4 Takeaways from SXSWedu

The SXSWedu portion of the famously cool SXSW festival is the oddball segment, as evidenced by the early start and the attendees actually wearing suits. Besides the un-SXSW vibe of SXSWedu, there were a ton of takeaways for policy wonks. Here are four key ones:

  1. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teacher For America and Teach For All, not only takes tough questions from the audience (including many former TFA corps members), she took the no-silver-bullets route—that no one policy is the answer for our education crisis. She identified teacher-preparation reform as the 2013–14 flavor of the school year: fix the teachers and you’ll fix the schools. But most impressively, she told a tech-savvy audience that putting a tablet into every child’s hands isn’t going to do squat for improving our schools.
  2. A marriage between school choice and non-cognitive skills has a lot of potential. Many are reluctant to open their arms to teaching the “touchy-feely” stuff in our schools, especially as we continue to underperform academically. But non-cognitive skills matter. Bryan Contreras from KIPP Houston described the network’s home visits, summer camps, and mentoring programs. Contreras convinced me that these efforts at “social and emotional learning” are clear-headed parts of KIPP’s strategy for preparing students for success in college and life. It would be no easy task to scale these for all students at all schools, but charter schools (and private schools) can lead the way on innovative ways to provide non-cognitive skills to more low-income kids.
  3. Data security was the hot topic at SXSWedu, with several sessions dedicated to the topic. The lesson—or rather hold-up—is that until the feds overhaul FERPA, states and districts are stuck in a gray area: should they expend time, money, and resources into updating a policy when in one, two, or three years, Congress might actually get its act together and pass a new bill? The stagnation of education reform at the federal level was a frustration I noticed all through my visit to Austin. Multiple speakers mentioned the long overdue overhaul of No Child Left Behind (no surprise there). And in the #UglyPolicy session, panelists called on Congress to reread Federalist 9 and 10 and start legislating. They also called on the White House to stop making policy with waivers and waivers of waivers.
  4. Former secretary of education (and current Fordham Institute trustee) Rod Paige had a great conversation with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith. Paige reiterated the bedrock conservative priorities in education reform: closing the achievement gaps at all levels of the government, especially at the classroom and parent levels; keeping school curricula high quality; supporting high standards; and expanding parental choice. Paige criticized House Bill 5, which passed the Texas legislature in 2013 and rolled back the number of tests required to graduate high school, from fifteen to five, for “taking the rigor out of the high school curriculum.” He noted that fifteen could be too many tests, but surely five is too few. When Smith asked Paige about the controversial Common Core State Standards (not adopted by the Republic of Texas, of course), the former secretary told the feds to butt out.

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