An Open Letter to the Board of Directors of Ascend Learning
What happened to Steven Wilson?
This summer, the founder and CEO of the Brooklyn charter-school network you lead, Steven Wilson, published an essay titled “The promise of intellectual joy.” Passionate and deeply informed, the essay addressed the history of anti-intellectualism in American schooling and called for a spirited societal commitment to engaging all students in a liberal arts education.
In response, an anonymous author published an online petition that grotesquely mischaracterized Steven’s essay, condemned him as a white supremacist, and called for your investigation of his alleged racist behavior.
For that, it seems, you fired Steven Wilson.
At Ascend Steven and his team have built a network of 15 public charter schools educating 5,000 students in some of the most impoverished communities in Brooklyn. Ascend has not only closed the achievement gap, it reversed it. Its students, 96% of whom are black or Latino and 84% economically disadvantaged, are more likely to be proficient on the New York State exams than their white peers and middle-class peers statewide.
Over the last four years, Ascend has posted the strongest academic growth of any public charter school network in New York City. Most significantly, Ascend has successfully implemented an ambitious liberal arts curriculum and world-class teaching practices that rival the best schools in this country.
Perhaps most impressive in Ascend’s recent history, Steven led the radical overhaul of the network’s overly punitive discipline policy, a course correction that has resulted in a more vibrant and engaging student culture and stronger student academic performance. If you doubt our assessment of Steven’s inspiring reconsideration of Ascend’s approach to student culture and discipline, perhaps you will consider the observations of the New York Times. Its columnist described Ascend as “a bold testing ground for the theory that children from low-income homes can be educated the same way as children from affluent families.”
Steven had a deep track record of educational leadership long before he moved to New York City to start Ascend. As a special assistant to Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld in the early 1990s, he worked with bipartisan legislative leaders to draft and enact one of the most comprehensive and aggressive education reform laws in American history. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 put Massachusetts students on track to become the highest achieving in the nation for the past two decades. Plus, Steven’s role as the lead architect of a major component of the Act – the establishment of Massachusetts charter schools – helped to produce the highest performing sector of charters in the country.
Additionally, for the past three decades Steven has channeled his boundless energy to strengthen American schooling as the author of Learning on the Job: When Business Takes On Public Schools, as a fellow at Education Sector and the Harvard Kennedy School, and as the board chair of the renowned national charter school developer Building Excellent Schools.
Now, more specifically: Why did you fire Steven Wilson?
Did you fire Steven because you disagree with his essay’s call to equip every student, regardless of economic circumstance, with a rich liberal arts education? That would surprise us. Steven’s essay is at its core an explication of Ascend’s reason for being. Far too many children—especially children from disadvantage—have been denied the vibrant academic education long afforded children from privilege.
Or did you fire Steven because you agreed with the outrageous online petition charging him with trafficking in white supremacist ideology? That would not just surprise us. It would appall us. We have both worked alongside Steven for 25 years. We have witnessed firsthand his principled and ethical leadership across so many endeavors—leadership animated always and everywhere by his relentless commitment to bring educational opportunity to all American children. If we were tasked to recruit an individual whose leadership, actions and words best embody the antithesis of white supremacist ideas, Steven Wilson would be on our short list.
Or did you fire Steven simply because you realized that the individuals who sought to destroy his reputation and career might come for you next? If so, why didn’t you stand up, not succumb, to the same reprehensible racialist bullying that is now engulfing college campuses and threatens to undermine K-12 schooling as well?
We have been huge fans of Ascend charter schools since Steven and his founding team opened the first campus in 2008. What you and your staff, students, and parents have achieved since then is amazing. The Ascend community inspires us.
Why not reverse your decision, reinstate Steven Wilson, and in doing so use these regrettable events to engage your entire Ascend community in a well-facilitated discussion about the merits and flaws of the ideas and history presented in “The promise of intellectual joy?” If any members of your community have read American history differently than Steven Wilson has, then what could possibly be better than a respectful discussion of those differences? The upsides of such an exercise could be many, powerful, and beautiful, demonstrating for schools across the United States a model of healthy struggle to achieve understanding and community.
Ed Kirby and Kenneth Campbell
Ed Kirby advises educational choice advocates. After starting his career as a high school teacher, Ed served in multiple leadership positions on the state government team that launched the Massachusetts charter school sector in the 1990s. He then helped create and lead the Walton Family Foundation’s education reform initiative from 2000-2014.
Ken Campbell is the Southern Louisiana Executive Director for IDEA Public Schools. Ken previously served as President of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Prior to BAEO, Ken worked as the Director of Charter Schools for the Louisiana Department of Education where he was responsible for creating many of the systems, policies, and best practices that produced a high-quality charter sector in Louisiana.
This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.