During a 2001 press conference Allen Iverson lost it. The NBA All-Star was exasperated by reporters questioning his work ethic amid charges that he was missing in action for team practices, so he snapped saying “We’re talking about practice. We ain’t talking about the game. We’re talking about practice, man. When you come to the arena, and you see me play, you see me play don’t you? You’ve seen me give everything I’ve got, right? But we’re talking about practice right now.

It was a poignant moment for a star player to focus our attention back on what matters – the game.

I remembered Iverson last week when I saw the major league dragging Dr. Steve Perry got after suggesting in Tweets that a group of young black men had been made job-ready by scalping themselves and getting tight fade lines.

Charges of respectability politics ricocheted and Perry stood thigh high in Twittershit.

Race hashtagger Jose Vilson took it home in a post on Medium. He accused Perry of being an anti-black charlatan. The piece was called “How Dr. Steve Perry Sells Black Kids To The Highest Bidder.” Vilson isn’t clear on who Perry is selling black kids to, or who is bidding on them, but his argument boils down to this: Perry brags too much about his supposed success, and celebrities with no classroom experience eat far too much of it.

A second Vilson post finds him taking a victory lap tap dancing on Perry’s reputation, and humble bragging about how many people read his Medium piece (look, I got 20,000 people to read my post y’all).

He isn’t alone. Dr. Andre Perry (not related to Steve) also wrote a piece about Coiffeurgate. In it he challenges the “pull-up-your-pants” respectability politics that he sees inherent in Steve Perry’s speeches, books, and television appearances. In total the latter Perry’s work as a celebrated magnet school principal and school reform evangelist amounts to a focus on “fixing” black students while ignoring the racism that limits their dreams, the former Perry says.

This type of criticism of Steve Perry is constant. In a previous dust up Dr. Christopher Emdin launched a blow to Perry’s credibility on Roland Martin’s NewsOne program after it was announced Sean “Puffy” Combs was backing Perry to open a charter school in Harlem. Dr. Emdin called Dr. Perry a “sucker,” and said “You’re not going to make money off of young people on my watch and I’m watching every single step, I will critique every single step.” 

All of the attacks have a desperate “why is this negro famous?”subtext to them. Ironically, some players in the education game see Perry the way NBA leaders saw Iverson, as bringing a low-rent element to the court and lowering the prestige of the profession. If they were honest they would just admit they don’t like his educational results or his open throated support of non-unionized independent public schools.

I can’t defend Steve Perry and I don’t care to try. I do care about the debate among our educated class of black thinkers and actors, especially when it concerns the development of black children. I’m stubbornly attached to keeping the main thing, the main thing. That’s student achievement. Results. Getting kids across the finish line and into the American mainstream. Debates like these sway out of lane and waste the brain power of our talented 10th, to the point that it looks luxurious on their part.

More than anything else, Steve Perry has amassed a following with the idea that black educational success is possible and we don’t have to wait for some unforeseen event (like an unlikely change to the American economy) to realize it. His detractors offer a stale response full of excuses when their traditional public schools fall short. A better response would be to succeed in educating black children and letting the results speak for themselves.

The bottom line for me is year after year the National Assessment of Educational Progress tells us black children are not reading well enough.

But the obsession of too many black self-celebrating educators who want to waste all of their black letters on clever click-bait titles to articles that defend the very system miseducating black youth is wasteful of their energy.

150 years after formerly enslaved people set out on a mission to raise the roof on black literacy, public schools – including the one where Vilson works, the ones Andre Perry ran, and the ones Emdin partners with – fail to get our students reading.

But we’re talking about haircuts.

The College Board tells us our students aren’t graduating high school ready for college. Just 16% of black students met college-ready benchmarks in 2015.

But we’re talking about haircuts.

Republicans and teachers’ unions rewrote No Child Left Behind this year in a way that will make it harder for black communities to monitor schools for progress, and less likely that districts will intervene when schools fail us.

But we’re talking about haircuts.

While Steve Perry magnetizes disapproval and jealousy, perhaps for publicly loving himself a little too much, a disgruntled group of education speakers on the union side travel the conference circuit, including Jamal Bowman in New York, Troy LaRaviere in Chicago, Julian Vasquez, Jesse Haggopian, Emdin, Perry, and Vilson. They criticize attempts to make schools systems more accountable and better performing as an “attack” by people motivated by money.

But, with so much to say it begs questions about their results? I’ll let you research that for yourself.

Spoiler alert: it aint pretty.

That’s not to say they don’t provide a service. All of them produce think pieces that affirm educators. They write thoughtfully about race, labor, and equity, and they present an ideological view worth considering.

I applaud them for that, but shouldn’t the goal be better educated kids?

I don’t buy the idea that Steve Perry’s flashy persona is the biggest threat to educating black students. That’s a distraction and only unfocused educators will take their eyes off the prize to go there.

No, I’m not an educator. I’m an end user of educators. They are essential agents in my job as a parent to raise educated kids. I partner with them at the school level, and consume their thought product during off hours, looking for the wisdom their credentials and experience are supposed to confer upon them.

Sometimes I find solutions in their words, other times I find narcissism. And, at times, it seems those with the worst results have the most to say.

Our kids are suffering from compulsory attendance in schools saturated in low expectations, incoherent educational philosophies, incapable staff, incompetent leadership, inequitable funding, and unaccountable governance.

The results of that disables our youth, their families, and their communities. It contributes to our oppression in untenable ways.

But, by all means, keep talking about how famous Steve Perry is.

And about haircuts.

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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