Friday, December 17, 2010

Innovate to educate: A lesson in how to fix our public schools

By Thomas Watkins, published in The Oakland Press

Will Michigan schools be part of the reinvention of our state or will our new state leaders remain content to simply do a little dusting around the edges of the existing model and continue to make minor tweaks to an educational system in great need of a major transformation?

Would any thoughtful, rational educator replicate the existing educational system given the opportunity to begin anew? We should re-imagine and rebuild public education with this in mind.

Up to 10 percent of Michigan school districts are currently under financial distress with more following close behind. Our largest school district, Detroit Public Schools, is teetering on the edge of collapse.

We have known for some time the funding and spending practices for our schools were unsustainable. Yet, we continued to pretend and spend as if nothing has changed — when everything has changed.

We are past the point where incremental changes to our schools are sufficient. Major fundamental change is required to get many schools, not only out of financial distress, but out of educational bankruptcy as well.

We cannot continue to take several small leaps across the wide chasm from what is to what needs to be.

Is public education in Michigan and America the “same ole, same ole?”

Or are our elected leaders and educators capable of implementing change in our K-12 public school system that will move us boldly into the 21st century?

This is not simply an academic question. Our collective future depends on the answer.

While state superintendent of Michigan schools between 2001-2005 and having since left that position, I continue to see the need for our schools to lead change.

In assuming that role in state government in 2001, our team drafted a “change” document — “Thirty Ideas in 30 Days, Our Children, Our Schools, our Future — a Call for Collaboration and Action” — that said, “... Our world is changing in dramatic ways and our system of education must embrace those changes ... or be totally engulfed by them.” And, “Our future is sitting in our classrooms today. The viability of our society, the strength of our economy, the quality of our lives, the vibrancy of our democracy, and our place in the world — all depend on our system of public education.” Fast forwarding nine years to today, and these sentiments remain true.

In 2004 I called for the governor, Legislature and state board of education to take action to address the unsustainable health care and pension costs and for the shared services and consolidation of school districts to drive more resources to the classroom in a report titled “Structural Issues Surrounding Michigan Schools in the 21st Century.” The question was the same then as now: Would our schools exist for teaching, learning and children, or exist for power, control, politics and adults? The latter won.

Actions taken to date addressing this crisis have been anemic at best. Our state leaders have known the problems existed for years, allowing them to fester. Without addressing these issues there will never be the resources available to educate our children to world-class standards.

The need for change and reform remains. We need to promote the new 3 R’s of education: Restructure, Reform and Reinvent and then and only then adding a 4th: Investing new Resources.

Any new money invested on our schools without restructuring, reform and reinventing of our schools would be nothing short of merely providing lubricant to protect the status quo. This will not get our children and our state to where we need to be, instead being the equivalent of pouring water into a glass with a hole in the bottom and wondering why the glass never fills.

Reinvention is necessary
If we do not have the courage to re-imagine and reinvent our schools we will fail as a state and nation.

Will our new refrain be “innovate to educate” as called for by the Symposium on (Re)Design For Personalized Learning or will we continue the “contain the change” mentality that permeates the debates surrounding education under the capitol dome?

While we worry about educated students fleeing our state after graduation, we need to be equally concerned about the uneducated and under-educated ones that stay behind. The uneducated are not the foundation required to reinvent or rebuild Michigan. We can either get smarter and wealthier economically and spiritually or we can become dumber and poorer as a state and nation — it is that simple. Continued...
The individual, city, state and nation that is educated will be the individual, city, state and nation that thrive. Without a quality education the future looks bleak.

How can we move into the information age/knowledge economy if our No. 1  information industry, education, remains mired in the industrial age? Holding onto the past and protecting the status quo are not prescriptions to help us thrive on be competitive on the world stage.

A symposium organized this past summer by the Software and Information Industry Association in collaboration with the Association of Curriculum Supervision & Development and the Council of Chief State School Officers came to the following conclusion: There is a need to fundamentally redesign our K-12 educational system around the student and is required for their and our nation’s future success.

On the surface, you may be scratching your head and asking, “You mean the current system is not designed around the student?” Sadly, in far too many schools across this state and nation, the answer is “no!”

Certainly there are islands of excellence and reform sprouting up across Michigan and America that should be supported and nurtured — but we need more than islands. We need our two mighty peninsulas to lead change and educational innovation.

One such island is WAY Program (Widening Advancement for Youth), co-founded and directed by Beth Baker and Glen Taylor. Glen was the only Michigan educator invited to attend the national education symposium.

The WAY Program is a personalized learning experience for students who struggle with traditional high school. WAY offers an alternative approach to education; one that encourages self-esteem, independence, and the development of 21st century skills that will facilitate a college education and subsequent career paths.

This past summer, change agent educators attended a national education symposium to focus on the need to “systemically redesign of our nation’s education system” joined together under a common belief “that our industrial-age, assembly-line education model-based on fixed time, place, pace and curriculum, is insufficient in today’s knowledge-based economy.” These education and technology industry thought leaders overwhelmingly concluded: “We cannot meet the personalized learning needs of students within our traditional system-tweaking the teacher/classroom-centered model is not enough, and systemic redesign is needed.” Continued...
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released its “2010 Technology Plan: Transforming American Education — Learning Powered by Technology.” As the secretary of education says in his cover letter to the report: “The plan calls for applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire educational system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up adoption of effective practices, use data and information for continuous improvement.”

Former governors leading the way
In their new report, “Digital Learning Now!” former governors Jeb Bush (Florida, 1998-2007) and Bob Wise (West Virginia, 2001-05) have provided a road map for a portion of the road that needs reform.

The report details how digital learning can radically transform education by demonstrating how “Technology has the power and scalability to customize education so each and every student learns in his or her style at his or her own pace, which maximizes the chances for success in school.”

Every educator, parent and politico, community and business leader should read this report and ask: “Why isn’t Michigan leading the charge?” We can re-invent our state by using technology to personalize learning from the cradle to the grave, leapfrogging our global competition.

All that is now commonplace began with a vision. Yet this is not a pipe dream. Digital learning tools exit today. Capstone Digital has literally a library full of digital products, from pre-K to high school that support the learning needs of students through experiences that capture and engage young minds.

This is not your father’s educational material said Todd Brekhus, president of Capstone Digital. “We built our company vision and products on the premise that digital content for classrooms is not bound by time and space, by business and educational models of ‘checking in and checking out resources,’ we have thousands of digital books and resources that allow students to discover their interests, passions, and drive taking learning to a new level,” says Brekhus.

The difference between a pioneer and a settler is vision and action.We need leadership at every level together with the will to accelerate change and innovation.

We need to ask, what if the impossible isn’t?
As governor-elect Rick Synder discussed on the campaign trail, Michigan 1.0 was agricultural, furs and forestry, Michigan 2.0 was the Industrial Age with auto driving our futures. Today, our future lies in knowledge, creativity, innovation, globalization and technology — it is past time we reinvent Michigan, Michigan 3.0. We must substitute brain power for brawn power.

America’s and Michigan’s greatness has grown from organizing its human and natural resources through advances in science, technology, finance and commerce. These same strategies can be applied to education, which is one of largest local and global needs and global industries. Arguably, it is our most important industry. The solution to Michigan’s problems will be the result of the quality of education provided.

What if Michigan re-invents education in a new, personalized, technologically-driven way that helps us create a new knowledge/educational economy?

Michigan can lead an education revolution. We could export our reinvented educational processes to other states and countries. The old system of textbooks, and paper and pencil tests is about to dissolve just as trains, cars and airplanes displaced the old bicycle and horse and buggy days of the 17th and 18th centuries. The day is fast approaching where textbooks are replaced by digital tools and knowledge stores.

There are benefits and profits in bringing education, our largest knowledge industry, into the information age. Why shouldn’t Michigan lead the way in inventing this new educational system built on learning sciences using current and soon to be created technologies?

Our kids, our future
Be clear, this is not simply another ploy for more money for our schools and certainly not for the existing system. Until we can demonstrate how additional investments in education will help teachers teach and children learn and gain 21st century skills and knowledge, there should be no additional money for the educational system.

We don’t need more money. We need to spend the money we have based on different priorities. What gives the greatest return to our students, state and nation? We must break away from an educational system that has morphed into protecting adults at the expense of kids and our collective futures. A new system of educating our youth must not be about education associations or unions. Not school vendors or any other special-interest group. “Our Kids, Our Future,” must be our collective refrain.

In fact, if we adopted and acted on these principles, we might redirect billions of dollars into building a new system of education that would prepare our children for the future and make the country stronger.

Snyder plans to use his inauguration to launch a year-long effort to change people’s perception about Michigan and “usher in a new era of innovation.” The effort will be branded “The Power of MI,” a tag line meant to represent the “can-do” entrepreneurial spirit that made Michigan the arsenal of democracy, put the world on wheels, and allowed us to set a higher standard of living for America. With leadership, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit there exists a means to energize and reinvent our future.

The tools for change and reform exist. We need leaders willing to take the bold steps to lead change.

Clearly changing the cherished, historical, status quo, local school notion is riddled with peril. Not acting will be worse.

Let me assure you, having spent over two decades traveling in China, the Chinese and other nations are not slowing down while we hesitate and stagnate.

We have a new governor with a technology, innovation background and change mandate. There is no better place to start than with our system of education.

It is time to innovate to educate.

The only question that remains — “will we?”

The reports mentioned in this article can be obtained at:
— Innovate To Educate: System (Re) Design for Personalized Learning Also see:

— American Education -- Learning Powered by Technology or 1-800 USA-LEARN

— E-learning for Michigan-- the New Education (R)evolution Wayne State University// Tom Watkins,

— Digital Learning Now press_releases/08182010

— Capstone Digital

— Change... Or Die Dome Magazine

— Way Program (Widening Advancements for Youth)

— Making Education Reforms Happen Dome Magazine

— Structural Issues Surrounding Michigan Schools in the 21st Century  

Tom Watkins is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China. He helped start the first charter school in Michigan and Florida, wrote and internationally recognized report on e-learning: The New Education (R)evolution  and served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, 2001-2005. He can be reached

    No comments: