05/07/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Show Me the Evidence!

Changing an infrastructure takes vision, persistence and sufficient resources. To truly change our educational system -- from the "one-size-fits-some" that exists in too many districts in too many states -- requires those three elements along with instilling a student-centered culture that is grounded with transparency and individual responsibility rather than on the "blame game." Let's face it -- we are all responsible for the quality of education provided to our students in this country.

President Obama highlighted high school redesign efforts in his State of the Union address and encouraged school districts to study successful models for ideas. As a follow-up, the president included a $300 million competitive-grant program in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal.

Persistence requires consistent leadership. The average tenure for a superintendent is just two to three years. District leadership turnover means that for initiatives to succeed they must have active support by the school board, parents and teachers. Two to three years is barely enough time to get immersed in the "ins and outs" of the district, let alone wrap one's arms around all the permutations of issues and challenges facing a school district -- and work within the confines of the academic year cycle. It takes courage to stick with a program and sometimes those best suited to lead significant change are educational leaders who are at the end of their careers -- because they may have learned from past initiatives (failures as well as successes) and find they have the resolve and passion to innovate, create and take on the grit and grind of deep change.

Showcasing successful examples of school innovation pave the way. Early adopters of re-imagining teaching and learning have made it possible for more and more district leaders to "see" their way to making meaningful changes. At the heart of successful innovation is measuring what matters and utilizing data to adapt. Asking "where is the evidence that students are better served" at every level of a district enables meaningful dialog about why changes are being made and why implementation plans are being adapted.

Our goal as educators is to provide relevant and meaningful education that prepares students for today's fast-changing job market. We need evidence that indicates students succeeding in greater rates (high school graduation, post-secondary education paths including college admittance, enrollment, persistence and eventually college graduation). There's no such thing as the one perfect blueprint for changing our public K-12 educational system. And there's certainly little value in trying to find the scapegoat upon which student failings can be placed. Although we do need to understand why we are failing to meet student needs to design and implement alternatives. This is what prompted Ector County Superintendent Hector Mendez in Odessa, Texas, to ask students "What would make you excited to wake up and want to go to school?"

Hector talked to many students and what he heard fell into three camps:

1. Teachers who care about me

2. Learning what is relevant to my life

3. A school culture of acceptance among students, teachers and administrators

Under Hector's leadership, the district has embarked on student-centered changes, including opening with New Tech Odessa in 2011.

Few school districts have sufficient operating funds to invest in innovating without either "stopping" ongoing programs or turning to community support, grants or one-time monies as sources of revenue. But "not enough money" can't mean keeping the status quo.

Superintendents and school boards face budget cuts far more frequently than budget increases -- and salary-related expenses typically consume more than 80 percent of district expenses. One of the ways some districts are changing the investment conundrum is by adopting a zero-based budgeting process that creates a public process of aligning resources to student learning outcomes. George Boland, Superintendent of Idaho Falls School District 91, has faced extraordinary cuts and yet George also believed that changes were needed to better serve students. The district engaged various stakeholders to help make difficult decisions and tied this explicitly to the visioning work for the district. It's not an easy process. The adults involved must agree on a common vision -- and they need meaningful DATA to help them know if students are graduating ready for college and career.

Where is the evidence that students are learning in meaningful ways? Districts need to define the profile of a successful graduate that includes demonstration that a student is ready to perform college-level work. One mantra that fits here is: SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE! A critical part of education is teaching students how to learn. Summative standardized tests don't measure whether a student is "learning how to learn" or can apply knowledge in new ways by demonstrating critical thinking. Measuring individual student progress is vital.

The College and Work Ready Assessment (CWRA) is one way to gauge student growth and attainment of Deeper Learning. Students in New Tech Network schools demonstrate 75 percent
more growth
in measures of deeper learning between their freshman and senior years than do students in the national CWRA comparison sample.

Teachers need the tools, time and professional development to incorporate meaningful assessments into their instructional practices to track individual student growth.

Changing traditional classrooms from one-size-fits-all factory-style education to vibrant learning organizations takes vision, persistence and sufficient resources. And, of course, meaningful ways of measuring student outcomes. A great starting point for districts everywhere would be calibrating on college-ready work and mapping backwards to student milestones. This will pave the way to increase educator accountability to re-establish the value of a high school diploma in the 21st century.

It's a tall agenda, but we can be thankful that there are many examples of successful innovation in public school districts all over this country.