My ‘brilliant’ idea

If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

Talk it up on Facebook!

Some years ago, when I still believed that I was a pretty clever fellow, I dreamed up a campaign to persuade young people to stay in school. What inspired this brilliant idea was daily sightings of adults standing at intersections wearing signboards advertising one thing or another. This was, to my eye, the ultimate low-skill job because it required absolutely no mental effort and hardly any physical work. I hypothesized that the workers must have dropped out of school.

So I thought about taking photographs of the sign-wearers, blurring their faces, and then creating posters with a slogan something like “It’s your choice. Stay in School or …” with an arrow pointing to the poor guy wearing the sign.

Great message to youth, I figured, because no one could aspire to that work, and the threat of being able to get only that sort of job would be a powerful motivator.

Luckily, I did not do anything impulsive about my brilliant idea. Instead, when I replayed those images in my mind, it dawned on me that almost all of the sign-wearers were brown-skinned men and women. They might have been new arrivals to northern California and working at the one of the few jobs available. Or, a more frightening thought, they might have been dropouts from a California high school or middle school.

Can a simple camcorder be the beginnings of a new wave in education?

Sure enough, the Hispanic dropout rate turns out to be significantly higher than that of any other group. In 2010 the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, released the report “Hispanics, High School Dropouts and the GED.” It found that 41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, compared with 23% of black adults and 14% of white adults.

Their reasons for dropping out were complex, as likely to involve school failure as economic imperatives, lack of family support or expectations, and language barriers (meaning teachers, administrators and support staff who did not speak or understand Spanish).

Suddenly my notion of a ‘stay in school’ campaign seemed to be a classic case of oversimplification and ‘blaming the victim.’

Forget my not-so-brilliant idea. What we need is not a(nother) simple-minded ‘Stay in School’ campaign aimed at the kids but a more sophisticated campaign, aimed at both youth and adults. Call it ‘Succeed in School.’ And it shouldn’t be all about how much more money you earn if you get a high school diploma, but instead about ways to succeed and ways to help others succeed. Small steps, or what B.J. Fogg of Stanford calls “Tiny Habits.” Or as another thoughtful leader, Louis V. Gerstner, is wont to say, “No more forecasting rain; it’s time to build arks.”

What small steps and tiny habits are the building blocks of success? I have written about this in The Influence of Teachers, and deeper thinkers like Larry Rosenstock, Don Shalvey, Amy Valens, and Renee Moore have turned words into deeds, so I won’t go into this more deeply here but will ask you for your suggestions. What works to make kids be — and feel — successful?

I have one suggestion, however: help them make videos where community members recite poetry or prose. I wrote about this here, and now I have an example to show you:

In my last post (linked above), I wrote about how projects like this work on several levels. They teach real-world skills like production and cooperation; they give kids the satisfaction of seeing a project through from start to finish and sharing their work with a larger audience; and they demonstrate to the 80% of households without school-age children that great things are happening in our schools.

Small steps, tiny habits.

“Success is a Team Sport” is my nomination for the bumper sticker.

Your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “My ‘brilliant’ idea

  1. This is a brilliant idea. Sadly, because it is so brilliant and seems so common sense-based, it’ll be shot down. That is just how we approach most things academic or educational in this country. When we get done with the territoriality of it all, we still have miles to go.

    In an unusual twist, I will be brief and say further that one of the great moments in this piece is about the need to stop complaining about rain and using that energy to build arks, or something like that. This is exactly where we find ourselves since 1983 and A Nation at Risk. Short of ark-building we better teach a bunch of people how to tread water.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, (did I miss anything?) and a successful and prosperous New Year to you and everyone at Learning Matters!


  2. When I studied dropout rates in the region North of Boston a few years ago I discovered one school district had a standard practice of holding back 25% of it’s 9th grade for an extra year of drill-and-practice prior to the state 10th grade test. This “9th Grade Bump” produced the highest “gain scores” in the state (contrasting 7th and 10th grade tests, which were the Standard & Poor’s best indicator of school improvement, funded in those days by the Gates Foundation and accepted as the norm). I screamed like a stuck pig! “You’re a cheat,” I nailed the Principal at a School Committee meeting. He quit. His Superintendent quit. His Guidance Director quit.

    It was not at all coincidental that most of those 100 kids per year were Portuguese and Spanish. Nor that most of them dropped out within a year or two. Nor that the system’s “placement rate” in college (among the surviving Seniors) looked good. But it was all a scam. If you teach kids that they are stupid, that’s what they’ll learn!

    The change that resulted was dramatic. There are now tutoring programs where seniors tutor freshmen having problems in 9th grade, early in the year. There are social and recreational events that introduce 9th graders to networks of others. There are outreach events to 7th and 8th grades. And that retention rate is less than 10% of what it once was. And that graduation rate is more than 90%. It is not rocket science. It is just good teaching.

    Oh, and the videos. They’re like this on:


  3. Well,

    Your brilliant idea was used by me back when my now 21 year old son began middle school. It was something that both encouraged him as well as frustrated him. He (being brilliant!) noticed the many men of color with their signs and unfortunately began to ask me questions that I had a hard time explaining.

    Today, he is a high school graduate and works in an after school program. He is waiting to go back to college but still finds himself rather frustrated with the way of the world today…economically speaking.

    I would also like to point out that I would have taken offense to your brilliant idea not because of the race card I can pull out at will but, because most of the “cardboard sign holders” I see here in the Bay Area suffer mentall illness.

    Love ya!!


  4. It is critical that we never forget the tragedy that befell the Jews in the 30s and 40s, not just for their sake but for all of humanity. I’m sure this is a very powerful exhibit, and I wish I could attend. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC brought me to tears… all those shoes…cheap Tera gold


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s