An event aimed at examining ways to get rid of achievement gaps and create winning schools and students took place Dec. 7 in Madison. The 2012 Educate to Elevate Education Innovation Summit was hosted by the Urban League of Greater Madison (ULGM) and held at the Monona Terrace. The Summit featured local as well as national leaders addressing current research, best practices, and new approaches in education.
Howard Fuller, Ph.D., the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL), Marquette University in Milwaukee, was the opening keynote speaker. Dr. Fuller is no stranger to education and education reform, Steve Goldberg with CUNA Mutual explained as he introduced him to attendees.
Fuller, superintendent of public schools in Milwaukee from 1991 through 1995, is the founder and director of the ITL in Milwaukee and also currently chairs the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Board of the Wisconsin Municipalities Private School Finance Commission.
Professor Fuller’s opening remarks included praise for ULGM President Kaleen Caire. “I’m really proud of Kaleem, and the work that he’s doing and what he’s trying to accomplish,” he said.
Fuller began by reading part of Frederick Douglass’ famous speech in Manassas, Virginia from back in 1894. Paraphrasing, he said, “‘Education means emancipation … it means light and liberty. It is the light by which men can be free. It is the means of freedom and the artful pursuit of happiness, and to deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature … to defeat the very end of their being.’”
“Tragically,” Fuller said, “his words define the situation for poor black and brown children in this country…” He went on to say, “To me, education is the one great possibility still in this country to change the trajectory.”
He agrees with the school of thought that the purpose of education is to provide people with the skills they need “so they can engage in the practice of freedom.”
Fuller stated what he tells kids is, ‘“Education in America guarantees you nothing! But I guarantee you, you will have nothing without an education!
“Our children are our most precious gift from God,” he continued. “And it’s our job to love them, nurture them, care for them, and to make sure every one of them is educated.
“All of us have different historical experiences,” Fuller told attendees, “and I’m speaking out of mine.”
As a black person when talking about our kids, he says, an image comes to mind of an incident on February 1, 1960 when four black kids sat down at a lunch counter and weren’t welcome. Fast forward to today, where what comes to his mind is a picture of four students sitting at a lunch counter where they’re welcome — and they can’t read the menu.
Pointing out that he’s speaking “especially to black people,” Fuller says this is happening “because we’ve allowed this to happen to our children.”
He is adamant that we need to make radical changes in our governance and in our school systems.
“Most people in America want change, as long as nothing changes,” Fuller laments. Poor children, particularly children of color, he says, are caught up in the talk-but-no-action cycle.
The conversation is not the change.
“Some people think the change is the conversation that takes place.” The problem, he contends, after leaving conferences like these is “we leave and nothing happens.”
The critical question, he says, is, “What do we do about what we say that needs to be changed?”
Fuller says some people purport to desire change, but “in the next breath, they all want the protectors of the status quo to stay in power.”
The reality is that if there’s going to be educational excellence, and if our children are going to be educated to elevate, he says, we need leaders who are not timid, who are not risk-adverse, and who are not bought off. “We need the type of leadership they talked about in the book ‘Good to Great,’” he implored.
Fuller talked about what he calls “the big lie in this country that we care about our children, because if we cared about our children, they wouldn’t be in the condition they are in.”
A look at disturbing statistics
Next, he cited recent statistics on nationwide student performance, looking at reading skills in 4th grade. In 2011, 51% of black kids in America were below basic skills, 49% were at or above basic skills, and only 16% at or above proficiency and only 2% had advanced skills. He pointed out that “basic means basic.”
In Wisconsin, reading skills were worse than the national averages. In 2009, 61% of black students had skills below basic in reading and 39% were at or above basic.
“Fourth grade black students in Wisconsin had the lowest reading scores in the United States of America!” Fuller declared. If you are unable to read well by the 4th grade, and some educators say by 2nd or 3rd grade, he says, your chances of completing high school considerably decrease.
“Back in the day, I read a book about black rage…I’m in a constant stage of rage,” Fuller told those at the summit. “My rage isn’t just this data. My rage is that we’re not enraged!”
What we’ve got is kids that can’t adequate read, can’t write, can’t think, can’t compute, can’t analyze, and can’t compete, Fuller says. Furthermore, “the existing system is not set up to be successful.”
We need something more radical, he says, than what he refers to as “tinkering around the edges.” After acknowledging there are some excellent educators that are doing heroic work, he said, “We have good people (that are) working in a system of dysfunction.”
In fact, he says, “great teachers are becoming frustrated because we’ve put them in constraints that don’t allow them to do what it takes” to truly help kids succeed.
Holding adults accountable
Fuller believes that we need to hold adults accountable for student achievement.
As a superintendent in Milwaukee, he said he witnessed adult interests taking priority over students’ interests. People were not too happy with him when he started essentially telling them, “‘I did not take this job to create an employment agency for adults. I took this job to educate kids.’ I understand a lot about educational systems, but I thought that the primary reason for their existence was to educate kids.”
Fuller proceeded to identify two elephants sitting in the room when it comes to education — race and class. If you’re going to have a serious conversation about education and achievement, he attests, you have to address both.
“There are segments of the black population that view educational reforms through the prism of race and class,” Fuller says. They oppose these reforms and use race as a cover, for the fact that they’re protecting their own interests.
“I’m in the generation that actually sat in the back of the bus… that actually drank out of the ‘colored’ water fountains. I witnessed my mother kicked in the side by a white cop because she did not give him the answers he wanted.”
According to Fuller, once we’ve moved past the issue of racism, black people are no more homogenous (a group) than white people.
Sometimes efforts to change can be seen as an effort to destroy the financial security of many black people whose economic security is tied into the school system.
“Sometimes attempts, efforts to change are racist, and sometimes they’re not. That’s one of the problems in America — when is it and when it ain’t…”
Allies, interests, and clarity
He indicated that as a black person, there are people that will tell you you’ve been duped by buying into a liberal view.
“I’m for whatever works for my people,” Fuller says. “I understand that in politics, there are no permanent allies.” What exists instead, he says, are permanent interests.
He mentioned that one of the things he learned from Constitutional attorney Derrick Bell is the interest convergence theory. The jist of the theory is that at different points in time, different people’s interests converge, but you have to be clear about what the convergence is.
Interests will converge, he explains, but you have to understand that you don’t necessarily have the same basic reason for being at that point.
“So as a black person, I have to have my own clear understanding of why I support what I support,” Fuller said, adding “and be willing to take flak for it.”
He discusses the impact poverty on a child’s ability to learn: “Children that are hungry cannot learn. Kids that are being abused and neglected cannot learn.”
Pointing out that he does not want to bash teachers, he also recognizes that teachers cannot conclude based on what they see (for example, low hanging pants) that a child is not capable of learning “because you know nothing about them.”
“Of course, poverty matters. The issue is, what are we going to do in spite of its existence?”
“I assume that you all came here because you believe we can educate to elevate. I leave you with two quotes.
From Ron Edmonds: “‘We can whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach….We already know more than we need to accomplish this task…’ ”
William Daggert: “‘We must love our children’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations more than we love the institutional heritage of the school system.’”
Sacrifices so kids can succeed
After Fuller’s presentation and some additional remarks by Goldberg, Caire spoke. He shared how he came to know Fuller, and then talked about fighting the fight.
“I live my life on the edge, but I’ve always lived that way. I was born this way,” Caire said.
His mother, who they think might have had bipolar disease, was homeless and living on the streets, and his father had been in and out of prison eight times.
Caire’s Aunt Gretchen, who was 23 years old at the time, raised him. “My aunt and my extended family hadn’t made that critical decision to step in and save me …so I need you guys to step in and save some of these kids.”
The time is not to do the Madison thing, he says, and make everybody happy. “So what sacrifices are we willing to make in this room so kids can succeed?”
Caire asserted, “From this [summit], you all, change will occur in Madison.”
At the conclusion of the summit, Caire once again addressed attendees, this time focusing on next steps. Stressing that “it’s not about the dialogue, it’s what we do after the dialogue,” he encouraged people to call their school board members and colleagues and ask them to embrace change. Tell them why we need it.
In January, they’re launching the Urban League Scholars Academy, an after-school program designed to prepare middle school kids for a rigorous college preparatory program when they enter high school. He asks for financial, vocal, and other forms of support for this program, and other programs the Urban League will be doing to help prepare students for occupations in industry and the trades.