Arthur Levine

9/11 and American Education

VTR Date: September 13, 2002

Guest: Levine, Arthur


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Arthur Levine
Title: “9/11 and American Education”
VTR: 9/13/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I always particularly much enjoy talking here with today’s guest, gaining so much pleasure and much more, too, by way of ideas and information, from exposure to his wit and wisdom, to his profound understanding of the very problem, aside from war and peace, with whose supposed solution every major American public figure of the past generation has most wanted to claim an identification.

Namely, how are we better going to educate our children? In fact, devoting the thrust of his recent Annual Report as President of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College, to the impact of September 11th, 2001 on American education, Arthur Levine points out that we are now nearly 20 years into a national school reform movement and that on 9/11 poll after poll showed that the highest priority of Americans was improving our schools.

We expected every candidate running for office, from dogcatcher to President of the United States to have an education platform. But there’s an ancillary point, too. An intriguing one that President Levine makes quite clear in his report. And I want to ask him about it, right up front. For he writes, “For almost 200 years historians have recognized the American crisis mentality. Periodically we agree that one problem has reached crisis proportions. Countless reports are issued, documenting the crisis, then we mobilize all of our national resources, financial, human, technical and intellectual to resolve the crisis. For a period of years, my guest continues we witness grand experiments, policy initiatives, an influx of philanthropic dollars, a dramatic expanded media coverage. But then the nation moves on to the next crisis. We don’t so much solve crises as get bored with them and turn our attention somewhere else.

“What this means,” he writes, “is that education is likely to be a high priority on the national agenda for only a few years longer.” And I’d like to ask Dr. Levine what that insight bodes for the future well being of the education of our children? Dr. Levine. Ain’t good, I guess.

LEVINE: No. My feeling about that is that we’ve done a fine job in education for affluent children and we’re doing a good job for middle class kids. The group that we’ve failed in education with are poor kids. And what it means is that if education doesn’t stay on the national agenda for a length of time, we’re going to have left those kids behind once again.
HEFFNER: You assume that it is going to stay on the national agenda? Or not? How pessimistic or optimistic you are. And I know when I ask that I’m asking a guy, forgive me, who is always “up”.

LEVINE: [Laughter] Actually I’m surprised that it made it past September 11th to be quite honest.


LEVINE: What I thought would happen, given the economy … we’re now at a time when the stock market’s down, interest rates are down. We just had a tax cut. We’re at war and which the Federal government has many fewer dollars. Forty states are running deficits because they’re getting less money in taxes. And the biggest item in most state budgets is education. They’re going to have to cut somewhere. And they’re definitely going to cut into education. The question is where? And what states have chosen to do is cut more deeply into higher education than into kindergarten through 12th grade education.

But what I expected to happen on September 12th was an announcement that since we are a war, we’re going to have to delay all of our domestic programs and move full forward in the direction of the war and the external threats that we face. I was shocked when education remained a key priority for the President.

HEFFNER: I’m interested in your annual report. You indicate that, you indicate that with the same degree of surprise. Is it real though. I don’t mean the surprise, is it real the continuing emphasis in terms of real dollars on bettering our educational facilities?

LEVINE: That … it’s a yes and no kind of question. Let me just cut to the chase. What’s happened with 20 years of education reform is that, again, we’ve done an incredible job of improving suburban education. When we compare our suburban schools against any country in the world, we look very, very good. What we’ve done with our urban schools is that affluent families no longer have to send their kids to urban schools. They are able to send them to private schools.

What we’ve also done is made it possible for middle class families to have all kinds of options so they can send their kids to magnet schools or, in this … in New York City there is selective high schools and middle class people have been fairly good consumers and in most major cities what they have the option of is the good elementary schools that exist in most cities. And if that doesn’t work, they can try low-cost private schools, Catholic schools and other religious schools. It’s been fixed in such a way that the only people who are left, who have to attend really poor schools are poor people and minorities. And those are people, who, for the most part, don’t vote at the rates other parts of the population do. And they’re also people who aren’t going to take to the streets and say, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to send my kid to those schools. So it becomes important that politicians talk about this as being an important issue. It’s not important they do anything about it.

HEFFNER: Let’s go through that again. You’re saying that we can pay lip service because there is no political price to pay if we only pay lip service to expanding the educational opportunities of people who are less well off?


HEFFNER: Then why are you optimistic?

LEVINE: I’m optimistic on several grounds. I think several things can be accomplished. One thing is that we can save more schools each year.

HEFFNER: Which of the schools? The schools in the poor neighborhoods?

LEVINE: Yeah. So that the job becomes a very different job. The job is almost one of Schindler’s List-kind of proportions. It’s turning around as many schools as one can turn around in urban areas and saving as many children as possible. And, for that reason, I’m optimistic.

We can do a better job of saving the children that we need to save. I’m also optimistic because I think it’s possible to go to the courts and ask for a greater share of resources for the cities. At the moment they’re under funded compared to the suburbs.

I’m also optimistic because I think it’s possible to educate parents. Make them better consumers of schools, poor parents. Make schooling, perhaps, an even higher objective and give them greater competence at how to sort through the morass at the school system for them. So for all of those reasons I’m optimistic.

Do I think it’s going to be really hard? Yeah. I think it’s going to be very, very hard. And I think ultimately what we really have to work for is making education a civil right. In this environment and in this world, to deny a child an education or a quality education, is to deny a child a future. And so that every time we put a poor child in a weak school, we’re denying that child any future. We have to view that education as a right we have to give each child and the quality of that education needs to be good.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m fascinated when you speak in almost legalistic terms. And you did a moment ago say we, we need to refer this more and more to the courts. Why do you think that at this time given our political thinking in 2002, 2003 that that works?

LEVINE: I’m relying upon State courts and I’m relying upon State law more than I am the Federal judiciary. And at this point I’m wide open to all kinds of solutions. I wasn’t unhappy with the vouchers decision that came down from the court.

HEFFNER: Why not?

LEVINE: Because after 20 years of school reform in cities, what’s clear to me is that we’re not investing the kinds of resources that are necessary to turn our cities around. As a consequence, I’m in favor of any device we can offer that will take children who are being subjected to failing schools, out of those schools.

HEFFNER: Including vouchers?

LEVINE: Including vouchers.

HEFFNER: Are you not concerned with the opposition to vouchers? The notion that vouchers will ultimately go to religious schools and by that token will do violence to a tradition in America of keeping schools, or keeping religion and religious schools separate from government?

LEVINE: Let me be a heretic for a minute.


LEVINE: Which seems appropriate …

HEFFNER: … you’re very good at that.

LEVINE: … if we’re talking about religious schools.


LEVINE: And say that the notion of schooling and public schooling for all children is more of a mythology. I can’t figure out the difference between private schools and public schools any more. So, that …

HEFFNER: Including religious schools?

LEVINE: Let me give you an example. Let’s say there’s a Catholic school in Harlem, which is a poor, Black community in New York City. And it takes all comers, it takes all students whether they’re Catholic or not Catholic and there student body is predominantly Black. And, in fact, most of them are Protestant. And a lot of them are Muslim. That’s one school and that’s a private school.

But we can go to Scarsdale, which is a very affluent suburb in New York City and there’s a public school there. The problem is you have to pay at least $750,000 to get into that public school, because you have to buy a house there. Which one’s public and which one’s private? I can’t figure out the difference anymore.

And all I care about right now is giving every child a quality education. And if we’re not, then we’re not able to do that through our public school system. I’m willing to consider alternatives.

HEFFNER: But you don’t believe that we’re not able to, through out public school system, do you?

LEVINE: I think we’re not, we’re not doing it now.

HEFFNER: We’re not doing it now?

LEVINE: And children … every year that we don’t do it, we lose a generation of kids. The other thing I’ve become convinced of is we’re not serious about it. I tried to imagine … if we ran the … if we … if our war on terrorism were conducted in the same fashion that we do urban school reform, here’s what would have happened. President Bush would have come forward and he would have told us that he was angry, as he did. And he would have said he wanted to get to the root cause of this problem. And end it. And he would have declared war. And then what he would have said is, we want to keep our best troops in London, in Paris and Tokyo. And that what he planned to do is recruit brand new troops to fight this war. And he wouldn’t have time to train them, so they would have to learn on the battlefield. We should be really happy, because they are smart and they are committed and they’re patriotic. And by the way, because the economy’s poor, we have to pay these people twenty to thirty percent less than we pay our regular soldiers.

Then he would have gone on and said, “You know, we’re gonna leave the best equipment with the existing soldiers, so the new group is going to have to use a lot of World War II surplus, but hey, the “greatest generation” won a war with that. And then, finally, what he would have said is that hey, you know, we’re not going to have a general lead these troops, the generals never saw terrorism coming, we can’t rely upon them, and what we’re going to do instead is have a businessman lead our troops into Afghanistan.

And finally, maybe the last piece would have been, the rhetoric about war is just too deep, too much, it divided a nation during Vietnam, and so I’m imposing a set of standards, trick standards, clear standards, and we’ll measure the war quarterly, according to those standards to hold the military accountable and I’ll report regularly to the country.

That would have been absurd, but that’s exactly what we do in urban schools. We pay our teachers less, we hire unqualified people who aren’t prepared to take the job, we expect them to learn on the job because they don’t meet State certification standards. The plant, the curriculum are inadequate compared to the suburbs. We keep bringing people who aren’t educators to head our school systems. And finally we impose standards that we can’t possibly have the kids meet because we haven’t had the curriculum or teachers to get them there.

It’s hard to believe that we’re serious about these kinds of reforms; we’re never, ever going to make a difference in urban schools, until we produce the kinds of teachers, or hire the kinds of teachers who can make a difference.

We know right now is that the largest difference we can make in a child’s learning is to have a qualified teacher in the classroom, somebody who’s experienced, somebody who’s prepared. And, what we’re doing is, in urban schools, in which working conditions are harder than they are in suburban schools, paying salaries that are lower than those suburban schools. We can’t reasonably expect somebody to come and work for those salaries, when there are higher salaries and better working conditions elsewhere. We’re never going to get the teachers we want in our inner cities until we pay higher salaries than do the suburbs.

The fact of the matter is that until we make the financial commitments, what we’re going to end up doing in inner cities is triage. And we won’t have wholesale reform. There’s been no successful example in the last 20 years of turning around any urban center in the United States in terms of its schools. Because we’ve never made the needed investment.

HEFFNER: Well, now if someone … here’s what you’re saying now … they’ve got to ask, as I’m going to ask, because I heard what you say at the beginning. Where does the optimism come in? Because what you’re describing is a totally impossible situation. You’re describing a situation that no one in his or her right mind would accept or embrace. Yet this is what we’re doing, you, you say. And I know that what you’re saying is true.

LEVINE: In part it’s so we can make small differences. Which is what I described before.


LEVINE: The second part is that we’re compassionate people. And the thing I’m positive of is that we find the resources when we need to go to war. We find the resources for national disasters. We may in the next year or two find the resource to bail out industries that were hurt by the economic recession. We should be able to find the money to save inner city children and their schools.
HEFFNER: Arthur, let me ask this question. You’re an expert on American education history … why haven’t we, what is there about us … a people who claim to be so concerned with their children … why haven’t we done “the right thing?” I’ve gotcha!

LEVINE: You’ve got me. Ahmmm, I don’t have an answer for that one. I’d like to believe the reason is that we haven’t been aware of what the right thing is, or how it could be accomplished.

HEFFNER: That’s a very interesting point. Do you think that’s actually the case? That we aren’t aware.

LEVINE: That’s the best case. The worst case is …


LEVINE: … we don’t care about those people.

HEFFNER: By “those people”, you’re talking about people …

LEVINE: The poor.

HEFFNER: … whose kids go to school in poor, urban areas.

LEVINE: Right. That would be the dirty secret about education in the United States, if that’s true.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s so difficult, when I speak with you …

LEVINE: Can I come back … you’ve asked one question that’s …


LEVINE: … driving me crazy.

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

LEVINE: Which is … why would I be optimistic? Why would I stay in a field like this?

HEFFNER: You know, that was my next question. Why … would … you? We’ve talked, over and over again about these problems over the years. Why do you stay?

LEVINE: Because there are answers. Because this can be changed. Because we can solve these kinds of problems. It’s not a matter of lacking answers. It’s lacking will to impose the answers, or to solve the problems. And I’m optimistic as long there’s an answer and we can work for a solution.

HEFFNER: How do we achieve those solutions? Politically?

LEVINE: Yes. I think it’s political and I think it’s judicial. I think that part of it … again … educating poor parents about the educational system, making them better consumers. Getting them to the polls. I mean if you can imagine, what would happen if minority communities came to the polls and said, “the litmus test for our votes this year is going to be having quality education for our kids in inner cities. That’s the issue that’s gonna get our votes.” On the last election in ‘92 …



HEFFNER: National?

LEVINE: National. Sorry … in State elections in ‘92, six were decided by minority votes in terms of Governor or Senator. There were a lot of others in which the minority vote was a major factor. Now to put this on the agenda and to say, “this is it. You want our votes, do this.” I think it would produce major action. I also think if more parents said, “I’m not going to send my child to, to these kinds of schools” and took to the streets. I’m not talking about violent action. I’m talking about the kinds of protest we had that brought Civil Rights legislation … I think we’d see change.

HEFFNER: You talk about consumerism … that’s a very interesting concept. How do you help people who have not themselves had the opportunities, the educational opportunities that we agree every child deserves … how do we get them, educate them to become good consumers.

LEVINE: I had an interesting experience. I was doing a study of kids who “made it”, who shouldn’t have made it. I was looking at kids who went to college who probably should have ended up either being in the criminal justice system, or should have ended …

HEFFNER: At the wrong end of the criminal …

LEVINE: At the wrong end. They should have been in jail, they should have been pregnant, they should have been dead … according to the demographics. They shouldn’t have been in college, given the nature of their communities. And I looked at what happened in their lives. And started asking the kids “tell me about your life.” And listening to the kids, it was sort of like reading multiple novels by the same B novelist. They all had the same plot. The plot was “somebody intervened in my life. Somebody stepped in.” And the person was invariably a parent, a teacher, my next door neighbor. One person … the person didn’t have to have a lot of education … my favorite story was of a young woman who was a junior at Harvard at the time I interviewed her. She’s from El Paso, Texas. We went home, we visited her Mom. And she came and she translated for me. Her Mom had a fourth grade education. Her Mom didn’t have a Green card, she was an illegal immigrant. She didn’t speak English. She changed bedpans at a hospital. The father never lived with them. And Mom made a startling observation … Mom working in this hospital realized the doctors weren’t smarter than her, they were better educated than her. And she made a decision early on that her daughter would have an education. So Mom, who was a terrific cook … god, I loved going to her house … she made a great lunch. Mom used to call the teachers to her house, from kindergarten on, make this great meal. Her daughter, who was five years old, would translate for the teacher. The teachers took the daughter under her wing, and passed the daughter from teacher to teacher to teacher to Harvard. Everyone of the stories was similar. This was more dramatic.

By the way, at the time the daughter came and translated, she was a second year student at Yale Medical School. The story was of a whole bunch of different people who believed in education, who were bi-lingual … not in the sense they spoke two languages, but they’d seen the middle class and they’d seen poverty, and they understood that education was the vehicle between the two. They have the capacity to be true believers. And felt their job was to move this kid from where this kid was to the school house door. And did nothing else, but that. And managed to cushion the child against all the potholes that exist in poor communities and convert a child and move them in other directions that would lead to jails and pregnancies and so on and so forth.

The way the kinds of things I’m talking about are brought to parents I think can be through formal programs. Any community organization can offer the kind of program I’m talking about. It’s a matter of meeting people who have come out of that community; understanding how they got to where they got. Understanding what the differences are. Understanding how their kid can take the same route. It’s making those routes real.

What happened at some point in history is that poor communities used to have paths out of them. And in recent times poor communities have gotten poorer and poorer and poorer and more and more isolated. And what’s happened as a consequence is that the paths have all but disappeared. And each child has had to make his or her own path. Institutions that once served as bunkers from communities … bunkers in communities that were really difficult to live in, have only come to mirror the war zone of poverty.

And institutions that once were accelerators … churches, schools don’t serve that function nearly as well as they used to. What they do is prepare children more often to live in the environment that they live in now than to get out of that environment. So it means that we can probably work with universities. We can probably work with some churches. We can probably work with some schools … develop programs to educate parents and help them to help their children. We have to work with two generations at a time.

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine, that’s an extraordinarily touching answer to my question as to how and why you are still optimistic. You are because you are a great teacher. And I think that’s what you’re talking about. A mentor, a teacher in whatever guise. And I assume, as we reach the end of our program that you’re talking very much about school “marms” and school men, too, the teachers who can do this to a great extent. Therefore, thank you so much. You always give me a sense of optimism … that’s very hard to do.

LEVINE: [Laughter] Nonsense. But thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine, again. Thank you so much. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.