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Who will design 21st century schools?

FERREL GUILLORY
Guest Columnist

Forget high school. Or more precisely, forget your high school.

Many of us, parents and policymakers, have vivid memories of our own high school, of its bells and smells, its daily rhythms. We call to mind the tense excitement of Friday night football, the musical production that unleashed latent talent, the tough-but-caring teacher whose lessons stretched the mind.

And yet, nostalgia can also serve as a barrier to the modernizing of schools for our children and grandchildren. It is an oft-repeated observation that most schools today have the same basic look and feel as industrial-model schools of a century ago. Breaking that model will require public support, and that will mean shelving nostalgic notions that schools necessarily have to work the way schools of the 1950s, or 1970s, or 1990s worked.

Digital tools are already replacing old-fashioned textbooks. A teacher lecturing at a podium may not appeal to young people accustomed to retrieving information in an instant through the internet on a hand-held device. The impending challenge is to develop schooling with educational rigor to appeal to and energize the students of tomorrow and the next decade.

Isn’t it time for North Carolina to intensify its quest to design public schools for the 21st century?

As The New York Times reported a few days ago, some technology billionaires have stepped boldly into the field of education reform. The Times focused on three powerful executives: Marc Benioff of Salesforce, who has given the San Francisco Unified School District his managerial methods along with a $100 million pledge over 10 years; Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, whose self-teaching software is now in more than 100 schools; and Reed Hastings of Netflix, whose video-style math program is used by two million students.

“The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as beta testers for their ideas,” The Times reported, and then added, “But the philanthropic efforts are taking hold so rapidly that there has been little public scrutiny.”

The Silicon Valley billionaires are following precedents set by such industrial-era titans as John D. Rockefeller, the oil baron, and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Rockefeller founded the General Education Board in 1902. And Rosenwald established schools for black Southerners — more in North Carolina than any other state — during the period of rigid racial segregation.

The Times did not mention the education efforts of Eli Broad, a California housing and insurance executive, and Bill Gates of Microsoft. Both men have used their philanthropy powerfully in the education sector, including North Carolina-based organizations. In the wake of controversies over Common Core State Standards, Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote an insightful self-examination of a foundation’s aspirations and limitations.

“The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers” she wrote. “But every tough lesson only reinforces our commitment to teachers and student success.”

For another cautionary tale, see Dale Russakoff’s reporting on the missteps in Newark after Zuckerberg gave the schools there $100 million. Her reporting appeared in The New Yorker and in a book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

In reality, North Carolina, as well as other states and communities, need philanthropy to make strategic investments to fill spaces of policy and practice left vacant by private markets and government. In a State of the South report on “passing gear’’ philanthropy, Durham-based nonprofit MDC observed that the region needed foundations to work to “renew civic commitment to strong public education for all students regardless of income, race and ethnicity, and geography. Inner-city and rural public education particularly need the resources and advocacy that a committed philanthropy sector can provide.”

The Times report serves as a caution that too-dominant philanthropy can threaten to override democracy. North Carolina has to master its own destiny, but the voice and will of the people need to be informed by policy research and expertise. The right balance of government, philanthropy, and educational expertise can help adults “forget high school’’ in the quest for 21st century schools.

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