Miller and McNally: the vast education conspiracy, part 2

Below, in part two of the vast education conspiracy conversation, John McNally (America’s Report Card) talks with Joe Miller about Cross-X: A Turbulent, Triumphant Season with an Inner-City Debate Squad, and how volunteering as an assistant debate coach for Kansas City’s poorest high school has caused Miller to see American education as “an engine for a caste system” that’s “running as smoothly as a brand new V8.”

You can read a slightly modified excerpt from Cross-X at the end of the interview.

McNally: After Katrina, Kayne West said that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. So let me ask you. You’ve spent considerable time in an all-black school for the past several years, working with these kids and their award-winning debate team, and you’ve seen first-hand how the system can — and often does — fail these kids. So, what do you think? Does George Bush care about black people? Is the system — and I’ll let you define system — purposely trying to flush these kids out of school?

Miller: I have to agree with Kanye. Nothing against Bush personally. The statement wasn’t about the man so much as The Man — you know, what he represents. Katrina was just a blatant recent example in a legacy of presidential disregard (or judicial, or legislative, or whatever), and it was a smaller catastrophe, quite frankly, than most federal policy, not the least being “No Child Left Behind” (or, as you call it in your book, “No Child’s Behind Left Untouched”).

I think Jonathan Kozol was right when he wrote — long ago, in his more radical years — that the problem isn’t that the education system is a failure, but that it’s a brutal success. John, the hardest lesson I learned in my five years with the Kansas City Central debate squad, following them to tournaments at the nation’s top schools, is that American education is an engine for a caste system, and it’s running as smoothly as a brand new V8. Whereas Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville (alma mater of former debater William Frist) is training kids to become doctors and senators, KC Central is churning out servants, soldiers and prisoners.

McNally: How can you agree with Kayne but say that it’s nothing against Bush personally? It seems to me that his not caring about black people while being President of the United States would be very personal. In fact, I can’t think of anything more personal in terms of what this says about the man.

Miller: That’s the nature of racism today. It’s not personal anymore. You’ll never hear Bush use the N-word in public the way Truman and Johnson did, even as they pressed for Civil Rights legislation. But he’ll continue to operate in a manner that shows he doesn’t give a shit about blacks.

See, that’s the other thing that really surprised me in the process of working on this book. Pretty much every black person I talked to, once we got to a point where they were comfortable with me, said that things are actually worse now than they were during the days of Jim Crow. Racism has gone into hiding. It’s become impolite. But the numbers are still there. We’re still separate and unequal. Indeed the numbers are worse, as my friends suggest. For instance, schools are more segregated now in Kansas City than they were before our epic $2 billion desegregation case. Only now it’s not the fault of the Dixiecrats. It’s the fault of those born on the other side of the caste system, because now that overt racism is gone, there’s a release valve — opportunity, which is, too often, elusive.

I think what Kanye was trying to do was put a face on the undeniable injustice we all saw with Katrina. And while most of black America probably nodded in agreement with him, most of white America recoiled. To us, racism is white hoods and burning crosses. It’s not the fine print of 2,000-page appropriations bill. It’s not the policies that allow our suburbs to prosper on the backs of our ghettos.

McNally: So, what you’re saying is that it’s not a failed system but rather a successful caste system? I suppose you’re right, but that’s fucked-up. We already know that data from No Child Left Behind’s standardized tests is provided to the military for recruitment purposes, and I have no doubt that the kids you work with in Kansas City are being heavily recruited in ways that kids from, say, Winnetka, Illinois, aren’t, because the K.C. kids are dispensable in the eyes of the U.S. government. So tell me: Are we beyond the point of changing the education system in this country? Do you have any radical suggestions? Or will the disenfranchised have to continue to rely on luck, whimsy, and self-reliance to make it out of the system, if that’s even a possibility for them?

Miller: You’re right about that. Were it not for debate, the military would be just about the only option in KC for teens to do anything other than fill out mindless worksheets in class or blow off steam in gym. JROTC is pretty much the only game in town around here. In fact, all but a small handful of Central’s incoming freshman class are pushed right into this kiddy army, having been told (falsely) that it’s mandatory. The principals think it helps with discipline. And it might. But it’s a scary when you consider how our “preemptive” foreign policy depends on “volunteers.”

Your question’s a tough one, though, and when I’m feeling discouraged I tend to agree with the late John Ogbu that the only way to turn the school system around is to smash the caste system. Obviously, that’s a tall order, if not totally impossible.

Meantime, I find some hope, ironically, in No Child Left Behind — though my theory is a long shot.

What’s happening with this bill is that suburban middle-class schools are coming up short on the law’s expectations. They’re suddenly finding themselves in the same category as inner-city schools, threatened with the same sanctions. And these schools are starting to go into survival mode. In pursuit of better test scores they’re cutting back on the stuff that develops critical thinking skills — the stuff of a truly valuable education. As you say, it’s all about memorization. So, given this trend, it seems there are two things that could happen. The middle class could become more and more compliant, and America dumber and dumber and more manipulable. Or the middle class could snap and force a change.

It’s happened before, and the power is certainly there. But whether this would make a difference for the lower classes is a big if.

McNally: You entered Kansas City Central High School to write a newspaper article, and you ended up spending several years there, working with the debate team and writing Cross-X. And you’re still working with the debate team, am I right? How did this experience change your life?

Miller: I am indeed, and, other than ruining my life by making me a debate junkie, the experience has completely changed my perspective on America. I tend to see things through black eyes now, weird as that sounds. I’m a much sharper critic. Things that I wouldn’t have thought twice about before — an innocuous trend story on the Today Show, for instance, or news coverage of a murder in the suburbs — now seem sinister, or at least part of a vast deception or denial.

I guess the most important thing I’ve learned is that there are, at very least, two Americas, that they’re separate and unequal, yet — and this is key — they’re intrinsically linked. Like, you can’t have the white side of town without the black one. In other words, my “comfortable” middle class upbringing was a coefficient of that of the kids in my book. But in order for the whole system to work, white suburban kids like me have to be ignorant of the whole set up. And that’s a big reason why I’ve stuck with debate. As much as it’s about helping kids at Central High gain marketable skills, giving them a hand up into the middle class, it’s also about helping them get in the face of my 16-year-old self and telling him what’s up.

And here’s an excerpt from Cross-X:

I paid my first visit to Central High in spring 2001. I came as a reporter for a news and entertainment magazine published weekly in Kansas City, at the invitation of Bryan Dial, the school’s student body president. I met him at a contentious school board meeting at the district’s central offices, where he spoke out on behalf of his recently demoted principal. It was a time of political turmoil in the district, which had been operating for nearly two years without state accreditation. Less than a week before I met Bryan, a slim majority of school board members called an illegal secret meeting to fire the superintendent, the nineteenth in twenty years. The next day, the federal judge who oversaw Kansas City’s 26-year-old desegregation case reinstated the superintendent. But the damage was done; the following day, the superintendent very publicly declined the job, calling the school district’s governance “fatally flawed.” This drew headlines nationwide, further spreading the school district’s reputation as one of the worst in the country. After the meeting, while my fellow reporters crowded around board members for quotes, I sidled up to Bryan. He was eager to talk to me. He felt personally insulted by the media’s coverage of Kansas City’s public school system, where he had spent most of his eighteen years. It was his world. And the constant flow of negative stories seemed to say that he and all the people he grew up with were inferior, almost worthless. He wanted a reporter to spend some time in his school and meet more kids like him: just as bright and capable as any other.

The next morning, I got in my car and drove east across town, a trek I would make many, many times over the next several years. To bisect Kansas City this way is to fully experience its split personality. It’s a journey many white Kansas Citians don’t dare make. For me, it began two blocks in on the Missouri side of the border with Kansas, where my apartment was located, on 39th Street, also known as “Restaurant Row.” With its funky used book stores and coffee shops, and bistros offering everything from lamb curry and saffron rice to bubble teas and vegetarian spring rolls, its one of those stylish nooks that make cities bearable for people like me. Three-story homes, flowering lawns and lush, full-grown trees surround the hip commercial zone, spreading in all directions and broken up here and there by clean, quiet parks. Heading eastward, the blocks of stately homes are interspersed more and more with tall, compact apartment buildings bearing the flourishes of early 20th century architecture, columned porches and balconies, and intricately carved cornices, some a bit run down with age, but not so much as to destroy the hominess of the neighborhoods.

Then, at Troost Avenue, a long, commercial thoroughfare of mostly vacant storefronts, the landscape shifts abruptly. Suddenly the blocks resemble broken smiles with wide gaps between rotting teeth. Every other house, it seems, has been torn down, their lots left to grow weedy and litter strewn. Many of those still standing appear to be close to falling down, with sagging porches and peeling paint, a few with boarded windows and “No Trespassing” signs tacked on their front doors. Crossing the busy north-south streets, one sees ghosts of a long dead economy, one- and two-story buildings that housed grocery and shoe stores and haberdasheries fifty years ago. Most have windows that are covered with opaque paint and braced with slabs of plywood. Unlike neighborhoods to the west of Troost, though, these streets are full of activity, with dozens of people treading the sidewalks between bus stops. They’re all black. There are old men, with their chiseled faces and crooked postures, and women shepherding three, sometimes four children, and small groups of young men walking slowly along, wearing ball caps and khaki cargo pants with the waists cinched just above their knees. These are the poorest zip codes in the city. In the neighborhoods around Central High, the unemployment rate is 42 percent. One out of four workers earn less than $10,000 a year, and more than a third of the families with children live under the poverty line. The median income in the area is $22,000, compared to $46,992 for the Kansas City metro area.

A couple of miles later, my journey ended at a broad building of sturdy gray brick and painted steel, sitting back from the road, beyond a rolling lawn with middle-aged trees. Entering the parking lot, I marveled at the grand symmetry of the edifice, the hulking wings fanning out from a circular atrium of mirrored glass. It seemed out of place, like a mighty ark that set sail from somewhere in suburbia and washed up on a ghetto shore.

On first inspection, Central was worse than I imagined. Each morning at seven, I passed through the school’s metal detectors to meet Bryan or one of his friends. For the better part of a month, I followed them from class to class, where more than half the desks sat empty. Most of the student body had been purged from the rolls after months of absences, or they had already failed their classes and saw no point in coming, or they were simply off enjoying the springtime, knowing a parent would write an excuse. In each classroom I found dozens of computers, part of a 1,200-unit network that was once acclaimed on national TV but has since stopped working. Only a couple of the machines in each room were equipped with a mouse (“Kids keep stealing them,” one teacher told me). Most of the “lessons” I sat in on felt like babysitting sessions, with the teacher reading a magazine or visiting with a handful of students while the rest of the class chatted, or, at best, copied answers from a textbook into fill-in-the-blank Xeroxes. At one point, a teacher in an algebra class told me, “I hate math.” And then she stuck out her tongue to blow a raspberry. Bryan and his friends enjoyed a privileged status because they were smart and well behaved. Teachers let them come and go at will, so I often roamed the colorless hallways with them or watched as they surfed the Web. It became clear that Bryan was sailing through high school on a false sense of accomplishment.

While I was there, ten adults bearing yellow name tags took a two-day tour of Central High. They arrived each day before the morning bell rang, emptied their pockets of keys and cell phones and passed through the school’s metal detectors. “They look like they’re armed,” one student said as she watched them stride by in their suits and ties.

They came from all corners of Missouri, some from as far away as St. Louis. Half were teachers. One was a school superintendent. They were appointed by the state’s top education officials to find out why Central’s numbers were so bad: Only one out of three of the kids who come in as freshmen wind up wearing a cap and gown at the end of their senior year; just seventeen out of more than 3,000 students who took achievement tests over the last five years were proficient in math, English, social studies and science; only one scored at the advanced level, and, in that instance, only in math.

The visitors spent their days observing classes, jotting notes and referring to lists of questions they carried in green folders: What kinds of instructional strategies did you observe most commonly in the classes? What kinds of interactions did you observe? What kinds of interruptions or disruptions were present that interrupted the learning process? They saw few strategies and a whole lot of disruptions. The lectures they witnessed were painfully slow, halted every minute or so by protests and outbursts from a handful of rowdy kids. The observers pulled students and teachers out of classes and took them to the school’s library for long interviews. The students were blunt: Most of the teachers here don’t even know what they’re teaching. They’re just babysitting us. We don’t learn nothin’. The teachers, in turn, blamed the kids, their parents and the world: We get all the bad kids in the district. How can we teach kids when they don’t have a home or don’t have enough to eat? Test scores will never be up to state expectation levels, and that’s because of poverty.

Months later, in fall 2001, Missouri education officials compiled the visitors’ notes into a thin report that was so alarming one member of the state board of education cited it as evidence of “educational malpractice.” Released to the public and widely reported in the media, it accused Central’s teachers and administrators of having such low expectations for the students that they had essentially abandoned the curriculum. When asked what Central’s mission is, these teachers were lost for words. State officials found the school’s planning and learning processes, its management and organization, its instructional leadership, its programs to aid struggling students and its efforts to monitor academic progress to be “inadequate.” Amid this “lack of a shared vision” and direction, the observers noted, the students were “making no academic progress.”

After reviewing this report, the state’s education commissioner officially declared Central “academically deficient.” It was one of the first schools in the state to earn this dubious honor. Incredibly, the commissioner told reporters he viewed the distinction as a positive. It meant that Central would get additional assistance from the state in the form of a management team (another group of educators from around the state who would visit the school periodically) and more money to help improve the school. Though the school did win a $91,000 grant for staff development and a few computers and books, the principal later told me, “I’ve gotten no help from the state. None whatsoever.”

The management team visited the school on two occasions, holding meetings in the library from which came lists of recommendations that were full of the sort of bureaucratic jargon the school’s leaders had tossed around for years: “Core Department Instructional Leaders”; “Small Learning Communities”; “Job Embedded Staff Development.” It offered suggestions that were never implemented, such as a later start time for the school day and the creation of a “vertical curriculum team” with officials from Central and the three middle schools that feed into it. The school’s staff lounge was littered with documents such as these, stacks of school improvement plans stuffed in the corner and gathering dust.

Like many of her colleagues, Jane Rinehart, coach of the school’s debate team, has served on the committees and special project teams that devised these schemes to save the school. Every year there seemed to be a new plan. The year before the auditors arrived, she was involved with the school’s “cluster” initiative, in which a group of teachers who specialize in different subject areas were teamed up and assigned to a group of incoming freshmen. This, the reasoning went, would allow teachers to meet regularly to coordinate their study plans and to share information. Rinehart’s bosses in the main office had high hopes for this plan. They started with a small group of students, but a week or so into the fall semester the teachers discovered they were not, in fact, teaching the same kids. A scheduling snafu had to be undone, and a bunch of students were shuffled nearly a month into the school year.

That plan was tossed into the pile of previous plans in the staff lounge, and essentially forgotten, as were the recommendations from the state management team. But the “academically deficient” label stuck. Now the school carried an easy-to-remember slogan for its pitifulness. Students and teachers alike felt demoralized. “I spent two hours with those people,” Rinehart said of her interview with the state’s audit team, “and this is what I get for it? My kids are making no academic progress? Thanks a lot.”

Rinehart caught my attention immediately. On the first day I was there, Bryan showed me the fruits of her labor: the school’s trophy cases, filled with plaques, medals and awards that Central’s debate team had won against schools with national reputations for greatness, such as New Trier on the North Shore of Chicago, Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and The Blake School in Minneapolis. I was momentarily stunned.

Before I’d even set foot in Central, I’d formed an understanding of how it would be: bleak, violent, hopeless. This perception came, truth be told, from the work of other journalists who’d ventured before me into schools like Central. I was prepared to follow their lead, to give an unflinching account of America’s miserable underside. I expected to find an anomaly or two, a gifted child (Bryan, perhaps) to play the role of the victim in my exposé. But these trophies shattered my preconceptions. They suggested a systemic force — a small one, yes, but not so tiny and insignificant as to be an aberration. Instantly, I understood Central’s debate program to be a sort of anti public education system, a positive charge to counter the negative of segregated schools. These shelves of shiny metal documented several cycles of high school students who had, in a game of fast-talking, wit, and sheer brilliance, closed the academic achievement gap between black and white students — something educators and policy makers across the country have been grappling with for years. This, I thought, is the sort of success story that should be told and retold until it takes root in every urban school across America.

I learned immediately, however, that Rinehart’s program wasn’t spreading into other schools. In fact, it was struggling just to survive.

Almost as soon as she began taking her students to tournaments at predominantly white schools in suburban Kansas City, she received calls from officials at the Missouri State High School Activities Association accusing her of breaking rules. They threaten to ban Central from competing — not only in debate, but in other activities as well, such as football and basketball. Often, the allegations were false, and were reported anonymous coaches elsewhere in the state. In response, Rinehart had taken her kids to the more challenging national debate circuit, winning more debate rounds, but drawing more intense scrutiny from the activities association as well.

Listening to Rinehart’s pained accounts of this conflict, I began to see the sketchy outlines of what I came to Central hoping to find, though it was far more ugly and immense than I could have possibly imagined. It became instantly clear to me that I might find in this small but strong debate program, in the story of its struggles and triumphs, the whole of racism as it exists in America today.

So a year later, I embarked on what I thought would be a season-long adventure with the team. I’d be a detached observer, hanging quietly on the periphery with my notebook and cassette recorder. I had no idea that the journey would change my life, that I would break my boundaries as an objective journalist and become deeply involved with the team, first as a friendly adult with good advice, then as a relatively well-connected advocate, lobbying against absurd limits imposed by downstate bureaucrats, then as an assistant coach, spending my own money and forsaking my social life to give them more opportunities to compete. I came in thinking this game of debate, with its recorded history dating back to 500 BC with Protagoras, Socrates and Plato, might well be the ultimate savior for forgotten inner-city teens. By the end, I would be on a campaign to change the game itself, believing whole-heartedly that these black kids from the Eastside of Kansas City are the real saviors, with their own plan to save a game so intrinsic to democracy — a game that is, by all appearances, is dying out in America.


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