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A Brief Interlude To The "Reinvent Education" Series

Before I post Part III later today, I felt compelled to be one of the many bloggers who I'm sure will be writing about something truly fascinating.

This week, we saw the true power of the Internet.  I recently spoke to the Georgia Game Developers Association Athens Chapter about how the Internet has turned the value chain on its head, and how users become "content developers."  It is now so easy to form a tribe (as Seth Godin likes to call them), or quite simply, to have your voice heard, literally.  So I'm going to be yet another blogger who will link to the incredible performance of Susan Boyle.

This woman completely floored the judges and audience on the UK's reality show version of American Idol, called Britain's Got Talent.  In less than one week, her YouTube video has been viewed nearly 16 million times!  Even more fascinating is that the song she sang, the memorable "I Dreamed A Dream" from the Broadway Show Les Miserables, is now #39 on the iTunes chart of top downloaded songs, and that was as of last night!.

I assure you:  this is worth watching if only because it's good - real good.  And it also shows how the Internet can make a star.  We'll be seeing more of Susan Boyle for sure, even after she makes the rounds with the major media outlets.


Bravo, Susan.


Reinvent Education: Part II

Yesterday I discussed the first ingredient of a successful redesign of our education system.  I believe unequivocally that we need one comprehensive curricular roadmap that every state adheres to.  The states should then be incented in what tools they utilize to enforce these concepts/skills, and in my recent exchanges with teachers in various parts of the country, it is clear that we are not reaching them satisfactorily.  You can't teach digital natives with Industrial Revolution methods!!!  Why should students be "bored" in school?  So part I is essentially this:  we need to look through one lens for our skills roadmap.


Today, I will talk about two areas that I believe go together:  assessment and funding.  Once we are in agreement on what these basic skills are, how do we assess them?  I can't stress enough how frustrating it is for me to see and hear educators say:  "If it's not required to be tested, we don't teach it."  Well, I'm here to say with as much passion as I can:  THE TESTS ARE WRONG!  What should we be testing, and how do we test it?  NCLB has resulted in us teaching to the lowest common denominator, and thus "dumbing down" our education system.  As many educators and psychologists may tell you, we need to stretch our kids.  Why does Finland, for example, have such a narrow confidence interval in its student achievement? 


The Internet has offered us with a number of methods to assess performance.  I believe our tests have to change.  They can be more qualitative, they can utilize more online learning tools such as games and other web-based products, and we should find ways to test the "soft skills" mentioned yesterday, such as problem solving, critical thinking and leadership skills.  Independent projects using real-world experiences, collaboration with others, are both good tools that can be expanded upon.  When I lectured in academia, I asked the graduate students to raise their hands if they had used group case studies in ther undergraduate or even K-12 classes.  Practically no hands went up.  That was very telling.


The states should have the flexibility to push more empowerment down to the teacher level and let them use whatever stimuli is necessary to teach the requisite skills.  I will discuss professional development in my next post, because you can't change the system without retraining the workforce and making the teaching profession something that people are "inspired" and "motivated" to enter.

Funding has always been the area that educators hide behind every time someone mentions the word "change."  Change doesn't have to mean incremental, but it can also mean a "redeployment."  I would like to outline a couple of suggestions for how to use funding to reallocate the incentives and subsequent behavior of our educators.  They are as follows:

  • Federal funding should be allocated based on student population, but additional incentives should be offered to states that do the following:
    • maintain education spending as a certain % of its total annual operating budget - innovation doesn't happen in "quick bursts" like the current stimulus package.  We need sustained investment over time.
    • achieve agreed upon success metrics over 1 year, 3 year and 5 year targets
    • receive credits or additional federal $ for upgrading its technology infrastructure and learning environments to a level that is considered "acceptable" by current commercial standards
    • agree to an "education audit" on a periodic basis that is mutually agreed upon and conducted by a third party.  School districts should be audited in the same way that companies are audited.  Accountability is something that all stakeholders should share.
    • Penalties must then be established if thresholds are not maintained by the states.
  • States must also re-evaluate and establish funding guidelines for their school districts
    • Consider the creation of a state-funded education innovation fund that offers entrepreneurs and businesses significant tax credits and/or rebates for bringing ed technology products to the school system.  Contrary to what the venture capitalists might say, I see no reason why the states can't get in the venturing game, so long as the process is stewarded by a combination of education experts and external venture capitalists who know how to seed new businesses.
    • In the short-term, states must look to disproportionately fund low-income areas and ensure that we take steps to "open" access to a quality education for all citizens, much like some of the countries I have previously mentioned (such as Finland).
    • states can replicate some federal practices outlined above by offering local incentives to school districts that meet certain performance threshholds, including graduation rates, achievement, teacher satisfaction, etc.
    • again, in areas where tax revenues are insufficient to meet acceptable standards, both the federal government and states should over-invest in the short term to open access and revitalize these areas.  This should also include an investment in after-school enrichment and summer programs that can provide additional learning options for students in these "high-priority" areas.
    • Again, states that fail to meet "success criteria" would incur penalties to be determined by the Department of Education.  In addition, perhaps these students would be able to go outside their public school district and charter schools or private schools could be offered tax credits or other subsidies as incentives to take these students.  They could apply for "grants," not loans, so that the schools are protected but the families are not required to repay these amounts in full.

Another idea I am intrigued about is again looking at "best practices."  We should understand why in Finland, the students are not divided by level until the age of 16.  Maybe we should be taking a hard look at how we stratify our education system.  I'm not suggesting that we should adopt Finland's system, but don't you think it's worth taking a hard look at?

Still to come are discussions around a few additional elements:  professional development, "success metrics," and other topics of interest.  My point to today's post is best summarized like this:  money can be used as a motivator and to align incentives, if architected properly.  We can create a system where assessment and funding can be aligned, and also ensure that the allocations are "fair and balanced."  Accountability should be a part of any funding provided at the state or federal level, and it is important that the funding generate tangible results.

I will discuss what results are most important in the coming days.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more insights.


Reinvent Education: Part I

Today is the first of a series of posts where I will outline the elements to successfully reinventing our education system.  I will break this down into a series of "parts":  i) curriculum; ii) assessment and funding; iii) professional development; iV) defining success metrics;  and other areas that may not require a full dedicated category to.


So Part I will be about the curriculum.  I think there's been enough rhetoric about the need for change, and the need for a complete transformation of our learning centers into contemporary "learning environments.  For a moment,  I would like to stop using the term "21st century skills" because it's already been overused much like "web 2.0" and others.  The Partnership For 21st Century Skills (again, I used the term and didn't follow my own instructions) has some very forward-thinking ideas at how to create the roadmap from a skills point of view.  What do we need to teach our kids?  The aforementioned organization outlines the following student outcomes as "high priority" areas if we are to arm our children with skills needed to succeed in work and also, life:


  • Core Subjects and Interdisciplinary Themes
    • Global Awareness
    • Civics Literacy
    • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy
    • Health literacy
  • Learning and Innovation Skills
    • Creativity and Innovation
    • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
    • Communication and Collaboration
  • Information, Media and Technology Skills
    • Information Literacy
    • Media Literacy
    • ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) Literacy
  • Life and Career Skills
    • Flexibility and Adaptability
    • Initiative and Self-Direction
    • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
    • Productivity and Accountability
    • Leadership and Responsibilty

In my mind, this is a great start.  Each area has a set of "rubrics" that will outline the skills required from students.   I believe we should then leverage this organization and create an interdisciplinary federally funded national curriculum council.  This council would be comprised of government officials, educators, psychologists, technology experts and subject matter experts to help build the contemporary curriculum that would be required to be followed by school districts if they are to receive any public (state or federal) funding.   This ensures that "real world" experiential learning concepts are continuously threaded into the curriculum.  

Because this process will ultimately be "political," I would like to suggest that we allow the members of the curriculum council to be appointed in some fashion and then be voted on by some governing body.  I will let the public policy experts debate how we set up this system, because I am not a political science expert.  However, what is most important is that these people must have certain prerequisite skills and/or experience as they cannot be solely "political appointees."  I would like to think that out of this process, we can all take comfort that "we the people" had a say in establishing this council, much like local school boards are comprised of elected officials.  I will discuss in Part II how the funding and assessment should work.

A key success factor is that the curriculum is not developed solely by the "establishment.  I also believe that the council must revisit the curriculum on an annual basis to ensure that no adjustments are required.  The curriculum should be focused on utilizing a multimedia approach, meaning that educators must not and cannot utilize solely monolithic lecture-based and textbook-based approaches to learning.  However, there should be enough flexibility in each of the key subject areas for teachers to use whatever tools are required to best connect with their students and cover the concepts effectively.  Again, the end result of this process will be covered in the assessment discussion in my next post.

I see our education challenges as a series of circles on a target.  To me, obtaining agreement on what these skills are is the center of the bulls-eye, and that needs to get consensus first.  Has our education system and its stakeholders obtained buy-in to a common vision before doling out the tremendous sums of money?  I don't believe we have, but I'll let you be the judge of that. 


Like any business or established industry or organization (education is no different), the first step in leading change is to get organized around a common vision.  To me, the above is a strong start.


Stay tuned for Part II which will discuss assessment and funding.


Best Practices: A Look at Finland's Successful Education System

Before I start to lay out some ideas for how the United States can "reinvent" its education system to ensure that our country is globally competitive in five, ten, twenty years, it is always important to take a look at best practices.  A good strategist always looks at what is working and why.  And so when Education Secretary Duncan talks about how we "need to take a look at the possibility of a longer school year because that is what other countries have," is that really what we should be looking at?  I keep saying "quality, not quantity."  So lets take a look at Finland and why Finland has arguably the highest performing education system in the world.  I have attached one such article link for your review. Another one is here. I will outline a couple of key elements:

  1. Unified School System:  The country uses a "unified school system," which means that from ages 7-16, students stay in the same school, versus a "primary and secondary school" system we have in the U.S.   Then they choose either their equivalent of our "high school" or a vocational school path.  Their research indicates that it is dangerous to divide students too early.  So as a result, this takes away the selection process that plagues many school districts.  It also has resulted in Finland having a very, very low difference in achievement between the country's best and worst schools.
  2. Preschool begins at age 6:  how's that for you parents?  Let kids be kids for some of their developmental years!
  3. Fewest hours in school:  that's right, Secretary Duncan!  They achieve all of their metrics with high quality time spent learning, not more mediocrity. They even get 10-week breaks in the summer.
  4. Less $ spent per pupil than S. Korea and the United States:  enough said.
  5. A philosophy of inclusion:  they have an "open access" policy, meaning that even the poorest citizens have access to a quality education, unlike the United States. They also pay for much of the student's incidentals during this 9 year period, including all school lunches, no university fees, and students can stay in the upper secondary school system (our high school) for as long as four years.

I haven't even gotten to the pedagogy, which includes a very, very large focus on match and science along with reading literacy.  The OECD has stated that 15-year olds in Finland have the highest standards of reading literacy in the world.   This is partly due to a cultural dedication to reading in the home.  Finnish parents are involved, and work with their children outside of school.  They also have a tight collaboration between their R&D in academia and private industry. 


I can get into more specifics about the pedagogy and of course their mindset about education.  And I'm sure that there will be some skeptics that will discuss such differences as our more heterogenous environment, their lower consumption habits overall, and their higher tax rate that is not atypical for socialist countries.  However, don't you think we should be acknowledging that maybe we can learn a thing or two from outsiders? 


It's time for America to wake up and start looking outside the status quo for these answers.  It's not going to come from inside the establishment.


An Approach To Education That Should Be Considered

After seeing the large sum of money recently doled out by the government as part of the education stimulus plan, again putting "the cart before the horse" so to speak, I began to become more certain than ever about what we need to do to fundamentally transform our nation's education system.  It probably goes to the heart of the foundation of our constitution and the philosophy of "federalism" versus state-centered.  Technically, my idea, while certainly not new, should fit inside both philosphies although I am sure that some of my readers might think this idea is a movement towards a more controlling central entity at the expense of state sovereignty.  I hope that is not the case.

In just about every civilized nation in the world, there is one set of education standards that the system is held accountable to.  I believe that before we make investments of the magnitute of what we have already agreed to, the states should ratify a set of federal curriculum standards so that every citizen of the United States is learning the same set of skills and are assessed under these criteria.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has done some very interesting work in this area, but their maps, while forward-thinking to some degree, have not been universally adopted.  If our education system has any realistic chance of being globally competitive five, ten years, twenty years from now, we need one common roadmap.  To the best of my knowledge, we don't have that.

The states do not lose control in this process.  States can maintain whatever flexibility is needed to adhere to and meet the performance measures defined by the roadmap.  They control spending, specific pedagogical mechanisms and all other operational areas.  It doesn't matter how big or how small a state's budget is, the system can be scaled up or down to meet the specific needs of any one state.   As a strategist for many years, even though  I have not worked extensiviely within the education system, I see no realistic chance of the stimulus being successful in the long term.  I don't think the architects of the package have read Michael Raynor's management book, The Strategy Paradox.   I suggest they read it today, because the current plans are devoid of all strategic flexibility, contrary to what the advocates might be saying.

Before we squander this exciting, critical opportunity which is to ensure our children's future in a rapidly evolving, technologically driven, globally connected world, shouldn't we ensure that everyone is following the same playbook?


Just a thought.