Duncan, Rhee, Bobb and Weingarten Debate How to Do the Right Thing

Last week’s Meet the Press featured an all-star education panel, featuring Secretary Arne Duncan, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb.  Host David Gregory brought these leaders to the table to discuss what’s next in education reform, in light of the newly released film Waiting for Superman.  I enjoyed seeing such contentious characters at the same table and hearing their various approaches to reform articulated in context of each other. But something also seemed to be missing.  Something bothered me about the conversation. Maybe it was the absolutism of the language offered, as if no middle ground exists between choosing to fire or help bad teachers get better. Or maybe it was the inherent contradictions, including the Secretary’s support of local reform, but his inability to actively support those reforms on the local level. Maybe I was uncomfortable because true reform is extraordinarily sticky and complicated and it’s difficult to boil down to talking points on a morning talk show.

This week I’ve been going back and forth on what bothered me – and today I finally realized what was missing from that conversation – the students themselves. Every person at the table said it’s “all about the students,” as we’ve heard so often in recent years. They emphasized their dedication to serving students better, and to “doing right by our children.”  And yet on this panel, and the entire show, we never heard from students – on what they think, on what they need, on how they think schools need to improve. As we continue to debate these reforms in the press, and people go back and forth on whether recent reforms are effective, unfair, or even racist, we have yet to hear from the students.  At YPT we give students a platform to speak, to express their hopes and dreams for the future, and share their views with the world – and they never disappoint.  They often reveal something deeply unexpected and illuminating, that expert adults would never be able to uncover.

So I applaud NBC’s efforts to focus on the education debate with their week of “Education Nation.” But I challenge all of us to start asking the hard questions of education reform to the students themselves.  What do they need? How do they think reforms are going and how do they think they’re doing? And what do they think makes a great, effective teacher?  At the end of the day, our students have the most to gain or lose in these reforms. Their lives are the ones that will be most greatly affected. And they know most what happens in schools and what doesn’t – and why.  I bet if we started asking them how to fix schools, they’d tell us loud and clear. And then we’d need to do it.

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

David Speaks on the Role of the Arts in Students’ Lives – Why We Do What We Do

This year I and YPT were honored to receive the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award for visionary leadership. On Monday, June 7th, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, we received the award during a fun and compelling ceremony that highlighted the importance of the work of nonprofits in our community. I am so grateful to the Meyer Foundation, for the award, but also for the simple opportunity to share a few thoughts about why we do what we do. I’ve had several requests since that evening to post or share my remarks in some way, so here they are. I hope you’ll in some way connect with how we at YPT feel about the arts in students’ lives.

Monday, June 7, 2010
“Thank you so much. I’m so grateful to Julie, Rick, Carmen, Amy, the board of directors and everyone at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, to have their amazing support in my life and the life of Young Playwrights’ Theater. As those of us running organizations know all too well, the proof is in the people. And the Meyer Foundation is filled with true partners, true advocates and true friends to us in the nonprofit sector. I’ve dedicated my life to helping students express themselves and engage the world around them. Because I believe as much as we need to eat, sleep and clothe ourselves to be human, we need to express ourselves. We need to be able to share with our neighbors and the rest of the world what’s bothering us, how others can help us and what we fear or dream of for our future. And that beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, students need to be able to think for themselves. They need to be able to imagine, envision, and explain. They need to understand – not just know, but to understand what they’re learning and why. They need to be able to stand up, put their ideas forward and defend them. And they need to be able to inspire and be inspired.

I know that as I reflect on important moments in my life when I truly learned something, most of them didn’t happen sitting silently at a desk. Most of them were experiences, conversations, dialogues with other people that taught me something I didn’t know and stirred something inside me I didn’t know I had. And in this age of Facebook, Twitter and texting there’s an even greater understanding that comes from being in a room face to face, explaining with our whole selves what we mean, and learning about the world from direct experience and dialogue with our fellow human beings.

So as we’re ensuring that critical needs are met in these challenging times, and that students can do well on the latest standardized tests, I think we need to consider not only what will get us through the night, through the next month or next couple of years, but also what we want to be, what we want to look like and what we want to represent when we get through it.  What kind of society do we want to have? How will students compete in the global arena of ideas if they have none to share? And how can we envision our future if we’re not able to dream?

At Young Playwrights’ Theater we give students the tools they need to engage the world.  And in turn they share their dreams, their fears, their hopes and their visions for the future.  Every student writes a play. Every student hears their play performed by professional actors in the classroom. We share the students’ work with their community through readings, festivals and tours and we pay the students for the opportunity to produce their plays. The students introduce their work and speak about why they wrote what they wrote; they drive rehearsals and recognize their own power in the process. Truancy rates drop when we’re in the classroom. Homework completion soars with our assignments.  We see with our assessments that students’ critical and creative thinking improve dramatically during the program. And teachers, students and parents tell us how much the program has meant to them. Because for many of our students, it’s the first time someone has asked them what they think. It’s their first time to really engage in class.  It’s their first time to tell their stories.  And it’s their first time to realize their own true potential – a revelation of who they are, and who they could be.

Tonight, this honor helps me and all of us at YPT know that what we do matters – that having a vision, and thinking outside the box, makes a difference; that we have partners who believe in our mission; and that service toward a greater good is possible, even today. And that’s a huge gift. I want to thank my fellow recipients, who bring hope, love and strength to so many; thank you to my amazing staff at Young Playwrights’ Theater, Patrick Torres, Brigitte Moore, Elizabeth Andrews, who inspire me every day with their dedication, their passion and their generosity; to our wonderful board of directors and our amazing chair Brian Kennedy; thank you to the greatest Founder a successor could wish for, Karen Zacarias, and of course to our students, for their dedication, their inspiration and their awe-inspiring work; and to my family –  my parents, my sister, my beautiful wife Alex, my son Henry and my two-week old daughter Della for their love and grace in my life. I am grateful to do this work and I am so very grateful to be here tonight.  Thank you very, very much.”

Click here to see more info on the award and the video compilation of the evening, produced by the Meyer Foundation.

Hope to see you soon!

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO