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Running the Wrong Race

Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst replies to Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deborah,

It has been over a decade since I've been to Detroit.  But I travel fairly extensively in the United States, usually at ground level, so I too am well acquainted with the neglect, rot, and incipient hopelessness in once-proud American cities.  I have seen it in Buffalo and Philadelphia; Troy, New York; and Camden, New Jersey.  The poverty and dysfunction I've seen in some rural communities rival the worst those cities have to offer.

Have you been to Pittsburgh lately?  It was the Detroit of the late '70s when the steel industry that built it collapsed.  Today it's a lovely and livable city, with a diversified economy built on education, technology, and finance.  I'd live there. 

In 1977, as the Yankees played the Dodgers in the World Series, an aerial camera over Yankee Stadium famously captured a picture of a fire in an abandoned elementary school. By the time the decade was over, nearly half of the buildings were burned or abandoned and the South Bronx was synonymous with urban squalor.  There has been clear, undeniable improvement in the community's quality of life in the decades since that grim nadir 35 years ago.  It's far from perfect, but there has been progress. 

I suspect Detroit will one day be a similar success story.  Better days will come, and schools will play a role.  I have neither the insight nor hubris to suggest what that role might be.  But I could not be optimistic, Deb, if I shared the dim view of education and America you evinced in your last post.

You write that our schools are "generally a place of disrespect and failure." That "whites of European descent have disrespect for the poor and for people of darker skins embedded in our literature, culture, language, and everyday experience." Is that what happened in Detroit?  Arrogant management, shifts in the global economy, cheap foreign cars, and political corruption and heedlessness played no part?  Do the African-American educators, trade unionists, and community activists who invited you to Detroit share those views?

Or do they agree with you that "schools are one place to make the fight." I hope they also agree that grievance is a luxury they cannot afford.  What is their plan to create the schools their beleaguered city needs? 

"We are racing for the scarcer and scarcer opportunities at the top.  It's the wrong race," you write.  What gives you the confidence that we get to choose?  Isn't one lesson of Detroit its profound failure to adapt  to changes in the auto industry and the economy? Automation reduced the number of workers needed to build cars.  Globalization lowered the price and raised the quality of foreign competitors. City leaders spent money they did not have on projects they did not need long after the good times were gone. 

Were they not—the car executives, union leaders, and local politicians—all running the wrong race?  Or not running at all? 

Is there a lesson there for education, Deb?  What race should we be running? I don't care for a utilitarian, economic view of education  as a means of producing future workers. But I don't pretend for a second that I get to choose.  At least not for other people's children. 

 In your P.S. you asked, "whether there is one overriding difference that might persuade you or me to shift our view on what I call 'corporate' reform?"  Please, Deb, no more of that tendentious phrase.  There is an idea at loose in overheated corners of the edusphere, which I pray you do not share, which sees a manufactured "shock doctrine" conspiracy  to drive American education onto the rocks in order to seize control and make a buck.  It's a lovely, comforting illusion, isn't it?  We are capable, wise, and all would be well if the malefactors of great wealth were not aligned against us.  That is far easier to accept than our own shortcomings, low expectations, failed notions about schooling, and stubborn refusal to adapt.  Perhaps we were as complacent about our schools as Detroit's auto execs were about their factories. 

Can I be persuaded that test scores are "not a definitive measure of 'intellectual prowess?'" I'm already persuaded, but what of it? I resist the facile temptation to conflate testing with all that is wrong with American education. Testing did not destroy schooling. It revealed the rot and complacency within too many schools, especially those serving our poorest children, like Detroit's.

We adapt, we grow, or else we stagnate and decay. The factories that employed generations in Detroit stand empty.  One hundred years ago, they didn't stand at all. A generation hence, maybe two, something else will stand in their place.  But not if we pretend nothing's wrong, Deb.  Not if we choose not to run the race. 

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio

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