Devil Has Slippery Shoes, A Biased Biography of the Child Development Group
by Polly Greenberg
The Macmillan Company, Collier-Macmillan Limited, London, 1969
excerpts (pp. 100-101)
“… until [poor people's] school system reflected them as much as the middle-class school system reflects the middle class, we thought poor people would consciously or unconsciously sabotage many of the gains that we made for them in our ivory tower. . .”
It’s the consensus of articulate spokesmen from among the poor, as well as of other “poverty experts” and “education experts” everywhere, that the American system of education at all levels has somehow thus far not been able to effectively educate most poor people, especially Negroes. Negroes often drop out of educational institutions in a vague cloud of embarrassed failure feelings; or in disgust and hostility; or they docilely allow themselves to be “passed along” in the system, learning nothing of meaning to them, and learning a lot about “faking it”’ or they adapt themselves to another man’s values and come out doing well in his world, abandoning their own, which cries for their leadership. (p.100)
Recently there has been a tremendous focus of interest from many disciplines on this problem of Negro lack of success in school. Much exciting and promising work is being done by researchers and innovative educators. They are experimenting with how children learn, training them in listening and perceiving, creating more appropriate learning materials, machines, and gadgets, developing enrichment curricula for minority groups and nonmiddle-class groups. Strengthening self-image, intervening early, working with parents, perfecting “reward” systems, emphasizing language growth, and training teachers to work with “the disadvantaged.” Almost everything of an experimental nature that’s being done concerning this problem revolves around processes, procedures, and programs for the classroom – in the classroom—in a prefabricated system; including how to interest parents. Ours was an experiment in reversing the usual Head Start procedure in an effort to reach head Start’s goal. Instead of beginning with classroom quality and attempting to work toward “involving” parents and the community, we were going to try beginning with parents and the community—and then work toward quality in the classroom.
CDGM’s “revolutionary” educational belief was that while all the other avenues of exploration are critical, they all fit into stage two of “solving the problem.” Stage one of solving the problem is to direct experimental work at the process through which, and the people through whom, the classroom and the system even come into existence. As a lady from Laurel explained, “It ain’t gonna get you there no quicker no matter how beautiful you drives if you is drivin’ in the wrong direction. Better jes go back and start all over, or you kin talk all day ‘bout the little things and you ain’t never gonna get no place you wants to go.”
We wanted to see if poor people and minority groups could develop their own educational systems and classrooms. We guessed they needed their own elected school boards, which would hire their brands of specialists and supervisors who would specialize and supervise according to their goals, exactly as middle-class people and the majority group now do. Until this had happened, we felt it mattered relatively little what kinds of ultrasubtle and superaccurate, sophisticated things went on in the classroom. These come later, these come in stage two, and at that time are vitally important. But until their school system reflected them as much as the middle-class school system reflects the middle class , we thought poor people would consciously or unconsciously sabotage many of the gains that we made for them in our ivory tower. . .
The public school system “works” and is so hard to change because it comes out of the middle-class, is for the middle-class, and it suits the middle-class. This is true from kindergarten to college. It does not suit the poor. But they cannot change it much because it is entrenched in the satisfaction of those to whom it “belongs.” Since the poor don’t like the educational situation, and cannot affect it, they leave it alone.
The poor may not be “qualified” to design and staff a school system, but then of course the middle-class isn’t qualified either. Seldom is a person who is brilliantly distinguished in a field taught in the schools, or is a talented and renowned educator elected to a local school board. Middle-class citizens who haven’t the least idea how to teach or what is worth teaching from any particular field of knowledge or how education has varied historically and internationally, or about the lives of those for whom they plan, elect each other to school boards. They control. It doesn’t seem odd to us they, knowing nothing of education and still less about creating new kinds of dynamic education based on research and invention, should control. We don’t think it strange that they, eminently prepared to conform to the status quo and to pass it down as sanctified “heritage,” rather than individuals who are gifted creative thinkers and could possible begin to deal with the problems confronting education today, should control. We feel that these people are “qualified” as superintendents, principals, teachers, specialist, and supervisors because they do have the qualifications that really matter to the middle-class public: They will use their judgment in hiring people who will look out for their interests and promote their values; they will see to it that no great changes occur which might seriously jeopardize their children’s future occupational, social, economic, political, psychological, and status level; and they will move slowly and cautiously.
The poor, if they ran schools for their children ,would they do the same thing? Would they use their judgement in hiring people who would look out for their interests and promote their values 9which might be the same as the values of the middle-class or might be less superficial)? Would they see to it that very great changes were made which might seriously enhance their children’s future chances economically, occupationally, socially, politically, psychologically, and in status terms? We guessed yes. We would experiment. (pp. 101-103)