It is becoming an accepted concept that education in the United States needs to change and change fast in order to meet a variety of learning needs of all students and to prepare them for their rapidly changing future. I recently heard a frustrated politician comment, “What will it take to really drive innovation in all of our schools?” For this to occur, the perception and expectations of all students and adults must change.
It is not that we do not know how to change. We know the components needed. The issue is how we bring these changes to scale to reach every student and not just those in selected pilot or specialty schools. We must first have the support of policymakers. As I heard one educator say, “It is the responsibility of policymakers to clear the runway for innovation.” Educators need to know they can set new rules and new applications of the policies, with new definitions of what is best for kids.
Let’s look at examples of school districts in Alabama that have started bringing innovation to scale:
- Real-world, project-based learning meeting the interest of students – The Talladega County School System has changed schools using a project-based learning approach. Students are engaged and enthusiastic about school and their learning. Students from Fort Payne High School recently won second place in the national Real-World Design Team Competition, where they solved an engineering-based problem evident in the world today.
- Personalized, competency-based systems – The Pike Road City School System uses various forms of students’ evidence as they move students through a competency-based learning system. Parents are enthusiastic about the new report cards and their involvement in their child’s learning plan.
- Community involvement – Gulf Shores High School partners with the organizers of various local public events. Students work alongside the adults in the community to help organize events. They also choose from multiple education career pathways, and they have a personalized plan.
- Opportunities for all students – The Baldwin County Virtual School uses the state-provided ACCESS Virtual Learning program to provide learning courses anywhere, anytime to students who otherwise could not take them, and students can choose where they learn.
It is a great time in education with the intersection of learning and technology. Technology alone will not cause innovation in schools, but in today’s world, innovation in schools cannot occur without the successful implementation of technology. We know what it takes to successfully implement technology in schools. Schools throughout the country have done this, but we need to decide how to scale the effort to all schools. We must have the urgency by all parties that this must happen now and not later. Successful implementation does not occur just one piece at a time. This entire process together must include the following:
- Human Capacity – Visionary superintendents and principals are essential. Roanoke City School System leaders set the vision for their redesign using research-proven models, and now they are watching the changes being implemented in all of their classes. Ongoing professional development and instructional support are essential for teachers to successfully change their teaching styles.
- Infrastructure and Devices – It is critical that the tools and connectivity be in place. Schools are developing innovative ways to solve connectivity issues beyond school hours. The Piedmont City School System has worked with providers to provide hot spots throughout its community. School systems across Alabama have successfully implemented one-to-one initiatives.
- Digital Content and Learning Management Systems (LMS) – What students do with the tool is the key. The Florence City School System is taking away the textbooks in certain grades and moving content to its LMS as well as using state-provided ACCESS Virtual Learning content to provide flexibility in student pacing and give students the tools for research, collaboration, and presentations.
The challenges are many, but leaders should focus on doing what is right for students and keeping teachers motivated, focused and supported. Teachers need to know they are supported and should be reminded daily that what they are doing changes lives.
(Dr. Maddox was a panelist and resource expert on digital learning innovation at The Hunt Institute’s December 2016 Holshouser Legislators Retreat: Education for a Stronger North Carolina | Policy, Implementation, and Results.)