Thursday, March 13, 2008


This week I attended a diversity luncheon in Burlington hosted by numerous prominent businesses in the for- and not-for-profit sectors. The purpose was to introduce to attendees the concept of planning for and accommodating a diverse workforce.

It was a very good effort. Despite the last minute cancellation of keynoter Ted Childs , one of the foremost experts in the country on workforce diversity, the speakers and hosts clearly seemed to understand the importance of reaching out to new populations, to people of color, and to those who look, talk, and act different from “us.” As Thomas Friedman says in his bestselling book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, the world is getting smaller every day and we have to “do business with all of them.”

But the panel of business leaders that was pulled together to discuss strategies for developing and supporting diversity in the work place, completely avoided one crucial issue—and thus made it doubly conspicuous by its absence from the discussion. No one, including me, had the courage to stand up to the microphone and ask the simple question: what are we in this room doing to support our schools’ efforts to manage the issues around diversity? Tolerance for diversity starts in the family and is pretty much cemented in place during the school years.

It’s easy to fall into the generations-old discussion surrounding race relations (or lack thereof) in this country. But the issue is so much bigger. It involves an understanding of religions other than those that are Christian; of governments and institutions that are other than those that are republics; of art forms and cultural expressions that are other than “classical” or “western.” It requires, in the words of Adjutant General Michael Dubie who filled in for the keynote speaker, all of us to be far more “culturally aware” than we are now.

The principal of the Burlington High School did rise to the microphone to say that 27% of her students were “students of color” and that more than 20 languages were the primary language spoken at home.

But as I sat at lunch, wave after wave of frustration passed over me at the thought of how much opportunity we have been allowing to slip past us and will continue to slip past us if we continue to educate our children “the same old way.”

We built our current educational infrastructure in the late 1800s in response, in large part, to the increasing demand for skilled workers in an industrial society. Before then, of course, very few people had any formal education because we were largely an agrarian society that worked almost exclusively with its hands. But during the latter part of the 20th century we moved away from the industrial model—in terms of our workforce needs—but never really changed the methodologies we use to educate our children. As a result we are putting our children through school, expecting them to pop out the other end able to handle the complex relational requirements of a fluid, changing society that by necessity needs to speak multiple languages and multitask in several different time zones.

I’m not too surprised that Johnny can’t read and do math or set up a lab experiment that tests a hypothesis with a control. And it’s even less of a surprise that he also can’t recite poetry, distinguish between Bach and Mozart, or Monet or Vermeer. But honestly I can’t really blame the schools. Why? Because the whole system is set up to do things that are completely out of touch with what society requires of it. Furthermore, our schools, like our legal system, tend to follow precedent far more than they follow the latest research.

In my experience, kids are profoundly curious about everything, but not all at once. They also have different aptitudes at different ages. Research tells us that we should be immersing our kids, through age 12, in languages and the arts (music, drama, drawing, creative writing)—building on the biological synapses that are primed to absorb and retain information in those disciplines in particular. History, Science, Math, and the other core subjects are certainly important in the early years, but there is always time later on to put additional focus on those areas.

But what our schools teach during the primary and secondary years is pretty much what they’ve taught for the past 100 years or more. Why? Because that’s how they’ve always done it! To do things differently they’d have to change all their curricula. They’d have to create an arts and culture-centered focus for all kids through the sixth grade and then play massive catch-up in science, math, reading, social studies, etc. afterwards. They’d have to retrain their teachers how to teach. And after doing all that, there is still NO guarantee that kids would do any better on those pesky tests foisted on us by No Child Left Behind …so why bother?

We should “bother” because our schools are becoming less relevant to our children. Our kids are less engaged in learning than ever (you don’t want to even SEE those statistics!). And we are putting our teachers in the position of parent, social worker, and educator but only barely funding even one of those roles.

Therein lies the problem. We can’t do it all at once and, even if we wanted to “cure the patient,” the patient has to want the cure. Our education system hasn’t hit rock bottom yet. We can continue to function with lowered expectations and dependent on the hyper-achievers among us to carry a heavier load. But it will be harder and harder to get money to sustain our diseased system and one day pretty soon, the whole thing will implode.

Or will it? I am heartened by various new approaches to education, by the work coming out of our newest education graduates who are eager to apply the latest research and help transform our schools into paragons of the 21st Century Learning Environment.

And one of the most effective ways to start this transformation is for every one of the 150 businesses that attended the luncheon this week to rise and demand that our schools start preparing our kids for the 21st Century, not the 19th, and then put some of their money where their mouth is. As an indicator of their commitment, I should have taken a straw poll of the room and asked how many of those in attendance voted to approve their school budgets at town meeting day last week. But like I said, I didn’t have the courage. Shame on me.

No comments: