Last week, LEV’s CEO Chris Korsmo gave a “TED Talk” at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Regional Leadership Conference. Below is an excerpt from her talk:

Over the past few years there has been a lot of attention paid to education and how we as a nation are doing compared to others. Some of us have been down right freaked out by the decline in results and the fact that this generation will be the first in our nation’s history to be less educated than our parents. Some have called for  a “sputnik moment”  like when we chased the Russians into space and beat them to the moon. We need to find that uniting mission that kicks us in the pants and gets us moving.

I’d argue that we need an Apollo moment.  Apollo 13 to be precise.

In one of the more intense moments of film Apollo 13, a group of engineers and designers and others in the pocket protector set sit in a room wringing their hands about how to save the men aboard the ship.  The work is focused on figuring out how to restore electricity and stay powered up to get the space capsule back into earth’s orbit. But they discovered something more urgent; the men are literally dying from lack of oxygen.  The engineer need to build a filter that fits a certain size and shape, to remove CO2 from the air, so the men can breathe. The catch? They can only use what’s on board the ship.

So a box of odds and ends is dumped on the table  At first there’s a bit of geek  grousing – we can’t possibly, and how do you expect us to, blah, blah. But they get down to work. They’re focused,  there’s no blame, and the team solves the problem. The crew is saved.

I think of this scene whenever I hear of a school or district that has dumped its box upside down to solve an urgent need. Like in Bridgeport, a rural and mostly low income school district primarily serving Latino students that managed to get 100% of their kids to graduate from high school – and that got all of their graduating seniors  – 100% of them – accepted into college. Or in Federal Way where Advanced Placement is the default for kids who pass their state tests. They don’t opt in – they have to opt out, with their parents. Or the investment in early literacy in Auburn, that has their third graders knocking it out of the park in reading. These school leaders addressed the urgent while simultaneously looking at the bigger system issues.

These districts didn’t wait for Washington Supreme Court decision or a check from a wealthy benefactor. They just got busy working the problem.

We need more of that.

Let’s take the Apollo approach on a different issue; When I moved here in 2007, the state board of education was debating graduation requirements and how to get kids college and career ready. Despite passing new requirements at least twice, we’re still talking about it. In the five years that this conversation has ebbed and flowed, we’ve lost 60,000 kids to dropping out, we’ve seen college remediation climb, and our economy’s demand for more rigorous job preparation spike.   In other words, while we did nothing to address the urgent, the system got worse.

If we had an Apollo moment on this topic, we’d start by taking one urgent step – something done while we’re fixing the ship. How about, making sure all kids get algebra in 8th grade? If kids are proficient in Algebra before they leave in middle school, implementing more rigorous math requirements in high school wouldn’t seem so hard. And then maybe upping the ante for high school graduation wouldn’t seem impossible.

We have the box on the table. And the kids are in the capsule. The question is; What are we going to do about it?

4 comments on “"Houston, we have a problem."

  1. It seems easy to say “How about, making sure all kids get algebra in 8th grade?” as if that would magically make all kids ready for algebra in the eighth grade. As if all students would pass 8th grade algebra, including those working many grade levels behind. You can raise the bar, but raising the bar doesn’t help students get over it.

    How about something else. How about we acknowledge the truth that academic success is built on students arriving in the classroom prepared, supported, and motivated. How about we acknowledge that while a lot of middle class students are getting to school with the necessary foundation, a lot of students arrive without it. How about we shift our understanding of the school’s role to include providing preparation, support, and motivation when they are absent. That would be a better place for us to invest our scarce resources than in proclamations about when every student will do something.

    Look at the changes that worked. They worked because students got what they needed. While it is true that some of them need more challenge, a lot of them need more preparation, more support, and more motivation. They don’t need someone setting arbitrary goals for them without any help to reach those goals.

    The famous line from the Apollo 13 movie is “Failure isn’t an option.” My friend once told me, “That’s true. It comes standard.” Let’s focus on the root causes of failure and address them. Then success will be the only option.

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  3. Maybe parents aren’t doing their jobs as well as they should — not teachers. We are tied for the highest SAT scores in the nation. Something’s right in our public schools.

  4. As a Registered Nurse, I get why STEM education is so necessary. I have to precept and train new nurses, and if they don’t come fully competent in math, science and critical thinking abilities then we’re sunk. In fact, the patient could be harmed, the nurse can lose his/her license, and there goes one more nurse just when the shortage is really about to hit us hard.

    Now that I serve as a PTA President for an elementary school in the South King County area, I am struck at the number of parents who ask “What is STEM?”, “We shouldn’t focus so much on math, why are we not adding art?”, and and “Why do we need new computers in school?”, and that’s what I can gather if they speak English (my French just doesn’t help me here). We have a very diverse population, with numerous families who speak multiple other languages. FWPS notes that there are 113 languages spoken by families in this district. Furthermore, the 2010 US Census statistics suggest that not everyone has internet access at home. Nationally, Black and Hispanic respondents cited that 23% to 34% have internet access at home and/or work. I’m not able to find specific statistics for this region. Yet, the FWPS parent survey is only accessible online. I am fortunate that I speak English, work in health care, and Comcast finally got my internet connected. Making the STEM connection is rather easy.

    However, for many parents living in this area, the connection is not so obvious. What perhaps is missing, is the very basic, underlying issue that no one has thought to communicate this to the parents, in any language, by any other means than the internet. I have yet to see a district newsletter that describes what STEM education is, and the fact that the new Power Standards are a direct reflection of the Core Standards meant to enhance STEM learning. I have never seen the district present why the need for STEM in this region is so great. And I have not received any emails, notices, or invitations, in any language, to help PTA’s reach out to parents – an ideal venue – to disseminate this vital information.

    I had to seek out the Road Map Project on my own, find the Washington STEM web site, and attempt to contact someone, anyone willing to begin this sharing of information at the very root of this grassroots movement, right here in our school. And, I have yet to receive an answer. So just how important is STEM? I will agree it is critical, but the box of parts was dumped on the table and Apollo may have restored O2 and can breathe, but it has not been saved yet. Our families are still out there floating in space with no direction. Houston, we have a problem, and if the radio goes down, so will STEM. So let’s first reinforce the lines of communication, before we fire up the engine and waste fuel. Now that’s critical thinking.

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