President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone
“A Community-Based Model for Saving Children”
Anthony Marx, president of Amherst: We have a great treat, a pleasure and an honor. Geoffrey Canada cares not only for his own four children but for every child in our country. Nearly 10,000 of those children and their families are aided by the Harlem Children’s Zone, of which Canada has been president and CEO since 1990. The Harlem Children’s Zone uses a multi-faceted approach to educate Harlem’s youth, prevent violence and revitalize the community. Canada has gone from the South Bronx to Bowdoin College and then to Harvard Graduate School of Education where he earned a master’s degree. He directed a private day school for troubled students in Boston before returning to New York City in 1983 to lead the program that has now grown into the Harlem Children’s Zone. His acclaimed, and really, unbelievingly amazing books — which I urge you to read, they will move you and change you — include Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America and Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America. That one I’m going to give my son. He has used his third degree black belt not to inflict violence, but to prevent it, founding the Chang Mu Kwan Martial Arts School to teach Tae Kwon Do and conflict resolution. His honors are numerous, and I will get to embarrass him throughout the weekend as best I can.
But to start, let me just say, the world is full of people who speak eloquently about solving depressing social problems of the day. And the world is too full of people who say, ‘If I cannot solve the entire global problem, I shouldn’t do anything.’ Geoff Canada is neither. He has said, ‘We have an obligation to do what we can, where we can.’ He has made not only a huge difference in the neighborhood, that it seems like my life has circled around and many lives have circled around, and in doing so has demonstrated to policy wonks and pessimists throughout the country that the possibilities of change are real. That is an unbelievable lesson in a cynical society in the 21st century.
Join me in welcoming Geoff Canada.
Canada: Thank you very much. Good evening, everybody. Quiet, quiet. That’s good. It’s just because I’m from Bowdoin. That’s all right, I know that. But we’re going to work on that whole piece.
I’m very excited to be here. It’s a great weekend. I have to tell you it’s been quite an extraordinary year for me and my organization. We’ve done 60 Minutes twice in the last four months. If you’re in my business and you’re trying to get a message out to America, 60 Minutes is the sort of place. You’ve got about 25 million people looking for really hard information on 60 Minutes. Can I just say this about 60 Minutes? I was a little ambivalent about doing 60 Minutes because I grew up at a time when 60 Minutes first started. 60 Minutes had the same format. Some underhanded, conniving, double-dealing scoundrel would end up on 60 Minutes, and they’d be sitting there talking to Ed Wallace. You’d be sitting there knowing they’re lying and at some point Ed Wallace would whip out the document and would say, ‘Is that your signature right there?’ And you’d just sit there and say, ‘Why did that idiot go on 60 Minutes? It’s the same format every week!’ So I’m on 60 Minutes and I’m really sweating. I’m waiting. I’ve seen this before. Luckily, it turned out to be fine. So I thought, if you really have a message for America, and you want to get that message out there, 60 Minutes is the thing to do. I was wrong.
If you have a message and you want to get your message out there, you know what show you need to be on? Oprah! You’ve got to get on Oprah! Look, I was sleeping [about] Oprah. I know Oprah — I mean, I don’t know Oprah, but I know who Oprah is. But I didn’t really know who Oprah was. So I get the call: Geoff, Oprah wants you to come on the show. I said fine. I get a lot of calls, going to a lot of shows. So I’m sitting around the table with my family, as I do, and say, ‘Next week I’m going to Chicago.’
‘You have tickets?’
‘Tickets? You need tickets to go on Oprah?’
‘You didn’t ask for tickets? You’ve got to get me tickets!’
So I called my communications guy. I said, ‘Marty, can we get tickets?’ So Oprah does the worst thing possible — she gives me seven tickets. Now look, if Oprah gave me two tickets, that’s my wife and my mother. Seven? Everybody thinks they’re in the top seven, so it’s my job now to dampen down these expectations. I start knocking them off in what I would consider to be a realistic way. My oldest son, he’s a lawyer and just made partner. This is like a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and I say, ‘Gerry, I know you just made partner and you can’t go to Chicago.’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to Oprah.’ You’re going to Oprah?
My next son, he’s my hip-hop son. I know some of you are older, and young people just excuse me for a second, 10 years ago when I was getting dressed in the morning and pulling up my pants, he was pulling his pants down. It’s that son. I say to my son, Bruce, ‘I know you’re not going. You don’t want to go to Oprah.’ ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be at Oprah!’ So there we go.
We fly to Chicago. Oprah sends the limo, the whole scene. We’re in the limo and just as we’re getting ready to go into her production company, my mother and my daughter — my oldest daughter — they start telling me all of the things about Oprah I don’t know. They worry about me, they know how I am. ‘You know, Oprah has a germ thing. Do not go grabbing Oprah’s hands. She does not like that.’ I said, ‘You can’t grab Oprah?’ ‘No! No matter what,’ my mother said, ‘don’t go hugging and kissing on Oprah. She doesn’t like that.’ I said, ‘I can’t hug?’
So now I’m in the blue room, and Oprah’s about to bring me out. I’m back there practicing how I am going to go meet Oprah. I can’t grab her hand and be like, ‘Hey, Oprah!’ I’m thinking I’m just working it out, and I just can’t get this opening together. Then they call me, I go out on the stage and Oprah says, ‘Geoff Canada!’ She grabs both of my hands and I’m thinking, ‘Oprah! The germs! Don’t!’ This is true. I know some of you think I’m exaggerating. But this is true. You can see this on You Tube.
At the end, I’m finishing up and Oprah says, ‘Geoff Canada, I just love you.’ And she grabs my face and she goes to kiss me. I’m pulling back, thinking, ‘Don’t do it, Oprah! Don’t do it!’ That just goes to show you, don’t listen to your family. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
So what was it that I was so anxious to say to America? I am convinced that our country is not only not going to remain a first-rate country, I think that’s over. I think we’re in the top 20. People don’t really know what’s going on in the world today. I don’t think we’re going to be in the top 20 much longer if we continue down the road we are heading with our children. It is stunning to me the country’s youth policy seems to focus on a set of outcomes which will almost guarantee that we will not be able to compete internationally and globally. The problem is most Americans have not faced the fact that this is truly a global economy.
I won’t worry about those of you who are graduating from this institution. Institutions like Amherst are designed—the very design of the institution is to ensure competitiveness at the top levels of the world. I cannot tell you that is the design of education for most children in this country. If anything, it seems that our country is operating under the same set of principles that were in place in the ’30s and the ’40s. If you want to know what is wrong with America—I carry this poor, raggedy piece of paper that I drag around with me still. This was taken from the New York Times, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007, and it says, ‘Law on Young Offenders Causes Rhode Island Furor.’
Here’s the deal in Rhode Island. A nice state, very close to this wonderful state that we’re in. They were running a budget deficit. And as states sometimes do they decided they needed to figure out this deficit. What they decided to do was to look at the cost of incarceration and they found a very interesting fact. It cost about $39,000 to lock up an adult. But it cost $98,000 to lock up a young person. So our great state of Rhode Island made the very, I think, cynical decision, to lower the age that it could lock up young people in adult jails. They actually, to balance the budget in the state of Rhode Island, decided they were going to lock up young people younger so they could save the difference between $39,000 and $98,000. This was a state policy here in the United States of America. It is stunning.
Now it seems to me that no one came up with the idea that at $98,000 a year, maybe we could prevent young people from going into the jails in the first place and save the whole $98,000. The idea was that won’t work. Let’s just simply lock them up in the adult jails and that will be our policy. That was a state policy passed. It created quite a furor. They decided to change the policy. I would love to say they changed the policy because they looked at this policy and said, ‘We can’t do this to our young people. We can’t have, as a policy, that we’re going to lock these young people up with the adults. No, they changed the policy because if you take a 17-year-old and you put them in an adult jail, they cannot survive in the general population. You have to put them in protective custody and protective custody costs $110,000. So now they say this is not saving us any money at all. This is not some isolated incident, in some backwater place, in some town you’ve never heard of. This is right here in New England.
Here’s another nice, wonderful article from the New York Times. I love this title: ‘College Dwellers Outnumber the Imprisoned’. The Times writes stuff like this to answer people like me who run around saying there are more African American men in prison than there are in college. This article made a point of saying — it didn’t mention my name specifically, but it made a point of saying — no, you’re wrong. Technically, if you count all African American men in college, not just the ones living in the dorms, there are more African American men in college than in prison. If you look at dorms, yes, Geoff is right. There are more African Americans in jails than there are in dormitories on college campuses.
That, I guess, we should feel good about. Technically, I’m wrong. Why a country would make a statement like this, as if this is something that proves a point? That we have more of our young people in college, by a slight number, by the way, than in jail, is shocking. How is it that we have a policy in this country that makes an investment in young people that is so meager and inadequate that we lead the world in locking up our citizens? We hit this number, 2 million Americans in jail, and there’s not even anybody close to being second. You can think of the most repressive place in the world, and as a percentage of its population there is no place that locks up more of its citizens than America. That would be bad if it was spread evenly across the country. It would still be a horror. The fact that this is concentrated in poor communities, in particular, communities of color, is a sin.
There might have been a time when we could remain a great country and have this as a policy. That we didn’t actually need all of our young people going to college, getting educated, becoming productive citizens. That time is long past. There are places right now that we’re competing with that understand the global race is no longer based on how much bauxite you have in the ground. It’s not based on how much copper or ore you can find. It’s based on how many doctors, how many scientists, how many engineers can you produce. That is what’s going to drive the global economy.
Our country is not in the running and we don’t have a plan. Maybe one day we had a plan. I used to think we had a plan; it was just above my pay grade. Somebody really understood what was going on. You can’t say, ‘C’mon, Geoff.’ All the people going around saying how much they love America. Well, I’m watching America and I’m saying, ‘Look, the country’s heading in the wrong direction.’
This thing isn’t going well. Everything that I’m seeing all over the country suggests to me that we are in really, really bad shape. It’s one thing to listen to Bill Gates. He says the same thing. I’m telling you this thing is really serious. I said there is a plan. They’re not going to let us lose America. They’re going to save America. They’re just talking about it at a level that I can’t get to because you can’t just meet those people. But over the course of the last seven years, I’ve met with a few secretaries of education, a few secretaries of labor, a couple of presidents. And do you know what? There isn’t a plan! In fact, when they meet with me, they ask me, ‘What do you think?’ I say, ‘Why are you asking me? You mean there is no plan?’ There is no plan!
If we’re going to save America, then we’re going to have to save America. I know you’re probably saying he can’t be serious. Oh, yes I am. I imagine the people in Rome must have thought there was a plan, too. A lot of people thought there was a plan. You can go to a lot of European countries right now that said, ‘Oh yes, we lost this, we thought they had a plan.’ There was no plan. There is no plan to help the United States stay a competitive nation and educate our children. The plan we currently have, where we are prepared to invest billions of dollars locking up our young people versus educating them, is a failed strategy. That plan simply cannot work. It’s not working now, and it will not work. But that’s the one thing that we’ve done. We haven’t solved any other problems. We just simply said, ‘Let’s build a few more jails. Let’s lock up a few more people and we’ll just simply do it that way.’
We know the places where these kids have been coming from have been the same places since I’ve been a child. They have names. Sometimes the name is Harlem, sometimes you understand it. Sometimes people talk about places in Baltimore; Newark, N.J.; Camden, [N.J.]; South Central [Los Angeles]. You hear those kinds of places, and then there are a thousand places you’ve never heard of. That if you go in they tell you, ‘Let me tell you what’s happening here.’ Mostly, we’ve been able to limp along and do just fine with this as a policy because it’s only impacted one part of our nation, and people have gotten used to locking up poor, black kids. No big deal. No jobs, no education. It seemed like, well, they must be doing something. It can’t be just the plan. There must be some rationale for doing that.
Some of us, I think, have begun to understand that not only is it immoral—I can take you to places where you’re talking 40, 50, 60 percent of the kids are going to be in jail. I didn’t think you can look at 3- and 4-year-olds—there’s nothing wrong with those kids. There’s no reason they should end up in jail. Not one reason. They’re no different from anybody else’s child. Yet I would guarantee you right now that 60 to 70 percent of those kids are going to end up in jail. Right now. We all know it. Then we come up with a bunch of excuses about why.
Right now at 4 and 5 I can point those kids out to you. You can look at those kids and just watch 10 years from now and see what’s going to happen to those kids. This has been going on in this country a long time. So we decided we had to do something about that. That we had to figure out a way to save our own kids. We just drew a line around part of our community that now extends 97 blocks, and we said the kids in this area are ours. We call that the Zone and we’re going to save those kids. I would love to save all the kids in Harlem. We can’t. We can’t. Not that they can’t be saved, we just can’t do it.
So we decided we’re going to save our kids. There are six major components to this strategy of saving young people. The first is you have to begin early. How early? At birth. We started this project about 10 years ago and my youngest child happens to be 10. And if you understand that, you understand a lot about me. There came a point in my life where I thought the answer for poor people is the same answer for everybody else. So I started saying, what are we doing about my own child? Whatever I do for little Geoffrey, I want to do for every child in Harlem.
People told me you can’t do that. Why can’t we do that? We think it’s the answer. No one says, ‘Geoff, I think maybe you shouldn’t get good healthcare for a year or two and see what happens.’ No one says that. That’s stupid. Now why shouldn’t these kids all get good healthcare? No one says, ‘One shouldn’t look at the literature and try and figure out what we know about brain development from [ages] 0 to 3.’ So we did. We did everything for the children of Harlem that I was doing for my own child.
When Yvonne, my wife, was pregnant, the doctors told me to talk to the child in the womb. My wife said, ‘I don’t care what that book says, you’re not doing that.’ So that ended. That was good. This is what happens though. This is what middle-class educated people do. You do everything possible to give your child and advantage. You don’t wait until 5. From the moment of conception, you start thinking this kid’s in a competition. I’m trying to get my kid into Amherst. What do I have to do to get this kid here?
You know what they told us to do 10 years ago if you wanted a super kid? Does anybody remember 10 years ago? Mozart! They said have them listen to Mozart! This poor boy listened to Mozart every night for 5 years and I don’t even like Mozart! We did everything possible for this child. Now did Mozart work? I don’t know. The kid’s doing fine. It could have been the Mozart. I don’t know. We did not do a controlled, blind study to figure out whether or not Mozart was the thing to do. We threw everything possible at this child that we thought would give this child an advantage. So why shouldn’t we do it for the poorest kids in America?
So we do. We start with something called Baby College where we educate the parents about all we know about raising children and about brain development. Then we take the kids in at 4 and put them in our own program that goes from 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. It’s staffed at 4-to-1. We teach the kids in three languages—French, Spanish and English—and 100 percent— not 90—100 percent enter kindergarten on grade level. It makes sense. People say I have to raise a lot of money, so I have to have a lot of rich people coming on site visits. Every one of them that comes to our Harlem gem, our 4-year-old program, says, ‘This is better than my own kid’s 4-year-old program!’ I think, of course it is because they need it! Your kid doesn’t need this. Why does your kid need this? Your kid has all this other stuff. These poor kids need to have an advantage. There’s no way they’re going to compete otherwise.
The next thing is we have to create a continuum of support. Here’s the challenge in poor communities. People think, we’ll get them off to a good start, things will be fine. No, they will not be fine. Two years later, the kids will look like all the rest of the kids in the community. You’ve got to make sure the kids go from one high quality experience into the other, into the other, into the other, until these kids graduate from college. So we have kids moving from our 4-year-old program into our own schools. We’ve created our own schools. We stay with those kids, we get them in college, we get them through college.
In most poor communities, people say we have to do teenage pregnancy prevention. Yeah, you’ve got to do that. We’ve got to do gang prevention. Yeah, you’ve got to do that. We need to make sure we do academics. Yeah, we’ve got to do that. You’ve got to do all that stuff, and you have to do it for every age that the child is, because here is one of the fallacies in our field: People keep thinking there’s a point in time that is more important in a child’s life than another point in time. They keep forcing us to make a decision. ‘C’mon, Geoff. You can’t do everything. You’ve got to make a decision. Be tough. Decide. Is it early childhood? Is it middle school?’ You know the most important time in a child’s life is? Today. Right now. None of us think, my kid’s 14. I can just disappear from their life and everything is going to be fine. In the best of families we don’t believe that. And we certainly can’t believe that in poor communities.
Third thing, we have to really have parents as partners. We don’t know what to say to parents to help them really understand how they bring value added to their child’s education once they get past the point of about the third grade. Let me tell you why. I found this out again—it’s no surprise. My youngest is now in fifth grade, and by third grade a funny thing started happening. Once every six weeks, Geoffrey would come home with a homework problem that neither my wife nor I could answer. The scariest thing you’ve ever seen. But we had a strategy. He’d come home, with the problem, and by the time I got home from work my wife would greet me at the door. ‘Photosynthesis.’ I knew it had something to do with chlorophyll—stall him. I’d go on the Internet, look it up, come into the room, ‘Son, photosynthesis, let me tell you all about it.’ No parent wants their 8-year-old to understand that they’re already learning stuff that they don’t know.
My wife and I, we have quite a few degrees between us, so imagine if you have no degrees. You have no computer. You have no Internet access. What do you say to that child when they bring home photosynthesis? Suppose you never learned it yourself? You know what you say? Weren’t you paying attention in school? Didn’t you listen to your teacher? What were you doing when they were teaching that? No one give you the Plan B. What’s Plan B for these parents? We haven’t figured it out, so we have this group of parents where there’s this disconnect. We haven’t been able to recruit them in a way that allows them to be really helpful to us in their child’s education. And it doesn’t work unless the parent is deeply engaged. This is a strategy. We’ve got lots of strategies going on for parents.
The fourth thing is something I get in trouble [talking] about all over America, which is schools have to be redesigned for success. If a school has been failing for 30 years — I will take you to them. I have 30 years of hard data that 75 percent of the kids are not on grade level in math or English. That school is designed for failure. You have got to redesign that school. The moment you get there, you run into a small problem called the physics of education. Here’s the deal with the physics of education, which most educators don’t want to deal with. And most governors don’t want to deal with it and most mayors don’t want to deal with it.
The way our system is designed, it’s designed so middle-class students in decent schools and solid communities will make one year’s progress in reading and math in one year’s time. That’s how it’s designed. So if you’re two years behind, and I could wave a magic wand, and I could change the teachers and I could change the leaders, I could change the school condition. The physics say a year later, they’re going to be two years behind. That’s just the physics. Instead of solving that problem, what we have decided to do as a nation is fire superintendents. Which we do.
About every 14 months, a superintendent gets fired in one of these places. Being from New York, you kind of think the world revolves around New York. So when we fired these superintendents, I just thought they died. Well, that’s another one dead, right? No, they leave New York and they go to Miami. They leave Miami and they go to Kansas City. I run into these same guys and I’m like, ‘You were in New York failing 15 years ago!’ And they failed in four other places because the physics does not work.
When I begin to get people to understand why we have to lengthen the school day and lengthen the school year, I tell them, ‘Was there ever something you took in school that you thought you would never use?’ I thought I would never use this kind of problem solving: If a train left Penn Station at 10 a.m. and it was traveling west at 30 mph, and another train left Penn Station at noon and it’s traveling west at 30 mph, when will train B catch train A? Never! It’s never going to happen, and so is the problem in education. Those kids en masse are never going to catch up, unless we make a longer school day and a longer school year. And people won’t even consider it and every successful charter school has done it. Every single one. Yet, you’ve got the teachers’ unions—they don’t want to deal with this. You’ve got the government courts—they don’t want to deal with this. And they have simply allowed these schools to remain failing institutions for all this time.
I’m not going to pretend that you can simply make a longer day and everything will be fine. You’ve got this other problem around accountability and you’ve got to be able to use evaluation and data to drive results. You’ve got to do it. In the end, someone has to be accountable. When I started our schools, I told our mayor, I told my board, and I told my chancellor, if I don’t have better schools — and I don’t mean better than Harlem, but better than New York City — in five years, I’m going to fire myself. I told everybody that. I told my staff. But I’m the last one leaving. All of you are going before me, let’s just be clear about this. We’re talking real accountability. I’m not kidding. Failure is not an option. If my kids are not doing well, do I think my staff is going home on the weekend? I don’t think so. Do I think they’re taking the summer off? I don’t think so. I think they all understand if you’re going to do that, you’re going to lose your job.
We do whatever is necessary for those kids to learn. That’s our job. That’s the way most of America goes. You have to deliver and if you don’t deliver you shouldn’t be in the business. So if you take the paycheck, then deliver for the kids. This issue of how you use data—mostly in this country we collect the data at the end of the year and we certify what we already know. The school has failed for 30 years. It’s failing again this year. Do you know how much money we spend on testing in the United States? It’s unbelievable. In New York City I could save my own chancellor $100 million. I’ve become clairvoyant about this testing stuff. I go to the stoops of the school, I rub the stoops, I look at the last five years of data. I see in the last five years 76 percent of your kids failed ELA [English Language Arts], this year it will be somewhere between 72 and 78 percent. I am right every single time. Who cares? Why do we need to test for that?
The point is since we know that, what do we do about it? And do you think anybody gets that test and looks at it and says, ‘Oh, now I should be doing extra.’ No, they don’t. The test comes out too late in the year. The year is over by the time you get the data. It’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that doesn’t make any sense. But you know what? Because these kids are poor, nobody cares. They just simply don’t care. You just accept failure and you say, tough. We have to change that.
Let me tell you the last thing, which is communities have to become a positive support medium for children. You cannot have young people growing up in communities that most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in. It just doesn’t work. And communities are falling down around young people.
Many, many years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin, I was a psych major. We were doing mostly learning theory. I wanted to get to this whole clinical thing—we weren’t very clinical up there at Bowdoin at that time. We used to do all these studies and one of the studies will remain with me forever because a lot of people in my field tried to understand resilience theory. They said, ‘Look, ghettos are tough, but some kids make it out. Why do they make it out? Geoff, you made it out. What was it about you? Was it your mother? How did you get out of there?’
I’m always reminded of this because when I was at Bowdoin we were reading about these studies and in one of the studies we were reading they were trying to study why some rats won’t give up. No matter what. So they put a bunch of rats in a vat of water and they couldn’t get out. They just timed how long the rats swam before they just gave up and sank and drowned. You know what I got from that theory? If you care about rats, don’t put them in a vat of water. Sooner or later, it’s the same thing for everybody. Someone will last the longest, but what’s the point? Why is it that we’re so fascinated with how these failing communities produce 2 or 3 percent who manage to get out when the vast majority of the kids don’t have a chance? We’ve got to change those [claims]. We go building by building, block by block, reorganizing communities, cleaning the communities up, making sure adults play a leadership role in these communities.
Let me close with a challenge for those of you who are here at the school graduating, going on, with your careers. Or not graduating and staying here. Part of what people constantly say about my work, ‘Oh, it’s innovative.’ And it’s really just thinking. We have to be prepared to think outside the box. And the problems that we’re dealing with are complex. But they’re not as complex as solving the human genome. We don’t need a supercomputer to figure this stuff out. We can, with some really serious effort, begin to figure these out, but not by doing what other people have done to no avail for the last 40 or 50 years. We’ve got to be prepared to think outside the box.
Whenever I’m faced with that issue, it reminds me about how my whole life was changed because one professor of mine thought outside the box. I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin, I came up as a freshman, and they asked what my major was. I said psychology. He said, ‘How’s your math?’ I said, ‘I don’t really do that math thing. Social science, that’s it.’ They said, ‘Well you have to pass statistics.’ There are a lot of people in a different major today because of statistics. I didn’t take statistics my freshman year, but my sophomore year I had to take it. First semester, sophomore year, I take statistics class and I study all week. I’m up all night preparing for the class. I take the test, get my results back the next week—I got a 37. I was devastated. There was my academic career, it was all over. I got a real 37. This thing wasn’t marked on a curve. I was thinking, where do you go from a 37? A 48? How do you go from 37 to 65? I was so devastated that I was going to give up and just change my major.
But something told me to go talk to the professor. I went in to see the professor and I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. I was in tears. I said, ‘I tried so hard. I was up all week studying, I crammed all night. I want to be a psych major. I want to help children. I don’t know what to do.’ He said, ‘Geoff, calm down. I know what happened to you.’ I said, ‘You do? What happened?’ He said it was the slant. I said, ‘What do you mean? What’s a slant?’ He said, ‘You’re a psych major. You’re going to get this. All of our textbooks have authors. The authors have their own biases that come up in their writing. This author has a particularly strong bias — most of the kids get it and you don’t get it. I want to try an author with an opposite bias to see if it helps.’
He set out a little experiment. He said, ‘I want you to read tonight’s chapter in our regular book. I want you to do the problems and I want to see if you get it.’ I read the chapter, did the problems, I didn’t get it. He said, ‘I want you to read that same chapter in the new book and see if you get it. I read the chapter, did the problems, I got it. I said, ‘Look, you know what? I really understood it.’ He said, ‘Finals are coming up. We’ve got three chapters left. Read them in the old book, do the problems, see if you get it.’ I read the chapters, did the problems, didn’t get it. ‘I want you to read those same chapters in the new book. Do the problems, see if you get it.’ Read the chapters, did the problems—I got it. I took the exam and I got an A. I passed the class.
The next semester, I was sitting in a perception class when it suddenly hit me. I said, you know what? That didn’t have anything to do with the slant. This guy got me to read two books! I was furious with him! How dare you take advantage of my little sophomoric mind with that little slant thing! It wasn’t until I was a teacher myself that I understood the brilliance of this man. Here he had a student in front of him who tried hard, but failed miserably. I didn’t even come close. Most people would have simply said, Oh, you’ve got to try harder. He knew my ego was so shattered, I didn’t think I could do it. He had to figure out a way to get me to work harder, but at the same time not get me to question whether or not I had the right intellectual stuff to be a psych major.
Every day, those of us in this business are faced with issues that others have said, been there, tried that, you won’t reach them. This group of kids, you can’t solve. This group is too old; you can’t do anything with that. That group you’ve got to write off. It simply gives us an opportunity to think outside the box. To try and be the first one to come up with a solution where other people have failed. There are answers out there for all of these problems. There’s not one of them that doesn’t have an answer. The question is, we have not been creative enough. We have not been determined enough. We have not been disciplined enough to solve these problems, and that’s what we have to do.
Let me close with a poem. I like to close all of my talks with poetry that I write. This poem I’m going to dedicate to the graduating class, the class of 2008. It is called, ‘Take a Stand.’ I wrote this poem because the challenges we face as a nation will not be solved by good intentions. It’s going to be solved if we decide if this is something worth fighting for and if we’re prepared to fight. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, and I don’t care if you’re a Republican. I don’t care about your nationality, your religion or your race. The simple matter is that our children, American children, won’t succeed if we don’t fight for them. So let me close with this poem, ‘Take a Stand.’
Maybe before we didn’t know,
That Cory is afraid to go
To school, the store, to roller-skate.
He cries a lot for a boy of eight.
But now we know, each day it’s true
That other girls and boys cry, too.
They cry for us to lend a hand,
Time for us to take a stand.
And little Maria’s window screens
Keeps out flies and other things.
But she knows to duck her head
When she prays each night ’fore bed.
Because in the window come some things
That shatter little children’s dreams.
For some, the hourglass is out of sand.
Time for us to take a stand.
And Charlie’s secret, deepest wish
Is someone to smother him with kisses.
And squeeze and hug him tight, so tight
While he pretends to put up a fight.
Or at least someone to be at home
Who misses him, he’s so alone.
Who allowed this child forsaken land?
Look in the mirror, take a stand.
And on the Sabbath when we pray
To our God, we often say,
"Oh Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham,
I come to better understand
How to learn how to love and give
And lead the life you taught to live."
In faith me must join hand in hand,
Suffer the children, take a stand.
And tonight some child will go to bed
No food, no place to lay their head.
No hand to hold, no lap to sit
To give slobbery kisses from slobbery lips.
So you and I, we must succeed
In this crusade, this holy deed.
To say to the children of this land,
"Have hope, we’re here,
We take a stand."
Thank you very much.
I have some time left to take some questions and I’d be happy to answer questions anybody has, both about our work or other things.
Audience member: I’m not in education, but I hear a lot of rancor among those who are about No Child Left Behind and testing and how teaching for tests wastes all the teaching time. How do you implement it?
Canada: I was asked about Leave No Child Behind, and the one thing Leave No Child Behind has done that I think is really good is it has made each state deal with this issue about where we are in terms of our children’s performance. On the one hand, I know a lot of people are teaching to the test, and that’s a problem. But it’s as much a problem with, I think, the way our country is run. No one gets into anything good in America without passing a test. It’s a funny thing in America. I had a young person who worked for me one day who was really upset about the time and attention we spent on young people, preparing them for tests. And he was just saying, ‘Geoff, There’s the other parts of the child that we’re not focused on. The creative thing.’ I knew he was applying to law school, so I said, ‘Oh, you’re going to law school? He said yes. I said, ‘Working on the LSATs?’ He said yes. I said, ‘Do you enjoy it?’ He said no. I said, ‘But you know how to do it, don’t you? How many hours do you spend studying?’ ‘I’m spending four to five hours a day.’ So that’s the entrance requirement and that’s the nature of the beast. When we solve that, then I’ll worry about it for poor children.
What I’m suggesting is, you can’t change one end of the equation without changing the other. If our young people can’t read and write, they’re not getting in anywhere. We don’t know yet. I think we’ll find out, but someone else is going to have to do it. We don’t know how to catch that moving target because in the best prep schools, they’re doing three times more work than in the poorest schools. They’re not only teaching to the test, they’re hiring tutors and paying them $450 an hour to help prepare for the test for their kids. Their kids are getting not just preparation in school, they’re getting preparation after school, they’re getting preparation in the summertime. Poor communities, we are, I think, focused on the fact that we are spending two or three hours additional getting kids ready for the test.
Here’s the challenge. If you look at what is happening in Japan, at what’s happening in India, the amount of time those kids spend preparing for school dwarves our system in our best schools. We’re not even close to that. There’s another part of the world that has said, ‘We are going to dedicate all of childhood to gaining this set of skills,’ and here we’re pushing poor kids a couple of extra hours. I think that the whole system is going to have to step up.
Having said that, there’s a lot of lousy teaching going on. If you’re a lousy teacher, teaching for the test doesn’t help kids at all. If you’re a great teacher, you can manage to educate a child and have that child pass that test at the same time. That’s a challenge. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of great people going into teaching and we haven’t figured out a formula for taking a mediocre person and turning them into a great teacher. We’ve tried a lot of ways to do it, but we haven’t figured that out. We’ve got to get great teachers who are able, and they have to work in some of these communities that don’t attract great teachers for us to begin playing on a level playing field.
Audience member: It would be a rare public school in a rare state that isn’t preparing their budget for next year and hasn’t cut their budget for the past five or 10 [years]. Do you think public schools are adequately funded? And my follow-up is, do you think that the architecture of public schools is fatally flawed? They physics, as you called it. Do they need to be radically reconstituted?
Canada: I think if you went and you took the politics out of this education decision—I’m going to answer the second part of your question first, then I’m going to come back to the first part of your question. I think if you took the politics out of this and you just put a group of educators in a room and you said, starting from scratch, design me a system, it would look nothing like this system that we have, where kids are out of school for three months at a time and there’s no consistent learning going on. I just don’t think anybody thinks that’s smart. I haven’t heard an educator yet say, ‘Oh yeah, I think the greatest thing to do is between grades, let’s keep kids out of school for three months.’ More affluent kids use that time to learn different sets of skills, and poor kids use that time doing things that actually dumb them down. Playing video games. It’s just, to me, a terrible design, and I think it’s fatally flawed.
It wasn’t flawed when manufacturing jobs existed. You could get a job with a mediocre education. You really could. Now that that’s basically over, that system doesn’t work anymore. Here’s the challenge about the cost of public education. My more affluent friends all tell me it’s not about money. All of them pay $25,000 to $30,000 to send their kids to private schools. I’m not talking college. This is elementary school. I sort of don’t get the two things. They don’t quite make sense to me. If money doesn’t matter, how come you’re spending twice as much to get your child an education? Why don’t you send your child to a school where money doesn’t matter? This is a little bit of, I think, people thinking one thing works for poor kids that doesn’t work for other children.
The truth of the matter is money alone will not fix a lousy system. But our system is woefully under-funded. I am a big, big believer that we should reward teachers how we reward CEOs. If I could walk in the class that I have, my class two years behind, and if in a year I can get those kids on grade level, there’s no reason I shouldn’t make $450,000 that year. That’s going to happen. People think I’m kidding about it. What’s going to happen is we’re going to spend so much money on that group of kids that the $450,000 is going to be a bargain. But do you know what? Every time I do that I have another 15 teachers in that school trying to figure out, how do I get my kids up there so I can get in that same category? You begin to use the same thing that works.
For a long time — I’m going to get into trouble now. For a long time, when I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin, I was not a big fan of capitalism. I just said, it doesn’t work, it’s unfair. Now I think that capitalism does work so let’s use it! Why not reward people based upon effort? How is it that the systems work every other place except in education? In education, we decide everybody gets the same thing. I don’t care what your scores are. Everybody’s going to make the same amount of money. That just doesn’t work for me and I think that’s a problem. It’s working fine in lots of places, but it’s not working fine in poor schools. I think that the one way you bring talent into poor communities is you pay for it. If I had my druthers, I’d take half of that money we’re spending in Iraq and I’d just put it in bonuses for teachers for results and I’d just see what happens. The worst you could do is waste the money. The best you could do is maybe you would solve this problem and we would fix education. In this country we would know it’s a matter of money and we would make a decision. Either we care or we don’t. But at least we wouldn’t worry about whether or not it could be done.
Audience member: Right in the Berkshires, in Lenox, Mass., the Shakespeare Company has a program, a court project, that troubled kids choose between doing a Shakespeare play and going to detention centers. A huge number of them choose to go to detention centers and I’m sure you have similar things in Harlem. What do you do to reconcile something like that?
Canada: Unfortunately, going away to detention centers and jails has become a rite of passage for many young people in America today. I blame a lot of the music and arts and entertainment industry. I have been a huge critic of the culture which is preaching, in particular to boys, a set of values which are totally self destructive. If you tell a kid, ‘Get a gun. Shoot that guy. Rob that money,’ and you say it in the most creative and brilliant ways, and you put the best beats behind it — every time I talk to the artists about this, and I talk to the music people about this, first they talk about the first amendment and we go through that whole scene. Then they tell me, in the end, everybody understands this is not reality. We believe you shouldn’t call kids stupid. If you call kids stupid enough, they’re going to believe it. That’s been common wisdom forever. Why do we think we can let other people say all these derogatory things about guys and misogynistic—it’s beyond belief about the girls—and think that has no impact on a 9-year-old or a 10-year-old , I simply don’t get it. It is, to me, one of the most cynical things happening in America.
I think that the industry is totally unaccountable. They say they’re reflecting current conditions and that is not true. They are as responsible for creating those conditions as reflecting them. I just think people have to be called on that. I think slowly that is happening, but I think that has as much to do with the economics around some of the rap and some of the other stuff is just simply not working as much as it used to be. I think this is a dual process. Here’s the challenge.
Kids used to want to play basketball and they thought that was the ticket out of the ghetto when I was growing up. Now, kids want to play basketball or write rap. But you can’t write rap unless you have a record. You cannot enter the business unless you have a record. And let’s say you make a great song, and you don’t have a record, then you have to get arrested for something. And they all do. You find out they do some stupid little thing, they get a [unintelligible] so they can get their legitimacy. You can imagine the number of young people who think this a way into the business. The worst that will happen is maybe I’ll get authentic acknowledgement because I’ve gotten a record. I think that a lot of that stuff is a cultural norm that we have shifted and allowed to get away from us. I think we’ve got to be on the front line of saying that stuff is bad.
Audience member: What is the relationship of your program to the public schools in the Zone?
Canada: We actually support the public schools. I run charter schools, and I’m a believer in charter schools. There’ll never be enough charter schools to take this issue to scale and solve the problem. We actually place our workers directly in the public schools, during the school day, inside the classrooms as well as after school. The challenge is that issue of accountability. We can’t hire and fire the teachers in the public schools so we can’t demand that people succeed or else they’re going to lose their jobs.
I just got one of my ELA test scores back for—one of my schools did really well, the second one did about 68 percent of the kids who were on grade level, which is much higher than the kids in Harlem and much higher than the city average. I told my principal, ‘You produce another year like this and you’re going to be looking for a job.’ Below our standard. If I had not said that, he would’ve thought 68 was just fine. Better than everybody else, we’re all doing good. No, it’s not. These kids can do much better than that and it’s your job to have them do it.
You have no ability to do that kind of thing in the public schools, so they’ll end up with 48 percent of their kids on grade level and it will be considered a mediocre year. But nothing happens one way or the other. I think that’s the challenge that we have to face. When I try to talk to my principals about this, my public school principals, about this, do you know what they used to tell me? You’re not in this business. If you were in this business, you’d know how hard it was. Do you know what I said? I’m getting in the business.
Now, I’m going to go back. This is my first year having my third grade test. I’m going to go back and we’re going to have that conversation again and they’ll have to come up with a new excuse. It won’t be because ‘you’re not in the business,’ because I’m in the same business with the same kids and I can prove my kids are marginally worse than their kids academically when they come into my school. That I can prove, so they can’t say it’s different kids, and you’re creaming, and you’re doing all the rest of that. This war, we’re just starting this. We’re going to ramp this thing up a little bit.
Audience member: Everything you said about the schools is true. But what you haven’t mentioned is that there are 50 schools in New York that are involved in [unintelligible] where the results are dramatically different. It’s the same kids, the same schools, different leadership cut down from big schools in response [unintelligible]. The results are everything you say. Even I [unintelligible].
Canada: He was talking about the different organization, Student Achievement, that is actually running small schools with dramatically different results. Here’s the challenge. I was having this conversation a little bit about how we take things as scale. To make schools work under the current system, you have to either step outside the system, or dramatically change that system. The politics of changing that system—and I’m talking politics now. This is how much money is going directly into the campaign coffers of politicians. The politics of changing that system are such that even I wouldn’t attempt it until my board said, ‘We will protect you.’ You’re going to go right up against some issues that people aren’t happy about.
In New York, we just sort of separated Student Achievement from tenure. There are lots of arguments for that, but none that I would ever make in a school I was running. Meaning, I care very much how those students are achieving and you’re not staying in my schools unless you can do that. The state, the governor, everybody, it’s a big political issue. They have been happy to have little, small, isolated instances of change because in the end the big system realizes there are 1,000 schools in New York City, and as long as we control those schools we’ll keep the system going as it is. I think that’s part of what we have to change. I think it is going to change. I think it’s going to change because the rest of America is going to get challenged. When this was concentrated in poor communities, I don’t think people were quite as concerned. This is hitting working class and middle class families right now in a way that is going to be quite dramatic. I think this conversation is going to open up and we’re going to see more change coming in.
Audience member: I teach at a private school in Washington, DC—I teach kindergarten—so it was very interesting to hear what you’re saying. We talk a lot about the ‘pressured child’ in our school and you had mentioned India and Japan, but there are also other Scandinavian countries where they have successful education programs where they don’t test and they don’t pressure their children. I was just wondering what your thoughts are for this.
Canada: It’s funny. I was over in Scandinavia. We were looking for something called folk schools. I went over there with Marian Wright-Edelman [president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund], and we went into some schools where they didn’t even have kids start school until [age] 7. They’d say their brains aren’t developed. Their performance measures were way beyond what would be considered average for European schools. But this is the one thing that I noticed: All the kids looked the same. I don’t mean they all looked the same, but they were all kids from Norway, and they looked like kids from Norway. They didn’t have big racial and ethnic differences so people felt about them, ‘These are our kids.’
I think this is the big challenge in the country. If people felt that way about the poor kids, we wouldn’t have the situation we have today. If what was happening in these communities was happening in the rest of America, we would have had this thing fixed a long time ago. Part of the challenge is that there’s this sense that these are not our kids. People think they’re my kids — these are ‘Geoff’s kids.’ These other kids are our kids. That’s what allows what, I think, to have this double standard where certain kids are allowed to fail and certain kids are not. I absolutely agree with you. I don’t think there’s any sort of reason that you couldn’t get into this game at a different place and time if we had the same standard for all children in this country. We simply don’t.
I think that’s part of what we’re up against. I think that’s changing, too. The America that I grew up in, I think, is becoming a different America. I think there’s lots of opportunity for us to have a different experience in this country. But I don’t think we’re going to get there unless we fight for it.
On that, I want to thank you all very much.