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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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Talking Personalized, Data-Rich Equity With Education Guy Paul Banksley

By Rick Hess — June 17, 2019 4 min read

Iconic education guy Paul Banksley was in town the other day to collect an award from the Kennedy Center. The edu-visionary, founder of Tomorrows Are for Tomorrow, and one-time vacuum salesman—best known to his fans as THE @realpbanksley—was kind enough to make a little time for yours truly. His staff ushered me backstage, where lots of important folks were milling about. We got to it.

I asked what award he was actually getting, since he receives so many.

“Let’s see,” he glanced at an event program. “I guess it’s the ‘Champion of Personalized, Data-Rich Equity’ medal,” he read. “It can be hard to keep up,” he sighed. “As you know, I’ve renamed Tomorrows Are for Tomorrow. It’s now Tomorrows Are for a #Personalized #Equitable #Data-Rich Tomorrow.” Before I could ask, he winked and said, “Yep, with the hashtags.”

“Brilliant!” I spluttered.

“And we didn’t just change the name. We also rebranded our 22nd century skills tagline. It’s no longer, ‘They’re the skills for the century after this one'—now, it’s: ‘They’re the personalized, equitable skills for the century after this one.’ We also added '#Personalized’ and '#Equity’ to our website and told funders that we’re data-rich. A bunch of them immediately asked if they could write us another check.”

I was scribbling, trying to keep up. “Anyway, they said they wanted to honor me for being such a leader on equity and personalization and data. I agreed to let them,” he shrugged modestly.

“After all, if I know one thing,” he continued, “it’s sales. And the first rule of sales is: If everyone is mad for something, give it to them. Education types are mad for this stuff, so here we are.”

He paused. “We had ‘design thinking’ in there for a few weeks, too, but then people seemed to cool on it real fast. Don’t know what that was about, but there you go. And you never want to cling to a declining product line. You want to get out first, if you can. That’s why we’re market-testing a combo hashtag for social and emotional-based early childhood career education.”

“Wow,” I said. The air was electric. “Could you say a few words for my readers about what personalization and education equity mean to you? Just to give everyone a sense where you’re coming from.”

“Sure,” he said. “Personalization is all about treating each student as a person, not a robot. You see, children are different. They’re not all the same. Some like math and some like sports. That’s important. My daughter has really helped open my eyes to this,” he confided.

“Whoa! Love that,” I said, as I tried to keep up. “I don’t think anyone has ever thought of it quite that way before. It always seems like so many people are good with impersonal learning.”

He leaned back and continued. “And ‘equity’? Equity is when we make education more equitable. There’s equality, right? But that’s not equity. Sometimes equality has kids standing on boxes outside a baseball stadium.” He pulled a printed graphic out of his pocket and pointed to it. “You see? Some kids can’t see the game. Who wants that? Just imagine shipping all those boxes to various stadiums. And then kids still can’t see. It’s crazy!!” He slammed his fist on his chair.

The funders and handlers milling around had fallen into a hush. “That is so, so true,” murmured one. Others just snapped their fingers furiously.

“But it’s not just about helping raise the floor right?” I said. “In your 22nd century skills TED talk, you said that we also have to ‘raise the ceiling’.”

He said, “That’s right. We’re not just for equity, we’re for excellent equity. That’s why personalization and data-richness are the secret sauce to cracking the code. We need to do what works. We need more for kids who need more—but no less for anyone else! And it’s got to be about the kids, and the future.”

There was a burst of snapping.

When things had simmered down, I asked, “Anything else you can share?”

“Well, I can let you in on two big things,” he confided. “One. It’s time to think about what comes next—after 22nd century skills. You see, other outfits are starting to crib my 22nd century skills talking points. As a visionary, that means I need to ask what comes next. Well, turns out it’s the 23rd century.”

“Whoa!” gasped one hanger-on. “Tomorrows Are for a #Personalized #Equitable #Data-Rich Tomorrow is going to be talking 23rd century skills?! Man, oh man!!”

Banksley winked. “Yeah, but keep it under wraps for now. We salesmen know you never move off a product line while there’s still cream to be milked.”

He paused. “The other thing: Turns out that lots of countries don’t say ’22nd century skills.’ You see, they have other languages.”

“What do you think you’ll be doing to have an impact in these other nations?” I asked.

“We’re going to build hashtags and memes. We’re going to do it in these other languages, like French and Mexican and Canadian and Asian. Happily, we’ve got funders lined up to write seven-figure checks. That should get us started. Exciting times.”

I couldn’t help myself—the cheering and snapping were contagious.

With that, they signaled that Mr. Banksley was needed onstage. He walked out to thundering cheers. He’s surely the education hero we want, and he just may be the one we deserve.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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