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Government, Society - Written by on Friday, March 5, 2010 6:01 - 3 Comments

Steve Guengerich
A decade of frustration ahead?

It’s been a fascinating week. I’ve been in Washington DC since Saturday, primarily attending the annual conference and international symposium held by the Consortium for School Networking, which goes by the acronym CoSN. CoSN is the primary professional membership organization for chief technology and chief information officers (CTOs and CIOs, sometimes the same person) of K-12 school districts.

nGenera is a major, national sponsor of CoSN. If you have followed the work of Don and frequent collaborator Anthony Williams, you recognize this as consistent with their coverage of education as a key topic of their writing and nGenera’s research. And while I agree with Don and Anthony, that the tools and (in many cases) the conditions are in place for dramatic improvement to take place in the public education system for many a country, my personal opinion for the U.S. is gloomier, in that I think we are in for a decade of frustration.

Maybe I’m a little tired from a week of 18-20 hour days and running my Starbucks card through too many Venti bold cups of coffee. But, the state of public education in our country seems to be awash in contradictions, opposites, and (as the cliché goes) “left hands not knowing what the right hands are doing.”

For instance, on the one hand, it seems that most people understand the transformative potential for IT in learning. We are witness to it literally before our eyes on a daily basis, as my colleague Denis Hancock made the case so well in his post Wednesday, on the subject of the impact of iPhone apps on his daughter’s learning. Yet, on the other hand, few school districts include the CTO at the cabinet level (in other words, as a member of the senior executive team directly reporting to the superintendent) in the district’s leadership.

Part of the issue, which CoSN is working to change, is that the CTOs themselves are not well prepared to be effective at that senior leadership position. Many lack the business vision and strategic leadership skills to operate as effective change agents and equal partners in the running of the district with the other leaders. Thus, an important objective for CoSN’s members and staff is to promote the adoption of an Essential Skills Framework for CTOs, advocating that there is the profession itself can do a better job to equip its members, preparing them to be more effective leaders.

To take a different issue, on the one hand, there was a nearly universal cry for the need for standard approaches to web 2.0 content production, assessment, and platform deployment. Yet, on the other hand, in a panel that closed the morning portion of an international symposium day at the CoSN conference, it was ironic (to me anyhow) that the five speakers – from ePals, Taking IT Global, IEARN-USA, NASA’s GLOBE program, and European Schoolnet – presented their web 2.0 platforms for about 10 minutes each, in succession, but yet by my hearing completely missed the opportunity to address how they were working together.

In every case, each one seemed to be busily building communities of millions of users, thousands of pieces of content, with hundreds of schools and or regions involved. However, except in the case of the European Schoolnet, which is a partnership of multiple European education ministries, there was practically no mention of how any of the presenters were striving towards cross-promotion, standardization, or (god forbid) merger of operations and mission from two into one, or three into two, etc.

On the one hand, you have the President and Secretary of Education setting ambitious and merit-worthy goals of achieving an increase to a college graduation rate of 60% by the year 2020, from our present level of approximately 40%. This means, from the federal perspective, a real focus needs to be on what we can do to impact the success of kids at the 4th grade level and above, starting now. Yet, on the other hand, data from regional groups like the E3 Alliance in Texas and others shows that frequently the point of greatest leverage is young children and getting them “school ready” by the time they get to kindergarten.

Lastly, the final day of the CoSN conference was billed as an advocacy day, where we spent the morning hearing about the legislative funding priorities for Education, from CoSN and three other education-related partners: ISTE, SETDA, and SIIA. On the one hand, the associations had the data and talking points clearly showing how critical education is to the success of the nation and how important some of the funding streams are to national goals.

Yet, on the other hand, the panel of congressional staffers who spoke to the audience of 100 or so software and CTO/CIO leaders convened to advocate to their various state delegations of senators and congressmen and women were extremely bearish on the chances of the education priorities getting much attention in 2010, due to other pressing U.S. national priorities such as healthcare reform, job creation, and of course, inflexible military and social entitlement program commitments.

It’s like the comment that a senior federal technology official from an agency (not the Department of Education) made to me, on my last day in the city this week, about the especially challenging position for a change agent in the government. He used the example of the military and recounted that it was about 100 years ago that the U.S. Navy determined they would no longer build ships out of wood…that all future vessels must be built using metal.

Without that specific and irreversible requirement – which had an impact, no doubt, of enormous consequences to supply chains, inventories, jobs, and countless other transition costs – one can just imagine that 50, 60, 70 years later, we might still have been building and launching new ships made of wood. The problem, he said, is that in some domains – and I would venture that education is one of them – it’s very hard to recognize the wooden ships.

What do we do in the meantime, given that the status quo isn’t an acceptable option?  That’s where I think the government is at least trying to apply the principles of social entrepreneurship and innovation, with the reauthorization of “No Child Left Behind,” now more benignly named the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (or ESEA), and the “Race to the Top” program.  It’s also where I think we must see more public/private partnerships emerge.  Experimentation must be encouraged and real consequences have got to be at stake for communities, ultimately producing quantifiable, economic value like we describe in the Nexus Economics theme in nGenera’s 2010 research agenda.

So, if you’ve got a “wooden ship” that you want to sink and, more specifically, an education innovation that you want to promote, then tell us about it.  Or better yet, tell us AND tell the Department of Education, through its new Innovation website.  Let’s prevent a decade of frustration in public education.


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Mar 5, 2010 18:37

[...] A decade of frustration ahead? Published: March 5, 2010 Source: Wikinomics It’s been a fascinating week. I’ve been in Washington DC since Saturday, primarily attending the annual conference and international symposium held by the Consortium for School Networking, which goes by the… [...]

Mar 8, 2010 10:08

A quick personal follow-up to my post. Late Friday, a colleague routed me an announcement regarding just the kind of bold (outlandish?) public/private partnership that I hope we will see more of to get some breakthroughs in K-12 education: http://sites.google.com/site/neweduit/project-updates/announcingthe50mesingularityprizeforeducation.

I don’t know anything about the personal stories of the founders/operators of the group EDUIT, but they have definitely corralled an impressive group for their advisory board and seem to have the passionate dedication their objective, which is to raise $50 million dollars to fund a competition for the first organization(s) that can develop “open source software that takes a 2 year old to an 8th grade equivalent in math, science and language arts” without the requirment and/or intervention of a teacher.

I’m sure we will see more of these kinds of challenges, to push the envelope of innovation, as the pressure mounts on traditional K-12 education institutions to move more rapidly on improving student performance at lower costs.

Portland Real Estate
Jun 6, 2010 13:04

Frustration is the buzz around here too. Good Article. The economy would be a good help in getting americans to lighten up.

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