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.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

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.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

Peace and Progress

Distractions abound.  There are many issues, movements, mandates and changes surrounding educators.  Add to the list a new national administration.  We can prognosticate all day long – but we won’t know what the platform, agenda and leadership for education technologies will be until it is decided and implemented. Ditto that for ESSA.  We live in an era of surprise and moving sands.

What do we do in the meantime?  We are in the eye of the storm.  That means we find ourselves in the calmest place possible in the bluster.  Here we can stay focused and committed to the right work and our moral obligation to learners and community.  In our personal and professional lives, time after time, we learn that we can only impact and make a difference where we have control and responsibility. Remember the Serenity Prayer?  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Teachers probably understand this more than any other group.  When he/she partners each day with learners, they and they alone own that space and time and what they will accomplish together.  Ideally, and, I’m sure, in most cases, these are safe and known spaces.  Besides the usual face to face classroom interactions, there are social collaboration tools.  These help communications and interactions that are not always comfortably expressed in front of students’ peers.  These can be sounding boards and formative assessment for teachers to understand and facilitate each learner’s thoughts and unique needs.

One of the reasons we foster what we’ve called 21st century skills is the need to be flexible, adaptable, and problem-solve real life situations in a rapidly changing world.  This means being able to efficiently assimilate new information, knowledge, skills, economies, communications, relationships, and, yes, political realities.  And to be not afraid to move forward in engaging those dynamics to serve our moral imperative.  See David Geurin’s blog http://bit.ly/2fy6Kll.  That’s why we originally went into the education field, right?

As President Obama told his daughters about an agenda of lifting people up with kindness and respect…. “You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”  For we educators, once the way forward from the new administration is defined, we march onward with the same passionate commitment we have had since launching our education careers.  We’ll figure out the places and ways we can push to keep moving forward.  Regardless of the tumults we’ve witnessed or experienced over time, education has advanced and evolved to meet our youth and lift them forward.

Each of us has had a positive impact on a child.  We’ve fought tirelessly on the education technology front to ensure learners have the tools and resources to successfully engage the digital world.  Progress will continue.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

The Brain, Pedagogy, and Student Outcomes

Our newsletter this quarter focuses on pedagogy, and I would like to thank Superintendents Leah Christman, and Ann Linson for taking the time to share some of their experiences transforming learning in their districts. Both of their districts participated in our three year Signature District Research Program, during which we followed 17 districts that used our research findings to guide the implementation of 1:1 technology. We had three primary questions that drove the research:

  1. What effect do the Key Implementation Factors (KIFs) have on student outcomes? Our original research identified 9 KIFs, but unfortunately, the sample sizes of the schools that had implemented the KIFs was too small to validate the results through traditional analysis. Therefore, we wanted to find a way to further validate our findings, and better understand the roll the individual KIFs might play in raising student achievement.
  2. Can 1:1 be cost neutral when taking advantage of the cost avoidance and redeployment factors we outline in our financial modeling chapter of the original Project RED report? We based our modeling on the best available information at the time from districts, vendors, and prior research. We found pieces of the model being implemented in a number of districts, but we were not able to identify any districts in the United States that embraced the entire model. We were hoping to glean from our Signature Districts a better understanding of what is feasible when attempting to implement the model in diverse settings.
  3. What new learnings or best practices were revealed during the Signature District Research Program? School districts are complicated systems. We knew that we had many bright, hardworking people in each of our districts, and that collective intelligence is far more powerful than the thinking of our Project RED team alone. Some districts already had burgeoning 1:1 programs. Some had experimented with other innovative education models. The one constant, however, was that every district had a lot more going on than just following our Project RED implementation guidance. We wanted to make sure that we remained open to all of the serendipitous learning that was going on in our districts.

As part of a district’s commitment, key administrators participated in a professional learning community facilitated by a Project RED team member. We were very pleased to hear during the first year that the implementations were going well. There are always challenges to overcome, but the devices were rolled out without any major issues, the infrastructure seemed to be sufficient and reliable, and the kids were using the devices on a regular basis throughout their day. By year 2, however, superintendents began reporting that although the rollout was effective, very few students and teachers were using technology in transformative ways, and that most teachers (especially in MS and HS) were still relying on direct instruction as their primary classroom pedagogy.

One of our Project RED core beliefs is that learning needs to become more student-centered and personalized if students are going to have a chance at fulfilling our dream of doubling student achievement. There are more organizations than you can shake a stick at right now that say they know how to do this, and for a hefty fee will guide you. “Student-centered” and “Personalized” are the catch words of the day. The problem is that most of these programs/strategies are really still teacher driven, and the vendor’s cookie cutter programs fail to address the complexities of the learning process, and the human systems that implement them. The truth is there are different types of learning, and therefore, different pedagogical approaches may be more effective than others in raising student achievement.

I am often guilty of focusing so much on helping educators move toward a more constructivist approach to learning and teaching that educators sometimes think that I expect them to abandon all other pedagogy. The reality is that pedagogy and instructional strategies need to match the intended learning. For example, I wouldn’t spend a month of valuable class time having students explore the concept of multiplication, collaborate on an inquiry project, and present their findings if the learning objective is simply to be able to quickly provide the result of multiplying two small numbers.

I am fortunate that my work provides numerous opportunities to observe, and even experiment with pedagogy in so many districts and classrooms. What I am finding is that effective learning is influenced by several things. There probably isn’t anything readers will find Earth-shattering on my list, but it is shocking how little evidence of these things I see in schools. I don’t have space to go into depth on each one, but here is a list of factors that seem to play the most significant role:

  • The learner’s intrinsic motivation
  • The learner’s engagement, and attentional system
  • The learner’s environment
  • The appropriate level of challenge, and support for each individual learner
  • High quality dynamic content/resources that include systems to provide ongoing feedback to the learner during the learning process
  • Systems of continuous improvement at the classroom, school, and district level that are laser focused on the effectiveness of learning

As some of the districts I work with have embraced these ideas, they began to see a shift toward a more student-centered culture in the schools, as well as improvements in student outcomes. These ideas don’t address pedagogy specifically, but seem to imply the need for pedagogy that is more student-centered and personalized. Knowing that direct instruction is still important, as well as repetitive practice, I started looking for a way to organize different types of learning by its most effective pedagogy. It has lead me to the generalized idea that learning in schools divides into two main categories: concepts and skills. In general terms, then, skill building usually requires direct instruction and repetitive practice, while building conceptual understandings requires more exploration, communication and collaboration.

I used this approach in a middle school 1:1 program I implemented in Michigan several years ago. The teachers developed their curriculum by unpacking the state standards, and identifying the important skills and concepts embedded. These skills and concepts were then structured around interests and research projects that students generated collaboratively at the beginning of the school year. The results were remarkable. We had virtually no discipline issues because every student was engaged in work they personally found meaningful. This approach also had a major impact on student standardized test scores. By the end of the 3rd year, every student was achieving at, or very near the highly proficient level on the state test.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I have many dedicated educators to thank for my insights. If I had some silver bullet I wouldn’t need to write this article, and America’s students would be outperforming the rest of the world. What I do know is that almost all educators are facing similar challenges.

In order to practice what we preach, OTO has decided to begin hosting ongoing e-chats around factors that are essential to raising student achievement. The intent is to begin creating professional learning communities of like-minded people that want to face student achievement head-on, and understand the power of learning from each other. We are not looking for people that think they have the answers and just want to share, but rather, people who are willing to contribute their best thinking, to test strategies, and to share their honest results as we take on the serious challenges facing our schools. If you would like more information about participating in our e-chats, send your contact information to lindas@one-to-oneinstitute.org, and we will provide you with dates, times and topics as they become available. I look forward to our first discussion.

Michael Gielniak, PhD
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

Cyber Thinking, Feeling, Responding

Living and working in our dynamic world can be unsettling.  Not only are we using multiple personal, portable tools to get and give information, we must well navigate many communication channels to ensure productive and positive, often virtual/distant, interactions.  Many have experienced the impact of the ‘all-caps’ emails, Facebook and Twitter posts.  Or significant delays in email responses, lack of a ‘like’, ‘share’, or any acknowledgement to a social media post.  We’ve also received negatively charged and otherwise disarming responses and replies.  If you’re like me when you receive one of those, you wonder what that interchange would have been if it were face to face.  Virtual and distant connections can provide ‘cover’ for less than positive expression of feelings and thoughts.  They can also still the air and energy, leaving an audience, even of one, seeking positive closure and outcome that is elusive.

This election season has created fodder for more divisive and disturbing cyber and print commentaries, posts and responses than ever witnessed. I watch young people and children at rallies standing alongside and behind speakers who are spouting hateful opinions, beliefs, and accusations about groups and individuals.  I watch and listen to the accused respond with more hateful comments and outright cries of ‘war’ against opponents.  Our rapid-paced, knowledge based world allow us all access all the time.  I think about how to manage my own reactions and responses.  Mostly, I have chosen to engage and capitalize on the positive commentaries in cyber world.  I leave judgement to powers of the universe and beyond.  But I am not dis- or unaffected by that which envelopes us.

Much of today’s politics lack human decency and respect.  Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by 21st century information age media (and I don’t mean journalists).  We cannot view this as just another day in the political arena of campaign strategies and making headlines.  We can rise above and make sure we separate ugliness from recognizing quality leadership and policy recommendations.  The latter has made our nation great.  We are challenged today to do this because of the ever present means of communications – personal and external.  This makes it more important than ever to educate ourselves and those in our charge to ferret out fact from fiction; vicious attacks from honest confrontation and truth-seeking.  Calling on ours and our collective integrity, morals, ethics and values has to be our foundation for decision-making.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, describes his experiences during World War II. He chronicles the way he ‘coped’.  Daily, Frankl would identify a positive purpose – something about which he could feel good – and then envision that outcome actually happening.  He believed this process affected his future, longevity and life quality.  It did.  I use this far-fetched analogy to explain how I am navigating the daily onslaught of today’s political reality.  I believe in the power of ‘good’ and that that there are times when bad stuff happens so that the noble can emerge.  I trust this is such a time.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Your Ed Tech Implementation Will Fail!

My title may be overdramatic, but it upsets me that we continue to see so many 1:1 programs fail when many of the issues that lead to the failure can be avoided.  Examples of successful 1:1 programs are starting to emerge. Mooresville Graded School District is the most famous, but there are others, like our Project RED Signature districts Richland School District Two and Huntsville City Schools that are seeing transformation and improvements in student achievement. Unfortunately, there are still too many high profile examples of failure, and many, many more districts that haven’t seen anything really change. Before I discuss why I think this is happening, and what we might do about it, let’s first take a look at some of the most publicized failures.

Miami Dade

In November of 2013 Miami Dade County, one of the country’s largest districts, decided to put their 1:1 program on hold. They had concerns about their implementation after seeing what happened in Los Angeles Unified, and Guilford County. The district lists some of their biggest concerns as:

  1. Confusion about responsibilities and (parental) liability

(According to the work of Dr. Mary Lippitt (change leadership chart), confusion happens when a shared vision is missing. The district also had obvious communication challenges, which added to the confusion throughout the community.

  1. Rising cost projections

The district attributes this to poor planning, and a lack of understanding about what it really takes to make a 1:1 functional.

  1. Students bypassing security filters

This is partially a technical issue, and partially a cultural issue. We often see in districts with strict top down structures of control that students may act inappropriately when given freedom they are not prepared for. A district can do a great job of filtering, etc., but until a culture of mutual respect, and student ownership is developed, these type of issues will continue.

  1. Readiness/quality of digital curricular content

Unfortunately, in many large districts the pre-packaged content purchased by the district becomes the curriculum, rather than integrating purchased content into teacher-created lessons and district designed curriculum. Although digital content is improving, there are very few providers that have even the basic elements needed to allow students to drive their own learning, authentic opportunities for collaboration, ongoing formative assessments, and ways to engage students in deep levels of thinking.

  1. Adequate teacher training

It is still shocking that districts spend millions on technology, and are reluctant to spend even as little as 1% of their investment to ensure that everyone knows how to use it effectively, or to examine the fidelity of their implementation.

Fort Bend, TX

The 70,000 student iAchieve program was halted after it was determined the program was not achieving its mission. You start to notice a pattern in the issues that lead to their decision.

  1. Unrealistic goals

This is usually due to a lack of a shared vision, and a lack of awareness, or understanding of the research in the field.

  1. Insufficient planning and project management
  2. Lack of consistency with existing FBISD curriculum development standards
  3. Poor contract management practices

Contract management is another piece of the overall project management that has failed in this case.

Guilford County

Guilford County had a false start, due in part to technical issues that were not their fault. The district identified, however, other fundamental issues that lead the district to halt the program. First, and foremost, was the lack of a shared vision. District administrators actually are quoted as saying “We want to do it in a way that’s not going to result in a whole lot of challenges for kids and teachers,” and “It’s not that we don’t want to give kids the tools they need to be successful, but we want to do it in a way that is not going to be disruptive.”

Statements like these are counter to the whole idea of digital transformation, and the benefits of disruption that Clayton Christensen clearly defined in his book. Even if the technology is worked properly, it is highly unlikely that a district is going to see significant improvements in learning and student outcomes by making sure nobody is challenged or disrupted.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Finally, there is the most famous ed tech failure of our generation. In the American Institute for Research’s year 2 evaluation of LAUSD’s Instructional Technology Initiative they state that there are “Ongoing challenges and areas where less progress occurred included: deploying devices in a timely manner, communicating with schools, coordinating efforts with other instructional initiatives, and clarifying a vision for technology use in instruction.”

Again, we see those common themes, including a lack of vision, poor communications, and poor planning and project management. There are plenty of other examples I could cite, but I think the pattern is clear. Too many districts are not aware, or are not using the well documented research and best practices to guide their implementation. Even the most basic factors identified in our Project RED work, factors such as change leadership, vision and project management seem to have been ignored (or misunderstood) in all of the examples.

When I compared what I found in these failed 1:1 districts with other education innovations that have failed I started to see some higher level themes emerge. I think basically all education innovations and programs that have not made a substantial impact, are not scalable, or are not sustainable struggle because they are not aligned with one (or more) of three underlying tenets, namely:

  1. Understanding how the brain learns, and creating environments and experiences that maximize learning potential
  2. Understanding human motivation and creating environments, governance structures, assessments, content, etc. that enable and empower all level of learner
  3. Understanding how to develop structures of continuous improvement that also take #1 and #2 into account

There are plenty of researchers and organizations that are contributing to our understanding of what works, and what doesn’t in education. Part of One-to-One Institute’s non-profit mission is to be a clearinghouse for the latest ed tech research and insights, so many of the publications can be found on our website. I’m not naïve enough to think our Project RED research is a panacea. We build on the backs of giants, and we hope that others will build on our work and take it in directions we can’t begin to imagine. What I can confidently say is that implementing ubiquitous technology is a highly complicated endeavor, and if you try to go it alone, or do so without the research guiding your actions, you will definitely fail.

But you don’t have to go it alone, and you definitely should not reinvent the wheel. Begin a dialog with districts that have done this work, and learn from them. Do your due diligence and study the research. Look for support from organizations that understand the research, and are interested in building your sustainability, and not just interested in selling you their silver bullet. Our work with districts, for example, is not quick, and it is not easy. It embeds systems theory, and research in cognition, motivation, environment, change leadership and our Project RED work. It also includes working with the district’s administration to help them develop processes of continuous improvement in a number of key areas that will lead to steady academic improvement and sustainability. If your top administration is not this level of engagement, don’t do it. If your district is not ready to make the transformation of learning and teaching through technology a top priority, then don’t do it. And if you are not ready to challenge your entire education community to walk this path with you, than do yourself a favor, and don’t do it. You will fail, and then we will have another mountain to move out of the way before we can get people to see there is another path…the path to success. Walk with us.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

Disruption? Has It Happened?

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear, that weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable in it,” said Mark Weiser, 1991, in “The Computer for the 21st Century” in Scientific American.  We can all agree.  But does that mean, based on today’s education technology utilization, that what we are using (maybe ‘how’ we are using it) is not ‘deep’ enough?  I think so.  Consider this and the notion of innovation.

Eight years ago, we were discussing, “Disrupting Class-How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” (Christensen, Horn, Johnson 2008).  One example of ‘disruptive innovation’ referred to providing personalized, portable computers for all students to have consistent Internet access in order to customize their learning getting to a true learner-centered environment.  The authors were on point about this imperative considering the statistics of that time and how the US was lagging in innovation. America’s corporate research and development sites had declined from 59% to 52% over a decade while R&D had increased from 8% to 18% in China and India. The same held true for US innovative leadership.  America ranked seventh among the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development in the amount of gross domestic product allocated to research and development expenditures.

While more schools and districts are moving away from traditional practices, there remains the issue, as the ‘Disrupting’ authors said, that you can’t retrofit true innovation into an existing counterproductive environment.  Try as many have to create real 21st century schools, unless the standard venue has been replaced, they are not getting there.  This is true today – eight years later!  None of these real reforms take hold without vision, focus and high quality and strategic planning.  Bold, effective, ‘change’ leadership is required.  We struggle to witness this.  In fact, we continue to see what appear to be robust edtech initiatives wither and die for reasons that could well have been avoided!

Movement to personal, portable technology-powered learning holds great potential – when implemented with fidelity based on research and best practices.  Still, many leaders consider their million or billion dollar technologies investments as the end game.  A plethora of 1:1 implementations lack learner and/or outcomes focus, vision, strategic planning and proper execution.  (See Project RED’s Key Implementation Factors and free tools 2010 – http://one-to-oneinstitute.org/introducing-project-red.) Many of these deployments were simply embedded in their traditional approach.  These are missed opportunities for authentic transformations.

Similarly, moving to a competency/mastery-based system doesn’t comport with the lock-step scheduling, grading, leveling of learners’ experiences and hitting to the ‘average’.  The entire system has to morph into a design that cultivates real agency for learners, shift in pedagogy, students’ demonstration of progress, and when/how they advance.

This is a hopeful, not hopeless, matter.  There is an abundance of quality knowledge and research on which we can build.  If states, districts and regions truly dive into the research to pull around practical solutions, schools could reform to build upon innovation and global, economic development skills.  Nevada Ready 21 is a statewide example (http://www.doe.nv.gov/Legislative/Nevada_Ready_21/).

One-to-One Institute is dedicated to facilitating successful education technology implementations in schools, districts, states and countries.  We combine research, 20+ years of best practices and experiences to customize our support services.  Our Project RED research is a basis for continuous study and systems design.  We are writing our third research iteration based on study from our seventeen Signature Districts over the past 3 years.  We’ll launch that report in February 2017 at TECA.  Hope to see you there!

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute