The Education Posse

(This article originally appeared in Forbes)

Last year I had the privilege of speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival and spent most of the time prior to talking, sweating, mumbling to myself, rehearsing, and wondering when security would discover that I had somehow made it into this rarefied event. While at breakfast I saw two Supreme Court justices stroll by, during lunch I noticed that authors I’ve always enjoyed were going to take the stage in the afternoon, in the evening my head was sending signals that it might have to explode on a sugar high of brain candy as I had dinner with a delightful couple that included someone who forced NASA to show the whole Earth, participated in the mother of all demos and had a hand in the creation of one of the oldest online communities in our society.

I wasn’t captured after all, spoke, and then had one of the most mind stretching summer camps of my life.

Flash forward to 2011. I was invited to be a guest at this year’s festival and thought I’d write a few articles to tell more people about what sorts of Aspen Ideas have been filling my brain with sweet and savory delight.

This posting will focus on something that is near and dear to all of those who care about the future of the future.

Arne Has a Posse

The topic of education came up in many sessions both this year and last and some of the big ideas are starting to take hold. The first was about the basic but important idea that education is a civil right for all, not just a nice idea for some.

Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, told us about new data being published by his Office of Civil Rights. The data show alarming disparities from one school, one community, one state to the next. The visibility of this sort of data (more is coming in the fall) will drive all sorts of opportunities for innovation and justice.

How We Could Become Part Of The Posse

Just as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes data about our climate that drives new commercial ventures and business value (think about where The Weather Channel gets its data), this sort of data transparency could drive entrepreneurs to build products and services around the climate and forecast for equality and advancement in education.

Imagine tuning into the Education channel and seeing where bad weather has hit our children’s learning opportunities in the last few days or seeing what the forecasts are for how that school’s or teacher’s or community’s past activities bode for the competitiveness of our society in the next ten years.

Imagine the creators of Survivor using that data combined with social media, mobile devices, competitions, collaborations, and prediction markets to build the next big blockbuster TV show. A show about the challenges to education as a civil right, the activism going on by outlaw educators to beg, borrow, and steal justice and educational equality for their children. A show that turns elite teachers into superstars and highlights the excitement of seeing a group of kids suddenly not only “get” an important concept but teach it to their peers and apply it to a local challenge.

Imagine if we built the same sort of feeder system that exists for middle school, high school, and college athletes but for the next generation of teachers. Tracked as intensively as athletes, from middle school on up, until first pick teachers are fought over at the International Teaching League’s Annual Draft; some superstar teachers demanding and getting $7 million dollars plus in salary, heavily fought over by countries and communities that understand the value they’d bring to the future of their culture.

Imagine the Fantasy Teaching League competitions that would not only demonstrate best practices in action but give parents, children, teachers and communities a chance to simulate how these techniques could play out in their own lives.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

It may not be pretty getting from here to there. Arne mentioned that some states that reported up to 91% proficiency in basic skills using No Child Left Behind (as it was originally implemented) have been courageous enough to bite the bullet and join Arne’s posse. Now they actually measure and report the truth; the children were really closer to 30% proficient.

Until we look at the good, the bad, and the ugly, we won’t be able to close the feedback loop and actually drive change.

Illinois Rounds Up The Usual Suspects

Ellen Alberding, President of the Joyce Foundation, joined a panel of education innovators during lunchtime that was heavily attended and rich beyond measure. She noted that Illinois has something like ~128,000 students in community colleges and that 93% of the incoming kids need remediation (keep in mind these kids are the high performers from K through 12 programs that in some cases have only a 50% graduation rate). These kids use up all their Pell grants just getting up to speed and then drop out. Ultimately only 7% of them graduate from college.

But she and many others in Illinois, from both sides of the political aisle including unions and teachers decided to do something about it. They have just gotten a tough bill signed into law that will drive longer school days, longer school years, better coaching and compensation for teachers and measurements that foster the discovery and nurturing of future master educators. Arne mentioned that he thinks this law is a model for change across the country, and while it isn’t perfect it is a start. It may be the first example of developing something that, to paraphrase Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, “isn’t being done to teachers, but with them.”

If we can empower teachers they’ll willingly join the cause. To put this in perspective, Secretary Duncan points out that in some states 99% of the teachers were rated as “superior.” The simple truth about open data and transparency is that without it, all teachers look like interchangeable widgets. When we do that, we do a great disservice to them all.

Wes Moore Fights The Fight

Wes Moore, a veteran and author of the book, “The Other Wes Moore,” told a personal story that illuminated the stark realities and lost opportunities when we punish people by depriving them of education. He told of another Wes Moore, who lived a few blocks away and was in prison for the rest of his life for being a member of a group who shot and killed a police officer.

That Wes Moore had a mother who was the first child in her family to go to college, was accepted to Johns Hopkins University, and then had her grants cut. She couldn’t afford to continue. But, Wes asks, what if she did?

Her networks would have changed, her environment, her son’s life, and the life of the police officer and his family would have changed.  He noted that it isn’t that parents don’t care, it’s that they don’t even know how to help their children. They and everyone around them set such low expectations that kids become products of those expectations.

In the end, Wes said, “The real shame is that both of us lived up to our expectations.”

Harry Sings The Battle Song

In 1913, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote an article in which he said, “if the broad light of day could be let in upon Men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Transparency and open sharing of information shines a light on people and systems that oppress the least among us. It seems only fitting that a boy who came from an island in the sun should grow to become a beacon for a better future.

Last night the broader topic of civil rights was illuminated with the showing of a documentary called “Sing My Song,” about the work that Harry Belafonte has done throughout his life. His daughter Gina helped get the movie made and was on hand to talk about it after the viewing. The film drove home the value of education and transparency as true game changing ideas. It traced Harry’s life from a child in a single parent household, to performer, to activist, to world changing advocate.

The film notes that Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged Harry to learn about Africa, he later took young civil rights activists there to meet an African king and brought Kenya youth to the United States to help them get educated so they could go back and make a difference in their country. To give you a sense of how important these efforts have been, a young Barack Obama Senior was on the first flight of Kenyan youths that were brought by Harry and his friends to America.

Harry now works with his children and many others to gather elders and youth together to combat violence and bring light to the growing form of educational oppression that is filling our jails instead of our colleges.  When education fails, underprivileged kids, as Geoffrey Canada said last year at the festival, are put on a conveyor belt from birth to prison. Uncovering the stark statistics of this sort of fatal production line and encouraging young and old alike to join the posse may be our best investment to date in the future of our country and the world.

Antonio And Cory Expose Another Kind Of Poverty

Antonio Villaraigosa and Cory Booker, the mayors of Los Angeles and Newark respectively, sat together on a panel and explained that poverty in America is a very real and urgent issue. It’s just not the kind of poverty you normally hear about.

For background, Antonio’s schools have more homeless kids than in the rest of the country and more foster children than in the rest of the country with the lowest penetration of middle class children. He has 678,441 students. Having come from a single parent home that mirrors that of the majority of his students, he knows these kids can learn. He smiles when he points out that he himself can read and write. He went to law school and became the mayor that oversaw the steepest reduction in crime in LA since the 1950s. He knows these kids can learn and apologizing for them because they are in poverty, saying that they can’t learn is just avoiding responsibility. He has been working to take the most dangerous and low performing schools in Los Angeles and turn them around with his Partnership For LA Schools program. He noted that in the worst school, a middle school in Watts, there were fifty deaths due to violence each year. His and the teacher’s and the parent’s and the children’s efforts have driven that number down from fifty, to twenty, to now only ten deaths.

Cory looked out into the audience and said, “Why aren’t we gasping when we brag about only ten deaths?” The real poverty, he explains is one of compassion, one of love, one of action, and ultimate one of courage. Just four hours a month being a big brother or big sister to a child other than your own can make a dramatic difference in the chances of that child going to college. That is something that each of us can do on our own. He himself is the product of any number of people caring enough to help his father, his grandfather, himself. None of us get here on our own. He noted that his father once told him that, “you are living a life that was a dangerous dream when I was growing up.”  Cory wakes up some mornings to get on the phone and recruit the best teachers Newark can find to come and work at their schools. A mayor personally recruiting teachers tells you something about how important education is to the lifeblood of a city, of a society.

Each of these stories, each of these statistics, each bit of data, can give us insight and energy and drive, or can overwhelm us and convince us that it is too daunting a task. Cause us to avert our eyes, find another channel to watch, browse another stream, eat some more bread while we find another circus in town.

Think Again

Maybe I was wrong about Arne having a posse. Maybe Harry and Martin and Nelson and Jack and Bobby and Geoffrey and Gina and Antonio and Cory and your brother the teacher and your aunt the parent of two and the countless others who have woken up each morning determined not to let oppression win, maybe they have a posse. Maybe Arne’s efforts to shine a light on inequity with open data will open eyes, focus efforts, foster outrage, and encourage more people to get involved.

Maybe it’s time you, and I, and all the other business leaders and innovators, joined their posse. Maybe it’s time to celebrate this transparency and innovate to a better place.

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