Geoffrey Canada, educator and activist took the closing keynote spot at Blackboard World 2014 last week. You might know him from his engaging TED Talk on “Our Failing Schools: Enough is Enough!” Perhaps you know him for his inspiring work with Harlem Children’s Zone or by watching Waiting for Superman. Or maybe you read one of his books: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence or Reaching Up For Manhood. For those at BBWorld2014 who never heard of him, maybe they will remember him for a compelling, passionate, provocative closing keynote.
This was his first public appearance since retiring after 31 years with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and he started with a short reflection on the way his work has spread and influenced education. “All I ever wanted to do was save my kids…but the ‘my’ kept getting larger and larger,” he explained. Then he got into it, launching his main talk with the following quote:
“I’m convinced that if we don’t do something radically different, we’re going to preside over the decline of our country.”
“When I stared, I went to Detroit and found out that it was worse than Harlem.” And as he learned more, he wondered, “How big is this problem?” “I discovered that as a nation, we’ve developed a strategy”…a toxic one, designing a system where many kids don’t get an education. What do we do when places produce kids who are unemployable? “We lock up all the guys.” ‘We incarcerate more people per capita than any place in the world bar none.” “We created an industry around incarceration in our country that is rivaling education.”
What does it take to education kids coming from poverty? He explained that it is difficult, but we can do it. We invest in kids from the beginning, carefully measuring how they are doing so that we can do something to help them. We stay with them through high school and college. Canada claims that this will cost $5000 per child above what we already spend on education. Right now, Canada pointed out that the average cost per child is $30,000 per year, but in some places it is $60,000 to over $100,000. He described this to argue that, when put in perspective, this $5000 is not that much. “People scoff at this modest investment, but we don’t seem to worry that the cost of incarceration is so much more.”
“We see an American tragedy unfolding, and those of us in education are part of the problem.” Canada used a couple of illustrations to explain that we see problems elsewhere and don’t think they will impact us. Perhaps it is a problem in another part of the country or with a different demographic. Yet, Canada argued that this education problem “is an American problem.” He saw a report that 75% of American kids can’t qualify for the military. 30% of the kids don’t graduate high school. 30% can’t pass the entrance exam. 27% are so obese that they can’t qualify. “We let this happen to our kids.”
Canada then went on to explain a few things that need to change.
1. “If you are a teacher and you can’t teach, you should probably find another job.” and “If you are a barber and you can’t cut hear, get another job.”
2. Canada argued that we should expect of each kid what we would or do expect of our own. If we want our kids to graduate high school and go to college, what about having that goal for every kid? “When you walk around Harlem, almost every kid in my zone goes to college, ” Canada explained. “This is about normative behavior.”
3. “Let’s stop teaching to the middle and start teaching to the student.”
4. “We need to hold everyone accountable for the work they do, and we need to use real data. While this is controversial for some, this is how you improve things in education.”
5. Kevin ended his talk by reciting one of his poems, “Don’t Blame Me”, a poem that calls us to take responsibility and take action to address this crisis in education…not to piont the finger at someone else, but to do something.