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Reforming Education: The National Summit on Education Reform in Boston
By Lydia Liebman


Boston Summit

(Boston,MA.) Boston, the city of the Founding Fathers, was appropriately the venue of the 2013 National Summit on Education Reform. Organized by the Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2008, the purpose was to ignite a movement of reform, state by state, to transform education across America for the 21st century.

The two-day conference featured a variety of highly esteemed education experts and reformers as strategy session participants, keynote speakers and session moderators. Among the speakers was Chairman of the Foundation Jeb Bush, who delivered an invigorating speech that laid the groundwork for the conference. “A child enters kindergarten. His mother is a single parent who earns minimum wage. Perhaps he lives in the inner city or he’s an immigrant learning English,” Bush stated. “What do we expect of him? Do we expect him to read by third grade? Do we expect him to learn fractions, to write coherent sentences…or as a society, do we look at his circumstances, dumb down his expectations and give his school an excuse not to make every effort to ensure that he learns?” Bush culminated his questions with one powerful statement: every child can learn. The events that followed throughout the day verified Bush’s sentiment.

Strategy sessions played a prime role in the conference. Topics discussed included: the importance of digital learning in today’s society, how to make high school diplomas worth the investment, strategies to communicate about education reform, and the importance of reading in early education—which is highlighted below.

Strategy Session I: K-3 Reading Strategy: Cementing the Foundation of Lifelong Success

During Strategy Session I, a panel of educators and public policy officials joined moderator Ralph Smith to discuss the importance of reading well by the third grade. Mary Laura Bragg, the national director for policy and implementation for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and a former high school teacher, began the discussion by examining the effects of Florida’s K-3 Reading Policy. “A study in 2002 showed that three out of four 4th graders who struggle with reading will struggle for the rest of their life,” said Bragg, “Eighty percent of children are wrongly identified as having a learning disability, simply because they do not know how to read.” This issue is combated headfirst by Florida’s policy, which implements early literacy screenings through grades K-3. If a child is behind, the parents are notified and an individual reading plan is developed in collaboration with the parent. If this intervention is not shown to be successful, young students will go on to be retained for an additional year to improve their reading scores. As far as Florida is concerned, the policy appears to be working. According to Jay Greens and Marcus Winters, Getting Further Ahead By Staying Behind, Manhattan Institute 2006, retained kids made significant gains compared to promoted kids. Retained students were able to catch up while promoted kids fell behind, and those gains grew substantially from year one to year two. Another panelist, Peggy Lehner, stressed that Ohio is also working to fully implement a similar policy to the one in Florida.

Scott Laband, panelist and president at Colorado Succeeds, presented some hard facts to the audience. “Picture Fenway Park full of 6-8 year old kids. If that ballpark represented Colorado, half of that stadium would not be able to read at the right level,” he said, “and these kids are four more times likely to drop out of school later, due to their poor reading level at that age.” Laband expressed his concern that Colorado had passed bills similar to Florida and Ohio but nothing has improved. “Gentle pressure, relentlessly applied” is the motto of choice for Laband when it comes to reading reform in Colorado. “Everywhere we went, we talked about this issue. We started bringing delegations with legislatures here to the conference so they could talk to experts. We wrote op-eds and we tried to keep this issue at the forefront so it could not be ignored,” said Laband.

Following the first round of strategy sessions was the keynote address given by Former United States Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson and former United States Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice. Olson underscored that the key to educational outcomes is teacher quality. “A single, ineffective teacher can cause a student to fall behind their peers,” Olson said, “two years with an ineffective teacher means they may never catch up.” According to Olson, replacing an ineffective, bottom 5 percent teacher with a just average teacher would increase students cumulative lifetime income by 1.4 million dollars per classroom. When parents of California school children were asked what would have the most positive impact on the performance of California public schools, 43 percent of parents responded that removing bad teachers from the classroom would be the most beneficial. The difficulty in doing this arises in the fact that in California, a teacher gains tenure after 18 months—making it impossible to remove them from the classroom. Because these issues cannot be addressed legislatively, Olson is spearheading Vegara v. California, a groundbreaking education lawsuit that strives to ensure that all California students have equal access to effective teachers.
In the subsequent interview with Dr. Rice, Olson discussed his previous experience protecting the civil rights of minority Americans by comparing Vergara v. California to Hollingsworth v. Perry, the iconic case that shot down Proposition 8 and restored the right to marry gay and lesbian couples in California.

The latter part of the afternoon focused on another set of strategy sessions. Topics included in this round were: the importance of choice in education, the revolution of America’s teacher prep programs, and the future of education through massive online open courses—which is highlighted below.

During Strategy Session VI entitled “Educations New Normal: Massive Access to the Best Courses and Teachers in the World Through Technology”, panelists Anat Agarwal, President of edX, Erin Knight, Senior Director of Learning and Badges, Mozilla, and Hadi Partovi, President and Co-founder of Code.org joined moderator John Bailey of Digital Learning Now! to discuss the advantages of massive online open course (MOOCs).

“One thing that separates Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Paige, and Bill Gates from the rest of us is that they took a computer science class when they were in high school,” Partovi said to start off the discussion and introduce code.org. The mission of code.org is to bring one hour of computer science into every classroom through his Hour of Code campaign. Currently, in thirty-five states, computer science do not count toward a high school diploma and nine out of ten schools do not offer any type of computer science program. If this trend continues, there will be 1.4 million computing jobs and only 400,000 students to fill them. Code.org is on a mission increase the number of applicable students.

The conversation continued with Anat Agarwal and his presentation of edX. edX is a nonprofit venture that is funded by Harvard and MIT that allows students to take classes offered by top professors at top universities, free. Currently, Cornell, Wellesley, Georgetown, Berklee College of Music and McGill are just a handful of the highly esteemed institutions that are part of edX.

Finally, Erin Knight introduced her concept of open badges that represent learning. Similar to the social networking application Foursquare, Mozilla Open Badges allows users to gain specific skills through companies that are part of the network, and display them to potential employers.

While most of the audience found these innovations to be positive and exciting, some observers had questions about its relevance in the grand scheme of employment opportunities. “Many people think taking a course online is stupid because you don’t get anything out of it. This is not true. You get a certificate which leads to a credential,” says Agarwal. One of the overarching goals of these different initiatives is to bring this type of learning into public education. “There are so many kids that want to learn outside of the classroom”, said Partovi, “but 90 percent of kids do not do that.” Through these innovators, the possibilities for students to do just that have only improved. #



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