Coffee Break: Parent Advocate Muhammed Akil on Getting Honest About Our Weaknesses and Creating Real Change

Muhammed Akil is a fierce advocate for school choice and unflinching in his conviction that we must confront long-time failures of traditional school systems. As executive director of Newark, New Jersey's PC2E, he is committed to fostering positive change in all public schools, whether charter or traditional. Recently he sat down with me to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline, the role of charter schools in fostering necessary change, and how charter and traditional public schools can be partners instead of adversaries. How many cups of coffee do you need to sustain your pace? Actually, I have always been an enthusiastic and alert early riser. I love getting up and being productive, so I am not a serious coffee drinker. I drink just a few cups of coffee a week and I want to move away from that. For me, mental toughness and alertness are, well, mental. Do you think it is fair to say that education is the civil rights issue of our generation? Definitely. The civil rights movement arose from the way society purposely marginalized, omitted and blocked people of color—especially Black people—from the resources and opportunities afforded White America. In essence, legal but unethical and racist practices kept millions of Black people in a permanent underclass. Today, many school systems across the country are seeing dismal educational results from these same communities. Receiving a poor education, especially in today’s fast-paced and technological society, is the same as blocking a person—indeed, entire communities—from the resources and opportunities needed to move their lives forward. Today, failing public schools are part of the process of tracking millions of young people into the same permanent underclass, a world of unemployment and underemployment, that the civil rights movement fought against. The school-to-prison pipeline and inter-generational impoverished families are filled with people whom our school systems failed. While other forces are at play, we simply cannot deny that those who do well in life receive good or great educations. Conversely, those living at or near the poverty line or in revolving doors of incarceration receive poor educations. Are charter schools causing the traditional public school system to fail? If we are to be objective, we would see that there have always been multiple school types—private, boarding, military, home, secular, cultural, etc. But now parents, regardless of income, have viable options. I think it’s disingenuous of traditional public school advocates to blame charter schools for their systemic and chronic failures. State takeovers of districts and poor performing public schools were happening well before the public charters came into existence. So I ask the question, “What was the cause of failing traditional public schools 20 or 30 years ago before charter schools came into existence?” It certainly could not have been charter schools. If we as a nation are serious about creating a highly-educated citizenry, we have to be honest about the weaknesses of our public school system and be willing to make real changes. But real change is difficult. Real change will require the traditional public school system to own up to its own deficits. However, it does not mean we throw away the entire traditional public school system. Are best practices being shared by various school systems, particularly among public charters and traditional public schools? Both public charter schools and traditional public schools can benefit by sharing best practices. While there are a few great examples of this around the country, I think most would agree it needs to be happening at a much higher level. There are great traditional public schools and great public charter schools. But here’s a peculiarity: Many people in decision-making positions have a greater desire to be right rather than than wanting to be better by adopting best practices designed by others. “Sharing” is a two-way street. School leaders, decision makers and publicly-elected officials must have a thirst for best practices designed by others. Having that thirst is our challenge; great practices already exist. Are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future of education in the United States? Both. But optimism is always the winning approach for me. I ultimately believe there are a lot of smart and passionate people who sincerely want to our children to be prepared for the future. I believe we will get to a place where we will be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of all of our school systems. However, it is heartbreaking to see the millions young people we are failing right now while we are in the process of making necessary changes.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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