Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ira Glass takes on Steve Poizner and his (apparently untrue) book about Mount Pleasant High School

This American Life Episode Transcript
“What’s That Smell?”
Broadcast April 23, 2010
Acts One of Episode #406, “True Urban Legends”

...At the age of 45, after starting one Silicon Valley company that he sold for 30 million dollars and a second one that sold for a billion dollars, Poizner didn't need to work any more...

He's allowed to teach one U.S. government class for one semester, under another teacher's supervision.

...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...

Sudhir Karandikar: The whole ducking bullets, and the kid’s going to hit him and his Lexus is going to get stolen, it was either a gross exaggerations for the sake of making a dramatic book or he just misread it. Let’s move on. We know he got the safety issue wrong. As far as academic performance of the school, he was dead on. Academically, I don’t find anything wrong in his conclusions or assessments of our school. Academically.

Mark Holston: Half the state of California who he’s trying to represent looks like our neighborhood. Our neighborhood looks more like California than the neighborhood he comes from. So I think he’s completely out of touch. I hate to think that somebody even getting this far could be that naïve and be that clueless. That’s even scarier, because I’m sure he’s going to run for something else, and he can’t be that way off. It’s terrifying if he’s that way off again. This is an average high school, and if he was the governor, he’d be the chief educator for the state of California. And if he can misinterpret what he sees in this school, and portray a school as one of the toughest when it’s an average high school in California, it’s scary for our future in California if he ever got elected.

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.

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