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Five Famous Educators Changing The School Model

October 1, 2021
Author: Debra Kidder

Education is an ever-changing institution in this country. As we grow and learn, the greatest minds implement better ways to educate our youth. Below are examples of five modern-day education pioneers, looking to make improvements to the American education system on a day-to-day, person-to-person basis.

Geoffrey Canada

Geoffrey Canada was born in the South Bronx in New York City, among abandoned houses, high crime, and little chance for success. His mother raised Geoffrey with his five siblings.

After receiving a scholarship to college and then receiving his Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard University, Canada returned to Harlem. He founded “The Harlem Children’s Zone,” a New York City, Board of Education approved school dedicated to keeping students on the path to success and out of poverty. This school began by following the academic careers of its students in the 97 block radius of its building.

What makes Geoffrey Canada’s HCZ model different? First, there is “The Baby College,” workshops for parents of infants and toddlers. Canada instituted all-day kindergarten that incorporates play with the curriculum.

School-aged children have access to health services seven days a week, and case managers are assigned to monitor the mental health of students. A program called Peacemakers is available for extra help in academics and social conflicts.

Not enough time has passed to see if this broad social experiment will make a serious impact, but the early numbers tell a positive story: the black/white gap had been closed on one standardized math exam. Grades went up on all English and math assessments, and the number of school days missed had dropped tremendously.

Geoffrey Canada was mentioned by President Barack Obama in 2008 in an address, with an expressed desire to bring his model to major cities across the United States.

What can you do in your district/school do to institute some of Geoffrey Canada’s ideas?
You can start by supporting mental health initiatives, and by incorporating play into your curriculum. Try starting an after school program similar to Peacemakers to address social conflicts in your building.

Don Shalvey

Formerly a math California teacher, principal, and administrator, Don Shalvey founded Aspire Charter Schools late in his career. But he didn’t stop there–noticing the lack of achievement in education compared to other northern California industries, he knew he could do more.

Shalvey makes his home in San Joaquin Valley and notes that almost 70% of high school graduates remain there. So he founded San Joaquin A+, an organization whose main goal is to offer grants to high schools and community colleges.

This grant money is aimed at starting the “Early College High School” experience, where juniors and seniors can take college courses concurrently. Some participating students even graduate from high school with an Associate’s Degree in hand.

Shalvey is also looking to expand his program to create ‘teacher villages’ in The Valley. He believes “early homeownership in the community will honor the dignity of the (teaching) profession.”

One of the overall goal of San Joaquin A+ is to “Prepare young people with the skills and knowledge to earn a family-sustaining income.” Much of Shalvey’s foundation is based on family and community involvement in education and student readiness for the future and ability to problem solve.

How can you implement some of Don Shalvey’s ideas into your classroom or school?
Look for colleges that offer partnerships with high schools. Many allow juniors and seniors to take college courses concurrently with high school classes, and your students can begin earning college credit early. This sets your students up for success later on.

If you teach in the lower grades, remember to focus on teaching life sustaining skills and incorporate real world applications in your lessons.

Wendy Kopp

You may have heard of Wendy Kopp. She founded Teach for America, a realization of her Princeton University thesis creating a teacher recruitment system based on the Peace Corps model. Kopp has also published two books on her experiences, but she is not finished yet. Her latest project is Teach For All.

Based on the same principles as Teach for America, Teach for All reaches six continents and connects 59 agencies. In a 2017 lecture at Princeton University, Kopp stated that Teach for All’s “primary aim is to find solutions for ‘the big, complex, systemic challenges that can’t be solved in classrooms alone.” Two other goals are independence from government or organizational interference in teaching, and measurable, short-term student achievement. Teach for All also creates an international alumni network of teachers.

How can you bring Wendy Kopp’s ideas into your classroom or school?
Create short term, measurable goals that students can build on. When students have small successes to celebrate, they have motivation to work towards further success.

Linda Darling-Hammond

Born in Ohio and trained as a public school teacher, Linda Darling-Hammond has been in the trenches of public education. After receiving her EdD from Temple University in 1978, Hammond began to move away from the classroom and towards making the changes she felt education needed to increase student achievement–and she felt that began with student connection and teacher training.

Hammond was one of the first educators to move away from paper and pencil exams to determine mastery in our students and towards performance-based assessments. She also recognized the need to invest in teacher professional development. Hammond created a reform movement in New York City in the 1990s through the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium. This allowed new teachers to show their abilities in the classroom, rather than simply count PD credits for licensure.

More recently, Hammond has turned her attention to the topic of teacher retention, and how school culture affects teacher retention and in turn, student success. Hammond has spent countless hours studying what makes one school more effective at creating a positive school culture, where both teachers and students thrive. Teaching and learning for teachers is a crucial part of her school improvement plan.

How can Linda Darling-Hammond’s experience inspire you?
Perhaps you have always wanted to get involved in planning Professional Development days at your school. Is there a committee that decides who to bring in on those days? Does anyone seek to learn what teachers want? Get involved in making your school a better workplace for your colleagues. Research the best educational developers and bring them in to do workshops and trainings.

Robert Hughes

Before becoming the Director of K-12 Strategy for the Gates Foundation, Hughes was the President of New Visions for Public Schools. One of Hughes greatest achievements was the New Century Initiative, a partnership with the United Federation of Teachers (the New York City teacher’s union) and the New York State Department of Education.

With this initiative, Hughes created roughly 100 small district middle schools and high schools in impoverished areas of the city. These became known as the New Visions schools, where teacher training and teacher-led curriculum creation led the way to higher student assessment, To date, graduation rates at these schools have increased by nearly 30% to roughly 88%. The average attendance rate is 92%. New Visions Schools have grown to serve a student body about the size of the Seattle public school system; how does Hughes keep up?

“Answers to improving urban education come in multiple forms,” according to New Visions Schools. These include student-centered learning, innovative teacher certificate programs, effective leadership, and promoting ambitious, rigorous instruction.

Hughes will likely remain involved in this massive educational project while working for the Gates Foundation. His new responsibilities will be awarding grants to educational institutions to further the work of innovative educators across the country–and the globe.

What can you take from Hughes’ work?
Keeping your lessons student centered is key. In inner city schools, retention is always a problem–but where students feel seen and heard, they will attend. Student centered lessons show students that the teacher takes an interest in their lives beyond the classroom. It allows the student to demonstrate subject mastery in the style that best suits *the student,* not the system. That change in perspective alters results dramatically.


These five ambitious educators are ready to move the model for public education towards a brighter school year. As schools reopen after the covid-19 pandemic, the time is right for teachers to re-asses practices, determine student needs, and make the changes required to achieve the greatest possible outcomes.

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