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BOOKS: Whitney Tilson Reviews "Crazy Like A Fox" [edited]

Outlook What a crazy August it's been for Whitney Tilson, the pro-charter moneyman who sends out the occasional email.  First he went a little over the top slamming Diane Ravitch for her opinion piece questioning charter schools.  He apologized.  Now he's reviewing Crazy Like a Fox -- Ben Chavis' story of "No Excuses"-style school leadership.  See effusive and lengthy email below, including excerpts appendices and more.  No word yet on whether any apologies will be forthcoming.

I just finished one of the three best books on education I've ever read: Crazy Like A Fox: One Principal's Triumph in the Inner City, which will be released on Sept. 1st (the publisher sent me an advance copy; it can be preordered on Amazon at: www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0451228189/tilsoncapitalpar).

My other two all-time favorite books are both by Jay Mathews: Escalante (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0805011951/tilsoncapitalpar), the best book about an individual teacher, and Work Hard, Be Nice (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1565125169/tilsoncapitalpar), the best book about entrepreneurship in education, building one school into a national network.
Crazy Like A Fox rounds out the list.  It is by far the best book I've ever read in explaining, in no uncertain terms, exactly what is the No Excuses educational philosophy, which is shared by nearly every school that successfully educates low-income, minority children.  As such, this book should should be required reading for every teacher and principal who is educating such kids.
Here's what the cover looks like:
The book is written by Dr. Ben Chavis, who turned around the worst school in Oakland, the American Indian Public Charter School, and has expanded it to five charter schools in the city, all of which are among the top 1% of public schools in California and three of which are in the top 10 schools statewide according to the state's Academic Performance Index scores.  These results certainly aren't due to favorable demographics -- in fact, at the original AIPCS school, 97% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, 98% are minorities and 74% speak English as a second language.
Those who've been on this email list for a while may remember that I met Chavis at a conference in April and wrote about him then (see: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/04/ben-chavis-and-american-indian-public.html).  You may also recall my description of the well-deserved verbal bitch slapping he gave to NYC City Council member Charles Barron (see: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/04/apology-to-david-jackson-more-on.html).

Chavis has an amazing story, starting with his childhood of extreme poverty in rural North Carolina with a violent and largely absent father.  He says that of all of the inner-city Oakland students who've ever attended one of his schools, not one of them had a childhood as bad as his -- and he's no doubt right.  Chavis describes himself as "a country Indian from the South, who was a sharecropper with uneducated parents, who paid his way through college and sent his family money each semester, and who graduated from a state university..." 
But what's most interesting to me is his version of the No Excuses philosophy of how to educate poor, minority children.  It's similar to other comparable high-performing schools, but Chavis takes it to an extreme.  It starts with his Golden Rule: "If you act like a fool, you'll be treated like a fool. If you act like a winner, you'll be treated like a winner."  He lavishes praise and will do anything for kids who work hard and play by the rules -- but woe unto the student who acts like a fool.  To them, Chavis turns into one of the craziest, scariest, meanest dudes on the planet.  Ditto for parents and teachers who act like fools. 
He's borderline crazy (and proud of it), but it works!

There are two reasons why this is such a great book: A) It's filled with great advice and wisdom that any educator will find useful (even if one doesn't agree with all of it); and B) It's the most entertainingly politically incorrect book I've ever read -- by far!  He speaks harsh truths and takes special joy in debunking left-wing dingbat liberal dogma.  Check out, for example, how many politically incorrect things he says in his 10 Commandments for Students:

American Indian Model (AIM) Students' Ten Commandments

by Dr. Ben Chavis


1.         Thou shalt remember that laziness is the quickest path to fail-

ure. Thou shalt accept that family culture, accountability/struc-

ture, high expectations, and free market capitalism will lead to

success in school and life.

2.         Thou shalt accept full responsibility for thy failure or success

in school and life. Blaming thy family, friends, or circumstance

will not lead to success. Blame is an excuse for failure, laziness,

and leads to being a victim.

3.         Thou shalt covet the studying of ninety minutes of English-

language arts and ninety minutes of mathematics each school

day, with a minimum of forty-five minutes for each class of sci-

ence, social studies, physical fitness, and two hours of homework

to build a sound educational foundation for all students.

4.         Thou shalt be aware that affirmative action and diversity spe-

cialists have made a professional career based on people's color

and sex. These individuals are committed to human inequality

to ensure they are employed.

5.         Thou shalt be aware that "affirmative action" for minorities

is the most blatant form of racism in the United States. Why

dost thou think Africa, China, or the Navajo Indian Nation

does not have affirmative action programs for white people?

6.         Thou shalt choose common sense over left-wing liberal ideol-

ogy. Thou shalt also choose common sense over right-wing

ideology. Thou shalt avoid ideologists as though they are the


7.         Thou shalt be aware of quacks who believe in communism. Thou

hast the quickest route to freedom through free market capital

ism and private property ownership. Hast thou ever heard of

illegal immigrants risking their lives to enter Cuba?

8.         Thou shalt pursue higher education and free market capitalism.

As Frederick Douglass stated, "It means light and liberty. It

means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of

truth, the light by which men can only be made free."

9.         Thou shalt remember that standardized tests are not aware of

anyone's skin color or sex. Thou shalt put forth thy best efforts;

hold thyself to the highest academic and social standards that enhance all

students' ability to compete in a free market capitalist society.

10. Thou shalt always be part of our AIM to Educate family. Thou hast

been prepared for success through family culture, accountability/structure,

high expectations, and free market capitalism. Thou shalt embrace the challenges

of life and turn them into a productive educational experience.

Here's a blurb debunking the notion that students are best taught by teachers of their own race:

I do not believe it's the color of an educator's skin that makes him or her successful in working with any race of students. Could it be an educator's game plan, dedication, and commitment to preparing students with the academic tools needed to succeed in school is what counts? Our children need and deserve smart, dedicated people who are willing to challenge them at a high academic level. Mr. Nelson is that kind of person. Mr. Lopez is Hispanic; Ms. Blakely is white; Mrs. Roberts is part white and part Asian; Mr. Glover is white; I'm American Indian. What we have in common is that we have all succeeded in achieving outstanding academic results among American Indian, Asian, black, Hispanic, white, and poor students because we don't treat them as victims but as individuals with untapped talent we know we can cultivate.

At the end of this email are five lengthy excerpts from his book, which I summarize below:
1) Here's an excerpt from the appendix, which summarizes his overall views:

2.         The staff of AIPCS does not preach or subscribe to the dema-

goguery of tolerance. Adults not willing to follow our rules will

be sent packing with their rags and bags!

3.         Squawkers, multicultural specialists, self-esteem experts, pan

handlers, drug dealers, and those snapping turtles who refuse

to put forth their best effort will be booted out.

4.         Bootlicking or self-promoting is not allowed by any politician

who enters our classrooms. Politicians should beware: teachers

are on duty!

5.         We do not believe standardized tests discriminate against stu-

dents because of their color. Could it be many of them have not

been adequately prepared to take those tests?


15.       Our staff does not subscribe to the back swamp logic of minor-

ity students as victims. We will plow through such cornfield

philosophy with common sense and hard work!

2) Here's an excerpt from Chapter 9, "High Expectations and an Academic Focus":

These experiences and observations made me change my perspective on what I'd been taught in education classes. I came to the conclusion that many professors in the college of education were more centered on their left-wing liberal views than on what actually works in practice with minority and poor students. The data convinced me to question their assertions. Before that, I bought into multiculturalism, self-esteem, and all that education propaganda. I had been sitting in college classes thinking to myself that I was just a dumb Indian hick from North Carolina who could not deconstruct the biased data in scholarly journals or know that much about education, so what the professors were saying must be true. They'd say we need to make students feel good about themselves. They said when you teach them about their culture, students will feel good about who they are, and if they feel good about who they are, they'll want to read and write and learn. It seems logical if you don't know any better, but most people who can barely read feel great about themselves. Having self-esteem hasn't helped their literacy. My own family of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles serves as an example of that. Many Indian elders who live on a Navajo reservation know a lot about their culture. Does that qualify them to get into Harvard or Stanford University?

This radical change in perspective put me on the path to becoming the "crazy," enlightened educator I am today...

...Most public school educators do not see eye to eye with me. I didn't agree with the philosophy of victimization then; I don't agree with it now. I have no problem badmouthing educators who cheat minority students with their pity, community circles, bead making, general math for twelfth-graders, bilingual education for twelve years, sheltered English immersion, and low expectations. Can you think of a better way to screw over minorities in education and dumb us down?

We get the watered-down academics, the victimization, and the teaching of culture, while most middle-class students get rigorous English, math, science, and history courses. Is that logical? Where did educators come up with this idea that minorities are so fragile? We are resilient people; we don't need kid gloves; we need a sound academic education and educators who prepare our children to work hard and be as smart as any other group of people.

When whites disagree with minority educators and their liberal dogma, they're labeled racists. When I disagree with minorities and liberal do-gooders, they say I'm trying to be white. Hell, how does a hardheaded Indian like myself turn white? Do they think I'm God and can change my race?


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Deep inside, simplistic Whitney thinks ALL low income kids are naturally lazy and stupid. He loves the idea of them all being handled by a strict plantation overseer-type like Chavis.

Whitney has lived in an itsy-bitsy, extremely sheltered, super white upper-class world his entire life. His naivete prevents him from understanding that Chavis' true foxy genius is that he figured out to pave his road to glory by collecting some of the brightest and most compliant low income students in Oakland, who have parents that are equally as compliant.

But are ALL low income kids really super low achievers? NO, in the same way that all affluent kids are not high achieving geniuses. When looking at the correlation between academic achievement and income level, Whitney misses the entire concept of "on average."

If Whitney was sending his own kids to a school that had any low income kids in it, rather than sending his darlings to the most elite girls' school in Manhattan, he would realize that some low income kids are also exceptionally high achieving. Asian kids are more likely to fall in this category, and that's exactly why Chavis has focused on increasing his Asian enrollment so intently.

But some low income/high achieving kids in this Oakland neighborhood, no matter how smart and ambitious, would never consider attending Chavis' school. By the way, they are some of my daughters' longtime schoolmates and friends. They've heard plenty of word of mouth about that school and know better than want to go to a place where they'd be stuck hearing Chavis' daily rancid spewing of his usual hallway profanity, or where they might end up getting their hair shaved off while their friends get to watch.

For about the one hundredth comment posting because I'm constantly trying to get the truth out, I am going to repeat that I've lived about 1/2 mile from the original AIPCS since before it was founded, and long before Chavis arrived on the scene. My personal experience is quite a bit unlike Whitney who is in an adoring "by God this guy has figured out the way to manage the unruly brown heathens" fantasy land.

By the way, Chavis only has three schools in Oakland. It was his buddy who started a similar version for the smartest and most hard working Latino kids (Oakland Charter Academy +OCAHigh). But the two leaders are definitely personally connected, and use the same philosophy. But this style of educating kids would never, ever work for the masses. If they were forced to submit to the Chavis style of learning, there would be retaliative violence for sure.

By the way, Chavis' most recent petition for another school was DENIED last fall by the charter office of Oakland Unified. The report revealed the extent to which OUSD sees right through Chavis' tactics. Read it by going to http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/2008/10/30/denied-new-american-indian-charter-school/ and then locate the link.

Oakland based Perimeter Primate knows the Chavis story up close. In this post
"The Disadvantages of an Elite Education"
According to Tilson, Chavis approached Barron and said, “You're a mother f-ing black pimp, you're f-ing our kids. Come to the reservation and I'll beat your ass. You want our kids to take Home Ec? YOU should wear a dress!"

For those of us in Oakland who have been experiencing Chavis for years, hearing something like this was nothing new. But then there was Whitney Tilson’s enthusiastic response of, “I LIKE this guy!”

Nice work Whitney and a perfect role model for kids.

More from PP in an email to Chester Finn about Chavis:
I would like to provide you with simple, yet important, factual information about one of the schools featured in David Whitman's book, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism." The school is the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland. It has received a great deal of acclaim for producing high test scores and was a 2006 National Blue Ribbon School.

I am hoping you will be able to forward this message to David Whitman. I've been unable to locate his email address.

Please take a look at the changing percentage of students who belong in one of the following subgroups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Hispanic or Latino, or African American. This is for the 13 school years from 1996-97 to 2008-09. All figures are from DataQuest at the California Department of Education’s website.

· 1996-97 = 100.0

· 1997-98 = 97.0

· 1998-99 = 93.8

· 1999-00 = 100.1

· 2000-01 = 97.0

· 2001-02 = 100

· 2002-03 = 98.7

· 2003-04 = 74.3

· 2004-05 = 55.4

· 2005-06 = 65.3

· 2006-07 = 51.1

· 2007-08 = 50.5

· 2008-09 = 42.3

The school’s American Indian or Alaska Native percentage in 1996-97 was 100%. This year it is 1.1%.

Now look at the changing percentage of the school’s students who are either Asian or White.

· 1996-97 = 0.0

· 1997-98 = 2.9

· 1998-99 = 6.2

· 1999-00 = 0.0

· 2000-01 = 2.9

· 2001-02 = 0.0

· 2002-03 = 1.2

· 2003-04 = 25.7

· 2004-05 = 44.6

· 2005-06 = 33.7

· 2006-07 = 22.4

· 2007-08 = 38.4

· 2008-09 = 54.4*

Ben Chavis took over the failing school in 2001-02. It only took him a short time to figure out how to maximize his school’s test scores. One of his primary methods was simply to change the demographics.

In 2006-07, the school had an unusual spike in the number of students reporting “multiple or no response.” The spike appeared about the time questions were being raised about the school being demographically engineered by Chavis. The percentage had averaged 0.29 for the previous 10 years. In 2006-07 it jumped to 26.4%. In 2007-08 it fell to 11.1%. This year, it is 2.7%. In a school which prizes itself for having an extreme sense of order, such an unusual sequence reflects an attempt to confuse the facts.

Chavis resigned as principal of AIPCS at the end of the 2006-07 school year, but he continues to be the director of the charter organization which manages three similar schools in Oakland, all with similar demographics.

By the way, when the figures of his three American Indian Model schools are combined, their average enrollment of students w/disabilities was 1.3% in 2007-08. The district average was 10%. Their combined enrollment of English Learners in was 3% in 2007-08. The district average for that subgroup was 30%.

How many other charter schools are using similar tactics? Since few people are delving into it, who would know?

Some proponents, like David Whitman, apparently aren't willing to question, or investigate, some very basic information (available to anyone w/internet access) before they perpetuate the myth of an outstanding success. Other proponents, like George Will who gushed over Chavis and the AIPCS last year, aren't willing to publicly acknowledge this information when it is presented to them. I sent this simple report to Will last year but never received a response. I've now sent this information to David Brooks, but I don’t expect to hear back from him either.

My family and I have lived 1/2 mile from this school since before it was formed. I drive by it nearly every day. Although some of its practices are admirable, such as longer instructional time for students and the stressing of school order, I also know for certain that the school engages in questionable strategies, such as large amounts of time spent on non-condoned state-test practicing and the cherry-picking of students.

I happen to have a deep understanding of the qualities found in many of the low-income Asian families in my community, and see how Chavis' grab for low-income Asian students sets him up for easy success. These children have been my daughters' classmates for many years; I also worked with these families for seven years when I was a Parent Coordinator at a traditional public middle school. If you would ever like me to explain the familial characteristics which contribute to the tremendous academic achievement of this set of children to you, I would be happy to do so.

Since charter schools will continue to declare that they are using "innovative" practices, it is essential that the practices which are legitimate are differentiated from those which are not. Until this happens regularly and is made utterly transparent, solutions for the achievement gap will be obscured.


I am an Indian and student at AIPHS. Sharon has provided false information about Dr. Chavis and our school. The test scores confirm we work hard.

I am proud of the "fact" that our school rocks thanks to our super teachers, principal and Dr. Chavis who proved that Indian, Black and Mexican students can compete and out perform Asians and Whites in academics when we work hard!

I don't think its fair to call a fox crazy. Every fox I have ever know have been far from crazy.

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