Supporting the Mission

“We’re an educational organization. Learning is the heart of everything we do.” I was talking to my staff, explaining the purpose behind the TPS reports they’re required to complete each week. “We need to take a few minutes at the end of the week to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, what has challenged us, and what we have learned. If we’re not learning, we’re not growing.” They all agreed.

I think we often lose our sense of purpose as we’re pulled from one crisis to another. It’s easy to get lost in the quagmires of school funding and teacher evaluations and test scores and busing and cafeteria duty. We’re constantly being told how to do our jobs better while constantly being berated for over-spending and under-performing. It doesn’t matter that the critics don’t have any idea what they’re talking about, or that the countries we’re desperately trying to emulate are desperately trying to emulate us. We’re teachers. That’s what we do. We educate kids. And by educate, I mean more than just imparting information. We teach them to think, to communicate, to work together, and to take care of their society and their world.

But we get lost. Sometimes, it’s important to reflect on the things that aren’t important. I don’t care about food service, for example. It’s a necessary part of what we do, sure. We need to feed people. And it’s my opinion that our current food service staff is the best I’ve ever worked with. They provide an outstanding, nutritious product and are completely self-funded. But that’s not what our core mission is. The same is true for transportation. We need our kids to be in school so we can teach them. One good way to do that is to go to their houses and get them. We have a great transportation department that efficiently and safely transports thousands of kids to and from school every day. But we’re not here to move kids around. We’re here to teach them.

I could go right down the line. Transparency and fiscal accountability. Maintenance of buildings and grounds. Hiring and evaluating staff. They’re all important, sure. But they’re not the core of what we do.

146842557_616ec91d05[1]And then there’s technology. There’s technology to operate the school district. There’s technology to prepare and deliver instruction. There’s technology in the hands of the student used as a learning tool. Some of this is essential. Some of it isn’t. Web site? Probably not important. Running a mail server? Doesn’t really affect student learning. Wireless network? Maybe essential to support learning, but ancillary to what we really do.

Am I arguing myself out of a job? Maybe. But interestingly, most of the things we tend to outsource ARE the core things we’re supposed to be doing. Let’s find an online academy for credit recovery. Let’s look for an automated intervention problem. We don’t have enough students for Calculus BC, so why don’t we see if there’s an online option for those students?

In general, I’m very skeptical of services that take care of the core of our business. Maybe I’ve learned from IBM. When they introduced the PC in 1981, they outsourced the hardware to Intel, and the software to Microsoft. IBM itself became irrelevant. A generation later, Intel and Microsoft are still going strong, but IBM has been out of the personal computer business for more than a decade. If we outsource the teaching of kids, we’re gambling with our own relevance. If we send the students to Khan Academy to learn math, and Florida Virtual to learn English, and an MIT or Stanford online course for physics, then it won’t be long before people start wondering why we’re here. They’ll just go to those places themselves and cut out the middle man.

That’s the lens through which I took my first view of iLearn Ohio. It was hatched a couple years ago by the Office of 21st Century Education, an entity separate from the Ohio Department of Education, created to show Ohio schools how they can save truckloads of money by outsourcing teaching to private companies. The first version of iLearn Ohio was a clearinghouse for online courses. Providers — including most of the online charters in Ohio — could offer online courses through the site. Public schools could then go there and find appropriate coursework to fit any student’s needs, sign the kids up, and license the course. The courses were certainly cheaper than what it would cost to hire a teacher, find a classroom, purchase materials, and offer the class locally. And, of course, I was completely against it.

That’s why I didn’t pay much attention when the state re-launched iLearn Ohio last winter. Great. It’s just another way to privatize public education in a bold attempt to divert public education money to private companies. I was surprised to see a demo of it at a meeting last month. The clearinghouse is still there. But now, it’s a learning management system. In the full-featured LMS, teachers can create and deliver courses. It integrates with our student records system and with our Google Apps domain, so accounts can be automatically created, and students can automatically be assigned to courses. Teachers can bring open resources into their classes, develop their own content, or integrate resources from partner organizations (for a fee). Students can take assessments and turn in work online. There’s the capacity for an internal messaging system and online discussions. And, the tool is free for Ohio public schools.

This is different. This is no longer outsourcing the core mission. This is a tool that could potentially replace our Moodle server, which has been a source of frustration for teachers, students, and (especially) me for the last few years. If I don’t have to support a local server running an LMS, I can focus on other, more important things.

I asked a few teachers, including our integration specialist and our STEM coach, to take a look. We attended another demo, and they had lots of questions. It seems like there are many things the tool doesn’t do yet, but the developers are open to suggestions for improvements. They were also very up-front about what can and cannot be done right now.

So we’re going to try it. We’ll meet with them again, and try to set up a pilot. We’ll get a few teachers to try it out, including teachers who are currently using Moodle and some who have never waded into the blended learning pool. And we’ll see how it goes.

If this tool can help us avoid some of the distractions, while making it easier to focus on our core mission, it’s well worth the effort.

Photo credit: JISC_Infonet on Flickr

The Global Citizen

I’m a Partridge Highlander. I live in the Partridge Highlands subdivision, precinct 2-H of ward 2 in the city of Stow. So I guess I’m a Stowite. And since Stow is a city in county Summit in the state of Ohio, that makes me a Summitian (?!) and an Ohioan, though we sometimes call ourselves “Buckeyes.”

flagsOur sworn enemies, here in Partridge Highlands, are the residents of the Quail Hollow allotment over in precinct 2-E. Life over there is… different. Their streets are paved with asphalt, not concrete. The sidewalks are twelve feet from the curb instead of ten. Their Christmas decorations are too gaudy. Their landscaping is too pretentious.

We don’t really have a lot in common. But compared to those crazy people in Hudson or Cuyahoga Falls or Kent, we’re practically brothers. We share common schools, city infrastructures, and services. We use the same post office and library. We shop in the same places.

The same is true if we widen the context. Those crazy people in Hudson and Cuyahoga Falls and Kent are not so crazy after all compared to the Wolverine-loving residents of Michigan, where you have to pay a deposit on soda cans, it’s legal for 12-year-olds to own handguns, and they don’t even have a state rock song.

My community is defined by the terms with which I describe it. Moving beyond geography, I can call myself an educational technologist. But as soon as I do that, I’ve excluded all the people who are interested and actively engaged in education who may not accept technology as the means to achieve academic goals. If I get specific and say I’m a blogger, or a Twitterer, or a Facebooker, I can connect with the people who use those tools, but at the same time, I’m choosing to not connect with those who don’t.

The nice thing is that we have the concept of plurality. I can be more than one thing at a time. So I can be a blogger and (theoretically) a webcaster at the same time. I can be a brewer and a musician. I can be a father and a son. I can be a Partridge Highlander and an Ohioan.

In 2007, my school district adopted a new mission statement as part of its strategic plan:

The mission of the Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District is to inspire and prepare students to be lifelong learners, to be flexible in approaching opportunities for growth, and to be effective as well as ethical contributors to our global society.

As we work through the revision of the strategic plan this year, some have raised objections to that last phrase. We don’t want our students to be contributors to our global society. We want our children to be Americans first. Why should they contribute to the global society? Why should they be helping the Chinese and the Indians steal American jobs? Why should they be improving living conditions in Africa when so many Americans are living in poverty?

We have a responsibility to our communities. We protect them. We nurture them. We learn from them. We benefit from our participation in them. But when we narrowly define them, we end up with an unhealthy homogeneity. Quail Hollow is not any better or worse than Partridge Highlands, just like Summit County is not any better or worse than Portage. And the more we engage with people from those other communities, the more we can learn from one another and benefit from our common experience.

So, yes. We can be Americans. Our students can be “ethical contributors to our American society.” But that doesn’t mean they’re not global citizens, too. And they’re going to be much better off if we don’t restrict their frame of reference to the United States.

Photo Credit: Enric Archivell on Flickr