Redefining Education

As James Heckman argues, we need to be smarter investors with our public-education dollars and increase funding for early-childhood education. But we also need to improve our efforts for all the phases of our children’s lives.

To make the kind of dramatic progress we need, we have to rethink our definition of public education, so it begins before kindergarten and goes beyond classroom walls. Schools are the centerpiece of our children’s academic life, but they are failing to inspire, educate, and develop millions in poverty. We need to radically reform a public education system that has been paralyzed for decades. The problem is not a lack of curricula and instructional tools, but a lack of perspective and political will.

With evidence that brain development differences begin as early as the first year, we must start the work of readying our children before they arrive at their local school for kindergarten. Many parents already do this, but it has to be part of our public policy. On that score, Heckman and I are in agreement. Without bolstering early-education for children, our public schools will be handicapped in fulfilling their mandate for a large portion of their students—particularly those of poor parents.

Family life has a tremendous effect on a child’s educational prospects, and the early years essentially set the table for future learning. There, too, I agree with Heckman. But we cannot simply blame or ignore the parents, as some in the debate do.

At the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), we have a parenting program, The Baby College, where we have learned that if parents are treated with respect, they are open to changing their assumptions about raising a baby. Where they might not have spoken to a baby who “can’t understand,” they learn to talk, read, and sing with them to encourage optimal brain development. And at our Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten program, we bring parents into the process, and most are excited to play such an active role in their child’s development.

Even if a parent is unwilling or unable to help, we cannot turn our backs on their children. We must—as a society and as educators—uphold our responsibility to help their children become self-sustaining adults. These children belong to all of us, but we are simply not acting that way. Once we accept that, we will have made the first step in changing the direction of their lives.

Children at risk belong to all of us; we need to start acting that way.

As a comprehensive program, HCZ has to make sure problems are addressed early, or we will be forced to expend much more time and energy to solve them later. That said, even the superhero work of saving off-track teenagers is possible, and a better investment than dealing with the repercussions of educational failure—unemployment, prison, unwanted pregnancy, drug abuse. I feel more strongly than Heckman that later interventions are still very necessary.

In truth, the “secret” to saving poor children is hiding in plain sight across the country in the middle-class communities that surround many of our successful public schools. There, parents pick a favorite book each night from the bookcase to read to their baby at bedtime. If students have trouble seeing the board, their parents get them glasses. For the most part, students don’t worry about whether they will get dinner after school or get shot on their way home. In these communities, a set of givens allows their schools to succeed.

I’ve spent my entire professional life working to even the playing fields between these two communities by lifting up what’s there for poor children. Where I have succeeded, I’ve seen the children succeed. And I’ve seen that investing in children early pays big dividends later. This fall, HCZ will have more than a thousand young people sitting in college classrooms—not in prison cells, like many of their peers. My core belief that all children can learn has never been diminished; just the opposite, in fact.

It’s a transformational belief our country needs to adopt today. I guarantee that anyone who expects to live another ten or twenty years will see for themselves the repercussions of our abdication of responsibility toward our children. Kids who are off-track in elementary school are, without a lucky break, going to end up in the unenviable position of having no skills in a high-skills job market. And we know that dropouts and the unemployed sometimes drift into criminal activity. Already the country’s military reports that only 25 percent of young people qualify to enlist. Our malign neglect will produce a generation of Americans who are less educated, less healthy, and less able than their predecessors to maintain this country’s standing in the world.

If all children—even poor ones—can learn, we are left with an embarrassing question: Why aren’t we, who have been given so much by this country, doing all we can to make it happen so America’s great legacy will continue?