You could say that the only folks missing from the National Summit on Education Reform at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel were teachers, but that would be wrong, on a technicality; they were outside protesting. Teachers might have had a vested interest, or even an interesting viewpoint, in the issues raised during the two-day conference. Stuff like tenure, seniority, testing, Common Core standards, and using technology in education.
But, no, they weren’t invited into the inner sanctum of power brokers, policy makers, and politicians brought together for two days of learning and lobbying by former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. It might have been awkward for them be in the room when Idaho’s schools chief praised his state legislature for eliminating teacher tenure, or when Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction described the “herd mentality of the union,” and remarked that “it takes an act of God to get rid of a tenured teacher.”
Still, anyone expecting a strict conservative ideology would have been confused. Don’t get me wrong; the only bona fide liberal in sight was Ben Austin, director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit behind the parent empowerment movement. And even Austin is having a hard time maintaining his pedigree these days, at least with the teachers unions. Still, he was on the inside with other players who also can’t be pinned down other than to say they’re all “reformers.”
For example, Checker Finn, voice of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, moderated a panel with Anne Bryant, director of the National Association of School Boards – who playfully quipped that she and Checker disagree about 100 percent of the time – at one end of the dais, and Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor and current Vice President and COO of News Corp’s Education Division, on the other end.
News Corp’s main man, Rupert Murdoch, delivers a keynote address today; after all, he recently plopped down $360 million to buy Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology and consulting company. You’ll recall that News Corp already knew a bit about wireless technology used in cell phones.
But last night, the keynoter was Melinda Gates, and earlier Thursday attendees heard from Sal Khan, the unassuming Silicon Valley genius behind Khan Academy, the nonprofit developer of thousands of high-quality online lessons available free of charge, who joked that he used to think YouTube was for cats playing pianos, not for serious mathematics.
Despite their seemingly diverse perspectives, the speakers all do fit together, each bringing a puzzle piece that gives shape to Jeb Bush’s vision of an American education system that’s once again an equal competitor among industrialized nations.
“My personal belief is there is no one single thing that needs to get done,” said Bush during his opening remarks. [Read the entire speech here]. What it will require, he said, is a combination of school choice (vouchers), Common Core standards, rigorous assessments, consequences for anything less than excellence, and using technology to transform education.
Bush reached out to odd bedfellows to make his case, though. At one point he borrowed from Stanford Professor and teacher advocate Linda Darling-Hammond, describing academic standards in the United States as a “mile wide and an inch deep,” while the rest of the world concentrates on fewer core concepts and teaches them in depth.
A few minutes later, when deriding the self-esteem movement, he quoted former Harvard President Larry Summers, whom Bush described as a “kind of politically incorrect guy,” as saying “we need to stop telling kids they need to have self-esteem to achieve and start telling them they need to achieve to get self-esteem.” It was the only line that drew loud applause.
It’s also interesting to note that Jeb Bush’s support for Common Core standards is consistent with his view of federalism: Washington can and should play a strong role by setting expectations, but then it had better step aside and let the states decide how to get there.
“We have 50 states, trying 50 wacky things through trial and error, which I think is the best way to try to solve problems rather than the kind of D.C. solution these days, which is top down,” said Bush. “I like the more dynamic solutions, and our federal system is designed exactly for this. We do have laboratories of democracy that are prepared to make the changes.”