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Dr. Howard Fuller – “The Case For Radical Reform”

The following remarks were made by Dr. Howard Fuller, founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, during the opening session of the Center for Education Reform’s Fifth Anniversary Celebration — American Education: The Next 15 Years on October 28, 1998 in Washington, D.C.

…I want to make eight points for our discussion this morning.

The first one is that our struggle has to always be about children; that in fact we do have to put children first. And I’m here because I believe in all of my heart and soul that all of our children, all of our children, could achieve at the highest levels.
And I believe that the current system works well for many kids in that regard, but I also believe that the current system does not work well for a significant number of kids, and many of these kids are poor and they are kids of color. And for these kids and their families, despite all of the rhetoric about how good things are and despite all of the apologists for the existing system, there is a crisis, and we have to have a sense of urgency about doing something about this crisis.

I was talking to a young man on my porch Sunday. I was trying to get my son to help me paint the railing– what was a failure in itself. In any event, we were talking and, you know, he said, “Dr. Fuller,” he said, “I work out at”–this is a home for, quote, ‘juvenile delinquents.’ And I said, “How many kids do you have now?”

“Twenty-four.” And he said, “…there’s two things that are happening. One is that they’re getting younger, you know, in terms of the kids that we’re dealing with, and,” he says, “the kinds of crimes that they’re being charged with, you wouldn’t believe what they are, and more of them are sexual assault,” and he went on and on.

He said, “But the interesting thing about it is, out of all of these kids that I have, of the 24 kids, I can tell you that half of them cannot read.” …that just kept telling me that how we are–no matter what these people say, no matter how good the economy is or was –and you know there are people making this argument: “What’s the problem? We’ve got the strongest economy in the world. How can there be a problem?”
Well, up underneath all of this rhetoric, there are a lot of people who are not participating in this economy, who are not doing well, who cannot read, and we cannot in my opinion rest until we save every single one of those kids. We cannot lose a single child. And as long as there’s a child out there– and there are many more than we want to imagine– who cannot read, who cannot write, who cannot compute, who cannot think, who cannot analyze,

we have to do this work.

Second point. In order to help the kids who need help the most, we need a radical departure from our current system of education. And those of you who have heard me talk before know that I believe that we have to create a system of learning opportunities, that the old “one best” system that Tyak wrote about is not acceptable, and we have to create an entirely different system. And while I believe that the most powerful innovations in education must occur in the classroom between teachers and children, it is clear to me that to create the conditions to foster these innovations, we need to replace our current school system and we need to develop a totally different governance and financial structure.

…if you leave this system intact, while there will be heroes and heroines out there every day, why should they have to struggle against the tide to educate children?                                       …When I became the superintendent, one of the things people did was warn me about certain principals, you know, “You got to look out for them,” not knowing that those were the ones that I would gravitate towards, because those were the ones who were breaking all of the rules, because you have to break the rules in order to educate kids.

So, the question we have to ask is, why should we leave a system intact where in order to help kids you’ve got to break all the rules of the system? …yes, there are examples of how people are doing this within the existing system, but every one of us in this room knows that for every one of those examples, there are thousands of others where people are being beaten down every day just for trying to do something different. It isn’t that we don’t want the existing system to work, because I do want the existing system to work. The question is, will it ever work without the pressure that we have to put on it every day from the outside?

Number three, there are a myriad of strategies out there that ostensibly can make a difference for our children, but no matter which ones we pursue, their potential impact will be diminished if we do not find ways to empower poor parents to be able to exercise influence on the nature and direction of their children’s education. For me, the height of hypocrisy in America is to hear people whose children are taken care of, to oppose choices for poor parents. …I hear Clinton and Gore and all these people get up, talking about why we got to protect the existing system. Where do they send their kids? –how can a teacher tell a poor parent that “I would never put my child in this school that your child is in, but you ought to keep your child here.” If it’s not good enough for their children, how in the world is it good enough for anybody’s children?

And you hear this argument that, “Oh, yes, but to let these people go means that you would destroy the system.” The question is, is this about the system or is it about our children? And what’s clear to me is, it has to be about our children first.
And yes, you know, in Milwaukee right now we’ve got a big thing going on. I don’t know how they voted last night. Because people have woke up and said, “Oh, my God, choice is here. The system is losing money. This is terrible.” And then some of our choice supporters are running around trying to tell people, “No, no, you’re not really losing money. There’s the, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
My point is, hell, you’re supposed to lose money. If you don’t have the kids, why should you get paid? And choice does not force a single parent to leave. If kids are leaving, instead of whining, you ought to be trying to figure out how to keep them.
And we have to be clear on this. You can’t apologize for having something work. And so we have to understand what this choice thing is about, because I want to stress it again. Choice is not the issue in America. The issue is who has choice.
Because every one of us in this room and any other room that I’ve been in who have money, we’re going to make the decisions that we know need to be made for our children. It don’t matter what any person says, you’re going to do what’s best for your child. And if you got money in America, you have a much better chance of doing that than if you don’t.
And so what this is about for me is empowering poor parents to be able to have the same options for their children as those of us who have money have for our children.
Number four. The corollary to that point is that we must be totally committed to empowering people who now lack power. …We’ve got to change the complexion of this room. I’ll be clear about this: This revolution is not going to be won with a room full of white people, and I don’t mean no disrespect, but I’ve just got to talk about it the way it is. I’m sorry, that’s just the way I am. Next time, don’t invite me.
I mean, I want everybody to understand what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that five years from now when the 10th anniversary comes, the complexion of this room has to be different, and if it isn’t different, we will have lost, because we have to bring into the room the people whose children are directly affected every day.
And we have to understand that when you have a strategy of empowerment, it means that you truly do hear the voices of the disenfranchised, and that you don’t develop a strategy that further disenfranchises those people. And we have to be willing to hear stuff even when we don’t want to hear it, and that’s–and I could talk about further what I mean by that, but that’s the point I want to make.
Number five. We must work as hard on ensuring that we have excellent options as we do to make sure that the options are available. …I’ve been going all around this country with the charter school movement, and there’s a lot of things I worry about, about the charter school movement, but one of them is, I’m beginning to hear discussions about “these children.” I’m beginning to hear discussions about, “Well, you know, we didn’t do as much as we should or could have,” or “We didn’t get the level of academic achievement that we need, but you’ve got to remember who the kids are that we’re working with.”
Excuse me, but that sounds a whole lot like the existing system. And if we’re going to start making excuses, then why are we out here? My view is that we have to be absolutely clear and firm that this movement is about improving student achievement, and it is not about making excuses. And if you don’t know how to do it, then ask somebody. And if you ask somebody who don’t know any more than you know, then find somebody else to ask.

There’s three things that you have, you must have, to have a system that is accountable. Number one, you have to have standards, and it actually is possible to write them in a language that people can actually understand. It shouldn’t be too difficult to say that when a child leaves the first grade, this is what the child ought to know, not–I mean, we’ve all heard gobbledygook, and we’ve got some of our own.
And so what we have to do is to cut through all of this and be able to tell a person, “Look, you know, when your child leaves the fourth grade, they ought to be able to do this, this, this, this and this.” If they can’t do that, they’re in trouble. We shouldn’t like close it in jargon that nobody can understand.
So we have to have very clear standards, very high standards. I mean, I’m always amazed. I mean, we went through a battle on algebra, because you know all of the educators today know enough to bow at the altar of “all our children can learn.” I mean, if you ask them, most of them, except the ones who are way out there, will at least mumble, “Yes, yes, we believe that.”
But then ask them “Can all children take algebra?” Then you get the hemming and the hawing, and they say, “Well, well, well.” You know, I mean, I used to go–I visited all 156 schools in Milwaukee. Took me four years to get to every school. I went to every school. And you go into these classrooms where you’ve got kids taking “Math for Life,” math for how to count at the supermarket, math for how to get on the bus, “Living Skills” is what they’re called. I call them death skills, because if that’s all those kids have, they’re going to be in for death when they get out of here, living death.
And then when you ask teachers, “Do you have your children in `Math for Life’?” “No, I got my kids in algebra, because I understand algebra is a gatekeeping course in America.” If you don’t take algebra, you don’t go to college in America. It’s not even about the math, it’s about the problem solving.
And so what I’m saying is, yes, we have to have high standards, high standards. You cannot point to the stars and ask kids to look to the ground.
Number two, we have to have a way to assess whether or not the standards are being met, and I think they have to be a mixture of “standardized” tests, authentic assessments, call it whatever you want. They have to tell us what is it that the kids actually know, so that we’ll know what we need to work on. And we need to get the information to people in a timely enough manner so that they can do something about it.
The third thing that you have to have on this three-legged stool of accountability is consequences. You don’t have a system of accountability if the only people who are held accountable for bad teaching are the children. At some point in time, something got to happen to the adults.
If you have a system where everybody knows, “No matter what occurs, not only am I going to get paid but I am going to get paid the same amount as a teacher who is killing herself down the hall,” I mean, this is–this is the most–it’s incomprehensible. I mean, I go to a school and you go into a classroom. In fact, I was just in a school last week, a huge high school.
And you go into a school and you walk into a room, and you can just feel learning taking place. I mean, you can just–you can see it. You can almost reach out and touch it. And then you walk right next door to death, all in the same building, and everybody in the building knows where the dying is going on.
But what is happening is, it has become like the police, the long blue line. You know, nobody tells, and everybody starts pointing fingers. The teachers say, “Oh, you know, if we just had a better principal.” Principals say, “Oh, if we had better teachers,” or, you know, “It ain’t my fault, it’s the school board’s.” School board points back. Everybody’s pointing fingers.
And then some teachers will come up to you and say, “Well, Howard, you know, I could–you know, I could just do a much better job if I had better kids.” You know, it’s like the parents send us like the worst kids that they have, and they’re holding their good kids at home, waiting to see how well we do with their bad kids.
And if we do okay with them, then they’re going to send us the other crop that they got at home.
I mean, the fact of the matter is that these are the only kids the parents have. And we got teachers who are teaching kids they wish were there, kids that used to be there, not the kids who are actually there. And so there has to be consequences for adults when kids do not learn.

Number six. This is going to be a long struggle, and the protectors of the status quo are not going to go quietly into the night. I mean, let’s be clear about this. For them, this is about a fight, it’s about power and it’s about control, and in some ways the viciousness of the response is a result of the progress that we have made.
But those of us who are celebrating, I’m telling you, don’t be high-fiving too early, because the people that we are fighting are focused, relentless, well-financed and vicious, and they’re going to come at us. And so if you are faint at heart or you are not totally committed, this is the wrong fight for you to be in.
And I want to be very clear that you’ve got to be in this for the right reasons and be prepared for the long haul. And we’re going to win some battles and we’re going to lose some battles, and there are going to be some good days and some bad days. But we need people who are committed for the long haul, because this is what it’s going to take.

Number seven. We must understand the impact of things that are happening to our poorest children outside of the schools. In other words, while you cannot use poverty as an excuse not to educate our children, you also can’t be Pollyanna-ish about the impact of being not white and poor in America. It does have an impact on your life chances.

It does make a difference if a child is coming to school hungry. It does make a difference if a child has to come through a war zone to get to a school. It does make a difference if a child has never had an examination by a doctor. These are real things that affect our poorest children, and those of us who are out here for them have got to fight to deal with those conditions as hard as we fight to deal with the conditions once they get into the building.
But you know, what it also says to us, though, is that if we know that these are the conditions that affect the children we’re trying to reach, it argues for why you have to change the system, because the system was not set up to deal with these kids. And what we do to them is, we say, “We know you got all those problems, but this is how our school is set up, and the bell just rang,” instead of understanding why we have to radically change what we do to deal with the reality of the kids that we have.
But we will lose this battle if people perceive that we’re simply saying, “All we got to do is be a charter school, and all these other problems are going to go away.” That is the height of foolishness, and we’ve got to understand that if we’re going to be with our children, we have to fight for their interests, for all of their interests, and that’s an important element.

Number eight, my last point. We must tell no lies and claim no easy victories. I’ll repeat that:

We must tell no lies and claim no easy victories.

My point here is, we have to be very careful about over-promising, and we have to be very honest when we are failing. Because the one thing that got me up here was a system that lied about what was actually happening to our children, and if any of you get involved and you lie, to either protect your charter or protect whatever it is, if you lie, then you’re just like them.
…If it comes to a point where you’ve been in this movement and you’ve got a charter school or a school or whatever, and it’s now time for renewal, if you haven’t done what you said you were supposed to do, in my way of looking at things, we should take back your charter. Because the difference in our movement has to be that if you do not succeed with kids, then you should not exist.
And what we have to do is, we have to tell the troops about what is happening, because every time we don’t tell the troops, we play a part in destroying these kids’ lives. If we fudge on the test scores, if we come up with some miraculous language to surround failure–because that’s what we currently are dealing with.
We’ve got people whose job it is, is to spin failure. You know, kids are not learning, but by the time you get to that in the paragraph that’s in the middle of a 900-page document, you don’t understand what’s going on. So what we have to do is, we got to break all the data out. We got to break it out by race, we got to break it out by class, we got to break it out by gender.
We got to put it out there, and don’t hide it, because in the end we’re going to win because we’re going to make a difference, and we’re going to make a difference, and we’re going to show it to people, and we’re going to be truthful. And in that regard, we need to avoid arrogance.
I mean, because we’re dealing with arrogance, and I can tell you right now that our movement, if we get a lot of people floating up in here who think they know everything–you know, I’m so-and-so, I’ve run this and I’ve run that–I don’t care what you’ve run. The question is, can you do it for our children?

And I’m telling you, those of you who are out here, who have been out here for a long time, know that forming a school–or if you talk to Chris Whittle, forming a whole, you know, system of schools–this is not an easy task. Or if you ask Yvonne [Chan], saying, “How hard is it?” , I mean, this is hard. Or ask Laura Hoffney, “How much work did it get to get a charter bill passed? Or Sally Hurst, “You know, Ohio, how much does it take? I mean, how much of your heart and soul do they try to rip out?”

But in order to do this, we have to avoid a know-it-all. We have to, in fact, understand we don’t know it all. …that what we are is committed to the truth, committed to our children, and committed to the notion that they can learn and that we can turn this around for all of our children. That seems to me to be the attitude that we have to go after this with.

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

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