Our Kids Deserve an Education Secretary Who Fights For Children in All Public Schools

As an avid sports fan from Boston, I’ve learned about the difference between winning a battle and winning a war. So in the aftermath of the bruising confirmation process for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, I offer this perspective.

Last spring, I shared the experience of taking my son to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As Red Sox fans, we were taken with the elaborate exhibit about George Herman “Babe” Ruth, starting with his fateful sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees. My son was fascinated that young George went to a reform school in Baltimore.

“What’s a reform school, Dad?” he asked. “It’s a place where back in the day they sent ‘troubled kids,’” I found myself saying, “often kids with emotional issues from broken homes.”

This got me thinking about our choice of words in the education sector. I have a visceral reaction to the word “reform,” perhaps the most widely used term in public education. Maybe it’s just me, and my memories of the reform school on the hill near my childhood home. Try as I might, when I hear “education reform,” brutality and neglect come to mind regardless of what the speaker intends.

Another word that’s used and abused in public education is “innovation.” What do you think of when you hear “innovation”? I’ve always associated it with people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, so naturally when I was superintendent in Sacramento I wrote Bill Gates a letter requesting his support for an “innovative” idea.

As a fan of manual transmissions, I said, I know first gear is designed for one thing: to get the car moving. I likened charter schools to first gear. Part of their original purpose was to get the education system going, to shake up the status quo and offer families and students new options for where to go to school. In exchange for certain freedoms and flexibility — limited oversight from elected school boards; minimal collective bargaining obligations — they were to try new approaches and serve as sites of innovation, then share these ideas and practices with the entire public education system. What good is innovation if it’s relegated to a single classroom, school, or group of schools? If we can’t replicate, scale, and spread?

With few exceptions, instead of sharing out new and effective classroom practices and ways to engage families and communities, charter schools became islands of isolation. In fact, in many communities, (Los Angeles is a good example), charter schools have become the destination, with plans to create dozens, even hundreds more, as if this will magically cure what ails public education. Elsewhere, select charter organizations, like Envision Schools and Big Picture Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, are working closely with their public school counterparts: sharing practices like performance assessments and portfolio defenses that are working so well in their handful of schools. First gear, mutual collaboration, and innovation in action — but all too rarely!

The usual public education approach to scaling, I wrote to Gates, is to test a few ideas, a.k.a., “pilots” or “early adopters,” and think if we just copy them, and put some money behind them, we can create the scale and spread we long for. Instead of wondering why that model fails — and it usually does — or doubting the efficacy of the innovative program or practice itself, what if we engaged the business community to help us understand the complexities of scaling?

Successful businesses understand the complicated barriers to replication, scale and spread. They understand how to use design thinking and other principles to anticipate the challenges that will inevitably arise when they look to scale and grow. That’s what inspired my letter: I asked Gates to convene a group of his friends and colleagues to explore the replication of innovative educational approaches, while key education leaders sat in attendance to listen, learn, and ask questions. Finally, I thought, we could start to truly understand innovation, which, if it means anything, has to mean spreading new and effective approaches on a meaningful scale. Mr. Gates never responded.

Which brings us back to Secretary DeVos. After displaying a shocking lack of knowledge and even a disdain for “regular” public schools, what value can she possibly provide as Secretary?

Here’s a place she could start: Forging partnerships across sectors so children benefit from the best thinking available is needed more than ever. Fostering and nurturing these partnerships must be an essential part of a new North Star for public education — there simply isn’t enough collaboration going on. Can the Secretary convene a group of thoughtful business and education leaders, like I asked Gates, to explore how to best replicate and spread innovative education programs and practices? Could she bring business leaders to the table to expand career pathway programs and connecting young people to the best preparation for new economy jobs? Perhaps this is an opportunity to convert a bruising victory into doing something positive for all public schools.