Education Reformer Suggests Steps For Success

Geoffrey Canada spoke to students and faculty about education reform and the importance and imminence of change in our society, in a talk co-sponsored by Students for Education Reform, Americans for Informed Democracy, SOFC, The Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, and the Lynch Foundation on Wednesday. Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, which focuses on promoting youth in education, primarily through changing the foundation. “It starts at the base,” he said, which is at the academic level. This sparked his discussion about seeking change in the country’s educational system. For Canada, it all begins with educational reform.

The Robsham Theater was packed as he argued his main idea, which is that change is what moves us forward as a society. According to Canada, without it, people would cease to be dynamic, successful, and ultimately happy. He focused his talk primarily on contemporary education in the U.S., but often referred to people of the past, such as Harriet Tubman, who have had an impact on this nation’s success.

The focus: reform.

Canada urged students and faculty to take initiative in not only their future, but also in the futures of young people, who he claimed are the lifeblood of the country. This notion was a key component of his delivery, along with personal anecdotes that included stories of stumbling blocks on the way to his individual success. “I came from the Bronx, and have experienced this firsthand.”

His primary focus, though, was the importance of a college education in a young person’s life. He stressed how great an impact his undergraduate career at Bowdoin College had on his success, and that without the fine-tuning provided at the university level, society would be a lot less productive, passionate, and proactive, and less well rounded.

“We’ve been taught to think,” Canada said, referring to the importance of his education. “But, we haven’t just been taught to pass a test. We must think critically, and see how this applies to the greater scope of our lives.”

The event was well-attended, and filled with students, faculty, and staff. Many came to hear his profound yet comical manner as he discussed his life and work, both of which are dedicated to social justice and reform. This serious matter, though critical to success, was approached in a lighthearted and conversational way.

“You have to be willing to fight the fight, to be prepared for the struggle,” Canada said.

“And, when things get hard … know that it’s just the beginning.”

This statement captures the theme of his discussion, and carried into a brief, but in-depth question-and-answer session where he responded to students. One question focused on the nature of academics and the arts during a young person’s life. To this, he replied with enthusiasm. Other questions touched upon the topics of standardized testing, and the way it’s perceived in relation to personal character and achievement.

One question posed by a member of Generation Citizen, an organization whose mission is for democracy by “empowering young people to become engaged and effective citizens” was on point with Canada’s mission. “Why do standardized tests end up being so important? Are they really a good measure of future performance?”

To this, Canada said that SAT testing, for example, is a poor indicator of one’s personal ability and aptitude, and that one’s past must not get in the way of one’s future. “It really comes down to two things,” Canada said. “Grit and perseverance. These are what really allow someone to succeed.”

“The question is, what are we basing this off of?” He asked why some kids persevere at the middle and high school levels, when others just give up. This resonated with many.

The idea of who perseveres, Canada said, has to do with character development, and the notion of believing in one’s personal aptitude and ability for success, first and foremost. He related these comments to his colleague Paul Tough’s work, How Children Succeed. Tough will be visiting BC Oct. 9. Canada stated that children, according to Tough, are more likely to do well based on two key ingredients in their character: grit and perseverance.

“Every kid should go to college,” Canada said. “This is the one thing I believe above all, is that every young person should have the benefit of a full, well-rounded, and dynamic education.”

This notion of being well rounded was integral in his argument toward better academics in grade school, especially at the inner-city level.

“The arts are there not only to help kids improve in other areas of their academic work, but to promote their happiness and fulfillment as individuals,” Canada said.

Promise Neighborhoods, the campaign initiative started by President Obama was created based off of inspiration from Canada’s work.

Canada left BC with the notion that with heart and perseverance, just about anything is possible.

“Change takes time, and more importantly, stamina and perseverance.”