The achievers and those who spur them on should be elevated to the status of 21st-century heroes.
Pressured by employers worried about the quality of their workforce and exposed by the tougher reporting requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, beleaguered public school systems are beginning to register credible and encouraging academic gains. Most of the energy and resources expended on improving school performance is focused these days on accountability and transparency, along with instructional and structural reform—from new school models to new governance paradigms.
This arduous yet essential work must continue, given the weaknesses in the way struggling schools work and are run. Yet progress probably will be incremental, with modest gains from one year to the next. To accelerate the pace of improvement, these initiatives focused primarily on school systems and schools should be augmented by a concerted effort to stoke a heightened desire for achievement on the part of children, their families, and community groups in locales with large numbers of youngsters who chronically underachieve.
Research and real-world experience affirm the importance of active parent and community involvement in children’s education. That’s certainly consistent with my own experience, first as a pupil, eons ago, and subsequently as a parent. Our family lives in a Westchester County, N.Y., town where active (bordering on intrusive) involvement by parents in the schools is the norm. The combination of parents intent on their children achieving and youngsters who actually strive to do so is potent, and produces results.
Successful mentors manage to turn underachievers on to achievement. That’s why after-school programs, whether run by schools, churches, or community-based organizations, are vitally important. Yet, the sheer scale of the underachievement phenomenon far exceeds the scope and capacity of these programs. Nor in this day and age is there remotely enough money in the public or philanthropic sector to place all underachieving children in mentoring programs that motivate them and fortify their academic skills.
Hence the pressing need for strategies that can transform the attitudes and aspirations of youngsters toward school and spur families and community groups to encourage young people to strive to achieve. If the culture of achievement is truly to take hold and endure, it must be embedded in the hearts and minds, the belief systems and behaviors of youngsters, their families, and the organizations that make up their communities. Spreading the gospel of achievement mustn’t be perceived as merely another program that’s vulnerable to the vicissitudes of external funding.
If the culture of achievement is truly to take hold and endure, it must be embedded in the hearts and minds, the belief systems and behaviors of youngsters.
When I headed the National Urban League, the centerpiece of my administration was our Campaign for African-American Achievement. The straightforward goal was to galvanize kids, families, and communities to care about academic achievement. We concentrated on mobilizing black churches, sororities and fraternities, civic clubs, and professional associations to help spread the gospel of achievement.
The campaign hit the mark with much of its work, notably the National Achievers Society and the Doing the Right Thing celebrations that actually reached the children. I vividly recall the induction ceremony for the local chapter of the Achievers Society staged by the San Diego Urban League one Saturday afternoon in December at Bayview Baptist Church.
Arrayed before us were 350 inductees, all of whom had earned B averages or better in school—and half of whom were boys. The church was packed with 1,000 well-wishers who cheered on the achievers. Since the ceremony occurred in a black church, it lasted a whole lot longer than the typical school period claimed by the school-based honor society. The local black newspaper featured the event prominently and published the inductees’ photos.
Not one of those inductees that day disparaged achievement as “acting white.” They all eagerly stepped forward to be anointed as achievers, and proudly wore the customized jackets available only to society members. Many that I talked with there and in other ceremonies around the country asked, in effect, what took the grown-ups so long to find them, to recognize them, and to provide them with the protective cover of a like-minded peer group. On my watch, Urban League affiliates inducted roughly 25,000 youngsters into what I fondly called our national achievement “gang.”
Youngsters will respond affirmatively to the message that “achievement matters,” if it is conveyed with imagination and persistence. The Urban League initiatives illuminate, but hardly exhaust, the myriad ways that youngsters, families, and community groups can and must be reached, to stoke their collective commitment to achievement and quicken the pace of progress in the schools.
Just imagine the excitement and energy around achievement that could be generated by the following kinds of activities:
• High-profile Achievement Day parades through the heart of town that celebrate the accomplishments of students (and perhaps their parents and teachers) who have passed the obligatory state exams, say, in reading and math. Pegging the threshold for marching at such a modest level may offend purists. But given the sheer scale of underachievement, I submit that we need to cast the net of encouragement and recognition as widely as is legitimately possible.
• High-profile community-based ceremonies and rituals in churches and similar venues that recognize and celebrate high achievers.
• Organized groups, like community-based honor societies, that achievers are formally inducted into and that situate them in the company of other achievers.
• Back-to-school events, such as assemblies, rallies, and block parties, that tout the importance of achievement.
• Speakers bureaus that bring recent alumni, business people, credible celebrities, and community leaders to school assemblies to speak to children about the importance of doing well in school.
• Programs run by youth- development agencies, libraries, churches, community organizations, and other grassroots groups that demonstrably turn children on to literacy and learning.
• Neighborhood festivals focused on literacy, math, or other academic skills that enable youngsters to display their scholastic interests and prowess.
Skeptics may question the worth of rituals like induction ceremonies and parades, or dismiss them as one-shot events. Quite the contrary. Communities cling steadfastly to rituals and rites of passage because they are powerful vehicles for celebrating accomplishments and transmitting cherished values from one generation to the next.
Besides, just think of the buzz that an annual achievement-day parade would generate in communities throughout the year. The months devoted to preparing for the parade would engage youngsters, families, educators, and community groups in sustained dialogue about what it’ll take to qualify to march, who actually ends up qualifying, which parents and teachers plan to march alongside them, and how their contingent will present itself in the parade. After the postparade denouement, the process and buzz begin anew, presumably with more youngsters motivated to qualify and march the next time.
Who might stage these activities? They probably could be implemented by coalitions of local groups, such as Urban League and NAACP affiliates, sororities and fraternities, civic groups, schools and libraries, local education funds, business associations (the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, for example), local offices of large corporations, community and family foundations, United Ways, and public officials.
The key is to galvanize volunteer energy into a sustainable force promoting the cause of achievement. It may sound corny, but one time-honored way of doing that is to celebrate the contributions of volunteer groups. Imagine gala ceremonies staged annually at the municipal and state levels at which groups that have successfully turned kids on to achievement receive coveted awards for their efforts.
Companies that market consumer products use advertising methods designed to close the sale. We need that kind of campaign on behalf of achievement.
There could be symbolic prizes, perhaps even modest cash awards, for the “best in class” in various categories—for example, churches and other faith-based programs; sororities and other women’s organizations; libraries; fraternities, fraternal orders, and other men’s groups; civic groups; youth-services agencies; community-based organizations; grassroots outfits like tenants’ associations; corporations; and local business groups. The more the merrier. These ceremonies could be held at city hall, the state capitol, or a convention center.
And why stop there? The very best of these groups might then compete for highly coveted national awards presented at a high- profile national ceremony akin to the Academy Awards or the Kennedy Center Honors. The basic bet is that groups that rely heavily on volunteers will rise to the challenge if they’re bathed in recognition and appreciation. The achievers and those who spur them on should be elevated to the status of 21st-century heroes.
One last thought: It would aid the cause enormously if a corporation that routinely sells its products to kids stepped up to mount a cause-related advertising campaign that sells achievement. Companies that market consumer products use advertising methods designed to close the sale. We need that kind of campaign on behalf of achievement, one designed to persuade youngsters to buy achievement. This should be a cause-related campaign, as opposed to public service announcements, to ensure that the ads are placed adjacent to radio and TV programs that youngsters actually listen to and watch.
The bottom line is deceptively simple: The more motivated children are to learn, the easier it is for educators to empower them to achieve.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Winning Hearts and Minds