Sprout or Restrain – Leaders Have the Power

A while ago, I moderated a panel of education and industry whizzes who discussed successful education technology implementations.  My task was to summarize the quintessential findings from Project RED regarding the keys to successfully integrating technology in schools.

During the Q & A segment, two teachers stood up and asked the question, ‘What do we do?  We’ve begun a one to one teaching and learning program and we haven’t done any of the things you report are required to be successful.  Our principal is not providing guidance or support.  Many teachers are abandoning the effort.’

To respond was daunting.  My experience, and my answer, had to be truth as I knew it.  The fact is that without that principal’s support, planning for professional growth, etc., they would not be able to grow or essentially create a success quotient for the one to one practice.  I gave a lot of other kinds of ‘scenario’ advisements – create a community of practice with the teachers-carve out time to collaborate, debrief, share research about others’ best practices/strategies/lesson plans, etc., request regular meeting times with the principal to discuss the program, challenges and successes and needs for professional development; seek out other educators and create a virtual network of support and guidance.

Finally, I told them that my personal, professional experience is that when the leader didn’t ‘get it’ there was little I could do as the non-decision maker to do what I deemed the ‘right, moral and necessary work’.  I changed teaching and administrator jobs numerous times because the leadership in my then present environment was a deterrent to using my skills and passion for serving young people. After describing my journey, there were applause from the audience-much to my surprise. Obviously, my comments resonated with a lot of people. We have a leadership crisis!!

Five teachers came to me after the panel. They said that they didn’t want to leave their current positions. They loved the students, community and school. They wanted to find another way.  My guess is that this wonderful group of teachers will find a way to do their one to one work effectively in this setting.  It would be even better if a new leader for the school emerges who provides what is needed for these teachers to flourish with their students through the use of education technologies.

Back at home office, I sent them a lot of resources and content regarding steps needed to be successful.  They plan to share with their principal.  I wait each day for a follow up.  Keeping my fingers crossed a plan will materialize.

The panel scenario is one we witness across the country.  There are educators who have leapfrogged into integrating technologies with teaching and learning.  They thirst for more resources, support, guidance – frequently creating their own communities for learning and sharing.  When the latter happens in tandem with focused, change leadership much can be accomplished for moving the needle ahead for today’s learners to be globally and productively connected to achieve at higher rates.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Respect: The Foundation for Personalized Learning

Last Thursday I happened to be in the kitchen getting some coffee when my 9th grade daughter came home from school.  Sophia was in a really bad mood, but I just figured she needed a snack.  She is one of those people (like me) who can get pretty crabby when hungry.  I asked her how her day was, and she sort of mumbled something about leaving her alone.  I brushed it off and went back to work knowing she would probably be fine once she had something to eat.

Dinner time wasn’t much better.  Like lots of teenagers today, Sophia is binge-watching a TV show on her phone.  I don’t mind as long as she finishes her homework and isn’t neglecting the other things she has to do.  That has never been a problem with her.  I think she is actually the most driven, disciplined, and organized person I know.  If anything I am a little concerned that she expects too much of herself.

After asking her to shut her phone off at the table, I noticed that her attitude was the same as after school.  I asked her if something was wrong, and she had the same retort as before, but this time with a lot more emphasis!  Most people with teenage daughters know what it’s like.  It wasn’t until we were on our way to soccer practice that she began to open up.  There is something magical about a long car ride with some good music that seems to prime great conversations between my kids and me.  Out of the blue Sophia blurts out, “My school is so stupid!”  I asked her what she meant, and she started in on a 20 minute rant about her day.

“I hate having to get up so early in the morning for school.  If I want to have time to actually eat a good breakfast and take a shower I have to get up like at 5:30 am.  That’s just crazy!  When we got to school today the bus was actually a little bit early so they keep us in this one area like a bunch of penned in animals.  It’s like they think we are going to destroy the school if they actually let us go to our lockers and get ready for class.”

It was at this point I realized her story might make a poignant statement about secondary education in our country, and I wanted to capture it so I could use it later.  I asked her if she would mind if I recorded her story on my phone, and she said she didn’t care, and added “Maybe if you write about it, Pappa, my teachers might read it and actually change.”  I sort of laughed at the thought that my little blog could yield such power.  Without missing a beat she started back in.

“I wish they would let us take our backpacks to class.  I can’t possibly carry everything, so I have to go back to my locker between every class – and get to be yelled at for the privilege!  You know, sometimes my locker is on the opposite side of the school, and God forbid I have to go to the bathroom.  There is no way I could get to my locker, put my stuff away in my backpack, get all the right stuff out for the next class, go to the bathroom, and get to my next class on time.

So anyway, on Friday I put my stuff in my locker and I am sort of skipping and singing down the hallway to class, and I get yelled at to “cut it out, and get to class!”  I wanted so bad to say to him, “Cut what out? Being happy?”  It’s like some teachers I believe really think that we are not supposed to have fun at all in school.  So I get yelled at, and I’m not even doing anything.  It’s not like I was even doing anything wrong.

So then there is first hour.  I hate first hour!  We had a math test today and the teacher gave us the review sheet yesterday.  We spent the first ten minutes correcting the review sheet, and then he wouldn’t even answer any questions because we had the test.  What’s the point of giving us a review sheet if we are going to correct it the day of the test?  Aren’t we supposed to be able to study from it??

So that was the start of another wonderful day at school. Spanish class was ok.  The teacher shares things from her personal life and we do some projects, so it isn’t all just sitting there.

The next thing was at lunch.  First, it’s crazy that I have lunch a 10:30 in the morning.  Then I’m not supposed to eat anything until after school?  Lunch is like a prison.  We get yelled at to sit down, we get yelled at to stay in line, and we get yelled at to clean up.  It’s like they think we are a bunch of wild animals.

The food is horrible.  There isn’t anything fresh, and about the only good thing is the Ice’s (sparkling water), but they cost twice as much as in the store.  Anyway, so I finish my lunch and I am leaving when the teacher stops me because I have half a bottle of water in my hand.  He tells me I can’t take it out of the cafeteria, and that I have to throw it away.  I said to him “Are you serious?” and he threatened to give me detention.  I mean, come on…we’re not even allow to drink water?

I thought my day couldn’t get any worse, but in science the teacher was explaining some stuff about the periodic table.  I pulled out my phone to look up something about the charges and he walked over and took it away.  He didn’t ask me what I was doing, he didn’t ask me to give it to him.  He just took it out of my hand and put it in his desk.  It made me so mad, the only thing I could think about the rest of the class were arguments for why he is a horrible teacher.  He didn’t seem to notice.

Then in my last class I started to get a bad kink in my neck.  I tried to sit up, but that didn’t last long.  I started rubbing my neck and tried to push the corner of the hard plastic part of the top of the chair back between my shoulders, but it was hard to get into the right position in those stupid desks.  The teacher stopped what she was doing and asked me if something was wrong.  I started screaming at her in my head that “yeah there is something f$%&1#$ wrong.  I am paralyzed because I have been chained to these f$%#&@#$ seats all day.”  I didn’t actually say anything, of course, because everyone knows what she really meant was to stop messing around and pay attention.

So you keep asking me why I am in a bad mood.  I’d like to see how you would feel at the end of my day.  Knowing you, you wouldn’t even be able to get through the first class without being sent to the office!”

I chuckled and said she was probably right, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. “Ok, I get why you would be crabby, but if you could change things, what would you do?”

“Well, for starters I would let kids move around more, and go outside. We have this beautiful courtyard at school, but nobody is ever allowed to use it.  The only time I was in it was last year when a teacher made us pull weeds.”

Sophia paused for a second to collect her thoughts, and then continued.

“It’s like the teachers don’t respect the students at all.  They’re always yelling at you…they take your stuff if they think you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, without bothering to find out what was going on…they tell you to sit down and pay attention.  Like, could you imagine if I commanded a teacher to “sit down and pay attention?”  I have heard teachers say we should respect them.  Well, how can I respect them when they don’t respect me?  Just because they can make me do what they want doesn’t mean I respect them.”

And then there was a long pause.  I couldn’t believe that school is really this horrible for her all the time.  It must just be that she had a really bad day.  I decided to follow up with a positive question.  “So, what do you like about school?  There must be somethings you like?”

“My friends, and seeing what all the other kids are wearing, and what they’re doing.  I also like watching what they do, like, who they hang out with, and being able to see the different patterns and stuff.”

“OK, that’s normal”, I confirmed.  “Human beings are social animals, we learn through social interaction.  I think if you asked most students in America what they like the most about school, their response would include something about friends.  But isn’t there anything else you like about school?”  Her comment defines my whole point in this blog.

“Well, there are a couple of teachers I like.  They are nice, and they tell us things about their lives that I can relate to.  Other than that, I am told what to do all day, I don’t get to eat when I need to, I don’t get to drink when I need to, and I don’t even get to go to the bathroom when I need to.  Would you want to have to spend your whole day there every day for years?”

Obviously, no adults would tolerate another adult talking to them the way Sophia described.  The lack of respect seems obvious when you’re thinking of it in those terms.  What bothers me the most is that I think every adult in the country can relate to some of Sophia’s experiences, and unfortunately, I see these type of behaviors, and systems of command and control in almost every secondary school I visit.  The country seems obsessed with Personalized Learning right now.  It has become the latest and greatest answer to all of educations woes.  What I am often seeing in the name of personalization, however, is the implementation of a set curricula that can be adjusted for individual students, within the same old command and control structure.

I say, if you really want to help students personalize learning, start with building a culture of respect for each student.  Until that has been established, it isn’t even possible for the student to engage in the meaningful ways it would take for them to truly personalize their learning.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

Talent: Must Develop and Deliver

I recently participated in an event sponsored by numerous automotive industry leaders in the Detroit area.  They invited superintendents from Michigan to collaborate with them on how to develop the talent needed to fill the thousands of ‘new’ manufacturing/auto/tech jobs that are emerging across sixteen state counties.  The event organizers presented data and profiles about these jobs.  They discussed different avenues of preparing high schoolers for these positions.  They sought the district leaders’ ideas regarding the same.

I learned a lot about how manufacturing jobs have been transformed.  To be employed in this pathway one needs to be highly technically skilled and experienced. This includes knowledge of content, technology application, and systems integration.  These are highly complex jobs that require expertise not only in core standard curricula but in relevant uses of technology tools within the same.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released a policy briefing underscoring the very message as outlined above (http://www.oecd.org/employment/emp/Skills-for-a-Digital-World.pdfP)

And there is a void of talented candidates in MI to fill these jobs. Across sixteen MI counties, the bedrock of high tech development and engineering jobs, the companies are struggling to find talent to fill positions.  Many have instituted internships and co-op work that are fed by local school districts.  The profile of career technical schools has shifted dramatically. Where there exists high caliber, rigorous applied learning programs focused on integrated disciplines and the fusion of technologies, they are producing ‘ready to go’ employees. They are being placed immediately in top notch positions that posture them for continued career growth and opportunities.

The Early College program (TEC) exists across the country.  The original initiative, as I understand it, was launched in 2002 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Since then many Early and Middle College programs have emerged.  What I need to do is re-engage with the industry leaders who are seeking talent and make sure they are aware of the TECs that exist in Michigan.  Based on the TEC curricula, they should be able to pull graduates and current students from these settings into the work place.

There were only three TECs in MI a short time ago.  Today they have expanded into more state counties.  Nexus Academy of Lansing will join TEC at Lansing Community College.  Here’s an overview of the program.

“The vision of The Early College at Lansing Community College is to provide mid-Michigan high school students the opportunity to earn up to sixty college credits as part of their high school learning experience. We will promote innovation and best practices in education. Our students will have a personalized learning experience within a small learning community, a positive school experience and the social and academic tools to successfully continue their education or career.” (http://www.lcc.edu/earlycollege/documents/annual-report-2016.pdf) 

The program creators are committed to a nontraditional ‘school’.  Their goal is to ensure learners develop a zeal for continued growth and are prepared to be successful in our globally competitive world.  The development of students’ creativity, problem-solving, experiential learning and flexibility are embedded in the curricula.

TEC in Lansing is a three year program for students entering grade 11 in the fall. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the basis for the curricula. These disciplines prepare learners for an array of careers and ensure a strong base for many four-year college majors.

Learners start the program via core high school courses and participation in learning success skill training to be prepare for the rigor of college work. “In the middle of their first semester, students may become eligible to be credentialed for taking college classes to obtain at least 60 transferrable college credits or a minimum of 30 credits in a certificate program. Students also receive extensive career readiness and exploration learning experiences.” (theearlycollege@lcc.edu)  TEC’s standard core curriculum meets Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements.  Learners also have the opportunity to receive transferable college credits that pave the way to an Associate Degree or Certificate program.

The illustration below profiles LLC’s Early College class of 2016.

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The Principal at Nexus Academy of Lansing has met with a number of teachers at the county’s career and technical center.  Quite a few of his students participate in programs at the center. Each teacher with whom the principal spoke told him that Nexus sends the most premier students to their programs.  They are head over heels beyond the students from other high schools because they actually know how to effectively use technologies within their skill/content areas.  The teachers noted that with the other schools’ students, they have to teach them how to use and integrate the tech tools as well as master the content.  It’s double duty for the teachers and most significantly for the learners.

Schools like Nexus Academy and other successful 1 to 1 settings are providing students with technology skills that are crucial to successful matriculation into a global workplace.  There are pools of talent being developed in these and the Early College setting.

Learning this I thought about the auto industry leaders’ pleas for talent development.  I thought about the mission of well implementing 1 to 1 technologies in schools that I’ve supported for 15 years.  Back then this was a new, often ballyhooed frontier. Most school leaders avoided implementing technologies because of cost and their lack of understanding and prognosticating what the world would expect from students in ten short years.  Today, we see an uptick in schools’ acquiring technologies.  Those acquisitions must be accompanied by vision, strategy, high quality leadership and a focus on learner outcomes to best ensure the talent needed for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Change Leadership: A New Focus for Administrator Preparation Programs

One-to-One Institute’s newsletter this month focuses on the role higher education can play in the transformation of learning and teaching in the K-12 system. When discussing higher education programs the bulk of the conversation, rightfully so, tends to focus on teachers. We learned, however, through our Project RED research that principals play a paramount role in whether or not a 1:1 implementation is academically successful and financially sustainable.

We have been investigating the beliefs and actions of principals for the past couple of years, and the effects these beliefs have on teachers, students, and learning. When I started formulating my ideas for this article I decided to match the course content being taught in a couple of popular graduate programs for school administrators with the list of Key Implementation Factors, and other essential elements and best practices we have gleaned from our work. I found that there are pieces missing in the area of pedagogy and instruction, but there are two areas that seem to have been completely left out, namely change leadership, and project management.

Change Leadership

The education landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. The number of students in charter schools instead of traditional public schools more than doubled, from 3.1 to 6.6 percent. Enrollment has also continuously increased in online courses during the same period. According to the Online Learning Consortium, “The number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million nationally (2015-16), continuing a growth trend that has been consistent for 13 years.” In order to combat enrollment lose, and to provide an educational experience more personalized to an individual student’s interests, most public schools have initiated magnet programs within the district. According to the NCES database there were approximately 1.2 million students enrolled in magnet programs. By 2015 that number grew to more than 2.5 million.

There have been many other changes even within the traditional public school system. Schools have experimented with ideas such as Personalized Learning, Inquiry-based Learning, Design Thinking, Flipped Learning, and Blended Learning, to name but a few. More content area digital programs become available every day, as well as content and platforms designed for students that fall into other specialized categories such as special education, ELL, and credit recovery. Change is all around us in education, and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Since change seems to be the new normal, principals need to develop the requisite skills to lead change. It is simply not acceptable, or effective any longer to be a building manager. College programs seem to be doing a reasonable job of emphasizing the importance of the principal as instructional leader, but they must also help aspiring administrators understand the principles of change leadership. Developing an understanding of human motivation, for example, can lead to developing strategies for the co-creation of a new vision for learning and the learning environment. Through their college experience students may also need to challenge their beliefs about control and authority. Students need to explore the concept of organic growth, and systems of continuous improvement, and investigate the research on the effects of command and control mechanisms.

Project Management

Understanding how to lead change, and develop systems of continuous improvement are both extremely important for administrators to learn, but without the skills to manage the implementation of an innovation, it is highly likely that the implementation will flounder, and ultimately fail. I’ve noticed that very little importance is placed on professional project management in schools. When a district decides to build a new school, however, there are a number of outside professional that are hired. A project manager (title may vary) is always one of those professionals, and acts as the liaison to the district, as well as managing the details of the construction. On the other hand, when a district spends large sums of money on technology they seem to misunderstand the complexity of proper implementation, and therefore, fail to see the need for the investment in a trained project manager. They may appoint someone in the central office to oversee the project, but in these instances much of the fidelity of implementation fall to the principal. I’m not suggesting that schools of education should provide every administrator candidate full project management training, but making them aware of the basic principles, and the importance of the position could lead them to advocating for a project manager, or seek the help they need if the job ultimately falls on their shoulders.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone in education that the principal is often tasked with managing the implementation a several new programs at the same time. They wear many different hats, and often play the role of the fireman, cop, counselor, and the human resources director, all in the same day. With the number of duties assigned to principals, and their hectic daily schedules, it is highly unlikely they will find the time to focus on developing project management and change leadership skills on their own. Therefore, college graduate programs must embrace this content within their programs. To a great extent success in any field in the future will hinge on a person’s ability to facilitate and manage change. We know clearly from our Project RED research that if principals don’t have these skills, the learning environment will not change, and even the best new programs will ultimately fail.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

The Bull’s Eye Approach

The President and CEO of Steelcase, James P. Hackett, wowed an executive leadership network group with his ‘simple’ framework for guiding the organization. He said, “It’s a bull’s-eye, and you put ‘now’ in the center, and the outer ring is ‘near’ and the furthest out ring is ‘far’. And you ask yourself…..how much time do you spend in each of those three zones? And what is the right amount that you should spend?”

Hackett’s point is that leaders need to learn how to work in each dimension of the bull’s-eye simultaneously. We naturally lean toward working in the ‘now’ because of the immediacy of required action and meeting expectations. But great leaders, he posits, won’t necessarily be recognized until the long term becomes the present because these leaders looked way down the road, imagined the future, and helped grow the organization in those directions.

For the majority of US history, in education, we have followed a linear path in everything we do….by the book – what comes first, second, third and so on. What we know from current brain/learning research and the impact of information technologies is that our personal and global intersections demand the ability to integrate multiple targets.  We’ve also discovered that disciplines for which we carved an undeviating, supposedly developmental, instructional path are anything but linear.  Continuing to operate in a sequential manner is counterintuitive in today’s world and for different curricular areas.  Being charged with the most important task of preparing young people means we must adapt the educational framework to best meet learners’ abilities to be well prepared today and into the future.

There are many objectives for educators today.  One is digitally converting to robust technologies, infrastructures, securities and the professional growth needs that go with those demands.  It is very interesting to learn where each state (and district) sits in relationship to this technological readiness. Their status represents the leaders’ track record for having worked the ‘now’, ‘near’, and ‘far’ in guiding their entities.   Those working the ‘near’ and ‘far’ wouldn’t have been simply getting ready, let’s say, for the 2014-15 mandated online assessments, but for the world itself outside the walls of schools.  The one where multimedia, multitasking, rapidly engaged information are hallmarks of young persons’ experiences when not in school…not to mention the expectations for today’s work place, global and personal interactions.  We’ve had years of information telling us that the future would be embedded with technologies of all manner and that schools needed to gear up, plan and get on board. Some did. Most didn’t.

We hear a lot of reasons for why education doesn’t have the required technologies and consistent connectivity for students:  lack of funds and/or infrastructure; lack of Board support; lack of research/evidence that technology matters; commitment to ‘school the way I did it’; safety/security concerns. They all point to the need for the kind of leadership required for today’s and tomorrow’s schools.

When you explore sites with robust student technologies, infrastructures, etc., in place, you find leaders like Ann Linson (East Noble Schools, IN), Casey Wardynski (Huntsville Schools, AL), Bill Hamilton/Jim Geisler (Walled Lake Schools, MI); Mark Edwards (Mooresville Graded School District, NC); Terry Jenkins/Dennis Veronese (Auburn City Schools, AL) who also were confronted by the above obstacles.  But they defined a shared vision, aligned it with short and long term strategic plans – including funds – and well communicated the need and direction among their stakeholders. For each of them there were no speed bumps for which they lacked the fortitude, research, skills and commitment to move their districts forward. It was hard work that commanded they not only straddle the ‘now’ and ‘near’ but imagine and work toward the ‘far’ at all times.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

The Challenge of Raising Student Achievement

Raising student achievement has been a goal in every district I have ever worked. It is discussed in political circles, in the media, and even at cocktail parties. Defining student achievement, and the different things students need today to be successful in life is a conversation for another day.  For the purposes of this article I would like to share an article I found on the topic.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s article “Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement,” effective schools exhibited the following characteristics:

  • A strong focus on ensuring academic success for each student;
  • A refusal to accept excuses for poor performance;
  • A willingness to experiment with a variety of strategies;
  • Intensive and sustained efforts to involve parents and the community;
  • An environment of mutual respect and collaboration; and
  • A passion for continuous improvement and professional growth

I agree with the importance of each of these characteristics, although I would add a couple of items, and would order them differently. I think creating an environment of mutual respect and collaboration is most important. Without these values providing the foundation, and permeating classroom relationships between teachers and students, it is very difficult to learn there. Then, if a continuous improvement process is put into place, and everyone (students, teachers, administrators, and even parents) is committed to learning through these processes, good things will eventually happen.

What is missing from the list are some of the things we have learned through our Project RED research and our work with schools. The list is missing a carefully designed system for educators to investigate and experiment with the characteristics, and process for them to learn how to learn from experimentation and decide on the next action. This doesn’t seem to come easy to many educators. Therefore, teachers often need to be closely guided and supported throughout several iterations of the process. The list also either neglects, or assumes the role of the instructional leader. It is imperative to have a skilled change leader at the school level that can develop and initially guide the process, as well as encourage teachers to stay the course.

It was refreshing to see a systems way of thinking about education reform in the article, rather than pushing variations of the same programs inspired by the failed standards and accountability movement for the past 40 years. The USDOE isn’t really espousing a systems approach, per se, but the findings that are attributed to success are much more conceptual in nature, and allude to the importance of a continuous process of investigation, reflection, and action. I find it a little ironic that the only way to dramatically raise student achievement at scale is for all teachers to become effective learners themselves. The content of teacher learning may vary greatly, but the process needs to focus on investigating, experimenting with, and improving the ways they help each individual student learn.

The biggest challenge I have with the article, personally, is that it was written as if these are new insights, and if we could only figure out how to scale them, we could dramatically improve student achievement nationwide. The article, however, was written in 1998, and it was actually developed as a as a guide for state and local leaders on how to turn around low-performing schools.

What happened to the potential of these findings? Why haven’t we improved student achievement by scaling the learning from this guide? There are several possible reasons. It is possible not many educators saw the guide. It is likely that it was not broadly marketed. Companies and advocacy organizations spend a tremendous amount of time and money marketing their solutions. The USDOE guide would be only one small ripple in a sea of programs being pushed on instructional leaders.

It is more likely that many urban educators were aware of the guide since several high profile urban districts are showcased in the document. So why didn’t they implement the ideas from the guide? Unfortunately, our egos sometimes get in the way. Many of the building administrators I have worked with think they are doing the things they need to in order to be successful, and therefore, are not really open to new ideas. This response may also be the result of building administrator being overwhelmed with the many responsibilities they have that lie outside of their role as instructional leader. I have met a few that told me they simply don’t have the bandwidth to deeply engage in any new ideas. This is often evident in compliance driven systems, rather than growth-minded systems.

My belief, however, is that some educators probably did try to develop the characteristics in their schools, but it didn’t work. Often our first reaction when things aren’t working in education is to adopt an existing program, and plug it into the troubled spot. These type of “plug and play” programs usually come with a bunch of steps that teachers must follow, as well as guidance on how to implement them. Unfortunately, this never works in the long run. There is too much variability in human systems to standardize in this way, and expect it to be effective for every student.

Without much further investigation we will never know for sure why the characteristics have not been more widely adopted, but there are a couple of other things that must be considered that we have learned from our Project RED research, and our work at One-to-One Institute. First, without a strong leader who can develop a shared vision for any reform, it will not succeed. I believe most districts realize this, but may verbalize it differently. One of the questions I most often hear from administrators, for example, is “How do I get everyone to buy in to ____. There are effective ways to enlist people in someone else’s vision, but the optimal scenario is to involve all constituent groups in the development of an actionable vision. Either way, unless a majority of people in your system are supportive of the vision, and are willing to deeply engage, it is doomed to failure.

Second, unless leadership is distributed throughout the system, it will not be sustainable. The average tenure of a superintendent is currently around 3 years.  If the superintendent changes every 3 years, or sometimes even more often in our most challenging districts, the vision often dies. This happens because the roots of the vision may have not had enough time to grow, or were never effectively nurtured.

It is obvious that raising student achievement for all students is a complicated endeavor, and I have just scratched the surface of reasons why we haven’t found a guaranteed way to raise student achievement at scale. One simple truth is that we will never increase student achievement by simply adopting a program that worked somewhere else. The bottom line is that only when everyone in the learning environment engages in an effective system of continuous learning and improvement will student achievement steadily improve.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

The New Digital Divide

For the past several years I have become increasingly concerned about growing inequities I am witnessing between our country’s most vulnerable students, and almost all others. I actually originally became aware of major differences in how we treat struggling urban students versus suburban students when I spent some time in Detroit Public Schools back in 2001. I was working with Detroit Public Television on a project for their Enrichment Channel. In our first visit to some DPS elementary schools I was immediately struck by the regimentation I saw. Students were in uniforms, and seemed to be treated like privates in the army, with the teacher acting as the drill sergeant. The schools had adopted Open Court reading program, and the principal was circulating throughout the building making sure the teachers were on the correct assignment and page number at the specific time of day that was set for the goal. The teachers had a script that was provided that administrators insisted be followed verbatim. The students all looked like compliant little robots, and the teachers I talked with seemed both frustrated and resigned to the lifeless experience their job had become. The joy, curiosity, and creativity that has always surrounded my most memorable learning experiences was completely missing.

Even though this all felt wrong to me, I didn’t want to dismiss what the schools were doing without having a better understanding of their challenges, and the results they were seeing from the implementation of the program. What I found, however, was that the students were not performing substantially better than their peers in other programs. What was more concerning to me, however, was revealed once we began our program in these schools.

The program we were there to implement and record was called Welcome to Youville. We had put together a project-based learning unit to address some of the k-8 standards and benchmarks around the concepts of community, region, and Michigan history. The main goal of the project was to have students in Detroit, and in two suburban districts create their own communities. The theory was that if students began by defining the elements of their own community, and discussed with peers what people need to have in their community to live a healthy and happy life, and then actually created a 3 dimensional representation of their dream community, they would have a much deeper understanding of the concepts than if they were to read the chapter in the textbook and fill out a worksheet.

We began by having students identify unique characteristics of their own family culture, and to bring in artifacts of their parents’ or grandparents’ that were important to their family history. The next step was to group students, and have them draw their neighborhood, and discuss the things they have in their community, and the things that may be missing. In the final steps, students were given prompts and asked to discuss the specific needs that human beings have, and the things we need in our communities in order to be healthy and happy.

What we witnesses was shocking to me at the time. The students in the suburban schools jumped right in to the activities and discussions, and seemed to be having a great time exploring the concepts. Innovative ideas emerged, and the groups discussed the need for, and feasibility of each idea. It was going exactly as we had hoped, until we began in Detroit. The students in DPS reacted completely differently to the assignment. Basically what was so shocking to me is that when the students were presented with the open-ended pieces of the project they just sat there silent. When we tried to engage them in an initial conversation about their family artifacts and traditions we were met with the same silence. We thought it might just be nervousness, but we found the same thing when we grouped them to begin discussing their neighborhoods and designing what they would want in their dream community. Students seemed to be waiting for someone to tell them specifically what to do, or for their teachers to tell them what to say, or maybe even worse, what to think. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to make them believe we really wanted to hear their ideas, that their ideas were important, and that they weren’t going to get into any type of trouble for sharing them.  An outgoing student actually shared with us that he wasn’t sure what to do because nobody had ever asked him to share his ideas before.

By the end of the project we were able to establish a trusting relationship with most of the students, and they produced exemplary work. This instructional unit may have actually been important in a number of ways. The students definitely will not forget this project, and came away with an excellent understanding of the content. I believe, however, the more important result was that all of the students had in-depth discussions about what a community actually needs in order for its people to be healthy and happy. Unfortunately, many of the communities they live in are missing important components of a healthy community, such as a grocery store. Once they began trusting us, and started to discuss their thoughts, students not only created wonderfully imaginative communities, but seemed to be interested in becoming community activists.

I use this story to demonstrate phenomena that I am seeing now in urban schools across the country. I was hoping with all of the investment in innovation, and the creation of charters and other options for urban students that things would have improved over the past 15 years. If anything, I think the situation has actually become worse. The strategy that policy makers and education leaders have taken (i.e., higher standards, more accountability, doubling the time in content areas, reconstituting the staff and administration of failing schools, numerous charter school option, etc.) have all failed to achieve their goal, and I believe in many cases has made the problem worse. I just read an ASCD article that illustrates my point.

The way I am seeing technology being implemented in many urban settings is another example of this failed instructional approach. I call this the “New Digital Divide.” Education technology is being adopted at faster and faster rates, and we believe that 1:1 programs have increased by at least 10 fold since the arrival of the iPad. The price point of Chromebooks has accelerated the adoption even more. Most schools, regardless of their location, have adopted a fair amount of technology. There is a stark contrast, however, between the ways technology is being used in some urban schools versus their suburban counterparts. The Rocketship model is pointed to as one extreme example, but I have seen lots of classrooms in urban public schools where students are expected to sit in front of a computer for most of their day working in a skill and drill remediation program. I have seen too many urban classrooms where technology becomes a digital prison of sorts, with students being forced into compliance. The lack of engagement is obvious, and the results I believe are disingenuous in the short-term, and potentially disastrous long-term. I have watched students navigate a couple of the popular software remediation solutions as they “game” the system in order to pass out of a section. The lack of foundational knowledge, pared with a lack of ability to think critically that may stem from a reliance on these sorts of programs will ensure that these students are ultimately left behind.

In stark contrast are the innovative and affluent suburban public schools where students are engaged in meaningful dialog, are building understand through investigation, and are using technology as a dynamic tool for creation and collaboration. In many of these environments administrators have not pushed for a complete digital conversion for fear of rocking the boat. Students continue to achieve at the high levels they always have, but are budget busting if they do not take advantage of potential cost savings and reallocate these dollars to paying for the new paradigm.

I believe that the success lies somewhere in between. Content standards divide into two main categories: skills and concepts. Skill development takes practice. Common wisdom states that we need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. We see the importance of practice to learning in lots of ways, from learning to dribble a basketball and accurately shoot, to having facility with math equations or foreign languages. Technology can be quite good at providing opportunities to develop skills in engaging ways though gamification. Some software programs are also getting pretty good at identifying deficits in a student’s foundational understanding, and adjusts the content to meet the individual student’s needs. This use of technology, in SAMR terms, is not transformational, but is more of a substitution with enhancements, but is nevertheless important to the complete learning process.

The transformational uses of technology may be more suited to the conceptual side of the content standards. In order for students to develop a meaningful understanding of a concept they need to ask questions, share their thoughts, investigate possibilities, and experiment with their ideas. Technology holds many advantages over traditional means by allowing students to communicate, collaborate and create their way to a deeper understanding of the concepts.

I think our legislators, and even many educators keep looking for a silver bullet. Well, it seems obvious to me that the path we have taken for the past 30 years is not working. I can tell you unequivocally, that technology on its own is also not the answer. I believe that understanding how human beings learn, and what motivates them to learn is the key. Once this understanding begins to guide our decisions about content, technology, and what instructional strategies will be most effect for the types of learning we want to occur, the better our outcomes will be, and the quicker we will improve our failing schools. Remember, if you treat a student like a criminal, he will act like a criminal. I believe if we start by building environments of mutual respect, and value the ideas and opinions of students in our urban schools, we could actually see a renaissance in learning beyond our wildest imagination. Let’s work together to unleash the potential of millions of American students, rather than locking them in a digital prison.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.