Here is my presentation for the May 2014 VSA/VCSEA conference.
“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 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.
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.
“The path to transformation is decentralized, distributed, and disciplined.” – D. Hargreaves
- Open the instructional, professional, and curriculum development processes to a peer-led network in order to provide a more effective means for sharing best practices and transferring them more rapidly
- Improve the quality of teaching and learning broadly across a group of schools
- Create a climate for teachers to innovate by promoting:
- the motivation to create new professional knowledge;
- the opportunity to engage actively in innovation;
- the skills for testing the validity of the new knowledge; and
- the means for transferring the validated innovations rapidly within their school and into other schools.
Structure of Network
- Totally cloud-based
- Initial focus would be K-8. Elementary and middle level innovation capacity would lead high school transformation.
- Implement a common communications infrastructure. All districts would join Google Apps.
- Implement a common Learning Management System. See below. (approximate cost $10 per student)
- Curriculum development on Curriki.
- Common tags would be established to identify work across all platforms.
- Individual learning plans for every student
- Units can be matched to current and future standards
- Capacity to share instructional materials, units, and assessments among teachers
- Other standard LMS functionality: design online and blended learning activities, implement assessment, monitor student academic progress, iterative academic feedback, teaming of staff and students around learning activities, connect to web-based learning resources, establish non-traditional support groups for students, new learning opportunities and new structures of knowledge – mash up, 365 and 24/7, parent connection, personalization around UDL principles.
*Objectives adapted from Working Laterally: How Innovation Networks Make an Education Epidemic by David Hargreaves.
I think we need to revisit the social studies as a content area. I have been thinking about this for a while, but I was prompted to do so after hearing a presentation this summer by Bob Goodman of the Progressive Science Initiative in New Jersey. Bob was describing how his work had led him to reorganize the science curriculum so it made better sense to students:
- Physics is taught in the freshman year and students learn the necessary math as an application of the science. At the end of the freshman year, students study quantum mechanics and atomic structure which leads into
- Chemistry taught in the sophomore year. At the end of the sophomore year, students study proteins which leads into
- Biology and the study of life in the junior year.
This is a simplification of Bob’s work, but it resonated with me. Content curriculum should make sense to students as a narrative, and I believe this type of approach is needed for the social studies, which suffer from fragmentation. At the same conference where I heard Bob speak, I asked the conference sponsor, Alan November, what he thought about the social studies. He agreed that it was time revisit this content especially in light of new technologies. He suggested a more appropriate title for the social studies could be World Ecology.
If World Ecology works as a new discipline, I think it needs some design questions. The one I have come up with so far is, “Why is the world the way it is?” Imagine having 10 years (my schools are preK-8) to explain the world to students in a way that made sense from a narrative perspective, and in a way that was both relevant and engaging.
I think the way to do this would be to adopt Geography as the overarching content structure. Since Geography by definition covers everything about the Earth both in terms of its physical and human characteristics, I think it would be particularly well suited for making sense of things. We could structure a curriculum around the 5 Themes and the Geography Standards. We could also embellish units with foreign language study using products such as Rosetta Stone Classroom.
I am going to start working on a structure for this “World Ecology” curriculum using Curriki. If you would like to help out, contact me.