The Urgency

Written by Dr. Anna Nolin | Assistant Superintendent in the Natick Public Schools, Vice President of the WETF
The Urgency

Nearly twenty years ago, the influential A Nation at Risk (Gardner, 1983) report sparked national anxieties relative to the future of American schools and their inability to keep pace with the educational development of other countries. Further, this anxiety fed worries that American schools would not, on the whole, prepare students to become the creative, intelligent and forward-thinking citizens the next century’s global workforce would demand. The power of this anxiety is deep and far-reaching in American culture and undergirds the very foundation of America’s perceptions of school effectiveness and schools’ roles within the larger community and the world. Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon, a fellow of the International Academy for Education, and prominent speaker seeking to combat this anxiety, affirms this national worry and states that in a typical year year, he speaks at over 40 sites in the U.S. —a number up dramatically from prior years (Y. Zhao, personal communication, May 12, 2012) as schools, states, and businesses contract with him in order to gain a better understanding of the landscape of American capabilities. Zhao researched the topic of America’s performance anxiety and actual performance in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, (2009). His work makes the case that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era testing and curriculum standardization practices have been allowed through open policy windows (Kingdon, 1995) because there is an underlying belief that American education is in crisis—internationally and domestically—and so America must adopt education models like those of China and Korea to remain competitive. Zhao puts out the challenge to all Americans that we are at a crossroads.

There are two paths in front of us: one in which we destroy our strengths in order to “catch up” with others in test scores and one in which we build on our strengths so that we can keep the lead in innovation and creativity.

American culture changed at warp speed at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. Changes in the work place, generational attitudes, technology, education and religion abound. A decade ago, in his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam analyzed changes in the fabric of American culture from mid-century to the 1990’s pointing to the public’s decline in perceptions of honesty and morality in others, neighboring, participation in community-based groups, leagues and associations as well as in PTOs and other education-related groups in addition to a then newer phenomenon of “cyberbalkanization,” as individuals withdrew to the web to interact with the larger world in a read-only manner.

In our current educational environments, families now want to translate their personal-on-demand lifestyle to the educational arena: 24-hour communication and news, constant contact, any-time, any-where content, forums for their ideas and public documentation of all aspects of school life. As American on-demand culture combines with a population more diverse in age, ethnicity, race, and beliefs, schools must change from directors to facilitators of the educational process. This worry over global competitiveness mixed with an increasingly individualized, personalized, on-demand (the actual meaning of the acronym, iPod, coined by Apple) consumer culture at play in the mainstream is at play in our Boston suburban educational zones—like Natick (where I work and lead) and Westborough (where I live and parent).

Schools, therefore, must seek and find maximally impactful education reforms to inspire confidence and create both a democratic and equal education for all while allowing families and students to personalize their learning, exercise their family values, and address potential learning gaps. What tools and practices in education can help us balance these forces and gain the best of traditional education and developments in the global workplace?

The Emphasis on 21st Century Skills in Schools: Pushing Reform

In 2002, the now prominent and influential Partnership for 21st Century Schools (P21) began a national collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education, the National Education Association, and major technology businesses such as Microsoft, Apple, and Cisco Systems, created the now widely disseminated Framework for 21st Century Skills. Since 2002, this framework has permeated teacher association, leadership association, and curriculum organization websites and guiding philosophical documents. While it is not clear if P21 coined the term “21st century skills,” the group’s frameworks have seeped into the national education reform discussion and brought the concept of 21st century skills to the foreground of practitioners’ expected educational planning. The Framework for 21st Century Learning consists of core traditional subject matter and further defines themes that revolve around three core skill areas: life and career, learning and innovation, and information media, and technology–the skill areas students need in order to be successful in the 21st century job market. In addition, the framework advocates K-12 integration of contemporary themes such as global awareness, financial, economic, business, entrepreneurial, civil, health, and environmental literacies. Also defined by the framework are “pools” that feed into the various themes consisting of standards and assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development, and learning environment. Currently 16 states have signed on to become P21 Leadership states, i.e., they have demonstrated through application by the state’s governor and chief education officer, that the state has a plan to integrate the P21 framework into educational operations across the state.   With the P21 frameworks in motion—infused into the national educational practitioner dominant dialogue–many states and school systems are searching for the school reform steps that would allow for 21st century skills implementation, increased exposure to outlined framework themes, and provide increased venues for digital literacy in their school systems.

Preparing Students for Actual Work : My Recent Visit to Google and the Renaissance Learning National Symposium on Innovation in Education

The conceptual ideas behind Partnership for 21st Century skills may only appeal to educators, but a visit to modern workplaces like Google or Apple would convince any citizen for the need to connect technology, assessment, career skills and schools. Recently, I attended Google and Renaissance Learning’s Conference On “Bringing Innovation to Scale in Education.” This national symposium brought together technology, curriculum, pedagogy and curriculum leaders from 40 states to tour Silicon Valley’s Google Headquarters and engage in a discussion about what schools should be doing to scale innovation that adequately prepares students to work in creative and dynamic environments like Google.

While educator discussions of the power or detriment of assessments and the manner of blended learning environments occurred, the real discussion was how to ensure that education environments actually prepare students to work and lead in the current national workplace scene. Tours of Google and time with their employees revealed the following value systems for employees:

  • Content knowledge is not valued highly, rather, a person’s ability to read, think, and create across digital and interpersonal venues was;
  • 20% of a person’s time should be used creatively to solve problems outside of their immediate realm of responsibility;
  • staff are expected, through web and video/multi-media venues, to keep up with the developments of their company and the weekly Thursday Google Information Forums (TGIFs) in order to adjust their personal thinking and goals to align with company developments.
  • Each person’s goals related to the company were published transparently across the company to promote virtual and in-person collaboration around goals.
  • Staff are expected to orient themselves to culture and technology expectations by diving in, persevering and asking questions—trying things, failing and reflecting.
  • Staff are expected to be action forward and action oriented.
  • To this end, no Google employee is allowed to stay in one department for more than a few years. Movement and adaptation is valued.
  • Kindness is valued as is care for the environment, the body and others.

I have to say that this was a refreshing set of goals and company precepts to hear after sitting and hearing policy makers and national educators proselytize on the power of assessment and what we should be assessing.

I left Google more committed than ever to ensuring that public school learning environments should be preparing students for the Google of tomorrow. They need tech-connected environments where they can have freedom and accountability, read across genres and stimuli so they can create the great ideas of the future. If we give them both traditional learning environments and digital ones, we increase their agility in both arenas. We increase their college and career readiness as a matter of course, not a side effect program.

Leadership, Technology Implementation, and Student Achievement

A major concern, therefore, for many current school and district leaders should not be whether they will lead their districts through such a technology/hardware program 1:1 adoption but when to do so. Westborough Pubic Schools should be making this move now—and do so quickly in order to stay abreast of other towns who are currently surpassing us. Research literature abounds to advise school researchers and leaders on the benefits of moving toward a more ubiquitous computing environment—whether with 1:1 computer implementation or with the increased use of technology integrated into existing curricula and learning systems, (Bebell & Kay, 2010; Bebell, & O’Dwyer, 2010; Dunleavy, Dexter & Heinechet, 2007; Weston & Bain, 2010, Zucker & Light, 2009. This research indicates that employing a 1:1 environment when measured in many dimensions, adds varying degrees of value to student achievement in various subject and skill areas, and on student engagement. Our own study of 1:1 implementation in grades 8-12 of the Natick Public Schools (one computer for every child in those grades) yielded the following study HYPERLINK (done with Boston College’s inTasc USEIT study group) Bebell & Burraston, 2014) proved that moving toward a 1:1 model in the secondary school sector positively correlated to higher math scores on SAT, AP and MCAS and resulted in increased rigor levels in terms of the types of critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration activities students did using computers. Bottom line: the longer Westborough waits, the longer it will take for the school system to scale the innovation that is teaching with technology and teaching students to positively manage technology use in their lives and careers.

School Systems like Natick, Grafton, Hopkinton, Shrewsbury, Burlington, Gateway, East Longmeadow, Bedford, Uxbridge, Medfield, Wellesley, Andover, Boston—to name a few—have already been using tech-connected programming for the better part of this decade. Westborough can learn from these early adopters of 1:1 programs and implement a stronger technology program to benefit student learning.

Westborough’s Need

As a parent in the Westborough system who is also a technology education leader, I am often asked why Westborough should consider moving to increased technology for the school system. Parents are often the most skeptical about moving toward increased computing technology in schools because their own schooling experiences were so vastly different from today’s connected classrooms. I offer parents the following reasons—informed by what I see in the college and career readiness realms and my personal experience as an educator and researcher as reasons to support Westborough as they seek to move to increasing technology use—including the use of 1:1 technology by the secondary level:

  1. Workplaces of today and of the future require students to be able to demonstrate proficiency in the areas of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.
  2. These skills can and should be demonstrated in personal and online environments, as workplaces and college campuses demand that students interact in these venues regarding these areas; after all, they will be expected to do so in college and work.
  3. In the school environment, an increase in technology frees the teacher up to offload lower cognitive demand tasks “the easy stuff,” such as listening to lectures or reading factual information to the homework area.
  4. In turn, the “hard stuff,” –note-taking, close-reading for understanding, classroom discussion, written analysis and conducing authentic research can be conducted with a trained teacher facilitating that process.
  5. The personalization we all seek in many areas of our lives can occur in the public school setting. Technology helps the teacher to more effectively assess, plan and support individualized learning through blended learning models. We use technology to increase efficiency and personalization in so many other sectors, why not in education? Why not in our Westborough kids’ educations?
  6. Technology will never replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will replace those that don’t. Currently, Westborough is not seen as a teaching workplace that places a high premium on teaching with technology. Westborough stands to lose the market with teachers who seek to teach in these connected and blended learning environments.
  7. Combining the best of a strong “traditional” format education (which Westborough excels at) with the expectations of digital proficiency and digital literacy, citizenship and problem-solving which the current work place demands will propel Westborough students to the top of college and career readiness arenas. Westborough cannot rest on the successes of the past but must create the new competencies of the future. Funding a robust technology deployment is just one aspect of this work—but deploying the technology pushes all of the other parts, dialogues, and pedagogical shifts required to update the school system.

As an educator in Natick (Project Red Signature Technology District, 2012; Middlesex County Safe Schools District 2013, Apple Distinguished District, 2014, MA Superintendent of the Year, MASSCUE Technology Conference 2014, STEM Teacher of the Year, 2014) and one associated with creation of effective modern teaching and learning experiences and research across MA about such technology deployments (Nolin, 2014; Nolin, Arnold, Cohen, Flanagan, Turner, 2014), it pains me to see the low-tech models at play in Westborough; what keeps me invested is the quality of leadership and teaching staff extant in the system. If the system embraces the adoption of technology and eases the use of it into their current model, teaching, learning and the future of our children will be enhanced in meaningful, future-shaping ways.