Thursday, October 1, 2009

Be clear on the rules of the game

Bob Hebert ends his NY Times column on the efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates to use the financial power of the Gates Foundation to transform American education with a quote from a Charlotte high school student:
A student in the Algebra 1 class at West Charlotte High summed up the matter cogently when she said to the Gateses, in a voice that was not the least amused: “People seem to think it’s cool to be stupid. But it’s not.”

I generally believe that Hebert's column at the NY Times illuminates the hidden issues in our society. He uses his column to probe race, class, and gender and I genuinely respect his perspective and analysis of the world. However, I wonder why he ended his column on America's sagging educational system by having a teenager indict her peers. She threw her cohort under the bus.

My experience with our youth in Project Coach and beyond suggests that the issue is not one of adolescents intentionally and rationally choosing 'cool' over hitting the books or embracing a persona of 'stupid' -- but that most youth have a hazy, foggy, suspicious notion of the causal chain: working hard in school translates into learning those crucial skills and knowledge that will enable me to create choices in my life. In other words, why should I endure the daily nuisance of school if I  have not internalized the link between what I do in English class, my present life, and my future? There is a long tradition of scholarship that concludes that school failure can be tracked to a youth's inability to understand what Ogbu calls the "link between educational achievement to jobs" (See for example, Ogbu's Minority Education and Caste (1978) and Kao and Thompson's 2003 paper in the Annual Review of Sociology).

We traffic in the present moment in Project Coach. We try and create a culture where it's "cool" to be a leader. The role of coach has status in our culture and we capitalize on that  by conveying to our teens that you have to learn and practice a set of skills and capacities in order to be a high-impact and effective coach/leader. We-- the adults in the program-- may have high-minded ideas about the link between performing in Project Coach and a coach's future both personally, but also as Hebert points out "societal success," but I suspect that our teen's focus more on "I need to learn to communicate because tomorrow I'm going to be standing before 14 third-graders and I need to be effective."  Typical exhortations of youth focus on convincing them to delay  gratification and work hard for an elusive long-term goal. The notion of PC is to  provide an authentic and formidable challenge that exists in the moment-- you better learn to communicate, organize, resolve conflict, and work as a team because if you do-- you'll be a better coach today. They probably have some hazy idea that this will help them in the future, but I sense that's not as prominent a motivating force...

See Bill Gates on the role of education in making lives and society better. His work is worthy of admiration.

1 comment:

  1. It is not cool to be stupid, it is cool to be a leader. That is exactly what we need to demonstrate to our youth today!