True Urban Legends: What's That Smell?
Three guesses as to how a billionaire can get a book about his teaching one semester at a high school onto the New York Times best seller list. The only question is where does he store all those books he bought.
Ira Glass: This is Steve Poizner, reading from the book he wrote about this.
Ira Glass: When he sees the sound walls that separate California homes from the highway he asks, "were they keeping out the city's grit and noise, or hiding profoundly sad lives?"
He's allowed to teach one U.S. government class for one semester, under another teacher's supervision. What he finds in the school are leaky roofs, hardened, unresponsive students, gangs and violence, a dropout rate twice the national average. He worries that one student is going to punch him and later that this student and his thug friends are going to push him up against a wall. He wonders if the kids are "too busy ducking bullets to consider their careers?" At the end of his first visit to school, he's relieved to find his Lexus still
in the parking lot where he left it.
Ira Glass: And the only problem with this is, a lot of it might not be true.
Ira Glass: Steve Poizner's book got more attention than most do because in the seven years since he spent one semester at Mt. Pleasant High School, Steve Poizner ran for assemblyman and lost, ran for a statewide
office -- California insurance commissioner -- and won. He's in his fourth year in that job now. And today, he's one of two frontrunners to be the Republican candidate for governor of California. And right after publication, his book -- which is titled Mount Pleasant -- jumped to number five on the New York Times bestseller list.
Ira Glass: I heard about Steve Poizner and the controversy over whether his book got things wrong when a publicist for the book contacted our show. She wrote an email describing the incident at the bookstore this
way --"Liberal activists took offense at how he describes the school -- ACCURATELY -- as plagued by gangs, teen pregnancy, and disrepair. They are trying to shut him up and discredit his argument about charter schools. (Poizner makes a case for charter schools late in the book). "This is a classic case of liberals refusing to listen to simple facts and rational solutions."
So I read the excerpt of his book online-- there's a full chapter and Poizner links to it from his campaign website, you can read it yourself. And the chapter raised more questions than it answered. It is a very odd chapter, all about Poizner's first days teaching a class at Mt. Pleasant. There's scene after scene where he's floundering, standing in front of the class asking big, abstract questions -- "would you want to live in a country where the leader didn't want to lead? If the money issued by the government wasn't any good, or people were treated unfairly?" None of the students respond. He's a rookie teacher; he doesn't know how to engage them yet. Nothing unusual there.
But here was the strange thing: the conclusion Poizner comes to -- again and again during these scenes --isn't that he's doing anything wrong or has anything to learn as a teacher. Instead, he blames the kids. They're tough, they're unmotivated, they lack ambition, they're wired differently. The students, meanwhile, in every scene in the book (I read the whole book), seem utterly lovely. Polite, they don't interrupt, they don't talk back, they just seem a little bored. His very worst student is a graduating senior who's hoping to go into the Marines.
Checking school records I learned that Poizner's unmotivated, unambitious class included one of the school valedictorians, Charles Rudy, who graduated and went to college.
Could he be getting this so completely wrong? I wondered. Could he have written an entire book
misperceiving so thoroughly what was happening right in front of his eyes, and now is trying to use that book to run for governor? It seemed too incredible. And, that's what brought me to San Jose last week, to visit the school and its neighborhood.
Ira Glass: This is Joe Lovato, he teaches English at Mount Pleasant. His dad taught English at Mount Pleasant before him.
Ira Glass: Literally.
Ira Glass: Mark Holston is one of Joe's colleagues in the English department -- in the book, Poizner talks a few times about wishing he could have a Stand and Deliver moment with his students, and Mark says that's the problem right there.
Ira Glass: Driving around the neighborhood, it is hard to disagree with the teachers who say it's a perfectly nice middle class and working class area. Occasionally you'll see a house in bad shape, but overwhelmingly it's neatly tended yards, garages, decent cars and SUVs in the driveways. It's suburban. I was surprised to learn that when Poizner taught here in 2003 there was a golf course just a few blocks from the school --
there's still a lake and the Raging Waters water park. He doesn't mention those in the book. We called a half dozen local real estate agents who confirmed what teachers told us -- that the neighborhood looks the same today as it did back in 2003. If anything, they said, with the recession it's gotten a little worse -- the average house price in 2003 near the school was $457,000. Today it's $317,000.
Ira Glass: So I ran all of this by Steve Poizner -- the tidy houses, the golf course, what I did not smell in the parking lot.
Ira Glass: So we went to the police, and they informed us that no, the neighborhood around Mt. Pleasant high school is NOT especially dangerous or crime ridden. It's average for San Jose. And while San Jose might have a reputation in the richer suburbs around it for being sketchy, and definitely was more
dangerous in the '70s and '80s, a police spokesman told us that view is out of date, an urban myth.
According to FBI statistics, San Jose is one of the safest cities in the country. There were 371 violent crimes per 100,000 people in San Jose in 2003, the year Poizner was there. You'd be more likely to be a victim of violent crime in Austin, Texas, or Seattle or Phoenix or Columbus, Ohio or San Francisco. When it came to property crime that year, you were more than twice as likely to have something stolen from you in Honolulu, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco or nearly any big city you can name.
In his book, Poizner plays up the violence at the school itself. He mentions a shooting at the school that happened all the way back in 1990, where a Vietnamese student from another school shot a Mount Pleasant freshman, and Poizner tells the story of a student of his who lets him know that she won't be at class for a
couple days because her boyfriend is on trial for being the driver in a bank robbery. There's another student in Poizner's class that Poizner assumes must be in a gang -- though confusingly in the book Poizner never actually goes to the trouble to find out if the student IS in a gang. That's the student who Poizner worries
will hit him, or get his thug friends and push him against a wall.
So is the school dangerous? I checked with the man who knows: Christopher Schroeder, the associate principal at Mount Pleasant in charge of discipline.
Ira Glass: That's about the number of fights you'd get at any high school, even in a fancy neighborhood.
There are no metal detectors at the school's entrances. Mr. Schroeder says the total number of gang members among the 1900 students here? 50. At most.
Ira Glass: When it comes to the dropout rate, Steve Poizner also seems to be choosing his statistics very selectively. Mount Pleasant's dropout rate (including the year he was there) is consistently better -- sometimes FAR better -- than the state and national dropout rates, which is a huge achievement for a school like Mt. Pleasant that's two-thirds Latino. Nationally, Latino dropout rates are much higher than those of other students.
In his book, Poizner doesn't mention any of those numbers, and doesn't mention the school's stats at all, but instead quotes a number for the district the school is in, the East Side Union High School District. Even here, he cherrypicks. In 2003, the year Poizner was at the district, its dropout rate was slightly lower than the state and national averages. Poizner instead chooses to quote the number for one of the two years during the past decade, 2005, when the district had twice as many dropouts as the state and national numbers.
Statistically, Poizner did not teach at a terrible school in a terrible neighborhood, but an average school in an average neighborhood.
Ira Glass: These are the dangerous toughs of Mt. Pleasant High School rehearsing The Music Man in the brand new auditorium the school just built.
This school has 150 students studying animation in a special studio with rows of Macs and animation stands -- this was all going on while Poizner was at the school, too. There are 19 AP classes. There's a vocational program teaching metal and woodworking and computer-aided design, plus a variety of special projects and programs to close the achievement gap and get less privileged kids to college. School
attendance is 95 percent.
Ira Glass: Some things about the school though clearly could be better. The school doesn't hit its goals in statewide testing. It ranks in the 40th percentile of all CA schools, partly because a fourth of Mt. Pleasant's
student body is rated not proficient in English. But measured against schools with similar demographics, it's in the 70th
For years, I was a reporter in the Chicago public schools for NPR's daily news programs. I've been in great schools, IÃ¢€™ve been in dangerous schools--urban schools, suburban schools. Mt. Pleasant is definitely one of
the better public high schools I've ever visited. And I know it may seem like I'm belaboring all this, putting this book under a microscope point-by-point, but so many of the political discussions in our country seem
so disconnected from reality. Every year there are egregious examples of politicians and commentators who believe if they repeat some non-fact over and over, it becomes true. And the more I looked into Poizner's book, the more it seemed like one of those rare cases that's so obviously and provably untrue. Though in
Poizner's case, what made it especially interesting was that from his book it seemed very possible that he really is just a well-meaning, idealistic guy who wants to help people, who just got a lot of this wrong.
Though when I asked Steve Poizner if that's what happened here, that it is not a dangerous, bad school, he stuck by his guns.
Ira Glass: Again, English teacher Mark Holston.
Ira Glass: Poizner still insists on that.
It was two months after he left the school that he filed papers to run for assemblyman, and the spring after that his campaign came back to Mount Pleasant, to shoot a commercial with testimony from teachers and students about what Poizner had done for the school. A videographer set up a camera and lights in one of the classrooms during 7th period, and students were ushered in one at a time.
In campaigning, including in one of his campaign biographies--a biography, by the way, which calls Mt. Pleasant an "inner city high school" -- Poizner also touts the fact that the principal of Mount Pleasant named him "rookie teacher of the year."
Ira Glass: Mark Holston and Joe Lovato explained that at the end of school that year, the principal quickly wrote up a bunch of certificates on his computer for a staff party. Lots of people got them, for all kinds of
Ira Glass: Todd Richards is the social studies teacher who supervised Steve Poizner in classroom 6-12 back in 2003. He's still there.
Ira Glass: In the debate among Mt. Pleasant teachers over whether Steve Poizner was a Machiavellian schemer who used them, or a sincere, perhaps slightly naive guy who actually wanted to help out, Mr. Richards is a principled agnostic. We can't know what he was thinking, Richards says. So let's judge his actions. Richards was as suspicious as anyone when this millionaire showed up. But over the course of the year ...
Ira Glass: When I recorded Mr. Richards teaching a class -- his 6th period college-level macroeconomics class, for seniors--
Ira Glass: He asked me if I'd like to take five minutes and ask a few questions of the students. He left the room so his presence wouldn't bias anybody. I asked the students if there was anything they would want me to ask Poizner for them, or to say to him. One senior raised his hand and said he just heard from
Ira Glass: Yvette Rodriguez, another senior, spoke up.
Ira Glass: Well, sort of. Some conclusions obviously people do argue with. But this particular conclusion-- that being at the 40th percentile among California public schools is not good enough -- is one that's sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, in a lot of the discussion at the school.
Ira Glass:Sudhir Karandikar created the AP calculus program at school and teaches 4 classes of AP calculus. He's the only teacher I saw at school that could be described as dapper, and the only one wearing a suit, a charcoal grey pinstripe. He's been at Mt. Pleasant 14 years. He says sure, Poizner got it wrong when he wrote that this was a dangerous school.
Ira Glass: We should be doing a better job with these kids, Mr. Karandikar said. That's what we should move the discussion to now. And a few teachers told me they agreed with Poizner, that academically the school should be better. And they liked the fact that Poizner gives lots of details in his book to help his readers understand the money
problems the school faces. And that he shows some of the everyday teaching problems they're up against, stuff that really isn't talked about in the news or normal political discussions about schools. Here's English
teacher Vivian Bricksin.
Ira Glass: Steve Poizner says this is exactly what he hopes readers will take from the book. He wants it to lead to a better discussion about how to improve schools. In the book he talks mostly about charter schools as being a good laboratory for new ideas. In his gubernatorial campaign he also talks about cutting down on the central school bureaucracy in California --giving more control of the curriculum and more money to local schools -- two things that teachers like of course. Many of Mt. Pleasant's teachers are less keen on two of Poizner's other big proposals -- to make it easier to fire teachers and suspend rules at the
bottom 40 percent of California schools, and to expel from public schools all the students who are in the country illegally. Which would, of course, affect students at Mt. Pleasant.
Poizner told me that in the end it doesn't matter if he got facts wrong about the school, because everywhere but at Mt. Pleasant itself, this is the discussion his book will hopefully engender.
Ira Glass: English teacher Mark Holston sees this one differently. He says for Poizner to misread what this school and this neighborhood are all about says a lot about his judgment, and that does mean something.
Ira Glass: One week after Poizner's book made it to #5 on the bestseller list, it dropped to #33. The campaign declined to give sales figures for the book, and declined to say whether it bought enough copies itself in that first week to put the book on the bestseller list.
The principal at Mt. Pleasant told me she now finds herself now with an awkward dilemma. Poizner has donated the profits from the book sales to the school, and she's not sure they should take it. He got so many things wrong about Mt. Pleasant and offended so many people. But at the same time, with budgets being slashed, it's hard to turn her back on any money that might help her students.
FAIR USE NOTICE
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.