Equity & Diversity Opinion

White Knights and False Villains in Education

By Deborah Meier — September 23, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Forty-five-plus years ago, when I sent my children off to our local Chicago public school and started to substitute around Chicago’s South Side schools (to earn a little money), I was amazed. The one feature that stood out was the disrespect shown toward teachers, and not surprisingly toward the children and their parents.

Like you, my interest in public education was in its capacity to nourish the health of a fuller democracy—to give all kids what I thought was being offered to the richest and most favored.

I even thought we had succeeded and that the only question was how to move from a few hundred examples to a few thousand. I never assumed our approach had to persuade everyone and welcomed other ways of answering the common question: What does a modern democracy require of all 18-year-olds to survive-plus? I assumed there was room for more than one answer.

At Central Park East, we had our movies—a few documentary films describing some of our examples—including Fred Wiseman’s three-hour opus on Central Park East Secondary School and our own homemade film on “Graduation by Portfolio,” and a small, award-winning film about a combined 2nd and 3rd grade classroom at CPE: “We Know Why We’re Here.” There was one little film about our violin program (“Small Wonders”) that even attracted some interest in Hollywood. Other schools followed suit. (Urban Academy produced dozens.)

But they hardly compared with “Waiting for Superman”!

This is hardly surprising because, in fact, when Hollywood got hold of “Small Wonders,” they turned it into something rather different: a story about bad teachers, bad unions, and heroic white saviors. They publicized it as the “true” history of the music program at Central Park East school in East Harlem. They even had shots of the exterior of the actual CPE and roughly followed the history of the violin teacher. Except ...

They made the school’s longtime, full-time music teacher—a remarkable guy named Barry Solowey—into a lazy, incompetent teacher who depended on the union to keep his job while the hero—Roberta—was threatened by a citywide lay-off. Barry had served 250 kids a year for more than a decade; Roberta served 100 eager volunteers—in three CPE-like East Harlem Schools (about 30-40 in each) for three or four years (at that time). Barry saw every class weekly, produced an annual opera and a Broadway musical, and ran three choral groups,—who also sang in Carnegie Hall— and he taught recorder to every interested child. Both teachers did superb work. But imagine our shame when we saw what Hollywood had done to the character clearly meant to describe Barry and a school called Central Park East.

They needed a “knight on a white horse” to make the story a popular hit. “Music of the Heart” (with Meryl Streep) was merely following the long-before, laid-out script about public schools and teachers and the organizations they fight to create.

There’s a long line of such films that highlight the lonely life of the great teacher. In fact, if they are indeed sometimes lonely, it’s because they are breaking the rules—not those set by the unions, but by Management. Probably we need to make a list of all the rules that are imposed against teachers, not on their behalf by their unions. If it were otherwise, how come all the states (such as Texas) that don’t allow unions even to have contracts follow so many of the same inane routines?

The same is true of many of the books, some of which become movies. Sometimes we have a strong black man, but usually it’s a highly cultured but tough white person who refuses to lower his/her expectations and never gives an inch.

We’re now entering the age when “tough love” is the plot when it comes to teachers and parents. Only it’s they who we need to be tough on. It’s all those smart young people who went into teaching in the late 1960s and ‘70s (some to avoid the draft) with their permissive spoiled-brat histories who become the villains of the new wave of school-based romances.

Neither tough-love imposed by elite Ivy League grads nor the generous-love imposed by elite draft-dodgers—forgive the unfair labels—will do. We need schools in which adults are treated like adults by those “above” them in the hierarchy—which has hardly ever been the condition of public schools, especially those serving poor communities. We need adults who demand ever more democracy in their schools, where adults join together to present their approach to being well-educated by modeling it in the presence of children. The school is where we can teach both children and adults the habits of mind on which democracy thrives. We need interesting and powerful adults who can help raise another generation—of interesting and powerful adults. We need adults who are treated with the kind of respect that suggests to the young that it’s good to grow up and join adulthood. We need schools that treat the adults at home likewise—families that need to raise their children’s aspirations even as their own have been crushed.

How those of us who have spent our lives fighting for such reforms have been cast as the “status quo” is remarkable. Those who preceded me and no longer are alive—the Lillian Webers and Ted Sizers—would be startled by the labels the new “reformers” have given them. I believe people can call themselves what they like. But I wish I had enough money and power to prevent them from successfully re-labeling others as lazy, self-interested, money-grubbing purveyors of low expectations.

It would be fun to re-read some of the old classics and watch some of those films before we allow even recent history to be rewritten and distorted to demonstrate that nobody ever had a good idea until “they” came along.

Yes, Diane, I suppose I’ll have to go see the “Superman” film someday—as I finally did make myself see “Music of the Heart.” But I also suggest folks watch a wonderful recent French movie on a similar subject, treated honestly: “The Class.”


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