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“No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State”

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has just published a report of its findings from an 18-month study of education systems known for high PISA performance.  The focus of the study was to identify areas of commonality in those programs, compare them to current practice in the United States, and make recommendations for how real change can be implemented.

The report is available at the NCSL website (28 pages, PDF).

The report spotlights the following four common elements of world-class education systems.

1. “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” – Early identification is not enough.  An important set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills is fostered in children before they reach school age, without necessarily immersing them in a school environment at earlier and earlier ages.  What educators commonly refer to as an “achievement gap” would be more accurately called a “support gap”.  When students are given the necessary tools and supports to achieve high standards, they consistently meet those expectations.

Tech application:  This isn’t about making sure kids know how to use a certain device before they reach school age.  The state-of-the-art device when a child is born will be obsolete before they start school.  Providing opportunity and access, however, go a long way toward developing skills that effective instructional methods rely on in 21st Century learners.

2. “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” – There are two complementary ideals here: 1)  high expectations for teachers, and 2) high expectations for students.  These would seem to be intrinsically aligned goals, but we sometimes find them to be in conflict.  No teacher wants to see their students’ efforts end in failure. Sometimes, this results in backing off of high expectations and setting an artificially low bar, especially for students we desperately want to feel some sense of accomplishment.  When this becomes a pattern or a habit, the student’s performance lags further and further behind, but their academic evaluations may still say “straight-A’s.”  Every student deserves a system of educators who help them genuinely succeed, in a system that does not lower performance expectations for certain students.  Great teachers have students who sometimes fall short.  Great teachers find new ways to help those students keep trying and find a new path to success.

Tech application: Every student should have the opportunity, with classroom technology available right now, to learn from people in their school building, their community, their state, across the nation, and around the globe.  Highly effective teachers are not the ones who know (and give) all the answers, but the ones who ask the right questions to help students along the path of discovery.  Today’s best teachers are not gatekeepers of information, they are facilitators of learning processes that go beyond the textbook curriculum and the four walls of the classroom, for every student – not just the ones who are easy to reach.

3. “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” – Why do we perpetuate the idea that K-12 education is preparing kids for college or a career?  Surely, we expect those who are going to college to find themselves in a career eventually, right?  High-quality career and technical education is in no way inferior to high-quality traditional academic instruction. Advantages like instilling useful workplace skills, fostering collaboration and problem-solving skills, and increased student engagement with real-world projects and situations make career and technical education a great and equal option, not an “alternative pathway” for kids who don’t fit traditional approaches.

Tech application: While “Technology” may be a separate class for some students, that class should not be the only place where technology is explored.  Skills learned in project-based learning, problem solving, global collaboration, and content creation, go beyond individual subject areas and develop a sense of efficacy and persistence in students.

4. “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and  carefully designed comprehensive system.” – Everything we do, every policy we put in place, every practice we promote, every procedure we require, should be measured against the core purpose of the education system.  And that core purpose cannot be simply to perpetuate the existence of the system.  I believe every student can learn to define and achieve what the highest level of success means for them.  Any “rule” that we put in place that prevents a student from receiving the kind of education they deserve is a rule that needs to disappear.  Education, like life, must be about one thing (YouTube video, strong language).

Tech application: We have to stop teaching kids to use a word processor.  We have to stop teaching kids to create multimedia slideshows.  We even have to stop teaching kids to produce Hollywood-quality videos.  Those are tools to be used in accomplishing a higher end.  In order to publish a book of original poetry, a student might learn to use a word processor.  In order to make a persuasive presentation to a board or council, a student might learn to use a presentation program.  In order to document findings of an investigation, a student might learn how to shoot, edit, and publish video artifacts.  It’s not about the tool, it’s about the end product.

So, what can schools do with this information?  As I see it, schools have two options: 1) sit back and wait to see whether their state or federal government implements any of the recommendations of this report, or 2) examine the parts of the report that are wholly within the school’s realm of influence and start making the changes now that result in improved results for all students.

Three Tips to Get You Started in Design Thinking

School districts can sometimes feel like giant ocean liners.  They hold a lot of people, but they can take a long time to change direction.  When there are problems that need to be addressed, the process of “Design Thinking” is gaining a lot of popularity as a framework for coming up with innovative solutions.  The process is not necessarily difficult, but the work can be slow-going sometimes.  This can lead individuals, or entire teams, to believe that the process has failed – especially in a field where we want to see significant results quickly from our actions.

You can start small, or start big.  If you’re thinking about exploring “Design Thinking” as a model for approaching your next problem-solving venture, keep these three tips in mind to get the most from the experience.

Empathy.Empathy.  The best results from Design Thinking come when we spend plenty of time on activities that emphasize empathy.  Who is affected by the problem we’re trying to fix?  This step often involves lots of interviews with such people (often termed “users”, as in “users” of the system or product being redesigned), and observing them while using the current system/product.  If your proposed solutions don’t actually help anyone, why were you working on the problem in the first place?  When the Design Thinking process is working well, empathy has been allowed to shape and define our understanding of the problem.

Prepare to fail, and learn from it.  Failure is becoming something of a popular buzzword in education these days.  Reducing the stigma attached to failures is a noble cause.  When we punish failure, we rarely do so in a way that encourages students to try again.  We generally get the opposite result – students learn to stop trying.  We can’t make failure not stink.  If failure feels good, why succeed?  What we can do is cultivate an attitude of learning from failure, and not letting the prospect of failure prevent us from making the attempt.  Prototyping and the iterative process gives us a chance to try, and if that doesn’t work, to go back and try again with new understanding. [View this Stanford slide deck on “Prototypes”]

Green octagon Go sign.Bias toward action.  I have a strong memory of coming out of one especially long meeting at a previous workplace.  The meeting wasn’t necessarily a productive one.  We left with no proposed solutions.  A co-worker of mine put it best when he said, “Well, we didn’t come up with a solution, but we sure admired the problem!”  Too often, we spend a lot of time admiring problems, and not taking steps to resolve it (perhaps owing to the fear of failure mentioned above).  Bias toward action doesn’t mean that we enact solutions without sufficient preparation or thought.  It means that even our closed-lab discussions are concerned primarily with, “What can we do as a result of this?”  A solution that never results in a change in practice is no solution.

Truly enacting a “Design Thinking” framework requires a shift in thinking away from supporting existing systems to supporting eventual solutions.  The results can be spectacular!

Want to know more about applying principles of Design Thinking in schools?  Check out!


On Monday, July 11, 2016, I was fortunate enough to participate in an EdCamp in Columbus, Ohio.  This was part of a network of events called “EdCamp Leadership” across numerous states and international locations.

Ohio’s event, titled EdCamp Leader Ohio, was held at the unofficial mother church of EdCamps, Clark Hall at Gahanna-Lincoln High School.  (I have previously attended two #EdCampCbus events at the same location, and am hoping to attend this year’s event on September 24.)  Clark Hall is an excellent example of learner-centered architecture.  Classroom spaces are flexible.  Collaboration spaces are open and well-furnished. Considerable attention has been paid to minimizing barriers to learning.

A great big thank you to Dr. Neil Gupta (@drneilgupta), and GLHS Principal Bobby Dodd (@bobby__dodd) for all the preparation and planning work!

Here are my big take-aways from the event:

  • Before we talk about what we do and how we do it, it’s never a bad idea to reaffirm why we do it.  It’s unusual (though certainly not unheard of) for an edCamp to start with a keynote, but #EdCampLdrOH’s opening keynote with LaVonna Roth was the perfect type of message for an event of this nature.
  • Movie clips have great potential as illustrative material for profesional development as well as instructional design.  Today’s educator should understand copyright law and “fair use” principles as part of a school’s digital citizenship effort.
  • Discussions about how we might construct and conduct courses on current events and social justice issues naturally lead to real-life application.  At this point, things like credits and grades and other artificial means we use to motivate students become secondary, or even irrelevant.
  • Educators want to develop effective ways to help students identify and utilize their strengths.  Time, relationship-building, and identifying authentic audiences are key parts of this effort, and it takes some boldness to break out of standards maps and pacing guides to lay this foundation.
  • All of our recent efforts at reform and school improvement have done little to transform, or clarify, what it really indicates when we hand a student a high school diploma.  The discussion about what a high school diploma means can drastically change the conversation about what school should look like.  It’s a system-wide application of the principle of Backward Design as explained in “Understanding by Design” – designing with the end in mind.  (ASCD Whitepaper, “The Understanding by Design Framework” [PDF])

Take a look at the day’s “Big Board” and follow the links to any of the resources posted from those sessions.  If you’ve never been to an EdCamp before, I highly recommend that you try it.  Look for one in your area, and plan to attend!

What is an edcamp?

Three Big Fat Lies Tech Coordinators Tell

I had the opportunity at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference (OETC) to participate in a main-stage event called “FREd Talks”.  “FREd” stands for “Finding Real Education”, and it consists of a series of five-minute “Ignite”-style talks.  Each speaker develops a set of 20 slides (plus an intro slide), and the slides automatically advance every 15 seconds.

My FREd Talk was titled “Three Big Fat Lies Tech Coordinators Tell”, and it explains why there is one consideration that trumps “easier,” “faster,” and “more efficient” when we’re talking about implementing technology in education to support access and achievement for all students.

Big thanks to Toby Fischer for organizing the event, and arranging for video recording!

I promised myself I wouldn’t post it until I had an accurate caption file completed, and that is now done.  Enjoy!