Author Archives: Dan French

Some Thoughts on Math and Science Education in Vermont

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.

 

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Update on Our BRSU Managed Wireless Pilot – November 2012

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:

 

Cost

Meraki Aerohive Open Mesh
AP

$580

$580

$95

PoE Injector

$50

$60

$30 w/kit

Adapter

$29

$99

Included

Controller License

$150 per AP per year

$100 per AP per year

Included

 

Functionality

Meraki

Aerohive

Open Mesh

WPA2-Enterprise
& 802.1X

Directory service integration

Stateful policy firewall

√?

User Fingerprinting

Layer 7 application traffic
shaping

 

Pilot

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.

 

Conclusions

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.

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Disciplining Educational Innovation

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.

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Engaging the Community In Creating A Vision for 21st Century Learning

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;
  • 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.

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Getting Things Done (GTD) with Toodledo

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
    • Action
    • Projects
    • Waiting On
    • Some Day
    • Calls
  • Review task list on a weekly basis (schedule a specific time and day)
    • Collect everything into list
    • Review prioritization and make adjustments

 

Toodledo

  • 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
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BRSU SELECTED TO PARTICIPATE IN NATIONAL EDUCATION TRANSFORMATION INITIATIVE

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.

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An Intructional Vision for the BRSU – Spring 2012

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:

  1. Personalized learning for each student; and
  2. 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.

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Report of the Superintendent of Schools 2012

There were significant staffing changes at the administrative level during the 2010-2011 school year. Jean Ward, BRSU Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development, retired as did James Merryman, the long-serving principal of The Dorset School. Jackie Wilson, the principal of MEMS, moved to the central office to fill the Curriculum vacancy created by Jean Ward’s retirement, and Wayne Flewelling, a BRSU special education director, left the organization to become the special education director in a neighboring supervisory union. Rosanna Moran was hired to be the principal of The Dorset School, and Sarah Merrill moved up from the assistant principal position at MEMS to become principal. Brenda MacDonald was hired as the new special education director, and John Dawson was hired as the Director of Instructional Innovation, a grant-funded position charged with advancing the utilization of technology in our schools.

Our districts continued their work in navigating Act 153, a law that promotes the voluntary merger of school districts and requires the centralization of certain services at the supervisory union level. The BRSU board established a governance committee to address the voluntary merger aspects of the law. This committee had two focus areas: 1) anticipating the integration of the Mountain Towns Regional Education District (Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru, Weston, and the Floodbrook School) into the BRSU on July 1, 2013, and 2) commissioning an internal Phase I governance study among the our nine BRSU districts. The vote on the Mountain Towns RED and its assignment to the BRSU is scheduled for the winter of 2012. A related issue pertains to the Winhall Town School District which is pursuing a feasibility study for joining the BRSU in 2013. I believe the integration of these districts into the BRSU will not only lower administrative costs, but also allow us to better leverage regional resources to expand learning opportunities for students.

The work surrounding the required centralization of services under Act 153 continues to move forward as well. Business services have been consolidated into the supervisory union office saving Manchester and Dorset over $30,000 and $15,000 per year respectively. A common collective bargaining process with our six teachers unions was initiated in the winter of 2010 with the goal of achieving a single teachers contract. Work on the centralization of special education and transportation services has been deferred until the 2012-2013 school year in order to better understand how these services might work in a reconfigured supervisory union with the potential additions of the Mountain Towns RED and Winhall.

Considerable progress was made in the area of instructional technology systems. We deployed a supervisory union-wide student information system with a common approach to report cards. This should serve our districts well as we transition to the new Common Core curriculum standards. We also implemented a new learning management system that will expand the curriculum, extend classroom activities beyond the school day, create greater opportunities for students and teachers to collaborate with their peers, and improve communication between parents and teachers. We are planning on deploying a fiber optic network with high speed Internet access among our schools and to the central office on July 1, 2012. This network will be built as part of a federal initiative to expand bandwidth access in Vermont. In this network, our schools will function as “anchor institutions” as part of a larger economic development strategy for the region.

Federal education policy as articulated through the No Child Left Behind Act continues to be a drain on our time, attention, and dollars. Vermont has applied for a waiver from its provisions, but I am concerned the direction of Federal education policy remains misguided, and ultimately will do more harm than good. As I survey the larger educational policy context, I believe our districts are well situated to articulate an alternative vision for schooling, a vision based on a respect for community, a dedication to high standards, and a focus on personalized learning opportunities for all students. Thank you for your continued support of this work.

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December Ride

Crossing Vermont’s frozen Green Mountains
on a pre-dawn December ride to the Capital.
Strapped into the heated bucket seat of my Volkswagon CC,
listening to Kathleen Edwards.
Damn, those Canadians can sing.

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