Julie Phillips Randles
Bev Perdue: A pioneer in education innovation, reform

When times get tough, education can thank Bev Perdue for pitching in to find solutions that impact today and the future.

Perdue, who became the first woman to serve as governor of North Carolina in 2008, dedicated her governorship to.

Today, Gov. Perdue considers her pioneering efforts in education among the hallmarks of her more than 25 years in public service that include two terms as lieutenant governor and seven terms in the North Carolina Senate and House. Her Career & College: Ready, Set Go! agenda for PK through post-secondary education that was aimed at keeping students on grade level improved graduation rates and increased the number of students seeking college degrees or career training after high school. Perdue was one of the first governors to adopt state-led rigorous standards, and was the first governor to direct all levels of the state’s schools, colleges and universities to adopt those standards. When she left the chief executive’s office, North Carolina’s graduation rate topped 80 percent for the first time ever.

Perdue led the transformation of North Carolina’s classrooms for the 21st century by investing in innovative education technology and creating public-private partnerships to fully integrate technology into the state’s education system. Under her leadership, North Carolina adopted a statewide broadband education network for public schools, universities and community colleges. The partnership and network are recognized as a national model because now North Carolina school districts collectively use six times the bandwidth while expending essentially the same costs they did more than five years ago.

She also led a statewide reading initiative to bring students up to grade level by third grade by investing in technology tools to personalize learning, dedicating $22 million for a school connectivity initiative, and creating the state’s first virtual public school.

Since leaving office, Perdue founded and chairs dig-iLEARN, a nonprofit that brings together educators, entrepreneurs, policymakers and other thought leaders to develop an educational system fueled by an integrated and innovative digital culture.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? From whom?

The best advice I’ve received came from a special book, The Little Engine That Could, and I’ve always believed it. “I think I can, I think I can. I know I can. I know I can.”

These words have been in every office I’ve had. It’s advice that came from my mom when she gave me the book because she understood little girls needed to believe that anything is possible for all of us.

I use it all the time and I am having these words put onto plaques for my grandchildren.

What’s the side of you the public never sees?

I’m a recluse by nature. I love private time with a good book, a fire and my dogs. And I love family time and close friends. I am always able to handle big events, but I tend to be more reclusive than anyone would ever imagine. I’ve found many in public service are the same.

You started your career in the classroom. How long did you teach? What grades? What were your favorite subjects?

I was a substitute teacher for one year and a full-time teacher for three-and-a-half years. I taught kindergarten in Winder, Georgia, and I just loved kindergarten. That year was magical for me.

I also taught middle school in Jacksonville, Florida, in a school where today 60 to 70 percent of students would qualify for free or reduced lunch. I taught civics and African-American history and I loved preteens and that they were so inquisitive.
I also taught high school seniors in Ocala, Florida.

I loved everywhere I went, helping students of all ages learn about a bigger world than they knew existed, but I soon realized that teaching was hard and that there are very few pathways for career advancement. I was so driven professionally at that time to make a difference in education policy that I thought getting my Ph.D. and getting on the administrative track was the right answer for me.

If you were to go back into the classroom today, what might you do differently?

I loved teaching and the kids liked me because I treated them as people and I respected them as people. Today, I would totally embed classrooms with technology and digital resources. I would love to have the opportunity to engage in personalized learning and to use formative assessments to get immediate feedback.

Technology adds a whole new dimension of a teacher as a coach, not just as someone who talks and demands. I think returning to the classroom with technology and all that it offers would be an incredible way to help youngsters get to the next place in their lives.

You were North Carolina’s first female governor. What, or who, inspired you to become a leader? Do you have additional political aspirations?

My dad was a coal miner and my family was working class, but my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Beck, had high expectations for me and spoke to my parents and me in a very strident way. She said I was lazy and was not living up to my potential. She also told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be. She changed my life and gave me gargantuan dreams. In college, I got the political bug and I always wanted to be a leader. Without Mrs. Beck, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

As far as political aspirations, I am often asked to return to politics, but I’m loving having one last chance at building my career.

North Carolina was one of the first states to adopt state-led, rigorous Common Core standards and you were the first governor to direct all levels of the state’s schools to adopt those standards. What drove that decision?

I knew this was the right decision for all kinds of intuitive reasons. We were living in a global world, and it didn’t just matter how North Carolina’s kids did, it mattered how America’s kids did.

At the time, we had all sorts of systems going in different directions. But the undergirding principle of Common Core was that every child could learn. We needed high standards to guide curriculum and we wanted there to be a template for the country, because we have to compete as a country.

Creating public-private partnerships was one method you used to integrate technology into North Carolina’s education system. How did those partnerships work and what did they net? 

In a state like North Carolina, you just couldn’t get where you needed to go by depending on the public sector. If you’re going to be a disruption agent, you have to have some sort of collaborative relationship with the private sector — churches, civic leaders, businesses.

As governor, I realized that we acutely needed a statewide system of connectivity. I was very involved in technology then, but our kids didn’t have access. So I began to meet with telecommunications and business leaders and we developed a plan to lay down and pay for a statewide broadband network. We did about $200 million in partnerships and, in the end, the private providers were making money even though they made huge investments at the outset. Due to these partnerships, schools, hospitals and public libraries in North Carolina have highly sophisticated broadband.

Public-private partnerships work, and I’m trying to convince the federal government and the U.S. Department of Education to do more with partnerships.

You created the state’s first virtual public school. What affect has it had on education in the state? 

North Carolina is very urbanized in six areas of the state, but we have the second largest rural population in the country. And we have the largest number of college-educated people in the country. So there’s a dichotomy.

Every mom and dad wants great things for their kids and families, and they can’t help it if their zip code is in a poor area. The virtual school that we dreamed of was able to deliver that opportunity to every child in North Carolina. With the virtual school, any child could take a course from a great professor or have access to the best remediation program in third grade reading and spelling.

The virtual school opened the doors to the American dream for them.

Your latest initiative with digiLEARN is very admirable. One of the challenges we’ve heard from educators is access to broadband to support digital learning. What were your strategies for boosting broadband in North Carolina while you were governor?

The cool thing about being governor is that you get to lay down your vision and work on making it happen. Early on, when I was lieutenant governor, we created a collaboration on e-learning and we developed a vision for what we wanted technology to do. Along the way, we worked out the problems with it and we came up with this ability to hook up all the schools. You have to access the assets as a state, and we developed a strong plan.

The work of digiLEARN is based on that. With digiLEARN, we’ve developed a national, bipartisan board with a vision of accelerating digital learning across the country, beginning with the Southeast. We bring entrepreneurs and businesses inside the schools to work with teachers and students on personalized learning and instructional technology. That approach gives them the capacity to do the real-time teaching and learning for every child. We’re calling that an Innovation Studio, and the idea hatcher or thought leader is in the classroom and works with real teachers, principals and families.

We have 12 school systems as partners and we have created standards so participating schools have the ability to do whatever the Innovation Studio leaders need.

It’s a niche that hadn’t been found. digiLEARN is also doing policy and convenings, but the truth is there’s little opportunity in America for the people who are developing the content that schools are purchasing every year to work with real students and teachers to be sure what they are buying is impactful for students. It’s the missing ingredient.

What advice would you give to national elected leaders who are wrestling with how to solve the equity of access around broadband?

You’ve got to be sure every state has a chance to use the E-Rate money and every student must have the opportunity for access. There must be a statewide broadband plan, and a collaborative model of government and private sector businesses implementing that plan.

I also believe that it’s not just about academic learning or lifelong learning in itself, this is about access economically. Some of us are trying hard to develop a conversation that ties economic outcomes to the investment we make in connectivity.

It’s about being able to take a little idea to scale anywhere in the country and use the internet to create a business model and a market it nationally. As long as access to broadband is a barrier, that’s impossible. The definition of infrastructure in America should include technology, in addition to roads, bridges, water and sewer.

What’s your five-year vision for digiLEARN? What results are you hoping to achieve? And, most importantly, how will you scale the most successful efforts? 

As far as taking it to scale, the first Innovation Studio will be in the Southeast and we have national partners and I expect to have international partners and tremendous support to replicate this around the country. We’ll put one in the West, Southwest, Northeast and in the center of the country and we’ll build these hubs the way airlines have regional hubs. These will be hubs of innovation where schools and universities can work together on a common vision.

I imagine that in the long run the Innovation Studios will be paid for with fees, so that it can become a way that businesses around the world can continue to train their employees, for example.

I think it’s a tremendously ripe opportunity. We’ll also continue with thought leadership and policy leadership, as well as working with thought leaders around an innovation education summit. I think all of those things are important to bring together, but it can’t all be about leaders meetings and policy. There has to be some “beef,” as that old commercial said, and the Innovation Studio is our beef.

Your work is an inspiration to other women. What advice would you give emerging female leaders? 

It’s the same advice I’ve been giving for 30 years. “Just do it,” as Nike used to say. In the 21st century, there shouldn’t be things that women can do and men can do. Women can do anything. And I’m a big believer in equal pay.

For women, it isn’t easy. You have to make compromises. I advise women to work as aggressively as they can to get to the top of their game on some sort of self-imposed schedule and to leave space for personal life and quality of life.

I gave up friends for years and years to be as good a mom and public servant as I could be. Professional women today have to know there are always wins and losses — that’s life — but you have to make some compromises around your personal
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