Politics & Policy

Straight Outta Oakland

A principal tells it like it is.

Tales of Dr. Ben Chavis have been drifting out of the Bay Area for a while now. However, there have been few high-profile media stories, and the educational apparatus in this country is no doubt doing its best to squelch reports of his accomplishments.

So it’s a good thing that Chavis has written a book, Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City, which provides a first-person account of one of the country’s greatest educational success stories. It’s true that Chavis is a controversial figure — the book provides ample evidence of that. He’s profane, boasts of humiliating his students when they “act a fool,” and isn’t afraid to tell a teacher or a parent who he feels is out of line where to stick it. He’s beyond politically incorrect and talks about race with a frankness that would make Chris Rock blush.

Chavis gets away with a lot because he’s undeniably one of the country’s finest educators. In 2000, he took over the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in Oakland, an inner-city charter school composed almost exclusively of low-income minority students. By the time he stepped down in 2007, he had turned it into the fifth-highest-rated middle school in the state — out of 1,300. (Of the four that rank higher, none has an underprivileged student body.) And Chavis’s curriculum and educational approaches are being spread with notable success to other middle and high schools in Oakland.

What the educational establishment really hates about Chavis is that he has achieved this success by exploding nearly every liberal myth about education. His approach to education is strictly old-school, and based on proven, effective methods. The only thing innovative about what he’s doing is that he’s doing it in the face of decades of “progressive” education. A few core tenets of his educational philosophy are:

‐Requiring near-perfect attendance.

‐Maximizing the amount of class time and number of school days. (Summer school is required, and teachers are expected to assign a minimum of two hours of homework each day.)

‐Heavily weighting the curriculum toward language arts and math. (Chavis’s schools spend twice as much time on those subjects as most other California schools.)

‐Liberally handing out disciplinary actions such as detention, and otherwise ensuring that order is maintained.

‐Setting and enforcing standards — e.g., every eighth-grader must pass Algebra I. (In many California high schools, it’s possible to graduate with just “General Math.”)

‐Making a big public point of not setting lower standards for minority students. (Too many educational institutions indulge in the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as President Bush memorably put it.)

None of this is, or should be, particularly controversial. Chavis’s one major departure is his insistence on keeping students in one self-contained classroom where one teacher teaches all the subjects and stays with the same group of students as they move from one grade to the next. Chavis maintains that this both increases educational accountability and introduces a level of stability important for underprivileged kids.

Otherwise, Chavis’s emphasis on hard work and high standards is simply the foundation of any good education. “What we’re doing is so easy,” Chavis told the L.A. Times last year. The trouble comes from the educational establishment, which is deeply in thrall to people Chavis calls “squawkers, multicultural specialists, [and] self-esteem experts” that this commonsense approach seems downright revolutionary.

Chavis doesn’t just dismiss the current obsession with self-esteem and multiculturalism, he despises it. The American Indian Public Charter School was on the verge of closure when Chavis inherited it. Its administration was incompetent, and its curriculum was a joke. Because Oakland has a significant American Indian population, thanks to government relocation programs from decades past, somebody in the Oakland Unified School District got sold on the idea of a junior high teaching kids Native American crafts such as basket weaving and bead making. Not to mention that the school went in for pseudo–Native American traditions such as passing a branch of burning sage around while everybody sat in a circle and adults told the kids about their problems. Chavis refers to the principal who preceded him as “Chief Bad Example.”

When Chavis dismisses diversity-heavy education, he doesn’t do so lightly. He is a Lumbee Indian born to an uneducated mother and raised in a sharecroppers’ shack in rural North Carolina. He’s certainly proud of his heritage, but where most modern educators insist that improving self-esteem is necessary to facilitate learning, Chavis insists they have it backwards. “Many Indian elders who live on a Navajo reservation know a lot about their culture. Does that qualify them to get into Harvard or Stanford?” he writes. Chavis once bought into the educational dogma he now wholly rejects; he writes that his eyes were opened when he was pressured by his dissertation committee to make the conclusion of his dissertation more politically correct: “That was a major turning point for me. . . . I started to question the sacred cows of education: parent involvement, volunteer work, more money for schools, culture, self-esteem, bilingual ed and minority holidays.”

Chavis’s educational insights have made him as effective an educator as he is unpopular with his peers: “Most public-school educators don’t see eye to eye with me. . . . I have no problem badmouthing educators who cheat minority students with their pity, community circles, bead making, general math for twelfth-graders, bilingual education for twelve years, sheltered English immersion, and low expectations. Can you think of a better way to screw over minorities in education and dumb us down?”

As a result of his frustration over the low standards set for minority students, Chavis embraces standardized tests. “We do not believe standardized tests discriminate against students because of their color,” writes Chavis in a document calledCommon Sense & Useful Learning at AIPCS.” “Could it be many of them have not been adequately prepared to take those tests?” Where public-school teachers everywhere whine about “teaching to the test,” Chavis has dedicated his book to George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy for passing the No Child Left Behind Act. He repeatedly praises the legislation for mandating standards and making schools publicly accountable to them.

Chavis tells the truth with the bark off. Here he is on school funding: “Taxpayers have been conned for years . . . into thinking the problem with schools is they need more funding. This is the biggest lie in public education in this country. . . . The financial incentive in America is to be a failing school.” On hiring teachers: “If you want to do a child a favor, hire a great teacher to educate him. The whole political agenda of ‘We need more Indians, we need more black teachers’ is racist, ridiculous, and often provides inept educators with a way of getting on the payroll. Just because someone’s Indian doesn’t mean he’s a better role model for an Indian child than someone who’s not Indian.”

Throughout the book, Chavis emphasizes preparing his students for the world of free-market capitalism. In fact, number seven of the American Indian Model Students’ Ten Commandments reads: “Thou shalt beware of quacks who believe in communism. Thou hast the quickest route to freedom through free market capitalism and private property ownership. Hast thou ever heard of illegal immigrants risking their lives to enter Cuba?”

Dr. Chavis certainly has a knack for getting people’s attention. But despite his best efforts, the left-wing educational establishment doesn’t want to hear what he has to say. The educational system in this country is designed to chew up and spit out people who expose its failings. Remember Jaime Escalante, the teacher who had amazing success teaching calculus to barrio kids in Los Angeles? Edward James Olmos portrayed him in the film Stand and Deliver, and America got all warm and fuzzy over how he helped those kids. Well, Hollywood didn’t bother making the sequel, where Escalante was systematically targeted by teachers’ unions and drummed out of a job for working long hours and generally making other teachers look bad.

If Chavis is to have any measurable impact on the educational debate in America, he’s going to have to go over the heads of professional educators. Thrust this book into the hands of all the parents you know and implore them to read it. It’s hard to imagine a clearer call for pulling American education out of a haze of multiculturalism and fuzzy math, and getting back to the basics of the three Rs and hard work. Chavis is passionate, articulate, and entertaining. He’s also right.

Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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