Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

School Renaming Shouldn’t Be an Exercise in Ideology and Ignorance

By Rick Hess — March 15, 2021 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.

Decisions regarding renamings and cancellations are typically made behind closed doors, making it hard to gauge how much deliberation goes into them (as with the recent, deservedly controversial decision to cease publishing six Dr. Seuss titles). In a bit of a twist, however, another such push has played out more publicly: the San Francisco school board’s move to strip existing names, including Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein, from 44 schools. Because that process (momentarily on hold) unfolded over Zoom, outsiders like my AEI colleague Greg Weiner were able to document the deliberations of the School Names Advisory Committee. The transparency was illuminating.

For starters, the committee’s criteria for renaming are remarkably elastic, including “anyone directly involved in the colonization of people,” individuals who “exploit workers/people,” and those “connected to human-rights or environmental abuses.” It’s hard to imagine a principled or apolitical way to decide who qualifies, even if the committee approached its work diligently. Alas, such diligence was not on display.

When the committee chair took up the Paul Revere K-8 school and asked whether Revere met the criteria for renaming, a member answered in the affirmative, declaring that Revere “stole Indigenous lands.” Weiner recounts, “The chair asks for evidence, since Revere was a silversmith best known for warning of the British invasion.” In response, the member allowed that “it’s more about the storyline” (because Revere apparently represents a narrative of American oppression).

The chair pointed out that the criteria for renaming require individual wrongdoing rather than “storylines.” In response, the member turned to the web and then enthused, “I just found something right now,” reporting having just discovered that Revere, as an artillery officer in the Penobscot Expedition, was “directly connected” to colonizing the Penobscot Nation. The member added, “I found it on history.com, which is pretty credible.” Umm. As Weiner points out, “The Penobscot Expedition was a naval armada sent by Massachusetts against the British in 1779. Fighting occurred around the Penobscot River. It had nothing to do with the Penobscot Nation. Whatever.”

This was far from the only instance of committee members permitting their enthusiasm to override attention to historical fact. When they came to Sanchez Elementary, for example, one member spoke up on why the name should be stripped: “Colonizer, California missions, blah blah blah.” The inanity would be funny under other circumstances. But as Weiner drolly notes, “They had the wrong Sanchez.”

In the case of Thomas Edison Charter Academy, it was suggested that the school met the renaming criteria because Edison supposedly “had a fondness for electrocuting animals,” including “Topsy, a well-loved circus elephant.” There was a problem in that Edison’s alleged electrocution didn’t obviously fit the criteria, although one committee member suggested that maybe Edison could be removed for “environmental abuses.” Set aside the make-it-up-as-you-go standard; Weiner observes that Edison actually had “nothing to do with Topsy’s electrocution.”

Now, I’m not reflexively opposed to renaming schools. As RJ Martin and I wrote last June, for instance, we should absolutely rename the 100-odd schools named after Confederate generals and leaders. We noted, “Not even a single child should have to attend a school named for those who took up arms against our nation in defense of slavery.” Of course, we also observed, “At the same time, assessing how and if long-gone leaders should be honored in society today requires judgment and principle. . . . But there’s a difference between making room for imperfection and going out of our way to honor those who fought against American values.”

Schools should not be renamed cavalierly, with murky criteria or fake facts. Renaming should be a deliberative process that models the kind of civic seriousness we want our students to master. When it turns into a heedless exercise in ideology and ignorance, as it has in San Francisco, we all lose.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by Learning.com

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Pandemic Recovery Will Be Complex. We’ll Need the Best School Leaders
To face the education challenges of today and tomorrow, we must invest in the principal pipeline, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Leader pointing hand forward, directing boat forward through corona virus crisis
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images
School & District Management From Our Research Center How the Pandemic Is Shaping K-12 Education (in Charts)
Surveys by the EdWeek Research Center show how schools have changed during the pandemic and what adjustments are likely to stick.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School on Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School in Rye, N.Y., last fall.
Mary Altaffer/AP
School & District Management Opinion Ed. Leaders: Discuss Race, Call Out White Supremacy
Downplaying the realities of racism leads to misunderstanding school problems and developing inadequate solutions.
John B. Diamond & Jennifer Cheatham
5 min read
Hand writing the word racism on blackboard. Stop hate. Against prejudice and violence. Lecture about discrimination in school.
Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty