The Switch

It happened when I was sitting at a table at Franklin High School in Portland, attending a site council meeting in the library.

Years before, my wife Mary Beth and I had cut a deal. If we were going to have our kids in the public school system, we had to be involved with their schools. The success of our kids was tied directly to the success of their schools.

Mary Beth committed to being involved in the annual auctions that raised money as a meager firewall against the financial cuts that the school system continually faced.

Me? I committed to being on their site councils.

Site councils are committees mandated in Oregon, comprised of administrators, teachers, parents, and students to oversee each school’s culture and professional development programs. They help craft their school’s yearly School Improvement Plan (SIP) that is submitted to the district.

In truth, many site councils are perfunctory and the principal often ends up writing most of the SIP. I was really there to build relationships in the school to help my kids navigate their school experience.

One of our concerns with having our kids in large public schools was that they might get lost. Developing relationships with the principal and key teachers could help us keep an eye on the support infrastructure that was around our kids while they were at school. Numerous times these relationships were helpful when things went sideways with our kids. Which, occasionally, they did.

The Franklin High School Site Council was the fourth site council I had sat on. By then I knew the ropes.

So there we were, sitting in the library, discussing that year's student survey that would help shape the writing of the SIP. At previous schools, I had helped run these surveys using my company's web-based survey technology. My company at that time was designing and running sophisticated multi-branching surveys for global brands, so this was an area I was very familiar with.

The council members wanted to do the same simple paper-based surveys with the students that they had done for many years. I asked if we might be able to do it online, so students could do it either on their own mobile devices or in the computer labs. This approach would also allow us to also have a more powerful data analysis.

The pushback was immediate. It couldn't be done. Too complicated and the computers in the lab were too old. No, the only way to do it was by paper with hand tabulation of the data. Welcome to 1955.

Really, for 1,500 students?

And then I asked a question: “As we can’t use technology to better understand the needs and aspirations of our students, are we at least thinking about how we might introduce them to new technologies to prepare them for the creative economy?”

Oh, we have technology classes, I was told. Probing further, I found that they meant a couple of introductory classes teaching students how to use some software products. Word. PowerPoint. Excel.

The switch went off. I felt it in my whole body. Not outrage, exactly, but close.

I then asked them if they had any idea what I was doing when I wasn't sitting around this table with them in their library. They said, no.

So I began to explain that I ran a software company and sat on the board of directors for the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO). That organization, representing technology-based companies throughout Oregon, was focused on helping to build a new creative economy in Oregon. But we didn’t have the talent needed for this new economy and we were running scared.

And here, in Portland, at the heart of this new Oregon economy, at one of its largest high schools, we were teaching our kids how to use Word and PowerPoint and thinking that this was sufficient preparation for them to thrive in this new economy?

You have got to be kidding. I was indignant. We were failing our kids. We were failing our future.

But that was not all. I had a personal reason for this outrage: my daughter.

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