The other day I watched the movie Lean on Me, which I hadn't seen for years. You’ll remember the story of the no-nonsense principal, Joe Lewis Clark, a.k.a. “Crazy Joe” played by Morgan Freeman, who comes into the failing Eastside High in New Jersey and miraculously turns the school around in less than a year. The last time I saw it I was not a teacher, in fact, I was probably still a student myself watching from the comfortable suburbs, but I remember being inspired by Morgan Freeman’s character’s “tough love” and the message that it’s possible to turn around a failing school instantly.
This time around, I was not nearly as impressed. I am now a certified special education teacher who has worked in inner city public schools and am currently working as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric ward for children and adolescents. The young people I work with often have significant behavior challenges and many of them have struggled for years in school.
I watched in horror as the principal in the movie immediately expeled over 300 of the school’s most disruptive students. Mr. Clark also fired any teacher who disagreed with him. He then focused all the remaining students on getting test scores up. Whoa, suddenly this story started to sound all too familiar…
Many of the strands of the current discourse on education reform can be seen in this movie. After all, all Eastside High needed was someone who wasn’t afraid to get tough, right? (The Michelle Rhee of the 1980s, perhaps?) The act of kicking out all the troublemakers immediately reminded me of charter school’s ability to do just that. It’s an easy way to control the learning environment, a luxury the neighborhood public school doesn’t have. (Which is why in the movie the parents of the expelled students stand up to Mr. Clark. Expelling all those kids is illegal, after all.) Also, it was all about the test scores. In the movie, the whole school worked together to inch those scores closer and closer to the passing rate of 75%. No one was talking about the actual LEARNING in the school, just that the test scores improved. Lastly, the movie makes it look like it was the teachers accepting the “status quo” which caused that school to fail, like they let kids become drug dealers and violent offenders. The audience sympathizes with the firing of those “bad teachers”, despite the fact that the teachers in question undoubtedly showed immense caring and courage to work in such a difficult environment. (The opening scene of the movie shows a teacher getting badly beaten after trying to stop a student fight.)
As a special education teacher who works with the “drug dealer and gang banger” types portrayed so negatively in this movie, a new thought begins to form in my mind. I wonder do we as a society really want to help THESE kids? When you look at all the “success stories” in the news today, a la KIPP schools, these schools succeed partially because they get rid of the tough behavior kids. They then claim that “poverty doesn’t matter” because the kids that are left are indeed poor and children from minority backgrounds. But didn’t poverty contribute to the behaviors that made it so very hard to educate all those kids who got kicked out? Isn’t gang violence and excessive drug abuse associated with poverty? How many of those “bad kids” had been abused, malnourished, homeless, or bounced around foster care half their lives? The movie makes it so easy to hate those kids. But aren’t they still our children?
Are we not a society that believes in equal opportunity and equality? Why haven’t charter schools with their better resources and extra philanthropic funding taken on educating the toughest to educate children? (As a side note, would they have tried if the charter school movement hadn’t exploded alongside NCLB and accountability fever?) Do we really want to educate ALL children or are we resigned to throwing the “bad kids” in jail once they become adults (and often times well before that)?
What happened to those 300 students in New Jersey? Did some go to a hospital like mine or did most eventually end up in prison or even dead on the streets? Many of the kids I work with are labeled “bad kids”. They even call themselves that. But under all the bravado and gang tattoos, they are amazing, loving, intelligent, and thoughtful children who have had really hard lives. Are we going to continue to blame these kids for surviving their childhoods by becoming tough (on the outside, at least) and then throwing them away? Can we truly call any school that refuses to even attempt to educate these young people a success?
I look at examples like Eastside High, and I see how the kids who wanted to learn were grateful for a better learning environment. They do deserve that. But what about the others? When are we going to really talk about the problems that are associated with poverty and the impact that the poverty and violence of our cities has on the mental health of children?
I don’t have answers, but I hope that my students at the very least feel like they can lean on me.