“And how are the children?”
This question, a traditional greeting among Maasai warriors, appears on the directory outside the Institute for the Transformation of Learning that Howard Fuller founded in 1995. For staff and visitors to the Institute, where I have worked with Howard for the past 14 years, the question invites honest discussions and timely actions to address the daily reality of children living in poverty and attending inadequate schools.
The most [A] recent example of Howard’s timely work on behalf of children began this past March when the Journal-Sentinel reported shocking findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: Fourth and eighth graders in Milwaukee ranked last among their peers throughout the country for reading. Howard was distressed over these findings and the apparent lack of outrage by city and school leaders over the poor test results. Even though his schedule was packed, he made dozens of phone calls and convened meetings involving over 50 people to study the components of effective reading programs. This summer, due to Howard’s relentless preparation, coalition-building and fund-raising, 86 second and third graders from public and private schools were engaged in the Milwaukee Summer Reading Project.
This fall, director of “An Inconvenient Truth” Davis Guggenheim features Howard in the nationally-distributed documentary “Waiting for Superman”. The highly controversial documentary posits that public education increasingly protects its teachers as the expense of students. At one point, Howard describes the “dance of the lemons”, an annual process of reassigning ineffective teachers among schools as one example of how difficult it is for many school districts to remove ineffective teachers due to constraints in contracts with teacher unions.
Howard’s career has never been without challenge and controversy.
From Civil Rights to Choice
Since his Civil Rights activism in North Carolina during 1960’s, Howard has used his leadership capacity to oppose efforts by Milwaukee, the State of Wisconsin and national establishments to maintain the status quo for poor people. Howard’s activism in the education reform movement is grounded in his expectations of a just society and the empowerment of poor people. The writings of Fredrick Douglass and Paulo Freire inspire him.
During the early 1970’s, Howard taught college students at Duke University to become organizers, demanded that African studies be incorporated into the curriculum, and founded the Malcolm X Liberation University which operated for three years. His students bestowed an African-Swahili name on him, “Owusu-Sadaukai,” meaning “one who leads his people.”
In the late 1970’s, he worked at Marquette’s Office of Educational Opportunities arranging tutoring and counseling for college students. Many former students, now leaders of faith communities, government agencies and schools, have told me that Howard was present, encouraging and resourceful when financial and family challenges were overwhelming. They appreciate now how Howard insisted that they not give up for short-term comforts.
In the mid-80s, Howard acted on his growing concern that the Milwaukee Public Schools poorly served significant numbers of mostly Black children from low-income families. He persuaded Governor Tony Earl to commission a study of Milwaukee Public Schools that provided academic achievement data by race, gender, and income for the first time. The study surprised a business community that had been led to believe that all of Milwaukee’s children were “above average.” Further, it confirmed what a growing number of African Americans recognized – their children had few options for a high quality education. While his collaborative efforts to create a separate school district for Black children were not successful, the initiative further established Howard as an advocate for Milwaukee children living in poverty.
Howard won community-wide support in 1991 to become Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools. As superintendent, he improved the district’s assessment practices and increased academic standards, including requiring that all freshmen take and pass Algebra. However, the constraints of the system and the constant battles with a pro-union school board caused him to resign from the position.
The Past 15 Years
Within a few months of leaving MPS, Howard began to focus full-time on promoting and protecting school choice, helping to create a national movement for providing low-income families access to such educational options as public schools, charter schools, and private schools as well as to homeschooling and online learning. Howard often reminds us, “The issue is not choice in America. It is who has it. Those of us with money already have it.”
Marquette University appointed Howard as Distinguished Professor of Education in 1995. One of his first initiatives was to convene Explorations, a series of four conversations that engaged over 150 parents, students, educators, leaders of faith communities, government officials and funders. Howard invited the participants to forget about their roles and positions and encouraged them to think “out of the box” about ways to improve the lives and learning for Milwaukee’s children. These conversations identified the first initiatives of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning: Parents Organized and Working for Educational Reform, Professional Development Center, Technology Learning Centers, and the Wisconsin Charter School Resource Center. Howard secured funding to launch these initiatives in 1996-97.
Howard was becoming a national figure in the education reform movement. While traveling the country talking about why he supported school choice, he also encouraged his allies to include people of color in the conversations. Eventually, frustrated by the lack of people “at the table” who understood life in America as people of color, he founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Since 2000, BAEO has had a significant impact on the educational debate through a highly visible television and newsprint advertising campaign. Additionally, it is the host of an annual conference that brings together school choice supporters from 22 chapters across the country.
For Howard, public policies are meant to serve a goal of better outcomes for African-American children living in poverty. It is a testament to Howard’s coalition-building skills that advocates for public charter schools and supporters of schools enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have worked together for 15 years to ensure that families, especially low-income families, have educational options for their children. Such collaboration does not exist in many other cities. He has served on the Charter School Review Committee for the City of Milwaukee since its inception in 1997. The Committee is recognized locally and nationally for its transparency and willingness to make hard decisions about who can educate Milwaukee’s children.
Ever focused on children and the quality of their schools, Howard similarly raised the bar for private schools enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, most of which enroll primarily low-income students of color. In 2006, he worked successfully with the State Legislature and Governor Jim Doyle to raise the MPCP enrollment cap to 21,500 with the condition that all existing private schools earn accreditation within three years. In 2009, with input from Howard and a coalition of school administrators and local and state government officials, the State Legislature required that all schools seeking enrollment in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program become pre-accredited and implement new regulations for quality assurance.
Along the way, Howard earned his Ph.D. in Sociological Foundations from Marquette University in 1986 and received four Honorary Doctorates and numerous awards from the institutions, boards, and agencies he served.
Despite a demanding travel schedule, Howard has almost daily contact with administrators, teachers and students at the CEO Leadership Academy, one of Milwaukee’s high schools taking on the challenge to send its students to and through college. As the Board Chair, Howard experiences the challenges of having very limited financial resources for meeting government regulations and preparing students to enroll and complete college studies. CEO students deeply respect Howard for his personal interest in their lives and hopes. Howard regularly visits classes, teaches full days for 1-2 weeks each February – Black History month, and provides opportunities for students to accompany him on trips where they can visit potential colleges.
Working with a Warrior
Family and friends within and outside of education often ask me, “What it is like to work for Howard Fuller?” I am delighted to answer the question especially since I am his longest serving staff member: I am blessed to work for Howard Fuller – a warrior with great moral integrity, fierce passion and robust intelligence; he constantly seeks to use each minute of each day to do what he calls “the work” on behalf of the children. He places the needs of the children and community above his own needs. He digs deep into his being to create the spaces and systems for doing things differently when he collaborates with others on laws and policies affecting school quality. He secures the financial resources for “the work” and gives my colleagues and me freedom to do “the work” using our diverse gifts. He is readily available to listen and provide guidance if needed. He requires only that we “keep our eyes on the goal” at all times, speak truthfully, deliver what we promise to people on and off campus, return phone calls and emails within 24 hours, and show up for meetings on time.
Howard’s constant restlessness for “the work” is apparent in meetings with him, phone calls with him and even in the signature of emails from him:
The drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Thank you, Howard, for leading us to be tireless in living courageous answers to the question: “And how are the children?”
This post was written by Dr. Bob Pavlik, Assistant Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning.