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Geoffrey Canada Leads the Charge

If we're going to see school reform, real school reform, we're going to need to start asking tough questions and demanding serious answers. Kudos to Mr. Canada for leading the charge.
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Last week, over a thousand people turned out to hear Geoffrey Canada, the powerhouse behind the Harlem Children's Zone, give the keynote address at the United Way's Education Summit at Chicago's Park Community Church.

The summit was billed as a faith-based, urban school reform revival, and Canada delivered a powerful Sermon on the Mount. "We cannot tolerate another generation of failure," he told a racially diverse audience of teachers, parents, clergy members, politicians, and community activists. In clear and exacting terms, he implored us to find the courage to stand up for children.

After Canada spoke, I joined a panel of experts to explore how we could channel his inspiration into action. The panel, led by Advance Illinois' Robin Steans, included some Chicago heavyweights: Etoy Ridgnal, the Chicago Director of Stand for Children; Sarah Duncan, the Community Schools advocate and Board Member of the Ariel Education Initiative; Laura Thrall, the CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago; and Noel Castellanos, the leader of the Christian Community Development Association.

I braced for the worst, knowing that Canada had likely stirred up a hornet's nest. Although audience members could text questions to the panel anonymously, the ones scrolling across two giant screens (yes, this was some seriously high-tech church) were universally tame, centering on political lobbying, leveraging resources, personal actions, and replicating the neighborhood/community school model. Following-up on a question about our innovative fee-for-service community school, Jane's Place at Nettelhorst, leave it to an 8-year-old boy to raise his hand the old-fashioned way, and ask the hardest-hitting question of the night: "The guys who come in to teach in the afterschool program all sound really great... Who's supposed to pay for all that?" Good question, kid.

Now, maybe it was a self-selecting crowd, and maybe we were in church and all, but my town's in the middle of a heated Mayoral election, and the audience was sprinkled with candidates and media types. Chicagoans aren't known for pulling-punches, so what gives?

Up until Davis Guggenheim broke ranks in Waiting for 'Superman', it was practically verboten to challenge a recalcitrant teachers' union. You couldn't even say there was such a thing as a "bad" teacher.

Eight years ago, when our group of mommy reformers first set foot in our neighborhood's under-performing and under-utilized public elementary school, some teachers walked the hallways muttering obscenities and one even had a restraining order against her for hitting students. We knew who shouldn't be there, the principal knew it, the students sure knew it, and so did all the other teachers. The stoic union investigators dispatched from central office even seemed to know it, too.

We didn't have time to sit around waiting for a lumbering, Kafkaesque bureaucracy to self-correct. Our principal gave the curriculum team carte blanche to review curriculum and financial plans, weigh-in on hiring decisions, and most importantly, access to document teaching styles. Funny thing happened: with all those pesky parents roaming the halls and peeking into classrooms, within two years of our reform movement, almost every single ineffective teacher left Nettelhorst, voluntarily.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take too many disgruntled teachers to contaminate a staff. When the most negative forces left, the school's extremely toxic teaching climate improved dramatically. Test scores tripled, across every demographic. My kids, who started at Nettelhorst in preschool, are now in fourth and sixth grade, and I'd put their education--one without any gifted program, selective enrollment, or tracking system -- on par with any private school in the country. Our teachers are that good.

While we can all cheer the parental pressures that helped to fix my little neighborhood school, and celebrate the extraordinary, award-winning teaching that's going on at Melrose and Broadway, the question still remains: in what backwards universe could adults allow this deplorable situation to fester?

Embarrassingly enough, I've been cowed by this massive chilling effect along with everybody else, and I'm not even beholden to the system! In writing How to Walk to School, we labored to describe the school's toxic teaching climate in the most palatable terms. We shied away from laying blame, and chose to concentrate on how parents and principals could remedy the situation from within the system. No one was "bad" just "ineffective."

Now, lo and behold, Waiting for 'Superman' has given us the freedom to say that yes, some teachers are bad, and that a system that protects them is inexcusable, and that we, as Americans, are not going to tolerate it anymore. Heaven help me, did I really just say that out loud? President Obama has said that education is the civil rights issue of our day. If a generation of civil right activists faced ferocious dogs, water-canons, and Billy clubs, why am I such a 'fraidy cat to say publicly what everyone says in private?

Before some mean-spirited blogger hurls criticism my way, let's be clear: I love, love, l-o-v-e teachers. I'd rather eat glass than homeschool my two adorable kiddies. I was also weaned on unions; in the 70s, my mom kept us home for months during the teacher strikes rather than cross a picket line (backgammon anyone?). I'm not saying that the handful of disgruntled teachers contaminating Nettelhorst were bad people, or that they didn't love their craft, or that maybe, once upon a time, they were even decent educators. But, by any reasonable standard, these folks should not have been in any classroom, my kids', or anybody else's.

Imagine running a business with tenured employees who only need to demonstrate "competence." Imagine a system that makes it nearly impossible to remove individuals who fall short of expectations. What quality of product would your company produce? We have decades of research proving that the single most important factor in student performance and lifetime achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom, including super-star economist and fellow Nettelhorst mommy Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach's ground-breaking study, so how can we possibly defend the status quo?

If we're going to see school reform, real school reform, we're going to need to start asking tough questions and demanding serious answers -- answers that are in the best interest of children, not adults. Kudos to Mr. Canada for leading the charge.

Before catching the red-eye back to NYC, Canada concluded his remarks with a poem he wrote:

Maybe before we didn't know, that Corey is afraid to go.
To school, the store, to roller sake, 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 comes some things that shatter little children-dreams.
For some, the hourglass is out of sand. Time for us to take a stand.

And Charlie's deepest, secret wishes, 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 allows this child-forsaken land? Look in the mirror and 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 to love and give, and live the life you taught to live."
In faith we must join hand in hand. Suffer the children? Take the 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 in this land: Have hope. We're here. We take a stand!