When President John Kennedy announced the Space Race nearly half a century ago, he was not just calling Americans to compete. The race was a policy direction that engaged stakeholders—from engineers and teachers to test pilots and astronauts—to envision a way to the moon and then make it a reality.
Today, we have a similar opportunity to revitalize and reform our education system by drawing on bold ideas, the wisdom and passion of educators, and the commitment of parents, families, and communities that comprise the heart of the issue.
You often hear talk about globalization in our 21st-century world economy, yet the connections between most schools and the demands facing students in the global economy are woefully inconsistent. Our state standards with a narrow focus on test scores and adequate yearly progress (AYP) represents the minimum level of achievement in this country. At a time when our students are not globally competitive, current standards are simply not good enough. We must address the larger needs of our public schools.
It starts by measuring our student performance not simply by accountability ratings and other cold performance indicators but by our ability to help every student graduate high school fully equipped to face a world that will demand that highest level of skill and experience as a well-rounded individual. Students must develop an academic competency based on rigorous content that addresses a global perspective; an occupational competency that drives and informs careers aspirations; a civic competency reflected as the capacity to participate in a local and global community and a sense of responsibility to take part; and, above all, a personal competency to include an understanding of one’s own capabilities and value as a human being. Students who possess these four competencies will enter the world after graduation with boundless opportunities.
These four competencies have been the foundation of my work as an educational leader, and they served as the cornerstone of the Chancellor’s District in New York City and the School Improvement Zone in Miami-Dade. In each case, our school community had to rethink the educational options from preschool through high school and to rethink what it meant to provide support for learning that extends beyond the school walls and the school day. We needed to rethink the expectations we set for our children and examine those expectations through the lens of a global marketplace. We needed to rethink the role of all members of the community and how they can fundamentally shape our students’ development of the four core competencies.
Despite the complex challenge of implementing a model such as this, I believe deeply in the importance and the interdependence of each of these competencies. Below are some reflections on how I have approached the implementation of these concepts.
While this is by no means the easiest of the challenges educators face, it may perhaps be the one that is discussed most often. Still, the dialogue remains fairly unchanged. We need to provide students with rigor and high expectations. In my experience, this has to begin with offering honors classes and advanced placement courses and dual enrollment in college courses for high school students.
However, along with rigor and academic challenge, we need to set higher expectations and stop chasing AYP. Criterion-based tests should be treated just as a milestone—a marker on a greater journey. Getting students ready for college and their careers must be our goal. With a desire for a globally competitive career—which is driven by occupational competency—students can and will attain academic competency on a global level.
Through internships and a robust technology platform, we can create opportunities that enable students to apply their learning in real-world settings and connect them globally. Both in New York and Miami-Dade, we established theme-based academies organized around career interests, engaging students with a learning environment in which they could quickly make the connections between content and career. Students identified careers that interested them, and they applied their learning experiences to those aspirations. Offering students experiences that closely parallel their own interests and aspirations will help ensure their academic success. It also allows students to connect more readily with school as individuals.
Another critical aspect of the community involvement, which I’ll describe in greater detail later in this article, is the role that the community plays in helping students develop civic competency. The ability to understand and respond to one’s civic responsibility is not something that a student can learn simply from books and from civics classes. Much like internship opportunities can help abstract academic concepts become tangible, essential career skills, students develop their civic competency through the involvement of community members, volunteerism, active participation in government, and advocacy for the issues that matter most. With that, we must seek teachable moments in terms of students’ understanding of their place within a neighborhood, a community, and the world.
This may be the most complex competency for students to develop and for schools to record, as it is dependent on a host of community members to help students reframe their view of themselves with an outward-facing perspective: How do I fit in? What is my responsibility? How do I make an impact? These are the questions that globally competitive students must be able to answer.
While civic competency requires students to look outward, personal competency requires student to look inward and examine their own value as a human being. As educators and as community members, we must create a range of experiences that help to foster this development of a mature sense of self. I believe that it is important that students have a sense of their personal capacity and have the guidance and support to develop into upstanding, moral, thoughtful, and caring human beings.
In Miami-Dade, our ninth grade academy was instrumental not only in creating a personalized learning environment to foster academic growth, but it was also a crucial part of our efforts to develop individual relationships with each student to help develop personal competency. It is nearly impossible for adults to establish these relationships and support students in this manner without small learning communities. As teachers and staff learn about each student’s skills, needs, and personality, they in turn can help that student develop the self-esteem, self-determination, and self-worth that are core to personal competency.
The Role of Parents
It’s no secret that urban communities struggle with the challenge of parental involvement. I believe that one of the most difficult aspects of this is creating demand for a quality school in the community. This isn’t to say that parents have surrendered the dream of having a good school; they simply don’t know how to acquire it and cannot create that for themselves.
Getting parents involved doesn’t mean we need to do more to force people to be more present in our schools. Instead, we need to create better consumers of public education and to help parents to become partners with the school. It isn’t that they don’t want to do that. Rather, it is that they simply need a menu of offerings, if you will, and a clearer understanding of how the system works. We also need to help them manifest their expectations in a way that actually communicates those expectations to the system. We need to help them learn how to support their child at home and how to connect to resources.
We do our students and their parents a tremendous disservice if we assume that poor levels of parental engagement are due to apathy or lack of interest. It is incumbent upon the school district to make available the means for parents to understand and exercise their role as parents.
In more affluent communities, parents are often better consumers mainly because they are present in the schools so frequently. However, even for those school communities that may rate themselves as having strong parental involvement, the question remains as to whether the children are receiving a 21st-century education and whether they are really globally competitive. There is still work to be done in those schools, and even the parents who appear to be very active participants in the school community must do more—as does their district—to ensure that they become good consumers of education.
The Role of Community
Geoffrey Canada, founder and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, has demonstrated the power of community improvement. Embracing the African proverb of “it takes a village to raise a child,” Canada has challenged the entire community to take collective ownership of the futures of its children and the well-being of the community. By focusing on one city block at a time, community members have reclaimed their community from drugs and crime, and they have revitalized the neighborhood and have roused the schools in the area.
A child’s ability and desire to become a productive member of society is not determined solely by the dynamics of academic instruction but on a comprehensive approach that nurtures the whole child both in and out of the classroom. It should include a range of community-based programs that support the nearby public schools; create meaningful connections; develop occupational, civic, and personal competencies; and begin to establish students’ critical ties to the real-world issues of a 21st-century economy.
In New York City and, more recently, Miami-Dade, I went to great lengths to foster community partnerships that tapped into the local leadership and the shared desire for change in the community. We brought all stakeholders to the table: school leaders, businesses, faith-based organizations, unions, local legislators, and—at the center of the dialogue—parents.
But if you take a step back, this wasn’t just about engaging the local community as stakeholders in improving education. Although it was the major focus and an absolutely essential aspect of school improvement, these community partnerships served a greater purpose. The partnerships show students, at a fairly early age, that their education is connected to the community at large. The skills they learn in school have a direct impact—and are of great interest to—the local and global economy. The partnerships also show students the role they play within the community, fostering their civic competency. At the very core, it is about connecting communities and engaging everyone in the goal of preparing students to succeed in society.
This Is Our Moment
Students today are not entering the same work force their parents did. Nor are they entering the same world their parents knew. If we are to successfully educate our children, we must recognize these changes and embrace innovation that will continue to propel this nation on a global stage.
It’s a compelling mission—a challenge that forces us away from the conventions of the past and reframes our purpose and destiny. This is a carpe diem moment, one that has long awaited the actions that should accompany the rhetoric of change, innovation, and acceleration embodied in the educational goal of America’s Race to the Top.
This is our moment. Our race now is to propel our students and our nation as leaders in the global community.
Rudy Crew , Ph.D., served as chancellor of New York City Schools from 1995 to 1999 and as superintendent of Miami-Dade County Schools from 2004 to 2008. He is currently a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and president of Global Partnership Schools. Reach him at email@example.com