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Time to Get Smart

September 2007
  This month's "First Read" excerpt
  This month's "First Read" excerpt

 

Rudy Crew reveals his plan for reinvigorating America’s public education system in his new book, Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, and co-authored by Thomas Dyja.


A lot of people have imagined what our schools should look like in the future. Usually there are computers. In fact, there are always computers. Lots of them. And they're new and they're all hooked up with Wi-Fi and tricked out with iThis and iThat and the kids can do PowerPoint presentations with the three facts they pulled off the Internet and wow! They're all ready for the future! And there are 10 kids in every classroom, and the principal and the teachers have created a perfect curriculum for them because the evil bureaucracy of the school system has been defeated by the swift-thinking charter school people who truly know what children need. And there are no more unions because all the teachers love teaching so much that they don't even want money to do it, that's how much they love the children, your children, who now go off to Brown or Harvard because of their unmatched preparation as young nuclear physicists or international relief aid workers and those years of free-range chicken and healthy salads in the cafeteria. All you need to do is find a place to land your spaceship, and you're set.

TIME TO STOP DAYDREAMING

In a world where a working toilet or a sharp pencil is an educational fantasy for many, many children, excuse my lack of enthusiasm for pedagogical daydreaming right now. I'm all for theory. It's important to create goals and ideals that can then be worked into mainstream thinking, but when delivering quality education on a day-to-day basis to tens of millions of Americans is so difficult a task, I think our heads need to come out of the clouds. You can spend all day telling me how to hit the bull's-eye, but when half the time I'm not even hitting the target, I think you need to change your focus. This culture isn't going to fight off the darkness of ignorance when the majority of us don't know how to use our weapons. I want results. Caring, high expectations, and diverse approaches do exist now in many, many classrooms within our struggling public school systems, but their effectiveness in creating 21st-century people is limited by the nature of schools today. Nor are they distributed equitably, and therefore efficiently. In order to create a smarter, swifter, stronger future for public education in America and distribute quality education to all children, we'll have to view the challenges of education not as a matter of philosophy but as a matter of engineering. And that means we'll have to fundamentally change our relationship with our schools.

BEGGING FOR CHARITY?

For generations, public education has been a passive part of the community, happy to get its budget line every year and graduate a new crop of workers and taxpayers every June. Any talk of school reform has always boiled down to a desire for more money so spare parts-—be it personnel, curriculum, or governance—can be swapped out. No matter how parts of the system may change, what never changes is the school system's role as supplicant. Every budget season, as the big boys in their shiny suits debate the“important”things, here comes the superintendent in his tweed jacket or her sensible skirt, hat in hand, asking for money to take care of the city's or state's children as if begging for charity. For a few seconds, the lawmakers stop writing massive checks for boondoggle projects and corporate subsidies and grudgingly peel off a few bills for education that come with warnings about performing well—or else. At which point Superintendent Tweed Jacket is shooed away and that's that. And so schools are treated as one of the difficult and sometimes even unpleasant realities a community has to deal with, only a notch or two above garbage removal. Don't get me wrong—very often the schools walk away with a good piece of money, but it's usually poorly leveraged, wastefully applied in how it pays for the same thing over and over, and with no bearing on what is actually produced.

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT?

Few people see this basic fact: Nothing is as important to the life of the nation, state, or locality as the functional populace produced by its schools. It's a simple equation: If your citizens don't have the skills to find or hold a job in your community, they're going to leave, and soon you won't have much of a community. And whatever investment was made to educate those children will have been, in terms of the locality, squandered. School systems that don't integrate day-to-day learning with the needs of the economy, so that kids learn to function within the context of low-, middle-, and high-end job requirements for going into the surrounding community's economic base, whatever that is, lose their leverage and ultimately lose their way. I've seen many businesses in New York and Miami leave for a different state or even country where they could get workers on a consistent basis who could outfit their technological offices, their front-end phones, their customer service phone calls, and the like. And the problems just cascade down from there as the social safety net begins to strain under all the weight of the people we didn't train to succeed. The reason we want to make schools better is not just for their own sake; we want to make our schools better so our cities and states and nation as a whole function better. Gold stars are nice, but the real point is prosperity and efficiency for all.

RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY

To move public education forward, we must pull it out of the nursery and put it right in the middle of every town and city and rural stretch of this country. Instead of considering public schools as a budget line or a handout, we have to see the distribution of educational services as an integral part of the machinery and value of local government. Schools and societies share common goals, and we need to focus on creating the relationships that will bring the right resources of our communities to bear in the right places in our schools. This is the central focus: the need for everyone, from statehouse to schoolhouse, from boardroom to home, to share a common interest and vision for the central role of the schools. It is the need for everyone to understand that resources must come from all quarters and be used wisely and mutually, and in return schools will produce mature and conscious contributors to society. There is, I believe, no greater work to be done in this nation. Okay, that sounds great, but when I step off the soapbox, what does all that mean? What does it mean on a day-to-day level for your kid? What does it mean for teachers and taxpayers? How does such a relationship happen not just in theory but on the ground?

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

For our schools to be connected to their communities, they must be connected in the intimate, functional way the heart works within our bodies, constantly receiving and producing. So our school systems must consciously enter into a network of formal relationships with the elements of their communities, both local and federal, governmental and business, arts, educational, you name it, as well as with their families and students. Not a promise or a letter of intent; photo ops and good intentions aren't enough anymore. I've learned that when you want to make a deal, you get it in writing. I mean we must sign a series of binding compacts or partnerships that gives each of us a full understanding of what we can expect from the others and what will be expected from us in this great undertaking of educating our children. Every aspect of society must accept its responsibility for creating mature and conscious contributors. In return for a broad spectrum of investments, financial and otherwise, that all these various facets of the community make in the school, the school will, first, produce the measurable outcome of children. Not theoretically. Not because the schools tell us that they've done their best. We'll know it because the schools will prove it with quantifiable results. The children will have shown their full-range of abilities beyond just academic through the testing, the course work, and other educational opportunities, be they occupational or service and community oriented, that we create through the partnerships. It's the network of direct and meaningful relationships that must be created around every school in America that's the point here. In addition, our schools can offer services to the surrounding community that extend beyond good grades and quality kids. This is how we're putting this into practice in Miami. After I had that first meeting with the Chamber of Commerce about the vast number of unemployable kids our schools were producing, I sat down and identified all the players in any educational system in this country:

(1) Federal government, (2) State government, (3) Local government, (4) Local business community, (5) Arts community, (6) Postsecondary-education venues, (7) Faith community, (8) Service community, (9) School system, including superintendents and school boards, (10) Individual schools and school administration, that is, principals, (11) Teachers, (12) Families/parents, (13) Students, and (14) The community at large.

TARGET MORE THAN TESTING

The first question was, how could we create a oneness of effort on the part of all of these elements that would put schools at the center? Before I came to Miami, there had been issues with the school board involving the board, the superintendent, and land deals gone sour. Now the city and its citizens were primed to clean up and start doing things right. Looking around Miami, I saw terrific assets and a great will to change, but all in various kinds of loose ends, plugs that needed sockets and sockets that needed plugs; businesses that needed workers and kids who needed jobs; concerts that needed audiences and children who needed beauty. It seemed to me that the work involved in making Miami's schools function was not about test scores, not when our jobs, the jobs we needed to create a healthy community, were flowing out to other countries just as thousands of new immigrants were arriving. Our schools were more important than that; the business community had in effect said so. My job, then, was not to put up banners and drive children to ulcers over the FCATs (Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Tests). My job was to make connections, to identify needs in our system and the resources in the community that could fill them, then put them together so that all our kids would graduate up to speed and enter their city and nation prepared to contribute.

BUILD YOURSELF A NETWORK

There is a model for a similar type of arrangement called, aptly enough, community schools. Very much a product of the 1960s, these schools still exist, and in many cases thrive, around the country, using schools as clearinghouses for a whole range of social services by providing them onsite. While I like the idea of schools offering a range of services that goes beyond traditional ideas of teaching, I wanted schools to be more than clearinghouses; I wanted to redefine the role schools play in the community. I wanted the whole city plugged into the culture of its schools, and the schools plugged into the city. Instead of throwing the philosophical blanket of the community schools over all our schools, we decided to atomize before we synthesized. Miami is made up of 35 different local municipalities, each run by a city government and mayor and so forth, and each of the 35 has its own relationship with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district (M-DCPS). I went to all of the 35 mayors as the representative of an independent entity, not a fellow civil servant, and offered them a different way of looking at the M-DCPS. Our value to the community isn't just that we educate children, I told them, it's that we offer educational services, and those services have a bandwidth that includes services to parents, the community, the audiences of museums, etc. We are a service provider, and so I asked them to think of other services we could provide. At the same time, I asked them what resources they had to offer to help us realize their goals. Were there ways we could help each other? Places we could pool resources or needs in order to save money (another serious concern for the system beyond student performance)?

I didn't walk in hat in hand. I walked in with a vision and a set of outcomes I thought I could consistently offer within a certain time frame in return for cooperation from this other entity. Then I took this message to the business, faith, health care, arts, and sports communities. Wherever I went, Miami understood immediately where I was going with this. Within a year our network was up and running. Instead of plodding along and punching the clock, M-DCPS became an active player in the life of its communities. We developed a series of connections and initiatives and lines of communication between our schools and community:

• 3,887 business and community-based organizations have partnerships with M-DCPS to provide the internships, mentors, and real-world experience to students.

• We have formal Education Compacts with four local governments. M-DCPS has entered into these “mutual support” agreements as a partner. Economies of scale allow us to save taxpayer money; joint training sessions let us cut even more costs.

• In partnership with the Children's Trust and the Miami-Dade Health Department, we've created Health Connect in Our Schools, which will ensure that health care is consistently available at every school. By 2010, we'll be at 100 percent.

• Ready Schools Miami pairs families, schools, and community organizations to provide support to children from birth to third grade, partnered with the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.

• Parent Academy teaches thousands of parents to engage in their children’s lives, with private sector funding.

• Our new Community Workforce Pilot Program will create long-term employment opportunities in new school construction and renovation.

• The Beacon Council, a group of over 100 business leaders, provides educational outreach for businesses in and considering Miami.

• The Miami Dolphins, the Florida Marlins, the Miami Heat, the Florida Panthers, and the University of Miami Hurricanes partner with the M-DCPS to honor teachers, students, and schools as well as offering tutors, speakers, and incentives.

• Fifteen local college and university deans work with the M-DCPS offering schools ways out of low-performing categories.

• Harvard Graduate School of Education, University of Florida, University of Miami, Miami Dade College, Barry University, Council for Educational Change, and Miami Museum of Science offer training programs for our principals, teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals.

• I hosted a faith-based orientation and keep in regular contact with the region's faith-based leaders, and more than 50 community-based organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.

• Over 150 of the region’s top CEOs have signed on for my CEO Roundtable Briefings.

MAKE YOUR TOWN PROUD

The result is a web of community, business, government, and individuals that meets in our schools, with effects that range from improved teacher and principal training to job opportunities and training for those who live around our schools. Our schools—Connected Schools, I call them—are becoming community hubs, creating relationships that help everyone around them, redefining, really, what a public school can be, while our kids are learning that the whole world is their classroom. Inside the schools, the offerings are widening, our scores are rising, and, much more important, our children are benefiting from the sharper focus on them as entire people. Miami is proud of its schools and education. The city is putting its best into its school system, and I think we're doing a good job of giving back. In 2006, for the first time, Miami's reading and math scores on all levels were above the national average. In 2005 the percentage gains in Miami-Dade were twice those of the entire state of Florida, and we registered the highest number of Hispanic and African-American students scoring 3s or higher on AP tests of any school district in the nation. What we're doing here versus other systems is the difference between a symphony orchestra and a one-man band. The latter has lots of noise and moving parts and things going on, and you can appreciate that any one of them can make noise, but all of it together isn't making music. Our goal is harmony, all the different parts working together at what they do best to create one sound.

Given the different kinds of possible relationships, there's an almost infinite variety of ways these partnerships can work. The private sector gives money and manpower and expertise. A township may buy or donate the land for a school or fund an initiative that works within our strategy for achieving a mutual goal. For example, a particular school in Miami had been for many years ranked as an F under Florida's school grading system. I wasn't happy about it, and neither was Manny Diaz, the mayor of the city of Miami. But instead of just hoping things would get better or pointing fingers, he committed himself and the City of Miami to helping us turn around that school. Mayor Diaz put a lot of the city's money and time into mentorship programs and after-school programs, and by God, that school got off the F list. Since then, the M-DCPS and the City of Miami have made a commitment to have absolutely no schools graded lower than a B. That's a three-year project of great value to Miami because of what it can say to the rest of the state and the nation and the kinds of residents and businesses the city will be able to attract.

Our role at the M-DCPS in this agreement is to replicate effective practices that we already know work, while the City of Miami provides the kinds of specific support elements that helped get that school off the F list. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and Merrill Lynch co-sponsored a Principal for a Day program that brought 345 business and civic leaders into the schools. As well as programs to strengthen Workplace Literacy, we created a link with United Way that has turned into the nation's largest student United Way Campaign and the county's largest employee campaign. The success in our schools is not just a matter of kids trying harder or cities handing us more money. Our students aren't being taught the four qualities I consider of a mature and conscious contributor to society: personal integrity, workplace literacy, civic awareness, and academic proficiency. They're learning them by living them in their communities. Growth and change are coming out of conscious, voluntary, and committed action, not through the inevitable grindings of a government bureaucracy.

FIVE EASY PIECES

Creating the kind of transforming equity we need in our public schools rests on five very simple ideas:

1. All Kids Can Learn. All of them.

2. Don't Underestimate the Power of a Caring Relationship. The days of looking at urban communities and saying,“There's nothing I can do," are over. One teacher's effect on a child can have enormous repercussions that literally last generations. The days when America could coast on its money and power are quickly sliding away. We can't afford half-baked, half-assed, or half-interested.

3. Measure Outcomes Rather Than Inputs. Testing and assessment will always be necessary. We can't throw away the concepts of success and failure, but we will make testing a tool, not the point, of the system.

4. Investments Must Be Strategic. I won't kid you—to establish the conditions on a national level that we need to make this concept of schooling viable will require serious financial commitment. But considering what we as a nation have spent our money on the last five years, I can't think of anything more valuable. If you want quality results, you pay for quality work. Everyone knows that. We pay for quality. But equal is not equitable, so the point is not writing the same amount on every check. It's to make strategic investments to produce the same outcomes across the board.

5. Schools Are Intrinsic to the Local Economy. Schools are part of the infrastructure of a town or city, and they have a direct impact on real estate values, unemployment, wages, and countless other economic factors in the life of a community. Healthy schools are as much an indicator of economic progress as people at work. These are the rock-solid foundation of equity on which we'll create the wonderful architecture of partnerships and community involvement in our Connected Schools. @

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