Innovation Should Not Be Strangled by Inequity

by Latisha Chisholm, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow

Equity in education is at the core of who I am as a social worker and educator. I was raised under the poverty line by a single mother. A great education and the opportunities it has afforded me are the tools I have used to move out of poverty and into a place where I am serving children and communities that reflect me and where I grew up.

I moved from social work into teaching because I noticed that the students I case managed did not have some of the basic skills I considered necessary for successful transition into adulthood. How could they be “successful,” or access anything they could dream of, if they could not read above a 6th grade level? How could they be productive citizens if filling out employment applications independently was difficult and sometimes impossible to do coherently?

By the end of my first three years in the classroom, I had not gotten one professional development opportunity focused on data-supported methods that work with academically struggling youth of color—methods proven to actually close the achievement gap. I have used Kagan Structures, or instructional strategies “designed to increase student engagement and cooperation.”1 These instruction strategies contributed to some success with students as measured by highly effective DCPS teacher ratings, high student engagement and academic success with students repeating the ninth grade, and greater ease of planning for differentiation. The effects, however, were not big enough. My students were still flailing and falling further behind in gathering the skills needed to be productive and self-sustaining adults.

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As a psychology major and licensed social worker who focuses on adolescents, I am always thinking about child development and how the brain works. A hallmark of adolescent behavior is impulsivity. Of course, I found that my students were making impulsive decisions. Deciding not to do work. Not to turn in assignments. Not to come to school daily. Not to revise work for better grades or mastery, if they had gotten at least a passing grade. Not to do the best they could at all times. These actions did not make sense to me as a generally logical adult, primarily because if asked, all of my students would verbalize that they wanted to graduate from high school. They could tell you at least one profession they were interested in.

I was frustrated and continued to try new things in hopes of seeing big changes with my students. I began prototyping, or trying out innovative ideas, in my classroom before being introduced to CityBridge, the d.school (it was just starting up when I graduated from Stanford), or design thinking. By August 2015—during my 4th year of teaching—I began to ask myself a big question. “How might I increase student ownership and self-reflection that results in more engagement and higher overall academic progress?” My first prototype of the academic year included data walls, student support plans, and checklists for moving toward mastery on each class objective. These seemed to engage some students, but the success was limited to my students who were present everyday. They were not creative enough for students that were partially connected to school.

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The second prototype went a little deeper. I added an attendance data wall that highlighted days absent, or when work was refused, and documented grades. There was a requirement to review attendance data and write a reflection that included an assessment of how one’s grade related to their attendance. I also continued to use checklists to track mastery. I wanted the students to see how much their own actions, attendance, and engagement affected their overall progress. This was moderately successful, and I saw that students were better able to express the connection between their actions and their grades. Grades were no longer this arbitrary thing that the teacher assigned, but a reflection of the level of effort and consistency put in.

The adolescent mind, however, seemed to still need a higher level of analysis and something to remind them of why their current education is important them. I still was looking to increase ownership and self-reflection, so I created a individualized learning plan for each student. This included assessments around career interest and learning styles, analysis of current grades, and short-, medium-, and long-term goal setting. Each student’s long-term goals required them to finish high school at some point, so their short-term goals encouraged them to do better in class by being more consistent. I was elated because I could see them buying into the idea of high school actually having personal importance to them. I gave them warm ups that required them to look back at their goals and assess their own progress. My goal was to keep reminding them, as often as possible and in various ways, that their actions today either moved them closer to or away from their larger goals. I was so excited at the student response that I gave my prototype to a fellow teacher and we agreed to look at it after he implemented it with his class. We wanted to see if his student engagement also increased and to figure out the best ways to tweak it.

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I became a CityBridge fellow right after I began prototyping the individualized learning plan. During the first leg of the fellowship, our focus was on learning about innovative practices in the field. My personal motive was to understand the practices of anyone who was doing anything that works with the most difficult high school population to move and to figure out how to implement whatever they were doing that works. During a presentation from Summit Public Schools in California they began to describe Basecamp, an online personalized learning plan that Facebook engineers have designed for their schools and to share with others. During that presentation, I looked at my peer—the same teacher I had shared my paper individualized learning plan with—and we understood we had stumbled upon a digital prototype of exactly what we had been doing by paper in our classrooms. What are the odds that we would find a refined iteration of the exact thing we were prototyping in our classes?

The day after hearing the presentation about Summit Basecamp, we went to visit one of their schools. During a presentation from their administrators, I asked the series of questions I have come to be known for asking at every school visit: “Does this work with your most struggling populations? How do you know?” Summit was one of only two high schools we visited that was able to provide concrete data showing they were actually closing the achievement gap. After four years at Summit, students in their most difficult population—which mirrors that of the most struggling students in the United States—were reading on grade level when they graduated. Their bottom quartile of students were increasing reading levels at a rate 3.6 times that of the average student in that same quartile across the United States. I was astonished and captivated. I have never met a high schooler who came in reading significantly below grade level and graduated reading on grade level.

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At this point in our fellowship learning phase, seeing data from a charter school that was closing the achievement gap with students that mirror the bottom quartile of students in the United States was impressive. Honestly, it was the most impressive thing I had heard. The alignment with my own theory of change, and Summit’s years of testing, was icing on the cake. The most important thing I could do at that point was figure out how to get into their training cohort for Summit Basecamp and bring this opportunity to my students.

The sense of urgency I had was almost overwhelming. It felt intense, but looking back I understand why. Everyday we graduate students who do not have a baseline level of numeracy and literacy skills to be competitive in the workforce. They have not been properly equipped by the school district, but they are still graduating. There was no time to waste, because there is no time to waste. Every year that goes by is a new graduating class that will struggle in the world. Therefore, because I had been introduced to something that may help change that, my school needed it, like, yesterday.

At this point, I had not seen the content on the platform, which was okay. Working with students as low as mine often are, I knew we would have to modify or replace content to be sure it was appropriate for my students. I understood that the Summit Basecamp team had the same theory of change as I did, and they tested it with fantastic results. They had created an academic prefrontal cortex for the adolescent brain—a space where students could input their long-term goals and track how their day-to-day decisions moved them closer to meeting those goals. It was an interactive self-assessment. The Summit Personalized Learning Platform holds the rules that students need to be successful as they have defined it for themselves. It does exactly what the brain cannot always do for itself in adolescence.

My partner teacher, also an Education Innovation Fellow, and I went back to our school on a mission. We recruited teachers and administrators. We gave presentations to our school about the program and what we had seen. We were so convincing that every administrator and approximately 15 teachers agreed to complete the application process for our school to be a Summit Basecamp site. While most schools applying put in one application, our principal asked us to put in two. We were excited. Excited about what this could mean for our students and how much they could benefit from the personalized learning platform.

After applying and finding out the program was excited to work with us, we also learned we had to get central office approval to bring the program to our school. We thought this would be an easy task. There were so many reasons why it made sense for our school. Two other DCPS schools in northwest were already implementing the model in their school. Anacostia High is a “Target 40” school, which means we have been identified as one of the 40 lowest performing schools in the district, and need innovative ideas to really bring about change that affects students in the most important ways.

We were told no. Officially, the platform is not compatible with our network and other technology systems. Our school would not be able to access the flexible workarounds used by others schools that enable them to use Summit Basecamp. We were cautioned to remember that many lessons from our charter colleagues cannot be successfully scaled.

Innovation was strangled and a quarter of the educators in my school were left staring at a brick wall.

In speaking to other innovators, I found that Google accounts were a large problem. Every program that required students to have Google accounts was rejected if it required district approval.

I continued to stare at the brick wall, to process the blanket “no.”

The school, teachers, and administrators are on board and excited.

The program is free and will fly us out to to California to get trained.

The program administrators will create the accounts students need for us, so there is no extra work put on the District.

What about what Lisa Delpit said?

In their first iteration, charter schools were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms. 2

What about the achievement gap?

What about the corresponding opportunity gap?

What about the severity of the need?

What about the dire need for innovation at a bottom 40 school?

What about treating east and west of the river equitably, and giving us the same chances, flexibility, and opportunity as them?

What about the fact that no one knows how to close the achievement gap at the high school level? I believe that makes it our duty to neutralize any potential roadblocks in order to make sure what has been proven to work gets to our most vulnerable students.

There are almost no techniques that people use in high schools that have been proven to work with the most marginalized youth. There may be none. If there are, I have not heard of them. Charter schools have the luxury and flexibility to innovate at a rate that traditional public schools do not. When a charter does develop a great idea and has the wherewithal make it available for free to public schools, it is our duty as educators to make sure what works gets to those who need it most.

How do we move forward and ensure innovation is not strangled by the inequity?

Latisha Chisholm, LGSW, is a Special Education Coordinator at Anacostia High School.

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1Spencer, K. Summer 2008. Kagan Structures Simply Put. Retrieved from Kagan Online.

2 Delpit, L. (2012). “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York, NY: The New Press

Notes from the Road: California 2016

Last Sunday, CityBridge’s fourth cohort of Education Innovation Fellows jumped on a plane and headed out west for a whirlwind week of innovative schools and design thinking in California. Every year, this trip has been life-changing for our fellows: diving deep into design thinking and seeing new ideas in practice is, as we’ve learned, a powerful combination.

Stay tuned for a full download—but until then, here are some snapshots from the road. Join in the fellows’ experiences in real time by following @CityBridgeFdn and #EIF16 on Twitter.

On Monday, Fellows brainstormed big ideas and questions they have about 8 Great Leaps in education:

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They formed teams bases on common themes and challenges they’re passionate about.

They then headed to Stanford and honed their design thinking skills with a workshop at the d.school:

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Here are a few folks building “student empathy totems” to remind them of how they can put themselves in the shoes of one of their learners:

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Then they shared their totems in a gallery walk discussion:

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On Tuesday, the team started the day at Urban Montessori Charter School, where fellows learned the key elements of the Montessori model and how the school expands upon that core model with design thinking. They also heard from the school staff about the challenges of crafting an intentionally diverse public school:

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After Urban Montessori, the fellows headed across Oakland to La Escuelita, an Oakland Unified elementary school:

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There, they learned about how the teachers have driven the design and implementation of a blended learning model and a maker space. Students in the maker space were building circuits:

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Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland was their next stop, where teachers gathered in that school’s maker space, the Creativity Lab:

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Fellows (and CityBridge staff!) got to experience the basics of making by investigating real-world products, taking them apart, and explaining the complexity of the component parts. In this meta-moment, teachers dissect a pencil sharper:

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The team’s last stop was the Facebook headquarters, the world’s largest open-plan office, where Shauntel Poulson (Reach Capital) introduced fellows to the ed-tech market. They closed the day with a highly interactive Nearpod demo from Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod CEO, and a demo of the Summit Basecamp Personalized Learning Platform from the Basecamp team and the Facebook engineers who work full time on the project.

Today, the fellows will head down to Los Angeles for more school visits, design thinking, and discussions about how to do school better. Stay tuned!

New Measures of Broader Outcomes

I find that many proposals for why we should improve education rely on a handful of similar arguments. Some common ones that I encounter:

  1. Appeals that highlight opportunity gaps between high- and low-income students.
  2. Appeals about the importance of education for the U.S. economy.
  3. Appeals about “The Future” or boilerplate about our current era of “high-speed information” and the need to help students adapt to technology.

The economic and opportunity arguments are important and valuable. And while I think that a lot of technology predictions don’t pan out, I certainly want all students to be ready for “The Future,” whatever it may hold. The authors of a paper released last fall make a different appeal. In “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” they argue:

We must be far less patient about expanding our vision of what it means for students to be successful and developing effective ways of supporting and measuring this broader view.

This is an argument about what students should be learning that isn’t bounded by a curriculum. It’s about multiplying an academic curriculum by what the authors refer to as “critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy.”

I think that the writers—Stacey Childress, Aylon Samouha, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff Wetzler—rightly attribute some of the recent opposition of parents around the country to standardized tests to the narrow focus on math and reading common in many schools. But I think they’re also pointing to big, challenging, and potentially messy work, which is figuring out ways to assess these other “critical skills.” I don’t think that it’s always easy to measure these things, and there’s also a risk that it will initially feel uncomfortable or wrong to measure intangibles like curiosity, empathy, and deep content expertise. But their impatience resonates with me because I don’t think that we can wait for other elements of next-generation education systems to fall into place before digging into this question of what an expanded vision for student success is, and how to measure it.

The authors describe this element of their theory of change as a need for “new measures of broader outcomes.” This expanded vision of student success will certainly require appropriate measures of things like agency and executive function. But I think that this work can’t be left solely to the innovators and early adopters in the education world. Another of the seven “key factors” upon which their theory depends is deep engagement from “students, families, and communities.” They argue that these stakeholders need “a clear and compelling vision of what school can be for their child” and that “in short, they need a compelling reason to change what they are looking for in schools.” One of these things that families might not yet know they can look for is the expanded vision of what student success means, and how to measure it.

So this is one of many important challenges in education innovation: cultivating conversations among educators and with parents about the limited scope of what we mean by a “good school.” The primary measures of “good” that are readily available rely upon the existing narrow focus on math and reading scores.

One of the authors, Alyon Samouha, will be doing a workshop this month with the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows, and I’m eager to see what sort of new measures of broader outcomes they design.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt

Come (Google) Hang Out With Us and Learn About the 2016 Fellowship Application

We will host an informational webinar about the 2016 Fellowship application this Thursday, October 22, from 5-6 p.m.

The webinar will be a Google Hangout—to participate, just visit the official event page to indicate you’d like to attend, or just head to the page this Thursday at 5 p.m.

If you have any questions about the application, or you just want to learn more about the Fellowship experience, come join us!

Design Thinking: Starting with Empathy

With our multi-day California trip behind us, I have about 40 pages of notes and dozens of computer files that attempt to collect all of the information we received. There is so much we observed that will influence my future work—from selecting programs to use in the classroom to computer implementation.

The biggest long-term effect of this trip, however, boils down to empathy. It’s honestly not what I thought I’d walk away with going in. I thought the trip would show me several models of blended learning and I would simply take one and run with it, implementing it into my school as quickly as possible.

But that leaves humans entirely out of the equation. If these school visits and anecdotes (both good and bad) have left me with anything, it’s a deep appreciation for the need of humans to be in the equation when approaching technology.

The process we will be using to implement blended learning and individualized learning in our schools is called design thinking, and we were trained on it at Stanford’s d.School. The process does some really awesome things to bring about change, and it all starts with empathy towards someone else’s problem. Common sense, right?

It seems so, but think about how many changes have been made in your workplace without you being consulted. As a teacher, I’ve seen curriculum, logistics, and systems for interacting with parents radically changed without thoroughly consulting all stakeholders.

Of all the things I’m excited about—and there are many—I am so thankful to have a strong mindset around empathy and others’ needs. This means that, despite the mistakes that I’ll inevitably make, all of my actions can be rooted in the stated wants and needs of teachers, students, and families. Now that’s exciting!

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy

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How to Avoid Post-REVIVAL Stress Disorder (PRSD)

I’m a PK (Pastor’s Kid), so I know a spiritual revival when I see one. On this California trip, we have not entered any makeshift churches out of white tents, but in equally inspiring, open, and creative spaces, we have been challenged to respond to a call of action to join a growing movement in our educational system.

I started to realize that the 22 of us Fellows were beginning to convert to the “gospel” of personalized learning when Gisele Huff spoke to us on Tuesday about how irrational it is to expect one teacher to reach the myriad of academic needs for 30 students simultaneously. When she commended us as teachers for working so diligently at an impossible task, there were audible sighs of relief and gratitude for the truth she spoke. What Gisele did for the soul, Brian Greenberg followed up with for the mind by reframing our current factory model of education with one question: Why do we assign 18 years of curriculum to children simply based on the day and year of their birth?

The good news of personalized learning is not just that students learn and achieve according to their individual pace and interests, but also that teachers are able to leverage technology to increase face-to-face time. It is in this time and space that they can focus on fixing misconceptions using real-time data and pushing cognitive skills through challenging tasks teachers. Ultimately, teachers are freed from the burden of ineffectively teaching to an “average” child that rarely exists, and it is the possibility of lifting this burden that I sense within our cohort.

Out of the nine schools we visited in California, three epitomized my vision of a school where teachers and students seem fully liberated. At Saint Anne School in Santa Monica, students participated in a station rotation blended learning model like many of our other site visits, but the sense of purpose and community felt most authentic. I didn’t sense that adults were stressed about how to measure dozens of metrics to ensure students close the achievement gap or engineer social skills that will lead them to success in college. I did, however, see tons of evidence that these students will close the gap as I watched students manage their own behavior and learning, collaborate around a student playing “Stay with Me” on a piano after choir class, and advocate for their learning (one boy did so four times within ten minutes because he wanted to know how to play “Hot Cross Buns” on his violin despite being absent the previous day).

On a secondary level, the students at Alliance BLAST and USC Hybrid High impressed with their sense of ownership over their education. Students knew what assignments they needed to complete, how to access information and had proof of work products that were thoughtful and relevant (ex. connecting the landscape of Mesopotamia to the current rise of ISIS). In both visits, we were led around by students who could explain the benefits of their flex models, not central office personnel well versed in the art of selling a school. In both cases, I had no doubt that these kids would be ready for college primarily because there already “practicing” college in the way their schools are physically and instructionally designed. These settings already resemble the autonomy of campus settings, which trust students to rise to the occasion of living and learning in peaceful harmony.

Unfortunately, I am already sensing this mountaintop experience coming to a close. In the upcoming weeks, the light of this alternative way to imagining “school” will likely fade as I return to the same environment with a different mindset and I worry about how effective I can be at spreading this good news in the valley of everyday school life. How do you create buy-in to a learning model that many kids cannot even imagine? How do I narrow down my priorities in rearranging my classroom to better facilitate learning? How do I stay disciplined in measuring progress along clearly defined goals?

Post-Revival Stress Disorder can strike here because you can A) CONTEMPLATE forever as the possibilities for change are overwhelming, B) CRASH because you attempted every idea all at once, or C) COPE with the status quo because its familiar.

I am prone to option B, as I have no fear trying new things—but if there’s nothing I’ve learned over the past five days, you don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. You must take the time to define the problem according to your consumer (hint: the student). Consequently, I will not rush into designing an elaborate combo model of every edtech tool I’ve gotten excited about, nor will I plan out how to make online playlists that will allow students to move through a unit’s content at their own pace.

I am ONLY committing to the following next steps:

  1. EMPATHIZE: Interview at least six students from each of my classes using the following prompt: “Could you describe a time you felt excited to be in class?”
  2. DEFINE: Prioritize no more than THREE key levers for moving towards personalization in my classroom based on student experiences, not mine.
  3. IDEATE: Not until Step 2 is done because I must know what problem I’m fixing.
  4. PROTOTYPE: Not until Step 2 is complete because all tools don’t build the same thing.
  5. TEST: If it’s not already obvious, Step 2 comes first; otherwise, I have no idea what I’m actually measuring as success beyond a warm and fuzzy feeling.

So, fellow disciples, next time you see me, I should have three clearly defined components for what students need from my class. Should I fail to have this, please feel free to reiterate to me the importance of not just believing in personalizing learning, but taking the time to model the entire design process and not just trek back to the valley without a compass.

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Source: http://exploratownium.com/what-is-design-thinking/

Desiree Smith, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Congress Heights Campus

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Someday or Monday?

As a teacher at KIPP DC Heights Academy in the Anacostia neighborhood, I was very excited to hear that one of our school visits would be at a fellow KIPP region.

During the visit to KIPP LA’s KIPP Empower Academy, I had a really powerful realization: As I looked around the campus, I saw so many things reminiscent of my school.

This goes beyond the superficial features, like our uniforms or logos. On a deeper level, we both use ChromeBooks as our main student technology, we serve similar underserved populations, and there’s significant overlap in the instructional technology programs we are using.

So much about this trip has been focused on seeing schools that are doing things radically different from our own, often with different student populations and class setups. This is extraordinarily powerful as we are tasked with innovating in education in D.C.

Our trip to KIPP was powerful to me, though, because it showed me that with a few moderate changes, my school can shift to a blended model. We have the technology, we have the infrastructure, and we have the smart educators who are devoted to students. KIPP Empower showed how close we already are.

With this work, I often think about the “someday/Monday” paradigm. We have so many things we want to do “someday”—like end educational inequity. However, we have students on Monday. KIPP Empower showed that, with some collaboration, next Monday or the one after isn’t too soon to start blended learning with my kiddos.

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy

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