On Wednesday, I had the privilege of being one of only two Michigan superintendents, out of one hundred nationally, summoned to The White House to meet with President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a host of other U.S. Department of Education and senior administration officials.
The primary purpose of the summit was to:
- Discuss the Obama Administration’s strategic plan (ConnectEd Initiative) for connecting all schools to ubiquitous high speed Internet and provide digital technology learning tools to every student.
- Kick off the initiative with every school superintendent in the country by signing a pledge with the President to make districts “Future Ready.”
- Recognize 100 public school superintendents who have already taken this pledge and significant strides towards achieving “Future Ready” districts.
Following lengthy security steps necessary to enter The White House grounds (understandably), we convened Wednesday morning in an auditorium within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, once home to the State, War and Navy Departments and located at the west end of the complex. We were greeted by Richard Calcutta, Director of the Office of Education Technology (Twitter @rec54), Zac Chase, ConnectEd Fellow, and Seth Andrew, Superintendent in Residence. We discussed the actual pledge, it’s purpose, the role of the Office of Education Technology in furthering it’s goals, and future regional events planned to bring more school districts on board.
A teacher Ignite session “What is a Future Ready Student?” helped us to focus and prepare for our later meeting with the President scheduled for shortly after 11 am in The White House Green Room. Additional security screening on our walk over to The White House, we eventually entered through the East Portico (front door).
Once in the Green Room, I managed to find a seat in the front row about eight feet from where the President would deliver his educational technology policy speech and lead us through the signing of the “Future Ready” pledge. The room was full as additional administration personnel and others from educational organizations joined us. Media was present along with a handful of student reporters. The session was set up for live-streaming on the web.
First to speak was Secretary Arne Duncan highlighting a number of key points from the ConnectEd and Future Ready initiatives as well as the Obama Administration’s vision and purpose of the Future Ready District pledge already signed by more than 1,200 superintendents across the country.
Secretary Duncan was followed by Miami-Dade County Superintendent of Schools Alberto M. Carvalho, who first spoke of his district’s success in digital learning transformation before introducing the President.
The video below contains the President’s complete remarks.
In my opinion, here’s a key take-away from the President’s remarks where he provides convicting evidence that our schools are not technology-ready for 21st century learning:
These are all critical ingredients to our effort at continuous improvement in education. And one of the things that we also need to do is to yank our schools into the 21st century when it comes to technology, and providing the tools and training that teachers need to use that technology to prepare all of our students for the competition that they’re going to face globally.
Other countries are doing this. They are trying to out-educate us today so that they can out-compete us tomorrow. South Korea is replacing all of its textbooks with digital content, and training all of its teachers to use technology in the classroom. Singapore is equipping every school with broadband that’s over 40 times faster than the connection in the average American home. So we’re going to have to step up our game if we’re going to make sure that every child in America can go as far as their dreams and talents will take them.
And that’s why, last year, I launched an initiative called ConnectED — it’s a five-year plan to close the technology gap in our schools and connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed Internet.
And this is why it’s important. Right now, fewer than 40 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet in their classrooms — less than half. That’s not good, since we invented the Internet. (Laughter.) That’s not good. It means that in most American schools, teachers cannot use the cutting-edge software and programs that are available today. They literally don’t have the bandwidth. And even in schools where there is high-speed Internet, so often there aren’t enough computers to go around, so only a small percentage of our classrooms have the one-to-one ratio of students to computers or tablets. And that means that, in too many schools, if a teacher wants to use the Internet for a lesson, then kids have to crowd around one desk to follow along, or they have to break up into groups and sequentially come in.
I’ve said before, in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee — (laughter) — the least we can do is expect that our schools are properly wired. And when many of us can’t go even an hour — my staff, it’s like every two minutes — (laughter) — without reaching for a tablet or a smartphone, we’ve got to make sure these devices are within reach of our students. Because outside of school they’re certainly understanding how to use technology. That’s where they’re living. And if we aren’t incorporating that into how they are learning in the classroom, then we’re not doing our job. We’ve got to bring the world to every child’s fingertips, because they’re already more technologically savvy than we are, but if they think that the school is 20, 30 years behind, then they’re going to lose interest in school.
At the conclusion of President Obama’s speech, all of the superintendents present as well as those tuning in to the webcast digitally signed our pledge to make our districts Future Ready.
From the President’s remarks leading up to the pledge signing:
So I know a lot of superintendents have stories like these. You’ve found innovative ways to reach your students and improve your schools. And today, the best news of all is you’re taking the next step — along with 1,200 other superintendents nationwide — by signing the “Future Ready District Pledge.” Don’t sign yet. (Laughter.) Because we’re all going to do it together and it will be fun. (Laughter.)
It’s a vision for digital learning in classrooms across America — helping schools and families make the leap to high-speed Internet; supporting teachers and principals who use technology in innovative ways; and helping every student gain access to digital devices and high-quality digital content. And it’s a promise to help other school districts do the same — that’s key. This can’t stop with you. Every kid need every superintendent in America to sign this pledge — and then follow through on the pledge. Our kids need every school district to make these commitments. Every child — whether they live in a big city, quiet suburb, the furthest reaches of rural America, poor districts, rich districts — every child deserves a shot at a world-class education.
That’s the promise we make as a nation great. That’s what makes our nation great — this fundamental belief that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, you can make it in this country if you work hard. You have access to the tools to achieve. If we keep working at this, that’s a promise we can make real for this generation and generations to come.
All right. So, with that, I think all the superintendents are ready to sign this pledge for our kids. Everybody get your tablets out. You ready? All right, go at it. (Laughter.) You’re being tested. (Laughter.) You’ve got 10 more seconds. I see some people lagging behind. (Laughter.) All right, time. (Laughter.) Everybody get it?
All the signees will be eligible to attend one of the dozen regional summits that the Future Ready Schools initiative is planning to hold around the country in 2015. Almost 30 organizations have also agreed to help support the effort.
The President greeted several superintendents as he departed the room and then we headed back over to the EEOB for lunch and our afternoon sessions. But one last photo standing next to the President’s podium before I go. Just as quickly as this photo was taken, in the next instant a staffer grabbed the Seal off the front of it whisking it away for safe-keeping. On the way back, I had an opportunity to provide brief viewpoints on the President’s remarks to an NBC reporter outside the West Wing and press room. I was surprised to hear that our local NBC-affiliate WOOD-TV8 used my remarks in their evening broadcast.
During our working lunch in the EEOB, we were split into small groups around a table for conversations between superintendents and senior leaders of the Department of Education. My group was moderated by Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle focusing on what it means to foster and lead a culture of digital learning in schools, what are the primary barriers to high-speed connectivity in schools and homes, and what has the use of technology allowed our district to stop doing that we viewed as no longer productive in teaching and learning. Our discussion group included several students who provided a different perspective to each of these topics and it was clear to everyone that student-voice is important in our continuing transition to Future Ready schools.
Following lunch, everyone reported back to the auditorium for a series of high-level White House speakers along with two panel discussions prior to a closing session with Secretary Duncan.
First up was Jeff Zients, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy; in other words the chief economist for the United States.
He talked about the economic consequences if we don’t move forward to creating an education system that meets the future needs of our students, not our past. He reiterated some of the President’s remarks about other countries who have moved ahead of the U.S. in providing high-speed connectivity to every school, student and community.
Next, a panel moderated by Assistant Secretary Delisle focused on the question, “How do we support Future Ready teaching & learning?” Voices included accomplished superintendents and instructional staff from a variety of schools. They provided insights from experiences at each of their respective districts.
Our next speaker was, in effect, the “Chief Geek of the United States,” and I say that with much respect. Megan Smith, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President, has not been on the job that long but it was clear she has a passion for students developing coding skills in school and developing a greater interest in computer science and engineering careers.
The second panel discussion was moderated by outgoing Deputy Superintendent Jim Shelton and included Pam Moran, Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools and a friend and mentor of mine.
The panel’s discussion focused on how we can measure Future Ready progress and success not only in our respective schools and districts, but across the nation. A key topic was how to mentor and assist other districts as they take up the Future Ready mantle and begin transitioning into technology-rich learning institutions for their kids. The conversation also noted how schools can interact with edtech entrepreneurs–and measure results.
Pam Moran offered that she applies a rigorous screening process before trying new tools. Her team looks for “tech products that will help accomplish a higher level of work” and that will integrate into the classroom, rather than running parallel. Evidence of student progress also weighs in on Moran’s decisions to try something new.
As the conversation developed, it was clear that Future Ready schools must focus on the learning process and not get caught up with the latest and greatest technology tools. If the focus is on learning, and the district supports an open policy for using technology tools, students and teachers will grab onto any device they need at the moment to take their learning even higher.
Jimmy Casas, principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa, said he never looks to new tools as silver bullets: “Great teaching is the equalizer, not a particular device.” His vision of Future Ready success: “Anyone can walk into a school or classroom and they all have the tools they need to do the work they need to do at a high level. That’s success.”
Future ready schools are all about creating multiple paths of student and professional learning with technology primarily used as a tool to leverage learning to a higher level.
Our final session was a two-part conversation with Secretary Duncan and Richard Culatta, Executive Director of the Office of Education Technology. For the first half, the moderator called on superintendents in the audience to indicate those pressing concerns that might have a district-state-national connection; in other words, “What is keeping us up at night.” The issues that surfaced included:
- The need for greater flexibility in use of federal funds such as Title I, II, III and special education. Duncan indicated a “Dear Colleague” letter was going out this very day to provide districts with the leverage they need to overcome objections by state educational officials.
- Helping reduce or eliminate the “Carnegie Unit” seat-time requirement that persists in 21st century schools despite being an outmoded and unnecessary restriction.
- Flexibility in utilizing e-Rate funding to support connectivity outside of school and into the community. Both Duncan and Culatta shared examples of school districts that have successfully done this as well as other innovations used to expand Wifi throughout the community.
- More rigorous teacher prep programs. Duncan indicated a draft plan is coming out even though he felt he’s about two years behind on what needs to be done to ensure only the best, brightest and well-prepared teachers achieve eventual certification. There was also a comment that received strong applause from the superintendents that teacher certification across the nation be standardized.
- A more common-sense approach to high-stakes assessments that measure more than just reading and writing skills on bubble tests. Duncan basically tap-danced around this highly-charged political issue noting that the U.S. has a long way to go before we can be satisfied we are measuring the right things in the right way. My concern right now is the push to measure academic achievement down into kindergarten and eventually pre-school levels, a ridiculous waste of time and resources and danger to killing off any creativity and curiosity in our youngest children.
- Greater direct working relationships between districts and the federal Department of Education when states are not willing to be involved or tend to create obstacles to Future Ready schools. This was not well-received by Duncan given the fact there are 16,000 school districts making a direct linkage unwieldy. He did encourage us to contact his staff when we need help clarifying federal regulations or dealing with significant stumbling blocks thrown out by the state.
The second part of this conversation involved responding to pre-selected questions from a handful of superintendents.
Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and now President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a major sponsor of this event as well as next year’s regional summits for superintendents who have signed the Future Ready Pledge, provided the closing remarks to a long but worthwhile day. He also pointed out that a new FutureReadySchools website to support our transition was as of that moment now online.
Following a quick group photo with Secretary Duncan, class was dismissed for the next phase of moving our Future Ready schools forward.
And a sweet reward on our way out the door.