Last weekend, I had the honor of appearing on The Tavis Smiley Show on PBS (America’s publicly supported broadcast network). For those of you unfamiliar with the show’s host, Tavis Smiley has been an influential broadcaster for over 20 years, focused on the key public affairs issues of the day. Smiley was recently named one of TIME’s 100 “Most Influential People in the World.”
The show’s long format allowed us to explore, in depth, some of the most pressing
issues facing educators, parents and communities, and I think you’ll enjoy the conversation, replayed here.
Tavis: Anthony Salcito is the VP of worldwide education at Microsoft, helping now to oversee a 10-year, $500 million education, which includes The Microsoft School of the Future in Philadelphia and the Microsoft Tech Friends Network. Anthony, good to have you on this program.
Anthony Salcito: It’s my pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Let’s jump right in. Tell me about this innovative program that Microsoft is behind?
Salcito: The program’s called Partners in Learning. It actually started about eight years ago. Microsoft was looking at the ways in which we can uplift not only the way technology can make a difference in education, but how we can work with governments and education leaders all over the world to solve some of the big programs facing our teachers, our students, our school systems, and we’ve been working on the ground to make a difference since then.
Tavis: On a practical level, how does technology in the classroom advance the cause of education?
Salcito: Well, I think we’ve got – the question you asked is actually interesting. In the classroom – certainly technology has a role, maybe, in the classroom; it has a role outside of the classroom. Those questions are starting to be asked by school leaders and teachers around how they can best use technology.
What we’ve got to do is actually be thoughtful about asking the right questions and not just jam it into classrooms, which has often happened. It happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, with little input.
Now, technology can certainly play a role, whether it’s tools to help students collaborate and share information with each other, whether it’s tools to learn from teachers who may not exist in their schools or maybe get expert opinions from different perspectives all over the world. That can be done.
So technology will certainly be part of an answer, but it’s a deeper question and a deeper journey that we have to support.
Tavis: How does our education system vis-à-vis technology respond to every child and his or her interests for their future?
Salcito: That’s a great question, and certainly it’s one of the big pieces that I think our education leaders, our school leaders, Secretary Duncan, are focused on, because personalized learning is one of the big areas of focus, and certainly technology can play a role in that. I think that’s part of the area of focus that we’ve got to deliver.
Tavis: How is this $500 million being spent, specifically?
Salcito: It’s been spent many, many different ways. It’s largely being spent to really support and scale innovation, and one of the things that we learn and we know, frankly, when we travel around the world and do partnerships, and actually, Partners in Learning actually serves 119 countries around the world.
This is a global issue. Teachers struggle with the same things all over the world, parents want the same for their kids all over the world, students are struggling how they can make a difference on the planet all over the world.
But what we also see all over the world is great examples, superstars and superheroes inside classrooms all over the world and in this community and Los Angeles, there are great teachers and next door, not so great. Or innovation that doesn’t scale from one to another.
One of the big focuses of Partners in Learning is to lift up expectations on innovation. How do we scale and support great teaching methodologies? It’s one of the critical things that I see, and certainly when I travel around the world I’ll get ushered into a classroom and I’ll see amazing things.
I’ll see a teacher that’s making a difference, that’s enlightening students; they’re doing great things with technology or great things with learning. Before I leave that school I’ll go into another classroom and I’ll say, “I want to check this classroom out.”
The person on the tour typically will say, in a variety of languages all over the world, will say, “You don’t need to look at that classroom. There’s nothing special going on there,” and that’s a crime that there are some classrooms that nothing special is happening, and next door lots of special things are happening.
We’ve got to share that innovation, scale up and support teachers to actually innovate together and collectively.
Tavis: You mentioned, Anthony, that teachers around the world have some of the same issues, and that is true, although it is the case that in so many areas of education, the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind.
Tavis: Bill Gates has talked ad nauseam about the achievement gap in this country and the foundation, of course, is working on those kinds of those issues, Microsoft working on those issues.
Tavis: What specifically does this program do to shrink, ultimately, that achievement gap?
Salcito: I think it’s important that we actually focus on relevance. One of the areas that we’ve learned and a lot of the partnerships we’ve started, one of the big thing in the United States is algebra. It’s often the beginning where students lose interest in science and math. It’s one of the areas that this country struggles with as it compares to China, where 40 percent of the students in undergraduate study in China are focusing on science and engineering as a career.
Less than 17 percent of students in the U.S. are doing so, and we know that’s where the growth opportunities for jobs will be. It often starts in algebra where kids will sheepishly raise their hand in classrooms and say, “What does this have to do with the real world?”
That question is very, very powerful and important for the teacher to get right, and we often don’t prepare students for that question. The reason why students often feel they’re learning something is because it’s on the test.
What we’ve got to do is have a deeper dialogue with regards to how learning and content and classrooms prepare students for their future and prepare them with skills, prepare them to ask questions, to be a creative thinker, an abstract thinker, which is one of the foundations for algebra and advanced mathematics.
Other countries are doing that. They’re connecting the dots between the learning environment for a student and what their future could look like. We’ve got to do that better in the United States.
Tavis: Even Microsoft has critics, and there are a number of things the critics say about the work that Microsoft and the Gates Foundation, for that matter, are doing, and one of those critiques is that the education crisis in this country won’t be solved by throwing more money at the problem. I know this ain’t the first time you’ve heard that, but your response to that is what?
Salcito: I agree. A lot of times it actually requires you to get down into the communities, ask questions. You referenced the School of the Future. It was a project that we started to actually work with the city of Philadelphia to help them show what maybe an innovative school could look like.
It was designed, frankly, and I’ll be quite frank, to provide a great use of how technology can transform a modern school in an urban city like Philadelphia But we wanted to embrace the toughest challenges. We picked the toughest neighborhood in Philadelphia, in west Philadelphia, in a neighborhood that’s nicknamed “The Bottom,” and we applied thinking with the community to say, let’s roll up our sleeves and actually do he work.
What we found when we asked questions, we went to the communities and knocked on the doors of parents, talked to students, we expected, we said, Bill Gates, Microsoft, are going to build a school in the city of Philadelphia. What do you want?
We expected fantastical ideas of technology and Xbox in the bathrooms and all the different ideas that you would expect from students who are hungry for technology in schools. What we found is parents said, “I want my child to be safe. I want them to be safe inside the school. I want them to be safe as they walk to and from school.”
Students said the same thing. “I want to be in a school where I can feel comfortable learning and comfortable going to and from school.” That was almost a punch in the gut, to say it doesn’t require just throwing assumptions to problems. You’ve got to deeply connect to what’s going on in the community to apply the real challenges to make real impact in education.
Tavis: But your answer actually raises another question right quick, which is how or what happens inside the school is connected, or really disconnected, put another way, from what these kids deal with in the real world.
Tavis: So that whatever you offer inside that beautiful structure that we saw on the screen a moment ago, it in the minds of some pales in comparison to the challenges they face in their community, in their streets, in their homes.
I ask as a closing question, as an exit question, whether or not that’s hard to process every day, that no matter what good you’re doing on the inside, so much of what’s holding these kids back is what they endure on the outside.
Salcito: It’s absolutely true. Students are only in school for about 10 percent of their learning life. They have huge opportunities to be influenced by the pressures of their environment. I’m a kid from the streets of the Bronx. Technology saved me.
While my friends were joining gangs and doing drugs and shooting each other, I was using my computer to learn about different things around the world, and really, the computer was what kept me out of trouble. I spent a lot of time working with kids to say celebrate your path. Recognize that you can make a difference, and the world needs you.
But we’ve got to bring businesses like Microsoft, parents, school leaders, other parts of the community together to support students. We can’t fail. We don’t have a generation to lose. We need the impact, the innovation and the ideas that these students will bring to not only the workforce but the world we live in.
Tavis: Anthony, thanks for your work. Good to have you on the program.
Salcito: Thank you.
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