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A Simple Innovation: Spend the Money Wisely

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The New York Times has made official what most of us have known for years: the children of the privileged do better in school than the children of the underprivileged. This matters because the rich-poor gap is growing wider, and so (therefore) is the educational outcomes gap, what everyone calls 'the achievement gap.'

Is educational innovation the way to close the achievement gap? A lot of smart people are hoping it will solve the problem. In the past few months I've been around a lot of innovations. I have watched the Khan Academy (and Sal Khan himself) in action, dug into 'blended learning,' Rocketship and KIPP, and looked at some Early College High School programs. I've been reading about new iPad applications and commercial ventures like Learning.com, and teachers have been writing me about how they are using blogs to encourage kids to write, and Twitter for professional development. In many schools kids are working in teams to build robots, while other schools are using Skype to connect with students across the state or nation. I've even watched two jazz groups -- one in Rhode Island, the other in Connecticut -- practice together on Skype!

'Innovation' per se is not sufficient, of course. We need innovations that level the playing field and give all kids -- regardless of their parents' income -- the opportunity to excel.

This matters more than ever. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, most high school graduates could expect to earn a living doing physical labor, while the rest could look forward to doing mental labor (as an accountant, a bank teller, etc). Back then very small percentage of adults did 'creative labor.'

Now think about tomorrow. Unless our economy collapses, very few youth now in school will earn a living doing physical labor. Some will do mental labor, but, if we prosper, it will be because the large majority of adults -- not just those who grew up rich -- are doing 'creative labor.' They have to learn to do this 'work' in school, which means that innovation must become the norm and not the 'gee whiz' phenomenon it now is. In short, we must close 'the opportunity gap' if we want better educational outcomes for more kids, and, by extension, a competitive economy down the road.

A barrier to innovation is the accounting/accountability mentality. Suzy Null, a reader of this blog, wrote in part last week:

I think teachers are becoming more like McDonald's workers. They are given pre-cooked products and a specific "recipe" for preparing them. They are expected to follow these orders religiously in order to ensure that everyone gets the same "quality" experience. If they diverge even slightly, they are told that they are negligent and aren't doing their jobs. What's really sad is that the public is so used to mass-produced products and fast food, that they think that uniformity and mass production would be "good" for schools too.

What's happening is not going unnoticed. The Baltimore Sun reported on February 6th that Maryland officials are "fretting over a perfect storm of education reforms that could make today's extensive state testing regimen seem like a snap," because next school year students will have to take FIVE -- yes, five -- state-mandated tests on top of the tests and quizzes teachers give and the tests administered by local school systems. And Maryland is not unique, because at least 23 states have agreed to 'field test' new assessments, part of the bargain they struck to get federal dollars. "We are going to have students sitting in testing situations for weeks on end" if all of them are given, interim state schools Superintendent Bernard Sadusky told the newspaper.

This is happening, it seems to me, because the adults in charge are obsessed with 'the achievement gap' and somehow believe that we can test our way out of the mess we are in. More testing is not 'innovative,' even if the tests themselves are full of bells and whistles.

That's why no one should endorse 'technology' as the innovation that will be education's salvation. What truly matters are the values that drive the uses of technology, that is, the values of those in charge.

Truly innovative programs engage the creativity of kids, expect them to work hard, know that they will fail but are ready to help when they do, require cooperation with others, involve the families, and -- roll of drums please -- spend real money giving poor kids the stuff that rich kids take for granted.

Spending money matters, because, as the Times pointed out, "One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children's schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources."

The program I have in mind does all of these: the Harmony Program provides free violins, trumpets, cellos, trombones and more to about 80 low-income 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders in two New York City elementary schools. Harmony also works with another dozen or so kids at a local Y and the Boys and Girls Harbor program.

Over the course of a year, children who participate receive hundreds of hours of group lessons, lessons that would otherwise cost their parents north of $7,000. The young musicians are expected to practice at least one hour a day and must keep their grades up if they want to stay in the program.

Demanding hard work of kids is innovative because our education system doesn't come close to expecting enough from young people. Harmony demonstrates that kids don't mind working hard when they understand and believe in the purpose.

Expecting the parents to be involved, as Harmony does, is another innovation in an education system that tends to push parents aside.

What I admire about Harmony is that it's all about language -- another innovation at a time when schools are all about 'the basics' of reading and math. The language happens to be music, which is, after all, the one universal language. And because music is all about mathematics, Harmony's young musicians tend to do well in math.

Most important of all, this particular innovation provides extra resources for low-income kids -- another innovation in a nation whose schools display 'savage inequalities' on a regular basis. This innovation closes the money gap.

If you 'have to see it to believe it,' well, soon you will, because producer Cat McGrath and I recently spent several days with the kids and the adults who work with them for another forthcoming report on PBS NewsHour. On Monday, I believe some audio of my interview with Placido Domingo will be released as a podcast on the Learning Matters site.

"Harmony" is new in this country, but it's not really an innovation. Venezuela's "El Sistema" has been providing instruments and lessons to the poor for more than 30 years and has helped hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids -- among its graduates is Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Perhaps one day some of the Harmony kids will be professional musicians. Perhaps not. But they are doing well in school; they seem to walk taller with the confidence of those who believe in themselves; and -- as you will see on PBS and hear in podcast form next week -- they get to perform in public, conducted by none other than Placido Domingo.

Can "Harmony" spread? The notion of trying to give poor kids the opportunities that rich kids get is sort of anti-American. After all, the French do it in their pre-schools, and everyone knows the French are anti-business. (Wasn't it George W. Bush who pointed out that the French are so hostile to business that they don't even have a word for 'entrepreneur'?)

We can't touch the rich-poor wealth gap without raising taxes on the rich and closing tax loopholes, but we don't seem to have the stomach for that.

Do we have the political courage to spend a few thousand dollars a year -- per child -- on school programs for underprivileged children, and the wisdom to spend it in ways that develop their creativity and talent?

I hope so.