Why I committed to changing the American education system

Michael Phillips smiling

We all share a similar story, but the difference in the details makes us believe we’re not the same.

In 2012 my eyes were opened to a collective story unfolding in my city. As the pastor of an amazing church in the great city of Baltimore, I was asked to convene a meeting with local faith leaders to better connect with some of our local schools.

At that meeting, our host, the Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now (MarylandCAN), shared data that stunned me.

Examining the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores that broke down the demographics of our city schools, I learned that out of approximately eighty-six thousand students, 46 percent were African American males. Of that group, only 9 percent were proficient in reading.

Nine percent. 

That meant 91 percent of Black males were not reading at their proper grade level. At first, I couldn’t believe it. It was inconceivable to me. 

The report did not focus solely on deficiencies; it also focused on hope and community. And the data informed us of schools that were defying the odds. The report called these Opportunity Schools because they afforded students from both low-income households and higher-income households the opportunity to succeed.

“Seven public elementary school programs and one public middle school program . . . repeatedly [led] children from low-income families to outperform overall state proficiency rates.”

I left the meeting shocked and a little jaded. I was frustrated about how the opportunity gap for kids in certain locations is so massive, and I wondered how we were trying — if at all — to close that gap.

But what was clear was that we can’t close the gap in achievement without closing the gap in opportunity. If kids don’t have opportunity, what difference does achievement make? 

That was the day I altered course and began advocating for change in education. I wish it was the same day that the change countless children and families were hoping for became a reality, but systemic modification takes time. It also takes policy transformation.

While serving on the Maryland State Board of Education, I made another course correction toward reimagining education. At a teacher appreciation dinner, I was seated at the same table as the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. So during dinner I leaned over to ask her a question burning in my mind. 

“What would it look like,” I asked, “if somebody intentionally took on some of your lowest-performing schools with the intention of turning them around? What if they created a network among those schools? What would that look like in partnership with the district — would you even be interested in something like that?” 

Without a blink, she simply asked, “When do you want to get started?” 

“I’ll get started right away,” I replied.

And with that invitation, a journey began. I began to visit local schools. I wanted to know how they worked — and how we could replicate successes across our city without replicating what wasn’t working. I then began to tour schools that were doing well at giving kids from low-income households an opportunity to succeed.

Not just tours in Baltimore, by the way, but tours all over the United States. I went just about everywhere to see what was working and how other districts were addressing the challenges we faced. As I saw the odds against the project, it made me only more determined. It’s gonna have to work, I decided. We have to figure it out. 

You see, I knew that this was not just an education issue. For many kids, it was a survival issue. Schools are never just schools. Statistics never tell the full story, but seeing the raw data on those educational reports was not just a rallying cry for me to act. It was a reminder of how very different my life nearly was.

I realized I was staring into my own story — the story of a young soul turned around, but just barely, because of a second chance at education. I had almost been just another statistic. My feverish work in trying to solve a problem that was putting young men and women at chaotic intersections was a result of once being at one myself. 

I knew I was part of another story, another group of young men that seemed predestined to have a location set for them: on the street corners or behind prison bars. I had accepted that world and the familiar narrative it often brings. 

But one day in 1993, as I was speeding south toward Richmond and closing in on that chaotic intersection between I-95 and I-64, I received a phone call from my mother that changed my story. She asked me to come back home, and even though I knew this was putting me right in harm’s way, I knew it was the right thing to do. 

At that intersection I chose to make the right turn. 

My book, Wrong Lanes Have Right Turns: A Pardoned Man’s Escape from the School-to-Prison Pipeline and What We Can Do to Dismantle It, is the story of how one life turned around. I believe we’re all at our own intersections of what is possible and what is purposeful.

But if we don’t make the right turns, we might not reach our destinations.

My story, in more than one way, is about school — the ways it doesn’t work for everyone and the ways I dream it can.

And it’s a testament that any of us can change the world of a child or a classroom for the better, right where we are. 

Just look at the headlines. Or the statistics. Or the eyes of kids in classrooms all over America. Maybe we’re all headed in the wrong direction right now. But I have good news. 

You see, I’m living proof that even wrong lanes have right turns. 

Adapted from Wrong Lanes Have Right Turns: A Pardoned Man’s Escape from the School-to-Prison Pipeline and What We Can Do to Dismantle It © 2022 by Michael Phillips. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on January 25, 2022.

Michael Phillips is passionate about helping people live a better life. His determination to drive social change with lasting transformational benefits to society has led him to become an innovator and thought leader in social entrepreneurship and education. He is the founder of LifePrep and currently serves as the chief engagement and fulfillment officer for the T.D. Jakes Foundation.

As an author and inspirational speaker, Phillips has become a champion for children and families around the world. He is the chairman of 50CAN and serves as a board member of KuriosEd. His powerful story and message of collateral hope has transformed many lives and helped to revitalize communities. Michael Phillips and his wife, Dr. Anita Phillips, reside in Dallas, Texas.

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January 24, 2022 11:10 AM
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