We started a few minutes late. I began the panel by explaining that we would not be discussing NCLB but talking about education far more broadly. I introduced our two panelists and explained the format -- that since people already knew much of what I thought about education I would not talk much until questions. Jamie Vollmer a former business executive who had come to realize that education is not like business would address us for about 20 minutes, then Tom Vilsack who as governor of Iowa had a real commitment to public education would respond for 10-12 minutes, and then we would take questions. I then mentioned that I had a diary with a list of online resources on education (which you can still see here
). I then called Jamie up.
Jamie began by making a small correction. I had described him as CEO of the Great American Ice Cream Company and as he said it was not that broad - it was the Great Midwest Ice Cream Company, based in Iowa. He explained that in 1984 Dr. William Lepley, then head of the Iowa schools, invited him to sit on a business and education roundtable, which is what began his involvement with public education. As he got more an more involved he came to three basic assumptions which he said were reinforced by the other businessmen on the roundtable:
1) Public education was badly flawed and in need of change
2) the people in the system were the problem
3) the solution was to run education more like a business.
For several years he continued along this path until he received his comeuppance while presenting at an inservice. He recounted a brief version of the Blueberry story, which can be read here from Jamie's website and which I used as the basis of my diary BLUEBERRIES - our wrong national education policy, which got over 170 comments, a similar number of recommendations and stayed visible for quite some time.
Back to the panel - as a result of the experience he described Jamie began to examine education more closely. He came to realize that there were four main building blocks of preK-12 public education:
2) attempting to get around our national obsession with testing
3) going after instruction
4) the school calendar.
Jamie went through each of three key assumptions with which he had started, and explained how his misbelief in each was stripped away. He also bluntly said the No Child Left Behind might be filled with good intentions but it was taking our educational system straight to Hell. He pointed out that we needed authentic assessment of real world tasks and not tests in isolation.
Jamie came to realize that our schools cannot be all things to all people. He quickly came to realize that the people in the system were not the problem. He asked us who actually held the status quo of American schools in place, and his answer was they we did, our neighbors did, because we are the ones who elect the school board members and the legislators and council members who make the policies that maintain the status quo.
He said that we were afflicted with the TTSP hormone -- "this too shall pass" - and that people resisted change. He reminded us of Pogo overlooking the swamp -- that when it comes to public schools "we have met the enemy and he is us." He pointed people at the work of organizational thinker Peter Senge (here's a google search which will give you some access to his ideas).
Jamie emphasized that we needed to change our mental model of the educational system. As it currently exists, everyone inside the system is there to sort people into two groups. He offered us some statistics to explain.
For those alive in 1967 who had graduated high school, 77% of the workforce worked in unskilled or low skilled labor, and the school system was designed to sort people between that group and the far smaller group who went on for further education and more skilled employment. And yet today on 13% of the workforce is the unskilled or low skilled labor, and by 2010 it will be down to 5%. Yet our model of schooling has not changed, for all our rhetoric about how important schooling is. Vollmer said of such people
If they believed it was a high priority they would put their money where their mouth is and fully fund education.
He went on to outline what he saw as the prerequisites for educational success:
- build understanding We need to help each other understand . he does not see why it needs to be difficult. Most of educational decision making should, he believes, be left at the local district level, with state and national guidelines, not mandates. He said that every mile the decision making is removed from the school increases the stupidity of the decision.
- rebuild trust he talked about how we have spent over 20 years since A Nation at Risk tearing support away from public schools. Given that less than 1/3 of taxpayers have children in public schools this is a problem. it has lead to a decline social capital, the elements we have seen in schools and elsewhere towards privatization.
- get permission to do things differently We need to allow experimentation of doing things differently than we currently do. In order to achieve this, we need to encourage involvement of people in the community including the business community, but first they need to be informed. We need the informed support of the entire community.
- stop badmouthing one another in public and emphasize the positive if all people here about schools is what is wrong, with constant attempts to affix blame to one another, there will be no opportunity to fix what needs to be fixed. There are good things happening in most of our schools, and we have to stop being reluctant to talk about them. This will help rebuild the trust that we will need to make the changes that will make a difference.
Jamie forcefully reminded the audience that while this might be a national problem, the solution would have to be from the bottom up. We need to reclaim and renew our schools, one community at a time. This was a message that clearly connected with an audience of netroots activists.
Jamie could have gone on for much longer, but I gently urged him to bring things to an end, and then Governor Vilsack took over. He said that there are two man challenges facing this nation, and that are the economic challenge and the issues of safety and security. To address these require smart, innovative and creative people. He said we don't need to create a nation of successful test takers, which is all the NCLB is giving us, which is one reason we need to replace it. He slightly disagreed with Vollmer when he said that he felt the principal responsibility for our current situation in public education belongs with those political leaders who have chosen to manipulate our feelings about schools for political advantage without providing the resources necessary to make our schools successful.
He told an anecdote of when he visited China and met with the principal of a school. He learned that Chinese children were learning their second foreign language in elementary school. That didn't scare him. They were beginning physics in 7th grade. That didn't upset him. But then the principal told him they were trying to teach the children how to be creative. Vilsack's first reaction was that you couldn't teach someone to be creative, and his second was that if the Chinese have figured out how to do that we are in real trouble.
My notes end at this point. I have memories of Tom talking about the resources they have put into public education in Iowa, that 97% of their communities have access to high speed internet connections. He remarked about his wife being a long-time classroom teacher and the respect that causes him to have for teachers. He knew that there was some concern that he had sign off on a bill that included tuition tax credits for elementary and secondary education, and explained that he was dealing with a Republican controlled legislature and that was part of the deal necessary to get increases in teacher pay and other important needs in education to be met.
I made few remarks during the main part of the session, but we all shared equally during the Q&A. There was a question on charters, here were questions about the loss of instructional time for subjects not tested under NCLB, it was moving fast, and there was little time for me to take notes.
Were I to summarize the session, I would say it met the goals i set for it, with guidance from Gina. We wanted the session to give the people something concrete they could take back with them. I feel that jamie Vollmer's truly inspirational presentation helped with that. I have had several people communicate in different ways that they plan to explore running for school board in order to make a difference, others who said they would be come active in PTAs or other home-school or community-school associations. The other goal Gina had was to highlight the abilities and skills of our blogging community, and raise their visibility with policy makers and politicians. I think the relationships I have developed over the months with Tom Vilsack, and the obvious mutual respect we share on the key issue of education fulfilled that part of the mandate.
Of greater importance, almost all of the feedback on the session has been positive. Here I will exclude the snarky and inaccurate article in The New Republic by Ryan Lizza - that has been discussed in great detail in the dailykos community in a variety of diaries, both by Tom Vilsack and by me. I have noted remarks in diaries posted here by others, in postings at other websites, in offline electronic messages I have received, and in the words i heard while I was still at the Riviera, and from those with whom I traveled to McCarran Airport.
I believe that American public education is at serious risk. So do Jamie and Tom. I believe that we cannot make the kinds of changes we have to make until we can develop a broad commitment to the idea of public education. Jamie talked about that, and Tom addressed some of the things he has done, and why. I believe that unless and until we organize and build connections at the grass-roots level, we will not be able to have the influence on the policy makers that is necessary if we are going to preserve and improve public education as a public good, as something that is a right for all residents of this great nation. It is my belief that the panel session on education helped move us in that direction, something that is appropriate for the netroots, because we must do it one community at a time.
I look forward to the comments of others. I know there are many attendees of that panel whom will able to contribute more than my memory and my notes can sustain -- I was at times distracted by my responsibilities as moderator and timekeeper, and at others by thoughts of what I wanted to say in response to questions or to the remarks of my co-panelists.
I look forward to any additions or corrections that others may offer. I also encourage further dialog on this topic. I will, to the best of my ability, try to monitor the diary for any comments posted, especially should the community deem this diary worthy of elevation to a higher visibility in the recommended box. As always, what happens to this diary at dailykos (it will be cross-posted elsewhere) is subject to the judgment of the community as a whole, a judgment to which I am happy to submit this posting.
UPDATE Look for the comment by Chun Yang for some good info on the Q&A for which I did not have notes, but which I can assure you is quite accurate.
Comments are closed on this story.