Before you publish any more rubbish about inspiring charter schools, take the time to come see them and learn the truth
Things like this make me groan and hold my head in my hands. Steve Nelson, the head of Calhoun, an elite, highly progressive Manhattan private school, in an essay he published in HuffPo (that I agree with!) decrying racism in this country, attacked me and "no excuses" charter schools, naming KIPP, Success and Democracy Prep:
A prominent hedge fund manager in Manhattan is a leading advocate for "no excuses" charter schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), Success Academies and Democracy Prep. Well-documented reports reveal that children at KIPP have been punished by being labeled "Miscreants," students at Success Academies have wet their pants due to stress and the refusal to allow them to go to the bathroom, and children at Democracy Prep have been shunned, branded by wearing yellow shirts and literally forced into silence, with other children and adults forbidden to speak to them. This "reformer" is on the record saying that these means of discipline are necessary because these children, nearly all of color, "need it." His own daughters attend Nightingale-Bamford, a highly selective, expensive, majority white, girls school on Manhattan's Upper Eastside. Please indicate the way you believe he might respond if any of his daughters reported such experiences during their school days.
Nelson is someone who should be our ally because he clearly cares deeply about the vast racial inequalities in our country, especially in education (in which we have a K-12 system where the quality of the school a child attends is primarily determined by two factors: the color of their skin and their zip code). Yet instead of championing high-quality charter schools that are addressing this very issue, he attacks them for being racist. Ya can't make this stuff up!
What he writes is so wrong-headed in so many ways – but I guess that's not surprising since the extent of his knowledge and research seems to be limited to reading Ravitch's blog. (I surely hope that Mr. Nelson is a better model of intellectual honesty, curiosity and rigor for the students at Calhoun than he shows here.) He certainly doesn't know me nor did he attempt to contact me (I'm not hard to track down – try WTilson@kasecapital.com or (646) 258-0687), nor, to my knowledge, has he ever visited any of the schools he smears so ignorantly (for example, far from being "branded by wearing yellow shirts and literally forced into silence," the students at Democracy Prep wear these shirts with pride for civic events like its Get Out the Vote campaigns). If he truly wishes to understand these schools, he should visit them – they're all less than a 15-minute cab ride from his school and I'm certain they would welcome him (here's the contact information for each: KIPP, Vicki Zubovic, firstname.lastname@example.org; Success: (646) 597-4641; Democracy Prep: Katie Duffy, email@example.com).
As for Nelson's implication that I'm racist because, he claims, that I believe that cruel "means of discipline are necessary because these children, nearly all of color, "need it."", this is absurd. I don't believe nor have I never said any such thing.
Notice that he only quotes two words ("need it") (presumably from one of my emails) without providing any context – a classic way to dishonestly smear someone. Imagine, for example, that I published an article in which I wrote: "Steve Nelson punishes students at Calhoun by labeling them 'miscreants', which causes them to 'wet their pants due to stress.'" He, in fact, wrote the words I quote in his HuffPo article – but of course the sentence I've written is false, dishonest, and the exact opposite of what he actually believes.
I've searched all of my ed reform emails for the past five years for the words "need it" and couldn't find them (though they appear many times in various articles I forwarded in sentences like "We need to get extra help to students who need it", but nothing related to discipline).
My best guess is that he's referring to something I wrote long ago in which I observed that my daughters' school doesn't have slogans like "Climbing the Mountain to College" painted on the walls, whereas many high-performing charters do. Why? Because my daughters and their classmates, from the day they were born, have been surrounded by adults who all graduated from college. It would never occur to them not to go to college or not to finish college because they don't know anyone who hasn't done so. It's in the air that they breathe. But, it goes without saying, it's most certainly not in the air in the lives of most of the children most charter schools serve – so the charters have to instill it.
Or maybe he's referring to another email I sent in which I shared a conversation I had with Joanna Belcher, the rockstar principal of KIPP's Spark Academy elementary school in Newark (Dale Russakoff writes about her glowingly in The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?). I observed Joanna and her staff teaching the little children to walk quickly and quietly in line. Time after time, one or two children would get distracted and start talking or fall out of line and they'd all have to do it again.
Afterward, I told Joanna, "You know, there are a lot of folks who'd watch that and think that what you're doing is overly harsh and militaristic." She laughed and said (I'm paraphrasing from distant memory), "When I first started teaching, I thought so too. But then I learned. We only have kids for a certain number of hour every day – and we (and they) can't afford to waste a single minute. Our kids are moving between classrooms, to lunch, etc. a dozen times a day. Imagine if we wasted five minutes each time – that would be an hour a day down the drain!"
In summary, schools that successfully educate the most disadvantaged kids and give them a fair shot in life need to do a lot of things differently vs. schools like Calhoun and Nightingale that serve almost entirely the most advantaged kids. It's not because they're racist, but because different students have different needs that need to be addressed in different ways. Steve Nelson, before you publish any more rubbish about some incredible, inspiring charter schools, take the time to come see them and learn the truth.
Enough Already About Racism!! Racism Is a Thing of the Past
- Steve Nelson Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan