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Steve Barr At Big Task Weekend: We're Close, But We're Still Just 'Cute'

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"Waiting For 'Superman' " was on everyone's lips at the final Future of Education breakout room during Big Task Weekend.

The group of about 40 education leaders, including Director of Community Outreach Alberto Retana from the U.S. Department of Education, examined Steve Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools to explore why this charter school model is working, and to envision ways of scaling it nationally.

It's a question all education leaders, politicians, and the chattering classes have been busying themselves with since the release of Davis Guggenheim's searing (and unflattering) documentary. Now that the characteristics of a great school are known, how can they be implemented in every failing school district in America? Barr, who was featured in Guggenheim's film, was on hand to address any questions. He acknowledged both the difficulties of scaling his operation and the seeming faddishness at the current outrage over public education: "we're close, but we're still just 'cute.' "

Barr's vision of scale is so broad that it includes phasing out the need for schools like Green Dot.

If my daughter, upon entering middle school, has to go to a charter school because we haven't influenced and found common ground with the public schools, then I feel like I haven't completed my task, which is to create systemic change, not create great charter schools. Successful charter schools are just what public schools should look like.

Helping people like Barr scale their success to create genuine social change is what Keith Ferrazzi envisions for his annual Big Task Weekends, an invitation-only gathering of executive business and NGO leaders, politicians, and academics. It's no surprise that Ferrazzi, a marketing and social networking guru, focuses on the challenges of collaboration, relationship-building, and telling a good story--all tenets of either Marketing 101 or Community Organizing. Ferrazzi asserts that most social change agents fail on "the soft stuff: constituency building, clarity of vision, designing for scalability and execution."

He contrasts Barr's collaboration-focused Green Dot schools to Michelle Rhee's so-called "scorched earth" policies in Washington D.C.:

Look at what Michelle Rhee has done. Has she been successful or has she failed to manage relationships with the key constituencies in the unions? When I look at a guy like Steve Barr, he did it. He did it. What can we be doing to change the dialogue? We can't vilify the unions and fix education. It's not just about having the right answer. It's about clarity of vision and making sure you are building the execution for scale.

One attendee, Martin Ganda, offered a stark example of the challenges and possibilities of scale in education.

As a small boy in Zimbabwe, he was able to attend school through the help of Caitlin, a pen pal in the United States who sent him her babysitting earnings. He now works on Wall Street as a financial analyst and has spearheaded Seeds of Africa, an organization that takes the spirit of Caitlin's childhood generosity and uses it as a model to help hundreds of other children in Zimbabwe.

Ganda hopes that the contacts he's made with Google, IBM, and Microsoft at Big Task Weekend will help his organization expand to create a digital library in Zimbabwe. He remains impressed with the public education system in the United States, despite its troubled status and its many critics: "the beauty of America is that people here are not complacent. Americans are always pushing themselves and they want the best for their students. It's moving for outsiders to see it."

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