Six Lessons Learned from the Future Ready Schools Regional Summits
August 13, 2015 12:14 pm
Last week, the superintendents and leadership teams from more than forty school districts gathered in Southern California to share their successes, and challenges, with implementing technology to improve student learning outcomes. The event was the thirteenth in a series of regional summits the Alliance organized nationwide as part of the Future Ready Schools effort. All told, nearly 500 districts participated in these summits and began creating sustainable digital learning plans aligned with instructional best practices.
Having attended many of these summits, I developed a great deal of respect for these school system leaders and the issues they address in the daily management of their districts. As I reflect on their experiences, here are six questions superintendents and their leadership teams should answer as they work to serve the educational needs of all students.
1) What student learning outcomes does the leadership team desire for the district and do team members agree on those outcomes? This is particularly important as districts implement new college- and career-ready standards, whether those are the Common Core or others. Reaching agreement on what core academic standards the team desires can be tough enough. But, increasing learning outcomes also involves building students’ “deeper learning” competencies, including students’ abilities to think critically, collaborate, communicate, and direct their future learning (essentially learning how to learn). District leaders should ask whether the time is right to review their learning standards to determine how well the standards address those deeper learning competencies and how effectively they are being implemented.
2) Do the school board and superintendent truly understand the importance of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and do they have the information, commitment, and resources to implement them? Closely related to this, does the district team have the ability and information to explain the standards to critics or questioning parents? Every district now should be several years into its implementation of the CCSS. Districts have spent countless hours and millions of dollars on professional development, new assessments, and revamped curricula. Can the superintendent and the school board members speak to examples of student learning progress under the new standards? Can some districts serve as exemplars for others?
3) What is the district’s plan for procuring and implementing education technology to raise student learning outcomes? If districts want to implement technology in meaningful and lasting ways, they must develop plans for maximizing its impact on student learning—and develop those plans before purchasing a single device. I like to use the mantra “plan before you purchase; don’t purchase and then plan.” Through the Future Ready Schools Interactive Planning Dashboard districts can develop those plans and also access free resources to implement them. The dashboard even allows districts to save their analysis so they can revisit, reevaluate, and update their plans as their digital learning needs evolve. Regardless of whether a district has participated in the Future Ready Schools planning, though, leaders should determine how the district will incorporate multiple technologies systematically, rather than in a piecemeal fashion.
4) Are district leaders aware of the major expansion and funding opportunities approved last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in E-rate? E-rate is the federal government’s largest educational technology program. It provides funding for internet connectivity and other communications services for the nation’s schools and libraries. In December, the FCC voted to increase funding for the federal E-rate program by $1.5 billion annually and that decision will allow the United States to expand high-speed Wi-Fi access to 43.5 million additional students, more than 101,000 additional schools, and nearly 16,000 additional libraries. Wi-Fi in schools is now a major priority, so district leaders should take advantage of these additional federal resources.
5) Has the district reviewed its policies around the use of student data and safeguards for student privacy? Now that teachers are able to access more student data to differentiate instruction for each student, parents increasingly are raising privacy concerns. The ability for increased personalized learning directly depends upon teacher and principal access to those relevant data sets. Districts should actively review, update, and explain how they use and protect student data. District leaders want to be ahead of the public discussion, not behind it.
6) Similarly, do district leaders understand and agree on what constitutes “personalized learning?” Quality teaching combined with effective technology now permits teachers to address a student’s individual learning needs, rather than relegating students to a “one-size-fits-all” approach and giving the students more opportunities to direct their own learning. Does the district have a conscious strategy and plan for achieving this desired outcome?
I believe the next few years will be critical for school districts as they respond to at least four simultaneous drivers of change: 1) greatly increased learning expectations for students; 2) constrained state and district budgets; 3) the changing role of teaching and an even greater emphasis on the teacher as the most important school-based determinant of student success; and 4) rapidly improving educational technology, including data systems, interactive and adaptive software, internet access, one-to-one student-to-device initiatives, and constantly lowering prices that make technology affordable for all.
District leadership teams will face new challenges unimagined by their predecessors. Consequently, superintendents, school board members, and other district leaders must build strong working relationships that enable them to examine their district’s needs collectively and function as a unified leadership team.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.