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Why education needs strong advocates now more than ever

Like springtime, the education world is coming alive with ideas and strong voices that refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.

Spring time is invigorating, especially in my home town of Gastonia, North Carolina. Gastonia is very southern; its roots are in the textile business, and in many ways, it is a very conservative traditional southern town. After a particularly hard Winter that included almost three inches of snow and several days with highs only in the 40s, the town is in full bloom. The flowers. The trees. The birds. Everything comes alive here in the Spring, and it reminds me that anything is possible.

For those of you in the North, you are probably laughing at my description of our hard Winter. My friend Larry Jacobs, who is the host of Education Talk Radio, lives in Maine. When we talked last week, he was still getting snow. Maybe Winter is relative. If you don’t know Larry, he is one of the many strong voices in the education space. From his home studio, Larry interviews many of the most interesting people in education. His show has really caught on, and gets more than 50,000 downloads a month, mostly from superintendents, CAOs, principals and other admin types in the education biz. I’ve known Larry for years now, and have appeared on his show many times. He is a genuine character, and about as northern as I am southern. It’s pretty amusing when I am on his show. My southern draw is so thick and I speak so slowly that it is all Larry can do to let me speak. His “northernosity” gets the best of him and he jumps in.

Prisons, Schools and VR for Inmates

Because it’s Spring and all things are possible, let’s tackle some big issues. I remember reading that since 1979, we have spent three times more on prisons than schools. That’s a pretty telling statistic. As educators, we should be alarmed. As a nation, we should be ashamed. But that’s where we are. The real question now is, what is the way forward? With three million of our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters incarcerated and one in five people in this country having some type of arrest, we need strong voices and real solutions. One of our brightest and best in that arena, and someone you should know, is Dr. Turner Nashe. I called Turner in his Nashville office a couple days ago to get a bead on this issue. He was his usual passionate self, and a whirlwind of activity. Turner is a force of nature. He was among the first to dream of putting tablets with education programs in the hands of inmates – way before we were talking about 1:1 schools – and he made it a reality.

Now, Turner is working on virtual reality to teach inmates trades and technical careers. They don’t have access to training facilities or equipment to learn on. So Turner is working to bring equipment and training facilities to inmates through virtual reality. These are real-world, sophisticated programs that will prepare inmates for real-world careers.

Tradition Gives Way to Progress

Even in my small town of Gastonia, tradition is giving way to real-world learning. I am constantly surprised at how progressive the learning is here. Our 15-year-old, Stone, is a freshman at Forestview High School. I watched as he completed an assignment to research a point of view, form an argument and craft a speech to deliver his argument. His speech was cogent, well-formed and thoughtful. In the 9th grade, he is learning how to research with discernment and document his work using Google tools. In his future, documenting work and proving skill sets will be infinitely more important than presenting a transcript of letter grades. He’ll have to display competencies. The fact that he earned all A’s will have little meaning. He’ll have to work in groups, solve problems and document the process.

One of my Canadian friends, Chris Besse, is a strong voice in that area. If you don’t know Chris, he lives Toronto and is, hands down, one of the smartest people I know. For the last four years, Chris has been on a mission to improve learning. His company, FreshGrade, documents and shows the learning process every step of the way – involving parents, teachers and students. I am probably not doing FreshGrade justice here, but the nation of Canada has gone gonzo for it. They have whole districts that have eliminated letter grades and even report cards in favor of this type of assessment. Chris is doing a good bit of work in the US as well, and from what I understand his company is improving not only the way we assess learning, but how that assessment translates into action. It’s real-world and it’s working.

The co-founder of FreshGrade, Lane Merrifield, tells a funny story about why he started the company, and it’s one every parent can relate to. He used to sit at the kitchen table and ask his son, “What did you do at school today?” The answer was always the same, “Nothing.” He got so frustrated that he started FreshGrade, and now he and Chris are helping millions of learners.

Pretty cool stuff, huh? Chris, Turner, Larry. Just three of the many strong voices out there in education today. Like springtime in my home town of Gastonia, the education world is coming alive with ideas and strong voices that refuse to take no for an answer. So, what did you do in your district today?

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