Noted CCNY sociologist and Black studies professor critiques education reform under the Obama administration.
R. L’Heureux Lewis (40:27 )
R. L’Heureux Lewis Q&A (33:27)
R. L’Heureux Lewis, CCNY assistant professor of sociology and Black studies, delivered the second talk in the Center’s “Conversations in Leadership” series on March 20. Lewis discussed the achievement gap in education, criticisms of the Obama administration’s approach to education reform, and the importance of sustained community activism in effecting change.
Lewis is a theorist and critic of public education and the role of race in contemporary society. He is also one of the most popular and engaging teachers on campus; the conversation was regularly punctuated by jokes and laughter.
Speaking with Colin Powell Program Coordinator Michael Busch, a Ph.D. candidate in international relations, Lewis explained that his critique of President Obama’s approach to education is it is overly reliant on charter schools as an alternative to failing public schools, and on regular teacher evaluations to be used for distributing incentive pay and identifying unsuccessful teachers.
Lewis noted research that shows these evaluations are simply not precise enough to be dependable, incentive pay has been proven not to work, and firing bad teachers and hiring good ones is neither easy nor a panacea for the ills of the public education system.
“The debate is way too simple,” he said, pointing out students spend two thirds of their time outside the classroom, and parents and communities need to play a larger role in fostering education. On top of that, Lewis questioned the quality of charter schools, saying that research has shown them to be neither better nor worse than public schools, on average. They do not provide a better education than their counterparts, he argued, merely an alternative.
Most of the questions from the audience focused on how to improve a system that has withstood so many attempts at reform. Ultimately, he said, it comes down to sustained and widespread involvement. “Activism, political engagement, civic engagement, which should be the bedrock of education, is what it’s going to take to change this system.”
Lewis criticized “microwave activism,” his term for short-lived attempts to bring about change, which politicians can ignore until they sputter out. “You gotta make them hear you,” he said, adding, “and it comes from critical mass and that real commitment and impulse for justice.”
Lewis’ commentary and analysis have been featured in national and regional media outlets such as the Detroit Free Press, National Public Radio, Fox News, Ebony.com and TheRoot.com. He also maintains an award-winning weblog, Uptown Notes.
To bring people together, Lewis described a model of successful community activism based on three tenets: humility, to encourage collaboration; love, for neighbors and strangers alike; and connections, to encourage activists and organizers to seek the help of others. “If you don’t,” he said, “you’ll perish under your own ego.”
The Conversations in Leadership series launched on February 29 with a talk by Fatima Shama, the New York City commissioner of immigrant affairs and also included former Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer on March 27. The series will conclude with a talk by Jeffrey Luarenti, senior fellow and director of foreign policy programs at The Century Foundation, on April 19. For information about Laurenti's talk please contact firstname.lastname@example.org —AD