Letter to Free Press JAN 30, 2015


I am asking to be seriously considered as a regular contributor to your editorial page regarding educational issues, because I am immensely under-whelmed by most of the commentary that you do choose to publish.

I served on the Detroit School Board as a “reformer” from 1989 until 1999 (actually until 2003 as a so-called advisory board).  I have looked at “reform” from the-inside-out for all of that time.  At least 95% of your commentators simply have no clue.

I will be 80 this year, and my background experience is extremely varied and also extremely Serendipitous.   But, my on-the-job experience for sixty years has been grounded in the very best sociological understandings of the past 120 years.  I do not think that you will find me to be some kind of off-the-wall crank.

Yes, I have some “skeletons-in-my-closet” which I have shared with many, but not necessarily with the whole community.  But I also have no reservations about sharing this with whomever.  Over the past 12 years, I have done extensive research  into my ancestry.  They were Vikings who invaded northern France around 700 AD.  They were among the norsemen who came to England with William the Conquer in 1066, and were awarded lands in West England, which they enjoyed until the English Civil Wars in the 1640’s.  But along with most warlords of Middle England, they supported King Charles, lost that war to Cromwell, and then had to find other ways to make a living.  So they came to the colonies.  My particular branch came to Virginia, where by 1700 they were running a slave-trading enterprise in what is now Culpepper County.  Slaves fresh off of the ships from Africa in the Chesapeake Bay were brought up the Rappahannock River to the Washburn Plantation, where they were “broken-in” to growing tobacco and rice, and then sold at Saturday auctions.  I have been to that location, and was gratified to find that in 1864, it became the site of the biggest confrontation of cavalry during the Civil War, a stalemate between Federal cavalry and the forces of JEB Stuart in the battle of Brandy Station.  That was just three weeks before Lee’s forces reached Gettysburg.  But, by 1864, the Washburns of 1700 had already dispersed in more than a hundred different directions.

I am the fifth Ben Washburn in my specific lineage.  Ben, the first, had at least 21 siblings.  He is mentioned in the history books of West Virginia as one of the few Washburn brothers who escaped the British-spawned Indian incursions of the Monongahela Valley from Detroit in 1777. He joined Washington’s Continental Army as soon as he could, on his 15th birthdate in 1778, and as teenager, spent two years guarding British prisoners from General Gates victory at Saratoga in 1777.  But after escorting those prisoners to Boston to go back to England in 1780, he was with Washington at the close of the war at Yorktown.

After the war, Ben, the first, was granted land rights in Western Kentucky.  He was married in 1784 and set-out for Kentucky County, Virginia, where he traded his rights in western Kentucky for some land in central Kentucky in what is now Shelby County, about 30 miles Southeast of Louisville.  That is where I grew-up.  I still own part of that land; Ben, the first, is buried on the back of my farm, but his tombstone has long since been stolen.  With the aid of 26 slaves, he erected the first Federal-style mansion West of the Alleghenies in 1789-91.  It endured as the oldest standing monument in Kentucky until the 1980’s, when it was sold by the county historical society to a contractor who tore it down and converted into to series of commercially sellable historical mementos:  grand entranceways made from the limestone, cherry ashtrays, etc.  Well, that’s OK.  I’m not sure that I would want to protest that as a part of my heritage; maybe it is better that it just fade away.

I was born on that farm in 1935 with the help of a neighboring midwife who was a Mormon. Her grandson is the Sheriff of Shelby County today.   I still have today in our bedroom the kerosene lamp by which I was born.  Before I could remember things, one of those former family slaves used to babysit me and keep me from falling into the open well in our back yard while my mother went to work in the tobacco patches.   Elijah Smith was born in 1854 in the same year as my paternal grandfather.  They grew up as playmates, but Lidge was destined to be a slave, until he was freed in 1865 at age 11.   He stayed with my grandfather’s brothers as a servant until they died out in the 1930s.  So, my mother turned to him when she needed help.    I really don’t remember Lidge well, until that Saturday morning in 1941 when he perished.  I was building little forts behind the coal-burning kitchen stove with corncobs.  My mother used these corncobs soaked in kerosene to start the fire in the stove in the morning.  She was cooking breakfast at the stove when suddenly she screamed, as she looked out the kitchen window up the hill to where Lidge lived in a cabin about a half-mile away.  It was ablaze.   By the time anyone got there to help, Lidge had been burned alive at age 88.  So, slaves and slave-mindedness is far more real to me than to most people that I know.

You may also find it curious that both Nolan Finley and I grew-up on Kentucky tobacco farms, but could not be more different in our social and political orientations.  Actually, several of the Washburns and Finleys intermarried in the early 1800’s.

Also, when I think about some prominent turning-points in my life, one somewhat ties-in with the Detroit Free Press.  As a country high school senior in 1953, I took part in a speech competition sponsored by the Kentucky American Legion.    The speech had to address the preservation of “American values”.   I made it into the State finals in Louisville, where one of the three judges was the editor of the Louisville Courier Journal:  Mark Etheridge.   I made my speech spot-on exactly at the 12-minute mark.  They subtracted points for each second under or over 12-minutes.   Then Etheridge asked me for a concrete example of an “American value”, and I was simply clueless.  This was way beyond my comprehension at the time.   Fortunately, it was also well beyond the comprehension of the other two judges, and I still came in as the runner-up.  But that was a turning-point in my self-critical understanding of the complexities of this world we live in.  When I landed in Detroit in 1962, I was surprised to find that the editor of the Detroit Free Press was Mark Etheridge, Jr.   It was only years later that I found that this was Etheridge’s son and not himself.

But, that was then and this is now:  let me try to get back to the original point of this message!

I cannot support any of the more popular “answers” being batted around by either side of the Legislature or by any of your commentators.

My insights are guided by the best-founded and most fundamental concepts of sociology.  Most of us are introduced to these concepts in Sociology 101, but, unfortunately, that course is usually taught to Freshmen as an exercise in memorizing the definitions of terminology, rather than of exploring the meat of the discipline.

Our colleges of education make a big deal of promoting “advanced teaching techniques”, which are offered as the solution to all of our problems.  But these can never do anymore than produce a difference between a poorly educated person, and one with a mediocre education.  Without the truly intensive and pro-active collaboration of the biological or substitute parent, it is almost impossible to bring about a high-quality result for the great bulk of any student body.  The normal 3% to 5% exceptional cases do not disprove this fact.  But neither our colleges nor anyone else seems to have a clue as to how to bring this about.

So, what are “we” doing wrong?  For one, we promote many mythes that “we” can make a top-down difference in these outcomes, by getting “hard-nosed” about passing students on to the next grade, or by getting rid of “bad teachers”, or by sending in emergency financial managers, or by selling education as just another consumer product, or by leaving it up to parent choice, or by depending upon marketplace providers to produce the results that parents want, or by pouring in more and more tax dollars.   The fact is that all of these endeavors fail and are self-defeating, because they all write-off any ability to get parents to take a more active role in the education of their children.

Day after day, “we” tell parents in one way or another that a free public education is a public service to which they have a Constitutional right, despite the fact that there is no sociological grounds upon which to found any such claim.  “We” rationalize that it is simply unfair to expect anything more from parents, when world-wide economic shifts require that they work longer and longer hours at less and less pay, and often in more than one job, just to keep their heads about water.

Well, if this is all that we choose to expect of them, then we also need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that “we” and they will be slipping farther and farther behind the rest of the industrialized world.

The hard fact is, that “we” must clearly understand that “we” must learn how to get more and more out of less and less resources, because in this world, we are competing with 7 Billion other persons on this planet just to make a day-to-day go of it.  There is no magical answer.  Politicians are not magicians.  They cannot spin gold out of straw, even though they act, talk, and fantasize as if they can.

So, where can you start to begin to make a real difference?  What I am proposing is that you start small, but methodically to demonstrate to emerging waves of parents that there is only one way to make a real difference, and that it depends primarily upon themselves and their own extraordinary efforts.   They cannot depend upon ignorant and misguided political promises.  This proposal is not based upon some unproven theory; it is based upon my actual experience in educating my own children during the 1980s.   To some extent, it expands upon the growing movement toward “home-schooling”.

As just one facet, it calls for amending the Public Education Act to authorize a very specific kind of charter school or public school choice, one which mandates that a parent (or parent substitute) buy-in to a binding commitment and contract with the school and with all of the other parents in that school to provide at least 40 hours per year of direct and pro-active support to the school.  They cannot just pay some kind of tuition.  They have to put themselves first-most on the line.

First-most, this kind of pro-active involvement sends a clear message to one’s children that Mom and/or Dad, or whomever is their sponsor, truly believes that their education is really important.  It also creates a large network of personal relationships between all of the parents, and also with their children’s teachers.   These pro-active relationships build a pro-learning climate within the school, and constructively resolve most issues of deleterious and disruptive behavior.   With this kind of climate and support, extraordinary achievement results are predictable.  And this sends a clear message to all other parents, that this is the only way by which they can reasonably assure that their own children can also succeed.

To make this approach work well, there are also several additional requirements, which will need to also be built into the pact:

Exceptional educational outcomes require that the total student and parent body be small enough that everyone (parents, student and teachers) comes to know everyone in an intensely personal way, and that they all develop lasting bonds and ties to one another.  In a K-8 school, this means that the total student body cannot exceed 400.

Once a parent signs-on, the agreement must be a long-term one.  You cannot jerk your child out of the school and just chose to go somewhere else when you run into a disappointment or conflict.  You have to do the very best that you can to resolve it within the confines of your commitment.  Your only other choice at that point is to send your child to your local neighborhood school, or to a totally private school.  The current legal and political basis for “unlimited school choice” is sociologically and educationally self-destructive.

The teachers in the school must make a iron-clad commitment to stay with the school for as long as their health permits. (They should also be compensated for making good on that commitment.)  If they can’t promise to do that, then they should never be hired in the first place.  The “growing-up” process is challenging for a child.  It makes a big difference when they are able to look forward to the day when they can finally be in Ms. So-and-so’s class.  These bonds and ties are also critical to long-term success.

Schools of this kind must also reach-out to the employers of the parents of their children, and assure that those employers do all that they can to enable their employees to act in the best interests of their children.  From my own experience, most employers do and will cooperate to find very low cost ways to enable their employees to fulfill their obligations to their children’s school.  Forty hours a year breaks down to just 4 hours a month for most parents.  Can the employer find other ways by which their employee can make-up that time?  I think that most employers of today are mindful of low cost opportunities to improve the education of our coming workforce, and would find ways to accommodate this kind of arrangement.  It should not be at any great cost to the employer, but it is reasonable to ask for and to expect any potential break-even accommodations.

So what about well-intentioned volunteers?  If you are a concerned and willing volunteer, to truly be helpful, you must engage the family of your target student not only critically, but lovingly and patiently.  It is not enough to just be a critic; that does little to foment real change for the better.  You must go a long ways out of your way to cement new, strong, and pro-active relationship.  You should almost never volunteer to directly tutor a failing student.  That just further under-cuts that student’s relationship with their parent(s).   You should instead voluntarily strike-up a supportive relationship with that student’s parent(s), and do whatever it takes to enable her, him or them to attend to the needs of their child.  You may need to help clean house, cook meals, or attend to a younger child, so that at least one of the parents is free to help their child with their homework.  The focus of any voluntary effort must be upon strengthening, and never upon undercutting a positive parent/child relationship.

It is not at all easy for a person in the “underclass” to actually accept your help, or to make the “hard climb” into the middle-class.  This is a truly difficult endeavor, and no movie has ever even attempted to deal with these difficulties.  A good part of popular English literature since the  late 1800s focused upon these travails, mainly in the works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and Theodore Dreisser in the 1930s.   But add-in the enduring complications of the compressed and cultivated relationships between house-help and field-help, and also between different kinds of field-help under 300 years of slavery, and you have something at least triply difficult to improve upon.  Not even the works of Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison deal effectively with this transition.  It’s complicated, and it takes enduring patience and understanding.

To do things the right way will not be easy.  A large cadre of folks make their living these days and have done so for the past 40 years by recruiting and matching witless volunteers with needy students.  The jobs of some of these folks will be threatened by this message, and they can be expected to howl accordingly.  Fortunately, many others have always had reservations about what they were doing and will be only too happy to change their focus.    And, a lot of volunteers who believe in the good they think that they have experienced, will be hard challenged to understand that that good was largely offset by the damage which they did by undercutting parental involvement in the education of their children.  This is some tricky stuff.


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