Smart Cities Need Great Schools, The Best Antidote to Poverty

GUAYAQUIL, ECUADOR - FEBRUARY 8: Unknown children in lesson drawing in primary school by project to help deprived children in deprived areas with education, February 8, 2011 in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Technology and globalization have lifted more than one billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990. The UN target of reducing extreme poverty rates by half was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline.

Here in the US, the same trends have created wealth at the top of the income spectrum. There are now about 500 billionaires in the US, while more than one in four US kids live poverty, a higher percentage of children than during the Great Recession.  

The majority of the world’s billionaires made their wealth during the digital revolution. They are concentrated in talent, tech, and finance ecosystems–40% in California and New York (while half the states have 5 or less).  

Our economy and public policy are better at creating extraordinary wealth rather than broad based prosperity. We know more about how to create unicorns (young companies worth more than $1 billion) than ending generational poverty.

Innovation and poverty both result from cycles, one virtuous, one vicious. Ecosystems are created by a set of macro and micro change forces. Innovation ecosystems benefit from an updraft of talent, learning opportunities, access to capital, and optimism. Pockets of generational poverty are caught in a death spiral of despair with a lack of opportunity.

Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to a child’s wellbeing. For the last 50 years this country has tried various approaches to breaking the cycle of poverty with marginal success. We do, however, know how to create great schools–and that appears to be the best long term antidote to the cycle of poverty.

New schools are being formed in almost every corner of this country–perhaps 10,000 in the last 20 years (two thirds of them are public charter schools). Many of them expand and improve family education options. And while more challenging, new tools and new models are helping to transform struggling schools.   

Our three year investigation into Smart Cities That Work for Everyone shows that it is possible to create a great school anywhere a couple leaders believe in a different and better future. But like innovation and wealth creation, there are benefits to a thriving learning ecosystem.

In a meeting with Missouri charter school leaders we discussed critical elements of a healthy learning ecosystem:  

Innovation mindset

  • If we want young people to appreciate effort, initiative, and collaboration, we need to model a productive mindset.
  • Visiting high performing and innovative schools helps create reliable hope that learning opportunities can be different and better.

Sustained leadership

  • Supporting strong elected boards, like Denver Public Schools, creates a platform for sustained and collaborative community leadership.
  • Thoughtful authorizers identify community needs, approve strong proposals, and address weak performance.
  • As Charter Board Partners notes, great charter schools need great boards. Charter boards have engaged about 35,000 community members nationwide–an important cadre of public education advocates.

Talent development

  • Recruiting, preparing and developing talent is a regional issue. Smart Cities build competency-based partnerships with universities and talent organizations to support great educators.  

Collective impact

  • Every school needs strong links to youth and family services.
  • Parent access to school information and secure quality student data is critical.

Aligned investment

  • All public schools should have access to funding that matches their challenges and facilities that meet their needs.
  • Smart Cities align public and private funding for new school development, school improvement, and talent development.

New tools & schools

Advocacy and policy

  • Charter associations can play an important role in supporting quality options.
  • It’s particularly important that, in a push for quality, we don’t eliminate last chance options for families. There should be incentives to work with struggling students and recognition of their growth.  

Smart Cities seek to fulfill the great school promise: every family, regardless of zip code, has access to good neighborhood schools and interesting options.

For more, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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