James H. Shelton: We Must Transform Schools


James H. Shelton: We Must Transform Schools

A U.S. Department of Education official warns that other nations are doing a better job than the United States of educating their young people.

Calling education “the most important problem that we have to solve in this country,” an official of the U.S. Department of Education warned that other nations are doing a better job than the United States of educating their young people.

Too often American business and education remain “silos sitting outside of each other, unwilling to recognize, and often casting blame at each other,” said James H. Shelton III, MBA/MA education, ’93, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.

Business and education should work together “to take the collective wisdom of what we actually know inside education and inside business” to improve teaching and outcomes. Other countries are “passing us by while we stand still” in education, he said. Shelton, who is charged with managing competitive teacher quality, school choice, and learning technology programs, addressed the April 6 Business in Education Symposium sponsored jointly by Stanford GSB and the Stanford School of Education.


Improving education is doable, he said. “The idea that you can’t move large systems to improve quality is bogus, because other countries are demonstrating that it is possible. When you have the will and make the investments and you have the strategy, you execute,” he said.

Technology should be put to work to transform education, Shelton said. “Technology has transformed other sectors — yet we have failed to do so in education. It will take hybrid skills sets to figure out how this is going to work.”

He noted that with increasing classroom sizes, teachers need to be armed with every piece of data about students they can get if they are to understand all their needs. “There’s no reason that every teacher who walks into a classroom shouldn’t have more information about each kid — than Amazon has about you and what you bought last,” he said.

Shelton also said that other countries “have better broadband technology than we have, and a better regulatory environment. Other parts of the world are going to suck into their systems everything that is available.” He called for making more content available free online, and arming each child with a “cheap device that is connected to a tremendous amount of capacity.”

He said business thinkers with experience in change management, operational improvement, and management are needed to come together with people who understand teaching and learning. But, he cautioned, “If we don’t have a balance with those who understand child development and the motivations and culture of education we are doomed.” Business people shouldn’t try to “teach education how to do what they know how to do already,” he said.

Business has failed to advocate for educational reform, he said. In conversations with executives he said he often asks them whether they lobby Congress on education bills. “I say to the CEO, ‘Many of you have spoken over and over again about the importance of education, but can you tell me what percentage of your head of governmental relations’ compensation is tied to educational policy?’”

Business has to be about improving education, he said. “It has to be a priority in the policy agenda. Business needs to exercise that voice responsibly on behalf of our children and on behalf of our country.” School boards come and go, he said, but businesses can transform a community and help its schools.

“The world as we know it is about ready to turn upside down. The only way we will be able to maintain our competitive position is to lead the innovation curve,” he said.

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