Word from Lowell: The core of education reform? Access and input

Lowell Perry Jr., Executive Director

Cleveland’s super group The O’Jays song “Give the People What They Want” sums things up pretty well when one reflects on the message of that tune. As I reflect on the words of that song, I hear an underlying theme that was not as apparent to me as a college student years ago, as it is now. Eddie Levert soulfully sang that the people want better education, better food to eat, better housing, as well as needing money, equality, understanding, and freedom. Giving the people what they want however, means that the people need input on how to get access to those basic requirements that should be in reach of every American citizen.

Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood initiative is hugely driven by bringing greater equity in education to the children and families of Central, so let us talk a little about that issue.  Residents of Central, and other communities across Cuyahoga County, need access to quality education across the entire cradle-to-career pipeline. In addition, they should also have input into what quality education means to them to ensure they actually receive they help they need. Perhaps one reason we continue to struggle as a society is that the “haves” have shown an annoying audacity to prescribe to the “have-nots” what the former thinks the latter needs, without involving them in the conversation.

The essence of Promise Neighborhood is truly about helping to make sure that children and families in this neighborhood have real access and input over their lives.

Our goal is that Promise Neighborhood is a resident led initiative at its core. If residents are not leading the change, then the chances for positive transformation  is greatly reduced. Or as a wise man once said “the chances are slim and none, and slim just left town.” After all, who better to say what will actually help than the end user themselves?

Based on what I am hearing regularly from residents regarding the issue of quality education, following are some questions that Cleveland needs to address to ensure that the people are indeed getting what they want:

  • Why do we continue to teach to a test in our schools? Is that really preparing kids to succeed in life?
  • Why do budget cuts routinely eliminate sports, music, and art, areas that play to the creativity of young people, and in many cases are areas that make kids want to go to school?
  • Why aren’t our kids learning about how their system of government works, or more importantly, how they can best engage to make a difference?
  • Shouldn’t young people get meaningful instruction in the area of financial literacy, like balancing a checkbook, and understanding the concept of compounding interest as a means to building wealth?

The reason we have questions like the above, is that residents were never really given a serious voice at the table when plans were being formalized and rolled out. And I am not talking about a series of town halls where anonymous folks get to speak their mind, rather than actually being involved in the actual crafting of strategies and execution. This is true for not only adults, but the kids as well. We have got to start mitigating some of this propensity for being prescriptive. In other words, doing things to and for people, rather than with them, because we think we are smarter than they are.

Before we go about “solving” all of the issues facing many of our most vulnerable citizens, such as education, doesn’t it make sense that we ask what “solving” actually means to them?

Doesn’t it make sense that they might also be able to provide important insights on how to achieve success? Let me give you an analogy. Starbucks is arguably one of the foremost experts on the subject of coffee, right? How would you like it then if you walked into your local Starbucks, or any other coffee shop for that matter, and the barista just made you what they thought you wanted based on your outward appearance without actually asking you what drink would satisfy the craving that brought you into the joint in the first place? Probably wouldn’t be happy about it I would guess. Isn’t the goal of any retailer to have a happy customer? Why wouldn’t we want happy children and families?

One simple question might help capture the meaning of all citizens having access and input in regard to the policies our various systems, including education make – is this good for our children?  We really don’t know unless we ask them first, right? So take a page out of the Promise Neighborhood playbook and begin to better involve the voice of parents and kids – before final decisions are made about their futures. I would wager that our world will become a much smoother running place with better outcomes for the next generation.