A School is Not a Pet. And Yet . . .

This weekend’s story in the New York Times about former NFL star Deion Sanders’ struggling charter school lays bare much of what’s wrong with the way Americans think about public education in general, and charter schools in particular.

The story begins with Sanders being approached with a “splendid business proposition,” “deep-pocketed backers,” and a state board of education that “fell over itself” to accommodate one of the greatest pro football players of all time.

Never mind the fact that being a great NFL cornerback has nothing to do with knowing how to build a great school. Unless, of course, the only goal for the school is to become an athletic powerhouse, in which case, hey, do your thing.

You can already guess how the rest of the story goes. A rapid rise in the national sports rankings. Televised games on ESPN. A steady infusion of uniforms and equipment. And a near-complete inattention to the things that actually determine a healthy school.

As one former member of Prime Prep’s board put it, parents were seduced by the promise that under Sanders’ tutelage, their children would get athletic scholarships to college and, eventually, pro contracts. “The parents wanted a 2.5 G.P.A. so the kids could play,” he said. “And it happened.”

It gets worse. In a recording obtained by The Dallas Observer, Sanders explains to a colleague how the school came to be. “Senators, political leaders that you hooked me up with, that you put me down with — that’s how we got the school. You’re talking about a nigger sitting up there that was an athlete who didn’t graduate, another nigger sitting up there saying he’s the president, that ain’t graduate nothing, and we got a school. Think about that, man.

“How in the world do you think we got a school?”

How indeed. And although the Texas Education Agency has vowed to revoke the school’s charter, the toxic mix that birthed it in the first place – our celebrity-worshipping culture, and our endemic disrespect for both the teaching profession and young black and brown children – has already spread far and wide.

Let me say that again: Deion Sanders is right. What allowed a school like Prime Prep to come into being at all was a particularly American combination of celebrity worship, disrespect for teachers, and racist indifference to the plight of minority boys and girls.

To be clear, the space for innovation that charter school laws have allowed has led to many outstanding schools, many of which I have written about and will continue to hold up as examples of what’s possible in American public education. But it has also laid bare a widespread myopic belief that starting a school is a lot like raising a pet: provide enough love (cash), food (connections) and water (shiny stuff), and the rest will take care of itself. And yet schools are not puppies; they are complex systems of human beings with incredibly nonlinear, complex tasks to complete: the holistic development and growth of every child in the building, over the course of several formative, complicated, emotionally loaded years. A school like Prime Prep, with its naïve belief that the other parts of a school could be faked in order to engender nationally ranked sports teams, underscores this point well.

A big part of what makes this possible is our historic, and growing, disrespect for the teaching profession, and for the (few) men and (many) women who make it their life’s work. Teacher/blogger Jose Vilson has made this point numerous times, most notably in response to one of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s repeated public excoriations of female teachers. “As Christie wags a finger at this woman,” Vilson writes, “the crowd cheers, signaling a societal acknowledgment that politicians can lay waste to any courtesy towards anyone, and that democracy is overrated. Surely, dissenters get jeers at any rally, but this particular type of jeer further solidified the idea that teachers’ rights are aligned with women’s rights.

“None of this othering happens without society’s consent,” he argues. “Aside from Christie’s ego, gender plays a huge role here, and if you can’t see that, then perhaps you’re part of the problem, too.”

Of course, this isn’t just about the devaluing of women in American life; it’s about the devaluing of minorities too, especially young black men. How else to explain the senseless murder this weekend of Michael Brown, a college-bound 18-year-old who was shot ten times by a local policeman – a killing that marks only the most recent example of such a tragedy, one that extends not just to Trayvon Martin, but all the way back to Emmett Till and beyond.

These cultural flash points and news reports should be electric jolts to the system, and to all of us who exist inside the bubble together, in order to underscore just how much work we have to do as a society to transcend the historical baggage we have accrued over the past two centuries.

There is a reason our society has coined the “Those that can” line about teachers, while other countries have afforded the profession their greatest levels of respect.

There is a reason the U.S. houses 25% of the world’s prisoners, despite representing just 5% of the world’s population.

There is a reason almost half of those prisoners, 150 years after the end of slavery, have black skin – and that reason is not because of an innate pathology or proclivity for violence.

And there is a reason that so many of the most celebrated new pedagogies for poor children have never been piloted in the schools of children of privilege.

Simply put, we are anchored by troublesome mindsets that are difficult to shake off: What is good for us would not work for them. What they do in the present has nothing to do with what we have done in the past. And what they do for a living proves that they are not capable of doing anything more.

These thoughts are not unrelated. They are a huge barrier to our ongoing dream of a society that can provide greater equity and social opportunity. And they are chains we will never break until we’re willing, collectively and courageously, to reckon publicly with the world that we have wrought, and the ideas about one another we continue to carry.

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  1. Posted August 11, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Great piece by you as well, Paul. James Baldwin has had as big an influence on my thinking as anyone; I used to love teaching “Sonny’s Blues” in particular. His line at the end is as apt today as it was in 1957: “And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.” And so it goes.

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