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.

Ignoring the Rules

The New York Times recently published a long front-page story about how Google “took over” the classroom. The writer’s primary focus is on concerns about the amount of student data the company is collecting in exchange for their free tools, and what they plan to do with it, although she doesn’t get many answers from them.

However, the part I found most interesting was about how those Google’s tools arrived in many classrooms in the first place. IT directors from Chicago, Oregon, and Fairfax County (aka our overly-large school district) complain that representatives of the company went straight to teachers with products like Google Classroom instead going through channels.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

And why do so many teachers ignore IT’s rules and go through the formal process of getting those services approved?

Lots of reasons, but in our district it’s mostly because they know that the wheels of our bureaucracy grind very slowly. The formal evaluation system for new tech products can take years, especially for anything that hasn’t been blessed by Microsoft.

IT grudgingly went along with the use of Google Drive in the classroom after hundreds of teachers started using it on their own. Some of our innovative people very quickly recognized the value in online collaborative tools and jumped at the opportunity soon after it was released (only five years ago). One school even had the audacity to register their own domain to make things easier for their staff and students.

This would be a good time to point out that there’s no such thing as “free”, especially when it comes to Google. Even if the latest tool looks like a gift from the gods, teachers still have a responsibility to be cautious about allowing their students to pour data into these systems (see also the recent news about Edmodo).

On the other side of things, district administrators also need to understand that some of the best resources for evaluating new technologies are the connected, innovative educators working in their schools. Ignoring their expertise and judgement is going to result in them ignoring you.

[Apologies in advance to Doug for this post. :-)]

Acting Small in an Overly-Large System

George Couros, one of the most thoughtful voices in my RSS feed, recently wrote about leading in a large school district. The post was triggered by an administrator with a good question: “Do you really believe that you can make this change happen with such a large district?”

That “large” district serves 30,000 students and it started me thinking again about the overly-large school district in which I worked for many, many years.1 If this person has trouble wrapping their head around steering a system that size, what does it take to significantly change course in one with more than 188,000 students? As I’ve said, overly-large.

One of George’s suggestions is that “leadership needs to always act small”, regardless of the actual size of the system. He wonders whether teachers and others actually know who the superintendent is, and by extension in a large system, the other members of the “leadership team”.

Does your leadership go into schools? When they do, does anyone know? Do they show up with their “entourage” and pop in and out? Do they hang out in classrooms, sometimes bring their laptop, and sit in classrooms to understand the impact of their decisions on classrooms? You should never make decisions for classrooms, students, and teachers unless you are present in those classrooms.

I know when any of the superintendents I worked for visited a school, it was a major press event. They never sat in a classroom without plenty of notice and several assistants in tow. Plus at least one photographer. Same for school board members, most of whom seemed to make principals very nervous.

Later in the post, George makes this observation.

Your district or school might be gigantic, but if you are in a leadership position, your job is the same; you serve students and educators.

In an overly-large district like ours, I think the superintendent and most of the leadership team often lose sight of that idea. Their days (and many nights) were often taken up by various political factions and issues, both internal and external, leaving little time to consider the everyday process of teaching and learning. Occasionally some of them will talk about “change”. It’s usually in very general terms, using the cliches drawn from the most current issue of their ed journals, and little of it gets translated into policy.

Now, none of this is intended to be critical of the people themselves. Most of the leaders in our district were well meaning (with the exception of a few nutball school board members) and believed their work was in the best interest of students. It’s the nature of the job that they have no time to develop a good understanding of the impact their decisions made in the thousands of classrooms of our district.

Currently the Fairfax school board is looking for a new superintendent to try and steer this colossus. They hired a “top” recruitment firm to conduct the usual “exhaustive national search”. Screening for the qualities of vision, leadership, and the ability to make data-driven decisions, at the top of the impossibly long list. The board should be getting close to making a decision, at least if they want that person in place for the start of the annual budget wrestling season.

But, I fully expect the person they hire will be far more CEO than educator. The little time spent in classrooms will be for show, when time allows. As to using social media to “create visibility during times that you can’t physically get into classrooms”, as George suggests, don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see if this one has any online footprint at all. Beyond newspaper articles and press releases, that is.

Change Where Nothing Changes

I’ve written more than a few times in this space about Fairfax County Schools, my former employer and the district formerly known as the overly-large school district, slow (very slow) efforts to implement a 1-1 computing program. When you have almost 190,000 students and a budget with too many antiquated priorities, I guess slow is the only way you can go.

My friend and former colleague Margaret is the tech professional development specialist for the one high school (out of 25) that will be part of the pilot 1-1 program next fall. And she is worried about2 the pushback she is getting from some on her staff concerning the coming changes.

Last week a teacher said to me “I’m not going to change something I’m doing just so kids can use technology.”

I think this represents our biggest hurdle and misconception about this transition. The idea that we are making changes to instruction to include technology rather than changing instruction to help students learn.

The big idea here is that this isn’t about the device. We keep saying that but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in.

Margaret is right in categorizing that attitude towards change as a hurdle, but I’m not so sure it’s a misconception on the part of this teacher. I’m betting this particular staff member has been around long enough to have seen many similar initiatives, technological and others, come and go over the years. He/she knows that the only thing new in the classroom next year will likely be more devices.

The curriculum won’t change. The overemphasis on testing, coming from the state plus AP and IB, will be the same. Any training she gets will be far more focused on operating the technology than on the pedagogy necessary to make best use of the devices. School administrators will also receive incomplete training on what a 1-1 should look like, and will be more concerned with equipment theft and student “hackers”.2

I think I’ve heard the concept of “it’s not about the device” repeated hundreds of times in Fairfax, by everyone from the superintendent on down. But actions rarely followed the talk.

The process of implementing 1-1 in Fairfax is largely being lead by the IT department (unless something drastic has changed in the past ten months), with most of the time in planning sessions I attended before my exit last year was spent on topics such as what device, how it would be deployed and managed, and what to do if the kids did something wrong. Changes to instructional process came at the end of the agenda, if at all, and alterations to curriculum were rarely were discussed. Plus, one of my big gripes, very few teachers were involved in high level planning and kids were excluded altogether.

Anyway, it will be interesting to watch the rollout of the Fairfax 1-1 project. And I hope Margaret and everyone involved are able to affect some genuine change for their teachers and students using the flood of new equipment that’s coming next fall.

Although I have little evidence to believe that major changes to the way that students learn are coming as a result, I really would love to be proved wrong. Really!

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.3

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.