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TED star Sir Ken Robinson offers solutions for Chicago's schools
Sir Ken Robinson, a radical school-reform expert whose speeches are the most popular in TED conference history, told Grid on Monday that Chicago’s violence is a “big factor that has to be taken account of” in fixing the city’s school system.
The issue is heightened because many of the 54 schools to be closed are in the most violent neighborhoods, Robinson said during an interview at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Terzo Piano restaurant, where he spoke during a salon discussion hosted by TEDxMidwest. TED is a non-profit devoted to “ideas worth spreading,” and stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.
Wrapports LLC, which owns Sun-Times Media, including the Chicago Sun-Times and Grid, is a TEDxMidwest sponsor.
Robinson said there is no easy solution to Chicago’s problems of poor graduation rates and underperforming students. But he questioned the city’s recent proposal to close 54 public schools, saying it seems to him that the schools could “one of the engines of re-generation.”
Robinson, whose efforts to transform the U.K. school system won him a knighthood, believes public schools can be revived so that parents want to send their children there. He dislikes with voucher systems, and is uneasy about magnet schools because they draw talent from other schools, weakening the schools left behind. He believes standardized tests are given far too much importance in America’s school systems.
So what’s the answer? Grid put that question and others to him before his salon speech.
Grid: What can be done in Chicago?
KR: Chicago includes such tremendous cultural resources. There are wonderful resources, great wealth and major businesses. So finding ways to make connections among those resources through the process of education is one of the biggest challenges the city faces.
Grid: Your books, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” and “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative,” advocate the need for students to find their true talents. How does that play out?
KR: The average dropout rate in public schools in the United States is one in three students. It is much higher in Chicago in some parts. It is catastrophic.
It is estimated that if you halve the U.S. dropout rate, the net gain to the U.S. economy over 10 years would be close to $1 trillion.
You cannot blame the students.
There are trends identifying why people drop out: They may be subject to peer pressure or family circumstances, or they feel bored and alienated, like they can’t make it. There are as many reasons as there are kids.
The core problem is that education has become impersonal. There is a real risk in treating this as a statistical issue. In the end, education is very personal, like it was to you and to me. Nobody can deny that the answer is about great teachers and energizing and engaging kids.
Grid: So what has to happen?
KR: It’s a question of political will. You have to personalize education, invest in teachers, raise the status of the teaching profession and give principals control over their own culture.
This cannot be dealt with in a single electoral cycle. If we do it well, it will take 20 years in Chicago.
Grid: What is an example of a system that works?
KR: Finland. It’s a system with no standardized testing that encourages co-operation among schools rather than competition, and it doesn’t obsess about math and science, though it comes out on top of national testing in those subjects.
The system in Finland makes it hard to become a teacher and once you are, it’s like being a doctor in terms of respect.
Though Finland has 5 million people and the United States has 313 million, you can compare Finland to a state and to many school districts. It’s very different culturally and I’m not arguing we can replicate it.
Other programs that work —and I’m not advocating any one system — forge close relationships between schools and the surrounding businesses and communities, and get students excited about learning.
If we lose sight of the fact that it’s about helping people learn, don’t be surprised I they walk away.
You have to hand-craft the strategy for each educational system.
Watch one of Robinson’s Ted Talks here.