A few days ago, I posted a story about a high school teacher in the Bronx who was annoyed because he felt compelled to teach his public school students a story in a textbook that celebrated KIPP and put down their neighborhood.

The story attracted a lot of attention, and the teacher Erik Means wanted to answer your questions in this follow up post.

On August 25th, you linked to my Counterpunch article, which criticizes HMH for publishing a pro-charter essay in its 12th Grade Collections textbook. In part because of comments that a few of your readers posted, I feel obliged to make some clarifications:

When a school such as mine purchases HMH Collections, they buy textbooks for Grades 9-12, as well as electronic resources and supplementary materials – including a 180-day pacing guide. A set of scripted, Common Core-aligned questions follows each text. You buy these books because they are Common Core-aligned, and because they feature an array of shorter fiction and non-fiction texts that will help students practice for the Regents exam.

My administrators expected me to stick to this textbook, and use few “outside texts,” for these reasons. If I raised an issue with any text, they would tell me to teach it alongside a “counter-text” that provides a differing point of view. (I wrote the Counterpunch piece, in part, to create such as “counter-text” – since none really existed to suitably counter Gladwell’s claims and omissions).

To their credit, my administrators allow me to script my own questions. They respect me, my colleagues, and our academic freedom. They are also hard-working, good-hearted professionals who care deeply about the students and teachers in our building.

Do they require me to teach “Marita’s Bargain?” Given that they expect me to make my way through the textbook, as the year progresses, and only exclude certain texts because of time constraints, the answer is “yes.” You do not omit the first text in a textbook (it appears on pages 3-14) because of time constraints.

But the major reason why I teach “Marita’s Bargain” is because it is so glaring, in a literal sense. Throughout the year, all of my students will eventually leaf through the textbook, and see, in prominent letters, on page 5, “Just over ten years into its existence, KIPP has become one of the most desirable public schools in New York City.” They will see a photo of blighted South Bronx buildings on page 9. And they will see “Our kids are spending fifty to sixty percent more time learning than the traditional public school student” in prominent letters, on page 12.

My students would rightly wonder why I am skipping an article about schools in their community, when it appears as the first text in our textbook. If they read the most salient parts of the article, they might even suspect that I am skipping “Marita’s Bargain” because I am a self-interested public school teacher who wishes to obscure the miracles that KIPP charter schools are performing in their own community.

Thus, the fact that “Marita’s Bargain” appears so early in my textbook demands that I address it in some way. And if the text were not so prominent, I would not teach it; not in 100 years.

For my own part, I guide my students through “Marita’s Bargain” as critically as possible. But anyone who suspects that HMH would encourage teachers to do so can read its scripted questions, and judge for themselves (see pages 15-16):

Click to access maritas_bargain.pdf

Moreover, although most NYC ELA teachers are excellent, few of them are as knowledgeable about education reform as I am. “Pushing back” against Gladwell, as I do in class, requires a certain esoteric knowledge that many teachers lack – and this hardly discredits them as ELA instructors.

In this letter, I have written more about myself and my school than is my wont in a public forum. I have done so in order to make clear that my administrators acted, more or less rationally, in purchasing HMH Collections, and defensibly, in expecting me to teach most of its texts. I do not believe that they deserve much blame.

In my Counterpunch piece, I wrote primarily about the flaws and omissions of Gladwell’s piece itself. I attempted to demonstrate that the text failed to achieve a certain standard of quality, and that by deduction, HMH must have selected it for propagandistic purposes. This text should not be in my, or any, textbook, unless it is to be used as an example of certain defects. HMH did not wish this latter, if its scripted questions are any indication. I fault HMH for including the text in its Collections textbook, and for selling it to many schools throughout New York City. I fault Gladwell, to a lesser extent, for writing it in the first place.


Erik Mears