The Unmistakable Tie Between Education and Prosperity

A Conversation with Geoffrey Canada

Poverty limits the mobility of children in many major American cities, but Geoffrey Canada believes that what works in affluent America can work in the poorest communities in America. He explains why we need to believe all children can learn and focus on what works.

Harlem Children's Zone President, Geoffrey Canada (right) and CEO, Anne Williams-Isom (upper left).  (via Harlem Children's Zone) Harlem Children's Zone President, Geoffrey Canada (right) and CEO, Anne Williams-Isom (upper left). (via Harlem Children's Zone)

The founder of Harlem Children's Zone, Geoffrey Canada has been an innovator in making education a pathway out of poverty. Recognized by Time  in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Canada has turned the Harlem Children’s Zone into a model for other projects that link education with social services. Canada spoke with The Catalyst about how the Harlem Children's Zone has done this -- and how education is the gateway to freedom.

Why is education so tied to freedom from want?

The ability to provide for your needs, your family’s needs, and your community’s needs has always been tied to education. When people were simply scratching out a bare existence, we discovered that we could figure out a way to exist and even thrive if we learned about our environment, our surrounding areas and what was happening in the world. That pattern has continued.

There’s often conflict when two groups of people who don’t know one another come into contact. You see that all over the world. There’s superstition, prejudicial beliefs, and misunderstandings. The only way I can see that we live more harmoniously, which means sharing in the bounty of what we as a community of people have been able to figure out, is through reaching an education level so that you can free yourself of many of the superstitious reasons that stop folks from being part of the larger community and contributing to it. At that point, you see a growth in humankind.

The moment you think education doesn’t matter anymore is when you run into trouble. Think about the Rustbelt, and the places that had factories that made machines. People thought that would never end. And look at some of the old mill towns in Massachusetts that didn’t educate their populous. They are stuck with poverty.

Then think about places that decided to educate their citizens so they can figure out the next thing. They become successful. Look at Pittsburgh. The city decided to reinvent itself from a steel town to one that focuses on health care and technology. 

This has played out across the western world and Third World. The places that are the most disadvantaged are places that lack really good education systems. Rarely do you find a country or a community with very high education achievement that is also poor. Education and prosperity go hand-in-hand.

The places that are the most disadvantaged are places that lack really good education systems. Rarely do you find a country or a community with very high education achievement that is also poor. Education and prosperity go hand-in-hand.

When you were setting up the Harlem Children’s Zone, what components were essential to providing freedom to the children and families you were serving?

We started with understanding what it truly means to provide equal access to education. People often think about that as K-to-12 education, but we went deeper. We followed the science. The science said education started at birth. That’s when you see the disparities in the ability to use and understand language. 

Behaviors that parents who had a college education developed with their children were missing in poor communities. So, we created something called “Baby College.” It helps parents understand why it’s essential for them to read to their children, sing to their children, use language with their children, and encourage their children to ask questions. It helps parents think about using every moment in a child’s life to expose them to words, concepts, and ideas.

We then decided that process does not end in middle class communities. They have great pre-schools and decent elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. They have lots of after-school sports, arts, and recreation services. And they have mental health services because kids have challenges around their own mental health.

We began to figure out how we could design and rebuild a middle class community. Sometimes people think of middle class in a pejorative way, that we’re saying you have to be white to talk about middle class values. We don’t believe that. We are talking about placing a high value on education.

That provides safety so kids are growing up safe in their homes. On the streets, you have to deal with issues like gangs, drugs, and alcohol. We began to focus on how you clean up a community. When adults walk around a place where they don’t care how it looks, that sends signals to a kid that this is not a place of value. Over the years kids began to act that out. You see graffiti, littering, and other things.

We thought about how we rebuild a middle class community in Harlem. It went from rebuilding trust between the community and the police to making sure we had quality educational opportunities for children at every age.

We thought about how we rebuild a middle class community in Harlem. It went from rebuilding trust between the community and the police to making sure we had quality educational opportunities for children at every age.

Another radical idea, although it is not quite as radical today as it was 20 years ago, was that you will be able to get what allows you to provide for yourself and your family -- if you have the equivalent of a college-level skill.

When I was a kid, high school-level skills were sufficient. Plenty of jobs did not require a higher set of skills. Today, high school-level skills are simply not sufficient to really be competitive in the labor market. You need college-level skills. So, we began to make sure our kids were prepared for higher education, have the opportunity to go to college, and then be successful once they’ve gotten there.

All of this was to make sure this next generation of young people growing up in Harlem could be free from want. That they saw a way to provide for their housing, food, and clothing in a way that led them to believe in a future not of scarcity and deprivation, but where their basic needs were going to be met by playing by the rules. That’s what we are the most excited about today.

Harlem Children's Zone kids learning in a garden.  (via Harlem Children's Zone) Harlem Children's Zone kids learning in a garden. (via Harlem Children's Zone)

You have talked in the past about “if it’s good enough for the rich neighborhoods, then it’s good enough for Harlem.” Was that the basis for your work?

That is absolutely true. And I mostly said that in regards to whether or not we should have this set of expectations for our kids, that they should all go to college. 

One of the things – and the science on this has been proven over and over again – is that teachers who believe they are working with smart kids treat those kids differently than teachers who believe they’re working with kids who have limited academic ability.

You begin to see the kids live out those teacher’s expectations of their ability. That has been happening in poor communities all over our country and probably all over the world. We wanted to change that dynamic by saying it is normal for kids in Harlem to go to college and be successful in college. 

People thought that was very controversial. But I said it’s not controversial 30 blocks from here, where rich people send their kids to private school.

There’s an expectation that every single one of those kids – not 80 percent, not 75 percent – all of them are going to college. When those kids walk in, everybody treats them as college material.

So, as a general rule of thumb, I said, if it’s good for rich people in this country it’s going to be good for my kids in Harlem and the way you think about kids, education, and intellectual aptitude.

There’s an expectation that every single one of those kids – not 80 percent, not 75 percent – all of them are going to college. When those kids walk in, everybody treats them as college material.

As a follow up, what two or three education policies could have the biggest impact for students today in poverty?

I am a really big fan of charter schools. They allow you to innovate.

One of the biggest educational challenges is that people are doing the same thing that didn’t work 30, 40, 50 years ago. You go to places where education was failing in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and where it is still failing, everything is taught exactly the same way. 

Education is the only business where there’s no penalty for failure. You can simply not innovate. That’s been detrimental to the educational growth of our country.

One of the biggest educational challenges is that people are doing the same thing that didn’t work 30, 40, 50 years ago. You go to places where education was failing in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and where it is still failing, everything is taught exactly the same way. Education is the only business where there’s no penalty for failure.

Along with being innovative, it’s important to think about all the other areas that impact a child’s educational opinion – health, nutrition, exercise, and the ability to belong and feel part of a group. In most poor places, people feel like these are extravagances that we can’t afford. We have to focus on reading and writing and can’t offer sports and arts and can’t worry about nutrition and whether kids are have asthma. 

That’s a huge mistake. Poor kids already have two strikes against them. They’re poor and their parents don’t have the academic background to support their education. You give them another strike, like asthma or obesity, and you basically doom kids that could be saved. That’s why providing a comprehensive set of services to kids is important.

The third issue is counseling and mental health. Soldiers who go to war for short periods of time suffer post-traumatic stress and it often impacts them often for the rest of their lives. Aren’t kids suffering the same debilitating impact when they have grown up with violence as an everyday occurrence? 

Offering those kids no health supports, no mental health supports, no counseling support is making sure they don’t have a fair opportunity to be successful and competitive.

Along with being innovative, it’s important to think about all the other areas that impact a child’s educational opinion – health, nutrition, exercise, and the ability to belong and feel part of a group.

What about the role of raising standards, testing kids to make sure they meet those standards, and attaching some consequence to the results? What role do they play in ensuring kids aren’t stuck in schools that keep doing the same thing over and over?

To me, all that goes under education innovation. We have to tell whether or not teachers can teach effectively. There has to be some measurement. We need a set of standards so when kids are successful they can actually compete for jobs. We have lots of standards today that allow kids to graduate from high school and basically not be able to read or write. Then, businesses have to retrain them. 

There’s an accountability issue. Educators who are not able to provide quality instruction for kids ought to be retrained. If that doesn’t work, they ought to be let go.

I have been a proponent – and I think people maybe have felt that it’s all I cared about but it’s not – a system of accountability of evaluating teachers, holding them accountable, and removing lousy teachers from the classroom. All of those have to be part of any kind of educational innovation.

The thing that’s sad is that all other businesses take this for granted.  In education, it’s considered some big innovation. 

We have to tell whether or not teachers can teach effectively. There has to be some measurement. We need a set of standards so when kids are successful they can actually compete for jobs.

What’s stopping us from guaranteeing freedom from want through the world of education?

Our biggest obstacle is that we have decided some children and people actually don’t deserve a good education, that they can’t learn. We’ve seen this with black and white in the United States but this is a global phenomenon. Sometimes it’s girls – they’re excluded from science or becoming a doctor. 

We have to confront these prejudices. We need to celebrate that we’re all humans and created equally in the eyes of God. Even if you don’t use God, you could we’re all equal on this earth and sharing this space for a limited time.

Our biggest obstacle is that we have decided some children and people actually don’t deserve a good education, that they can’t learn. We have to confront these prejudices. We need to celebrate that we’re all humans and created equally in the eyes of God.

 The next thing is we haven’t allowed education practices to develop like we have all the other sciences and technologies. We have to become really clear about failure, pinpoint what is working and what is not, and then be really cold-hearted about following the results of what works and implementing them in failing systems. 

If we do those two things -- recognize that kids are not learning for reasons other than their race, color, religion, or sex, and become determined to follow the science and to innovate and bring to scale what works – we’ll see education make big leaps and see a reduction in freedom from want all over the globe.

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