Olympic Dreams

This past week, in honor of the Winter Olympics, I finally got around to watching the movie “Cool Runnings” – the story of the unlikely Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 games in Calgary. I’m no expert, but I think I can safely say that the movie stayed true to the essence of what is undeniably a fun and inspiring story. What is interesting to me, though, is that, even though the movie was never a contender for an Oscar, it has become somewhat of a cultural icon and its subject has had real staying power. Even in 2014—26 years after the original team competed—the Jamaican two-man bobsled team got a disproportionate amount of coverage for a 29th place finisher. There’s something very compelling in a “fish out of water” tale. We can’t help but think: if they can do it, anyone can.

In the world of education, there is no shortage of these types of stories. We are thrilled by students who rise to great achievement, despite the disadvantages they face in their background or the lack of opportunities available to them. We are inspired by teachers who, despite seemingly impossible odds, motivate their students to accomplish things they never believed they could. Surely, we are admiring of schools, especially those that serve mainly poor kids, that innovate and stretch the boundaries of learning.

And yet, there is also something deeply troubling about these stories: their relative rarity. Why should it be that students from poor neighborhoods who go to college is the exception? Why should schools that consistently furnish their students with high-quality learning environments seem like islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity? Indeed, sometimes they seem as out of place as a Jamaican bobsled team.

At NCTL, our vision is that someday expanded-time schools should become the norm and not the exception. This vision stems not from a belief that there is something inherently necessary about an eight-hour school day or a 200-day school year, but rather because we know that with more time in school often comes more opportunity for success. In turn, the more schools build this opportunity into their very structure, the more common it will be for children to break the cycle of poverty that holds them down.

What drives our work, and, I suspect, the work of many education advocates is the same simple notion that draws us to the Jamaican bobsledders. It is neatly summarized in, of all places, a report by McKinsey on the state of American education.  The authors found that student outcomes varied not only between schools in different socioeconomic strata, but also between schools with very similar demographic profiles. They thus concluded: “The wide variation in performance among schools serving similar students suggests that these gaps can be closed. Race and poverty are not destiny.” That is, if those schools can do it, any school can.