16 big-city superintendents describe ‘How to Fix Our Schools.’ Instead, ask: How can we re-imagine schooling?

Are urban superintendents warming to innovative uses of technology? To new roles for teachers? In a recent letter to the Washington Post 16 major superintendents indicate yes. But an alternative angle might also be considered.

Toward the bottom of Manifesto, 'How to Fix Our Schools', there is recognition of the need to use technology to increase productivity and customize learning. The authors use encouraging language about the need for improving teacher roles:

Even the best teachers face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. [...] We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers' time.

The superintendents describe the need to eliminate tenure, introduce merit pay, and have better teacher training. Michelle Rhee, who stepped down last week, has been a force for this. But these measures alone do not improve learning, and a strategy of ‘better teachers’ does not seem—just cannot be—the root of the problem of effectiveness and affordability in America's public schools. Is it?

Here’s an alternative take: District leaders could think about how to create the conditions to encourage a complete re-imagining of what is possible with schooling. Attract high-caliber professionals into teaching by moving beyond questions of pay and tenure and improving the character of the job. School could be reinvented, via technology—providing students with iPads, say, and then pairing them with mentors. Something closer to Google’s offices than lecture halls.

This type of re-imagination would require a cultural change in the teachers, district staff, and administrators alike. While teachers are commonly seen as the impediment to change, they could in fact become the agents…the ‘users’ in user-driven innovation.

Image: Michelle Rhee