I heard a famous school reform advocate–the kind of guy who says things like “Last time I checked there are no jobs for people who have a mean macaroni art game,” and “Failed schools must be closed and the children provided with vouchers so they can attend good schools”–tell a crowd once how proud he was that at his inner city school 100% of the graduates go on to four-year colleges. He then went on to note that his school “isn’t a charter school–it’s a public school.” He emphasized the word “public” to make sure his audience didn’t think he enjoyed any advantages in student selection that contributed to his success.

Truth is, he does enjoy advantages. His public school also happens to be a magnet school–you might be surprised that he neglected to disclose as much in his presentation. It is what teachers at traditional city schools sometimes derisively call a “lifeboat” school, a happy oasis to which the poorest children may apply; and, depending on the quality of their applications and the willingness and ability of their parents to abide by stringent demands for academically rigorous parenting, they MAY get in.

For this gentleman’s Herculean efforts at keeping out the riff-raff, he has been richly rewarded. He’s featured on television as an education expert; he writes books in which he lambasts teachers as the source of our society’s ills; and he gets people like Bill Cosby and Soledad O’Brien to sing his praises and imply that he has discovered the mythical fountain of achievement, the answer to our education problems.

I guess Bill and Soledad are able to overlook the sinister implications when he says, “I’ve seen the right students and the wrong students come to Capital Prep.

I’ve seen the wrong students come to my school, too. The only difference is, at my school the policy is:

“The Board or its designee shall admit into the public schools of the District free of tuition all persons who are over five and younger than 21 years of age on September 1 of any school year in which admission is sought…if any of the following conditions exist:

1. The person and either parent reside in the District.

2. The person does not reside in the District, but one of the parents resides in the District…

3. The person and his or her guardian or other person having lawful control under an order of a court reside in the District.

4. The person is under the age of 18 and has established a separate residence in the District apart from his or her parent, guardian, or other person having lawful control…”

The only way I keep someone out of my school is if they are over 21, they don’t live in the district, or they get expelled for one of a handful of heinous acts.

One critic notes this about the miracle reformer’s public school: “In one recent year forty-three percent of the enrolled students left before graduation.”

If this is true, it appears that the good reformer is a push-out artist. As Bill Cosby might say, “Push ’em out, shove ’em out, way out.” (Perhaps this technique is what led the gentleman in question to entitle one of his books Push Has Come to Shove.)

He hides it well. Here, he said that “The only thing required to get into our school is a pulse. And the only thing stopping us from taking more kids is lack of space.”

If this is true, I’m not sure what to make of the link on the school’s website that says, “How to apply.” Perhaps the application only has one question: “Does your child have a pulse?”

See, the thing about a magnet is it’s picky. It only picks up things containing metal. And a magnet school that obligates parents to purchase uniforms and agree to certain stringent requirements will only pick up students and parents who possess a certain amount of mettle.

I don’t begrudge this reformer his mission: offering an exclusive, college-preparatory education for students who have been unconscionably and persistently denied opportunities. This is an admirable, valuable, positive contribution to our society. More power to him; I support and applaud his efforts.

Where I diverge with this gentleman is in the thicket of his dishonesty. He does not truthfully allow every student with a pulse to remain in his school. The reformer says as much only to bolster his fabricated case that traditional schools do not get the same results as his school because of ineffectual teachers who are protected by adult-centric unions; in arguing this, the reformer chooses to ignore the occupational benefit provided to his teachers and staff by the leverage inherent in exclusivity.

Simply put, he can send a kid who refuses to do his homework out the door, and the kids and parents know it; I can only send that kid to in-school suspension. And don’t think the kids don’t know it.

Sometimes I’m mad because many school reform proponents so flippantly tell half-truths. Other times I’m just jealous because I too want to run a school that is heralded as a destination school for future Ivy Leaguers. I’m torn between two ideals, each of which I airbrush in my mind at different times: the reformer’s exclusive yet effective elitism, or my own democratic yet imperfect open arms. “We take ’em all,” I like to say. I’m proud of that. I get peeved when “’em all” won’t do their homework, or when a parent makes excuses or writes fraudulent notes for 30 absences a year. I get mad because in the end, the test scores don’t reflect on the parent or on democracy: they reflect on me. Democracy doesn’t fail in the newspapers, the educator does.

The selfish part of me wants to exclude. The hurting part of me. But the rest of me is glad I include. If I had worked at the reformer’s school, I never would’ve gotten to know a kid like Charlie*, a nonverbal 18-year-old with severe cognitive difficulties who was learning the most basic of life skills. I likely would’ve missed meeting a student like Amanda*, a Special Olympics medalist who greeted me with a smile and a story every time she saw me. I probably wouldn’t have gotten to see persistent freshman misbehavior, Joe* turn it around in time to graduate with his class; instead, I might have shown him the door and wished him the best of luck elsewhere. Honestly, that would have been more tragic to me than whatever horrible label Arne Duncan can come up with.

I wish I could get results like that reformer, I really do. But not if the trade off is for my school to become a bunker against the reality of my community’s context. Context ignorance may be bliss, but I’m not sold on the idea that America must attain excellence through exclusion. Such a philosophy emboldens those who argue against excellence through expenditure, who say we already spend too much on poor city children, who urge us to default on the staggering debt run up by historic thefts. Our nation stole opportunity from selected groups for generations and the bill has come due today, as we nobly struggle to fold their proud descendants into our national promise. Rather than pay up, the reformer would have us provide these kids with pockets of wonderfulness and let them fight to get in. This reformer quotes Dr. King, but he marches with Scott Walker.

They say we spend too much in DC, that we spend too much in Chicago. But when you are putting out a fire you don’t watch the water meter, you watch the flames. We will know that we have spent enough in our inner cities when life blooms a garden there. Those who posit that squalor is inevitable among city dwellers lack not only imagination, but humanity.

I think this reformer truly believes that shutting down all the low-performing public schools in his city and replacing them with new schools like his will fix things. I don’t question his motives. And his approach will certainly improve the outcomes for the kids who will adhere to his school’s rules and meet their performance targets. Like the man throwing starfish into the ocean, he will save this one, and this one, and this one.

But I wonder if he ever thinks about the others. I wonder, in his ideal world where there are no “bad schools” left, where will all the “wrong students” go? They will still need an education, because they will still grow up and be part of our society. If all schools have the right-of-refusal, where will they go? There isn’t a job market for macaroni artists, but is there one for kids whom no school will take?

It must be a happy life when kids clear a high hurdle to enter your school and you convince the world you taught them to jump. If you can sell books with that gospel, more power to you. But while you make your way in the edubiz, please don’t trash long suffering teachers who have no choice but to wrestle daily with the context your school has walled off.


*Names changed to protect privacy.

Contextual Ignorance


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