Why I quit my job, went to work for WizIQ, and put my kid in private school

Serious failings in our educational system can't be fixed with technology. But they absolutely must be fixed.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that not so long ago I was the tech director for my local school district. Then came a bit of freelancing and, finally, early this year I went to work for a virtual classroom and e-learning company called WizIQ. That journey, though, isn't something I've talked about much, nor have I said much about the ripple effects on other aspects of my life.

Then, tonight, a colleague shared a post from Seth Godin's blog titled "Back to (the wrong) school" and I couldn't help but write an anecdotal, personal response. This one line from Godin's post basically says it all:

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?

As he points out earlier in his post, compulsory education began in the early part of the last century as a response to child labor. Sure, it got kids out of factories which was all well and good, but, as he explains,

Part of the rationale to sell this major transformation to industrialists was that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn't a coincidence--it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they're told.

Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.

Cynical? Perhaps, but it's only been recently that we've started talking about "21st Century Skills." Not "Using Microsoft Word 101", but collaboration, creativity, critical thought, analysis, and meaningful synthesis of innumerable data streams. It's been a term that school administrators have bandied about for a couple of decades, but even today, only a minority of educators truly understand what it's supposed to mean or how to impart these skills in the context of a public school classroom.

When I jumped from teacher/tech guy to administrator, I was lucky enough to go through an executive education program called the National Institutes of School Leadership (NISL). Having come from private industry to teaching instead of through a teacher training program, I learned an incredible amount about modern pedagogy. The very sort of teaching methodologies, in fact, that were designed to counter those that Seth describes. More importantly, spending time in NISL, one couldn't help but absorb the absolute sense of urgency in creating meaningful change in our schools.

Technology can play a critical part in this, bringing tools to students and teachers that facilitate all sorts of new interactions and learning, as well as providing teachers with an array of data to individualize instruction and move away from so-called "cookie-cutter education". Technology, though, is only a part of the story and is no panacea for what ails our educational system. Reform has to come from teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers, and, even then, not in the form of NCLB or RTTP.

Instead, it has to come from a desire for our students to be genuinely creative and curious. The idea of teacher-as-a-guide must pervade our classrooms where technology can enable discovery and independent pursuit of knowledge. Two years ago, I wrote that what we really needed was a new space race. After all, the space race of the 1950s led countless students into the STEM fields in which we now struggle to find young people who are either interested or adequately prepared.

Which leads me back to my story. For two years as tech director (what was supposed to be a position of educational leadership and not one of advanced tech support and haphazard management of poorly funded tech projects), I beat my head against a wall, trying to even find the time (let alone the interest or understanding) to provide the tools for reform and student engagement. I saw the potential for technology, in the hands of well-trained and coached teachers, to help our students out of their drill-and-kill ruts and into a place where they would be asking more questions than "Are we just supposed to do the odd problems?" or "How many words does the essay need to be?"

I would have felt like I was doing my job if students were instead asking "How does that work? Can we take it apart and find out?" or "I don't think that's right - Can we go do some research?" If those smartboards weren't just shiny, new whiteboards without permanent dry erase stains that could capture lecture notes but were instead places where students could get their hands virtually dirty exploring interactive lessons and simulations. If those Classmate PCs weren't just glorified word processors, but were recording and capturing scientific data or student impressions of the world around them in pictures, words, and videos.

You can imagine based on the title of this blog how often I felt like I was doing my job. I sure was good at networking and pulling ethernet cable and the printers generally ran pretty well, but those transformative experiences with the technology I was buying were too few and far between. The lone kindergarten teacher who captured metamorphosis on a webcam and edited a simple video with her students to share with parents wasn't enough. I left in frustration. The leadership program designed to make me a better leader instead left me with all the right ideas, skills, and vision just spinning in my head when the system couldn't be changed, even in relatively small ways.

I joined WizIQ to head up marketing and business development in the US, not because the salary was better than what I was making as a freelancer (it was actually less) or as a tech director (it was quite a bit better) or because I got to be a "Vice President", whatever that means, but because it represented a different approach to education. The virtual classroom tool leveled the playing field by connecting anyone in the world with something to teach to any student who wanted to learn. It created opportunities for great teachers to share their expertise beyond 4 small walls and it provided new tools for teachers to grab and hold students' attention with those laptops that would otherwise have been Facebook portals or fancy typewriters.

In higher ed, where research has shown that students taking online courses are far more likely to use drugs and alcohol as they complete their coursework than their in-a-classroom counterparts, the tool had the potential to increase both student and instructor accountability and provide opportunities for learning that readings and discussion forums (hallmarks of traditional online courses) simply could not. WizIQ represented a chance for me as a reformer and educator to part of "something different." Because, clearly, what we have been doing isn't cutting the mustard outside of really notable exceptions.

So despite a global economic meltdown and my mother-in-law's horror at my choice to leave a stable job with the schools, I jumped.

But when I jumped, my kids stayed in the system I left. My oldest was headed for college and had spent so much time as a drama geek in middle and high school that creativity and collaboration happened naturally for him, no matter what the standardized tests said about him. My second oldest son has autism spectrum disorder. After too many years of advocating, we found an out-of-school program for kids with Asperger's that not only met his needs but helped him discover a calling for working with other students with disabilities. The public schools paid for it, so he was doing OK in the system, too (or at least was working around it with an outstanding private program). My third son was in a vocational school whose hands-on approach was also very well-suited to his needs, so no worries there.

But kid #4 was in a school where, despite dedicated teachers, he was really beginning to not fit. Bright and motivated and geeky, preferring his musical theater class to recess football games, the soon-to-be 4th grader needed something that he just wasn't going to get in the public school system I had left. So this week he started at a local private school with tiny classes, combined grades for differentiated instruction, a focus in individuality, and a total dedication to experiential learning. There are actually more snowshoes in the school than computers (I think by about a 20:1 ratio), formative and outcomes-based assessments instead of standardized tests, and year-long deep dives into project-based learning activities across curricula. Like I said, it was time for something different.

I know this story was long and meandering. Then again, education should be long and meandering. Seth Godin was certainly more concise than I was, but the point remains the same. What can you do to fix what's broken and turn a sense of urgency into real action?

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