Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric and recently appointed chief outside economic adviser for President Obama, recently stated at the annual conference of Business for Social Responsibility, "This economic crisis doesn't represent a cycle. It represents a reset. It's an emotional, social, economic reset. People who understand that will prosper. Those who don't will be left behind." If one of the world's truly great companies can be part of this "reset," then your district can too. Here's why.
Break from the Past
First, just as households accumulate "stuff," districts accumulate untargeted, unproductive and expensive activities that don't move the needle or lead to increased student performance. For example, some schools saw that other schools were buying carts of laptops, so they each bought a cart or two of laptops. Schools saw that other schools were buying interactive whiteboards, so they bought interactive whiteboards. And now, schools are buying carts of iPads. But, the carts of laptops didn't move the needle, why should we believe that carts of iPads will?
Second, there are funds that have always been in our budgets, such as those for buying textbooks. Why are we buying textbooks? Well, we have always bought them. And now we can buy electronic versions of those same textbooks! But ask yourself, has the use of textbooks really led to increased student performance?
So, good folks in school districts, listen to the CEO of GE: If you want to prosper, it's time to do a reset and jettison the budget items that don't move the needle. Take advantage of this economic crisis; use it as the excuse to make a break with the past. Stop doing the same old stuff you have been doing. Refocus your attention and your budget on those activities that truly increase student performance.
What truly leads to increased student performance? Bill Gates has answers: smaller class sizes. No—that was yesterday's panacea. Merit pay for teachers—ah yes, that's the answer du jour. For those removed from the classroom, it seems logical that test scores are a core metric of teacher merit. But if you are in a classroom every day, working face-to-face with struggling learners, gifted children and all those in between, you know standardized test scores are not the true measure of a child's understanding; it is more complicated. Merit pay will only incentivize teachers to move struggling students out of their classrooms. Unfortunately, the emphasis on these passing fads will just drain energy and focus from more effective reform initiatives.
When learners are active, that is, when they construct artifacts, not just consume them; when teachers and textbooks stop giving children the answers but rather encourage them to find, and own, the answers themselves; when boring worksheets are replaced by engaging projects; when all children have in their hand a networked mobile computing device as a personal window into the planet's store of information; and when learning becomes student-centric, then student performance will increase and the needle will move.
Don't be left behind! Follow Immelt's advice: Use the economic crisis as your machete to hack away the useless, nonproductive items that have accumulated over time in your school's budget and in your school's thinking. Make learning student-centric. Put 21st-century mobile learning tools in the palms of your students. Then watch your teachers and students prosper.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan.