Building Innovation Ecosystems to Reinvent School

By Rosie Clayton.

This post was originally published on Medium.

It feels like a crazily long time now since my adventures across the USA last autumn, in which I looked at trends in school design and edu innovation. Over the last 4 months—as well as getting stuck into new projects in the UK—I’ve been synthesizing all my learning from the vast array of conversations and observations during those 7 weeks into a detailed paper which has now been published by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

You can read my full report, Building Innovation Ecosystems in Education to Reinvent School, here: http://www.wcmt.org.uk/sites/default/files/report-documents/Clayton%20R%20Report%202016%20Final.pdf

I decided to focus my findings on three key areas of edu innovation/system change:

  • new models of school which are transforming outcomes for young people,
  • the emergence of ‘innovation ecosystems’ in education which are enabling the development of new school models, building capacity across the system and scaling practice, and
  • new technologies which are powering change.

Here is a brief synopsis of the full study:

In looking at how schools are changing their approaches to teaching and learning there were a number of core concepts which seemed central to emerging trends, and particularly the move towards deeper and more student-driven learning models…

It was really inspiring to see how these concepts and values are being exemplified in practice in a number of schools which I visited, and the full report includes detailed case studies from Calumet New Tech High School, Big Picture Learning schools, Nola Micro School, Bergen Tech and Brooklyn Lab School.

From my perspective as a UK practitioner, I was keen to understand why and how this change is occurring, and particularly the mechanics and conditions for change at a systemic level. Prior to the trip, I had been drawn to the idea of innovation ecosystems, often used in an economic development context to describe an interconnecting web of relationships, behaviors and practices which facilitate and fuel business innovation.

Applying this thinking to the education sphere I looked at…

…in my mind innovation ecosystems look something like this!

Building on Tom Vander Ark’s compilation of insights into innovation ecosystems in Smart Cities, I explored what I came to see as school, locality and network based ecosystems—thinking about wider places and spaces which spark collective innovation—as well as the catalysts & intermediaries which connect ecosystems, organizations and people, and build innovation pathways.

These collaborative and dynamic systems had a number of operating characteristics…

I hope that this frame provides a useful conceptual tool for thinking about educational change networks, and their underpinning conditions, values and drivers.

I was also interested in the role of technologies in all this — and especially how tech tools are supporting the development and embedding of new approaches to learning, deeper learning, the reframing of value systems, and building student and teacher agency…

The most potent tools I saw in action included platform networks, particularly as systems for scaling practice, and digital badges, which are challenging assessment and value systems around what counts as learning, and providing a medium for measuring and documenting a broader range of attainment/achievement outcomes. Since being back in the UK I’ve started working on a couple of projects to develop the potential of digital badges and credentials here, with the RSA, and the weareopen crew.

I also had a bit of a look at the application of VR and AR in education, covered in more depth in this post.

And briefly touched on here, too.

This is just a very brief snapshot of important learning points from my Fellowship, covered in much more detail in the full report which includes an overview of the political and policy context as well as conclusions, recommendations, and areas for future thinking and exploration.

I hope that the report provides a knowledge base of insights and ideas for both UK and US educationalists interested in school design, innovation in education and systems thinking. And for UK colleagues especially a springboard in questioning prevailing assumptions and provoking discussion and debate about the future of education.

And I’d love to know what people think of my findings, thoughts and ideas, either in comments to this post, or via Twitter or email.

For more from Rosie, see:

Rosie Clayton is a freelance consultant currently working across education, tech, school and network design in the U.K. Follow her on Twitter: 


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Personalizing Professional Development For Educators

I was recently on the train going from Albany to Buffalo when it struck me—what’s wrong with our professional development model for teachers today is the same thing that has kept the train market from taking hold—it takes too long, it isn’t glamorous, the schedule doesn’t work with my travel plans and sometimes it just doesn’t stop where I need it too!

The modality for professional development remains, for the most part: sit in a workshop, hope you understand what is being presented, take it back to your school or classroom and MAKE IT HAPPEN.

We know the research around learning tells us that “one shot professional development” does not change instructional practices. However, the economies of scale tell us that if we pay someone once and have them present the solution to many, the possibility that it might stick with a few of the attendees is at least possible. The problem with that is the few who do take it back and try to utilize it often have to do more research on the strategy, find their own support for the work and then implement trial and error in order to get it to work.

The premise of andragogy (adult learning theory) tells us that adults want to have professional development opportunities that work for their individual learning styles, delivered in a timely fashion, fully supported in the implementation of the learning and not in a “one shot” approach. But the professional learning system of schools just can’t seem to figure out what to do differently.

I often believe that is because our system of professional development in education is driven by compliance learning, not meeting the professional learning needs of educators. Of course there is a place for those mandatory compliance-related workshops. Yet, that shouldn’t be our model of practice if we are really committed to changing instructional practices in schools.

Enter the world of personalized learning for educators. What if you were able to fill out a planning tool and identify your needs, based perhaps off of your evaluation, but also driven by your interests and needs in the classrooms?

What if you could define your own professional learning plan for the next 24 months, participate in work that makes sense to you along the way, and have full support in your learning by coaches/mentors and a strong professional learning community of like-minded educators?

In the end, you will have had the chance to implement learning in a gradual fashion, and move through the hierarchy of learning while implementing your plan. Isn’t this what we all know really works? So, why can’t we make it happen?

We can make it happen. We just have to start saying NO to bringing in a speaker on the topic of the year who will tell us all about what they know, and then we never see or hear from them again. We need to engage with professional learning providers (including our own staff, who also have skills and expertise to share) and make a plan that allows for the personalization of learning for educators. Here are some suggestions of what to include in this plan based on my experience:

  1. Time commitments (we all deal with contract language)
  2. Caps on costs per teacher
  3. Mechanism for reporting what was learned and how it will change or enhance pedagogical practices in the classroom
  4. Certificates of completion from the providers
  5. Review of the plans at the end of each year and setting of new plans for the following year

In addition, here are a few personalized learning PD resources and articles to support plan development:

It is so hard to change a paradigm, but if we never start, we won’t ever make it happen. What if the train left when I needed it to, stopped at the actual place I wanted it to and ran on time? Oh wait, that would be driving my own car—never mind. But you get the idea!

For more, see:

Dr. Margy Jones-Carey is an Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Educational Leadership Program at St. Bonaventure University. Follow her on Twitter: @DrMargy


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Helping Students Learn to Love Math Through Science

By Robyn LaTorre

“Math sucks.”

“Why are we learning physics? We are only freshmen!”

“This is too hard. My sister never even had physics and she graduated and is at college.”

Students’ words of despair fill my September, as my freshmen get back into the groove of school and begin learning the routine of high school. I explain, “Gone are the days of rote memorization. We have to expand your minds to think past what you can recall and into formulating your own thoughts and experiences.” This notion is immediately bucked with “I wanna go back to eighth grade; high school is too hard!” This may just prove to be my hardest year yet.

Being a teacher in 2017 is much different than being a teacher just a decade ago. Teachers have a number of daily responsibilities to improve lessons. They must reach every learner, assess for understanding every day, group according to ability, reteach, enrich, remediate and repeat. Plus the regular responsibilities required of teaching such as lesson plans, formative assessments, grading, item analysis of high stakes testing, Lexile reports and how to integrate strategies for reading, calling home and dealing with interpersonal issues amongst teens. And let’s not forget trying to further your learning through advanced degrees, to have a social life or to care for a family. A teacher’s responsibilities seem never-ending, and it’s exhausting.

Reaching today’s teen learners requires as much innovation and variation as their daily lives, which are filled with technology, blurbs of information, mini videos used to entice, excite and sell products. How are we as teachers supposed to compete with that? So, of course, when new curriculums, acronyms and programs flood the school’s professional development scene each new school year, they are very rarely greeted with optimism from teachers.

A Powerful New Approach to Teaching High School Science

This is my sixth year at Pleasantville High School (PHS), where we have a semester block schedule system. In this time I have taught nine math subjects, so I know where the math starts and where it goes next, giving my students an opportunity to branch from the past or leap forward to the future.

This year we started a new initiative from the nonprofit New Jersey Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL), where the science sequence for high school students is completely flipped. Freshmen take Algebra-Based Physics where we look at physics in one dimension, with a goal to reinforce students’ algebra skills. Students take Chemistry as sophomores and Biology as juniors because biology isn’t truly understood without a grasp on how the world works (Physics) and how those pieces interact (Chemistry). I am an eternal optimist, so I jumped right into the opportunity to change how our students learn.

Beginning in January 2016, I joined a cohort of 10 teachers from different schools in Atlantic County to begin CTL’s certification process to become physics certified. This is necessary, as most people with physics degrees do not go into teaching, and therefore physics teachers are in short supply. Teaching physics after learning algebra-based physics over six months, was an intimidating task. But because I am a math teacher and have a math degree, the concepts were easy and I had experience with where students would struggle mathematically. I was excited for the challenge.

PHS has a high population of historically underserved students — ninety-eight percent of the student population is African-American or Latino — and requires research-based instructional practices in order to close the achievement gap. CTL’s program offers this as well as free, editable curriculum and lessons for Algebra-Based Physics, tests, quizzes and labs that are a mix of inquiry-based and guided learning, depending on the level of your students’ abilities. This allowed me, as someone who had just learned the content, to focus on lesson concepts and how to relate it to algebra classes.

Customizing the Learning Experience for My Own Classroom

Our school also opted to purchase responders (hand-held devices students can use to answer presentation questions and get real-time feedback) which were recommended for formative assessments. However, I quickly realized that my students didn’t really care to answer this way, so I found some different options as well as supplemental online learning:

  • I took the presentations and loaded the multiple-choice questions into Kahoot! and the open-ended questions in Peardeck.com, and had my students respond formatively that way. Through Peardeck, students can read and practice the concepts in the presentation by answering questions or drawing diagrams.
  • I use QuizletLive, which I find to be the best program for engaging students through interactive games. It allows them to collaborate as a group to master vocabulary, match formulas and review definitions. The students love it and it allows their conversations and competitive nature to thrive!
  • Science360.gov helps students visualize concepts through sports and experiments.
  • DudePerfect and PhysicsGirl on YouTube.com get students excited about learning different topics.

Now that PHS has adopted a Google platform, every student in our freshman has their own device utilizing Google ChromeBooks, so learning from these resources has become easier and faster to access.

“This is so easy.”

“Now I get it.”

“Here, I’ll show you!”

“Oh, so y=mx+b is really just like V=Vi +at, except the physics equation is real life?”

These are the sentences stated in my classroom now. The confidence and “I’ll do it myself” attitude has become infectious throughout. In looking toward the future of CTL curriculum in my classroom, I am excited to move to a paperless platform. Students will be encouraged to learn at the own pace utilizing Peardeck.com, and ask questions as needed, becoming leaders of their own learning. I will facilitate their conversations, discussions, problem-solving strategies and critical thinking skills, but ultimately supply the tools necessary for autonomous learning. CTL also affords me an opportunity, along with physics certification, to achieve my Masters in Curriculum & Instruction with a concentration in STEM. This not only advances my education, but also propels me toward my ultimate goal of being a STEM coach for a district. I am passionate about education and the next generation of learning. Being a guiding force and a pioneer in education is my life’s goal.

If you have any questions, comments, concerns or collaborative ideas to share, please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

For more, see:

Robyn LaTorre is a teacher at Pleasantville High School.


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To Design Deep Learning, Look to Enrichment and its Ancient Wisdom

By Jeff Wetzler

Several years ago, Aylon Samouha—who co-leads Transcend with me—and I began working with Achievement First on their “Greenfield” school model, which was a “blank slate” R&D process that employed both user-centered and evidence-driven design methods to reimagine k-8 schooling in a way that would prepare A.F.’s scholars for long-term success in college and life (more detail can be found in this case study from year 1 of the pilot).

Early in the process, we all felt strongly that a key learning outcome should be “excellence in enrichment,”—i.e., the opportunity to deeply pursue mastery in a non-academic arena, such as dance, martial arts, performance music, etc. This goal mattered for several reasons: First, enrichment is an often-overlooked aspect of the opportunity gap between affluent and lower-income children. Second, enrichment can be highly valuable in life and for appreciating the world. Third, the act of deep practice to master challenging skills is a great way to develop social and emotional habits.

The same time our team was exploring which enrichment areas to include, coincidentally, my own children—Jacob and Eden—were taking martial arts. Last month, Jacob wrote a 5th-grade essay about the day he took his black belt test. Some highlights included:

“I had seen so many role models I wanted to be like. I wanted to be a black belt, not wear a black belt, to earn one not get one.”

Describing the pressures of the test: “Hard things are just obstacles. They cannot stop us; they can just delay us.”

Regarding sparring: “This is the part when you fight as if it is real, when you have courage. Think about this; you can’t have courage unless you have fear.”

Lastly: “I can stay alive during an eight-hour test, but also I knew that in real life I could use those skills to defend myself…the experience told me that I was mentally strong, because I could remember all those skills. I will treasure that day for the rest of my life.”

Of course, everything I write is clouded by my fatherly pride, so I’m not exactly an objective observer. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to dissect the secret sauce in karate’s power as a developmental crucible. I see seven ingredients:

1) There is authentic adversity to overcome.  My children come home from karate sore, sometimes bruised, and always tired.  The physical risks of karate can only be overcome through focus, concentration, sustained practice, and persistence. These vital habits are honed every time my kids set foot in the dojo.

2) The mastery-based environment is hugely motivating.  Karate students only advance to the next belt level when they have proven they are ready, and they advance at different rates depending on their progress—not based on age or time in the program. They are in class with people older and younger than them, and they realize age is not the determinant. Rather, they see a direct correlation between how hard they practice and how fast they advance.

3) Character is explicitly taught and applied in the context of the work.  Jacob is constantly being taught things like, “there is no courage without fear,” or “when you win you celebrate, when you lose you evaluate,” or “a black belt is a white belt who never gave up.” In a recent tournament, Shihan (the head-teacher) pointed out that winning happens when learners step into the “danger zone,” not when they stay protected in the “safety zone.” These are not just abstract lectures but are directly connected to the immediate challenges at hand, which makes them more likely to be internalized and applied later.

4) The environment is communal with a high sense of belonging. While karate may seem like an individual sport, it is actually highly communal. Our kids feel a sense of belonging at the dojo&mdashso much so that they asked to volunteer in classes for kids of lower belts. Recently, when Eden had a friendship challenge at school, she sought out advice from Shihan, who took great interest and offered sage counsel. The dojo feels like another home to my children, and that sense of belonging creates a vital container in which they can push themselves, take risks, fail, and keep trying.

5) Testing is meaningful. Jacob begins his essay by saying, “Something happens when you are about to take a test; you feel nervous. Some people think nervous is bad. I think it is good.” The test caused Jacob to focus, prepare, practice, and persist through the anxiety that comes with the high-stakes moments that life throws our way. However, the test also felt engaging and authentic — it was clear to Jacob why he needed to do what the test required to demonstrate his mastery.

6) The learning is culturally grounded. Karate emanates from eastern traditions, and the children learn to appreciate the value and beauty in its authentic origins. Everything from the using terms in Japanese to sounds and breathing and physical movements such as bowing helps children appreciate not only the ancient roots but the non-Western cultural grounding of Karate. This situates their learning in a temporal and cultural landscape that is far bigger than their current community — it expands their horizons and enriches their worldview.

7) Teachers are deeply honored. Senseis” are experts in karate, having spent decades honing their craft. They demonstrate, model, teach, coach, counsel, push, challenge, redirect and celebrate with students. They have differentiated roles and developmental pathways – there are lead teachers and apprentices at different levels. And they are shown the respect they deserve – students are instructed to address them as “sir” / “ma’am” and to show honor through courtesy bows.

These seven features may have seen their peak thousands of years ago, but they still have enormous relevance for learning design today. How many of these features are truly present in mainstream K-12 schooling today?

Many have been present for decades in “enrichment”—whether martial arts, orchestra, debate, basketball, or any number of activities that are not front-and-center when we talk about “school”—but all too often, this domain of mastery takes a back seat when we think about school design. Yet, it helps children ignite passion, cultivate confidence, build growth mindset, and foster so many positive SEL skills and life habits. For Jacob and Eden, their experience in karate is shaping their identities and senses of self far more than any other aspect of their education—at least for now.

For more, see:

Jeff Wetzler is co-founder of Transcend, an R&D non-profit whose mission is to accelerate innovation in the core design of “schooling.”  Follow him on Twitter @jeffreywetzler.


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The Myth of the College Dropout

This post was originally published at theconversation.com.

When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was asked to give this year’s commencement address at Harvard, he asked for advice from Bill Gates.

Zuckerberg said, “They know we didn’t actually graduate, right?”

To which Gates replied, “Oh, that is the best part! They actually give you a degree!”

This recent exchange between two famous Harvard dropouts might lead you to think college doesn’t matter. Numerous media stories and even famous billionaires are glamorizing dropouts or encouraging kids to skip college entirely.

While it’s true there are successful college dropouts, statistically speaking, they are not the norm. As researchers in education and talent, we found that the vast majority of the country’s success stories are college graduates, such as Sheryl Sandberg (Harvard), Jeff Bezos (Princeton) and Marissa Mayer (Stanford).

The myth of the mega-successful college dropout

In a recent study, we investigated how many of the wealthiest and most influential people graduated college. We studied 11,745 U.S. leaders, including CEOs, federal judges, politicians, multi-millionaires and billionaires, business leaders and the most globally powerful men and women.

We also examined how many people graduated from an “elite school.” (Our definition included the eight Ivy League schools, plus many of the top national universities and liberal arts colleges consistently high in the U.S. News rankings for both undergraduate and graduate education.)

Source: Wai & Rindermann.

We found about 94 percent of these U.S. leaders attended college, and about 50 percent attended an elite school. Though almost everyone went to college, elite school attendance varied widely. For instance, only 20.6 percent of House members and 33.8 percent of 30-millionaires attended an elite school, but over 80 percent of Forbes’ most powerful people did. For whatever reason, about twice as many senators – 41 percent – as House members went to elite schools.

For comparison, based on census and college data, we estimate that only about 2 to 5 percent of all U.S. undergraduates went to one of the elite schools in our study. The people from our study attended elite schools at rates well above typical expectations.

Do elite schools matter?

This year, elite schools saw an increase in applications and selectivity. Research suggests there is no difference in adult income between students who attended highly selective schools and students with similar SAT scores who attended less selective schools. At least for long-term earnings, where you go may not be critical, as long as you attend and graduate.

Yet, our data show that for students with talent and motivation to make it to the top of U.S. society, an elite college might just help you get there – whether it’s the networks you acquire or the brand on your resume.

While looking at over 11,000 successful leaders, we rarely encountered people who came from extremely poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. Helping disadvantaged talented students enter elite schools could promote diversity among future leaders.

Princeton University had a record-setting number of applicants for its class of 2021. Sindy Lee / flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

College matters

Admittedly, the educational path of the cream of the crop may not apply to most people. So, going to college may not be the right or even the best path for everyone. However, if you’re a student thinking about not going to college or considering dropping out, remember that even Gates and Zuckerberg got into college. Even if you’re not aiming for mega success, doing the work to get into and graduate from college today may open important doors.

Perhaps in the future, college may not be as important to employers. But for now, college dropouts who rule the world are rare exceptions – not the rule.

For more, see:


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Starting With the “Why” in Personalized Learning

By Betheny Gross

This post originally ran on the CRPE Blog, and is the fifth installment in a series of “Notes From the Field” on personalized learning. 

Last spring, on our first visit to 35 schools committed to personalized learning, teachers often told us they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing to personalize learning. Revisiting the same schools this fall, we realized a more fundamental issue was at play: many teachers didn’t seem entirely sure why they were personalizing learning in the first place.

The teachers we interviewed certainly had clear goals for their students: to be ready for college and career, to be lifelong learners and successful adults. And most described the specific objectives for knowledge, skills, and attitudes their students would need to reach these goals. But only rarely could teachers tell us how the activities they do to personalize learning would deliver on these objectives. The problem is, without starting with that end in mind, it’s nearly impossible to build a coherent personalized learning (PL) approach.

In policy parlance, the teachers—and their schools—didn’t have a well-formed theory of action about PL. A theory of action explains how and why a certain intervention or approach is supposed to work. It helps get everyone on the same page about what they are doing and why. And it shapes the goals teachers and schools shoot for so they can see if their efforts are helping students achieve them. Operating without a well-articulated, well-understood theory of action leaves teachers sailing without a rudder and without a defined destination. And that can mean fuzzy or haphazard mix-and-match attempts at personalizing student learning—attempts that aren’t explicitly driven by what teachers want their students to know and be able to do when they leave school.

Take one PL goal: giving students the power to have more control over their learning, or “student agency.” A simple theory of action might look like this:

To support student agency, many teachers in the classrooms we visited had created “choice boards” to give students multiple options for engaging with a unit’s content. These choice boards can be incredibly time-consuming to create, take considerable effort to explain to students and be challenging to juggle once students get going. One middle school social studies classroom let students choose one of five characters (from architect to playwright) from history, each with its own route through the unit. While the students seemed to enjoy getting to choose a persona, many activities across the five routes were identical or similar (not personalized). But most importantly, this teacher—like many others we interviewed—seemed unsure of whether these choices were actually helping her students sharpen their decision-making skills, improve their engagement, or advance their confidence and ability to take responsibility for their own learning and lives—all goals the teacher had for her students.

To be sure, we catch pieces of the logic behind PL when talking with teachers. But more often we hear notes of frustration and confusion (and sheer exhaustion) as teachers try to redesign their classrooms and instructional approaches with little guidance beyond a broad directive to make these approaches more personal, tailored, and student-driven. Teachers are attracted to PL’s core ideas: meeting students where they are, letting students progress at their own rate, and offering students rich and relevant learning experiences, for example. But they appear to need more clarity not just in what they are doing but why they are doing it. Mapping the school’s theory of personalizing learning—and using it as a guide—could help. Here are a few ways to start this process:

  • Start at the end and work backward. Schools should ask: What do we want students to be able to do when they leave the school? What learning experiences do they need to reach these goals? What do we need to do in classrooms and schoolwide to create those experiences? What support do teachers, principals, and other staff need to create such classrooms and experiences? Map out the answers to these questions and make them the basis of the school’s theory of action.
  • Let the theory of action be a guide. Schools should share their theory of action with the community to help everyone understand it; help teachers, students, and parents own it; and reinforce the theory by constantly referring back to it.
  • Reality-test the theory. A theory of action is an ideal vision of how something is supposed to work, not how it works in reality. Schools should ask: What assumptions does this theory make? (Are we assuming our staff will be stable enough to roll out the required professional development? Is this reasonable?) What needs to happen for us to just get to Step One? (Do we need to build capacity? Engage parents? Build students’ foundational skills?) Who beyond our own staff will need to help us succeed? (Does this plan rely on waivers to the contract from the teachers union? Are they willing and able to do so?) The answers will help schools and teachers identify what and who they need to support their PL initiative.
  • Use the theory to evaluate progress and revise practice. By mapping the theory of action, the initial and final indicators that schools are working toward will become clear. Using the student agency example, an interim indicator might include some qualitative or quantitative account of data-focused discussions with students, or a student engagement survey to gauge the extent to which students feel they have agency in their work. A final indicator could be an assessment of students’ ability to stay on track and complete a long-term project.

Even for schools already knee-deep in PL, it’s never too late to step back and make sure everyone in the building understands why they are doing it.

For more on personalized learning, see:

Betheny Gross is a senior research analyst and research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell. Follow her on Twitter: @bethenygross.


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Education Data Privacy and Interoperability Go Hand in Hand

By Rachel Anderson

This is a blog series about interoperability, the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications. In this series, we will highlight the ways that data interoperability is laying the foundation for innovation and helping enable great classroom instruction. We will also hear from partners who are implementing solutions to overcome the lack of data interoperability today in the K-12 sector. This post originally ran on the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation blog.

Listen to the Full Audio Interview with In-Depth Responses

Tell us a little bit about what the Data Quality Campaign is doing to secure student data.

It’s important to know that we at the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), as a policy and advocacy organization, don’t have any data about students or schools, but we still do a lot to help safeguard student data privacy, and we work on this issue in two ways.

The first way is that we address data privacy concerns directly by working with advocates, education leaders, and state policy makers to help identify education data policy best practices and effective supports. We also help conduct an ongoing analysis of the landscape of student data privacy measures introduced in legislation.

But we also help address student data privacy concerns by advocating for the effective use of data. Privacy and data use aren’t in opposition to each other. Data privacy is an important component of effective data use. Part of our work around data privacy is much broader work around the value of data. Data helps to power personalize learning, inform good decisions, and improve education across the country.

How do you at DQC define data interoperability?

From a policy perspective, interoperability means that all the systems and sectors that serve a student can talk to each other, and that data can move securely and seamlessly among those systems and sectors. It allows everyone to work with that student to securely access the data they need to help that student.

This can be something as simple as when a student moves from one district to another that the school records are transferred to the new school and the school understands the student’s needs on day one. It can also mean a teacher has access to information about a student not just from this year, but from previous years, so that teacher can help understand the student and personalize learning. Or when a school works with a community partner like a tutoring program, the instructors from that tutoring program can have access to the relevant information they need about how that student is doing in school in the areas where the student is receiving tutoring.

So really, interoperability just means that everyone who needs a certain type of data based on their role with the student can get it and those that don’t need access to student data don’t get it. And successful interoperability requires a technical infrastructure with a common vocabulary and aligned systems that make transporting data across entities and systems more efficient, accurate, and secure.

What’s the value of data interoperability to districts?

For districts, interoperability means that they have real-time data about their students and schools that they can use to understand what programs are working and how different types of students fare as they move through school. This information can help target professional development for school staff, make programming decisions, and streamline their general administration. We have a number of stories of districts that have done innovative things using data and interoperable data systems to serve their students in ways they simply couldn’t before.

Also, interoperability means better data quality because it comes from a single aligned source. Having better data quality empowers the district to make data-driven decisions, because they can trust the quality of the data. It also allows districts to share records in real time.

What’s the value of data interoperability to teachers?

At DQC, we’ve spoken with many educators, and data is something that most teachers already see the value in. They want to be able to understand their students in ways that let them differentiate instruction, communicate with families, even improve their own practice. But without interoperable data systems, teachers are stuck making spreadsheets and crunching numbers on their own, rather than just getting the information in an actionable way and put it to good use.

Interoperability for teachers means the ability to make use of data in an actionable way. Georgia is a state that’s done a great job using interoperability to make useful tools and interfaces for teachers. They connected their district data systems to their state data systems, so a teacher only has to log in once to have access to the full array of longitudinal data about their students that is mapped to standards. This allows teachers to understand how students are struggling in particular skills or elements, and then target instruction to help those students build on those skills.

For teachers, it means the difference between having to go into the basement and pull out a student’s folder to being able to open an app and see everything about their students that they need to personalize instruction.

How do you think interoperability enhances student data privacy protection?

Interoperability represents a more secure way for information to be shared within and across schools. Because there is a consistency of definitions and protections within a single system, it makes the data much more secure.

Interoperability also makes it easier to train educators and school leaders on student data privacy. When everyone is using the same system, it’s easier to implement privacy rules and train everyone on how to fulfill their privacy responsibilities.

Is there anything else we need to know about interoperability?

I think it’s easy to think of data interoperability as a purely technical concept and one that education leaders and policymakers can simply delegate to data experts. But, in fact, everyone has a role in effective education data use and, therefore, in safeguarding student privacy.

It’s important for everyone who works in education to recognize that they have an important role to champion good data use and good interoperable systems. And, I would end by saying that, of course, there are organizations like DQC to help them out along the way.

For more, see:

Rachel Anderson is the Associate Director, Federal Policy and Advocacy at Data Quality Campaign (DQC). Follow her on Twitter: 


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Bringing Mentoring Models into the 21st Century

By Benjamin Castleman 

As we continue forward into a new presidential administration, many of us feel a renewed commitment to support our youngest citizens, especially those from low-income communities, to prepare for bright, productive futures. Every day, adults of all ages and backgrounds take time out of their busy schedules to make a difference in the lives of young people through mentoring. While we know mentors can have a profound impact on young people, there are millions of kids across the country who grow up without a mentor.

Mentoring can take many different forms, from the “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” model where an adult provides holistic support for a child to the corporate model where seasoned leaders impart professionally-oriented advice to those entering the workforce. Yet, all programs can rally around a common mission: preparing young people for success in education and adult life.

Providing young adults with meaningful guidance and support around postsecondary planning is particularly important; college admissions and the ever-important financial aid process are onerous and confusing for even the best-educated students and their families. Many youth and their families do not have access to the advising that could help them effectively navigate this complex process. Therefore, we must re-think how we connect students to high-quality mentors, a shift former First Lady Michelle Obama embraced and championed through her Reach Higher Initiative. Reach Higher encourages all high school students to explore and pursue postsecondary educational opportunities, leveraging technologies that kids engage in every day—like social media and texting—to connect with them and provide support and encouragement around college and financial aid. Even though most students have never met Mrs. Obama, they react with joy and enthusiasm when they receive messages that communicate the First Lady’s interest in and support for their educational goals.

Seeing students’ response to Mrs. Obama’s Up Next campaign reinforces our understanding from multiple studies: young people are most likely to engage in mentoring when they are approached by someone with whom they have or feel a strong connection. This person can be the college counselor they see every day in their school hallway, a college graduate from a similar background who has successfully navigated college-going hurdles, or someone like Mrs. Obama whose story and message resonates deeply with them. Students also value flexibility in their mentoring relationships—having the ability, for instance, to text with an advisor about their college essay while riding the bus home.

When we capitalize on new technologies to engage professional advisors with individual students, we can begin to see real and long-lasting impact. The Reach Higher Initiative is one of a handful of leading programs that are bringing mentoring into the 21st century. Some others, like CollegePoint, a national college advising initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, mobilize current college students and recent graduates to support high school seniors through the college application process over text, Skype, phone, and email. This dynamic makes it possible for almost all students to get the help they need from someone who has recently gone through the same process.

Some programs take it one step further to bridge the gap between high school and college, working with students from the college application process through college graduation. One such organization, Bottom Line, combines in-person and remote mentoring for low-income and first-generation college students to not only get them into college but also to stay in school. Studies provide an early indication that the program has a strong impact on student persistence through their sophomore year. Another organization, Inside Track, mobilizes experienced coaches to reach out to incoming students via multiple channels and provide the needed supports, tools, and assessments to ensure they adjust to and complete college.

As young people continue to adopt new methods of communication and stand at the forefront of new ideas and even entirely new industries, mentoring must continue to evolve to meet the needs of the students we seek to serve. Mentoring models should, for example, observe how young people connect with each other—emojis, GIFs and all—and leverage these new methods of communication. National initiatives like Reach Higher and CollegePoint will continue to serve as important initiatives within a broader movement to support new and continuing college students as they pursue their postsecondary endeavors. If mentors continue to be thoughtful, creative, and innovative, we’ll help to develop a generation of college graduates who will do the same.

For more, see:

Benjamin Castleman is an Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and the Founder and Director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at UVA. Follow him on Twitter at @BenCastleman


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Smart List: 35 Organizations Connecting & Supporting Entrepreneurs

Smart List LogoEntrepreneurship is something to be valued (both in students and in adults), but developing an entrepreneurial mindset can be a challenge. And for entrepreneurs, maintaining that energy is another challenge altogether. That’s why it’s important for innovators to have organizations–and their peers–to lean on. Today, we’re recognizing 35 organizations connecting and supporting entrepreneurs to encourage continued innovation in the education sphere.

Organizations Connecting & Supporting Entrepreneurs:

  • 1871: Chicago’s center for technology and entrepreneurship
  • 4.0 Schools: Incubating people, tools & schools in NOLA & NYC
  • 500 Startups: Supporting 800 startups worldwide
  • BUILD: Success through youth enterprise
  • DreamIt: Provides startups with access to investors, a sales pipeline and a network of resources
  • Founder Institute: World’s largest startup accelerator
  • General Assembly: The best in tech, design & business
  • Google for Entrepreneurs: Programs, events & tools
  • Impact Hub: Part innovation lab, part business incubator & part community center
  • Kauffman: Fosters startup communities and develops challenges to spur entrepreneurial activity in select metropolitan areas
  • The Lean Lab: Kansas City-based community that launches transformational education innovations
  • LEAP Innovations: Convenes educators & tech innovators to discover, share & scale tools
  • Meetup: EdTech meetups with edupreneurs around the country
  • StartEd: A year-round community for EdTech entrepreneurs, faculty & students
  • Startup Institute: Eight week launch pad in NYC, Boston & Chicago
  • Startup Weekend EDU: Network supporting communities of entrepreneurship
  • Tom Tom Founders Festival: Pitch competitions, luncheons, workshops & mixers in a SXSW-esque setting
  • Trailhead Boise: Helps entrepreneurs in Boise, ID, start and scale businesses and projects
  • Y-Combinator: Mountain View accelerator

Supporting Student Entrepreneurship

Our Smart Lists are some of our most popular posts, and upcoming sponsorship opportunities are still available. Interested in learning more? Contact Megan: [email protected]

This Smart List is sponsored by Getting Smart Services, Getting Smart’s consulting division that helps schools, districts, networks and impact-oriented partners create, implement and amplify thought leadership campaigns, education initiatives, powerful learning experiences and forward-leaning strategies. Learn more about what they can do to support your education initiatives here.


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Why I’m Post Policy and Pro-Innovation

The last quarter century of US education was a bet on policy–and it didn’t work. At least not as well as hoped. The trifecta of standards-based reform included:

  • Clear higher learning expectations–what became college readiness for all;
  • Valid, reliable and cheap measures of student proficiency in reading and math; and
  • Progressive school accountability from support to restart.

The bipartisan push for better and more equitable outcomes was well-intentioned, even inspiring. And, as former chief (i.e., head of CCSSO) Gene Wilhoit reminded a group last week, a lot of good came from the effort:

  • Better, clearer, and higher standards,
  • A commitment to equity,
  • Practice informed by data, and
  • A recognition of the importance of good teaching

But the unintended consequences of the standards movement were numerous. And, even with the new found freedom, a lot of educators suffer from PTSD from a narrow focus on testing in compliance-oriented systems that drove out creativity and collaboration rather than encouraging them.

Reflecting on the American education journey (and my own attempts at shaping it) yields a sense of humility about the big lever of public policy.

It’s ironic that the 25 years of standards-based reform coincided with and overshadowed the beginning of the anyone-can-learn-anything digital learning era.

Preference for what is proven ignores that what is proven was once experimental. Here are seven reasons to support innovations in learning:

1. New tools. With increased investment ($3B of venture capital last year) new tools, and the learning models they enable, are changing the opportunity set.

There should be spaces and resources for innovations with the potential to boost life outcomes.

2.Personalized learning is promising. We’re in the early first few years of reconceptualizing education as a personal journey tailored to each learner’s needs and motivational profile.

A focused R&D agenda on personalized learning models would produce huge public benefit.

3. Broader aims are mission critical. We’re in the early innings of defining, adopting broader aims of success including self-management, social awareness, and mindsets. A common lexicon and feedback framework for success habits and character strengths will clarify priorities for schools and learners.

Adding habits of success to basic skills development helps reconceptualize the purpose of schooling.

4.You can’t legislate innovation. It is possible to improve conditions for learning, but the unintended consequences of a mandated framework or legislated innovation suggest caution.

Innovation can be invited, incentivized and encouraged but not legislated.  

5. Real-time feedback. The transition from print to digital made formative assessment nearly ubiquitous—many students and teachers are benefiting from continuous feedback. But it is still hard to combine formative feedback in ways that inform learning and mastery judgments. New platforms, portfolios and learner profiles will make it easier to store and organize evidence and artifacts of learning.

Learners deserve accurate real-time information about their progress and options.

6. Choice of experiences. Learning opportunities have shifted from school choice to course choice to experience choice. Taking full advantage of options at the unit and experience level will require performance-based funding that follows the student, better parent and student information systems that surface and recommend best options to help guide informed choices, and advisors (learning Sherpas) that help students and families make good choices will be critical in making effective use of expanded options.

Policy should support informed learner opportunity.

7. Toward competency. The world is moving towards a “show-what-you-know” economy with demonstrated competency signaled through a variety of strategies (e.g., microcredentials and portfolios).

Learners should show what they know and progress on mastery.

Here’s the rub: innovation always creates inequity–at least temporarily. Some schools get cool tools while others can’t afford the transition. As technology drops in cost, it benefits more people. Just look at the growth of global connectivity. New tools have helped lift a billion people from dire poverty in the last 15 years. By 2020, 7 billion people will be connected to the Internet.

NCLB was a national policy attempt to build a floor of equitable opportunity. It produced some benefit, but inhibited innovation to the extent that it may have reduced rather than increased access to powerful learning experiences. The experience should at least make us cautious of efforts to mandate equity.

The seven areas of opportunity sketched out above suggest that states and regions should pursue an innovation agenda taking advantage of the power of networks of like-minded schools.

The last two decades of US education were framed by federal policy. The next two decades will be framed by the hunch that personalized pathways of learning can be far more powerful and productive than the way we have historically organized school–we just need to invent the tools and methods to do it well and at scale. And, perhaps, in this way we can provide the equity of opportunity sought in the NCLB consensus.

For more, see:


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