Several key speakers at the American Association of School Administrators’ (AASA) annual conference in Tampa, Feb. 14 to 17, seemed to agree that the old ways of rote memorization, standardized testing, and chalkboards are not what students need to succeed in today’s schools and the world at large.

However, while the word “innovation” formed easily on everyone’s lips, different interpretations of what it means to be innovative—and how innovation can improve students’ chances of success and the nation’s standing in the new global economy—allowed for different points of view and offered attendees an interesting mélange of school-reform ideas to savor.

“Let this be an introduction to a talk, not the definitive solution,” said speaker Daniel Pink, who is the former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and the author of A Whole New Mind—a guide to surviving, thriving, and finding meaning in an outsourced, automated, upside-down world.

Pink’s argument is that, as the economy changes to support novelty, nuance, and customization, the old-school methods of routines, right answers, and standardization are not aligning with the country’s best interest.

“I’m not saying that a school’s job is to produce employees for employers, but this is a misalignment of interests that needs to change,” he said in a Feb. 15 keynote to school administrators.

Pink relates the economy to the human brain: He believes the old days of the left side of the brain—linear, logical, reason-based ways of thinking—are gone, and have been replaced with a need for right-brain approaches: synthesizing, creative, context-based ways of thinking.

“I’m not saying that the left isn’t important—of course it is—but three forces have influenced the economy to become right-brain,” he said.

These three forces are an abundance of material prosperity in the middle class, off-shoring of labor to Asia, and automation.

“It’s progressed from an agricultural age to a conceptual age,” said Pink. “We’re in an age when the cost of the status quo is higher than the cost of change.”

To help schools better align with the new economic shift, Pink suggested eight approaches:

  1. Shake up legislators.

  2. Experiment with new metrics, such as Tuft University’s Robert Sternburg’s Rainbow Project.

  3. Tear down the walls that departmentalize academic disciplines, same-age classrooms, and administration. “The most valuable prefix in the economy right now is ‘multi,’” said Pink.

  4. Infuse arts education throughout the curriculum: Dell’s CEO said his company is in the “fashion business,” while General Motors says it’s in the “arts and entertainment business,” and Proctor and Gamble says it’s in the “design business.”

  5. Get real about science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) education: Make sure science education includes more than just memorization of terms.

  6. (for emphasis) Shake up the legislators.

  7. Promote and defend autonomy: Students need autonomy to explore their own interests, instead of a rigid curriculum, Pink said.

  8. Make well-meaning mistakes: Take risks, try something new.

With these eight suggestions, Pink says, we can help make students something more than right-answer vending machines—something the economy already has plenty of in the form of software applications and the internet.

“Like Richard Moniuszko, deputy division superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools, told me once, ‘We need to prepare our kids for their future, not our past,’” he concluded.

‘Testing restrains the definition of knowledge’

Also looking toward the future was Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of technology in education and educational psychology, and director of the Michigan State University College of Education’s Center for Teaching and Technology.

Zhao gave attendees his theory on what knowledge is most valuable in today’s economy, a question Herbert Spencer asked in 1859. Ironically enough, nearly 150 years ago, science was his answer—just as science is what many educators believe is the answer today, Zhao said.

According to Zhao, however, pushing for high math and science scores will not help the United States remain a global economic leader; it will only “discriminate against other talents. … Testing restrains the definition of knowledge,” he said in a Feb. 15 presentation.

Zhao cited Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the creators of Google as people who are modern-day success stories—all of whom dropped out of college. “A country’s worth is not measured by test scores,” he explained. “It’s measured by concepts, ideas … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”

Zhao noted that countries such as India, Korea, Japan, and Singapore are producing incredible scientists, engineers, and mathematicians—so the United States needs to find its own niche market. Said Zhao, “We need to ask ourselves, why would some company want to be based in the U.S.? Why would they need our workers?”

He described how technology is redefining talent, and he said the talents that we as a nation should create must revolve around new technologies.

“Look at Second Life, look at the virtual worlds of social networking sites and gaming. Look how Asian countries are hiring teenagers to play video games professionally. … The U.S. needs to prepare students for the production of virtual goods,” he explained.

Zhao also declared that to thrive in this new interconnected world requires having global tolerance and strong ethical online standards.

“We need to teach our students global citizenship, teach them that global warming is interdependent on all countries, that learning foreign languages can really benefit them in the future,” he said. “Right now, the U.S. need for foreign-language speakers outweighs the need for engineers.”

Zhao concluded by saying that “we need to become innovators in a digital world,” a goal that can be achieved only through curiosity, risk, and creativity—characteristics he says the United States is known for.(For more from Yong Zhao, see this installment of eSN-TV’s TechWatch)

Connected schools

In another general session on Feb. 15, AASA announced its National Superintendent of the Year. And, in keeping with the recurring conference theme of “innovation,” this year’s winner—Miami-Dade County’s Rudy Crew—also is a celebrated proponent of reinventing American education to maintain the nation’s competitive edge in a knowledge-based economy.

Crew, who is in his fourth year as superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, has been credited with making significant changes in the learning environment of the 353,000-student school system, the nation’s fourth largest. Before joining Miami-Dade County, Crew headed the New York City, Sacramento, and Tacoma, Wash., school systems.

Crew also published a book last year, called Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools, in which he outlined his own recipe for effective urban school reform.

In spite of the billions we spend on education, Crew says, six years after the inception of No Child Left Behind, one-third of our eighth-graders still can’t do basic math, and only 60 percent of our 10-year-olds can read. Furthermore, he says, NCLB’s focus on testing has diverted attention from other important aspects of education—such as building character, citizenship, and workplace literacy.

In his book, Crew proposes a new strategy: School systems need to be run like businesses, he argues, with explicit goals, implementation plans, and budgets. Schools also must become the nucleus of their community, he says—the center of a web connecting businesses, the arts, health services, and other social institutions.

“Connected schools,” as Crew calls them, tap into outside resources and give students a better sense of what is going on in the world around them. And there is evidence that Crew’s approach is paying off: For the past two years, the Broad Foundation has recognized Miami-Dade County as one of the nation’s five most improved urban school districts.

“Rudy Crew has demonstrated high-quality leadership in several of our nation’s largest public school systems,” said Paul Houston, AASA’s executive director. “From developing innovative school improvement programs to strengthening collaboration with the local community, he has worked hard to improve learning outcomes for all children. AASA is proud to have him represent the best of the profession in 2008.”

More money, better data

One of the conference’s final keynote speakers, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, didn’t address the need for innovation, but she did provide her own thoughts on what is needed to reform American education in general—and NCLB in particular.

The school field is second only to the defense industry in its use of arcane lingo and obscure abbreviations, according to Napolitano. Educators must resolve, she said, to avoid jargon and communicate clearly with stakeholders. Effective communication will become increasingly important as economic conditions worsen.

Noting that as of Feb. 17, budgets in 30 states already were in deficit, Napolitano urged educators to be “parsimonious regarding non-classroom expenditures.”

She called on Washington to reform NCLB and find a way to provide usable data as well as adequate funding. As it stands, she said, data from NCLB are unusable. Also, the program identifies failing schools but offers no money to fix them, she complained. Yet, the governor opposed eliminating NCLB, advising Washington to “amend it; don’t end it.”

Napolitano recommended that AASA attendees adopt an overarching education strategy consisting of eight key components:

1. Embrace research-based principles, such as working with the school board, holding all parties accountable, and relying on accurate data;

2. Integrate all levels of education into a unified whole by forming “P-20 working groups” to encourage a consistent, inclusive approach from pre-kindergarten to graduate school;

3. Improve standards for all children;

4. Implement real-time assessment;

5. Attract and retain high-quality teachers;

6. Increase the time students spend in school by lengthening both the school day and school year;

7. Keep students learning well beyond high school, because just “2 percent of all jobs in this country now require only a high school education”; and

8. Make NCLB work for states.

News from the technology providers

In and around the conference exhibit hall, education vendors touted numerous solutions for securing school buildings, streamlining administrative tasks, and enhancing instruction.

Among the products and services on display were a school health web site from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a system for holding school board meetings online, a web-based course to combat underage drinking, and a digital file-sharing service for improving school-to-home communication.

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