Education: Making the Connections

A visual of a triangle came to mind. At the center of that triangle is the student, at the top is the family and at either tip are the schools and the community. Those are the pivotal points at which we need to make the educational connection.
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This is Connected Educator's Month (CEM) -- a month in which thousands of educators in on-line communities and learning networks across the country participate in a myriad of events to share knowledge and to learn from each other. As a result, we decided to devote some posts in October, as we did last year during "Connected" month, to share some of our thoughts on education.

We must confess we come at this from the outside in rather than from the inside out. We are business people and entrepreneurs first. We are model builders and busters second.

We are also students and life long learners who recognize that making connections matter in all walks of life. They matter whether they are peer to peer, superior to subordinate, subordinate to superior, company to customer, student to teacher, teacher to student, student to student, administrator to faculty, school to community -- and the types and degrees of mattering go on.

We have a working familiarity with education at all levels, a grounding in learning theory, and a solid understanding of the manner in which organizational systems operate and behave. Most importantly, given our backgrounds, we have a passionate commitment to education and deep personal appreciation of the fact that what happens at the educational "pivot point" can make the difference for an individual pursuing the American dream and the future of the American dream itself.

That's the perspective we bring to this series of blogs. We hope they add some value and insights for all citizens who are interested in what is required to make the connections that matter for the future of American students -- especially those who are most at risk under the current socio-economic conditions. Let us begin by highlighting an inspirational story.

David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has written a new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for American Schools. The book is about the highly successful transformation of the Union City, N.J. school system.

Kirp summarized some of his major findings from that book on the Union City experience in a New York Times op-ed on February 10, 2013. They include:

  • Start with pre-kindergarten, enroll almost every 3- and 4-year-old
  • Develop a solid "instructional core" focused on the skills of the teacher, the engagement of the students and the rigor of the curriculum that runs from pre-K through high school
  • In high school, tie everything to a single theme -- pride and respect for "our house" -- that resonates with the community culture of family, unity and respect
  • Build a district team and get significant participation and involvement to structure and lead the "turnaround"

Kirp celebrates the fact that Union City changed its existing system without outside intervention from groups like Teach for America or establishing charter schools. He states there are other "unsung" places that have had accomplishments similar to Union City.

Kirp, notes, however that there is "no quick fix." According to him, what is required is creating a "long term strategy reaching from pre-school to high school" and "learning from experience" and "tinkering" as the strategy is implemented.

As we read Kirp's article and his concluding advice, a visual of a triangle came to mind. At the center of that triangle is the student, at the top is the family and at either tip are the schools and the community. Those are the pivotal points at which we need to make the educational connection. We will devote a future blog to each of those connection points -- school, community and family.

That triangle could be used as a broad framework for creating the "long term strategy" to which Kirp refers. It could be used as the basis for bringing together all of the stakeholders within a district to create an integrated solution and shared ownership for educational transformation there. It would promote self reliant planning and self-directed transformation. It would ensure that the transformation would be driven from the bottom-up rather than dictated from the top-down.

Each district's plan would be different. But, the plan must start at the center with the student. Based upon our reading of the Union City example the one element that was most essential and critical to its success was its adoption of almost universal pre-kindergarten for 3- to 4-year-olds. The literature clearly indicates that there can be no better place to invest than in preschool.

As noted in a Washington Post article, "Educators see high quality early childhood as especially important to help close the achievement gap, which has been demonstrated to exist among children as young as 3 years old, and often reflects differences in socioeconomic status." According to that article, based upon a National Institute of Health study, early education for low income children is estimated to generate $4 to $ 11 in benefits for every dollar spent.

President Obama called for sweeping expansion of high quality publicly supported pre-school programs through a cost-sharing partnership in his State of the Union address. We are in complete agreement with the need for such an expansion so that the states and their school districts can get the financial support they need to initiate and implement this most essential part of transforming education at the local level.

Theneed and demand for such an initiative is demonstrated by the fact that at the beginning of 2013, only eight states -- Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- provided pre-K to more than half of their 4-year-olds. On the other hand, 35 states had applied for Race to the Top-like grants that were pre-school related.

In conclusion, high quality education can be the great equalizer. It empowers people and is a key ingredient for success. We understand this as children who have come from families of relatively modest means and used our educational experiences at every level to prepare and propel us forward to achieve the American dream.

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