Why did you first convene a national summit on education reform back in 2008?
When we held our first summit in Orlando in 2008, our entire staff could have fit in a minivan. We were a start-up that took on the rather audacious mission of overhauling the nation’s education system, basing our approach on disruptive changes we instituted in Florida that turned around one of the worst school systems in the nation. When you’re a governor, you have hands-on ability to affect change. But when you’re on the outside, you have the more complex challenge of persuading those on the inside to act boldly, even in the face of fierce resistance from the status quo.
We didn’t know back then how the summit would be received, or if there would be enough interest to warrant a second one. And now here we are celebrating our 10th anniversary with more than 1,100 policymakers traveling from all over the country to join us. Obviously, the convening has struck a chord.
And so I very much look forward to reflecting back the successes of the education reform community over the last decade and the progress states have made in reforming their school systems. I hope all of us in the reform community can rededicate ourselves to moving forward with our work during the next 10 years with even greater urgency.
I also am very much looking forward to the southern hospitality in the great city of Nashville this year, not to mention the fantastic barbecue we have lined up.
Over the past 10 years, what keynote speech, session panel or moment, left the biggest impression?
We have had so many great speakers and wonderful moments. And I would never hear the end of it if I failed to mention my wonderful Mother’s appearance at our first summit in 2008. But with all due respect to her, and speakers like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and British education minister Michael Gove, one speaker truly stands out in my mind. At our 2014 summit, I was introduced by a young woman named Denisha Merriweather. She spoke with such poise and eloquence that the audience was spellbound. This was a young woman who had been raised in poverty, was held back twice in elementary school, and was resigned to dropping out. Her godmother put her in a private school, made possible by the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program. And now she has a graduate degree in social work, and is committed to helping the less fortunate in society. It was such a powerful moment, validating the work we do and inspiring us to do more. To be honest, I was upstaged and couldn’t have been happier about it.
What is your favorite part of Summit?
We have so many great speakers and panels, often followed by good questions and conversations. Last year we had Angela Duckworth, the best-selling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance; Dr. Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Sal Kahn discussing the future of education and Dr. Condollezza Rice moderating a panel of former U.S. Secretaries of Education. For a nerd like me, it just doesn’t get any better than that. I learn so much and get to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. These sessions are so educational and inspiring. They make you want to get up and go march in the streets for America’s students.
What keeps you awake at night regarding education reform?
We need to significantly pick up the pace of reform. To succeed in today’s global economy, we need the upcoming generation to be the most skilled, most educated in our history. We already are seeing the consequences of our failures in the glaring gap between the skills required by employers and the skills possessed by job seekers. We have a record six million job openings at the same time 6.8 million Americans are looking for jobs. How does that not impact the two percent growth rut we are stuck in?
When we don’t prepare our children for the future, we are discounting our greatest natural resource. The time to most effectively address this is the first day they walk into a classroom, by providing them a customized education that maximizes their potential. Those states that embrace student-centered education will see the payoff in future economic growth.
And so our message to state leaders is to not only act in your children’s best interests but in your state’s best interests.
What are you reading right now?
I like books that change the way we think about big challenges by making compelling arguments backed by research and real-life anecdotes. A good example is The End of Average by Todd Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In it he reveals the irrationality of forcing people to conform to a pre-determined average, be it the average dimensions of a cockpit for fighter pilots or the average expectations for children in a classroom.
The latest book I’ve read that fits this criterion is Competing Against Luck by another Harvard thinker – Clay Christensen, who serves as the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School.
Professor Christensen’s forte is introducing disruptive innovation into the market. In Competing Against Luck, he unveils a strategy in which businesses forego trying to understand what customers want and instead focus on the jobs customers need done.
What sounds so simple is actually a revolutionary concept that has driven innovation at businesses ranging from Amazon to Uber.
There is much to be applied from this approach in the education community. And if I can be so shameless as to put in a plug, we are very much looking forward to hearing from Dr. Christensen at our National Summit on Education Reform in Nashville in just a few weeks.