Just Numbers

 Their hope bursts out of a system designed to thwart it.

                                                        –Program Notes, Just Numbers

Darius pokes his head around the corner to make sure the coast is clear.  He holds his breath, all senses on alert.  Is there graffiti warning him of new territorial shifts? Not this morning.  He sprints to the bus, gets on it safely, and can breathe while the bus takes him across the city and drops him off a few blocks away from his school.  He gets off and skirts dangerous territory, passes under an overpass where new tags are going up.  The taggers look at him but don’t follow him.  Darius survives another morning commute.

And gets to school 5 minutes late.  He is sent to the principal, and to detention.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to understand that a child whose commute is anything like this is not in a state to learn.  And that rather than sitting that child in detention, or in a test, or test prep, we adults need to offer healing now and community safety long term.  Once our children are safe, we can turn our attention to education.

Darius’ story is one of six that, along with impressive ensemble poetry, make up Just Numbers, the new Chicago Slam Works play.  Why do adults need to watch other adults performing a play from kids’ perspectives?  Because we aren’t listening to the kids’ voices.  Students are hidden from public view in their schools, in segregated neighborhoods.  But over and over the students in the play remind us: they aren’t blind; they see exactly what’s going on.  They see they are pawns in a game of powerful players whose rhetoric of student achievement masks self-serving economic and political machinations.  Students’ actual lives, interactions, and thoughts are presented against a background of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speeches on education policy, which sound distant, irrelevant, and offensively glib.

Chicago Public School students are very clear about what they need: safety, health, parents who can be present for them, who are not forced to work multiple jobs, who are not in prison, killed, or deported, and teachers who will not be replaced next year or next week.  And in the classroom: an education that respects students’ intelligence and humanity.

In case white parents in Chicago – half of whose children don’t go to CPS — don’t understand why teachers voted to go on strike next week, this play offers a point-by-point lesson: from the questionable funding, operating, and staffing of charter schools, to the high-stakes testing forced on Black and Brown children.


This is not public education.  Public education means that all children are valued, that people hold accountable the system, its architects and decision-makers, not individual teachers and students.  Many Americans have bought into the education reform emphasis on test scores, but the world’s most successful education system rejects testing — and calls out the testing profiteers.  Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlsberg insists: a successful public education system is based on equity of quality education.  It values informal learning and emphasizes reciprocal trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.  “Measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. It is character and mind that matter… not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Public education requires that the voices of people in schools – students, teachers, and parents – are at the center of decision-making about schools, both in the classroom and in the district.  Not bankers, realtors, and politicians.  Let’s act like a public: let’s listen to public school students and teachers, take seriously their stories, their questions, and their ideas, and demand that our leaders stop treating them like “just numbers.”


Warped policy: notes on Counts’ critical analysis of school board composition

“To a degree and in a fashion seldom grasped, the content, spirit, and purpose of public education must reflect the bias, the limitations, and the experience of the membership of this board.”

— George Counts

 As I watch the campaign build for an elected school board in Chicago, I am thinking about the questions raised in George Counts’ 1927 monograph, “The Social Composition of School Boards.”   Counts argues that education for democracy is threatened by the fact that school boards, by and large composed of the dominant social classes in America, don’t represent the interests or the capacities of people in the public schools.  I am not sure why I am so surprised by the relevance of Counts’ analysis to education policy today.

Counts’ study of school board demographics and bylaws in districts across the United States, rural and urban, county and city, is driven by the questions: “Who are the men and women composing the boards that control public education in the United States?”  “What is the probability that they will support a type of education which seeks to make the coming generation genuinely intelligent about the present complex civilization and its numerous problems?”

Counts finds that the vast majority of school board members are high-income men – he cites chancellors’ job descriptions of school boards, noting that women and “unsuccessful” men are explicitly excluded, as well as the “uneducated.”  Seeing this term used to harden social boundaries made me rethink the label ‘uneducated’ — used with the same tone of denigration today that it was 90 years ago by chancellors who made sure people who hadn’t gone to university had no place at the table of education policy.  But the term suggests a deficiency in the individual, when the attention instead should be on the conditions – more specifically, the people and interests — that keep a person from being educated.

“The outstanding conclusion to be drawn from this study of the occupations of the members of boards of education is that the control of education and the formulation of educational policy are intrusted very largely to representatives of the more favored classes.”  So far nothing new.  But Counts goes on to name a democratic principle that now as then is seldom considered: people of one class are ill-suited to represent people of another class: “The argument may be advanced that these board members, though drawn from a restricted class will, because of the superior educational opportunities which they have enjoyed, rise above a narrow loyalty to their own group and formulate education policies in terms of the common interest.  We all wish that this were so, but there is little evidence from the human past to support it.  The rare individual will strive earnestly to have regard for the best interests of all classes, but no one can transcend the limits set by his own experience.  The best of us are warped and biased by the very processes of living.”  Laid out this way, I become uncomfortably aware of an assumption I make that education, experience, and professional duty enable an upper-class person – such as a member of our current Chicago Public Schools Board – to advocate for the best education for lower-income students.

My assumption is based in large part on my value for higher education.  But Counts addresses this bias in a way that I find compelling: “if intelligent men and women can be found in the community who have not attended college or even the secondary school, they might be expected to bring to the deliberations on educational policy a certain freshness of point of view which would be helpful.  When all the members of the board are to a large degree products of the same educational system, they are likely to manifest a uniformity of outlook which will make difficult the adjustment of the procedures of the schools to the changing needs of society.”  Why do I imagine that people who have had access to higher education are best prepared to make policies that impact access to higher education?  Won’t people who haven’t had such access be more invested, focused, and knowledgeable about what limits and what enables access to higher education?

Counts’ monograph strengthens my commitment to working for an elected school board in Chicago – but it also compels me to work for equitable representation on the school board.   People who have been denied quality education are the ones who we most need to lead the fight for quality education for all.