Reform as a Platform for Innovation

Across a half a dozen states in the last week I’ve listened in on edreform chats with an eye on innovation.
Higher standards & lower scores in NY.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said Friday, “There will be a painful adjustment period as schools and students adapt to higher expectations. Just look at the results announced in New York this week. Remember, only one third of our students are college or career ready and higher expectations, assessed faithfully, will show that ugly truth.”
Kathleen Porter Magee defended chief John King’s courageous stand on his day of reckoning as NY scores dropped after tests were pegged to real college and career readiness.  However, she remains worried about the consequences.
Kentucky experienced the same test score dip, other states soon will.  Telling the truth about college- and career-readiness is a key foundation for improvement and innovation.
Uncommon opposition. I listened to opposition to common college- and career-ready standards this week.  One lawmaker from Minnesota claimed it somehow advocated for  homosexual lifestyles–I explained that it was just reading, writing and math expectations.
A lawmaker from Arkansas worried that Common Core reduced parent choice.  I said not anymore than current state standards.  Common Core isn’t a curriculum, it is just a common expectation that kids should be able to read with comprehension, write with evidence, and think algebraically.  I’m enthusiastic about the wave of innovation caused by adoption of common standards and about new and conversion schools like the recent NGLC grantees.
“There are critics of Common Core Standards from both ends of the ideological spectrum,” said Jeb Bush this week.  I’m with him, “What I can’t accept are the dumbed down standards and expectations that exist in almost all of our schools today.”
School boards. We inherited a crazy governance patchwork that is relatively inefficient but widely valued.  Some 14,000 districts are slowing incorporating next-gen models but often limit learning opportunities. But there are some great districts out there inventing the future.
On Thursday,  I spent a morning with a group of thoughtful school board members and administrators in South Dakota. I met Steve Morford from Spearfish, featured last year, and many leaders of high access environments.
I learned about South Dakota Innovation Labs, a network of four rural districts collaborating on project/problem-based learning – using STEM as a platform for delivery.
Around the corner. Good reform lays the groundwork for improvement as well as innovation. Speaking to state policy makers this week I discussed two big advances:

  • mobile learning: proliferation of broadband, devices and content sources means learning can happen anytime, anywhere; and
  • customized learning: adaptive instruction and competency-based environments where every student takes a unique path.

These learning advances will be accompanied by two big changes in delivery: blended bundles.  Most schools will soon combine online and face-to-face learning in interesting and productive ways.  Most secondary students will experience blends that combine multiple providers.
Blended bundles suggest two big policy shifts:

Authorization of statewide providers is a new and important role for state education agencies.  While K12 and Connections get lots of attention (and criticism), statewide providers also include small districts like Whitepine in Idaho, sponsor of innovative I-DEA, and five teacherpreneurs in Louisiana (more on that this week).
I started the week in DC discussing course reciprocity–a framework for sharing the load of approving online course providers (more on course choice and reciprocity this week).  Embracing the world of digital opportunity will take new governance models, stronger state capacity and new relationships between districts and statewide providers.

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

Janet Brown

As an educator, I believe wholeheartedly that children need choices in how they receive instruction, and that one size definitely does not fit all. However, my concern is that as we move toward digital learning that we do not forget the basics. For example, my son and many of my former students were plunged into blended learning this past school year. While my son did well on most assignments, and he showed an improvement in his critical thinking skills, he did miserably on his assessments. The problem was that he was not given the time or the opportunity to develop crucial old fashion study skills important to mastery. Ironically, while he failed most of his assessments, his still passed his classes. There is something seriously wrong with this picture.
Many of my former students disliked the blended learning model because they found it impersonal and non-engaging despite assistance from their teachers and some small group involvement, and as a result, most of them failed miserably and had to attend summer school. My former gifted students were bored because there was no time to do project based learning because of the amount of computer work required. Unfortunately, the grading was not balanced. The computer did most of the grading, leaving teachers with very little room for input. If we truly want to tailor learning to our children's needs, we must first include their learning styles and intelligences and then place technology in the appropriate spaces, thus, playing up to their strengths and not to our program ambitions.


Tom Vander Ark

Janet, thanks for your comment. There are thin blends where kids fly through online content, click through a multiple choice test, and move one--it may offer acceleration but doesn't engage or ask kids to think. Deeper blends start with good goals, see post on Danville:
Last week I wrote about 4 high schools that use projects to promote deeper learning:
This week I'll highlight 4 high schools with deeper competency-based environments.

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