Education Reformer Geoffrey Canada fires up NY/CT Charter School Conference

You’ve seen Geoffrey Canada in Waiting for Superman, his Ted Talk, and even his own American Express commercial. He’s spent decades as head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, supporting kids from birth through college to break the cycle of poverty. I was thrilled to meet Geoffrey, the keynote speaker for the 2013 Annual Charter Schools Conference of the Northeast Charter Schools Network October 18-19. He is a real pioneer. He isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said! More on that below.

Geoffrey made special arrangements to speak at this statewide conference. That isn’t surprising; this charter school association is one of the most innovative and successful in the nation. Led by long-time education reformer Bill Phillips, the New York state association recently joined forces with the Connecticut state association, to strengthen the chartering sector in both states. That’s a breakthrough that could be a model for other regions in the country. Here, Bill and his team “decompress” as another successful conference comes to an end.

I was thrilled to present the pioneering charter school story at a special “Charter 101” session at the conference. Newcomers and veterans in chartering alike told me “I didn’t know that!” That’s why I was so grateful that the Northeast Charter Schools Network provided copies of my book, Zero Chance of Passage, to conference attendees. I really enjoyed visiting with attendees—many of them parents. Here I met Laura, mother of Morgan, who attends a charter school in New York City.

But nothing inspired me more than Geoffrey Canada. Read for yourself—my notes may not be exact quotes, but the message is loud and clear. Better yet, check out his Ted Talk at!

I came from a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx. The schools in the South Bronx were lousy 55 years ago and they are still lousy today. Education doesn’t get better like wine. Why isn’t anyone upset about that? 55 years of failure—hundreds of thousands of kids whose lives are destroyed. Why would we continue to do that? In America, if you don’t get an education, you have no chance!

I’m unapologetic. I don’t care if I stumble and fail…that doesn’t make me think we should just let kids fail. I’m not going to do that. We can reject the standards we must meet, or we can figure out a way to do a better job. We all got knocked down with the test scores. Leadership calls for courage—leaders have to step up! The system wants to prove that it can’t be done—that these kids come from a terrible situation—there must be a reason why we don’t have to educate these kids. The vast education system is rooting against us! It has no intention of changing OR educating these kids.

The work is hard. We’ve failed several times (at Harlem Children’s Zone). We corrected it. I’m going to get my kids into any environment they can to be successful, even if things are tough. Whenever we fail, it’s not that something is wrong with our kids—it’s what I and my staff are doing. NO EXCUSES! People think I’m kidding. If you fail and don’t improve, you shouldn’t be in business. We need schools that are constantly getting better—we don’t need more lousy schools. I told my team that I would fire myself if I don’t produce in five years. But I’ll be the last one leaving. Failure is not an option!!

Education is the only industry where we don’t need patent attorneys—we can’t even give away a good idea! People don’t talk with each other—they don’t admit anything—or that what someone is doing is better. It is a foreign concept that you may know something that helps someone else or vice versa. You see a great teacher next to a struggling teacher. They don’t talk. That’s not the natural way. Why can’t teachers be more like doctors? They don’t pretend they have all the right answers—they have specialists. We’ve got to let this go—we need to be on a search for excellence!

Education is also the only business where the standard is that any failure is an indication that it can’t be done at all. So we should get rid of all the charter schools because some fail? When the Palm Pilot failed, did anyone think because that device failed we’d never have a hand-held device? I reject this!

We are on the front lines of saving this country. What is happening in America now is not sustainable. People think middle class schools are good—they are not. The Wall Street Journal said only 25% of children in America can qualify for military service—that is 25% of all the kids in our country!

The USA is #1 in incarceration rates. It costs (maybe $5,000-10,000/year) to educate a child. We spend $60,000 a year on them in prison. You get ZERO for $60,000 per year. Kids aren’t worth anything when you are trying to save them. Just say it costs more to educate a child—I don’t think so! Kids are expendable and continue to be. So we’re on a mission. It’s not just kids at stake—but the whole country is at stake!

Wow. Now you know why Time Magazine called Geoffrey Canada one of the 100 most influential people in the world. When will we take up his challenge?