Michelle Rhee is back in town.
This time it is as a "grass-roots" activist who only wants to put children first. Surely many of her fans in the testing industry think that's really at the heart of what they are doing. They look at failing public schools and they see reason for change.
As a teacher and as a parent of three public school students, I look at the type of change they are advocating for and I see the future of failure.
For the last five years, I have worked in a small, independent high school program at the experimental intersection of one-to-one computing and social media in education. For the last five semesters, I have worked with teachers on bringing those ideas to Baltimore City Public Schools. Through it all, I've watched three cracks widen in the foundation of American schooling.
Foremost are the effects of the "digital divide." Many teachers I work with each semester wonder how social technology would ever relate to their assignments in cash-strapped Baltimore schools. So, we spend a semester reimagining funding and policy. Last year, one of my students persuaded his principal to let him pilot a tablet program with money that otherwise would have been spent on a more expensive desktop computer lab. Andrew Coy, a teacher at the Digital Harbor High School, has turned an unused room and a few computers into a new media center. But individually, teachers can only do so much.
The second crack is evident in those classrooms with technology. The "access divide" is marked by the blocking of access to the very heart of what resources are available on the Internet, including YouTube, blogs, new media and anywhere a student might actually read a comment. This tends to derive from a ham-fisted approach to digital safety. At a public school conference recently, I found myself struggling to rearrange my live-web multimedia slides because so many were blocked by the district filter.
The trickiest of the cracks to get our heads around is the "connected divide," separating those who are proficient in collaborative, creative and connected social networks and those who are not. It is growing exponentially wider on a daily basis. From students connecting with authors and scientists via Skype, to kids engaging in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curricula via MIT OpenCourseWare, to students tweeting and conversing with people half a world away in the midst of a revolution (as students at my own school did during the events in Egypt), to teachers participating in daily worldwide discussions on professional development via the #edchat Twitter feed, connectedness will define the value of education over the next generation.
A gap will emerge between those schools that can offer the capacity for network building — represented by their own network of connected teachers and administrators — and those that will not make the connection. This is not an issue of public versus private school or wealthy versus impoverished school. Plenty of wealthy schools are deciding not to make the connection, while many teachers in cash-strapped schools are pursuing a real grass-roots effort to make it happen. This is about connected schools versus not-connected schools.
In the same way social media has changed the face of journalism, politics and entertainment, it will change the face of schools. Just as no business can afford to ignore social media, no school will be able to ignore it. For our students, the value of social media will prove not to be how many followers one has but with how many leaders one engages.
For most children, the key to success will continue to be sharp critical skills, strong connections, effective communication and the nerve to be creative and entrepreneurial. The difference is that we are living at a time in which all of those skills are defined by one's proficiency in connected media. Furthermore, for students facing poverty, violence and disability, online learning networks can provide empowering educational experiences that transcend the circumstances of the classroom.
Ultimately, the school that ignores the connection will be the school that we will identify as a failing institution. It is therefore even crueler that policymakers obsessed with standardized test results — like Ms. Rhee and her many disciples — ignore what the connection represents.
There is an opportunity to fix this now. But it is going to take less "Race to the Top" and more "Connect with one another" if we are really going to put students first.
Shelly Blake-Plock is blogger-in-chief at TeachPaperless.com; he leads courses in 21st century teaching at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. He and Michelle Rhee were keynote speakers this week at Lenovo ThinkTank 2011, bringing together visionaries from K-12 and higher education. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.