Here is the presentation I made at the Spring 2013 BRSU Leadership Forum.
The 2011-2012 school year started with Hurricane Irene. The Hurricane did not damage any of our schools, but many of our families were deeply affected. I want to thank our emergency responders and community volunteers for their work during this emergency. Their assistance enabled our students and families to return to normalcy as soon as possible. Their dedication and support was greatly appreciated, and continues to remind me of why I enjoy living and working in Vermont.
The BRSU Board continued its work in exploring governance change. The Board voted in support of adding the Mountain Towns Regional Education District and the Winhall School District to the BRSU effective July 1, 2013. The Vermont State Board of Education subsequently approved these changes. The BRSU Board hired Dr. Raymond Proulx to perform a Phase I Governance Study of the current BRSU districts to identify options for future governance change. The results of this study will be published in early 2013. The BRSU Board met with the governance consultants assigned to examine the future of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union in Arlington. The results of that work will be made available in June 2013.
Nancy Mark, a former Vermont Elementary Principal of the Year and the long-serving principal of the Mettawee Community School, retired in June 2012. Her contributions to her school, the communities of Pawlet and Rupert, and to the BRSU leadership team were significant. Brooke DeBonis was hired as the next Mettawee principal to replace Mrs. Mark. Ms. DeBonis was an exceptional Mettawee teacher who is well qualified to continue the Mettawee tradition of academic excellence for all students.
After several years of work, a common instructional vision for BRSU schools is emerging. That vision is based on personalized learning and designing instructional systems to better support the aspirations of students. A focus of this work is pointing accountability towards our local school boards, parents, and students, and away from federal systems such as those prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act. We intend to still use external accountability systems to ensure our students are being educated to the highest standards, but our new accountability systems will allow us to make “just-in-time” adjustments based on student progress, a feature not provided by the current NECAP system. Toward that end, we piloted the Northwest Evaluation Association’s MAP testing in the Spring of 2012. MAP testing will provide normative comparisons of student progress based on large, national samples, while at the same time providing real-time data on how students are progressing using an individual student growth model. BRSU schools fully implemented MAP testing in the Fall of 2012.
The efficiency of MAP testing will allow us to pursue significant changes in our instructional systems in the coming months. A central focus of this work will be the implementation of Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) for students. PLPs will be formulated with student, parent, and teacher input, and will serve to guide the development of curriculum. PLPs will also serve to structure student e-portfolios. E-portfolio templates will be designed by BRSU staff during the 2012-2013 school year. To support the implementation of personalized learning, PLPs and e-portfolios, the BRSU contracted with Dr. David Silvernail of the University of Southern Maine to develop an evaluation system to assist our schools in leveraging all of our organizational systems to implement these significant changes. Dr. Silvernail was the lead investigator for several studies on Maine’s 1:1 computing initiative, and is a very experienced educational researcher and program evaluator.
BRSU’s work in personalizing learning was recognized at the national level when our district was selected as one of twenty districts to participate in a national school reform initiative, “Teaming for Transformation,” sponsored by the US Department of Education, the Consortium for School Networking and North Carolina State University. Much of this work is fairly innovative and based on the fundamental concept that continuous school improvement happens more quickly and more effectively when schools work together. BRSU schools are committed to working together to support our continuous improvement, and we are constantly looking for opportunities to partner with other like-minded districts in Vermont, in other states, and around the world.
“Welcome to Vermont: Home of a World-Class Public Education System” is the title of the vision statement on a quality education commissioned by the Vermont Superintendents Association in 2010. As the president of the Association at the time, I had a hand in organizing the two years of work which went into producing this vision statement and I helped author the above mentioned quote. I think the phrase “World Class” resonated with our membership because it was aspirational - we desired to transform Vermont’s public education system into a world class system.
Lately, there has been more discussion over what is meant by a world class education system. Last week the US Department of Education put out its white paper on international education strategy entitled, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, and in 2012 several books on the topic were published (e.g. A World Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation by Vivien Stewart, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao, and The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley). I thought I would synthesize the key concepts of these books in order to suggest policy design principles for Vermont as we begin to think about transforming our current educational system into a world class system.
- International Benchmarking – World class education systems benchmark themselves against other countries. They search out best practices from around the world and try to make sense of them in their own policy and cultural context. I think Vermont, like many US states, is too inward focused in terms of our educational standards and benchmarking. We frequently use grade normalization data from among our own schools (or regional data in the case of NECAP) to measure success when we should be comparing our students’ performance against their international peers.
- Strong Moral Commitment to the Success of All Students – Countries with world class education systems make an overt commitment to the educational success of all students, and make the necessary social investments to ensure their success. As compared to other developed countries, there is a higher degree of correlation between US performance on international benchmark exams and our relatively high rates of poverty. This means most high performing countries do a better job of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Vermont needs to expand its focus on early education programs and seek stronger policy coordination and alignment between social and education systems.
- High Quality Teachers - There is consensus that one of the critical features of a world class education system is having high quality teachers. This means not only creating high quality teacher education programs at the university level, but also having well developed systems for ensuring teachers continue to develop their professional skills once they enter the work force. High quality teachers in world class systems have solid preparation in both content and pedagogy. Another common feature of world class education systems is the empowerment of teachers and a shift from accountability systems to responsibility systems – teachers are empowered and responsible for the success of their students. Interestingly, in Finland the best translation for “accountability” is “responsibility.” Vermont has some excellent teacher preparation programs, but these programs are fairly disconnected from teacher inservice professional development programs and teacher re-licensing activities.
- High Quality Curricula – In many world class educational systems, teachers develop curricula from the ground up with strong connections to educational researchers at the university level. Vermont should implement an instructional development platform which connects all teachers to educational researchers in the development of curricula. Such a system should also provide opportunities for connections with other teachers and educators from around the US and the world. Such a system would better ensure high quality curricula are provided throughout all regions of the state.
- Systems Thinking – World class education systems are the result of systems thinking on the part of policy makers. In these systems, education policy is very intentional and closely linked to social and economic development, and in some cases national survival. Vermont needs to have a clearer and more coherent approach to education policy, and needs to make a stronger connection between investments in education systems and social and economic development.
The better part of the argument for the need to create a world class education system comes from the economic perspective. Globalization has accelerated increasing the number of educated workers entering the global work force, and technology has increased the need for higher skilled workers and decreased the need for lower skilled workers. In short, our students will be competing for higher skilled jobs with students from all over the world not just with students from Vermont or from the US.
Yong Zhao makes a slightly different economic argument. He believes a world class system is one which makes the shift from preparing students for employment to preparing students to be entrepreneurs. His data suggest there is an inverse correlation between a country’s scores on international education exams such as PISA and a country’s entrepreneurial capabilities: aiming for standardization of curricula and better performance on high stakes international benchmark exams might diminish a country’s capacity for economic growth by discouraging the necessary capacity for innovation and creativity among its work force.
Another cautionary note pertains to the problems associated with trying to replicate education models found in different cultures. Many of the successful education systems can be seen as a function of a country’s unique history and culture. The fact that education in Singapore does not look like education in Finland points to the necessity for considering the uniqueness of the cultural context.
Nevertheless, I think Vermont needs to put more effort into understanding what works in education systems from around the world, and then trying to make sense of those system features from a Vermont perspective. I think it would be especially helpful to consider successful systems in countries or states which have a similar respect for local control. Alberta, for example, has an acknowledged world class education system which is highly decentralized. I think Alberta’s Initiative for School Improvement is worthy of further review.
As we talk about improving our educational system in Vermont, I think it is important to frame the conversation around creating a world class system. Vermont education has much to offer the world, but we would benefit greatly by learning from the educational approaches of other states and countries.
In a recent article in the Rutland Herald, an IBM executive remarked that only 38% of Vermont’s juniors meet basic math competencies. I am not sure where these numbers come from, but I take more issue with her cure rather than her diagnosis which she apparently prescribed to several university presidents: “You’ve got to immediately stop graduating teachers the way you are graduating them today – they don’t know math.” Although I think the quality of teacher development programs at the college level is and will always be something we need to attend to, I think the larger problem is how teacher development relates to curriculum development. Currently, there is a significant disconnect between the two.
We have some excellent teacher development resources in Vermont for math (e.g. VMI, and the Vermont Mathematics Partnership Ongoing Assessment Project – see OGAP on Marge Petit’s site) which prepare teachers very well. There is a gap, however, between the quality of these programs and the quality of the curriculum materials these teachers end up using in their classrooms. Teachers are frequently required to customize and augment the locally adopted curriculum, and they do much of this work in isolation from each other and from the training programs which supported them.
A more effective approach would be leverage a network of well trained teachers to design a curriculum from the ground up, and to use that curriculum as the basis of a training program for future teachers. Such an approach would close the gap between training and implementation and thereby create both a faster development cycle and a better feedback loop for quality assurance. I described the theory (“Lateral Networking”) behind such an approach in a previous blog post. This type of approach is not just theory, however, but being used to great effect in other places such as New Jersey.
Lessons in Lateral Innovation from the Garden State: The New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL)
I ran into Dr. Bob Goodman of the NJCTL several years ago when he was presenting at Alan November’s BLC conference. An MIT trained physicist and the former CEO of Harman Kardon and JBL Consumer Products, Bob is a physics teacher at a vocational high school in Bergen County, NJ and was New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2006. Bob is also the Executive Director of the NJCTL where he works on creating and implementing the Center’s Progressive Math Initiative and Progressive Science Initiative (see PSI-PMI for more information). These initiatives have been very successful and are excellent examples of teachers working together to build a world class curriculum from the ground up. I call these initiatives successful because they get results for students. They are also designed around world class standards. The PSI has won international awards, and Bob has been working extensively in Argentina and was recently hired by the World Bank to do some work in Africa.
In the early years of the PSI, Bob ran into a problem in that there were not enough physics teachers in New Jersey to teach AP Physics. To solve this problem, he obtained authority to license physics teachers directly through his program. His teacher development program utilized the same physics curriculum materials used to instruct students in high school. Bob recruited good teachers from a variety of content area backgrounds and taught them physics. Interestingly, Bob believes, “the physics is easy but the teaching is hard.” See the attached whitepaper by Bob which describes his approach in more detail. Bob’s program is well supported by both New Jersey NEA and Governor Christie. Apparently PSI-PMI are one of the few things the union and the Governor both agree upon.
I noticed on the NJCTL website that the program has now spread to Colorado. The question is why not Vermont? Well, it is not for a lack of trying. We brought Bob to Vermont on several occasions. He was the keynote presenter at the VSA and VTFEST conferences where he wowed the audiences. I have also had him present to my staff at the BRSU.
There is a lot to be learned from initiatives such as PSI-PMI. I think it would be great if VMI and other exemplary Vermont teacher development programs partnered with similar programs in New Jersey, Colorado, and Argentina to develop a world class math and science curriculum which could also be used as the basis for a teacher development program. This could be done fairly easily if we leveraged the Internet and networked teachers in a common development platform. Such an approach has proven to get results in New Jersey and would likely be more effective than our current curriculum development systems which in my opinion rely too heavily on the delayed promulgation of top down standards and outdated organizational methods of curriculum alignment.
Our curriculum development systems are too disconnected from the high quality teacher development programs provided at the state level. Our students would greatly benefit if we closed the gap between the two in a more systematic manner.
This summer we started looking into setting up a managed wireless system in our schools. As more mobile computing devices are deployed in schools, it becomes necessary to get a better handle on managing wireless access to the Internet and other network resources. I think making the investment in managed wireless is inevitable for all school districts, and selecting a platform comes down to: 1) how much functionality you need, and 2) how much functionality can you afford.
This summer I looked at two major vendors of cloud-based managed wireless solutions, Meraki and Aerohive. Cloud-based managed wireless solutions allow you to monitor your wireless network from the Internet (e.g. a browser, tablet or phone, any time any where). Each wireless access point pumps out data to a web site where an admin can view, monitor, and control the network. This approach eliminates the need to buy a controller appliance to sit on your network. Although cloud-based systems can be more convenient, they can also be more expensive since you must purchase an annual controller license for each access point.
Based on a tip from Amanda Bickford, a tech at Manchester Elementary-Middle School, I also added Open-Mesh to our evaluation. Open-Mesh hardware is relatively inexpensive and uses open source firmware. They also provide a free web-based controller platform called Cloudtrax.
For the evaluation phase, I installed each vendor’s access point in the BRSU office and then went through a technical briefing with each company except for Open Mesh. Open Mesh does not have this kind of support since the firmware is open source. I also did a basic cost/functionality comparison of the devices:
$150 per AP per year
$100 per AP per year
|Directory service integration||
|Stateful policy firewall||
|Layer 7 application traffic
After completing my evaluation and analysis, I decided to move to a pilot of Open Mesh. The cost of Open Mesh was more in line with what we could afford, and I thought much of the extra functionality found with the Meraki and Aerohive and not found with Open Mesh (e.g. traffic shaping and content filtering) could be done on other network appliances.
The pilot includes Sunderland Elementary (70 students), Currier Memorial (100 students), and the Dorset School (170 students). All of the schools have “1:1″ computing deployments or something close to that ratio. Open Mesh seems to be holding up well. Dorset is having some trouble with their network using Chromebooks, but it is too early to tell if that is do to Open Mesh or other network issues. Below are some screenshots from the Cloudtrax controller from the Sunderland network.
Because the system is cloud-based, we are able to check on the status of the network using any web enabled device including smart phones and tablets. Free Android and IOS apps are provided. The controller allows us to see the status of each access point as well as the status of the mesh. These devices “mesh up” forming a seamless, self-healing wireless network so when students and staff move through the building, one access point hands off access to another one. This also improves network stability since wireless devices now have multiple paths on the network.
So far so good. We are using the MR500 devices (includes a 5-port switch). I would like to try their OM2P in my next deployment because its radios are more powerful. I think Open Mesh provides a good solution relative to price that would attractive for many of Vermont’s smaller schools or schools that do not need the extra functionality of the higher priced devices.
In education, our research and development (“R&D”) systems are curriculum development and professional development. These are the primary systems we utilize to improve instruction, and these systems are traditionally hierarchical and organized around school or district boundaries. We rely on top down policies and approaches such as standards and state-level assessments to influence the improvement of these systems even though there is significant lag time, often several years, between the development of standards and the implementation of their related assessments. There is also the case of fidelity to a curriculum – even when a formal curriculum is adopted, districts struggle with ensuring it is actually being implemented in a coordinated manner.
In Working Laterally, David Hargreaves describes an alternative approach called “lateral networks” where networks are leveraged to connect educators beyond traditional organizational boundaries to greatly improve these R&D processes. This approach requires educators to build curricula from the ground up by utilizing the collective wisdom of their peers. Curriculum development and professional development are “open sourced” with best practices being identified, implemented, and evaluated much more quickly across a group of schools since teachers are no longer working in isolation within their own schools or districts. Standards remain an essential component to ensure quality, but standards become a tagging scheme for educators to organize instructional activities as opposed to a top down framework that narrows the curriculum.
To network educators in this manner and to build curricula from the ground up requires organizational discipline. Just like in open source software development, certain protocols and systems must be enforced to focus the collective work of the community. Disciplining educational R&D systems means providing both internal and external assurance that these systems are going to achieve the desired ends for students. Internal assurance can be understood as responsibility – as educators we must be professionally responsible to each other for the quality of instruction provided across our entire system, not just in our individual classrooms, since it is this broader experience which ultimately affects student learning. External assurance is commonly expressed as accountability. We must be able to demonstrate to students, parents and community members that our educational programs are of high quality.
As districts implement lateral networks to support educational innovation, they need to be able to articulate a system of organizational discipline and publish it to both internal and external stakeholders. In our district we have developed the following list of activities as a plan to discipline our innovation:
- School board Ends and monitoring policies (see this blog post);
- System benchmarks (formative and summative) based on a logic model to ensure the personalization of student learning. This system is being developed in consultation with Dr. David Silvernail from the University of Southern Maine;
- The rapid development, implementation and evaluation of best practices through lateral networking using a common instructional management system (Haiku);
- NWEA MAPS just-in-time assessments used three times a year used in formative data teams by teachers and externally by parents, administration and school board members for program monitoring;
- A standards-based curriculum; and
- Documenting student learning through eportfolios.
I think a balanced portfolio of disciplining approaches is necessary to guide innovation in a common direction. Ideally, some disciplining approaches are able to satisfy both internal and external requirements. I also believe it is essential that governance be addressed so the necessary policy alignment for innovation can be secured.
Considerable attention is being paid to how technology might affect student learning. More attention needs to be paid to how technology might improve our instructional R&D systems. I believe the current federal and state education policies which are focused on relatively inefficient and ineffective top down approaches need to shift towards supporting the development of disciplined systems of innovation which are scalable across a large group of schools irrespective of district, state, or national boundaries. Such an approach is likely to be more effective, less costly, and better able to ensure a high level of quality.
This was the title of a presentation I gave at the recent VSBA/VSA Fall conference in October 2012. I was honored to have David Warlick, the conference keynote presenter, in the audience. He wrote up some notes from my presentation and had some nice things to say about it on his blog. His comments underscored for me how unique Vermont is in many ways. I am very proud to be a Vermont educational leader.
As way of further explanation, I thought I would highlight some of the ideas behind my presentation and provide some of the materials I referenced in digital format. The process of engaging communities to develop a future orientation and to express that orientation as Ends policies is based on Policy Governance, a model of governance developed by John Carver. To get a sense of the process I created, check out the following documents developed for the Dorset School District:
- a script for a public engagement event;
- a flyer developed by the Chair of the Dorset School Board advertising the process;
- a handout given to the participants; and
- a blog developed by the Board members to organize the videos and the process. Scroll down to the first blog posts to get a sense of the event in chronological order.
During the process we discussed education not schooling. This is an important distinction because I find focusing on education opens up the conversation to future possibilities, whereas focusing on schooling brings people back to their own experiences and limits the basis for a common dialogue. This distinction between education vs. schooling conforms to the Policy Governance concept of Ends vs. Means with schooling being the primary Means by which a community’s educational Ends are obtained. The primary purpose of this process was to get clear on the desired Ends since so many of our available Means (e.g. technology, the Internet, networks, etc.) are changing rapidly and are fundamentally different than the educational means available to previous generations.
The process was designed to connect Boards (and their communities) to the work we are doing in our schools around personalizing learning. This work is fairly innovative, and like most innovations requires discipline. I believe public accountability is a vital component of disciplining educational innovation, and I believe this accountability should be pointed back to local communities, taxpayers, and parents, not to the federal government. Here is a draft Ends policy produced by our administrative team as an example.
The data gathered from the Dorset process was very similar to the data gathered from the processes in our other communities. Interestingly, no parent or participant from any of the community engagement processes expressed an interest in improving test scores on standardized tests as a desired End for a student’s education.
Here is an outline of a presentation I do with leaders on how to setup a GTD system using Toodledo.
The GTD System
- Collect everything you need to do into a single task list
- Process tasks by priority
- Next Action
- Waiting On
- Some Day
- Review task list on a weekly basis (schedule a specific time and day)
- Collect everything into list
- Review prioritization and make adjustments
- Sign up for a free account at http://toodledo.com
- Create “Folders” using the GTD priorities listed above
- Create “Context” tags to organize your work (e.g. staff issues, teacher eval, Dan, etc.)
- Add tasks
- Do not add due dates
- Do not use separate prioritization of tasks – use the folders for setting priorities
- Configure third party apps to sync with your online account
- Options for integration with Google Apps
- Gmail Gadget
- Google Calendar Sidebar Gadget
Sunderland, Vermont – June 7, 2012
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) announced a Vermont school district, the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union (BRSU), has been selected to participate in its major education transformation initiative, “Teaming for Transformation: Leading Digital Conversion for Student Learning.” CoSN is the premier national professional association for school district technology leaders. BRSU was selected to participate in this project with twenty other school districts from around the country.
Teaming for Transformation districts were selected based on their demonstrated commitment to improving student-centered learning in a digitally rich environment. The selected districts will participate in an exclusive online community focused on infusing digital resources and tools into the teaching and learning process, and participate in a two-day site visit to schools in Mooresville, NC, a district nationally recognized as a leader in this work. Dr. Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education will support the districts in developing strategies to scale the digital conversion of learning back in their districts.
“I am very pleased our district was selected to participate in this initiative,” said Dan French, Superintendent for the BRSU. “For the past 5 years, we have been working towards building capacity in our district to restructure our instructional systems to support the personalization of learning using technology. Our participation in this national project will further enhance our ability to continue down this path by allowing us to work closely with other districts from around the country who are acknowledged leaders in school transformation.”
The BRSU is located in Sunderland, Vermont and serves the communities of Danby, Dorset, Manchester, Mount Tabor, Pawlet, Rupert, and Sunderland. The newly formed Mountain Towns RED and the Winhall Town School District will be joining the BRSU on July 1, 2013.
This presentation was made to BRSU boards in May/June of 2012. The purpose of the presentation is to provide an instructional vision for our districts based on our work over the last 5 years in understanding the new, technological context for teaching and learning. Based on this collective work, I have concluded our organization’s instructional systems should be organized around two design principles:
- Personalized learning for each student; and
- Teachers and other educators should be connected in a common professional network to support instructional innovation. The theory behind this concept comes from Education Epidemic by David Hargreaves.