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EP81 WorkforceRx Podcast Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson, Senior Fellow at Education Evolving: It’s Time to Upend Current Models of Education

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Curtis Johnson, Senior Fellow at Education Evolving: It’s Time to Upend Current Models of Education


For those concerned about teacher burnout and retention issues in K-12 education, Curtis Johnson has seen an innovative model in action that could provide an answer: let teachers run the schools. Johnson, a veteran educator, policy analyst and author, says there are already several hundred such schools in twenty-three states, what he describes as a slow growing movement. While interviewing staff at these schools for his book A New Deal for Teachers, he heard a consistent message. “They first convince me that they're working harder than they've ever worked in their lives and then they go on to say that nobody ought to ever take this away from them because they have more fulfillment professionally and personally. These schools hold on to most all of their teachers every year,” he tells Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan. Johnson is attracted to ideas that upend what he considers failing models of education, as you might expect from the co-author of Disrupting Class, which argues for shifting to a personalized and mastery-based approach. “Students today are so different from previous generations that you've got to treat them individually, yet in the current system of K-12, it's not financially feasible to regard them as individuals and so personalization is something that people claim, but rarely do.” Tune in for a candid conversation about breaking the grip of centralized systems, how K-12 education should incorporate AI, and why he believes up to half of colleges and universities in the US will close in the next decade.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.

It’s been four years since COVID lockdowns jolted education at all levels, and educators and administrators are still grappling with the ripple effects. Many brick and mortar colleges are facing existential threats as they try to adapt to changing student expectations on costs and flexibility, while K- 12 schools are trying to tackle worrisome trends in learning loss and troubling behavior. With us today to assess where things stand in American education and where it’s headed is Curt Johnson.

Curt brings decades of experience in education, policy innovation, and government to his work. He’s also the author or co-author of several books, including A New Deal for Teachers and Disrupting Class, which he wrote with a previous WorkforceRX guest, Michael Horn. Thanks very much for joining us, Curt.

Curt Johnson: Well, thank you.

Van: Let’s start with a provocation. Curt, you believe that perhaps half of US colleges and universities will close in the next decade. What’s behind that assessment?

Curt: Many are on shaky financial ground, they have low endowments, and they’re probably going to close. And the reason is not because there is a disconnect with employers, but because they’re very poor at messaging. They don’t get out what they do and they don’t relate it.

Now, we used to go to colleges and universities to learn how to think. We used to get different perspectives. We don’t do that anymore in many places. I’m very troubled by that, but I think that it’s contributing to a loss of trust in institutions. It’s not the only factor involved, but it’s one of the factors, and I just think that we’ve got more of them than we need demographically, and so probably half of them are going to close.

Van: Well, a prior guest — Jonathan Marcus from the Hechinger Report — talked about some of the data on the financial viability of higher education, especially some of the smaller institutions, so, it’s not surprising to me that you bring up this theme about the viability of higher education. But let me probe a little bit. You were a community college president, so you have run institutions. What would be the institution that you create for today given all of those issues that you’ve raised just now?

Curt: Well, I think that the whole industry is prime for massive disruption. So, somebody that runs an institution that is willing to be open and is willing to teach people how to think, teach people how to learn, to be in love with learning, to listen to different perspectives and sort out the reasons behind the polarization that grips most of the country…that institution, I think, is going to get traction, is going to get donations, is going to get everything that everybody wants an institution to get. But maybe romanticizing a complex situation.

Van: Definitely, higher education is being disrupted and is ripe for disruption. But disruption doesn’t have to take place in just the local institution because there’s so many more options now that are kind of uncoupled from physical space. But for a moment, let’s talk about the community colleges because they are the system that is in most backyards. Is there something more that they could do? How are they faring in this environment and do you have any recommendations for them?

Curt: I think that they have a message to tell people. The first one is that some jobs that pay well don’t require a college education. They do require serious training, and they offer that at lower cost than most universities do. And if they’re really good, employers pay attention to that and they can get good jobs.

That’s the thing I would urge them to do. I would urge legislatures to find ways to make it easier to transfer to a university, to transfer to a four year college. They continue to make it hard because they would like to enjoy the freshmen and sophomore years, too. They are staffed up for it and they are financially ready for it, and they are disillusioned when it doesn’t happen. So, they regard the community colleges as competitors rather than collaborators. That’s a mistake, I think, but legislatures can correct that because they have power over the universities and over the colleges.

Van: So, shifting to K-12 education, your book, A New Deal for Teachers calls for turning K-12 schools over to teachers. What’s the case for that, and is that an idea gaining any traction?

Curt: It’s a complex subject. If you had teachers totally in charge of everything in a school, it would turn the system that we know today upside down. And if I underestimated anything, it was the powerful resistance that the system would provide to anybody that was talking about teachers being in control. Because for a long time, we’ve regarded teachers as labor and replaceable, and sure enough, we’ve replaced a lot of them. Every year you hear stories in the media about there being a teacher shortage. Well, there’s not a real teacher shortage except in some key areas, but there’s a teacher retention problem that is chronic.

In the book, we make the case for teachers running schools. There’s no other country in the world that has copied what the US has, with school boards thinking that they run schools and all of the wars we’ve got going right now around culture. Nobody else has copied that, and there’s a good reason why. We don’t have a very good system.

Van: Well, let’s play a little bit with the future of learning and your provocation. So, if there were teachers running schools — and what you want is to create institutions that impart a love of learning and the ability to think critically about a situation — what would that look like? What would enable the teachers to realize that type of environment for students?

Curt: I can only tell you that I’ve interviewed many, many teachers that have made this shift. Most teachers that are working in teacher run schools — and there are several hundred of these in twenty-three different states, so it’s a slow growing movement — I can almost script what they say. They’re first going to convince me that they’re working harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives and then they go on to tell you that nobody ought to ever take this away from them because they have more fulfillment professionally and personally.

They can spot a problem on Thursday and have it solved by Monday and they can implement the solution. They’ve had four or five national conventions now, and it’s the only place that I ever go where half are charters and half are district, half are union and half are not. They all seem to get along because they’re interested in solving problems. It feels like a pep rally whenever they get together, and yet most of them don’t know each other to begin with. So, I think if you’re a teacher, you would find fulfillment and it would attract a different kind of person to the job, and if you’re a student, you win on every front.

Van: Well, that’s certainly a winning formula. When we think about doctors or nurses going into medicine or other individuals going into the world of healthcare, it’s in service of patients and in service of others. When they’re having to do a lot of ancillary things, it reduces the joy in their work. So, I can see if the environment were as empowering as you’ve laid out, then there would be greater fulfillment in the role, and that would be imparted into the students and how they learn.

Curt: I mean, it is part of the war, Van, against systems. If you can divide major systems like the food system, the energy system, the materials distribution system — we’ve got a lot of systems that run our country — you divide them theoretically into systems that are centrally controlled and systems where people use mutual adjustment. I think teachers running schools fits into the mutual adjustment category.

Van: Alright, well let’s go ahead and close by asking for your take on the potential for AI to disrupt education for better or worse, and to what extent do you think it will be embraced by educators and students?

Curt: We are in the early stages of AI, but if the system of education ignores all this, if it tries to keep it out, if it tries to keep students away from it, then the system is seriously flawed if. And that’s the mistake that I think some schools are making. They think it’s scary, so they want to avoid it. They think it’s disruptive, they think it’s going to claim some of their territory, so they avoid it. I think some of their territory needs to be claimed.

Tutoring is a good example. Tutoring is a very powerful tool to help students that are struggling. AI, properly used, can empower tutoring to help a lot of kids without spending a lot of money. It ought to be embraced for that. But is it complex? Yes. Is it uncertain? Yes. The book I’m reading right now is The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman. It is the most important book I have ever read, and I have read lots of books. It’s the only one that I’ve read three times. He does a really good job of taking complex situations and explaining them in ways that anybody should be able to understand it and he does a good job of saying we need to contain this somehow, but containing it will be very difficult.

So, the book is still open about AI, Van, and I don’t know how it will turn out, but the K-12 system should not ignore it and should not ban it. It should embrace it and try to shape it.

Van: Well, on your point of using AI for tutoring, I know that Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy is using AI to groom a tool called “Khanmigo” for tutoring purposes in K-12.

Curt: Yes.

Van: So, we’ll see what happens to the next generation of technology.

Curt: He’s a good example of mutual adjustment. He’s a good example of working a system. I mean, he got started by helping his cousin do math and he realized that what he was doing would help a lot of people, and he made a whole industry out of it. That is the kind of thing that would make a difference in schooling and would make a difference in helping a lot of kids realize their dreams.

Van: So, with that, I want to thank you very much, Curt, for being with us today.

Curt: Okay. Thank you very much.

Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you’ll join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.