The 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” resonated with moviegoers and reviewers with its story of a team of educators that turned around a struggling public school.
But to Andre M. Perry, the central idea of the movie — and of the early 2000s reform movement it encapsulated — was deeply troubling.
Perry said the movement’s focus on “fixing” underperforming schools and the communities surrounding them did those communities a disservice by treating them as problems to be solved instead of recognizing their strengths and building on them.
“There was a theme throughout schools at that time that, ‘We’re going to come in and change these broken schools and these broken districts,’ ” he said. “There’s something insidiously wrong with that. Yes, there are needs in our communities. We’ve always known that. But let’s not ignore the segregated structures that led to resource divestment. Let’s not ignore the tilted state policy frames that these schools reside in. Let’s not ignore structural inequality in terms of jobs, housing and criminal justice.
“To say that life will be better if only we can fix the schools is a way to insert your racism into policy.”
Perry has viewed education not only as a Brookings researcher but as a professor, administrator, journalist and activist in the field. He’s been an adviser to elected leaders on education policy, was the founding dean of the College of Urban Education at Davenport University and served as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, among other positions.
He says his work at Brookings is aimed at providing schools and communities with information that can help them develop strategies and obtain resources they need to succeed.
“You don’t go out trying to fix people and communities,” he said. “They have skills and talent and people, but often they don’t have the opportunities and resources and tools to improve themselves. My job is not to show people what’s wrong with them. I’m supposed to give them analytic tools so that they can improve their lot in life.”
During a visit to UNLV this week, Perry sat down with the Sun to discuss his work and share his views on education issues in the news. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
What does the right approach to educational reform look like?
I have a particular take. I want to make sure we remember that schools reside in communities, and we have got to make sure communities have everything they need for schools to thrive. Transportation, jobs, housing, quality policing — these are components of a good community. You can’t just say, “If we can only fix the school, everything else will change.”
So I arrived at Brookings in August with that intent: I want to take a look at majority black cities and look for assets in them. Because too often our research highlights deficits, and no one wants to invest in deficits.
We need to see what communities have going for them so we can build upon those strengths. That, to me, is a start of a solution. But it’s not going to be about tinkering with governance structures. Nowhere in the literature have we seen changing governmental structures significantly change children’s lives.
Many of the things we know affect children are income, housing, where you live, parents’ involvement. These are the major things, and we’re moving furniture around in a broken house.
I did an analysis of the black cities in which black median incomes exceed the national average. And what we found is interesting, that they have anchor institutions in these cities oftentimes that we can definitely build upon.
Historically black colleges and universities are an example. In many of these towns, they provide employment, opportunities for increased human capital and educational growth; they provide cultural outlets. It’s time we built upon those institutions.
But as you’ve pointed out in your work, those colleges are shrinking. Why?
We punish colleges and universities for taking on low-income students when we should be rewarding them.
All of our metrics are tied to graduation rates and persistence rates. While these are important, we also know that low-income students don’t graduate at the same speeds as upper-income students.
So those institutions that take on low-income students are punished for that. In HBCUs, almost 75 percent of their collective students are Pell eligible. So we’ve got to figure out ways to reward and support schools.
And it’s not just HBCUs, but any urban institutions that take on low-income students. We’ve got to figure out a way to support those schools with resources to provide more residential options, to provide more grants and fewer loans, to provide the academic and social supports needed.
But we actually do the opposite.
It’s been an interesting ride over the past 20 years. During the Michigan affirmative action cases, I thought there was going to be more movement toward diversifying our colleges and universities. But with one exception — the University of Texas at Austin and its 10 percent initiative, (where it admits) 10 percent of its classes — universities have retreated. They’re creating gated communities in which those who already have opportunities get into the best and brightest schools.
But a flagship should represent the state — its good, its bad, its ugly. And they’re not doing that.
My goal as a scholar is to provide those analytic supports to help institutions and people realize their broader mission. I want folks to see that there’s talent in every school and every community. Our job is to find that talent and enhance it. It’s not to say, ‘Oh, look how bad this or that school is.’
Yes, we need to be clear-eyed. There are challenges. But I often say, in particular to black people, there’s nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t solve. Go upstream and fix those problems.
We really don’t map the strengths. And I, over the next few years, am really going to go into communities and look for things like real estate strengths, anchor institutions and transportation assets, but also leadership and social capital.
I think there’s been a lot of great work in the past on locating assets, but we haven’t done a great job in identifying assets that the ‘market’ can relate to.
So I’m going to try to find those indicators that market folks can recognize and say, ‘Oh, those are great assets,’ but more importantly I’m providing maps for people so they can recognize their own strengths, so they can leverage their own resources. People aren’t going to look up and say, ‘Oh, look, we’ve been devaluing this neighborhood for decades. Why? Let’s go ahead and invest now.’ No, that’s not just going to happen.
So there needs to be an introduction to the market from the communities involved — things that will change the conversation.
How did you come up with this approach?
I grew up in a majority black city, Wilkinsburg, Pa., next door to Pittsburgh. It’s an inner-ring suburb, and it shares the same street as Google and the rise of Pittsburgh.
And I watched Brookings almost singlehandedly lift up Pittsburgh and put it on a national stage. It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of Pittsburgh now looked like where I grew up. And I saw how, if we provide the analytic tools to a city, the city can use them to its advantage and make itself more competitive on the global scale.
I want to do the same for Wilkinsburg, which is still a majority black city. We treat black cities and institutions like black people, and I want for Brookings to see the strength in Wilkinsburg, in Memphis, Tenn., in Detroit, in Baltimore, in Ferguson, Mo.
These are not just problems, these are places with strengths. These are places where we can uplift and highlight and have the world invest in.
So if somebody’s critical, they’ll say, ‘You’re not doing anything different.’ Well, I’m not. I’m just saying there’s value in these places.
Here in Nevada, one of the issues we fight over are school vouchers, or Education Savings Accounts, formally. How do you feel about vouchers?
The research is pretty clear that many of the schools that students who are on a voucher attend do not lift up academic achievement.
And it’s probably because we’ve allowed the voucher to subsidize poor-performing schools.
I don’t think anybody has a problem with saying, ‘Hey, you can take this $35,000 to an elite private school.’ But typically the voucher is nowhere near the price of an elite private school.
And so what it turns out to be is a favor for faith-based institutions that would probably die without a voucher.
And it’s just too easy to say, ‘Let’s give people choice.’ Everybody wants choice!
I think it also becomes irresponsible if you don’t hold private schools accountable. We didn’t get to a place in America in terms of our education standing because of public schools alone.
We have a lot of private schools that need to close. And private does not equal better. So if any voucher program is going to work, guess what? They’ve got to look a lot more public in terms of being accountable.
And there needs to be a lot more vetting on the front end instead of checking on them after a kid’s education has been diminished by them.
We also need to force the hand of private institutions. If you want public dollars, you must accept public accountability and public values. Some of these private schools need to stay private, period.
I mean, I’ve always felt you’re reducing your mission as a private school when you become a voucher school. The point of it is to be private. I don’t have a problem with private schools — we need them. But a lot of people who are going to private schools are going there because they want a better public option. That’s not a compelling reason. These are not escape hatches.
So I have nothing against a voucher system, but they never create voucher systems that make sense. That needs to change.
You mentioned the need for curriculum to teach white people to be less racist. What would that look like?
One of the fundamental things that we forget about the public schools is that, when possible, we should advance integration.
I think there are things you can teach in a book. I think what you saw in Alabama, for instance, in Roy Moore and his rhetoric about the enslaved being better off under a system of slavery, is clearly a sign that white people are getting bad history.
Clearly, we need to revise history education if white people believe that. That’s a deficit. It’s wrong.
So yes, we need curriculum changes.
But we also need the type of tacit learning that comes with people of different ethnicities learning together. Now, you can’t have integration everywhere, because neighborhoods are pretty segregated. But there are places in many cities, especially, where we can zone places to enhance diversity.
And what’s interesting about charter schools is that we can move them into areas to create the diversity we want to see in our society.
Again, it’s not everywhere. But we’ve got to get back to what the democratic or social mission of a public education is — to create a better society.
If we have people confused about how to treat women, we need to infuse some anti-sexism into our courses.
If we have people who think slaves were better off, we need to change the curriculum.
There are some big things we’re missing because we’re so committed to smartness in a very rigid way. We’re missing the bigger picture.
People are balkanized, they’re fragmented; we’re not connected. We’re missing the deeper meaning of civics. We’re missing civility.
So we do need a common core, but I would challenge that it’s deeper than being very technocratic with our curriculum.
What you’re seeing in Florida right now with the students changing the gun control conversation is civics. We’re at a point in America where people need to have sort of an experiential education.
I want to see more service-driven projects. I want students, when they write, actually write an op-ed about their experience. We need more climate surveys to hear how students are feeling about their schools — how they’re treated in their schools.
These are the things that will take us to the next level. It’s not punishing students by better discipline. No, we need to make school more relevant. And right now, we are a fractured society — that’s what we need to fix.
There’s been a great deal of concern among minorities about the idea of arming teachers, focusing on the fact that minority students are subjected to suspension, expulsion and other discipline at disproportionate rates. Do you share those concerns?
I have a 7-year-old son. If teachers were armed in school, I would be scared every day. Because the same unconscious biases that trigger expulsion and suspension would be made real. I would be scared to death.
That’s not what school is supposed to be about. What drives me nuts is that schools are supposed to teach us that you don’t need to use weapons.
To give that up because of a lack of leadership? No.
But I think it’s a non-starter and a distraction. I think the students have made this clear: that the PTA is stronger than the NRA.
Parents will ultimately decide, and parents like me will be heard.
I don’t send my child to school to be policed, I send my child to school to receive an education. To be non-violent.
A casual observer might see very little coming from the Trump administration in terms of education policy, at least compared with other issues like taxes and regulations. As someone who watches this closely, how are you feeling about what you’re hearing from the White House?
I think (Education) Secretary (Betsy) DeVos has been a pretty regressive force in the country. One, she’s polarizing. She’s done nothing to bring communities together.
Two, her rescinding the ‘Dear colleague’ letter issued by Obama that provided direction on sexual assault on campus was done right around the time the #MeToo movement took off, which highlighted how bad a decision that was.
They put HBCUs on this horrible ride of false promises and embarrassment.
There really hasn’t been a renewed effort to differentiate resources at a much better level to students and families who need it.
She’s not added much value to education.
It’s not about conservative or liberal. I don’t see any kind of legitimate frame from her. She says she’s about choice, but that’s not a philosophy.
So the fact that she’s there in that role really shows what we believe in, in terms of a meritocracy. It’s a farce in that regard. There are so many people who were deserving of that spot. It’s a position that can be largely symbolic, particularly after the authorization of the major federal education policy, but it also is telling about the direction we’re headed.
I am just not compelled by a billionaire who didn’t go to public school, whose family didn’t go to public schools, tell or show anything to a larger public about schools. It just looks horrible. It is horrible.
So, yeah, I’m not a fan. (Laughs)
Are there reasons for hope about our education system?
Oh, yes! In the grand trajectory, education has been improving over time. You’re seeing gains in higher education for all people — people of color, especially.
Black women especially are highlighted in growth. You can argue that they’ve become the most educated group in terms of their rise in every category. And that’s also reflected in leadership. It’s not a coincidence you’re seeing black women mayors rise up.
So that’s always a great thing.
We’ve got to learn how to leverage schools to improve quality of life. And oftentimes we do the exact opposite. We use schools as a weapon against black and brown communities.
So people are learning. Let’s not forget that people are learning, and we need to give those people a pat on the back, not ourselves. They’re learning in spite of our reforms and efforts.