I would wave my magic policy wand and make K-12 education very clearly and explicitly woven into a system of lifelong learning, one that begins in earliest childhood and that extends well past traditional post-secondary into multiple opportunities for reskilling throughout the work years into growth and enrichment opportunities in retirement.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Mickey Revenaugh.
Mickey Revenaugh is co-founder of Connections Academy, a pioneering online school provider that launched in 2001 and has served over one million students around the world since that time and is now part of Pearson. Mickey’s current work at Pearson is focused on bringing innovative education opportunities — including those harnessing big data, artificial intelligence, and immersive technologies — to learners around the globe. Mickey is Board Vice Chair of the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning), and Board Chair of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School, winner of the $10M prize for innovative school design from XQ Institute. Previously, Mickey helped launch the E-rate to wire every American school to the Internet, and was education technology editor at Scholastic. Mickey holds a BA from Yale University, an MBA from New York University, and an MFA from Bennington College.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I started out as a journalist — I have printer’s ink in my blood, having been born while my parents ran a weekly newspaper in Oregon, and then watching my dad blaze his way through newsrooms across California. For my first few years out of college, I went back and forth between reporting on education-related issues and working as an advocate for them, but when the first computers began appearing in American classrooms, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be right out there on the frontier of putting technology to work for kids’ learning. A few start-ups later, I was lucky enough to be part of the team that launched Connections Academy as new kind of school that tailored itself to fit the student rather than the reverse.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the most interesting — and heart-wrenching — situations I’ve encountered occurred when I was setting up for an in-person information session on online learning for families in Central Florida. A woman ran into the room waving our postcard announcing the online school (this was back in the heyday of direct mail) and weeping. “I just got this card and it was like a message from heaven,” she said. “Please tell me there’s still room for my son in your school.” Her kid had been bullied mercilessly by his fourth grade peers, and she wasn’t sure he’d survive another year at his brick and mortar school. “Connections Academy would be a lifesaver,” she said, and she meant that literally. My lesson from this was that school is the absolute center of life for most kids and their families, and we should do whatever it takes to make that a safe and nurturing and inspiring place.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In addition to my ongoing work with Connections Academy, I now have one foot in the global side of Pearson, bringing online learning and other technology innovations to educators and learners around the world. In the past year, for example, I’ve helped launch Harrow School Online, created in partnership with Britain’s iconic Harrow School to bring a premium online schooling opportunity to ambitious girls and boys across the globe. The global pandemic has made high-quality online learning an even more critical aspect of education everywhere, so it’s been gratifying to be a resource in this regard.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I’ve been embedded in the education field for more than 35 years, always with an itch to make it better, to see it fulfill the promise of lively learning for all. Whether focusing on big picture trends like various waves of education reform, the rise of ed tech, or the emergence of “Generation DIY,” or zeroing in on specific groups of students such as complex learners in Brooklyn or college aspirers in Metlakatla, Alaska, I’ve been American education’s critical best friend. And now I bring an international lens to my allyship.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
On the one hand, the US education system is miraculous in its universality, its accessibility to all; the fact that truly every child is entitled to an education in America is quite astounding from the vantage point of other parts of the world. On the other hand, the US education system falls far short of preparing all students for a bright future — the disparities that were vivid before are now painfully glaring in the age of pandemic.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Pre-K programs: The commitment by school systems across the country to make free, quality pre-K available is a slow but unstoppable trend.
- Early literacy: We’ve made great strides in understanding the value and development of reading/writing skills in young learners.
- Dual enrollment and early college: Breaking the artificial boundaries between high school and college is an all-around winner.
- Charter schools: Combining educators’ innovative spirit and parents’ power to choose drives the entire system toward improvement.
- Online learning: Anytime, anywhere, personalized learning is an idea whose time has come.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Online learning: The pandemic showed us just how far we have to go to make high-quality online options available to every learner.
- Digital Divide: How can we still be having this conversation? Internet access is a basic human right.
- Future skilling: Way beyond CTE and “21st Century Skills,” we need to equip every learner with the tools to negotiate an unknowable future.
- Personalized/competency-based pathways: It’s time we let go of the “credit for time served” metaphor for learning, and begin allowing students to progress in a more individually coherent way.
- Everyday engagement: Another thing the pandemic has revealed is how much boredom is baked into the average school day. We must find new ways to actively engage learners whether they are online, in person, or any permutation of both.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We’ve succeeded in emphasizing the importance of STEM and giving it lots of lip service, to the point that STEM sometimes overshadows the humanities and other non-STEM subjects. But have we really enlivened the teaching and learning of STEM such that young people are actually engaged? Progress has been incremental at best.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Girls and women need STEM to gain a seat at the table where the most critical decisions are made about the future of our planet and our society. And STEM needs girls and women so that the decisions made at that table represent a range of viewpoints that go beyond the current STEM monoculture.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The US could do much better with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM, particularly girls and women of color. We could increase engagement by allowing girls (and boys, and learners across the gender and culture spectrum) to define the problems they want to solve in STEM explorations, including social and environmental problems. Learners will seize the tools and techniques they need to solve problems they care about.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I am firmly in the STEAM camp. STEAM brings STEM into the heart of our current moment, and the tech-layered, media-bedazzled world our young people inhabit. STEAM lets learners be producers and makers, not just technicians or consumers. STEAM makes room for the multiplicity of interests, the intricate web of curiosity, that forms the basis for a rich, well-rounded life.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- First, I would wave my magic policy wand and make K-12 education very clearly and explicitly woven into a system of lifelong learning, one that begins in earliest childhood and that extends well past traditional post-secondary into multiple opportunities for reskilling throughout the work years into growth and enrichment opportunities in retirement.
- Second, I would establish an education savings account for every child at birth that could be used and added to throughout life to supplement a free PreK-Bachelors program available to everyone.
- Third, I would weave together an ever-expanding, living compendium of online, offline, in-school, out-of-school, community-based and global learning opportunities available to all learners across all ages and stages to combine with their basic education however they see fit.
- Fourth, I would ensure that the fastest internet connection is always available to everyone anywhere in America (and that every school and library has a stock of devices available for free checkout anytime).
- Fifth, I would ensure that every K-12 teacher in America has four weeks per year of paid professional enrichment time that they can use however they see fit — with an extra grant bonus for creating learning opportunities for our ever-expanding, living compendium noted above.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My Life Lesson Quote is an amalgam of something Admiral Grace Hopper may or may not have said, combined with a sentiment inspired by Florence Nightingale: “Ask forgiveness not permission, and proceed until apprehended.” It’s come in handy through multiple long-shot start-ups and bouts of cockeyed optimism.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to have a chai with Malala Yousafzai.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @mickeyrevenaugh
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!