Demagogues vs. Democracy: False Choices in Urban School Reform
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.