Beyond Inconvenient Truths by Al Sikes

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With apologies to the phrase-maker, we should all spend some time with “inconvenient” truths.

Truth #1: The nation’s balance sheet is overloaded with debt. We owe $65,600 per capita, up 512% since 1990. The wealthy can shoulder the burden, but what about everybody else? As debt piles up, less will be spent on current challenges. Yet, politicians don’t talk about the debt except in abstract terms.

Truth #2: Better wages cannot be decoupled from better jobs. Better jobs are those that provide not just higher wages but job satisfaction—even pride. Nor can better jobs be decoupled from elementary and secondary education achievement.

Truth #3: Capitalism must be disruptive or new opportunities disappear. Likewise, education must be disruptable or too many teachers and administrators become bureaucrats protecting themselves. And, since it is an indisputable truth that disruption is a defining characteristic of the 21st Century the most important political question is how do we adapt.

LeBron James, the basketball player, has an insightful perspective on the problem and solution. He has spent his young life adapting his extraordinary skills to the wide array of defenses meant to stop his scoring. He has recently brought his adaptive skills to education. Here are a few highlights  from a New York Times article on the I Promise School  James started in his hometown of Akron, Ohio:

“Every day, they are celebrated for walking through the door. This time last year, the students at the school — Mr. James’s biggest foray into educational philanthropy — were identified as the worst performers in the Akron public schools and branded with behavioral problems.”

“The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.”

“Unlike other schools connected to celebrities, I Promise is not a charter school run by a private operator but a public school operated by the district. Its population is 60 percent black, 15 percent English-language learners and 29 percent special education students. Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive help from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.”

“The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. But Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors.”

“The school is unusual in the resources and attention it devotes to parents, which educators consider a key to its success. Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop.”

“The 90 percent of I Promise students who met their goals exceeded the 70 percent of students districtwide, and scored in the 99th growth percentile of the evaluation association’s school norms, which the district said showed that students’ test scores increased at a higher rate than 99 out of 100 schools nationally.”

“The school’s culture is built on “Habits of Promise” — perseverance, perpetual learning, problem-solving, partnering and perspective — that every student commits to memory. The slogan “We Are Family” is emblazoned on walls and T-shirts.”

“On a tour of the school on Monday, Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, pointed out what she called I Promise’s “secret sauce.” In one room, staff members were busy organizing a room filled with bins of clothing and shelves of peanut butter, jelly and Cheerios. At any time, parents can grab a shopping bin and take what they need.”

Americans should be able to talk about best practices in education and it shouldn’t take a celebrity to draw attention to education’s failures. Yet, the education establishment has constructed a maze of trip-wires that one educator characterized as adults looking out for adults.

Nowhere is political labeling more perverse. The life of a child—the most important education moment—moves quickly and then it is over. And, the children who fail at school are likely to fail in life.

The I Promise School recognizes that homeschooling is indispensable. I was, early in life, an indifferent student. My Mom was not indifferent. I went to public school and then I went home to my Mom’s school, enforced by my Dad’s insistence on discipline. Every child needs homeschooling.

News the past several weeks featured a Perp walk of parents who bought their children’s admission to college instead of assuring their eligibility every step of the way from elementary to secondary stages. Too often higher education provides options for legacy or wealthy parents to bypass standards of admission.

Returning briefly to basic truths. The United States does not have now and it certainly will not have in the future enough money or wisdom to re-engineer society. What it does have are examples of educational practices that work.

In the future, basketball referees and scorekeepers and the like might well be robots. But, the fans will expect accomplished players on the court. If today’s children are to be on the court, educational structures must be disruptable and adapt to assure alignment between parents, children, and teachers.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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