Feb 2019

How to Make District-Wide Innovation Personal—and Collaborative

In some corners of education, personalization is no longer just a buzzword. It’s a bad word.

There are many reasons, including a lack of clarity around definitions, a lack of efficacy—because of confusion around the term—and, at some schools, a lack of rigor.

Another reason for the concern is that as educators increasingly use digital tools to personalize learning for students, some have struggled to ensure that the environments they create are not isolating. Parents and educators rightly fear the image of rows of students on computers, never talking to another human being.

The real magic of blended learning occurs when teachers use technology to boost human interaction, in both frequency and impact.

And it turns out that when a district sets out to personalize learning in its schools, the classroom isn’t the only place where people matter. To realize the promise of personalization, it’s people across the entirety of a school community—the parents, the administrators and the school board, for instance—that ultimately matter.

A new case study by Entangled Solutions illustrates how that is unfolding at Arcadia Unified School District in California, which serves 9,500 students across its 11 schools. Since the 2017–18 school year, it has worked with AltSchool, an education startup that supports schools in building learner-centered environments.

As the following five takeaways show, keeping people front, center and involved is key to scaling personalized learning effectively across any school community.

1. Build a culture of agency and risk-taking

Because education policy and regulations historically have focused on inputs—mandating the resources and processes schools use, like the amount of money for teachers, the minimum length of a contract with a curriculum provider, and the like—educators typically aren’t incentivized to exercise agency or take risks. No risk-taking means no innovation.

Arcadia took care not only to define values— collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, empathy and learning from failure—that would cut across those historical restraints, but also to implement new processes that would signal to its people that it was serious about those values.

The mantra “learn from failure” turned out to be particularly important, although challenging to implement.

“One of our summer projects was to create a fail wall for everyone to see,” said Greg Gazanian, Arcadia’s chief strategy and innovation officer, in the case study. “Our educators were great students: They were good in school, they had the right answers, they became teachers. So to get to a point where a teacher is vulnerable in a classroom in front of kids, we had to highlight ways you can fail and talk about it in a positive way.”

2. Engage the community early and often

Engaging the community in a sustained way is a vital step for innovating in a district, but also tricky because parents often are wary of what change will mean for their children.

I’ve seen many sparkling district innovation efforts improve outcomes, only to get rolled back a couple of years later when small factions of the community grow concerned about the changes unfolding. This is almost always because the district failed to communicate early or often enough with parents, students, teachers and school leaders.

In contrast, Arcadia has engaged its community in a multi-year effort to not just explain what it is doing, but also give community members a seat at the table to help define its goals. For example, district leadership made sure to bring its union in on discussions with AltSchool to develop stronger solutions and avoid misunderstandings. The district even used a specific tool, thoughtexchange, to listen to its parents in an open-ended way on an ongoing basis.

3. Seek a partnership rather than a product

Learning models eat education software for breakfast. And as a school rethinks its classroom designs and instructional approaches, how its teachers and students interact with each other and with the curriculum often is more important than the actual software they use.

Arcadia’s experiences with vendors over the years taught it a similar lesson. Some providers were too rigid and couldn’t accommodate the range of ways that district leaders wanted to create learning opportunities for students. Others offered sophisticated platforms but lacked the substantive knowledge to adapt them to varied educational settings.

In selecting AltSchool as a partner to help transform its schools, Arcadia’s leadership was motivated not just by the features of the platform, but also by company’s commitment to supporting Arcadia’s teachers with training and support. AltSchool kicked off the partnership with a customized 2-day workshop that offered teachers significant choice in where they focused, and AltSchool has changed at least 21 features in its software in response to feedback from the district, according to Arcadia’s assistant superintendent of educational services, Jeff Wilson. For Arcadia, it was the people dimension that mattered most to the success of the partnership.

4. Plan big, but start small

This may sound like common sense, but all too often districts mistakenly do one of two things.

  1. They roll out a new initiative across an entire district in the name of equity before doing any piloting. The complexity of the innovation then overwhelms the ability to manage it and the effort collapses. Or,
  2. They pilot constantly without a clear plan to expand and scale what works and sunset what doesn’t. As a result, “pilot” becomes a tarnished word in many districts.

To avoid these missteps, Arcadia has been intentional about who pilots the AltSchool platform first and the sequence of teachers with which it will grow its innovation efforts over time. The district started the pilot with 10 teachers in two middle schools to work through the kinks before it scaled. This year, 120 teachers chose to implement AltSchool—twice what the district had expected initially.

5. Set clear goals you can measure

Before innovating, districts must create a rallying cry—a true reason for innovating—and a set of measurable goals consistent with that cry. Arcadia is focusing on student achievement.

But to see if its implementation is on track, it is keeping an eye on a set of intermediary goals around four items:

  1. Workflow. Is it freeing up time for teachers to be responsive to student needs?
  2. Collaboration. Is it allowing educators and students to connect in novel ways that they would not have before?
  3. Creativity. Are educators able to leverage the platform to build new, engaging types of lessons plans?
  4. Engagement. Are students and parents more immersed in their learning with an eye toward educational growth?

All too often when districts innovate, they forget to attend to the human dimensions of learning and change. If educators want to seize the power of personalization to allow all children to fulfill their potential, they will need to focus on the people. That means not just teachers in the classroom, but investing in bringing along the entire school community in every stage of a district’s plans.


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