Read an Excerpt
YES, DIANE, I'M STILL ANGRY
Recently I was invited by education activist Dr. Raynard
Sanders to New Orleans for an educational summit. The
speaker, the renowned and controversial Diane Ravitch, had told
Dr. Sanders that she wanted to meet me. Dr. Ravitch, currently a
professor at New York University, has made headlines with her
about-face on many issues related to public education. Ravitch
was the assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush
administration, where she made her conservative intellectual and
political reputation with her staunch support of standardized testing,
charter schools, the No Child Left Behind Act, and free market
competition for schools. She has now repudiated many of her
earlier positions, stated both in public presentations and in her
book The Death and Life of the Great American School System:
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. This courageous
scholar has resigned from influential conservative policy
groups and has incited many powerful enemies. As a result, in contrast
to her former life as a popular conservative commentator, she
has now found herself barred from expressing her new views in
many popular venues.
Before the speech began, I joined Diane, Raynard, and a few
invited guests in an adjoining room. Diane and I talked about the
devastation of public schools in post-Katrina New Orleans and
how politicians and educational entrepreneurs hawking privatization
are claiming the travesty of New Orleans education to be a
Diane asked me why I hadn’t spoken out nationally against what
was happening. I told her about my work in New Orleans and my
modestly successful attempts to engage other African American
scholars in the struggle against what was happening there. I added
that the sense of futility in the battle for rational education policy
for African American children had gone on for so long and that
I had come to feel so tired, that I now needed to focus on those
areas where I felt I could actually make a difference: working with
teachers and children in an African American school. I was so angry
from the sensation of butting my head against a brick wall, I
told her, that I needed to give my “anger muscles” a rest. Diane
looked at me squarely and said, “You don’t look angry.”
I realized two things at that moment. One was that Diane’s anger
was relatively raw and still fresh and hadn’t yet needed to be
modulated. It must have been quite a shock to go from being an
influential authority whose views were sought and valued in most
political circles to being a virtual outcast. While it was undeniably
courageous to reanalyze one’s positions and come to a significantly
different stance, it has to be anger-provoking to realize that the
power elite seem less interested in logical analyses for the public
good than in maintaining power and profit. Her anger had a different
quality than the anger of those of us who have struggled
with the same issues for many years.
The second thing I realized was that, yes, I am still angrydespite
my attempts over the years to calm my spirit and to focus
on the wonder of teaching and learning. I am angry at the machinations
of those who, with so little knowledge of learning, of
teachers, or of children, are twisting the life out of schools.
I am angry that public schools, once a beacon of democracy,
have been overrun by the antidemocratic forces of extreme wealth.
Educational policy for the past decade has largely been determined
by the financial contributions of several very large corporate
foundations. Among a few others, the Broad, Gates, and
Walton (Walmart) foundations have dictated various “reforms”
by flooding the educational enterprise with capital. The ideas of
privatization, charter schools, Teach for America, the extremes of
the accountability movement, merit pay, increased standardized
testing, free market competitionall are promulgated and financially
supported by corporate foundations, which indeed have
those funds because they can avoid paying the taxes that the rest of
us must foot. Thus, educational policy has been virtually hijacked
by the wealthiest citizens, whom no one elected and who are unlikely
ever to have had a child in the public schools.
I am angry that with all of the corporate and taxpayers’ money
that is flowing into education, little-to-none is going to those valiant
souls who have toiled in urban educational settings for many
years with proven track records. Instead, money typically goes to
those with little exposure to and even less experience in urban
schools. I am left in my more cynical moments with the thought
that poor black children have become the vehicle by which rich
white people give money to their friends.
I am angry because of the way that the original idea of charter
schools has been corrupted. In their first iteration, charter schools
were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They
were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging
populations. What they discovered was to be shared and
reproduced in other public school classrooms. Now, because of the
insertion of the “market model,” charter schools often shun the
very students they were intended to help. Special education students,
students with behavioral issues, and students who need any
kind of special assistance are excluded in a multiplicity of ways because
they reduce the bottom linethey lower test scores and take
more time to educate properly. Charter schools have any number
of ways of “counseling” such students out of their programs. I
have been told by parents that many charter schools accuse students
of a series of often trivial rule infractions, then tell parents
that the students will not be suspended if the parents voluntarily
transfer them to another school. Parents of a student with special
needs are told that the charter is not prepared to meet their child’s
needs adequately and that he or she would be much better served
at the regular public school around the corner. (Schools in New
Orleans, the “model city” for charters, have devised an even more
sinister scheme for keeping unwanted children out of the schools.
The K12 publicly funded charter schools, which are supposed to
be open to all through a lottery system of enrollment, are giving
preferential admission to children who have attended an affiliated
private preschool, one of which charges over $4,000 in tuition and
the other over $9,000.)1
In addition, the market-driven model insists that should charter
schools actually discover workable, innovative ideas, they are
not to be shared with other public schools but held close to the
vest to prevent “competitors” from “winning” the standardized
test race. So now, charter schools are not meant to contribute to
“regular” public education but to put it out of business.
I am angry about the hypocrisy rampant in education policy.
While schools and teachers are admonished to adhere to research-based
instruction and data-driven planning, there is no research to
support the proliferation of charter schools, pay-for-performance
plans, or market-based school competition. Indeed, where there is
research, it largely suggests that we should do an about-face and
run in the opposite direction.
I am angry that the conversation about educating our children
has become so restricted. What has happened to the societal desire
to instill character? To develop creativity? To cultivate courage
and kindness? How can we look at a small bundle of profound potential
and see only a number describing inadequacy? Why do we
punish our children with our inability to teach them? How can we
live with the fact that in Miamiand I am certain in many other
citiesten-year-olds facing failure on the state-mandated FCAT
test and being “left back” in third grade for the third time, have
had to be restrained from committing suicide?
I am angry at what the inflexibility and wrong-headed single-mindedness
of schools in this era have done to my child and to
so many other children. There is little tolerance for difference, for
creativity, or for challenge.
The current use of standardized tests, which has the goals of promoting
competition between schools and of making teacher and
principal salariesand sometimes even employmentdependent
on tests scores, seems to bring out the worst in adults as well. In locale
after localeincluding Washington, DC; Georgia; Indiana;
Massachusetts; Nevada; and Virginia, to name a fewthere are
investigations into widespread allegations of cheating by teachers
and principals on state-mandated high-stakes tests.
And finallyif there ever is a finallyI am angry at the racism
that, despite having a president who is half white and half black,
still permeates our America. In my earlier days, I wrote about the
problem of cultural conflictthat one of the reasons that having
teachers and children of different cultural groups led to difficulties
in teaching and learning was a lack of understanding about the
other group’s culture. I now have a slightly different perspective.
I still believe that the problem is cultural, but it is larger than the
children or their teachers. The problem is that the cultural framework
of our country has, almost since its inception, dictated that
“black” is bad and less than and in all arenas “white” is good and
superior. This perspective is so ingrained and so normalized that
we all stumble through our days with eyes closed to avoid seeing
it. We miss the pain in our children’s eyes when they have internalized
the societal belief that they are dumb, unmotivated, and
Nor can we see what happens to the psyches of young, often
well-meaning white people who have been told that they
are the best and brightest and that they are the saviors of black
children. Most inevitably fail because they haven’t the training
or the experience to navigate such unfamiliar territory successfully;
nor are they taught to learn with humility from parents or
from veteran African American and other teachers who know
the children and the communities in which they teach. Others
burn out quickly from carrying the weight of salvation that has
been piled upon their young shoulders. Several young Teach for
America recruits have told me that their colleagues frequently
run back home or off to graduate school with the belief that the
children they went to save are unsalvageablenot because of
poor teaching but because of their students’ parents, families, or
Yes, Diane, I am still angry. And that anger has fueled the two
themes that run throughout this book. The first is the symbiotic
interplay between my personal life as a mother and my professional
work as a scholar and hopeful activist. Within the chapters of this
volume are stories that range from my daughter Maya’s first years
in elementary school through her admission to college. My concerns
for her educational struggles informed my work in schools.
Feeling her frustration and pain opened my eyes to the frustration
and pain thriving in so many of the classrooms I visited. Reveling
in her successes helped me to suggest potential modifications for
schools where I saw damaging practices. In fact, Maya has more
than once over the years informed me that I wouldn’t know half as
much about education if I didn’t have her! And she’s right.
The second theme that runs through the book, from the chapters
on educating young children to those focused on college students,
is the relevance of a list of ten factors I have formulated over
a number of years that I believe can foster excellence in urban classrooms.
These factors encapsulate my beliefs about black children
and learning, about creating classrooms that speak to children’s
strengths rather than hammering them with their weaknesses,
and about building connections to cultures and communities. I
believe that if we are to create excellence in urban classrooms, we
must do the following:
1. Recognize the importance of a teacher and good
teaching, especially for the “school dependent” children
of low-income communities.
2. Recognize the brilliance of poor, urban children and
teach them more content, not less.
3. Whatever methodology or instructional program is
used, demand critical thinking while at the same time
assuring that all children gain access to “basic skills”
the conventions and strategies that are essential to success
in American society.
4. Provide children with the emotional ego strength to
challenge racist societal views of their own competence
and worthiness and that of their families and
5. Recognize and build on children’s strengths.
6. Use familiar metaphors and experiences from the children’s
world to connect what students already know to
7. Create a sense of family and caring in the classroom.
8. Monitor and assess students’ needs and then address
them with a wealth of diverse strategies.
9. Honor and respect the children’s home cultures.
10. Foster a sense of children’s connection to community,
to something greater than themselves.
So, yes, Diane, I am still angry. But I am also still hopeful. . . . No matter how angry I get when I think about what the larger world may have in store for them, I owe my life to children, and I am forever grateful for the hope and joy their smiles and hugs engender.