Thoughts from the Road: The Changing Education Landscape in America
April 08, 2016 01:50 pm
Over the past few weeks and many miles traveled, I’ve seen first-hand the opportunities for American education under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). At every level – classroom, school, district, state, and federal – it is a time to explore possibilities, discuss change, and work closely with those that have “boots on the ground” in the nation’s public schools.
In Austin, Texas, at SXSWedu, the education component of the South by Southwest (SXSW) conferences and festivals, I participated in a vibrant panel on the relationship between education policy and digital innovation. During the discussion, which was moderated by Politico education reporter Caitlin Emma, panelists Heath Morrison, senior vice president of government affairs at McGraw-Hill School Education, Dr. S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, and I explored how policy can support and accelerate digital innovation and technology in the classroom.
ESSA reflects a large shift in decision making from a federal level to states and districts. This transfer of power, coupled with fast-emerging education technologies, presents an opportunity for states and school districts to implement personalized learning. However, policies for the use of student data and safeguards for student privacy must be built in before successful personalized learning can occur. Personalized learning depends upon the effective use of student data. In personalized learning, as with education as a whole, the focus is not on big data, but what small data can do to improve the learning experience between one teacher and one student.
Implementing effective digital learning in the classroom can’t mean true learning opportunities for one group of students and remediation for traditionally underserved students. These changes must occur with equity at the center. Dr. Dance confirmed this when sharing his first-hand experience of working towards digital equity in Baltimore. He discussed that equity must drive the agenda when it comes to innovation in schools as well as connectivity outside of the classroom. He explained how Baltimore is trying to close the digital divide by working with broadband providers to allow for home internet access for students.
After Texas, I hit the sunny coast of California, delivering a keynote address at the Napa Valley Education Exchange. Speaking at a New Technology High School, where the conference was held, underscored for me the importance of personalized learning powered by effective technology and teaching. School district leaders seeking to create personalized learning environments can look to Future Ready Schools (FRS) for guidance and support. District leaders who are committed to implementing changes towards a digital learning transition should take the FRS pledge, which has already been signed by over 2,100 superintendents, including Napa Valley Unified. FRS can serve as a guide, especially during this time of required planning process under ESSA, to implementing effective technology to leverage quality teaching and better student outcomes.
Specifically, the FRS dashboard serves as a comprehensive online planning tool to help school districts assess readiness, gather input, and create an action plan for digital learning. District leaders who have signed the pledge gain access to resources, the FRS dashboard, and participate in activities and events. These district leadership teams can also participate in free national summits and workshops, taking place throughout 2016. These summits and workshops provide hands-on guidance to jump start district leaders’ efforts to learn, collaborate, and plan, with the goal of improving learning experiences for all students, particularly those from traditionally underserved communities.
Then I headed back to my home state of West Virginia for a regional conference sponsored by West Virginia University’s John D. Rockefeller IV School of Policy and Politics. There I spoke with educators from three states about their role in shaping the future of education. These teachers came together to discuss a lack of connection felt between federal and state policy and what works in the classroom. Outcomes from the meeting were to be shared with policymakers, to keep the teacher voice present in the ESSA policy making process. These types of forums are especially critical during this moment of ESSA planning to inform decision makers of strategies that are actively improving student outcomes in the classroom. Practice in the classroom should shape the policy; not the other way around.
As classrooms across the country shift to personalized learning, incorporating technology, and putting students at the center of learning, I believe the role of the teacher grows more important, not less. We are saying goodbye to traditional learning, where teachers were considered the “sage on the stage,” and are moving toward a more student-driven learning experience. Many see a teacher’s role shifting to a “guide on the side,” but as I looked out at the hundreds who had gathered together to discuss a better way forward for their students, I realized these teachers are by no means “on the side.” They play a much more important role. I see each teacher as an “educational designer,” responsible for formulating the individual learning pathway of students.
These teachers also have an impact that expands far beyond the reach of the classroom. Although they are working directly with students within schools, they are a direct line to the future of the community. The outcome of their students determines the quality of the community. They are the main economic developers for the region and the state, shaping the skills and knowledge of the future workforce and leaders. As we look at the changing education landscape in the country as a whole, it is important not to forget that it all comes down to one teacher, one student, the right systems of support, and paving a path for success in college, career, and life.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.