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At Summit, A Rallying Cry (Or Echo Chamber?) for New Kind of Reform

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San Francisco
Today I'm at the NewSchools Venture Fund-Aspen Institute Summit on Education Innovation. The annual gathering of entrepreneurs, technology providers, academics, educators, and investors is hosted by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a non-profit venture philanthropy firm that funds education. The invitation-only event features a speech from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a discussion with Michael Bennet, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Colorado, and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

The summit began on a somber note, with NewSchools Chief Executive Office Ted Mitchell noting the killing of two New Orleans eighth-graders enrolled in a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) school and highlighting the academic and economic gaps facing disadvantaged children.

But it turned into a rallying cry for the kind of change that is the theme of the conference—school autonomy, entrepreneurship, technology, data-influenced instruction. Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee schools superintendent, characterized advocacy for these ideas as a "street fight" against teacher's unions, school districts, and traditionalists.

Fuller suggested the audience of 900 treats their advocacy like "a college debate," with too much rhetoric and compromise. He said opponents to this movement (which wasn't totally defined, perhaps a necessary step before going and fighting in the streets for it), like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, want to "destroy" it, and he and his likeminded educators should approach the debate the same way.

"If we are going to win for these kids, then we have to get real," said Fuller, who is also the co-founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. "We have to be prepared to fight."

It led moderator Jonathan Schorr, a partner at NewSchools, to ask if the debate over school reform is more about rhetoric than action. (That's always the concern with conferences like these, too.)

"I'm worried that we are in an echo chamber, that we are talking to a small group of people and a small group of kids," said Norman Atkins, a co-founder of Relay GSE, New York's standalone college for teachers, in response to Fuller. "How do we reach 50 million kids and their parents?"

District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson urged the group to step away from the "false dichotomy" debate over charter schools and whether school districts and teachers unions are getting in the way of innovation.

"You don't have to go outside the district to innovate," she said to applause.

In order for the smattering of highest performing charter schools and the pockets of education innovation to grow to a larger scale, districts must be involved, Henderson said.

"We need to be as radical about district work as we do charter work," she said.

While I'm here, I'll be interested in companies, schools, and innovations that understand the entire ecosystem that Henderson is talking about. Those examples can transcend the either/or "echo chamber" Atkins is talking about.

Are there any you can think of?

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