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Musings on Geoffrey Canada’s Denver Visit

April 19, 2011

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the 1st annual Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Conference at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.  Friday’s featured luncheon speaker was the Harlem Children’s Zone’s (HCZ) CEO, and mover-and-shaker, Geoffrey Canada.  I once counted myself an undisputed admirer of Mr. Canada, after I read Paul Tough’s book Whatever it Takes.  Of course, that was before the spectacle of movies featuring the cranky rhetoric of Canada such as The Lottery and Waiting for Superman.  That was when Canada started to lose my admiration.  Why?  Because I’m reflexively against cultural drawing-of-lines-in-the-sand, specifically here with education,  and I detest the general notion that you’ve got to be either “for” a cause  100% or be labeled as against that cause.  Mr. Canada has, through the means of these popular “documentaries”, become a darling of the anti-union, charter-vs.-public-schools crowd.  He gets all impassioned and he starts a-rantin’ and a-ravin’ in his child-of-the-60s attractively raspy voice and it makes for damn good press.

Canada wanted to be a teacher who could save the world, and he got frustrated with the system, and he eventually developed a model in which he could attend to his own little corner of the country.  You know what, Geoff?  Most of us are trying to do the same, and honestly, I am thrilled that you’ve got financial backers to help you out with (some of) the kids in Harlem.  That is wonderful, it truly is. Public schools in New York have experienced challenges that we have just barely glimpsed in our little Denver Cowtown, yet I have steadily been an advocate for equity in education. Do I promote development of critical thinking skills?  Damn straight I do. I earnestly want my students to eventually go to college and I work to help their parents to have the mindset and resources to make that happen. Therefore, I’m getting tired of being blamed for the things that I and my colleagues can’t reasonably do (alone) in our own communities and the gum-flapping that suggests that unions are primarily responsible for the “failure” of public schools.  So, could we just take it down a notch and recognize that maybe, just maybe, there are teachers out there in the devalued public school system who are doing our best with what we’ve got?

I will try to gracefully stumble  step down from my soap-box now and share some of my “noticings” and “wonderings” from Mr. Canada’s speech.  He didn’t annoy me as much as I might have imagined.  Maybe that’s because I try to be reasonable and hear other points of view or maybe he really was more balanced.  He talked about the recent accolades and laughed about the fact that his family didn’t really take note until Oprah invited him to appear.  He also talked about some things that are very dear to my heart, such as the overall treatment of children in this country and the even more dangerous trend of overlooking the achievement of kids of color who are predicted to make up our majority in the not-so-distant future.  I liked when he contrasted “scalability” of cost for earlier education and investment in students at about $5000.00 per child and highlighted the fact that no judge is going to question the scalability of the approximately $37,000 per year it will cost to incarcerate an adult (probably male, probably of color).

As this was a conference of early educators, and given HCZ’s tradition of beginning the tradition  of quality education in-utero, it was wise for Mr. Canada to make the statement that early education across the board will ensure national security.  Yeah, we know; Brain development is important, and working with families is important, and early intervention is important and wouldn’t it be great if all families had access to the same kind of advantages.  Yep, it sure would.  (Wouldn’t it be great if we all had access to, and funding for, additional early education resources for our families?) Then he went into the crisis bit of his speech.  Sigh…  Here are the quotes I jotted down that hint at those lines in the sand.

Canada started by addressing the problem in the room, namely that of what happens to those kids in ECE and Kindergarten after they leave us.  When they go to “lousy” schools how long will it take to undo all of our hard work?  I don’t know. What’s a lousy school?  Is it one with low test scores, one that’s slated for turnaround because of failure to meet AYP? How soon after Kindergarten does the mindless drill-and-kill preparation for standardized bubble-dot tests start (if it hasn’t already started by then)?  Is it a school where test scores matter more than thinking skills?  Is it a school with poor leadership?  Or, is that a school where kids get lice?

“The system is designed so that all adults are held blameless.” Really?  Has Geoffrey Canada been reading the newspaper or any education blogs at all in the past year or so?  Did he watch those movies he’s in? I’m hearing of plenty of adults getting blamed, most of them teachers.  I don’t question that the system needs to be changed but I disagree with the implication that by assigning blame we’re going to improve instruction for kids.  How about building on people’s strengths like we’re supposed to do with the kids?

“It was never the kids.” (Who said it was the kids?  Some of us, however, apparently Canada included, are saying that challenging life circumstances of kids and social inequities can be an obstacle to their learning.) Apparently it was the teachers who need to step up their game.  Yes, sometimes, some of us do.  Other times we are doing the best we can with the resources at hand.

However, “Nobody takes any responsibility” (apparently for kids’ failure to learn).  The man worked as a teacher.  He really said that? Because teachers never put in extra hours of (unpaid) work (while neglecting their loved-ones) in an attempt to take responsibility, right? Districts and states aren’t working on ever-more mandates to ensure that teachers are held responsible either by pay incentives or by punitive measures.

Okay, there’s more, but that’s enough for now.  Apparently Canada’s speech annoyed me more than I realized, because I can feel myself getting really cranky.  I need to put an end to any of my own ranting and go enjoy the rest of my evening.  I have a busy day planned, teaching little children tomorrow and I prefer to do that with a positive attitude. 🙂

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin permalink
    April 20, 2011 6:15 am


    Like you, I was once a big fan of Mr. Canada. I read his books Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, and heard him speak at t public school where I live, and I actually got to meet him. However, since the news broke that he essentially “fired” an entire class of students after they did not achieve the proper test scores while attending one of his schools, some of that sheen wore off. I am of the mind set that this national war against public education aligns with the business world in that a few managers will make good money while the drones, i.e. teachers will make nothing while being told what to teach, what to say, and when to teach it. With all the latest data out there that clearly show charters and other public funded schools do worse or the same as public schools on tests, (Diane Ravitch’s book is one great example) how could an educated person rationalize other wise? Thank you for sharing your thoughts and keep up the good fight.

  2. April 20, 2011 8:44 am

    I love Canada’s holistic approach to working with neighborhoods, but I’m very skeptical that he really understands high-quality education. He lost me as soon as I heard that he buys into the standardized test nonsense as the gold standard for assessing kids, schools, teachers, ad nauseum. I won’t write off everything he’s doing, but I wouldn’t let him run a school for anyone I cared about.

    I just got a copy of WAITING FOR STUPORMAN from the library. Waiting until the weekend to view it with my girlfriend (a public middle school art teacher near Toledo), though I’m not sure I’ve got enough airsickness bags for both of us. I do plan to throw popcorn at the screen whenever Michelle Rhee is mentioned or appears on screen. Granted, she’s only a minion of Satan, not the Dark One herself, but still, she’s one dangerous hypocrite.

  3. April 20, 2011 11:14 am

    I used to admire Canada, too. I read Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun and followed what he was doing to set up the HCZ before it had been broadcast on national news. I loved the idea of Baby College and that it spread the wisdom of Dr. Terry Brazelton.

    One of the most interesting tidbits about Canada is that a few years ago he signed the manifestos of both the Education Equality Project (yuck) and the Broader Bolder Approach (yeah!). So did Arne Duncan.

    Becoming signatories of both platforms makes no sense at all to me. It’s been theorized that in his heart Canada knows that the BBA is right, but he stays tight with the ed deform pack because they are linked with him getting his buttered bread.

    As for Duncan, back in those days he either didn’t have any idea about what to do, or he was just playing safe politics.

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