Why we, a civil rights leader and a philanthropist, are on a mission to transform education

This article appeared in the Opinion section of Fox News on 3/15/2023.


In 2020, there were over 2 million people in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24 who had dropped out of high school. In 1954, Bob Woodson was one of them. Like the millions of students who exit the education system each year without earning their high school diploma, he saw no point in continuing to spend his days in a classroom. Instead of finishing high school, Bob Woodson enlisted in the Air Force, earned his GED, graduated from Cheney University and then obtained a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

It took Joe Ricketts seven years to complete his college education, having to pause his studies periodically while he worked to earn enough money for tuition, balancing the demands of education, work, and a growing family.

Both of us questioned the value of many of our school days, wondering what the point of our lessons were, and how they would prepare us for success in life and career.  Both of us also realized through our experience that a better type of education is possible.

This is why now, after having taken very different life paths, we find ourselves, a White entrepreneurial philanthropist, and a Black civil rights leader, pursuing a common goal to transform education.

The first challenge any educator faces is to engage his students; if students aren’t engaged, they’re not learning.  As countless documentaries, textbooks, and lectures have shown, it is too easy to produce educational materials that excite their creators and fulfill every learning standard, but fail to engage young people–and worse yet, that fail to provide a basis for long-term success as learners or as professionals.

Woodson, through the Woodson Center, has produced a Black History and Excellence curriculum to help shape the American future by drawing on the best of its past.

The lessons spotlight little-known historical figures, celebrate Black excellence, discourage victimhood culture, and showcase the millions of Black Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding values, such as self-determination, equality, resilience, and the opportunity to forge one’s own path and be the agent of one’s own uplift.

The sooner students see living examples of what is possible even in the most dire circumstances, the earlier those possibilities begin to shape their choices and help them make the most of their educational opportunities.

Ricketts, through the Opportunity Education Foundation, advocates for active, engaged, skills-forward learning in which students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning.

Opportunity Education has created a deep well of teacher resources and a suite of innovative technology tools that enable teachers to harness their students’ intrinsic interests.

Over the last six months, our two organizations have come together to implement the Woodson Center curriculum using the engagement-focused, active learning approach advocated by Opportunity Education.  The goal of this effort is to provide students everywhere with the opportunity to explore actively the accomplishments of great Americans, such Crispus Attucks, Biddy Mason, Elijah McCoy, and Bessie Coleman with curiosity and delight while developing essential skills that can propel them forward into the future.

Although Black History Month provides a natural occasion to discuss this collaboration, our hope is that these stories can serve to inspire students of every race and class—these are stories of true Americans who, through their own ingenuity and effort, overcame great obstacles to achieve success. These stories should not be constrained to a single month but should be celebrated throughout the year, and throughout the years, as students engage with U.S. History.

This approach to history focuses on solutions rather than problems, with the goal of showing concrete examples of American success, actively exploring how different individuals were able to confront the issues of their day head on, to forge new paths forward, and to create a lasting legacy of inspiration.

The sooner students see living examples of what is possible even in the most dire circumstances, the earlier those possibilities begin to shape their choices and help them make the most of their educational opportunities.

While stories such as these are inspirational, learning them only as a set of facts would just be scratching the surface of what an education can be. A history course that focuses only on names and dates, or litanies of grievances, would be incomplete at best.  After all, anyone with a typical smartphone could quickly find that information.

Deeply exploring the accomplishments of these individuals is what produces truly transformative learning – exploration that uncovers the skills these historical figures used to find success. A true education is about developing such skills.  These include the skills needed to navigate situations in life, the skills students will need in the future, and most importantly, the skill to ask questions that have not yet been answered.

Skills such as how to conduct research, how to formulate questions, how to analyze information, how to separate sensation from truth, and how to construct a convincing argument are examples of skills our students will need in the future whatever career they pursue. After all, what good is it to memorize the answers when the questions constantly change?

In his own life, Ricketts has said when confronted with a new challenge, “I will use my entrepreneurial skill of making mistakes to find the answer.” Students need to know that mistakes and challenges are not the end of the road to knowledge, but that learning to navigate them is an essential skill on the path to success.

This is why we focus on active, engaged skills forward learning that leads with curiosity and delight.  Intrinsic curiosity can pull students into a topic, but it is only by making it personally relevant that we can sustain the engagement that allows students to make these skills their own.

At the end of the day, what is most important is to prepare our students with the skills they will need for the jobs that do not yet exist so that they may chart their own courses and explore that world with curiosity and delight.

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