The status quo no longer suffices: An open letter to the Ames (IA) School Board

The Ames (IA) Community School District – my kids’ district – is hiring both a new superintendent and a new high school principal for next year. Below is the letter I just sent the school board members. I thought some of you might be interested. Everything I do has a Creative Commons license, so feel free to use as desired. Also available in Microsoft Word (.docx) and/or Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format!


March 7, 2010

Fellow Ames citizens and Board members of the Ames Community School District,

I am the coordinator of the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University and the director of the nation’s only center focused on preparing technology-savvy school leaders. I also am a parent with three children in the school district. With the pending departure of Dr. Beyea and Mr. McGrory, you have the chance to hire both a superintendent and a high school principal that share a new vision for P-12 schooling. I sincerely hope that you will avail yourself of this unique opportunity.

The economic imperative

We currently are living in times of exponential change. Not only have digital technologies radically transformed how we conduct our professional and personal lives, they also are destroying entire segments of our society. Non-location-dependent manual labor jobs are increasingly offshored to the developing world, coordinated through technology-suffused global supply chains. Many service jobs also are increasingly fungible, able to be located anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection. The next two decades will see many complex service jobs broken up into component parts, much as we did in previous decades for manufacturing work. Once these tasks are disaggregated, they will be done by lower-skilled workers who can do these discrete components of the overall work, facilitated by software. In other words, many high-paying service jobs will turn into globalized piece work. Since the service professions represent 60% of our nation’s economy, the impacts of this are going to be quite significant. Our school system must prepare graduates for our new economic reality.

The educational imperative

We are creating a new information landscape for ourselves, something that we have not done as a society in centuries. The printing press removed third-party intermediaries (the king’s messenger, the priest) between average citizens and access to information. This new revolution is disintermediating the creation of information, allowing us all to be content creators, not just recipients.

We no longer live in an information push-out world where we passively receive information that is broadcast out to us by large entities. We all now can have a voice. We all now can be publishers. We all now can find each other’s thoughts and ideas and share, cooperate, collaborate, and take collective action. Time and geography are no longer barriers to working together. This too is destroying entire segments of our society.

Long-existing barriers to learning also are disappearing. We now have the ability to learn anything from anyone, at any time, anywhere. Our informal learning is exploding. Formal learning institutions are scrambling to reinvent themselves for the new digital paradigm. Our school system must prepare graduates who are masters of our new information landscape.

The status quo no longer suffices

We are blessed to live in a community whose families possess a tremendous amount of intellectual and social capital. We have a community that understands science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) issues like no other in the state. Our community is not just globally-aware but globally savvy, with international experience and understanding rarely found outside of large cities. We have a community that deeply cares about its children’s education. These are powerful assets, but we cannot afford to be complacent. The status quo no longer suffices.

The technological and information revolutions that now are occurring are upending everything. Our society is being reshaped in significant ways, and the process is just getting started as digital tools and environments continue to advance at a rapid pace. Every information-oriented societal sector – journalism, banking, medicine, politics, travel agencies, music, higher education, television, and real estate, just to name a few – are finding that transformative reinvention is the cost of survival in our current climate. Schools shouldn’t expect that they somehow will be immune from the same changes that are radically altering other information-oriented societal sectors. We can’t continue to pretend that these revolutions aren’t going to affect us too, in compelling and as yet unknown ways.

Dr. Tony Wagner, Harvard University, notes that there are two achievement gaps in this country. The first is the gap between the educational experiences of middle-class children and those of most poor and minority children. The second gap is that between what even our very best schools are teaching and testing versus what all students will need to be successful in today’s globally interconnected, technology-suffused, information economy. The new educational paradigm requires an emphasis on critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, creativity and innovation, information fluency and media literacy, data synthesis and analysis, and the applied use of many other higher-level cognitive skills, much more frequently than we currently are doing in our classrooms.

Our students and schools have a tremendous track record of academic success here in Ames. We have many things of which to be rightfully proud. But the second global achievement gap that Dr. Wagner so aptly describes will increasingly be an issue for our schools and our community if we do not transition from a system in which student success is judged by mastery of lower-level cognitive work to one that emphasizes to a much greater degree the skills of higher-level thinking and real-world application.

Future-oriented leadership

The Board has an opportunity this year to fill two critical positions with educators who understand the new landscape that I have described above, who may even have a track record of success at preparing students for the demands of the next half century. The Ames Community Schools already are an exemplar for many of the state’s school districts. Given the tremendous assets that we have in this community, with the right leadership we not only could do what’s right by our kids but also be an exemplar for the nation and the world. I am hopeful that you will see this hiring opportunity for what it is and act accordingly.

If you are interested, you may view my presentation to the National Education Association Board of Directors on this topic at My presentation to the Dubuque School Board is available at I also would be happy to talk further with the Board about this at any time.

Thank you.
Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D.

8 Responses to “The status quo no longer suffices: An open letter to the Ames (IA) School Board”

  1. For an on-point video, check out the recently posted video A Vision of 21st Century Teachers on YouTube.

  2. Here’s the link. Thanks, T. Grimm!

  3. Nicely said, Scott. I hope it makes a difference for the students in Ames!

  4. Brilliantly written, Scott.

    As a former corporate lawyer, I owe much of my success to effective research skills that evolved as new tools came along. As a former executive officer at a company that had 1,200 employees worldwide, I know that without adequate information literacy training, kids will not succeed in a 21st-century workplace. The “old school” ways won’t cut it; I’ve mastered those, and yet now spend each day re-learning how to communicate effectively. And as the founder of a company whose mission is to help librarians and teachers teach students the effective use of the Internet, I have pored through dozens of studies, and recently oversaw one myself, that all came to the same conclusion: Students do not know how to find or evaluate the information they need on the Internet, nor synthesize it and communicate it to others.

    The good news is that many schools seem to be getting the message. Hopefully for you, so does the Ames School Board.

    Mark Moran

  5. Scott, you are right on target with your letter to the booard…I hope they not only understand your letter, but allow you to present to them the need for transformation in our public educational system. There are superintendents that understand the importance of using technology as a learning tool for students to create, be innovative, and think critically; all of which bring joy to learning. We are at a time that we can not afford to move to a new direction, best wishes for your district.
    Howell Wright

  6. Daniel B. Hink Reply May 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Utterly False.

    You are a perfect example of the destructive force that “Progressive ED” has been on Public Ed in the last 50 70 years.

    “The new educational paradigm requires an emphasis on critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, creativity and innovation, information fluency and media literacy, data synthesis and analysis, and the applied use of many other higher-level cognitive skills, much more frequently than we currently are doing in our classrooms”

    MY GOD what a load of useless EDU-BABBLE!!

    I teach inner-city HS, 78 % Hispanic (1/2 of those Eng as 2nd Language). They need to read and write; to do arithmetic (so no one cheats them out of money) to understand how a credit card works, and what an APR is. E.D. Hirsch makes it VERY clear, you can’t teach “critical thinking” until you can 1st think.

    You have the same ED sickness that comes from that fluffy, non-judgmental, non-competitive, non-academic mentality E.D. Hirsh calls derisively “Thoughworld”, I see it every day.

    PLEASE read E.D. Hirsh’s “The Schools We Need”, and realize YOU and your type are the greatest detriment to US ED, not a lack of laptops, or a lack understanding of the “new educational paradigm” (why must everyone of you guys throw “paradigm” around?)

    It is our abject failure to meet the most basic of ED requirements in the K-8 areas. Our complete failure to implement the most rudimentary ED standards found in ALL of the 1st World Counties.

    Why is the US not even in the top 20 of Math, Science or History scores in the World?

    Is it because we don’t provide “emphasis on critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, creativity and innovation, information fluency and media literacy, data synthesis and analysis”

    NO!! Because we teach Math, Science and History BADLY!! Get you head out of the clouds and get down to where the real problem is.

  7. Scott:
    i wonder if the board will understand the implications of your suggetion to emphasize the focus of education on the applied use of “higher-level level cognitive skills” at the p-12 level. when increasing focus on an area it is by default neccessary to reduce the attention paid to other areas. Kids are not small adults. Older teachers who understand this are not able to effectively communicate this to those who believe that “higher level” level skills are teachable to the advantage of kids who have not been adequately nurtured and developed as children. Further, most people are simply not capable of higher level thinking. It is not a matter of will or education, they simply don’t have it. elitists who believe that everyone can be a leader are simply not in touch with the people they are trying to help. The idea that society can survive without the fungible jobs that can be done by the lowest offshore bidder is in contradiction to reality and consistant with an adolescent understanding of the relation of STEM issues to larger societal problems.
    recent Phd grads i used to work with had marginal empirical skills and were innocent of any functional understanding of epistomolgy or taxonomy even though their understanding of their narrow area of expertise was great. This left them vulnerable to gross misunderstanding of information they gleaned from high tech sources. Giving them more access to information just overwhelmed them and often their lives collapsed.
    There is room for grooming select students for training in the skills of higher level thinking, but advocating that for everyone who shows up at college, let alone pre-school, is one reason we have about the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world. children must be nurtured as children, not treated as potential employees. I am sorry Scott but your premise is simply wrong.
    Ron Sons BS MA Iowa ’71

  8. Scott,

    It’s been three years. How’d they do?

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