Fostering Students to Prosper in Global Education

Randal Phelps, CTO, East Side Union High School District
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Randal Phelps, CTO, East Side Union High School District

A significant challenge we face in education is that we know that an entirely new way of teaching and learning, of knowledge acquisition, of measuring growth and fostering success is desperately needed. The challenge is that even with willing leaders we have to create this environment having never seen it in action and simply adopting models from other worlds (like the business world) has mixed results because their goals differ from K-12.

"Any change we bring has to be accompanied by a long term, sustainable plan that leads to significant change and improvement"

No recipe for success exists. No existing model provides a high degree of surety of result. The pilot you implement with high school juniors carries the responsibility that this is the only junior year these students will ever know. Risks must be taken, but thoughtfully and with consideration.

J. Alfred Prufrock mused "Do I dare?" and thus the true challenge: Do we dare? What does a bright, well educated, well versed in his field, motivated person do? We look for models, look over shoulders, pore over research of what others have done or considered. We go to conferences and we measure ideas with an inexact device. We retreat into operational and reactive thinking and since budgets are usually below requirement, we rely on a lack of budget as a parachute letting us fall not so lightly from the heights of lofty goals. We learn to accept that innovation cannot come while we maintain a status quo.

Fostering growth and encouraging innovation requires money. Not having any money means that you, as a leader, as an agent of change, as someone who would reinvent education, have a responsibility to go get some. If you think you will never have any money, you are accepting that you cannot do what needs doing. Develop a budget and populate it. Do this before you dream.

Once you get started developing a budget, you can begin to dream. When you look at your technology budget, do you know what percent it is of the entire district budget? You should. If someone asked you what percent of the budget you would need in order to drive the kind of change that the world is demanding, would you know the number? You should at least have an intriguing answer that created further discussion. What do you know about your district finances? What do you know about your district’s bonding capacity?

There are AMAZING vehicles that also make great sense for technology purchasing: QZAB (Qualified Zone Academy Bonds) or Technology focused near term bonds (that pay off in 3 and 4 year periods instead of 30 years) as just two examples of ways of resetting the bar to get to 14-20 percent allocations for innovations using modern tools. The point is that if you don’t focus on creating funding streams that recur and are constant, it is hard to innovate and worse, it is difficult to get buy in from teachers who have seen countless one time initiatives (remember Palm in education?) come and go with not even a wiggle in the change or performance bar. Any change we bring has to be accompanied by a long term, sustainable plan that leads to significant change and improvement.

So, Step One Innovation costs money. Chances are if you want some, you will have to find out where it is, how to get it and then pursue that with vigor. Find (or create) funding sources and preferably, sustainable funding sources. 

Step One A, you will need a vision that is understandable to regular people and that will excite them to the degree that they will want to see you get money and will help you pursue it. You will not get this idea from a conference or an article, you will look at your landscape and ask (and answer) ‘What do the teachers and students of this district need in order to transform their lives?’

Create a timeline for what you want to do. For me, we looked at three years to gain funding, develop a plan and put the resources into the field and begin training our staff. Put lots of measurable into your Gantt chart and make sure to provide areas of sure success where you know, no matter what goes wrong, that you are making progress toward your goals.

Pursuing this kind of change generates, light, heat and a great deal of interest. Share your successes and failures and remember they are just things that happen along the way to accomplishing your goals. If you distribute resources, have folks opt for them.

Always, always, offer choice. Don’t standardize on one kind of operating system or device. Our teachers choose between Mac, PC and Chrome and we don’t discriminate. Our support requests decrease when we both treat our users as adult users.

For our students, we provide a full range of types of machines based on need and expectations and requirements. Innovate by remembering one size never fits all and it always results in sullen‘middle children’ who never get what they want.

Help people who want help. If people want to be left alone, establish the minimum required, make sure they comply with those pieces and leave them alone. You will have plenty of staff and students who truly need things and instruction, advice, encouragement and they will benefit from your efforts. Focus there. The key to innovation is not deployment, it is listening for differences and nuances and special little needs that, if you can honor them, they will lead the district (as it should be).

Listen to the naysayers. Do they have a point? Is it important enough to change course? If not, honor them and respect them and respond in a manner that will allow them to come along later when they finally see the value in the vision. It is time to truly listen and honor what people say without necessarily changing behavior if it is just fear talking.

The key to what we focus on is that we are in the business of fostering individuals. Innovation starts with ‘I’ and that is where we start. The first system that we put into place was an identity management system. Build a system that protects ‘I’ and fosters the growth of ‘I’

Innovation means NOT doing things that don’t go anywhere. Not doing a project that solves one chronic problem but that creates two new ones. Focus on serving each teacher as an individual, each student as one person, make exceptions, say YES, find a way, refuse to fall back on policy that is only a defense of poor (in the dollar sense) practice. If you don’t know about school finance, find out. You will need money to make your dreams, and more importantly the dreams of your teachers and students, possible.

Get caught being happy. Get caught smiling. Get caught believing in your program and get caught being positive about the future. Leading innovation is a combination of seizing the moment’s opportunity and creating the likelihood of more opportunities in the near and medium future. Our program funds us every three years over the next 18. Now we begin.

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