By Anthony Cody.
Last week as I was tweeting in support of the Newark Students Union occupation of their state-appointed administrator’s office, I was surprised to see a familiar name joining the chorus of support for these young activists. Montel Williams was right in there, tweeting his own support, and retweeting messages of solidarity with the occupation. So when I was asked by the National School Boards Association if I would like to interview Mr. Williams, and Thomas J. Gentzel, the NSBA’s Executive Director on Public Schools, I was happy to send questions, which were posed and answered in this video.
What experiences of your own have shaped your desire to support public education?
Montel Williams: This has been a lifetime of support for public schools, because I am a product of the public school system. I am a product of busing. I grew up in a little enclave outside of Baltimore, Maryland – a little area called Glen Burnie, which was Cedar Hill. I would not be where I am today without the hard work of my teachers, the school board at the time. The foundation of my success was built at Andover High School. And because of that, I want to make sure that we ensure that every child in this country has that same opportunity.
Thomas J. Gentzel: In every community in this country, there are doctors, lawyers, they run the body shop in town, they have all these businesses – almost all of them came through the public school system. So having a strong school system is absolutely vital to making sure this country remains strong in the future.
Many parents and students are concerned these days about the way that testing seems to have taken over the mission of our schools. What do you think about the amount of tests and the way these tests are being used?
Montel Williams: This whole idea that one size fits all – will end up fitting none. The idea that we can just test test test test and teach our children how to be lemmings and rote memorize things is not going to lead to a successful, educated workforce. We’ve got to have a big conversation about this – and we are. The National School Boards Association is having that conversation. People think this edict is coming from them. In fact, they are the ones responding to their community, trying to incorporate their ideas. The NSBA is saying we need to change this idea of trying to make kids regurgitate, and instead, make people process and learn.
Thomas J. Gentzel: This is a big issue for us, and I should point out, our organization is a private non-profit – we are not a government agency. We are representing these local officials who are typically unpaid folks who serve on local school boards – and they’re frustrated about this issue. What we’re talking about are standardized tests, but students are tested all the time – there are quizzes, there’s all kinds of feedback that teachers get about how students are learning. So this notion that we have to have more and more standardized testing for reporting purposes – it’s crowding out the curriculum. It narrows the curriculum, because you’re teaching the subjects that are going to be on that standardized test. And we’re spending a lot of time preparing students to take tests. We need a curriculum that helps students to learn, and not just make them into test taking machines.
Montel Williams: And make them think and engage them. Since I started getting involved in this campaign, I asked questions of some of the students that follow me. I have a large following in high schools across the country because I have been involved in some of the incidents that have taken place in the past few years. So I reach out to the kids and say “What do you think about this?” Almost to the letter, they have come back to me and said, “Montel, maybe you can get people to understand, if they just let teachers teach!” Such a basic term. You can follow me on Twitter at @montel_williams, with the hashtag #LetTeachersTeach, because that’s what has to happen. We have to have a conversation about educating our workforce to meet the demands of today and tomorrow, and those demands go from blue collar all the way to the top most high tech jobs there are. We cannot not educate our machinists, our electricians, our cement workers. This is who’s going to correct the infrastructure problems that we have.
In some states parents are now being given vouchers to enroll their children in private or parochial schools. Is this a productive use of tax dollars?
Thomas J. Gentzel: We’re not opposed to parents having the right to choose. The problem with vouchers is those dollars often go to private schools, and they are not accountable in the same way. There’s not the same reporting requirements. If we’re really serious about that, then we would require any school that receives public funds to report and be accountable on the same basis. Sort of a nutrition labeling idea, so parents and taxpayers could actually compare. But the real problem is every dollar that goes to that private school is one less dollar that the public schools have to educate kids, and often we’re taking the dollars from the schools that can least afford to lose them.
Montel Williams: We have to understand the agenda of those who would say we can privately and profitably do a better job of educating our kids. I just don’t buy it. I have not found an organization that can do that. We have yet to see statistical data to prove that certain voucher schools do a better job than our public schools. So the question is, do we need to take the money out of the system that helps all of us – and remember, the rising tide lifts all boats, so the masses need to be educated. Not just one or two. We take the money out and it goes to one or two.
In many cities we’re seeing a return to old patterns of segregation. Is this a concern? Or is segregation ok because it is by choice?
Thomas J. Gentzel: This is an issue that is not getting enough attention, so I appreciate you raising it. One of the effects of the charter and voucher movement – and I am not saying it’s necessarily intended, but we’re seeing it as an effect, which is a re-segregation. The whole point of the public education system is that we bring young people together from all walks of life, all different kinds of backgrounds, and that’s what helps build a strong society. So if we’re re-segregating we’re moving in the wrong direction.
Montel Williams: I agree. Horribly in the wrong direction. All you have to do is ask that silly question. “We’ve been down that path. How did that work out for us?”
Why should the public embrace greater funding for schools?
Montel Williams: When we look at public funding for anything, we look at what we’ve been able to do successfully. This is one of the most successful organizations in the history of this country. It has done the lion’s share of educating the entire American population. Why not go where the track record is the best? Put the money back where we know we can get out of it what we need, rather than put the money into a whole lot of other systems that have not been tested or proven to do a better job.
Thomas J. Gentzel: You can look at an expenditure like this as an expense, or an investment. Clearly, education is an investment. You are educating young people to be successful, to carry this country forward. We have got to make sure that public education is at the very top of the list when we’re making decisions about where we should be spending money.
Can you share a story from your visits to schools that captures what education should be about?
Montel Williams: Three weeks ago, I was at a school in Maryville, the high school, outside of Seattle, where recently there was a shooting. Impressed. I had four student leaders, a football player, a track star, and another one, literally take me around the school. Every single child there had something nice to say about a teacher. Every one I met, had something nice to say about a teacher, something decent to say about the principal. I thought kids hated teachers – no they don’t. These kids are in a situation in this school, which I think is a shining example for the rest of the country, because it is a public school that has choices within the school. They have lots of directions for the children to go. And each one of them has someone to help them find their way. We’re they funded well? No. They have a gymnasium that’s falling apart. They have all kinds of funding issues. But at the same time, these are kids, teachers and a community who all come together for one common reason, and that is to educate our society.
Thomas J. Gentzel: I was visiting the schools in Cleveland, Ohio, and there is some phenomenal stuff going on there. They are holding themselves accountable for meeting certain standards. What was neat was the school board, the mayor, the legislator, the governor, everybody came together on this plan for the Cleveland public schools. This is a community enterprise. People have to own the public schools, and they have to care about them. And if we do that I think a lot of other things fall into place.
The StandUp4PublicSchools web site has a lot of great information, and I also want to thank Montel who is doing this without getting a dime.
Montel Williams: A rising tide lifts all boats. If we educate the masses this country will continue to rise.