MLK and Charter Schools
Last Friday my friend Derrell Bradford wrote about the relevance of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for education, charters and school choice. Derrell asked if today's middle class, often white, opposition to charter schools and annual testing was the same as the complaint from eight Birmingham leaders who supported King's goals but not his approach. In his famous letter King complained, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
At least with George Wallace, you knew where you stood.
King was frustrated by progressives who said, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action." King denounced their paternalistic belief that they could “set the timetable for another man's freedom…liv[ing] by a mythical concept of time ... constantly advising that [we] wait for a 'more convenient season'."
I have come to believe that the civil rights movement ...was not about whether the government would make a water fountain for me where the water was as cold and crisp and clear as the one made for a white person next to me. It was about me being able to drink at that white person’s fountain without asking. Without shame or fear or worry. Without waiting. With no more reason than to quench my own thirst. And at a time of my own choosing including right now. Education should be the same
At ICS we’ve never complained about state testing requirements. We believe that by teaching systematic phonics and enveloping the children in a rich mix of literary stories, history and science we will build background knowledge and cultural literacy that will serve our students well. Not just for tests, but for life.
We know we do not have the luxury of time. A point our parents acknowledge– grudgingly – as we stress the importance of arriving at 8:00 am every day.
As a school of choice, ICS attracts families from across Brooklyn, without regard to the price of the house they can afford. Helping, in our small way, to realize King’s dream of children growing up in a country where they are judged not by the balance of their parents’ checking account but by the content of their character.
The Importance of Teachers
One of the bigger challenges to this dream is attracting teachers who share our vision. For this reason Principal Ellen Borenstein has been quite intentional in recruiting. It is not easy.
A California teacher observed that we often see the:
American who gives lip service to good education, but balks at the real thing. This describes a lot of people in my well-to-do-blue-collar exurban district. They don’t REALLY want their local public school to become more like Andover. They want “normal” well-adjusted kids with the people skills to get good jobs. Thus the personnel hired … tend toward the affable jock rather than the intellectual.
My friend Eric Twist has written that the 'people skills to get good jobs' are inextricably linked to the kind of intellectual education we offer at ICS. This is not an 'either/or' situation.
Martin Luther King had the kind of 'people skills' that led young Americans to lay their lives on the line in Selma, Oxford and Birmingham; he was also whip smart. His writings, from his earliest days, reflected not only his family’s rich scholarly tradition but also that of the African American protestant church. To fully appreciate his many references and allusions, a reader needs background knowledge and cultural awareness.
Where does a kid pick this up? The California teacher continues:
Enter David Coleman, a real intellectual, who hopes the Common Core will make our public schools more like Andover.
Watching a video of Coleman explaining Letter from Birmingham Jail, this teacher imagined
that most of my colleagues had never seen anything like his performance: a hard-core intellectual doing a careful close reading. It’s quite conceivable to me that they never encountered a traditional English class with a brainy, erudite professor. … Maybe they sensed, as I did, that Coleman was showing us the real deal –real thinking, as opposed to the coarse, cliche-ridden pseudo-thinking that they usually encounter.
Again, I am not suggesting ICS has solved this problem. But I am proud of the intellectualism our staff brings to the task. And whether they articulate it the way I do or not, I know our parents appreciate the legacy of knowledge we are attempting to gift to their children.
So as you ponder Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, consider the importance of high standards, high expectations and accountability. I think of playwright Garson Kanin's line, I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."
And the next time you hear someone repeat a cliché about testing, or the Common Core, or charter schools, ask them to consider the morality of setting a timetable for a child’s freedom.