Education 2011: Take this book and shove it
Illustration by JP Thimot
Celebrity educator Dr. Steve Perry is a self-deluded, egotistical iconoclast. As luck would have it, these are the very qualities that make him ideally suited to be a media darling of the education reform movement. The founder and principal of Capitol Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut, Perry was featured on CNN’s Black in America 2 due to the extraordinary success of his inner city students. Brashly opinionated, he has since emerged as a regular contributor to CNN and Essence magazine. He has appeared on numerous TV shows and is in demand as a lecturer—all of which has led him to the mistaken belief that he actually has something to say. His second book, Push Has Come to Shove, is loaded with the sort of quotably simplistic poppycock that resonates with many reformers. Unfortunately, readers may not realize that Perry’s acclaim is built on a house of cards. (More on that later.) First, the book:
“Sue ’Em” is the title of an early chapter in which Perry urges parents to hire lawyers and file breach of contract lawsuits when their kids fail to learn. Yup, even in suburban districts like Williamsville and Orchard Park that Business First says are doing so well. According to Perry they’re not. He supports his call to action with numerous false analogies. “Nobody blames patients for botched surgery,” he declares, “Nobody blames defendants burdened with an inept attorney. Yet the current rationale in public education is that it is a fourth-grader’s fault for reading below level.” Stop on the way to the hospital for an Egg McMuffin and Pepsi before your appendectomy and see who’s blamed. Or lie to your lawyer. Why shouldn’t kids who, for instance, fail to attend school be blamed? Or their parents? And why wait until fourth grade? Buffalo felt compelled to call homes this past August to encourage parents to get their kids to kindergarten! But Perry says parents are not responsible for their children’s truancy. According to him, when schools offer an “intellectually rich, socially safe environment” students will want to attend. Apparently someone forgot to tell Buffalo’s kindergartners.
Perry’s other parental engagement strategy is to bombard schools with e-mails to “get what you want.” “Confront the teachers’, custodians’, secretaries’, and administrators’ unions and associations,” Perry says, apparently assuming that the e-terrorists he’s training will be on the side of righteousness in any dispute with “lazy-ass” teachers or “ineffectual” administrators.
Throughout, Perry spews unsubstantiated pearls of wisdom that he appears to pull straight out of his asterisk. That is if there were asterisks; the book is largely devoid of footnotes or citations. This is the world according to Perry, where coaches and attractive people make the best teachers. It’s also a world of mangled metaphors: “Urban schools are America’s canary. The shafts are dangerous. Traveling them will cost more than money.” Perry cultivates a maverick image, peppering his speech with colloquialisms like “piss-off,” “hell yes” and “hell no,” “silly-ass,” “raggedy ass,” “sorry-ass,” “dumb ass,” and several other variations on the ass theme. He may be keepin’ it real for the ’hood, or just swapping brazen rhetoric for substance. It’s hard to say.
Perry does have his moments of clarity. The chapter titled “Audit Your Home” wisely prompts parents to place household emphasis on education. His take on successful immigrant children and their non-pampering parents also hits home. It’s hard to say who Perry’s intended audience is, though. Sometimes he speaks to parents, sometimes educators, and in one short chapter he directly addresses teenagers, though it’s hard to imagine them taking his chatty frankness seriously.
Teacher unions are a favorite target. “They are the ones who created the school calendar, which is too short,” says Perry in one of several fallacies he relates. Historical researcher Kenneth M. Gold has documented that long summer vacations resulted from urban dwellers literally heading for the hills in the years before air conditioning, but facts are not what motivate Perry. He laments about unionized teachers’ short work days, disregarding outside time spent on preparation, grading, and other responsibilities. By all accounts, Perry is a workaholic, and he expects all educators to be the same. He argues that teacher unions prevent extending the school year, yet his unionized school runs year-round. He ends his book with the American Federation of Teachers’ “Connecticut Agenda,” which he says he does to “illustrate” that it has no mention of “students or learning.” This is akin to complaining that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t fight for tasty restaurant meals. That’s not their job. The FDA protects food safety; unions protect their members.
Perry takes us through most of the hot-button topics in education today: failing schools, teacher pay, school vouchers, parenting, teacher accountability, No Child Left Behind, tenure, and so on. What he serves up in response is a warmed-over casserole of premasticated ideas: authentic assessments, learning styles, the importance of safe and happy environments, relevant lesson planning, and so on. He expounds at length on “good” and “bad” teachers, then—as if to nullify his own views—he boasts that his staff was drawn entirely from failed schools. “But when they were put in a better system, better things happened.” I couldn’t have said it better.
But things are not as they seem at Capitol Prep. Perry hints at this periodically: “I’ve seen the right students and the wrong studenwts come to Capitol Prep.” Elsewhere he says it’s “excruciating” when a student is in “the wrong school.” So what happens to these “wrong students?” Capitol Prep is without doubt an excellent magnet school. But parents elect to send their children there. Perry defensively responds to those who presume that he must “cream” the best students from the system, declaring “untrue!” Consider this, though: it’s a college preparatory school. “If you don’t want to go to college,” says Perry, “go somewhere else.” Capitol Prep is a year-round school where uniforms are required and discipline is stressed, attracting parents who demand more of their children. Students for whom the school is not a “good fit,”—i.e., they are not doing well—are “counseled” out. In one recent year forty-three percent of the enrolled students left before graduation. This is not just cream, it’s extra heavy whipping cream. Of the fifty-seven percent of students remaining, all go on to four-year colleges, Perry’s claim to fame.
Regular public schools must accept the “wrong students,” along with many other kids for which Capitol Prep would not be the “right school.” Principal Perry must know he has a good deal going. In any other situation he would likely be just another anonymous struggling educator.
Artist, educator, and writer Bruce Adams is Spree’s art critic. He taught in a public high school for thirty years.