Critical Race Theory Distracts From Real Problems in Education, This Reformer Says

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Public education in New York City is far from what it once was, Ian Rowe, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says. 

“I had a great public school education in New York City kindergarten through 12th grade,” Rowe says.

But today, he says, New York City’s public schools aren’t meeting the needs of students. He notes that in the South Bronx, for example, “only 2%” of students who started ninth grade in 2015 graduated from high school “ready for college.”

Different factors contributed to this decline, but with students struggling to read and do basic math, Rowe says, ideologies such as critical race theory serve only as a “distraction.” 

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In 2022, Rowe says, he plans to launch Vertex Partnership Academies in the Bronx, a network of charter-based International Baccalaureate high schools. 

Rowe joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss why he promotes school choice options in New York and to explain why critical race theory doesn’t benefit students.

We also cover these stories:

  • President Joe Biden meets the press in Geneva after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Putin dodges reporters’ questions about his human rights record and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 
  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says she is concerned by the leak of private taxpayer information to the media outlet ProPublica.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Ian Rowe, a resident fellow in domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Rowe, thank you so much for being here.

Ian Rowe: Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Allen: I know that education is very important to you. Your research focuses on education and upward mobility, you’re the co-founder of the National Summer School Initiative, you also serve as a writer for “1776 Unites” campaign, and you’re co-founder of Vertex Partnership Academies—a new network of charter-based schools, International Baccalaureate high schools, which is going to be opening in the Bronx in 2022. So much of your work is around education. Why is education so important to you?

Rowe: It’s a great question. My own personal experience is that my parents, who came here from Jamaica, West Indies, they were very focused on education.

I had a great public school education in New York City kindergarten through 12th grade. I went to Brooklyn Tech High School, which is one of the specialized high schools in the city. That strong foundation of an education, plus my strong family, really created the basis for virtually everything that I have been able to do in my life.

I went to Harvard Business School, I went to Cornell University College of Engineering. I’ve worked at the White House, major organizations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Really, I have always felt that my opportunity to have a great tuition-free public education should be something that’s afforded to every child in this country, regardless of their race, class, or ZIP code.

Allen: How are you going about making that a priority, that every child really does have access to strong education?

Rowe: About 2009/2010, I was working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I had had experience working at Teach for America, at the White House, at MTV, all these interesting places, but I was really yearning for the opportunity to actually lead schools.

I’ve done a lot of work raising money for schools, giving away money for schools, creating media projects around education, but I thought it was important for me to really get my hands dirty and see what it’s really like.

I had the opportunity to become CEO of a nonprofit network of public charter schools in the heart of the South Bronx in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I became CEO in 2010. For a full decade, I ran a network of elementary and middle school single-sex schools. It was quite amazing. We had more than 2,000 students, almost all low-income, almost all black and Hispanic kids. We had more than 5,000 kids on the wait list. It was really in demand.

The parents that chose to send their kids to enter the lottery, they wanted their kids to have a shot at the American dream, that may be from low-income backgrounds, they may face different forms of discrimination in their life, but they knew that with strong schools, strong principals, strong teachers with very high expectations, that their kids could learn pathways to success to understand not only from an academic perspective, but the importance of character, the importance of family, the importance of living with integrity. All of those things are really important.

We ran that for 10 years through elementary and middle school. Now I’m launching, as you just mentioned, Vertex Partnership Academies, which is going to be a new network of character-based International Baccalaureate high schools, again, in the heart of the South Bronx, because we want to create more pathways for young people, especially in communities.

For example, in this community in the Bronx, only 2% of the students that started ninth grade in 2015 four years later graduated from high school ready for college. Think about that. Ninety-eight percent of the kids that started did not, four years later, be on a track to be able to do math or reading without remediation. That’s criminal, and we have to change that.

Allen: It hasn’t always been that way. I know Thomas Sowell talks about how he received a great education, a great public education, in New York City, and he really laments the fact that that wouldn’t be true today if he was in the public schools. What happened? What shifted?

Rowe: Unfortunately, there are a number of factors, but he’s right. I was the beneficiary of a great public education. There are a lot of factors that have made it so that we are not succeeding, really, as a country. Because as a country, not only New York, only about one-third of all students across race are reading at grade level.

If you look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is also known as the Nation’s Report Card—it’s an assessment that’s given every two years in fourth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade—I think only about 37% of 12th graders are reading at proficiency. Math is not much better.

This is a huge crisis for our country. I think sometimes there are major distractions—whether it be the current distraction of critical race theory and other things—[that] take our eyes off the prize, that kids of all races are struggling and we need to get back to focus on things like literacy, numeracy as the foundation, and then simultaneously strengthening families.

One of the things that’s so challenging over the years is that there’s been an explosion in nonmarital birth rates, particularly to young women, and that has created a pretty challenging environment for kids.

There are a number of factors, but I think we as a country have to recognize that our public school system, and there are some amazing teachers, many, many amazing teachers in our system, but overall, we’re not getting the achievements that I think our kids deserve.

Allen: You mentioned critical race theory, and you called it a distraction. Explain first just what exactly we mean when we say “critical race theory.” We hear that word a lot, but what exactly is it?

Rowe: It is in the news now and there are many states that are trying to ban it, so it seems appropriate we should talk about it. Critical race theory is an ideology that insists that America is a racist nation, that every institution is writhe with racism, that we have to look at the world through the prism of race, any racial disparity must be due to systemic racism.

Again, looking at the data in education, looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress, if you look at that same data in 2019, at fourth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade, the cumulative number of white students that are not reading at grade level is 3.75 million students.

So, nearly 4 million white students are not reading at grade level. It’s about 1.4 million black kids at those same grades.

Yes, there are more white kids overall in the population, but the fact remains that we have millions and millions and millions of kids of all races not reading at proficiency. That is a crisis for our country.

Critical race theory, in my view, narrows the conversation to say everything is about race. Well, it’s unlikely that systemic racism is the cause of nearly 4 million white students at fourth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade that are not reading at grade level.

Allen: How does the narrative of critical race theory impact students?

Rowe: It’s interesting, and I think this is a really important point. Critical race theory is a theory. It’s an ideology. It’s very hard to ban an idea. I think, and we can talk about it later, I think we’ve got to be very careful not to say that we’re trying to ban an idea. You have to really ban what I call the oxygen, the practices that are typically related to a critical race theory regime.

You’ll see examples of it where a superintendent in Evanston, Illinois, will say that in creating their back-to-school plans, only the black students will be allowed to return because of systemic racism.

Or, you’ll have other districts where, as part of their training or acclimation for kids, they’ll do something called a “Privilege Walk,” where they would line up all of the students in a horizontal line and they’ll say, “If you’re white, take two steps forward. If you’re black, take three steps backward.”

Or, imagine professional development being done where all the white teachers are put into one room, and all the non-white teachers are put into a separate room. In all the white teachers’ part of the training, they have to confess their oppressor tendencies, to confess their privilege. The “other” group is told how marginalized they are.

The last thing our kids, the kids that I lead in the heart of the South Bronx, need to learn is that there is some permanent marginalized class and that there are structural barriers that are insurmountable. I think it’s very easy for critical race theory regime to start to institute this kind of idea.

Again, I think it’s a big distraction. Let’s focus on literacy, numeracy, the things that are a bedrock for all kids because they’re real issues as it relates to, do kids have school choice? If you’re in a district where 98% of the kids are not graduating/ready for college, don’t you think school choice would be an effective intervention? Our teachers schooled in how to effectively teach reading, these are all major issues that affect kids of all races.

Allen: As we’ve talked about, you’ve already been involved in charter schools. Now you’re opening up these high schools in 2022. Talk a little bit about how many students you’ll be able to serve through those schools, the types of unique curriculums that you’re going to be incorporating, and how you’re actually going to be setting these kids up for success.

Rowe: Yeah, it’s a really exciting question. We’re launching Vertex Partnership Academies. The aspiration is to be a network of schools, not just one.

The first campus will open in 2022. It is an International Baccalaureate model, which, for many folks who may not be familiar with, it’s a world-class curriculum. It ensures that kids are focused on critical thinking.

The whole school will be grounded in the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. We’re really excited by that. We’re really grounded in the ideas of equality, of opportunity, individual dignity, and common humanity across race.

We’re not reducing kids or our faculty to any immutable characteristic, but recognizing each person as an individual. The content will be something called the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, which is a very rigorous program that sets our kids up to enter and thrive in four-year colleges or universities, and we’ll have something called the International Baccalaureate Careers Pathway.

The Careers Pathway will allow a student to be able to take apprenticeships in high school in either computer science, architecture, or something in health care. Those are our first three industries.

The idea is that you could graduate from high school with an industry credential with labor market value, if that’s what you so choose. I think it’s really important that we start to recognize that college is great, or can be great, but it doesn’t have to be the pathway for everyone. We’re building Vertex Partnership Academies to be the first of its kind example of schools that has these dual pathways.

When I was a student at Brooklyn Tech, there were 14 majors. I declared my major as an electrical engineer in high school at Brooklyn Tech, and it was an amazing experience. We want to bring that forward into Vertex Partnership Academies.

Allen: Wow, that’s so practical. There’s such a need right now. Even in society, we’re seeing that increased need for individuals to have those practical hard skills really from a young age in those fields. I love that. What a great model.

Rowe: And also, let 1,000 flowers bloom, because not only do we want Vertex Partnership Academies to be successful itself, but it now can serve as a model for other localities because one of the things we’re doing is we’re allowing networks, really high-performing networks of charter schools that only go through eighth grade, to be able to partner together to then have the graduates of their schools enter Vertex Partnership Academy. We become a guaranteed high school option for all these great networks that currently only go through eighth grade. That’s the power of choice.

In New York, there’s a challenge right now because there’s a cap on the number of charter schools that can be opened. One of the things I think that we should all be thinking about, how do we fix problems—like only one-third of our kids being able to read at grade level—allow more charter schools and allow more innovation, allow more entrepreneurs to come together and say, “I want to build great schools throughout the country”?

Allen: As we do think about how do we solve these issues, for those listening who say, “I want to help, but I can’t start a charter school,” they only maybe have so much time, so many resources, what is your encouragement to them for how they can get involved and support strong education?

Rowe: The first and foremost is make sure your own education in your own household is great. Support your own children.

Parents are the first teacher, and even as someone who has run schools for the last decade, and launching a new network, I never want to displace the important role of families and parents in creating a rich environment at home so that your kid has a library at home, they have access to good language, good behavior, good character role models. The first and foremost thing is ensure that in your own home, you’re providing a great education to your own family and to your own children.

Then if you want to radiate beyond that, there’s nothing like your own school board. I just decided to make a run for school board, and I was victorious. I was very happy with that because I know that that’s a very important institution because we might talk about national politics and all this other stuff, but local school boards [are] where the action is.

I would strongly encourage you, as someone who wants to make a difference, get involved, understand what your schools are doing.

Right now in a lot of districts across the country, parents are concerned. As a result of COVID, a lot of parents got more visibility into what’s actually being taught to their children, and they weren’t happy with it. If that was your experience, I would strongly suggest getting involved. If you are political in nature, support initiatives around school choice.

I have parents in the heart of the South Bronx who are sentenced to send their kids to schools that have not been serving their kids well for generations. And yet, we’ve got middle-class and upper-class folks across the country who have the power of choice. They can send their kids to private school. They can move to great suburbs and great access to free public schools. Let’s let low-income kids of all races have that same power.

Allen: I know at The Daily Signal we often will have maybe a parent reach out to us, or a teacher, and ask for resources: “How can I really be teaching American values in the classroom?” One of the resources I often send them is 1776 Unites. You write for the campaign. Would you just share a little bit about the curriculum?

Rowe: In early 2020, in response to the discredited project that The New York Times launched called the 1619 Project—which made all these false claims about the founding of our country being somehow 1619 versus 1776—a group of black scholars came together, led by Bob Woodson, who is just an incredible person, who for 40 years led the Woodson Center, helping folks in low-income communities become agents of their own uplift by embracing the founding principles around family, faith, hard work, entrepreneurship, education.

We decided to put forth a curriculum that we thought could help teachers, homeschoolers, after-school folks who wanted a more complete story of the African American experience in the United States, because so often we seem to be fixated on only the negative narrative.

Believe me, the United States does have a history of slavery. If one wanted to just weave together a story solely of atrocities, you can do that. That’s a very false view. It’s a revisionist history. We wanted to steal this away from the race hustlers. We said, “Let’s tell a more complete story.”

If you go to 1776 Unites, you will now see a curriculum that’s been downloaded more than 11,000 times by teachers in all 50 states who want to hear the inspiring stories of, for example, the Rosenwald Schools, which is an idea that Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, created now more than 100 years ago because he was frustrated that black kids weren’t getting access to a high-quality education.

So, he partnered with [Julius] Rosenwald, who at the time was the head of the Sears, Roebuck retail company. They built nearly 5,000 schools across the South exclusively for black children, and had incredible academic achievements. So, an amazing story of resiliency in the face of Jim Crow-era segregation, and yet that didn’t stop us.

That’s just one of many, many examples in the curriculum that you can see these stories so we can respond to this moment where we’re having a national discussion about race. We should be honest about our path, about all of it, warts and all. 1776 Unites has committed itself to telling these kinds of stories.

Allen: Yeah, that’s so critical. Thank you for your leadership there, for your service. Thank you so much for joining the show today, Mr. Rowe. We really appreciate your time.

Rowe: Thank you.

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