'Shop Talk': It's All About Education

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As part of Tell Me More's month-long back-to-school focus on education, host Michel Martin talks education with the guys in the barbershop. Included in the discussion are the movie “Waiting for Superman,” and the travails of embattled DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the angry dad who faced down his daughter’s bullies. Joining the conversation are Jimi Izrael, a freelance journalist and Presidential Fellow at Case Western Reserve University; Lester Spence, a professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and home schooled his children; Claudio Sanchez, NPR’s education correspondent and former schoolteacher; and Jay Mathews, education columnist for The Washington Post.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And all this month, TELL ME MORE has been telling you more about issues in education. We've been looking at what's outstanding, what needs improvement and what gets an incomplete in the quest to strengthen the nation's schools and offer children from all backgrounds the best education possible. Our series, of course, continues.

So in this special edition of the Barbershop, we decided to look at timely education topics. So getting ready to get their news dos on this week are freelance writer and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University, Jimi Izrael, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and dad to five home-schooled children, Lester Spence. Also with us is NPR's education correspondence Claudio Sanchez. But he is also a former K through nine English and Spanish and writing teacher and soccer coach and dorm parent, that are his past lives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Wow.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political science, Johns Hopkins University): Wow.

MARTIN: And I misspoke earlier. I said that all of our panel are educators, or former educators. But we also have with us education columnist for The Washington Post, Jay Mathews, who's been digging deep into all issues education-related for years.

So take it away, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, Jay Mat, hi, Claudio, word to Robert Graves. This is your first time in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Welcome to the Shop.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here, Jimi.

Mr. JAY MATHEWS (Education Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Word. It's all good. Well, you know what? The Dream Act got blocked this week in the Senate, dashing the hopes and well, dreams of a number of hopeful students around the country, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, Claudio has been reporting on this. Why don't you just tell us briefly about what the law would do?

SANCHEZ: Well, essentially, you know, it looks at or creates a legal - a path to legal citizenship for the roughly, you know, 65 to - 50 to 65,000 kids every year who graduate from high school, and who came to this country before they were 16 years old and were, more likely than not, brought here by their parents who were illegal, and that makes them, according to many, illegal. And so these are kids who don't qualify for federal aid or for state aid. And so what they find is a wall right up at the point where they're ready to jump, especially if they've been really good students and may even qualify for private scholarships, they still don't often get the money or can raise the money to go on.

And besides, they can't, in many states, you know, they just don't find the pathway to continue their education. And so you have a lot of these kids who are being punished in the view of the proponents of the Dream Act. And we, you know, we should remember that the first sponsors of the Dream Act - one of them, anyway - was very prominently a Republican, Orrin Hatch of Utah.

MARTIN: So, you know, Jimi, I wanted to ask you because we actually reported on this earlier in the week, and I'd like to refer people to that earlier conversation we had with Claudio where he spelled it all out. But, Jimi, one of the things I was curious about, given that you're not in Washington, is how did this play out outside of Washington? Because here, for many people here, it was an education issue. But for a lot of people, it was an immigration issue. It was and...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. I think a lot of people - a lot of people that hadn't read up on - were wondering if the Dream Act incentivizes illegal immigration, because on the surface, it certainly looks like it may. So I think that's how it was playing outside of D.C.

SANCHEZ: Well, and Michel, the fact is that Republicans are now opposed to it by and large because they say legalizing these young people would reward illegal behavior and create an amnesty provision that would motivate millions more to seek a path to citizenship.

MARTIN: Hey, Jay, did this play out and was there a lot of support with this among educators that you've been talking to? Was this an issue that became kind of a cause among the educational community?

Mr. MATHEWS: Absolutely. Educators, the ones who are really trying to make kids better, know that immigration, legal or otherwise, has just invigorated public education system. We've brought in this huge mass of aspirational families who want their kids to have the next best thing. They've given all kinds of energy to the economy and to the education. I wrote a book about a school that's full of kids who are mostly illegal immigrants, and the place was booming. And if you go into any school, you see those kids are learning, growing fast. We're a great country, in many ways, and we're going to continue to be one in the future because of this new blood we're getting.


Mr. IZRAEL: You know, Dr. Spence, I can't see any big con. I mean, if you see one, please underscore it for me.

Prof. SPENCE: It's a con from the Republican's perspective to have a large body of undocumented immigrants because those people, given the context of the country, are going to support Democratic policies. That's one thing. But the other con for them is they don't want the Democratic Party to be able to point to any successes. So anything that even looks like it's common sense, the Republican Party's going to fight in this case.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I think there was a strong philosophical objection. I really do. I mean, I do think that there are people who, like, to Jimi's point, felt that this incentivizes people breaking the law, and it's a hard case to make because there are so many outstanding students. I mean, we've had so many - we've featured so many outstanding students, but it's almost like a clash of core principles.

SANCHEZ: Yeah. But I think you have to agree, Michel, that there were enormous amount of politics behind this. I mean, Senator Reid, whose state is like a quarter Hispanic, and it's got 12 percent of its voters are Latino, I mean, clearly, it was in his interest to push this as hard as he could because the Democrats are very interested in looking at the November elections to have Latinos see the Democrats as, you know, Latino-friendly. And this is a major issue for the Latino community.

MARTIN: It sure is.

Mr. IZRAEL: Ay, Claudio. Thank you for that.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IZRAEL: Now, Michel, I understand you saw this documentary that people were talking about everywhere. It's called "Waiting for Superman," about how Americans need to provide a quality education to every child in the country, right?

MARTIN: Yeah. In fact, most of us here have seen it. It's an interesting film. It's been presented by director Davis Guggenheim, who also directed Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." He's a big name in Hollywood - obviously, a big name in Hollywood. There was a big D.C. rollout, a big - actually, a red carpet rollout, which when does that happen here? Like, people were all excited, like, what do I wear?

And - but it's a serious film, and it's very interesting because I can't think of the last time there was a kind of an event movie about education reform, and so that in itself made it really interesting. But the gist of it is that the educational system in this country is failing badly, and it's failing more people than not, and it's got some very tough messages.

I'll just play a very short clip. And I should mention that it opens in New York and L.A. today, and will be later in the country going forward. But here it is.

Mr. IZRAEL: Drop it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waiting for Superman")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (D.C. Schools Chancellor): You wake up every morning, and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now.

Mr. DAVIS GUGGENHEIM (Film Director, Producer): So you think that, mostly, kids are getting a crappy education right now?

Ms. RHEE: Oh, I don't think they are. I know they are.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GEOFFREY CANADA (Education reformer): Either the kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong in the education system.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: So the voice that we just heard there, that was Geoffrey Canada, who is an extremely well-known sort of education reformer working out of New York, and he's created something called the Harlem Children's Zone. He's gotten a lot of national attention. And the other voice you heard was Michelle Rhee, the D.C. Schools chancellor, who is in the middle of this really tough political issue owing to last week's mayoral election, where there are a lot of people who think she's probably on her way out. And she's also gotten a lot of national attention as a tough reformer. It's a really interesting story, so I don't know. So, all right. Go ahead, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, thanks Michel. Lester, Dr. Spence, I want to push this over to you. Now, your kids aren't in school at all, right? So...

Prof. SPENCE: Well...

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay.

Prof. SPENCE: ...let me correct that. They...

Mr. IZRAEL: Clarify it, please.

Prof. SPENCE: There was a time - and we home-schooled our kids for years. They are now in the school system.


Mr. IZRAEL: Okay.

MARTIN: So why did you opt out for so long? I mean, it would seem that just you voted with you feet. By definition, you felt that the schools were not adequate.

Prof. SPENCE: The Baltimore Public Schools at the time in the neighborhood we lived in, one of the best neighborhoods in Baltimore, were absolutely horrible, and we actually moved, in large part, in order to provide our kids with a better educational environment, and they've receive it so far.

MARTIN: That's - so those of you who've seen the film, Claudio and Jay, I've got to ask you. Claudio, what do you think?

SANCHEZ: Well, Michel, I guess my take - my take on it is that Mr. Guggenheim set out to do for the nation's debate over school reform what he did for global warming, which was to try and scare the hell out of us. I mean, he presents extraordinarily compelling cases of five kids in California and New York - I think it's Los Angeles and Redwood City, D.C., New York, and he presents this, again, very compelling story of how these kids, essentially, their future is a matter of luck. They're all involved in trying to get into charter schools, very good charter schools, through a lottery.

And what we hear, though, is Mr. Guggenheim, once he established this as the core of the story, he then, essentially, just like a laser attacks the role of unions in keeping and supporting really bad teachers, he uses archival footage, hidden cameras and he looks back and says, look. Here is the huge hurdle to getting good schools to perform. And...

MARTIN: To the point when...

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, and...

SANCHEZ: And so the teachers are really the target.

MARTIN: Yeah. To the point where the head of the American Federation of Teachers felt the need to send out an open letter in advance of the opening of the film saying, you know...

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, she's got a reason to be sacred.

MARTIN: Jay? Go ahead.

Mr. MATHEWS: I'm one of the commentators in the movie. It was terrifying to see myself, aged face, on the big screen. But once I got over that...

MARTIN: But you dressed up a little better for them than you did for us. I have to tell you that.

Mr. MATHEWS: Yeah, I did, indeed.

Mr. IZRAEL: Ooh. Nice.

Mr. MATHEWS: But once, you know, once I saw the movie, I didn't realize it was very anti-union. And if I was head of a union in the United States, I would be terribly frightened that this very liberal, successful Hollywood director who comes into this issue knowing nothing - he was not involved in any of the debates we have - looks at it from his own personal perspective and comes out, you know, being great for saving the Earth, but for in getting rid of unions from schools. I'm not that much - I'm not that anti-union. I think unions are doing some good jobs. But he came out in that other way, and that's, I think, a real wake-up call for a few things.

SANCHEZ: Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is really the Lex Luthor of this movie. And, I mean, I think that he set out to do that. We've talked to, you know, Randi about this, said: Why did you collaborate knowing exactly how you were going to be presented? And she says, well, they left most of the stuff they, you know, we thought they were going to include on the floor.

Mr. MATHEWS: On the cutting room floor.

MARTIN: Well, but in fairness to her, you know, one of the things that I think has been interesting about her response to this is she has not come out and said don't watch this, boycott, none of that. Well, what she said is, we should've seen some high-performing public schools.

Mr. MATHEWS: Exactly.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's the piece that's missing. But it is interesting, because there are people like, you know, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is saying this is a Rosa Parks moment for the educational system. But one of the points that the film makes is that people have been saying that for years, and it's never happened. So I will be very interested to see if, you know, what does make people care about kids being three years, on average, behind where they should be? What does make people care about the fact that, you know, kids - a lot of kids are just not performing at the level they need to be to compete in this kind of global economy? I don't - what does it take? What does it take?

Mr. IZRAEL: But Michel...

Mr. MATHEWS: For people younger than us coming up, this is a big deal.

MARTIN: Well...

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, Michel, I think part of the ugly thing about charter schools that we don't hear about - because I have - one of my children is in a charter school. All charter schools aren't created equal. You know, and you might not be winning the lottery going to a charter school. I mean, I think part of the problem is, you know, some of these charter schools, I mean, they've kind of applied a business model, and they're profiting from education, I mean, because they make money per butt and seat. You know, so your child may get in the school, but you might not have any idea what quality of education they're getting. I mean, ostensibly, it's better, we think, you know. But, I mean, all charter schools just aren't created equal.

MARTIN: Very quickly, Lester.

Prof. SPENCE: Real quick. There's some research to support this. So the Center for Research on Education Outcome, they did this big-time national study of charter schools. They showed that only 17 percent of charter schools are outperforming other schools - other types of schools, and 35 percent are underperforming.


SANCHEZ: Although you have to say, though, that, you know, that the difference here is that you can shut down a bad charter school. You can't shut down a bad public school.

MARTIN: And the other point, it has to be said that one of the areas where charter schools traditionally outcome perform traditional schools is parental satisfaction, for whatever that means. It's a very interesting phenomenon.

But we just - let's just - if you're just joining us, let me tell you you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop, and we're focusing on education with four guys who have a deep interest in and knowledge about education: Jimi Izrael, who's also an assistant professor in addition to being a blogger, Claudio Sanchez, who covers education for NPR, Jay Mathews, who reports on education for The Washington Post and Lester Spence, who's also a professor at Johns Hopkins.

Back to you, Jimi.

Just a couple of things that are in the news today - we're not going to have time to talk about, that we've talked about Michelle Rhee, who plays such a big figure in this film - which, of course, is months and months in the making -and now her job is on the line because of the election results. It'll be really interesting to see what happens there.

And one of the big rumors is that she might go to Newark, which is expected to get a major, huge gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He's donating $100 million to Newark Public Schools. He's going to be on "Oprah" today to make this announcement. And it's just - I mean, it just, it kind of boggles the mind and - you know.

SANCHEZ: And it's interesting that, you know, if she takes that job - which she has denied and has squashed those rumors. But if she were to take that job, she'd be following the same guy who she followed when she came to Washington, D.C., Clifford Janey, who, you know, left this town and then went to New York. Now he's leaving New York and maybe Michelle is going to do a little second act, here.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, Michel, I'm always...

MARTIN: But we've got to go on to this bullies issue. We've got to get on, because we've got a couple minutes left here.

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay. Sure.

MARTIN: And that is - this is the thing that I just think every parent can relate to. And there is a - James Willie Jones has a 13-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy. The girl complained about being bullied on the school bus and the father said the school didn't respond to his complaint, so papa decided to take matters into his own hands. This is what happened.

Mr. JAMES WILLE JONES: Show me which one. Show me which one. I going to (bleep) you up because this is my daughter and (bleep) beside her.

MARTIN: So this is surveillance video from the bus. And he wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing a school function. So I got to ask, guys, what would you do in this case?

Mr. MATHEWS: Well, you have a quiet word with the bus driver, find out which of these kids did the deed, and then you go to their parents and have a quiet word with them. But if I'm in his situation, I would be tempted to do exactly what he did, because you've got to get on it. Schools just don't handle this kind of stuff. They don't get back at bullies, and kids - particularly a kid with CP -it's really, really in a vulnerable situation.

SANCHEZ: I think adrenaline took over. I mean, clearly. And I think, you know, it's legitimate to say that many of us would've done exactly the same thing.

MARTIN: Lester, what do you think?

Prof. SPENCE: I'm glad I have five children, because I'd have sicked the other four...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. Right.

Prof. SPENCE: But the key word, my family motto is this is a gang, and I'm in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Heard that. Heard that.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think about this? I mean, it's a, you know, a...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean, I...

MARTIN: It kind of seems that the mechanisms aren't working. On the one hand, you know, it's easy to criticize this dad and certainly, you know, it as terrifying apparently, for the daughter. But you hear some of the kids laughing.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's...

MARTIN: I don't know whether that was, I don't know. What do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: I don't know. We're all great parents with other people's kids, right? You know, I mean I've had some passionate moments with my children's principals and teachers, you know, and but, I mean, in terms of going at somebody else's kid, I don't know. I think that's always going to be a lose-lose situation. You know, you really don't want to go at anybody else's kid, no matter how passionate. I mean, you get on the bus and you passionately get their phone number so you can give their dads or their moms a call and put it to them. But, you know, you don't go at anybody's kid. I mean, not - you're a grown man. You know, I understand he was passionate. I understand the adrenaline. My man: They call it disorderly conduct...

MARTIN: But...

Mr. IZRAEL: ...you know, at your local precinct. So don't be doing that.

MARTIN: But you know what else, though? And this is the other interesting thing I wanted to ask you about, that he apologized. He actually came out the next day and said, I am sorry. I was wrong, you know, to...


Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, I saw that, and I felt conflicted about that, because I think he acted - you know, truth, I think he was true to himself. And if he went with his emotions and he was doing what he felt like he had to do at the time to protect his daughter, you know, all things being equal, I don't know if I would've apologized. I'd have been like, you know, hey, you know, you know, rough moments call for rough action sometimes. But, I mean, but then again, I wouldn't have behaved that way. But if I had, I don't know that I would've apologize. Sorry.

MARTIN: You know what? I'm not a lawyer. But can I just give people advice here? Please don't follow his advice. Okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay? You know, I...

Mr. IZRAEL: Personally, I wouldn't have apologized.

Mr. MATHEWS: I'm not a lawyer, but I'm married to a good one. That's what you're saying.

MARTIN: And what would she say? And she'd say...

Mr. MATHEWS: She's a law school graduate. You're the one that's married to a good lawyer.

MARTIN: Yeah, well...

Mr. MATHEWS: And she would say exactly what you said.

MARTIN: Well, but Jay, very quickly, are schools making any headway on this bullying thing? Do you think they are?


MARTIN: No. Wow. All right. That was Jay Mathews. He's education columnist for The Washington Post. Also with us, Claudio Sanchez, NPR's education correspondent and former K through nine teacher. Also with us, Lester Spence, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and Jimi Izrael, freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He's with us from WCPN in Cleveland.

Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. MATHEWS: Thank you.

Prof. SPENCE: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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