In the final part of our interview with author Noliwe Rooks, we examine some of the reforms that the likes of Betsy DeVos have mandated for poor children but would never be accepted for the wealthy
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JAISAL NOOR: It’s a clip that has gone viral.
BETSY DEVOS: In places where there have been, where there is a lot of choice that’s been introduced, w3Florida for example, the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually the results get better as well.
LESLEY STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.
JAISAL NOOR: Billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on CBS’ 60 Minutes, unable to answer basic questions about education or the devastating impact she helped bring to her home state of Michigan, where multiple studies have found that schools, both traditional and charter, are among the worst in the nation when it comes to improving student achievement.
LESLEY STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
BETSY DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better-
LESLEY STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.
BETSY DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well and-
LESLEY STAHL: Yeah, but your argument that if you take funds away, that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan, where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.
BETSY DEVOS: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.
LESLEY STAHL: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.
BETSY DEVOS: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.
JAISAL NOOR: We now bring you the fifth and final part of our interview with Noliwe Rooks, author of Cutting School. We spoke about efforts by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, and right wing Sinclair Broadcasting Project Baltimore, which argue that Baltimore schools are failing and the only solutions lie with DeVos style deregulation.
LARRY HOGAN: Investigative reporting discovered six Baltimore City Schools, where not one single student was proficient in any state testing.
CHRIS PAPST: Of Baltimore City’s 39 high schools, 13 had zero students proficient in math.
JAISAL NOOR: So, that was Larry Hogan and Chris Papst of Project Baltimore, which is part of Sinclair Broadcasting. They say that Baltimore schools are in crisis because students are not doing well on their tests. There’s entire schools that have no students proficient in math and in English. And they say this is a crisis and we need to act. And what they consistently point to is deregulation, but they call it greater accountability.
NOLIWE ROOKS: Yeah.
JAISAL NOOR: What’s your response to this?
NOLIWE ROOKS: Well, the issue consistently around educating poor people, people who come from more modest backgrounds, who don’t have two college educated parents in the home, who are generally the students who perform poorly on these types of high stakes tests. Rarely do we, again, talk about educational interventions. How are you teaching them? What are you teaching them? What are you doing to ensure that they are not failing the tests, as opposed to there’s something wrong with them? The tests are fine. There’s something wrong with everything else. Let’s have more tests. Let’s dismantle everything because the tests are fine.
One of the things, if you said that Maryland has some of the wealthiest, highest performing school districts, I can almost guarantee you, having raised a child in Princeton Public Schools, which is also a high performing school district, that at some point we had to put him in private school, but the thing that is true is that you have to fight those people to fail at wealthy schools. They figure out what are your learning styles? What kind of help, what step did you miss in calculus, so that you need, so that we can get you back on track? It is not one size fits all. It is not you work harder, you do more homework and we’ll just test you more in order to make sure that those children are proficient. But consistently, in this country, we run away from providing struggling students with the same kinds of educational strategies and interventions and expectations as we do wealthy people.
And I’m consistently saying if, much like what Ericka Huggins showed, what Marva Collins showed, what every high performing traditional public school experience would show you is if you educate kids the same way we educate the wealthy, if we organize our classrooms in the same ways we organize the classrooms of the wealthy, if we take an approach to curriculum that’s not about one size fits all but is about figuring out how to bring out the best, those kids will do just fine. But often what happens with poor people, it’s like well we need more regulation. We need to come,we need to fit them into a smaller and smaller hole. They need to be tested more. Teachers need, we need to ride the teachers harder. We need to hold the principals more accountable and we need to close the schools when they do poorly. These are not strategies that we do with the wealthy and I don’t think we should accept them as strategies for poor folks.
JAISAL NOOR: And what’s the problem with judging low income students, African American students based on test scores?
NOLIWE ROOKS: One of the things, there’s two issues. One, if you look at across the country, you have wealthy folks mostly white middle class students rejecting this idea of high stakes testing, organizing themselves into movements, like micromovements-
JAISAL NOOR: The opt out movement.
NOLIWE ROOKS: To opt out of high stake testing. And what you started to see happen from about 2016, 2015, 2016 on, is you found at the highest level of government response to, they’re saying this is too much. These tests. It’s too much. It’s not actual education. It’s a bastardization of what education is supposed to be. All we’re doing is being taught to test. We’re just, test taking techniques. Test-
JAISAL NOOR: Which is also big money.
NOLIWE ROOKS: Which is a huge, ever since No Child Left Behind, the explosion in capital behind testing and poor folks, in particular, is no small thing. But you’re finding that when wealthy folks say it’s too much, it’s too much, it’s not working. We don’t wanna do it. President Obama put out a Facebook video saying this is too much, we need to do less of it.
In poor communities, very often, those tests end up being responsible for closing schools. So, for rich kids, when they say, “This is like ruining my whole vibe, making me anxious, I don’t like it,” you start to see a change around that. Well, let’s reduce it. Let’s be smarter about it. For kids, if they’re in say charter schools for example, that’s not an option. Not taking tests is not an option. The money to be made for charter schools really is in the we do better with test scores. So, they have to test these kids all the time. So, there is an inequality to how we use the tests, what the tests mean and the relationship of those tests to education. So, that’s one thing.
The other thing is no one is 100% sure why it is the case but there’s a lot of theories. There’s a lot of different theories about why kids of color do not perform as well on average with standardized tests. Some of the theories are the tests really track your grandparents educational achievements. So, if you had grandparents that were college graduates and upper middle class, pretty consistently their grandkids, the grandkids of those kinds of parents do very well on tests. Some folks say that it’s a stereotype threat that there’s all these ideas about people of color not doing well on tests. And even if you haven’t, you’re not aware of it, you freeze when you get to the test. I’m not sure that we are 100% sure what the issue is with tests but what we do know is that they advantage white people and they advantage wealthy people.
They advantage certain segments and they disadvantage others. And so, to build an entire educational ideology on a tool that we know, even if we can’t explain why, we know that it’s a racist instrument, it just is, is I think is indefensible. And so, if you’re, the only solution you can come up with, and the only issue that you see, if you have people not performing well on tests, the fact that they’re not performing well on tests, the fact that there’s not one person in the school performing well on tests does speak to some other issues, but the way to solve it is not more testing.
And in that little clip, I didn’t hear anything, and I rarely hear anything in conversations where people say, “Well, we need to be more aggressive in how we pull forth a high achievement.” They’re never really focusing on educational strategies that work, that have been proven to work. And so here, and elsewhere, that’s, look at what has actually worked consistently for the least of these and try that. I almost guarantee you it’s not happening now.
JAISAL NOOR: Okay, we wanna thank you so much for joining us. Noliwe Rooks, director of American Studies at Cornell University, author of several books, most recent, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education. It’s one of the most important books about education you can read if you wanna learn about the history, and the current challenges, and how we can overcome them. Thank you so much.
NOLIWE ROOKS: Thank you so much for having me.