Where High Expectations Are Met ... And More
Twenty-five years ago, Marva Collins left a public school
teaching position to open her own school, in her own home.
Although she had enrolled her child in one of the city's private
schools, she was dissatisfied with the education that was
delivered there. Four years later, Marva Collins' Westside
Preparatory School opened its doors to eight students. There are
now two schools and a branch on the south side.
Chicago's most famous and most controversial educator, Marva
Collins is the author of 12 children's books. Her latest book,
Values: Lighting the Candle of Excellence, has just been
released. She has trained thousands of teachers across the
country to apply her instructional methods and challenging
curriculum in their own public school classrooms. She has offered
to work with Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas to help turn
around three public elementary schools in her west side Chicago
And still she finds time to share her insights with parents
and school reform activists who, like her, passionately believe
in the potential of all children. She took time out from an
especially busy day recently to respond--admittedly briefly--to a
few questions from School Reform News managing editor
Clowes: You've offered to help three of
the 109 Chicago public schools that were placed on probation last
year. Do you have any ideas going in as to why so many schools in
Chicago are failing the children they are designed to serve?
Collins: Children do not fail. We, as a
society, fail them. And we are failing the children in most
schools across the country, not only inner-city children.
Children fail because of our low expectations. The answer is
simple, but true.
One reason for the low expectations is our teacher training.
The entire training of teachers is anathema to what children
actually need to learn in the classroom. Dewey's philosophy of
education does not teach children to read, write, think, and
spell; nor do monthly bulletin boards, more and more staff
meetings, or unions that protect poor performance.
Clowes: As someone who has taught in both
public and private schools, what do you see as the pluses and
minuses of both systems?
Collins: There are bad private schools, and
good private schools. There are good public schools and poor
public schools. We as Americans like to neatly categorize
everything into "all" . . . and that is faulty
thinking. The same junky textbooks used in private schools are
used in public schools. Curriculum and who teaches that
curriculum makes for a good school and an educated populace.
Clowes: Several steps have been taken to
reform the Chicago Public Schools, including local school
councils and new management under Mayor Richard M. Daley. How
well do you think these reform efforts have served the
schoolchildren in Chicago?
Collins: One does not reform anything with
the same "shibboleths" and zeitgeists and experts that
messed them up in the first place. The education system that
failed parents cannot expect those miseducated parents to educate
Clowes: The judge who recently struck
down expansion of the Milwaukee choice program said that school
choice might be sound public policy. Could you explain the
concerns you have about voucher programs?
Collins: Choice, vouchers, whatever name we
would like to call it all boils down to the same questions: Who
is teaching the curriculum? What are the expectations? Is there
accountability? What is the curriculum? A rose by any other name
is still a rose. . . . One cannot put new wine into old wine
Clowes: How do you feel about charter
Collins: I have turned down three offers to
open charter schools. New names, same old attitudes, same old
mediocre curriculum, same nonchalant, turnstile-attitude
teachers. Do children have learning disabilities--or are they
victims of some teaching inability?
Clowes: What reforms do you believe would
address the problems you've identified?
Collins: Changing the curriculum . . .
changing the curriculum . . . changing the curriculum . . . and
accountability. Just as we would not continue to buy "poorly
made products," why do we tolerate mediocrity in our
schools? Again, it is all about poor expectations. Plato said,
"Education is cumulative," and that is still true
Clowes: Are you optimistic about
improvements in the quality of education that schoolchildren in
Chicago will be receiving by the time we move into the 21st
Collins: Unless we are Nostradamus, we cannot
predict the future unless we use as a barometer the present
trends. If the present trend continues, we shall repeat the
lessons told in Gibbons' book, The Rise and Fall of the Roman
Empire. Again, we have too many children groping in the
darkness and dazzled by the light of literacy, and all because
children have no one to speak for them. They have no unions, no
spokespersons. And so according to the "expert adults,"
all children are unteachable, and, of course, it is not our
fault. The future looks bleak, and will be bleak unless good
people now, this moment, do something. As Henry IV says in the
play by Shakespeare, "Either we confront danger now, or we
meet it in another place."
Miseducation anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Just
as we continue to ask the wrong questions, we shall continue to
get the wrong answers. The President stated every child would be
reading by third grade, but reading what? Perhaps, "See the
ball; see the big ball; see the big red ball." That is not
reading, that is seeing the huge picture of the ball on the page
and repetitiously repeating the same banal sentences.
Clowes: What one message would you like
most to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our
readers about education issues?
Collins: The same education being taught to
inner-city children is being taught to their children too. To
paraphrase John Donne, None of us is an island; the failure of
any of us diminishes each of us. So the bells are not tolling
just for poor, inner-city children, they toll for each of us. To
ignore this message is to diminish the freedom of each of us, and
to assure that the American nightmare will soon outdistance the