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2007 Conference: Second general session

Edelman urges working together to solve education, world problems

The answer to a simple question could determine the future of public education: Are you a "WITTy" or a "YOYO"?

WITTy stands for "We're In This Together." YOYO means "You're On Your Own."

School board members and administrators were asked to think about the consequences of their answer by Jonah Edelman, keynote speaker for Saturday's second general session at the 75th IASB/IASA/IASBO Joint Annual Conference.

The 37-year-old co-founder and executive director of Stand for Children used examples of the climate change crisis, spiraling health costs and globalization to tie his ideas for education with the attitudes of how people approach problem solving: working together or as individuals.

While individuality is one of our strengths, Edelman said, "when it is taken to the extreme, it leads to selfishness."

He commended those in the room for sharing the responsibility of educating children and challenged them to adopt an attitude toward social change that has been evidenced before by those Americans who fought against slavery and child labor, as well as for women's rights, veterans' benefits and civil rights.

"We've done this before on many issues," Edelman said, adding that the goal of student achievement and success for all students is just as morally compelling as the issues above. But, he said, those leading the way will have to decide whether they're willing to work together toward the answers, or whether they consider this someone else's problem.

As an example, Edelman pointed to a climate crisis that could have the Earth headed for another mass extinction, the last of which was 65 million years ago. A YOYO response would be to do nothing and continue to waste money, he said. A WITTy response, on the other hand, would have schools that are energy efficient, that recycle and that have policies in place to accomplish those goals and "teach students to be good stewards of the planet."

Edelman's challenge for schools to "stop serving crap to kids" in order to fight childhood obesity and curb spiraling health costs elicited an audible response from audience members, many of whom maintained that they serve nutritious food in their cafeterias.

The core challenge of globalization is that the jobs many of today's students will hold do not exist yet. Citing that Illinois is third most hard-hit state in terms of the loss of manufacturing jobs, Edelman said schools "need to move beyond memorization to help kids figure out what they're good at." While it's important for students to be strong in core subjects, he added, it will be important for the adults of tomorrow to be creative and innovative, to be able to learn quickly and to have strong interpersonal skills.

And while they're fighting these in these three areas, he said, board members and educators also will need to confront "the elephant in the room": funding inadequacy.

"A YOYO response would be to do nothing and let funding increases go to districts regardless of need," Edelman said. "A WITTy response would be to redirect part of the state per pupil funding to the 20 to 30 poorest districts in the state and closely track its impact."

He challenged Illinois to direct all new state money to the poorest districts "until all are up to a minimally adequate level of $7,200 per pupil," adding that a ZIP code should not limit a child's outcome in life.

"Do it now," he admonished. "Illinois' children's quality of life and really the future of the world depend on it."

Prior to Edelman's remarks, Christopher Koch, state superintendent of schools, commended Illinois districts for "beginning to close the achievement gap," as evidenced on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test, and for their patience in suffering through this year's state budget process.

"The state hasn't been responsible," he said of this summer's fiscal problems, promising that his office would advocate on the behalf of districts to see that their funding needs are met. He cited the first increase in special education reimbursements in 20 years as a major hurdle during his first year as state superintendent.

"It's been a rough year but a good year," Koch said, adding, "I plan to stay." He later joked that if he started a "State Superintendent of the Day" program, "I could just about cover the rest of my contract."

Thomas Leahy, IASA president, presided over the second session, which included introduction of Blondean Y. Davis of Matteson ESD 162 as the "2008 Superintendent of the Year."

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