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Educator Ian Rowe at Wheatley: ‘There are no victims in our school, only architects of their own lives’

AEI fellow tells BYU’s Wheatley Institute audience the American education system is failing most students. Returning education to family, faith and entrepreneurship is the way forward

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Ian Rowe answers interview questions at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City.

Ian Rowe, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and Vertex Partnership Academies co-founder, answers interview questions at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on March 22, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Schools must provide students with education built on family, faith and entrepreneurship, Ian V. Rowe told BYU’s Wheatley Institute on Thursday, noting quality education has no room for victimhood.

Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, cofounder and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies, a nonprofit public charter school network based in the Bronx, and author of “Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power.” He is also the son of Jamaican immigrants who came to the United States in 1968, as he earlier told Deseret News.

Rowe emphasized the power of a quality education, while lamenting the seriousness of the education decline in America. A beneficiary of high-quality education from Brooklyn Technical High School, Cornell University and Harvard Business School, Rowe emphasized the damaging impact of the victimization of minorities within the education system.

According to Rowe, the American race crisis had been growing for more than a decade when suddenly the death of George Floyd made questions regarding education more pertinent. People were asking what needed to happen for African Americans and young people of all races to prosper in the United States’ educational systems.

He saw firsthand how badly parents wanted their children to thrive in school. From 2010 to 2020, Rowe served as CEO of a network of charter schools in the Bronx and the lower East side of Manhattan. Every year the school had 200 to 300 open seats, and admission was granted by a random lottery. More than 5,000 families were on the waiting list.

Parents were looking for better educational opportunities for their children. In the school districts where Rowe opened schools, only 7% of students graduated ready for college. He flipped the statistic, noting, “That means a shocking 93% of students either dropped out of high school before completing their senior year or, if they did manage to graduate and earn a high school diploma, they still could not do math or reading without remediation if they were to go to college.”

Instead of increasing the quality of education across the board, Rowe said, education systems are focused on fixing racial disparities. He said his issue with that approach is that students of every color, including white students, are being failed by their education system.

“The sad irony is that by closing the Black-white achievement gap, if we were actually able to do that, would guarantee only universal mediocrity for all students,” he said.

The two current paths educators can take when teaching students are agency and equity. Rowe described agency as “the empowering alternative to equity.” This approach places the reins of destiny firmly in the hands of the individual, he said.

Equity, on the other hand, is the absence of inequity. This approach pushes personal responsibility onto society and requires top-down behavioral changes for progress to be made among the public.

Rowe described the equity approach as “irreconcilable.”

Equity as the foundation of education will never empower students to progress in the way the U.S. government was designed to empower them to be able to, he said. “If we want to build a self-governing free society, then we need to cultivate individuals that have the ability to self-govern themselves.”

“Indoctrination” is a little-understood part of the challenge education poses, according to Rowe. He said the term usually comes with assumptions that children are being taught harmful ideologies, but he said every institution with young people involves indoctrination. Exhibited values, enforced procedures and even teacher behavior influence a young student’s moral framework.

“Even if you’re choosing to do nothing, you are telling kids that there’s no formal frame from which they should make decisions,” he said.

Vertex Partnership Academies’ curriculum is based on four cardinal virtues — courage, justice, temperance and wisdom — to provide students with a strong foundation.

He described listening to his students recite the poem “Invictus.” He said, “Imagine our lunchroom, all of our students are standing up in their uniforms with their beautiful blazers, reciting the last two lines, ‘I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.’”

Vertex Partnership Academies’ school motto is “There are no victims in our school, only architects of their lives,” and while watching his students recite “Invictus,” Rowe said he felt as though he was accomplishing what he set out to do.

While empowering education for students is critical, Rowe said that alone wasn’t enough. Family and religion are also crucial to self-betterment. With a non-marital birthrate of over 80% in his school district, Rowe’s curriculum teaches students the success sequence: education, work, marriage and children. In that order.

Instructors teach about this success sequence descriptively, not prescriptively. He emphasized the importance of students feeling capable of improving. “It’s not so much about the family that you’re from, it’s about the family that you’re on the pathway to form,” he told the audience.

Correction: Vertex Partnership Academies was referred to as “Public Prep” in an earlier version of the article and has been corrected.