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Donald Trump and Bill Gates find common ground

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With interest in education innovation aligned, the nation’s schools get a boost

by Jeanne Allen
Washington Times
December 29, 2016

It turns out that Donald Trump and Bill Gates have an important shared interest. And it bodes very well for the prospects for success in the new administration.

After their hour-long meeting at Trump Tower last week, Mr. Gates told reporters gathered in the lobby that the two “had a good conversation about innovation, how it can help in health, education …”

Media stories have focused mostly on the atmospherics: a couple of billionaires who’d never met before, getting to know each other for the first time just a few short blocks from 30 Rock in Manhattan. Well, that may be the story line of interest on Entertainment Tonight or in People magazine. But it’s not the most significant story line, not by a country mile.

It’s that the most important interest they have in common isn’t money, it’s innovation and all that it produces.

Improving education in America has been my passion and my avocation for the better part of three decades, and with each passing year it has become more and more obvious to me that what Bill Gates described as the “wide ranging conversation about the power of innovation” that he’d shared with the president-elect is the most important conversation we must all have about our nation’s schools.

Let’s be clear: innovation is not the same thing as the latest fad to hit the classroom. “Inventive spelling” was one such fad some 20 years ago, and it produced a cohort of children whose basic literacy was in certain important respects worse than for children of the 19th century. It was a fad born of the notion that memorizing spelling and grammar were old-fashioned and inhibited creativity, rather than the process of mastering the building blocks of intelligent discourse and the ability to communicate effectively.

No, innovation in education is something very different. Often, it builds on things we’ve only recently discovered about how children learn. It also frequently makes use of technologies that didn’t exist when today’s eight year-olds were born (the first iPad took the world by storm only seven years ago). Educational innovation is at its very best when it combines new knowledge about how we learn (and how different individuals learn) with new technology that takes advantage of that new understanding.

Examples abound: augmented reality (AR) approaches to learning are being pursued by a number of firms, marrying sophisticated digital technology with innovative methods of engaging a child’s interest and excitement. Such approaches are proving especially effective in targeting children who would otherwise fall through the cracks in a traditional learning environment.

An amazing variety of other innovations were on display just this week at the annual New York EdTech conference.

Such innovative work is more likely to find a warm welcome in charter schools and private schools, where fresh approaches to education are already an integral feature of the environment. But receptiveness to innovation is essential in every school if they’re going to provide children with the best possible education, tailored as much as possible to the individual student’s talents and unique abilities.

Naturally enough, non-traditional schools are leading the way. Their entrepreneurial spirit is melding with that of scores of private sector companies working to transform new knowledge and new technology into a new paradigm for education.

As they prepare to disrupt conventional methods of governing in all sectors, President-elect Trump and his team will give new and vital impetus to the movement for educational choice. But what’s important to realize is that choice is less an end in itself, but a powerful means to the most important end: a vibrant and innovative system of schooling that maximizes every child’s opportunity to learn and succeed. The fact that Donald Trump and Bill Gates understand and appreciate that fact means that Betsy DeVos will have the support she needs to transform American education.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform and a director of NY Ed Tech Week, a global education innovation festival held at New York University.