Review of Dr. Steve Perry

For many people, Dr. Steve Perry is a modern day hero. He’s the CNN education contributor and he’s the principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a school which, albeit very poorly named, boasts a 100% 4 year college attendance rate among its graduates. Now for me, that immediately sounds vague. I wonder what colleges they’re going to, what they’re majoring in, if they’re graduating in 4-5 years, what they’re doing after graduating, etc. This isn’t even me being anal either. These are important details. The closest analogy I can think of to that vague statistic would involve the former leaders of Enron saying that 100% of their former employees went on to get jobs. Working at McDonald’s is a job. I digress though. I am not here to discuss the school. Apparently, it’s pretty damn good. I find it interesting that it only has 266 students (I’m sure there are more kids than that in grades 6-12 in that district), but again I digress.

I’m here to discuss Dr. Perry. He recently visited my school and gave a very interesting talk. Notice that I didn’t say a “talk on [insert topic].” That’s kind of important to remember.

He began with an anecdote detailing his most recent Christmas Eve experience. On that day, his younger son had a particularly intense seizure that really shook up his family, especially him. According to Perry, while his son was unconscious, he felt a deep regret for all the nights and moments where, instead of being with his wife and kids fulfilling his role as a husband and father, he was fulfilling his duties  as a principal and/or mentor to his students. His son survived, thankfully, but Perry was shaken up. This experience led him to later reject a lucrative job offering that would have required even more time away from his family.

A moving story, right? Sure. Inherently, I think it’s a pretty interesting story, but my transcript of it and his execution of it are two very different things. His presentation of it was very dry and unmoving. While telling it, he frequently paused or stared blankly into the crowd or stammered over his words with an indifferent grin. These sound like symptoms of someone telling a painful, personal story, but in all honesty, he was just unprepared. I know that criticizing how he presented his sad little story seems really anal and nitpicky, and on some level, it probably is, but when someone visits my school at the expense of 10K +, mountains of stress on multiple people and organizations and sheer nonsense (SGA meetings are fascinating in the worst ways), I expect that person to do with words what Scorsese does with a camera. Thus, when he used to 20 minutes of his limited, costly time to give an unmoving, poorly prepared and ultimately pointless anecdote, I was annoyed.

After his very engaging opening, he moved into the pith of his talk, which consisted of nebulous ramblings about various issues.

His most disturbing statement was one in which, comparing schools’ academic performances to the NFL, he said, “Well, only two teams made it to the Superbowl. Some teams are just better. You can’t get mad if your team lost either. They’re all professionals.” I have two serious problems with this analogy. First, education is not a competition. A good education is something that everyone deserves, not just “the best.” I think Dr. L’Heureux Lewis, a professor of sociology at CUNY, said it best when he wrote a post on Race to the Top: “competing for a civil right is wrong.” My second issue with this analogy is his assertion that “some teams are just better.” Not only does this demonstrate a poor understanding of the complexity of football on his part, but it more worryingly implies that the state of schools is just an immovable reality. If some schools are just better, then other schools are just bad. That’s just how it is. This type of fatalistic argument ignores the clusterfuck of circumstances that create bad schools, ignores the numerous, sometimes irreproducible circumstances that create good schools and discourages intervention when schools perform poorly. If a school is bad “because it is bad,” meaning that badness is just an inherent property of that school, what can you hope to do? Why even try to do anything?

Continuing with the fatalism,  he went on to make the statement, “School reform does not work. Closure does.” This is the logical extension of his earlier argument. If a school is bad, it is inherently bad, meaning it can never be fixed, thus, it should be closed down. Once is it closed down, using the vouchers granted to them by No Child Left Behind, parents of these cheated children can select the best school available and all balance in the world is restored. And that, ladies, gentlemen, ladies’ men and gentle ladies, is his solution to fixing education in America. Great argument, right? Yes, but only if you view the nation’s education system fatalistically. Once you step outside of that framework, his argument becomes silly, to say the least.

Let’s start by supposing that bad schools actually do have the potential to be good schools, meaning that bad schools are bad schools for reasons other than merely “because they are.” Already we have done something that Perry and other advocates of vouchers and NCLB seem to be unwilling to do: we have addressed the problem of bad schools diagnostically. If bad schools are not intrinsically bad, then reform is at least theoretically possible. By looking at the problem of bad schools in an indeterministic way, we are not making any presumptions, subsequently increasing our possible solutions. I feel like that’s a pretty efficient way of operating. It’s definitely how I would want a physician to work.

Before moving on, let’s play devil’s advocate. Although Perry spoke fatalistically earlier, perhaps when he condemned school reform he had considered what it would involve to address the root causes of bad schools and concluded that closing schools was just more logistically feasible than trying to reform them. This argument would be akin to “cutting one’s losses and moving on.” I don’t have much evidence to prove that he pursued this line of thinking, but even if he had, I would like to see his figures.

Another problem I had with his talk was Perry’s point that improvement in education is necessary because the U.S. is being outperformed by other countries. It’s a point I hear rather often actually, but that night it really struck a nerve. Perry introduced it by alluding to the common race/ethnicity/nationality (these are all the same thing for Perry) of telemarketers (read Indian) and the large number of Asian students majoring in the sciences. According to Perry, these two “phenomena” prove that “we’re getting beat” (notice the competitive language). It’s a pretty crappy (and racist) argument. It ignores the cultural component that drives Asian students into these fields and it assumes that these students are never American-born. If an Asian  student majors in science, it’s because s/he got a top notch education in their “home country.” Furthermore, whenever this argument is made, the proponents of it never think that improving education is a good goal in and of itself. For them, education exists solely to keep GDP high and hegemony strong. That’s problematic. Again, as noted above,  we should not be thinking of education in competitive terms.

Perry’s ideas on mentorship were also off-putting. During the Q&A after the talk, the last question asked what people could do to become mentors to students. Perry responded, “The problem is that there are not enough men to be mentors to our boys.” There are three problems with this statement. First, it assumes that mentorship is needed only by males. Second, it assumes that mentors can only have mentees of the same sex. Third, it assumes that mentors are all male. Of course, Perry had even more to say. He went on to talk about the “inherent authority” of the male voice. “There’s something in a man’s voice that a young man knows to respond to.” I’ve never read any literature on this, but on principle, I’m dubious of its existence. It makes both my feminist and pseudoscience bullshit detectors ring equally loud.

Toward the “beginning” (I’m still unsure whether such a gaseous talk can be said to have such concrete parts such as a beginning, middle and end) of his talk, Dr. Perry said, “I have no pity for adults with degrees and certifications. If you can’t get a job, well then.” Well then? Well then, I guess you don’t understand how capitalism works. I have a similar statement, Dr. Perry. I have no respect for adults who live by speaking on issues that they are unqualified to speak on. I also have no respect for idiots, especially idiots who come to my school and think that they can speak smugly and ignorantly about serious social problems.

Further Reading, Shame of the Nation.


19 thoughts on “Review of Dr. Steve Perry

  1. Dr Perry is the principal of a magnet school. You have to apply to attend! He boasts about a100% graduation rate. Every magnet school I know of in S.C. has a100% graduation rate. This past year they graduated 40 students. How many exceptional education, multi-year repeaters. or teenage mothers does he serve? Compare that to a school that accepts everyone that shows up. Dr. Perry is excellent at self promotion but definitely not an education expert.

  2. we always got to be critical hes doing something to help some teens etc even if its only 200 plus why dont some of you hip hoppers thats making money take money help him build more schools or help the kids in inner cities your criticism is a joke hes a great educators hes doing more than talk

    • Yes, we do always have to be critical. Anyone who offers simplistic solutions to complex issues deserves to be scrutinized. Serving 200 students is cool, but it fails to fix the problem. For every 200 students that receive a good education, 10000+ (these numbers are hypothetical, but you get the point) are still in the same slump, destined to live the same impoverished lives as their parents.

      Yes, Perry is doing something – something admirable, no doubt – but he’s going about it in a way that allows people to fail to see the larger, structural issues – schools are bad because they are fundamentally supported by markets, intangible, morally neutral entities that care nothing about the people they affect.

      Furthermore, to expect the kids who make it out to return is a laughable line of thought. Right now, as a nation we are stuck in a mentality of “trickle-down education.” We expect the people who’ve made it to willingly return like Jesus on that donkey. That’s silly. As evidenced by the tendency of rappers to leave and only come back to shoot videos celebrating their personal triumphs, depending on the privileged to save communities is facile.

  3. Pingback: On Entitlement and the Fiction of Diddy « The Black Tongue

  4. “Dr” Steve Perry EdD has never been a classroom teacher. He is colorist (hates women with dark skin), sexist (calls males teachers he doesn’t like mama’s boys), can barely spell (sends out emails messing up to/too/two) and is vehemently pro-standardized tests and anti-intellectual. His school is is geared to boys and sports and he cares little about young women except to bash them for not conforming to the physical standards of upper class white girls. I came from a top CT private school to teach at his school, got to orientation, was shunned for some reason and summarily let go in March after being told by that I didn’t “know how to teach black children”. I spent 3 years in a private school with glowing recs and parents pay me upwards of $50/hr to tutor in my discipline. The guy is a megalomaniac.

    • Shit. I’m very sorry to hear this. Colorism and sexism really enrage me when they come from other people of color. Don’t we have enough to deal with already? What’s really sad is that this account seems completely in line with his character. He’s such a jerk. “Megalomaniac” is the perfect description. Thank you for speaking up.

  5. The first time I saw Dr. Perry was on CNN a few years ago when they did the series Black in America. As I watched the program I asked myself many of the same questions you mentioned in your piece above. I also wondered why CNN would use a small magnet school vs a public school. I remember a part in the CNN program that showed a kid or two who had not shown up to school because they had possibly missed the bus or something of that nature. The clip showed Dr. Perry going to the students homes in his Mercedes Benz and picking them up and taking them to school….I thought to myself….this is not realistic….schools cannot do this….nor am I convinced that should be yet another responsibility that they should take on. They also did not focus on the fact that students must apply to get into this type of school and that these types of schools do not have to deal with many of the issues that public schools have to deal with on a regular basis. I am still not sure why his school was picked for a model when public schools and magnet schools are operated differently. The complexities of the educational system are vast and have so many variables. I just feel as though his commentary does not really offer real solutions to many of the challenges that face public schools and I do not understand why he has been named an expert in this area when he is the principal of a small magnet school. I have too much to say to address in a blog but I just saw Dr. Perry again on CNN and his comments were a little disturbing so I decided to check and see if there were any blogs out there in the subject.

    • I was first introduced to him during that series as well (It’s not a very good series, agreed?). I definitely agree that it’s peculiar that he’s so highly esteemed by CNN when he has such limited educational experience. Even among magnet schools, his experience is very unique. Furthermore, like you said, there are so many variables to consider when discussing education. His school is in Connecticut, so it naturally faces different obstacles than a school that’s located in metro Atlanta or the Mississippi Delta. When he gives his crappy platitudes on education, he rarely talks about the local, regional, political, cultural and social variables that contribute to schools’ successes [and failures]. CNN should definitely be looking to replace him. I bet Dr. Lewis would do a much better job. I’ve interacted with him on Twitter in the past and have never been unimpressed. His blog is pretty cool as well.

      Thanks for responding. I wrote this post last year, but it still generates traffic. That’s good because it lets me know that other people are questioning Perry as well.

  6. Say what you want about his beliefs or his methods but I admire the man. I may not agree with everything he believes or says, but at the end of the day, he gives kids opportunities. That, in my honest opinion, is more significant than any issues a person may have with his personal beliefs. There has been very few people to become successful and still went back to their community to make a difference. Overall, he’s the leader that a lot of letter would better with. He may have a few odd philosophies, but every man strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately for Perry and the kids of his schools, his strengths result in opportunities; while his weaknesses result in a few questionable beliefs.

    • I want to agree, man, but his questionable beliefs are inextricably linked to his practices/methods, so when these practices get exported via his talks/lectures and his appearances on CNN, even if some kids are getting helped, others aren’t. The uniqueness of his case isn’t reproducible, yet that’s exactly what he suggests when he presents himself as an authority on improving education. That’s problematic.

  7. I know of “Dr” Steve Perry from my sister who works in the Hartford School system. My question is how can a man who has never worked as a teacher a day in his life consider himself an expert in education???? He’s a social worker. That’s like me, an Insurance Underwriter, criticizing the construction field, when I have no experience working in it. Although he has SOME good ideas in the numerous books he has written, I do not like the way he comes down on people who look to God and Jesus Christ to help them deal with problems. It’s one thing if that’s not something you yourself believe in, but don’t try to disparage people and what they believe in or find their support in! Also, why doesn’t he ever commend his wife in the raising of their two sons or even discuss her period??

    Then this Save My Son show kills me. It is a good show, compared to the trash reality tv shows that are so popular, but the only thing I see him doing is piggybacking off the other folks who have been mentoring and creating programs to help at-risk teenage boys. What about helping at-risk teenagers period??? Boys and girls need help especially in this day in age.

    I have also heard from various folks who’s kids either attend or have attended his magnet school that he doesn’t really treat the female students fairly and that he favors light skinned or white people. How is that encouraging to his students? I just don’t get it.

    • I don’t get it either, especially the utter neglect of girls in need of mentoring. This guy seems to be utterly devoid of self-reflexivity. So many of his issues could be addressed if he just thought about them. I wouldn’t call him an idiot, but the inconsistencies between what he preaches and what he practices are idiotic.

      • I would suggest this: let’s see him go into one of these “troubled” public schools and implement his ideas. If he can boast a 90-100% graduation rate (that is without kicking students out who are not “up to par” intellectually by his egotistical standards), then I may give him props where props are due. Until then, not so much. He’s only focused on making money and keeping up this celebrity persona. How about running spell and grammar check on some of your publications and not using street euphamisms in so-called intellectual material that focuses on giving kids a proper and well-deserved education.

  8. Wow is all I can say! I just watched his show and was some what impressed as I am with anyone who reaches out to help our youth. But if what you say is true then I’m truly disappointed. I am a dark beautiful intelligent women and I remember growing up in the 60’s with this type of ignorance! I wanted to email Dr Perry about the need for positive male mentors for our diverse females of color and their need for positive male mentors in their lives. I never knew my father and my parents were married! And here I am in my late 50’s still hurting from the rejection of my father. I will need to do more research on Dr. Perry before I try to contact him regarding my ideas!

  9. I saw Dr. Perry on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show this morning. My husband and I noticed how he completely talked over everyone as if his thoughts and ideas were more important than the other panelists, especially the females. I, personally, didn’t like his infatuation with high-stakes testing. Overall, as my Grandma would say, he didn’t “sit too well” with me.

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