Category Archives: Closing Achievement Gaps

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!

Contact us for more information.

Baltimore on the Brink

A Tale of Too Many Cities

In the past two weeks I’ve traveled throughout the east coast, and had scores of conversations with black, white, and brown people – including those eager to share and those who seem to feel that by ignoring or minimizing this “last incident,” it may somehow disappear or at least not reach their own geographical or psychological domicile. Yet far from disappearing, Baltimore is yet another milestone in a road dotted with flashing lights warning of the deeper realities we must collectively face… or be faced with.

In many ways Baltimore is similar to Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, South Carolina and so many of our cities recently in the news. In each case we have seen the familiar pattern of police brutality against minorities, the poor, the homeless and/or mentally ill members of our citizenry. In each case the scenes are captured and the stories told by otherwise helpless passersby armed only with their cell phones.

What is happening in Baltimore is also significantly different. It’s true that the collective outrage and consciousness among those who have been targets of harassment by law enforcement for at least a century has grown to a boiling point. In this way, Freddie Gray begins to mirror Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor in Tunisia, who, after being roughed up by police while he was trying to sell fruit, set himself on fire, igniting uprisings throughout the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring.” In the case of Baltimore, it was those who survived Freddie Gray who set parts of the city ablaze. This did not lead to fires encompassing the east coast or cities throughout the nation, because the heat was turned down by unusual, swift and decisive actions of State Attorney, Marilyn Mosby. Yet the embers of human anger and frustration in Baltimore are smoldering, not extinguished; and the dynamics and lessons from this city should be widely understood and quickly acted upon by leaders throughout the country.

Living on the Edge of Hope

This past year we have seen numerous incidents of innocent victims dying at the hands of those hired to protect them. Yet the reaction on the streets of Baltimore was very different than what we witnessed in, say, New York after a grand jury cleared the officers involved in killing unarmed Eric Garner by strangulation. The statistics between the two cities tell much of the story.

Among racial and ethnic groups in New York, Hispanics recorded the highest poverty rate (26 percent), followed by Asians (25 percent), blacks (21.7 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (15.2 percent). Noncitizens had a higher rate (27.8 percent) than native-born (19.9 percent) and naturalized citizens (17.8 percent). Not only is there less diversity among the poor in Baltimore than in New York, but the overall poverty rate in Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, is roughly double that of either Baltimore or New York. Moreover Sandtown and neighboring Harlem Park, experience about double the shootings, unemployment, and homicides than Baltimore City at large. These neighborhoods also have more residents in jails and prisons than any other neighborhood in the state of MD, with an annual cost of $17 million for incarceration alone, according to the New York Times. In short, as one young man in Baltimore shared, “It doesn’t matter what we do, there’s no hope for us here.”

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, that of the nine fighting grounds in which one might do battle, the most dangerous one was that in which the vanquished had no hope for escape, for their desperation would lead to unpredictable and incalculably deadly actions. Many of the residents of Baltimore in general, and Sandtown and Harlem Park in particular, feel hopeless and helpless in their situation. Pour a heavy and constant dose of injustice into the mix and the results are explosive.

One Man’s Gangster is Another Woman’s Youngster

It is difficult to find any black man in Baltimore who hasn’t been mistreated by local police. The abuse of Baltimore residents derives in part from the fear, anger and contempt by those outside of the neighborhoods who come to police the people within them. With less than 9% of the policing staff residing locally, many bring with them preconceived ideas about those they are hired to protect: They are often seen as the enemy, or at least unworthy of dignified treatment.

The unarmed and petite Baltimore mom, Toya Graham, demonstrated, by contrast, the extent to which a truly caring adult can intervene, even physically as she did with her own son, in a successful attempt to keep him out of trouble. While many question her approach of pushing and hitting her 16-year-old to keep him from participating in rioting, the point is that she was willing to do what it took to protect her child, and that even her use of force was understood to be out of concern for her son’s well-being. Had she not intervened, this easily swayed teenager would likely have been characterized by those who don’t know him as a hardened “thug” worthy of tasing and worse. Although the “Mother of the Year” title bestowed upon Toya by the New York Post might well be replaced with “Violent Father” had she been the boy’s dad, the larger point is that relationships rule.

Whether we look at research on managers who gain greater results with employees using concern for them vs. authority over them as motivator; how leaders in the army leverage loyalty more successfully than coercion in getting results; the outcomes lead us in the same direction. Decades of successful community policing, likewise, bear this point out for authorities as well: relationships are the key to getting desired outcomes with the least possible use of force and risk to all involved.

The Truck Stops Here

Morally-rooted, courageous and decisive action among leaders seems to be increasingly rare, as politicians in particular balance myriad interests and a constant focus on increasing their funding streams. Longing for the days of Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” motto in action, thousands turned their planned protests to joyous celebration upon hearing the unequivocal statement of criminal charges against 6 police officers by Maryland State Attorney, Marilyn Mosby only a day after receiving the results of an internal police investigation and the official autopsy report. Mosby minced no words in proclaiming that five stops of the vehicle in question left ample time and opportunity to tend to the needs of the man these officers had shackled and taken for “a ride.” As one young Baltimore man shared, “Just the fact that we have finally been heard and acknowledged was huge for me!”

While a mainly sympathetic white onlooker stated “The charges seem to be delivered very quickly,” and Gene Ryan, President of the Fraternal Order of Police, called it an “egregious rush to judgment,” the charges sent a clear message that regardless of race (three of the six officers charged are black including Ceasar Goodson, who faces the most serious charge of second degree murder), it’s a new day in Baltimore: justice will be served. One might also ask how long it would take to charge Freddie Gray, you, me, or any other potential suspect for a crime committed. For that matter what crime had Freddie Gray actually committed?

Ms. Mosby’s promise to the family that “no one is above the law,” and that “(She) would pursue justice on their behalf,” is heartening. Yet Mosby’s battle ahead is taking place within the “legal system” which is unfortunately not the same as the “justice system,” and the odds are stacked against her winning. Luckily Ms. Mosby has taken on such odds before and won, beating out her opponent, incumbent Gregg Bernstein, for this position only months ago, although he outspent her 3 to 1.

Horizons of Hope, or Despair and Destruction?

One might think that the lessons above would drive local and state leaders, the Fraternal Order of Police and vanquished political opponents to some common understandings that also governed a way forward for our new Attorney General, Loretta Lynch; President Obama, and business and civic leaders throughout the nation. Transparency and justice regardless of race, creed, color or economics is bad for dictators, but it’s good business for democracies; real and accessible economic and educational opportunities foster hope and collective well-being while their absence breeds despair and destruction; relationships trump force every day of the week and in almost any context; courageous leadership fosters confidence and positive action, and in tandem with the rest of these lessons, can turn riotous outbreaks into joyous celebrations in anticipation of a brighter future.

Yet things may have to get worse before they get better. If the Baltimore police officers are not convicted, it is likely the combustible forces of hopelessness, despair and rage will lead to outcomes that no one would like to see unfold and few of us would condone. Moreover, brush fires can become wild fires as we’ve seen throughout history and the world, including in the USA (think Boston Tea Party; Rosa Parks).

Under-girding the inequities and injustice we experience is a flawed zero-sum game paradigm that states someone has to lose while someone else wins at their expense. However, research of enlightened practice by my coauthor, Pedro Noguera and I has shown just the opposite is true. In the long-run, suspending the win-lose mental model allows for a more powerful understanding, that we can all win, and that being surrounded by a society filled with winners creates prosperity and quality of life for everyone. The words of Martin Luther King, “We are all inextricably bound to one another,” are actually accurate in very practical terms, which I’ll take up in another posting.

For now, let’s hope for an enlightened review of the fundamental lessons coming from Baltimore, and actions aligned with those lessons. If this is the outcome, America will experience an exciting new dawning.

Foreword to Excellence Through Equity by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Foreword to Excellence Through Equity

by Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Having helped to act as a catalyst and to shepherd one of the world’s few peaceful transitions from a colonial occupation to a democratically elected president, I can say that a movement is born out of the convergence of dire conditions, a powerful idea, and people committed to carrying out that idea. This landmark book, edited by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, may be a similar catalyst to such a movement. Complete with a bold and compelling vision, cases of success throughout the world, and a guide to action for the reader, Excellence Through Equity offers a powerful way forward and new hope for millions of children.

The timing for this book is on target, as America may be reaching a breaking point. Some of the signs—growing economic disparities, segregated housing, police brutality, and inequitable education for children—are well known to me and all South Africans who suffered 4 decades of apartheid. Unlike America, the inequities and brutality endured by our people were systematic and officially state-sanctioned. Yet America’s challenges may still feel similar to the children, families, and communities that endure them. Looking from afar at cities throughout America like Ferguson, Missouri, it would seem so.

When a growing number of a country’s citizenry feel overwhelmed, disenfranchised, angry, or hopeless, the possible roads forward are finite and known. Overall economic decline due to neglect of infrastructure and support for the common good is one; violent struggle for power is another. We in South Africa, however, chose a road less travelled. Probably unique in the history of colonialism, White settlers voluntarily gave up their monopoly of political power. The final transfer of power was remarkably peaceful; it is often described as a “miracle” because many thought that South Africa would erupt into violent civil war.

The challenges in choosing the road to higher moral ground and prosperity for all are many. They include confronting old zero sum game thinking in which someone must lose. Blankstein and Noguera tackle this head on and provide a more compelling reality in evidence in schools throughout the world. It more closely aligns with our own most highly held tradition of Ubuntu: “I am because you are.” This view of a united community was a saving grace in South Africa.

Ubuntu was drawn on by our first popularly elected president, Nelson Mandela, and served as an underpinning of our work in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which we ourselves were wounded healers of our people. We attempted to repair the gap between the races by getting the ugly truth of the apartheid regime and of the liberation movements out into the open, granting amnesty even to the worst offenders, and then seeking to find ways of reconciling the conflicting parties. We realized that everyone in the room—from the most powerful leader, to the most victimized young person—had much to learn, and we modeled an environment of equity and equality. We made sure when we had these public hearings that even the furniture layout demonstrated this. We didn’t sit on a platform higher than, but we deliberately sat on a level with the victims.

Fortifying this reality of being stronger united than separated similarly, the authors of this book demonstrate in case after case how every student advances when learning in an equitable system. In such an environment, everyone learns and each person counts.

Allowing for this brighter reality in which all of God’s rainbow children succeed within an equitable environment alarms those who fear for the loss of resources for their own child. Blankstein and Noguera rise to the challenge and, along with their coauthors, offer up schools, districts, and even nations that have discovered a more powerful secret: when done well, school communities focused on equity actually better educate wealthy majority students as well as those who are less privileged!

Following one’s moral compass to an enlightened but less travelled road to success takes courage. Even if the mind is captured by a glorious vision that the heart is morally compelled to pursue, the body will need specific direction and courage to make the journey successfully in the face of many obstacles. Equity Through Excellence takes this into consideration, spotlighting how pioneers in this venture have successfully moved forward, and framing all of this in 5 Principles of Courageous Leadership.

In their section on “Achieving Excellence Through Equity for Every Student,” Blankstein and Noguera share an insight that was also critical to our successful transition of power: We didn’t struggle in order just to change the complexion of those who sit in the Union buildings; it was to change the quality of our community and society. We wanted to see a society that was a compassionate society, a caring society, a society where you might not necessarily be madly rich, but you knew that you counted. Excellence Through Equity provides direction for those bent on creating such a society for generations to come. Letting go of a system of winners and losers in favor of what is proposed in this book is a courageous leap forward that we all must take together. Let this bold, practical book be a guide; and may you travel into this new exciting vista, in which every child can succeed, with Godspeed.

God bless you.

Copyright © 2015 by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera.