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.