In memoriam: Marva Collins, school choice pioneer

Travis Pillow

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Marva Collins was a teacher who believed in the potential of every child. When she felt the traditional school system did not, she forged her own path, launching a private school for low-income black children in inner-city Chicago.

She was a pioneer of school choice in the era before school choice programs, and a proponent of what might now be called a “no excuses” philosophy.

“Kids don’t fail,” she once said, according to her New York Times obituary, which ran this morning after she died last week, at 78. “Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures — they are the problem.”

The obituary notes that detractors seized on the fact that she did not hold a conventional teaching certificate. They also questioned whether her tiny school was getting results that lived up to the bevy of media attention it revived.  

When a controversial book on race and intelligence claimed there was “no hard evidence” that her school was raising student achievement, 60 Minutes convened a reunion of alumni, and found a room full of well-adjusted adults who were going to college or holding respectable jobs. A disproportionate number, it seemed, had entered the teaching profession. “We’re living proof that her method works,” one former student said on the broadcast.

CBS reporters had visited Collins’ Westside Preparatory School for themselves, and found a room full of young people who had developed a thirst for knowledge, who professed their love for the likes of Dante and Chaucer.

Through her books and her training of other educators, Collins had an impact beyond her own classroom. Imagine what her impact could have been if Chicago’s children had access to private school choice programs that would have made efforts like hers available to all students. In 2008, Westside was forced to close, as students struggled to afford its $5,500-per-year tuition.

Today we continue to hear stories of educators who believe that, with a nurturing environment and rigorous instruction, the most disadvantaged children can learn just as well as their more privileged peers. They might not all receive as much attention as Marva Collins, but they’re following her path.

Photo licensed under fair use via Wikipedia.

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