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An open letter to Harvard's Richard Elmore

edX President Anant Agarwal speaks during the Has the University As An Institution Had Its Day? conversation at the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference at the TimesCenter on September 17, 2013 in New York.
Photo by Neilson Barnard

Dear Richard,

Yesterday was a rare day of hope for public school students in my neck of the woods and you had a lot to do with it.

The superintendent of my school system, a graduate of your esteemed institution, tweeted that your edX course, Leaders of Learning, “may b” his first online course. Imagine, if you will, the world of learning opportunities that will open up if the public school system became a “leader of learning” in a real sense by allowing students to receive credit for online learning?

Public school students will have the opportunity to partake in the acquisition of knowledge from proven masters like you. What is more, tax payers who fund the school system – the 17th largest in U.S – to the tune of $2.23 billion, would appreciate adding educational options without having to shoulder the additional burden of hiring more teachers.

As I recall, nearly sixty percent of our county budget, funded primarily through real estate taxes, goes to the school system. Savings that accrue from the school system budget can have tangible benefits—like making housing more affordable for our wonderful teachers. The embrace of online learning can keep more of our educators in our county and save them a commute that is fast becoming one of the worst in the national capital area.

Our superintendent has made an explicit commitment to equity. What could be more equitable than learning available for free to anyone who wants it or desires a challenge?

Now, I am mindful of the fact that some would view the introduction of online learning as the first salvo in the effort to dismantle schools as we know it. Others would perhaps view it as an effort to marginalize teachers.

Truthfully, I find the claims about the demise of public education or the teaching profession to be greatly exaggerated. Online learning, I would posit, is poised to enhance and enrich both the teaching profession and public education. I don’t see it demolishing the traditional brick and mortar school house.

From where I sit online learning seems to be filling a serious deficiency in the teaching profession. Schools of Education, arguably, churn out graduates who are mavens of teaching theory and the associated philosophy. Little if any effort is made to ensure that the prospective teacher has subject matter competence. As our public schools increasingly call upon teachers to be competent instructors in subjects that were once were the sole providence of the residents of the proverbial ivory tower, an in-depth knowledge of the subject is invaluable.

I have personally observed math teachers having to resort to notebooks filled with algorithms to teach mathematics. Does such a teaching paradigm create an enduring understanding or rote learning skills useful at solving familiar problems? Well, Montgomery County gave a tantalizing glimpse at the possible answer when students began failing their final exams in droves.

Here’s an idea for a discussion during your Leaders of Learning class: what are the causes of the mass math failures in Montgomery County and what were the transparent investigations undertaken to determine the cause? Theory, reasonable minds would agree, has only value when experimentally validated. The math failures are a clarion call, I believe, to assess where teaching theory went awry.

You wrote, “If I could make one wish, it would be to create a generation of teachers who walk into the classroom every morning expecting to be surprised by what kids can do. This is not the job of professional development alone, but also our schools of education.” I couldn’t agree more. A teacher can only be surprised by what a student can do if he or she has the subject matter knowledge to challenge a child to expand the educational horizons. It is somewhat like having everyone in a room with a four foot high ceiling—you just don’t know how tall anyone is until you raise that ceiling.

Recently, students in Montgomery County took to the streets to protest the achievement gap. It should ring a bell because Harvard famously weighed in on the subject way back in 2006. It turns out that the gap that was assumed to be closed or closing was alive and kicking. How could a school system have failed to realize that it hadn’t closed the gap? The school system has established an African American Student Achievement Action Group that would, among other things, look at institutional racism. As your course blurb states, “All of us carry explicit or implicit theories of learning. They manifest themselves in the ways we learn, the ways we teach, and the ways we think about leadership and learning.” Shouldn’t we undertake a self-examination of our implicit biases about teaching and learning?

Online learning is a form of education that is particularly immune, at least to some extent, to the biases of teaching institutions and individuals. Another good reason, I would think, to introduce online learning as a part and parcel of public school instruction.

The disparate treatment of students is a very real problem in Montgomery County Public Schools and with Harvard’s involvement in our school system (remember, Leading for Equity?) I would think a close scrutiny of the school system would help you understand how well your theories translate into practice.

In conclusion, I hope you will forgive my public overture to you. I have read your public commentaries and hope you would find this as valid an approach as yours.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

With best regards,

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