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ARTICLE (NATIONAL) The Hacker’s Approach to Education Reform: Omar Wasow talks reform, school segregation and of course, technology…

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Interview by Liz Dwyer

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Once described by the Village Voice as, “a hacker of racial, not just digital, boundaries,” Brooklyn native Omar Wasow really wants to see the “hacking” of education. A tech analyst famous for teaching Oprah how to use the Internet, Wasow helped found one of New York City’s top performing schools, Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School. Wasow’s currently at Harvard earning a Ph.D. in African American studies and government where his research focuses on race and the political economy of education. We caught up with him to talk reform, school segregation and of course, technology… 

What’s really holding back education reform?

We have seen over the last 50 years wave upon wave of school reform. We’ve also seen the amount of money we’re spending on education increase by a factor of four. Despite all of that good effort and intention, we still have really awful outcomes for poor children. The core problem is they’ve left in place a very unresponsive public bureaucracy that has no incentive to do a better job and pays no penalty if they do a mediocre job.

The key is to give parents choice and options. If parents only have one provider of education available to them, then they don’t have a lot of negotiating power. They don’t have the ability to vote with their feet if they’re unhappy. By expanding parental options through things like charter schools, it gives parents some negotiating power, shifts power from a large bureaucracy, and is really to the benefit to kids.

An entire school staff in Rhode Island was fired not long ago due to low student achievement results. Is that the best solution?

I don’t know enough of the details of that particular school to say if that’s the right approach or not, but in most urban school systems, 60% percent of kids who enter high school will drop out. The idea that a school with a 60% failure to graduate rate can persist for decades without any shakeup is unconscionable to me. We’ve got all sorts of built-in mechanisms in our current public education system that make it really hard for any kind of accountability to exist at the school level. While a wholesale change in leadership in teachers might improve outcomes, if we don’t change the rules around how those schools are managed, we might end up right back where we started.

A recent UCLA study claims charter schools produce more school segregation. Do you see this in the charters you’ve worked with?

One of the sad realities is that reformers over the last 50 years wanted to create more integrated schools, but emphasizing integration and not quality means that we’ve ended up with schools that overwhelmingly aren’t integrated and aren’t very good. The younger generation of school reformers is just not that concerned with the racial makeup of a school. Their primary concern is the educational outcomes for kids. Michelle Rhee in DC, or the founders of a school in New Haven called Amistad Academy, or the charter school I’m on the board of- we’re running school systems or overseeing schools that are, for the most part, 90+% black. In the case of Amistad and our school, we’re producing much better results than would be predicted given our student population.

One other important point about integration is that what drives segregated schools is that we live in segregated neighborhoods, and one of the factors that drives segregated neighborhoods is school quality. When you look at surveys of what parents are looking for when they move to a new neighborhood, school quality is number one or two. As we uncouple school quality from middle class and upper class neighborhoods, there’ll be low-income neighborhoods with high quality schools. Over time we may see more integration of neighborhoods. Parents who would be perfectly happy to send their kids to a mixed race school that is high quality – and actually may have the preference to live in a mixed race neighborhood- will have that option.

You’re a tech guru at heart, so how is technology a reform solution?

I used to be deeply skeptical of the role of technology in education because without training teachers, without integrating it into the curriculum, technology is no more useful than putting kids in front of a library. My thinking has evolved as I’ve started to see examples of educational software that hint at the potential to complement or replace a teacher. The kinds of challenges we’ve faced in our country of not having enough high quality teachers will be addressed in part by high quality software that can serve as a teacher or tutor. Boomers are retiring so this teacher shortage is serious, and I don’t think the traditional hiring methods are going to work because the focus must be on teacher quality.