If you are a progressive like me, you have to feel good about the gains we’re making. If you’re an urban educator, like me, not so much. Progressivism has come a long way. I remember the times under President George W. Bush for progressives, it was a dark age for us. But we rebounded in a big way. President Obama came and we got our swagger back. Yes, we lost some key Senate seats but Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are truly flexing that progressive muscle these days. They got college kids quoting them all day out here! It’s all good. Except for one thing. Mention education reform and watch the room instantly divide. It’s something like America was on the issue of slavery right before the civil war. Generals and lieutenants are sending their notes on the war to us, almost daily. Jeff Bryant articles have been making their way into my news feeds a lot lately, mostly through Salon, but also through a crazy network of social media channels. Diane Ravitch’s blogs and tweets are constant. There seems to be a vast network of white anti-reformers sharing both of their works, so I’m never without my daily dose of anti-reform news. Reading them will have you thinking that reformers are the devil out here. Now, I have no real disdain or dislike for either of these folks. I’d actually enjoy a face-to-face sit down with them. My question would be, “
What needs to happen to clear the divide between progressives on education?” I’m no Ph.D. here. On paper I don’t have the letters and years that each of these folks have. I’ll happily concede that. But here’s what I do have. I went to poor black schools in poor black neighborhoods throughout my entire K-12 education. I’ve been homeless in these systems. My parents knew nothing about navigating education. My neighborhood was and still is riddled with violence. I was consistently met with horrible teaching practices. I can vividly remember one of my friends in my ninth-grade world history class being asked to read aloud. In that moment, I learned he was a functionally illiterate 15-year-old. Eventually, he dropped out of school.
I know neither Ravitch nor Bryant would ever have to experience sending their kid to that high school. My high school. We buried my friend a few years ago. We’ve buried a lot of my friends. That’s the context I bring to the discussion when they talk on and on about
testing and the
rise of charter schools. Here’s the thing, and this isn’t an attack on anyone, but, these folks didn’t have to grow up the way I did as a black male in “Hood, USA.” They don’t look like me. They don’t speak like me. They don’t understand on a visceral level what’s at stake when
we can’t read or write. I didn’t love taking tests, but I should be able to read well enough not to be at the very bottom every time. Sure we gotta fix the cultural competency issues with testing but dammit, black and brown kids that grow up poor aren’t being taught how to read. Anyone that figures out how to fix that should be embraced, not fought. I don’t care if that comes from a traditional public school, a charter school (which are indeed public schools regardless of what folks may say) or a private school.
We must read, by any means necessary. Let’s not make this about winning an argument for argument’s sake. For me, it’s about winning the minds of poor black children that have been criminally underserved for decades, centuries even. It’s about innovating and doing things differently. It’s about supporting schools that work and clearing out schools that don’t (traditional public, charter and private). The sad thing about the progressive divide is that we know what works, but we’re too tangled up in special interests to deliver it for the poor. We know that our kids need more time on task and longer school days. We know that we have to expose kids to linked learning pathways. We know that we need folks that came up in these whack systems to become the leaders to help us rethink education. Let’s have that conversation. Or we can continue the civil war, pretending that well-fed white “progressives” like Ravitch and Bryant somehow hold all the answers for the black children they’ve never had. We can’t continue to be divided by politics, trying to make poor families feel bad when they go outside of our traditional systems. Because the ones that can leave, are leaving. Black parents, when given a chance for something better, take it. We don’t need a test to tell us that.
Charles Cole, III is an educator focused on the advancement of all youth of color but more specifically black males. The passion comes from his own experiences growing up without proper support. His life’s goal is to better the communities he grew up in through his work. An earlier version of this post appeared on Citizen Education.
Charles Cole III is an educator and media producer focused on the advancement of all youth of color, but more specifically Black males. The passion comes from his own experiences growing up without proper support. His life’s goal is to better the communities he grew up in through his work. He has served as a social worker, a director for Teach For America, the vice chair of the ...