Introducing the TEDActive Projects: Education

03/03/2011 03:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tom Rielly Tom Rielly is Community Director at TED Conferences. He lives in New York City.

The next TEDActive Project theme is education. The TEDActive Project education team was asked to consider how children can take part in reshaping our education system.

We asked TEDActive education project participant and Teach for America Chief Knowledge Office Steven Farr about his thoughts on the topic. Farr is leading efforts to discern what distinguishes teachers whose students in low-income communities achieve dramatic academic growth.

What do you think about the current state of the education system?

I come to the table with the strong belief that the system is in fact broken. Some children do attain strong (we could debate how strong) education in the U.S., but there are millions of kids who do not. To me, the inequity of a system where zip code remains our best predictor of college-readiness qualifies as "broken." And, I would say, a crisis.

If the education system is broken, what can we do to begin fixing it, and what is being done to move in that direction?

As we try to figure out how to leverage our own positions of influence to address this problem, I keep coming back to a theme we've learned in our 20 years at Teach For America and that was hammered home for me in working with our founder Wendy Kopp on her new book (A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All): we have to be wary of silver bullets and silver scapegoats. The history of education reform is a veritable graveyard of the-next-big-shiny-thing that we somehow convince ourselves is going to be the thing that fixes the problem. This curriculum. That technology. This class size. That merit pay system. This classroom design. That funding level. We are Charlie Brown kicking the football, yet again.

We have had the opportunity to study exemplary classrooms and schools -- and improving districts -- serving low-income communities. Some clear insights arise from looking at what's working and what's not:

  • The MOST influential structural interventions we have tried (curriculum, funding, class size) only earn back a small fraction of the achievement gap, at best.
  • A strong teacher can, however, close the achievement gap for students by, perhaps a third, even in a single year.
  • What actually accounts for success in our most challenging contexts is great people and leadership.

How do you define "success" when it come to educating our country's children?

Success is happening where we have leaders who are obsessed with the potential of their kids, build a strong vision of what their realm will look like when that potential is fulfilled, construct and rally a great team of people around that vision, do all the hard work of creating a welcoming culture of achievement, treat fundamental principles of people-management and support very seriously, and push beyond conventional limitations in time and resources to do whatever it takes to get to their vision. It's hard, hard work. Every leader of a school that is overcoming poverty to transform kids' lives says, "There's no one thing. It's lots and lots of hard work." As one school leader said, "It's a 100 one-percent solutions."

Ultimately, success is going to come from building effective organizations, with all the fundamentals that entails. Pouring all the money, technology, curricular supports and classroom design in the world into a ineffective organization (whether a classroom or school or district) without strong leadership has no effect at all. We see that all the time. More funding into a dysfunctional organization is a waste.

Smaller class size and longer school days when teachers are not effective only means further diluting effectiveness. New technology makes strong teachers better and weak ones worse. There are no silver bullets here. Just hard work.

What has your TEDActive Projects group discussed as potential solutions to this systemic problem?

For me, our conversations are surfacing the tension between the reality that long-term leadership efforts are necessary and that we have a desire and energy to do something right now. As we are talking about how to have influence in our TEDActive projects group, I am reminded of the feeling I had at the end of the documentary "Waiting For Superman." The question "what can I do?" is a very difficult one. This is not Al Gore saying "go change your light bulb and save energy." We have a systemic problem that is going to require long-term leadership to change.

But, this does not mean I don't believe in the conversations we are having. I do. In fact, my experience in some truly dysfunctional settings makes me more convinced than ever that we must find the spreadable micro-actions. We need to be or support one of those "one percent solutions." We have to keep puzzling over what can an individual do. What can a million individuals do? I want an answer to that question, but I have to confess I really am wrestling with it.

How can children get involved in this movement?

We were asked at the beginning of the week here at TEDActive to consider how we might empower students to impact education. I continue to be inspired by the student empowerment idea.

To me, the question "how do we leverage the TED network" is another, though separate, important question. What can TED and its resources do to engage children in authentic hard problems that they can help solve (and learn from along the way)? I love the idea of making it easy for TEDx organizations to involve students and their communities - and to give children a voice in the discussion of ideas worth spreading. I love the idea of using the TED platform to empower students to tell the world what ideas are worth spreading. I'm inspired by the work of our TEDActive colleagues Christian Long and David Bill (both teammates at Be Playful and Protoype) and others who have models of supporting kids to solve hard problems and feel like that can and should be part of our "one-percent" micro-action.