As the end of the year approaches, I find myself pondering all the big questions of my existence, as in, "Why can't I go pick up carry-out food in a restaurant without being accosted by an angry Dallas public school teacher who wants to tell me what a butt-head I am?"
Let me ponder here for a moment. Why would that be? Oh, I know. It's because I have written here so often in defense of Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles. The teachers who think I'm an idiot don't like him. Fair enough, goes with the territory.
But the trick for me as reporter is gauging representation. Are teachers who eat in the same restaurants where Jim Schutze picks up his takeout food an accurate representation of all DISD teachers?
I can't ignore at least one indicator -- the recently released Dallas Independent School District staff morale survey, which found significant improvements in morale and also in the belief that the school district is headed in the right direction.
I assume the anti-Miles contingent will claim again that the morale surveys are rigged. This is the second survey in a row to find an uptick in morale. At some point, the people who claim the surveys are dishonest need to to come up with some proof. Otherwise, the surveys indicate that teachers who recognize me in restaurants are a non-representative subset of the whole.
The first three are are names you know, Brinsley, who murdered two police officers in New York last week; Brown; the unarmed black 18-year-old shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last August; Garner, the black man killed by police last July during a street arrest in Staten Island, New York. Hamilton may be less familiar. He was a mentally ill black man shot to death by a white police officer in Milwaukee last April. That officer was cleared of wrongdoing Monday.
Every time a story like the clearing of the officer in the shooting of Dontre Hamilton comes along -- and they come along like clockwork once you start paying attention -- it reignites the protests first set off by the Michael Brown story, then inflamed by the video of Eric Garner's choke-hold arrest. Police in New York and around the nation are furious with the protesters and their sympathizers, blaming them for the vicious execution-style murders of two officers last week by Brinsley, a 28-year-old drifter with a history of mental illness and petty thievery who appears to have been as great a burden to his family and everyone near him as he was to society.
So how do I get Mike Miles mixed in with this crowd? Our superintendent of schools came to us almost three years ago with a history of distinguished service as a military officer, diplomat and educator. But I put him in this picture when I think about it, because Miles is the only guy I ever hear here, in our town, in our local situation, who talks about the real issue, the thing that is at the core of every one of the cases I have mentioned above except Eric Garner. That issue is the execrable performance and utter failure of racially segregated school systems in this country.
Three days ago Nikole Hannah-Jones, who may be the nation's best education reporter, published a piece in Pro Publica laying out the staggering disparity of outcomes between Michael's Brown's school district, Normandy, which is majority poor and black, and the Clayton school district, mainly affluent and white, both in the St. Louis metro area. Hannah-Jones shows how this pattern of disparity is replicated in segregated school districts across the country.
But St. Louis is one of those three-rivers stories that establishment media in Dallas seem to like so much -- stories about real bad things going on in places that are at least three rivers away from Dallas. Why look so far? What about our own backyard?
Last year Stand For Children-Texas published numbers in a study it called the "Cradle to Prison Pipeline in Dallas" showing that the Dallas Independent School District continues to flood the streets of the city with young people who are headed nowhere but prison. Early drop-outs, functionally illiterate, perceiving themselves as outliers, as human beings unwelcome in the organized community, they busy themselves fulfilling that destiny, getting themselves sent to prison as soon as possible so that they may begin lifetimes as unemployable serially incarcerated urban paupers. The 10 Dallas ZIP codes in the study that sent the most people to prison were 10 ZIP codes with some of the lowest college-ready high school graduation rates in Texas.
The teachers most angry with me for writing favorably about Miles always bring up the connection I have just cited as if it were a personal slander. They always tell me that no one who has not been a teacher in an urban classroom can understand the challenges they face, and they always bring up the nexus of culture, family and achievement. The lesson I draw from what they tell me is that they believe family and culture are destiny, that no teacher can reach or teach children who come form bad families in a dysfunctional culture.
But that's simply not true. All kinds of work and serious research is going on around the country -- look at the MacArthur Park School in Los Angeles -- based on the premise that things are even worse for many kids than what might be predicted by sloppy families and an anti-social culture. At MacArthur Park they have found that kids come to school scared out of their minds by violence and depravity that would scare any adult out of his socks. But educators there are finding ways to reach those children anyway.
In study after study, ways have been found to take kids from the very worst social backgrounds and bring them to full literacy in time to change their destinies. It's not simple. It's complicated. But it can be done.
I'm not an educator, obviously, and even my personal interest in these matters leaves me with only a modest amount of knowledge and probably a bigger amount of bias. So maybe I should tell you what my bias is. I think creation endows us with babies that are magnificent miracles of coping, genius, capacity and potential. If we sit by and find reasons for doing nothing, for giving up on them, then, yes, economic deprivation, racial segregation and other soul-withering cruelties will turn too many of them into transient mentally ill criminals.
But why would we bet on that side? Why wouldn't we invest everything instead on the side of potential? Why wouldn't we want these kids to become our wonderful neighbors instead of our scary burglars?
Police shootings, meanwhile, are a tough issue for me. I have covered too many as a reporter. Take the one I mentioned above in Milwaukee. According to witnesses the dead man, Dontre Hamilton, had taken the police officer's baton from him and was attacking him with it when the officer fired 13 or 14 shots at him. Much of the debate about whether the police officer deserved to be indicted for murder had to do with whether 13 or 14 shots were too many to fire at a guy who only had a baton.
I think that's a really stupid argument. If you fight with a cop, especially with a weapon, especially with a weapon you took from the cop, then that cop needs to shoot you. And once he starts shooting, he's going to empty his magazine. Arguing about how many bullets he gets to put into you is insane. Enough to kill you. Then what do you care?
Does that mean the cops are always right? I sure can't look at the Eric Garner tape in New York and see how they were right in that case. If cops can't control themselves, if they express disdain for the value and dignity of human life, then they ought to be indicted for it.
But we should all be able to see this: It's wrong, it's immoral and it won't work to ask the police to solve basic underlying social problems for us. By the time Michael Brown is in the street with a pocketful of stolen cigars, it's too late, way too late. We have already failed the child he was born as. His high school diploma from a lousy school district and even his admission into a for-profit remediation "college:" how important is any of that, really, when he's in the street robbing people?
We are filling our own streets with kids like Michael Brown. They are the numbers in the Stand for Children "Cradle to Prison Pipeline" report. They constitute a social cancer in the body politic. That cancer manifests itself in the collision we see between society's hardened fist and the outcasts for whom that fist is their only social connection. And the worst part is this is a cancer we know how to cure.
Miles is the only one I see who has devoted himself to the cure. He is betting everything on the potential of children, not on class and race-based determinism. He's the one telling us there is a light, and he can see the light, and he will bring the light to the children.
Look, I do worry sometimes that his cure is sort of like chemo. There are major and unpleasant side effects. I know for a fact that the regime at DISD right now is oppressive and insulting for many older experienced teachers. I wonder sometimes if the teaching methods appropriate for traumatized minority poor kids can coexist in the same district with methods more appropriate for less disadvantaged children.
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I'm also aware, however, that Miles is up against a significant and determined cadre of status-quo-sters who see him as a threat to their political patronage meal tickets. And they're right. He is a threat to their meal tickets.
That cadre has mastered the political art of wood-stacking: run to the media with this gotcha story, wait a week, take them another gotcha, and even though none of the stories has any lasting power you can create over time an impression of some kind of trouble. First the reporters start using the phrase, "amid rising controversy." The real prize, as I heard reporter Eric Celeste say once, is getting them to include the word "firestorm." That's a home run.
I have to go back to the teachers who spot me in restaurants. What is the real picture? What is the overarching reality? For me the bitter divisions illuminated in the police shooting protests are only reflections of the underlying evil, which is our failure as a city and a society to rescue hundreds of thousands of children in our midst from destinies to which they were born, destinies they have done nothing to deserve. The only solution is our energetic and hopeful embrace of them. That embrace is the only thing that will pull them into the fold of productive society. The only window we have for that embrace is the schools.
To the teachers who tell me they hate Miles, I always try to take time for this question: Tell me what your idea is for saving those kids. And I do try to listen. But I do admit it depends somewhat on how cold my food is getting.