Manifesto Interview With Ned Davis
Delia Stafford
President & CEO
Haberman Educational Foundation

Delia - Edward Davis, you have taken on the ambitious task of informing America that it’s public schools are obsolete, and need a complete redesign. I quote from your new book, Lessons For Tomorrow, Bringing America’s Schools Back From The Brink: “ It can’t be fixed, It shouldn’t be fixed, It’s not broken, It’s obsolete.” Why is this message important?

Edward - Pick up a newspaper and you are likely to see a debate about higher standards or No Child Left Behind, school districts or states needing more money, the need for smaller classrooms or better teachers. If we had everything you hear educators or politicians crying out for, it would make little difference. That is because the design of public schools is more than 150 years old and woefully obsolete. Until we deal with that, until we focus the conversation on coming up with, and implementing a 21st century design for how learning takes place in America’s classrooms we are rearranging deck chairs.

Delia - It sounds like a daunting task. How do you get 50 states, the federal government and about 93,000 public schools to cooperate?

Edward - Of course, that’s the 64K question. Right now the landscape of education is tremendously balkanized, and there is little incentive built into the system for collaboration and sustainable improvement. The net effect of balkanization is “too many voices making things unproductively complicated,” to quote Michael Fullan.

But, before we can even tackle balkanization, the public needs to be informed. Right now, the average parent, does not have an accurate picture of what is wrong with schools, and doesn’t want to upset the apple cart for fear of alienating the good will of local teachers and administrators. To most parents, it’s go along to get along. If parents better understood the flaws of contemporary schooling, the possibilities posited by a new design, and the consequences of maintaining the status quo, the outcry would be enormous and the political will would begin to change from tinkering with the system to redesign.

Delia - Good point. So how does the public get informed in the face of so much disinformation?

Edward - I believe two things need to happen there. One, we need the equivalent of a Lou Dobbs to harp on the real issues publicly and nationally. Almost single-handedly, Dobbs (CNN Anchor) brought the issue of porous borders and illegal immigration to a national debate. Congress is acting….. As you know, Oprah did a couple of interesting shows just recently, focusing on high schools only. They were interesting, well produced shows, but wholly insufficient to produce a Dobbs-like effect.

Second, we need to rally the considerable forces and resources that are dedicated to improving education to a single campaign. They are even more balkanized than the system itself and that is a big part of the problem. There is a tremendous store of good will in America, including lots of big brains and big bank accounts committed to improving our education system. This includes foundations, associations private citizens, cognitive scientists and progressive educators. I want to work towards building an umbrella ‘association’ of all these participants signed on to an agenda to 1. agree on the basics of a 21st century architecture for public education, and 2. develop a strategy and lobbying effort to work through state legislatures and the federal government to implement projects and initiatives to get from here to that 21st century architecture.

Delia - Isn’t Bill Gates already doing this?

Edward - To some extent I think he is. But why should the Gates Foundation be setting the agenda? What about the hundreds of other foundations and associations out there who have been doing good work for a very long time. I could provide you with a list of 50 or a hundred of America’s best and brightest education theorists and innovators. Very few of them have had any input into the work of the Gates Foundation.

I’m glad Bill Gates is out there. He certainly has focused much attention on the need to redesign America’s High Schools. He’s got the governors interested in change, and a number of very smart people in school districts, universities and elsewhere are using his money to focus on redesign. His money is opening 100’s of new schools.

Delia - What do you think of the Gates agenda for smaller schools?

Edward - Speaking bluntly, I think the focus on smaller schools and on high schools vs. the whole system is a mistake. I think the evidence of their work will move them toward a more systemic approach, but my question is, why didn’t they start there?

It’s obvious that the whole system is obsolete. For instance, we need to be building cognitive capacity in K-6, so that, by the time kids get to middle school and high school, they are skilled independent and interdependent learners. We really need to look at public education from a systems point of view, and recognize that much of the trouble we are seeing in high schools is the result of obsolete design in K-8.

I am grateful for the contributions of the Gates Foundation, but I believe we need to de-balkanize the philanthropists, the organizations of educators and the bleeding edge thinkers and doers, and work together toward some shared common goals. Obviously, we aren’t going to agree on everything, and we can continue our individual work, but why not do so in a common context and within a shared blueprint for 21st century schools.

Delia - Don’t many say that “we just don’t know the exact direction to move in yet?”

Edward - Yes, and they would be correct that we can’t yet see all of the details of a new architecture. It will be an evolutionary process, but I do think we can agree on the basics of direction. I think it is fair to say that we can’t imagine the level of learning sophistication that making a few changes now would produce in 15 years. I am certain, for example, that the product of learner-centered school design, a student who has been through 12 years of education that way, is beyond our reckoning now. We will evolve with those students, and so will an intelligently designed model. If we set out to do this, we can be ready to stop debating and begin implementing basic new design features in a couple of years.

Delia - Can you give me an example of a 21st century initiative that could be underway in such a short time?

Edward - Yes. Let me say that every major initiative should combine multiple ‘new architecture’ imperatives and design principles so as to legitimize a set of new directions that will then generate whole new sets of supporting reforms. For instance, we talk about, learner-centered design, independent learning, game-based learning, distance learning, macro-economic considerations in design (such as agreeing on a national curriculum)and employing the private sector more wisely in creating multiple pathways to learning.

Here is an initiative that could integrate all of these components of 21st century design:

There are roughly 80,000 teachers of US history at the junior high school level. If those teachers make an average salary (with benefits) of 50K, that’s $4 billion we are spending annually to teach a single course. Let’s do a national experiment and make this one course teacher-less. We will design a world-class course, elements of which would be on DVDs, on the web and in book form. We bring in the private sector to partner with us: the history channel, national geographic, George Lucas and Bill Gates. We build in re-enactments, interactive exercises with other students on the web, game-based learning (there is an exciting revolutionary war game being developed at MIT right now), the best teachers in the world talking about periods of history on video, etc. We can design expanded modules for special history interests and for regions of the country. Students in the South should know more about Reconstruction for example. For $100 million, we could build a fantastic course in US History….and now we have $3.9 billion left, and we save that much every year!

With this one act we have implemented action research on learner-center design, involving the private sector, game based and web-based learning etc., and saved a bunch of money to use where it will have maximum leverage. This is the kind of thinking…more importantly the kind of action we need to effect real, and substantive change.

Delia - What happens to teachers in this new architecture?

Edward - Teachers will not go away. Teachers will always play the core role in education, but they will become, more and more, learning facilitators. The teacher whose primary role is to disseminate information “turn to page 26 please, and be sure to review chapter 4 for the quiz tomorrow”, will gradually disappear, especially in the upper grades where more and more independent learning will be taking place. We have better and cheaper ways to disseminate information now.

Delia - What is the federal role in all of this?

Edward - I believe we need to get the feds out of the accountability game and into working toward a centralized approach to administration and curriculum delivery. We need a sophisticated IT infrastructure to deliver 21st century education. We also need to apply macro-economic thinking to relieve the financial pressures that the states are under to provide quality education. States can’t even pay much attention to reform when they are worried about where they are going to get the money to pay for pensions and health benefits. The history course example I just gave will never happen until the feds shift their focus to redesign, including their own role in education.

Delia - Anything you would like to add?

Edward - I think this is good for now. Thank you.

4018 Martinshire Drive
Houston, Texas, 77025-3918
Fax/Phone (713) 667-6185