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School reform must impact black males or it isn't school reform

Lt Col Lemuel Penn, AUS
Lt Col Lemuel Penn, AUS
U.S. Army

Unless school reform initiatives generate an increase in the academic achievement of urban black males, it ain’t school reform. I realize the fuzzy liberals that run the education industry will accuse me of being an Angry Black Man, shoot the messenger and disregard the message. Therefore I will use the upper half of this space to tell you why I am not angry before I make my pedagogical case in the second half of this column, That way we can get beyond the realm of white cliche, black denial and political horse puckey.

My great grandfather, a World War I veteran from rural Tennessee, narrowly escaped a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob in 1919. He hopped a Chicago-bound freight train and planted my family’s seed in Chicago. My grandfather was one of the storied Pullman Porters until, according to family legend, he retaliated against a racist passenger who got on board his train in New Orleans and subjected him to constant harassment. Grandpa Penn bided his time until the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and dispatched the S.O.B. with extreme prejudice. Consequently he had to change his name and quit the railroad.

My dad, inducted into the Chicago Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen International in 2005, actually earned his pilot’s wings at Fort Hood, Texas. Unlike his brothers at Tuskegee, he was the only black man in artillery (Liaison) pilot training in 1943. Indeed, he one of the first Negroes to ever graduate that course to become an Army Liaison Pilot. During flight training, dad could not live on the segregated base nor eat in the segregated chow hall. The Army housed him in a civilian hotel in the colored section of Killeen and provided him with a brown bag lunch that he ate on the flight line while the other officers-in-training dined on base. First Lieutenant Ed Hayes suffered many indignities including the refusal of white enlisted men to salute him as they did other officers. ILT Hayes was medically retired from the Army in 1945 with a metal plate in his head after surviving a hand grenade blast in an action that earned him the Soldier’s Medal.

Though I never met him, Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn, a distant relative, was murdered by the Klan nine days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The decorated WWII vet (Bronze Star) was driving back from Fort Benning, Georgia with two other black Army Reserve Officers when Klansmen James Lackey, Cecil Meyers, and Howard Sims opened fire on them with shotguns. The entire story is chronicled in the Bill Shipp book: Murder at Broad River Bridge. Of course the all-white jury acquitted the killers as was the colorful local custom of the time.

Does this history enrage me? Yes initially it did, but now it makes me proud, very proud. Am I a racist for writing so often on racial problems?

Well, to begin with, racial problems are the biggest obstacles to school improvement in America; I have to address them. Furthermore, there are only two photographs on the walls in my office among my plaques and war mementos. One is my father, and the other one is Winston Churchill, you know the famous one with him holding a Tommy Gun. I guess that takes me off of the President's Christmas card list given how Barack feels about the man that saved us all from communism and Nazis.

Hey, I just finished reading The Echo from Dealey Plaza, a book written by the Secret Service’s first African-American agent, Abraham Bolden. After complaining constantly about the inadequate security surrounding President Jack Kennedy, both before and after he was assassinated, Bolden was arrested on trumped of charges and sent to prison. I never met the man but he was also from Chicago, just a few years older than I am, and his book triggered a lot memories about this city during my formative years.

The point I am making is that I never went through any of the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and racism that was anywhere as intense as those brothers that walked this earth before me. Oh yeah, I am old enough to remember the white-only and colored water fountains in Biloxi, Mississippi that blew my mind when the U.S. Air Force sent me to Keesler Air Force Base in 1968. I got my taste of the abject fear black folk lived with in the old South, and of the frustration of institutional racism in old Chicago. Emmet Till was going to McCosh Elementary School when the Klan killed him in Mississippi; my sister and I went there too. The history is violent and sad, but I refused to get bogged down in it and moved forward.

But this article is not about me. (1) It is dedicated to family: Private Flagg, Sergeant Penn, One Lieutenant Hayes, Colonel Penn, and the thousands of Abraham Boldens who suffered at the hands of knuckle-dragging bigots and the seersucker suit hypocrites that protected them; and (2) it is mostly about the young black men to follow them, and me. I am retired on two modest but comfortable pensions looking out over a beautiful small lake that I can see from the office window in my two-story home that sits over a garage with three cars, two of which are the envy of any man who loves automobiles. I am blessed by God with nearly perfect health for a guy my age, a fine family, and a Hollywood-class German Shepherd that just chewed up one of my gym shoes last night. Folks, I am not angry, . . . well maybe at the dog, but neither am I blind; and though no longer on the front lines of public education, I still give a Fat Flying Duck about the children of all races and ethnicities who are trapped in it.

Fools, idiots, and charlatans are traversing our nation selling you public school snake oil. Arne Duncan, the goofy U.S. SecEd, is peddling his incompetent version of school reform that does nothing to improve, or even change, what happens in any American classroom, much less the circumstances of minority students in these urban warehouses. Establishing selective enrollment schools and charter schools absent a cross-section of ‘real‘ students is not reform, it is avoidance. Furthermore, sycophants, flunkies, cowards, and retards are buying up Duncan’s oil by the gallon. Stop! You are wasting the $4 billion Duncan is carrying around in his shopping bag just as his boss blew nearly a trillion bucks on a failed stimulus plan chasing shovel-ready projects that he now admits do not exist.

  • There are more black males in prison or jail than in college
  • Chicago Public Schools (CPS), reformed by Duncan, has a 55% bm drop-out rate
  • The leading cause of death for bm aged 18-24 is homicide
  • Only 2% of American teachers are black men; and many of them are suspect

You know these numbers. If you’re not black you might not care. I get it. I give less than a damn about college enrollment for Australian Aborigines. But Arne’s street money came from the taxes you pay; he is wasting it. And if you are black, you likely make a lot of noise, ignore the statistics, and invite more of the same consequences. After all, it was black voters that fired Washington D.C.’s innovative mayor and doomed school reformer Michelle Rhee.

Solution? Yeah there is but leftists who run K-12 education and the universities in general, and K-12 educators in particular are always looking to hit the home run and solve a complex problem in one fell swoop. Reform narratives are so grand and comprehensive that the elephant gun misses the fly on the wall and does more damage than good. Worse, it takes us five years after implementation to figure out that the effort did not work. Additionally, perfection-seeking elitists denounce any tactic, technique, or procedure that is not perfect on paper or that has a possible negative side effect, thus no one does anything substantial as they wait for Superman to burst through the wall.

We need black male (bm) teachers in predominately black elementary schools. We can attract them by doubling starting salaries with Duncan’s slush fund. Somehow the three stooges who have run CPS the last fifteen years do not seem to have figured this out. Recruit parents who would like their sons to have bm teachers to sign off on strict discipline. The reality is that many black students are being raised by their heroic grandmothers and they would love to have this option. BTW, school reform nerds seldom talk about discipline, and the big D is the primary reason the average teacher in Chicago is ineffective. How can you teach a thug? Simple but admittedly not easy; make the thug leave that life outside of school; they can do it. I know, I have made them.

It took two to three decades of liberal mismanagement of schools, teacher unions, and teacher training institutions to get us to the bottom of this barrel. I believe a committed school district can pull itself out of the tarpit in five to seven years if they have the right staff in place and the guts to see it through. Forget Michelle Rhee, she doesn’t have them. Have you ever wondered why you don’t hear anymore about Joe Clark featured in the film Lean on Me, or Jamie Escalante in Stand and Deliver? Despite their celebrity, and maybe because of it, they were excommunicated from the community of pinhead educators because they embarrassed the establishment by showing the world that IT CAN BE DONE.

Look, start off small with reform, use just ten percent of your resources on less than 10% of your population, so you can make adjustments without having to solicit NASA for corrective assistance. Use the International Baccalaureate Program for the fast movers and Direct Instruction for the dudes that are 2 to 3 years behind in academics. Get the single black mom, who is very probably angry, to sign off on a simple discipline code with just 3 rules. Violence of any type, duration, and for any reason is a 10-day suspension. Stopping the teacher from teaching is a 3-day suspension, and stopping another student from learning is 5-days. Yeah, I know CPS suspension rates are already among the highest in the nation and the liberal mealy-mouth retort is that you can’t teach students who are not in class.

Roger that, but neither can you teach students who are psychotic, destructive, and violent. The problem with discipline reform is that the jerks that administer it are unfair in how they do it, the students know it, and fight the system. More importantly, phony administrators that do not back up their classroom teachers are self-destructive. That said, teachers that ignore the discipline code, work against the principal, and who dislike their students are a death sentence for any school. Nonetheless, I know from personal experience that whatever the suspension rates are in year one, they decline in subsequent years if your administrators know what they are doing. I also know that eighty percent of your suspensions will come from twenty percent of your teachers. Get rid of that terrible twenty!

How men who have never taught school, like Duncan, Huberman, and Vallas can be put in charge of people who have is madness. School discipline is a pure art form that comes from the heart and is applied evenly without emotion. It is also a skill can be enhanced when teachers are open to suggestion and principals are willing to give of themselves to demonstrate effective discipline methods through example.

Yeah, we need to shape up these kids to reform the schools, but we also gotta do a number on the adults. The answers to the hard questions are conveniently located within the body of work on this website.


  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Thanks Ed for your columns. I enjoy reading them and always seem to agree. As a former CPS teacher and administrator (retired), domr of my most rewarding years were spent on the west side at Austin. Boy, that was hard work but for those of us who could handle it, particularly the discipline, those kids were terrific! Yes, black kids can learn, they are smart and they understand high expectations when their teacher(s) make it clear.

    Keep up your great articles. Also, why isn't anyone teaching the newbie teachers class-room discipline? Could it be that college professors are way too far from the class-room?

  • Profile picture of Edward Hayes
    Edward Hayes 4 years ago

    I am familiar with Austin H.S., indeed I hooked up with the principal there (Katherine Flannigan if I remember correctly) to show my boss how Direct Instruction worked before I installed it in the Freshman Academy at East Aurora H.S. I did my grad work at CSU and we never talked discipline. Then I worked on my doctorate at U of Ill (C-U) and it never came up. Yeah, those kids will drain you; but it is God's work; too bad you (and I) had to retire. Here's to us, and those like us; there is damn few of us left. Ed

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Unfortunately, teaching teachers how to discipline has totally taken a back seat to 'making kids feel good about themselves' no matter how they perform or how they act. Schools are going the way of government in this country - down the toilet.
    Remember when civil paddling was allowed and kids behaved?
    Name withheld, as only a teacher who taugh 'old school' and now would understand.

  • Profile picture of Edward Hayes
    Edward Hayes 4 years ago

    I have to agree with you that public schools were used as laboratories for social and academic experiments like self-esteem and whole language that wasted time, resources, and young lives while adults fiddled around with leftist ideology. Furthermore the democrat party monopoly of the NEA and AFT unions solidifies a socialist mentality within the education industry that defies the traditional American values that built the world's greatest country. Note that I wrote GREATEST, not most perfect. Ed

  • Sub of the Universe 4 years ago

    Discipline is discouraged because if the discipline incidents don't reflect parity with the demographics of the school population than the one who issued the discipline is liable to be declared racially insensitive.

    I sbstitute teach and get along with all groups weel. But never do I have 100% of the white kids failing to be on task. If you try to be too rigid in your expectations with some it will result in a altercation.

  • Sheldon L. McCormick 4 years ago

    Lemuel Penn was a hero to me. He fought World War II in the Pacific, despite a racist America, then fought to educate black kids, all kids as a teacher then as Director of Adult Vocation for the District of Columbia. His achievements, concern and efforts was as much a part of the Civil Rights movement as marching and carrying a picket sign. Many blacks went on to higher education and achievements in various fields because of Colonel Penn's inspiration. One black guy even became President of the United States. African-American gains, rights and freedom were made possible through people like Lemuel Penn. To him and them, I say thank you.

  • Ed Hayes 4 years ago

    Thank you Sheldon. I agree, there were multiple methods used to bring down Jim Crow. Now that the old lines have been erased, I look forward to the day that we eliminate the self-imposed constraints on our people.

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