For those of us who cover the nation’s education crisis, it is easy to joke about the ranting and raving of some defenders of traditional public education, who have what they consider to be clever names for charter schools and impugn the motivations of reformers with wealth (even as they defend teachers unions who bring in $622 million every year through dues collected forcibly from teachers who may or many not even support their aims). But those cat calls are nothing compared to the nasty and condescending comments about children and their parents that comes out of the mouths of teachers and school leaders each and every day in forums private and public. Their words, along with the actions that reinforce their statements, do far more damage to the lives of kids than any jokes about charter school naming rituals.
The latest example of this comes courtesy of Charles Epps, the superintendent of the woeful Jersey City school district, who declared on Wednesday that the young women attending the traditional public schools there were “our worst enemy” in his (abysmal) effort to improve education in the district and prevent school crime. He also declared that many of the kids in his district are “dirty, nasty, bad” and praised volunteers for sullying their hands with them. Yeah. This came from a school superintendent who apparently flunk P.R. 101. Of course, he has since apologized for his remarks. How nice.
To declare that Epps deserves censure is an understatement. His lowly record of failure in running Jersey City’s schools should have led New Jersey state officials and the school board to remove him a long time ago. His crass, hurtful attitude about the very kids for whom he is supposed to care pretty much shows that he shouldn’t be allowed in a school building, much less given the top job of running the district. Epps doesn’t deserve his paycheck. One can even say that it is underlying disdain for the very kids in his district that is a critical reason why he is such an abject failure as a school leader: If you don’t care for kids, you cannot do the hard work of transforming the quality of instruction, curricula and leadership that is needed to give kids cultures of genius in which to succeed.
The sad part is that Epps isn’t alone among teachers and school leaders in his words, attitudes and deeds. Within the past month, teachers in three different states were suspended for their hurtful actions towards kids in their care (including labeling one classroom of kids as being “future criminals”). We also know that these attitudes — which help foster cultures of low expectations in dropout factories, failure mills and mediocrity warehouses — are manifested every day. As I noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, there are kids every day who are told that they will never achieve, are too feeble to learn, and are damned with misconceptions that poverty is destiny — even as the data shows that the problems lie with adults who have bought into myths of what kids of certain races and economic backgrounds can do. These are also the same officials who regard parents — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — as afterthoughts and worse.
Even worse is that these conditions are aided and abetted by defenders of traditional public education practices, who argue that the problems of American public education cannot be solved until poverty is eradicated and parents and other reformers are kept out of schools. They defend near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure and weak rules on evaluating teachers and principals that help keep Epps and other so-called educators in their jobs. They oppose efforts to actually determine whether aspiring teachers are fit for the classroom, both in terms of their subject-matter competence and their empathy for children in their care. And, as seen in Jersey City, where the pastors at the event at which Epps spoke seemed to nod approvingly at his statements, they stand idly by as the most-abusive of teachers and leaders continue their malpractice. This is not only damaging to kids and their families; high-quality teachers and leaders who educate the kids as if they are their very own also end up struggling against the bilge of indifference and neglect that they should never have to deal with in the first place. Every one of their colleagues should be as empathetic and caring to kids as they are; these good-to-great teachers deserve better than the likes of Epps and his ilk.
American public education needs a housecleaning. And it should start with getting rid of the Charles Epps whose educational abuse, neglect and malpractice should have never been defended in the first place.