Tough Choices or Tough Times

Something wonderful happened last night. Most readers won’t understand why I’m so excited right now, so I’ll cut to the chase. For the past two years, I’ve been advocating a radical reform to the structure of our public school system – and last week, New Hampshire officially adopted that exact system. Utah and Massachusetts are also planning to adopt this model as well.

Here’s the story . . .

It all begins in a bar in Dallas, Texas. I was having a lengthy chat with Alan Sitomer, the 2007 California Teacher of the Year. During the conversation, he said that we needed to shut down the entire public school system and rebuild it from scratch.  At first, I was struck by the implausibility of such a radical idea – but his hyperbolic hypothesis illustrated the core issue: our public school system is broken beyond repair, and incremental steps to fix it won’t work. Over the course of an hour, I was transformed. I stopped defending a broken school system and started my journey to find a better way to teach our children. The only thing I was missing was the “better way”.

A few weeks later, during preparation for my National Teacher of the Year interview, I read a report titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” The report itself is a rationale and blueprint for a restructuring of our national school system. I’d heard that each of four finalists for Superintendent of the Year were required to read and respond to the report for their interview, so I figured I would read it too. This report provided the missing piece of the puzzle. Not only did it offer an alternative to the current structure of our public school system, it provided a substantially better alternative.

For the next month, I dedicated myself to learning everything I could about national school reform.

Ultimately, I decided to make an incredibly bold move. I decided that my interview speech to the selection committee for the National Teacher of the Year would focus on advocating an entirely new national school system. This would be a stark departure from the norm. The committee is used to hearing about the power of teachers, the promise of education, and the importance of children. While these topics are near and dear to me – they are not the centerpiece of my passion for education (and those who know me can attest that I make a much better policy wonk than a cheerleader).

The interview process for National Teacher of the Year is fairly intense. The four finalists have a formal dinner with the 15 panel selection committee, then have a mock press conference, a one-on-one media interview, a presentation, and an hour-long question and answer session. The whole ordeal takes about three days. Everything went well with the first two days. On the third and final day, we did our speeches and Q&A sessions. (You can read a copy of my interview speech here: josh-anderson-interview-speech-for-national-teacher-of-the-year). After the speech and during the Q&A, the selection committee made it clear that they were not about to name a National Teacher of the Year whose primary agenda is restructuring our national school system. I wasn’t surprised at their reaction, nor did I necessarily disagree with it.

So I didn’t get National Teacher of the Year. I was ok with this, though, because the alternative would have been a year of promoting my second or third most important message instead of my first.

On my flight back to Kansas, I received a telephone call from the Education Commission of the States. Governor Sebelius, who chairs the ECS, was hosting a planning meeting in Overland Park for their national conference in Philadelphia. The Governor asked me to give a speech to the planning committee regarding my thoughts on education. I accepted, and a few weeks later, I was sitting next to the governor for breakfast.

I pulled a copy of “Tough Choices or Tough Times” out of my backpack and placed it on the table. I asked the Governor and everybody else at the table if they had ever read it. None said they had.  After a very nice introduction from the Governor, I gave a speech about TCTT. All in attendance were suddenly very excited about the proposal, including Bill Wagnon, chair of the Kansas Board of Education.

I received a call from Dr. Wagnon a few days later, and we met for coffee. He wanted to know how we would go about adopting this reform system. I’m not suggesting that he was completely ready to submit Kansas to this reform, but I think that it was pretty cool that he would at least consider it.

About a month later, I received an invitation to the National Forum on Education Policy. This is one of the most important education conferences in the nation because it’s devoted to national education policy. Governors, senators, and representatives (federal and state) as well as the top education officials in all states are the primary attendees of this conference. So, you can imagine my shock and surprise when I saw that the entire conference was devoted to “Tough Choices or Tough Times”. Literally, the keynote speeches and most of the breakout sessions were centered on TCTT.

I was overwhelmed with joy. Could it have been that a ten minute speech of mine provided the entire platform for the most important national educational policy conference? It seemed so.  Even better, I was asked to give a keynote speech on the final day of the conference.

I even had the opportunity to co-author an OpEd piece with Governor Sebelius for the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding “Tough Choices or Tough Times.”

The speech itself was absolutely the best speech I have ever given. It was delivered without a single piece of paper in front of me, and it was a true call to action. If you are so inclined, you are welcome to listen to my speech here (scroll down to Thursday, July 12th, then click on “Chair’s Breakfast”, then download the MP3 file. NOTE: you’ll need to fast-forward to about the 33 minute mark since Governor Sebelius delivers the first half of the presentation).

Since that time, I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of people across the country about restructuring our public school system. Most people thought it was a good idea. A few people thought I was absolutely crazy for suggesting such a radical departure from the system we know.

 So, in a nutshell, that’s why I’m so excited that New Hampshire has adopted this model.


6 responses to “Tough Choices or Tough Times

  1. I think this sounds incredible. Thanks for your efforts and enthusiasm toward such an amazing goal. Definitely keep us posted on the progress!

  2. “Not only did it offer an alternative to the current structure of our public school system, it provided a substantially better alternative.”


    This makes me feel like you are trying to make your policy topical.

    Seriously though, great job.

  3. Thats awesome. We definitely need reform.

  4. Josh a great example of how one person can make a difference. Your passion and commitment to change through activism has continued and grown since college. You are the man, pots and pans, 150 grand. Thank you for your passion to educating our youths and being brave enough to say the model is broken.

  5. Oops, I said “youths” to an English major. I ain’t gonna do that again : )

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