09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our Insane Summer: Is There a Way Out? Plus an Open Letter to the Secretary of Education [UPDATED]

For weeks now I've been troubled by the lack of rationality exhibited by many of the protesters attending health care town meetings. The craziness we've witnessed has very little to do with serious political debate and too much to do with ignorance-fueled anger. The protesters' own words have revealed an enormous gulf between reality and their unfocused objections. Little or no knowledge of the health care proposal in play or anything related to it is evident. The infamous call for the government to keep its hands off Medicare speaks for itself.

While some of this behavior can be explained by manipulation and fear mongering, you also get the sense that some of these folks are sincere even if they can't clearly articulate a rational argument. In my desperation to believe that our national public policy debate can function at a higher level than that encouraged by media carnival barkers and the elected demagogues that feed them talking points, I keep coming back to education as part of any solution. Maybe if we learned to think at an early age we'd be less susceptible to those that encourage us to behave as angry mobs. Naïve? Maybe. But you have to keep hoping that a better outcome is possible.

With that in mind, as we enter the back-to-school phase of the calendar, I want to share some good news and offer some unsolicited advice to our nation's education top cop. A group of pioneering educators in North Carolina has been achieving remarkable results with an initiative called Project Bright IDEA. The program focuses on retraining teachers to become far more effective. It goes way beyond simple reform, and instead is the rare type of transformational idea that has the potential to change the way we run schools from coast to coast.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top Fund (RTT), a reform program that will once again attempt to instigate change within the notoriously change-resistant world of education.

I recently spoke with colleague and friend, Hugh Osborn, a New York-based education consultant who knows a lot more about the subject than I ever will. Hugh is a pro-bono consultant to Bright IDEA and is among those working to encourage other states to tap into the success the program is generating in North Carolina.

I asked Hugh to paint a picture of the landscape that any reform movement, including RTT, will encounter. He offered the following briefing:

"There are massive structural, governance, and policy obstacles to education reform. Politicians and others point out that unions and tenure laws protect bad teachers by the thousands. Unions remind us that teachers are not well trained nor supported by administrators and are poorly paid. Choice in the form of charter schools is struggling for political oxygen. States are cutting budgets in difficult times. Pay is not based on merit. Myriad disparate state standards defy unified comparison and policy. The list of obstacles to reform - or, on the flip side, reform ideas - goes on and on. RTT is cleverly conceived to cut through this morass. It creates a set of 20 or so reform standards and holds up a $4.35 billion carrot to make states pay attention to them. California, do you want $100 million for that reform project? Then you'd better not outlaw tying test scores to teacher compensation. Michigan, do you want $75 million that you desperately need? Then you'd better lift the charter school limit."

So while the plan seems to have merit, my guess is that it may come up short in generating the kind of truly transformative innovation that has become almost routine in businesses, particularly those related to technology, but has yet to find its way into the classroom on a major scale. But the outcomes resulting from Bright IDEA do meet the transformative innovation threshold. Best of all it appears that the program can work just about anywhere if the will to transform a school or district is present.

With that in mind, Hugh and I have co-authored the following open letter to Secretary Duncan. (If you know the good secretary's personal email address, please feel free to forward.)


Dear Secretary Duncan:

As you embark on the latest effort to reform our nation's education system, please remember that success is the best organizing principle. The story of VisiCalc illustrates the point.

About 30 years ago, two graduate students created the first spreadsheet program available for personal computers, VisiCalc. It was so much more effective at budgeting than paper and pencil that corporate managers bought it ($5,000 including the computer) out of their own pockets over strenuous objections from the corporate computer police. VisiCalc was such a "killer app" that it started a success spiral and kicked off the whole Information Revolution, a tidal wave of innovation that has swept around the world ever since. Success was the organizing principle that resulted in institutions (with the notable exception of schools) changing their very essence to accommodate innovative new approaches. This killer app transformation mechanism is the most powerful way to change any culture or industry.

How does this relate to the Race to the Top? The hope in RTT is that large teams of politicians, educators and others will be able to formulate projects that will create significant educational innovation and reform. This might well happen, and is worth pursuing, but shouldn't you have a side bet? Shouldn't you be looking for truly innovative projects created by small groups, like those two graduate students, that are so insightful and innovative that they create an explosion of success?

We know of one that supplies proof to back up the theory. Two North Carolina educators created a research program, Project Bright IDEA, nine years ago, and it is beginning to revolutionize education in parts of that state. Although funded by the Department of Education for the past five years, you may not have heard of it, given that it was started before your appointment.

In four of the Title I (disadvantaged population) schools that have instituted the program in some of their K-2, classrooms, 93% of 2008 Bright IDEA second graders were recommended as gifted based largely on standard tests. This is pretty astounding, particularly when you consider the fact that virtually none of the students from these non-charter public schools qualified before the program was instituted. And the average for all Bright IDEA second grade classrooms was more than 25%, far above the control group of non-Bright IDEA students in the same schools. And because this is a research project, these results and others are well documented.

Test scores in some Bright IDEA classrooms have risen 50-100% but, more importantly, these students are now enthusiastic about learning, working, solving problems collaboratively, and about being part of a productive community. All this was achieved with minimal test prep or extra tutoring, and no extended class time. Many of the teachers involved refer to their classrooms as "student powered" because the kids exhibit a passion for learning that provides previously unseen levels of enthusiasm and energy. But the real power comes from the training of teachers who learn to amplify students' complex natural learning drives.

Like VisiCalc, Bright IDEA is spreading virally. Principals of new schools are pushing for its student-powered methods. One county is using this approach in all grade 3-8 schools and the program is beginning to move into high schools. Another is planning to use it in all 17 of its K-12 schools. Parents, teachers, administrators, and businesses love it, providing a broad base of support as it spreads throughout districts.

So here is a true bottom-up success story. If fed and watered, these methods will evolve rapidly because they are at the very beginning of the innovation curve. The remarkable results and popular support thus far are just a start.

Here's the point. If the success of Bright IDEA (or any comparable program) is used as an organizing principle, the reforms you seek will naturally be included in the resulting killer app transformation. As it becomes clear that there is a powerful new teaching method available, all those states that are desperate to thrive in our complex 21st Century world will compete to have the revolution grow in their schools, so that their economies can reap the benefits from students who can solve problems, create, collaborate, and ace their college courses. As parents see that student-powered learning results in high-performing, well-adjusted kids, they will demand it in their local schools. States and districts will have to compete to innovate or find themselves left behind. They'll figure out merit pay, how to use innovative technology and all the other aspects of reform that are necessary to clear away obstacles to success. This is true bottom-up transformation, not top-down reform.

So go ahead and fund the Race to the Top - we fully support it. But be sure to hedge your bets by looking for that killer app that can ignite a success spiral. If you find it, it will be cheaper and more powerful than the top-down approach. And it's more likely to work the deep magic we so desperately need if we are to stamp out the ignorance of the mob and cement America's world leadership.

We think North Carolina - and your own back yard - might just be a good place to start looking.

John Milewski and Hugh Osborn


Since posting, I've heard from a number of you suggesting that I short changed you with my description of Bright IDEA. I apologize for that and offer this link for those of you interested in more details about what the program is and how it works.