In close with Jeanne Allen, longtime education champion and founder of Center for Education Reform.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

While countries around the globe are evolving and retooling to capitalize on innovation and the rapidly changing landscape of careers, the U.S.—burdened by bureaucracy and a century-old infrastructure—has stagnated.

It’s been happening for decades now, and the chasm is getting wider.

These disturbing trends prompted Jeanne Allen to establish The Center for Education Reform—the first of its kind—back in 1993.

A quarter century later, CER continues to fight this all-important fight, boldly leading the charge on the street, into town halls, up the Capitol steps and across its aisles.

Anywhere there are votes to be cast, stories to be told, alliances to be forged, and communities to be mobilized, CER eagerly joins the fray.

Putting their experience, their network, their assets, and their passion to work for the cause.

Whether they’re steering media outreach to generate publicity, producing events in pivotal markets, interfacing with lawmakers, or connecting innovators and their products with investors and schools to accelerate their impact, their mission is simple:

To give learners at all levels the opportunity to shape their education.

“The citizens of the United States deserve freedom, and access, and input,” says Jeanne (pronounced JEE nee). “Only by achieving that will we restore excellence to education, maximizing everyone’s potential success, regardless of the circumstances into which they’re born.”

It’s my pleasure to speak with Jeanne Allen. She’s a nationally recognized expert on education reform as the CEO of the Center For Education Reform. Jeanne, it’s a pleasure speaking with you today.

Jeanne: Me too, Victor. Thank you.

So what is the greatest challenge to broader adoption of innovation in U.S. education? We’ll just start right there tackling a fun question like that.

Jeanne: I think there are several factors that are barriers to entry for various innovations.

I like to think about the innovations that are either helping to ensure better learning opportunities, to ease learning, to grow and expand learning on the part of students, innovations to help and support teachers not just development but in, again, better approaches, better processes.

Innovations across systems and schools at all levels.

The one factor that runs through all of those is whether or not you have the ability to deploy them. Buying a product, using a service, or simply changing behavior is a function of how you function in your work or how a school or education institution all the way up to career training to college work, that would suggest the biggest barrier or the largest factor guiding whether innovation takes hold or not is flexibility.

Freedom is the hallmark of just about everything that succeeds in life.

If we don’t have freedom to utilize the latest, the best, and even to experiment and take some risks without being penalized because you made some changes, then you’re not likely to have an innovation that’s worth it.

Your work takes you all around the world. I met with you in Dubai briefly at the Global Education & Skills Forum, but you were also recently at the ASU GSV summit where you bumped into someone else—Matthew McConaughey, in fact, and he said something to you that was very interesting.

Jeanne: Yes, so I introduced myself. He was Matthew McConaughey. He was at ASU GSV, the annual summit for some innovators in tech and lots of people in the learning world. He has an afterschool program and he was there to present it. I got a chance to meet him. I introduced myself and I said, “I’m Jeanne Allen, Center for Education Reform” and he had said something to the effect of, “Education Reform, wow. Well we really need that. I guess you don’t sleep much.”

Then he went on to—in his talk, his discussion with the people assembled—he went on to talk about how he realized that the community that he grew up in and the people around him and the things that he benefited from—are not available to a lot of people—and that’s why he started something, mostly as an afterschool program.

But I loved the fact that, here you’ve got a guy you wouldn’t think he was plugged in at all.

Imagine if he were around talking about education innovation all the time, what we might be able to achieve.

Well that’s very interesting. How do you see your role in driving innovation in school infrastructure? Then, let’s touch upon teaching and learning.

Jeanne: Sure. So my role as the head of the Center for Education Reform and then as also just someone who participates with lots of organizations and just really wants to make a change and support other people to make those changes and just spreading the innovation concept, helping people connect over how to make things happen.

And really identifying not just opportunities for people to work together to figure out how to solve or confront problems or how to accelerate some new thinking or new approaches that might work, but identifying the policies, Victor, that might be standing in the way.

You asked me about what’s standing between making it ubiquitous if you will or what are the barriers or however you’d say that. I said freedom and flexibility.

Well there’s a reason it’s … flexibility at all levels for teachers, for learners, for administrators, for even people who come in out of the system. It’s just so many rules. There are rules that say we can only buy math texts—certain kinds.

There are only certain kinds of math texts we can buy.

There are certain ways you teach.

There’s only certain ways that administers behave.

By the way, there are certain credentials you need to be in a particular job that may have nothing to do with whether you succeed in that job. Your institutions have to have certain time.

You want to talk about flexibility, this extends to how we fund schooling and enterprise. We fund butts in seats. We fund individual students when they show up and we reward them for finishing school in a pre-prescribed period of time that may have nothing to do with whether they became competent or achieved mastery in a critical subject area.

That’s a recipe for, again, a factory model that we hear often said, a factory model of education, when you and I ran into each other in Dubai, and we were at that event that there were people from all around the world, this is one of the biggest topics I talk about, is:

How to accelerate learning and the learning process and how to think differently and outside the box.

We have a lot of forces of the status quo and inertia that prevent us from really opening up those conversations without feeling defenseless.

Who’s getting it right then? Who or which education settings in the U.S., or around the world for that matter—would you put out there as a model to replicate and to scale?

Jeanne: I think there’s a bunch of different organizations, school institutions at all levels getting it right. And then you have folks in what would have been traditional school districts had they not reinvented themselves like in a unified school district in California where the superintendent Tom Rooney refocused the entire system and got the community on board for student centered, personalized learning.

That’s really cool and that’s happening in hundreds of places, not nearly enough.

It’s happening in charter schools like Summit, public charters out in California where they’ve been doing this personalized learning playlist for students and they’re now using that.

They got funding from Chan Zuckerberg to spread that around.

It’s happening in Arizona State University with extending through their global freshman campus, through their own new high school, their own charter high school.

Mitch Daniels at Purdue is doing the same thing.

So there are pockets of higher ed.

They’re beginning to think about credentialing. They’re credentialing a lot of career credentials that are being developed even though they don’t necessarily yet get the same play as a lot of the college and university based innovation.

The guy Michael down at the college who has a workplace, a workforce based approach so that people basically pay for their own colleges. They go through the working constantly. It’s kind of a modeled high school.

Then you hear about countries. Bridge International is in several African countries, as well as expanding into India. Schools with really bad economy. Parents are paying $20 a month for their students to get access to online education and it’s pretty exceptional.

Denmark is funding adaptive learning.

You’ve got DreamBox Learning.

You have Leap Innovations that’s connecting the dots between charters and edtech and as well as traditional school districts.

All of these points—and all of these efforts—are amazing in and of themselves, but there are still 15,000 school districts and a hundred times more schools that, a majority of them, are still doing and thinking the same way as they used to.

So the struggle really is a must-be-changed policy, and the structures around it.

These innovations don’t have a prayer in the immediate future to really reach everyone they need to reach even if they’re successful.

I think that’s a really good segue into another question I have for you, which is: Who’s shaking things up in the world of edtech? Who’s your favorite disrupter that we need more of?

Jeanne: I will confess, I did not study the questions. Who’s shaking things up in the field of edtech?

One of my favorite disrupters are the folks at Getting Smart.

They are provocative.

They look for people who want to be successful at changing things up.

The Christensen Institute also documents and recommends policy around this.

I’ve got a lot of favorites.

They are in just about every corner imaginable.

I even think that it’s an innovation to create Boys’ Latin public charter school in Philadelphia and expect students who would have never ever graduated. If you look at the numbers about critically African-American boys in Philly to get them learning Latin and holding them up to high standards of literature and giving them experiences through upward bound at the same time. That’s innovative. Innovation doesn’t have to be technology.

I do think that one of the most promising edtech innovations, however, is this whole drive towards adaptive learning.

We’re not even scratching the surface even with the great products and services that some people are creating.

But the idea of having a tool and in a teacher or a parent or a student’s hands that helps you make progress and is able to make sure that you have the building blocks to go on before you move on—that’s pretty amazing.

I’d say one other thing is a great document if you’ve not read it, it’s a vision document for education re-imagined. It’s called A Transformational Vision for Education.

That, in of itself, if that guides any edtech or innovator or entrepreneur out there, then we will make a lot more headway than we might normally make.

Well thanks for tackling that question. Innovators and entrepreneurs working directly with schools are appealing, but what part does government or government policy play in advancing innovation and education? Or for that matter, what should they stay out of, in the process?

Jeanne: It’s probably more the latter. What should governments stay out of, or guard.

I think the proper role of government, when it comes to education at every level—we haven’t gotten it right, yet.

Maybe a little bit more in higher ed for time than the primary the years, the secondary years.

The proper role is, and should be, to guard against—let me restate that:

To be the guardian for transparency and efficiency.

With transparency, accountability isn’t the government’s job.

It becomes the consumer’s job, because—if you know what’s being done, what the results are—and those are widely published and available, and research is available to review—then the public is able to hold the institutions accountable.

Yes, accountability for finance and operational responsibility is a government role, and certainly to move and act swiftly if there are violations and health safety discrimination—all those things.

But the standard that the government should be setting is, ‘Here’s all the information possible that we can collect efficiently’ (which is still not really being done). ‘Here’s why you need to know at every level. Now go find things that work for you, and let’s come back and report on them!’

So transparency, finance and operational accountability; not defining quality. What my quality is—might not be your quality, and my approach or my need.

Then research, and some light on all of the above.

That’s really the proper role.

And with that kind of role—not just educators and innovators and entrepreneurs will thrive—but students thrive.

Smaller countries with far fewer resources per student seem to be leapfrogging over the U.S. in terms of achievement. If you could institute one edtech change in the U.S. schools to narrow that gap, what would that be?

Jeanne: Ubiquitous access to open education resources in every place (I hesitate to say classrooms because not everyone’s learning in a classroom) where a learner is.

Technology allows us to meet the history professor who’s on the other side of the world.

Technology allows us to access content that we never would have accessed before.

Technology gives us the ability to share and talk and collaborate and answer questions and then report back how we did.

I think that, not that there are other countries that are doing that precisely, but there are certainly countries doing pockets of it.

I guess what countries are doing it doesn’t necessarily involve edtech because a lot of other countries have no problem saying there’s content that we believe our students should know and be able to learn and trying—that math and science are critical and they want their kids to not just learn English, but be able to pronounce English and be able to know grammar so they can be effective on the world stage.

We don’t even care if there’s grammar in our own classrooms, and so how can we do that here with that technology?

We can use open education resources and other pathways to content that are available and rarely used across the border.

You’ve been in ed reform for nearly three decades. With acceleration of technological developments in just the last 5 years, is reform faster? And what markers are there, there was a Nation at Risk and I see you have A Movement at Risk, very interesting. Has technology accelerated the reform movement?

Jeanne: No question that the school’s ecosystem has been affected probably by education technology. First of all, I can find out right now how well—I can find out what’s going on in some place that I wouldn’t be able to.

I can see the results.

I can watch videos.

I can call them, video with them, conference with them, whatever you call it.

And what’s happening is because information is available at the touch of a pad or phone with smart devices in a way that even five years ago.

And then that content is happening. It’s driven the content. It’s driven changes.

So whether it’s in higher ed and online delivery of higher ed and courses available through the internet, or whether it’s a part of a modern state’s education, which is a nonprofit trying to help folks for learning about what’s happening in a particular school district in Illinois—people act more quickly and with more ambition when they see that someone else has already tried it.

And if they have a way to test it out and, using the tools and the technology, review; and the ability to digest it all quickly.

There are research tools that are made possible by edtech that would never before have been available widely.

Technology that was never before; so I guess it makes it edtech because it’s about education. I’ve seen so much more data, and just [more] access to data.

There’s no question that blended learning, online learning, personalized learning—don’t require technology, but are made possible with larger numbers of people with technology.

And that technology helps carve that path to the future that people like Michael talk about.

Farther, faster, more interesting—and, I think, more successful.

And I suspect in the next five years, we’ll be able to say that that’s doubly so.

You yourself have done some work in the edtech sector with HotChalk in a higher education arena. So I’m curious as to the doubled-edged sword that technology may or may not be. What is your approach to some of the concerns that people have regarding student data, data privacy issues and just a surveillance economy as some folks call it? What are your thoughts on that?

Jeanne: It’s interesting. I’m fascinated by my experience with HotChalk and what they do to help colleges and universities bring their programs online and how they help people track those programs. I also worked with University of Pennsylvania unveiling their Education in Entrepreneurship program which is part on-ground and part synchronized and in a synchronized environment, and some other groups that I’ve advised.

I appreciate and I have seen a real resolve to get data privacy issues right, but I don’t want to see us go down the same path that we went with the family education—complete ignorance to the rest of it.

I don’t recall, but it’s the law and the regulations that don’t allow you, even if you’re paying college tuition—to see your son’s transcripts, which didn’t happen in my day.

There’s no question my father was going to see my grades whether I liked it or not.

But these things get overblown.

I’m talking to you on a phone that probably anyone could listen into. We give out data all the time. If you want to engage with learning, if you want to access organizations, sure they shouldn’t sell and protect your privacy.

They shouldn’t use it to capitalize on it.

At the same time, what you want and what you need, sometimes there’s a cost.

I think that is something that everyone’s grappling with, and it doesn’t mean you slow down. It means you keep speeding up and find the right answer along the way and you just make sure people have tons of information.

Again, transparency is the name of the game.

Not only with whether and how we know something works for our own students, for ourselves, for people we work with—but transparency in what their processes are.

Including calling somebody out on Twitter, perhaps. I just noticed today that there was a little virtual incident that may have occurred with that.

Jeanne: Yeah, there are people all the time who want to be snide or rude or sometimes borderline antagonistic, harassing. I just don’t believe you let people do that.

I think you call it out and I think you show people how other folks are acting because it’s really important in this.

I’m very positive and very hopeful about what’s going on now and in the future.

But we still have to remember, at every level, that there are people who are so vested in the status quo and so powerful and their money and their livelihood is at stake, that they need to find other jobs—because some of them make a living out of tormenting innovators.

How do you change that? You expose them.

So I think exposure and transparency on the good stuff as well as what’s happening that is not so good is really critical.

Wow well those are some leadership skills to learn by and to live by. Almost 25 years now, you’re coming up on 25 years for the Center for Education Reform. Nearly 25 years of making a case for education, innovation opportunity, and education transformation. Congratulations by the way. That’s a huge anniversary.

Jeanne: Thank you.

This is a broad question. What do you see as your focus for the next 25 years? Maybe you have a couple of key points or highlights you might want to share?

Jeanne: It’s taking ed reform to another level and calling it really education innovation, education transformation.

What I’ve been a small part of over the last 25 years is fantastic.

We’ve made great progress, but as we just talked about, things are now moving rapidly and ensuring that these systems that we have that preclude, deter, or just stop innovation altogether has to be completely transformed.

The learner has to be the central unit of focus, measurement, their success, and their competency.

What I’d like to say, Victor, is that our focus has to go from being about ed reform to ed innovation for learners at all levels—no matter what age—because we have adults that we should be concerned about just as equally as we should be concerned about our and their kids.

That’s our focus, my focus going forward—and I hope it’s everybody else’s focus so that I can spend more time on—maybe you’ll pursue it someday—who knows?

More time on—well, if there were to be some kind of upper-level, higher-level ‘opening’ should we say, in education—is that something that you would go toward? There might be all manner of different positions, but what is your thought on that?

Jeanne: If I thought I could make an enormous impact, and a big impact. But I think that my best role and place is helping connect folks outside of government and inside of; across policy, innovation, education, and advocacy circles.

Awesome. Well, Jeanne, a real pleasure speaking with you. You’re one of those leaders that generates a feeling of energy and excitement so it was great talking with you and I hope to speak with you again soon sometimes down the road.

Jeanne: Thanks for all the hard work you do. We absolutely love EdTech Digest!

Thank you—alright! Thanks Jeanne!

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