Dr. Howard Fuller Speaks at MN Charter School Conference

Pierre Fulford, left, and Alia Jackson introduced Dr. Howard Fuller (right) at the conference. (Photo by Marisa Gustafson, Center for School Change)


Dr. Howard Fuller was the distinguished keynote speaker at the 2nd Annual MN Charter School Conference last week.  Dr. Fuller addressed about 200 attendees on Tuesday, July 29th at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of MN campus.  The conference was co-sponsored by Cargill, CliftonLarsonAllen and the Center for School Change.

Dr. Fuller is the former Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, and currently serves as the Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning  at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Below is the full text of his keynote address.

You can read an article about his visit by Joe Nathan here.



Minnesota Charter School Conference Speech

July 29, 2014

It is an honor and a privilege for me to have this opportunity to share some of my ideas and concerns about the state of the “chartering movement” in this country. Thanks to Alia and Pierre for that introduction, and for the reminders about what chartered schools can accomplish

I thank my good friend Joe Nathan for reaching out to me with the invitation.

I can not speak on this topic without first expressing my eternal gratitude, admiration and respect for the people who took the actions that made it possible for us to be here today; Ember, Ted, Jon, Joe, Doug and all the other MN pioneers who took this idea and put it into legislation, the first charter legislation in the nation. I also want to acknowledge a great Minnesotan: Kwame McDonald, a true warrior for students and families, who was a great mentor for me, and who has now passed on.

It was the passage of the legislation that had “zero chance of passage” that spawned what many of us today refer to as the charter school movement. (“Zero chance of passage” is of course the name of Ember’s book)

People often ask me why I do what  I do. As a Black man, I have an image seared in my mind and my soul. On February 1, 1960 four Black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at a lunch counter and demanded to be served, and here we are in 2014 where many Black students can sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcomed and can’t read the menu. How did we allow that to happen in America?

I speak to you this morning as an unapologetic, unrelenting and unwavering advocate for chartering as a process to enable the establishment of great schools for kids. It was at the time it was proposed a very “innovative” idea.

For me the innovation that so many of us talk about is not charter schools but the chartering process.  I learned that from Ted Kolderie.

Ted explained the point I am trying to make in this way:

People hear mostly about ‘charter schools…the strategy of chartering is less visible and less understood. The purpose of the schools is to provide a more attractive, motivating and successful learning experience for students. The purpose of chartering is to develop a new and more productive arrangement for public education, where we are testing an arrangement in which the schools are not under direct political control, in which the key decisions about learning and about teachers are the responsibility of more autonomous schools; in which enrollment is choice-based and in which accountability for performance is real rather than rhetorical.

We cannot talk about any aspect of education including chartering without having a philosophical foundation about the role of education in a society.

My foundation comes from Paulo Friere book Pedagogy of the Oppressed – In the foreward of the book Richard Shaull states:

“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.  Education functions as either an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present order and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the practice of freedom – the means by which men and women learn to deal critically and creatively with reality to participate in the transformation of their world.”

In order to help prepare our children to engage in the “practice of freedom,” we must use the chartering process to create schools where the governance, the teaching and learning practices, the rules and regulations are implemented in ways that help our kids attain the level of academic achievement and mental toughness they will need to be able to indeed be able to engage in transforming their world.

If you truly believe this is the purpose that brings us to this room today then it means without any hesitation or equivocation our first priority is our children and if that is so then we must ask ourselves some questions about how we are using the chartering process:

  • Are the schools we are creating preparing our kids to be able to compete with the most competitive kids in this country and throughout the world? (It takes a whole village)
  • Are we creating good schools when in fact we need great schools?
  • Are we creating schools for the 20th century or the 21st Century?
  • Are we preparing our kids to live in the 21st century or are we preparing them to create the 21st century? (Today’s best practices could become tomorrow’s limitations)
  • Are we only teaching our students facts or are we giving them the tools they need to be able to constantly reassess those “facts.”
  • Are we approaching our children with a deficit approach or an asset approach?
  • Are we willing to place their needs and interests ahead of family connections, friendships, allegiances and financial gain – The reality is schools and school districts are economic enterprises as much as they are educational institutions. In so many cases our children are an afterthought because for some of us, maybe some of us in this room today, it’s all about the money.
  • Are we willing to deal with race and/or class issues when they are at the root of the problems in our schools
  • Conversely, do we play the “race card” as a cover for incompetence, greed, or some other reason why you allow a school to continue that you would not put your own children in?
  • Do we have a real accountability system set up in our schools?
  • Checker Finn’s 3 legged accountability Stool:
  • Standards
  • Assessment
  • Consequences

(I do believe schools should have more than just one measure of school effectiveness. I am a firm believer in test scores being a part of any measurement of school success but it cannot be the only measure. I do think what Paul Tough and others have to say about the value of non-cognitive skills is extremely important.  We have to figure how to develop within kids these skills (persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, self confidence), and how we will measure their progress on attaining them.)

Tony & TC  at HSRA have helped me understand the importance of multiple forms of measurements.

(Additionally, are we capable of creating accountability systems that without “lowering standards” recognize the value of schools that serve kids that do not fit the usual pattern of preparation and adherence to traditional pathways to learning)

  • We have had some crooks and some scoundrels in the charter movement just as we have had in the traditional system.  When we find them they should be thrown out of our movement and face criminal prosecution if their deeds warrant it.
  • Finally, are we facing the brutal truth about the issues your kids are facing in education and the world outside of the school?  – “No Excuses does not mean No Empathy” – Class matters in America. Poverty is real in America for far too many of our students.

As I said at the onset I am a strong supporter of chartering and charter schools. But I am also a deep believer in staying true to purpose not to the method to get us to purpose.

Our purpose for supporting the charter process does not find it’s ultimate meaning in forming charter schools. No, it finds it’s meaning in educating our students. It finds its meaning in the way we treat our students. It finds its meaning in how we treat the families and communities of the students we serve.

“I’m  a believer in a 3 sector approach for low income families. – district, charter and private. To paraphrase a quote from Bernice King, The Obamas should not be the only residents of public housing who are able to choose the best learning environment for their children.

I am worried that in our quest to prove that we are “public” schools and to try and silence our critics(which will never happen) we are becoming more and more like the system that we started the charter movement to get away from or at least provide a viable alternative

As the years go by it is very difficult to maintain a sense of purpose and not get caught up in protecting ourselves not because we are serving kids well, but because we exist.  If we are not careful and vigilant we will move from being reformers to protectors of the status quo. (Being self critical is difficult when you have opponents who seize on every bad story about chartered schools to demand more regulation or the end to chartering altogether).

We must always operate under the theme of tell no lies and claim no easy victories (expand)

Let me say a few words here about change. I am a cynic about many of the calls for change that come from many of us educators. I believe many of us want change as long as nothing changes.

  • We say we want change but we do not want to change the power relations that drive the traditional education systems.
  • We say we want change but we want to avoid controversy. We want to be liked by people who have a fundamentally different view than we have about the process of change and the nature of change that must take place if anything is to be truly different for our children.
  • We say we want change but become defensive when some of the changes do not work well or fail outright. (change is hard- developing great schools is hard work).

Our movement has not and does not work well in some instances, but we should own those problems and stand for whatever changes need to be made to benefit students. At the same time this movement has bought many great ideas and energetic people and new methods that have helped a lot of kids who otherwise might not have been help. We should own that too.

The point I am trying to make here is our movement is about social justice and the struggle to make that happen has NEVER been easy in this country or for that matter any country.

So I urge you to use conferences like this one to indeed renew your commitment and make sure we are doing the things in our schools and in our movement that are needed to ensure that all of our children can in fact be active participants in the practice of freedom.

The strength of our movement is that we are going to keep fighting for the answers.  I want to thank you, those of you who are fighting for the answers; and for our students-think how much God has blessed us to be there for them.

I leave you with by paraphrasing the words of William Daggett

We must love our children’s hopes, dreams, aspirations and prayers more than we love charter schools.