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Remembering Vito Perrone

Dear Diane,

Vito Perrone (1933-2011) would disapprove of my writing just about him. At times like this he'd be reminding us to organize. And he'd remind us teachers that the kids need you so being as good a teacher as you can be is part of what it means to organize. Day in. Day out.

But it's hard not to spend "wasted" time wishing he were 100 percent with us. And wishing Diane, that you had met him. (I don't think you ever did.) I met Vito in 1973 when the North Dakota Study Group came into being to strategize about early-childhood testing. It lived on—long after Vito was incapacitated while working at Harvard. We were co-teaching a course when he was hit with a stroke. But the NDSG goes on, in a new and ever stronger form. It's living proof of how even sloppy democracy works better than "efficiency first" in the long run. For years now a motley group of people volunteer to meet to plan the next year's February gathering, with input from others, between July and February.

Still, great individuals make a difference. And Vito did. For starters, take a look at his last three books: A Letter to Teachers, Lessons for New Teachers, and Teacher With a Heart, in which Vito argues why all individuals make a difference. A parent at Mission Hill who hated everything and anything connected to Harvard had to take it back after he met Vito.

I'm one of many thousands who owe him more than we can ever properly express. I'm looking for a speech I once gave about him—in which I try to express it. More in coming weeks.

He'd have rejoiced that a few other people, besides you, have finally been publicly addressing America's astounding level of poverty and its special impact upon children and, of course people of color. In one stroke, the 2008 housing bust destroyed a large sector of the wealth of the African-American community. Many of the gains of a half-century of civil rights progress were wiped out because of the crash, fueled by plain, ordinary greed, on the part of some of the wealthiest and "best-educated" people who've ever lived on this earth. People who then turned around and used their financial and political muscle to blame ... not themselves, but ...

You Know Who. Teachers first. Greedy, lazy, selfish, and ignorant teachers, products of ordinary low-status colleges (i.e. not Ivies), and lacking the "smarts" that they (hedge-funders, bankers, et al) brought to the world of finance.

I keep trying to grasp the chutzpah—its scale and success are amazing.

We're somewhere in the middle to bottom on reading and math tests internationally. But if you remove kids living in poverty from each nation's score, guess what? Then we come in near the top! Test scores are the single best indirect measure of poverty. Period. We just happen to have far more school kids who live in poverty than the nations who score higher than us.

Is that an excuse? It appears to be an excuse only for not taking seriously the kind of reforms—even of schools—that might matter. For one thing: Schooling that doesn't devote itself to test scores! Second of all, schooling that doesn't focus simply on "harder," rather than "smarter." Schools that don't assume that the only way to motivate teachers and kids (and parents) is through rewards and punishment. A media that doesn't resort to shame and humiliation to "drive" the miscreants on.

Where are the headlines regarding our child-poverty ranking? Or services essential for childhood health? We're at the very bottom among comparable modern nations and we stand out when it comes also to social mobility, health data, percentage of employees unionized, and the gap between top and bottom (second only to Mexico). Maybe it's one of those contagious diseases that cross borders. Only Russia beats us on concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Why have teachers been the canaries in the coal mine? Why isn't there a massive civil rights and human rights movement? There are nascent signs of it, like Wisconsin where people other than teachers joined in their protest, then SOS over the summer, and the work of Van Jones et al.

We need to make it not only bigger, but broader. Amazing, isn't it, that you and I get called radical defenders of the status quo!

For me personally, and Vito, too, there's a special poignancy because not only are we in danger of losing what was a growing school reform consensus in the 1980s, but we're at risk of losing all traces of a century-old progressive tradition which pitted efficiency-mavens against democracy-mavens in school reform and all the other strands of New Deal and Fair Deal reform.

It's hard for you and me to find time to talk about what schools COULD do to make a difference in closing the gaps. Yes, there are a lot of possibilities if we stick with one great school achievement: bringing families, kids, educators, and communities together around the ideal that knowledge is power. We're returning, oddly enough, to a class and race-based "factory" model in modern dress. What's wrong is not that we don't have factories, but that it was never the right way to educate All Children in the arts and crafts of being powerful rulers of an always precarious democracy.

Here I go again! Preaching, like a teacher. I got wiser as a teacher (it helps if one starts off as a kindergarten teacher). Now we need to become wiser at building a movement that can turn the tide.

Deborah

P.S. When you read this, I'll be at a seminar sponsored by the Indiana University, the Meier Institute, and the Lilly Library on two critical subjects: "What Should a High School Diploma Signify?: So Why Is College Necessary?" and "Where and Who Should Make Which Decisions in K-12 Schooling?" I'll provide highlights (and a reading list) next week.

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