“Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.” Harry Hopkins, Senior Advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Spending other people’s money is infectious. We are in a pandemic of spending. But, 21st Century problems are mostly those that money couldn’t solve in the last century. And we spent plenty.
So let me flip the script. Join me in thinking about America’s puzzle. How can a heterogeneous nation built on a foundation of free markets and limited government improve societal outcomes in the 21st century?
Allow me a minute on context:
*The capacity to work with advanced technologies will likely separate higher from lower incomes in the world we have invented and from which there is no turning back.
*The right to choose which elementary or secondary school a student attends is illusory for most Americans with modest incomes.
*Racial disparities are often the fulcrum of current debates about income differences.
*Many governments, to gain additional sources of revenue, increasingly promote and profit off of gambling and mind-altering drugs.
*Social media is an unfiltered and massive distraction that often preys on young minds.
*And finally, the prevailing government priority is to reduce inequality by redistribution, paid for by debt.
Let me suggest an alternative strategic/tactical approach recalling the failed efforts in the 20th Century. Remember the Great Society? It produced a gusher of social programs funded by billions of dollars.
President Lyndon Johnson’s first public reference to the “Great Society” took place during a speech to students on May 7, 1964, at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” Wikipedia
Education is the keystone. If future generations speak positively about current generations then educational outcomes will be much better. And I am speaking of what, back in the day, educators called “reading, writing and arithmetic”.
My background in education began over 25 years ago in New York City with the Student-Sponsors Partnership which I chaired and then the Reading Excellence and Discovery Foundation (READ) that I started. Today what started as READ is now READ Alliance as success breeds partnerships—READ Alliance is now 21 years old.
READ focuses on elevating the reading skills of early elementary students who read below grade level by employing high school students from the same neighborhoods as their individual reading tutors. We provide these Student-tutors, who READ calls Teen Leaders, with what is often their first job and help in their educational and career development. The operational keys to READ’s success are focus and measurement.
Today educational success is too often compromised; and an absence of measurable success undermines the best intended programs for helping students to work at grade level. And when I say education, I do not mean college education. America needs a concentrated focus on basic education—college education, where helpful, will follow.
Now let me return to flipping the script. Successful students are celebrated. Recognition, scholarships, prizes and, of course, the ultimate prize, a good career, are all characteristic. How about scholarships for children who need help overcoming disadvantages?
Time and experience have revealed that the best public charter schools work. Time and experience have also shown that it is hard to change outcomes in what I am going to call mass public schools with larger and larger appropriations. This is not because the mass school educators are any less interested in their students. But, the administrators and teachers alike confront a wide spectrum of responsibilities, a tendency toward bureaucratic processes and union rules that are often innervating.
So let me now go off script. We need acceleration initiatives that import best practices from the most focused and innovative programs. They should have one goal: advancing children to grade level performance so they can become a confident member of their class.
If I had the organizational responsibility for making acceleration of learning work, I would turn to Service Year Alliance programs such as Teach For America, City Year, and College Possible. We need a corps of teachers, tutors, and student success coaches in national service programs who work with school administrators but outside the status quo rules fostered by protective practices.
Turning to schools that specialize in the advancement of students who are behind, I do not believe they will require an unsustainable financial burden. Some of the burdens shouldered by mass public schools should be hived off to the acceleration programs. And just as READ is one organization serving all the boroughs of New York City, I believe a highly focused effort can quickly return students to their class. These initiatives will fail if enrollment does not turn over quickly.
One of the secret or not so secret ingredients behind READ’s success is recognition. As students make progress they receive an emotional boost through winning certificates and books to take home. And the completion ceremonies are especially emotional as parents take pride in their child’s progress. Often in the mass school setting it is the students who are struggling that sit and watch other students being recognized for accomplishments.
A highly focused specialized program concept will be to some threatening, while to others too little. A school charged with defining the challenges to educational advancement, pinpointing the remedies, and being measured by the results can reverse the demonstrable: we spend and spend but little changes.
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.