Moving an Urgent Call Forward

As the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit heads into the afternoon sessions, the focus has been on standards and making sure our schools and our students are succeeding and are preparing students for the opportunities of the future.  So far, this has been the strongest attempt to link K-12 education with the economy and economic opportunity. No wonder, it has been an issue that CCSSO’s Gene Wilhoit has been touting for the past year plus.  

Wilhoit (a fellow West Virginian) has long be an advocate for national standards.  A set of common academic standards, adhered to by all 50 states, is the only way American students can truly be competitive.  It is the only way to truly measure the effectiveness of our schools.  It is the only way we know if we truly measure up to our international peers.  And it is the only way to ensure all students are equipped today with the knowledge and the skills needed for tomorrow’ jobs.
To get there, we need schools that think differently, deliver better and more effective education, and that simply break the failed models of the past.  This isn’t about tinkering around the edges or trying make modest changes without rocking the boat too severely.  This is about audacious agitation.
Looking around the room, I am left with one key observation … and one key question.  Clearly, the intellectual leadership needed to bring about real change and real improvement is in the room.  Leading superintendents of our largest school districts.  Presidents and executive directors of our top education organizations.  CEOs from our Fortune 500 companies.  Government leaders at the top levels of federal and state leadership.  All are here.  All are participating.  All are learning from the program put forward by Aspen.  The intellectual and organizational power represented in this ballroom could launch a new nation, establish the next Fortune 50 company, or even fix K-12 education in the United States.
But when we take a step back, and look at the 15,000 or so school districts across the nation that all need some form or fit of reform and improvement, I’m left asking who will do the actual work?  Where are the footsoldiers?  Who will do the yeoman’s work of taking the goals and passions of the leader class, and bringing them into real practice?
That will be the great takeaway, or the great challenge, that Aspen and its participants will be left with once the glow of the conference settles.  We are all seeing where the problems and the soft spots are.  There seems to be growing agreement on both the problems and the causes of those problems.  And there is an ever-expanding portfolio of solutions for those problems, solutions that have been proven to work and may just need a chance to go to scale.  Once the call is issued, it is about doing what we know works and implementing it with fidelity.
All morning, summit participants heard that we needed a “Sputnik” moment in education reform.  The thought is we need someone to show us they are doing it better than the United States, and it will motivate us to ramp up our own work, blowing past that so-called competitor and getting our people in orbit, on the moon, and beyond.
My concern with that is we are talking about movements.  Movement is fine and good, but movement had a finite end.  When we look at the data, we look at the conditions, and we look at the goals for school reform, movement is the last thing we need.  We need wholesale revolution.  We need continuous and ongoing motion, continued and ongoing improvement, continued and ongoing results.  There should be no end to school improvement.  It should be continuous improvement.  Once we are better than all those other PISA nations, it is about self-improvement.  It is true educational revolution.
Which gets us back to the question, who leads that revolution?  Who is the Paul Revere that issues the call of urgency to our 15,000 school districts?  Who is our Thomas Jefferson, laying out our goals and our measures for all to be held accountable?  Who’s throwing the status quo and the broken systems off the boat in the Boston Harbor?  Who is doing the rowing for General Washington?  Who is doing the heavy lifting?
Until we identify the implementers, the heavy lifters, and the doers, the best ideas will fall flat.  Strategy and leadership is important.  Making the trains run on time and moving from a good idea to meaningful practice is how you change the world … or change the schools.

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