I Would Be Thrilled if Geoffrey Canada Were the Richest Man in the United States
On Thursday, I was fortunate to participate on a panel to discuss solutions to some of the failings of the U.S. public education system. The panel, which included Russell Grammer, the director of Prodigy Leadership Academy, Anthony Thompson, president and CEO of KWAME Building Group, Inc., and Carter Ward, the executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, spoke after a screening of Waiting for “Superman,” a documentary about children trying to escape failing traditional public schools for higher-performing charter schools.
I am optimistic about the future of K–12 education, because certain schools and education innovators have proven that what researchers and education administrators thought was impossible is, in fact, not.
For example, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools have been especially effective in reducing, if not eliminating, the achievement gap:
Students in at least half the KIPP schools Mathematica studied gained the equivalent of 1.2 years in mathematics and 0.9 years in reading three years after enrolling. The results effectively cut the racial achievement gap in half.
Another example of what is possible are the incredible gains made in Harlem, N.Y., by educational advocate Geoffrey Canada. He chose to attempt to “change the odds” of low income children in central Harlem — an area the New York Times reported had a poverty rate of more than 60 percent, and where three quarters of students were scoring below grade level on state aptitude tests. Today, we know Canada’s education nonprofit as the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).
HCZ reports that 90 percent of its high school seniors were accepted into college this past year, and that those students received more than $6 million in scholarships and grants. HCZ also reports that of the four-year-olds that entered one of its programs, nearly one in five were initially achieving educational scores so low that they were classified as “delayed.” By the end of one year in the HCZ program, none of those students were delayed, and the percentage of students in that class that were classified as “advanced” had doubled, to more than 40 percent.
Canada was featured extensively in Waiting for “Superman.” Besides showing the struggles of students, the documentary’s broader message is about the big failures of traditional public education — including rapidly increasing education costs with no change in student academic achievement, the extreme difficulty of firing an incompetent teacher, and the seemingly endless bureaucracy that impedes educational innovation. The documentary’s strength is that it juxtaposes the flat-lining of student academic achievement in traditional public schools with what education innovators, like Canada, have been able to accomplish.
After watching the movie, the panelists took questions from audience members. About halfway through, Chris Guinther, the president of the Missouri National Education Association (the state’s largest teacher union), stood up to rail against the movie. I could write a series of blog posts responding to the statements she made — but space is limited, and you, reader, can only take so much.
I was most disturbed by Guinther’s objection to Canada’s success, because he had, according to her, made money by running the school. Now, after some brief research, I can’t find any indication that Canada has made outsized profits from HCZ, especially because the organization is a nonprofit. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll grant Guinther’s claim that the man who turned around student achievement in one of the most dangerous places in Harlem made a lot of money doing so.
I would be ecstatic if Canada were one of the most wealthy people in the United States. He has unarguably helped some of this country’s neediest children — in an area with extremely high foster care rates — gain an appreciation and mastery of education. I am more excited about Canada potentially reaping financial rewards for his risk taking and success than I am for almost anyone else. Why would money invalidate the success of the HCZ program? If the only criticism of Canada and his work encouraging low-performing Harlem children to succeed academically is that he might be making more than the average teacher, then that’s really no criticism at all.
In fact, I wish there were more potential for great rewards for people who work hard and take risks to vastly improve K–12 education. That might encourage more people to work to solve some of the shortcomings we are seeing in U.S. schools.
The real scandal is that, although educational innovators can make great strides and perhaps be begrudged for their relative financial success, teachers who fail their students can be nearly impossible to fire. For example, New York City’s school system has managed to fire only three teachers during the past two years. Or, as Waiting for “Superman” director David Guggenheim illustrated, in Illinois, only one in every 2,500 teachers lose their credentials, while the disbarment rate for Illinois lawyers is roughly one out of 100. Florida has difficulties firing bad teachers, too. Missouri, at least, appears to have a slightly higher rate — about 2 percent.