Ted Simons: The Rodel Foundation of Arizona is an organization charged with helping create a world-class system of public schools in the state. Earlier this week the Rodel Foundation hosted a forum that included education leaders acting as table hosts to facilitate discussions with business and civic leaders. Those conversations were followed by a panel discussion on education reform. I spoke with Jackie Norton, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation about the program. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Jackie Norton: It's a pleasure to be here, Ted, thanks.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about, this was a big discussion, a lot of folks here on Tuesday. What was it designed to accomplish?
Jackie Norton: A lot of things. First and foremost it was designed to be different, not just for the sake of being different, but on our invitation we were rather irreverent and said no more blah, blah, blah. We recognized that everyone in that room had been to so many convenings, conversations about education. There's plenty of talk, not enough action. Part of it was to really drive towards action. But equally important and somewhat novel was to bring intentionally opposing points of view. We think there's great danger in the echo chamber. People go to conversations. They have listened to news, they can pick what they want to hear. People tend to hear only what they agree with. That doesn't drive compromise, that doesn't give us any traction. We intentionally picked a broad spectrum of people who would have different points of view. We wanted the audience to hear that, not to necessarily agree or disagree but to realize that on these arguments there will not be a uniform sense of what is the right thing, but we still have to make progress.
Ted Simons: Did you think progress was made? First, talk about the folks that attended, talk about the folks on the panel, and what you heard.
Jackie Norton: Well, it was a unique convening. And part of our approach to this was to get a stellar panel hosted by you. And I don't mean to just flatter you. But your ability to facilitate that conversation with six people who we knew would disagree with each other, was part of the draw. Then we recruited 44 what we call table hosts. These were people who have a following in their own right. They represented the education sector, the business sector, the philanthropic sector and the government sector. We wanted the panel to be diverse and each table to be diverse. We paired up table hosts with different backgrounds, who could bring out interesting points of view. Then at each table the guests were, again, a cross sector. We were lucky to have as many people willing to come as we did. At every table you would have an interesting mix. A young person with children just starting school, a grandparent perhaps, someone who spent their life in education, somebody who didn't know where their neighborhood school was. We think that led and our audience feedback was that it was fun. It wasn't an intentional goal. But if you can have fun while airing divergent views, all the better.
Ted Simons: Talk about recurring themes, talk about any solutions or compromises you saw forged or at least got people thinking about as they left the discussion.
Jackie Norton: Again, based on the feedback we've gotten so far, people thought it was a refreshing way to address this. What the next steps are are always the big question. We are not so immodest to think that we can lead a solution to all that ails Arizona's education system. But we do think getting that diverse group of people, all of whom are key to solutions, to be willing to share their views and for an audience to accept all of those different views, how we turn that into progress is yet to be determined. We didn't have an outcome when we started this. If you convene around an outcome, by definition you limit the debate. We didn't want to do that.
Ted Simons: I mentioned recurring themes because I noticed that teachers, all aspects of teachers, who they are, how they become teachers, should others become teachers, how they are compensated, how they are considered in society, took up a major part of the early discussion. Surprise you at all?
Jackie Norton: No, but I was very happy to hear that. At the end of the day, as I've looked at the research and writing and controversy around education, the one thing everyone tends to agree on, whether you're a fan of charter schools, district schools, whether you're working in poverty districts or affluent districts, no matter what your point of view. Whether you're a home-schooled, everyone agrees the key to students' success is in large part in the hands of a teacher. I liked seeing that coalescence around teaching. What that means has yet to be determined. That didn't surprise me, but I was happy that it surfaced and we got the range of views on how do we improve teachers. As you heard, not everyone said it was just pay them more.
Ted Simons: Right. We did have a lot of ideas, a lot of suggestions, a lot of conversation talking points. How do you want to see some of these ideas? And perhaps a solution or two, facilitated? I know one panelist said this is all great, but lawmakers, you gotta pay attention, I think she said. You have an attention problem here.
Jackie Norton: Right.
Ted Simons: This was a great forum a great discussion, great conversation. But again, how do you make the discussion turn into action?
Jackie Norton: Well, we won't do it single-handedly. What I think we will do is really think through what should the focus be. Should it be about focusing on better teachers and more of them because certainly the Rodel Foundation can't do everything and no foundation or program can. Prioritizing what is the most important thing to focus on, what will have the broadest reach, is probably where we will start. Then of course our first step will be, who are the logical partners? Who's willing to work on this with us? And then from there perhaps try and build a model around that where we get all -- you know, the number of organizations, groups, businesses who are working on teacher improvement and teacher quality, we haven't even begun to identify. If we got all of those people really coalescing, it would be powerful.
Ted Simons: I want to ask you a question I asked the panels, the closing question. What does Arizona need to be considered an education leader, so people all around the country go, Arizona? Yes, they have good schools. They concentrate on education. What does the state need?
Jackie Norton: I think a good start would be part of what we did this morning, where you showed that the community collectively really is concerned about this. I was so gratified. Massachusetts came up as an example of success. And Dean Kerner said he spent time in Massachusetts, and yes, they do well. But you would never get a group like in this Massachusetts, a broad cross-section of the community to show up and agree this is an important issue. Not only that it's important but they are willing to work on it. I think the first step for Arizona is to look at what we have going for us. And that is a group of concerned citizens who are willing to work on this.
Ted Simons: All right. Well, I thought it was a very encouraging event and certainly an enlightening discussion. Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of it and congratulations.
Jackie Norton: Thank you, Ted.