George Tang on Connecting the Dots to Educate Texas

After a successful career introducing predictive analytics to marketing, George Tang returned to his hometown of Dallas to serve as the COO of Educate Texas. Following is a slightly pared down version of his opening remarks from the ten year anniversary celebration.  
Our public private partnership, Educate Texas has made much progress in closing the achievement gaps for our low income, first generation students.  When this little “Texas High School Project” started, we had great visions for what could be done but who knew we would have:

  • Proven that ALL students regardless of economic or ethnic background CAN SUCCEED with the right teaching and learning strategies
  • Strengthened the alignment between public education, higher education, and the workforce
  • Sustained the momentum of our philanthropic and public partners to have the breadth and depth of impact across the state

On behalf of our entire team and the students we serve, thank you for what you have contributed to our shared accomplishments.
While the success of our students over the past decade has been immensely rewarding for all of us in this public-private partnership, we know we must make EVEN GREATER strides in the next chapter of our work.
Doing the math. As national and state labor market projections suggest, we will need 60% of our adult population to have a postsecondary credential to maintain our nation’s economic competitive edge.  If those forecasts are close, there’s a simple algebraic equation that we’re going to have to solve for.
In order to hit 60%:

  • We’ll need 90% of our K-12 students to graduate postsecondary ready;
  • We’ll need 90% to enter some postsecondary institution; and
  • We’ll need 75% to graduate and receive their credential.

As you all have seen with the release of the 8th grade cohort study, our students’ postsecondary graduation rates are improving; however we must do more if we are going to come close to hitting the 60% projection.  If we don’t get there, we’ll likely need to import talent to the US.  This will have three major implications:

  1. Our state and country’s growth will be at the mercy of how quickly we can source this talent to fill these jobs;
  2. The divide between haves and have nots will grow deeper;
  3. Our country’s innovation advantage in this knowledge driven economy will fade.

I don’t want to be chicken little, but I wake up every morning feeling the urgency of this challenge.  I am driven by the desire to move more quickly and intentionally to find ways to solve these challenges.  I wish I had a crystal ball to tell us how we solve this and how it all turns out, but I’m sorry I don’t.
But as I’ve seen how sophisticated personalization strategies have benefitted all these other industries, I fully believe many of these lessons will help us improve how we support our students, our teachers and leaders, and our institutions as a whole.
So here are some predictions for how the next decade may look for K-12, higher ed, and our communities and state writ large.
I’ve been approaching this just like we used to think about work with clients in any other industry.  In K-12 and higher education, it starts by looking at the types of students that are coming into the system, identifying what we need to do to help them succeed in the future, and designing ways to better connect and engage with them.
Opportunity Set. Kids are growing up with digital devices in their hands and they are bringing this experience and knowledge into the classrooms.  We need to find ways to let them use these devices to help how teaching happens and how kids/students are asked to learn.
In addition, the times they are a changing and these kids are growing up in a rapidly changing, global community.  Thomas Friedman calls this the hyperconnected world, where everyone has access to info, platforms and people immediately from all over the world.
In this hyperconnected world, our kids will not be rewarded solely for what they know — Google already knows everything (in fact some say that the internet will have 25% of the world’s information by 2020) — but for what they can do with what they know.  Future success will go to those individuals and countries that are able to quickly synthesize information and create something with it.
Here’s a glimpse of how quickly this has already occurred in the workforce:

  • When I was building our consulting business in the late 90s, we would ask potential candidates questions that tested their critical thinking and problem solving abilities like how many ATMs would you need to have in the state of Kansas.
  • When Sal Khan spoke last year in Dallas, he shared that in addition to asking problem solving questions in his interviews, he was asking potential hires to highlight something they created and what they had learned from that creation.

What will be critical for our kids’ future is not being able to recall the date or location of the Gettysburg Address or the characters in the Odyssey, but how to find, analyze and present the implications of these historical moments.  We will need our kids to develop new muscles that move them from a consumer of information to a synthesizer of information.   Our students will need more opportunities to apply academic theory to solve practical real world situations.
Finally, our current system makes students progress at the pace defined by the class structure or individual teacher.  This one size fits all model instead fits few.  We know students learn differently and at different paces.
When I was in high school, I was in my calculus class and it was moving way too fast for me.  Because we were in a 25 person class, I felt embarrassed to ask for help.  But in my economics class, I was devouring the Wall Street Journal and was interested in more than just the theory of supply and demand.  Unfortunately, my learning was based on how my teacher taught to the middle of my class.
New tools and digital content will help meet students at their point in the learning cycle and will allow get them up to speed or accelerate.
While these are the key needs of our K-12 students, we know effective teachers will be the cornerstone for making this vision a reality.  As we at Educate Texas outlined in the Teaching Commission report, there are so many different dimensions that need to be addressed.

  • Teachers are being asked to take on broader roles and responsibilities every day (coach, counselor, advocate, parent liaison, community connector).
  • Our teacher preparation programs have limited understanding of how well their teachers perform once they graduate.
  • Classroom teachers have limited feedback on their instruction even though they are seeking ways to grow in their profession.
  • Compensation levels for teachers are lower than other professions and may not be compelling enough to attract the best and brightest.

As we seek to find solutions, we need state and local policies to honor the profession while making material refinements for better preparing teachers before they come into the system, improving recruitment and on-boarding strategies before they come into the classroom, offering more insightful evaluation and professional development tools, and ultimately compensating and retaining teachers in a way that is commensurate with their performance.  Teachers will need to have a voice in shaping the direction of how this changes.
Within higher education, this same student centric lens is critical to thinking about the future.  Let me begin by asking you how many in this room went to a four year university or college, lived on campus, and had a “traditional” on-campus experience?
Ok, so this room is not what today’s average student looks like.  Of the 20 million higher education students across the nation, only 10% of them are likely to have a “traditional” four year experience.  Many of our students need to work or take care of their families.  Many are returning adults who are looking to acquire new skills to get back into the workforce.  Fewer and fewer of our students are sitting in the quad and having time to ponder their future.
Our institutions of higher education are getting better at leveraging student data to better support students.  However, we still are not achieving the step function growth that we need.
Our students face a myriad of challenges as they come to college.  We must do better at determining if its social, academic, psychological, or financial challenges that are the primary inhibitors to their success.  We must look at ways to understand the wiring of our students so we can better target and tailor the types of resources and interventions to an individual student.
New tools for segmenting students based on their needs and beliefs are available based on our work being supported by the Gates Foundation.  Institutions will be able to turn these insights into practical solutions and strategies.  Examples of this could be:

  1. If they find students who question the value of earning a degree, institutions can direct these students to a faster and potentially lower cost track, provide messaging around the economic benefit of a degree, or offer to connect students with alumni that have gone down the same path.
  2. Alternatively, if institutions find students who feel insecure about being in a college setting or feel isolated, the earlier ideas would fall short.  Institutions will need to help these students find a way to connect socially to others or find ways to engage them in their interests/passions.

It’s this kind of understanding that will be critical for institutions to build and integrate into their systems.
In addition as higher education’s revenue stream becomes more outcomes driven, institutions will have greater incentives to find new business models to serve these new types of students.  With the availability of Massive Open Online Coursework (MOOCs), online learning models like WGU, and Phoenix, there are hugely disruptive platforms that are federating higher education’s most prized possession: its intellectual capital and bringing it to the masses.
As with any challenge to a legacy business model, there will be detractors.  There is a lot of clamor around how many of these students are completing the courses, how many people are truly taking advantage of these resources, what will be the value of earning these credits, how do we measure success, etc.
However, if you look back to personal computers and its challenge to mainframes, Ken Olsen, Founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977 “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”.  Now we carry one of these high power mini-computers/telephones in our pockets.
Who knew we would have seen this digital revolution happen so quickly over the past 30 years.
However, as the urgency to find highly skilled talent to fill positions in high demand fields increases, business and industry will continue to challenge the existing higher education business model and find creative ways to address its workforce needs.  Like the partnership between AT&T, Georgia Tech, and Udacity, they have created a masters degree program that significantly lowers tuition costs ($6,600), progresses students at their own pace, and offers a comparable masters of Science degree to a traditional degree.  In Texas, recently South Texas College, Texas A&M Commerce and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board launched their bachelor’s of applied science in organizational leadership degree.  This online bachelor’s degree program allows students to move at their own pace as long as they can demonstrate mastery of the material.  They are projecting students will be able to earn a bachelor’s degree in a year for $4500 – $6000 if they come into college with 90 credits under their belt.
Many institutions will be closely monitoring how these models work, how many students take this, the quality of talent that emerges, and the cost structure required to deliver these results.   Assuming these models start to work, the flood gates may open for other collaborations to better serve students when and where they are.
Finally, better connections between K-12,higher education, and workforce will form both at the state and local levels.  As we saw last night, there is a growing alignment across our public, higher education and workforce leaders to connect the dots for our students and systems.  The alignment of these efforts at the state level will continue to strengthen over the upcoming years as legislation like HB5 begin to roll out and are implemented.
This state level engagement will be important for defining student success; however, with 95% of our students population growth happening in 5 regions of the state and over 70% of these students staying in the regions they started, regional and local collaboration will be critical.  Currently, there are many collective impact efforts that are underway across the state.  As we heard, the goals of these efforts are threefold:

  1. Gain clarity around the practices not the programs that work
  2. Invest in replicating successful evidence-based practices
  3. Address key barriers that impede growth

As these regional efforts across the state begin to see consistent gains, more communities will seek to replicate this approach.  In addition, these different regional initiatives will come together with a unified voice to advocate for key shifts in the educational ecosystem.
Over the next decade, some of these forecasts will materialize but some may not.  We at Educate Texas are committed to pushing the envelope to help more students succeed and are focused on helping make great change happen.  We know business as usual is not sufficient to get us to our goals.
So how do we think we’ll get there?  Here’s where I want you to roll up your sleeves and join our team in the next round of this work. We have seen the impact and scale of effectively using this public private model and we are committed to seeing how we can use this approach to further accelerate our shared vision.
Educate Texas is going to continue to focus on four key areas:

  • College Ready Standards and Practices
  • Postsecondary Access and Success
  • Human Capital
  • Collective Impact

While we have seen great successes with our students within our ECHS and STEM portfolio of schools, we know scaling this will only be part of the solution.  We must continue to identify innovative strategies and practices that will prepare our kids for this new market economy.
Within postsecondary access and success, we have been historically playing in the policy domain but we plan to work with our higher education partners to better design and implement strategies and practices that improve how they serve their “non-traditional” students.
Within human capital, we have built a robust foundation of policy recommendations and piloted some new tools for helping teachers improve their craft.  We will continue to seek new opportunities to both improve the quality of existing teachers and leaders and find new sources for growing the pool of talent coming into the system.
With Collective Impact, we have gained firsthand experience in supporting and leading these efforts in Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley.  By engaging our historical partnerships across the state and combining it with the support of Strive Together, we plan to stand up more communities in Texas who are using this theory of action.  Educate Texas also plans to serve as a connector and supporter of these various communities so that regions can form a unified voice to address common challenges and advance key strategies.
So as we look to the future, we have reflected on our past.  Over the past decade, we have worked with our public and private partners to achieve great things for our students and communities.  Students like Jaime and Cindy have demonstrated that with the right educational foundation they can soar to great heights.
We have learned that the public-private partnership can serve as the “lynchpin” to taking ideas from small scale pilots to systems change. Over the next decade, the final chapter of this epic journey will defined by the level of ambition and commitment of our partners.  I hope you will join us in connecting these dots to Educate Texas.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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