The troubles of the nation's schools have caught the attention of software innovator and philanthropist Scott Oki. In his thoughtful new book, Outrageous Learning: An Education Manifesto, Foundational Thoughts on Reforming our Public Schools, published by Washington Policy Center, Oki describes the ills facing public schools and coolly applies the same frank, no-nonsense analysis which made him one of the most successful executives at Microsoft and a recognized leader in the technology world.
More than 250 business and community leaders gathered last month in Seattle to celebrate the publication of Oki's new book. In attendance were many prominent and influential current and former policymakers.
Oki spoke about the first three "planks," or foundational thoughts, he has developed for improving public education:
...let local school leaders lead. Give local principals budgetary control, let them assemble a team of the best teachers possible, support them with appointed Boards of Trustees, and then hold these principals accountable for student performance;
...insanely great teachers. Allow principals to assess the performance of classroom teachers so that every classroom is staffed by an "insanely great teacher." Create a meritocracy in which good teachers are recognized and paid for superior performance. Eliminate teacher tenure, an outmoded policy which has no place in K-12 education.
...allow public school parents more choice over which public schools their children will attend.
Outrageous Learning offers eight additional planks for education reform: more time spent educating; early learning rigor and optional high school; muster an army of volunteers; standardized curriculum...NOT; early intervention and specialized instruction; spend money as though it were your own; plant the seeds of success in life: values, character, leadership; and establish a culture of excellence.
Oki has clearly done his homework. A significant new book coming out this fall, The Secret of Total Student Load: The Revolutionary Discovery That Raises School Performance, by Professor Bill Ouchi of UCLA's Anderson School of Business, looks at reform across the country and demonstrates that shifting powers from central school district administrators to local school principals significantly improves student achievement.
How do we fix public schools? Oki suggests the following prescription to focus efforts at reform:
"Freedom of choice should be the rallying cry for everyone involved in education. If we focus on the power of choice, we can open the floodgates of innovation and change in virtually all areas. Parents should have the freedom to send their children to a school, that, in their opinion, best fits the needs of their child and family. Teachers should have the freedom to choose how to teach. Principals should have the freedom to choose who is on their team, how to allocate their school budgets and how to create the best learning environment for their students."
Oki concluded his remarks by saying that "public education is really about the future of our country." He believes the problem is serious, the danger is imminent, and that vast, comprehensive change to public education is necessary.
The obstacles to reform are substantial. The education establishment is skilled at offering excuses for failure and in refusing to change existing practices. Policymakers pass laws which promise to deliver expensive new programs and smaller class sizes sometime in the future, without addressing the organizational and governance reform desperately needed to give every child in every classroom the best possible teacher, year in and year out.
Oki seeks to galvanize parents, teachers and principals to demand these policy changes. He hopes to send Outrageous Learning to every educator in Washington state. He has launched a discussion forum on the book's website, accessible at www.outrageous-learning.org.
In the meantime, political and other community leaders are taking note of Oki's friendly and engaging manner, optimistic and can-do style. Scott Oki has the characteristics of a genuine leader, a man with practical, common-sense solutions, not afraid to challenge existing practices and entrenched self-interests.
Outrageous Learning can help bring real focus to the challenge of bringing about systemic reform to public education.
- Liv Finne is education director at the Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan, independent policy research organization in Seattle and Olympia (206-937-9691).