You've been involved in public policy and education for a long time. Was
there a period where people just weren't that interested in the public schools,
a period of neglect? In the last couple of years, or even now suddenly, are
people are very interested in schools, and paying attention? Does it seem that
way to you?
Crew is the executive director of the University of Washington's new Institute
for K-12 Leadership. He was chancellor of New York Public Schools for four
years, one of the longest tenures of any recent chancellor. While leading the
district of 1.1 million students, Crew ended the automatic promotion of failing
students, changed the practice of giving lifelong job protection to principals,
and persuaded the state Legislature to give the chancellor more say over the
appointment of local superintendents. In news accounts, Crew blamed Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani for his departure. The two had several disputes, including
over a plan favored by the mayor to give public school students taxpayer-funded
vouchers to use at private schools.
It's fair to say that, during the downturn years in the economy, when the
country was really struggling to pay off its debt, to get inflation down, to get
unemployment to heal, my sense was that the country basically said, "We've
really got to pay more attention to the economic picture of America." We don't
necessarily see education as having a front row seat in being able to build a
better democracy. We think creating jobs in America is the way to do that. We
have conversations about taxes and tax cuts and so on and so forth. There's
some tangential conversation about public education, but it's really in the
In the last seven to ten years, the conversation has shifted. Part of that is
the economy is doing better, and people are now asking, "How do we actually
get people who can take these jobs, and fill them, and do well with them, and
help productivity continue to remain steadfast? That has to happen by virtue
of the public school system."
. . . Another force has been the fact that there are an awful lot of people
who are completely alive with the notion that the public schools really
represent a huge asset, a financial asset, a big bonanza, a big payday for the
private sector--that maybe it's time to aggregate public schools and figure out
ways to make them more competitive, and frankly, more profitable. That has
turned into a sort of economic conversation as well. . . .
You were quoted in the New York Times as saying that, as a black man
in all good conscience, you could not support even a pilot voucher program.
Why is that?
In my 49 years, when I've seen people talk about ideas for public
education--and particularly of late--they're really talking about a
redistribution of opportunities. They're talking about a redistribution of
wealth. I understand that the whole notion of choice has a very, very
important and valuable competitive nature. I believe in that nature. I
believe in that opportunity.
But I also know that there are schools that already are trying to fight for
just getting their roof fixed. They're trying to make sure that they have
technology available for some kids, not even for everybody yet, that they have
an opportunity to have adequate textbooks and labs for science experiments to
be done, on exams that they now have to take.
So to start talking about removing dollars from the base that would otherwise
go to support that kind of an instructional high quality program is to walk
away from children who are in these schools. And I think that government and
public service in general can't walk away from poor, black, Latino . . . poor
children in general. . . .
If that school is broken, then fix it. We have enough examples on the ground
in this country of poor schools, of failing schools, that got turned around
with good leadership, good instruction, wonderful teachers, a committed
community, people who put the necessary and right emphasis on instruction.
. . . If you really want to fix the school, you can fix the school. You can
fix it very quickly. But I argue that you can also just as easily walk away
from it. Now we're going to allow your kids to get out of it. Well, what
about the kids who can't find a seat in that other school that presumably is a
better school--what about them? Where do they go? What labs do they have?
What preparation do their teachers have? What support will their leaders have?
What kind of materials and supplies and laboratory equipment and so forth will
the kids in that school have? What are you going to do? Are you going to just
simply say, "Well, we've gotten a third of your kids out of here, and now the
two-thirds of you that are remaining, basically don't need this?" That's
absurd. Not only is it absurd, it's insidious. . . .
Is there a public education crisis now?
Certainly [the word "crisis"] would be applicable in some places. But I think
it's a misnomer. I think the real enemy here isn't, quote, "public schools in
crisis." That makes good camera-ready copy for somebody's journal. But the
real issue is the tremendous variation between and among schools. In every city
across this country, there's huge variation in the outcomes for kids. There
are some that are doing extraordinarily well, and then you have some that are
in the same system who are chronic occupiers of that lower rung of
The enemy in my mind isn't this "crisis." It's this tremendous variation. You
need to look at what decreases the variation, when you really look at what
would allow for all kids to move to the level of performance where many of our
children already are. I think that's actually a more honest statement about
it. We have lots of kids that are doing extraordinarily well. We've got some
kids in the middle, and then you've got an enormous number of kids on the
When you look, and you ask yourself, what's working in some of those other
schools? They're spending a lot of time, particularly in elementary schools,
huge amounts of time in language development--oral language development done in
a variety of ways, done by every teacher, done for long periods of time, done
in an integrated, multi-disciplinary way. They're doing it in math, they're
doing it in science, they're still using language in language arts, and they're
using language in music. They've integrated the notion that your language is
king of your ability to actually be a literate human being in this country.
And that represents one of the good things that are happening in these schools
that are working. Other schools have spotty language programs. There's a
program in, a program out, we like this program today, we don't like this one,
and we'll choose another one tomorrow. Teachers in and out. Principals and
leadership teams in and out.
What you need is some constancy, both in terms of instruction, and in terms of
the human resources that are there. You need proficiency, and you need
constancy in those schools, just like you have it in other schools that are
doing extremely well. And simply, when you find principals and teachers who
are committed and love that school, they don't leave. There are no vacancies
So the real issue for me is that you can fix these schools if you really want
to hang in and do it.
In the debates over education, a lot of conservatives refer to "government
schools." They won't say "public schools," they'll say "government schools."
Rather than have the one-size-fits-all government school, which is failing in
many places, they say that you need to privatize education. What do you think
about that argument?
. . . You can brand this sort of conservative notion about privatization. You
can brand this, or you can dislike it, or you can create energy around it. To
the contrary, what I do is try to listen to it, to understand what's really
being said by more thinking people.
And the thinking people about this are really saying, "Make this competitive,
make all schools good schools. Make all schools places where you give parents
and their children a place that they want to go, even if you have to start from
a different position in some schools. If you have to start lower, and move
higher, move faster, move more aggressively, then do that, and do it
People have said to us that the best defense against voucher schools is a
good public education system.
A lot of entrepreneurs who say, basically, "Look, education is one of the
last opportunities, the last sectors of the economy where you can step in and
make some money. We're going to go in, and we're going to run schools, and
we're going to run them for profit." What do you think of that?
I don't think you're going to stop the American entrepreneurial spirit. I
don't think it's going to stop at public schools' doors. I think it's going to
go right over us if we don't understand how to actually aggregate our own asset
base, and use it both technologically, and in real space, real terms, to
satisfy our own parents and our own teachers and kids.
There is a huge amount that can be done now to customize schools, and make them
more competitive. . . . I don't think you're ever going to stop those people,
and I don't think you have any reason to try to stop them. But I think that
the name of the game for me is how to actually compete with them. I don't
think attacking the notion of privatization is a way of being able to defeat
this issue. I think building stronger, more viable, more sensitive, more
thoughtful, more exciting public schools is the way of being able to do
So, to that end, every nickel has to be harnessed. Every new idea has to be
harnessed. Every teacher has to be harnessed. Every leader has to be
harnessed. And you actually have to build a community. . . You have to start
looking at walls that are far, far, far, out beyond where our current school
door walls are.
Technology is the best metaphor for being able to see that there's a dot-com
world out there that awaits us, if we're willing and courageous enough to go in
it, go toward it. But if we're not, we'll sit here and think that this
quasi-monopoly is going to work, that what's within our four walls will work,
if we can just simply make them come.
And I don't think that that's the case at all. I don't think urban parents
believe that. I don't think more affluent parents in suburban communities
believe that. They have a huge interdisciplinary context. Their kids are
learning in five and six spaces all at once. They're using home as school,
they're using school as school, they're using church and after school as
school, they're using the Boys and Girls Clubs as school. I mean all of that.
. . .
What do you think about charter schools?
I agree with charter schools. I agree with them to the extent that schools are
given the opportunity to be and remain public schools. In New York City, I
tried to get this point across when the governor was talking about having them
work under some other aegis. I don't happen to agree with that aspect of it,
but I do believe that charter schools offer an opportunity to build competitive
new models. It gives us an opportunity to figure out new and different ways to
allocate resources, and ways by which to strengthen and support the creation of
new schools within the public school sector.
I don't believe in vouchers, because that takes money completely out of the
public school sector and moves it into the private sector. As a result, I
think there can be nothing but a diminution of the quality of inputs that then
get put on the table for public school kids, whether that be in the form of
teachers and their certification, and their numbers of years of service, and
the dollars that they're paid. Or it can be in the form of actual materials
and supplies and hardware and software that's available for kids. . . .
So if charter schools keep the money in the system, if they're still within
the public school system, it's almost like they're an R-and-D side of public
You can have total autonomy, but you still have to have some level of
accountability for standards. For example, not every single plant of IBM, for
example, operates the exact same way. But they do have one standard.
The units that we call schools have to have a clarity about what the standard
is, but they may look very different in getting from here to there. And I
think you can do the same thing with charter schools. . . .
Why are vouchers such a hot-button issue?
It symbolizes an era of thinking about public education in its most fragmented
terms. It's overly simplistic. "Let's just take their money, we'll teach
them a lesson. Let's just take their money and give it to schools that are
good schools. That will fix this problem." Obviously, I don't agree with it.
But I just don't think it's a coherent message. It strikes a chord in a
country that, while deeply divided on the issue, actually wants to see this
investment in public education pay off. Many people went to the public school
system. They remember wonderful and fond memories of having been educated in a
public school system. . . .
And the people that I talk to, in public schools in New York and in other
places, will very quickly tell you, "Here's why I put my child here. I want
them to have that relationship. I want them to learn, and I want the teachers
to be good teachers, and I want the principal to be a good principal, and I
want my kid to have fun. But I want them to have a big slice out of America's
pie that's available by my neighborhood and by my school. And that's why my
kid is in here. Now get it right." And I think that they're absolutely on
target. Especially that last piece--"get it right."
You keep talking about having this conversation about education, and it is
happening across the country. Below this conversation about education, we're
having a conversation about race and class in America.
That's right. Yes, we are. This is as close as America knows how to have a
conversation about race and class. The president tried to have this
conversation more overtly at one point in his tenure. It was really sort of
misguided, in the sense that America's not ready to have that conversation.
It's still too raw, or still too fretful, or we're just afraid to do it. It
doesn't make us bad. It just means that we've got to find a proxy.
The conversation about education just below the surface is about standards, and
assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the real
conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? Who
will have access to the resources that that intellectual capital commands? Who
will have access to the marketplace? And how will they access that
marketplace? All of that is going to be predicated by who has computers, and
who is using technology now, who's actually being taught at a level of
literacy that would allow them to compete, technologically and academically, in
a literate workplace. That is happening in America's public schools.
what do the candidates say? ·
how bad are public schools? ·
is "choice" the answer? ·
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