10 Strategies to Take Advantage of Productive Edtech Turbulence

Governor Bob Wise, Alliance for Excellent Education, opened the Moorseville edtech conference (which I covered for Digital Learning Now!) this week by suggesting that, like a bumpy tailwind, we’re experiencing productive turbulence including adoption of real college/career ready standards, waivers from federal requirements that come with new demands, and online assessment starting in 2014-2015. Add what’s likely to be a decade of constrained budgets in most states and you have a leadership challenge.
Gov. Wise suggested that strategic planning is the answer. He encouraged participants to consider teaching, time, and technology in the development of
plans. Like iNACOL‘s Susan Patrick, Wise sees more computers and new standards as a great opportunity for competency-based advancement. (See CompetencyWorks.org for more.)
Wise said, “The best economic stimulus plan for the country is a diploma.” He noted that it would be a giant economic boost if more districts shared Mooresville’s 91 percent graduation rate.
Speaking to a group of 50 superintendents at the Moorseville conference, I acknowledged that Wise was right–every state and district needs a 24-month plan to implement standards and boost access to technology. However, the old top-down planning process just won’t cut it this time–there’s what too much disruptive and subversive change happening.
To Gov. Wise’s list of productive turbulence, superintendents need to acknowledge that:

  • Your teachers, parents and students are using free and viral apps
  • Where states allow it, students are blended their own learning with online courses
  • Students are bringing their own device to school whether you acknowledge it or not; and
  • In most urban areas, the growth of charters demands a portfolio strategy.

To these bottom-up, outside-in disturbances add the frustration that tools are getting better but not where they should be. (See “Why Aren’t There Any Next Gen Platforms?”). That makes a big phased three-year enterprise deployment a high-risk affair–you’ll probably spend way too much on a clunky and expensive platform when better cheaper alternatives are right around the corner.
Another complicating factor is that blending is a team sport. They may be teaching flipped classroom models all over your district, but to implement
competency-based learning sequences and create environments that work better for teachers and students, it requires new staffing patterns and agreements.
Our friends at Common Sense Media also recommend a push for digital literacy and citizenship skills requiring updated policies and instruction.
In short, that’s a really complex landscape. Detailed district wide plans in preparation for online assessment are clearly warranted. But old top-down
strategies are clearly insufficient for dealing with this dynamic decade.
A differentiated approach is part of the solution. Steven Adamowski piloted an approach in Cincinnati in the 1990s where a school’s performance on a
dashboard of indicators determined its relationship with the district. Rudy Crew introduced a similar differentiated approach to New York City in 1995 and
Harold Levy and Joel Klein improved on it. A system of earned autonomy, developed by Tom Payzant’s team, is what made Boston the best urban district of the
last decade.
An aggressive strategy of new school development (which may be accompanied by school closures) can be an effective way of introducing innovation. (See 10
Reasons Every District Needs a Flex School
Leadership Public Schools offers a good example of a collaborative and distributed innovation agenda. Each of the four schools takes on portions of the change and agenda and share tools developed and lessons learned.
Let’s try to put this back together into 10 guiding principles for taking advantage of productive turbulence:

  1. With exponential change, you can’t communicate enough and transparency is the only option
  2. Build culture first, principles second, systems third
  3. Lay the groundwork for a few non-negotiables like college and career readiness
  4. Be smart about what you can control, it’s less than it used to be. Try to leverage the change you can’t control
  5. Don’t block learning options, make them better
  6. Differentiate, be prescriptive only where results warrant
  7. Distribute the change agenda; build collaboration across components; empower teachers to pilot new tools and strategies
  8. Start a new school, even if it’s 30 kids in a portable that demonstrates how competency-based learning works and changes relationships
  9. Use two or three phases to make change manageable and to stay flexible; and
  10. Invest in change capacity–individual and collective.

That’s a new kind of strategic plan–it’s more dynamic, more differentiated, and more collaborative. It presumes a near-term future of empowered teachers
and learners, abundant data, powerful tools, and an expanded array of quality options.
For more also see: “Every District Needs a Leadership & Empowerment Agenda”.
This post first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Jim Butt

Great article, Tom, and a terrific list. Thanks for sharing. This list has applications FAR beyond EdTech and can be used to engage populations productively and creatively for positive results.

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