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December 20, 2013 standard

Reading is fundamental — and not just for our children. School reformers, in particular, must always read more than just the wide array of op-eds and policy texts churned out of think tanks in order to continue fostering the intellectual dynamism that has helped the movement battle strongly for building brighter futures for all children. This means reading lots of books, especially ones on history, economics, and other subjects outside of education, in order to develop even more-cohesive arguments for the myriad solutions needed to transform American public education.

This is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2013 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a wide range of texts. This includes two history books — including a biography of how urban politics and social reform shaped the career of Theodore Roosevelt, and a look at political maneuvering by Jim Crow segregationist senators to preserve failed and bigoted thinking — from which reformers can glean lessons on how to use politics and activism to transform American public education. It also includes a primer on the develop of Western art and culture that can also serve as a rallying call for expanding experiences for all of our children.

As Dropout Nation does every year, the selections were judged on five criteria: Does it have a strong narrative or polemical power (also known as “is it well-written”)? Are the lessons relevant to the reform of American public education? Is the book thought-provoking (or does it offer new arguments or new thinking on familiar issues)? When research is involved in the narrative, does it stand up to scrutiny? And would you pay at least $14 to put it on your tablet (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?

Below are this year’s selections. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And just read, read, read.

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined: There are plenty of reasons why psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s books on the misuses of IQ tests — and mistaken views overall about the potential of children — was the subject of last September’s Conversation at Dropout Nation podcast. For one, Kaufman smartly explains how IQ tests such as the Stanford-Binet — which were originally developed to help children identify and address their learning issues — have been warped by IQ determinists such as Charles Murray, who use the tests to argue that cognitive ability is genetically-driven and that only some kids (usually white) are deserving of college-preparatory education. Kaufman also explains in clear terms why concepts such as learning disabled (which are used to condemn far too many kids to the nation’s special ed ghettos) and giftedness fail to keep in mind all the factors that play into how children learn (including the role of deliberate practice). For reformers, Ungifted is one that should be read. And read. And read again. So go do it.

I Got Schooled: One of the new voices emerging for advancing reform this year is filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who has written one of the more-thoughtful polemics on the steps needed to address the nation’s education crisis.  Written as a travelogue of sorts about his six-year exploration of education policy issues, the director of The Sixth Sense manages to do in a mere 249 pages what most think tankers fail to do after thousands of pages: Quickly explain flaws in traditionalist thinking — including class-size reduction efforts — and outline five key steps (including giving power to principals to make hiring and firing decisions, and embracing the use of data) to transform education. Just as importantly, in discussing how high-quality teachers “want to want” to stem achievement gaps while laggards don’t desire this goal, Shyamalan also hits upon the importance of talent in building cultures of genius that help all kids succeed. Shyamalan’s book isn’t without flaws; his citing of the rather flawed 2009 report on charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Options, arguing that it proves that charters are no better than traditional district schools, is rather problematic. But overall, Shyamalan’s arguments are worth considering.

 

Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School: Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann have offered up one of the most-exhaustive polemics on how the nation’s education crisis is making it harder for the nation and its children to succeed in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economic landscape. Through their analysis of international student achievement data, Hanushek, Peterson, Woessmann detail why arguments from traditionalists that all is well with education don’t stand up to scrutiny. At the same time, Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann take the time to chastise political leaders for not meeting their promises to advance reform, look at already-ongoing fiscal battles between retiring Baby Boomers and families of young children, and explain how reformers must explain to the public that the battle over reforming American public education is one “between the needs of school-age children” who will be the ones charged with keeping the nation prosperous long into the future versus “the interests of those adults who agreed to educate them in our public schools”.

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars: Why should reformers pick up cultural critic and intellectual provocateur Camille Paglia’s  primer on the history and development of Western art and culture? Reason one: Paglia’s book is the kind that textbook writers should aspire to provide children and adults alike. A simple-yet-comprehensive tome, Paglia’s book details the historical forces that shaped — and were shaped by — works of art such as The Book of Kells (which helped inspire the 19th century Celtic revival that led to the Irish War of Independence from Great Britain) and The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David’s ode to the French Revolution. The second reason: Paglia’s strong arguments about the failures of traditional districts to provide children with knowledge about the arts and its role in shaping and being shaped by society (a problem Paglia argues is a problem that is a problem for American culture as a whole) is a clarion call to reformers to do more to expand cultural experiences for all children.

 

Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt: Certainly you should pick up Edward P. Kohn’s book because it is about the very fascinating life of America’s 26th president — the man who showed the power of the bully pulpit in advancing social change. But reformers can learn plenty from Kohn’s narrative about how Roosevelt’s thinking and activism was shaped by his disgust for the shameless graft of the Big Apple’s infamous Tammany Hall regime, disdain for the equally unabashed corruption of upstate New York politicians, and experience on the ground working with poor and minority families of that time forced into tenements unfit for living. And by discussing how Roosevelt and other social reformers of the time took on the woeful conditions of the time for the Big Apple’s poorest families, Kohn’s book — which will be the subject of an upcoming Dropout Nation Podcast on embracing grassroots leadership — also provides reformers lessons on how it will take plenty of strong steps to help the children of today succeed in school and in life.

Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools: It is easy to talk about overhauling (and, more to the liking of DN Editor RiShawn Biddle, abandoning) the obsolete and dysfunctional traditional district model. It is even easier to talk about how it should be done, including moving away from centralized bureaucracies to a portfolio approach under which traditional and public charter schools are managed under a mayoral control structure. But as former Center for Reinventing Public Education boss Paul Hill and his onetime colleagues, Christine Campbell and Bethany Gross, point out in their 140-page primer on portfolio district, making it work — along with dealing with the political challenges of moving away from the traditional district model — is a different matter entirely. In Strife and Progress, Hill, Campbell, and Gross provide some important lessons, both political and operational, from efforts  by New York City and other reform-minded districts that institution-oriented reformers and their counterparts among activists and think tankers should heed. 

 

The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got That Way: An observer can easily argue that Amanda Ripley’s 307-page volume on the success of school systems around the world versus the failures of America’s super-clusters has been over-hyped by reformers. Maybe. But Dropout Nation would have to say that the kudos given to Ripley’s book are all well-deserved. Why? Because it is a strong polemic that explains, both the experiences of three young adults and through strong reporting how American public education is doing poorly for its children and for the nation as a whole. The narrative provides strong contrasts between how traditional district schools focus too many resources on expensive buildings and other matters that have little to do with learning with the more judicious use of resources by systemics in other countries. And in explaining how white middle class children are doing almost as poorly academically (especially as measured on PISA and other international exams) against their counterparts around the world as their black and Latino peers at home, Ripley offers everyone a reminder that the high cost of educational abuse to the least of our children also ends up being borne by the wealthiest of them.

Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil RightsThere’s plenty for reformers to learn from political historian Keith M. Finley’s text on how politicians such as Georgia U.S. Senator Richard Russell, Louisiana’s Russell Long, and J. William Fulbright of Arkansas (now better-known for the international education program he helped create through law) used every political tactic — including arcane Senate rules and faux compromises that effectively kept Jim Crow segregation laws in place — to slow down the civil rights movement’s efforts to end state-sanction segregation. One of the lessons — that those defending a status quo will use any step taken by activists they oppose to rally their side — is one that reformers should always keep in mind; after all, traditionalists are essentially using the same tactics leveraged by defenders of Jim Crow this past century. Just as importantly, reformers can be heartened from another lesson: That those defending failed policies and practices ultimately don’t have time on their side, especially when activists and others continually challenge them at all levels.

 

As always, there are a number of books that are also deserving of praise, but didn’t make the Top Eight cut this year. This Next Six includes Tilting at Windmills, Richard Lee Colvin’s profile of former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin’s struggle to overhaul the Southern California district; Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen’s history on the development — and battles between factions within — the modern American evangelical movement; The One World Schoolhouse, education innovator Sal Khan’s tome on the development of his flipped classroom approach to teaching; I Am Malala, the autobiography on the teenage activist’s battle against Islamicists in Pakistan opposed to providing teaching and curricula to young women; Margaret Thatcher—The Authorised Biography, Volume I by Charles Moore; and Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, which details how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revolutionized online retail and (to use a supermarket phrase) so much more.

November 26, 2013 standard

One can easily say that in many ways, outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 11-year effort to transform public education in the Big Apple has helped improve life for families and communities within it. Between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by eight points (from 47 percent to 39 percent) while the percentage of fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by eight percentage points (from 21 percent to 29 percent). The declines in illiteracy for the Big Apple’s poorest children were also pronounced, with a 10 percentage point decline (from 51 percent to 41 percent) in that period while the percentage of poor families reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by seven percentage points (from 18 percent to 25 percent). Bloomberg’s reform efforts have not been perfect — and as this piece points out, his shortcomings have been especially troubling when it comes to education for black and Latino children regardless of economic background. But the mayor is leaving the Big Apple with a better district than it had before he took it over in 2002. And it will be up to his successor, Bill de Blasio to both build upon Bloomberg’s successes and address the shortcomings of the regime.

Over the next few days, Dropout Nation‘s editors will offer their own advice on what de Blasio should do. Today, Contributing Editor Michael Holzman focuses on what de Blasio should do to address one of Bloomberg’s shortcomings: The low (albeit improving) achievement of the Big Apple’s black and Latino children. Tomorrow, Editor RiShawn Biddle will discuss the choices de Blasio must make to build upon the most-successful aspects of Bloomberg’s reform efforts. And on Friday, Biddle and Holzman will both offer additional thoughts on two problems that have remained unaddressed by Bloomberg: Accurate data on school performance to state and federal agencies; and the $31 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that will complicate New York’s fiscal future (and de Blasio’s plans to expand early childhood educational opportunities for the city’s children).

When Bill de Blasio takes over as New York City’s mayor, he will face a task his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, admitted is the most-important of all: Educating the nation’s largest city’s one million children. And the current mayor-elect is right when he declared that the Big Apple has become two cities. This is especially true when it comes to education.

Students from white non-Latino and Asian (especially Indian) homes are more-likely to live in families with two parents who are college-educated. Just four percent of white and Asian families consist of single women with children under age 18. The poverty rate for white families alone is just 19 percent in 2012, lower than the average of 26 percent.

Students from black and Latino households are not likely to be so fortunate. They are less likely to have received baccalaureate and graduate degrees. They are more likely to be single-parent households; 16 percent of black and Latino families in New York City consist of single women with children under age 18. And 40 percent of black and Latino families are living in poverty.

This is a challenge that New York City doesn’t undertake nearly as well as it should. On average, 86 percent of young black and Latino men in eighth-grade, and 82 percent of their female peers score below Proficient and Advanced levels (or at grade level), according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. As a result, most black and Latino students do not graduate college- and career-ready in four years.

The results can be seen in U.S. Census data on college completion for adults in the city. While nearly half of the New York’s White, non-Latino, and Asian adults over 25 years of age have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, only about one-fifth of black adults and 15 percent of Latino adults have achieved that level of education which is a crucial predictor of the educational achievement of their children and increasingly necessary for a middle class income.

The failure to educate black and Latino children is especially problematic because New York City isn’t a majority white or Asian district. Roughly equal numbers of New York’s children are Latino, black and white.  Asian students (including Asian Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and others) number between one-third and half the size of the other groups. When it comes to education, New York is a tale of two cities – and not a good one for black and Latino children.

What, then, is the task of the public schools?  Is it to allocate public resources in proportion to private resources, so that children from comparatively well-off and highly educated families receive more public resources than others? Or is it to fulfill the ideals of the Founders that the quality of education should not depend on where children live or the class status of their parents?

All evidence points to a de facto decision in New York City to allocate public resources in proportion to the private resources available to students.  Pre-kindergarten classes are more available in wealthier neighborhoods. Gifted and talented classes are more available in wealthier neighborhoods (and the qualifying tests are not even given in some poorer neighborhoods).

College-preparatory curricula are available in wealthier neighborhoods and not in poorer neighborhoods, The peak of the system, the selective high schools, as a matter of fact select so few black and Latino students as to be simply a rounding error in some of those schools, and the test is designed in such a way as to be virtually impossible to pass with the courses available in the city’s schools serving poorer (Black and Latino) students, while the city’s students from wealthier families not only have the requisite coursework for a solid foundation in their schools, but benefit from expensive private tutorials.

Given this situation, what is a new Mayor to do? The details are difficult to define. The goals are not.

First, bring equality to the allocation of resources across the school system. The differences in facilities, equipment and maintenance among the city’s schools is grotesque.  It is incredible that this situation should exist.  It must end.

Second, bring equity to the allocation of resources across the school system.  The measure of this should not be clever book-keeping devices, but outcomes:  Every school should have the resources to provide every student with a good education. Neighborhood schools in the Bronx and central Brooklyn should offer educations at least as good as those on the upper West Side and eastern Queens.

It is not difficult to measure the resources necessary for providing a student with a good education.  The new administration need only identify those schools now providing high quality education, as shown by any of the usual measurements and determine the total resources—public and private—available to the students in those schools.  Schools serving students living in poverty, with parents whose own educations are limited, will require compensatory resources:  pre-school, all day kindergarten, after-school tutorials, summer school, high-standards for curricula and teaching.  Schools serving students from wealthier families may find some of these items to be redundant for most of their students.  The budget for each school should follow those determinations.

August 30, 2013 standard

If any corporate lab can claim the mantle as the successor to legendary research centers such as AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Center, it is Google X, the research unit of the tech giant whose innovations in Web search and telephony have changed our world. And the approach of Google X, as well as its parent company, to taking on new and unconsidered challenges offers lessons for school reformers as they continue their efforts to transform American public education.

Best-known these days for the continuing development of Google Glass, the wearable gadget that allows users to surf the Web while walking, Google X has garnered a reputation for working on the kind of wiz-bang ideas that were once the province of storylines for episodes of Star Trek and The Jetsons. One of those ideas is the driverless car, which counts on GPS satellites to provide it direction on roads and highways. One can imagine the driver-less cars being used by cash-strapped cities as replacements for cops looking out for local speed demons, or by a certain tech company to take street view photos of landmarks for its mapping applications. Otherwise, the driver less car is mere fun.

Then there are the inventions that are less gimmick and more useful. One such development is the concept of providing Wi-Fi Internet service over a network of balloons similar to those used by meteorologists to survey weather conditions. By providing over-the-air services in mountainous and other remote parts of the world where building out cables and fiber optic networks is cost-prohibitive, the effort called Project Loon would open up communications to those who live there and currently lack Web access. For third world nations with little of the way of modern infrastructure, Project Loon would be akin to the Green Revolution in modern agriculture pioneered in the mid-20th century by agronomists such as Norman Borlaug.

Google X isn’t the only unit of the tech giant that projects, promising and otherwise, that is ongoing. There are the company’s efforts in cities such as Kansas City, Mo. to provide high-speed wired Internet service and costs far lower than that of traditional cable and telecom firms. There’s also the company’s push to have the federal government devote so-called white space (or unused television airwaves) to wireless Internet service. And then there are the merely useful products Google has developed such as ChromeCast, a device that resembles a USB drive used to stream video from your laptop to a HDTV in order to view a flick on Hulu. Certainly not all of the projects will pan out; more than likely, Google will end up shuttering some of those projects the way it gets rid of dormant Web services such as its Reader news feed app, but which was put out to the online pasture earlier this summer. At the same time, these projects could also end up being the kind of big scores and giant leaps that the company has had with Gmail (now, along with Microsoft’s Outlook/Hotmail, the dominant e-mail service) and Android, the latter of which went from being an also-ran to established smartphone platforms such as BlackBerry and Symbian to one of the two primary players in mobile telephony and computing.

Certainly the profit motive is a driving force behind nearly all of Google projects. After all, the company operates the dominant Web search engine through which it generated $44 billion in ad revenue in its 2012 fiscal year (of its $50 billion in total revenue) from companies looking to reach those myriad eyeballs. Anything that brings eyeballs to Google’s search engine — including e-mail services and phones — equals additional revenues. But it is more than just about money. From where Google cofounder Larry Page sits, the company shouldn’t be satisfied with merely running in place. Each day, in Page’s mind, he and his staffers should be thinking about developing new technologies that both change the world around them for the better as well as drive tremendous revenue growth for the company itself. Essentially, it’s go big or go home. You can only go big by being willing to fully rethink already established approaches to addressing challenges as well as actually thinking about developing technologies and services for issues that neither customers nor competitors have given much attention. This value of tackling — and overcoming — great challenges is why Page and his team are as excited (if not more so) about such wiz-bang projects as driverless cars as they are about the latest Google Web app.

But merely inventing is not enough. As Page noted in an interview this past April with Wired‘s Steven Levy, an invention is useless if it isn’t made available for use — and isn’t usable — by everyone in the world. As a company in the private sector, Google also focuses on commercialization in order to turn ideas and inventions into tools and services that can be used by real live people. This isn’t exactly easy. Great inventions can end up being useless for a lot of reasons. One reason is because its underlying design isn’t robust enough to be sustainable. For example, earlier efforts to use balloons for providing communications services didn’t pan out because inventors never figured out such matters as how to deal with the reality that balloons can’t remain in fixed positions for very long (after all, they are subject to jet streams and other forms of wind) and cannot stay up for long (the longest a balloon has ever remained afloat is 55 days, far too short for anything that is supposed to be a cheaper form of satellite). So Google spent the past two years floating hundreds of balloons and learned plenty; this included concluding that a chain of balloons would have to be put into place in order to compensate for the fact that they will float around (and away), and figuring out the kind of new-age materials that will be needed for them to survive the harsh elements nature (and ultimately, God) puts in place.

Another reason why inventions don’t become successful is that inventors fail at the rather practical matter of making the device or service simple enough for people to use and at the same time, armed with enough features for them to do what is needed. Google itself hasn’t always gotten this right; consider the rancor over the new layout and interface for Gmail, as well as the failures of many of its efforts to take on the likes of Twitter and Facebook in social media. But when Google gets it right, it has gotten it really correct. It’s the spare, easy-to-use design of Google’s search engine that has made its default tool for scouring the Web for many. Making the complex simple is why Google X counts among its leaders, Andy Rubin, a longtime tech guru who previously led Android’s development as a mobile computing platform. Rubin has plenty of understanding of how to make a device sustainable and simple to use. After all, as the boss of smartphone pioneer Danger, he helped develop telecom giant T-Mobile’s famed Sidekick, which introduced a generation to the wonders that have become normal for every cellphone user.

Going big and thinking smart (and simple) has long ago proven to be the key to Google’s past and current success; it will likely prove to be the critical element in whatever future success Google X projects achieve. And school reformers can also apply these principles to advancing systemic reform.

Sure, the nation’s education crisis are largely not necessarily technical in nature. But as with the challenges undertaken by Google X, they are major. This is especially true when one keeps in mind that we are now in the second phase of systemic reform. Keeping children from dropping out and holding schools accountable for providing the basics isn’t enough, especially given the demands of the increasingly global and knowledge-based economy and society in which we live. This means overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and manage the performance of teachers,  providing all children with comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need for success in college and the working world, and addressing how we provide all children with cultures of genius that nurture their potential.

These problems can’t be solved solely by tinkering around the margins. For example, offering performance pay bonuses to teachers for high-quality work won’t work so long as the traditional teacher compensation approaches (including raises based on seniority and degree attainment) remain in place; nor will other tinkering with pay spur both improvements in student achievement and reward teachers for high-quality work if the other concerns of teachers (including the desire for career paths beyond merely remaining in classrooms or moving into principal’s offices) aren’t addressed. But teacher quality isn’t the only area in which a rethink is long-overdue. Children who attend schools in rural communities face many of the same challenges as their big-city counterparts in receiving high-quality education. In fact, the struggles may be even more acute because they are stuck attending rural districts that are unattractive work environments for many teachers (who looking for the conveniences of suburbia and urban locales), lack the access to high-speed Internet needed to take advantage of online and blended learning tools, and are plagued by many of the academic and operational dysfunctions of their big-city and suburban counterparts. For the few families in states and cities where school choice is plentiful, the drudgery of submitting applications to every school can be as much a barrier to them exercising choice as the lack of transportation options. Then there are the other operational issues facing schools regardless of being traditional public, charter, or private, including such basic matters as how to provide children with high-quality math and science teachers when they are in short supply.

Transforming American public education requires fully rethinking all of the policies and practices that contribute to the failures of its super-clusters in providing all children with high-quality teaching, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius in which their potential can be nurtured.

For school reformers, going big must start with launching the movement’s versions of Google X, each one engaged in moon-shot thinking and activities that take on challenges big and small. Social entrepreneurs and institution-minded players in the movement can stat   School reform philanthropies must also be willing to back such efforts with dollars. This is certainly difficult for many of the biggest players; after all, on the charter school front alone, philanthropists have moved away from backing a wide variety of operators to concentrating on scaling up the most-successful large operator such as KIPP and Green Dot. This may mean that the movement begins exploring new ways of bolstering philanthropic dollars as well, including new funds similar to the angel investor funds used in the tech sector to fund start-ups.  Meanwhile the movement will have to look to impromptu innovators who have traditionally worked outside of education to bring their expertise to education. Imagine what a Larry Page could do for education if Google launched an initiative focused on the kind of moon shots he demands and desires?

But simply developing new innovations isn’t enough. The underlying structures of new reforms must be sustainable for the long haul. They must also be simple-yet-comprehensive enough for all — especially families — to use.  As seen with state school data systems which have proven to be too complex and yet, not comprehensive enough, for families to use to make smart decisions, too much complexity and too much simplicity can be formulas for failure. [This is also an issue with efforts on the school accountability front such as A-to-F grading, which is seductively simple, yet obscures much of the information families need to make smart decisions.] Reformers should look to the private sector to see how simple-yet-comprehensive design can be achieved. Washington, D.C., for example, has launched a common process for families to choose charter and traditional district schools (albeit ones within designated school ones); an entire state, say, Louisiana, could develop a similar system through which families can choose any public or private school options.

It’s time for the school reform movement to go big and go smart. The example demonstrated by Google and its X research lab is one that can — and should be — followed.

May 4, 2013 standard

One of the most-prized of my physical possessions is an old Seiko 5 Sportsmatic Weekdater watch that belonged to my grandfather. Grandpa wasn’t sure whether he got the watch in 1965 during a trip to Japan or it was a gift from his brother, Earl. But it did work well enough that he kept it in his collection of watches and other jewelry long after he switched over to other timepieces until he gave it to me in 2007, a year before he went home to God. And after a little cleaning and restoration, this Seiko automatic keeps fairly good time and looks as beautiful as it 48 years ago — even after having taken more than a few lickings that should have stopped it from ticking. In fact, it was the watch I wore the day I married my lovely wife.

My grandpa left me more than just a watch. From the time I was still in my mother’s womb until the day he died, he taught me right from wrong, showed me how to install light switches, and disciplined me on behaving well towards others. That’s just some of the things on which he gave me actual instruction. Over the years, I learned the importance of literacy from watching him read newspapers, gleaned the value of hard work from watching him toil tirelessly to provide for our family, and picked up on the value of being decent and kind to others from how he treated people around him. And as he grew older and battled heart attacks, strokes, and cancers that should have took his life long before he left this earth at age 84 — and ultimately, from his final battles with congestive heart failure — I also learned the importance of being tough and resilient even in the face of adversity. At the end of his life, he knew that all that he did would survive with his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and will likely last generations beyond that.

The fact that my grandpa’s Seiko has not only outlasted my grandfather, but will likely last beyond the lifetime of my child now growing in my wife’s womb — and the fact that my grandfather’s example has extended beyond his own life — are testaments to this reality: That what we own and what we do lasts beyond our lifetimes. This is especially true when it comes to the communities in which we live and America as a whole. It is why we must build strong legacies that will help our children and their kin continue to bend the arc of history toward economic and social progress.

One of the foremost reasons why we must transform American public education because the crisis that pervades it is leading to far too many of our kids being dropped into the economic and social abyss. Fifteen percent of young men and women age 16-to-24 in 25 of the nation’s big cities — or 5.8 million young adults — are neither working, finishing high school, or studying in traditional colleges, apprenticeships and other forms of higher education, according to the Social Science Research Council in its latest report on the challenges facing young adult dropouts. In an economy in which what you know is more important than what you can with your hands — and in which annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008 (even as high school grads, those with some higher ed training, and collegians have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent) — these young adults are ill-equipped to play positive roles in either the economy or the communities in which they live. They are also unable to take advantage of opportunities for economic and social advancement outside of their hometowns; a mere 17 percent of high school dropouts move out of their home communities, according to economist Enrico Moretti, the author of The New Geography of Jobs: Who Wins, Who Loses in the New Innovation Economy, one of Dropout Nation’s Top Eight book selections last year. And the nation is already bearing the consequences of this, especially in the form of the billions in unemployment benefits given to the 16 percent of dropouts aged 16-to-24 (and the 11 percent of peers aged 25 and older) seeking work who are unemployed — as well as welfare benefits for the 40 percent of young adult dropouts who aren’t seeking work at all.

The consequences of their despair extend to children because these young adults are lack the knowledge and skills, along with the discipline and nurturing that comes from education, needed to build positive legacies for them. This is especially true in the case of young women dropouts (especially those from black households) who become out-of-wedlock mothers in part because they see no point in either using birth control, delaying gratification, or seeking a diploma and degree. Thirty-eight percent of eighth-graders whose mothers were high school dropouts read Below Basic proficiency, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress; that more than double the unacceptable levels of illiteracy for peers whose mothers were high school graduates and had either some higher ed training or graduated from college. [Thirty-seven of eighth-graders whose fathers were dropouts read Below Basic, again, double the percentages for peers whose fathers were high school grads and have sought some form of higher education.] This cycle, which began with their parents who were also dropouts, is continued into another generation, with prison, poverty, homelessness, and untreated mental illness being the legacies that plague future generations.

Yet poverty and low levels of educational attainment in themselves don’t have to be destiny for the next generation. These children have genius that can and should be nurtured. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. This should be no surprise. The reality is that cognitive ability is dynamic and not constant, as much influenced by the quality of learning environment (especially in school) and challenge (academically and otherwise) as it is by innate ability and growth over time. Children whose parents are dropouts can learn and succeed if they are provided high-quality education.

This is where the education crisis, whose failures are borne the most brutally by poor children (as well as those from minority households and young men of all backgrounds), come into play. Contrary to the arguments of some, most-recently Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, growing income inequality is directly related to low-quality teaching and curricula. Children from poor and poorly-educated households are more likely than middle-class peers to attend schools staffed by low-quality teachers. Even worse, those low-quality teachers tend to perform even worse than laggards subjecting middle-class kids to educational neglect; the average low-performing teacher in North Carolina working in school serving mostly-poor kids was four-hundredths of a standard deviation worse in performance in math than a laggard in a middle-class serving school, according to a 2010 study conducted by a team led by Tim Sass, an economist now with Georgia State University.

Just as importantly, poor and minority children are less likely to be provided opportunities to take the kind of college-preparatory courses needed to both graduate from high school and succeed in higher education. Just 22 percent of high school students in Philadelphia (where 82 percent of all students are economically poor) took an Advanced Placement course in 2009-2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This lack of access to high-quality learning is a problem caused largely by a century of racialist- and class-driven rationing of education — especially the comprehensive high school model, gifted-and-talented programs (which falsely perpetuate the idea that they are cordons solitaire from the problems ailing the rest of education), and special ed ghettos used to condemn young men considered unteachable by those unwilling to instruct them. Add in Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling, school residency laws, and restrictions on the expansion of charter schools which restrict poor families from providing their children with high-quality learning opportunities, as well as the lack of high-quality information on the performance of schools and districts, and it’s little wonder why only 56 percent of high-achieving poor students remain that way by fifth grade — and those peers who are struggling end up on the path to dropping out.

But the failures of American public education aren’t just borne upon the poorest children. High school sophomores from middle class backgrounds were outperformed on the by peers in 24 other countries, and lagged behind peers in 15 countries in science literacy, according to an analysis of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment by America Achieves. Twenty-eight percent of fourth-graders attending suburban schools read Below Basic on the 2011 NAEP, virtually unchanged from the levels in 2007; 14 percent of young men in eighth grade whose parents were college graduates were functionally illiterate, versus seven percent of young women peers. The reality is that when poor children are subjected to educational malpractice, their middle-class peers will be subjected to scholastic neglect. Providing high-quality education to our poorest kids is also key to helping all of our children succeed. 

If we want to leave a legacy for our children — and generations beyond them — that are worthy of our aspirations for them, we must continue to transform American public education. This includes overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers; as well as revamping how we select, train, and reward school leaders. It also includes the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — as well as the development of high-quality curricula aligned with the standards — in order to provide our kids with comprehensive college preparatory curricula; expanding access to A.P. and International Baccalaureate courses, along with ending rationing of education, is also key. And we must continue to expand school choice as well as Parent Power efforts, along with developing school data systems that provide all families with information they need to make smart decisions.

The best heirloom we can all leave for our children is a better world in which they can all live. Advancing the reform of American public education is one way to make that a reality.

February 26, 2013 standard

What could American public education look like when we shift its definition from being a collection of district bureaucracies and other traditional entities to a system of publicly financing high-quality educational opportunities? One example could be found in Technology, Entertainment and Design, the collection of annual conferences featuring global and local thoughtleaders whose annual TED Talks conference in Long Beach, Calif., now rivals Davos and Allen & Co.’s famed Sun Valley Conference as a major convening for top players.

Over the past decade, TED has expanded far beyond the original Talks confab. Since 2008, its TEDx operation has worked with top professionals and budding thinkers in locales as varied as Bozeman, Montana, to pull together the kind of conferences and learning sessions that could only be attended by those either lucky enough to attend the main TED Talks, big city denizens who could go to their local cultural institution, or the lucky few who lived near such university towns as , Ind. These days, some 1,300 TEDx gatherings are held annually around the world Bloomington , allowing even those in small towns and rural areas with big ideas to build cultures of genius for their communities. In fact, one can say the quality of many of the TEDx sessions are so good that they rival the lectures given each day on university campuses. Meanwhile the main TED Talks are now easy to access online thanks to the organization’s decision in 2006 to distribute the sessions online; one can now easily watch such sessions as former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation official Tom Vander Ark’s symposium on the development of online and blended learning.

As Microsoft staffer (and Vander Ark’s former editor at what is now Getting Smart) Douglas Crets points out, TED is essentially exploiting the reality that “Academia is less expensive to create than before”. The TEDx sessions, in particular, are now fostering a new generation of public intellectuals whose ideas may end up influencing how we see the world. This is because the TEDx sessions, like the main TED Talks before it, allow any man or woman with amazing ideas to gain influence without first having to attain the pedigree once conveyed by university tenure and writing in academic journals. One can only imagine the potential that TED has yet to exploit: The TED Talks library is already a sort of online learning operation without   without exams and the ability to earn a baccalaureate or graduate degree; TED could actually go further and offer degrees or professional certificates on its own. TED could also bring together the highest-quality and most-interesting of the TEDx conferences to create a sort of blended learning effort that could be as good as any from a traditional or for-profit higher ed institution.

Certainly this isn’t exactly pleasing to those in traditional higher education circles. Harvard economist Umair Haque (the subject of Crets’ recent round of critical tweets) declares that TED sessions “devalue the very idea of great ideas, stripping them into commodities” largely because those ideas aren’t going through traditional university filters. From where Haque sits, TED offers nothing more than ” sexy-info-McNuggets” that don’t have the supposed “subtlety and inherent difficulty of truly great ideas” that Haque thinks he offers. Some of his colleagues would scoff at the idea of  TED being a higher ed institution. [Of course, one has to beg askance of anyone who tosses around terms such as "neofeudalism" which are meaningless to thinkers and the general public alike.] But anyone who is familiar with higher ed can attest, the reality is that association with a traditional university isn’t a true signal of quality, either in scholarship or in ideas. From the dubious scholarship of the likes of infamous black studies professor Leonard Jeffries and ethnic studies scholar Ward Churchill, to the reality that most top-ranked universities are so because of their graduate programs (while their undergraduate courses can often be shoddy because of the perverse consequences of tenure being awarded based on research instead of quality of instruction), being an academic superstar doesn’t necessarily mean being worthy of consideration in the marketplace of ideas. And considering the slipshod nature of the accreditation process by which universities are blessed — which has allowed degree mills such as the now-shuttered Southeastern University in Washington, D.C. to operate unchecked for decades — one can easily say that TED’s session would likely be better than what is offered by far too many campuses.

The disruption that TED is wrecking upon the definition of what being an academic and public intellectual can be is amazing to watch. The fact that TED’s efforts plays into the redefining of higher education that began with the online learning efforts of Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix and has advanced with universities such as MIT offering non-credit courses online is also reaffirming Crets’ argument that academia can be replicated less expensively than ever. And these sorts of disruptions and redefinitions are now happening in American public education.

The growth of public charter schools, which are now either the dominant or number two providers of K-12 education in cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, has exposed  the ineffectiveness of Zip Code Education practices that have long been used by traditional districts to ration what was considered high-quality education. When poor and minority families learn that they can send their child to any high-quality school they so choose, they no longer accept such racialist policies as the norm. This expansion of charters is, in turn, fueling the expansion of other vehicles for school choice, including the creation of vouchers and voucher-like tax credits in more than 15 states over the past three years. More importantly, the expansion of choice has allowed for the development of new models of building school cultures that nurture the genius of all children, and have accelerated the end of the traditional district model whose emphasis on scale is obsolete in an age in which quality of teaching and curricula matters. It has also spurred the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states (with more on the way) that allow families to overhaul schools in their neighborhoods as well as to expand the meaning of choice to mean more than escaping failure.

Charters have also shown clearly that families, community groups, and even churches can launch schools that provide high-quality education. AT the same time, it is more than just about providing kids with good and great teachers. Because charter operators can structure their curricula to meet the cultural and even religious needs of the children they serve, it has opened opportunities for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities to launch schools that provide both comprehensive college preparatory curricula and full immersion in one’s culture or language. This isn’t exactly pleasing to traditionalists who like Horace Mann in the mid-19th century only want children to abide by what is essentially a civic religion. But this redefinition of what public education is also fits into what America’s Founding Fathers wanted the nation to be: A nation in which life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and cultural pluralism is the norm and not the exception.

The emergence of the Knowledge is Power Program as one of the nation’s premiere charter school operators — as well as the success of Green Dot, Rocketship, and other players — has offered a new approach to structuring the operations of American public education. Just as importantly, their work in providing high-quality teaching and curricula in big-city locales long dogged by failure mills has also broken the myth that only good and great schools can only be available to families in suburbia (as well as magnified the failures of suburban districts in improving the achievement of its poor and middle class kids). One cautions against the idea of charter school operators becoming bigger; after all, the scale of the traditional district is one reason why so many fail in providing high-quality instruction and curricula. At the same time, one can imagine even more charter operators emerging to serve urban and even rural locales where high-quality schooling is the exception and not the norm.

But the disruption isn’t just happening in school operations and governance. The emergence of Teach For America as the leading alternative to traditional ed schools — accounting for 10,000 new teachers coming into the profession in 2012 — has spurred the launch of new teacher prep programs geared toward moving away from the traditional focus on theory and toward successful real-life teaching. Ed schools continue to harp on the fact that TFA recruits only have two-year stints and try to dismiss the quality of its preparation. But as more data shows that TFA does a better job than ed schools  in training teachers for the rigors of working in urban classrooms — and the emergence of school leaders from its ranks such as Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth (who runs the city’s education initiatives) proves the value of its focus on recruiting subject-competent collegians with strong entrepreneurial self-starter and leadership abilities — the failures of ed schools in selecting and training aspiring teachers is magnified. It is even spurring the launch of new graduate schools of education outside of traditional higher ed such as the Relay Graduate School launched by charter school operator Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First.

Meanwhile the dominance of state governments over teacher certification — which has proven long ago to be useless in vetting the quality of teachers working in classrooms — will also be disrupted. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, for example, could easily launch a certification process of its own, allowing for it to improve the quality of teaching in every one of its schools throughout the country (and no longer having to put up with 23 states and their respective teacher and principal certification processes). Such a move would make sense given its effort to essentially bring order to its role as both a charter school authorizer and state education agency of sorts. One can easily imagine teacher quality reform outfit TNTP effectively doing the same thing — this time with an emphasis on performance in improving student achievement over time instead of merely passing the less-than-useful Praxis exams — and helping school operators gain access to a steady stream of high-quality teaching talent.

Then there are the innovations that are likely to come from Common Core reading and math standards. One of the most-appealing aspects of the standards lie in that they do more than just emphasis  providing students with strong college preparatory curricula. Because the standards focus also on critical thinking — from comparing and contrasting ideas, to linking ideas across in writing and reading — it allows anyone, including teachers and families, to craft high-quality curricula on their own. This isn’t exactly appealing to traditional textbook publishers or to the most-radical of traditionalists. But as Peter Zamora of the Council of Chief State School Officers noted yesterday at a panel on Native education, it throws open the doors of curriculum development to anyone with substantive ideas on what kids should learn. Even Native Hawaiian teachers can weave cultural content into, say, a discussion about Romeo and Juliet. 

Yet the possibilities are just emerging. Imagine if there was a TED for education, starting with a series of annual learning sessions taught by high-quality teachers — including mothers and fathers who have proven success in homeschooling —  on the national stage, then launching a franchising system in which families, teachers, community groups, churches, and others can start schools under that umbrella. Such as effort could help nurture emerging teachers and school leaders who don’t have to go through traditional teacher compensation systems or deal with the perverse consequences of seniority-based privileges on teacher quality. At the same time, such an effort could even reshape how we teach children in classrooms. One of the grim realities is that the average classroom and approach to instruction looks little different than it did 160 years ago, even as the world have moved away from the Pony Express to the World Wide Web. A new collection of schools could spur changes that haven’t yet been imagined.

Certainly traditionalists in K-12, like their peers in higher ed, aren’t too happy with these changes. After all, from where they sit, all of these disruptions are the end of public education as they think it should be. The fact that the new definition of American public education includes charter schools operated by corporate and nonprofit outfits , as well as a more-active role in shaping curricula by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is particularly intolerable to them. In fact, the This is true — and it is a good thing. For far too long, the traditional policies and practices in American public education has  policies and practices have done little more than condemn 1.1 million children a year to poverty and prison. From condemning young men of all backgrounds to special ed ghettos, to the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, to the unwillingness to use data in addressing instruction and leadership, to even the continued operating of schools and districts that have long ago proven inept at serving children,  the traditional public education model hasn’t worked for families and children for a long time (if it ever did). It is high time to toss the old definition of public education into history’s trash can where it belongs.

What’s clear is this: That public education is not about the kind of organization that provides instruction and curricula, but how it is financed and regulated. Charter schools, private schools, online schools, DIY operations, and even teachers working together or on their own, are as capable to provide high-quality education (and even promote good citizenship) as a traditional district. What matters more is not whether the school operators are government or private, but whether they provide our children with good-to-great teachers, strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius that nurture the genius inherent in all kids. Those school operators that don’t provide high-quality education, be they traditional, charter, or private, should not be allowed to exist, while those that do the job deserve praise and support.

We need more TEDs and KIPPs in American public education. And we need to keep redefining public education in order to achieve this ideal: Helping children gain the knowledge and skills they need to build brighter futures for themselves and the world around them.

January 4, 2013 standard

Yesterday’s news that Chicago’s city government struck a deal with software giant Microsoft for cloud (or remote) e-mail and desktop application services certainly garnered attention from those who follow and cover the tech sector. After all, the four-year contract once again served as a reminder of the software pioneer’s evolving strategy in the cloud services arena, as well as put rivals Google and Amazon on notice that it remains a formidable outfit which can leverage its overwhelming presence on the desktops of every corporate and public sector operation. The fact that Chicago city government has embraced the kind of less-infrastructure-is-more -productivity thinking about technology that is increasingly the norm among Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurial outfits (which, in some ways, hearkens back to the early days of computing when companies shared time and computing power on old-school mainframes) also points the way for other municipal and state governments struggling to serve taxpayers with less cash.

But for the school reform movement, the Microsoft-Chicago deal is an important reminder that revolutionizing American public education extends beyond overhauling teacher quality and school leadership, building up blended and online learning opportunities, revamping curricula so that all children get college-preparatory learning; and expanding Parent Power and school choice. Revamping how districts and other school operators handle their back office and technology activities is also critical to ensuring all kids get high-quality education.

One of the less-discussed aspects of the nation’s education crisis is the woeful deployment (or, to be more-precise, non-deployment) by districts of technology and other capital-intensive activities. Reformers have spent time advancing efforts by states to develop comprehensive, useful school data systems such as those in Florida (where data from districts, state universities, and even workforce development agencies are combined to provide long-term information on student progress). They have also devoted energy to building online and blended learning options. But less effort has been put into addressing the low levels of capacity among districts to actually use technology in order to handle their back-office (and even front-office) operations in efficient ways. The woeful handling of data by small and mid-sized districts in California — including the use of Excel spreadsheets and FileMaker software to handle student performance information — that I documented back in 2008 in A Byte At the Apple remains very much the norm today. Even the nation’s big city districts fail to use their scale to make smarter IT decisions and spending purchases, or develop systems to better track such matters as textbook purchases. More often than not, a big-city district such as Chicago Public Schools can actually under-invest in IT, spending just one percent of a $5 billion annual budget on its technology infrastructure.

None of this is surprising. After all, inefficiency is endemic throughout American public education — and the technology inefficiencies end up inter-playing with bad decisions in other aspects of school back office functions. Spectacular episodes of back office mismanagement such as those in Detroit — where a 2009 audit found that Detroit bought  unused 160 BlackBerry smartphones and 11 motorcycles on the taxpayers’ dime — are just headline-grabbing examples of what happens in districts every day. As Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools documented two years ago in a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, some districts keep just 69 percent of school buses in operation throughout the school year; this can be a sign that either the districts have too many buses in their fleets or don’t have the capacity to repair those vehicles quickly. A district can spend as much $196 on each item they acquire through antiquated purchase order processes (which often involve teachers and principals going through central bureaucrats to pay for purchases as small as association memberships); these processes slow down the delivery of needed supplies, consume taxpayer dollars that can be used to improve teacher and curricula quality, and keep bureaucracies in place even when they are no longer needed. And then there are the inefficiencies that come from how districts manage school lunch operations and maintain buildings; Cincinnati, for example, found that it saved at least $10 million annually after it revamped its food and building services operations.

The consequences of antiquated IT management are devastating for children, families, and taxpayers alike. From payroll and human resource systems used to oversee the three out of every five dollars American public education spent on teachers in 2010, to the systems charged with keeping tabs on textbooks and other inventory, IT plays a major role in all aspects of education operations. The low quality of information technology services is likely one reason why districts and other school operators wastefully deploy the $23 billion spent annually on school transportation, and the $49 billion spent on capital maintenance. And in an age in which districts and states must make tough choices on handling $1.1 trillion in defined-benefit pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs — especially when Medicaid costs will squeeze education funding for the foreseeable future — better IT management equals more money.

But it isn’t just about wasted money. As Nook HDs and Kindle Fires take the place of print textbooks and notebooks, districts and other school operators must be able to support the use of such technology on a wide scale. Yet far too many districts struggle just to replace aging Macintosh computers, much less deploy new technology. This struggle (along with the resistance of National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers affiliates, and other public sector unions, to the use of technology that can result in lost rank-and-file members) is why few districts have followed the example of New York City in developing innovative instruction and curricula efforts such as School of One, or have taken on efforts to keep laggard early career teachers from getting near-lifetime employment.

The incompetence of districts in handling technology also complicates support for systemic reform. District bureaucracy snafus contribute to the lack of confidence among teachers — especially traditionalists already opposed to all aspects of systemic reform. From their perspective, why should they trust a district to provide comprehensive objective data-based teacher evaluations properly when it can’t even get the e-mail servers to work properly? This, in turn, also reinforces unsophisticated mindsets about the use of data in structuring instruction and teacher performance management, which then plays into traditionalist arguments against overhauling evaluations and other efforts. Meanwhile the failures on the technology front also complicate efforts to move away from the traditional district model (which would be obsolete even if districts got better at IT management) to the Hollywood Model of Education. A state education agency or municipal government overseeing a collection of independent school operators would need the technology infrastructure and expertise to handle the tough work

Certainly the fact that districts are government agencies, and thus, don’t yet have the same levers for accountability such as loss of customers (and their dollars) is a culprit. The fact that rural districts often have less-than-adequate access to high-speed broadband — which is key for availing the use of cloud-based services — is also a factor. Then there’s also the reality that district procurement processes, like other public-sector purchasing regimes, focus more on cost-effectiveness than on balancing spending considerations with quality concerns. And let’s not also forget the influence of iron triangle relationships between districts and existing vendors (who often know how to work procurement bureaucrats, who themselves want to make sure they can move over to a firm once they tire of public service), which also explains why some technology firms continue to get contracts despite their almost deliberate unwillingness to control costs.

Yet as Chicago has shown, governments can make smart technology decisions when leaders make doing so a top priority. Rules governing procurement processes are often structured to favor preferred vendors over others; they can also be crafted to promote more-balanced approaches to technology decisions that aren’t just about costs or favoritism. The problems of IT-decision-making within American public education are ones of thoughtlessness, lack of sophistication, abysmal leadership, and a mindset against the use of outsourcing (and the private sector operators) that defies logic.

The first problem lies in the fact that school operators don’t put much the kind of thought into IT spending that is the norm for private sector peers. Two-thirds of districts surveyed by Grunwald Associates on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking never used return on investment calculations as part of their technology purchasing or evaluation activities; only one in five districts use student test score data in evaluating the efficacy of their technology efforts, while just 43 percent even think about the cost of deployment and maintenance of technology purchases in their decisions. It is little wonder why a district can end up overspending on antiquated BlackBerrys when they could simply deploy more-effective (though security breakdown-prone) approaches such as bring your own device — or under-spending on technologies that can actually make operations effective such as the cloud-based data storage services Amazon provides. It is also why many districts under-invest in IT infrastructures and even delay much-needed technology updates.

The second is one endemic throughout American public education: The lack of sophisticated thinking about using data in making IT and other operational decisions. This shouldn’t be surprising. Districts are just beginning to use teacher evaluation data (and the underlying value-added analysis of student test growth) in making performance management decisions and restructuring how teachers work in order to maximize high-quality talent (as well as make teaching a more-rewarding profession). The fact that most school leaders aren’t trained in such principles of business management as organizational planning — and that most principals and superintendents come from the teaching ranks — also complicates matters. As Contributing Editor Steve Peha pointed out two years ago, it is difficult for teachers to deal with the transition from managing classrooms to managing teachers with whom they feel residual sympathy; so it isn’t surprising that school leaders would also struggle in other aspects of management. The continuing fetish among some traditionalists and reformers that principals should only be focused on being instructional leaders ignores the reality that school leaders must work more like corporate division executives who must be focused on making everything at the building level work well for kids and teachers.

Then there is the fact that far too many school leaders shouldn’t be in those jobs. When school leaders are failures, they fail in all aspects of their management. As seen in Detroit, one should as much expect failed school leaders to mismanage IT matters as they abet educational malpractice. Former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein also proved in his tenure running the Big Apple’s schools, savvy and strong school leaders are also people who understand how technology impacts all aspects of school operations, and works diligently to embrace smart approaches to handling technology. For all the talk among some reformers about the importance of embracing “cage-busting” leadership, there is surprisingly little discussion about the need for school leaders to master the basics about managing IT operations that can do plenty to ruin their efforts on the ground.

Finally the resistance to outsourcing aspects of school operations — an extension of the traditionalist belief that any involvement of the private sector in education is an anathema — also makes it difficult to use IT in effectively managing school and district operations. Forget for a moment that this conceit ignores the reality that American public education is already dependent on Corporate America for tax dollars that sustain operations as well as for providing goods and services necessary to run schools. By ignoring the economic and operational benefits of handing off IT and other functions to corporate firms, American public education is failing to use techniques that can allow them to focus more on improving the quality of teaching and curricula provided to the children in their care. One can easily argue that districts shouldn’t even be doing more on the IT front other than managing those contractors providing the services (and holding them accountable for results). In fact, by yielding savings from managing back-office activities properly, districts could then use those dollars to build cultures of genius in which all kids learn.

Certainly reformers are doing plenty to overhaul school leadership, push for the development of data systems, promote the acceptance of the new fiscal norm in education, and battle failed mindsets that have burdened education for far too long. Yet reformers still haven’t focused enough on the mismanagement of IT activities. The efforts undertaken by the Council of the Great City Schools — including the development of a system that helps districts analyze and make decisions on operational activities — are important steps. There needs to be more of them. The kind of institutional reform outfits like TNTP that predominate in the teacher quality arena should also become prominent in education IT management. There’s no reason why think tanks such as American Enterprise Institute (which has done plenty of work on the school efficiency front) don’t focus more on technology.

While all this happens, school leaders should rip a page from Chicago’s decision to let Microsoft manage key aspects of its IT infrastructure, as well as learn from the growing number of firms and governments outside of education that have moved toward cloud-based IT offerings. There’s plenty that can be done to make IT work for supporting the high quality work that helps our children.