week 20 of my fifty-state tour: CO, NM, and MD

Posted on March 15th, 2016 in Fifty-State Tour

Well, I’m officially down the home stretch after week 20, with just West Virginia, Tennessee, Alaska, and Hawaii left to go. By the end of next week, I’ll have been to all states in the lower 48, many two to three times. And instead of finding myself, and this trip, running out of steam, the exact opposite is happening. This week was remarkable in many ways, including a visit to Martin O’Malley (two-time Governor of Maryland and Presidential candidate) to Freeman Hrabowski’s remarkable University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy.

I started the week in Denver, where I had a full day that included an evening screening at the Holiday Event Center to a crowd of 300. The day in Denver started with a meeting with Tony Lewis and Amy Anderson of the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Again and again, I find the uber-large foundations to be lost in the weeds when it comes to doing things that make sense, but the small state-focused groups are often doing really interesting things. Donnell-Kay is supporting a bold initiative called ReSchool Colorado and Opportunity Youth. Both represent the kind of bold re-imaginations of how people are educated that reflect the urgency and obsolescence of our current model.

I then spent a couple of hours with a group of educators at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, led by its energetic founder and head, Danny Medved. The meeting also included very impressive representatives of Denver’s Imaginarium and A+ Schools. We met some of the students and teachers at the school, got a good sense of their very ambitious mission, and I got a feel for how various groups were committed to moving education in Denver forward.

Denver is home of the headquarters for the National Conference for State Legislators, and I met with Sunny Deye (love that name!) and Suzanne Hultin. They gave me an overview of the resources they provide to all fifty states, and described activities around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Their annual meeting draws some 6,000 state legislators, and includes tracks covering issues from agriculture to transportation.

In a bit of far-sighted planning, I was able to fly direct from Denver to New Mexico’s state capital, Santa Fe. My first meeting was with Hanna Skandera, NM’s Secretary of Education. There is a lot of controversy in New Mexico over the Department of Education’s testing and accountability focus, so I thought my meeting with Skandera might be quite short. We ended up talking for a full hour, and were in agreement on many points. Somehow, though, something is getting lost in the translation in New Mexico, as the feedback I got from teachers at the evening screening of Most Likely To Succeed demonstrated, in spades. This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over in the states I visit. Senior officials indicate that the last thing they want is to turn our schools into mind-numbing test-prep factories, with bored students and micro-managed teachers. But somehow, as policies get pushed through the system, that’s exactly what is happening.

I dropped by Santa Fe High School and had a chance to catch up with a few students. Students will often be quite open and revealing about their school experiences. I wouldn’t want to offer any conclusions about a school based on the opinions of a few students, but I didn’t get any sense of kids finding passions and being supported to run with initiatives. I did run into one young woman, a Junior, who seemed to be doing well at the school, and will have enough credits to finish quite early (only two semester courses during her “senior” year). Her favorite course? Welding! This is hardly the exception. Give kids a chance to make something, apply something, do something, and school becomes so much more interesting.

We had a small but very engaged audience at an evening screening at Santa Fe’s lovely Center for Contemporary Arts. I’ve done over 100 Q&A’s after the film, but this one had an unusual amount of emotion. The audience loved the film, but expressed real concerns during the Q&A about policies in place, and the ability of teachers to engage and inspire students. One teacher delivered one of the most compelling statements I’ve heard to date about the way all traces of joy have been drained from our classrooms. Another put a question directly to another panelist — the Superintendent of Santa Fe’s schools — about how she can’t get her third graders to spring with things their excited about for fear of being reprimanded for not covering all of the standards. I wasn’t thrilled with his response (“You’ll have to work with your principal.”) and I weighed in. My point is that if the people in the positions of greatest responsibility in our school systems don’t send a constant message supporting innovation in our classrooms, none will happen. And I encouraged the teacher to just go for it, since the odds are quite high that students that are highly engaged will do just fine on state-mandated tests.

The next day, two meetings stood out. I met with a great group called Think New Mexico, an advocacy group that takes on one issue a year affecting the New Mexico population, and goes all out to make a difference. Its bipartisan board is stellar, and its leadership team, including founder Fred Nathan, convinced me that this group, with their expertise and focus, really makes a contribution to their state. I encouraged Fred to spread this model elsewhere! I then headed to Albuquerque (home of an airport with the most tortuous rental car return logistics in the U.S.) and met with Tony Monfiletto, founder of several schools in Albuquerque, including ACE (architecture, construction, and engineering) Leadership High School, Health Leadership High School, and Amy Biehl High School. Tony’s organization is the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, and he’s super serious about change in New Mexico education. He described to me some amazing things they’re doing, including having local organizations (generally businesses) bring problems to students in schools and ask for help in taking on these challenges. For example, Albuquerque has a professional soccer team that aspires to be a Major League Soccer franchise. The team is having students work on social media strategies to expand support and the fan base. Wow!

I then headed east for a couple of days in Maryland — two amazing days. I’ve been a big fan for sometime of Martin O’Malley, former Mayor of Baltimore, two-time Governor of Maryland, and determined but unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. He was kind enough to meet me at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where we met with four of their Meyerhoff Scholars. These kids were so impressive. They’re juniors and seniors at UMBC in serious STEM fields (neuroscience, chemical engineering, computer science), all planning on getting their PhD’s.

What Freeman Hrabowski has done at UMBC is something that needs to be on the radar screen of every institution of higher education. I’ll save a more detailed description for the book I’m starting to write, but he shows, better than any other educator in the world, how far more engaging, hands-on learning can a) lead kids to really learn the subject matter, and b) level the playing field. The accomplishments at UMBC, especially when it comes to graduating lower-income students and students of color. And these graduates meet demanding standards. He’s been head of UMBC since 1992, and I can only imagine how many other universities have tried to recruit him in the past 24 years. He’s dynamic, charismatic, and visionary, and deeply understands learning. And unlike many university presidents, he makes things happen in the classroom. He’s also a mathematician by background, and he and I could talk hours about the misplaced priorities in our grade 7-12 math.

To get a sense of how different UMBC is, I shot this fifteen-second video of a first-year chemistry class there. For those of you who took chemistry in college (my guess is 10% or so), this class probably doesn’t look at all like what you took. I observed students in vigorous discussion with each other, debating aspects of the way our atomic and molecular world works. It reminded me of Eric Mazur’s class at Harvard. And I can guarantee you that these kids are learning volumes more than kids at other colleges sitting in lecture halls and taking notes. And that’s what you find at UMBC. Lots of hands-on learning, excited minds, and real learning. Some 40% of UMBC graduates are in STEM fields, and the “stick to it” rate is shockingly high. At most colleges, about one in four who start out with the goal of being an engineering major survive to graduate. Think of the opportunity cost of large, boring, memorization-based classes that serve one purpose only — weed students out. But we do this to ourselves on purpose. Freeman relates that the biggest fallout in STEM comes from high-achieving students at elite universities, where a student runs into real challenge in their first or second year, gets a bad grade, and flees the STEM field for a safer major.

My Maryland visit continued the next morning with a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy, organized and hosted by Vice Admiral Ted Carter, the Superintendent of the Naval Academy, and CDR Kevin Mullaney, Chair of the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law. Since I’m near the end of my tour, and shifting gears toward writing a book, I’ll save a more detailed and compelling description of what they’re doing for the book, but suffice it to say that the Naval Academy reflects some of the most innovative educational practices I’ve observed in this fifty-state tour. Ranging anywhere from changes in their admissions process (putting a lot less weight on test scores and GPA, and a lot more on applicants who have shown remarkable character), to lots of project-based learning in the classrooms, to integrating each midshipman’s extracurricular activities (some 42% of their women compete on a D1 athletic team, and the USNA has a total of some 33 D-1 teams, third in the nation behind XX and Stanford) into a leadership course helping each student develop their own leadership style and expertise. More later on this great visit, but our K-12 schools have a lot to learn from the United States Naval Academy.

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