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Dear Mister President

If you could tell the President one thing about education, what would you say? Twelve experts answer our challenge.

By Jacqueline Heinze | January 2009


Just before Election Day, Scholastic Administr@tor reached out to experts across the country and asked them to write open letters to the next President of the United States, offering advice and wisdom on how to improve our country’s public education system. On November 5, 2008, letters addressed to President-elect Obama began to flood in—from entrepreneurs, graduate professors, and those in the trenches. By and large, the authors of the letters all shared the same sentiment: The nation is in crisis and the only sure-fire way to provide long-term solutions to our problems, from the economy to the environment, is to focus on education and prepare our next generation of Americans to compete on the global stage. The letters also reiterated that the U.S. must regain its status as the best-educated nation in the world, a position from which we have woefully fallen. For the first time in our nation’s history, high school students are not more likely than their parents to attend college. As dire as the situation is, our contributors shared another view: that there is a way out. What follows are their suggestions for how to get on that path.

Dear President Obama:
Raise expectations


By Russlynn Ali, Executive Director, The Education Trust—West

After watching your first address as President-elect on November 4, 2008, I went into the streets to celebrate. I watched as people from all walks of life came together as a community. But it was the young people who most captured my attention, as I watched them literally jump for joy. This is what hope looks like, I thought. Then I wondered, what happens when these same young people return to school only to be given less than their fair share?

The achievement gaps hobbling America’s children are staggering. Nationwide, Latino and African-American 12th graders have math and reading skills roughly equivalent to those of white 8th graders. High-achieving students from the lowest-income families go on to college at the same rates as the lowest-achieving students from wealthy families. My colleagues and I spend time with educators across the country who are working to raise student performance. With few exceptions, they work in a context where the deck is stacked against our most vulnerable students. Federal policy can be enormously powerful in unrigging this system, and there are ways policy can be improved to bring about change.

First, we must raise expectations. All students need the skills for college and career readiness that were once reserved for a select few. More young people will need to go to college to earn a living wage in this increasingly competitive economy. Success in higher-paying occupations that don’t require college—drafting, electrical or sheet-metal work—does require mastery of the “pre-college” curriculum, such as algebra and geometry. Federal policy should encourage states to both raise standards and provide support for the rich, innovative curricular and instructional tools teachers need to help students meet them.

Second, closing the gap must be a condition of federal education aid to states and districts. Accountability may not be popular at the moment, because it shines a spotlight on hidden inequities. As nclb is reauthorized, we must ensure that accountability provisions remain strong. Even the most change-oriented school and district leaders tell us they need the leverage that tough federal laws provide. But as we move forward, greater accountability must be matched with greater supports for schools, educators, and the students they serve.

Third, close the teacher-quality gap. Research shows that students growing up in poverty are assigned disproportionately to our weakest teachers. Federal policy should work to reverse this trend by helping districts give the most effective teachers incentives to stay in the classroom and to teach the students who need them the most.

This trio of issues is primed for bipartisan action. Traditionally, Democrats have led the way on equity and Republicans on accountability. The task at hand is to overcome partisanship and combine the best thinking of both parties to change the way we “do school” in this country. For there is no strong America without strong public schools.

Dear President Obama:
Get your priorities straight


By Tom Payzant, former superintendent, Boston Public Schools; senior lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Thank you for taking the time to convey your commitment to make education a critical component of your change agenda. You know that the federal role is limited but that it can have a significant impact. I offer five suggestions for you to consider.
Federal legislation must ensure our commitment to equity and provide targeted resources for children in need of additional support. Your highest priority must be recognizing that children from low-income families need more resources to put them on a level playing field with more advantaged children.
The framework for education policy must be standards-based reform. America can no longer be satisfied with different standards and assessments in each of the 50 states; we must have national benchmarks.
Early childhood education must be the third priority, but I caution you not to think about it as a program only to expand opportunities for 4 and 5-year-olds. Instead, consider how to support families with prenatal care and childhood development within a child’s first three years of life. Find ways to align federal policies and funding streams that create incentives at all levels of government to connect health care and social services targeted to needy families. With a more coherent funding approach, fewer children will enter kindergarten with learning gaps that later become achievement gaps.

Federal policy must create incentives to attract the best candidates to teaching. It can do this by encouraging school districts to support changes in the workplace. Instead of a culture of isolation, in which teachers are alone in their classrooms doing the best they can, create an environment in which collaboration is the norm, data are embraced and used to drive effective decisions, and opportunities for leadership roles exist and shared accountability is the result.

My fifth suggestion is to address access to higher education. We must eliminate equity issues that prevent high school graduates from continuing their education—whether at technical schools, employer or trade union training programs, community colleges, or four-year colleges and universities. It is time for a 21st-century model of the GI bill to provide access for those already in the workplace who need new skills to compete in a rapidly changing job market, and for those completing high school who will not be able to compete for jobs without post-secondary education.

Mr. President, these ideas do not need to be germinated in separate greenhouses. They come together as strategies for reinventing our education system, which must change to both meet the demands and provide the opportunities for all Americans to be prepared for the workplace, citizenship, and a good life.

Dear President Obama:
Meet the Soccer Apocalypse Moms


By Sandra Tsing Loh, public school parent, activist, and comedian

Now that it’s time to fix (again) our education system, sitting around that West Wing conference table will be the usual passel of lifer administrators, think tank policy wonks, rock ’n’ roll charter school innovators, and “social entrepreneurs” … but no actual public school parent. Even in our own hometowns, parents take our place behind the mayors, unions, Eli Broad, and op-ed writers. Since most politicians have never dealt with public schools as customers, it might shock you, Mr. President, how poorly parents are treated out here in Public School-Landia.

Here’s the good news, Mr. President. In a testament to the can-do American spirit, public school parents are fighting back. From New York to Seattle, activist parents are blogging their outrage over dollars wasted on non-working computer technology, non-child-centered programs, and, of course, those entities whose budgets are never, ever cut: the standardized testing companies.

Even more amazingly, these activist parents are partnering with administrators, teachers, and communities to improve their struggling public schools. Which parents? Well, Mr. President, think “Soccer Moms,” but a different kind of Soccer Mom. Given the upward ratcheting of “winner take all,” private schools now start at $20,000 a year and starter homes in “good” school districts cost $1.2 million. So instead of “Soccer Moms,” think “Soccer Apocalypse Moms.” Picture us hurtling about not in Volvos but Mad Max/Road Warrior trash cars. Ours are the kids who will only play soccer if we personally hand-stitch the soccer ball, nail up the goalposts, and put shovel to field.

What Soccer Apocalypse Moms are doing at an accelerating pace is re-gentrifying inner cores denuded from 30 years of neglect, with all the cultural complication that entails. They are using vh1 “Save the Music” to obtain instruments and Kaboom! to build playgrounds. They are starting after-school programs, writing garden grants, and helming 5k walks to fund elementary pe programs. They are even rediscovering that old warhorse, the PTA.

By now, news coverage of public education is relegated only to stunt work. We only read about the homeless inner-city child who won the scholarship to Harvard. I wouldn’t decry any leg up a poor child gets. But at the same time, I think this focus betrays an underlying gloom: that integration is dead.

But that isn’t true. As Soccer Apocalypse Moms re-gentrify our schools, we dare not kick out the poor (what, and lose thousands of dollars of Title I funding?). Our mission: to maintain a balance between affluent and poor children; to riddle our school board with e-mails if needed; to be the aggressive, demanding watchdogs over elaborately funded programs handed to our children. If only on top of those millions in Gates money there would be $300 micro-grants to assign one middle class mom to each poor school. That would be enough to help each of us get a really fast version of Excel. Oh, Mr. President, please bring our people to the table. And be optimistic that change really is possible. It’s morning in America.

Dear President Obama:
Measure the whole child


By Michael Geisen, science teacher, Crook County Middle School, Prineville, Oregon; 2008 National Teacher of the Year

You and I have a lot in common. We’re both bipedal, are strikingly good looking, and have a comprehensive and long-term view of how our country can be successful in the world. We also both have two dang cute kids of similar ages. The main difference is our jurisdiction. You are the new leader of the free world, and I lead a band of seventh graders in rural central Oregon.

My own children, like yours, are amazing human beings: intelligent, curious, funny, and imaginative. My hope is that their teachers honor those traits and, above all, make their education engaging. My daughter was born with her eyes wide open, immediately exploring the world she came into. My fear is that by the time she navigates through 13 years of public school, she will lose that curiosity and desire to learn.

In the past, education has focused on transmitting facts from teacher to students, then testing kids to see if they learned the required material. That model is no longer adequate in the U.S. China and India are producing legions of highly skilled, knowledge workers who can do our routine jobs for a fraction of the cost. Technology is replacing or fundamentally changing most other jobs. In light of this reality, should we continue to place such a high value on specific content knowledge, or should we start to truly value a broader set of skills?

We need to focus not only on knowledge, but also on creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, technological literacy, civic engagement, global awareness, and other big picture skills. When we do, we not only prepare students to succeed in the future, we also value them as complete human beings today. It makes their schooling relevant, meaningful, and much more enjoyable.

My concern is that we have a misguided concept of “achievement.” We have enshrined a narrow definition of aptitude that doesn’t fully value how complex and diverse human intelligence really is. We are measuring only a small part of what is actually important in human life, and usually in isolation from the real world in which we live. And this focus has shaped our curriculum, our pedagogy, and the degree to which we are able to inspire our children to love learning. As a teacher, I must wrestle with this every day.

Great teachers develop their students’ curiosity and passion about the world, and allow them to discover concepts on their own and create something new from them. Not all students have the same interests or ways of learning, so if we’re serious about all kids being successful, we need to stop treating them as if they are all the same to start with, or that they should all be the same when we’re done with them. We need to dig deeply into a few broad and relevant standards, but children deserve curriculum, instruction, and assessments that are meaningful, flexible, and inspiring.

The good news is that this is happening in the U.S. The bad news is that it is happening only in isolated pockets, or sporadically. The knowledge and creativity that we need to solve our educational challenges already exists, but we need a leader who will inspire all of us­—teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members, everyone—to develop our children as whole people, and to be forward-thinking enough to value formally the things that really matter. You are that man, President Obama.

Dear President Obama:
Don’t do anything


By Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; author of Five Minds For the Future.

Many individuals will advise you about what to do. I suggest that you not do anything, at least for a while. Don’t pay attention to the so-called experts who have reflexive views on issues like merit pay and a national curriculum. Rather, try to understand the demands of today’s world, and what we should prioritize in terms of future citizenry. Only then should action be pursued.
With this warning, here’s my recipe: Begin with what kinds of human beings we would like to have. I submit that we want to have both Good Workers—excellent technically, personally engaged, and ethically behaved—and Good Citizens—well informed, with a disposition to act and a desire to do the right thing by others. We’ve had too many years of people behaving selfishly. You will not be able to bring about change with a populace like that.

Clearly, these goals can’t be achieved by schools alone; they are a community affair. But in the 21st century, they won’t be achieved unless the educational system supports them.

Next, consider the kinds of minds that need to be cultivated in the future. I’ve identified five:
The disciplined mind is familiar with the major ways of thinking (scientific, mathematical, artistic, historical); has mastered one profession; and continues to learn. You have a disciplined mind yourself.

The synthesizing mind knows how to organize information, so we can hold onto it and communicate it to others. You excel in this area as well.

The creating mind goes beyond the disciplines to conceive of new questions and solutions. I hope that at least some of your advisers have these traits.

The respectful mind acknowledges the enormous differences among individuals and strives to make common cause. You have exemplified this trait like few others in current public life.

With the ethical mind, one thinks of oneself as a worker and as a citizen, and tries to behave responsibly in both roles.
No singular national policy could possibly satisfy Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Ventura. Our affluent suburbs have entirely different opportunities and challenges than do inner cities or our vast heartland. Learn from our admired, amazingly varied college system. Avoid using a hammer when many scalpels are needed; that’s the fatal flaw of NLCB.

As President of a country where education has traditionally been local, don’t try to orchestrate the details. Identify model programs and help people who want to learn from those models. In a democratic society, only those who want to learn will do so effectively. You can’t mandate quality, only facilitate it.

Last point: Excellent educational systems can differ dramatically from one another. Compare Finland and Korea, Sweden and Singapore. What they share are not national standards or merit pay. They share teachers who act and are treated like professionals, and families that respect education. Use your singular pulpit, and your profound insights into our history, to look deeply for solutions—around the world, but equally, within our own national fabric.

Dear President Obama:
Save public education


By Krista D. Parent, superintendent, South Lane (OR) School District; 2007 National Superintendent of the Year

My congratulations on your new role! As you enter into the presidency, I would like to make some recommendations about how to strengthen public education in this country.

Firstly, we need a leader who will inspire, motivate, and provide the tools and resources for the public education system to step up to the challenge of educating all students to high standards. This has never been the goal before in public education and the system was never designed to do this—consequently, there are some major changes that need to occur to make this a reality. The initiatives I propose require additional investment from the federal government. They also require that we stop diverting dollars to invest in charter schools. We must put all our resources into research-based best practices that are targeted and focused on providing the highest quality education for all students in this country.

In order to transform public education, we as a nation must:
•Provide intense professional development for leaders of schools and school systems.
•Infuse modern-day technologies into daily instruction and ensure technology access for all.
•Transform high schools by focusing instruction on 21st-century skills.
•Provide opportunities for all pre-school children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
•Invest in ways to extend learning beyond the traditional school day for those students most in need of additional support.
•Implement strategies to recruit, support, and retain the best and brightest individuals into the public school system as principals and classroom teachers.

This list of initiatives is based on the realities of the community I live in, where I work as the superintendent of schools, and where my own children go to school. Our community in Oregon is similar to many others across this country. Nearly 60 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged, 17 percent qualify for special education services, and 6 percent receive services as homeless students. Many students in my district will be the first in their family to go to college, or even to graduate from high school. Despite these barriers, students in our community are achieving at high levels and have hopes and dreams for careers and futures that help make this country strong. Without a strong public education system these students would likely become just another statistic.

Dear President Obama:
Put the world in world-class education


By Vivien Stewart, Vice President for Education, the Asia Society

Your election signifies America’s ability to renew itself in response to the urgent need for change. Nowhere is this clearer than in education. As never before, American education must prepare students for a world where the opportunities for success require the ability to compete and collaborate on a global scale.

To succeed in this new era, we need not only to increase the number of graduates and improve rigor in math and science, but also ensure that our students are globally ready. Compared to their peers in other industrialized countries, American students are woefully ignorant of other world cultures and only half of high school students take even a year of foreign language.

Meanwhile, business leaders are calling for employees with knowledge of languages and cultures to market products around the world and work effectively with foreign partners. National security leaders warn that the pervasive lack of knowledge about other cultures threatens the security of the United States. And our ability to collaborate in solving the challenges facing our planet also depends on greater knowledge of the world outside our borders.

Our national goals must therefore include producing an internationally literate workforce and informed citizenry. Across the country, there are hundreds of innovative efforts underway to add global content to local schools. But a national imperative requires national leadership: We need a federal, state, and local partnership to create a truly 21st-century education system.
As you consider how to reframe the future federal role in education, five areas of new investment are needed.

Provide states with incentives to benchmark their standards against other countries so that school leaders can understand the changing global skill set and share best practices from around the world.

Support initiatives to raise high school graduation rates to ensure access to education for disadvantaged youth. At the same time, transform high schools for the 21st century in order to create college-ready and globally competent graduates.
Invest in our teachers’ capacity to teach the international dimensions of their subjects. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Expand opportunities to increase their own knowledge and to kindle their excitement about other cultures so that they can foster the same curiosity in their students.

Build national capacity in world languages from K–16. Offer federal incentives to begin learning languages in elementary school, promote online language learning, and recruit and train language teachers from our diverse communities.

Expand federal programs that support the engagement of U.S. students with the rest of the world. Imagine if every American school had an ongoing partnership with a school in another part of the world, where students could learn with and about each other. Not only would our students be better prepared, but America’s image abroad would be greatly enhanced.

The future is here. It’s multicultural, multilingual, and connected. If we put the world into world-class education, not only will we be more successful in the global economy, we will lay a foundation for peace and a shared tomorrow.

Dear President Obama:
Reinvent school


By Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, Technology, Innovation, and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Improving the U.S. educational system is the single greatest contribution any President can make to our nation. In comparison to those in other developed countries, our educational system is complex, resistant to innovation, and fragmented in ways that make improvements at scale difficult to attain. Through advances in computers and telecommunications, however, historically unprecedented opportunities are now available for educational improvement.

Investments in advanced information and communications technologies are central to achieving each of my policy recommendations below, because emerging tools, applications, media, and infrastructures are reshaping three aspects of education simultaneously: (1) the knowledge and skill sets society expects from its education graduates are shifting, due to the evolution of a global, knowledge-based economy; (2) methods of research, learning, and assessment are expanding, as new interactive media support innovative forms of pedagogy; and (3) the characteristics of students are changing, as their usage of technology outside of school shapes their learning styles, strengths, and preferences. Combined, these trends suggest that—beyond implementing educational technology that research and experience have proven effective—we should develop alternative models of education that use emerging technologies to reinvent many aspects of teaching and learning.

The first-generation curriculum standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability measures now in place are deeply flawed. To replace them, consider next-generation standards, instruction and assessments, and accountability incentives that focus on 21st-century knowledge and skills.

Champion next-generation curriculum standards. Bipartisan groups that draw on the full range of stakeholders in quality education, such as the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, are developing the foundations for next-generation curriculum standards.

Promote next-generation instruction and assessments. Advanced computers and telecommunications can support sophisticated pedagogies and deep content in which learning and formative, diagnostic assessment are individualized so that all students can succeed—and yet federal investments in educational research and development are far too limited.

Impose next-generation accountability policies. The current emphasis on “blaming the victim” demoralizes educators and students. It is essential to couple high expectations with the resources necessary to attain those objectives.

Provide incentives for next-generation professional development. Educators must experience firsthand the types of knowledge and skills students need for 21st-century work and citizenship. The federal government should offer inducements such as government tax incentives to high-technology businesses and other global companies that offer educators summer internships.

Provide resources for scalable improvement strategies. Scaling up involves adapting an innovation successful in some local setting to effective usage in a wider context. The federal government should center its investments on models of educational improvement that are scalable, rather than initiatives that rely on “hothouse” contexts or unsustainable professional heroics.
We as a nation now have all the means necessary to implement alternative models of education that truly prepare all students for a future very different from the immediate past. Whether we have the professional commitment and societal will to actualize such a vision remains to be seen.

As well as the wonderful letters above to President Obama, we also solicited more for our website:

Today’s high school graduates are under-prepared to succeed in a 21st century global economy.

By Roger Sampson, President, Education Commission of the States

Dear President Obama,
As a nation, we have to face some tough realities about the public school system. Our competitiveness in the global economy is dependent on our ability to develop a highly skilled workforce. Currently, we are not making the grade on many fronts. Among our many challenges, we must close the achievement gap and dramatically reduce high school dropout rates. We also must make it more affordable and accessible for those in the workforce to re-enter the education system for new or additional skills training or higher education.

In 1965, about 24 percent of the nation’s workforce were unskilled, 51 percent were skilled, and the remaining 25 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2005, we saw a much different picture: only four percent of the workforce were unskilled, 75 percent were skilled, and 21 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 1965, a person could make a “living wage” with only a high school diploma or the equivalent; today this is practically impossible.

Today, a college diploma acts as the basic prerequisite for many entry-level jobs, but for a majority of students, the college outlook is not promising. On a national scale, for every 100 students starting in grade 9:

- 70 of these students graduate high school in four years
- 37 of those 70 enter college within a year
-15 of the 37 require remediation before earning college credits
- 19 of the 37 will graduate college with a bachelor’s degree within six years.

The culture of our nation’s workforce also is changing. Students who graduated high school in 2008 are projected to hold ten different full-time jobs by the age of 35. Amazingly, eight of these ten jobs have not yet been created. Simply stated, our education system is not built to address the challenges of the 21st century global economy. Schools built to compete in today’s world should look different.
Schools of the 21st century should:

- be performance-based and not time limited (move a student when proficient to the next level)
- eliminate letter grades and measure students by whether they are proficient, advanced, or need to keep trying
- compensate teachers in a way that is aligned and connected to student and board goals
- execute against a strategic vision by all stakeholders
- deliver content across multiple subjects; teach the application of skills in multiple environments
- be standards-driven both at the local and state levels
- balance core skills and soft skills for both workforce and higher education demands.

Your support of this reform effort will allow a national vision to take hold in the state policy arena and be implemented in America’s classrooms. We must boldly and courageously face these challenges today.


From the Secretary of Education to the teachers in the classroom, our country needs educators who are energized, passionate, and ready to make change.

By Mike Wang, executive director of Teach For America in Greater Philadelphia-Camden

Dear President Obama,
In the same way that your election shattered preconceived notions about what’s possible in our country, I hope your administration will refute the prevailing ideology about what’s possible in our public schools. There is no question that the achievement gap that persists between students in low-income communities and their high-income peers is a massive and daunting problem. But we will never solve it if we don’t first recognize that it can be solved, and those who are leading efforts for educational equity at the classroom, school, district, and state level will look to you, Mr. President, to make a difference on a national level. You can do this by focusing on four key strategies.

First, continue to hold schools accountable for the achievement of all students, while recognizing that test scores and data are a means to a greater end. With clear, consistent, national standards, we can measure our progress and use those measures to inform policy decisions, the allocation of resources, and better classroom instruction.

Second, build on the energy and leadership of young people as a force for change. Teach For America has seen the impact that young people can have in the classroom and beyond. Our 14,400 alumni bring entrepreneurial, visionary leadership to the field of education, from D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (Baltimore Corps ’92) to KIPP cofounders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg (both Houston Corps ’92). It will take committed leaders in every sector—in the classroom, the boardroom, the courtroom, across philanthropic organizations, hospitals, city halls, and state legislatures—to end educational inequity in our country.

Third, invest in alternative avenues to recruit and train outstanding teachers. In order to fulfill your campaign promise to recruit an “army of new teachers,” you will need to expand the pathways into the teaching profession. Teach For America is proving that dedicated teachers with subject-matter expertise can help students in low-income communities succeed. According to a recent Urban Institute study at the high-school level, Teach For America teachers are, on average, more effective than non-Teach For America teachers, including those who are fully certified in their subject areas. I hope you will think progressively about teaching so that we can energize the profession and recruit a wide range of qualified people.

Finally, I urge you to choose a secretary of education who believes deeply that it is possible, and imperative, that we close the achievement gap. It is simply unacceptable that only 10 percent of children in our nation’s low-income communities will graduate from college. The impact of great teachers and smart school leaders will be accelerated by a secretary of education who understands the issues of accountability and funding on federal, state and local levels; who is passionate about learning; and who is able to effectively navigate the politics of education reform. The fundamental requirement, however, is an unwavering conviction that we can and must close the achievement gap—from that, the right decisions will come.

While once many questioned whether all children could attain an excellent education, there is now simply too much proof to deny this basic premise. If we can do it for some kids, we have a moral obligation to do it for all kids.


Customize instruction and make learning fun by building tech-centered schools.

By Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn, authors with Curtis Johnson of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns

Dear President Obama,
Our schools were once the envy of the world, but this is no longer so. It’s not because we’ve fallen back, but instead it is because much of the rest of the world is catching up or passing us. The refrain that China and India are producing far more scientists and engineers than are we is a familiar one. We’ve also heard it before. The same was true a couple decades ago with Japan, but we’ve seen what happened there. As Japan reached prosperity, the extrinsic motivation to escape poverty by studying rigorous subjects like science and engineering dissipated. As a result, the numbers seeking to study those subjects have declined, too.

This offers a lesson for our country. Motivation is the catalyzing ingredient for learning. But for a variety of reasons—prosperity high among them—extrinsic motivation no longer exists in our society to cause many children to apply themselves in the necessary ways to learn and succeed in school. With extrinsic motivation lacking, we must turn to intrinsic motivation.

We know that all people learn in different ways. If we want to make learning intrinsically motivating—so that a child will find rigorous subjects interesting in and of themselves—we must customize learning opportunities for each student in the way he or she learns. This means we need to change the structure of schooling itself. One of the core reasons schools struggle is because their structure compels standardization in the way they teach and test. This standardized, monolithic experience clashes with the need for customization.

As you have recognized in your speeches, technology allows for the possibility of an escape from this standardization. For example, computer-based learning is inherently modular and can be highly student-centric. It can let each student learn in his or her preferred mode and at his or her preferred pace, thereby building motivation and engagement and improving outcomes.

For student-centric learning technology to have this effect, however, it must be implemented disruptively. A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served, people we call "nonconsumers." Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems, and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The reason computers have not had a significant impact on schools is that we have crammed them into traditional classrooms and in computer labs as a tool and topic of instruction. We have spent well over $60 billion over the last two decades equipping schools with computers, yet the basic classroom has changed little. This is the natural path most organizations take in all walks of life.

The key is that we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact on education. This requires a restructuring of the way the federal government spends money on technology in schools; the same tired paths of equipping traditional schools and teachers with simply more and better technology will not do the trick. If we encourage disruption, we can allow all students to have access to the rich and varied learning experiences they deserve and escape the standardization that we all decry.


While also maintaining the best of traditional education policy.

By Mark Milliron, President and CEO, Catalyze Learning International

Dear President Obama,
Congratulations on running a stellar campaign, and a special thank you for demonstrating what a “new generation” campaign should look like. Your use of social networking, web resources, and advanced data analytics combined with the best of traditional campaigns—on-ground volunteers, phone banks, and community organizing—was stunning. By the way, that’s exactly what we’re looking for in education: to leverage new generation technologies combined with the best of education tradition to engage, excite, and educate students in powerfully positive ways.

As a first step, educators need to be ready to champion digital and information literacy as a basic skill—for themselves and their students. We can’t assume that because our students play video games or text endlessly that they are ready to leverage technology in the workplace or as citizens. To build digital muscle for both students and teachers, we should exercise more options to learn with new technologies. At a minimum, we should expand our use of blended and online resources. This means ensuring a national broadband infrastructure for our schools, Smart Boards and projectors in our classrooms, and virtual school resources beyond the buildings. We should also explore how we bring mobile devices into learning, gaming into instruction, social networking into academic communities, and advanced analytics into assessment, counseling, and teaching.

Regarding advanced analytics, in our everyday lives, we see Amazon use these tools to give us instantaneous book recommendations, iTunes uses them to customize its “Just for You” section, and credit card companies leverage them to catch fraudulent charges. Imagine if we could use these tools to give our learners instant access to learning resources based on their assessed needs—e.g., “students like you who had these difficulties in algebra have found these web-lessons useful.” Or imagine if our counselors had analytic systems to help them identify and intervene with the most at-risk students before they dropped out.

As your campaign modeled, however, we can’t just throw out the tried and true because of tantalizing technology. We need the best of both worlds. We need to recommit ourselves to the traditions of emphasizing the human touch, fostering mindfulness in educators and students, and inspiring the best of critical thinking as we all wrestle with technology’s problems of persistent partial attention.

As they take on this change, our educators will need our state and federal education systems to provide incentives and reward their efforts. As a result, our systems have to become more nimble and responsive. Our students will be learning for a lifetime, so building strong institutional partnerships between early-childhood, primary, secondary, post-secondary, and continuing workforce education (public and private) is a must. Expanding early college high schools, dual-enrollment programs, and institutional articulation agreements is essential. Policy that rewards partnerships, powers technological innovation, and recognizes and rewards student progress is vital.

There are key tactical steps we have to take—continue to aggressively expand science, technology, engineering, and math education, and integrate globalization more fully into our curricula. However, it is the larger strategy of taking the best of our education traditions with the transformational tools and progressive policies at hand that will truly outfit us for the road ahead. That is the powerful lesson we can learn from your successful run for the presidency. We’ll need your leadership to take on a big-picture, 50-state strategy to drive this positive transformation.


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