30 Years Later: Reforming Education Reform

A pioneer in education reform sees new ways to transform the structure and focus of learning for all students. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Jeanne Allen pioneered the Center for Education Reform (CER) in 1993 to restore excellence to education and built it into the nation’s leading voice for innovation and opportunity in education. 

Almost 30 years later, CER continues to help unite education innovators, advance and defend sound policy, rally parents and make the cause of education freedom the most important domestic issue of our time. In 2021, with Covid making transparent the deficiencies of the traditional education system, CER launched the $1 million STOP Award to Transform Education – now the Yass Prize  – in partnership with CER Director and long time education philanthropist Janine Yass, to honor education providers who deliver outstanding education for students. The mission of STOP – which stands for Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding and Permissionless education – is to speed up the pace of improving student lives and affect as many students as possible, and bringing learning into the 21st century.  In 2022, the initiative will award more than $16 million to educators around the country. 

A respected national thought leader for more than three decades, Jeanne has written and appeared extensively throughout the media. She has contributed her analysis and voice to hundreds of outlets from NBC to FOX, the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post. 

Jeanne Allen is a regular contributor to Forbes Online, authors a weekly newsletter entitled Forza, hosts her own podcast, in Piazza, and is a sought after speaker. She has been a trusted advisor to policymakers and philanthropists and serves on numerous boards and posts including managing director of the StartEd Accelerator, founding advisor to the Modern States Education Alliance, and an integral member of the ASU-GSV community since its inception in 2010. 

Her book An Unfinished Journey: Education & the American Dream  (2020) chronicles her journey through education. She is also the author of  Education Reform: Before it Was Cool (2014), Manifesto: A Movement at Risk (2016) and co-author with Angela Dale of The School Reform Handbook: How to Improve Your Schools (1995).

A first-generation Italian-American, Jeanne is mother to four amazing people and a grandmother to two. When she’s not challenging education convention, she enjoys spoiling them and spending time on the water with her husband Dr. Kevin Strother, educator, boat Captain and classically-trained musician.

It’s been five years—since we published our last interview together!  Congrats on your now 30th anniversary as an organization! EdTech Digest and CER overlap in that we both highlight advances in education and innovation, where our EdTech Digest highlights technology more directly. Let’s talk about AI (artificial intelligence) as an accelerant to everything happening in education. Education “reform” is an ongoing process; in light of AI, have you pivoted or re-thought the rate of this process? How does AI change or filter your conversations about education innovation and education reform? 

Thank you, Victor. I appreciate the opportunity to chat about current events and trends in education innovation again. We actually revamped and sort of sidelined or refocused the concept of education reform around the last time we connected, for the very reason you’re talking about AI – that there are accelerants now that were not around a month, a year, or even five years ago that can transform both the structure and focus of learning for all students. 

‘…there are accelerants now that were not around a month, a year, or even five years ago that can transform both the structure and focus of learning for all students.’ 

AI is one of those, to be sure, but so is the knowledge base about the wide variety of ways in which students learn and develop skills and more knowledge. While it was present before Covid, the pandemic shined a spotlight on the importance of individualized and personalized learning, and the thousands of tools that can be utilized to aid and accelerate learning on the most granular of levels. So that, along with the advent of AI possibilities, moved us to label the work we do as combined forces of opportunity and innovation – Without innovation, opportunity is less robust. Without opportunity, innovation will reach only the most fortunate.

In addition to AI, what innovations in edtech in particular, have you seen—that can also impact some of the long held goals CER is advancing? 

When you consider that nearly two-thirds of U.S. students are not proficient in any of the core subjects we know are critical to educational attainment and future success, then there can be only one, fundamental goal – Finding and supporting the pathways and mechanisms that turn that disastrous statistic on its head. 

In addition to ensuring that 21st century tools are available, we must change the delivery options, which means human capital gets deployed above and beyond standing in front of classrooms and students required to be in their “seats” a certain number of hours a year (pathetic and archaic). How do you change that? You find and utilize educators in a variety of different ways to ensure students gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

We helped to launch The Yass Prize in Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding and Permissionless education in 2021, and it has been a lens into extraordinary innovations taking place that captures hearts and minds of students. From SailFuture to Oakmont Education to Northern Cass School District to Friendship Public Charter Schools, these innovative approaches to delivering and ensuring apprenticeship models of education, certifications, work-placed learning, manufacturing and robotics, and so much more, are making a huge difference in student outcomes. 

We have tried for decades to encourage, motivate and even challenge schools and other forms of educational institutions to do these things, but the truth is – it only happens comprehensively and with impact where educators and leaders have the freedom to do it (because they are outside of the traditional system) or where they are part of unique districts or communities where they don’t need permission to do it. But those are few and far between.

You have Michael Moe on your board, you are an ASU GSV speaker, what are you seeing in the edtech sector that really excites you either company-wise, people-wise, tech-wise, trend-wise, or otherwise?  

Rapunzl, Edily and ClassEquity are incredible companies that are also transforming how students learn and how teachers teach in fundamental ways. STEMuli is creating the most incredible education metaverse that can be utilized by any kind of school or with any approach. Academica’s Colēgia is a seamless education platform that connects students and teachers to each other across hundreds of schools. 

Taking a page out of higher ed credit flexibility jargon, I would not be surprised to see K-12 schools moving toward a world of stackable credits where the education you get credit for can be a combination of do-it-yourself and interactive learning in your community or with others across the globe. 

‘I would not be surprised to see K-12 schools moving toward a world of stackable credits…’

Here is a chance to shape the conversation: What advice do you have for edtech company founders as they continue to establish their solutions and look ahead to the coming months and year or two? 

There’s a reality that I share with every edtech entrepreneur I have occasion to mentor or speak with – And that is the increasingly prevalence of education freedom. Whether through Education Savings Accounts or similar tools that drive more parent choices and options for learning, education freedom is not only critical to their long term success but the very definition of equity, which I know most ed tech folks really care about.

So while scoring the contract with the big school district players always seems to be their nirvana, the reality is that delivering their products and services via the increasing variety of schools, learning pods, hybrid education institutions and the like is going to get them more, better and faster feedback; be a terrific test bed; and drive them toward bigger and more innovative markets. This can also accelerate pick up in the more established markets, which are looking to compete for market share that they are desperately losing.

In the world of learning, there’s an emphasis on the role of teachers/educators and their vital role. Are parents overlooked or underemphasized? How might edtech be more parent inclusive? Your thoughts on this.

Parents and educators are vital and the reason they are fighting back in many ways against the system is because they have largely been denied the freedom and authority to do their job. For parents, that’s finding the education that’s best for their kids – and not having to stick to a zone to do so. For teachers, that’s being able to be entrepreneurial and even craft their own time, space and approach to learning that – if they are good – would ensure their long term success. The whole system needs to be flipped and it’s moving that way, thankfully.

‘The whole system needs to be flipped and it’s moving that way, thankfully.’

Anything else you’d like to add or emphasize about innovation, technology, education reform—or the future of learning?

Just a shameless plug for the new work we are now powering – The Yass Prize – which is really focused on finding, rewarding and creating more supply of great education providers, to both deliver on the opportunities our students so badly need and to ensure that the innovations that will bolster those opportunities are free to thrive.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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