These 7 keys are helping one district better prepare its students

In any given third-grade classroom, you can find a student who is reading at a level far beyond their age, and another who is still working on letter recognition. How does a traditional classroom teacher with 25-30 kids manage such a wide range of students? As a district leader, how do I support our teachers and ensure that they are challenging students who are at a higher level while providing struggling students with proper support?

These are the tough questions I asked myself when taking over as superintendent of Maury County Schools in Tennessee in August 2015. Within the first few months, we ditched the old literacy model to adopt a project-based focus; deployed instructional coaches (without hiring anyone); and launched a top-down, district-level approach that quickly gained bottom-up buy-in through school and community support. We also implemented a differentiated literacy program and digital library that measures reading with reading—not quiz scores and points.

Creating the Keys to Success

In my first days as superintendent, I did what I called a “22in22 Tour” where I traveled to all 22 schools in my district in 22 days. I know from experience that the best leaders are the best listeners, so I made sure to take the time to hear what school leaders and classroom teachers had to say about Maury’s administrative approach. I heard loud and clear that there were issues of trust, lack of resources, switching initiatives on a dime, and a need for truly aligned and supportive professional development. That’s when I knew I had to eliminate the top-down approach that the district had taken in the past (and many districts employ) and go through a process to determine our Keys to Success.

Over 10 weeks, my administrative team and I asked every school board member, administrator, teacher, staff member, and parent to answer one simple question: What should students know before leaving elementary school, middle school, and high school? After making my rounds inside our school community, we asked the same question to a wide variety of community organizations including the Rotary, Kiwanis, City Council, NAACP, retired teachers’ association, the County Commission, and over 20 more groups.

  • All students’ reading proficiency at or above grade level by the end of third grade
  • All students’ math proficiency at or above grade level by the end of the fourth grade
  • All students’ Math and English proficiency at or above grade level by the end of sixth grade
  • All students proficient in Algebra 1 by the end of eighth grade
  • All students scoring at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks by graduation
  • All students financially literate by graduation
  • All students participating in advanced placement, dual-enrollment, industry certification, work-based learning, or military prep by graduation.

By generating common goals as a community, we created a level of transparency that was new to Maury County. The Keys created a common vocabulary across the entire community, so everyone was well aware of our mission as a district. For the first time in a long time, this district shifted its focus from state test scores and data to the kids and what they should be able to do to be truly college and/or career ready—the way it should be.

Next page: Putting power in the principals’ hands


6 tips from personalized learning innovators leading change

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island-based Highlander Institute and the Clayton Christensen Institute teamed up to bring together a conference on blended and personalized learning in Providence, R.I.  The goal of the event was to focus on the practical elements of blended and personalized learning by surfacing the tactics that practitioners were deploying in the trenches. More than 100 teachers and leaders from around the country were invited to share their approaches to piloting and scaling blended learning in classrooms and schools, which we summarized in our latest report, From the Frontlines, out this week.

Although our many presenters hailed from a variety of geographies and contexts, one refrain echoed loudly throughout the Providence Convention Center: implementing blended and personalized learning is about managing change. Innovators stressed that without effective change management, the best technology tools and the most elegant personalized learning models will come up short.  Here are six change management strategies that practitioners stressed as vital to driving new models of learning across traditional systems:

1. Embrace not knowing

One tension in managing change across a classroom or an entire district is making the unknown an opportunity rather than a threat. This framing depends on leaders who are willing to make the unknown safe. As Amanda Murphy, a Highlander Institute Fuse Rhode Island Fellow from Westerly Public Schools, put it, managing change across a system is about “supporting the eager, but non-expert.” In part, this requires giving people room to express concerns. “We had faculty volunteers who were interested but didn’t have expertise,” she said. “They talked about why they were nervous, and this helped people understand that there were many others in the same boat. It set the tone that it’s okay not to know. And now they’re asking for help.”

2. Co-design

All too often, new approaches to instruction are designed in isolation from the teachers who will be implementing those approaches. Participants stressed that limiting the number of seats around a blended and personalized learning design table, in turn, limits the level of teacher buy-in to new classroom models. “Leaders have ideas for teachers, but it doesn’t work top-down,” said Julia Rafal-Baer of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit network of state and district education leaders. “Teachers need to be part of the strategic conversation.” Leaders noted that the more teachers are involved in the design process upfront, the more likely they will be to persist and adapt when challenges to implementation inevitably arise.

3. Cultivate early adopters

Many initiatives that participants discussed came from a few early innovators trying new approaches within their systems. Early adopters of blended and personalized can also provide a powerful antidote to top-down directives. For example, Donna Vallese, a former principal at Nowell Leadership Academy, a public charter school in Rhode Island, said she never told teachers they had to use certain tools like Google Classroom. “Instead, it was seeded with early adopters,” she said. “It spread organically from the ground up, and then everyone was doing it.”

4. Open doors

Classrooms can be infamously siloed environments where teachers operate in isolation. Participants noted that for educators pursuing innovative classroom models, breaking down those silos was critical. Tracey Nangle, a teacher in North Smithfield School District in Rhode Island, said that an open-door policy at her middle school helped to shift schoolwide attitudes and culture in favor of collaborative learning. “Teachers are given release time to work as teams and observe classrooms together. It builds respect between colleagues and exposes all of the great work that is happening,” Nangle said.

5. Rethink roles

As schools manage change across their instructional models, the traditional roles that adults play may shift. David Richards of Fraser Public Schools described how his districts’ move to competency-based learning prompted a rethinking not just of teachers’ roles, but also of roles across the schools and ecosystem. “We looked at the positions we had and then abandoned them for the positions we needed,” he said. Similarly, Eric Tucker of Brooklyn Lab Charter School in New York recommended using personalized learning models to move teachers away from the one-size-fits-all role they’ve traditionally played. “Embrace that educators have different skills and strengths,” he said.

6. Make time

Practitioners looking to adopt blended and personalized learning practices stressed that the learning curve is steep and time scarce. Yet, some school leaders are finding creative ways to give teachers and themselves more time for year-round professional growth and for adapting to new tools and techniques. For example, Scott Frauenheim shared how Distinctive Schools created an unprecedented chunk of time for peer-to-peer learning during the school day by working with a scheduling expert to update where time gets allocated each day. “We found 105 minutes of planning and collaboration time by minimizing transitions between classes. This time is helping to prevent burnout and helping teachers learn to let go of what they’ve always done,” he said.

Read the full report: From the Frontlines: Takeaways from the 2016 Blended and Personalized Learning Conference.

Ed note: Are you a teacher or leader spearheading blended and personalized learning in your school system? Learn more about next year’s conference in Providence.


The Friday 4: Your weekly ed-tech rewind

Every Friday, I’ll recap some of the most interesting news and thought-provoking developments from the past week.

I can’t fit all of this week’s news stories here, though, so feel free to browse eSchool News and read up on other news you may have missed.

K-12 innovation is essential if today’s students are to be prepared for college and careers in an increasingly global society. This means educators at all levels must feel supported and empowered as they try new things and explore new instructional possibilities. At the same time, students should feel encouraged to do the same.

Read on for more:

Verizon app idea contest open for middle, high school students
Middle and high school students can win prizes and possibly have their problem-solving smartphone application idea turned into reality by entering the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge.
$1.7M from Gates Foundation aims to improve computer learning
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.7 million grant to Highlander Institute to expand Fuse RI and the EdTechRI Testbed. Fuse RI was launched in 2014 to to help educators blend technology and traditional classroom teaching.
3 ways to make classrooms more interactive
Educators who want to reach students who favor interactive communication know that integrating digital tools into their lesson plans can be an effective strategy, and many have incorporated technology tools into the classroom in one way or another. But to make a real difference, educators have to integrate technology in a meaningful way. It’s not sufficient to just use social media platforms as an alternate communication venue or post schedules on a class Facebook page.
9 ways to improve your district’s digital leadership
The importance of digital learning is, by now, well established. But as schools and classrooms across the nation use digital strategies to engage students and boost achievement, digital leadership has emerged as one of the most important areas in which to invest thought, time and resources.


6 ways teaching is changing for a digital world

Ed. note: In partnership with Lesson Planet, we asked their professional development resource arm, PD Learning Network, for the most popular videos on their site. We’ll be featuring a limited number of these, one a week, each Monday.

Learning to change your teaching practice in today’s digital-first world is a bit like learning a foreign language, to hear ed-tech vet Ann McMullan tell it. “You don’t speak it fluently on the first day. But you pick up one word, two words, three words, and the more you engage and the more you use it, the more  natural it begins to feel.”

McMullan, who is the former executive director of educational technology at Klein ISD in Texas, was responsible for rolling out that district’s massive one-to-one program several years ago. Now an ed-tech consultant, in this video McMullan offers her best tips for innovative teaching in a changing world.

Experiences will differ. When her district first went one-to-one, McMullan was expecting testing scores to flatline, as research predicted. “That was not our case,” she said. “Actually the scores did improve in the first year, and that was in a state where the passing standard was raised every year.” In fact, the most economically disadvantaged students in the district ended up seeing the biggest gains.

Engagement can make a big difference. Technology “is the native language of our students,” McMullan said, adding that when it’s used effectively in the classroom, students will respond to that.  “We do see discipline problem goes down; attendance goes up.”

Embrace the changing role of the teacher. Change is just a part of being a teacher today, and it’s not likely to slow down anytime soon. “The role of the teacher today is very different,” McMullan said. “You have to embrace that. I think change is a part of life.”

Empower yourself. The good news is that change can be empowering for teachers, when they notice the benefits of technology is having on their students. “I would not want to stand in front of a group” and lecture, McMullan said, recalling her time as an eighth-grade teacher.  “So you flip it, and you let the students be your driver.”

Even a little learning can go a long way. McMullan admits that all this change can be overwhelming for teachers. Instead of trying to tackle everything at once, “find one or two things that work for you and work for a friend, and together talk it through.” From there, you can expand your base of knowledge.

Every teacher is capable. When she did professional development for teachers, McMullan noticed that there was a “wall” many teachers had that prevented them from really changing their practice. “You had to hit that wall, but once you got through it — look out!”

For more tips, check out McMullan’s 10 questions to ask before you go one-to-one.


Majority of teachers avoid classroom social media

Eighty-six percent of teachers in a recent survey say they have not incorporated social media into their classrooms, and of those who have not, 62 percent said they have no plans to do so.

A University of Phoenix College of Education survey of more than 1,000 K-12 teachers explores how teachers feel about using social media as an educational resource and the reasoning for why teachers are still reluctant to integrate social media into the classroom.

Just 14 percent of teachers say they use social platforms in the classroom. The reluctance to integrate is due to a number of reasons, teachers said, including possible use issues and student knowledge exceeding teacher knowledge.

Four-in five (81 percent) teachers say they are worried about conflicts that can occur from using social media with students/parents. Nearly 20 percent of teachers say they are intimidated by students’ knowledge/use of technology devices for social networking.

Next page: Would teachers encourage their students to connect with them on social media?


S.C. districts access digital literacy tools for free

To empower students in school districts across South Carolina with digital literacy skills, announced the Palmetto Digital Literacy Program (PDLP), in partnership with the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee and Department of Education.

The initiative will help prepare students for college and career success by offering access to a comprehensive digital literacy skills curriculum and provide teachers and students with assessments that can identify technology challenges.

“The importance of a strong skillset in digital literacy and safety in our modern global society has never been higher,” said South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman. “I look forward to this collaborative partnership and the complementary resources to our current computer science programs that will be provided to students so that they can be successful upon graduation.”

The program, which will launch just in time for the 2016-2017 school year, is funded by the South Carolina Legislature through a digital literacy appropriation. The PDLP will apply best practices related to digital literacy skills for K-12 students, with a particular focus on assisting educators in integrating technology and digital resources into the classroom, while also increasing the digital literacy skills of each student. The program is also designed to support current state initiatives to increase the effectiveness of the use of technology and digital resources at the district and school level.

“Developing digital literacy skills in our students is critical in the workplace of today and tomorrow. To achieve this, we must ensure that all students have equitable access to high quality, digital literacy curriculum as it directly impacts our future economy,” said Keith Oelrich, CEO, “We are incredibly proud of this partnership and look forward to equipping students with the tools they need to build a foundation for future success.”

As part of the initiative, will supply access to EasyTech and Inquiry, two of its most popular digital literacy solutions. EasyTech equips students with such vital skills as keyboarding, word processing, digital citizenship, online safety, computational thinking and coding in addition to media and information literacy skills. Projects in Inquiry guide students through mastery in productivity tools, internet research, multimedia presentations and online communication.

Schools and districts can access these tools by utilizing their membership of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA).

For more information, visit


How teacher voice can improve professional development

One common faculty complaint of professional development is that it doesn’t lead to improvement. Four years ago that was certainly the way many educators felt here in the Farmington Public Schools in central Connecticut. Even though providing engaging professional development is a hard challenge, we were committed to finding ways to make PD more responsive and relevant. Hearing from our teachers that this was a pain point for them strengthened our resolve to act.

How did we know that so many educators felt overlooked by our professional learning efforts? In short, we asked them. At Farmington, we have collected feedback from students, families, teachers and staff using stakeholder surveys for many years. Our goal is to ask questions and gather data in ways that let us use stakeholder voice to influence and impact district work. As assistant superintendent, I regularly visit classrooms and participate in committees with students, faculty, and staff to better understand teaching and learning across the district. We are constantly looking for ways to strengthen partnerships among all stakeholder groups, and surveys are an invaluable source of information that has an influence on district practice.

For our PD survey, we used an online survey and data collection platform called Panorama Education to ask faculty to reflect on this statement: “The professional development I participated in this year helped me improve my practice.” Four years ago, the results showed that too many faculty did not feel like PD helped them improve.

First, we unpacked the question with our Professional Development and Evaluation Committee (PDEC), which includes teachers from every building. By gathering survey data first, we knew where to focus our discussion and our efforts. Together, we discussed: What do we define as good PD? What are we looking for in PD opportunities?

Next, we approached the Board of Education with possible solutions to our professional learning needs. They understood the importance of the ongoing capacity building of our teaching faculty. The Board of Education approved a budget for traveling permanent substitute teachers to enable “just in time” professional development for all teachers. Principals would approve time out of the classroom for teachers to pursue PD aligned with school goals. For example, one department team asked for substitutes so that teachers could get together during the school day to calibrate expectations of student work.

The relative cost of program was low, and the payoff has been significant. We know that anecdotally and from stakeholder surveys. By the end of the year, the percentage of satisfaction for the PD question went up. The next year, it went up again. Over the course of three years, the percentage of favorable responses has grown 35 percent at the secondary level.

After the success of the first year of the PD program, we went back to the Board of Education and asked to add six half-day release days to offer two full hours of PD six times per year. By amplifying teacher voice and working together — with teachers, administrators, and the  board — to find solutions, we have been able to design high quality professional development experiences that are timely and relevant.

How do we know if our new approaches to PD are improving outcomes for students? We certainly look at achievement data. But we also care very much about the kind of engaging learning experiences students have in classrooms every day. Again, the district is focused on developing students as “leaders of their own learning” so we listen to their voices through surveys and focus groups. We ask students to reflect on whether they feel they can make choices about the topics they want to read and learn about. Over the past three years, we have seen an 18 percent increase in favorable responses to that question. Other survey indicators are also pointing to a positive trend toward increased student engagement. Teacher learning has resulted in greater student agency and involvement. Seeing improvement in student perception, we can say that these professional development improvements are being felt by students.

Stakeholder surveys allow us to be strategic about the investment of resources that will have a real impact on learning. In this case, it meant we could use teacher input to improve PD and to determine that we have made real progress with our new initiatives. Now that we have these surveys in place, we won’t ever go back to a time when we don’t have a system for amplifying teacher and student voices and measuring outcomes in the process of continuous improvement.


Marketplace trend update: 5 ed-tech developments

Remaining a tech-savvy educator means keeping on top of the myriad changes and trends in education, how technology can support those trends, and how teaching and learning can best benefit from near-constant change.

Below, we’ve gathered some of the latest and most relevant marketplace news to keep you up-to-date on product developments, teaching and learning initiatives, and new trends in education.
Kids Discover‘s interactive digital library, Kids Discover Online, now includes custom assessment capabilities. Kids Discover Online enables educators to mix and match material from science and social studies to facilitate students’ exploration of big ideas through cross-curricular learning. The newly added Assessments tool gives educators full control to create, distribute, and assess custom quizzes, tests, and homework assignments directly within the platform. Read more.

Education network Edmodo‘s latest professional development program for teachers, Edmodo Envoys, is designed to help teachers find and network with one another at the local level and support each others’ professional development efforts. Edmodo Envoys host a TeachUp in their local area and can meet and exchange ideas with educators in their communities whom they might not otherwise have met. Read more.

High school students taking VHS’ U.S. History courses can now receive college credit at Quincy College. Starting fall of 2016, VHS students can earn college credit from Quincy College for taking online Virtual High School U.S History courses. These online classes are now eligible for transcripted credits, which are transferrable within Massachusetts’ State College and University system. Read more.

Pearson has unveiled the Beta-4, the latest revision of a nonverbal measure of cognitive abilities in adults, originally developed by the U.S. Army during World War I. With today’s Beta-4, clinical psychologists can obtain a quick assessment of adults’ nonverbal intellectual abilities. Read more., in partnership with Thomas Edison State University and Quality Matters, has been selected to participate in the Department of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP). The program will allow low-income students access to financial aid for nontraditional education and training programs through partnerships with select colleges and universities. Read more.


Schools earn national privacy designation

CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) revealed the inaugural set of schools to earn the new Trusted Learning Environment (TLE) Seal.

Butler County (AL) Schools, Cambridge (MA) Public Schools, Denver (CO) Public Schools, Fulton County (GA) Schools, Lewisville (TX) Independent School District, Miami-Dade (FL) County Public Schools, and Raytown (MO) Quality Schools received the TLE Seal for carrying out their commitment to ensure the privacy and security of student data.

“These schools—representing small, large, urban, and suburban communities—have built a culture of trust and transparency. They continue to make these efforts every day while taking advantage of the benefits and promise of technology in modern learning settings,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN.

Selected among nearly 90 school district applicants nationwide, the seven school systems were chosen by CoSN for demonstrating effective practices in each of the following areas:
• Leadership, including managing and collaborating with stakeholders regarding the use and governance of student data to inform instruction.
• Business, including establishing acquisition vetting processes and contracts that, at minimum, address applicable compliance with laws while supporting innovation.
• Data Security, including performing regular audits of data privacy and security practices and publicly detailing these measures.
• Professional Development, including requiring school staff to conduct privacy and security training and offering related resources to all stakeholders in the community.
• Classroom, including implementing educational procedures and processes to ensure transparency while advancing curricular goals.

The schools will be required to maintain their commitment to digital privacy and reapply for the TLE Seal every two years.

“Schools should not just say they are committed to securing a 21st century learning environment. They need to take the steps to do it, and these schools have demonstrated that they’re doing the work,” said Linnette Attai, CoSN Project Director, TLE Seal, and President, PlayWell, LLC.

Developed for all K-12 schools nationwide, the TLE Seal was formed through the input from 28 school system leaders, as well as CoSN and lead partners: AASA, The School Superintendents Association; the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO); and ASCD. Their collective expertise and experiences pinpointed the steps schools should take— beyond regulatory compliance—to help ensure student data privacy and security.