Fenwick: Education Reform is Controlled by White Elite

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May 28, 2013; Washington Post

The dean of the Howard University School of Education, Leslie Fenwick, has penned an op-ed for the Washington Post challenging the “lie” behind today’s education reform efforts. “The lie is that schemes like Teach For America, charter schools backed by venture capitalists, education management organizations (EMOs), and Broad Foundation-prepared superintendents address black parents’ concerns about the quality of public schools for their children,” Fenwick writes. “These schemes are not designed to cure what ails under-performing schools. They are designed to shift tax dollars away from schools serving black and poor students, displace authentic black educational leadership, and erode national commitment to the ideal of public education.”

“[U]rban school reform is not about schools or reform,” she adds. “It is about land development.” Citing a study of school reform in Atlanta, Detroit, and Baltimore, Fenwick argues that the key figures in education reform tend to be white and either live in the suburbs or send their children to private schools. “Lower- and middle-income black parents whose children attend urban schools…often view these [education reform] schemes as uninformed by their community and disconnected from the best interest of their children.”

Fenwick cites the controversies surrounding plans for school closings in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as “verification of [black parents’] distrust of school ‘reform’ efforts.” She charges that “[b]lack inner-city residents are suspicious of school reform (particularly when it is attached to neighborhood revitalization) which they view as an imposition from external white elites who are exclusively committed to using schools to recalculate urban land values at the expense of black children, parents and communities.”

Fenwick doesn’t mention unions, high-stakes testing, vouchers, or many of the other flash points of the school reform debate for people on both sides of the reform dialogue. Rather, she is suggesting that education reform is all about money and control, where the money goes and who controls the money in public education. Her conclusion doesn’t pull any punches: “[I]t’s about the business elite gaining access to the nearly $600 billion that supports the nation’s public schools. It’s about money.”  What do you think about Fenwick’s view?—Rick Cohen

  • ray horton

    I”ve watched public education in New York City for a long time, including the emergence of an educational reform movement designed to help at least a small fraction of our city’s youth get a decent education. I’ve taught a good number of the young people going into that movement, and I’ve spent a good deal of time with some of the “capitalists” who are helping finance the movement. About the last thing they have in mind is gaining control over public money or pushing up land values. They’re just trying, and in general succeeding, to bring a decent education to some of our youngsters. I’m surprised that the Washington Post and Nonprofit Quarterly give the good dean any air time. I’d love to see the research upon which her claptrap is based.

  • Chuck Fellows

    Children arrive at the school building with an innate ability to learn, diversity, curiosity and creativity and the adults so intent on “reform” quickly destroy those attributes with their adult oriented one size fits all, standardized test metrication system of attempting to pour content into a human being’s head in order that they regurgitate the content and behavior at the correct prompt.

    Don’t believe that? Then stand outside an elementary, middle and high school and listen to the students arriving and departing. The sound deteriorates from excitement and joy to dull compliance and outright rejection.

    Education has never really been about the children. School, as opposed to learning, has been all about containing the youth of society in a post agricultural age. Certainly cannot have them roaming the streets or putting adults out of work can we. Neither Franklin nor Twain let their schooling get in the way of their education.

    Now their is another opportunity for adults under the guise of education. Real estate. Just like McDonald’s, which is really in the real estate business, not food, Traditional public schools seek local funds to construct the faculties to house the capitive market. Now that business thinkers dominate education reform the opportunity is obvious. Do a McDonald’s, own the real estate at really low interest rates and lease it back to the group that wants to open a school at a nice rate of return. Makes business sense whether you just want the cash flow for profit or to invest in educational excellence. Businesses prime directive is to make a profit. Which will win, profit or excellence?

    There are pockets of excellence in learning out there but the combined blind adherence to tradition and allure of the golden egg may destroy them too. With the adults in charge and the voices of teachers and students being totally ignored, you can bet on it!

  • Chris Stewart

    We might safely say that many things are “controlled by the white elite.” Does that mean we discount them all with prejudice?

  • Chuck Fellows

    Hurrah for those with good intentions in NYC! Geoffey Canada might disagree with you as might Deborah Meier and, if he were still with us, Ted Sizer.

  • Catherine

    This perspective covers much more than just education reform, it’s a disturbing national trend on any industry or social program that serves, supports and uplifts those in a position of poverty. If the program is controlled by the disadvantaged and therefore benefits them it can become a threat, not only to the pockets of the wealthy but also to the future of the cultural power structure. Simply the present elite need to maintain control and protect its own assets and the government sees opportunity in the form of revitalization.

    The majority in power are the white elite but I will venture to say as we watch the changes in the global economy soon the elite will take on the face of those from wealthy international countries. Those in power rarely like or choose to let go of the existing power and once the group is threatened with loss of $ or power they will try and shut it down. Leslie Fenwick is opening the doors for discussion into the problems and downfalls of revitalization where the non-elite put their sweat equity (of little value on the market) into creating a better world for their communities and families thus gaining a position in the power structure, that is a dangerous position for the existing elite.

    I think what we have here is fear of a power structure imbalance and the redistribution of power being challenged by those that support our capitalist system. The process of the elite creating and protecting a system to maintain power and control is normal but the U.S. supposedly has the only system that is meant to protect and allow for the uplifting of the individual from oppression. That system seems to be lost as we fight for an elite position in the global community. Ms. Leslie Fenwick has chosen education reform to address this problem. The power elite is more concerned with strengthening and protecting their circle of power.

    The question is how do we change it so that sweat equity, social good and the uplifting of the nation – good for the communities throughout the country is measured in the same terms as monetary surplus – good business for the elite which support a profitable government which in theory equals a healthy financial bottom line for a city, state and country. Its a conundrum but, it we don’t address it and create a more balanced social good and monetary surplus system for our communities we run the risk of clique management which equals elite power structures – equals a few making decisions. Small governance does not always equal grand individual freedoms – it at worst equals tyranny or at best benevolent monarchy or dictatorship style management. A balance needs to be found – a mix of shared responsibility – the compromise of allowing a balance sheet that shows little profit so the community can grow at a pace that is stabilizing.

  • Nikki Kirk

    I am not sure about this diagnosis and I don’t agree with it at all. We all must be willing to try something different with the broken public school systems when things aren’t working. As an African American parent advocate and former postsecondary employee, I can’t tell you how many times African American families were not at the table, and not because they weren’t invited. They were either intimidated or simply underestimated how the results of school performance would impact them immediately and long-term. Additionally, parents are to blame because they are EXTREMELY ignorant of the expectations of their children. School is now no more than a legally mandated day care for ages 3-21.

    Reasons: (1) Parents work and don’t have time to support the school or their child. It’s legitimate, but whose fault is it? (2) Our society (in homes) have become so degraded, devalued, and disrespected, that kids have no respect or value for anything, not matter how beneficial it is for their futures. (3) Schools and districts make plans based on money first, ratings second. Parents are hardly EVER given a seat at the table when decisions are made due to poor school performance, changes in instruction, and standards, etc. that will impact their children’s performance. Parents don’t understand, and it’s quite commonplace to keep them in the dark. All they know is that there children perform poorly, and THE SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS are the saviors, not parents. Finally, (4) There is a mistrust between the government (schools) and poor/urban families. They haven’t always been on the up and up when it comes to assisting these populations. This mistrust still lives on.

    I don’t believe race is a factor. I believe urban families and poor families or so caught up in getting and securing things today (i.e. cell phones, Ipads, name brand clothing, shoes, games, and other superficial things), they have forgotten to preach and teach the value of an education. If parents don’t and won’t teach respect for education, respect for all adults (regardless of color), and respect and appreciate anything given to their home for free and for their benefit, schools will continue to fail, teachers will continue to be disrespected, and schools will continue to be school to prison and poverty lines.

    Finally, teachers have been disrespected and devalued for so long by districts, administrations, by other teachers, and parents, they now inflict the same on the kids. Kids come along and now do the same as the behavior is glorified in the homes and in the school hallways. Until caring and compassion for instruction and those conducting instructing is re-instituted schools will continue to close, teachers will continue not to teach poor students and families, and educators will continue to flee the profession.

  • michael

    Fenwick cites the controversies surrounding plans for school closings in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as “verification of [black parents’] distrust of school ‘reform’ efforts.”

    Then we’ll let you keep your Status Quo….how’s that working out for you?

  • Joy Ellsworth

    Reformers’ motivations may indeed be to improve educational prospects for some of the kids coming through the public school system in urban areas, but with failure rates as high as they are in many of these urban areas (I’d love to cite drop-out statistics here but won’t for brevity’s sake) there has got to be some way to improve educational prospects for more than just ‘some’ of these kids.

    The higher graduation rates in suburban schools can’t be solely attributed to the home life or parents’ educational background. By the time a child graduates from high school he/she has spent 40% of the waking hours of his/her life attending an educational institution. That’s a substantial enough amount of time for good influence to happen.

    If school boards returned to a local level of autonomy and trusted parents to care about their own children enough to serve in parent organizations and on school boards, parents would be able to truly say they are actively ensuring the sound education of their children. What was common for a century after the founding of our country sounds like a utopian pipe dream for the current day.

    Is that right? Should something change to help our educational system return to pre-dystopian standards?

  • Mel B. Dean

    I think anyone with any bit of common sense can see that Leslie Fenwick is revealing some of the truth about the ‘reform” movement.

    Speaking from an honest business perspective, I know that many of us business/political folk want to crack open public education and turn profits, but I think “reform” is an unethical way to do this.

    When it comes to the public, I think we need to be honest about education. If we can make a great education product and sell it for profit – fantastic! But if we are just lying and destroying the lives of and futures of children, then that is just unacceptable and we need to stop. I think that the African American population has tolerated enough abuse and it needs to stop.