Guest Post: Leading Innovative Schools: Some Views From 30k Feet

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What does the future of school and student learning look like? Do you ever wonder how leading superintendents from around the U.S. might answer that question?

At the Spring Meeting of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools in Mentor, OH, superintendents and administrators from 86 leading districts across the U.S. mulled this and other big questions about digital transformation in schools. As a district leader in Vancouver Public Schools which is a member of this network, I had the opportunity to learn and share alongside some of the most dynamic educational leaders in the nation. I’d like to share a few takeaways.

First, a little bit about Digital Promise and the League of Innovative Schools. With an acknowledgment that many public school districts share common challenges, the League was formed in 2011 with 27 districts. Now representing more than 3.3 million students in 86 districts and 33 states, the League reflects the diversity and shared challenges of public education in America. As a national professional learning network, League districts collaborate among one another and alongside entrepreneurs, researchers, and leading education thinkers. The goal is to identify, test, and promote new approaches to teaching and learning through the powerful use of learning technologies. As the parent organization, Digital Promise also seeks to promote educational innovation more broadly in areas including educator micro-credentials, maker learning, and challenge-based learning.

Moving beyond devices and content

I’ve had an opportunity to attend a number of #DPLIS events over the last four years. At first, the challenges were firmly about digital devices and content. The standout districts were those who had effectively deployed iPads, laptops, and interactive digital content. Now, many of the districts in the League and around the country have embraced 1:1 and BYOD, not to mention learning management systems and digital content.

Attention has shifted to issues like closing the digital ‘homework gap.’ While many students have access to district-issued or personal devices, not all have broadband at home. And without Internet access at home, student devices, learning management tools, and digital resources are effectively left behind in the classroom. In addition to conversations within the League, Digital Promise’s Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative seeks to tell the story of why all students deserve 24/7 learning opportunities.

The explosive growth of educational technology also poses integration challenges. As content and services move from the desktop to the cloud, schools must ensure that new tools work as promised. District leaders in a newly-formed CTO (Chief Technology Officer) workgroup within the League are addressing the complex issues of interoperability, student privacy, and data security. After all, a new digital textbook is useless if it can’t be deployed to the right students and no one knows the alphanumeric password. This new workgroup will address these interoperability challenges and the need to systematically safeguard student data not only from digital service providers but from external threats.

Exploring making, coding, and students as creators

Acknowledging widespread grassroots interest among educators, Digital Promise is working alongside innovative districts and national organizations to help schools effectively implement coding, making, and project-based learning. Recently, we visited districts near Pittsburgh in which coding, making, and project-based learning have been powerfully integrated throughout the K12 instructional program. Visits to South Fayette, Elizabeth Forward, and Avonworth school districts led many League members to accelerate their own explorations and implementations of both coding programs and maker spaces. Digital Promise is additionally supporting districts through their Maker Learning initiative which includes resources, best practices, and frameworks for learning implementation.

Rethinking professional development

Many districts are examining how to disrupt and reinvent professional development with a wide recognition that professional learning in schools is in desperate need of some innovation. While professional development has been a perennial topic of conversation at League meetings, a dedicated work group is examining micro-credentials and badging as a potential strategy to bring competency-based learning to PD. District leaders also examined online and blended learning strategies, not to mention addressing the complexities of credit accrual, teacher ‘seat time,’ and compensation.

Building ‘ubiquitous leadership’

While the term was coined by my superintendent, Dr. Steve Webb, many districts are examining how to better develop and leverage leadership from teachers, librarians, and paraprofessionals. With an acknowledgment that preparing future ready graduates requires a team effort, district leaders are seeking to expand authentic leadership opportunities beyond administrators.

League district leaders continue to be very interested in libraries and librarians as catalysts for innovation. Many #DPLIS districts feature strong library programs and have intentionally connected librarians to strategic district work. Recent site visits have included library spaces which feature multimedia studios, performance spaces, and even student-run cafes. As partners in the Future Ready Librarians initiative at the Alliance for Excellent Education, Digital Promise districts are working to strengthen librarians including the development of micro-credentials based on the Future Ready Librarians framework.

Instructional coaches are increasingly being leveraged to lead, teach, and support innovative initiatives and programs in districts. While these teachers on special assignment may or may not have ‘innovative’ in their titles, there is an increasing reliance on these specialized educational leaders to teach students and coach teachers. With a dizzying array of acronyms in their job titles, these teacher leaders support everything from making to blended learning.

As someone with ‘innovation’ in my job title, I will acknowledge it can sometimes be difficult to pin down what this word means when it comes to schools. But after hearing, seeing, and learning how leading districts are focused on preparing future ready students, innovation starts with a crystal clear focus. Virtually every superintendent in the room agreed on a simple premise–it’s not about the devices, content, or products—it’s about our kids. That’s innovatively simple.

Guest Post by:

Mark Ray is Director of Innovation and Library Services in Vancouver Public Schools. He also serves as Future Ready Librarians Lead at the Alliance for Excellent Education. He was 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year and a 2015 National School Boards Association ‘20 to Watch.’ Fun fact: Mark was the NCCE newsletter editor in the mid-90s…when paper still ruled the world. In this digital age, he has written for eSchool News, School Administrator, School Library Journal and currently blogs via Medium at Amalgamated Futures. Twitter: @_teacherx.