Trusting our Teachers: Stories from STEAM

We have been having lots of tours of STEAM lately ... and the word "Wow" was used multiple times this week in follow-ups by visitors. That's great and a nice validation by other professional educators, but what I really want is for STEAM not to stand out as much because other schools steal and implement our ideas and models. That is the point of a research and development school, after all.

One of our core ideas has always been to get the right adults in the building and then deeply trust our people. Part of that story means a bit more turnover especially at the beginning, but the lasting part of that story is the culture of trust we have in our staff. And, just to validate that ... it shows up in our data such as these TELL survey results where 2/3 report strong agreement on the question of whether they are trusted (see blue in bottom row).

Results from the 2017 TELL Survey 

Results from the 2017 TELL Survey 

That kind of trust does not happen by chance, rather it takes intentional effort. School leaders and communities have to be willing to stand back a bit even in the face of potential failures. We have to encourage a bit of risk-taking and not freak out when something goes a bit amiss. Over time, not only does that create a culture of trust, it also lets them refine their own practice ... which earns them more trust ... and that cycle repeats until what we really have is a culture of professionals making sound professional judgements.

No single person or institution or policy can "fix" schools ... what we need are thousands of professionals making professional judgments day after day after day. If we trust teachers ... they will earn it and reward us all with better schools for our children.

Schooling Outside the Lines - book launch

Tonight, we as the EDL 662 Course are launching a book! Yeah, for real!! 

The book is called Schooling Outside the Lines. The links to download and read are below.  



PDF (cleanest version)

ePub (for reading on tablets) 

Google Docs: 


This book emerged from our EDL 662 investigations into teaching and learning in the digital, global world. Along the way, students wrote blog posts on a variety of topics that helped us question what we are doing in schools and how we can improve these learning systems. The 5 chapters in the book address: 1) Meaning of the Diploma, 2) Technology, 3) Culture, 4) Assessment, and 5) Growth Mindset. I wrote the opening and closing, but the rest is their work. 

Next, we picked chapters and assigned pairs of students to curate and edit each chapter. Thus, everyone had a part not only in writing the book, but in bringing it together. We also assigned additional roles like building the index, the cover art, marketing, etc. It was certainly a group effort. 

Students used various blog platforms to do the initial writing and sharing. We read and discussed those in our LMS, Canvas. Once we picked a direction for the book ... we used Google Docs to bring it all together into a single place as students made their curation decisions. Students then engaged in about 2 weeks of curation and editing. We had a pair of managing editors, Kyle Curry and Bailey Ubellacker, who kept everyone on track and managed the whole process. They did great ... thanks to them! 

Once we had a full edited copy ... it was time for exporting. Google Docs allows exports to both PDF and ePub. I used Calibre to do a reformat, though, between the PDF and the final ePub. Then, I used that ePub file for upload into the iBooks store. We will also publish a paper version, just for ourselves, through Lulu. 

More Sophisticated Data for Kids & College Readiness

Looking at some of the recent data on College Readiness in Kentucky I was struck by the lack of sophistication in the data. A single standardized exam is used to determine who is and is not ready for College success. While this approach might have been in a step forward helped schools focus on raising ACT, I'm still concerned. It also seems to be against the growing tide of elite colleges moving away from ACT while P-12 might be increasingly swindled. Below is the chart that we use in Kentucky, including with the ACT cut scores (the most prevalent although our internal test KYOTE gets used a decent amount too). 

Full chart with footnotes available at: 

Full chart with footnotes available at: 

What strikes me is that this is so, so very little information about a given child. It says almost nothing meaningful about either a child's current abilities or a child's future potential. It does say something, but what we should all realize is that the "something" that it says is so far removed from the reality once you get to know the kids.

Of course, that standardized tests tell us very little is nothing new. We have known that for a while so what really concerns me is that we are still doing the same behaviors. Of course, if the definition of "college ready" had little impact on the child, that would be annoying but fine ... but it actually has a massive impact on the child even beginning in high school where students without a 20 Reading ACT, for instance, cannot take dual credit courses to get a jump start on college at low rates. So, to that child, it has both a time and financial implication. When the child graduates high school and tries to enter college, again, the student is set back by this somewhat arbitrary number by having to take remedial classes (that they have to pay for) without obtaining any credit toward graduation. Setting children back like this at the end of high school, of course, is a really good way to set children back in life generally and I think that is pretty much what is happening. If there is a big barrier to entry ... then less students will enter. 

I'm not advocating that remedial courses are unnecessary or that we do not need structures to determine college readiness, but if we are going to make these massive decisions about children then our metrics for informing that decision should be as strong as possible. I think we can make better informed decisions in at least 3 ways in the near term and 1 in the long term that we should start planning for now. 

  1. Tap into more of the data currently available on a student. Already, datasets within Infinite Campus here in Kentucky contain a lot of additional information about a kid. How often they come to school. How many, and the types, of disciplinary events. Grades, of course, with varying degrees of detail and consistency. Beyond Infinite Campus, other datasets, like the student's ILP, contain additional information some of which is actually supplied by the kid themselves. Of course, there are also other assessments like MAP and EOC (both of which also have their flaws, but like polls can work better together). All of this makes for a messy mass of data, but making sense of this data seems possible to give a richer understanding of a child's readiness (or merits for graduation, whatever). 
  2. On the grading front, another near term opportunity is helping high schools provide more standardization not in the curriculum but in the systems of assessment. Right now, few people put stock (outside of parents, perhaps) in any individual letter grade at school because it doesn't really contain any descriptive meaning of what a kid can do. A kid might have an exceptionally scientific mind, but miss a couple of assignments and get a C in a biology class. The "C" tells us little and is actually misleading about that kid, which is why I think most college metrics put little stock in high school grades. But, right now, a moment is afoot led by Tom Guskey at UK (this book is a good entry point) to make grading a more informative practice. In the near term, it would make a lot of sense for us to begin pilots with schools engaging in standards based grading to determine how predictive, and which metrics predict most accurately, from the vastly richer dataset of grading. 
  3. Again, near term, why don't we just ask teachers which kids have which skills that we deem relevant to graduation/college? Let's build a smart rubric that asks teachers about kids' skills and ask them only to answer for skills they personally seen demonstrated and for which they could provide evidence. Let's then run mass surveys to collect the data at some point (end of junior year, whatever). Then, to keep it honest, let's follow up with a few random spot checks when we ask teachers to show their evidence of their rubric scoring. Each school could assign a teacher (preferably the Advisory teacher) to complete the rubric for their small group of students. Not only would this encourage proliferation of Advisory models and portfolio systems across P-12, but it would provide a rich external assessment of each child from a skilled educational professional. I'm not sure why we don't do this already, actually. 
  4. Now, long term, we need to begin preparations for the inevitable transition of learning to digital platforms which provide big, big data (like, a LOT more). Soon (hopefully within 10 years), all high schools will be digital in their learning management (some already are). In fact, some states have already taken big steps in this direction. At STEAM here in KY, we use the LMS Canvas for every single course. It worked so well at STEAM that Fayette is now going district-wide and similar LMS solutions are emerging throughout the state. We even have our own Ed. Tech. LMS startup here in Lexington. For a child, nearly every learning activity throughout the whole of high school is digital in a single platform. While this is not perfect data, but it is exponentially more data about a child than we have now. How quickly students complete things, how many times it takes to get it right, how collaborative they are, how much time they spend on their readings, and, of course, their performance on various assessments (hopefully graded with a standards based system). This is already MASSIVE data that mostly just washes over us, but it is only going to exponentially expand over the next data. Honestly, it is hard to fathom how much data we could have. We need systems that talk to each other, we need algorithms that make sense of the data, we need informatic data displays, we need to know which variables have what predictive value ... whew.

If all of this seems like a lot of work ... well, it is. Absolutely it is a lot of work and, obviously, I get the attraction to a single test and a single metric. It is simple and clean. But, kids are not simple and clean. They are complex with messy lives spinning off messy data. They have good days and bad. They have projects they ace and projects they struggle with. Teachers that click and teachers that don't. They are kids and they are all beautiful and intelligent in entirely different ways. A "21" is not in any way an accurate representation of their beauty, intelligence, or potential. We can do better and we can start now.       

As a baseball guy, we are clearly already in an era of Moneyball for public education in terms of data, but it is like we are ignoring most of it and still making decisions about kdis based only on 1 metric in 1 game. We have more data, we are just not using it. And, we are going to have a LOT more data very, very soon. 

This needs to be a pretty high priority. 

kentucky & the "super schools" we need

Today, the ultra high profile XQ America "super schools" were announced. None were in Kentucky, including here in Fayette County Public Schools of course.

But, Lexington and Kentucky already has a "super school" ... it is called STEAM. When we looked at the Super School priorities ... we were already doing most of those things but because we were an existing, homegrown school, we could not apply. Now, obviously there is no existing facility so maybe on that front we are still a startup. (If only the district would invest in a "super" facility for their "super school').

In fact, Kentucky already has a developing group of super schools spread throughout the state and I'm proud that our work in the University of Kentucky Next Generation Leadership Academy helped in that. There is the Owensboro Innovation Academy, the ILEAD Academy, the work in Trigg County High School, The Boone County Schools, Eminence Independent School District, Taylor County Schools, Paris Independent Schools-Paris, KY, Marshall County Schools, Shelby County High School, the work of Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, and I could go on for quite a while and that is just big projects. Teachers across the Commonwealth in groups like Hope Street Group, JCPSForward, Edcamp Kentucky are moving individual classrooms toward developing Modern Learners. Together, these local super schools and classrooms are already transforming education in Kentucky.

What we do not have in Kentucky, though, is a collective sense of this transformation and a collective, sponsored effort to get the #NextGenHS we all seem to want. Where is our "Super School" coordinated effort like XQ? Top flight educators are doing what professionals do and trying to move the work forward, but there is no coordinated effort. Groups like Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Kentucky Association of School Administrators, Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, The Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky, Kentucky Education Association, KSBA (and more) need to help. Perhaps we need a new entity, such as the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN) or the NC Friday Institute for Educational Innovation or the Oklahoma K20 Center (many states have coordinated approaches). Maybe some existing unit can make it a huge priority. It is a huge priority for us at University of Kentucky College of Education but we are maxing our capacity to support this work. I'm open to ideas. Is there an existing group that I am missing?

The lesson is, though, that the seeds of innovation have already been planted and they are already growing all over the state. But, those efforts need watering (ahem, building please for STEAM), those efforts need to be evaluated, those efforts need to be networked more tightly, and the seeds from these efforts need to be spread formally and systematically. There needs to be collective expectations (and deliverables) for #NextGenHS redesign all over the state. To expect that though, we have to help them get there at scale. We need to produce start-up guides and transitional supports. We need large scale professional development to retrain our education workforce. We need support in tough meetings where issues like dual credit are not just tweaked or incentivized, but fundamentally rethought. There are a thousand things to do, but we are not embracing the task head on. At best, we are playing on the edges.

Now, Kentucky knows how to reform ... at least I hope it still remembers. And, generally, Kentucky is great (not just good) at working together to solve problems. For these reasons, and because of our work to already sow the seeds of innovation, we have been specifically targeted by national reform leader Ted Dintersmith as a place where magical things might be possible. He will be in Kentucky in 2 weeks to help us start some of these conversations, so please find a showing of Most Likely to Succeed and hear what he has to say.

Kentucky, while XQ drops millions on a few "super schools," without any major financial support we have already developed our own homegrown examples of what the schools we all seem to want look like. We can continue to exceed outsider expectations and continue to be a global leader in education reform ... but we need to take the next step. I'm open to any feedback to help us do that.

Research on Deeper Learning from AIR & Hewlett

I want to give a huge shout-out to a large series of research that has been conducted by the American Institute of Research funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Hewlett has supported a move toward deeper learning for a long time, but this series of research has really advanced the discussion in a meaningful way. A recently updated summary of the findings is a useful place to start. Also, a recently updated research publication looks at college enrollment and persistence, finding that students in deeper learning network schools were more likely to enroll in college but persisted in college at similar rates to all students. 

The story painted by this research is not the silver bullet by any means, but it shows solid and likely somewhat better results for the deeper learning schools. Minimally, it shows that students in a deeper learning school focused on PBL, mastery, life skill development, etc are not harmed by being in those schools against being enrolled in a traditional school. 

I encourage you read the entire effort. It is really enlightening. 

And, just for fun, a few year old video from Hewlett on the "why" of deeper learning. All of the deeper learning video series at The Teaching Channel is worth a view, of course. 

Charter Schools and the Difficulty of Operating Schools

It turns out, opening and operating a school is really hard ... and then it is even harder to make it successful. Unfortunately, as this episode shows, there is a lot of schools that do not make it and kids, who have no choice, get caught in the middle. Political types who have no understanding of schooling, simply have no idea. A school is not like a business in any way so using business models to try to govern school models is ludicrous. So funny in fact, that it is actually funny in a really sad satirical way. 

Now, as my buddy Wayne Lewis has convinced me and I've seen for myself, there are also a lot of really poor public schools and some great charters. Thus, I am open to Charters as an option to help kids, but it must be an intensely controlled option with lots of fail safes and backup plans and overseen by actual top flight professional educators who know what they are doing. If all that sounds costly ... that is because it is. 

By the way, John Oliver gets satire right (and most American comedians don't) ... Malcolm Gladwell can tell you why. The first time you watch a video like this, you should laugh ... the second time ... not. 

Understand the Goal, Then Start with Why

In my professional development for educators, particularly school leaders, I always like to ask the question … “when it comes to your school, what is the goal?” It seems such a simple question, but inevitably the school leaders struggle with any response at all. At best, I might get some confusing and usually poorly crafted mission statement. Some daring to respond default to the state line of something like “college and career ready graduates.” Very, very few can confidently articulate the goals of their school, or even of schooling generally, in relationship to the children under their care. I am not entirely sure why this is the case, but certainly the odd and usually slightly annoyed looks the school leaders give me when the question is posed tells me that no one has ever asked them to contemplate it before with the expectation of a clear answer.  

STEAM Academy, the school at the center of this book (see the end of the book for more information about it), came into existence largely without a clearly defined goal. There were, of course, some agreeable components such as we should graduate the kids from the high school and, if possible, give them some grounding in the STEM fields with a touch of Arts. There was a vague concept of a model school in Ohio, but no real understanding of how we would achieve anything like that. Of course we were expected to pass state standardized examinations. Everyone was well intentioned and a viable learning environment was created, but beyond the surface everyone had doubts about the goals. With the concept of “high school” so firmly entrenched in all of our collective minds, a massive lingering question of “why was this school trying to deviate” permeated every decision and every day. It lingered over the classrooms like a haze, and every decision each teacher made had to be filtered through it.  

So, during our first year, quite a bit of time was spent simply trying to determine the goal. Top level leaders were resigning left and right, so the ultimate decision as to the goal of the school fell to the leadership team within the building. It was a blessing, but we didn’t know it at the time. I think there is a longing, perhaps even on my part, for someone just to simply tell us what to do. And, being honest, there were certainly times when we used the lack of goal-setting by top level leaders as an excuse. Our team was competent so we knew we could achieve whatever anyone wanted from us if only someone were to be kind enough to tell us what that was. It never really came or at least never really held beyond a month or two. Thus, at some point near the end of year one of STEAM, our team in the building just realized it simply wasn’t coming at all. It would, for better or worse, fall to us.

None of our leadership team had ever done anything remotely close to what we were about to embark upon at STEAM. Our top leader, our principal Ms. Tina Stevenson, had been a highly skilled principal for quite a while, but at a middle school and with quite different expectations. The rest of us were new to this entirely. Our parents were new to this. The kids were new to this. The teachers were new to this. There were certainly times, and occasionally there still are, when the challenge was not choosing between competing ideas … it was simply getting any viable ideas to emerge at all. It was a confusing time and it begged for leadership.

Leaders, perhaps, are defined as much by the opportunity as by the talent. Ultimately, we knew as a team we were going to have to lead a process by which the goals of our school were made clear. That was a complex process that I will describe more in a bit, but the first unequivocal step was to set some goals and that we were going to have to lead it ourselves. Once we understood and embraced that as an opportunity and not as a burden, everything changed.

Laws are not goals, goals are not laws.

Now, let me say something about the difference between laws and goals, as I see them too often confused to the detriment of everyone involved. I get to walk into lots of schools and I can usually tell within the first couple minutes whether a school is driven by laws or driven by goals. While it might be a subtle mental difference

In a democracy, at least the American democracy, the goals are left to the people. The laws are the minimum operating system upon which to execute those goals (also set by the people through their representatives), but goal of any specific institution are left largely to that institution. This is why we have local boards, local councils, local trustees, locally elected officials and the like. This applies beyond education also (think of a local hospital board), but it applies particularly to education in the United States. So, while a state or federal government might set minimum operating procedures, the goals of any public schooling institution in the United States are left to the local institution itself.