As an education writer I receive many invitations for events. But the one that appeared last week was a little different. Arriving in my inbox was an offer to cover the 2013 convention of the National Education Association Foundation. I thought, the NEA, the teachers’ union that has fought against the school reforms I have spent my life promoting? The same group that has tried every tactic under the sun to stop private school voucher programs wherever they are proposed? The organization I have spent hundreds of words attacking? I had a vision that if I tried to enter their headquarters on 16th Street N.W. armed security guards would place me under house arrest and throw away the key.
But the email message said that the NEA had changed and that they were now supporting many of the concepts that they had opposed in the past. So, not being risk adverse I decided to go. I’m extremely glad that I did.
Last Friday I had the fortunate opportunity to hear the convention’s final keynote address by John Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. What a tremendous speaker. His talk was filled with humorous stories and anecdotes that had the audience mesmerized by his words. I will paraphrase one he used to make the point that when talking about educating our youth we all have to speak the same language.
Mr. Jackson related that a man came upon a boy sitting next to a dog. The man asked the boy if his dog bites. The boy answered “my dog does not bite.” So the man petted the dog and the dog proceeded to bite the man. The man exclaimed “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The boy replied “That’s not my dog.”
His remarks emphasized that in education we have spent years defining and concretizing standards as best exemplified by the Common Core curriculum. Mr. Jackson stated that although we have had a standards-based reform agenda what we really need is an opportunity-based reform agenda. The Schott Foundation president reminded us that inner cities are often characterized by extremely low high school graduation rates. He went on to explain that this phenomenon is independent of race. Mr. Jackson pointed to Detroit where the black graduation rate is 21 percent. However, he declared that the same statistic for whites is 19 percent.
Mr. Jackson advised that to reverse this situation we need to provide support programs that counteract the problems of economics, healthcare, and civic involvement that are present in our underprivileged communities. He added that to be successful we must identify the right supports, align those supports with individual needs, and figure out the most efficient manner of delivering these supports to our students.
Moreover, Mr. Jackson rhetorically rebutted the argument that as a society we don’t have enough money to create an opportunity public policy agenda. “We have sufficient funds to pay probation officers,” Mr. Jackson asserted. He made clear that if we fail to follow his advice the end result for many children will be that they end up in prison.
Many thoughts came to mind as I heard this gentleman speak. I recalled the enduring drive of Donald Hense of Friendship Public Charter School and the hundreds of lives this man has changed for the positive. His words evoked the fantastic efforts of charters such as DC Prep and KIPP DC that are taking underprivileged children and bringing them up to proficiency rates in math and reading of 80 percent and above. I sat there proud to part of a movement where schools are seeing 100 percent college acceptance rates for kids that are many times the first in their families to attend a university.
But I mostly remembered the unbelievable event I attended a year ago at the Wheatley Educational Complex. There the CityBridge Foundation introduced me to the fine work of Pamela Cantor, president and chief executive officer of Turnaround for Children. This organization is doing exactly what Mr. Jackson called for in his remarks. Ms. Cantor and her colleagues have studied and created programs to counteract the devastating effects of poverty in children that interfere with their ability to learn. From my article on that meeting:
“But it all starts, by Dr. Cantor’s account, with the adults in the building letting the students know that they have someone who cares about them. “Interventions by social services for the 330 students here at Wheatley is unrealistic but is included in your overall toolbox,” maintained the CEO of Turnaround. “You show students that you are there for them, you go after the frequent flyers for problems with discipline, you train teachers to recognize and ameliorate the problems associated with poverty, and prepare instructors in how to manage a classroom. Eventually you begin to see results.”
It hit me that what I learned at the CityBridge event that day was being repeated by the speaker that was currently before me at the front of the room. So at least for forty minutes on a crisp clear and bright fall Friday afternoon education reformers that often speak vastly different languages were saying precisely the same thing.