Acclaimed children’s advocate Geoffrey Canada, founder of a legendary initiative to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Harlem, New York, will deliver the keynote address at Stanford Graduate School of Education’s (GSE) 2022 Cubberley Lecture on May 24.
This year’s lecture will center on the importance of early childhood learning, the focus of a new research center at the GSE and a key initiative of the Stanford Transforming Learning Accelerator, which seeks to create new solutions for the greatest challenges facing learners.
Canada is the founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit the New York Times Magazine called “one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time.” Providing education and support services for thousands of families in Central Harlem, the HCZ’s programming includes K-12 charter schools, preschool and afterschool programs, college and career preparation, and “Baby College,” an eight-week workshop for parents and caregivers of children ages 0-3. The HCZ was the inspiration for the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which replicated its community-based model nationwide.
Canada was named one of TIME magazine’s Most Influential People in 2011 and has been featured on 60 Minutes, Nightline, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and This American Life. He also figured prominently in Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary investigating the U.S. public school system, and was the subject of Whatever It Takes, a 2009 book by New York Times best-selling author Paul Tough. He is the author of Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, which draws on his own childhood experiences growing up in the South Bronx, and Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America.
Canada will be joined at the Cubberley Lecture for a conversation about early childhood with former California Assembly Member Ted Lempert, president of Children Now; Kitty Lopez, executive director of First 5 San Mateo County; and Jelena Obradovic, an associate professor of education at Stanford.
We spoke with Canada about his work in advance of the May 24 event.
Why do you think it’s so important to address challenges that children experience in their first few years?
The science is becoming clearer and clearer on brain development in the early years. When I was studying [education] and teaching back in the 1980s, we didn’t realize how intricate the wiring and rewiring of an infant’s brain was. A lot of folks took [babies] as sort of passive, babbling a bit and being cute. You might think, well, I could play with this child or not. But it’s not just arbitrary – we now know there is intentional development of that brain in those first critical years.
When my wife and I had our youngest kid, we had all kinds of mobiles and toys and everything – we thought, That brain’s going to be so fired up! But no one was saying anything to poor people about what they should be doing. If we want children on a level playing field, we can’t give some kids a three-year head start and think the others will catch up.
What role do research institutions play in advancing this understanding?
When we started the Baby College, we partnered with Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who was creating the Touchpoints model of development [to guide care]. One of the things he looked at was the actual structure of the brain, so you could see what was happening when you used language. And I said, ‘Isn’t there some way we could bring that into Harlem, so my parents can understand that this is not just a set of suggestions but actually causes changes in the brain?’ It’s not just a folk tale we’re telling parents – there’s actual research to back it up.
There are a lot of difficulties children have in acquiring and expressing language. I’m old enough to have been one of the first to start working with kids with autism, when people thought these kids couldn’t learn – they would just put them in institutions and that was the end of it. But then a number of folks started trying to figure out what was actually happening and how you educate children who had this kind of disability. I think we’re just touching the surface of research that could provide valuable clues for all of us on how we can intervene earlier and earlier with children.
As someone who’s worked on both the research and the advocacy side, how do you think the two could work together more effectively?
It’s always frustrated me that there are brilliant people working on these challenges, having theories and writing papers, and so little of it is made into a consumable way for the practitioners. Part of the challenge with the institution of higher learning is that you’re rewarded for publishing often in magazines that most of us don’t read. And often the work just hints at what some solutions might be, but it’s not shared in a way that even some of us who are working hard on this can intuit what it means for kids and families.
How do we remedy that – getting education research into the hands of the people who practice it?
There should be a major conference every year where you mix the practitioners with the scientists, where they talk to each other and give feedback. In medicine, you have to take continuing education courses if you want to keep your license, because medicine changes and they want to make sure doctors are kept up to speed. If it weren’t for medical malpractice [lawsuits] – that’s a real pressure on doctors to learn and to do better.
That’s not the case in education – you could be teaching the way people taught 20 years ago and no one bats an eye. There’s no real push for you to learn the latest science in education. There’s no penalty for failing, and there’s very little incentive for changing.
But you’re not suggesting that we sue teachers, right?
No, no. I’m not suggesting that. This is how I break down the world of education: You’ve got a lot of great schools that upper-middle class and wealthy families know about, where many of their kids go. You’ve got a bunch of schools that are 50/50, where half of the kids are probably going to do OK and half are not. And then you have a bunch of schools that are just failing kids on a regular basis.
That first group doesn’t have to deal with the third group – they don’t have to worry. We don’t all have to go to that school. But we all have to go to the same hospital. [With schools,] the pressure to improve is left with the weakest, most marginalized folks who have the least ability to push the levers of power.
What are some of the solutions you’ve seen that have worked?
I’d say there are a few core components. One is talent. Someone asked me recently whether I see education as a low-value proposition in this country – that folks who feel that they’re smart and talented aren’t going to gravitate toward teaching. They’ll go into tech or medicine instead. But I think teaching is one of the most complicated professions there is.
Another major component is structure. We’ve structured education in a way that if kids are behind, we do not give them additional time to catch up. Places that are successful will do classes during unorthodox times, and an enriched environment educates children all the time. It’s hard to explain metamorphosis if you’ve never seen a caterpillar in a cocoon – it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think we pay enough attention to [giving kids] the ability to have this kind of experiential education.
Learn more about and register for the Cubberley Lecture on May 24.
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