5 Ways to Change the Status Quo: Interview with Phillip Kovacs

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been interviewing a lot of folks who are well known in education, Debbie Meier, Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, Pat Callan and others. Many readers have posted comments, which I read with interest. Sometimes I wonder about the writers, and sometimes I reach out.

This post came from my interest in one reader’s comments to my recent post on innovation in schools.  His name is Philip Kovacs, and he’s a former high school English teacher who now teaches would-be teachers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I also know that he has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, a 6 month-old son, and some strong convictions about public education. (The latter is the focus of the interview, although the proud new Dad manages to work his son into the conversation a couple of times).

The Interview

So tell me what you believe, and why.

In my dissertation I argue for keeping public schools public, but after four years working with local public schools, I’m open to alternatives. I am now working on starting a project-based lab school.

How did you find Learning Matters?

The More things ChangeIt was research into the Gates Foundation that brought me to your website in the first place. The Foundation funds an unbelievable number of projects, some of which argue against one another, though the larger of the funded organizations agree on key points, none of which, in my humble opinion, are very innovative. I do not, for the record, think Bill Gates is controlling your content!

I am now editing a book about the Gates Foundation’s involvement in educational reform. I am 100% sure that the edited volume is going to anger the educational “right” and “left.”

You sound as if you want to anger both ends of the spectrum.

I guess I do, now that you mention it. Three years ago I helped about 30 scholars, teachers, and other concerned individuals create and post a petition calling for an end to No Child Left Behind. Continue reading

What’s Innovation? Clear Goals, Training & Accountability Are a Good Start

I’ve just returned from Doha, Qatar for the first-ever WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. For three days we talked about innovation. Is technology an essential component of innovation? I found myself wondering what produces innovation in education—in teaching actually. And it occurs to me that, unless one happens to be sadistic or off the charts antisocial, all of us are, on certain occasions, innovative teachers. At those moments, we are wonderful role models of what our education system ought to be striving to emulate. And our motivation is a combination of self-interest and basic human decency.

Driving DirectionsYou’re not a teacher, you say? OK, neither am I by profession, but sometimes we are put in that role. Imagine you’re walking in your neighborhood when a stranger stops her car, rolls down the window, and asks for directions to a local restaurant. You know the place she’s asking about, so you immediately begin figuring out how to explain it to her.

You are, for the moment, her teacher, she your pupil. Continue reading

Better Late than Never: WISE Awards Report Back

**We ran into some snafus with live posting, so some of my report backs didn’t make it up.  I think you’ll enjoy them anyway, so here’s one from the WISE Awards ceremony held on the second day of the conference.**

Here in Doha at WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education, six groups were recognized for innovation, sustainability or pluralism. I managed to snag interviews with five winners.  Martin Burt’s project in Paraguay, ‘the Self Sufficient School,’ seeks to enable the poor to make a living while living on the land. As he told me, “Experts talk about ‘eliminating poverty,’ but that’s too abstract. I’m talking about putting money in the hands of the poor, money they have earned.”

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I had a lively conversation with Joyce Dongotey-Padi of Ghana, whose project, known as WANE (Widows Alliance Network), aims to emancipate Ghanaian widows from the social, cultural and economic deprivation brought about by the prejudices they face because of their status. Ms. Dongotey-Padi is not a widow herself but was moved to act when a neighbor and friend became widowed and found herself virtually helpless and penniless.

I also talked with the Executive Director of Curriki, Dr. Barbara (Bobbi) Kurshan, and soon will put up an interview with her colleague Peter Levy.  Curriki’s name comes from ‘Curriculum’ and Wikipedia’ and is meant to suggest free, user generated curriculum for teachers.  Pretty neat stuff that is deservedly catching on and now has about 100,000 participants, almost all of them teachers.

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The project to educate girls and women in India, Nanhi Kali, caught my attention.  It began in 1996 but didn’t really take off until recently.  It now reaches 52,000 girls across 8 states in India, up from just 1700 girls in 2002.  Its stated goal is to reach 100,000 girls by the end of this year, but its real goal is to change the social attitudes that devalue girls and women.  Ms. Sheetal Mehta was at WISE representing the project, and her energy and optimism jump off the screen.

Unfortunately I did not get to talk with representatives of the two other projects but both are worth your attention.  Escuela Nueva in rural Colombia uses collaborative learning to transform the traditional classroom and promote entrepreneurial skills. It was initiated in 1975 in rural Colombia in response to endemic educational problems like high dropout rates, weak school-community relationships, ineffective teacher training and the lack of children’s learning materials.

The second one I missed is a successful distance learning project in the Amazon forest, where many small towns and villages are accessible only by boat.  It was launched in 2007 by the Secretariat of Education and Learning Quality of Amazonas State and today transmits live classes via a two-way videoconference link to 25,000 students in 300 secondary schools and 700 classrooms, throughout the 62 county districts. A teacher is also located in each classroom to support local activities.

The awards were formally presented at the gala Tuesday night by Her Royal Highness Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned.  Each project received $20,000.   The first WISE Awards attracted 500 entries, and I was told that the judges could have honored many more projects than they did, so expect an even bigger splash next year.

In Qatar: Interview with WISE Chairman, Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani

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Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani is the Chairman of WISE and Vice President for Education of the Qatar Foundation.  Dr. Abdulla knows the United States well, having gone to graduate school at Colorado State University. I spent a few minutes with this soft-spoken, focused and optimistic leader on the first day of WISE.  He was very clear about his high hopes for the event.

Not on the tape but revealing: When Dr. Abdulla learned that I live in California, his face lit up.  He told me with great excitement about the time he and a cousin rented motorcycles, took a 1-hour driving lesson, and then drove down our Route One from Big Sur down to Santa Barbara.  He told his parents, he confessed, only after the trip had concluded successfully.

Better Late Than Never: Report Back from Day 1 in Qatar

**We ran into some snafus with live posting, so some of my report backs didn’t make it up.  I think you’ll enjoy them anyway, so here’s one from the first day of the conference.**

About 1000 delegates from more than 120 countries are represented here in Doha, Qatar, at WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. Plans are to make this an annual event, and it’s backed by the Qatar Foundation and the prestige of Her Royal Highness, Sheika Mozah, the wife of the Emir. She opened the 3-day meeting with a rousing call for innovation in education.

WISEShe reminded us that more than 75 million school-age children are not in school and that nearly 800 million adults cannot read or write. And she sounded a theme that is of profound importance: the education gender gap is wide and growing, because discrimination against women and girls is deeply entrenched.

The need for innovation is clear, because business as usual means accepting severe teacher shortages, funding deficits and low completion rates. Can this conference energize at least some of the participants to work for significant change?

For this stranger,a lesson on arrival had to do with pronunciation of Qatar. I’ve always said ‘ka-TAR’ but they say ‘cotter’, as in cotter pin. The second lesson: This is a new country intent on leaping into the 21st century: Construction cranes everywhere, and what they have already put up is impressive. Google ‘Education City, Qatar’ and see for yourself.

About 50 journalists are here, and the organizers have ‘quarantined’ us at a hotel miles and miles from the meeting hotel, the Ritz. We are downtown, where life happens, and we have a 30-40 minute bus ride morning and night that gives us a chance to see some of Doha. Those ensconced at the Ritz are out on a peninsula, miles from anything else. They do get the famous Ritz chocolate chip cookies, however.

After Sheika Mozah’s speech, we were talked at, about the importance of innovation in education. Why is it that the pedagogy never changes? Does someone believe that’s the best way to communicate?

Off to Qatar for WISE

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I’m headed to the first World Innovation Summit on Education in Doha, Qatar. Hundreds of education innovators, policy makers and experts will be gathering there and I plan on recording video, audio interviews and filling you in on what’s happening there as it unfolds. This week, expect a post a day from me until Thursday, when I return.

To learn more about the WISE conference, visit their website: http://www.wise-qatar.org.

Leonore Annenberg: A Tribute

More than 1,400 people gathered last week at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia last Thursday to pay tribute to Leonore Annenberg, who died in March at the age of 91.  Her passing brought together dozens of luminaries including Supreme Court justices, governers, mayors, and reporters. Leonore AnnenbergA central theme of the tribute: Lee Annenberg cared deeply about democracy and treated all she encountered with dignity.

“Lee was forever young and ageless,” Andrea Mitchell, NBC news correspondent, told the audience. “Her legacy will certainly live on in the educational institutions she benefited.”

Learning Matters is part of the Annenberg legacy, but our connection came about in an odd—but certainly not unique—way. I never met Walter Annenberg, Mrs. Annenberg only once in passing, but they supported our work for nearly a decade.

And if my answering machine had malfunctioned, it might never have happened. Continue reading

Public Schools Need a Wake Up Call!

“Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer.”

President Obama’s speech to students, September 9, 2009

Those lines imply support for a progressive, child-centered view of schooling: educate through the strengths a child possesses.

President Obama gives education speechBut the President went on, “And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”

And when and if a child discovers those interests and abilities, what happens? Are classrooms set up to work with individual kids and nurture their talents, or do other pressures force teachers into cookie-cutter behavior?

Kids want to believe. Visit any elementary school on a morning of the first few weeks of school, and you will see joyful youngsters cavorting, laughing and shouting with glee. Their giddy anticipation is palpable and infectious, because they are actually happy to be back in school. “This year will be different,” their behavior screams. “This year I will be a great student, I will learn everything, and teachers will help me whenever I need help.”

However, this celebration, a child’s version of the triumph of hope over experience, is generally short-lived, and for most children school soon becomes humdrum, or worse.

What goes wrong, and what can be done about it? Continue reading

” I don’t see any headlong rush to abandon NCLB…quite the contrary”: An Interview with Margaret Spellings

Margaret Spellings served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education during his second term and was his White House advisor on education before that.  A Texan since third grade, Margaret SpellingsMs. Spellings was never a teacher or school administrator but worked for the Texas School Boards Association and on a school reform commission for a previous Texas governor.  Ms. Spellings is generally acknowledged to be a principal architect of No Child Left Behind, which she continues to defend with vigor.  Always a feisty interview when she was in office, she clearly has not lost a step, as you will see.

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The Interview

Let’s start by talking about tomorrow.  There was a lot of talk about your running for Governor of Texas. I know that’s not happening now, but are you interested in replacing Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the U.S. Senate?  Or in the governorship down the road?

I have no plans to re-enter the public arena any time soon in either an elected or appointed capacity. I am currently loving life after public service.

And now the past, specifically No Child Left Behind.  What are your feelings about what strikes me as a headlong rush to abandon No Child Left Behind?  Some hard-core Republicans don’t even use the name any more, unless they’re talking about drastic repair work.   And many Democrats have gone back to calling it ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the original name from 1965.

Huh? John, I am not seeing any headlong rush to abandon NCLB…quite the contrary. While you are right in that the name (NCLB) is often attacked, I am thrilled that the major policies are very much in place and supported by the current administration, which supports standards, data, pay for performance and charters.  I believe we did something very significant with NCLB in creating a unique coalition of supporters, largely from the civil rights and business communities, who continue to stay strong in the face of vested stakeholder groups and those who argue against a federal role. Besides, No Child Left Behind actually describes the policy embodied in this law, and if they walk away from those policies and decide to leave kids behind they should change the name.

You famously compared NCLB to Ivory Soap–99.44% pure, meaning that it needed only some tinkering.  Do you still feel that way?

I sure do. The core principles of the law – annual assessment, real accountability with consequences and deadlines, a focus on teacher quality, and confronting failing schools—are still the right issues, and I am pleased those in states all over this country and the new administration agree.  Having said that, no legislative body has ever passed a perfect law.  Continue reading