week 18-ish of my fifty-state tour — BC, CA, IN, KY, IL, IA, and NY

Posted on March 2nd, 2016 in Fifty-State Tour

In this nine-month “No State Left Behind” tour, I’m down to nine more states to visit — FL, NM, CO, MD, WV, TN, PA, HI, AK. And, for good measure, I’m tossing in a province of Canada this update, since I had a chance to meet with the chair of the school board for Vancouver, British Columbia, this week. Or actually two weeks, since I’m combining a week mostly off from the tour with a week visting five different states.

Aaarrrgghhh! The TED Conference. I went with the highest of hopes and expectations. But within two days, I was pretty checked out. Not entirely, but pretty. The start for me was really great – a one-hour workshop with The Future Project. They went all out, and gave a briefing to a standing room only crowd. We covered all of the great progress TFP has made, MLTS, and a new platform they’re working on to connect those seeking resources to turbo-charge the futures of young kids with proven initiatives that should be considered. Sir Ken Robinson kindly recorded an intro, and it gives a preview of something important, and helps explain the logic for my collaborating with them.

Now, onto the famous TED Conference. Here’s what the event is like. It’s held in a huge conference center on the waterfront of downtown Vancouver. Most of the day is consumed by talks, organized into sessions with 5-7 talks per session. Some were quite good — Tim Urban, Al Gore, Ken Lacovara. And there were probably more really great talks, but I stopped going. Just getting talked to, hour upon hour, wasn’t appealing to me. Oddly, there were no – and I mean no — opportunities to talk about what we just heard. So it was broadcast only and I just didn’t see the urgency of seeing a talk immediately, when it would be available soon (some were coming out as the conference was still going on). Even pretty close to the speaker and it’s hard not to end up watching the talk on the big screen behind the person. Another issue for me is that these talks are so over-rehearsed. Because the focus is on slick TED talks on video, speakers were told to back up and start over when they botched a sentence. So, like someone trying to push a rock up a hill, they’d back way up, take a running start, and do it all over again until they got it right.

The talk that did me in was by Shonda Rhimes. Now, when you watch the link, it looks like it went off without any hiccups. But about 2/3rds of the way through, her teleprompters (there were two, supposedly a TED no no) failed, and there was a five-minute pause in her talk while they got it back to the right spot in the teleprompting stream. But that wasn’t what turned me off. This talk just dripped self-promotion and self-absorption. The contrast between her and the very modest Norman Lear was so stark. Over, and over, and over, Rhimes had to remind us how she’s such a titan. how her brain affects the globe. How many jobs and programming hours depend on her. And the big, big breakthrough she made in deciding, at least for awhile, to pay attention to her kids. And the talk wasn’t the worst of it. When I asked others what they thought, many told me, “That talk just spoke to me.” I couldn’t help but think I was right in the middle of the self-absorbed clinging on every word from the self-absorbed.

So I had some great hallway conversations, enjoyed a few of the talks (although watching them from a distance in a big auditorium just didn’t seem worth the cost and hassle versus watching them on my laptop a few days later), caught up with some long-time friends, had some really interesting talks with new acquaintance, but was generally itchy to get the hell out of there. I think TED is doing enormous good throughout the world, and am really rooting for them. But I’d love to see them apply their own design principles to re-imagining how these great talks (whether observed live at their big event, live at a TEDs event, or on-line) could be more aligned with effecting real change in the world. For starters, I’d encourage them to set aside a modest amount of time (even five minutes) after each talk at their live events for audience discussion, as well as to extend opportunities (even online) for audiences to volunteer resources to help not just spread the idea, but effect deeper change.

I did have a few interesting and quite memorable conversations. Perhaps the highlight though was a meeting I scrambled to set up with Mike Lombardi, Chairman of the Vancouver School Board. I learned so much from him in our breakfast, and there’s quite a bit going on in British Columbia that the U.S. should be tracking closely. For starters, all kids in their province (and this is true of all provinces in Canada) are allotted the same annual budget — irrespective of the wealth of the community. Canada has no federal Department of Education. They’ve done away with standardized testing in their schools and focus on critical skills. Teachers are given basic objectives for what their students should learn, and trusted to come up with their own way to achieve these goals. Colleges in British Columbia are highly rated, don’t require standardized tests for admission, and very affordable. Although they don’t teach to the test, they score on par with the very best nations on PISA tests. Wow! All that, right across the border.

I also had a really great breakfast organized by Andy McAfee (who is an important figure in MLTS) and Eric Brynjolfsson, authors of Race Against the Machine and Second Machine Age. The meeting included about fifteen leading technologists, venture capitalists, and policy leaders. It’s always interesting to talk to people with deep expertise about the pace of change in machine intelligence. One person observed that in ten to twenty years, buildings the size of this Fairmont hotel (very large) could be 3D printed. And McAfee related that even the team working on driverless cars felt, five years ago, that it would be at least a decade before they are road worthy. Well, five years later and driverless cars are safer than human-driven automobiles.

At TED, I met Howard Rosenblum, CEO, National Association of the Deaf. He related the huge challenges in learning for the deaf. So much of content that most kids can readily access is off limits for them. One anecdote is that his association is suing Harvard and MIT over EdX, since those two schools refuse to caption these on-line offerings. They just don’t have the resources, I suppose. I started this process for MLTS four weeks ago, and was so glad to be able to tell him we’re almost ready to support — without a lawsuit!

One of my most interesting conversations was with a woman from northern California, who talked with a fair amount of insight about the Adderall/Ritalin issues in her area. Young boys, especially in schools focused on academic prowess, can be distractions to the class, and slow others down with their rambunctious natures. What surprised me was the extent to which schools there are pushing kids to be medicated, and how private schools will often write it into the contracts as a condition for staying in the school. She said that it’s well known (although not to me) that early and intense medication of this nature will stunt the growth of young boys. Ugh!

Well, as they say, no rest for the weary. From TED, I flew to the Bay Area of a big event with 250 people at Google. It’s called an Ed Foo Camp, and Foo stands for Friends of O’Reilly. This was more of an unconference, and was as close to totally unstructured as imaginable — in stark contrast to the TED event. I met so many great people there, but was so challenged on the energy front. It started Friday at 5 pm, went until late, then all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. I love talking about school, but by Sunday I was out of gas. That said, the Google campus is really stunning. Great design, lots of fun spots to talk, and you can walk out the office door to a great hike in the marshlands and foothills.

I had a chance at Ed Foo to catch up with Avi Flovbaum, founder of the Flatiron School and one of the world’s outstanding teachers of computer programming. Avi mentioned that he had tried taking the AP Computer Science practice test, which included 45 multiple choice questions. Avi couldn’t finish in the allotted time, and feels that the way you do well on the test is not by reading and understanding the code, but by gaming the questions. You have to know tricks to get the answer quickly based on superficial understandings. Avi hated high school, bad grades, dropped out of college after one year. The rest is history. We agreed though that a real flaw in the thinking behind the mantra we hear so frequently — computer science for all — that many kids will end up taking mind-numbing curriculum like AP Computer Science, learning almost nothing and concluding that computer programming is boring. Welcome to mainstream education curriculum in our obsolete model.

I had so many other great conversations at the Ed Foo event. One was with Dave Conover, who started a school in in North Austin working with at risk kids. I was really wishing I had visited him and his school three weeks ago when I was in town. Teaches them video game design. About to do big talk at IBM event. Many kids leave school with high-paying jobs. Engagement goes way up.

Next stop: Indiana. Got into Indianapolis late Sunday night from SFO. Late night. Then, early meeting with Chief of Staff for IN Department of Education and his point person. Followed by meeting with Senator Kruz, who heads Indiana’s State Legislature’s committee on education. There is lots of quirky and odd stuff going on in IN, including big budget cuts in education affecting their “corporations” (their versions of districts). Somewhat incredibly, one is having to cancel all bus routes — just bizarre and tragic. I had the impression that there’s a fair amount of acrimony between teachers and state officials, and a big voucher push. The State Superintendent Glenda Ritz is an elected official and is the only Democrat in a sea of Republicans. She ran highlighting this anecdote — “A third grader comes to the librarian and says, “I’m so excited. I passed my IRead test and so I don’t have to check out any more books this year.” Lots and lots of testing. One official I met told the story of his nine-year-old who has spent the past six weeks prepping for his third grade exams, and they do test prep at home. His son is worried about having to be held back because of bad test performance.

I have to be honest. When I looked quickly at my schedule for the day in Indiana, I saw I had meetings in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. I thought Fort Wayne must be a suburb of Indianapolis, but it turns out it’s two hours away. This is one of those things where I might have been tempted to just stay in the capital. But I had a really great trip to Fort Wayne organized by Brad Oliver of The Summit. We started at NewTech Academy, a really interesting visit. These students do lots of projects — at least ten of consequence per year for each student. Loved the story of Jada, who was turned down multiple times but keep calling the principal and doing anything she could to get into the school — and eventually did. These are the kinds of kids who change the world. Now, Jada wants to be a neuroscientist. It’s a good bet this very determined young woman will make it. There was palpable energy all around the school. Its student body size is now at capacity of 380, with a 300 student waiting list! Their model is spreading to other schools in the area. It just underscores the fact that we know what works for kids — the NewTech model is one of our nation’s educational points of excellence.

I then met with several area superintendents. The meeting preceded a screening at the Summit — both organized by energetic Brad Oliver. Then a big screening (300+) at the Summit. Some really great comments from audience. A former policeman now teaches kindergartners at Syracuse Elementary School, and has them doing robotics and 3D printing. When they don’t know how to do something, he responds, “Me neither. You have to figure it out.” They do. And a different teacher at a local high school said they started doing interdisciplinary project-based learning about three years ago and now over half of students are opting in to a different way to experience high school. It can happen. He said, “Sometimes, you just have to do it.”

Long night, with long drive back to Indianapolis. Then off to Louisville early on Tuesday morning for a big keynote. It was great to return to KY, and be featured at the Innovate:Education forum sponsored by Fund KY. Lots of great people and a real sign of how business and educators can collaborate. Barbara Bellissimo, TheFund’s CEO, led off, doing a shared talk with the head of the KY teachers’ union, Matthew Courtney. So much common ground. I then gave a forty-five minute talk to the group, followed by lots of discussion. I also had a chance to meet Allan Houston, former NBA star who grew up in Louisville. He and his family have a foundation now, and he’s also in the front office for the NY Knicks. No doubt about which of the two of us has celebrity power and height. My wife and I had an hour or so to explore Louisville, one of our favorite cities. We walked along the Ohio River and stopped into the Muhammad Ali museum. “I am the greatest.” I remember so well how Ali just shocked America in many ways. The museum is beautiful, with lots of great videos about the impact he had on the world. And a chance to see Howard Cossell in his prime.

I then met with the steering committee for Fund KY, and we talked far and wide about how to accelerate change in schools in their state. I have to say, this is a group that will have a real impact. They collaborate, they have confidence from having done it before (lifting KY from the bottom on the barrel educationally in the mid 1980’s to a very respectable position today), and have a vision. Stay tuned.

On to Chicago for a great evening event organized by A Better Chicago. They had a really big crowd, bringing together lots of people working hard to advance their community. ABC has a focus on education, and I was able to spend time with a group there called Reading In Motion. The area of early literacy is so critical in the education process, since a kid that falls far behind in readiing will flounder and flail. This is one of those areas where I side with the people who feel we just shouldn’t be sending kids on from third grade without a real plan for getting them to be confident, capable, and passionate readers. The event there benefited from the leadership of Liam Krehbiel and his great team. We also got an assist from my friend Temp Keller, Chicago native now living in Austin. While in Chicago, I did an interview with the impressive Brandis Friedman of Chicago Tonight, and overlapped with Dionne Warwick in the studio. No photo though, but did grab this shot with Jay Shefsky, who has been part of public television for thirty years.

Early flight (the story of this year) from Chicago to Des Moines. Got in and tried to check into my hotel early, but no rooms ready. I could have really used the time to organize and maybe even take a nap. On to my first meeting, with State Representative Ron Jorgenson, head of Iowa’s education committee. This travel year has been amazing in that everyone I meet with is so open and receptive. I’ve yet to have one no show . . . until this morning. I’m sure he was stuck in a committee meeting of some sort, but after setting it up and calling contacts when I got there, no word back. Who knows?

I then had an information-packed meeting with Linda Fandel, policy advisor to the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad. Linda was a long-time reporter for the Des Moines Register, a paper with outsized importance in America because of its endorsements in the Iowa caucuses. She noted that the DMR hadn’t endorsed Branstad, but when the opportunity came up to join his team, she jumped at the change. Iowa has been a strong performer historically on test scores, but is doing some really innovative things. She described emphasis on early literacy, their TLC (Teacher Leadership and Compensation) initiative, a STEM task force led by the Lt. Governor, and Future Ready Iowa. The TLC initiative allows top teachers command more pay through mentorships and professional development without having to switch into an administrative role.

My busy day in Iowa continued. I headed to Johnson City to meet with a dozen top superintendents from Area Education Agencies. We covered a wide range of topics, and I was excited to learn more about Iowa BIG and what is happening with Waukee APEX. These are the kinds of sparks and embers I’m seeing all over the country, and they are really providing inspiration and sharp contrast across their home state. APEX is brings together Waukee’s community (businesses and non-profits) to shape the educational experiences of their kids through more authentic and project-based learning. And more on Iowa BIG later.

To see Ryan Wise is to see someone who looks like he’s still in college. He is in his-mid thirties, which is for someone like me quite young. But for someone about to be sworn in as his state’s head of education, he’s remarkably young. A South Dakota native, Ryan was former TFA teacher in Mississippi, a grad of HGSE, and is now working his way through the highly-unenjoyable process of being confirmed by the state Senate. I asked Ryan how he envisions changing education across Iowa in his term. He pointed to four things. The afore-mentioned TLC program reaches scale. Future Ready, Iowa, and he specifically mentioned a Georgetown study citing that by 2025, some 70% of jobs will require a higher-education degree. Competency-based education, a big deal being used so effectively in New Hampshire. And early literacy. With the exception of what it means to be future ready, I loved his priorities. But we had a great discussion on higher education, and the possibility that high school done right could obviate the need for a college degree. My argument is that a high school that really set up the right conditions for kids to learn would leave them well ahead of most college grads today. I could tell Ryan wasn’t buying that. More below.

After a very brief break, I headed to Hiatt Middle School for a screening of MLTS to a small, but enthusiastic, audience. There are always such surprises at these events. For starters, I got to meet Isaac, a high school student involved in Iowa BIG. It was positively inspiring to hear about his experience. He described a school experience where he doesn’t go to school, but heads out every day into his community to learn, interact, and find problems that he can take on and help solve. Isaac is just fifteen, but already proficient in a number of coding languages, as well as being an avid reader and writer. He was so enthused about what he does. The program is headed up by Shawn Cornally, and I really regret not connecting with him this visit. Consider, though, their bold mission statement – “We produce students who become makers, designers, storytellers, and social entrepreneurs by creating curriculum with business, nonprofit, and government agencies.”

I got a break that evening when Ryan Wise, incoming head of education for Iowa, was committed enough to the issues to make time to come to see the film in a setting with many others. I really appreciate that kind of dedication. He got there early, and I introduced him to Isaac. Case made for how a great high school experience can put kids light years ahead of most of today’s college grads. There is no doubt in my mind that Isaac, at age 15, is more prepared right now to do anything we might hope our education system can do – get a great job, be a thoughtful citizen, make his world better.

Late night in Iowa, followed by, of course, an early flight to NYC for a meetings with some of my colleagues at The Future Project. Then on to Boston for a bit of time at home. Hoped to take the 6 pm shuttle, but it was of course delayed by almost three hours. 32 hours at home, then off to my next stop – Louisiana.

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