Between facts and conventional wisdom, there's what's called a narrative. It's typical and healthy for opposing narratives to compete with each other. Without such competition — say, in a totalitarian state or a top-down organization — stagnation and failure emerge.
In Atlanta, for many decades that clash of narratives has been strangled. It's called the "Atlanta Way." Problems are glossed over, people in authority sing "amen" at the same catechism and the public is told to wear a happy face. Or else.
If you want to understand what went horribly wrong with the Atlanta Public Schools, look no farther than the Atlanta Way, which I believe had its origins in the city's 1906 race riot. The white population had little disinclination toward lynching, but on a mass scale such carnage was bad for business. Lurid stories of the riot made their way around the country, much as the current school scandal earned Atlanta an embarrassing mention in a Jay Leno monologue.
In 1906, civic elites gathered and began the grand sham of a city "too busy to hate." In the 1970s, with Georgia embroiled in school integration, the elites again huddled and hatched the "Second Atlanta Compromise" to silence demands for busing in exchange for a featherbedded bureaucracy at APS, with sinecures for well-connected educators. To show how this has played out, last year an analysis by the AJC showed the APS spends far more per student on administration than other metro systems, with more than 1,000 central office staffers earning at least $100,000. This situation is at the heart of the corruption in the now-deposed regime of El Jefe Beverly Hall.
Notably, Hall told Congress in 2008 that "a powerful coalition of business and community leaders and parents came together. They understood that comprehensive reform was critical to Atlanta's revitalization and health." She overlooked one detail: the children. Comprehensive reform, quoth Hall, was all about what's good for business. State investigators' damning 800-page report on APS corruption went light on the business leaders who'd enabled Hall. The investigators' soft-soap was likely a variation on the Atlanta Way: Don't blame the elites. But condemnation is warranted. Many Cassandras, myself included, attested to Hall's failure years ago, but the honchos played the Atlanta Way song.
Thousands of Atlanta children — overwhelmingly black and poor — were failed by APS. A few black educators got great jobs while children were condemned to schools where the very air was permeated by poverty. As one of America's foremost urban researchers, David Rusk, has stated in dozens of studies: "[T]he most powerful predictors of educational success or failure (in classroom composition) are family income and parents' educational attainment." Hall knew that. All of her management double-talk masked the reality of concentrations of poor children. But she always evaded real reform. What Atlanta got were oodles of bogus headlines about Hall's claimed achievements.
Mayor Kasim Reed is about the only person still standing among the rubble of APS's failure. He says he's a can-do guy. So he can either retreat to the Atlanta Way so that the elites can engage in more smoke-and-mirror spin, more top-down experiments and more lavish "incentives." Or Reed can convene an authentic community conversation. Many cities, often through exercises like "visioning," do exactly that. Real reform for children's future can only started at the grass roots.
John F. Sugg is a former CL senior editor. He works as a consultant and provided advice to some school board members who opposed Beverly Hall.
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