Dr. Howard Fuller: A Challenge to Educators Everywhere

Dr. Howard Fuller’s keynote address to the INCS (Illinois) Statewide Charter School Conference in Chicago December 2 lit up the Twitter-verse.  And well it should.  He didn’t hold back as he challenged charter school leaders and educators everywhere, and even the conference theme of “Reclaiming the Dream.”  Said Howard:  “This is less about reclaiming the dream than ending a historical nightmare of not living up to our promise to make sure our children get a good education,” he began.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago, so I was pleased to return as a presenter to this conference.  I attended Cook Elementary School until the fifth grade, and my sister Helene attended Calumet High School, where Twins icon Kirby Puckett later graduated.  My family knew a little about the struggles of Chicago Public Schools.  So Howard’s words hit home for me, as well.

This blogpost is all about Howard’s provocative questions for all of us–as best as I could capture them.  He is, in my view, the best speaker in chartering today!     

As a black man, I have an image on my soul of four students at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina demanding to be served.  Today, four students at a lunch counter are welcome, but they can’t read the menu!  I’m calling us out for allowing this to happen to our children.

I am an unrelenting advocate for chartering.  Charter schools are not the innovation—the innovation is the chartering process.  Innovation comes from governance—who can operate, who can authorize the charter school.  These are the innovations.

The purpose of education is to develop young people so they can engage in the practice of freedom and engage in transforming the world!  We have to use the chartering process to create the schools, policies, and procedures to help kids obtain a high level of academic excellence. 

Ask these questions:

Are you preparing your kids to be able to compete with the most competitive people in this country?  I’m tired of this “village” stuff.  Friedman’s book The World Is Flat?  That used to be us.  Kids around the world are running faster than our best young people—what does that mean?  The world has changed and we must prepare young people for it.  Are you preparing good schools when we need great schools?

We need more than one measure of school effectiveness.  School test scores are  one important measure.  You can prepare kids to do well on tests by giving them a great education.  We also must have real relationships with our kids. Are you creating schools for the 20th century or the 21st century?  Are you preparing students to live in the 21st century or to create the 21st century?  Today’s best practices could be tomorrow’s limitations.  Are you just teaching facts, or how to analyze behind the facts?  To me, the phenomenal teaching moment is when the student challenges the teacher’s thinking.

Are you facing the brutal facts of what has happened to our kids before they get to us?   No Excuses cannot be the same as No Empathy. Some kids deserve a medal for just showing up at school.  If a kid slept in a car the night before, the better response is “I understand….but we’ll make this work.”  Are you approaching kids with a deficit approach or an asset approach?  The question is not “How intelligent are you.”  It is “How are you intelligent?”

Are you able to put kids ahead of financial allegiances and friends?  Yes, there are crooks in charter schools, but are there not crooks in the traditional system?  They say we can close down charter schools, but do we?  Or are we just becoming like the traditional system, where they don’t close failing schools?

Are you willing to deal with race and class in our movement?  Race still matters in America.  Not the same as 20 years ago, but it still matters.  Class matters in America.  The only ones who say class doesn’t matter are the ones with money.  Poverty matters to our children.  But we do have to say:  when you get out in the world, nobody will care.  Don’t let a kid leave your classroom thinking the wrong answer is the right answer.  There are black people who use the race card to cover up incompetence.  We can’t let that happen.  If some of you don’t deeply care about kids, eat lunch and get out of here!  I don’t want you to be here killing my kids.  (Applause).

Are you all fighters?  If you are in this movement you have to be a fighter.  We must love our childrens’ hopes, aspirations and dreams more than we love charter schools.  It isn’t about charter schools—it is above all about these children.

Dr. Howard Fuller is Founder/Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He served as Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991-1995, and is nationally known for his unending support of fundamental educational reform.  He is board chair of Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).