Personal Paths to Growth

This past month I observed several real life demonstrations of the positive impact of personalized learning. Each of these happened outside the hallowed walls of traditional education.

1) Leadership and Communications. I am a rabid fan of the University of Michigan football. If you follow it you’ll know that backup quarterback John O’Korn hasn’t been able to rally the team as a collaborative, skilled unit. His many interceptions, snap misses, and fumbles had decimated the Wolverine’s ability to execute. Off the field during the weeks of practice preceding the Rutgers game October 28th, freshman quarterback, Brandon Peters, had been in deep training to garner the leadership skills required to fire up the team’s skills and passion. Peters is a soft spoken, focused, deliberate player. Strong communications were not his forte….until the coaches were relentless in helping him develop what was needed to lead the team. He had to ‘want’ the QB role. He had to learn ‘how’ to lead. And he did and he blossomed. Finally, all agreed he was ready to launch. He entered the game in the second quarter and led to victory with 4 touchdowns. Most of his passes were spot on. He consistently converted on third downs. To say the game dramatically changed is putting it lightly. Peters was leading; he was communicating and his team was responding.

2) In Nashville last week I met a 17 year old lead guitar player who travels the nation with a band of much older country musicians. They are a great, popular band. I asked the young man if he was completing high school. He is – through an online program, Odysseyware. He said he’s loving it since he’s not giving up his ‘on the job/internship’ with the band. He knows it’s his future livelihood – his talent that will drive career decisions. There is no time in his life for bricks and mortar and lock-step high school programming. He doesn’t suffer lack of mentorship. The band is highly supportive of his development – socially and academically. This appears to be a productive life experience for the 17 year old….leading to fulfilling life long dreams.

3) Learning that is Driven. My nephew is no slouch in middle school. He performs at high levels across the board. Often he is ‘bored’ by the irrelevance of some of the learning activities. To compensate he has become a veritable Oracle regarding all things sports. Not only can he recite every team’s/franchise’s/player’s stats and history, he does deep analysis and prognostication based on that data. He spends countless hours seeking this knowledge and understanding that world. The result is that he was reading at a 12th grade level in 4th grade. He has insights about life and people that one would expect from someone much older than 13 years. He is self-taught and able to transfer what he knows in the sports world to the world, his world, in general. He ‘manages’ to patiently wade through the learning tasks in each content area so he can do well on tests and free up his time to do the studying that most interests him.

4) Personal Growth and Career Moves. Coming from a reality where one has a career and holds it ad infinitum or until retirement, it is amazing to watch today’s young work force nimbly change jobs either from personal or employers’ choice. I have followed a young woman, 37, throughout her careers. With degrees in Communications and Sociology she has had many roles and responsibilities in her work life that capitalized on those degrees…some not expected. Her goal has been to be in a position of serving – such as through a non-profit aimed at an honorable mission. In that quest, each of her jobs has led her closer to that realization. She astutely assessed each of her current roles to gauge its plausibility for personal growth and pathway toward the goal. When she realized the position wasn’t aiming in the right direction or she had quit growing, she sought what was next each time landing a role with more responsibility, opportunities for learning and social impact – (and increased salary). Just recently she self-directed a path that led to her landing an Executive Director role in a major NY based corporation. That job had been earmarked for an external candidate with extensive technology background. When the organization learned of the woman’s interest in the position – they listened to her pitch for the job. She had crafted the content of her ask for the position in a way that demonstrated her direct knowledge and skill sets that would greatly benefit the organization. They listened. They gave her the position – again with a 20% salary increase. Her flexibility of style and personal desire to grow, to learn, to expand her capacity landed her the position she sought.

What is important here is how each person found a pathway to grow, to self-develop, to learn, to advance to next levels of knowledge and skill. They had to want that self-direction and accept support and guidance from those willing to help. In my nephew’s case, he simply continues to nurture his own thirst for growth via knowledge and analysis around the world of sports. Then he can scaffold the learning to the traditional expectations.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

‘Retooling’ Our Reality

Educators throw around the terms/phrase ‘transformation’, ‘digital conversion’, and ‘reform’ when describing what’s needed for the current, traditional education system. Key topics of the day include education technology and personalized/online/blended learning. Virtual reality, mastery-based learning and artificial intelligence are included. The heart of the matter is that to authentically shift practice, engage new tools, and create a learner-centric system, we have to REALLY retool our craft and skill-sets from top to bottom. This demands second-order change and leaders who know and are able to guide the conversion.

In 2017 there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are many who have come a long way down the road having escaped the past. They’ve created innovative practices that run parallel to what they knew as past pedagogy. Brain research tells us that when adults purposely develop ‘new’ habits, they cause new brain cells to emerge which brings about new, innovative thought processes. These are significant for education today and tomorrow.

Traditional education settings and practices (those from the 19th and 20th centuries) had been indoctrinated across the education ecosystem. Rote routine became a nation-wide ‘habit’. Those habits became comfortable and held anticipated routines. The introduction of ubiquitous technologies and the other key topics above create discomfort and a territory unknown. The new practices align the fusion of knowledge, skill demonstration, career and college readiness, and learner-centered systems with robust technologies.

Researchers from the ’60s found that by puberty, humans’ brains shut down half of their original capacity for collaboration and innovation for problem-solving. I believe that educators who have jumped into the new education frontier have built their professional capacity to such a high degree that their new ‘habits’ around teaching and learning are truly compelling and moving the education profession by leaps and bounds. It is this scenario about which educators speak when discussing ‘transforming’ and ‘reforming’ schools. Retooling and building new ‘habits’ have been crucial to the education industry.

The next iteration of our education system will make good on the core of our mission – to serve learners’ drive to their greatest potential as global workers, citizens, and contented human beings. One can understand the significance of teachers’ modeling of these qualities among their learners. Teachers and principals, those closest to the day to day student connection, are fundamental to positive transitions from the old to the new. They are indispensable for a high quality education system nation-wide.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

We Know How to Get It Right!

Numerous colleagues, organizations, and One-to-One Institute are researching the return on investment of education technology.  I realize this blog preaches to the choir and that there are volumes of information out there on this topic; however, I am amazed at what little quantitative data exists from a myriad of education systems that are leaders and early adopters of technologies.

It’s clear that we move at the speed of sound with this work because of community’s demands and required response to this urgency in schools.  This is surpassed by the pace at which technology and information race across our landscape.  It is true that we can do only our best with the time we have to digitally transform schools.  We must insist on high quality professional learning and find ways to acquire, refresh, maintain, and sustain education technology. Personnel and time are limited.

We can be more nimble about how we study the planning, design, development, and efficacy of implementations – which means using systems that ‘work’ (i.e. the Project RED Model©), and understanding the financial and student achievement sides of return on investment.  We educators ‘get’ the value side of education technology.  We are intimate with the 21st century skills and knowledge necessary for world success and student growth.  Business, industry, parents, and caregivers are convinced of the efficacy of education technology rich ecosystems.

As an executive director of secondary education in a large suburban district, I could have done benchmarking with middle school teachers, students, and parents when we implemented our one to one program.  Our solid formative assessment program could have provided evidence of students’ achievement.  Ongoing surveys could have told us students’, parents’/caregivers’ and teachers’ perspectives on topics relevant to the one to one progress.

The one to one classrooms could have become our action research spots with their same grade counterparts as control groups.  Granted, we weren’t scientists, but we could have formulated a simple mathematic formula to compare and contrast along key factor measures such as: student attendance, discipline referrals, assessments, research and problem solving abilities, etc., etc.  I would have that informal information at my fingertips today.

There are several disconnects regarding that district project.  If systems had been in tact (if we knew then what we know now) it would have made a profound difference in the success and sustainability of the initiative.  First, the one to one proof of concept was driven by a superintendent.  He understood and believed in the need to engage education technology.  The leader put in play ‘challenge’ grants for teachers and schools that showed solid plans for instituting high quality technology programs.  Many across the district took advantage.

However, the leader’s cabinet was not fully on board.  There weren’t many shared conversations.  The leadership team didn’t understand enough to support, in concept, the one to one initiative.  Most of these school administrators didn’t research the program and they were not provided ongoing communications regarding ‘why’ this would be an important event in the district’s life.  McREL’s leadership research tells us how this was a major caveat (McREL 2007).

Next, the district’s head of finance would attend meetings of the curriculum and operations teams – but as a group they never engaged in a shared visioning experience where the silos could put their voices and concerns on the floor and begin to understand one another.  This, ultimately, would be a key reason for the project abandonment.

This superintendent was way ahead of the curve considering the norms at the time re: edtech. This was not a wealthy district but one whose leadership was very interested in futures to best realize how to serve the school community.  Unfortunately, communicating and honoring relationships with administrators outside his ‘kitchen’ cabinet weren’t qualities of this leader.

The superintendent’s successor was a person who did level best to ‘undo’ the former supe’s initiatives….the one to one being an example.  The point here is that if we had the informal or formal data to ‘prove’ the need and efficacy of the project, we would not have likely witnessed its demise.

Over the past seven years I have connected with many educators, technology staff, CIOs, CTOs, superintendents, virtual school executives, researchers, and other ed-tech experts and practitioners.  There is a much richer body of research around education technologies and one to one programs.  Project RED (2010) of which I am a co-author is one such resource.

We now have data to show how implementation of meaningfully integrated technology has facilitated learner growth, allowed for cost avoidance, reallocation, savings and other funding measures.  We can do more to ensure everyone in the education space understands this data.  This can be most expeditiously accomplished if district key leaders ensured their teams had the knowledge and built ‘visions’ around it.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Onboarding for All

Six years ago Thomas Friedman asked “how did the robot end up with my job?”  He talked about our living in a time when being ‘average’ and successful no longer exist in the global economy.  We now compete, globally, with those who are ‘good, better and best’.  Employers have access to top notch performing people, robots and software.  Our education system still turns out a bell curve of capable young adults placing the United States in competitive edge jeopardy.  Hence, the persistent cry for school reform.

Core Standards/Curriculum is crucial to a guaranteed, viable set of learning outcomes/skills for today’s learners.  Powering up teaching and learning to the highest productivity with highest student achievement results is a significant goal.  Creating an ecosystem where learners ‘drive’ their learning to reach their greatest potential is being accomplished where meaningful use of technologies is in place.

How many times can we make the argument, present the research, data and case for infusion of well-implemented technology in schools?  It’s hard to believe that there are still education leaders requiring an evangelist approach about the moral imperative of technology tools in schools.  It reminds me of what’s happening with the postal service.

The United States Postal Service is still trying to compete with the Internet.  They maintain massive mechanical and human structures that were created before the Internet existed.  They face and have faced multibillion dollar deficits for at least 10 years.  The postmaster general began talking about a ‘new reality’ many years ago.

Remember The Pony Express?  It was a huge accomplishment because it moved mail at a fantastic rate across several states in just ten days!  The investors of that progressive movement pulled funding in just 18 months…when people and animals couldn’t move fast enough to match the speed of the telegraph.  Educators still have enormous textbook budgets while teachers and students are creating content and accessing ‘right now’ resources both free and online.

Several years ago the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) reported that there are over 2 billion worldwide Internet users.  The organization helps leaders understand the global economy by providing data and facts to help decision making around management and policy issues.  They focus on productivity, competitiveness and growth while looking through the lenses of global financial markets and the impact of technologies.

MGI further noted that the Internet has been the world-wide doorway for new waves of entrepreneurships, business models and innovations for using, delivering and accessing goods and services.  It has changed how we all engage with the world.  The same can be true in education once we throw open the network doors and facilitate each learner’s ability to have consistent access to the power of knowing and growing ‘now’.

There are great pockets of education systems where this has happened:  Mooresville Graded School District in NC; Auburn City Schools in AL; Alvarado Independent School District in TX; Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District in MI; and all of the Project RED Signature Districts (

Those are celebrations for sure….but when you consider the rapidity of change, growth, economical development happening in the world where they have well engaged technology tools and the Internet, our pace in education greatly pales. Every day is a wakeup call.

There is a lot of rhetoric – much on point regarding the need and possible avenues of growing bandwidth and furthering technology acquisition and correct utilization in schools.  We can rely just so much on government intervention and funding.  What we can control is what we have at our disposal..and what is in our own backyards – our own operating budgets, ability to vision, plan and nail down short and long term strategies.  Engaging community resources, businesses, local higher education settings and the like have all demonstrated support for local schools’ engagement of technology and development of global work skills.

Robust digital conversions are more feasible today than ever before given best in breed showcase sites, best practice resources available online and face to face, and current research.  For most education systems this will be a process. As all processes go….progress begins by taking the first step – making that first big decision.  Here’s to that time and place for all!

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

AdvancEd and Project RED III Findings Sync

Project RED III and AdvancEd’s education technology research are in sync.  RED III shows that infidelity to a high quality education technology implementation will result in failure of program and reaching desired goals (  AdvancEd’s “The Paradox of Classroom Technology:  Despite Proliferation and Access, Students Not Using Technology for Learning” (2016, van Broekhuizen) reports that “Learners’ use of digital tools and other technology to support their learning in our K-12 systems continues to be sporadic and often not observed despite the proliferation of use outside of school. Based on an analysis of three years of direct classroom observations in K-12 schools across 39 states and 11 countries, AdvancED found there are still relatively few classrooms in which the use of digital tools and technology is a regular part of a student’s school experience. In more than half (52.7%) of classrooms, direct observations show no evidence students are using technology to gather, evaluate, or use information for learning; two-thirds of classrooms show no evidence of students using technology to solve problems, conduct research, or to work collaboratively.

The intersection of these reports lies in the evidence that organizations (schools/districts) must be mindful of each of the key elements required for successful implementations.  AdvancEd’s findings point directly to the lack of support, training, professional learning for teachers in implementing the technologies.  Project RED, early on, identified professional learning as a key requirement for successfully transforming schools to a digital ecosystem.  Simply having the technologies in the hands of teachers and learners means nothing unless they are being guided to shifting practice in teaching and learning.  Any adult trying to ‘change’ habits of mind and craft must go through numerous cognitive and behavioral shifts to retool to a learner-centric, personalized system of education.  Following that is the actual practice, job-embedded, upon which there is deep reflection and collaboration with peers.

Learners may come to the education table with vast experience using tech tools.  However, understanding and using technology for learning and achievement is much more complex than turning on a device, performing searches, creating presentations, etc.  Core standards and learning goals need to be powered up by technology in meaningful, focused ways, in order to make the transition from a traditional learning environment.  Teachers are important to facilitating learners’ abilities to develop creativity, problem-solve, collaborate and realize real life situations and solutions with technologies.

The idea is to begin educators’ professional growth process in preservice and before the deployment of robust education technology programs. Training on the functionality and power of the devices to be used is important.  Once that know-how is attained it is important to ‘use’ that knowledge and then explore ways of deepening the learning and teaching experiences to reach meaningful, focused levels of tech integration.

We at One-to-One Institute have long witnessed the professional learning gaps in schools’/district’s 1 to 1 programs.  AdvancEd’s research is helpful in underscoring this issue in the hope of all of us being more mindful and better practitioners in incorporating high quality, robust, early onset professional development for robust ed tech implementations.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Is America’s Obsession with Competition Improving Learning Outcomes?

Two popular educational movements at the moment in the United States are Personalized Learning, and Growth Mindset. Personalized Learning is by far the most popular, although most interventions are not very personal. Who could deny, however, that meeting the needs of every student individually is a good thing? Special Education has always understood the importance, and has long-standing strategies to meet the specific needs of children with disabilities. I question, however, if school districts have a culture of learning that truly values students’ ideas, and provides them with opportunities to guide their own path. What I see most often are command and control environments, with adults making all of the decisions, controlling the environment, providing the content, and maybe providing students with some choices about how they demonstrating outcomes.

Growth Mindset is another popular idea in many schools today. The theory involves a learner’s beliefs about his/her intelligence. If the student believes their intelligence is not fixed, and it is possible for them to grow, learn, and improve with individual effort, it is believed the student will work harder, and ultimately achieve more. The opposing belief is that intelligence is fixed, so no amount of effort is going to change that. One would think the belief in a fixed mindset would be rare in education circles, but one can see clues everywhere that reveal the opposite. Many students, for example, say they are terrible at math and could never achieve at the levels of the “smart kids.”

The question I have is

“If, as an educator, you believe that growth mindset and personalization are important for the development of your students, why are you promoting and reinforcing the opposite through your actions?”

Let me provide a quick example from a recent personal experience. Those of you who have read my other articles know that I use my children as examples in my writing. We live within the public school boundaries of one of the largest school districts in our state that has received numerous accolades for the education they provide. My intent is not to single them out, but to use them as a real world example of what I see and hear in schools everywhere. I believe the experience I will share here also falls into this category.

Last week I attended my younger daughter’s (Sophia) Honors Night. Students who were going to be honored (about 1/3 of the students in her grade) were sent an invitation, but without an indication of the award they would receive. As the day approached students were given a bunch of directives, and were told that if they didn’t follow them they would not be allowed to participate in the ceremony (e.g., what they could and could not wear, where they had to be at what time, behavior standards during the ceremony, etc.). It reminded me of the orientation we attended when Sophia was transitioning from elementary school to junior high. The principal spoke for 5 minutes about how they care about the growth and success of every child, and then the assistant principal explained the rules and consequences of breaking the rules for an hour and a half. I was surprised then that they didn’t seem to understand that even though they talk about personalization and growth mindset, their actions are all about controlling student behaviors.

So we arrived at honors night, on time and appropriately dressed, and the ceremony began. The principal welcomed everyone and told us how excited she was that there were so many hardworking students in the school that were doing so well. There were about 150 students in attendance from a class of about 600. She also explained that each department head would give an award, one student would receive the principal’s award, and then students would receive their other academic achievement awards for grade point average and high achievement on the state standardized test.

When the principal finished her remarks she called the first department head to the podium. As this teacher began describing the characteristics of the student who would win the award I noticed something interesting. More than half of the students became very attentive. Almost in unison they turned their heads toward the stage, sat up in their chairs and leaned forward. Then, as the name of the winning student was read, the students immediately slumped back into their chairs. At first I thought I might have been seeing things, but as the students progressed through these same synchronized body movements during the announcement of each new award, it really looked quite astounding. It reminded me of a body breathing, starting with a steady expansion of the lung and chest as one breaths in, and then the collapse of the chest and lung as one breaths out. Because there were 9 or 10 of these awards the pattern could be clearly established.

I started wondering what was going on in the students’ heads. I also wondered how the students were picked for the awards. Everybody invited was a good student, so what were the differentiators? We were provided a few clues during the teacher comments. Two teachers mentioned that the recipient was a good rule follower. Several teachers provided anecdotes of their personal relationship with the student, and how much they liked them. I also noticed that the same four students won all of the awards.

I asked Sophia on the way home what she thought of the ceremony, and we wound up having one of those spirited conversations I cherish so much. She started in a somewhat snotty tone by saying, “Did the goth girl, who is an A student and has amazing drawing skills win the fine arts award? No. Did the dorky kid that seems to know everything about history, who annoys the teacher with his questions, and is always getting into arguments with him win the social studies award? No. Did the math student that shows the teacher a different way to solve a problem every day, and corrects the teacher when he is wrong win the math award? No. The whole thing was stupid. The same goodie-goodies get to do everything and win everything.”

I mentioned to her about my observation of the students, and she said, “When the Spanish teacher started reading the characteristics of her winner I thought she was talking about me.” I agreed that I thought it sounded exactly like her. “I was really bummed when I didn’t get it, and I sort of feel bad about myself right now, like I’m not doing something right. I try super hard to give them what they want, but I think too much.”

That comment stabbed me straight through the heart – a 4.0 student feeling like she is doing something wrong and THINKING TOO MUCH!

I have been reflecting on the role of student motivation quite a bit lately. It has always been a piece of the puzzle in my work from the beginning of my education career, but I haven’t spent a tremendous amount of time investigating the research. I’m now working with a colleague on a theory of change that includes what we have learned about human motivation as one of the fundamental pillars. We believe we have found the core elements and processes that could lead to dramatic improvements in learning and student academic achievement, but human systems are complicated and are resistant to change. Let’s examine just one small aspect of the motivation pillar, as it relates to the Honors Night experience.

Professors from Cambridge University recently published their findings of a two year study of the effects of competition on students. The researchers believe that competition can have damaging effects on children’s learning, especially in the primary years. The study revealed that rewards for good grades have a negative impact, and suggest that teachers should praise “efforts” rather than success. I’m not sure I like the terminology used, but what the researchers are driving at is the idea that the outcome is only a small piece of the learning process, and if we reward good use of the process, and sustaining efforts to find answers through that process, students will have a much deeper learning experience than just trying to reproduce a fixed outcome. Schools may say they believe a growth mindset is important, but if they contradict themselves through their actions – like the extrinsic rewards system used almost everywhere – what will the children believe? This is so important because children who believe that their intelligence is fixed are less likely to make an effort to learn, whereas those who believe that their intelligence can grow continue to try, and try harder. The Cambridge researchers specifically found that “offering rewards on a competitive basis” affected pupils’ perception of their classmates. Shy children often became “increasingly quiet or subdued” or were reduced to “passive scribes of a dominant child’s ideas.” (i).

The competitive rewarding system ultimately creates winners and losers. In the case of Sophia’s Honors Night, there was 1 winner and 150 losers 9 or 10 times in a row. I think the school might think that the competition motivates students to work harder and achieve a higher standard. This may be true for a few students who crave external validation, but the vast majority of students who were in the room that night are intrinsically motivated, and wonderful students. Since this is the case, what is the point of turning 145 of them into losers, and 5 of them into winners?

School counselors have to deal with this absurdity all the time: students whose dreams have been crushed; the non-conformist who is bullied by students, and not respected by his teachers; those who are humiliated by their lack of achievement at peer levels; the child that can never live up to his/her parent’s academic expectations; and dozens of students who are in trouble because they have given up on the system because they are tired of being told what to do, or they will never be able to “win.”

In a 2003 study (ii), researchers at Chinese University of Hong Kong found that competition can even have a negative effect on high achieving students. When student motivation was analyzed through the lens of loss aversion (the desire to avoid loss) and the endowment effect (the tendency to value our own goods more than the same goods owned by others), they saw the potential for many successful students to experience a significant negative effect on their perceived high self-worth. In order to protect the perception people have of them, and they have of themselves, they may reduce their effort in order to “win by not losing.” By not putting in the effort they can preserve the perception that they are smart, but didn’t achieve simply because they didn’t put in the effort.

In another Chinese study researchers investigated the effects of competition on learning motivation by comparing competitive classroom settings with non-competitive ones. Students in competitive conditions did perform better, but only on easy, or low level tasks. The downside of the minimal success, however, was that because students were so performance-oriented, they were more likely to sacrifice learning opportunities for better grades. We can see the same thing happen in American high schools when students take a regular class rather than an honors class in order to ensure they will preserve their grade point average. The Chinese students were also prone to having more negative self-evaluations after failure, which leads us back to the other findings around growth mindset. Another finding from the study is that competition – in particular, a competitive grading system – suggested that above-average students might be motivated by this type of competition, whereas below-average students might be discouraged by such a system.

So what does this all mean? Competition is not inherently bad for learning. I just don’t think most educators have thought through the types of competition they create, and the effects it can have on all of their students. Being forced into a competitive system where you have no chance of winning is demoralizing. Being in a competition where you don’t know the criteria by which a winner is chosen is frustrating and feels pointless. To be effective in the learning process, competition needs to be mindful of the values the learning environment is looking to promote, and should focus on improving self-performance, rather than pitting students against each other in a system that creates very few winners and too many losers. After all, human beings have evolved and continue to survive not because of competition, but rather because of a balance between competition and collaboration. Some believe the latter will actually be more essential for survival in the future.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

Just In Time Learning Always On-Future

I barely know the powers and functionalities of my smart phone and it’s time to get a new one.  I’ll go through the same routine with my provider.  He/She will set up my new phone; show me the highlights and off I’ll go.  I seldom learn any of the phone’s potential until I have the need to do so. My 13 year old nephew has shown me countless tools and opportunities on my phone about which I would have never thought.

We are truly learning ALL the time. The question is, ‘when AREN’T we learning?’  This truth demands the learning environment (everywhere) be conducive to flexibility, just in time knowledge/information, collaboration, and communications. And also product development – making stuff as demonstrations of mastery and what’s been learned.  The four-walled prison style schools are not viable for what’s needed now and in the future.

Yorkville (IL) Community Schools #115 got it right.  They had the opportunity to completely transform the high school and did so with complete focus on the learner ( is a learning space with rolling furniture, access points, computer bars, and fishbowls for collaboration.

The fact is that we’re in a new revolutionary state and prepping next generation employees for what’s ahead (or in front of us now) is crucial. Soft skills (social, emotional, mindset, etc.) will impact employee’s effectiveness and marketability. Analysis, problem-solving, STEAM are on the front burner of needed skills for the future.  All of these are best addressed and developed in a learning environment that capitalizes on flexibility, cooperative work, trial and error, and production.  Real-life, meaningful tasks ensure this kind of learning occurs.

The article cited above lays out two more examples of how school leaders digitally transformed learning systems, environments and activities to mirror students’ future needs.  Most significant is the impact these changes had on student achievement and motivation.

Colorado Springs Schools 11 developed ‘Next Generation Learning’ resources as they continue to evolve their transformation.  A lot of good ideas here that began in 2014.  This accompanies their vision/mission.  It is a good guide for those engaged in the digital shift and learner-centered approach.

It’s good news that many models exist today to help others down the path.  It is more important, however, that the models follow research-based implementation processes to ensure success.  For more on that topic go to  You can read our new research Briefs.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Calling a State of Emergency: American High School Dropouts

Over the course of this school year I have seen a steady stream of articles touting improvements in graduation rates. As the school year began, one article that caught my eye was from the Chicago Tribune. Since I started my career in CPS I was curious to see how much dropout rates had improved (or declined). When I moved to Chicago at the start of the 80s everyone was concerned with recent increases in dropouts, which held steady for a few years at around 43%. I remember being shocked that the education system was failing so many kids in Chicago, and that city and state officials weren’t treating it like a national emergency. I quickly found out that Chicago was not alone. The same thing was happening in urban centers across the country. My hometown school district of Detroit, for example, was even worse, posting about a 50% dropout rate during the same time period.

So how does that compare to current rates?

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the numbers in the Tribune.  The graduation rate last year in CPS was just over 73%, and it has been steadily rising for the past 5 years.  A 30% increase is obviously a tremendous improvement. It wasn’t until I was looking at the Detroit numbers recently that I started to question things. If you have been on a school board, or part of a school’s administration, you already know that there is a difference in how dropout rates and graduation rates are calculated. You may have also questioned this if you added the two in a given year and realized they don’t add up to 100%. Also, the way these rates are calculated, reported, and verified has changed several times over the years, which makes it difficult to compare.   Even if you accept the most optimistic numbers school districts provide at face value, the issue remains devastating to our nation. Let me try to illustrate my point with some visual aides.

In 1963 the civil rights movement came to a head as people from all over the country marched on Washington to protest injustice, and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. The National Mall was overflowing with supporters. As a child I remember thinking I finally understood what the expression “A sea of people” meant. Here is a picture taken that day that I found through Creative Commons from the National Museum of American History.

King Speach

So what does this have to do with dropout rates? “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Dr. King spoke so eloquently that day about the American dream, and the inalienable rights of all Americans. Although we have made strides in helping more students achieve those dreams, the fact remains that 5 times as many students in America dropped out of high school last year, than were in attendance that glorious day in 1963. That equates to approximately double the entire current population of Washington D.C.

king speech x 5

I was shocked when I realized that 1,200,000 students dropped out of high school in 2015-16, and that is in just one year. When multiplied over a generation the numbers become staggering. At the rate students are currently dropping out of high school – the rate lauded by many districts recently – the number of people who drop out will exceed the total population of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the rest of the top 20 largest American cities combined!

I need to take a quick bird walk here to set something straight. I have learned that the U.S. sometimes has a hard time facing reality.  I did some fact checking yesterday. An article I read stated that “The United States had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country,” but now ranked near the bottom of the 27 developed nations. Since there was no citation in the article I wanted to track one down so I could include the comment in this blog post. I spent several hours yesterday looking for the statistics showing that the U.S. lead K-12 education worldwide at some point in our history. The reality is that the United States has never scored well in math and science compared to other developed countries, and comparative testing has not been happening very long. The Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted one of the first popular studies of mathematical achievement in 12 countries in 1965. Israel and England scored the highest with a mean score in the high 30s. The United States scored the worst, with a mean score of 13.8.

We are currently ranked 22 out of the 27 countries that are considered developed. We may have improved dramatically since the 1980s, but we continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the developed world. One-point-two-million students dropped out of high school last year, and we rank 22nd out 27? Should we really be patting ourselves on the back?

We need to declare a State of Emergency on the scale of the response to hurricane Katrina. That storm ultimately devastated whole communities and displaced around 400,000 people. These Katrina victims, however, are equivalent to only 1/3 of the students that were displaced from our nation’s high schools last year. For months after Katrina there was a never-ending stream of news, commentary, and support. The American people were outraged that the governments response to the disaster, and in particular, to the inhumane treatment of people from poor minority neighborhoods.

Where is the outrage for the drop-out crisis?

Most people would probably not be surprised that facing very poor job prospects, and almost inevitable poverty, that dropouts commit about 75% of the crimes in America. It’s not Mexican immigrants, and it’s not Muslim terrorists. Most crime is being committed by our disenfranchised former students – kids that grow up to be adults without any viable path to a better future.

Where is the outpouring of concern and volunteer support?

If one were to put aside quality of life issues, and just focus on the impact the disenfranchised will have on our economy, the numbers are staggering.  At lifetime cost to taxpayers of $292,000 per each dropout, the financial burden we will have to bear from just the students who dropped out in 2016 will be $350,000,000,000. For those having trouble counting up all the zeros, that’s 350 billion, yes, with a “B,” and we are already on the hook. But this goes on year after year, decade after decade. In just one generation it could add up to as much as 8.75 trillion dollars!

Where is the avalanche of government, corporate, and private financial support?

Some of my friends and family say that students who drop out are just lazy, or angry, or have bad families. The reasoning goes that since dropping out is a choice, it’s different. They think that the issue is that simple, and is not their problem. Ask Community in Schools (CIS) if it is that simple. They are one of the few organizations that has documented success. They are different than other programs because they take a systems approach. They conduct assessments to understand the community and the students’ needs. They are committed to change over time as demonstrated by their embedded coordinator. And they are able to rally all of the non-profit and for-profit providers in the community that can meet essential needs within the community. The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University has a vetted database of programs and services dedicated to dropout reduction and prevention. Organizations in the database that are rated with 3 graduation caps by NDPC, like CIS, are rated as having “Strong Evidence of Effectiveness.”

CIS’ limitation, however, is that they deal primarily with community-based systems that surround the school (e.g., healthcare, after school programs, etc.), but they don’t address the systems issues within classrooms and schools (e.g., curriculum, pedagogy, distributed leadership, etc.) that need to be addressed for optimal learning to take place.

One-to-One Institute also takes a systems approach to transformation, but focuses on 7 system categories that directly affect learning, culture, and the efficient administration of schools. Our co-authored Project RED research identified key factors that lead to higher student achievement and cost effectiveness. Technology plays a key role in the transformation, but the focus is on learning and empowering students.

In Project RED Phase III we worked with 20 districts we labeled “Signature Districts.” To become a Signature District they had to commit to adhering to the Project RED Design as we tracked their progress over three school years. We are currently in the process of publishing a series of briefs on our findings. We believe that if a district follows the PR Design, students could potentially double their academic achievement, and it could be revenue neutral for the district.

There are a growing number of non-profit organizations and for profit vendors that have developed and tested learning products, and have documented results for their piece of the puzzle. There is no longer any excuse for implementing things that don’t work. The research is clear. It is possible to completely eradicate high school dropouts.

  • With so much at stake, we all must take action and build from each other’s best practices.
  • We need to find ways to help others understand that we must make this a national priority.
  • Use research, like Project RED, and visit NDPC to find other research to inform your opinions.
  • Insist that your government and education leaders utilize programs that have documented results, and can integrate their solution into your new digital systems.

It is possible to completely eradicate high school dropouts, but it won’t happen until we all commit to making it a national priority.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D

A Mosaic of Best Practices

The Onion is a US news satire organization.  It features a newspaper and a website with articles on international, national, and local news.  My husband and I winter in Florida.  We walk miles along beaches from February through April.  I gather up lots of shells.  The Onion’s article, “Report: All Good Seashells Taken” (,26337/), comes from Coral Gables, FL, not far from where we stay. The piece pokes fun at a host of human behaviors and beliefs.  It’s supposed ‘environmental’ research about why there are no more ‘good’ seashells.  They have all been grabbed up by ‘aunts with homes along the shoreline and 14 year olds with no friends’.

It is a ridiculous conclusion- every Onion article has one.  There is one ‘hopeful’ statement that helps the reader turn the corner from supposed despair about the seashells…. “When pressed, however, Coates (researcher) acknowledged there might be enough bits of good shell left to be assembled into a serviceable mosaic.”  The same can be said about schools.  Most have ‘bits of good shell’ that contribute to a serviceable system.  I mean schools with high student achievement, personalization, effective technology implementation, high quality teaching, community/parent/caregiver engagement, generative leadership, etc., etc.  Data-wise these are arguably difficult to find. But they do exist.  And if we assemble those ‘bits of good shell’ into a ‘serviceable mosaic’, we can inform and lead real school transformation.

We’ve learned through Project RED and the work of One-to-One Institute that there are few places that have it all pulled together in an effective, well running system that is producing expected student and organizational outcomes.  But there are places that are well greased in certain components that lead to success.  We could create a motif using each ‘showcase’ site’s special effects as part of grand picture for ‘how to’.

That is exactly what we planned to do with Project RED II and the seventeen Signature Districts.  The recently launched Project RED III findings put that package together.  We captured results-oriented best practices into robust media tools that can be virtually accessed by educators.  Highlighted will be effective leadership, meaningfully planned education technology integration, student achievement measures, revenue-positive and return on investment strategies, strategic visioning and planning for short and long term objectives and ways of creating capacity and sustainability.  Professional learning and communications also makeup the content of our new research.  You can find all here.

A major finding from Project RED III is that even in the most optimal environments that capture what we know for sure about implementing successful one-to-one programs, it remains a daunting task to reach desired outcomes.  Implementation systems must work in tandem at high quality levels, be consistently led by skilled leaders, and focused on transforming teaching and learning models through ongoing, embedded professional learning.  Unforeseen circumstances are reality.  Systems and leaders must figure out how to navigate those waters to keep the program safely on course.  It’s challenging work.  And we’re making progress.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Breaking the Cycle of Failed Innovations

I recently sold my house and started packing last weekend. As I was going through my books I found one from 2008 called “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” It started me thinking about the reactions I have witnessed in many of my teacher friends when I talk about the potential of technology to enhance the learning process. To be fair, I do understand much of the resistance. When I was in the classroom it seemed like the administration was always jumping on the latest educational fad bandwagon. One year it was Multiple Intelligences and writing across the curriculum. The next year those initiatives seemed to vanish, and we all had to focus on Differentiated Instruction and how to use the state test score data to raise math and ELA scores. All of these initiatives may have merit, but it was never clear how each fit into a bigger vision for learning, or within the curricular areas outside of math and ELA.

The biggest issue for me in adopting any of these so called innovations was that I felt like they were being done to me, not with me. I was a successful teacher with exceptional student outcomes, and awards to prove it. I thought at the time, “Why am I being forced to figure out how to retrofit my curriculum to be compliant with the district mandates, especially when the mandates didn’t even make pedagogical sense within the learning I was facilitating?” What incensed me even more, though, were the hours and hours I had to sit with the entire staff going over the analysis of our school’s state math test data, even though there was no middle or high school level math in my curriculum.

I was fortunate that I was befriended by a 35 year veteran teacher shortly after I started my first assignment. He was great at sensing my frustration, and would say with a big smile, “This too shall pass, Michael, this too shall pass.” He was right. All of the experienced teachers in my building knew that if they didn’t make waves, and just looked compliant for a year, the winds would change, and the district would be blown onto the next greatest educational innovation.

Adopting technology, for me, was different. In my 6th year of teaching, the district gave each staff member a desktop computer. Teachers who needed basic training were able to sign up for classes like “Compact Basic Operation,” or “How to use Word and PowerPoint,” but that was about the extent of the support. The district did not demand we use the computers at all. When, after two years, teachers were still not using the computers, principals tried strategies, like only communicating about meetings through email, to force teachers to use them.

Only a few early adopters experimented with ways to use the device to benefit learners. I appreciated the district not forcing the usual compliance. I was excited to have found a remediation app and was working on an efficient way to circulate struggling students through the program. Four years later, students were using computers on a regular basis in the visual arts, in a website design class, and in journalism/yearbook, but there were many teachers that still didn’t even know how to use their email.

Looking back, I can see several change leadership strategies the district and principal could have used to engage teachers and change behaviors, but why were teachers so reluctant to change?

There is an old saying that is attributed to Confucius that “No man can be rightly taught until he feels a real need in his life or in his work.” When I think about how I manage my personal and professional life now, it seems unimaginable that I didn’t purchase my first cell phone until 2001. Today all of my work is done through a laptop or smartphone. I no longer have a conventional workplace I go to each morning. Everyone I worked with during the past year, outside of school district personnel, had similar circumstances. In the corporate world we definitely feel a real need to use technology in our work. We couldn’t function without it. The efficiencies experienced in my work, as well as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and create, led me to start using the technology in my personal life.

My 9th grade daughter was born in 2001, just after I purchased that first cell phone.  For her, technology has always been “ubiquitous.” When she was around 3 years old, I remember waking up one Saturday morning, and wondering where she was. I found her in my office. She had booted up my old desktop computer, loaded one of the CD-Rom educational games I was asked to review, had set her achievement goal, and was monitoring her progress. When I asked her what she was doing she said she had seen her older sister play this game and had to try it. In Sophia’s mind, she felt a real need in her life.

Today Sophia has her own YouTube DIY Channel. She uses Facetime to gather her study group, and to collaborate with friends on a variety of personal projects. She communicates with her soccer coaches and receives automated schedule reminders through TeamSnap, and uses iPhone, iPad, Chromebook, and Windows apps to communicate, collaborate, and create in dozens of other ways. Sophia has never had any formal technology training. She simply has something she wants to do – like share the cool DIY things she comes up with – and looks for the best tools she has at her disposal to do so. In effect, she takes a DIY approach to share her DIY approach.

As the available tools change, or the popularity of certain apps dwindles, Sophia seems to migrate to new apps seamlessly. The device doesn’t seem to matter much to her, nor do the apps. It is as if she knows the technology will change, and that other companies will come up with better solutions that address issues her and her friends had with the old technology. This phenomenon is not unique to Sophia. All of her close friends have the same attitude toward technology and use it flexibly…at home.

Sophia’s flexible use of technology versus the rigid perception and usage I see in most schools is often labelled as digital natives versus digital immigrants. I don’t dispute that there is some of this going on, but there is something else at play. I’m noticing that a person’s attitude and approach to change seems to align with his/her perception of the world, and that these perceptions fall into two categories:

  1. People who view life as continuously evolving; and
  2. People who view the world as static.

In education we call these growth mindset and fixed mindset. Carol Dweck has done important work on mindset psychology traits if you want to learn more about this topic. Growth mindset, unfortunately, seems to be one of the latest buzz words in education. It is not that I think growth mindset is unimportant. To the contrary. The issue I have is that schools are trying to address growth mindset within a fixed mindset environment. Almost everything in secondary schools across the country reinforce a fixed mindset view of the world:

  • The command and control leadership style
  • The importance we place on standardized tests
  • Teachers feeling like they just need to get through the curriculum
  • The value placed on right and wrong answers
  • The amount of memorization teachers require of their students
  • The predominance of direct instruction used in classrooms

This seems to be the never-ending story in education. We try to retrofit our traditional system with a new innovation, it inevitably fails, and then we move on to the next hot innovation. Ask any 20 year veteran teacher and they will provide you with a laundry list of initiatives they have seen come and go during their career. Until we stop applying new programs like Band-Aides to fix education, and fundamentally change the way we do schooling, we will continue on this treadmill of failed innovations.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

Check back in May for my next blog on the importance of teaching and how to embrace change as a core principle in schools.