Invite us to the party

What are the best new ideas in education? Who has the solutions that will motivate and inspire today’s students?

This week, several of my Penn classmates attended the ASU GSV education technology summit in San Diego. According to the summit’s promotional materials, the program included  “the top minds in talent and education from around the world.”

A year ago, I didn’t know this conference even existed. Now I feel envious.

What a great opportunity — my friends got to hear presentations by people like Sal Khan (Khan Academy), Carol Dweck (Mindset), Bill Gates and Condoleeza Rice. I’m sure they were inspired and motivated — many of them are aspiring leaders interested in starting charter schools or other education ventures.

I could have attended too… maybe. My Penn graduate program sponsored several students, and they would have helped me afford a subsidized ticket, much less than the $2000+ price of admission.

But I would have had to take a personal day during ACT administration, which is usually a non-starter. (Last year I couldn’t miss ACT day even to take my students to a sanctioned state-level competition.) And I would have had to miss two student competitions and several critical days leading up to AP tests. Again, not a great idea.

The more I thought about it, the more I had to wonder: Why do they hold a conference of the “top minds” in education at a time when few teachers can attend, at a price that few teachers can afford? We’re not the target market, obviously, but are we even invited?

According to this 2015 pie chart of attendees, teachers weren’t even a slice, even though there are 3 million of us.

I guess the assumption is that teachers are not the top minds in education, and we don’t have the game-changing ideas. But I’m wrestling with this conclusion. Is education reform (or progress) necessarily something that is done to teachers, rather than something that grows from teachers?

And can that model work? I have doubts.

Here’s an example: This year, my school has encouraged teachers to videotape themselves teaching and review the videos with colleagues as a form of evaluation. A number of my colleagues think it’s pointless. “Why are we doing this?” one asked earlier this week. “This isn’t useful.”

As a grad student, I’ve had the benefit of reading the research on this type of evaluation, and I know it’s solid. We are likely to improve more from this strategy, called “micro-teaching,” than other forms of evaluation.

But my colleagues don’t buy it. They dismiss it as just another “brilliant” idea handed down from on high, by people who don’t really understand what we do. For them, it’s just another silly gimmick — and thus, it probably doesn’t work.

Much of the research on organizational change has found that effective leaders listen to and gather ideas from front-line workers. Similarly, the “lean startup” model sweeping the business world encourages entrepreneurs to talk to potential customers and find out what they want/need before launching a venture.

But again and again, this seems not to happen in education. We are the front-line workers; we are also (along with students and parents) the potential customers of education reform. We are the ones who will have to implement the big ideas, and despite our reputation as barely competent line workers, many of us think deeply about how education can and should be improved.

Many teachers would like a chance to brainstorm solutions to low student achievement, drive innovative thinking, and collaborate with leaders. In addition, teachers are more likely to buy into and implement teacher-driven ideas.

But first, we have to be invited to the party — and we have to be given the time to attend.