Where High Expectations Are Met … And More

Published March 1, 1997

Twenty-five years ago, Marva Collins left a public school teaching position to open her own school, in her own home. Although she had enrolled her child in one of the city’s private schools, she was dissatisfied with the education that was delivered there. Four years later, Marva Collins’ Westside Preparatory School opened its doors to eight students. There are now two schools and a branch on the south side.

Chicago’s most famous and most controversial educator, Marva Collins is the author of 12 children’s books. Her latest book, Values: Lighting the Candle of Excellence, has just been released. She has trained thousands of teachers across the country to apply her instructional methods and challenging curriculum in their own public school classrooms. She has offered to work with Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas to help turn around three public elementary schools in her west side Chicago neighborhood.

And still she finds time to share her insights with parents and school reform activists who, like her, passionately believe in the potential of all children. She took time out from an especially busy day recently to respond–admittedly briefly–to a few questions from School Reform News managing editor George Clowes.

Clowes: You’ve offered to help three of the 109 Chicago public schools that were placed on probation last year. Do you have any ideas going in as to why so many schools in Chicago are failing the children they are designed to serve?

Collins: Children do not fail. We, as a society, fail them. And we are failing the children in most schools across the country, not only inner-city children. Children fail because of our low expectations. The answer is simple, but true.

One reason for the low expectations is our teacher training. The entire training of teachers is anathema to what children actually need to learn in the classroom. Dewey’s philosophy of education does not teach children to read, write, think, and spell; nor do monthly bulletin boards, more and more staff meetings, or unions that protect poor performance.

Clowes: As someone who has taught in both public and private schools, what do you see as the pluses and minuses of both systems?

Collins: There are bad private schools, and good private schools. There are good public schools and poor public schools. We as Americans like to neatly categorize everything into “all” . . . and that is faulty thinking. The same junky textbooks used in private schools are used in public schools. Curriculum and who teaches that curriculum makes for a good school and an educated populace.

Clowes: Several steps have been taken to reform the Chicago Public Schools, including local school councils and new management under Mayor Richard M. Daley. How well do you think these reform efforts have served the schoolchildren in Chicago?

Collins: One does not reform anything with the same “shibboleths” and zeitgeists and experts that messed them up in the first place. The education system that failed parents cannot expect those miseducated parents to educate their children.

Clowes: The judge who recently struck down expansion of the Milwaukee choice program said that school choice might be sound public policy. Could you explain the concerns you have about voucher programs?

Collins: Choice, vouchers, whatever name we would like to call it all boils down to the same questions: Who is teaching the curriculum? What are the expectations? Is there accountability? What is the curriculum? A rose by any other name is still a rose. . . . One cannot put new wine into old wine skins.

Clowes: How do you feel about charter schools?

Collins: I have turned down three offers to open charter schools. New names, same old attitudes, same old mediocre curriculum, same nonchalant, turnstile-attitude teachers. Do children have learning disabilities–or are they victims of some teaching inability?

Clowes: What reforms do you believe would address the problems you’ve identified?

Collins: Changing the curriculum . . . changing the curriculum . . . changing the curriculum . . . and accountability. Just as we would not continue to buy “poorly made products,” why do we tolerate mediocrity in our schools? Again, it is all about poor expectations. Plato said, “Education is cumulative,” and that is still true today.

Clowes: Are you optimistic about improvements in the quality of education that schoolchildren in Chicago will be receiving by the time we move into the 21st century?

Collins: Unless we are Nostradamus, we cannot predict the future unless we use as a barometer the present trends. If the present trend continues, we shall repeat the lessons told in Gibbons’ book, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Again, we have too many children groping in the darkness and dazzled by the light of literacy, and all because children have no one to speak for them. They have no unions, no spokespersons. And so according to the “expert adults,” all children are unteachable, and, of course, it is not our fault. The future looks bleak, and will be bleak unless good people now, this moment, do something. As Henry IV says in the play by Shakespeare, “Either we confront danger now, or we meet it in another place.”

Miseducation anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Just as we continue to ask the wrong questions, we shall continue to get the wrong answers. The President stated every child would be reading by third grade, but reading what? Perhaps, “See the ball; see the big ball; see the big red ball.” That is not reading, that is seeing the huge picture of the ball on the page and repetitiously repeating the same banal sentences.

Clowes: What one message would you like most to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our readers about education issues?

Collins: The same education being taught to inner-city children is being taught to their children too. To paraphrase John Donne, None of us is an island; the failure of any of us diminishes each of us. So the bells are not tolling just for poor, inner-city children, they toll for each of us. To ignore this message is to diminish the freedom of each of us, and to assure that the American nightmare will soon outdistance the American dream.