Standards Opinion

Who’s the Real Progressive?

By Education Week Staff — December 17, 2013 5 min read
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Today, Robert Pondiscio once again writes to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah,

I’m disappointed I’ve failed to persuade you that a common curriculum is a powerful lever for social justice. To me it’s clear and undeniable. There can be no dispute that language proficiency rests on a bed of common knowledge. The only counter-argument to be made is whether there is some better route to ensuring every student has enough of it to communicate on an equal footing with everyone else, other than teaching a common core of content. I believe this should be a progressive ideal.

You are concerned with top-down mandates. I’m not fond of them myself. But while you fret about imposing burdens on schools, our language will continue to do what it has done for centuries, soaking up the customs, contributions, and quirks of its diverse contributors like a sponge, and squeezing them into the American vernacular bucket. We have no power to stop this process or direct it. We can only teach it. I believe it’s self-evident that we must prepare children to thrive in the world, not the world we might wish for them.

I was surprised to see in your post last Thursday an extended reference to the Calhoun School here in New York City. By coincidence, as your piece went live, I was engaged in a contentious and unpleasant exchange on Twitter with Steve Nelson, the head of the school. A piece that he had written for the Huffington Post had caught my eye. And my ire. “Get over yourselves, fellow Americans,” he began. “We are not such good people.”

It was downhill from there. Nelson started by sniffing at the outpouring of goodwill toward “Batkid.” You might recall, Deborah, that tens of thousands of San Franciscans last month took time out from their everyday lives to make a 5-year-old cancer patient’s dream of being a superhero for a day come true. Even President Obama got involved. Heartwarming stuff, but Nelson considered it a “saccharine story” that merely creates the “illusion” of a good society. The “conspicuous glare of charity is blinding us to injustice,” Nelson thundered.

The argument is churlish. It was unkind, too, to try to score rhetorical points off of a 5-year-old cancer patient, dismiss the decency of those who were moved by his story, and those who took the time to support the child. Worst of all is the inconsistency of a $400,000-a-year private school headmaster complaining about economic injustice and ripping into “plutocrats.” Does that include parents who spend more than $40,000 a year to send their kids to Calhoun? “As we lionize the rich, little attention goes to the unjust economic policies that allowed such massive wealth accumulation by so few and the deep trenches of poverty left in the wake of their business practices,” he wrote. On Twitter, I suggested to Mr. Nelson that if he wants to see people paying attention to massive wealth accumulation, he might look in his school’s development and admissions offices.

A cheap shot, I admit it. But this is the worst kind of limousine liberalism. Nelson describes Calhoun as “among the endangered species of authentically progressive schools, swimming joyfully upstream against the toxic tide of conventional practices that plague most schools these days.” He has written pugnaciously about education reform, and in our Twitter exchange, it became clear that he perceived my school as part of that toxic tide. Democracy Prep, the network of charter schools that supports my civic education work is “not progressive,” he tweeted. This angered and upset me, but not for long.

Later that day, word of early college admission decisions started trickling in to our high school seniors and staff. Christmas had come early to Harlem. Aishatu was accepted to Brown University, Democracy Prep’s first admission to an Ivy League university.

Jade, a young lady with whom I’d been paired only the night before to mentor her senior civics project was on the way to Barnard, a few blocks and a world away. Every hour my Facebook and Twitter feed lit up with more good news: Democracy Prep students were on their way to Bryn Mawr, Howard, and other first-rate colleges.

The most gratifying news came from my friend and colleague Dan Clark, a community organizer who works with the families of our students. His son Dan Jr. had been accepted to Vanderbilt as a Posse Scholar. “My mother was a cotton picker in the South,” Dan said. “And now my son is going to go the Harvard of the South.”

Not “progressive”? Really? What does that even mean?

It has become fashionable to suggest there is a conspiracy to drive public education onto the rocks so that a small number of individuals and corporations can make a buck in the rubble. Deb, you yourself claimed that “behind much of the current ‘crisis mongering’ about public education is an effort to privatize.” This is a cynical view that I do not and cannot share. Moreover, my interest is in seeing children get a good education. By whom, under whose roof, and for whose profit will always be secondary to ensuring that education functions as an engine of upward mobility. If being progressive means concern with how children are educated, not the outcome of that education, then what does it mean to be progressive? What should it mean to people like Dan and his son? People like Aishatu and Jade?

In our Twitter exchange, I wrote to Nelson, “My schools serve progressive ends. Yours arguably cements inequity and privilege. Who’s the real progressive here, Steve?” Another cheap shot? No. I mean the question in earnest.

Care to answer it, Deb?



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.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.