Bush-Sponsored Summit Calls for Excellence at Scale

The fifth annual Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform was held in Washington DC the last two days. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, chair of the host organization, kicked off the event Tuesday by urging state policy makers to hold firm on college and career ready standards. “Should we ignore that our children are not college and career ready? Or should we adjust the standards?” asked Governor Bush. (Read Checker Finn’s summary of Bush’s opening speech here.)
“The U.S. needs to transform our system of expectations. We ought to shape the complacency that exists,” added Governor Bush. “Our students will rise to the standards that we give them.”
During his opening keynote, Governor Bush outlined his top five steps for improving education in America.

  1. High standards
  2. Robust accountability
  3. Teacher evaluation system
  4. School choice, and
  5. Embrace technology.

Extraordinarily ambitious. “We’re 14th in the world in college graduation rates,” said Secretary Duncan addressing policy makers today. Based on U.S. educational performance, Duncan said, “I’m challenging my team to be extraordinarily ambitious.”
Duncan signaled more focus on early childhood. “Early childhood education is the best investment we can make; every other level of education is playing catch-up.”
He acknowledged “years of huge challenge” ahead in K-12 with the introduction of higher standards. Duncan said it would take courage to stay the course when proficiency levels drop by 30, 40, or 50 points with real college and career ready assessments. “We need to stop lying to children [about their academic progress],” said Duncan.
“We don’t have one district that systematically identifies top performers and matches them with students most in need,” said Duncan. “We have been uncourageous on addressing this opportunity gap.”
Disappointed about failure to pass the Dream Act, Duncan said, “after these kids work hard, it’s absolutely insane that we slam the door shut.”
Duncan sees access to a good school, more than race or class, as key to economic mobility.  He acknowledged that “we need to feed kids, make sure they get eye glasses, and address social emotional issues.”
American dream or memory? During a dinner keynote on Monday night, Condoleezza Rice remarked that education is the civil rights issue of our time. “If you have low expectations of even the best students they will live down to them,” said Rice.
John Klein of Amplify shared his three wishes for the U.S. education system:

  1. Make K-12 teachers America’s heros. “We have it 100% wrong, seniority should not be more important than excellence.”
  2. Deliver more school choice. “I think choice is critical. No one would say I’m down with that if asked to send their child to a random school in DC.”
  3. Quit trying to fix this system and create a new system. “We need to rely on technology to empower teachers and improve education.”

Klein and Rice’s discussion included talk of higher education and lack of teacher preparation for 21st century skills. “I think there are real problems in schools of education and how people are trained,” said Rice.
In closing Klein asked, “Will we fight for the American dream or will it become an American memory?”
On the right road. Governor Bush noted that with the adoption of real college and career ready standards that we’re headed for “big time friction when it’s obvious that real proficiency levels are low and that we spend more than any other country.” He predicted that “moms and dads will be angry” and there will be “problems for elected officials.”
Bill Schmidt, MSU, made the case for high common standards noting that “we’re two years behind by eighth grade in terms of what we teach compared to top performing countries.” Schmidt added, “Students at the top of U.S. distribution would be in the middle of distribution in top countries.”
Schmidt said, “We have world class standards, we can elevate performance, we have support from teachers and parents, but we haven’t convinced our kids that learning math is important.” Schmidt shared survey data that indicates students believe they are asked to memorize more than learn, that grades are a game, and that math isn’t that important to future success.
David Coleman, the new College Board CEO, said Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were developed by states and leave lots of room for local control of pathways to achieving the new higher expectations. “These standards tell the truth to students about their path to college and career.”
On competency-based learning, Coleman said that with a “staircase to college and career readiness, some will race up that staircase faster.” Schmidt agreed that some students will move faster but said the real opportunity was to spend more time going deeper. Schmidt is confident that the math standards are a big step forward. “We’re on the right road!”
Every Child, Every Day. John Bailey of Digital Learning Now! led a digital learning session that included Superintendent Mark Edwards of Mooresville, North Carolina. Edwards’ book (out 1/1/13) is called Every Child, Every Day. It describes the digital conversion in his district that boosted graduation rates from 64 percent in five years to 90 percent. As noted Monday the transformation was internally funded by relocating about $250 per student in the annual budget.
Georgia Senator Chip Rogers led efforts to expand access to online learning, create a digital content clearinghouse, and create room for multiple providers. “We are forcing students into something that is not natural to them,” said Rogers. On the new requirement for at least one online course in high school, Rogers said, “If a student graduated in 2019 without taking at least one online class, we should be ashamed ourselves.”
Janet Barresi, Oklahoma chief, is excited to see elementary students blog, to watch teachers implementing higher standards, and hear superintendents saying, “This can be done.” Barresi echoed a sense of urgency by saying, “A quality education is the single most important key to getting children out of poverty.”
Barresi is working to form public-private partnerships that will help create access and bandwidth for OK students across the state. “You can have all the aspirations, but you need the infrastructure in place to make it work,” said Barresi.
Governor Bev Perdue of North Carolina shared her three principles for implementing technology: innovation, collaboration, and flexibility during the session. Her advice also included building systems that are adaptable, open, and transparent.
Representative Pam Myhra of Minnesota who drafted digital learning legislation this year added that the most valuable resource in developing her bill was the Digital Learning Now! State Report Card. John Bailey said this year’s data will be shared in early 2013.
Don’t have time to evolve. Citing a Council on Foreign Relations report she co-chaired, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the state of American public education posed a national security risk. When asked if she advocated for evolution or revolution, she said, “We don’t have time to evolve.”
The Excellence in Action agenda formula for revolution includes students reading by third grade, a strong system of school accountability, better pay for effective teachers, and quality choices for families.  That doesn’t sound much like a revolution, but it would be if it existed at scale.
Patricia Levesque closed the conference tying together the theme of leadership and urgency that was echoed in every session.
Foundation for Excellence in Education is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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