This week, NPR's Tell Me More and StateImpact Florida hosted an international Twitter conversation about education reform at the WLRN studios. South Florida social media maven Alex de Carvalho (@alexdc) was one of the thousands of people to participate to join that conversation. He organizes regular local web and technology gatherings and is a founding member of RefreshMiami. He stopped by WLRN for a video interview with Tell Me More's Michel Martin.
Michel Martin of the NPR show Tell Me More aired a special segment on education. She was joined by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his predecessor Margaret Spellings to discuss education reform at a national level – including the “No Child Left Behind” policy. Former Washington, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho followed with a discussion on school district reform. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch also joined Martin to discuss why she no longer supports strict testing standards and the expansion of charter schools. Martin also spoke with Salman Khan, creator of the popular online education tool Khan Academy.
I had the chance to speak with Michel after the show and we had a fascinating conversation, which I recorded and transcribed below. After you view the interview, I’d like to know: what do you think are the major challenges facing our education system? No one seems to agree.
Here we are with Michel Martin, who had a great show this morning about education. Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your show?
Sure, I’d be happy to. I’m Michel Martin, I’m the host of Tell Me More, it’s a daily, Monday — Friday program broadcast out of Washington DC. It is national, we are in about 130 markets or so around the country and the program has been on for about 5 years. Education has always been one of the pillars of the program. You know, a show is like a pair of shoes or a jacket, you have to have a reason to have it in your closet. One of the pillars of the program has always been education, pushing education forward. We don’t have any axe to grind in terms of the way we want people to think about education. We just know that the people we talk to, from all different backgrounds, education is always one of their top priorities if not the top priority for them. And yet it’s very hard to have national conversations about it, because education is so local, and a lot of people don’t see the connections to other things happening in other places. What we try to do is not only to bring a national perspective to local stories, but also to stay in touch with the local stories so that people can understand what’s happening. I think you can see by the types of guests that we are able to get, that other people are having those conversations too.
You had some great guests today, on the national and international level and even on the local level …
Yeah we did, and it was really exciting to get the Superintendent of Miami Dade, which as you know is the fourth largest school district in the country, which is important because Florida is experimenting with the same issues that everyone else is. For instance, we have guests from Washington DC, like Michelle Rhee, who was the chancellor of a much smaller system, but dealing with all the same issues: diversity, multiple languages, kids from all kinds of backgrounds, all different levels of school readiness … and, very advantaged, very affluent people who know what they want for their children and are determined to get it. So, the variety is really there and I was really glad to be able to do the show out of Florida.
On the show today, was there some kind of consensus on what are the major challenges facing the educational system?
That was one of the most interesting things to me about it was that there wasn’t. You often hear in Washington when they talk about policy: “We all agree on the goal, why can’t we get together and fix it.” Well, one of the things we heard today is that we don’t really agree on what the issues are. I think a lot of people do agree that the educational system — now, college has its own stuff, so we focused on K-12 — but that the model that we used was from a different era, it was from the horse and buggy era. It was 9 months of school, so kids could work in the fields — I mean, who were we kidding — on farms, you know, 9 to 3 day so kids could milk the cows and I think most people would agree that those days are over, but what most people don’t agree on is: what should be next. One of the interesting things, if people listen to the whole hour, I hope they do, you’ll hear the whole range of ideas of what people think needs to happen.
Right, and so one of the more interesting guests you had on in my opinion was Salman Khan with the whole online education. Now, do you believe that is the future of education or something that will just complement what we already have?
He made the point that he is not talking about replacing, he talks about complementing. But if you really read in between the lines and in particular, if you read his book, which I did in preparation for the show, is that he clearly believes that online education or at least introducing a heavy component of technological innovation is just a must. I think that part of his argument is that that’s where kids already live so you must meet people where they already are, but that it so obviously compensates for the deficiencies that we have now. Obviously there are big problems with online education in the digital space and it doesn’t take a lot to figure out what those are. But I think that he’s pretty clear that a lot has to happen and I think you’ll note that a lot of his lessons are being used in brick and mortar schools. I also found him fascinating and really enriching. I mean, I could have easily spoken to each of the guests for an hour.
Salman Khan recently wrote an article which he didn’t really discuss today, where he says that there are three parts to education: Learning; Socializing; and Credentialing (where you get your diplomas and certificates). He says they’re all important, but there should be a way to separate the credentialing from the learning and socializing so that you can individually go and get credentialed. This is especially important for unemployed people who want to reskill and prove that they have these skills and competencies …
Well, the other issue with credentialing is the cost, isn’t it? How is it that you have a core credential that you need to have any “leg” in the economy at all and it’s unattainable for the people who need it most. That is a recipe for a social disaster. I think that people understand that. As I said, we’re based in Washington DC and Georgetown University has a center focusing on this very issue and the head of that center, Anthony Carnivale, has been sounding the alarm about the debt load that students have been carrying and the escalating costs of higher education. That is clearly a problem, but let’s talk about just getting to that point: the high school dropout rate, particularly for certain groups in this country. Our country used to have the highest high school graduation rate in the world and we’re now at, what is it, 14?, so clearly there are problems long before you get to the college level. One other person I also found interesting was Diane Ravich, the educator and the policy person from New York. She made the point that a lot of the complaints about the education system were overblown and that they were really creating the case for privatization and I found that fascinating. You probably have heard this more than I have, but this is the first time that I have heard the argument framed in quite that way and I must say that is food for thought for me.
I was following that [#NPRedchat] on Twitter and people were very surprised that she was saying that the system was not broken. I do understand her point of view and it’s probably very valid. Now, people on Twitter were saying that there is so much to talk about, that this should be a weekly segment. What do you think about that?
You know I also think that we should have a 2 hour show, not a 1 hour show so feel free to raise the question! I have to say, as I said before, education has always been one of the pillars of our stool. If you asked us, how do we see our mission as a program, covering education is one of the pillars of that stool, because it’s something that affects everyone. It touches the future, it touches the past. You don’t have to have kids in school for it to affect you. Let me tell you, long before I came to NPR, I was working in this particular field — and I have been a journalist for a long, long time — and I remember being on a panel with a local business executive, a woman, who was very focused on hiring locally. This must have been 10 or 12 years ago, that she talked about the difficulties she had hiring from the local labor pool because the kids’ skill were so low — basic math, basic reading, basic literacy, basic numeracy — and I remember being really taken aback by that, so I guess what I’m saying is you don’t have to have kids in a school yourself to have a stake in the question. I say to people all the time when they cut their eyes at my kids when they’re acting up in the restaurant, I say, “who do you think is going to be doing your back surgery 20 years from now?” I’m not making any excuses for my kids, but again, the students today are the ones doing our back surgery, building our buildings, doing our heart surgery … they have to carry the culture of our society forward and what they know and how competent they are and their ability to innovate … that’s something that we all have to care about. We all have to care about that.
Michel, your show was great and I hope that you’ll continue this discussion. Thank you so much.