Learning to care about people instead of caring about things–a call to action: My speech to the Friends Select School’s Cum Laude Society Dinner

The following is the text of the speech I gave at the Friends Select School (FSS, my middle and high school alma matter). I was honored to be invited and it was a pleasure to be back at the school again.

We live in an era of material wealth unprecedented in the history of the world. We are surrounded by products and goods and we most often measure success by counting things. We count the credits accrued by a child and we count their test scores. We count their attendance and their graduation rates. Unfortunately, there is no counting that can account for the competence and confidence of an individual human being.

So, tonight I would like to talk about people, about equity, about human need and about school design. If there is anything that walking in these halls again–the halls I called home during middle and high school–teaches me, it is that truly purposeful schooling is fundamental (and relatively uncommon).

When I say design, I am speaking of, using David Perkins (1986) definition: “structure adapted to purpose.” Schools, because they are human systems with complex moving parts, are particularly In need of clear purpose and the thoughtful articulation of those purpose across the various elements of schooling from learning design to student life.

Let me give an example of what I mean by purposes. Most urban high schools are designed to prevent students from spending time socially with each other. Hallways are straight and relatively narrow and students are strongly discouraged from lingering. The evident purpose of this is to control the students.

Contrast this model with the design of the building here at FSS. As I walked through with my wife I fondly noted the large, sequestered nook on the stairs going up, specifically designed to create private social space in which young people get to be young. I pointed to benches grouped in the entrance way, in corners and in side hallways. These are a reflection of important and clear purposes–the valuing of the child and the child’s needs above those of the adults.

I am the new CEO of Arise charter school–the first charter school in the nation to specifically serve youth in foster care. In Philadelphia, over 75% of foster students drop out of school (note 50% of the general public school population drops out which is terrible to begin with).

This is a primary challenge for public education and it suggests strongly that when it comes to public schooling, we may not have our purposes clear and more importantly, we do not have purposes that match the needs of our students.

Many people insist that college must be the goal for all. Many, if not all of you are headed to college. It will be wonderful and powerful for you and it will help you continue to become the incredible people you are.

While I deeply believe that all students should have the tools to go to college, we have 400,000 college educated waiters and waitresses in this country. Students who go to college and don’t get a marketable degree accrue large debt with little of value to sell on the job market (see my previous post on this subject).

Going to college does not equal having access to power. So I ask again, what should the purposes of schooling be? The bottom line is, we need many kinds of schools for many kinds of purposes.

Some of my students are care takers with serious daily responsibilities. Some live in shelters. When we tell them to sit still for a study of a classic novel, they are right to be skeptical–in many cases schools have not done the work of translating the reading of that novel into cultural capital–we have not helped them turn their learning into power.

Schools have been in the business, in fact, of taking away power. Rather than honest purposes that are centered on the needs of the child, we have perpetrated the college myth. We have been guilty of valuing things–tests and scores, credits and requirements, standards and accountability–more than we value people.

This is a profound failing on the part of educators. We must do better. We must build human systems that value the individual, unique and human in each child.

This is a call to action. You who have had wonderful, purposeful education must demand from our nation, its leaders, policy makers and educators, the same excellent and purposeful education for all our nation’s students.

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