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Guest Post: Alex De Carvalho Chats With NPR's Michel Martin


This week, NPR's Tell Me More and StateImpact Florida hosted an international Twitter conversation about education reform at the WLRN studios. South Florida social media maven Alex de Carvalho (@alexdc) was one of the thousands of people to participate to join that conversation. He organizes regular local web and technology gatherings and is a founding member of RefreshMiami. He stopped by WLRN for a video interview with Tell Me More's Michel Martin.

Michel Mar­tin of the NPR show Tell Me More aired a spe­cial seg­ment on edu­ca­tion. She was joined by U.S. Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion Arne Dun­can and his pre­de­ces­sor Mar­garet Spellings to dis­cuss edu­ca­tion reform at a national level – includ­ing the “No Child Left Behind” pol­icy. For­mer Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Pub­lic Schools Chan­cel­lor Michelle Rhee and Miami-Dade County Pub­lic Schools Super­in­ten­dent Alberto Car­valho fol­lowed with a dis­cus­sion on school dis­trict reform. For­mer Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion Diane Rav­itch also joined Mar­tin to dis­cuss why she no longer sup­ports strict test­ing stan­dards and the expan­sion of char­ter schools. Mar­tin also spoke with Salman Khan, cre­ator of the pop­u­lar online edu­ca­tion tool Khan Academy.

I had the chance to speak with Michel after the show and we had a fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion, which I recorded and tran­scribed below. After you view the inter­view, I’d like to know: what do you think are the major chal­lenges fac­ing our edu­ca­tion sys­tem? No one seems to agree.


Here we are with Michel Mar­tin, who had a great show this morn­ing about edu­ca­tion. Could you intro­duce your­self and tell us a bit more about your show?

Sure, I’d be happy to. I’m Michel Mar­tin, I’m the host of Tell Me More, it’s a daily, Mon­day — Fri­day pro­gram broad­cast out of Wash­ing­ton DC. It is national, we are in about 130 mar­kets or so around the coun­try and the pro­gram has been on for about 5 years. Edu­ca­tion has always been one of the pil­lars of the pro­gram. You know, a show is like a pair of shoes or a jacket, you have to have a rea­son to have it in your closet. One of the pil­lars of the pro­gram has always been edu­ca­tion, push­ing edu­ca­tion for­ward. We don’t have any axe to grind in terms of the way we want peo­ple to think about edu­ca­tion. We just know that the peo­ple we talk to, from all dif­fer­ent back­grounds, edu­ca­tion is always one of their top pri­or­i­ties if not the top pri­or­ity for them. And yet it’s very hard to have national con­ver­sa­tions about it, because edu­ca­tion is so local, and a lot of peo­ple don’t see the con­nec­tions to other things hap­pen­ing in other places. What we try to do is not only to bring a national per­spec­tive to local sto­ries, but also to stay in touch with the local sto­ries so that peo­ple can under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing. I think you can see by the types of guests that we are able to get, that other peo­ple are hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions too.

You had some great guests today, on the national and inter­na­tional level and even on the local level …

Yeah we did, and it was really excit­ing to get the Super­in­ten­dent of Miami Dade, which as you know is the fourth largest school dis­trict in the coun­try, which is impor­tant because Florida is exper­i­ment­ing with the same issues that every­one else is. For instance, we have guests from Wash­ing­ton DC, like Michelle Rhee, who was the chan­cel­lor of a much smaller sys­tem, but deal­ing with all the same issues: diver­sity, mul­ti­ple lan­guages, kids from all kinds of back­grounds, all dif­fer­ent lev­els of school readi­ness … and, very advan­taged, very afflu­ent peo­ple who know what they want for their chil­dren and are deter­mined to get it. So, the vari­ety is really there and I was really glad to be able to do the show out of Florida.

On the show today, was there some kind of con­sen­sus on what are the major chal­lenges fac­ing the edu­ca­tional system?

That was one of the most inter­est­ing things to me about it was that there wasn’t. You often hear in Wash­ing­ton when they talk about pol­icy: “We all agree on the goal, why can’t we get together and fix it.” Well, one of the things we heard today is that we don’t really agree on what the issues are. I think a lot of peo­ple do agree that the edu­ca­tional sys­tem — now, col­lege has its own stuff, so we focused on K-12 — but that the model that we used was from a dif­fer­ent era, it was from the horse and buggy era. It was 9 months of school, so kids could work in the fields — I mean, who were we kid­ding — on farms, you know, 9 to 3 day so kids could milk the cows and I think most peo­ple would agree that those days are over, but what most peo­ple don’t agree on is: what should be next. One of the inter­est­ing things, if peo­ple lis­ten to the whole hour, I hope they do, you’ll hear the whole range of ideas of what peo­ple think needs to happen.

Right, and so one of the more inter­est­ing guests you had on in my opin­ion was Salman Khan with the whole online edu­ca­tion. Now, do you believe that is the future of edu­ca­tion or some­thing that will just com­ple­ment what we already have?

He made the point that he is not talk­ing about replac­ing, he talks about com­ple­ment­ing. But if you really read in between the lines and in par­tic­u­lar, if you read his book, which I did in prepa­ra­tion for the show, is that he clearly believes that online edu­ca­tion or at least intro­duc­ing a heavy com­po­nent of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion is just a must. I think that part of his argu­ment is that that’s where kids already live so you must meet peo­ple where they already are, but that it so obvi­ously com­pen­sates for the defi­cien­cies that we have now. Obvi­ously there are big prob­lems with online edu­ca­tion in the dig­i­tal space and it doesn’t take a lot to fig­ure out what those are. But I think that he’s pretty clear that a lot has to hap­pen and I think you’ll note that a lot of his lessons are being used in brick and mor­tar schools. I also found him fas­ci­nat­ing and really enrich­ing. I mean, I could have eas­ily spo­ken to each of the guests for an hour.

Salman Khan recently wrote an arti­cle which he didn’t really dis­cuss today, where he says that there are three parts to edu­ca­tion: Learn­ing; Social­iz­ing; and Cre­den­tial­ing (where you get your diplo­mas and cer­tifi­cates). He says they’re all impor­tant, but there should be a way to sep­a­rate the cre­den­tial­ing from the learn­ing and social­iz­ing so that you can indi­vid­u­ally go and get cre­den­tialed. This is espe­cially impor­tant for unem­ployed peo­ple who want to reskill and prove that they have these skills and competencies …

Well, the other issue with cre­den­tial­ing is the cost, isn’t it? How is it that you have a core cre­den­tial that you need to have any “leg” in the econ­omy at all and it’s unat­tain­able for the peo­ple who need it most. That is a recipe for a social dis­as­ter. I think that peo­ple under­stand that. As I said, we’re based in Wash­ing­ton DC and George­town Uni­ver­sity has a cen­ter focus­ing on this very issue and the head of that cen­ter, Anthony Car­ni­vale, has been sound­ing the alarm about the debt load that stu­dents have been car­ry­ing and the esca­lat­ing costs of higher edu­ca­tion. That is clearly a prob­lem, but let’s talk about just get­ting to that point: the high school dropout rate, par­tic­u­larly for cer­tain groups in this coun­try. Our coun­try used to have the high­est high school grad­u­a­tion rate in the world and we’re now at, what is it, 14?, so clearly there are prob­lems long before you get to the col­lege level. One other per­son I also found inter­est­ing was Diane Ravich, the edu­ca­tor and the pol­icy per­son from New York. She made the point that a lot of the com­plaints about the edu­ca­tion sys­tem were overblown and that they were really cre­at­ing the case for pri­va­ti­za­tion and I found that fas­ci­nat­ing. You prob­a­bly have heard this more than I have, but this is the first time that I have heard the argu­ment framed in quite that way and I must say that is food for thought for me.

I was fol­low­ing that [#NPRed­chat] on Twit­ter and peo­ple were very sur­prised that she was say­ing that the sys­tem was not bro­ken. I do under­stand her point of view and it’s prob­a­bly very valid. Now, peo­ple on Twit­ter were say­ing that there is so much to talk about, that this should be a weekly seg­ment. What do you think about that?

You know I also think that we should have a 2 hour show, not a 1 hour show so feel free to raise the ques­tion! I have to say, as I said before, edu­ca­tion has always been one of the pil­lars of our stool. If you asked us, how do we see our mis­sion as a pro­gram, cov­er­ing edu­ca­tion is one of the pil­lars of that stool, because it’s some­thing that affects every­one. It touches the future, it touches the past. You don’t have to have kids in school for it to affect you. Let me tell you, long before I came to NPR, I was work­ing in this par­tic­u­lar field — and I have been a jour­nal­ist for a long, long time — and I remem­ber being on a panel with a local busi­ness exec­u­tive, a woman, who was very focused on hir­ing locally. This must have been 10 or 12 years ago, that she talked about the dif­fi­cul­ties she had hir­ing from the local labor pool because the kids’ skill were so low — basic math, basic read­ing, basic lit­er­acy, basic numer­acy — and I remem­ber being really taken aback by that, so I guess what I’m say­ing is you don’t have to have kids in a school your­self to have a stake in the ques­tion. I say to peo­ple all the time when they cut their eyes at my kids when they’re act­ing up in the restau­rant, I say, “who do you think is going to be doing your back surgery 20 years from now?” I’m not mak­ing any excuses for my kids, but again, the stu­dents today are the ones doing our back surgery, build­ing our build­ings, doing our heart surgery … they have to carry the cul­ture of our soci­ety for­ward and what they know and how com­pe­tent they are and their abil­ity to inno­vate … that’s some­thing that we all have to care about. We all have to care about that.

Michel, your show was great and I hope that you’ll con­tinue this dis­cus­sion. Thank you so much.