Looking for Lasting Change? Start Talking to Other Departments.
In many K-12 districts, the IT department establishes the technology, the curriculum department develops the instructional methodologies and most of the physical classroom components are either leftover from the 1970s or purchased and implemented without a plan of deployment with the instructional teams that will use them.
It’s true that some schools have successfully broken down the dividing walls separating these departments, but the phrase “never the twain shall meet” still holds true for many school districts where the IT, curriculum and facilities departments struggle to act in an integrated way.
As a result, teachers have been asked to engage many new initiatives or make changes to their current practices, which are sometimes misaligned with other ongoing directives. The regularity of new initiative churn that teachers face every year leads to increasing resistance to each new idea. Schools that don’t break out of this stalemate face significant challenges in their quest to innovate they way they educate today’s learners. Here are three obstacles that your own district has probably grappled with—or is currently trying to overcome:
The competition is heating up while student engagement is waning. Take a peek in your rearview mirror and you might fondly remember a time when all public schools enjoyed a steady stream of new students (and the funding to fully support those pupils). Today, the number of competitive options competing for students expands every year—from charter schools to online classes to homeschooling. We’re seeing more of a “consumerized” mentality on the part of parents, who expect an engaging, productive educational experience for their children. Unfortunately, the levels of student engagement begin to drop significantly at the middle-school level and trend downward throughout high school.
Our physical schools are old and only getting older. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about one-fourth (28 percent) of all public schools were built before 1950, and 45 percent of all public schools were built between 1950 and 1969. Seventeen percent of public schools were built between 1970 and 1984, and 10 percent were built after 1985. “The increase in the construction of schools between 1950 and 1969 corresponds to the years during which the Baby Boomer generation was going to school.”
Technology and choice are enabling a more “humanized” learning experience for students. Instead of just attending classes at a single school on a daily basis, high school students may visit one campus for their STEM classes in the morning and then learn to play the violin at a fine arts academy the same afternoon. Successfully tailoring the educational experience for that student who loves both science and the arts isn’t always easy, but it’s very necessary in today’s educational environment.
Needless to say, each of these challenges does not exist in isolation, and finding solutions requires involvement from a broad swath of educators and support staff.
How One District Connected the Dots
Several years ago, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF) in Sarasota approached Florida’s Sarasota County Schools, wanting to help the district think differently than it had in the past. Namely, the foundation wanted to help get kids engaged in STEM careers and linking enhanced classroom experiences through real-world business and community involvement.
GCCF originally set aside a $100,000 STEM-Smart grant to meet the specific program objectives. As part of that mission, Sarasota County Schools would not only need a way to get more students interested in STEM careers, but it would also have to create an environment where pupils could get more collaborative, integrate sophisticated technology and become team-oriented as they learned.
First, the district identified the various types of experiences students needed, and then worked with a cross-functional team of facility, technology and third-party education professionals to design lesson frameworks around those very skills and outcomes. Then, the district began to experiment with engaging pupils in authentic inquiry around essential questions.
Working in a technology-rich environment where a group of four students are clustered around a touchscreen monitor, for example, science teachers could show pupils how to collect, assess and manipulate real-time data as a team. Groups of students collect the data, look at the problems that they’re trying to solve and come up with solutions as a team. As it turns out, this program sparked real interest from the local biotech industry’s need for more professionals who could effectively analyze and assess information, collaborate with one another and make good decisions based on that data.
Formative assessments were the final piece of the puzzle for Sarasota’s middle schools, which moved away from exclusively using summative assessments to view the quality of learning. Now, instructors can ensure that students are engaging rigorous academic discourse in appropriate ways and become a partner in helping pupils address “thinking” errors and/or work through other issues related to the course content and the collaborative tasks.
Today, Sarasota County Public Schools stands as one of the models in the U.S. where a district made an entire system change despite the conditions and challenges that it—and most other districts nationwide—are dealing with. They were able to show what student engagement looks like in the learning environment and effectively leverage it to improve outcomes.
It Starts with a Strong Coalition
Districts that want to emulate the Sarasota school district’s model can start by building a strong coalition of champions for the cause. In a system that’s designed to kill outliers simply because their ideas may be highly individual and not obviously applicable across the board, this step can be harder than it sounds. However, by first framing the effort internally, and then finding outside support for it, districts can get everyone on the same page and working toward the same goal.
Having worked with hundreds of educators, district leaders, and thought leaders in education over the last 17 years, I can tell you that when you make school design a collaborative effort, the end results are much more positive. That’s because design must, first and foremost, begin with questions like:
- What kind of learning experiences are we trying to create here?
- What do we value and how are we going to ensure our teachers are aligned with these values?
- How are we going to deliver a planned, progressive, and programmatic approach to innovation in our learning ecosystem?
Factor current and future careers and skill sets into the equation at this point, and think about the hard and soft skills that students will need to succeed in the 21st century workforce. Collaboration and teamwork, for example, are both highly coveted by today’s employers, so ask yourself this: What can we do within the school environment to help cultivate those types of skills?