Creating 21st Century Schools in an Obama Administration

I had the great fortune of being in Washington, D.C. on Monday. I was lucky enough to get a ticket into the Illinois Inaugural Gala, preceding inauguration day. Walking through Union Station and through the city on my way to the event, it was hard not to feel the sense of joy, hope and change in the air. Regardless of political perspectives or current challenges home and abroad, it is an exciting time for this country…a time when you not only recognize you are taking part of a historical moment, but participating in events that will forever change the future.

It is a time for change and hope for our education agenda as well and I spoke with many folks on the topic of education and our need to make sure our kids are prepared to compete in the global economy.

News reports indicate the House will likely vote on its proposed economic stimulus bill by the end of the month with significant funding likely allocated to support school modernization. This surely will lead to infrastructure improvements, safer schools, more energy efficient building, etc. This is a needed and potentially powerful opportunity to create learning environments that optimize learning. But perhaps the more transformational modernization focus will be how we leverage instruction, assessment, curriculum and language to truly build 21st century classrooms where children of all ages will be able to learn skills to succeed in a global marketplace. This goes far beyond the physical space of the classroom.  The real work on modernization will be spent building a continuous lifelong learning experience that adapts to personal learning needs and is relevant to 21st century skills and competencies.

No doubt, it is a tough road ahead. I’ve long been a believer that you just can’t throw money at a problem and expect it to solve itself. In particular with education, you can’t just throw technology and software into a classroom and expect to improve student performance. I like to think about technology as an enabler…as a tool…not just a physical device. In order to truly transform education, we need to create opportunities for our students to connect their learning in ways that are personalized, relevant and adaptive.

Modernization does not equal technology…and technology transformation does not equal the acquisition of computers.  With technology becoming ubiquitous…computers available in the home, in the library and in other public places…we also need to consider different acquisition approaches. We need to look at more than just purchasing hardware and software for schools. How can parents and the community become more involved? True transformation happens when we start by asking questions and reflecting on the learning environment we’re trying to create for our students.  Question everything, explore and expand current best practices and apply a process that will guide your work to create lasting and repeatable impact.

Rebuilding our schools will take a holistic approach that addresses three pillars: People, Process and Environment. We need to push for investment and innovation in the areas of people management, school design, community engagement, process management as well as instructional reform. Buildings must reflect the need for sustainability and energy conservation. Infrastructures must allow for continuous home, school connectivity and collaboration. Communities must take a central role to the development and maintenance of the school culture. Business practices must leverage technology to gain efficiencies that can then be transferred to classroom investments. And instruction must reflect the lifestyles and needs of students today.

Technology and school modernization are just a small part of the Obama administration’s overall education agenda and stimulus plans. In future blog posts, I’ll share more about how we see holistic school reform, workforce preparedness and continuous access as key priorities, our ideas in these areas, as well as solutions we are offering.

In the meantime, I’m thankful for the opportunity to help support our new administration, our schools and students. We need to take measured steps to drive sustainable change and we need to bring the full power of our thinking, resources, and partnerships to the discussion.

I’m curious to know — what do you think Barack Obama and Arne Duncan’s education priorities should be?

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