The answers are in the room

November 19, 2013


U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently gave a bold speech about how schools should tackle the financial challenges that they are likely to face in the coming years. What I liked about his approach to the topic was that he looked at the crisis as an opportunity to reconfigure some fundamental systems that are inefficient or ineffective. Much like what General Motors went through in the last two years — as it pulled itself out of bankruptcy — schools, districts and states need to look closely at the system of education and focus increasingly scarce dollars on effective teaching and learning. In other words, the financial realities of some of our most engrained policies and structures might be just what we need to examine and reinvent those that don’t work.

Several examples caught my attention. First, Duncan touched upon something that the Gates Foundation also showed; that we need to recruit and keep effective teachers, dealing with those that are not effective. Every teacher can look around the room during a staff meeting and find colleagues and peers who are not getting the job done. Yet, unlike our students who hold each other accountable on their projects, we accept and sometimes defend teachers who are doing harm to student learning. This year, too many schools will lay off their most creative, energetic and effective teachers to preserve a job for their least effective teachers. Creating a teacher evaluation system that protects excellent teachers, develops a stronger cache of effective educators.

Second, Secretary Duncan hit upon the failure of piecemeal efforts. From special education to technology, school systems try to “add on” programs to address specific needs and fail to make adjustments to the core of what traditional schools do. The commonly held belief that we are spending less on education today than we have in the past keeps us trapped in the belief that if we only had more money, we could fix the problem. Like adding a window air conditioner to a poorly insulated room, many of our reform efforts don’t address the fundamental problems. Even our 62 New Tech High Schools, while representing very fundamental change at the classroom level, still must fight to exist in a district or state that put up barriers to their success. Recognizing this, New Tech Network has started to explore what a district system might need to look like to support our schools.

Lastly, Duncan was quick to state that he does not have specific suggestions or policies he would recommend. Instead, he put it on us as educators to make the changes we know are needed. As Mark Morrison, the first principal of Napa New Technology High School used to say to us as we grappled with creating a 21st Century school, “The answers are in the room.”