Steve Poizner and What We Learn

Mr. A and I were listening tothis in the car on Saturday. I say listening; Mr. A was listening.I was looking for something to put my fist through:

It is a very odd chapter, all about Poizner’s first days teaching a class at Mt. Pleasant. There’s scene after scene where he’s floundering, standing in front of the class asking big, abstract questions – “would you want to live in a country where the leader didn’t want to lead? If the money issued by the government wasn’t any good, or people were treated unfairly?” None of the students respond. He’s a rookie teacher; he doesn’t know how to engage them yet. Nothing unusual there.

But here was the strange thing: the conclusion Poizner comes to – again and again during these scenes – isn’t that he’s doing anything wrong or has anything to learn as a teacher. Instead, he blames the kids. They’re tough, they’re unmotivated, they lack ambition, they’re wired differently. The students, meanwhile, in every scene in the book (I read the whole book), seem utterly lovely. Polite, they don’t interrupt, they don’t talk back, they just seem a little bored. His very worst student is a graduating senior who’s hoping to go into the Marines.

Checking school records I learned that Poizner’s unmotivated, unambitious class included one of the school valedictorians, Charles Rudy, who graduated and went to college.

First of all: Poizner in the interview comes across as a very smug guy who went into this school looking for evidence to support his conclusions which are, of course, that we don’t need public education, we need charter schools.He then goes and runs for office based on those conclusions, using the kids as a resumé-booster.

Following his time on the National Security Council, Steve spent a year “in the trenches” as a volunteer teacher at Mount Pleasant High School in East San Jose, where he taught 12th grade American government. After seeing the crisis conditions facing public schools in California, Steve demonstrated his passion for local control of schools by co-founding EdVoice and the California Charter Schools Association – the state’s leading charter school organization. Since his involvement in the charter school movement began, the number of charter schools in California has doubled.

In the trenches. Because that’s what the “inner city” is to people like this. The trenches. Not a place people live, or work, or play, or love, or die. The trenches. Some faraway land where wars are fought, by brave brave men like Poizner. “Other” places, full of “others” and the weird customs they have and the strange lives they live, so different from “ours.”

Unsurprisingly, a majority of Poizner’s book seems to be complete and total bullshit:

In his book, Poizner also talks about how dangerous the high school and the neighborhood around it are. On page 39, he writes:

The school’s neighborhood is rough, even when seen through the eyes of someone who’s not wealthy and white. Drive-by shootings happen. Kids learn to avoid bumping into strangers at the local convenience stores. Recently, the San Jose Police Department received nearly fifteen times more calls for suspicious vehicles around Mount Pleasant High than in a more affluent San Jose neighborhood. More specifically, in a year’s time, police stopped one thousand vehicles in the area. Over that same time frame, the neighborhood generated nearly 850 calls to SJPD dispatchers for disturbances, and 15 for violation by registered sex offenders.

San Jose Police Department spokesman Officer Jose Garcia told us that calls for service were not an indicator of higher crime. He said the number of vehicles stopped had more to do with whether a neighborhood is close to a highway or shopping mall than with criminal activity.

Garcia said, “the area surrounding Mt. Pleasant High School is not an area that stands out in terms of crime, compared to other parts of the city.” San Jose might have a reputation in the richer suburbs around it for being unsafe, and it was more dangerous in the 1970s and ‘80s than it is today. But the view of the city as ridden with crime is outdated. In fact, the city is one of the safest of its size in the country.

On crime, the appearance of the neighborhood, dropout rates, gang affiliation … Ira Glass pretty thoroughly defenestrates the thing. The neighborhood seems to have been seen by Poizner as dangerous because it contains black and brown people, which is not an unusual conclusion for white people to draw. A car with a flat tire is seen as a sign of degeneration, as is a barking dog. By those standards, whose ‘hood COULD pass muster? Not mine. Probably not yours.

So what kind of fact-checking was done here? What kind of verification of any of the stats Poizner spins was done by his publisher? Hey, Portfolio Hardcover, you’re the ones that have some explaining to do, once we’re done with the author. This book was printed on paper, which I’m told gives it a somewhat higher authority ranking in the D&D world of media credibility, so how can it be so wrong? Doesn’t print have standards?

But let’s get back to Poizner. From the transcript of the show:

Yvette Rodriguez: Like a lot of things he said is something that you would expect someone who doesn’t live in this neighborhood to think of us. He was just like really quick to judge. He didn’t grow up here, and he says it in his book, like where he grew up they don’t have any of this, so how is he… I’m not going to go judge him and say, you know, “he’s a rich white guy, and doesn’t know,” because I don’t know him. But yet he’s over here judging us. That’s stereotyping. I think he needs to come out and apologize I think, at least, because a lot of us felt really offended by it.

Ira Glass: When I visited the school, I went to Mr. Richard’s class and I asked the students if they had questions for you or anything that they would like me to say to you, and they had one request. One senior girl said she’d like you to admit you got things wrong. She’d like you to apologize.What do you want to say to her?

Steve Poizner: Well, no. I mean, I appreciate her feedback, and I appreciate their passion.

“I appreciate your passion” is one of those coded phrases for me, because what it really means is “you’re hysterical and emotional and shut up, because caring about stuff is rude and makes your statements suspect, whereas I’m above such uncouthcaring, so I’m automatically more right than you.” He then goes on to say this:

So here I sell my last company for a lot of money and I’m pretty financially well off, and I decide to go into Mt. Pleasant High School, and then after I teach at the school for an extended period of time, I then go back to the school every year to do guest teaching. And then my wife and I, you know, get all kinds of requests from teachers and students about certain projects and we end up donating over $80,000 to the school over a period of many years.

I gave them money, so I should get to call them lazy thugs without them complaining! What a charmer.

For what it’s worth, I have zero problem with people who leave their comfort zones and explore a life different from what they’ve always known. I have zero problem with rich people teaching in poor(er) schools or working in poor(er) areas or generally doing things to make the world a better place. What I can’t stomach are those who come out of those experiences declaring themselves completely unchanged, unaffected, secure in their superiority and sure of their beneficence, because seriously? You went through all that and that’s what you learned?

You spent a year (or a semester, in Poizner’s case, see the full evisceration for details on THAT one) in a public high school and what you came away with was that public education is hopeless? Boy, I’m sure glad you have first-hand knowledge to back that up because it in no way would be a conclusion you’d have reached sitting in your “nice” neighborhood. The one without any flat tires or barking dogs.



14 thoughts on “Steve Poizner and What We Learn

  1. For once, I had the opposite experience listening to talk radio deal with the topic of education. Bob Edwards recently interviewed Diane Ravitch who wrote “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” She talks about the evolution of the charter school system, how it devalued public schools and how No Child Left Behind is useless (duh!) but the Obama administration isn’t doing anything to change it. I must get this book.

  2. Let’s have a little quiz here. What political party does Mr. Poizner belong to? No fair looking it up on Google either – you have plenty of clues right here. Would you want to live in a state with Mr. Poizner being the governor?
    Gee, you folks are so strange, you must all be gang members. I don’t see any hands up.

  3. I appreciate your passion” is one of those coded phrases for me, because what it really means is “you’re hysterical and emotional and shut up, because caring about stuff is rude and makes your statements suspect, whereas I’m above such uncouth caring, so I’m automatically more right than you.”
    Sing it, Sister. As a woman, I don’t know how many times I’ve been thusly accused of being “too emotional.”

  4. The depressing thing is dishonest hackery is a trait that is well-rewarded in this country. Although that seems to mostly apply to one side of the political spectrum.

  5. When I was doing stand up comedy my coach told me something very insightful.
    “You don’t get to blame the audience when you are a beginner. Your job is to figure out how to work with THIS audience. Crummy comedians blame the audience.”

  6. Sounded as if Poizner was doing the educational equivalent of slumming, and inflating the dangerousness of the neighborhood made the excursion seem more dramatic, and made for better storytelling.
    Add in the fact that he was using the experience as a sort of sociological field trip to justify his ideological preconceptions just makes his assessments all the more suspect.

  7. Hecate, because if there’s one thing you should defintely NOT be passionate about, it’s where you live and how that place is characterized to the rest of the world. That is one thing about which is it unconscionable to give any kind of a shit, right?
    If anyone needs me I’ll be over here with my bottle of bourbon.

  8. As a researcher in education, I getreally angry about stuff like this. Let’s take school choice, which of course the charter movement is very much behind. There’s lots of research that correlates student achievement with total spending, not merely per-capita, on education–no surprises there. There’s also research that correlatesschool size, regardless of class size, with worse student achievement–which does come as a surprise to a lot of people.
    So now, everyone gets to apply those facts to the school-choice movement: what happens when we take students (and therefore money) away from bad, poor schools, and put them into smaller, wealthier schools? It turns out that, unsurprisingly, the bad schools get less money, and they get worse in the short term; the good schools get bigger, and they get worse in the long term. It’s a policy that’s good for no one, except the people demagoguing the issue and the ones running the private schools.
    Ihate the sort of transparently racist nonsense Poizner is pulling. He’s just lying–about the students, about the administration, about the neighborhood, and about his own experience–to polish up his credentials for a wealthy white audience who stand to benefit directly from his attempted privatization of the public school system. If he and his ilk get their way, the school system will be as delightful and functional as the American healthcare system, and rationed in exactly the same way: according to the student’s ability to pay.

  9. if there’s one thing you should definitely NOT be passionate about, it’s where you live and how that place is characterized to the rest of the world.
    Get me into a conversation about how Somerville, MA(especially my neighborhood, Davis Sq) has changed over the decades and you’ll see me get passionate. For me, it shows that the issue of gentrification isn’t just black and white(words picked carefully).
    If you need me, I’ll be over here with my bottle of Percocet.

  10. I loved that piece. So good to hear an actual fairly mainstream media person (Glass) call bullshit. Poizner obviously went in there purely to have the credentials for his runs for public office, and went in with preconceived notions that, shocker, were not changed by those things the left calls facts.
    What I fucking loved was the description by another teacher of how Poizner got his “Rookie of the Year” award -basically, that the principal printed out some pages for teachers who were leaving – since he apparently uses that to promote himself.

  11. Bush got a metric ton of mileage from the Houston “miracle” which was a total sham built of bullshit that got packaged, transformed, and mass-produced as NCLB. It was a lie at the beginning and it’s still a lie. One can go a long way on bullshit in this country.

  12. Take a look at Houston’s schools now.
    I’ve been in half-a-dozen of ’em, right after the 2002 hurricane season. Allison wrecked, by flooding, several high schools down there. What’s needed isn’t pay-per-class schools on the university model, which is what the charter schools want to be; what’s needed is to get idjits like Poizner (interesting how the name looks like it ought to be pronounced poisoner, ain’t it?) out of the conversation.
    It’s bigotry.
    Some of it’s religious (I have in-laws who send their kids to private schools, because the public school a block away isn’t religious enough).
    Some of it’s racial (see Poizner’s BS above).
    Some of it’s classist (again, see above).
    Some of it is fear of association — if my kid goes to school with Hispanic / Asian / black / white / Native American / other kids, my kid will find out that ZOMFG, our house is not the center of the universe.
    Guess what, parents? It isn’t. Get over it. Become part of your community, get involved with making your schools better able to serve all the kids who go there, instead of trying to stamp out education for everybody’s kid but yours.
    Geeze-o-Pete, this is supposed to be The United States of America. The GOP and the Christyunist whackaloons have turned it into Mammonistan.
    I want my country back…

  13. I was doing research on charter schools for a job about 10 years ago, and it was transparently obvious then that the whole thing was a sham; basically a giant diploma mill system designed to suck money out of the publicly-funded school system(s) and into the pockets of education factory magnates. Any group of people in education who do as much fancy footwork to avoid regulation and accreditation as the charter movement does should be regarded withextreme distrust.

  14. I’ve been to that neighborhood a few times. It just doesn’t resemble what Poizner describes. It’s a somewhat boring middle class neighborhood – the sort of place where you’re more likely to be bored to death than shot. My guess is the neighborhood seemed so tough to him because it has (gasp) Mexicans in it (generally successful ones who can afford $400,000 houses). Yes there are a fair number of cars in the driveways and those cars are owned by folks who are prone to fix them themselves and yes, the landscaping looks like it is done by the homeowners instead of their servants, but this does not a ghetto make. Anyone who thinks that is the ghetto is unfit to govern.

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