Category Archives: change

Rightsizing Vermont’s School Governance System

I consider myself a reasonable person, so I knew at some point I would be weighing in on the proposed bill on school district governance reform in Vermont. I wasn’t exactly sure when I would do so, but I have been waiting for a sign that the time was right. I thought I was close when I observed progressive educator Bill Mathis and libertarian John McClaughry to be on the same side of the issue. The piece in the Rutland Herald entitled, “Attack on Democracy” almost had me there, but it was Marty Strange’s, “The Reality of Consolidation” which pushed me over the edge.

Mr. Strange compares Vermont to West Virginia, Nebraska, Maine, and Arkansas. Really? Nothing which has occurred in these other states is on the same scale to what is being proposed in Vermont. From a national perspective, what is being considered in Vermont could be characterized as taking micro school districts and forming them into small districts. I often correspond with other superintendents from around the country on school district governance. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Other Superintendent: “Dan, school district consolidation is bad.

Me: “My school system of 2,200 students is governed 12 boards and 54 school board members, and my smallest district has 29 students and does not operate a school.”

Other Superintendent: “Oh. That’s crazy. You guys have a problem.”

Mr. Strange cites research on West Virginia. “In West Virginia, thousands of kids spend over two hours on the bus each school day.” In Vermont, this would mean the kids in Canaan would have to be bused back and forth to Lyndonville every day. The frost heaves alone would make this impractical. On the other hand, school district consolidation might actually improve the efficiency of our school transportation since many of our students spend hours on half empty school buses each day driving through other districts and past other schools in order to attend a school in their own district. Mr. Strange also cites the economic impact of district consolidation. “West Virginia spends more of its education dollar on transportation than any other state.” If school district consolidation is related to cost, Mr. Strange should have mentioned West Virginia spends about $5,000 less per student than Vermont. Actually, all of the states mentioned by Mr. Strange spend considerably less per student than Vermont.

I admire Mr. Strange’s work and the work of the Rural School and Community Trust, but I question whether or not he read the outline of the proposed school governance bill before writing his op-ed. The proposed bill is not about school bus transportation, closing small schools, the end of school choice or even an “Attack on Democracy.” The bill is aimed at addressing a long standing issue in Vermont: the overly complex structure of our public education delivery system. Mr. Strange is correct in that research should be used to guide public policy since there are valuable lessons to be learned from other states, but in the end, we need to find a Vermont solution to a Vermont problem. And yes, I think we have a school district governance problem in Vermont – denial is not a river in Egypt.

The problem in Vermont is twofold: 1) unequal educational opportunity for Vermont students, and 2) our high costs. School district governance has to be part of the solution, but I think it is more about “rightsizing” our governance structure rather than “consolidating” it.

Rightsizing means:

  • Looking for regional solutions – what makes sense in Essex County is not necessarily going to make sense in Chittenden County. The proposed bill includes a “Design Team” to take into account these regional variations. More importantly, the bill would give locals the opportunity to articulate a governance solution themselves albeit with the understanding that the goal is a Pre-K to grade 12 cohesive system and that the state will act to form up newly configured districts if a local solution is not achieved in a given time frame;
  • Ensuring the new districts (larger yes, but “Mega” no) have a better chance to achieve greater efficiency. We know from research (Baker) that single districts between about 1,200 and 4,000 students are the most efficient;
  • Maintaining local input commensurate to the number of students in the district. Vermont’s ratio of school boards to students (1 board per 282 students) is the lowest in the country and unfortunately correlates well to our very high spending per student; and
  • Creating integrated systems of school improvement by modernizing curriculum development, professional development, and assessment systems to better leverage the networked expertise of our teachers across school district boundaries so student learning opportunities are not limited by a student’s town of residence or the walls of a single school building.

I applaud the House Education Committee and our other political leaders for taking on the issue of school district governance reform. I think the conversation around this issue is an important one and hopefully not coming too late. Vermonters should engage in the conversation objectively and be prepared to shape the process so a Vermont solution can be found to a Vermont problem.

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Personalized Learning: A Design Principle of Vermont Education

Here is my keynote presentation for Castleton State College’s Personalizing Learning Institute on July 8, 2013.

Here is the outline for my Cloud-Based Tools session, and here is the outline for my Disciplining Educational Innovation presentation with Jackie Wilson.

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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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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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Lateral Innovation Network Outline

“The path to transformation is decentralized, distributed, and disciplined.” – D. Hargreaves

Objectives*

  • 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.

LMS Functionality

  • Individual learning plans for every student
  • ePortfolios
  • 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.

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