week 19 of my fifty-state tour — LA and FL

Posted on March 9th, 2016 in Fifty-State Tour

I spent this week in Louisiana and Florida, two states with their share of education challenge. In this school-year “No State Left Behind” tour, I’m down to seven more states to visit — NM, CO, MD, WV, TN, HI, AK.

After a leisurely 30 hours at home for the weekend (arriving late Friday night after a three-hour plane delay, and leaving early Sunday morning), I headed to Louisiana, not quite sure what to expect. New Orleans in March is fabulous, and I had time to go for a long walk on Sunday. Up early on Monday, though, for the 90 minute drive to state capital Baton Rouge. I started the day with back-to-back meetings with the key state legislators on eduction — Blade Morrish, the Senate chair of the ed committee, and Nancy Landry, the House chair.

Blade told the most interesting stories having to do with school. He grew up in a small town about an hour from Baton Rouge, and swore he would get away from the hardware store his father owned and operated (which was Blade’s part-time and summer job growing up). Well, sure enough, he ended up running the store for thirty years, and knows anyone and everyone in his home town (leading to being elected to the state legislature). When an opening arose for Senate education committee chair, Blade explained that no one wanted to take it. He points to his balding head and tells me, “I was the only one with enough room to write ‘fool’ on my head,” and he took the role. But he relates that his wife observed a new-found excitement in his day as he took on this challenge.

Senator Morrish impressed me. He related stories about his daughter and nephew, who went all the way through four year colleges only to discover that their major had nothing to do with their long-term interests. They then took shorter term programs and entered professions they love, and that pay well. For example, his nephew is now an LNG operator, earning well above $100,000 per year, and loving it. His brother used his passion for nature and forestry to head down a career path selling logging equipment. His wife has an education background and observes that, today, “All we do is teach to the test.” And he notes with a ten-year-old grandson that the challenges in school are less mastering something than mastering it the way some committee says you need to learn it — citing the example of multiplication. We had a great meeting that went over in time, and I loved his common sense approach to what we should be doing in schools.

On to Representative Nancy Landry, the education chair on the house side. She related how she first got focused on education legislation. In Lafayette, administrators changed the school uniform policy a week before the start of school, causing families a fair amount of financial hardship. She introduced a bill requiring six months lead time (seems reasonable) and got all sorts of pushback from lobbyists. So Rep. Landry’s cause is cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy that impedes innovation our schools. She described life as a state legislator, and people have no idea how demanding this low-paying job is. She needs to be in Baton Rouge some 85 days each calendar year, and is called on to cast some 1,200 votes per session. All of these votes have to be cast in person! When not legislating, Landry is a family law lawyer, although long absences from home make it tough professionally The job pays peanuts, imposes all sorts of sacrifices professionally and personally. When we were wrapping up the meeting, I asked Landry about what she thinks the future of education has to be. She totally nailed her response, talking about how employers care less and less about degrees, and we need different credentialing systems to demonstrate mastery. She talked about a relative who never went to class as an undergrad, learned nothing in college, but now has a great job with a high-tech company based on acquired expertise, not credit hours.

I had about an hour and one-half until my next meeting and had to choose — lunch or cold call a school. I chose the later, and found a place called Mentorship Academy in downtown Baton Rouge. People are always so nice and, sure enough, someone named Clifford Lewis was willing to take time from his day, with no notice, to meet with me and fill me in on his school. The first thing that was interesting is that I happened to be there on a “lock down” day, when students are taking state standardized tests. Not only was I not allowed on the same floor as the kids, even President Obama couldn’t be admitted. Apparently, Louisiana has a several-day certification process required of any adult before they’re allowed to be in the midst of kids taking a test. Fear in their state over the kind of cheating that took place in Atlanta precipitated extreme measures to ensure that kids taking tests have absolutely no access to any of the resources that they’ll have . . . every day of their adult life.

Clifford described what they’re doing at Mentorship, with aspects I love (90 minute blocks, focus on robotics and 3D printing, setting high goals for their students, exposure to career paths, lots of project-based learning, and a commitment that starting next year, all kids will have digital portfolios). They measure success for their students (almost all of whom are Title I kids) by how many get at least two college acceptance letters. He spoke with pride about a former student, Rashaud Red, who gave this TED Speaks talk. Clifford’s role at his school is athletic director and Title I coordinator. What blew me away was only late in the conversation did I learn that Clifford was a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers from 1981-1984 (no obvious memorabilia in his office about this amazing life achievement), and has this incredible personal trajectory that led him to education.

My last meeting in Baton Rouge was with State Education Superintendent John White. White worked in New York City under Joel Klein for the Bloomberg administration from 2006-2011, and came to New Orleans after that to head a recovery school district. When the top spot in Louisiana opened up, he moved to Baton Rouge to lead all schools in the state. Points of resonance were his admiration for CTE administration, and his belief that the best teachers are often coaches. But he expressed skepticism about schools, or even the networks of schools, focused on equipping kids with 21st Century skills, and believes none have demonstrated the ability to scale. He cited High Tech High, Big Picture Learning, and the NewTech Network as examples. He was encouraged by what they did in the NYC iZones, though.

While in New Orleans, I was dying to learn more about Tulane’s Taylor Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and had a really spirited breakfast with a team from there including Carol Whelan. They noted that twenty years ago, Tulane had almost no connection to the greater New Orleans community. Now, the two are tightly intertwined, and Tulane is drawing students from around the globe who want to acquire the skills and experience to make their world better. There were many ways we identified to work together, and I’m looking forward to on-going collaboration with this important initiative.

My last stop in New Orleans was Matt Candler’s 4.0 Schools headquarters. This organization is taking a very big swing at transforming communities. Its centerpiece is an initiative to establish micro-schools — asset-light implementations of agile and forward-looking schools. They reference companies like Uber and AirBNB as being directionally aligned with what they’d like to help establish across the country. They also refer to Austin-based Acton Academies (see my post on Texas), and Acton’s drive toward low cost learning ($8K per student) with far superior outcomes. 4.0 has raised $15 million to date, launching 9 schools and 49 start-ups. Some 25% of these initiatives are in New Orleans, 20% in NYC, and the rest around the country. They are about to launch their tiny fellowships program to support budding entrepreneurs with modest amounts of capital and considerable support. They have been instrumental in catalyzing start-up weekend for educators in 18 locations. Their 4.0 community initiatives is now deployed with pilots in Austin, Birmingham, Charlottesville, Washington, DC. Matt related that his 10 year old daughter is in a micro-school enabling her to work with 3D printers and laser cutters, and her proficiency is such that she will be able to get her certification this month. This is a pattern I’m seeing across the country — kids at very young ages learning skills that enable them to command employment opportunities that could pay them substantially above minimum wage levels. In the ultimate irony, child labor laws are now an issue preventing young kids from getting high-paid internships that require, and help students, develop great essential skills. Matt worked for years for the KIPP school program, and has lots of experience with the “no excuses” movement. The experience he’s seeing of kids working on things they are excited about (e.g., 3D printing) has clearly influenced his views about education. He also noted that the no excuses movement missed the power of peer-to-peer engagement among students.  After meeting with the Taylor School people of Tulane, I learned that none other than Phyllis Taylor was supporting 4.0′s Taylor Center for the Future of School, which includes maker spaces, micro-schools, education entrepreneurship training, and tiny school incubators.

Next stop — Tallahassee, Florida.  I really do need to start tracking the number of state capitals I’ve been to since September.  All I know is that it’s a bunch.  When I got to Tallahassee, I had dinner with state Representative Jimmie Smith, a really fascinating person.  He’s almost at the end of his third term in the legislature, and will be term limited out come fall.  But he seems every bit as energetic as someone in their first week in office.  He had seen Most Likely To Succeed and is a big, big fan of the film.  In the restaurant, he seemed to know everyone, and was tenacious in reaching out to them and explaining why I was in town, and pushing them to come to a meeting he set up the following morning.  He is quick to explain his own background.  He dropped out of high school, serving almost two decades in the US Army, including service in Panama, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm.  Jimmie is one of those guys you want in the foxhole with you, whether it comes to the army or changing schools.   Oh, in one of those “Ted, how could you ever do this” moves, I managed to take a good-sized drink of beer and then cough, spitting some of it on him as he sat across the table from me.  He laughed and said, “Hey, I was in the Army for twenty years.  I’m used to things like that.”

On Wednesday, I started the day with a meeting with seven legislators, a senior representative of the chamber o commerce, and two representatives of the Florida teachers union.  Jimmie was hoping for a bigger turn-out, but I was pleasantly surprised he could get that many people there while the legislature is in session.  We ended up talking for almost an hour and a half, with no one leaving early.  Over and over, I find there is far more agreement than disagreement when groups like this come together.

I then met with two members of the Florida School Board Association, Ruth Melton and Andrea Messina.  The state of Florida has a total of just 67 School boards — one per county.  These boards are elected and non-partisan, and get budget from the state. Schools in Florida are funded with a mix of local (45%) and state (55%) funding, but the state money comes with strings attached.  Both Ruth and Andrea have considerable experience in education, and a real commitment to advancing the cause in Florida.

In one of those meetings, I just love, I called on R. Jai Gillliam, who leads the financial literacy initiative for the United Way of Big Bend.  They offer programs to schools and adults in need of advancing their understanding of financial issues, using programs from groups like EverFi and Reality Stores.   I ask R. Jai about some of the stories she encounters with the people she helps, which were fascinating.  Even more interesting, though, was her personal story.  She described her experience in college at FAMU.  Credit card companies are everywhere on campus.  She ended up getting several credit cards while she was in school, thinking she understood the issues around their terms.  She described one credit card where she set a limit of $500 on her balance, yet ended up with a $3000 on the card upon graduation.  When she fell behind on her payments, she ended up paying an interest rate of 27% on a balance of several thousand dollars.  It ended up taking her ten years to pay off all of this credit card debt, a lesson that shaped her career choice.  She related a story about Alex Sink, who ran last term for Governor of Florida.  Sink called for incorporating financial literacy into high school curriculum, and described  her daughter at Wake Forest who overdrew her bank account by hundreds of dollars and begin paying large large monthly interest payments on it.  Alex Sink is a banker by background and said, “If my own daughter can’t figure this stuff out, who can without more training in financial literacy.”  R. Jai also talked about how many young kids that her program works with take out credit cards in the names of their kids, using the child’s social security number.  By the time these kids are eighteen, they can have several thousand dollars of credit card debt, and may never be able to pay it off or restore their credit rating.

I must have had 500 meetings since September, none worse than my meeting with Kim  McDougall.   She is Governor Rick Scott’s advisor on education, and previously advised Jeb Bush on education policy.  I started to explain why I’m doing and why I was in town.  She cut me off, explaining how valuable her time is.  She then let me know, in no uncertain terms, that she is an expert and doesn’t need any outside perspective.  She explained that educating kids is no different from fixing a car.  You put money in and expect an ROI.  How do we measure ROI?  Standardized tests say it all.  The meeting went downhill from there, before she needed to move on (after twenty minutes) to more important issues that the future of millions of kids in Florida, and a perspective that says her policies are likely to jeopardize the prospects of these students.

My last meeting was with JoAnne McCall, Jeff Wright, and Cathy Boehme of the Florida Education Association (e.g., the Florida Teachers Union).  After my meeting with McDougall, I had a lot of empathy with what teachers in Florida are dealing wth.  They mentioned one of Jeb Bush’s favorite quotes about education, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t matter.”  Funny how just a word or two makes all the difference.  I am more inclined to agree with Brene Brown, who says, “When it comes to education, if you can measure it, it probably doesn’t matter.”  They described a program in Florida authorized by the legislature called the Best And Brightest Scholarship.  Teachers who have strong evaluations and have ACT or SAT scores in the top 20% receive a $10,000 bonus.  If their test scores are too low, they can retake the tests.   Wow!  This is as stupid as it comes.  For starters, once someone is teaching, why not focus on how well they teach, instead of test scores from high school.  And retake these tests to get a bonus?  You can’t make this kind of nonsense up.  My suggestion is that when some mindless bureaucrat concocts something like this, and a legislator votes for it, they should have to disclose their own SAT or ACT scores and make them a matter of public record.   My bet is that these initiatives would come to a screeching halt.  But the more important issue revolves around what skills and characteristics are important to being a good teacher.  For my money, I’ll go for someone who is empathetic, can motivate kids, can help kids figure things out, can ask great questions, and can serve as an inspiring role model.  Last time I checked, these have nothing to do with breadth of vocabulary or the ability to rapidly perform low-level math operations.

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