Steve Perry is the founder and principal of the nationally recognized Capital Preparatory Magnet School, in Hartford, Conn. He is also a CNN education correspondent and the author of Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve (Even if it Means Picking a Fight).
Perry, an advocate of school choice and a vocal opponent of teachers unions, will join Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane during a town hall discussion tomorrow at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, where they will discuss the racial achievement gap . He spoke with City Paper this morning via telephone from his Hartford school.
Why are America's schools failing our children?
They're failing because they focus on adults. The intent is not to make a school that works for children.
Teachers unions don't like you very much.
They should love me. And if for one second they wanted to convince people that they love kids, then they should find a way to love me. Two years ago, I got on television and I started telling everybody that the biggest issue in public education is teachers unions. And even at CNN, they told me, "Steve, you've gotta pump your brakes a little bit, partner. You've gotta stop talking about this union stuff, because it's really not that big of an issue."
Look around [now]. What's the biggest issue? Governors, superintendents, everybody is doing what they have to do to dampen the impact that teachers unions have had on our children. They created this environment that focuses on adults. It's all about them. They, in my opinion, can go to hell.
Why has Capital Prep been successful where other schools have failed?
We've designed a school that prepares children for college. We don't have courses in our course offering that are developmental courses. There are no remedial courses. Every single course that is offered is a course that is capable of sending a child to college.
So if that approach has proven successful, why aren't more schools following your lead?
I had a conversation with a principal this morning ... and she said to me, "We need to have more teachers who believe that every kid can learn." I said, "I believe there are a lot of teachers who believe kids can learn, but the issue is how much they believe they can learn."
Many teachers believe kids can learn two [on a scale of 10]. And then they'll offset the rest that they didn't learn by the excuses of race, poverty and the parents' education, or lack-thereof. They have this thing down to a science. They can tell you exactly why the kids can't learn. You're telling an entire group of people in towns like Pittsburgh that their kids can't learn. It's disgusting. They're telling the parents, 'Look, I'd educate your kid if you weren't so damn dumb!"
And the teachers unions fight to make sure that we can't hold teachers accountable for their failings. That is the foundation of their organization. Their organization promises that, if you challenge their members based upon their performance, you're going against their contract. Think about that for a second. What's being said is, "I can't evaluate a teacher's effectiveness based upon how well she did at teaching kids." That's their only job.
Here in Pittsburgh, the city school district reached an agreement last year with the teachers union that includes pay-for-performance. Is that a step in the right direction?
I don't think that paying for performance is the answer. What I know doesn't work is just paying everybody the same just because they showed up and didn't die. And what we have right now is, as long as you don't die, I'm going to pay you.
School choice is being seriously debated here in Pennsylvania as voucher and charter bills circulate through the state legislature. Is that a good thing?
It must be done. The only way we'll get good schools in our lifetime is to free the children of the failed schools they're in now.
What do you say to critics who argue that vouchers and charters would effectively dismantle public school districts?
They are right: It will absolutely cripple failed schools. They will shut down. No doubt. And thank God for that.
What do you know about Pittsburgh's reform efforts over the last five years?
I don't claim to know them as well as people who live in Pittsburgh. But I know them to the extent that Pittsburgh still has a low-performing school system. It's getting better, but it's still low-performing.
When you come here tomorrow, you're supposed to address specifically the issue of the racial-achievement gap, which city school districts all across the country are grappling with. How can schools tackle this problem?
There's no single, short answer to that. But what you want to do is set the same expectations for all children. It begins with the issue of expectations. Many times you hear the conversation that students come in so many years and grades behind [where they should be]. The fact remains that we get kids at 3 years old in our school systems. How far can they really be behind? And [some] say, "Well, very far." You can't catch them up? I mean, the first two years a child is just trying to walk and pee and poop in the right place. So how far can they really be behind?
There are schools that remove the achievement gap. There have been years in which we've done really well, and there have been years in which we haven't. When we've done it well, it's because we put the same expectations on every child.