Love of children, compassion for children, the instincts that propel us to shelter and nurture our young: These are profound and innate. But that doesn't mean they can't be tricky.
Back in the '90s I was on the board of directors of Head Start of Greater Dallas. Briefly. African-American leaders came to me, they said, because they knew I was a "bleeding heart." They said a group of white people were pressuring Head Start to change the way it dealt with very young black children, trying to force Head Start to treat the children in ways they considered harsh, mean and, frankly, white.
It was the very first inkling of the movement we now lump as "school reform," based on the urgency of bringing all children to full literacy and mathematical competence by the end of third grade. The people pressuring Head Start to stiffen up its teaching model were not in fact all white, but most of them were. They were operating out of a body of research that later inspired Texas Governor George W. Bush's education initiatives and later his "No Child" program when he was president. And, by the way, they wanted Head Start to treat kids way more rigorously than most middle-class white people do.
Compared with Northern Europeans, for example, or Asians, for that matter, the white American middle class is very soft, gentle and lap-dandling in teaching its babies to read. No drill and kill. No slaps in the face for drifting attention. Somehow that just feels fundamentally American. Most of us don't believe any kid should get slapped for being a kid.
But the truth is that the middle-class method, soft or not, works. Middle-class American kids show up for kindergarten knowing what a book is, that it has pages, that the pages have a squiggle code on them called letters, that the letters make things called words and sentences, and that if you know how to turn the pages and decode the squiggles a story will bloom in your mind.
Poor kids know none of that. A book is a brick. Where's the "on" button? What do you expect me to do with this sucker?
So how do you catch the poor kid up with the middle-class kid? What about this more fundamental question: Is it too late already? If a kid has a bleak beginning and illiterate parents and impoverished circumstances, is that all she wrote? Is it over for that kid already?
Decades of research findings -- so uniform that no one even considers them controversial any more -- say no. You can catch the kid up. You can bring that kid to full literacy by the crucial deadline of third grade, just like the middle-class kid. Thereby you will change the entire balance of that poor child's school career, because from third grade on he or she, having learned to read, will be able to read to learn.
How? The hard way. All children, no matter what house the stork brought them to, are endowed with a marvelous capacity for rote learning. All of those squiggles and codes and rules that the middle-class kids learned the soft lap-dandling way, the poor kids can learn the European way, by memorization.
It takes some finesse. You can't make kids do it at the end of a whip. Not in our society. They have to buy into it themselves. Their school needs to have a kind of team spirit that says, "We're the smartest kids in town, we can do anything." That tends to depend on principals and teachers who can sell the deal. But it can be done.
All kids can be taught to read. All kids can be taught to do numbers. Teaching them to read and do numbers by the end of the third grade is the single biggest thing this country can do to resolve centuries of corrosive inequality.
All of this leaped to my mind this week when I read an essay on The Dallas Morning News op ed page by retired Dallas business leader J. McDonald Williams, arguing that the current Dallas schools chief, Mike Miles, should be fired. I disagree strongly with him about that. I know, however, that Williams has earned the right to speak on these issues with his own decades of selfless service and generosity.
But he used a term in his essay that flew off the page like a cinder in my eye. In attacking Miles' approach to school reform, he said, "Among its weaknesses, this model fails to take into account multiple intelligence forms and learning styles as well as socioeconomic conditions of students."
The phrase is "multiple intelligence forms." I first heard it when the Head Start staff tried to talk me into voting against allowing those very early school reformers into Head Start schools 20 years ago. They told me it wasn't right to try to teach poor black kids to read like white children. They said that kind of approach ignored multiple intelligence forms.
Multiple intelligence theory was introduced to the popular audience by Harvard researcher Howard Gardner in a 1983 book, Frames of Mind, arguing that human beings can have different kinds of I.Q. -- musical, logical, visual, spatial and so on. I bet that's an area I would be wise to keep my nose out of.
I can't help sensing in my gut, however, that multiple intelligence theory, whatever its internal validity, gets hijacked, misappropriated and abused the instant it is married to race, if for no other reason than that race itself is such a specious concept. Culture, sure, history, sure, habit, sure -- all of those things could impact the kind of intelligence that is inculcated and encouraged in children in different sectors and niches of the society.
But skin color? C'mon. People with darker skin have more musical intelligence, less logical intelligence, than people like me who look like they've been under a rock all winter? Who believes that?
The black Head Start people who wanted me to get the school reformers off the backs of black children believed it. And I note that J. McDonald Williams, who is a smart, deeply principled man, uses the phrase. I think they believe that operating on the basis of that idea is a mercy for children born to cruel circumstances.
I think it's death. Death. Anything -- even love, even duty, even the most profound commitment to protect -- everything that gets in the way of teaching kids to read and do numbers by the end of the third grade commits those children to illiteracy and pushes them out the schoolhouse door early into a truly cruel and racist criminal justice system where their lives will crushed forever.
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The black Head Start officials who wanted to spare poor black children from tough instruction were acting from love and a profound desire to protect and nurture. J. McDonald Williams, I believe, is acting from those same impulses. They're wrong.
I know that the anti-Miles cadre has convinced itself it is only anti-Miles, not anti-reform. But look at what they say. The only leader who will satisfy them is one who accepts the notion that poor children have fundamentally different potentials and fundamentally different destinies from privileged children. They espouse what is now education writer Diane Ravitch's latest line -- that the only way to change an under-privileged child's destiny is to improve his level of privilege.
That's wrong. We can do it now, right now, with what we've got, with the social reality that confronts us. The pain and disruption of the reform process Mike Miles is helping to lead us through right now are the cost of salvation for the children of the city. They are a small cost and a good price if we keep our eyes on the prize. To give up now, when the process is already showing positive results, would be morally inexcusable, even if our motives are morally pure.
That's a tough one, isn't it?