Seeking Solutions for the Nation's Broken Schools

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Our public schools are in serious trouble, says Rudy Crew, superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country. Crew talks about why he feels the school system is in crisis and why education needs to be the nation's number one priority.

Rudolph Crew, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest school district; author, Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools

Excerpt: 'Only Connect'

Only Connect

When I was young, my father used to give me a hard shake to wake me up. Then he'd stick his head right up next to my ear and say, "Rudy," in his deep voice. "Rudy, time to get up. Sun's coming up and something good is gonna happen today."

My father, Eugene, worked hard. My mother died when I was two, so he raised me and my two sisters on his own, paid the bills as a night watchman at the IBM plant in Poughkeepsie after years of playing jazz in New York City. He had a lot of reasons to stay in bed every morning, but for as long as I lived under his roof, he didn't just get himself up and out; he launched all of us out into the world full of expectations for ourselves and for the day.

Today I'm the superintendent of the Miami-Dade County public school system, the fourth largest in the country, with some 356,000 children in my care. Before that I was chancellor of the nation's largest school system, New York City, which enrolls more than 1.1 million kids. I've been superintendent or deputy superintendent in Tacoma, Sacramento, and Boston. One part of my job has been to help millions of children, parents, teachers, and principals all wake up and believe the same thing that my father used to tell me every morning — that something good was going to happen today, that some light would go on in a child's head that would let him see the way into the future and maybe even someday lead others there, too. For more than thirty years I've been doing that. But six years after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act I'm faced with facts like these:

  • One-third of American eighth graders cannot perform basic math. That means more than a million thirteen-year-olds can't do the simplest calculations needed to buy a candy bar or ride a bus.
  • One-third of all teachers leave the profession in their first three years; by five years, half of them have left.
  • A black child in Washington, D.C., has less than a 30 percent chance of learning how to read before he turns ten.
  • The odds that any given ten-year-old in a large American city can read are about fifty-fifty, and six in ten for the nation as a whole.
  • Only one in five students entering college are prepared for college-level work in math, reading, writing, and biology.

Besides running school systems, I've been a principal, a teacher, a father who put all four of his kids through public schools, and I even went to some of them myself back in the day. So let me tell you: if those statistics don't make you feel angry or ashamed or sad as an American, then at the very least they should make you scared because, beyond the disappointing things those numbers say about our national character and values, they put our future in peril.

For all the laws being passed and tests being handed out, America's public schools continue to struggle. Every year millions of teenagers graduate from high school with no tools, no skills, and no sense whatsoever of what they're going to do with their lives. That's easy to sniff at as if it were someone else's problem. But the fact is, those kids aren't just living in the nation's inner cities; they live in corn-fed towns in Iowa and under the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, too. And what they're missing in their lives goes deeper than test scores.

The first question is, What will they do for a living? Unemployment for Americans between the ages of twenty and twenty-four runs around 8 percent; 16 percent for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. Our usual response to those numbers is a vague clamor for more jobs and better jobs and job training, and then some screaming about all the jobs outsourced to India and China. Well, in my experience American businesses want to hire American workers. The first meeting I went to as superintendent in Miami was with the Chamber of Commerce to discuss the fact that the city's business community wanted to hire more local workers. The problem was — and remains throughout America — that we're not providing enough workers with the skills to compete. Major companies look at our cities and ask whether the public school system can produce the quality of people they need to operate their machinery, program their computers, even simply answer their phones. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, and Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, and countless other business leaders I've met have all told me that more and more the answer is no. The young people they're seeing out of American public schools are unable to perform even the most routine, elementary business functions. This, at a time when jobs that involve "complex interactions requiring a high level of judgment," according to The Economist, "make up some 40% of the American labour market and account for 70 percent of the jobs created since 1998." By not producing adequately skilled, adaptable workers, we're all but pointing businesses toward India and other nations where labor's cheaper and worker loyalty is easier to rely on. The research firm Gartner has calculated that information technology outsourcing will go from $193 billion in 2004 to $260 billion by the end of the decade.

Outsourcing is only the tip of the iceberg, though. The real problem lies under the surface, and it's big and dangerous. Not only are our children not able to keep up with the better-equipped competition coming from India and China, but if things don't change very soon, all these tens of millions of our sons and daughters will grow up to be adults unable to even function in our economy, let alone compete. As demand for unskilled labor continues to shrink and even the lowest-level jobs require skills beyond what most eighteen-year-olds graduate with, most of them will enter the labor market completely unprepared and essentially clueless as to how to interact with the marketplace. Who will hire them when they don't even know how to get a job? What will tens of millions of young adults barely able to read or multiply do with their lives? Who will pay for Social Security and health care? Even the military will be out of reach for them because they won't be able to pass the entrance exams. There'll be nothing left for them but to take their meaningless diplomas and plunge into the enormous gap that has opened in this country between those who have and those who don't. No matter where you're from — rural Appalachia, suburban Wellesley, or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans — a lack of skills is a tragic life sentence. For millions more, the issue is not that they can't get a job; it's that the connection between effort and earning is gone. They don't want the jobs that are available. I hear it all the time: Who wants to flip burgers or type letters for a few years? I oughta be rich right now!

Letting a generation slip through our fingers hurts more than just our economy. It cuts to the essence of who we are as a nation. Every so often Jay Leno on The Tonight Show takes a camera out to some mall and asks young people easy questions such as "What's the vice president's name?" "Who was the first president?" "What's the capital of the United States?" The joke, of course, is that no one knows the answers. Everybody in the studio laughs away, but if Leno asked the same questions in his own theater, chances are he wouldn't find answers there, either, because the truth is, the audience is laughing with them, not at them. I mean, who could be expected to know anything as obscure as the name of the first president, right?

Well, I've spent my life teaching America's children. My father was a World War II veteran. Dr. King and the Civil Rights martyrs gave their lives so we could all have our full share of America's promise. I am devoted to this country, and over the years I've sent too many of my students off in uniforms to Vietnam and the Middle East to find that kind of blithe ignorance funny. Why are politics in this nation so polarized right now? It's simple: a vast and growing segment of our electorate has no knowledge or interest in the history and workings of our nation. The few issues they care about they see in black and white. Nuanced thought, bridging gaps, creating consensus, finding equitable resolutions — those things are all but gone.

More than any other country, this nation depends on the thoughtful participation of its citizens. Sometimes I give speeches to newly sworn citizens in Miami, and when I see thousands of people ecstatic to be a part of this remarkable, albeit imperfect, nation, I still believe it can all work, but we need true citizens who comprehend the rights and responsibilities that title entails, who understand how they got here and why. That's a job for our schools, but right now our children don't learn the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner," let alone how a bill becomes a law.

Our schools aren't just struggling to teach academics and civics; they're also failing to produce young men and women of substance. And before you shrug your shoulders and say, "That's not a problem in my neighborhood, no gangstas in my gated community," you should know that in 2006 the Josephson Institute of Ethics reported that 60 percent of students surveyed said they had cheated on a test in the past year; 35 percent admitted to doing so at least twice. One-third had plagiarized from the Internet, and 62 percent said they had "lied to a teacher about something significant." Plagiarism and cheating, you see, are nothing but upper-class versions of Fast, Quick, and in a Hurry. I don't care where you are — some big-lawn suburb, Compton, or a small town in the Midwest — we're all doing a terrible job of teaching our children how to define their principles and live them out every day, how to define success in terms other than dollar signs.

When I was coming up, my father built in me a bone-deep sense that life owed you nothing. You had to work hard, and your effort would determine how far you'd go. Anything worth having was worth working for. I got all this early on, from selling bottles and scrap iron and cleaning yards, taking out big old heavy garbage cans. A lot of it I didn't even do for the money. Some of it I did because my father would drive by and see Miss McMurry's garbage, and he'd say, "You gotta go down the street to help Miss McMurry with her garbage every Monday..."

I'd think, Am I Miss McMurry's son?

"... 'cause somebody got to do it. Lady was good to you, took care of you when you was a little boy, wiped your behind, cleaned your diapers, washed your clothes when I couldn't get to it. This is your payback. Pick this woman's stuff up. Father Time got hold ta her and she just can't do it. No tellin' when in this life you're gonna need help someday."

So I did it. It was just the right thing to do. I did it for the same reason my father would bring her bouquets of peonies from our yard, or go over and open her venetian blinds when she was bedridden, just so she could see the sun. It wasn't just about God liking you more. It was simply your job to be an ethical, honest person, work your ass off, do some good for somebody else, and be happy you got to do it.

By and large, our children have only the slightest grasp as to what constitutes ethical behavior. More and more of them believe that if they haven't made their bling-bling by a certain time, it's pretty much over, and who cares if they die. So die they do, horrible, tragic deaths caused first by their emptiness, then by drugs and bullets. And the folks who have theirs just keep walking.

It's no surprise that our children are so lost when their schools are starved for purpose. A classroom should be a place where we help children enter the world beyond themselves, where they build confidence, maximize effort, and are obligated to perform. But right now, instead of clarifying things for our kids, schools confuse them. Should they care about truly learning things, or is nailing the test the only point? Will any of it even matter in real life? Our classrooms are losing their pulse. Teaching and learning have become hollow, desperate acts punctuated by recess, lunch, and homecoming. That moment in the development of a child's mind when the challenge of the task goes head-to-head with the motivation to get it right, where a furrowed brow and shifting eyes mean Be quiet! I'm gonna figure this out, is disappearing. Parents and society keep hoping a patch here and there will hold things together until at least our kids are out of the system.

It's a dismal situation. Now add something else. The National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, which is part of the Department of Education, reports that between 1993 and 2003 "the population growth rate for youth ages 5 to 19 was higher in the United States than in any other G8 country." That means we're in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration to the United States since the turn of the twentieth century. In those ten years 4.7 million more children entered the public school system. Sixty-four percent of those children, about 3 million, were Hispanic, while at the same time white enrollment dropped by 1.2 million. The Department of Education estimates that 200,000 more children, largely minority, will enter our public schools every year, and unless we want MTV Cribs, MySpace, and YouTube to be their primary instructors about life in America, we will need schools that accept the responsibility for bringing not just them but their families into our society. Millions of new Americans must understand that this nation is based on more than just buying and selling.

Don't get me wrong — I'm not anti-immigration. I believe this is a great opportunity for this country. Regular infusions of new energy, new ideas, and new dreams have let America grow and change and continue to lead throughout its history; immigration confirms that there's something universal about what our Constitution offers. But if we don't capitalize on the opportunity our public schools offer to manage this huge influx, if America walks away from its public schools because they're no longer full of white faces, then you can simply multiply all the problems I've laid out by a factor of five.

On those cold mornings way back when, what my father was really saying to me was, If you don't get up, if you don't expect anything out of this day, you gonna miss. I don't know what exactly. But you'll miss something good. So even on the coldest, snowiest mornings in Poughkeepsie, when I wasn't even sure the sun existed, I'd still get out of bed with a sense of anticipation. It wasn't Christmas — that was for sure — but maybe despite the snow and the cold, maybe my father was right. Maybe something good was out there today. And so every day I walked into school right on the edge of expectation.

I came to like that feeling of expecting something good. And I have that feeling now. I believe the crisis in American public education can be solved. But this book isn't about patching up public education. We're long past the point of plaster and paint. The global economy is reshaping the way we live; like it or not, it's our future. In our hearts we know we need a change in our educational system that goes deeper than new reading programs or smaller class sizes, but we can't imagine what that should look like or how it should work, and frankly, we're scared. How can schools connect us to our best selves as individuals, communities, and cultures so we can meet the future with strength and creativity?

We don't need reform; we need reenvisioning. Only Connect is about just that-preparing our educational system for the future, with a practical strategy that's already showing results. I believe the battle against ignorance and illiteracy and despair is eminently winnable. This nation does mighty things when it listens to its better angels.

So what have we, as a nation, done so far?

The No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001. It has made us focus on standards, which is good. And there have even been some improved scores. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, students in sixty-six major city school systems in thirty-eight states showed gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading in 2005.

So No Child Left Behind is better than nothing. But "better than nothing" is saying a newspaper over your head is "better than nothing" when you're running through a hurricane. Here's a reality check. Here's where we stand internationally.

The Condition of Education 2006, a report published by the NCES, had our fourth graders scoring twelfth in the world in math skills, after such nations as Singapore, Latvia, and Hungary. Our eighth graders were fifteenth, below Malaysia and Slovakia. And by the time they reached tenth grade, they had slipped off the map — twenty-fourth place internationally. Our 2005 science scores, released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), were even more shocking. Just as an example, 78 percent of eighth graders in Los Angeles public schools have a "below basic" understanding of science.

The reality is that our "improving scores" are often watered-down. Since No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, is nothing but a patchwork of state standards, many states have begun to lower their standards to make it look as if they've actually succeeded at educating their children. As Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institution wrote in The New York Times, "Basically, the states have embraced low standards and grade inflation." And the former education secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige pointed out in a recent article in The Washington Post that "most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems."

Something does look funny. Tennessee claims an 87 percent "proficient" level among its fourth graders; the NAEP puts the number closer to 27 percent. Idaho says 90 percent, but a federal test says 41 percent. New York boasts 85 percent; the national assessment is 36 percent. On and on it goes. Oklahoma's list of schools that "need improvement" shrank by 85 percent in a year. How? The state simply lowered its standards. Beyond whether or not the numbers are real is the question of what those numbers would actually prove even if they were. NCLB gave educators across America the task of creating numbers, not functional citizens.

The future will swallow us if we keep on with this game.

Excerpted from Only Connect by Dr. Rudy Crew. Copyright © 2007 by Dr. Rudy Crew. Published in August 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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The Way to Save Our Schools

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