Dr. Pedro Noguera once told me “you clearly don’t know much about education.” I probably deserved it for challenging him on Twitter after he wrote a piece with Judith Browne Dianis, Esq. from the Advancement Project, and Dr. John Jackson from the Schott Foundation. They had argued in The Hill that civil rights groups were wrong during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to support annual testing of students in public schools. I thought that was a scandalous betrayal of the black community’s best interest.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tangled with people who have advanced education. These folks with acronyms before and after their names are sensitive about their scholarship and they want recognition for their expertise.

Since then I’ve met a stream of Doctors of education who see themselves as the producers of the tablets we should carry down from the mountain, into the hood. They want me to see that charters, choice, testing, and focus on teacher quality aren’t reforms aimed at improving education. Those reforms, they say, are merely vices of a malevolent upper class who design and fund neo-slavery.

Can’t I see the proposals I support are really disguised weapons against my own people?

Maybe I’m a cynical simpleton, but the most learned people are the most tiring for me. Especially those in higher education. Is there some secret room in the academy where their brains are rewired so they wander intellectually, permanently in nuance, without a return ticket to practicality?

Many of these experts seem to think if you merely put commas between “privatization,” “neoliberalism,” “market-based,” “corporate,” “billionaires,” “TFA,” “charter schools,” “whole child,” and “critical pedagogy,” the dissertation basically writes itself. Well, that and adding 108 citations of Dr. Diane Ravitch, Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, Dr. Gloria Landson Billings, and of course, Dr. Noguera.

Exchanges with Dr. Julian Vasquez Helig and Dr. Shaun Johnson come to mind.

The former writes an uncomely blog dedicated to disproving the utility of Teach For America and charter schools. He once told me Howard Fuller’s lifetime of advocacy for black educational liberation doesn’t compare to his own record of providing a streaming shit creek of peer-reviewed anti-reform “research studies.”

The latter teaches kindergarten in D.C. after writing an anti-reform blog for years. He told me being a black parent gives me no more insight into my children’s learning needs than his Ph.d. He’s white and apparently history didn’t happen.

These experts, and a nation of teachers that see them as cardinal reference points, express frustration about people like me who have lots to say about public education but have “never been in the classroom.”

I understand their frustration. Nobody likes a back seat driver or the opinionated guy who has never done anything.

Let me out myself. Though I write about education, have been on a school board, have a motley crew of kids, and struggled as a student in several kinds of schools, I am an autodidact, not an expert.

I don’t teach in a classroom, I don’t run a school, and I’ve never written a book about education. Just a civilian here.

But I have logical questions about the gulf between what black kids – including my own – are capable of achieving, and what they are currently achieving.

America has a history of enslaving, restricting, redlining, and marginalizing black people, and the major system of education has always been a part of that injustice.

My fear is that “educated” people from our own community are not using their positions to advance learning and liberation as much as they’re acting as agents of the state, attempting to keep us on an academic plantation that pays them, profits from us, and keeps us roughly in the same vulnerable state of exploitation that we have been in for years.

These public schools were never really our schools. They weren’t built for us, or by us, so why would anyone tell us our best bet is to limit our options to the faltering state-governed, district-run system?

By the time a black person reaches adulthood they have come into contact with many professionals. Black youth are an industry unto themselves, a new commodity, and everyone wants a piece of the grift. There is a national army of careerists who are paid to study us, teach us, counsel us, medicate us, control us, write about us, and become experts on what ails us.

We are a profitable burden, a vainglorious spectacle of wretched black gold for eager professionals.

But if improving our lives is the goal, tell me again, who are the experts on us?

Is it the classroom teacher? Is it the university professor who trains the teacher? Is it the author who conducts research, writes books, and travels the country consulting, advising, and speaking about education?

Given the ruinous results, and the sum total of efforts from all these educated people who dine on our tears and dance to our cries for change, we have no experts.

The proof and the pudding

There is but one question for folks in academia and their numberless network of teachers who write research studies, articles, and books that call school reform into question. Why aren’t they establishing their own schools to demonstrate all they have learned about learning.

Where is the Pedro Noguera Academy of Teaching Black Boys To Read and Write?

Where is the Julian Vasquez Helig School of Succeeding With Marginalized Children?

What about the Diane Ravitch Center for Graduating Literate and Numerate Children of Color?

Those schools don’t exist.

It is one thing to speak from a vaulted perch where you are not responsible for a single kid, and preach the paleoliberal gospel of the one-best-system; to write missives against school reform as you cash under-the-table paychecks from reform funders; to sit on panels sponsored by education labor cartels and interrogate the motives of school reformers while never interrogating the motives of labor cartels; to put your own kids in private schools and then assail school choice as a misguided gift to the ignorant poor who won’t make decisions as well as you have; and to basically fill the world with useless pablum about thinking broader, bolder, more holistically, without focusing intensely on developing, administrating, delivering, and measuring the effectiveness of instruction and learning in the most important place, the classroom.

It’s something much different to do what the leaders of new schools do, which is to design, establish, and operate schools that fight the nihilistic, racist, and classist mantra that demography affixes melanated people without money to academic failure.

Maybe there is a resignation in the expert class. Maybe there is great license when you are not accountable for producing anything other than critique. Maybe you have tried, failed, and they resigned to tearing down reform rather than proposing anything that might work.

Dr. Darling Hammond and Stanford University gave it the college try. They started a school. It was intended to showcase all of their research in an applied setting with real children. In 2005 Stanford’s dean for the School of Education, Deborah Stipek, said the university “wanted to be a partner [to the local school district] rather than just preach from the Ivy tower.”

The school did terribly.

Even with extensive resources, including $3,000 more in per student funding, and a direct connection to all of the conceivable knowledge produced by one of the world’s most renowned institutions of higher learning, the school struggled to break out of the bottom 5% of schools in the state of California.

When the school failed Diane Ravitch said, “Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school…You cannot assume that schools alone can raise achievement scores without addressing the issues of poverty, of homelessness and shattered families.”

That’s absolutely the wrong message, and the fact that so many “educated” people from our community never confront her system-preserving, elitist nonsense makes them as suspect with me as my support of reform has made me with them.

We have proof that great schools matter. Our kids can learn, even when poor. The people getting it done don’t seem to be stuck on all the wrong questions (how can we stop kids from being poor before they get to school?), and dedicated to solving the puzzle of how can we be successful with the kids we have wherever they come from?

No, I’m not an expert. I am not educated. Nogeura might be right in that I might know very little about education in comparison to him.

But, given the results of the experts in his class, I’m good.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.



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