Attendees of IRA’s Chicago convention will have the opportunity of listening to one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for educational change state his case. Dr. Steve Perry, founder and principal of the highly successful Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut will be the featured speaker for the opening general session on Monday, April 30, 2012.
A self-described controversialist on education issues, Perry is a passionate about the teaching profession. He is also ferociously impatient with the governing orthodoxies that have brought down the quality of American education and failed so many young people.
In addition to his academic role, Perry is the chief CNN contributor on education topics, and can be seen regularly on Anderson Cooper 360. His best-selling book, Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve, is a blistering philippic against longstanding educational nostrums and practices that have led in all too many instances to schools, principals, teachers, parents, and students settling for less than the best.
Reading Today recently interviewed Dr. Perry to give IRA members a sense of the clarion call that will resound throughout the convention hall during his upcoming address. The discussion centered on certain passages in Push Has Come to Shove.
Reading Today: You write that “schools are failing because of the people who work in them,” and that “good teachers are born, not made.” Is this an indictment of today’s teachers and of university schools of education?
Dr. Steve Perry: No, not an indictment, but a statement concerning the art of teaching. The current process of preparing teachers happens at the public’s expense.
People with real teaching ability should be able to enter the profession at multiple points of life, not just at 19 when they’re off to college. We are limiting the teacher talent pool the way we do things now. People who have substantive knowledge and effective presentation skills that were developed in their professional careers can’t become teachers. They are taken in, if at all, at the bottom of the pay scale and make what a 21-year-old makes, despite the fact that they may be 10 years into a career and have that level of talent.
Likewise, no amount of pedagogical training will compensate for the lack of innate teaching ability. It’s like watching free throw shooters. You can tell the player with talent even before the coaching starts. True professionals are the best of the best. They are called, and they are capable. That is not what we now have in our schools.
RT: You say that “everybody knows who the good teachers are,” and that “conversely there’s no special training needed to identify a bad teacher.” If the qualities of good teachers are indeed self-evident, why don’t our schools have more of them?
SP: Because not enough of the adults who work in schools are committed to the children who attend them. Teaching is a matter of the highest public trust, but our current teacher certification process is a product that’s not worth paying for. Many teachers won’t trust the education of their own children to public schools because of the low quality of the teaching they have encountered on the job.
It is said that schools are entrusted by the public to set our future on the right path. I agree with this proposition, and I have taken a personal oath not to ever set foot in a classroom if I knew that I wasn't good enough to do the job well. The reason why our schools don’t have enough good teachers is that principals are not being held accountable for enforcing this very standard.
RT: Concerning new teachers at your school, you write that “we don’t particularly care if they’re great teachers yet, because if they work hard, we’ll support them.” What does that development consist of?
SP: Think of what you see when you witness the effort of a superior artist, musician, or athlete. In such cases, the extraordinary ability that wows you was evident when the person was six years old. The point is that talent is self-evident. So what we do is to create a system of support around the raw talent of the teachers we put on our faculty. The support experience can be quite different for each one of them. We focus on class management and lesson planning, and we are careful not to set expectations too high or too low.
In all instances, we are trying to calibrate performance up to the higher levels necessary to maximize student success. We give our teachers specific strategies, and we put them in other teachers’ classes to observe and learn, including classes taught by teachers in other schools. We do this because we don’t view our school as the be all and end all, but simply as one good school among many. What we don’t do is send our teachers to conferences where there is no takeaway.
Finally, we strongly encourage leadership among our teachers. We want all of them to be starters, not bench players. For us, rookie status doesn't count. We want our teachers to deliver important results right now.
RT: What can all of the teachers in the general session audience at IRA Chicago expect to hear from you? Will you harangue them, challenge them, inspire them—just what?
SP: I believe that every true professional wants to be challenged. Think back to when you played sports. Which coach helped you the most: the one who only told you what you did well, the one who only told you what you did wrong, or the one who told you both and set a goal for you to achieve?
I expect that teachers who have heard of me will know I’m a fire-starter. And my assumption is that the teachers who attend IRA are not there for excuses. My message is that it’s not acceptable to simply be “good enough” in your role. If that’s what you settle for, there’s nothing I can do for you.
You see, I am so pro-teacher, I see it as just about the highest calling, and for that reason I’d like to rid our ranks of all the bums who can’t teach.
RT: You write that the leaders of teachers’ unions “have ruined public schools,” and that no other group of workers or professionals “stays employed with failure rates as high as America’s educators.” What has the unions’ response to your book been?
I recently met Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT, in a green room at CNN as part of a broadcast on education topics. She told me that she thought we could really work together. I had to tell her that I disagreed. We’re actually on opposite sides. I’m pro-child and she’s pro-adult.
The unions defend the lowest performing faculty members in our schools. By definition, they do whatever they can to support failures. They extend the process for terminating poor teachers beyond reason, making principals cross all the “T’s” and dot all the “I’s.” All this does is to enhance exponentially the dismal fallout that one human being can cause in the lives of hundreds of students.
I call the unions’ bluff at every opportunity. I say let’s split every school district into two parts, union and nonunion. You pick the students and I’ll pick the teachers. We’ll see who delivers the better result.
RT: You state quite emphatically that “schools are not failing because of parents,” a point on which some teachers will be apt to disagree. Don’t all parents have serious responsibilities concerning the education of their children?
SP: We are professional educators, yet even we are limited in specifi c content knowledge. This is why I just think it’s too easy to malign parents for their children’s low performance in school. I can’t teach my own kids calculus. Neither can most parents. They would say to the teachers “that’s what we’re paying you for.”
In the end, whatever the home situation is with the parents, it just doesn't matter. I still get the kids in class. They come as they are, and my focus has to be not on how they got here, but on what I have to do to get them where they need to go. If we cannot provide access to quality education in this specific context, then we are failing one of the critical commitments of the American system.
Think of the lucky kids with the hard working South Korean immigrant parents. Who couldn't work with them to enhance student interest and performance? But do you know what? In the magnet school where I am principal, those are not the top kids! Many students with highly educated parents are outperformed by kids we’ve even had to buy clothes for.
Our teachers take on and succeed at the challenge of educating the students who come to their classes, many of whom lack similar home advantages. This is why we have many affluent people sending their kids to our magnet school. They get in through the lottery system.
RT: You encourage suits by parents against school districts and you advocate for vouchers, letting the money follow the student to the best school, including private schools. Are you seeing either approach getting any real traction?
SP: Well, I’m not sure that law suits are always necessary. My point is that the government doesn’t respond to polite conversation. Often you have to bring the government to its knees to get results.
As for vouchers, most people just don’t understand them. Many people think that shutting down failing schools hurts children. But that’s a ridiculous idea. It no more hurts a child to be removed from a failing school than from an abusive home.
Some public school advocates are too caught up in tradition. They can’t see vouchers as anything other than support for religion. And they are stuck on the false proposition that with respect to schools “for profit” means “for bad education.” We need to inject more sophistication into the ongoing conversation about funding education.
RT: You say about your students that “we want them to know that each new day has presented them with the opportunity to work their asses off.” In your view, what is the responsibility of students for the progress and results of their individual education?
SP: Simple: I want them to know that it’s all on them. That’s my basic message to every stakeholder group in the education community, and students are not excepted. Students need to take the most they can out of that which they are given in school. For example, we once had a student who was so good at football, he was a definite college scholarship candidate. Given the economic circumstances of his family, his mother really needed him to keep his grades up, as the scholarship was his only viable path to college. But his math grades began to plummet.
Now my position was that this wasn’t the teacher’s fault, or the parent’s, or the system’s. This young man needed to get off his lazy ass, study more, seek assistance if he needed it, and make the grade. So I yelled at him first, making sure that he understood what was expected of him. I also pushed the math teacher to intervene, to say to this student “It seems to me that you are falling down here.”
RT: Your book is silent on the matter of curriculum. This is surprising, given the current emphasis on the Common Core State Standards. What are your thoughts on the role curriculum plays in improving America’s schools?
SP: There’s nothing impressive or deep about the Common Core State Standards. Curriculum at its best will not only align with, but should exceed the state-mandated syllabus. I really don’t think that curriculum has been the problem, rather it’s been our failure to align curriculum to high expectations for student achievement. As I say in the book, “to be categorized as proficient is to be performing below grade level.”
RT: You are very proud of the results achieved to date at Capital Prep. What is it that makes the school such an exciting place to be?
SP: We are a family, and we love our kids consistently. This means that we want them to know right from wrong and that we treat them fairly. Our kids know that our teachers go to bat for them every day, even when it seems like they’re working against them. Sometimes embarrassing a student or arguing with a student is simply necessary, and we don’t sugar coat it. Moreover, our school is very traditional. The lines are very clear here. We do not use first names in class. We are the kids’ teachers, not their friends. Maintaining that distinction is very important.
This article is reprinted from the April/May 2012 issue of Reading Today, the International Reading Association's bimonthly member magazine. Members: click here to read the issue. Nonmembers: join now!