Dear Ira Glass,
I am a big admirer of your work and I often use episodes of This American Life in my curriculum. Your recent two-part episode on Harper High School was of immense interest to me. I am a teacher here in Chicago, and have taught in Chicago Public Schools in both Englewood and Cabrini-Green. I am currently teaching at a high-performing non-selective high school on the Near West Side, where I have the opportunity to serve a student body made up of low-income minority students, many of whom are from the Englewood and other South Side neighborhoods. One student with whom I have become close over the last three years has multiple siblings who have graduated from Harper. I also lived with a Harper teacher during the 2010-2011 school year.
The stories of these students need to be heard, and your team did an admirable job of bringing compelling narratives to light for a national audience.
With that being said, I have to tell you that I was severely disappointed in the scope and focus of your broadcast. While I understand that you were interested in investigating the impact of violence on Harper, I was still stunned that education and learning were completely absent from a two-hour broadcast about a school. In the end, I believe that your coverage served to excuse many of the most harmful practices in our schools today and perpetuate some of the most harmful myths about urban education.
Low Expectations of Staff
One of the harmful practices you present and excuse is low expectations of staff. Throughout your piece, you constantly show the staff mocking the students. Whether it is the security guard openly referring to the freshmen as “fresh meat,” the social worker making fun of the way a student comes to school under the influence of drugs, or the way the principal herself makes fun of a freshman girl’s non-uniform outfit, staff members are constantly depicted making light of the rules and playing fast and loose with the concept of respect and professionalism. Your interpretation of these interactions (“That’s classic Harper: you’re reprimanded, but with love”), in my view, misses the point. If these interactions are classic Harper, then they are part of the problem.
The staff members are not shown modeling professional conversation, nor are they shown giving the impression that they take infractions seriously. Students, in turn, are not shown learning how to speak professionally, nor are they shown learning how to receive legitimate criticism. I witnessed interactions like these constantly while teaching in Cabrini-Green. In my experience, they serve to create an adversarial environment, and they undermine the integrity of rules and expectations.
Reprimanding with love does not mean blending a lax attitude toward the rules with playful condescension. Reprimanding with love means making infractions into teachable moments, giving clear and consistent consequences, and caring enough about the students to hold them to the highest possible standard with both positivity and firmness.
Low Expectations of Students
Another harmful practice you seem to promote is low expectations of students. In the episode, you portray Ms. Crystal Smith as a tireless source of positivity, and in many moments, this is absolutely right. She does a beyond-admirable job of staying optimistic and trying to surround the students with positive messages, and this should be applauded.
However, students are incredibly perceptive, and they can sense when they are being condescended to. They know when the bar is being lowered for them, and they know when they are being babied, for example, when Ms. Smith says, “I thank you. For being in class on time, thank you. I love you!” No student should be lauded for getting to class on time. This should simply be an expectation. Later in the episode, security guard Marcel Smith says to a student in the hallway, “Is that a pass in your hand? I’m so proud of you.” Again, the student receives praise for following a basic rule.
When you, Ira, celebrate, or at least portray uncritically, these low expectations in your show, the low expectations are reinforced and validated, and have the potential to rub off on your listeners.
Gangs are Inevitably in Charge
In addition to excusing harmful practices, you also perpetuate three myths. The first is the inevitability of gang dominance in schools.
“Today,” Linda Lutton explains, “whether or not you want to be in a gang, you’re in one.” When Linda Lutton asks Officer Washington how to avoid getting mixed up in gangs in Englewood, he says, simply, “You can’t.”
Instantly, I am suspicious, as I know students from Englewood who are not in gangs. Certainly, they must make some hard choices; Lutton herself explains that in order to avoid the gangs entirely, Englewood teens must avoid socializing in the neighborhood and, to a degree, at Harper. However, she notes, “It’s a price most teenagers anywhere would find almost impossible to pay.” She goes on to explain that, at Harper, gangs are not simply “the bad kids in the corner… They’re the defining social structure in the school.”
Presenting gang activity in schools in this fatalistic way is unproductive and inaccurate, as there are plenty of schools like Harper whose staff members are implementing policies that eliminate gangs from in-school culture. Lutton’s perspective feeds into the narrative prevalent throughout so many failings schools, which is that ‘this is just the way things are.’ When the in-school war zone is conceived of as inevitable, staff members and students are seen as powerless, valiant victims of an unasked-for war.
We Lack Models of Successful Urban Education
There is a moving moment in your broadcast in which Crystal Smith breaks down and opines, “I need to see where education works. And I need to see where success happens.” Your listeners’ hearts break with her; but she, along with your listeners, is deprived of any follow-up on the part of your reporting team.
There are two things I find fascinating about this statement in this episode. The first is that there are places where education works. Let’s talk about that! Why not counter the stories of failure with stories of success? I would love for Ms. Smith (and your reporting team) to come to my school, which is thriving (though still imperfect), or to any of the other wildly successful schools springing up all around Chicago that are effectively serving low-income students from rough neighborhoods. They do exist. Let’s share their stories.
The second thing that strikes me about Smith’s statement is its irony within the show, considering the fact that education is almost entirely left out of the full two hours of the reporting. It is easy to forget, in listening to the stories of Kotlowitz, Lutton, and Calhoun, that the story is titled “Harper High School.” One of the only legitimate references to the “high school” part of “Harper High School” is the insistence on the preservation of the Homecoming Dance, the administration’s laudable effort to provide the students with a ‘real high school experience.’ What was strangely absent, though, throughout the two hours, was an acknowledgment that Harper is, or is supposed to be, an educational institution: a high school.
What was not mentioned by your reporting team was that Harper High School ranked in the bottom 25 out of the approximately 125 high schools in the city of Chicago on ACT growth in 2012. If one looks at the starting scores of the freshmen taking the 2009 Pre-EXPLORE test (essentially the pre-ACT taken at the start of freshman year) and the finishing scores of those same students taking the ACT as juniors in 2012, Harper students grew about 2 points over the course of three years. Their final score was about 15, which is 6 points below the national average of 21, not significantly better than random guessing, and not good enough to get into college. Compare that to the 5 points of growth or more achieved by fourteen Chicago high schools last year (10 of which are non-selective enrollment schools, meaning that, like Harper, there is no selective enrollment process or academic barrier to entry). The gap between 2 points of growth and 5 points of growth is the gap between three years of learning very little and three years of learning a considerable amount. It is the gap between not having the option to attend college and having that option.
I fully understand that the episode is about violence at Harper, but it is still striking that over the course of two hours, educational challenges, priorities, initiatives, successes, and so forth barely receive a nod in your coverage. It is impossible for the listener to know whether this is an editorial choice on your part, or simply a reflection of the institution’s priorities. If the former is the case, I wish you had chosen differently, if the latter is the case, then that should be presented critically.
Perhaps if the school chose to be more focused on academic achievement and preparing students for college and the workplace, some of the violence might recede. A school entirely focused on responding to violence, it seems, does just that: it spends a lot of time responding to violence. A school whose primary focus is academic empowerment would see a different culture and different results. I know it’s possible, because it is happening across the city, in rough neighborhoods, with low-income students, every day. Inner-city education must be proactive, not reactionary, and must be centered on education.
The Problem is Money
The final myth your coverage perpetuates is that money will solve the problems of urban education. Toward the end of the second hour, there is an acknowledgment of Harper’s difficult financial situation. We learn that a significant part of Harper’s budget is being cut as its turnaround funds are phased out. Principal Sanders fantasizes about increased funding. “Every day, I wish I could win the lottery,” she laments, and your listeners are meant to second her wish, even help her out with a donation, if possible. Her wish list sounds wonderful, of course, featuring state of the art labs and increased access to technology.
However, at the end of the day, there’s a logical fallacy at the heart of your episode: last year, with all this turnaround money that is about to be lost, the academic results were abysmal, and the violence was uncontrollable and catastrophic. And yet you ask listeners to donate to the school in order to make up the funds that are about to be lost.
What I don’t understand is: What is the vision for change? At what moment do you have Principal Sanders, or anyone else, articulate to the listener a single step that will be taken, with or without new funding, to radically improve either the safety or the academic outcomes at Harper? Why are we to believe, with such abysmal results, that Harper can improve if it simply perpetuates the same leadership, the same strategies, the same funding levels, and the same mindset of the last several years?
At what point do we distinguish between effort and success, and hold adults accountable for success, for the sake of the children?
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I believe that high expectations and a shift toward culture, discipline, and academic results could work wonders at Harper and schools like it across the city; I believe that high expectations of staff and students make all the difference in the world; I believe that gangs in schools are not inevitable; I believe that academic results matter; I believe that proactive policies and excellent staff and student culture matter more than money.
I believe this because I see evidence of it every day at my school and know that it is happening all over Chicago.
I hope that, in the future, you will choose to view struggling institutions with both compassion and a critical eye. I hope that we as a society will succeed in telling stories about the places where education is working, and that we will take the lessons of those places and bring them to places like Harper. I want things to get better, and believe they can, and believe they need to, and believe that that is what we need to be talking about.