AASA keynote: Focus on children, or risk nation’s status

We need to rethink our priorities as a nation, Canada said.
We need to rethink our priorities as a nation, Canada said.

Referring to the significant challenges facing public education today as a crisis that threatens the nation’s status as a global leader, educational trailblazer Geoffrey Canada urged school leaders to push for more funding and do “whatever it takes” to make sure all students succeed.

“I am convinced that if our country continues to treat its children the way it has, we will no longer remain a world superpower,” Canada said in a Feb. 12 keynote speech at the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education in Phoenix. “In fact, we won’t even be in the top 10.”

Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a project that the New York Times described as “one of the most ambitious social-service experiments of our time.”

The nonprofit program, which relies on grants and donations, follows children in a 97-block area of Harlem from birth through college, providing a broad range of educational and social services to ensure that its high-risk participants graduate with the skills they’ll need to thrive in a global economy.

One of the project’s main focal areas is to rebuild the community, getting adults engaged and transforming the “street” culture that says it’s not cool for students to achieve. Another is to intervene early in children’s lives to prevent developmental delays.

“We know from the start these kids are at risk” of entering school already behind grade level, Canada said. So, “why do we wait until they’re five before we intervene?”

One of the services the Harlem Children’s Zone provides is a pre-K program that gets kids ready to enter kindergarten. Classes have a child-to-adult ratio of 4 to 1; they teach English, Spanish, and French, and they run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are three of these pre-kindergarten sites, serving 200 children in all—and only one of these children has ever failed to enter kindergarten achieving at grade level, Canada said.

Providing such an extensive net of social and educational services costs money, and budgets are often a barrier to progress, Canada acknowledged. But he challenged policy makers to get their priorities straight if they care at all about the nation’s future.

“You hear things like: We don’t have the money” to fund efforts like the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada said. His response to that is: “What? We’re fighting two wars, but we don’t have the money for America’s future?”

Global competitiveness “has so changed the nature of our economy that you are not going to get a job” unless you graduate from high school, Canada said. He said the unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is now over 50 percent—and for African Americans, it’s 69 percent.

China is investing heavily in education, he warned, adding: “They understand the new struggle for global dominance is no longer [based on] how many nuclear weapons you have—it’s how many engineers you’re producing.”

The success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has led President Obama to include $210 million in his 2011 budget proposal for a new federal initiative called “Promise Neighborhoods,” which would replicate the project in other communities.

Some critics of the Harlem Children’s Zone say it isn’t realistically scalable or sustainable as a model for education reform. Canada dismissed such criticism by pointing out how much the United States spends on its prison system.

In 1973, he said, the nation incarcerated 300,000 people per year. Today, that figure has exploded to 2.4 million per year.

“We lock up more people per capita than any other nation,” Canada said, noting that the U.S. spends $35,000 to $40,000 per year for each incarcerated person. “How is it that we’re allowed to spend huge amounts of money on children after they’ve failed—and not before?”

He added: “That is not sustainable as a plan.”

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