Live From NewSchools Summit 2018: Opening Plenary Celebrates 20 Years of NewSchools and Looks to the Future 

May 9, 2018


This blog was also cross-posted on Medium.

NewSchools CEO Stacey Childress officially opened NewSchools Summit 2018 this morning to a sold-out audience in Burlingame, Calif. The provocative and inspiring opening plenary gave a nod to the organization’s founders, who Childress acknowledged are all still involved in NewSchools’ work. Following a video tribute to the contributions of its ventures, she announced that the much of the day’s content would be forward-looking, challenging attendees to grapple with some of toughest issues in our society and how they will impact all of us in the years to come.  

She noted that changes in technology have given people power to connect on a bigger scale than ever, and the pace of technology is moving at breakneck speed. The challenge is whether technology will be used to help solve problems or to exacerbate them. 

Childress also noted while NewSchools is celebrating its 20th anniversary, many others in the broader education sector are also reflecting on the past 20 years. While some of our collective efforts led to progress, some did not. She commented that some people will say it’s best to stick with what we’ve been doing over the past 20 years, while others will point to another specific intervention as the perfect solution. NewSchools sees a case for a smart blend of interventions that effective.  

“We see an opportunity to reimagine school. We are wrestling with these things as a field because no single way of thinking holds the full answer to access, equity and excellence. What we can do is get better at fundamentals while also reimaging how to do those fundamentals even better. But, a key ingredient is to resist saying that we shouldn’t try things that aren’t proven,” said Childress. 

Giving an overview of the rest of the day, Childress explained, “We’re going to be focused on the future.  While we’re in this room during plenaries, there will be loose connections to PreK-12 education.” She added, “My goal is to challenge the limits of our collective understanding about these larger issues – the future of our democracy, the future of technology and the future of work, and to figure out what we need to do to equip students for the future.”   

To set the stage for a discussion about the future of our democracy, two young people gave moving testimonials on their own civic engagement. First, Lizbeth Gonzalez told the audience how she learned to use her voice in her own community to make education experiences better for students like her who have been bullied and are English Language Learners. After testifying at her first school board meeting, she recalls, “I realized I had power to create change. Since that day, haven’t stopped using my voice as my power.” 

Born in Pakistan, Ruba Tariq shared her story of becoming a student activist after participating in a class at her high school. “I am the present and future of American Democracy,” she proudly declared. Her class decided to support a bill to require all police officers in New York to wear body cameras. She made calls, sent emails and demanded to be heard. “Our age is not our weakness, it’s our strength.”  

These young women joined Childress and three other panelists on the stage for an entertaining, informative and thoughtful discussion. 

Micheal D. Rich, President and CEO of RAND Corporation, shared highlights of his new book, Truth Decay, which chronicles a 20-year decline in truthfulness, which has been marked by four trends: heightened disagreement about facts, blurring of lines between fact and opinion, an increase in the relative volume of opinion compared with fact, and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. Rich cautioned that these patterns threaten our democracy. 

DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen, explored how her organization goes into schools to teach “action civics.”  Students take a problem that is local to them, and do something about it. They learn to work collectively – building consensus – and come up with a plan. This gives students a real opportunity to effect change in their local communities, and teaches them how our government works.   

Ryan Streeter, Director of Domestic Policy at American Enterprise Institute, shared his insights on the politics of distraction and how there is an increasing trend of people creating blanket judgements on abstract ideas, coupled with a collapse of their confidence in institutions. He offered that social connections are valuable, and suggested we focus more on how to engage at the local with people who want to fix problems, and give them the flexibility to do so. 

So, what was the ultimate takeaway? The future of our democracy depends upon our ability to engage with people who have different opinions, and our willingness to get involved in problem-solving in our local communities. And, all of this requires engagement from the next generation of leaders.  The good news is they are already doing it. We must do our part to empower young people and give them the tools to do more of it.