Why?

I was in the superintendent’s office last week refining a plan for technology and media in our schools. We had a complicated diagram with circles and arrows and boxes all over it. It started with the district’s strategic vision, and specifically the goals of promoting next generation skills, integrating state of the art technology, and offering quality program options that include STEM. It included the technology plan, which is focused on technology infrastructure, ubiquitous access to technology for students and teachers, and appropriate levels of support for both the operational and instructional needs of the district. It addressed student technology needs (both resources and instruction) at various levels, and the plans for meeting those needs. It tied in our teacher leaders, media specialists, and other professional staff who are responsible for various aspects of the plan.

4603106405_0d83269a23_zAfter working through the diagram for about half an hour, the superintendent took the paper. At the bottom of the diagram, in large block letters, he wrote this:

WHY?

We need technology to do more than test kids. Sure, testing is important. For all of the resources that we devote to public education, for the millions upon millions of dollars spent in schools all across the country, year after year, we should be able to prove that we’re not wasting everyone’s time and money. We should be able to articulate what the learning outcomes should be in each subject at each grade level, and we should be able to demonstrate our effectiveness at getting students to reach those outcomes. Technology plays an important role in the management, instruction, intervention, and assessment of that system.

But it has to go beyond that. Students need to know much more about the technology landscape than their parents do. They have to understand what information literacy looks like in an age of information abundance. It’s not about finding the information anymore. It’s about filtering and evaluating and selecting from multiple sources. It’s about evaluating credibility and giving credit to those whose work you’re building on. Not only are those complicated skills, they’re skills that our students need to be learning in elementary school.

As they learn to navigate in a connected world, our students must embrace the powerful resources of communication and collaboration that have permeated all aspects of their culture. Publication — the sharing of ideas and work with a global audience — is as easy now as consumption. Our students can share their ideas with the world just as easily as they find the ideas of others. They can work together on documents and projects, participate in conversations with full audio and video, and publish their work online in less time than it takes to draw a timeline on poster board.

America’s history is one of innovation. It was our rejection of the rules of war (along with some dumb luck and help from the French) that won our independence. In the 20th century, we innovated our way to victory through the use of air power in the first world war, and the use of nuclear weapons in the second war. The industrial revolution made the American dream a reality for millions of our families. Post-war advances in chemistry, medicine, and technology ensured our status as the last standing superpower for the remainder of the century. As other countries caught up in manufacturing and industry, we innovated by moving to service and technology sectors.

We are facing huge challenges in the decades to come. In many respects, we have been over-spending our resources to maintain our standard of living for quite a while now, and the short-sighted economic decisions of our parents are coming back to haunt us. At the same time, the aging boomers’ need for health care and the rising costs of that care are unprecedented. In the last years of her life, my grandmother paid more per month for her assisted living than she paid for her house. Climate change is very real, and the shortcuts we’ve taken in the name of progress are starting to have disastrous and irreversible impacts on the global environment. Job prospects for today’s youth are unclear, as many of the jobs of my parents’ generation have been eliminated by automation and cheaper labor forces overseas.

Our kids have a lot of work to do. They need to leave school prepared to meet these challenges. And the challenges are much more complicated than answering multiple choice questions that measure their ability to recall information. Education isn’t just about knowing anymore. It’s about applying the “know” to challenges in the “now.”

 

Photo credit: Veerle Pieters, photo by Marc Thiele on Flickr.

 

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What a Ride

The quote of the year came from teacher Tom Mulhall as he emceed our annual retirement celebration. “Never before have so many been so envious of so few.” It’s an exciting and difficult time in education. In many ways, this was both the best and the worst year we’ve had in a long time. Here are some of the highlights:

The Attack Continues. Public schools are a failure. The United States is falling behind. Despite the best test-prep programs our government can dream up, we can’t keep up. It doesn’t matter that poverty is the real problem, or that we insist on educating (and testing) 100% of the population, or that our students are in school fewer, shorter days than students in any other industrialized country. It’s the lazy, complacent, ineffective teachers and school leaders that are causing the problem. And yet…

Schools Don’t Suck Enough. The state of Ohio is changing the formula it uses to grade schools. Currently, it uses the Local Report Card, which rates each school on student test scores, attendance, and graduation rate, and then throws in some factors like Value-Added to ensure that each student is improving, and Adequate Yearly Progress to ensure that subgroups based on gender, race, and other factors aren’t being left behind. In this system, the school district in which I work has received top marks since the program began 13 years ago. But a new system is in the works that changes the formula. The result? Under the current formula, 352 schools are rated “Excellent” or “Excellent with Distinction.” With the new rules, only 31 districts would receive an “A” or “A-“.  If the governor’s office can continue making the case that our schools are awful, he can continue to push his privatization agenda. Meanwhile…

Teachers are Taking it in the Shorts. Locally, negotiations with the employee unions have been more contentious than anyone can remember. The conversation isn’t about pay raise versus pay cut. It’s about pay cut versus bigger pay cut, with increased health care costs and worse coverage as an added bonus. This all comes after four rounds of staffing cuts that left everyone with more work to do and fewer resources to do it with, and a current contract that included an absolute salary freeze and increased health care costs. On the board’s side, the financial outlook is bleak, with declining revenue and a depressing gauntlet of levy campaigns in our future. And at the same time, we need…

more More MORE (less). Whenever resources are scarce, we turn to technology to pick up the productivity slack. So we’re doing more things with technology that are critical to the operation of the school. And we’re using more technology for instruction, too. In the last eight years, we’ve doubled the technology we’re using in our school district. In the next three years, we’re going to double it again. And all of this technology is critical. If the POS system breaks, we can’t serve lunch. If a projector bulb burns out, teachers wander the halls with their classes looking for an empty classroom with a working projector. But so far, we haven’t seen more staff, and the attitude is still that we need to be reducing staff overhead.

So the year hasn’t be a great one. But on the other hand:

We’re finally blending. It was 1993 when I started using the Internet to take class discussions beyond the limits of the time and space inherent in the school bell schedule. I’ve been a strong advocate of pushing teaching and learning online as long as I’ve been in this profession. We’ve been running Moodle now for eight years, but it hasn’t really had much traction with our teachers. Now, people are starting to take notice of the benefits of online learning tools. Part of this has to do with the current obsession with “flipping the classroom,” the success of which entirely depends on how the regained classroom time is spent. Another piece comes from the state government, which believes we can outsource “education” to online providers and save millions of dollars. But all of this talk about these technology tools has teachers exploring the possibilities for teaching and learning online, and that’s going to ultimately benefit students. At the same time…

We’re talking NextGen. I started using the terms “Next Generation Skills” and “NextGen Learning” because “21st Century Skills” has become so diluted that it no longer has any meaning. Earlier this year, I started a NextGen Blog, and we have had lots of discussions at all levels of our school community on the future of education, the roles of student and teacher, the effect of technology on teaching and learning, the use of personal learning networks, and all kinds of “big picture” topics related to education. I like to think that the discussions themselves are causing teachers, parents, administrators, and community members to re-imagine what our schools should be. This has led to…

Planning for 1:1. It’s becoming increasingly clear that technology is moving from places to people. That happened with phones first. My kids don’t remember a time when phones were tied to places. Every person has a phone. Computers are the same way. We’re finally seriously talking about getting rid of computer labs and dedicated classroom computers and just giving a device to each person. It’s going to take a  long time to get there. We’ll be using classroom sets of netbooks in some classrooms next year. We’re planning to start issuing laptops to teachers in 2013. We have a whole lot of infrastructure challenges to overcome, but for the first time, this is seriously on the table and not just a pipe dream. Meanwhile…

I hosted an EdCamp. I did a conference presentation in 2008 on the power of learning networks. I’m finally at the point where some of those ideas are starting to take root in my own schools. Last week, our school hosted the first EdCamp Cleveland, and we had teachers, administrators, and others interested in education all making connections and discussing important issues in education. I think we’ll be seeing more events like this in the future, and probably some changes in how we approach professional development as well.

So the year hasn’t been all bad. But it has been exhausting. Now it’s time to step away for a while. It’s time to re-charge the batteries, figure out where we are, and determine how we’re going to face the next part of the journey.

Photo Credit: Ben Spark on Flickr.