Same Conference, Different Bagel:Can We Change?

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You’d be hard-pressed to hop on board the education conference junket without coming across a panel or keynote about the need for transformation within our classrooms. And it’s not just the concept of change that we are obsessed with – it’s the solution as well. Almost universally, folks in the education space have concluded that “digital learning” will usher in a new era of school and student success. To be honest, sometimes it seems like the only substantial difference between education events these days is what’s on the breakfast buffet table.

We’ve all heard the stats – in 1970, the United States had the highest rate of high school and post-secondary graduation rates compared to our global peers. We were number one. Today, we rank number 21 in the world for high school graduation rates and number 15 in college completion. Today, only seven out of every 10 ninth graders will actually get a high school diploma. In the time it takes you to read this post, a student will drop out of high school.

There’s no doubt that we need a radical change. But, given the high stakes (who wants to experiment with the education of our kids?), the largely bureaucratic and matrixed environment that is our current K-12 system (adoption process anyone?), and shrinking and shifting budgets (healthy lunch versus interactive whiteboards – you decide), is radical disruption even a realistic goal?

What will a tablet in the hands of every child accomplish when we’re still facing funding shortages and crumbling infrastructure? BYOD sounds like a great interim solution, but there are still homes in the US without the broadband internet connections so many of us take for granted, let alone an extra device for a child to bring to school. More than 80% of teachers surveyed by the Pew Research Center express worry that access to new technology is leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and districts.

Given the barriers ahead, rapid transformation feels fundamentally unrealistic. Are we trying to force disruption on an industry that resists it based on its very core? How do we consider what the right (and realistic) timeline for change is, and what the industry can (and cannot) solve for? What are the key challenges facing the concept of industry innovation and disruption in general?

When it came time to plan for SXSWedu 2015, we didn’t want to have the same conversation again – we wanted to take it to the next level. On Monday, March 9, in Austin, I’m joining Superintendent Michael Hanson of Fresno Unified School District and Molly Hensley-Clancy, BuzzFeed’s business of education reporter, to tackle these tough questions.

Instead of trying to find the silver bullet that will turn our system on its head, we’ll explore what meaningful improvement in the teaching and learning experience looks like and how we can harness innovation to bring sustainable change to the market. I hope you’ll join the collaboration.


Mary Cullinane is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s first Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs. She began her career as a classroom teacher and spent a decade as an educator, Director of Technology and administrator. She then went on to spearhead Microsoft′s education-related innovation programs and initiatives worldwide, including its national 1:1 access programs and the School of the Future in Philadelphia. At HMH, she is leading the transformation of the company’s global content development function in support of its mission to change people’s lives by foster passionate, curious learners.

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