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!

Notes from the Road

Over the last three days, we’ve visited four different charter schools in the Bay Area: ASCEND, Epic, Rocketship Spark, and Summit. At each, I’ve been incredibly impressed with certain elements of the program. At Ascend, teacher and student relationships are strong—you can feel it as soon as you walk in the building. Epic’s quest for student engagement and the amount of freedom given to middle school students was mind-blowing. In its first year, the school staff is so clearly invested in the enormously ambitious task of creating an entirely new type of school—one centered around a game. At Rocketship, school culture and routines were tight. Summit’s content delivery interface was unbelievable, and their deep commitment to ensuring student are college-ready was palpable—every staff member seemed entirely committed to that mission.

What I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again this week is the importance of student engagement and the distinct difference between student engagement and student compliance. As I consider what edtech tools to implement and what instructional approaches to try in my own classroom, I’m becoming obsessed with engagement. In too many schools, “blended learning” is being used to keep kids occupied while adults are busy. The potential of these tools is too great to shortchange kids in that way. Many edtech platforms are fun and encourage deep understanding of material, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by seeing some kids sitting in front of them. The question is, how do we use elements of choice, goal setting, individual interest, and our relationships with students to have them excited—and I mean really excited—about using them each day? We desperately need to stop the trend of handing kids computers so they can click through and stay quiet. True engagement with edtech is going to be the key to a transformational personalized classroom.

Kate O’Connor, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
E.L. Haynes PCS

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California Is Just Different…Or Is It?

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If you saw 22 grown men and women go down a slide laughing (and maybe shrieking a little), would you turn and look? At GSVlabs, an ed tech incubator in Redwood City, California, there is a large plastic slide from the second floor down to the coffee shop on the ground floor. On a tour of GSVlabs today, our Education Innovation Fellows opted to take the slide over the stairs—and the ten or so entrepreneurs sipping coffee didn’t seem to notice. Which made me wonder, is California just different?

Today was one of those days that might make you think that. We had three stops that highlighted remarkable innovations in education:

#1: Rocketship Spark Academy

We started our day at Rocketship Spark Academy, a Rocketship Education school in its second year of operation. Kylie Alsofrom, a member of the (inaugural) 2013 Education Innovation Fellowship cohort and now the assistant principal at Spark, led us on a 90-minute tour of the school, showing us classrooms, the learning lab, and enrichment classes. The teachers and staff opened their school to us completely. They showed us how a combination of strong school culture, fabulous teachers, and blended learning can have outsized results…and made it look easy. As one Fellow remarked, “If they can expect that of their students, I can expect it of mine.”

#2: EdTech 101

Our next stop was GSVlabs, where General Manager Nancy Lue gave us a wonderful overview of the edtech venture investing landscape. We were then joined by Shauntel Poulson, Principal at NewSchools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund, who led a conversation with Jennifer Coogan, the Chief Content Officer of Newsela, Guido Kovalskys, CEO of Nearpod, and Chris Walsh, CEO of Zaption—about their startup stories and the opportunities and challenges they face. Then we broke into small groups for product demonstrations and discussions.

Many of the Fellows raved about these demos as a highlight of the trip. Why was hearing directly from the entrepreneurs so compelling?  “It was the difference between talking to a child’s aunt and talking to their parent.”

#3: Summit Public Schools

The last big stop of the day was Summit Public Schools. School is not in session this week, and teachers across the Summit network have gathered at the Summit Shasta Campus for four days of professional development. We spent 90 minutes in conversation with members of Summit’s leadership team and a panel of teachers to talk about Summit’s model, vision, and work. In such a simple, complex, obvious, dynamic, clear, and complicated way, Summit is systematically questioning all our assumptions about school, dismantling the current model, and building something new. Their truly innovative approach and practice—made all of us think hard about this work. As on of our Fellows said, “It just clicked. What job do we want schools to do?”

At the end of our third day, we have left the Bay Area behind to head to Los Angeles. We are about to land at LAX, almost 15 hours after we met in the hotel lobby to head out to visit Rocketship Spark, and the Fellows in the seats next to me are still talking about the day. The energy of these D.C. teachers is just different…

Margaret Angell, Director, Education Innovation Portfolio
CityBridge Foundation

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