Online Discussion: School Choice a la Carte


Wednesday, October 7, 2009 (All day) - Friday, October 9, 2009 (All day)


Currently, choice in education is generally limited to choosing a school: Public or private school? Charter or neighborhood school? But what if school choice meant every student could have a personalized education experience beyond the current school-centered vision.

Clayton Christensen's book Disrupting Class has gained much attention for its prediction that the growth of technology, especially computer-based delivery of instruction, will revolutionize how we educate students, much in the way iTunes has changed the music industry with its more customer-focused approach to delivery.

But while virtual education is likely to become a large part of the future of school choice, increased customization in education doesn't have to happen only online. There are endless possibilities to reorganize the delivery of education and to offer both students and teachers more choice and customization within the public schools.

This discussion featured: Education Sector's Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker; Courtney Bell of Educational Testing Services; Julie Evans of Project Tomorrow;Curt Johnson of Education/Evolving and co-author of Disrupting Class; Brian Dixon, teacher and director of High Tech High's Flex program; and Tom Vander Ark of Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners and former executive director of education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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This discussion is based on the premise that our current focus on choice between schools (Public or private school? Charter or neighborhood school?) is a very limited way of thinking about educational choices. In the opening description, we assert that there are endless possibilities to reorganize the delivery of education and to offer both students and teachers more choice and customization within public education. It sounds wonderful, but can it really happen? If so, what do you see as the challenges and opportunities? Posted by: Education Sector from Education Sector

Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

This is a really big question that I hope we'll begin to address over the next few days. For now, let me borrow from science fiction author William Gibson: "The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed." Meaning, that affluent families have always provided a multitude of options and resources to customize education for their children. And, increasingly, with virtual school options and an immense treasure of Internet-based resources--over 150,000 students will take one or more classes online in Florida this year--students already want and are taking advantage of a multitude of options. So, for me, the question is not whether this will happen, but how? And, my main concern is that if we don't affirmatively embrace these options from a public education standpoint and make sure that our systems, policies, and educators support these options for ALL students,

then many will not be able to take advantage of this potential. And, to be clear, by support I mean make sure that our policies and programs are structured not just to provide access, but truly structured to ensure 1) that many different types of students can succeed -- especially those that are not currently succeeding in traditional environments, and 2) that our data, accountability, funding, and other policies are designed to build these seamless experiences, rather than marginalize them to the province of the already successful or affluent.

Julie Evans from Project Tomorrow responds:

Let's start with Bill's question about the challenges.  In many ways this discussion is really about what it means to replicate and sustain innovation in education.  We all know that there are many interesting and innovative things happening to provide more personalization or customization of education in pockets of schools all over the country, the world.  Many of those involve new delivery mechanisms using emerging technologies; some are centered on the structure of the school day; some leverage new teaching methodologies.  Any one of us could probably create a long list of great programs or successful models we have visited or read about where public education is stepping up to the plate and providing truly "out of the box" learning opportunities.  We all know that these "campfires of innovation" are happening and we look at those campfires as beacons of promise and success.  However, the really hard question is how to deconstruct these models and examples to learn how to effectively scale those to the point so that as Bill says all students have these options. If we can't do that we run the risk of creating a new kind of equity crisis. The big challenge, therefore, is how we change our focus from the desire to create yet another new campfire to the more important topic of how to take what we have learned from these innovations and create a platform for large scale, national replication. This is not an easy shift to make. Let's be honest - the creation of new campfires is much more fun and provides more immediate feedback.  The scaling conversation is a more difficult one since it has to have a solid foundation in the dynamics of sustainability - sustainability in funding, in policy, and in leadership. 

Julie Evans from Project Tomorrow responds:

Now, on to the opportunities component of Bill's initial question.  A good first step in understanding the potential power that technology can bring in terms of the customization or personalization of learning is to appreciate how students are already customizing and personalizing the learning process for themselves, outside of directed teacher involvement.  Yes, folks, while we are discussing the opportunities, the students are already in many places harnessing that power directly for themselves.  In many ways, the students already believe that they have "choice."  It is in fact a form of self-directed learning facilitated by the vast resources available on the Internet.  For many students the traditional school is no longer the center of their learning world, nor is their teacher the bastion of all knowledge. They have eclipsed that paradigm and established their own network of peers, experts, and sources to facilitate an informal learning environment that is solidly rooted in real world issues and provides a context for developing the kinds of skills highly desired for 21st century literacy.  Most importantly through these experiences, the students have developed a keen understanding of how learning should and could be in their school, and what is needed to bring their schools up to the speed.  The following quote from an 11th grade student in Pittsburgh PA underscores the opportunities that could be reality in all of our schools.  This quote was provided to us by the student through the Speak Up surveys last fall when we asked the students to give suggestions on how to improve education for all students.  Ibelieve that "the purpose of education is not to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men." To be competitive in a workplace that is changing and will change continuously throughout our careers, my peers and I need to be able to read and understand new information at a level never before prevalent. This should be, however, a familiar aim for the forces of academia, however, since what we must learn, in essence, is to learn.  I would ensure a broad and balanced education that exposes every student to rigorous inquiry in every discipline, from physics to pottery and makes them active participants in the process of inquiry and learning."

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

We’re headed for radical choice--not just school choice but choice to the lesson level.  We’ll soon have adaptive content libraries and smart recommendation engines that string together a unique ‘playlist’ for every student everyday.  These smart platforms will consider learning level, interests, and best learning modality (i.e., motivational profile and learning style to optimize understanding and persistence). 

Smart learning platforms will be used by some students that learn at home, by some students that connect through hybrid schools with a day or two onsite, and by most students through blended schools that mix online learning with onsite support systems. 

Choice between physical schools will increasingly be about the learning community they create in terms of the application and extracurricular opportunities and guidance and support systems.  In some states, families will gain the ability to construct a series of learning experiences that fit family needs, schedules, preferences, and interests.

A couple forward leaning examples of what's to come:

  • Provost's second generation is at least partially adaptive for level and modality
  • School of One pilot in NYC this summer tested personalized math play lists mixing online and onsite instruction
  •, incubated by Christensen inspired Innosight, has 20,000 short math videos that match learning levels and interests
  • Sylvan's new platform is partially adaptive
  • Informal learning (social learning platforms, peer-to-peer learning, and learning games are all exploding

Tomorrow we can speculate on human capital implications for the generation to come. 

Courtney Bell from Educational Testing Services responds:

I agree, Bill.  This is a really big question.  And it is helpful for us to begin thinking about where we are and what is already happening out there -- so thank you Julie and Tom. 

The challenge that puzzles me most about how to make customization equitable is the mechanism by which options become available to families.  Let's think about the people offering the innovations -- a company that creates adaptive software, a group of creative teachers and administrators that reimagine their curriculum, a company that designs charter schools that accelerate traditionally disadvantaged students' learning.  Some of these innovations are surely the result of restless, creative, committed people who see other ways of doing education and set about creating them.  Some innovations are the result of these people seeing what students and parents want.  They see what others want and create those things for them.  Now there are other mechanisms besides these two.  But for the moment, let's think through these two. 

The first one will happen and Tom and Julie have described some ways in which that occurs.  As long as there is freedom to innovate, there will be people who do so.  The second mechanism will also happen.  But there is a classic problem with the second mechanism.  What we want is not always good for us and it is not always very innovative.  Being the parent of young children I am barraged by toys, music, and videos that are supposed to make my preschoolers smarter.  Many parents want smart children, so people make things to support children's cognitive development.  But are the toys, music, etc. good for my preschoolers?  Do they really make them smarter?  Are they innovative?  Are they different from the classical music I already play for them or the sorting games my kids dream up on their own?  It is hard to say.  This second mechanism - responding to families' preferences is a tricky mechanism.  It can produce really powerful innovations but it can also produce more things that look like innovations but are not.  More worrisome, it can produce innovations for certain people and not for others.  The power of this second mechanism should not be underestimated.  Think about cigarettes and fast food.  If we want it, people will make it for us.  So here is a big challenge:  If innovation is going to reach all families and all children, we have to figure out how harness the power of this second mechanism for the forces of good.  We have to figure out how to make sure some families are not left choosing between Burger King and McDonalds while others are choosing between the Tavern on the Green and the Rainbow Room.  If we can't figure out how to make that happen, all these choices may make an already unjust system even more unjust.

Erin Dillon from Education Sector responds:

I think Courtney brings up an excellent point. Expanded choice and increased customization provide an incredible opportunity to meet the needs and interests of a broader range of students. And it provides the opportunity for increased equity in the system by giving students who don't fit into the mainstream education system more options for getting to graduation. At the same time, though, it risks exacerbating existing inequalities in our education system. Without careful attention to how increased choice is implemented, it could result in, as Courtney says, fast food for some and Whole Foods for others. Providing students with more options for customizing their education experience requires parents to be more involved in making curriculum decisions and more informed about the best educational path for their children. While the vast majority of parents are engaged in their children's education, it doesn't mean that all parents have equal access to good information about available educational options and how to make good choices. Much of the existing research on choice indicates that parents rely heavily on peers for information about schools, which means that parents in less informed social networks are at a disadvantage in choosing schools. This isn't to say that we should abandon choice because information isn't perfect or perfectly distributed, but rather to say that we need to take on the challenge of developing, alongside the new technology, policies to ensure that all students are being served equally.

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Well, what to add to this interesting string of commentary?  I'll be brief here and get on to other questions, by seizing on something Courtney said, "As long as there is the freedom to innovate . . ."  It's not that people in the school industry don't have creative ideas, and it's not really a money problem. In most states, public policy hasn't made the transition to what's permanently different in the information and knowledge environment.

The most important thing for people interested in innovation to do is to find out if it's welcome, made easy to do, by their state's school policies.  How arduous is the gauntlet innovators have to run to get a new approach tried?  Is the traditional exclusive franchise for starting schools still closely held by school districts?  Can teachers who believe they can get better results organize and run a school without day-to-day 'management' from some central office?  Do we have a culture that learns from what doesn't work -- just like it works in other industries?

I'd urge a focus on state policymaking, if we're serious about getting more innovation.  Legislatures and governors are the only board of directors that really matter.  They design the environment, make the rules, provide most of the resources (either directly or through the state's tax system). There's a lot of emphasis today on scaling up.  May I suggest, for purposes of discussion, that scaling is not something we 'do,' but something that happens when new and better approaches demonstrate their value. 

Julie Evans from Project Tomorrow responds:

The role of parents in this discussion is an increasingly important one.  What do they know about education/school choice, what do they want for their children, why do they want those things, and what level of interaction do they want with the education institution are all dynamic questions right now.  Certainly, parental involvement has been a standard for year in some schools - but as we know, the high level of involvement and knowledge has been really the exclusive domain of the parents that had the time or resources to spend at school, volunteering in the classroom, serving on committees, getting face time with the principal and teachers.  The difference today is that with the proliferation of school portals, email addresses for staff, and websites like that provide comparative school data, even the traditionally "silent" parents now have a voice and access to information.  So, even the working parent who can't make it to back to school night can now have a personal relationship with their child's teacher through email.  Technology has opened that door for greater parental involvement and for many more parents to become knowledgeable and savvy about education issues and choice options.  This has been a major wake up call for the traditional education leadership - and to some extent they are not prepared for the reality of it all.  Look at this contrast.  We asked parents last fall in the Speak Up survey "is your child's school doing a good job preparing your child for the jobs of the future?"  Only 1/3 of parents across all social economic categories in all kinds of communities said yes.  However, asked the same question, 56% of school principals said they were doing a good job.  When we asked administrators last fall what were the top 5 issues that woke them up in the middle of the night, the #4 issue was parent communications. This new empowerment of parents, fueled by a combination of dissatisfaction with current education and enabled by technology, is a significant opportunity for education innovation.  This opportunity is even sweeter on the policy side since the legislators are already in tune with this dissatisfaction amongst the electorate.  And that is why each year when we present the full national data findings from Speak Up from all 4 key constituencies we poll (K-12 students, teachers, administrators and parents) the highest interest from the legislative offices is the parent data. 

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

New tools and formats will not only increase options for students, they are creating a much more diverse range of employment options for learning professionals including:

  • content development of lessons, units and courses
  • platform development of social learning platforms, recommendation engines, learning management applications
  • online tutoring: 1:1 and small group tutoring in a synchronous online environment
  • onsite advisor: monitoring student academic progress, supporting career/college guidance process and work/community-based learning, building connections with youth & family services
  • learning center leadership: recruiting students and teachers, community connections, operations
  • network leaders: finance, facilities, recruiting, regional management

There will certainly be ‘teacher’ roles in the traditional sense especially P-8 for generations to come, but even in traditional schools the adoption of new tools will alter structure, schedule and staffing.  Tiered staffing that incorporates Master Teachers and Teaching Assistants will become more common.

Learning professionals will be able to choose from large public or small private employers with an increasing number of opportunities for education entrepreneurs.  

Can you provide any tips for superintendents or school administrators on how to develop this type of online individualization?Posted by: Emily Brown from Education Daily

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

Florida now requires districts to create a partnership with an online provider.  While superintendents may not like the requirement, it makes sense for most districts to partner rather than develop.  When I was superintendent in Federal Way WA, we opened the first k12 virtual school.  It's now dwarfed by the private equity-backed providers (K12, iQ, Insight, Kaplan, Connections).  It's hard for a district to make investments in curriculum development and marketing.  Get a couple districts together, issue an RFP, and pick the best partner you can find.  Keep the duration short; things are changing fast.  

Consider separate RFP for credit recovery/drop out prevention (folks like AdvancePath, a Revolution portfolio company) and district wide virtual learning.  Encourage vendors to tell you how they'd partner with your district; a good partner will help you make the transition to blended learning in all of your secondary schools over the next five years.  

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Tom makes a good point about the advantages of finding partners for this.  I'd suggest also that educators educate themselves about how rapidly software development and on-line content is improving. For as long as most of us can remember, educators have been 'open' to using media -- as long as they were creating that media.  Today that is not affordable and not necessary.

On-line offerings, like any disruption in any market, started out not very good, at best mimicking a classroom experience. So most of the market were students with few or no choices -- from sickness or remoteness or other reasons having nothiing to do with school choice.  Over the last decade or so, on-line content and technology has been improving. I'd venture to say now, after looking at some software put out by companies like K-12, Apex, and a dozen or so other leading companies, we're entering what you might think of as the 3.0 phase of these products. What's emerging is more robust, more differentiated by learning style and pace, more interactive, better connected to the world of learning kids know outside of school. You can tour the British Museum as well as being there; check out the coraf reefs, do a chemistry experiment, learn a musical instrument.

So if you're responsible for a school districts offerings to kids, why wouldn't you engage this new world of learning opportunities that's growing at 30 to 40 percent a year?

Courtney Bell from Educational Testing Services responds:

 Ok, just to play devil's advocate for a moment....Curt says "why wouldn't you engage this new world of learning opportunities that's growing at 30 to 40 percent a year?"  Why would you?  What are the circumstances under which engaging this new world would be a positive contribution to a district's offerings?  I'll try to start the list.  Maybe others will have additional suggestions.

It would be a great idea to make use of online offerings if...

  1. They offered something the district couldn't and that was critical to students' success in the 21st century (e.g., Chinese instruction, AP courses, supports for very ill students who cannot physically to go school, etc.)
  2. They offered something better than what the district could offer - perhaps it's a course, perhaps it's a unit, etc.
  3. They offered something at a similar level of quality but they could do it cheaper.

Are there other reasons?

One thing this makes me wonder about is how to help superintendents figure out what quality really looks like in this new environment.  Have folks had experiences with helping superintendents learn how to be discerning consumers?

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Courtney's list is a good starting point. I'd just add that without having any rigorous survey data at hand, isn't it obvious that the combination of narrowing down on reading and math along with the end of growth in revenues causing districts to engage inexorably in cutting other learning opportunities?  Since the predominant model of courses and classes is proving economically unsustainable, people in charge of school distracts had better be looking at alternatives to offer what students need and want.  There are plenty of consultants ready to help them be discerning customers (for the record, I am not one of them, nor am I a sales rep).

There are over 100 universities participating in the "Open Courseware Consortium", at Shared resources include class notes, presentation videos, simulations, and student projects. In speaking with classroom teachers, I've repeatedly heard a hesitancy towards embracing these resources. What are your thoughts on why this is?Posted by: Brian Dixon from High Tech High Flex

Erin Dillon from Education Sector responds:

In an article published last year in Education Next, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn wrote that "computers typically sit quietly, unused, in computer labs and in the back of classrooms". As Christensen and Horn describe, despite predictions that computers would revolutionize the education system, they have instead become an add-on to the existing classroom structure, and little about the typical classroom experience has changed as a result.

I think we're seeing a similar experience with the online curriculum that is available from the OpenCourseWare Consortium and many other web-based providers. So long as these resources are viewed as a supplement to the traditional school curriculum, they won't dramatically change the way education is delivered and adoption is likely to be slow and inconsistent. Perhaps instead of marketing these resources to traditional classroom teachers, for whom these resources are an add-on to what they are already doing, online curriculum providers should be targeting parents and students who are interested in learning outside of the traditional classroom, and teachers who are interested in teaching outside of the traditional classroom.

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

With the growth of $99/mo colleges where students can finish general requirements for a couple thousand dollars, I think we'll see more state universities getting on the bus.  They will face falling revenue, declining enrollment, and high fixed costs--for many, the current budget crisis will only get worse as they become less competitive.  

Do you think that key to this emergence of choice for students in their learning will emerge because of platforms or LMS's that come on the scene to open up portals to students and teachers? If so, what platforms are emerging that you see as promising, and how—or where—do you think they will actually gain adoption so that they are used?Posted by: Michael Horn from Innosight Institute

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

  1. Multiple provider transcript: Students can increasingly assemble a high school transcript from a variety of sources including home high school, one or more virtual providers, and dual enrollment from a college.
  2. Credit recovery: most schools/districts will adopt an accelerated credit recovery strategy that involves an outside provider--an ESP like AdvancePath (a Revolution portfolio company) or vendor like Compass, Plato, NovaNet or SuccessMaker
  3. Informal learning platforms: students are making increasing use of peer-to-peer learning, iTunes U, and resources like Innosight incubated Guarenteach
  4. Social learning platforms: schools will eventually run on social learning platforms that will connect many of these resources (Revolution has one in incubation)
  5. Blending: informal learning, social learning, virtual learning will increasingly be blended into school formats. and Rocketship are early examples. We'll see a half a dozen very interesting school formats introduced next year.

Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

One key policy decision point will be the extent to which newly developed data systems enable or constrain the types of initiatives that Tom notes here (or the seamless learning experiences that Nancy asks about below). I'm in the midst of writing a report about this issue right now. Much better data systems are absolutely essential, but to date we've focused mostly on top-down systems that feed information upwards for retroactive evaluation. We need to integrate these data with data that is valuable to the student, his/her family, and those closest to instruction (whether they be teachers, tutors, online providers, etc.).

My colleague Gina Burkhardt, CEO of LearningPoint Associates, a nonprofit education research and consulting organization that runs one of the regional labs, summed it up well: "There are pockets of excellence and there are piles of data. However, applying these data to the right questions -- even asking the right questions -- escapes those policymakers and practitioners who make critical decisions about our students every day. Not using data to inform the customization of personalized learning for all students is not just unacceptable, it does not have to continue. We just need to have the structures and processes in place."

If we get this right, then it will help inform the multiplicity of choices, not unlike the "Genius" feature helps navigate the choices within iTunes. Now, education is far, far more complex. But we need to demand more from data systems to help inform human judgment.

To get there, these systems are going to have to be much more open across institutions and designed to be used by teachers and actually enhance their work (rather than be another pain to deal with). Increasingly, I see this as an important task in the public domain -- a place where public investment, not unlike our investments in other infrastructure, could help to facilitate and regulate all the private and additional public investments on top (including very important privacy concerns).

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:


I might add that resistance to using emerging platforms comes particlly from the questions that always (and properly) arise about assessment -- how do we know something is effective, that kids are learning what we think they need to know?  What's promising on this front is all the active work developing new assessment tools.  I've talked with executives at CTB-McGraw Hill, for example, and seen how hard they are pushing on the frontiers of assessment. I'm sure their competitors in the field are doing the same thing.

We'll all have to learn to be more open-minded about what's being learned and how it's being assessed, which clearly is not the current national mood.

 Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

Curt's response about assessment is spot on. I've written a lot about this issue (Crossing the Assessment Innovation Chasm, Improving Assessment: Getting from Here to There), so I'll make just two quick points:

  1. Navigating the comparability question will be difficult. Earlier this year I sat with a group of assessment experts piloting really powerful new ways to assess learning -- including assessments for students with disabilities. They convinced me that as long as new assessment methods are evaluated based on their comparability to our current methods (all paper/pencil based), it will be almost impossible to change our practices. It's like that old story of the Wright Brothers being told that flight was all good, but how would it help speed up the railroads? Yet, the difficulty is that we do need to have some tethers and have not yet defined the new parameters.
  2. I don't hear anybody in K-12 talking about it, but the $500 million proposed for open courseware in the pending student loan legislation could be very important. While most of the bill focuses on higher education, the $500 million is meant to cross community college and high school. If we used that money to develop really top notch, digital assessments in an open and sharable way, it could help both the remediation issues (by specifying clear expectations for college level work) and provide an externally validated benchmark for all sorts of schools and learning providers to assess learning.

Brian Dixon from High Tech High Flex responds:

I've always been passionate about integrating students' informal learning experiences into the more formal classroom space. When we talk about Learning Management Systems and other educationally focused technology tools, we would be remiss not to at least mention tools that students are already using. Tom noted iTunes U, and there is much potential there, particularly with metatags and individualized learning "playlists". In fact, I was in Michigan these last few days and they have a state-wide incentive for any K-12 teacher who wants to contribute to their iTunes U video content. They're offering $1000 for 25 short video tutorials. That's quite an incentive for the average classroom teacher.

But what about the iPhone? Facebook? Xbox 360? YouTube?

When we look at educational choice and talk about moving behind the traditional distinctions between public, private, and charter to truly individualized learning, we must consider these platforms that already have wide adoption. 

Start with where the students are.Design and develop learning solutions that will have relevance to their lives.

For example: after an interesting YouTube video, instead of serving an ad, serve a short quiz which leads to more individualized content.

Facebook could be a great platform for earning "educational badges". Particularly in areas with natural cross platform appeal such asbeginning typing skills or second language acquisition. 

Xbox's project Natal has shown great process for interaction without the use of controllers. More to explore there.

And the iPhone has much potential. The application development process is a three month headache, but the outcome could be widespread adoption by students that are tough to reach right now. 

We must also consider how to help parents become better consumers of and advocates for school choice. As noted above, many parents do not realize there are any choices. I have advocated a system of educational options including public, private, virtual, charter, and home schools to meet the needs of all children. Why must charter school raise money for facilities? Why must students still accomulate seat time rather than take a course virtually 24/7? Why can't a homeschooled student participate in specific opportunities at a public school? I am, in effect, blending public with home schooling already as I reteach pre-algebra to my daughter who is in a class of 35 with no book.

American education is still viewed as public school for the masses, private schools for the rich, virtual schools for computer geeks, and charter and home schools for the non-conformists. We need to stop thinking of education as a "place" and realize it is a "process." Clearly we are developing technologies to make that process work for each child. How do we move the discussion from place and the content v skills debate to the process of mastering both content and the skills necessary for lifelong learning? Posted by: Nancy Driscoll, Consultant

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

Go Nancy!!

With some help from iNACOL and the National Alliance, the virtual charters are doing the most to push this boundary back.  However, the charter space is now about scaling pretty good not innovation.  Most states prohibit innovation in charter applications--really, you can propose anything new and hope to get it approved especially in the Northeast.  

Erin Dillon from Education Sector responds:

Nancy, that's a great question. At the same time that we are hosting this online discussion, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is launching an effort to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (or ESEA, as they are calling it again), a very school-focused piece of legislation. In the accountability systems developed under NCLB, the school is the unit of accountability in all areas-attendance, graduation, reading and math achievement. This type of accountability won't work, however, in a system with increased customization, where students get reading instruction in one place and math instruction in another. A critical step in shifting our thinking from education as a ‘place' to education as a process is to create accountability and data systems that work in a system of increased choice and customization, and that don't rely on having one place-the school-as the unit of accountability. One of the troubles with innovation in the charter sector is that truly innovative charter schools are square pegs trying to fit themselves into the existing system's round holes. As Bill discusses above, the decisions policymakers make now about designing accountability and data systems will shape whether new, innovative education providers end up trying to fit themselves into existing round holes in the system, or whether the system can adapt enough to allow for and encourage more innovation.

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

 I'd say most young people have already made this transition, and are looking back over their shoulders wondering what's slowing down the adults.  Most learning takes place now outside school, though we don't officially classify much of it as 'achievement.'

As long as kids report in surveys that they have to go to school to 'watch teachers work,' have to 'power down' when they enter the school place, and find much of what's offered totally disconnected from the reality they recognize -- we won't learn Nancy's lession that it's a process, an experience, not a place to attend. 

Courtney Bell from Educational Testing Services responds:

Such an interesting question, Nancy.  I completely agree with Erin that there have to be data systems in place that can work in all these settings.   But there is a long, perhaps romanticized history of the local public school in American education.  You need only look at the number of one room school houses still in existence or number of districts in a small state like CT to understand how important community and local control are to people. As we think about how to integrate various educational experiences into a process, I think our real and imagined histories will play an important role in which groups see such a shift as positive.

I'd like to agree both with Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class and Gibson's observation that the future is here, just unevenly distributed. I'd like to make the point that I think the future of education is alive and well in about 4% of the K12 population. This segment is trying to build customized education for each child based on close observation of their needs. They tend towards one computer per kid. I'm talking about the homeschoolers. Currently, I think, a larger group than the charter school kids.

Today, they're huge technology innovators. They rely heavily on unit studies. The highschoolers build their own curriculum for junior college courses, high school courses, online courses, independent study, and whatever else seems relevant.

I think there is much to learn about the future from them but it's rarely mined. Of course, they are an ornery independent group who are tricky to work with. Any thoughts or experiences with this sector?

Posted by: John Edelson from

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

Good question. When we started the Internet Academy in '95, half of our students had been homeschooled. They've been early adopters of online learning.  Between growth in homeschooling and virtual charters, I think the learning at home sector will double in size in the next 5-8 years.  This growth will help drive investment and innovation in online learning.  

However, 90% of families will appreciate a place called school--don't underestimate the custodial aspect--and the connection with extracurriculars and support services.  Most kids will do most of thier learning in blended environments.

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Don't know whether it's four percent or higher, but clearly the kind of personalization of learning we pushed in Disrupting Class is still operating at the volume margin. But that's the way it is with disruptive forces -- though for only so long. The shift will mature to majority status in just a few years, with most learning taking place on the technology platform.

It's amazing that the 'industry' of schooling does not see this inevitability or comprehend how it can transform the economics of schooling. If a school has 50 teachers and 1500 students, that's 1500 potential 'workers' in the business of education the public doesn't have to pay. They'll do all the things you describe in your question. And they'll learn from each other. Some think this dimishes the role of teacher. Teachers who've made this transition talk of it as liberating, even if it requires some adjustments in professional role.  Bottom line:  it's all about motivation -- for teachers and students. We won't reach the half we miss today until we open the door to the fullest possible range of learning opportunities. 

In order to offer greater customization for all students within a public system, how do we make availability consumer ready?Posted by: Tisha Brady from Our Children

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Could you clarify what you mean by 'availability?'

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

The reason we don't have the adaptive curriculum I've described above is that there is little R&D investment--public or private--in k-12.  It's a lousy market for vendors--15,000 difficult customers and long sales cycles--driven by the whims of legislatures.  The Common Core should help improve the investment climate. Virtual charters have certainly brought private equity investment to the sector.  

On the public side, the USED should 

  • be given the ability to invest in for-profit (like Energy, Health, Defense, CIA, and Small Business departments do)
  • start a DARPA for edu that pilots new learning tools

For the last 40+ years, I've written extensively (books, articles, newspaper columns) about the myriad serious problems with the traditional "core" curriculum, arguing that no "silver bullet" has a chance of succeeding as long as that curriculum's problems remain unrecognized and unaddressed. Why is the education establishment so resistant to this contention? Posted by: Marion Brady from NA

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Hope this isn't too facile or flip as a response, but haven't we recently asked the same thing about General Motors?  Or any other large organizational culture with established ways of doing things. Those cultural habits are hard to break, even when people see the near necessity of change.

This helps to explain why most developments in education that reach for the 'innovation' tag are actually rather modest changes. Reminds me of a wonderful New Yorker cartoon from 1941 (no, I wasn't reading the New Yorker then). A wealthy couple standing over their son in an opulently furnished mansion were saying that they'd been thinking that he "should get out and about some now on his own . . . but only on the estate of course."  Like people in any industry, we find the familiar, whether we like it or not, easier to handle than a seriously radical shift.

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

It's complicated.  

  • college acceptance drives grad requirements
  • hard to break in to master schedule of a high school
  • state standards locked down current practice (or made more perverse)
  • charters offer limited opportunity for innovation given same standards/testing regime

Julie Evans from Project Tomorrow responds:

We also cannot minimize the impact of culture within a school or district, and how that particular culture limits or even discourages innovation or change. There is very little in the teacher or administrator preparation path that empowers these instructional leaders to be leaders of change.  In fact, in many ways the preparation paths are all about maintaining the status quo.  One of the hardest things for career changers today going into education is to understand how to function in a culture that is really based upon an early 20th century authoritative model; a culture that is so counter to what we have seen in many of the high tech companies for example in terms of collaborative decision-making, shared responsibilities, encouragement of risk-taking, strategic visioning etc.  So, what have we learned from changing the internal culture in other sectors to fit the current workforce or market needs that can be transported to education?   

Having worked in the high-tech world for nearly a decade and having recently completed law school, I have seen how important a "brand name" degree is to job seekers. It strikes me that as students have more options, employers and colleges/universities will have a harder time gauging the quality of those options, especially in a rapidly changing education marketplace. If employers face uncertainty, they may be temped to stick with known commodities, which would hurt job prospects for those students seeking education in non-traditional ways. I ask your thoughts on this obstacle to choice, and what institutions, employers, and students will need to do to overcome it. Posted by: Brook Detterman

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Sure, in some fields and especially in some regions, that 'brand' advantage lifts the career prospects of graduates. But (and I'm flying on intuition here rather than data) won't the percentage of students from the most prestigious university programs always be a small percentage of the total professional ranks, especially when it comes to the "creative" sectors of the economy (as popularlized by geographer Richard Florida)?

Also, the future doesn't look all that rosy for some of those professional schools. Ask what's happening to enrollments in the best business schools. And compare thet trend with the continued growth in higher education sponsored by companies, tailored to their needs. 

Some claim our economy -- and society -- is in a kind of seam of history. A new normal is appearing, but without much helpful definition. If so, one of its underpinnings is likely to be even more emphasis on personal competence, on skills at working with people, on capacity to analyze and solve problems, along with knowing how to find content you need.  That degree, from wherever, may be the least relevant predictor.

Great timely discussion! I agree with those who say that learner choices will likely continue to increase dramatically in and out of schools. In light of this emerging learning environment, I have three questions: (1) How do you think distinguishing between education, schooling, and learning influences learning choices? (2) How do you see the role of "teacher" changing as learners have more software choices that permit increased independent learning without mediation by instructors? and (3) What place do you see for independent education software vendors that offer more automated digital learning assessments in order to increase learner choices as schools become more digitized? Thank you, in advance. Posted by: Robert Heiny from The Tablet PC Education Blog

Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

  1. There will be a variety of answers to how schooling and learning actually happen/interact. The evolving informal learning ecosystem will envelop the formal system. Some schools/networks will welcome and incorporate new tools; others will keep "no electronic device" policies in place. Progress will be wildly uneven for a decade.
  2. See my post this morning on new roles for learning professionals under the first question
  3. Independent software vendors face a difficult challenge. It's very hard to sell to districts. Big platforms are likely to dominate the transition. Creating some early success (ie adoption) using a 'freemium' may be the best approach and selling to a big platform may the the optimal path. Direct to consumer is another path that should be profitable again (like it was in the 90's for shrink wrapped learning software).

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Agree with Tom on getting around those big supply chain barriers. Independent vendors would more likely target the individual consumer, and have a completely different theory of market segmentation than the big players.

One of the uber-challenges in this whole transition is to get our heads to shift from thinking of school as a teaching business to seeing it as a learning enterprise. Once we shift, we see then the opportunities for personalizing the learning opportunity and immediately it's obvious how the role of the educator changes.

Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

I don't disagree with Tom and Curt's market analysis. But, I'm quite concerned that for our most disadvantaged students, the educational markets they describe look like the market for healthy food or high quality banking services (not payday loans) in the southeastern quadrant of my city (Washington DC) -- bleak. (My colleague and fellow panelist Erin Dillon wrote a great report, “Food for Thought: Building a High-Quality School Choice Market,” looking beyond schools to other markets operating in low-income, urban neighborhoods for strategies to improve the supply of high-quality education options and the informed demand necessary to take advantage of those options.)

It makes sense that innovation would occur most rapidly in private markets and public education shouldn't be on the bleeding edge. But we have to find ways to craft smart public policy and investments to ensure that the platforms are open and accessible, and that the frame of competition doesn't bypass these communities. And, the more that educators and policymakers demonize opportunities such as virtual schooling, rather than figure out how to make them high quality and relevant for all students, then I fear that the inevitable uneveness will again fall hardest on those with the least.

How do we as educators help to develop an a la carte educational system that ensures students make informed choices? I find the prospect of having students participate in an educational system that is more personalized to be exciting, scary and intimidating.


My excitement is based on the prospect that with increased involvement by the students in designing their education, school could potentially benefit from having students who are more engaged and more invested in their education. The aspect that scares me is the preparation required to ensure students are making informed choices and the development of safeguards to ensure that students are not gravitating towards curriculum that is below their abilities or making decisions based more on popularity rather than increasing the potential for the students to receive a balanced and challenging education. My feelings of intimidation concern my desire to become a more effective, informed and engaging teacher who is able to assist students in becoming more knowledgeable, better skilled and more excited about their education. The feelings of intimidation help reinforce the importance of my role in my students education as the students more particpants in their education rather than remaining reciepiants of decisions made by lawmakers, district and campus personnel. Posted by: Kelvin Bradford from The Meadows Elementary

Erin Dillon from Education Sector responds:

Kelvin, this is a great and very important question. Increased customization in education will result in big changes in the working lives of teachers and their role in facilitating learning. And you're right to find the prospect of greatly expanded choice for students scary-evidence from consumer choice in education and many other areas shows that people, for a variety of reasons, often make decisions that run counter to larger societal and public policy goals and even counter to their own personal benefit. Food is an excellent example of this-people continue to buy and eat unhealthy food despite its negative impact on their own health. While we, as a society, may be willing to put the right to choice above societal health with regards to food, I doubt we would be willing to tolerate that in education. I don't think policymakers would be willing to support an education system that allows students to avoid basic math classes. Perhaps K-12 should pursue a system similar to many colleges, in which students get advisors, must fulfill certain requirements, but have substantial freedom within those constraints to choose the classes and instructors they prefer. I'm interested to hear what the other panelists think about this issue and whether they have good examples of education providers that allow for customization, while also ensuring that students make good curriculum choices.


Tom Vander Ark from Vander Ark/Ratcliff Partners responds:

Sounds like you're worried about losing control. Smart content/platforms will provide students, teachers, and parents more information about progress.  It should better inform/tailor choices.  New tools should improve your ability as a teacher to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners.  

It will be a while before smart recommendation engines take on an expanded role in queuing content.  I think this will be most prevalent at the secondary level as learners become more autonomous.  But it bears repeating that these learning platforms will provide more specific information about the needs, interests, and progress of individual learners than we get from dipstick assessments today.  

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Kelvin, with your attitude about what's coming, it sure seems like you're on the right track. And the teacher's role in this changing environment becomes more like a coach, a guide. You'll find as you become familiar with the learning opportunities emerging on the technology platform, you'll be seen as a trustworthy guide to good choices. And every day there is more to choose from.

A related issue will arise as students show their interest -- even passion -- for studying things beyond what schools have been coerced into emphasizing. It will feel radical to many that students might be able to become successful through more than more portal. Notice those kids who want to build things; what they learn, how and when they learn is different. But, shouldn't we admit, it might be just as good. Or the kid that shows promise of soaring right past Algebra II into some higher level. To succeed with the kids the system now loses, we'll have to be open to major differentiation.

Sounds like you're ready.

Julie Evans from Project Tomorrow responds:

Kelvin, I think you hit on a critical issue here.  It is not just the changing role of the teacher but also the changing role of the student in an a la carte educational system.  As discussed by my colleagues on the panel, the teacher in this environment becomes more of a coach, a mentor, a guide.  But the paradigm shift is bigger than that.  The teacher role as the "filler of the empty vessel" is over with implications on several other fronts.  This shift means that the assessment of achievement (which in the empty vessel model was really about how well the teacher filled the vessel) has to change, and also the role of the student has to change from being a passive recipient as you noted, to a much more participatory, collaborative, sharing learner.  During the summer I heard Gary Brown from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology at Washington State University talk about the differences between a teacher center classroom, a learner centered classroom and a learning center classroom.  I was very struck by his ideas on the differences and I will paraphrase from my notes here.  In the teacher centered classroom, teachers assign activities, students study and perform, work is assessed through tests that are submitted to the teacher for grading.  In the learner centered classroom, there is some cooperative learning and the students do interact as well as study and perform, but the assessment process is the same.  In the learning centered classroom, the students help to define the problems and the learning takes on more discovery and collaboration.  The assessment process involves sharing the knowledge beyond the classroom.  In the learning centered classroom there is a much greater focus on the value of building community for idea exchange and knowledge sharing.  Very big distinctions.  I think as a sector we are still struggling with these distinctions and not sure about the real value of community in the learning process - especially a community that far extends the classroom or school boundaries.  The value however of it is so vibrant when we think about the world that these students will function in. And when we start really talking about the learning centered classroom, and this community aspect, then we can really start to see the challenges and opportunities in implementing an la carte education system.

One of the areas where school choice presents a problem is for military dependents. Some states do not give per student funding for the military dependents when they are out of the school district. What could be implemented to allow military dependents to have school choice, meaning they could select courses from any of the virtual schools. Why should students out of the country or out of their school district be penalized by not having virtual school option supported through federal funding? Posted by: Sharon Johnston from Florida Virtual School

Erin Dillon from Education Sector responds:

I don't know much about the experience of military families with school choice, but I think your question hits on just how difficult it is to be a student/parent/teacher/school trying to operate outside of the traditional, brick and mortar school system. Our system today is set up with the assumption that the school district has a monopoly over public education. Creating a system that welcomes choice will necessitate changing this assumption and changing the systems that were built up around it, including how we finance schools (shifting to a per-pupil model), how we manage and maintain facilities, how we provide transportation, and how teachers negotiate contracts and receive retirement and health benefits.

Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

The military has actually been thinking about this issue for a little while. They are going to open their own virtual school for dependents.

Could we create a school system that is blended? Where students would use an online curriculum facilitated by the online teachers? Under this system student could attend school for a couple of hours, or for 12 hours. They would have working labs where they could take their online classes if they wish. The labs would have facilitators. However, the main purpose of the physical school would be for the student to explore their interests and passions: theater, science, music, arts, sports, gaming, etc. Is there a possibility that a school like that would get accredited? And, that colleges would accept incoming students from such an experimental school? Thanks Posted by: Sonia Arteche from Florida Virtual School

Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

This sounds like what Brian Dixon is trying to create at High Tech High Flex. Brian -- how is it going and what are you learning?

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Like your vision of the blended approach.  From where you sit, it must be easier to see how students will incresingly demand the range and flexibility that on-line presents. But I'm sure you also see the hurdles (and the funding for military families in the previous post just one of many problems).

It's only a rough analogy, but schooling has entered the zone that the big telephone companies were in before cellular and VoIP services became dominating factors.  Within a decade the scene for k-12 will be changed just as much as telecommunications. Good for students; inconvenient for a lot of adults who make their living in the traditional model.

Brian Dixon from High Tech High Flex responds:

Great questions Sonia. Yes, Bill, there is much that we are all learning as we move towards launching a full time project-based hybrid school.

A few quick thoughts:

  • Hybrid schools require a major shift in thinking from potential parents. Those that "naturally fit" are coming from the home school community. There is a strong pull towards full time, 5 days a week, "going" to school. Any blend requires a lot of discussion, preparation, and the right audience.
  • The technology for true "social presence" is in view but has not yet arrived.

We have authentic conversations with our students in the classroom-based situation every day. Students work on interesting projects in face-to-face teams. Moving to a distributed environment changes the tone of these learning interactions. From collaboration to contribution. A slight shift, but more performance-based rather than in the moment, formative, experimenting, learning as you go.

The larger picture (accreditation, teacher training, schedule, etc.) is not the real challenge. The devil is in the details, and in this case, student to student authentic interactions.


ps. check out for my latest discoveries on these topics moving forward.

I hope this question is relevant and does not reflect an error on my part in reading through the discussion. Nevertheless, it seems like a lot of the discussion here, and perhaps a great deal if innovation in education in general, ignores elementary education. All of these issues regarding choice and the unlimited customization of the learning experience sound nice, but what would this look like in K-5, specifically? Additionally, as a former elementary teacher and current professor of education, I take the teaching profession very seriously. I am uncomfortable with the notion that teachers, many of whom have graduate degrees, might be relegated to the role of a "learning coach" rather than an intellectual and professional. Is all of this talk of technology and learning playlists simply dressing up teacher-proof curricula and scripted forms of instruction in cool-sounding 21st century speak? Posted by: Shaun Johnson

Erin Dillon from Education Sector responds:

It is certainly easier to imagine an "a la carte" education system at the high school level than at the elementary level, but I think a lot of the technology and ideas are just as relevant in the elementary grades. One of the biggest opportunities of increased customization is being able to provide differentiated instruction to the extreme-beyond what most teachers could manage in a classroom of 25 or more students. In this case, more customization could be used to strengthen classroom instruction and also allow teachers to guide students to instruction outside of the classroom that fits their specific needs. At the same time, parents could choose to supplement or supplant classroom instruction with other educational options that better fit their children's needs.

In a system with increased customization, the teacher as "learning coach" would be just at important as teacher as instructor. And I don't think it would be "relegating" teachers, but instead an expansion of their professional roles. In many other areas of our lives, we rely on professional experts to advise us, and I think the same would hold true for teachers in a system of increased choice. We value doctors for their ability to diagnose a problem and prescribe the proper treatment. Similarly, having educational experts with training and experience in teaching will be essential to guiding parents and students to the best educational options for them.

What role can or should the State play in this evolving world of blended learning? We are having these discussions right now in Colorado where we have a growing number of students attending full-time online schools, pockets of innovation happening in selected places where teachers or school leaders have a passion for technology, but less understanding about how to proceed and/or use online capabilities to expand choice and access to high quality blended learning experiences to kids statewide. Posted by: Amy Anderson from Donnell-Kay Foundation


Courtney Bell from Educational Testing Services responds:

I am no fan of state regulation but I think f public dollars are going to support this, there has to be the right combination of freedom and accountability in place to do it well and with transparency.  I can't think of one, but perhaps there are parallel examples from other professions (medicine, law, nursing, etc.) that could be instructive.  Can others think of industries where the traditional service has begun to be supported and extended by the provision of that service online?  Maybe it would be helpful to think of these parallel examples and think through the lessons they have learned.  I do think states should avoid the mistakes they made early on in the charter school movement where drastic approaches on both ends of the spectrum either stifled innovation or did not adequately monitor what was happening such that grave injustices occurred either to tax payers or children. 

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

Hi Amy. Glad you're still focused on this. You've put your finger on the key issue:  how to unlock the policy gates so anyone who wants to can get access to schooling that fits.  Colorado has a 'innovation' statute that's fairly general, if I recall. Perhaps the next thing to do if figure out how to build on that to open those gates, to make it at least permissible for educators to try whatever might work for the kids we are not reaching.

Bill Tucker from Education Sector responds:

At a minimum, the state needs to play a critical role in regulation. Colorado is a great example of a state where the rapid growth of virtual learning got way ahead of state policy (see the CO State Auditor's Online Education Performance Audit from 2006). State regulation should not only be restrictive, though. A great example is in Florida, where state policy gives students the right to take courses from Florida Virtual School. In many states, access to even a state-run virtual school is controlled by the local school or district. This setup leads to limited opportunity -- especially if the local school or district must contribute funds when a student takes a virtual course.

I have much more to say about the state role than I can write here, so let me point you to a few resources and also offer to speak directly if you'd like to contact me (btucker at educationsector dot org).

  • SREB has a nice brief stating the case for better state virtual school funding models
  • I made a number of recommendations in my Laboratories of Reform report and blog regularly on virtual schools
  • iNACOL is also a great resource, with this primer and its annual Keeping Pace report
  • Finally, a big new thing for me is to think about how states' instructional materials policies either promote or constrain digital resources. The new textbook laws in Texas are very interesting in this regard because they now provide freedom for districts to acquire the rights to digital content -- which could be used in a variety of ways -- rather than just the physical textbooks. Related, I'd love to see more open copyrights on state-funded materials, leading to the possibility of more scalable course and content creation across states.

The system of multiple choice/short answer/generic prompt writing assessment seems so limited in how we evaluate students who process information in multiple ways. I am amazed we are not yet pushing portfolios as a strong alternative to this type assessment. We know from early years that some students do not think linguistically and logically, so why are we not developing them and their assessments more in tune what what we know are workable paths of learning? Posted by: Christopher Adams from Florida Virtual School

Curt Johnson from Education/Evolving responds:

This would seem like a major challenge to the companies who make their living designing assessment tools. We should find out what -- whether it's lack of market signals or problems with public policy -- is slowing down the development of these new assessment tools.

 Courtney Bell from Educational Testing Services responds:

 The person who works for a testing agency must respond just a little bit - even if I do nothing with standardized testing.  The short answer is money.  These richer, more complex types of items that draw on multiple sources of evidence can be a little more expensive for a state or district. They can also be a lot more expensive.  Portfolios are very expensive.  CT and OH are in the process of abandoning well liked portfolio assessments of teachers for many reasons - a big one is money. 

The longer answer to the question is that political will, the articulation of standards, measurement knowledge, and budgets have to align in such a way that we use the right kinds of questions to assess the things most critical to a high quality education.  This is sort of like getting the starts to align.  Doesn't happen very often. 

It is worth noting though that certain assessments are not inherently better than others.  Multiple choice questions are not inherently good or bad.  Portfolios are not good or bad.  They can be both.  Further, these different types of assessments are better and less well suited to assess particular kinds of skills.  In other words, the type of question we use needs to be well suited to judge the skill/knowledge/ability we are trying to assess.  ETS has developed fascinating types of items for NAEP, for example - hand on science experiments to measure students' ability to "do" science, computer simulations to measure students' ability to reason with data, etc. - but these are VERY expensive.  And they present all kinds of administration challenges in order to ensure they are fair and standardized for all students.  Most testing people will be the first to tell you we need better measures.  But they will also be the first people to ask you who is going to buy these amazing assessments.

A couple of different threads are coming together. The first is that there is enormous potential and the educational landscape is changing---rapidly. But, this change is very uneven and while the traditional systems and institutions of education may be losing relevance, it's still unclear exactly what is emerging in their place. And, at the same time as our discussion, there is the very real tragedy of youth violence in Chicago that highlights the importance of communities and connections. These changes will require actions at all levels. But for now, one final question: The US Secretary of Education has unprecedented discretionary "Race to the Top" and "Innovation" funds. And, the primary federal education law, now known as NCLB, is due for reauthorization. Given our discussion, what are the two or three things missing (or that need to be modified) in either the Secretary's plans for stimulus funds or the debate over NCLB? Posted by: Education Sector from Education Sector

Julie Evans from Project Tomorrow responds:

People will often ask me at conferences, on panel discussions, through webinars or online discussions like this one, what is the magic bullet for improving education and learning?  What is that one thing that we should be doing that we are not doing?  What needs to be changed to make it all work the way we know it should work?  Many of those same questions have come up through this discussion with lots of different ideas and possible reasons to explain our current status quo.  And many of the proposed solutions are the right ones.  Yes, we need policy.  Yes, we need funding.  Yes, we need training for teachers.  Yes, we need parental and community support.  Yes, we need tools and products.  Yes, we need proven programs and research studies.  Yes, these are all important things.  What we don't often talk about and what I wish we could see more of in the Secretary's plans for the stimulus funds and the debate over NCLB is about our desperate need in American education for developing a new breed of leaders for our schools and districts.  At the end of the day, it is the local leadership, a Principal at a high school in Baltimore, a Superintendent of a small rural district in the Mississippi Delta, a School Board President in a suburban Chicago district that has the keys to the car to drive real change and innovation.  We have great programs underway in this country that help to develop instructional leadership, teacher leadership and new principals for urban schools but what we really need is a sea-change approach to the identification, development and support of the most innovative leaders in all kinds of communities.  In our Speak Up work we get to work with schools and districts all across the United States and quite often, I am privileged to have a front row seat and observe some education leaders in action.  It is a very difficult job today to be a Superintendent, or a school principal or even a School Board member in many communities.  The challenges and the pressures are extraordinary, and many of these well intentioned folks are struggling.  I have unfortunately seen too many in the past few years of the really good ones who have the "right stuff" for 21st century innovative leadership throw in the towel.  The responsibilities have increased significantly with much higher risks, and yet, the support structures and training mechanisms have not kept pace with those changes. That is one reason why we see this revolving door syndrome in the Superintendents' offices all across the country.  We need to realize that without a new breed of 21st century leadership in all of our schools and districts (not just the low performing or urban schools) the innovative programs, the historic funding and even the new policies will simply be pretty bandaids on a broken system.  Just as the new flat world economy is requiring new kind of business leadership at all levels to address how companies will compete in this new order, our education sector is desperately in need of a new paradigm of leadership at the school and district level and the appropriate infrastructure to support and nurture this new American Education Leader. 

Thank you to everyone who submitted questions and comments, as well as our panelists for a fascinating discussion on the future of educational choice. This was a great discussion on a topic that will continue to gain in prominence. There is enormous potential for more personalized learning and the educational landscape is changing—rapidly. Tom Vander Ark opened up the discussion with his prediction that "we're headed for radical choice." But, this change is very uneven and while the traditional systems and institutions of education may be losing relevance, it's still unclear exactly what is emerging alongside. We look forward to future conversations on this important issue

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