Leader Spotlight:

with Robert Runcie & Hadi Partovi

Robert Runcie leads Broward County Public Schools in Broward County, Florida. Hadi Partovi is founder and CEO of Code.org. Each cares deeply about kids and is fiercely dedicated to making education better. They think Americans want quality education too, but they see a system that falls short without a unified view for a way forward and divergent beliefs about whether education should prepare students for college or career.

For his part, Runcie calls for “strong national leadership with a compelling vision” and more scalable, consistent solutions. He’s working to make good on the promise of education with new models like the one at Broward’s South Plantation High School that integrates the core curriculum with the theater major. Runcie contends that creating different paths to give kids the skills they need may be challenging but is possible.

Partovi wants to see more debate about whether K-12 should be dedicated to preparing students for college or for life. With the increasing cost of higher education, skyrocketing student debt and fewer students from low income households graduating from college, Partovi asks, “Is it appropriate for the primary focus of K-12 to be university prep?”

Through Code.org, he is working to make students ready for the workforce by challenging what has always been. The organization is advocating that schools adopt computer science as part of the core curriculum in order to help students learn how to solve problems and become digital citizens in a digital world.

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Leader Spotlight

This issue’s Leader Spotlight explores how America is delivering on the promise of education through the eyes of the superintendent of the nation’s sixth-largest school district and a tech entrepreneur turned computer science advocate.

Robert

Runcie

Robert Runcie knows something about the transformative power of a high-quality education. Born in Jamaica, he moved to the United States as a child and became the first member of his family to attend college. Runcie graduated from Harvard University and earned an MBA from Northwestern University. He later founded a management and technology consulting company and held several strategic leadership positions with Chicago Public Schools.

Runcie joined Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) in 2011. Under his leadership, BCPS is finding new ways to deliver on the promise of education for all students and making improvements on benchmarks, such as third grade literacy scores, Advanced Placement pass rates and high school graduation rates, which are now at a historic high for BCPS. While these are all important markers of progress, Runcie points to the growth of a handful of efforts that are creating real value for students and families, including a rich computer science offering that began in 2013 when BCPS became the first district in the nation to partner with Code.org.

Hadi

Partovi

Widely recognized for its annual “Hour of Code” campaign, Code.org began in 2013 with the goal of expanding computer science in schools and increasing participation by women and minorities. The organization endeavors to assure every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science as they do math and science.

Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi is a tech entrepreneur and investor. Partovi grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. He is a self-taught coder who first learned computer science from his parents. After moving to the United States with his family, he worked as a software engineer to help pay his way through high school and college. Partovi graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in computer science. Partovi began his career at Microsoft and then went on to co-found Tellme Networks, which was sold to Microsoft. Partovi is an angel investor in Facebook, Dropbox and Airbnb.

Is it possible for life and university preparation to go hand in hand?

They can go hand in hand, but I think a lot of things that happen in K-12 occur because they’re needed for college and university. There are a lot of courses that we should be teaching that aren’t required for university but would really better prepare people for life. I believe computer science is one of them. But aside from computer science, I think the K-12 system needs to teach statistics, financial literacy and basic civics. Those aren’t things that a university requires students to know, but basic financial literacy, basic civics — these are things that are increasingly critical to be a member of society. A lot of students never learn these things, and then they have failings in their personal lives. The mortgage crisis we had 10 years ago is a good example. There are lots of places you can direct the blame for that, but the idea that so many Americans don’t even know how a mortgage works, or how to balance a checkbook, or how to avoid too much debt, has influence on their financial well-being.

These are things that school can prepare students for. They don’t have much to do with entering college but more to do with preparing for life.

What would you say to those who say we’re not making significant strides in the core curriculum to make these adds?

The core curriculum needs to change. We need to question why the subjects we have in the core curriculum are considered such and why others aren’t. As one example, there are more students in America learning calculus than computer science or statistics at the Advanced Placement (AP) level. The head of the AP program at the College Board believes fewer people should be studying calculus. He’s gone on record saying the students taking calculus should be taking computer science because it is more important than AP calculus. The reason students study AP calculus is because that’s seen as a stronger course for getting into college. College counselors tell students to take that course. The majority of students who take calculus fail the AP exam. Yet, it’s one of the most popular AP exams that the College Board delivers. I’m not saying that calculus doesn’t have value, but it has less value than computer science or statistics, especially for the majority who fail the course.

I think we need to broadly debate what really is the core. What does a liberal arts education need to include? In the 21st century, I believe it needs to contain computer science as well as financial literacy, civics and statistics. All four of these subjects are more important than some of the things that we teach in the core.

#BelieveInEducation

“I believe the value of education, as Paolo Freire stated, is to prepare young people to engage in the ‘practice of freedom’ — the transformation of their world.”

– Howard Fuller, Ph.D., professor of education and founder, Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University

Robert Runcie

How Can Technology Close Educational Gaps for Underserved Students?

 
Technology can help close gaps, but it’s not an end in itself. It can be an equalizing force in terms of access to educational resources. Technology also can be very helpful in creating personalized content and learning paths for students. Still, it’s the overall educational experience that makes the greatest difference.

I believe we need to have digital classrooms that simulate the real world. For example, our LEEO Project (Linking Education and Employment Outcomes) scaffolds computer instruction and employability skills to ensure students will become proficient in a specified technological area and acquire the skills necessary to compete globally. We’ve partnered with different corporations and organizations to make LEEO work.

Our first LEEO effort involved Citrix, Steelcase, Broward College and one of our high schools. We created a course that required students to work on actual business issues at Citrix. We simulated a Citrix work environment with furniture from Steelcase. Our students worked with students from Ireland and South America as if they all were Citrix employees. Some of the Citrix executives visited with our students. The LEEO Project continues to expand with more than a dozen schools now offering the program.

Ultimately, making sure learning connects to real-world application and having a rationale for why students are learning a particular skills-set is where we need to push more in education.

Hadi Partovi

How Can Technology Close Educational Gaps for Underserved Students?

 
There are two lenses for viewing technology and education. One is using technology to teach the same old stuff. And another is teaching technology itself. I’m personally more interested in teaching how technology works and teaching students to be digital citizens in a digital world. I believe that will prepare them for all sorts of subjects, not just the academic core subjects that we’ve been teaching since the 19th century. I also want to point out that technology has the promise of helping the underserved catch up. Technology makes personalized learning possible, so students can go at their own pace. It provides access to resources that otherwise might not be available and so on.

Technology also can actually increase the opportunity gap, if it’s only available in certain schools, or if it relies on students having home computers and high bandwidth internet. This is why it’s so critical for Code.org to engage schools in underserved neighborhoods to teach computer science. If you had to ask employers what subjects they’d pay the most for, or what subject they’re having the hardest trouble finding expertise in, it’s computing skills and computer science. Yet, the majority of our schools don’t teach it. If you look at the data, the schools that don’t teach computer science are more likely to be low-income schools, more likely to be rural schools, or more likely to be schools with high populations of African-American and Hispanic students. Those are the populations that most significantly need the opportunity to get ahead. Unless we teach computer science in these schools, technology is actually going to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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