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A discussion with Lester Spence and Marc Steiner about the historical roots of the problems facing Baltimore public schools

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

As our viewers know, The Real News has moved to Baltimore. It’s the home of our new national headquarters. But we don’t know that much about Baltimore—something we want to fix as soon as we can, ’cause we plan on doing a lot of local coverage of Baltimore. So we’re asking people who do know Baltimore to come and talk to us and raise and explain some of the issues that we should be digging into. We plan to do investigative pieces and town hall debates in the coming months.

And without further ado, here’s the first of our series about what’s happening in Baltimore. And joining us now in our studio is, first of all, Lester Spence. Lester’s a contributor to the book We Are Many. He’s an associate professor of political science and Afrikana studies at Johns Hopkins University, and he’s the author of the book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics.

And also joining us is Marc Steiner. He hosts the widely acclaimed public radio news and interview program The Marc Steiner Show. And he can be heard at WEAA 88.9 FM. That’s the NPR member station at Morgan State University.

Thank you both for joining us.



JAY: So one of the things we’ve heard as we come to Baltimore—it’s one of the things I think most people hear when they first move to Baltimore—is that on the whole, the public school system ain’t very good. And we hear that people, when they can, they move out of the city and get into the county ’cause supposedly the schools are better. We’re told there’s a couple of good schools in the city, but on the whole, public education here has deteriorated. So, Marc, kick us off. I mean, if that’s true, why is it so?

STEINER: That’s a very long and complex story. I mean, schools being good or bad, a lot of that function has to do with class and race. It’s not just simply to say that the school system is bad. I mean, this is a city where a majority of children come from poor working-class homes, and it’s a city where in many of those poor working-class homes, over generations, people have not gone to school, period. We had lead paint issues and children who have been affected by lead paint. Their cognitive abilities have been affected by lead paint. All that’s in the picture as well. And, yes, there was a flight, flight of the middle class, black and white, out of the city into the counties.

JAY: And that’s an important point, black and white, because one thing I’ve learnt about Baltimore is that there’s a very big black middle-class population with stable working-class jobs.

STEINER: Always has been. Baltimore’s history, just very quickly, since you raised that, Baltimore pre-Civil War had the largest free population of any community in America, free black population. It had an early black middle-class that’s always been here. [incompr.] the African-American newspapers, the shining light of black newspapers across the country, founded here in Baltimore City, the home of Thurgood Marshall. I mean, it is—so it’s always had that middle class. It’s always been there. There’s a new middle-class, and after the end of segregation, exploded, people who got jobs in the government and in business, and they moved to Baltimore County for the most part and left the city.

So—and the schools just—they nosedived in the late ’60s and early ’70s and kept on falling. And the problem is now is they’re trying to resurrect them, but they’re using these models that are also based on standardized testing.

JAY: Okay. Well, before we get into that, Lester, let’s go a little more into the roots of how did the Baltimore school system become so, on the whole, not very good.

SPENCE: So what—I’m going to get to that. But I actually have children, and when I moved here, I lived in Baltimore, so I can talk a little bit about that transition, that county transition, because we had to make the transition because of our experience with the school system. So the story that Marc is telling puts a little bit more weight on the students themselves, either them or their parents. There’s also a structural dynamic with the teachers.

So there were two incidents that happened. My wife and I have five kids. We lived and we rented a home in Ashburton. Ashburton is the most exclusive black neighborhood in Baltimore, probably the most exclusive. Not one of them—.

STEINER: It was, yeah. Yeah, yeah. [crosstalk]

SPENCE: Yeah. And we rented [crosstalk]

JAY: You’re originally from Detroit, is that right?

SPENCE: I’m from—I’m originally from Detroit. So I’ll just give you one example. My daughter brought home an assignment, and I would, you know, look over assignments, you know, before she’d turn them back in.

STEINER: Elementary school in your neighborhood?

SPENCE: Elementary school.

STEINER: [crosstalk]

SPENCE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the elementary school. And we—supposedly it was one of the best elementary schools in the city. And there was one assignment she got where it was 1.0 is greater than one. Right? And it was a true/false statement, and she said it was false, and then the teacher said, no, that’s true. Like, no, that’s false. One-point-oh equals one. It’s the same number. And I get in an argument with my grade-school daughter, ’cause she’s like, oh my God, Daddy, the teacher’s right. And I had to tell her, I was like, baby, you will never have a teacher in your life that’s smarter than I am, but definitely not no grade-school math. Alright?

And then there was another. There was a series of incidents where it was clear that the teachers that were teaching her and my other children were not teaching them accurate information.

JAY: Weren’t trained very well.

SPENCE: Yeah, they weren’t trained very well. Right? So we had to make a decision. And so we made a decision to move out to the county. And we’re very satisfied with—the grade school is excellent, the middle school not so much, and then my two high school age—the two high school aged kids I’ve had so far were able to get into the magnet. And the magnet had its own politics, ’cause it kind of peels middle—it allows—it shunts off a certain type of political dissatisfaction, because black middle-class and white middle-class parents can at least have a sense that if they get their kid in the right public school, it doesn’t matter how the rest of them are. Right? So that’s my personal experience.

Now, where does this come from? Baltimore’s a Rust Belt city. So, like many Rust Belt cities, the public school system—.

JAY: Meaning it used to have a steel industry and more in manufacturing.

SPENCE: Yeah. Oh, that’s right, yes, yes, more manufacturing. But then that dissolves. Right? Those jobs leave, and they’re not really replaced with anything.

Now, the public school system in these Rust Belt cities, places like Baltimore, like Detroit, Gary, Milwaukee, all United States cities, the public school systems were designed, to a certain extent, to get those kids out of public schools right into the job, right, right into the plant. You graduate from high school; the next day, you go into the plant. Right? That—even though that doesn’t happen, that’s how most of the schools still are. Right? They’re still designed to get you into the plant. But that job doesn’t exist anymore.

JAY: Yeah. We did an interview recently. A recent study has shown—I believe it’s two-thirds of new American jobs, first of all, don’t require a college education, and a lot of them don’t even require a high-school diploma.


STEINER: But there are a lot of jobs that do, and we’re not preparing our kids at all. I mean, when they’re interviewing someone who runs a company near the shipyards—he told me this a few years back on the show—we’re looking to hire 150 to 200 machinists. We can’t find them. Nobody has the math skills, the computer skills to do the job. We’re not training our kids (A) for the jobs that exist. We’re not intellectually training them for anything. You know, they are—they’re taking literature out of the schools, they’re taking anything that doesn’t have to do with the testing out of the schools. So our kids are not being taught critical thinking, they’re not being taught any of the skills that they need. They’re not there.

JAY: Baltimore, if I understand it correctly, is a fairly segregated city, not legally, but in—.

STEINER: It used to be legally.

JAY: It used to be, as late as late 1960s, yeah.

STEINER: Nineteen-sixties. Right.

JAY: But de facto, to a large extent still is. Are the public schools better in the white areas?

STEINER: Are the public schools better in the white areas? It’s not necessarily a white/black thing. The Baltimore City schools, there are magnet schools in the city as well that attract kids from all over the city.

Let me put it this way. Right now there are no neighborhood high schools in the city. They’ve bitten the dust. And where there are zoned schools, like Northwestern, it’s become the dumping ground that nobody wants to send their kids to.

JAY: So, just to be clear, neighborhood schools means you no longer go to the school that’s down the street.

STEINER: A zoned school. Your zoned—.

JAY: You apply to schools and see which you get in.

STEINER: Exactly. So the kids that don’t get into the best schools—.

JAY: This is high schools, not public schools.

STEINER: Schools.

JAY: Oh, public schools too?

STEINER: You get middle schools that can be the same way, elementary schools are becoming the same way, so that the kids who don’t get into the schools that they want to get into are out of luck. And I think that that’s part of the issue as well. And if you—they’re desperately trying to figure out how to make it work. I mean, more kids are doing better in terms of standardized testing than ever before in the history of the school system. But that’s only part of the issue, because—.

SPENCE: And our testing regime has its own problems.

STEINER: Right. Huge problems.

SPENCE: Yeah, I mean, big, massive problems.


JAY: Yeah, we’ve done some stories on this. And teachers in general are complaining—in fact, in Chicago there’s a big war over this, that standardized testing is actually defeating learning.

SPENCE: Yeah. I mean, so you—and we haven’t talked about [incompr.] gave that analogy to talk about how there’s a teacher challenge. But the other thing is that because teachers themselves aren’t really paid, they aren’t really paid that well, they’re not really—there are a number of people who are going into different industries who probably would make better teachers than some of the teachers that we have. And then the political dynamic is that the teachers themselves are under pressure, are under increasing pressure to perform because of the testing regime, and then because of strain placed upon teachers unions. Right? So it makes it kind of a—it makes it a really difficult learning environment for children, and then it makes it a difficult environment for teachers. Right? And that’s—and this is part of a national trend, where—.

So when we grew up, when all of us grew up, when most people born before 1969 or so, the natural thing was for them to go to their public school. But now, because of these local and because of these intensely national dynamics, the natural thing is to get your kid in a private school or to roll the dice and hope you can get in a lottery and get in a magnet school.

JAY: A magnet school is what?

SPENCE: A magnet school is the school that is, like, your high-end public school that usually requires some type of lottery plus test scores to get in.

JAY: It’s a lottery, not a merit.

STEINER: No, it’s both.

SPENCE: It’s both.

STEINER: It depends on the school.

SPENCE: So the schools my children go to—my oldest son goes to high school in the county, but it’s the same thing. It’s like you take a test, and then if your test score is above a certain mark, then you’re put in—

JAY: In the lottery.

SPENCE: —in the lottery.

JAY: So, by definition, there is a lot of kids that will qualify but not enough spaces to put them. So it’s also an issue of money, then.


STEINER: Right. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, and I have kids and grandkids who have all been in the public school system—Baltimore County and Baltimore City. You know. And there are incredible schools in the city. Like, my oldest daughter graduated from Baltimore School for the Arts.

SPENCE: Same school 2Pac went to.

STEINER: Yeah. Well, he was one of my students. And so—.

JAY: Which is one of the more outstanding schools in the city, right? That’s, I think—.

STEINER: Oh, yeah.

SPENCE: In the state.

STEINER: Country.

SPENCE: Yeah, in the country.

JAY: I think it’s—it’s in the top 20 or 30 schools in Maryland.

STEINER: Yeah, all over—in the country. I mean, it’s just an amazing school. So there are schools like that. And those schools are racially and in terms of class completely integrated.


STEINER: I mean, kids from the projects, kids from the mansions of Homeland, all in the same school.

JAY: And you’re saying 2,000, 3,000 kids try to get in and maybe 100 get accepted.

STEINER: Exactly. Exactly.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to do another segment on this, and the segment will be—okay, so you’re—each of you are going to be now the czar of education in Baltimore.

SPENCE: And what do you do?

STEINER: The czar of education.

JAY: And what would you do? And I guess we’d have to give you some money as well, but we’ll [incompr.] So join us for the next segment of our interview about public education in Baltimore on The Real News Network.


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