Transforming Education Takes Center Stage at Desert Summit

Associate Editor

Scottsdale, Ariz.

The 2,500 entrepreneurs, educators, and developers gathered here for the Arizona State University/Global Silicon Valley conference are spending three days discussing students and schools, what they need and how to shape a future that may look little like the present in education.
Leaders from government and education businesses are joined by educators who share their “on the ground” experiences with testing ed-tech products, helping teachers use technology, and what their aspirations are for the future.

Here are a few highlights from the day’s sessions.

Arne Duncan Opposes Textbook Purchases

“We, as a nation, spend $7 [billion] to $9 billion a year on textbooks that are basically obsolete the day they arrive in school,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “My question is: why are we spending money on something that—when it gets to you—it’s too late?”

Asked how we could “change the culture” of textbooks, Duncan said, “We just have to get rid of them… Were we to get rid of them tomorrow, we’d still not be leading the world” with 1-to-1 digital conversions. Countries like Uruguay are ahead of us, he said.

D.C. Teacher Questions ‘Free’ Ed-Tech

Tanesha Dixon, a teacher in the District of Columbia public schools who has begun using a blended-learning model, talked about how she sometimes felt like she was “building Rome and the road to it at the same time.”

Asked how she reacts to hearing a product is free, she said, “It’s like the candy at the doctor’s office,” but she wonders if what’s left might be “the yellow ones no one wants.”

Since she doesn’t have “the time or expertise” to sort out a lot of issues that might be associated with free ed-tech offerings, she said the onus is on the ed-tech community to “police yourselves.” Does this product meet student privacy requirements? Is this product common-core aligned? These are among the questions she and her colleagues must ask when using a product to determine whether it’s right for their classrooms, she said.

Transformative Potential of Ed-Tech

In his first week on the job, S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of the Baltimore County school district in Maryland, visited two schools. At the first, he found technology sitting in storage, because the PTA had helped purchase it and there was more than was needed. Only a five-minute drive away, he found a school that didn’t have a mobile card. “I knew at that moment that we had to level the playing field,” he said.

In less than three years, he said the district is working hard to do that. One parent said he knew nothing about computers until his child brought one home from school. Dance said it’s powerful to think of the transformative impact such initiatives could have for 100,000 public schools in the United States.

Time for a New Type of School?

A recurring theme of the conference is that schools have been built around the needs of the industrial era, at a time when we are deeply into the information or knowledge era.

“It’s kind of a fool’s errand [to think that] if we just train people to lead for institutions built for the last century that we’re going to get different results,” said Stacey Childress, CEO at the NewSchools Venture Fund. She favored finding an expanded vision of what student success can mean, beyond the focus on test scores.  

After attending the day’s sessions, Linda Clark, the superintendent of the West Ada school district in Meridian, Idaho, said, “We believe we’re engaged in changing everything about school, and this [conference] has made it clear that this is indeed the work.”

Clark, who is an Education Week Leader to Learn From for innovation, said the focus on creating a new educational culture resonated with her. “It’s not really work for the weak of spirit,” she said.

Hip-Hop Artist Common and His Board-of-Ed Mom

At the end of the day, hip-hop artist Common, whose song “Glory,” with John Legend, from the movie “Selma,” won an Oscar this year, shared the story of Mr. Brown, an influential teacher the entertainer had when he was 8 years old. 

Thirty years later, Common flew to Mr. Brown’s side after learning that the teacher had been shot and was clinging to life. Mr. Brown survived, and called Common to congratulate him on the Oscar. “I told him, ‘Little did you know, you’re one of the reasons I’m here,'” Common said.

The performer encouraged the entrepreneurs in the room to do more. “We may have come into this room to do business, but what is business without service to those people you want business from?” he asked.

Mahalia Hines, a Chicago Board of Education member, former principal and teacher, is Common’s mother, and she joined him stage. 

Hines talked about the imperative to educate all children. “This is not missionary work,” she said. “The goal should not be saving them. By educating them you are saving them.”

Hines challenged the educators, entrepreneurs and developers to “know the culture of the children you’re going to teach.” There is no one face of “underprivileged kids,” she said. “Go in learning from them. Use the knowledge to better be able to teach them.”

Especially for those creating the materials for the next generation, Hines said, it’s essential to incorporate the experience of the children in the way the materials are presented. “I would like to see entrepreneurs go into some of the schools and talk to some of the kids” to see what the students really need, rather than just making that decision without talking to the kids, she said.

She also challenged the “revolving door” aspect of programs that put young teachers in classrooms for a year or two, then they move on. “They need stability,” she said. 

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2 thoughts on “Transforming Education Takes Center Stage at Desert Summit

  1. To truly change the face of education – many higher education companies have reached out to Innovation platforms to share best practice – to find ideas to problem statements, and to share the wealth of knowledge between state to state.

    In order to expand teaching efforts, organisations, or a central organisation must be able to collaborate on issues that effect schools nation wide.

    Jonathan Warrilow
    Commercial Manager at

  2. As one of 68 Innovation Scholars from USC, Harvard, Stanford, Penn, and ASU attending the Summit, I believe the universal attitude of every one of us is that we are already behind in transforming K-12 education in the US and we must not just get to the work, but immediately accelerate our efforts in the work. And as we do, must absolutely commit ourselves – in indivisible unity – to provide these new 21st century learning opportunities to every child. If we don’t do that, we will both fail our children and fail our future as a nation.

    Vance Nichols
    USC/Noodle Innovation Scholar
    USC Rossier School of Education

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