rate, fed by his summary expulsions, rose 45%, the number of students going on to higher education dropped by over 10%, and standardized test scores remained painfully low. Two-thirds of the teaching staff left or transferred during his tenure.
    Clark specialized in ludicrous invective and offensive racial comments directed at anyone who got in his way. To cite a few of countless examples: he dismissed one coach because “demonic spirits had captured his putrefied soul,” denounced a popular choir teacher over the loudspeaker as a “dizzy broad,” complained that a city council member was “a mere Puerto Rican,” and charged a Muslim parent critic with dressing “funny,” speculating that she might be “hiding a bomb” in her head-covering. Clark’s mean-spirited confrontations left scores of abused teachers, bullied students and outraged parents up in arms, and the school in constant turmoil.
    But Clark’s ability to attract national attention had less to do with his actual performance at Eastside than with his usefulness to the Reagan/Bush administration and a simple-minded media as a black proponent of law and order repression for the “underclass.” His bullhorns and bluster were considerably cheaper than new educational programs or credible reform initiatives. As a tough-talking African American authority figure, he could also voice repressive sentiments in crudely provocative ways that his political sponsors couldn’t always get away with. Blaming the teenage victims of school failure for the crisis of urban education, and proposing stiffer repression of young black “criminals” as the solution, resonated with both the right’s political agenda and the fears and prejudices of large sections of the population.
    But while Clark proved to be an educational charlatan, his tenure at Eastside was an unqualified success in terms of self-promoting media hype. During his fifteen minutes of fame, he appeared on the cover of Time, was interviewed on Sixty Minutes and countless other shows, and finally attained the contemporary equivalent of canonization in the form of his own docudrama. The film, from the director of Rocky, was a sanitized, self-serving account of Clark’s years at Eastside that still irritates many Paterson teachers and parents every time they go into a video store.
    Clark parlayed his celebrity into a profitable second career and a one-way ticket out of Paterson. After undergoing heart surgery in 1989, he secured a $240,000 buyout from the Paterson Board of Education with whom he had been in perpetual conflict. In addition to working on the movie, Clark went on the book and lecture circuit pulling in up to $7,000 a session to tell audiences, among other things, why it was necessary to bring back capital punishment. He also made an unsuccessful run for local office. Explaining why he left Eastside, Clark said recently, “The whale outgrew the ocean. I was too big for the situation. I’ve never looked back.”
    Before he took off for greener pastures he declared, “When I leave this school, if it didn’t plummet to the depths of despair, if it didn’t become violence ridden, drugs and stabbings, all the things that I inherited did not reappear, I would be chagrined.” In fact, things calmed down considerably after Clark left Eastside. Though the school continues to struggle academically and educationally, there’s been a dramatic decrease in tension and staff conflict and no detectable rise in criminal incidents. Clark wasn’t “chagrined,” of course. It’s not his style.
    Clark’s progression from school cop to prison warden is ripe with irony. Joe Clark always represented a police action rather than an educational policy, and one that could only be imposed on a relatively powerless population. (“If he took a bullhorn and baseball bat to Beverly Hills,” said one observer at the height of the hype, “he’d be bounced out by the weekend.”) In fact, Joe Clark’s educational career is a painful reminder that for a generation of those worst-served by our educational system, school reform has meant little more than rhetorical hot air and a kind of educational triage. His evolution from a principal who put chains on the school doors to a juvenile jail keeper parallels a threefold rise in the number of people imprisoned in the U.S., and reflects social trends that continue to push appalling numbers of young people out of schools and into prisons.”

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