SXSWedu: How to Keep Friends and Influence No New People

AP Images/Erich Schlegel

Anyone who survived high school knows just how much blood, sweat, and tears must come before someone gets voted “Best All-Around” in the school yearbook. Being liked is one thing, but to be liked by lots of groups often requires that one always stay on the safe side of every conversation, never fully engaging. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same is true in education policy, where ideological differences rule the community. The cliques and lunchroom politics are serious business, and the jargon makes it all the worse. EdTech-ers sit at a table near EdReform-ers, while community-schools people sit beside the teachers’ unions. And because no one talks much to each other, it’s easy to affirm your beliefs and vilify your opponents without much challenge.

So to its credit, the education-technology conference South by Southwest EDU—SXSWedu, as it’s known—is trying really hard to be friends with everyone. It’s trying to become a platform for serious policy debate, it’s trying to help for-profit vendors sell products to schools, it’s trying to encourage teachers while also challenging traditional methods. The Austin-based conference has become well-known nationally, with around 6,000 attendees from around the country, and major players look to the conference as a place to talk about important potential shifts in education. But despite its clear intentions, the four-day conference, which began in 2011 and has grown rapidly to now include some of the biggest names and companies in education and education-technology, this year exemplified the policy silos in education, rather than transcending them.

The SXSW brand in general is far more corporate than most would guess. Its big festivals, currently in full swing, are mostly about marketing—lounges and parties give away free stuff in exchange for major exposure, and little guys, like bands and inventors, try to find corporate sponsors for their work. SXSWEdu is no different. Amplify, the education-technology company now owned by Rupert Murdoch, kicked off the week by unveiling a new product and sponsoring the first party. Pearson, the London-based education conglomerate that dominates the standardized-testing market, not only offered conference-goers a swank lounge with coffee and children’s snacks—jars of Goldfish, pretzels and popcorn—but also hosted the next party, at a big Austin bar. Plenty of people in attendance were hoping one of these big companies might buy their product and make it famous. The corporate goals of selling more products tends to align with that of education reformers, those who are critical of traditional public schools and push for a more free-market approach, with more charter schools and parent choice. For instance, many in the reform movement believe in the importance of standardized assessments—which Pearson and some others provide.

The reform agenda has traditionally ruled the conference. Occasional panels have examined policy questions, like the need for a “community” approach, where neighborhoods try to invest more into a failing public school rather than closing them down. But on the whole, the message has been one that the combination of privatizing and spending money on technology is the formula for better public schools.

This year was different. Policy panels were mixed in with those on the more technical aspects of merging education with the hardware and software. In addition to big-name reformers like Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and Rod Paige, the Secretary of Education who championed No Child Left Behind, there were a number of voices questioning reform tenets. Randi Weingarten of the teachers’ union American Federation of Teachers, was a panelist for the first time, as was Wendy Davis, the Texas gubernatorial candidate who famously filibustered the 2011 budget to protest education funding cuts.

Among the first featured speakers was Diane Ravitch, once a leading advocate for charter schools and No Child Left Behind, but for the last several years a constant critic of the policies she once championed. She saves particular criticism for the emphasis on standardized testing and the role of private, for-profit companies in schools. Her speech last week, predictably, laid out the same arguments she’s been making around the country to anyone who will listen: that a decade of standardized testing has not improved schools, that spending money on technology is not the solution, and that the poverty, not poor teachers, is the biggest hurdle to educational achievement. “The purpose of education is not to get higher and higher test scores,” she said. “The purpose of public education is to make good citizens.” Her entire message was almost a direct critique of SXSWedu.

There was only one problem. At the same time Ravitch was speaking, there was a panel on “Investing in Education Innovation,” and another on electoral politics and education. Ravitch spoke to a group that seemed to already know, and like, her message. One audience member questioned Ravitch’s opposition to paying teachers based on student test performance, a mechanism known as “merit pay.” As a teacher, she said, she felt that merit pay was a way to reward good teachers while letting them stay in the classroom; normally they are named administrators. Ravitch talked about school funding and the need for nurses—and never really addressed the teacher’s question. She gave a similar non-answer when an ed-tech entrepreneur asked how business people could help support traditional public schools. Earlier, Ravitch had exhorted the audience against spending money on technology at the cost of teachers’ salaries. “Please do not make money by destroying the teaching profession,” she said. “You will hurt America.”

The conference does little to bring people in opposition together. Ravitch didn’t hold back in her criticism of Teach for America, the program that gets students from elite universities to commit to teaching in a low-performing school district for two years. The program offers only five weeks of training; Ravitch asks if people would get on a plane with a pilot who’s only been studying his profession for five weeks. Yet the day after Ravtich spoke, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, gave her own keynote, on how there are “no silver bullets” for improving education. Kopp was far more critical of traditional public schools, but she also argued that policymakers were often too hopeful that one specific change or another would fix everything. Had Kopp and Ravitch shared the stage, the conversation would at least have been revealing. Instead, each gave her message free from the other.

That wasn’t the only missed opportunity for debate. Several panels dealt with the importance of student data; meanwhile one of the conference's sponsors, inBloom has come under direct attack for its use of student data in New York City schools. A panel titled “When does EdTech become Education?” made fascinating points about the need for rethinking classrooms in light of how students learn from YouTube and online academies, but no classroom teacher or administrator sat on the panel. The tensions implicit in education policy debates—what are the costs of reform? How much should we be willing to throw out traditional methods?—simmered throughout the conference but never came to boil.

It’s a typical problem in policy discussion generally, and education policy discussions particularly: Speakers talk to like-minded audiences and wonder why anyone disagrees. SXSWedu is trying to provide a big tent, but the conference would further conversations more successfully if it dared to make its speakers a little less comfortable, and pushed opponents to engage each other.

After a four days of panels that frequently offered neat world views actor Jeffrey Tambor (of Arrested Development fame) gave a weird and rambling final keynote about teaching and life lessons that was appealing in spite of—or maybe because of—its messiness. He talked about his own children, about the need for encouragement, about being unafraid to be vulnerable and personal inside the classroom and out. At one point, he had an audience member on stage, reading a speech in different accents, hopping on one leg. He didn’t seem to have a larger point—except perhaps that you don’t always need one to be a good teacher. The talk’s authenticity was unimpeachable, and stood in stark contrast to those of the last two years. In 2012, the conference ended with Star Trek and Roots alum LeVar Burton, who once hosted the PBS kids’ show Reading Rainbow, hawking a new Reading Rainbow app. Last year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose foundation has pushed for more teacher assessments and loudly criticized traditional public schools, invited a charter school CEO and the head of inBloom on stage for a weird education-reform talk show. By contrast, Tambor at one point began to clap, shouting “Bravo” to show his appreciation for the teachers in the audience.

Tambor's talk began with a selfie and a slideshow of families’ photos; it ended with the actor reading a series of pithy pieces of advice for the audience. Among them: “You will be fired—tell your kids that,” and “Tell these kids never calm down.”

He also told the audience, “Don’t live your life trying to be liked. If everyone likes what you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.” That’s advice the SXSWedu organizers need to hear. 

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