Connecting All Kids: #FutureReady

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I am so excited as I arrive at the airport Tuesday to travel to Washington D.C. to join a group of thought leaders at the United States Department of Education’s ConnectED Summit. This day is doubly special because it is also my daughter Audrey’s 16th birthday, and she is traveling with me to Washington.

I met Lisa Snyder, a superintendent from Minnesota, right away Wednesday morning while we were hailing a cab for our drive to the White House. While standing in line with other superintendents from across the nation, the anticipation and enthusiasm is evident and I feel like an eighth-grader on a school field trip. You can sense the excitement.

As a social studies teacher and life-long educator, experiencing the history of the White House is a highlight of my career. Many of the historical events I taught took place here! It is truly incredible to know that Abraham Lincoln walked the halls and grounds of this building. The security is phenomenal; it’s the safest I have ever felt in my life.

Watching the President stride into the room, shaking hands with all of the superintendents sitting on the aisle, is a moving experience. As he starts his speech, it is clear that he is committed to connecting ALL students and educators to technology. In fact, he set a goal that 99 percent of the country’s students will be connected to the Internet within five years. This goal, coupled with increasing digital learning opportunities, will help close achievement gaps between affluent and less affluent learners in our country. It will also close access gaps and develop equity among all students.

The President spoke about how learning is changing and that today’s classroom is not the classroom we remember. Learning today must be relevant, engaging, and infused with both critical thinking opportunities and real-world learning experiences. If not, we risk students dropping out or, even if they stay in school, merely going through the motions.

The President sees investment in education as an economic driver if the United States is to remain a global leader in research and innovation. This investment in our children is seen as a path to the middle class where everyone can participate in the American dream. However, for that to occur, our schools must prepare students for future jobs that will require critical thinking, the ability to learn and the capacity to build positive relationships while solving complex problems.

Finally, the President celebrated educators and thanked us for our dedication and commitment to our students. He asked that we continue to work hard as learning transforms in the digital age. Secretary Duncan also commended teachers and principals for their work. He said, and this is paraphrased, “Technology will not make teaching obsolete, but teaching will evolve as a profession into blended learning where great teachers using technology will take kids farther than they ever thought they could go.” Secretary Duncan also said that the Department of Education will help by releasing a professional learning tool kit, expanding funding for e-rate to assist with infrastructure needs, and developing accountability systems to measure outcomes. Please go to www.tech.ed.gov and www.futurereadyschools.org to learn how you can join this effort to make ALL students future ready. Also, please watch this video of President Obama talking about all kids being future ready in the country.

The good news is that District 66 is well positioned to lead this initiative. Our current strategic plan aligns with the ideas discussed in Washington. We provide access to digital learning across our District on a daily basis, but we also must collaborate with other civic leaders to provide connectivity outside of the school day so all our students can continue to learn in a 24/7 environment. It is my opinion that equity will improve and students will benefit greatly from this effort to connect learners to digital content through the Internet as they develop, with our help, their own pathway to success.

Our innovative and creative staff and supportive community are leading the way toward a transformation of learning in our District. After this meeting, I know that District 66 is a leader in our state, region, and nation in this effort to blend learning using technology as a tool to close achievement gaps and engage all students. Educators truly do work in the future. They encourage each student’s strengths and passions, which leads to success and a lifetime of learning and of contributing to their communities and nation. It is an exciting time to work in public education, and I have never been prouder to be an educator than I am today.

It is hard to leave the ConnectED Summit because of the “powerful learning” taking place between and among the many participants. As I leave the White House, and its history and power, I look back at the building and am verklempt. I want to stay here, but I cannot wait to get back to Westside where we will continue our great work and where we have the power to change the world… one student at a time. The following video illustrates that commitment.

Now I’m off to celebrate Audrey’s birthday… again!!

Blane

In Support of Public Education

I’m usually not a very political person because as a social studies teacher, I wanted students to form their own opinions and not parrot mine.  As an educator for the past 31 years, I focused my efforts on what I felt was good for children and our schools. As I watch the Nebraska Legislature debate legislation that would allow charter schools, I felt it was important to speak on this topic.

I’m reminded of Diane Ravitch’s remarks at a recent conference. Dr. Ravitch is an education historian who has worked in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. Dr. Ravitch previously advocated for the privatization of public education through various choice programs, including charter schools; she now admits she was wrong.  The very ideas Dr. Ravitch once promoted in her role as assistant secretary of education, she denounces today as so flawed that they could ultimately lead to the demise of public education as we know it.

Her ideas resonate with me because it is my belief that our country’s successful democratic culture is built on the very concept of educating every student and developing an informed citizenry. These ideas are now in danger, due to the wishes of some to privatize public education.

I admit that public education created some of its own challenges by not providing focused professional development and by not implementing strong national standards to help all students succeed. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation, however well-intentioned, set up schools for failure, especially those with the most disadvantaged students. We should not create an educational culture of rewards/punishments based on a test. Instead, we must create an educational culture based on rigorous liberal arts programs that develop the critical thinking skills of all, not some students. Only then can we provide a strong academic foundation for our future innovators and entrepreneurs. Our conversations must focus on the whole child, including academics, but also on developing ethical students with strong character traits.

In my 31 years as a teacher, the education field has experienced continual reform.  I was in graduate school when A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983.  At that point, our profession began a generation of reform to fix our public education system, which has led us to our current situation. As Dr. Ravitch observed, A Nation at Risk made sound recommendations that were appropriate at the time.  Those recommendations were focused on the teaching and learning of students and staff.  The report did not promote privatization or heavy-handed accountability structures that exist today.

In my opinion, A Nation at Risk did not go far enough to redesign our educational system. However, it offered solid recommendations that focused on stronger academic and behavioral expectations, increased graduation requirements, more time for students to master the curriculum, and better training for teachers. Given some of the same freedoms afforded charter or choice schools, I believe that our public schools can design institutions that work for all students.  We have great employees and supportive communities throughout our nation ready to design schools that develop persistent, independent learners.  Why not encourage and allow our public schools to innovate and try new practices without fear of penalty?

With that said, I am not aware of any specific reform effort that will solve our challenges easily.  I only know that through collaboration, communication, creative problem solving, and really hard work, we can begin to implement our vision for children who attend our schools. We need to think deeply about the future of schooling in America if we are to meet the needs of every learner.

As your Superintendent, I recognize that our success is directly due to the unwavering support of our Board of Education, our community, and the many outstanding employees, including support staff, who serve our students every day. Thank you for your continued commitment to the Westside Community Schools.