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(Applause) So this is why I'm excited but I'm angry. This year, there are going to be millions of our children that we're going to needlessly lose, that we could -- right now, we could save them all. You saw the quality of the educators who were here. Do not tell me they could not reach those kids and save them. I know they could. It is absolutely possible. Why haven't we fixed this? Those of us in education have held on to a business plan that we don't care how many millions of young people fail, we're going to continue to do the same thing that didn't work, and nobody is getting crazy about it -- right? -- enough to say, "Enough is enough." So here's a business plan that simply does not make any sense.
You know, I grew up in the inner city, and there were kids who were failing in schools 56 years ago when I first went to school, and those schools are still lousy today, 56 years later. And you know something about a lousy school? It's not like a bottle of wine. Right? (Laughter) Where you say, like, '87 was like a good year, right? That's now how this thing -- I mean, every single year, it's still the same approach, right? One size fits all, if you get it, fine, and if you don't, tough luck. Just tough luck. Why haven't we allowed innovation to happen? Do not tell me we can't do better than this.
Look, you go into a place that's failed kids for 50 years, and you say, "So what's the plan?" And they say, "We'll, we're going to do what we did last year this year." What kind of business model is that? Banks used to open and operate between 10 and 3. They operated 10 to 3. They were closed for lunch hour. Now, who can bank between 10 and 3? The unemployed. They don't need banks. They got no money in the banks. Who created that business model? Right? And it went on for decades. You know why? Because they didn't care. It wasn't about the customers. It was about bankers. They created something that worked for them. How could you go to the bank when you were at work? It didn't matter. And they don't care whether or not Geoff is upset he can't go to the bank. Go find another bank. They all operate the same way. Right? Now, one day, some crazy banker had an idea. Maybe we should keep the bank open when people come home from work. They might like that. What about a Saturday? What about introducing technology?
Now look, I'm a technology fan, but I have to admit to you all I'm a little old. So I was a little slow, and I did not trust technology, and when they first came out with those new contraptions, these tellers that you put in a card and they give you money, I was like, "There's no way that machine is going to count that money right. I am never using that, right?"
So technology has changed. Things have changed. Yet not in education. Why? Why is it that when we had rotary phones, when we were having folks being crippled by polio, that we were teaching the same way then that we're doing right now? And if you come up with a plan to change things, people consider you radical. They will say the worst things about you. I said one day, well, look, if the science says -- this is science, not me -- that our poorest children lose ground in the summertime -- You see where they are in June and say, okay, they're there. You look at them in September, they've gone down. You say, whoo! So I heard about that in '75 when I was at the Ed School at Harvard. I said, "Oh, wow, this is an important study." Because it suggests we should do something. (Laughter) Every 10 years they reproduce the same study. It says exactly the same thing: Poor kids lose ground in the summertime. The system decides you can't run schools in the summer.
You know, I always wonder, who makes up those rules? For years I went to -- Look, I went the Harvard Ed School. I thought I knew something. They said it was the agrarian calendar, and people had — but let me tell you why that doesn't make sense. I never got that. I never got that, because anyone knows if you farm, you don't plant crops in July and August. You plant them in the spring. So who came up with this idea? Who owns it? Why did we ever do it? Well it just turns out in the 1840s we did have, schools were open all year. They were open all year, because we had a lot of folks who had to work all day. They didn't have any place for their kids to go. It was a perfect place to have schools. So this is not something that is ordained from the education gods.
So why don't we? Why don't we? Because our business has refused to use science. Science. You have Bill Gates coming out and saying, "Look, this works, right? We can do this." How many places in America are going to change? None. None. Okay, yeah, there are two. All right? Yes, there'll be some place, because some folks will do the right thing. As a profession, we have to stop this. The science is clear.
Here's what we know. We know that the problem begins immediately. Right? This idea, zero to three. My wife, Yvonne, and I, we have four kids, three grown ones and a 15-year-old. That's a longer story. (Laughter) With our first kids, we did not know the science about brain development. We didn't know how critical those first three years were. We didn't know what was happening in those young brains. We didn't know the role that language, a stimulus and response, call and response, how important that was in developing those children. We know that now. What are we doing about it? Nothing. Wealthy people know. Educated people know. And their kids have an advantage. Poor people don't know, and we're not doing anything to help them at all. But we know this is critical.
Now, you take pre-kindergarten. We know it's important for kids. Poor kids need that experience. Nope. Lots of places, it doesn't exist. We know health services matter. You know, we provide health services and people are always fussing at me about, you know, because I'm all into accountability and data and all of that good stuff, but we do health services, and I have to raise a lot of money. People used to say when they'd come fund us, "Geoff, why do you provide these health services?" I used to make stuff up. Right? I'd say, "Well, you know a child who has cavities is not going to, uh, be able to study as well." And I had to because I had to raise the money. But now I'm older, and you know what I tell them? You know why I provide kids with those health benefits and the sports and the recreation and the arts? Because I actually like kids. I actually like kids. (Laughter) (Applause)
But when they really get pushy, people really get pushy, I say, "I do it because you do it for your kid." And you've never read a study from MIT that says giving your kid dance instruction is going to help them do algebra better, but you will give that kid dance instruction, and you will be thrilled that that kid wants to do dance instruction, and it will make your day. And why shouldn't poor kids have the same opportunity? It's the floor for these children. (Applause)
So here's the other thing. I'm a tester guy. I believe you need data, you need information, because you work at something, you think it's working, and you find out it's not working. I mean, you're educators. You work, you say, you think you've got it, great, no? And you find out they didn't get it. But here's the problem with testing. The testing that we do -- we're going to have our test in New York next week — is in April. You know when we're going to get the results back? Maybe July, maybe June. And the results have great data. They'll tell you Raheem really struggled, couldn't do two-digit multiplication -- so great data, but you're getting it back after school is over. And so, what do you do? You go on vacation. (Laughter) You come back from vacation. Now you've got all of this test data from last year. You don't look at it. Why would you look at it? You're going to go and teach this year. So how much money did we just spend on all of that? Billions and billions of dollars for data that it's too late to use. I need that data in September. I need that data in November. I need to know you're struggling, and I need to know whether or not what I did corrected that. I need to know that this week. I don't need to know that at the end of the year when it's too late.
Because in my older years, I've become somewhat of a clairvoyant. I can predict school scores. You take me to any school. I'm really good at inner city schools that are struggling. And you tell me last year 48 percent of those kids were on grade level. And I say, "Okay, what's the plan, what did we do from last year to this year?" You say, "We're doing the same thing." I'm going to make a prediction. (Laughter) This year, somewhere between 44 and 52 percent of those kids will be on grade level. And I will be right every single time.
So we're spending all of this money, but we're getting what? Teachers need real information right now about what's happening to their kids. The high stakes is today, because you can do something about it.
So here's the other issue that I just think we've got to be concerned about. We can't stifle innovation in our business. We have to innovate. And people in our business get mad about innovation. They get angry if you do something different. If you try something new, people are always like, "Ooh, charter schools." Hey, let's try some stuff. Let's see. This stuff hasn't worked for 55 years. Let's try something different. And here's the rub. Some of it's not going to work. You know, people tell me, "Yeah, those charter schools, a lot of them don't work." A lot of them don't. They should be closed. I mean, I really believe they should be closed. But we can't confuse figuring out the science and things not working with we shouldn't therefore do anything. Right? Because that's not the way the world works.
If you think about technology, imagine if that's how we thought about technology. Every time something didn't work, we just threw in the towel and said, "Let's forget it." Right? You know, they convinced me. I'm sure some of you were like me -- the latest and greatest thing, the PalmPilot. They told me, "Geoff, if you get this PalmPilot you'll never need another thing." That thing lasted all of three weeks. It was over. I was so disgusted I spent my money on this thing. Did anybody stop inventing? Not a person. Not a soul. The folks went out there. They kept inventing. The fact that you have failure, that shouldn't stop you from pushing the science forward.
Our job as educators, there's some stuff we know that we can do. And we've got to do better. The evaluation, we have to start with kids earlier, we have to make sure that we provide the support to young people. We've got to give them all of these opportunities. So that we have to do. But this innovation issue, this idea that we've got to keep innovating until we really nail this science down is something that is absolutely critical.
And this is something, by the way, that I think is going to be a challenge for our entire field. America cannot wait another 50 years to get this right. We have run out of time. I don't know about a fiscal cliff, but I know there's an educational cliff that we are walking over right this very second, and if we allow folks to continue this foolishness about saying we can't afford this — So Bill Gates says it's going to cost five billion dollars. What is five billion dollars to the United States? What did we spend in Afghanistan this year? How many trillions? (Applause)
When the country cares about something, we'll spend a trillion dollars without blinking an eye. When the safety of America is threatened, we will spend any amount of money. The real safety of our nation is preparing this next generation so that they can take our place and be the leaders of the world when it comes to thinking and technology and democracy and all that stuff we care about. I dare say it's a pittance, what it would require for us to really begin to solve some of these problems.
Geoffrey Canada: Well, you know, John, 100 percent of our kids graduated high school last year in my school. A hundred percent of them went to college. This year's seniors will have 100 percent graduating high school. Last I heard we had 93 percent accepted to college. We'd better get that other seven percent. So that's just how this goes. (Applause)
GC: Well, you know, one of the bad problems we have in this country is these kids, the same kids, these same vulnerable kids, when you get them in school, they drop out in record numbers. And so we've figured out that you've got to really design a network of support for these kids that in many ways mimics what a good parent does. They harass you, right? They call you, they say, "I want to see your grades. How'd you do on that last test? What are you talking about that you want to leave school? And you're not coming back here." So a bunch of my kids know you can't come back to Harlem because Geoff is looking for you. They're like, "I really can't come back." No. You'd better stay in school. But I'm not kidding about some of this, and it gets a little bit to the grit issue. When kids know that you refuse to let them fail, it puts a different pressure on them, and they don't give up as easy. So sometimes they don't have it inside, and they're, like, "You know, I don't want to do this, but I know my mother's going to be mad." Well, that matters to kids, and it helps get them through. We try to create a set of strategies that gets them tutoring and help and support, but also a set of encouragements that say to them, "You can do it. It is going to be hard, but we refuse to let you fail."
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Why, why, why does our education system look so similar to the way it did 50 years ago? Millions of students were failing then, as they are now -- and it’s because we’re clinging to a business model that clearly doesn’t work. Education advocate Geoffrey Canada dares the system to look at the data, think about the customers and make systematic shifts in order to help greater numbers of kids excel.
Geoffrey Canada has spent decades as head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which supports kids from birth through college in order to break the cycle of poverty. Full bio »