This school week was little more exciting than usual for eight New Jersey school chiefs — they were among 100 superintendents nationwide invited to the White House to take part in the “ConnectED to the Future” summit on technology and how it’s changing education.
There was no shortage of star-struck educators on Thursday as participants heard from President Obama himself and also sat down with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But it wasn’t all amicable, as one New Jersey schools chief described some pushback on Duncan during discussion of the federal role in bringing more high-stakes testing – and more angst — to the nation’s schools.
Overall, though, it was mostly a feel-good event focused on how technology can improve education, albeit with challenges that come with it.
“The president really spoke from the heart about education,” said Richard Perry, the superintendent of Haddonfield schools. “With all the dreadful news that has been out there, he talked about the tremendous job that schools have been doing and said he wanted to give us the support we need.”
Ostensibly, the event was to promote the opportunities available through online technologies to broaden the education available to students. At the same time, officials also addressed the wide disparities in access to such technologies in different parts of the country, with some estimates saying just 40 percent of districts nationwide have broadband capacity.
Perry, who was paired at one point with New York City schools chancellor Carmen Farina, said he was struck by what disparate school districts have in common.
“We all had varying needs, but there were a lot of similar things we had in common,” Perry said. “Our students all still learn in a similar manner, and it was about getting the technology in their hands and the training needed for teachers.”
He said Farina cited challenges she faces in New York City that were familiar to him, including infrastructure capacity and the limits of teacher contracts.
“Of course, they aren’t dealing with the same (property tax) caps, and they have a lot more money than we do,” Perry noted.
Freehold Regional Superintendent Charles Sampson said it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity to be in the same room as Obama, Duncan and others talking about education. During the president’s speech, Sampson sat next to the White House’s chief technology officer, Megan Smith.
“I got to sit in the front row next to the chief technology officer,” Sampson said. “It was phenomenal.”
There was also some back-and-forth about some of the more controversial pieces of Obama’s education agenda, namely the new testing and accountability that was largely propelled by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition.
‘For a number of superintendents, the questions were critical,” Sampson said. “For all these issues being discussed about connectivity, these are things that can’t be measured in test scores. That was the elephant in the room.”
Duncan was questioned in particular about the teacher-evaluation rules tied to student performance, Sampson said. And there was some discussion of the coming advent of new online testing, although that wasn’t talked about much.
“Only one time did he mention PARCC or Smarter Balance,” Sampson said, alluding to the two testing instruments being used by states, including New Jersey. “I remember, because it stood out. But it was a drive-by.”
Still, Sampson said it was a valuable chance to hear directly from national leaders. He said regional summits are planned for the coming months, and attending superintendents were each given assignments to flesh out their own plans.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Sampson said. “The whole essence of bringing together 100 folks who had demonstrated some sort of excellence in this area, I think all of us had a feeling of excitement coming out of it. It was really inspiring.”
In addition to Perry and Sampson, the other six New Jersey school superintendents attending the White House event were from Elizabeth, Freehold Township, Pascack Regional, West Morris, Somerville and Summit.