Failure Is Not an Option™ in 2018!

When I asked 13-year-old Angie why she had recently joined the Latin Kings gang on Chicago’s South Side, she looked at me like I wasn’t too bright, but entertained the question anyway. ”Why wouldn’t I join?! My uncle is on the gang, my friends are in it and so is my boyfriend,” she said nodding toward another teenager watching our exchange from about 15 feet away. Shortly after I left with Rudy Espinosa, a Boys and Girls club Youth worker hired to quell gang violence and reclaim gang members, the rival Deuces gang drove by and took the life of Angie’s boyfriend.

This set off a series of reprisals back and forth between the gangs. My friend Rudy negotiated a truce allowing him to create a silver lining to this tragedy when he later saw Angie sobbing at the funeral. “Angie, I’m really sorry about your boyfriend; he was a friend of mine too. But this is what you’ve signed up for by being in the gang – and I can help you get out.” Soon after, Angie took Rudy’s advice and helping hand of support to leave the gang.

Crisis as Opportunity in 2018

After growing up in non-traditional settings (group homes, foster care, and with grandma); getting to college on an EOP Scholarship; founding and running Solution Tree and the HOPE Foundation; and authoring 18 books (the most recent being Excellence through Equity with Pedro Noguera), I can attest to the importance of seeing crisis as an opportunity. This is exemplified in how Rudy provided Angie both a mirror to see the reality of her situation, and a supportive, caring alternative for her to pursue.

If last year is any indicator, 2018 is sure to provide us all great deal of opportunity to work through crisis! This New Year’s message is about sorting through and making meaning of the cacophony of change underway, seeing what’s likely to come next, and developing the clarity and courage to move forward, or as Winston Churchill stated: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going!”

Demographics Don’t Lie…

The fact is that in 2015 America hit a watershed in its school population which has an impact every school leader, teacher, and school community in the Nation. For the first time in history, the majority of America’s students were poor and eligible for free and reduced lunch. (The majority of our students also were not classified as Caucasian.) Meanwhile, the wealthiest 80 people in the world held more financial assets then the bottom ½ of the entire world; that’s 3.5 billion people combined. Likewise in America, the top 1% of the population holds more wealth than the bottom 95% combined. The implications for educating our children and the way to achieve Excellence through Equity will be the topic of future postings.

…but Politicians Often Do Lie

The many challenges faced by those who are in most need of help will become even greater due to the combination of greed and callousness that has guided many of our elected officials to challenge the need for Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, Citizenship for Dreamers, and much more. While USA rankings in international tests like the PISA continue to slip, our elected officials offer not support, as Rudy had to Angie, but a heavier load of tests, accountability, public humiliation and fallacies around the wonders of School Choice and Private Education vs. Public Education. Yet the one bastion of hope for our collective future is not a patchwork of unregulated and unreliably administered and untested private schools, but a strong commitment to every child receiving a high-quality public education.

What we have learned is that those who know the least about U.S. public education are often those who have the most authority over the policies that guide it. This is now codified by the ironic choice of our Secretary of Education who has never held a single job related to the enterprise of education over which she presides. Ms. Devos has instead declared the traditional education system “a dead end.” This is part of a false narrative around public schools that is setting the stage for the dismantling of them and the diversion of public school funding to private operators.
The narrative is that public schools are failing, and therefore need to be taken over by private and/or regulatory agencies. This story runs counter to the facts – e.g. Our schools have graduated a higher percent of students each year in the past decade than at any time in history; the number of low-income-family students taking the AP exams has gone up more than 500% from 2003-2016 as well. If your income grew at this rate, you’d take your boss to dinner! What we see instead is pundits challenging the validity of graduation rates, and an ESSA regulation that will increase the cost of taking the AP exams starting next year. Poor students will again bear the brunt of public policy.

Changing the Narrative

After helping to launch the PLC movement and running Solution Tree for 12 years, I asked a group of thought leaders from throughout the country for advise on next steps. Ed Zigler, Head Start Founder, suggested we have two challenges in education:

  1. We need to improve our performance;
  2. We aren’t as bad as the rhetoric indicates and need to improve our messaging.

I dedicated to #1 for the past 30 years and realize that it has been a heavier lift than necessary due to the second challenge: we don’t own our narrative about our profession. Therefore, we are swimming upstream. As support for our work often isn’t appreciated, teachers leave the profession (see Ed Week: Teachers Are Quitting Because They’re Dissatisfied. That’s a Crisis, Scholars Say), states like PA and IL are virtually defunding public schools, and others like NJ take over their urban districts and yet fail to improve these schools with impunity.

While educators often agree on the dynamics underway the larger public gets a different message. Educators don’t have a “Waiting for Superman” film, for example. Failing schools are usually an educational manifestation of inequities in our society: they do not exist in wealthy communities. Likewise, we find very few successful schools in economically deprived areas, and when we do we should learn from them. Instead, the exceptional poor but successful school is spuriously used as “exhibit A” in painting all other failing schools as being due to inept or uncaring professionals. We often treat the struggling and impoverished school by defunding it or threatened takeover, as though this will now motivate the mythical lazy and unwilling people who work within those schools. What these schools need instead is the same kind of helping hand Rudy extended to Angie, and that the VA DOE has extended to Petersburg Schools.

Courage to Act

As leaders and defenders of our nation’s children, we must move toward the danger, else it will move toward us and prevail. I’ve written a fair amount about Courage, recently with Pedro Noguera and in the Blogpost following Nelson Mandela’s passing. Over the coming weeks, we will share specific examples of professionals at all levels acting courageously to take collective responsibility for the success of all children!

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