FREEDOM AND SAFETY
For the past few years, the annual NewSchools Venture Fund Summit has surfaced some of the resonant themes echoing in education reform: A few years ago, it featured the likes of billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and venture capitalist John Doerr. Later, conversations around equity and diversity dominated. So what about this year?
In its 20th year, the Summit had a feeling of rolling up its sleeves: People talked about the tensions of trying to have civil dialogue between people who hold different points of view; they struggled with the ongoing challenge of trying to figure out “what works” in edtech and reform, particularly when efforts don’t seem to live up to expectations. And yet the conversations were uplifted by some powerful stories of students succeeding in ways that left the adults starstruck.
“Most of today’s schools were designed for a different time and purpose. And it matched up pretty well for how we worked then,” said Stacey Childress, CEO of New Schools Venture Fund, in the summit’s opening remarks. But “the world has changed dramatically since then. We think it’s time to update our schools.”
The familiar narrative - that schools today are outdated and in need of an overhaul - has also been shared by the likes of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and education reform leaders. However, innovating schools and actually putting those calls to practice can get messy, and it appeared that one theme throughout the event was about facing and learning from those failures.
"When it comes to our work in education, many of us are reflecting on the last 10 or 20 years. Some of it led to progress, and some of it did not,” said Childress. “But we have different interpretations about why and what to do about it.
Constructing a middle ground feels “harder than ever,” Childress said, even as she shared center stage with the CEO of the Rand Corp., Michael Rich and American Enterprise Institute director Ryan Streeter on one side, and DeNora Getachew, executive director of Generation Citizen and two articulate students on the other. Can we build common ground without tough conversations? Childress urged conference goers to “resist saying that we shouldn’t try things that aren’t proven,” even as she added that innovators should “resist saying that the systems are too broken.”
“America is uncomfortable with the America we’ve created,” Getachew said. Streeter urged people to seek local solutions; Rich called for distinguishing “facts” from “fiction.”
In a later session on failures in school innovation, Cristina de Jesus, president and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California, shared how the charter school networks he oversees struggled when they took over Alain Leroy Locke College Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles.
“We made many mistakes,” de Jesus said. Perhaps the largest was underestimating the differences between starting a school from scratch from taking over a school with its own students, history and challenges. “We really thought we could take our successes from turnaround world to Lock. Many transferred for sure, but many didn’t.”
Although the tone of the conference encouraged attendees to embrace failure, others attendees appeared hesitant about unpacking and sharing the less favorable outcomes of their experiments.
At another session on designing new school models, Elliott Witney, the associate superintendent of Research and Design at Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, shared mixed outcomes from experiments in his district, where social-emotional learning improved but academic indicators fell flat.
In his district, where he supports the implementation of new “micro-school” and charter school models, these results are red flags that his team aims to correct. But that is a tricky task.
“We want a balance because immediate and second-order change takes years to fully materialize. But at the same time we can’t wait to make adjustments,” said Witney. “Anytime the work is leading to the same or worse [results], then that is a cause for concern and immediate action.”
When improvements don’t immediately materialize, Witney said it is difficult to make a call on what to do since gains from new school models can take time to observe. His team plans to pursue longitudinal studies looking at students who do well in particular models and those who do not. He noted that this approach, which tracks and documents successes and failures, might yield to more results than anecdotal experimentation done by classroom teachers in the past.
“Teachers all over America try stuff, and they wait a year for their state tests to come back and nobody knows [that they experimented],” explained Witney, noting that his controlled experimentation can track what is working and what is not. “This is actually a lot more thoughtful because this is a lot more holistic.”
On a panel with edtech executives from Microsoft, Google and IBM, Jonathan Rochelle, product management director at Google, reflected fondly on his past obsession with 3D printers, noting that the tool never reached the level of usefulness in homes and classrooms that he hoped for.
“I was really into 3D printers for about two years, I mean really into it. Every weekend I was making a blog post,” said Rochelle with a smile. “The quality never got to the point that - maybe it will one day - where you can make really high quality things at home.”
Looking forward, Rochelle was ambiguous about the company’s future education strategy, noting that Google never had a “grand plan” - only a process of inventing tools and making them available to the public as they saw fit.
“People don’t recognize the business model...but it’s really about making sure people have access,” Rochelle continued, noting that many of their tools are free and the hardware is relatively affordable. “For us, it’s really about enabling learning.”
Microsoft's Barbara Holzapfel described what she sees as an opportunity to personalize learning through translation applications the company is developing, making real-time translations into a variety of languages.
“The makeup of classrooms are changing and increasingly we have classrooms with multi-language learners,” said Holzapfel. “All of these tools need a translator to allow somebody to speak in their native language or consume content in their native language.”
Holzapfel noted that tools, such as Skype in the Classroom that can offer live translations, allow people to learn other skills such as communication and cultural awareness.
“It all comes back to us to the notion of inclusiveness in learning,” explained Holzapfel, saying she hopes that this technology will drive diverse collaboration forward.
Even the fans of augmented reality (and its associated string of acronyms such as AR, VR and yes, XR), agreed that the technology itself offered no magic solutions; instead these approaches have to built on rigorous and meaningful content and curriculum.
Another recurring theme was the future of work and automation. In her opening remarks, Childress asserted that a majority of the jobs of the future do not exist yet. (That claim was quickly debated on Twitter).
When the topic came up again at a lunchtime plenary session, Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist who co-founded Socos Labs, said: “There are hundreds of reports out now about how automation will affect the future of work, what it means about how you need to teach your students. I disagree with all of them.”
Instead, Ming suggested that the educators and investors in the audience should not be focused solely on training students for potential coding and programming jobs - but on equipping them to apply creativity and critical thinking to the tools and technologies today. “Knowing how to program is not what makes someone a great programmer,” she said. “We need to build a society of explorers.”
To be sure, Ming is certain that automation will replace some jobs - including many that may feel secure today such as lawyers or financial analysts. Education will need to adapt to support students today to prepare for that. “There is a massive disruption coming and it’s not about cars or agriculture or low-sill factory workers,” said Ming. “The professional middle-class is about to be blindsighted.”
Yet throughout the day, several student spotlights grounded the conversations about data and forecasts in powerful stories. Lizbeth Gonzalez, who struggled to learn English in middle school, described how she found her voice - and rocketed through multiple grade levels of reading - thanks to the support of caring teachers. Ruba Tariq, of New York City, described how she learned in high school to become a powerful advocate of change to improve student lives. Elementary school students Phoenix Gray and Samiah Turner, ages 10 and 8, described how they’re already inventing solutions (and soldering submersible robots), while high school student Moziah ‘Mo’ Bridges not only described his work as a fashion designer and entrepreneur but also sold some of his snappy bow ties to conference attendees.
“We are the change makers that we are waiting for,” declared Tariq. “So I ask you: How are you going to empower our youth?”