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Leading From the Ground Up: How To Transform U.S. Education

Here's the key to transforming U.S. education.

Vicky Colbert, founder of Escuela Nueva - a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of education worldwide is the 2011 recipient of the Kravis Prize for Leadership. She spoke yesterday on the Claremont McKenna College campus about her work. What Escuela Nueva does essentially is bring best educational practices and technology to rural classrooms in impoverished areas of Latin America, and other parts of the world. She has been recognized by the Kravis Prize, and by other significant awards, because of the enormous impact of their efforts. For example, underperforming rural schools in Colombia have been transformed into top performers by Escuela Nueva.

How do they work this magic? Well, they simply teach teachers about best educational practices, such as peer-to-peer learning, team-based learning, and moving from a centuries-old, teacher-centered classroom to modern, dynamic, student-centered educational techniques.

Where does Escuela Nueva get these transformative educational techniques? Well, they get them (mostly) from the U.S. Our very best schools use proven educational practices that produce highly educated students. I know. I see the products of those best schools and best practices everyday in my Claremont McKenna College students.

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The irony is that while we have the technology to transform education in the U.S. and the world (Escuela Nueva has proven that it can be done even in the most impoverished and remote schools around the world), it isn't being done. We hear about the poor quality of education in our own inner-city schools and in remote rural areas, and it seems unfixable.

So, how can the U.S., a country with the best educational technology still have such a massive problem providing high-quality education for our own students?

The reason is that we approach the problem from a top-down perspective. We expect leaders at the top - government officials, school boards, school superintendents - to effect the change. But that is not going to work. Escuela Nueva has demonstrated that high-quality education begins at the teacher level. Teachers "lead" their own classrooms and change occurs because Escuela Nueva shows them that they can lead/teach differently and be much more effective. For motivated, professional teachers, that's all it takes.

So, why don't our own teachers here in the U.S. simply adopt these best practices?

The answer is that our bureaucratic structures try to force change from the top down. Not just the school boards, but the teacher's unions too. Now, I'm one of the biggest fans of unions. In the 20th century they helped U.S. workers achieve amazing gains and improved our collective standard of living, but unions try to run things top-down, and that won't work. Moreover, the power structures in our public education system - the administration AND the unions - resist change. The bigger the bureaucracy (and believe me U.S. public education has some big bureaucracies) the slower it is to change.

So, here is my challenge to U.S. public education: Focus on changing from the ground up. The change to best educational practices has to begin with the teachers. The teachers need to force the union to serve their needs and desires to be the best they can be. The government and educational administrators need to see the model provided by Escuela Nueva (their budget is miniscule - between $2-3 million annually) and realize that it doesn't take massive amounts of money to make the transformation to high quality education for all.

 

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http://twitter.com/#!/ronriggio

 

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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