Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone was featured in the controversial film, “Waiting for Superman,” (controversial over what many viewers believe to be an anti-teachers’ union stance) is a powerful and persuasive speaker on the topic of changing education. I had the great fortune of hearing him today at a luncheon sponsored by The Seattle Foundation.
What I most appreciated was his assessment, or rather, his protest against wrongheaded and unjust priorities in this country. Here’s my summary of how Canada described our current situation. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his numbers and I believe that some of his arguments hold up better in a speech than in writing, where they can be more closely examined, but this doesn’t change the crisis situation he described. “We still measure how many of our young people graduate from high school,” when graduating from high school is not an earthshaking achievement or predictor of future prosperity. “Students of color will be the majority for the nation in 20 years. Do we think our failed investment strategy will keep us on top? We have thought that building jails is better than investing in young people! Of African American male dropouts, 21% will be in jail and 67% will be unemployed. What country has a such a high percentage of males unemployed? We have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth, much worse than North Korea. We’re the only country that has decided on the strategy that we’re not going to educate our young people; instead, we’re going to build jails. It costs $37,000 a year to incarcerate someone with almost no chance of rehabilitation; for an investment of only $5,000 a kid, we expect them to learn to read, write, think, and become physically fit. But when you talk about saving kids, suddenly money becomes an issue.”
Canada went on to describe a study commissioned by the armed forces and signed by high-ranking retired officers, which showed that “75% of young people in America can’t qualify for the military. The military is not seen as a high mark, but there is no plan to make things better.” He went on to share the elements of his plan, which include paying teachers more, removing poor teachers, and providing wrap-around programs from birth through school years for students whose families are living at the poverty level.
Will Canada’s talk lead to any changes in the system? There’s no way to predict, but he certainly got 1,200 people fired up today.