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WHERE WE ARE, AND WHERE WE HAVE TO GO
When I was young, my father used to give me a hard shake to wake me up. Then he'd stick his head right up next to my ear and say, "Rudy," in his deep voice. "Rudy, time to get up. Sun's coming up and something good is gonna happen today."
My father, Eugene, worked hard. My mother died when I was two, so he raised me and my two sisters on his own, paid the bills as a night watchman at the IBM plant in Poughkeepsie after years of playing jazz in New York City. He had a lot of reasons to stay in bed every morning, but for as long as I lived under his roof, he didn't just get himself up and out; he launched all of us out into the world full of expectations for ourselves and for the day.
Today I'm the superintendent of the Miami-Dade County public school system, the fourth largest in the country, with some 356,000 children in my care. Before that I was chancellor of the nation's largest school system, New York City, which enrolls more than 1.1 million kids. I've been superintendent or deputy superintendent in Tacoma, Sacramento, and Boston. One part of my job has been to help millions of children, parents, teachers, and principals all wake up and believe the same thing that my father used to tell me every morning--that something good was going to happen today, that some light would go on in a child's head that would let him see the way into the future and maybe even someday leadothers there, too. For more than thirty years I've been doing that. But six years after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act I'm faced with facts like these:
• One-third of American eighth graders cannot perform basic math. That means more than a million thirteen-year-olds can't do the simplest calculations needed to buy a candy bar or ride a bus.
• One-third of all teachers leave the profession in their first three years; by five years, half of them have left.
• A black child in Washington, D.C., has less than a 30 percent chance of learning how to read before he turns ten.
• The odds that any given ten-year-old in a large American city can read are about fifty-fifty, and six in ten for the nation as a whole.
• Only one in five students entering college are prepared for college-level work in math, reading, writing, and biology.
Besides running school systems, I've been a principal, a teacher, a father who put all four of his kids through public schools, and I even went to some of them myself back in the day. So let me tell you: if those statistics don't make you feel angry or ashamed or sad as an American, then at the very least they should make you scared because, beyond the disappointing things those numbers say about our national character and values, they put our future in peril.
For all the laws being passed and tests being handed out, America's public schools continue to struggle. Every year millions of teenagers graduate from high school with no tools, no skills, and no sense whatsoever of what they're going to do with their lives. That's easy to sniff at as if it were someone else's problem. But the fact is, those kids aren't just living in the nation's inner cities; they live in corn-fed towns in Iowa and under the shadows of the RockyMountains, too. And what they're missing in their lives goes deeper than test scores.
The first question is, What will they do for a living? Unemployment for Americans between the ages of twenty and twenty-four runs around 8 percent; 16 percent for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. Our usual response to those numbers is a vague clamor for more jobs and better jobs and job training, and then some screaming about all the jobs outsourced to India and China. Well, in my experience American businesses want to hire American workers. The first meeting I went to as superintendent in Miami was with the Chamber of Commerce to discuss the fact that the city's business community wanted to hire more local workers. The problem was--and remains throughout America--that we're not providing enough workers with the skills to compete. Major companies look at our cities and ask whether the public school system can produce the quality of people they need to operate their machinery, program their computers, even simply answer their phones. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, and Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, and countless other business leaders I've met have all told me that more and more the answer is no. The young people they're seeing out of American public schools are unable to perform even the most routine, elementary business functions. This, at a time when jobs that involve "complex interactions requiring a high level of judgment," according to The Economist, "make up some 40% of the American labour market and account for 70 percent of the jobs created since 1998." By not producing adequately skilled, adaptable workers, we're all but pointing businesses toward India and other nations where labor's cheaper and worker loyalty is easier to rely on. The research firm Gartner has calculated that information technology outsourcing will go from $193 billion in 2004 to $260 billion by the end of the decade.
Outsourcing is only the tip of the iceberg, though. The real problem lies under the surface, and it's big and dangerous. Not only are our children not able to keep up with the better-equippedcompetition coming from India and China, but if things don't change very soon, all these tens of millions of our sons and daughters will grow up to be adults unable to even function in our economy, let alone compete. As demand for unskilled labor continues to shrink and even the lowest-level jobs require skills beyond what most eighteen-year-olds graduate with, most of them will enter the labor market completely unprepared and essentially clueless as to how to interact with the marketplace. Who will hire them when they don't even know how to get a job? What will tens of millions of young adults barely able to read or multiply do with their lives? Who will pay for Social Security and health care? Even the military will be out of reach for them because they won't be able to pass the entrance exams. There'll be nothing left for them but to take their meaningless diplomas and plunge into the enormous gap that has opened in this country between those who have and those who don't. No matter where you're from--rural Appalachia, suburban Wellesley, or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans--a lack of skills is a tragic life sentence. For millions more, the issue is not that they can't get a job; it's that the connection between effort and earning is gone. They don't want the jobs that are available. I hear it all the time: Who wants to flip burgers or type letters for a few years? I oughta be rich right now!
Letting a generation slip through our fingers hurts more than just our economy. It cuts to the essence of who we are as a nation. Every so often Jay Leno on The Tonight Show takes a camera out to some mall and asks young people easy questions such as "What's the vice president's name?" "Who was the first president?" "What's the capital of the United States?" The joke, of course, is that no one knows the answers. Everybody in the studio laughs away, but if Leno asked the same questions in his own theater, chances are he wouldn't find answers there, either, because the truth is, the audience is laughing with them, not at them. I mean, who could be expected to know anything as obscure as the name of the first president, right?
Well, I've spent my life teaching America's children. My father was a World War II veteran. Dr. King and the Civil Rights martyrs gave their lives so we could all have our full share of America's promise. I am devoted to this country, and over the years I've sent too many of my students off in uniforms to Vietnam and the Middle East to find that kind of blithe ignorance funny. Why are politics in this nation so polarized right now? It's simple: a vast and growing segment of our electorate has no knowledge or interest in the history and workings of our nation. The few issues they care about they see in black and white. Nuanced thought, bridging gaps, creating consensus, finding equitable resolutions--those things are all but gone.
More than any other country, this nation depends on the thoughtful participation of its citizens. Sometimes I give speeches to newly sworn citizens in Miami, and when I see thousands of people ecstatic to be a part of this remarkable, albeit imperfect, nation, I still believe it can all work, but we need true citizens who comprehend the rights and responsibilities that title entails, who understand how they got here and why. That's a job for our schools, but right now our children don't learn the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner," let alone how a bill becomes a law.
Our schools aren't just struggling to teach academics and civics; they're also failing to produce young men and women of substance. And before you shrug your shoulders and say, "That's not a problem in my neighborhood, no gangstas in my gated community," you should know that in 2006 the Josephson Institute of Ethics reported that 60 percent of students surveyed said they had cheated on a test in the past year; 35 percent admitted to doing so at least twice. One-third had plagiarized from the Internet, and 62 percent said they had "lied to a teacher about something significant." Plagiarism and cheating, you see, are nothing but upper-class versions of Fast, Quick, and in a Hurry. I don't care where you are--some big-lawn suburb, Compton, or a small town in the Midwest--we're all doing a terrible job of teaching our childrenhow to define their principles and live them out every day, how to define success in terms other than dollar signs.
When I was coming up, my father built in me a bone-deep sense that life owed you nothing. You had to work hard, and your effort would determine how far you'd go. Anything worth having was worth working for. I got all this early on, from selling bottles and scrap iron and cleaning yards, taking out big old heavy garbage cans. A lot of it I didn't even do for the money. Some of it I did because my father would drive by and see Miss McMurry's garbage, and he'd say, "You gotta go down the street to help Miss McMurry with her garbage every Monday ..."
I'd think, Am I Miss McMurry's son?
" ... 'cause somebody got to do it. Lady was good to you, took care of you when you was a little boy, wiped your behind, cleaned your diapers, washed your clothes when I couldn't get to it. This is your payback. Pick this woman's stuff up. Father Time got hold ta her and she just can't do it. No tellin' when in this life you're gonna need help someday."
So I did it. It was just the right thing to do. I did it for the same reason my father would bring her bouquets of peonies from our yard, or go over and open her venetian blinds when she was bedridden, just so she could see the sun. It wasn't just about God liking you more. It was simply your job to be an ethical, honest person, work your ass off, do some good for somebody else, and be happy you got to do it.
By and large, our children have only the slightest grasp as to what constitutes ethical behavior. More and more of them believe that if they haven't made their bling-bling by a certain time, it's pretty much over, and who cares if they die. So die they do, horrible, tragic deaths caused first by their emptiness, then by drugs and bullets. And the folks who have theirs just keep walking.
It's no surprise that our children are so lost when their schools are starved for purpose. A classroom should be a place where wehelp children enter the world beyond themselves, where they build confidence, maximize effort, and are obligated to perform. But right now, instead of clarifying things for our kids, schools confuse them. Should they care about truly learning things, or is nailing the test the only point? Will any of it even matter in real life? Our classrooms are losing their pulse. Teaching and learning have become hollow, desperate acts punctuated by recess, lunch, and homecoming. That moment in the development of a child's mind when the challenge of the task goes head-to-head with the motivation to get it right, where a furrowed brow and shifting eyes mean Be quiet! I'm gonna figure this out, is disappearing. Parents and society keep hoping a patch here and there will hold things together until at least our kids are out of the system.
It's a dismal situation. Now add something else. The National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, which is part of the Department of Education, reports that between 1993 and 2003 "the population growth rate for youth ages 5 to 19 was higher in the United States than in any other G8 country." That means we're in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration to the United States since the turn of the twentieth century. In those ten years 4.7 million more children entered the public school system. Sixty-four percent of those children, about 3 million, were Hispanic, while at the same time white enrollment dropped by 1.2 million. The Department of Education estimates that 200,000 more children, largely minority, will enter our public schools every year, and unless we want MTV Cribs, MySpace, and YouTube to be their primary instructors about life in America, we will need schools that accept the responsibility for bringing not just them but their families into our society. Millions of new Americans must understand that this nation is based on more than just buying and selling.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not anti-immigration. I believe this is a great opportunity for this country. Regular infusions of new energy, new ideas, and new dreams have let America grow andchange and continue to lead throughout its history; immigration confirms that there's something universal about what our Constitution offers. But if we don't capitalize on the opportunity our public schools offer to manage this huge influx, if America walks away from its public schools because they're no longer full of white faces, then you can simply multiply all the problems I've laid out by a factor of five.
On those cold mornings way back when, what my father was really saying to me was, If you don't get up, if you don't expect anything out of this day, you gonna miss. I don't know what exactly. But you'll miss something good. So even on the coldest, snowiest mornings in Poughkeepsie, when I wasn't even sure the sun existed, I'd still get out of bed with a sense of anticipation. It wasn't Christmas--that was for sure--but maybe despite the snow and the cold, maybe my father was right. Maybe something good was out there today. And so every day I walked into school right on the edge of expectation.
I came to like that feeling of expecting something good. And I have that feeling now. I believe the crisis in American public education can be solved. But this book isn't about patching up public education. We're long past the point of plaster and paint. The global economy is reshaping the way we live; like it or not, it's our future. In our hearts we know we need a change in our educational system that goes deeper than new reading programs or smaller class sizes, but we can't imagine what that should look like or how it should work, and frankly, we're scared. How can schools connect us to our best selves as individuals, communities, and cultures so we can meet the future with strength and creativity?
We don't need reform; we need reenvisioning. Only Connect is about just that--preparing our educational system for the future, with a practical strategy that's already showing results. I believe the battle against ignorance and illiteracy and despair is eminently winnable. This nation does mighty things when it listens to its better angels.
So what have we, as a nation, done so far?
The No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001. It has made us focus on standards, which is good. And there have even been some improved scores. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, students in sixty-six major city school systems in thirty-eight states showed gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading in 2005.
So No Child Left Behind is better than nothing. But "better than nothing" is saying a newspaper over your head is "better than nothing" when you're running through a hurricane. Here's a reality check. Here's where we stand internationally.
The Condition of Education 2006, a report published by the NCES, had our fourth graders scoring twelfth in the world in math skills, after such nations as Singapore, Latvia, and Hungary. Our eighth graders were fifteenth, below Malaysia and Slovakia. And by the time they reached tenth grade, they had slipped off the map--twenty-fourth place internationally. Our 2005 science scores, released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), were even more shocking. Just as an example, 78 percent of eighth graders in Los Angeles public schools have a "below basic" understanding of science.
The reality is that our "improving scores" are often watered-down. Since No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, is nothing but a patchwork of state standards, many states have begun to lower their standards to make it look as if they've actually succeeded at educating their children. As Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institution wrote in The New York Times, "Basically, the states have embraced low standards and grade inflation." And the former education secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige pointed out in a recent article in The Washington Post that "most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems."
Something does look funny. Tennessee claims an 87 percent "proficient" level among its fourth graders; the NAEP puts the numbercloser to 27 percent. Idaho says 90 percent, but a federal test says 41 percent. New York boasts 85 percent; the national assessment is 36 percent. On and on it goes. Oklahoma's list of schools that "need improvement" shrank by 85 percent in a year. How? The state simply lowered its standards. Beyond whether or not the numbers are real is the question of what those numbers would actually prove even if they were. NCLB gave educators across America the task of creating numbers, not functional citizens.
The future will swallow us if we keep on with this game.
By this point in my career, I've heard just about every educational and business theory that you can find, but when I want to get things done, when I want to make a difference, I go back to what my father taught me, basic things about expectations and will and commitment, things that we all seemed to know once upon a time. Eugene Crew wasn't a wealthy, sophisticated man, or a man who spouted Bible verses. He had standards and believed in knowledge and in a future. He loved FDR and Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and Adam Clayton Powell. He put his faith in hard work and social justice. His thinking is the kind we need right now in education--generous but exacting.
He had another ability, too--the ability to look at situations from many angles. When I was in high school, I struggled with both math and reading, but algebra was particularly hard for me, so my father picked up some extra jobs around the neighborhood. Every time he did that, went and cleaned the high school gyms on weekends or did some handyman work, I knew something was going to happen to me, and this time it turned out he was sending me to a tutor, a wonderful man named Mr. Bock. I would go to Mr. Bock's home, and we'd talk about algebra over a big piece of butcher paper. Every week I'd meet with him for an hour or two of fabulous one-on-one time, and little by little I felt more and more confident of my ability to tackle themath. Pretty soon I wanted to please him, show him I was getting algebra, and that made me push myself that much harder. My math teacher, Mrs. Fox, helped, too, by keeping me for a few minutes after class and giving me extra assignments. When my grade finally came, I'd turned an F into a B and I was on top of the world.
"So, son," my father said to me when he saw the grade, "what did you do to get the B?"
I said, "Well, I studied more, I did all the homework, took all of Mr. Bock's quizzes. I took all that extra time with Mrs. Fox, did the extra work she gave. You saw me do all this stuff, Pop."
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "And what did you learn?"
"I learned this equation and that equation and x plus y ..." And on and on. I figured he wanted details.
"Right. But what else did you learn?"
By now I was lost. What exactly did he want from me? I'd gotten the gentleman's B. My father looked at me hard. "I'm glad you got all these equations now," he said, "but really what you got is, you got you a chance to get an A."
My father was all about fresh angles like that, and more than anything else, fresh angles are the purpose of Only Connect. I started thinking about this book by asking myself what exactly it would look like if we truly left no child behind. And behind what, exactly? Are the standards we have the right standards? Is leaving no one behind the same as helping everyone to fly as far and as high as they can? When I asked these questions, I meant them not in some pie-in-the-sky, philosophical way but in the context of the real world. I wanted to figure out, straight up, what every child would need to make it here while China and India ramp up their economies and our deficits balloon and good long-term employment gets harder to find. What do we need as a nation to move forward with any kind of confidence in our future? What would the students look like? What would the schools have to look like to make them? What would we need from the teachers and the parentsand the community? Would mayors be in charge, turning the schools into virtual branches of the government? What roles would school boards play, and local businesses? How would we pay teachers and deal with unions? And what became immediately clear to me was that before we move any deeper into a century that poses opportunities and challenges and ways of doing business we never imagined ten years ago, let alone fifty, when most of our schools were built, we need to talk straight and unpack some of our basic assumptions about public education in America.
Let's start with some good news. Despite the persistent dumbing down of our culture, as a nation we do value education. You may not have liked your fourth-grade math teacher, but you can't show me one person who regrets learning how to read and write. We don't ask ourselves whether or not to educate our children or even whether or not we want public schools. Beyond any question of policy, people move to be near good schools; they change jobs and save and sacrifice so their children can attend them. Since the first common schools opened in the 1830s, America has shown that it understands education's value by making it free and universal.
And we do know how to educate kids. Every year children across America do indeed learn how to read and write and multiply and divide. Unfortunately, there are too few of them, and most of those live within a few particular social strata.
So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about education in America? Mostly navel-gazing and catfights, I'd say. We talk about the bits and pieces affecting our children at that moment: hypercompetitive high-stakes testing, SATs, coed versus single sex, whole language versus basal, bilingual, small schools and charters and vouchers, and on and on. The media covers "issues" such as: Do our children have too much homework? Are our children overscheduled? Is first grade too hard now? Of course these topics affect only a blessed fraction of the children in Americanschools, public and private, but they make for sexier news stories than the crumbling facilities and tragic dropout rates that affect millions more. Look at the supposed crisis over college admissions. Stanford received 14,522 applications in 2006--most of them from the same kids who applied to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton--and only around 10 percent were accepted. Meanwhile, there are more than sixteen million students attending postsecondary institutions across America. In 2006, 70 percent of college applications were accepted, which makes me ask: What crisis in college admissions? Yes, America loves to talk about education, but the one conversation it's loath to have, despite the enormous impact it has on all of us, is a national one about giving a quality public school education to every single child in America.
It seems obvious that the goal of American public education should be to deliver a quality education to every child in the nation. Not just an adequate one--a quality one. That's my goal when I walk into the office every morning. That's the goal of millions of parents who pay thousands of dollars in tuition to private schools, the goal of parents in Scarsdale and Mission Hills and Highland Park and Shaker Heights. It's what parents in Bed-Stuy and Watts and the West Side of Chicago dream of for their children. It should be the goal for all of America. After all, if we want a nation of quality, we have to equip our people with quality educations.
But listen closely to all the conversations we have about education, and you'll hear something else behind the chatter about test scores and homework, something we don't like to admit. Not so deep down, a lot of us are not interested in delivering quality education to all our fellow citizens. Yes, Americans do value education, but they value it for their child. Your child is another story. The underlying tone of every discussion on TV and in the schoolyard at pickup is that education is a matter of Us against Them. Define "Us" and "Them" however you like, but right now American education is not a cooperative venture or even a competitive one, with all the collegiality and rigor that word implies. It's out-and-out adversarial. Wedefine our children's educations not in terms of quality but in terms of winners and losers and whatever it takes to get ours.
That's because knowledge is power. And increasingly, what matters even more than our actual knowledge is where we got it. Not so much what you learn but where you learn it has become the object of education for many, twisting education from the process of creating rounded humans into a set of assumptions and exclusive credentials that the owners wave around like any other brand name. Or let me say it more clearly: My kid's diploma from a plush suburban high school is more valuable because one from an inner-city high school is worthless. Our charter school is better because it doesn't take just anyone off the street. Your diploma from Yale is worth more because of all the thousands who didn't get in and the millions more who didn't even dream of applying.
Now, I have nothing against elite schools and private education. I went to Catholic schools for many years. I attended Babson College and have lectured at Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. By no means am I looking to tear down or minimize success and hard work. I want more of both. I admit and even support the idea that enlightened self-interest is crucial to securing your children a good education, but unfortunately too many of us have lost the "enlightened" part of that. Elite and exclusive schools are not the sum of our educational system. If you find the value of your education is in its exclusivity, if you tell me where you went before you tell me what you learned, then you are missing the point. That attitude and its effects have not just gutted public education; over time they've made those who have been kept away from knowledge distrustful of education.
We express this self-interested, fragmented vision in the way we approach education on a national level. By making schools a local issue, with no direct accountability to the federal government, we've made it impossible to have any sort of true national educational policy beyond cheerleading. Everything we do, we do piecemeal, but the crisis is national in scope and rooted in one inescapablefact: We've never given all our schools the mandate and the resources to properly educate our children. Fifty-plus years of moral imperatives, constitutional and legislative mandates, Brown v. Board of Education, words like "fairness" and "justice"--all of these have failed to create an equitable educational system in America. While too many of us have been making sure our own kids get what they need, we've let the system as a whole collapse. It's time to confront the reality, an uncomfortable one for many, that if we don't provide equitable educational services to minority children in this country, we'll all be doomed.
Any vision of what our schools need to become so that children can succeed in the new economy must be based firmly on a foundation that affirms that we are once and for all sincere about giving every American child a quality education.
That's fine, you might say, but your kids are in a good school. Why should you worry?
Because no matter who you are--retiree, businessman, bodega owner, single mother, Mayflower descendant, salesman--you pay taxes not just to finance your child's access to public education, but so you can enjoy the benefits of living among an educated populace. Morality and justice aside, even if the only thing you care about is your own bank account, you should support an efficient, effective, and entirely equitable educational system in this country. An educated populace benefits you as creators, consumers, innovators, investors, and voters, and the success of others increases the opportunities for yourself and for your children. (Unless, of course, you're counting on sliding by with the minimum of work and relying on your class or color to get you through life, in which case you are deeply vested in the failure of others.)
For decades, widely accepted models created by economists such as Edward Denison, Robert Solow, and most recently Paul Romer--the sort of people we expect to care only about the bottom line--have named education and knowledge as the prime drivers of economic growth. Nor is this just a matter of theory; the statistics bear it out. According to the Brookings Institution, since the end of World War II, American output has grown around 3.5 percent a year, productivity around 2.4 percent a year, and studies give education up to 30 percent of the credit among the reasons for this constant upward trend. More than half the worth of America's public companies, and some estimate the number to be as high as 70 percent, is made up of "intangible assets," which include not just knowledge but all that knowledge creates and all those who create it.
Turn on your computer, log on to the Internet, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Here in the first decade of a new century with an economy based on information, in the flat world Thomas L. Friedman talks about, it's become apparent that the old laws of supply and demand don't apply to knowledge in the same way they do to oil or air conditioners in the summer. Knowledge is not a finite resource, and scarcity economics don't apply to it. We have enough knowledge for everyone. It is both what we trade and how we trade. In the terms of economics, knowledge is a non-rival good; it can be infinitely reproduced, and the more of it the better. If I teach you how to do algebra, we won't have any less algebra in the world, whereas if I give you a banana to eat, we have to grow another banana. Yes, knowledge is indeed power, but the view of education as a self-serving enclave--a "good" one helps you, and others' not having one as "good" as yours helps you even more--runs tragically counter to the evidence because it defines "power" in the old sense of control and domination. For America to charge ahead, its excellence in the face of globalization depends entirely on as many of us as possible setting smart goals and reaching them, putting more knowledge into more hands of those who will then create more opportunities. In the twenty-first century we must define knowledge as "power" in the other sense of the word: as a limitless fuel for the economy and our society.
This means we are all vested, financially if not morally, in helping every one of our fellow citizens to operate at the highest possible level, and public education is the key to that. If the poverty, ignorance, and illiteracy that occur now don't hurt your soul, then they hurt your pocketbook in a million little ways in both the private and the public sectors, and, worst of all, they hurt you through the opportunities lost. Keeping any segment of the population undereducated through selfishness and racism not only creates those painful, frightening statistics that I opened the book with but also prevents a more general prosperity for all of us. What if we were able to reduce the billions we pay out in unemployment benefits? What if millions more Americans didn't need publicly funded housing? We can no longer look at public education as if it were a "black problem" or a "Hispanic problem." Distributing knowledge equitably and efficiently throughout all levels of American society isn't a "problem"; it's the solution to a challenge we all face together. We can only go as far as our slowest member. Offering a global-ready education to every American is the only way to reclaim our excellence.
Struggling school systems, then, are not an educational side issue; they are a primary economic one, with an impact on every aspect of American life. To guarantee the future of this country--economic, military, and otherwise--we need to push aside all the prejudice and shortsighted greed and decide at last that we are going to provide this service of a quality education to everyone. Stoking America's educational fire is how we will contend with the upheavals of globalization, the massive transitions in our economy, and these uncertain times.
It's a tall order.
But I believe Americans truly do want to do the right thing. The 2006 annual poll conducted by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and Gallup showed that support for public education continues to rise.Americans are concerned about the achievement gap between white students and minorities; they understand the challenges posed by low funding, and they don't want their children's educations based solely on passing NCLB-mandated tests. We know in our guts what's right for our kids, and it's what I see when I imagine what schools will look like when we finally decide to leave no child behind: a nation full of schools pumping the endless resource of knowledge into our economy in the form of rounded, fully functional graduates. That's what leaving no child behind really means.
You're going to see the word "strategy" a lot in this book. My father was big on strategy. To him, everything was a question of strategy. He wanted me to go further in this world than he did, so he created a strategy. The first step was to send me to Blueberry Cove Camp, at the time the first interracial coed camp in Maine, where I saw things I hadn't dreamed existed. I swam and sailed and painted watercolors and found a peace and civility that made me understand that the world was very large and that I had a place in it. My father made sure I had a safe place to take risks, to learn independence, and eventually to believe that poor for now did not mean poor forever. "Think past the present task to the next one," he would say, "past the present day into the next week and past this phase of your life into adulthood." It wasn't a question of whether or not I'd get into college; the question was, How was I going to do it? If I needed 1100 on the SATs, then by God, that's what I would get. "Now, tell me, boy," he'd ask, "how many hours do we need to get to our books to do that? What books do we have to get?" It wasn't about wishing or dreaming or luck; it was about knowing your goals, knowing what you had to do to reach them, and then doing it. When you have a strategy, you're in control. You haven't surrendered to the chaos.
But strategies are complicated. They're not the same as plans. Plans are linear and causal, which is fine if you're taking a trip ormaking a piece of furniture. But when you're faced with a situation that demands success on many fronts simultaneously, then you need a strategy. Strategies take into account all the variables in a situation and admit that many things have to happen at once. Generals use strategies. Chess players use strategies. When you're merging your car into another lane on the highway, you use a strategy: You need to gauge where the cars are in front of you, behind you, and all the way along the side you're moving to. You need to adjust your speed to those constantly changing positions, and you need those other cars to maintain their speeds and positions, or else you need to readjust, and what if it's raining or nighttime? What you don't do is just turn the wheel and hope for the best.
That's what we've been doing so far on education--turning the wheel in one or another direction and waiting to see what happens. But there's no one single thing that will transform public schools in America. Money alone won't do it. Laws such as NCLB, smaller class sizes, greater parental involvement, even valuable innovations such as national standards--none of these in and of themselves will solve the problem. If we're serious about change, all of them--and more--have to happen, and all at the same time, because education is a sum of many parts all relating to each other simultaneously. Anything less than that is passing the buck.
Any new vision of public education has to scrape away the old arguments and paradigms and replace them with something flexible and adaptable that mirrors the fact that learning is a lifelong process. The act of accumulating information and synthesizing it into knowledge isn't restricted to a few hours in a classroom or the topics covered in textbooks--it's one of the essential actions of our lives. The job of educators is to insist on habits and to develop minds that will be able to perform that work for a lifetime. And yet educational policy in this country, especially in light of the test-crazy NCLB, forces most educators to waste the best hours of their day dealing with unnecessary politics and inadequate funding rather than concentrating on the true task of preparing our students.
We have to get smart about how we make people smart. And in order to free educators to do that fine work of producing thinking, functional people--the people who will be our bank tellers and English professors and electricians and ballet dancers and Internet entrepreneurs, the people who will make informed choices in the voting booth--we must, as individuals and as a society, view education in a new way: a three-dimensional way. We'll have to pick up a saying near and dear to environmental activists back in the 1970s, one that takes on a new meaning in a world tied together by fiber-optic cables and multinational corporations: "Think globally, act locally."
Schools must be the common garden where we grow our future. Let's begin by seeing our schools as places of connection. We must put schools squarely in the center of all the things that make up our communities--families, teachers, businesses, government, the arts, and faith and service organizations. Once we've done that, schools will no longer be perceived as a social program or form of charity. Rather, the relationship between schools and various community entities will be transformed into an agreement to produce children who can compete anywhere on the globe. Schools must be places where we all plug in our best inputs and demand outcomes for ourselves and our society, where we align our homes and our communities, where every child is one of our children.
That means opening up the parameters and purpose of "school," building a bigger, wider concept of just what "school" is. The fact is that while schools are without question the chief educators of our children, they're not the only ones responsible for that work; from now on, every part of the community must teach what it knows, in a manner that's integrated into our educational system. We need to envision a society where schools direct education as much as they provide it, where they serve for each student as a point of connection to the greater world, using their expertise in child development to orchestrate the whole host of educational experiencesin the arts, business, service, and beyond that the community must present to that student.
What would that look like? Here's a taste: Let's give all our children serious academic work and show them how it matters in the world directly around them. Let's create programs that introduce children to the workplace, that teach them the dignity and honor that come with a productive day. And let's have those programs overseen by men and women in the business community who can share what they've learned with the next generation. Let's not just offer our children a host of ways within the school structure to lead, follow, and serve as athletes, debaters, and artists, in clubs and in student government, but let's tie them to activities and organizations in the wider community around them. Let's equip our children with the character to make good choices by teaching the qualities that create character.
Here's what "connection" and "global" do not mean: They do not mean the Internet in every classroom. They do not mean laptops for every child. In many communities the idea of the global classroom is a reflection of how much hardware and software your district has, when the real question is whether or not your kids experience contact with skill sets that will be demanded of them when they go out into the world. Focusing on computers alone is like spending all your time and money on buying shovels when your job is to build a skyscraper. Addressing that mismatch of perception and effort between the global economy and the American classroom is at the center of this book.
Building a connective tissue between home, school, and community will demand serious expectations and serious commitments, financial and otherwise. Across the board, from every ghetto P.S. Something to every leafy hilltop academy, deep work will have to happen. An equitable distribution of money, personnel, facilities, and programming is the foundation of any true and lasting change to American public schools, and the federal government's role shouldbe to guarantee that. Putting Jim Crow behind us by finally creating genuine, tangible equity will do more than create justice; it will create efficiency in the system.
But this new kind of school won't magically appear because the government writes checks. From Capitol Hill we look to homes across America. There are some seventy-five million public school parents in this country, and too many of them for too long have had the news kept from them that the public school system is not a welfare program. That, in fact, it belongs to them. Schools provide a service, and their function is not to assimilate, channel, educate, or determine the futures of their clients; their function is to provide their clients with what they need to do those things for themselves. Our parents and children are those clients, and they need to learn that for their schools to work, they must demand performance from teachers, principals, and all the way up the ladder. They must demand better classrooms and schools. They must demand choices between a range of viable opportunities, not a choice between what they're handed or nothing. And in return they have to demand of themselves, at school, at home, and in the community. Parents in the best and brightest schools have figured out that formula of give-and-take, of sacrifice and demand, and I don't begrudge them that. But it's time to share that knowledge. We need to call out millions of Demand Parents, people who can shout for action and check the homework, too. This book will show people how to become Demand Parents--involved parents equipped and motivated to guide the progress of their own children's education. And for those not yet ready to answer the call, we have to systematically build bridges so we can meet them halfway and teach the have-nots how to have, how to get what they need for their children, how to participate in the first and most fundamental building block of American culture, the classroom.
Nations such as India and China have taken to heart the fact that education drives economies, and the enormous national commitmentsthey have made to fueling their economies through education have had a remarkable impact on not just their nations but ours as well. Instead of inducing panic, though, this should be a spur to action. We know how to do this work; we know how to teach children. The world may be flat, but that doesn't mean that we've been rolled over.
When I walk into my office in downtown Miami, when I visit classrooms in Liberty City and Coconut Grove and Palmetto, in Homestead and Little Havana, I see children and parents and teachers looking for something good today. And they're finding it. The Miami-Dade County public school system has been called a model for the state of Florida; I think it's on its way to being a model for the nation as a whole. The system can change, and without vouchers and charter schools. Our parents will tell you that.
So I'm asking you to shake your head clear of studies and surveys and assessments and all those numbers and theories that somehow never mention the look on your daughter's face when she finally understands how to do long division. Imagine with me what our schools could be if we thought less about rescuing them, about making them "good enough" to meet watered-down state regulations, and decided instead to reach for that A of delivering a quality education to all. If we revitalize our public schools, we will revitalize not just our economy but what it means to be American as we step further into a new and already very challenging century.
Something good can happen today.
Copyright © 2007 by Dr. Rudy Crew