Interview with Marva Collins

She's been featured on TV and in magazines and newspapers around the world, but Marva Collins attributes her success to good common sense. REASON's interviewers talked to Collins about her private school in a Chicago ghetto.

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When Marva Collins and her private school were featured on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes in 1979, she struck a responsive chord in America. Disenchanted with their own children's educational experiences and convinced by the experts that adequate education of poor black children requires more money, racial balance, improvements in their home lives, and a battery of special techniques, Americans watched in amazement at what Marva Collins was doing: teaching ghetto kids on Chicago's west side to read—and love—Shakespeare, Plato, Chaucer; to know—and have fun with—congruent angles, ordered pairs, hexagons. And she was doing it in her own home, without new-fangled equipment or methods, on a shoestring. 60 Minutes reportedly received more mail in response to this show than to any other in its history.

When Westside Preparatory School opened in September 1975, Marva Collins was teaching 6 students in a classroom in her home. By the end of the year there were 14 students; by 1979, over 30, in two classrooms. In 1980 she moved the school out of her home, and today Westside Prep has its own building and about 200 students.

If parents cannot afford the $1,500-a-year tuition, it is waived. Through speaking engagements, rental of a movie about the school, and, now, the sale of teaching tapes, Collins has made ends meet.

The daughter of a funeral director in a small town in Alabama, Marva Collins studied in Atlanta and Chicago and taught in Chicago's inner-city public schools for 14 years before she and her husband, Clarence, decided to put their savings into a 24-room house on the city's west side that could be renovated to accommodate a classroom. It was there, in a well-kept elegantly appointed home, that Tibor Machan, a senior editor of REASON, and Stephen Barone, a school psychologist, interviewed Marva Collins for REASON.

REASON: One of the reasons we are interested in what you're doing here at Westside Preparatory School is that we cover free-market developments, whether they are what might be called ideologically motivated or are more or less incidental.

COLLINS: I think mine happens to be incidental. Somehow it's gotten to be that I'm one of the conservatives. There was an article in the New York Times a while back saying that. But I don't know how it gets to be swayed that way, because I really consider myself neutral. I don't get involved in the political ramifications of it all. I just see a need here in this area that has to be met, and I don't see that that's being political.

REASON: How did your project get started?

COLLINS: It basically got started because of my own three children. I was very, very unhappy with even the so-called very elite schools. I took my own children out of $2,300-a-year schools. First of all my elder son, Eric, who is now in college, never had a composition to write at school. The one thing I've always done every day with my children is to watch what they do at school, and I was always a bit unhappy with the academic program. It was a kind of hit and miss. One of the things that even wealthy children need is an education, and I think the problems I saw really have nothing to do with economics. So I was unhappy with what my own children were getting even in the better schools, and then I was seeing so many children here recruited for failure.

REASON: What sort of technical things did you first think of doing to solve the problem?

COLLINS: I didn't do anything different here from what I'd done before, teaching in public school. That's the whole thing. I'm always a little bit astounded by man's common sense. A person cannot all of a sudden become good at what they do just by switching streams. And I really don't see that I'm doing anything different now from what I did down the street right there two doors from my house, except that I did it with the wind at my back. I ignored the curriculum that was given to me there. I was constantly being called into the office because I did not follow the guidelines. Now, I don't have to be accountable to some authority, which is why I don't take federal funds. I don't want anyone's monies unless they're monies without strings attached. It's not that we don't need them.

REASON: It is an interesting question, obviously, how one can finance a project like yours.

COLLINS: We've been brainwashed into thinking that it takes more monies than it actually does to educate children. That's been one of the brainwash jobs. Parents often brag about the amount of money spent per child, but I think, perhaps ironically, those great monies that are spent—I call it putting a band-aid on a hemorrhage. The more monies we spend, the less children learn; because the more machines we have there, the more gadgets, the more gimmicks, the less children have to really think—the less they have to use their innate abilities, their curiosity, their brains.

REASON: What do you say to critics of private schools who claim that they "skim off the cream," leaving the more difficult student to be handled by the public schools?

COLLINS: You know, that's one of the things that makes me really—I'm not violent, but I really want to punch them. We just got a lad last week—wouldn't a school in the city take that child. This is his 14th school, and he's 10 years old! We get the children who have been turned away elsewhere. I don't show them to everyone, but if I ever have to prove it I certainly have the records. I don't even read all of the reports. I just skim the first page, because I'm not interested. I guess I'm a rebel that way. I believe the more difficult a child is, the more I want that child. But I won't take a child until the parent brings him to us. So it is just the opposite—we get the ones that no one else will take. We get sawdust, and we have to make boards out of it.

REASON: Is your experience at Westside Prep replicable? Do you think it could be done anywhere?

COLLINS: Well, that's one reason I started a larger school. I was told when I was here in my house on the second floor for five years that only Marva Collins can do what she does. I wanted to prove that that was not true. I have seven fantastic teachers. It's like an addiction, that school.

REASON: Are you considering expanding even further?

COLLINS: No. I turned down a million dollars last year to start 100 "Marva Collins, Inc." schools. I also turned down a Reagan cabinet post and the superintendent of schools post in Los Angeles County. Certainly anyone can grow, but what I have to do first is find the teachers. We have a thousand children or more waiting to come in, but the problem is finding the right staff. Three years from now we would like to have a high school, because our sixth graders are scoring at the freshman college level. I'm very unhappy about what our children get when they leave our schools, so it seems I almost will have to start a high school.

REASON: You say that you don't take government money. Do you think that that's an incidental fact at present about government grants—that they have strings attached—or do you think that this is a feature of the system?

COLLINS: I don't know. And I'm not one of those who say this is the way. I'm not that opinionated. I can only say this is my way. And the way I am—my son, my middle son, came home from high school one day with a slip for a free lunch, and I said, "What is this?" He says, "Well, the woman says, 'Why do you come in with this money every day? I don't want to be bothered with the changing of the money. Why don't we get you one of those free lunches like everyone else?'" So he comes home with this free lunch slip, and I call the principal and say, "What kind of malarkey is this? Our children have been taught that they don't get anything free in this house." Even the $1,000 scholarship that my son could have gotten from the state of Illinois to go to college, we didn't want. I'd rather get out and work and have my children know that their money comes from their parents and we have to work for it.

REASON: There are, of course, some who will answer you saying that there are people in dire circumstances, who are totally destitute.

COLLINS: But they'll have to do what they have to do. I certainly could use it, too. We aren't wealthy. I'm not saying that those people shouldn't take that money. I think that those people have to answer to their own consciences.

REASON: Do you get any pressure from state agencies, coming and telling you that you're not following the right kind of program?

COLLINS: They can't really tell us that. The best defense is the mere fact of what our children score. You can easily tell me that, but how can it have any validity when we have sixth graders scoring at a college freshman level? I mean, what does one say to a grammar school where children are scoring 13.1 in sixth grade? So I haven't really had any problems.

REASON: You see, those who may think that this is a good idea on a wider scale wonder how much this runs up against the preconceptions of a very powerful bureaucracy that can stop people in their tracks from trying such ventures.

COLLINS: I have not had those kinds of obstacles, I guess because I was really determined. I said to the mayor of Chicago: "I'm going to do what I do. I can't tell anyone else how to implement what they want. That's something each person must find for themselves." But I was determined. I was going to do what I do.

REASON: To what extent do you involve the parents in your school experience?

COLLINS: People don't realize—how much can parents in a neighborhood like this be involved? We're talking about parents, according to the 1975 census, who have about a third- or fourth-grade education. Ninety percent of these parents survive on some kind of welfare. How much can they be involved? If they could be that involved, there wouldn't be neighborhoods like this. If they could be that involved, there would be some control over their own lives. That's my whole philosophy—change what is going to be through the children. There will be no tomorrow if we don't make today different for the children.

REASON: Does the home atmosphere of some of these children have an impact on their schooling?

COLLINS: It has nothing to do with it. I'm not an "excuse person." Some of these children come from what we call nebulous homes or statistically inferior homes. Yet they do better than my own children who come from a good environment where they have every book they need, where they have the food—my children hide the bacon to keep from eating it! They go to school not eating just like the poor child. What's the difference in a child who has food and doesn't eat it and a child who doesn't have it? This talk about "the atmosphere at home" is a lot of malarkey. We need to really get back to common sense. These children who come from the inferior homes—all they want, all they've ever asked, is for someone to believe in them. Then they try much harder.

REASON: This flies in the face of a good deal of thinking in the educational establishment, doesn't it?

COLLINS: What has really happened is that—you see, I thank God I live here—everyone has decided what these people are all about and they don't live here; they're several comfortable eons away. I'm afraid you can't tell me what this neighborhood is like when you're in Washington there on Capitol Hill. You just can't set mandates. Have they ever lived in Garfield Park? Have they ever been black? Have they ever been poor and black? It's difficult for me to say what it's like to be you. We're too busy wriggling down inside of people's skins. No one ever comes over here and asks these people how they feel. Everyone just tells me it's very cruel not to let the children go out for recess. No one has ever bothered to realize that those children do not want to go home in the afternoons—they sneak down one stairwell and up another. They're due at school at 9:00; they get there at 7:30. Each one tries to see if he can beat the other one there a little earlier so he can get more of our time. I think what we've done is given children a lot of things that they didn't ask for instead of what they do want.

REASON: Do you think that this kind of thinking has a negative impact?

COLLINS: It has done a lot to the black community. It's done a lot to minorities. How can a Harvard or Yale graduate…even when I came here, coming from a completely different environment than this—my father was a very successful businessman and we had luxury cars, money, a nice home—I have learned more about living, living here, than I ever knew and would not know if I did not live here. It's so difficult to set mandates for these people unless you really live here.

REASON: There's a book, Wealth and Poverty, by George Gilder, that's been quite talked about recently. He had done some studies—not studies of the technical variety, but for a time he actually lived in Albany in a black community, and his view is somewhat shared by you. I don't know whether you are familiar with Gilder.

COLLINS: Yes, I'm familiar with him.

REASON: He basically says that the attempt to help poor people by getting them used to a kind of regular state income is the greatest damage that you can do to them because they no longer have any incentive to improve themselves.

COLLINS: Neither do I! If I know that you're going to bring food to my door every day, then what's the need? If you know that you have a fixed income coming in, what's the need of ever reaching?

REASON: There is the argument, though, that because at a certain time members of the black community or their ancestors were treated in a massively unjust way, these measures are somehow necessary for the time being in order to upgrade them, put them on a level from which they can then start on their own. Do you think that that's just a misconception?

COLLINS: I think it's a misconception. Everyone who comes in is just amazed that our children do not have the animosity, the hatred, because these children are into it. You know, once you learn to like yourself, then you don't see this black-white bit. I still say that a good basic education is the only thing. I feel guilty sometimes because I don't think Jesus Christ could get any more accolades than I do when I walk through that classroom, even from the children I do not teach. They know that I love them, but I am forever telling them, "Get into that seat so you can have choices in this world." That's the thing. Education is the thing. This black-white bit—I don't deal with people that way. I deal with it as if you are another individual. If you do something that perturbs me or aggravates me, I do not think you've done it because I'm black.

REASON: You must get a little flak from some members of the black community.

COLLINS: Well, it doesn't really matter, because it's my energy and it's my effort. If what I'm doing is wrong, then I am certainly completely insane, because I am knocking my behind off over here with my own money, my own efforts, my own energies—for what I believe in.

REASON: What has been the impact of the 60 Minutes exposure?

COLLINS: Everyone seemed to have thought that we were born on Sixty Minutes, but before that we were on Good Morning America and the Martin Dean show, the Donahue show. We'd been in feature articles in Germany; we had been in newspapers all across the country. 60 Minutes seems to have had the most impact, but it's kind of frosting on the cake of what we really do here, because they can only do so much. Everyone was so amazed by children reciting a list of names of books, but that can be very pedantic. And very few news stories or TV shows have indicated the understanding these children have of what they read. It's no longer the street lingo, it's no longer the English as a second language—that's something I can't believe these days, teaching English as a second language. If our children get into an argument and one is too wordy, they'll say, "Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue" from Hamlet. Or the other day there were two little boys in the bathroom, and one was acting up; and when another nine-year-old went in, he said, "Out out, little spots, you should have taken care of this duty at home"—there would have been a time for such foolishness. It's constantly paraphrasing now. It's another way of expressing themselves.

REASON: They don't look upon their experience as a chore, then.

COLLINS: Oh no, it gets to be really comical. And the one thing about the poor child is—I don't care what anyone says—the parents here respect education. You let a child graduate from high school here, parents will have a party all night long. They don't always know how to get it, but there is nothing that's respected more in this neighborhood than an education. This is one thing that the experts in America have never witnessed. And unfortunately those people who try to help are throwing the monies the wrong way.

REASON: Why is it that so many children in the public schools do look on education as a chore? Do you think it could be that it's the public system itself, that having it available free turns people off from valuing education, from enjoying it?

COLLINS: Well, you see, what has happened too is that children have to learn the look-see method. I'll tell you what really happens the first three years of public schools. The child goes to kindergarten—well, I can only talk about where I was; I have not been in all the public schools. The child goes to kindergarten and he watches Sesame Street; he's given a peanutbutter sandwich and treats and juice, then he goes out for recess. And it's twelve o'clock, time to go home. That's kindergarten. Then he goes to first grade, where he plays again another year. No reading skills at all. Then he goes to second grade and somehow he fools around again another year with the look-say method or books that do not challenge him, and he looks at the whole word and guesses it. By the time he's in third grade he's supposed to be an independent reader. Well, he never learned to read in kindergarten, first, and second, so in third grade he begins to be placed in the EMH or the learning-disabled rooms. And the child has learned to be a problem by then, because he's had three years of school, so he knows how to create havoc. But the child never really had an opportunity.

Our children learn the phonetic method, which is why they're very good spellers, I suppose. Because rather than ABC or just saying a word, they'll have to go a as in apple and all the other a's there are in the English language. They learn that when they're four. Children all over America can tell you that a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y are vowels. But you ask them about that "sometimes y," and they can't tell you. Just do an experiment with them. You can't find me 20 children in Chicago, I don't care which section you go in—you can be on Michigan Avenue or here—and they won't be able to tell you that y is a vowel when it's the final syllable in a word, as in Nancy and icy. And no one bothers to teach the rules anymore—"i before e except after c." People have to live by rules in the world. Why do we pretend in school that they don't? That's how I try to think of education—a school is a miniature society where children learn to function in a real world. And the pretending, you know it's even on the standardized test. There's a little section that says, "This is a game to see how much you learn." Well I say to them, "No, it's not a game. This is a test, and it often determines whether you sit on the sidelines and catch the crumbs or whether you march in the mainstream." One night my son was downstairs studying, and he had been up so late all that week, and my husband said, "I feel so sorry for him." I said, "Look, if he's going to become a surgeon"—he is studying to be a doctor—"he's going to have his hard times. I feel sorry for him too, but if he lives in this world he's going to have more hard times. He's going to stay up some more nights." I think we can't shield them from the hard times, even though we'd like to. I say to the children that I teach and to my own—I can't test the ground for you and tell you that's a safe step there.

REASON: That seems like a good motto to end with. Listen—thank you very much.

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