Nelson Mandela: An Inspiration for Reformers of Urban Education?

To challenge my thinking about leadership, I’ve recently started reading the autobiographies of game-changing leaders. Most recently, I read Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.

What I found most inspiring about Mandela was his refusal to allow incremental gains to distract from the larger goals of his movement. During his days as a young adult, Mandela’s race limited his access to all aspects of South African society. Yet, he saw that the current structures simply created infighting. Because no one ever considered it a possibility that all people would be treated equally, Black Africans ended up fighting each other for the “best possible” outcomes. Those people of color that were “winning” – achieving the best outcomes they thought possible – were, therefore, not easily convinced that revolution was necessary.
While the apartheid struggle in South Africa seems distant, I found myself using this framework to explore the reform movement in America’s urban schools. We often talk about high-performing urban schools, and our reform movement has certainly created winners and losers. Many of the well-respected charter school organizations make people feel that they are winning – that the best possible outcome is being achieved. This, Mandela helped me see, allows us to take our eyes off the real prize. We have a long journey ahead of us to achieve some important goals, such as the following:
  • Every child should be able to receive a high quality education – in his or her own neighborhood – that provides them with the skills and talents necessary to contribute to the workforce in whatever way he or she chooses.
  • Academic achievement and life outcomes should not be determined by the neighborhood or city of one’s birth.
  • Basic reading and math skills should be used to teach more important higher order skills that will allow individuals to remain flexible in a changing economy. They should not, in themselves, be considered goals.
I finished the book thinking that Mandela would be disappointed in our reform efforts to this point. We continue to create systems that produce unequal outcomes. More disturbing, creating these spurious dichotomies in urban systems – creating winners and losers – allows some to forget that unity is needed to create improvement for all our children.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Founder and President – Reach, Inc.
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