FEE Conference Riles, Enlightens, Engages

Published November 1, 2011

When someone as controversial as Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp. and Fox News, says, “We need to tear down an education system designed for the 19th century and replace it with one suited for the 21st,” at a conference of policymakers and legislators, it indicates the education reform movement has shifted from “reforming” to “transforming” education.

Murdoch made this statement during his morning address to education reform luminaries at the Excellence in Action Summit on Education Reform, put on by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) in Sacramento, California this October.

Content-Packed Summit
Hundreds of state general assembly members and policy heavyweights attended the sold-out conference. Speakers included online education innovator Salman Khan, philanthropist Melinda Gates, commissioners of education from various states, and the past and present mayors of Washington, DC and Los Angeles.

Many of these individuals attend the other “education reform summits” put on by various think tanks, but this was one of the more content-packed summits in recent history.

Some of the palpable excitement is a function of the accelerating change taking place in education reform. Another reason might be the star power former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, FEE’s founder, brings to the discussion. Bush is credited with driving Florida to the top of the list of states enacting aggressive education reform. After leaving office, he created the FEE to transform U.S. education and increase the pace of change. A look at the quality of presenters and the expansion of ideas and strategies at the recent conference indicates  Bush’s campaign is moving forward quickly.

Khan Academy Presentation
Salman Khan, founder of www.khanacademy.org, gave the entire conference a lunchtime presentation that covered the founding of his online library of educational videos. Though low-key and self-effacing, Khan wowed the crowd by explaining how he is working with a nearby school district in Los Altos, California.

His demonstration of how technology is transforming the delivery of content gave the audience a glimpse of what a 21st-century education system might look like. The Khan Academy provides free, easily accessible content and tests, and through its classroom dashboard teachers can see exactly where each student is on each subject. Students move through adaptive math software at their own pace while the software customizes the education experience by discovering and targeting student needs.

States in Financial Crisis

One has to appreciate the audacity of starkly naming a breakout session “Don’t Let a Financial Crisis Go To Waste.” The session included as panelists Florida state Sen. Dan Gaetz; Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department; and John Guthrie, director of education policy at the George W. Bush Institute.

They proceeded to lay out just how strapped most states are for money and how transforming education is one of the few avenues out of states’ financial messes.

The key message was that transforming education need not be a budget buster, as have past layers of bureaucracy and “reforms.” Wisely allocating resources, such as expanding Florida’s virtual schools or matching curriculum to job requirements, allows states to spend less while providing better education.

Axing School Districts
Whether states should end the system built on school districts was the unspoken question behind the breakout session titled “How can Locally Controlled Education Fuel a Global Economy?” The panelists included Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association; Gene Maeroff, a school board member and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy; and Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools and CEO of News Corp.’s education division.

Moderator Chester E. Finn Jr., one of the deans of the education reform movement, moved the panel toward debating whether school boards were really necessary to educate children. Finn is part of a taskforce cosponsored by the Fordham Foundation, where he is president, dedicated to advancing this topic in the months and years ahead.

Bryant defended boards and districts as “an important and necessary element of local control.” Maeroff, whose book chronicles the failures of school boards, defended their existence, wistfully hoping for ways to “improve their processes.” This left it to Klein to explain that boards are rarely elements of local control and are instead captive to the bureaucratic interests that run the current education system. Boards are “not essential” to operating public schools, Klein argued.

Excitement in the Air
The Excellence in Action Summit on Education Reform followed a form similar to most other education summits and conferences, with many of the same people sitting on the same panels discussing similar issues. However, there was excitement in the air, driven by the composition and quality of the participants.

First, the conference seemed to have more state legislators and education department employees than ever. This included more Democrats, whose members have been traditionally opposed to transforming education because of their alliance with teachers unions.

Second, and more importantly, nearly all the presenters and keynote speakers were noticeably more forceful in their presentations. They had a message for legislators, delivered both implicitly and explicitly.

The explicit message was, “The current, 19th-century education system is too expensive and is failing too many children. Better alternatives are available, and we have the data to prove it.” The implicit message was, “As a legislator, it your duty to start transforming education.”