Observing From The Outside

It has been three years since I left the overly-large school district to set out on a new life as a drain on society.1 Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

But the fact that I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day minutia of instructional technology in the system doesn’t mean I’m not interested anymore. I just have to learn about what’s going on in the school district the same way most of the community does.

There’s the little bit of education-related information that is reported in the local news, although that’s usually only when something bad happens.I can get a little bit of insight from the email newsletter the district sends each week, but that usually reads more like a pile of press releases than any real inside information.

More interesting, and probably more insightful, are the tidbits I get when talking to friends and former colleagues who are still working somewhere in the system. Although, in most of those conversations, we avoid discussing work in favor of more fun topics.

Anyway, out of curiosity about what has been going on, last spring I dropped in on a community meeting about the new one-to-one computing initiative the district is planning to roll out in the fall of 2019 (with the somewhat bland, focus-grouped title FCPSOn).

In my past life I would have been involved with planning this kind of meeting. I was rarely one of the people doing the presentation since my boss knew better than to put me in front of a crowd. I was prone to answer questions honestly instead of sticking to the script.

This particular presentation wasn’t much different from those I remember. Planned and edited by teams in several different offices and led by an assistant superintendent who clearly was working from his briefing notes, rather than a firm understanding of the topic.

In his opening statement, he told us that they wanted very much to hear from the community and we would be spending most of the two hours on discussion and feedback. He then spent the next 90 minutes running through his slide show or having groups of teachers and students talk about their use of technology.

I found those examples especially interesting. They included a mishmash of ideas that provided little or no support for the plan they came to sell. Does each student need a computer for the class to hold a book chat with students in another school? Is publishing an online newspaper innovative if it is directed by the teacher and not seen outside the school?3

The students involved in these segments didn’t help make the case. Many identified as being part of the IB program at the school where the meeting was held, meaning they were certainly not the “average” kid. And their examples of the great use of technology already in their learning included G Suite, Quizlet, Padlet, and even PowerPoint decks posted to Blackboard as.

Missing from the presentations was any discussion about why putting devices in the hands of every student would result in better learning. Nothing about how the district would make changes to the curriculum, pedagogy guides, or assessment as a result of the increased power and capability.

As you might expect, there were many references to “personalizing” or “customizing” learning, but nothing about how students would have a direct say in what they learn or how they learn it. The concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students watch videos instead of teacher lecture/demos, doesn’t do it. As with most of the other examples, flipped is more about changing teaching rather than changing learning.

On that topic of student input, I found it interesting that the district-created video about “student voices” was dominated by adults taking about giving students voice. The images of 1-1 classrooms showed students in classic rows or groups of four, with everyone working on individual computers. And the students presenters themselves were obviously carefully selected to make the point of the adults who planned the session.

When the assistant super finally finished and asked for discussion from the audience, it was clear the parents and community members (who seemed to be a minority among all the school administrators, teachers, and tech support folks) didn’t want to stick to the script.

Many were concerned about the amount of screen time kids were going to get, especially in elementary school. They wanted to know how taking computers home would increase student stress levels. Is it really necessary to give every kid a device to achieve the district learning goals?

All very good questions. The assistant super and all his assistants in attendance had few answers, and seemed genuinely surprised by the pushback. Maybe if they had done a little reading outside of the bubble, they might have anticipated it.

I have a few questions myself, about 1-1 in general and this particular plan that I never got to ask during this community meeting. But this post has already run too long, so I’ll save them for another rant.

I’ll also be digging a little deeper into what happens with the planning and implementation of FCPSOn over the next year, at least as best I can. It will be interesting to see what this all looks like from the outside.


Image of smiling 1-1 students in a Northern Nevada school district, from an article in the local newspaper.

1. That “drain on society” line is how a former Virginia legislator once referred to the teacher retirement system. Fortunately, he is a “former”.

2. Rule number one for anyone working in Fairfax, and I assume the other area districts, is to avoid making headlines in the Post.

3. I know the IT department still does not allow student work to be published outside the “walled garden” without lots of review and permissions at the district level.

Fight Over Funding the Status Quo

It’s April which means Fairfax County is now coming to the end of the annual school budget fight civil discussion of priorities between the school district (formerly known as both the overly-large school district and my employer) and the county Board of Supervisors.

The continuing conflict that usually comes to a temporary resolution every May arises because our local school board has no authority to raise it’s own local money. They get some funding directly from the state and from federal government programs, but most of their budget comes the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (in something known as the “transfer”).

Early in the budgeting process, the school superintendent starts by laying out the district’s “increasing needs”, tossing out some numbers that will make everything run smoothly, and warning about the programs that could be cut or canceled without full funding. Soon after the supervisors, working totally independently, announce how much money they can afford transfer to the district (and accuse the superintendent of being irrational).

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

After a couple of months of back and forth, the school board ignores the supervisors and puts together a budget for the next year based on those “needs” and other priorities. Of course, the amounts don’t match (in the past five years, I don’t remember them even being close) and both sides ramp up the hype.

School supporters take to local news media and social network channels, attempting to build community pressure on the Board to increase their figure. The superintendent talks about larger class sizes and diminished programs (sometimes even threatening to take away the Friday night gladiator matches, aka high school football), which she says will lead to a mediocre education for the kids.

On the other side, Board members make a lot of pronouncements about the county coffers being empty with nothing more to give, and lecturing school administrators on the concept of living within their means (file that under the heading: do as I say, not as I do).

Both sides are right to some degree. And are also full of crap.

The community in which we live is one of the richest in the nation (second or third depending on who you ask). At the same time, the vast majority of people living here don’t have kids in school and so have no direct interest in one side of the fight. Which means the two top priorities, for most residents as well as most Board members, are keeping taxes as low as possible and keeping the value of their property as high as possible.1

Those Board members know very well that raising taxes – any taxes – is likely to cost them their job; at least attract a very strong challenge to unseat them. And, since we already have “good” schools, at least according to the usual statistical measures, the perceived corrolation between that and property values is already assured. At least until the next election. All is good here in Lake Wobegon.

On the superintendent’s side of things, the school population continues to grow at around 4000 to 5000 students each year. And increasing numbers of students in the system are non English speakers, qualify for low income benefits, or require special education services (or combinations of those categories), all of which add to the cost of running the district. Add in the pressures of providing decent pay and the increasing cost of benefits and you get a lot of upward pressures on increasingly tight budgets.

However, even if the school board got all the funds they asked for, the money is largely paying for very conventional educational programs. Although the superintendent promises “innovation”, preparing “global citizens”, and “creative” solutions to the system’s problems, her plans include very little change in the basic structure of the school process – curriculum, instructional practice, standardized test-based student assessment. Nothing different from what it was in more flush times ten years ago.

School administrators and the politicians who allocate the funding for them should be working together to find alternatives to the way things have always been done. Are there alternative models of “school” that work better for kids with differing interests and skills? Are there alternatives to property taxes that make paying for an educated society more reliable and equitable? Can we make schools more valuable than just supporting property values to the general public? Maybe by integrating schools with those communities in ways that benefit even those who have no children in the system?

I don’t have all the answers but it doesn’t seem as if either side in this debate is even asking the questions.

Instead we have school leaders fighting to fully fund the status quo in an education system that is still riding its successes from twenty years ago 2. And community leaders who are satisfied with schools that are “good enough”, as long as the property tax stays the same, and the Friday night football game starts on time.

The World Beyond Just Facts

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that most American eighth graders are “not proficient” in geography.

Specifically, these students had not demonstrated solid competence in the subject, and the proficiency levels of eighth grade students have shown no improvement since 1994 (see figure). Geography is generally taught as part of social studies, but data show that more than half of eighth grade teachers reported spending a small portion (10 percent or less) of their social studies instruction time on geography. Further, according to a study by an academic organization, a majority of states do not require geography courses in middle school or high school.

So, why did the GAO (a well known source of reseach on teaching and learning)3 undertake this study? As you might expect, the student deficiencies in this particular subject are tied to economic issues.

Geography–the study of places and the relationship between people and their environment–is present across many facets of modern life, from tracking lost cell phones to monitoring disease outbreaks like Ebola. The growing use of geographic information and location-based technology across multiple sectors of the American economy has prompted questions about whether K-12 students’ skills and exposure to geography are adequate for current and future workforce needs.

They do make a good point, however, about how the interconnected nature of the world will impact the lives of students, as well as their parents. Unfortunately, even when geographic topics are included in the curriculum, kids rarely learn about tracking lost cell phones or Ebola.

The approach taken is far too often based on memorization. We still ask kids to collect and repeat lists of state capitols, African countries, and bodies of water – in Virginia, elementary students learn about the state by “locating and describing”, the five regions, important river features, and the bordering states – even though those facts can easily be retrieved in seconds on their phones.

That’s true even in Fairfax County Schools’ (aka the overly-large school district, my former employer) where one of the six major goals of the superintendent’s Portrait of a Graduate plan declares that students will become “ethical and global citizens”.

Maybe students are “not proficient” in the geographic understanding they’ll need to meet that standard because they have very little interest in a world consisting of a list of facts. If kids are actually going to understand the larger world they live in, we need to do a better job of helping them connect to the people and issues out there.

Something is Missing

It’s been a couple of years since the Los Angeles Unified School District received national attention for the roll out of their 1:1 device program. And not attention in a good way.

This past July a group of researchers released an assessment of the program that offered “lessons on what not to do when rolling out technology and devices across a large school district”.

It’s long, very academic, and full of suggestions that should have been obvious from the start. Like better planning, communications, and professional development.

However, towards the very end of the executive summary the report arrives at what was probably at the core of the problem with LA’s initiative.

At its heart, the ITI [Instructional Technology Initiative] is about both technology and instruction, and effective management of it required coordination and communication between technical and instructional teams and leaders. The structure of LAUSD (and many other districts) is such that the instructional division is separate from the technical division. These divisions did not seem reach a level of collaboration that would be needed to avoid the challenges ITI encountered, and on some issues seemed to be unable to resolve differences in perspective (for example, on issues related to Apple IDs).

As I’ve ranted about more than a few times, Fairfax County, my former employer (aka the overly-large school district) is at the beginning of the process to implement a 1:1 program. But long before that, they already had cemented in place that same problem from LAUSD.

That “coordination and communication” between the technical and instruction departments is tenuous at best. With IT making instructional decisions, primarily due to a lack of leadership on the instructional side.

IT’s goal is for these 1:1 devices to be cheap and easy to manage, and I don’t blame them for that. Instruction’s goal is far less clear.

In the shiny new “strategic plan”, the superintendent and school board have set a target of 2017 for every student to have a device. So one motivation is that the boss said to do it.

At the same time we hear the super, her assistant supers, principals and others speak vaguely about future ready, 21st century skills, digital natives, blah, blah, blah, while continuing to foster, encourage, and support a test prep culture in schools.

Completely missing on the instruction side in this project is a crystal clear articulation of how giving each student a device will transform instruction and improve their learning. Much more difficult than IT’s job.

Time To Turn The Page

Today is my last day working for the overly-large school district.

Which anyone with even the slightest interest could have easily discovered is Fairfax County Public Schools, located in the Northern Virginia suburbs of the Washington DC area.

When you tell people you are retiring (and that is the last time I will apply the “R” word to myself), the first response is “Congratulations!”, very often followed by an expression of happiness, sometimes mixed with a hint of envy, as in “please take me with you!”.

That sentiment is usually followed immediately with the question “what are you going to do next?”.

To which my answer is, “I have no idea”.

I really don’t.

I am very fortunate that I will be able to live comfortably on the welfare checks from the state of Virginia 2 and my own resources, the end result of a strong saving ethic instilled in me by my mother.

All of which means I have the option to explore many paths that don’t necessarily involve earning a steady income. At the very least, I certainly intend to continue writing in this space, although the topics will likely expand beyond rants about edtech and ed reform issues, to include more of my photography efforts (inspired by Tom, Tony, Kathy, and Karen) and expanded travel experiences.

Another question over the past couple of months involves whether I am sad to be leaving.

Truth be told, a few years back a little voice in the back of my head began whispering suggestions that it was time for a big change. With those whispers now grown to a full-throated demand, I would likely be moving on about now even without this opportunity.

So, I will miss the regular interactions with my colleagues, both in the schools and our little central office group (many of whom are also scattering to new adventures as well), but very little about the “job”.

Ok, enough early morning rambling. I have a few things left to clean up in this current chapter and then it’s off to figure out what comes in the next one. Stay tuned.