Poverty? Ask J-C Brizard

In a generally positive profile of Jean-Claude Brizard, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s pick for new Chicago school system chief, the Sun-Times applauds the nominee for “the charismatic way” in which he refused to talk to the paper’s reporter, who then notes that that….

…is typical of the ambitious former physics teacher who emigrated from Haiti as a boy, used the U.S. education system to drag himself up by the bootstraps from housing project poverty, then applied the same zeal to reforming the system that helped him, say friends and enemies alike in this upstate New York city of 210,000.

This jumped out at me in part because of the recent Joe Nocera Limits of Reform op-ed column in the NYT – please see my Education Unbound* and the accompanying Comments (other interesting Comments on the Education Next version) and my Culture of Poverty—or the Poverty of Culture? post in Flypaper last October.

My argument about poverty is simple: there are too many millions of people like Brizard who “used the U.S. education system” to drag themselves out of poverty to count them as exceptions that prove some demography is destiny rule.  (I’m sure Randi Weingarten would agree.) There are also too many charters and charter networks and private systems (e.g. the Catholics) that are getting the job done to dismiss them as anomalies.

No, these successful – and, yes, increasingly replicable and scalable – school (not social service!) systems are educating poor kids not by denying the harsh realities of poverty but by embracing those realities – and overcoming them.  We should not be talking about the “limits” of reform but about the opportunities they are offering our children. It can be done.

-Peter Meyer

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