Once again, significant federal change is afoot within U.S. education. The recent signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marks a significant shift away from tight national accountability to greater state-level systems of student outcomes measurement and assessments. Coinciding with this policy shift is the emergence of innovative school models recently showcased at the White House Next Gen High School Summit. This could be a pivotal time for significant education transformation.With this potential on the horizon, it seems timely to pause and consider possible paths forward that will help all of us in education to better meet students' needs and prepare them for a successful future. As a design partner for comprehensive school change with more than 175 schools, we at New Tech Network have learned how to effectively replicate innovation in every type of community setting. Here are some of the lessons we've learned over the last 19 years:
- Schools can meet the needs of all students.
- Existing schools inside public districts can change to meet those needs.
- Change is best supported through a common vision centered around student success supported by a culture of learning and collaboration
Further, we have come to believe that "connected" learning and "collective" capacity building provide great paths for spreading and sustaining school innovation. School networks can play an important role for teachers, principals and district teams as they learn how to adapt, use data to make changes, and share leadership. Networks can become thriving learning environments for both students and for adults.
In the Napa Valley Unified School District, district staff have created structures for leader-to-leader and teacher-to-teacher learning to help spread innovation and approaches to problem solving, and it's proving to be effective. While the New Tech school model has anchored the work among many schools, the ongoing connectivity among the teachers and leaders has led to customized innovations and the sharing of new ideas at a high rate. Similar practices are taking place in districts like the Lake Ridge Schools Corporation, near Gary, Indiana, where they created structures for shared vertical learning across a K-12 pathway. Likewise, although with a different vertical approach, the Evergreen School District in San Jose is using two stellar schools, Katherine Smith Elementary and Bulldog Tech at LeyVa, to anchor widespread transformation. And in El Paso, Texas, district leaders are building the foundation for transformative connectivity within their district by helping schools work collaboratively in defining their innovative pathways toward success for all students that are assessed in multiple ways.
These examples of connected learning within districts are key areas of our own research and development activities for New Tech Network. The NTN Demonstration Site program showcases what is possible when schools are empowered in this way. Van Buren New Tech, located in Van Buren, Arkansas, recently became a Demonstration school. Tim McCutchen, principal of VBNT, shared that they wanted to offer their learning to other schools who might benefit from Van Buren's experiences. McCutchen also realized that by becoming a place for shared learning, he and the faculty have become clearer about the needs within their own school. It pushed them to think about how they would help others really see the evidence of success in their practices. He said, "Just like we ask of our students, it's important for a school to be able to show evidence that backs up their claims." Through that push, they began to see data gathering opportunities that went beyond grades and test scores. This, according to Van Buren New Tech math teacher, Jennifer Prado, "opened our eyes to different ways of thinking about how we might assess our progress as a school."
To leverage the opportunities that ESSA and other policy shifts offer, we think connecting and networking teachers and leaders is key. It takes major commitment, time and resource alignment to transform schools. If we can embrace the notion that there is no "finish line" per se in education innovation we can embark, together, on the path of continuous improvement as our true aim.