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Changing Education--For Real

Summit gathers state and local education leaders and legislators to transform education to compete i

Being in the school business is so last century. Being in the learning business is what American school districts must do if they are to create critical thinkers and self-proficient workers for the 21st century.

It's really, do or die.

This was a key message that came of the second annual National Education Summit 2005 in October--named Leadership, Learning and Technology--when more than 200 state and school superintendents, department of education officials, legislators, mayors and governors, chief information officers, chief academic officers, information technology leaders, and curriculum directors gathered to discuss the state of emergency in U.S. schools and brainstorm how to transform K-12 education.

As the winds off Cape Cod bay at times shook a tent that harbored the group in Brewster, Mass., speakers explained education had to shift to keep pace with the global economy wherein India and China, for example, are snatching what were once American jobs. Speakers urged the educators to read Thomas L. Friedman's book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

The resistance to change American education comes primarily from budget restraints, policy issues and a control within the American school system that must be obliterated, some leaders agreed.

The summit, hosted and organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States and CELT Corp., could have been the tipping point, according to John Phillipo, CEO of CELT, a leading systems integration provider. While other conferences gather the same groups of people, such as AASA, CoSN and NSBA, this summit gathers an array of leaders that can make change happen. And bringing parents and the community into the discussion, either via school Web sites that show real-time grades, or building Community Learning Centers where immigrant parents can understand why school is important for their children, is vital to bringing student achievement to a higher level.

"It was summed up by one of the Department of Education staff members in Wisconsin who said that for years, he's been trying to get legislators and staff to be moving in this direction," Phillipo says. "For the first time, there is now enough momentum to carry forward. And I think that's the same for all the districts that were there.

"We can stop talking around each other and talk with each other. I received hundreds of e-mails from folks who are confident, focused and energized."

Collaboration and sharing best practices across schools, districts, states and even across countries will improve student achievement. Distance learning will keep students connected to other cultures, another vital element of a global society. And offering Internet and computer access is another door ensuring rich as well as poor students are on the same playing field.

Unplugged at School

When Alan November's high school children head to school, they must "power down" and unplug. That is, they have to disconnect the iPod, cell phone and laptop where they instant message friends and surf the Internet, and they must sit at school desks with little or no connection to the outside world. Although technology is rampant in American schools, it is still so separated from the overall curriculum, says November, CEO of November Learning, Inc.

He told a story of his son who recently gathered some classmates on instant messaging and delegated various tasks to do the day's homework. Those good with numbers did the math questions and the historians handled history and the others did English. November says he's awaiting the call from the principal to discipline his son. "He's either running a cheating ring or he's getting ready for the global economy," he says with a laugh. "I'm not saying he should [cheat] but here is a kid with incredible communication capacity" and schools should challenge children to use that capacity, he says.

November suggests the word "technology" be obliterated from the American school language and be replaced with "information and communication," which is what technology creates.

November explained that U.S. schools need better leaders and higher standards and they must teach students critical thinking, a globally economic work ethic, and more self-direction. He adds that "A Nation at Risk," a 1984 report which explained that American schools were mediocre and needed to improve, could have been written yesterday.

"We need a massive shift of control for learning in schools," he adds. "We need to raise expectations and we need to create a much more creative environment for teachers to apply very powerful tools to challenge kids beyond anything they would do without those tools, and we need to fundamentally recall No Child Left Behind."

"We'll be in big trouble if NCLB succeeds," he adds.

November explains that while raising lower student achievement is necessary, the law gives all its attention to lower students and shafts higher achieving students. "We have a national fetish with driving toward mediocrity," he says.

Information is There, But How to Use It?

Using computers, software and Web sites are all part of the wave to improve student achievement across the world. While software should be more teacher- and student-friendly, educators and company leaders agree, teachers must also track individual student progress and get the most out of available data.

During a session that discussed data warehousing, educators spoke of data that were learner-centered and instructionally focused, but teachers in at least one state had been left out of the loop because it was assumed they wouldn't understand it.

Now, in New Mexico, teachers are trained to use data to make decisions in instruction for individual students, says Don Watson of the New Mexico Public Education Department. "We're enabling teachers to design individualized lesson plans," he says.

But questions still lurk. What kind of data is necessary to make decisions? What do administrators/teachers really want out of the data? And how do you use data throughout the year without ending up with a "corpse"?

Some suggested keeping any and all data stored so districts at least have it in the system. Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spent years developing a data warehouse that gives accurate information about the progress of students.

Thomas Carroll, executive director of National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, explained that educators want to transform education but they don't know how. "We can use technology" to help change the culture, he adds.

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

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