Skip to content

STEM School – 1st Year Reflection

STEM School Chattanooga… how did you get here?  About a year ago, STEM School Chattanooga was an idea much more so than a reality.  The building for the school was under construction in an old warehouse on the backside of a community college business training facility with funds for the construction still in limbo.  A student lottery had been completed in where students signed up to attend the school with no more information on what it would be beyond a three paragraph description on the county’s website.  There was a forward-thinking grant filled with incredibly challenging requirements and an unending list of benchmarks.  A small group of teachers was hired to tackle this challenge, but professional development funds for training these teachers was limited to none.  And, of course, there was me.  A principal from a traditional school system, with a background and degree in engineering, and a fervor for changing school but stuck in public school systems that were focused on archaic and rigid practices dominated by standardized testing punishment or recognition.  Needless to say, the glass could easily have been more than half empty.  But it was a perfect situation.

STEM School Chattanooga had one extremely and important piece going for it. Chattanooga business people get it.  Parents get it.  Educators get it.  Schools are behind and disconnected from what happens outside the walls of their buildings.  Not because teachers want that, but because there is a disconnect between understanding what is wanted outside the walls and what is required inside the walls. Chattanooga knew there was a disconnect and it valued making that connection so much so that creating a school to work towards breaking down these barriers was a priority.

We began our school not with a focus on deciding what we needed to achieve based on what educators knew already (testing), but with a focus on figuring out what was needed outside the walls of our building and bringing that in to what we do.  A mission statement was developed to focus our work towards bridging that gap.  Three clear tenets became clear and evident in our pursuit of designing the students’ priorities – critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  If our students could leave with skills in critical thinking as defined by accessing, using, and applying information, if they knew how to work collaboratively which involves knowing when you need to be independent and when you need to be together, and if they could create and design without having to be told what to do, we knew our students would be successful beyond the walls of our school.  These tenets may not have been the perfect three, but they were as close to what we heard over and over leading up to the opening of the school last August and again throughout our time with all our stakeholders across the year.

With these as our key tenets, it then became evident that the one unrelenting and clear concept throughout the grant was for students to be involved in project and/or problem based learning activities.  However, this approach to learning is not very well developed in our country, especially in the southeast region.  So our first priority was to figure out how to design units of study that could focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts across our curriculum.  This design process was neither easy nor quick.  We had found some people who had implemented PBL (project based learning) work in singular courses, but to do it across the entire school seemed overly optimistic and at times impossible.  Creating and implementing these PBL units across the school took the majority of our time in planning and developing our school curricula.  However, it was vital to our success as a school for us to make these units our foundation for implementing STEM and our three key tenets.

Along the same lines, it was increasingly clear that since our students would have access to 1-to-1 technology, it would be easy to use the student iPads as fancy notebooks.  Yet, if we expected our students to innovate, we needed to do so as well. So we created a lead teacher position from our teaching staff and focused the lead teacher on finding ways to effectively use the iPad to the greatest extent possible in promoting student critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  What came of this focus was a tremendous paradigm shift in the culture of school.  No longer was technology something that was used for teachers to spice up lessons and try to make their lessons more attractive, but instead, technology in the hands of the students empowered the students.  The reason… the focus was on how the students could use the technology to build their critical thinking skills, collaborate with others in a professional and purposeful manner, and develop and create innovative ideas and products.  1-to-1 technology became a lever by which we were able to transform school from a teacher directed and centered environment to a student owned and initiated workplace.

It all sounds great, right?  Maybe, but it certainly was or is not easy.  There was a problem with this new established mission, creating curriculum around STEM PBL work, and using technology as a student owned initiative.  The problem was two fold – teachers were not comfortable with students having control and students wanted to be told exactly what to do.  You would think that teachers would want students to be self-directed.  That is true, but only within the confines of what the teacher wants the student to do.  Actually allowing students to make decisions is not something teachers have much, if any, comfort level in doing.  “Our students are not responsible enough to make their own choices” seemed to be a common statement.  Yet for all the teachers discomfort, the students were even more resistant.  Students wanted the following: one, teachers to tell them exactly what to do; two, students then regurgitate those exact items back to the teacher; finally, three, give the student a high grade for regurgitating well. The idea that students should develop, create, test out, fail, and re-do was more foreign to students than teachers.

It turns out that if you have a decent vision (i.e. we want students to think critically, collaborate, and innovate) and if you can create a culture where failure is not an end point but a part of the process, you will see a change in thinking.  It took about a half of the year, but by midyear, the majority of students began to understand that this school was not about traditional schooling – listen to information, repeat the information, move on – but about thinking.  Failure became an opportunity, not an endpoint.

As for teachers, they still like to be in control.  However, they like it even more when students are able to overcome obstacles, talk about learning instead of completing, and when students do work at a level beyond the teacher’s expectation.  Control means nothing to a teacher when they see student improvement, pride, and grit.

Here were some unintended good consequences of our work this year.  One, our students read and wrote… a lot.  When you allow the mobile device to become integral in where students find and seek out information, it turns out that reading, writing, and speaking happen organically.  We did not create a literacy school plan, yet I believe that student literacy improvement happened more here this year than any school I have ever seen.  That was a result of the combination of 1-to-1 technology and a focus on critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  Two, observation and evaluation focused on what students were doing, not teachers.  In the end, it matters what our students can do.  Whats better – 20 students watching a teacher or 20 students collaborating, seeking information, writing, discussing, creating, editing, etc.?  We denote the answer should be obvious (the 2nd part!). Lastly, and most importantly, the third unintended consequence was on how we would measure student success.  On the last day of school this year, the teachers wrote out five key tenets for instructional practices we should see at STEM School Chattanooga.  The one that stands out the most: quality work trumps quantity of work.  Quality work, quality products are the goal.  Quality is not easy to come by, easy to assess, quick to do, and without failure.  Quality cannot be defined by who got more questions correct on a mediocre assessment.  That merely helps to determine who has a minimum proficiency of content.  Getting all the questions correct on a mediocre assessment does not make a student advanced, it makes the student really really really mediocre.  Quality work, however, is the ultimate pinnacle for defining student success and that a student truly can show advanced skills.

At the end of this year, I am most proud of how far we have come.  We still have a long, long way to go.  We have not arrived and are just starting to really understand what it means to help students be critical thinkers, collaborators, and innovators who create and produce quality work.  Though we don’t have it figured out, we at least feel like we are going in a worthwhile and needed direction.


1-to-1 Tech Use to Enhance Learning

At STEM School Chattanooga our primary focus is on moving education from a teacher directed and disseminated environment to a student owned and centered learning experience.  In order to make this transition, it is vital for students to own the technology and information.  So we have flipped the paradigm of the classroom so that the student is in control of the knowledge and information, as opposed to the teacher.

STEM School Chattanooga has a 1-to-1 structure in our school.  Every student has an iPad that the student uses 24/7.  Content delivery is no longer the primary role of the teacher.  Instead, we expect students to use critical thinking skills in all content. We define critical thinking as students understanding how to access, use, and apply information.  Because the technology is in the hands of the students, students are no longer held captive by when a teacher disseminates the knowledge.  The students already have access to the knowledge and the student’s job is to now figure out how to access it, what it means and what pieces of it are important, and ultimately use that knowledge to create innovative and original products.

The three tenets of our school are critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  In order for these to happen, they must be tenets that students are doing throughout all their coursework.  1-to-1 technology is the lever for providing the avenue to make this change a reality in every classroom, everyday.

Below is a list that was put together after just five months of student 1-to-1 iPad use. It is important to note that the goal is to move from dependence of a teacher for individual and group success to student’s owning their learning and being in control of that learning.  In traditional settings, students are reliant on teachers to provide whole class instruction to supply the students with the content information at hopefully the right time.  In a 1-to-1 setting used appropriately, students are no longer dependent on the one person standing in front of the classroom nor limited to a finite piece of time, but can access, use, and apply information collaboratively and have real control over their learning.  Teachers teach students critical thinking and students become critical thinkers, readers, writers, and presenters throughout their school day.

25 Apps used daily in our high school:
1.    Edmodo: Provides a safe and easy way to connect and collaborate, share content, access homework, and share school notices
2.    Evernote: Cloud-based app used for archiving and sharing documents across platforms
3.    Pages: Word Processing for papers, letters, and all documents
4.    GoodNotes: Note-taking and Annotation app for PDFs
5.    ITunesU: Online courses and resources
6.    HMH Fuse book app: Math textbook in an interactive app using videos, practice problems, and formative assessment
7.    Wolfram Alpha: Access facts and calculate answers across topics in science, math, engineering, and other subject areas
8.    iMovie: Create and edit original movies and videos
9.    iTunes: Access and listen to podcasts, news recordings and music
10.  Keynote: Create multimedia presentations
11.  Prezi: Create online multimedia timelines and presentations
12.  PowerOne SL calculator: Calculate and graph complex equations
13.  Calendar: Sync dates, alerts, and reminders across all platforms
14.  Photoshop Express: Create and edit digital photographs
15.  Google Earth: Explore the world from street level and beyond
16.  Camera: Quickly captures audio and video recordings
17.  Notes: Simple note taking app
18.  TED: iPad Explorer and Player for TED videos
19.  Titan player: Watch videos offline without internet
20.  Safari Browser: Browse the Web
21.  Google Chrome Browser: Browse the Web and save bookmarks across platforms
22.  Apps gone Free: Find the latest apps on sale or free for the day
23.  Puffin: Web Browser for Flash media
24.  Pandora: Search and discover new genres of music based on preferences
25.  Pic collage: Create collages of pictures using text, images, and graphics

Comments from students on the most useful apps:
·     Evernote helps with organization. It is where we turn in most of the work we do for teachers. It is helpful for taking notes for a class, and you can save the settings to share work with the teacher of any class. Teachers can then download and write feedback directly on our work, then put the file back in Evernote for us. You can even backup the storage in Evernote on iCloud. That way if you somehow accidentally erase data, you will still have whatever you saved in iCloud from Evernote.
·     Edmodo is useful because it is where we get the bulk of our assignments. They are posted there weekly, even daily, and it is an easy way to see what is due for a teacher and when it is due. This helps us keep all of our assignments organized by date and when to turn them in. It also reminds us when assignments are late. It is an easy way to communicate not only to your teachers if you need help, but you can also ask other students for help or clarification on assignments.
·     Goodnotes is an awesome app because it allows you to write on pdfs, pictures, or even word documents that you have to submit for teachers. It is very good for subjects like math, where you have to write down your answers. It is kind of the loophole to us being a “paperless environment”. It is not really writing on paper, but it gives you a similar experience to writing on paper. You can also highlight books and complete digital worksheets with this app.
·     Pages is a useful app for when you have to do a paper of some sort for a class. It gives you the different sizes of texts, and the different fonts to you can use in a paper. You can customize virtually every word in a paper if you wanted to with this app. It is helpful because most English or History papers require Times New Roman style font with size 12 letters, so you can customize it to where it automatically makes your words that size and style.
·     TED is like an educational YouTube filled with valuable information. TED is a useful app because it will show you all of the amazing things that people are doing and working on in this world today. TED lectures will show you many amazing things and even teach you about many topics that you have not even known existed.
·     Titan player is a useful app because it lets you download videos off YouTube and any other video site. I use this app for downloading videos for school to watch without internet later at home.
·     Apps Gone Free allows us to look at all the cool apps that are free or on sale and maybe find some apps that will help us individually with our school work or some that we think are just fun at a discounted price.
·     Photoshop Touch is a very useful app to me, as it is pretty quick and easy to use, and it comes with just about the same features as the Windows Photoshop 11 does. It makes it rather easy to photoshop my images, as I can use my finger to “lasso” the picture. PS Touch has been helpful to me in school on multiple occasions.

Defining 1-to-1 Implementation

What does it mean to have 1-to-1 technology in your school or district?  Does it mean that every kid has an iPad or laptop?  Does it mean you no longer have an agenda mate for each student?  Is it about the technology or is it about the instructional practices?  What exactly does 1-to-1 really and truly mean?  Lets attempt to answer that question… adequately, realistically, and appropriately.

I recently read an article online about a superintendent that went and visited a “1-to-1” district (g   The result of the visit – a disillusioned superintendent that saw a first year implementation gone awry. In a nutshell, $1000 notebooks for students.  Given that information, the superintendent’s conclusion is pretty logical.  In fact, the superintendent didn’t say this but might as well have said, “lets spend $2 on some notebooks and pencils, and we can accomplish the same work.”  So is what the superintendent witnessed a poor implementation?  The answer is both yes and no.

1-to-1 is twofold.  

The first part is the technical and equipment piece.  To have 1-to-1, every student must (let me emphasize this piece, MUST) have one device that the student carries, uses, and “owns ” 24/7.  The device doesn’t stay in a locker, a computer lab, is shared, or stays at school.   The device must be wireless, and the student must have wireless access all day at school.  So, unless the infrastructure is in place for wireless throughout your entire school, you don’t have 1-to-1.  And, yes, that was in place in the school system visited by the superintendent above.  Which leads me to the second part….

The second (and most critical piece) is defining the purpose for 1-to-1.  If the purpose or vision is to raise student achievement, your 1-to-1 will fail miserably.  Student achievement is a result or OUTCOME.  Student achievement is NOT the purpose/vision.  So what is the purpose for 1-to-1?

Purpose of 1-to-1 is to move from a teacher-centered and dependent educational system to a student driven and owned learning process.

Let me explain.  In a traditional instructional approach (defined as a setting where students do not have their own device), the teacher controls the content and what students access.  The student is dependent on the teacher. Students do not own the learning, the teacher does.  And in that setting, the teacher is then the most important person in the room… and the onus of the learning remains with the teacher.  Thus, we end up where we are now.  The responsibility of the learning process is disconnected, and students focus on being successful through compliance, not independent thinking.

In a true 1-to-1 approach, the teacher is no longer the keeper of content and controller of learning.  The teacher is responsible for helping students learn how to access content, how to use that content, and how to apply the content. The classroom experience is not about teacher centered exercises, it is about student activity.  Students are not reliant on a teacher to access content.  The student is reliant on their understanding of themselves to access content. Instead of a student waiting on a teacher to present a math topic, for example, the student can access video, collaborate with another student, find an online site that helps the student understand the topic, etc..  The learning process is owned by the student.  The teacher IS important, but not as the keeper of information/knowledge.  Students don’t need schools to access the knowledge. Students need schools to learn HOW to access knowledge, HOW to use the knowledge, and HOW to apply the knowledge.  

In other words, it’s NOT about providing knowledge.  1-to-1 is about how to access, use, and apply knowledge.

The school district visited by the superintendent in the article above had #1 done pretty well, but not much, if any, of #2.  

So the question becomes how realistic is it that in the first year of 1-to-1 implementation that #1’s infrastructure or #2’s instructional practices are well established?  Not very likely.  But, #1 and #2 should be transparent to any visitor.  

What should be seen when visiting a 1-to-1 school or system?

1. Concerted efforts and conversation to make sure wireless infrastructure is being worked on for improved access.
2. A clear vision that classrooms are transitioning from teacher knowledge rooms to student activity rooms focused on accessing, using, and applying knowledge.  
Perfect implementation and perfect preparation are not going to happen.  But conversations and clear vision should be.  These are your starting points for 1-to-1 implementations. 

Steps in Designing a Quality PBL (in STEM or Other)

When we think of the learning continuum, we know that people remember more when they are participatory in their learning, and not just passive listeners.  We remember and understand action… i.e. we learn 20% of what we hear and 95% of what we teach.  Active learning trumps passive learning.  Doing trumps sitting.   It’s in this vain, that I continual look for ways to create meaningful active learning experiences for my students.

The most current buzzword or acronym for having students become active and participatory in their learning is referred to as a PBL (PBL stands for both Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning activities).  So, in my own efforts to learn more about the intricacies of a PBL, I spent last summer seeking out as many quality PBL examples as I could find.  Unfortunately, what I found was discouraging.  Most PBLs fall into two categories:


Students working on projects across each of their classes BUT these projects are severely lacking in quality standards.  These PBLs are best categorized as “thematic” units and both teachers and kids really enjoy participating in these activities.  Think of a student in 7th grade doing a project about Ancient Egypt.  You know the project, where the student draws a lot of pictures, builds a pyramid, and dresses up to act out a skit.  The issue: at the end of the day, these experiences are more about fun than learning.  And these “projects” are extremely prevalent when you seek out project or problem based learning examples.


PBLs that take place in an isolated course.  These PBLs are well thought out by a single teacher or a small group of teachers who all teach the same course.  I like to refer to these PBLs as “mutually exclusive” units.  It’s the silo concept.  I go to math class at 9am and English class at 10am, and what I do at 9am never relates to what happens at 10am.

There is a third category, which is the category of really bad PBLs.  But lets not even go there.  Let’s just assume most educators and schools are at least able to fall into one of the two categories above when attempting to implement PBLs.  So the questions for me became, why can’t we do better?  Is this really the best we can do?

We can do better.

In my last post, I referenced designing strong STEM units of study.  Below is a framework for creating these units.  What I would like to note is that this framework is not STEM only specific.  This framework should and can be used for any collaborative project or problem based learning experience.  Items that the framework includes:

–Backwards Planning (and Understanding by Design principles)

–Quality Assessment Practices (including Assessment for Learning principles and Standards—Based Grading focus)

–Rubrics (by level of performance)

–Integrated Unit (connecting curricula across ALL content areas)

–Blended Learning (practices for Flipped Classroom)

I hope you find this design useful for your work.

Unit Design Process

1. Essential Question or Problem
This is the theme or central idea for the unit.  For my school, our central idea is always STEM related.  But for your school, it may be different.
Format: How do we __central idea__?
How do we prevent emerging strains of viruses from forming?
How do we mitigate the effects of 100-degree days in Chattanooga?
Design a new platform for gaming in the future. (The Essential Problem can be a statement.)

2. Learning Targets
These are statements that list what a student will learn in the unit.  It should begin with “I can” and state the knowledge and/or skill.  It should be written so that students can understand the statement.
Format: I can ___knowledge and/or skill____.

3. Performance Task
This is the task or product the student will do for the PBL to show they have learned the knowledge and/or skill.  This statement should begin with “I will,” state the task, say “in order to,” and briefly re-state the learning targets.
Format: I will __task___ in order to ___learning target(s)___.

4. PBL Rubric
This is where you differentiate between a basic, proficient, and advanced student submission for the PBL.  You are scoring the performance task.  The best PBL rubrics are where the criteria for basic, proficient, and advanced are so clear that students can score themselves.

5. Summative Assessment
This assessment should be broken down into sections so that there is a different grade for each learning target.  If you are testing three learning targets, then the summative assessment will have three grades.  Each section should be broken down by basic, proficient, and advanced, and include the requirements for meeting each level of proficiency.

6. Formative Assessments
These assessments should assess one, maybe two, learning targets.  Students should be scored as either proficient or non-proficient on the formative assessment.  These assessments should be short and relatively quick to administer and score.

7. Digital Curriculum
There are two parts to the digital curriculum.
–Part 1: Curriculum posted for students to do prior to a formative assessment.  Videos are the most frequently used digital items for this purpose, but you can use other items beyond video.
–Part 2: Curriculum posted for students to do for practice.  These are posted after the formative assessment.

The process above is purposefully concise.   The first time through can be challenging and difficult as the process requires teachers to work with other teachers. However, one flaw I often encounter at schools is that teams are put in place, and there is this idea that they have to be together working throughout the entire process.  That is not the case.  There is a time for “team” work and a time for “individual” work.  If you have a team of educators working on designing a unit, here is a suggestion for when the team should meet (and when they shouldn’t) in this design process.

1. Essential Question or Problem
—Cross-curricular team should meet to define the essential question or problem.
2. Learning Targets
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.
3. Performance Task – This is a two-step item.
—Step 1 – Team meets to discuss ideas for tasks.
—Step 2 – Individual teacher (or subject area group) defines the task on his/her own.
4. PBL Rubric – This is also a two-step item.
—Step 1 – Individual teacher (or subject area group) creates a rubric to assess the performance task.
—Step 2 – Team meets so that each teacher can share their rubric with the entire team.  Team should help individual teacher with clarifying any items the team does not understand.
5. Summative Assessment
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.
6. Formative Assessments
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.
7. Digital Curriculum
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.

This design is not always clear or easy.  But it is better.  If you have questions on this process, feel free to email me at

Enjoy the design!

What It Means to be a STEM School

As I look back on the first semester of the STEM School in Chattanooga, I realized that STEM has taken on a variety of meanings throughout the country.  Some people view STEM as a way to add more math and science into the student day.  Others look at it as a way to have students try and solve problems without one solution, but for these students to only do so as part of the curriculum in a math or science class or even some STEM elective class.  And still others consider it a way to move kids away from the liberal arts and towards mathematic or scientific pursuits.  What I have learned is that STEM is and should not be any of these.  STEM is not an added piece to a school’s curricula.  STEM is the core, the center, the heart of a school.  All pursuits should be built from this core and outward.  If STEM becomes the center, nothing becomes a mutually exclusive element or class or pursuit.  Everything ties to STEM and STEM ties to everything.

STEM defined:

–STEM is a focus on three key elements – critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.  Critical thinking being defined as students being able to think through a situation without having to be told what to do or merely regurgitate the information they were taught.  Critical thinking involves creation, application, and analysis. Collaboration being defined as students learning how to work with others (both in homogeneous and heterogeneous teams) to develop successful products of work. Innovation being defined as students developing new and varied ideas for the same question or problem.

–STEM is a student becoming a self-sufficient learner.  A student not being reliant on a teacher for success.  A student learning how to learn, so that regardless of the instructional approach, the student can learn.  Learning is not about dependency, but learning is about being both independent and interdependent.

–STEM is using technology… in everything.  Students not only are consumers of technology, but creators of technology.  Technology is an integral piece in enhancing student learning and enabling student innovation.  Blended learning is the norm, not the exception.

–STEM is failure.  Failure is emphasized, encouraged, and critiqued.  It is recognized that successful innovation comes after failure and that grit is only developed through enduring failure.

–STEM is having at the center of your school a clear essential question or problem that students are working towards answering.  This essential question or problem is connected to everything the student is doing throughout the day.  It does not mean that every minute is spent answering the question or problem, but it means that the work students do will enable them to better understand the question or problem.  No classes should be mutually exclusive.  All classes should have a connection to this essential question or problem.

–STEM is appropriately implementing these essential questions or problems such that students participate in inclusive project or problem based learning experiences. Students should have performance tasks that model the following format: I (the student) will perform the following task (student creation) in order to prove that I have learned the following learning targets (state or national curricular targets written in student friendly language).

–STEM is developing partnerships with industry to develop essential questions or problems.  STEM essential questions or problems should be related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematic issues, concerns, opportunities, and/or interests.

–STEM is the core of the school.

A STEM school must work to consistently incorporate the above.  Schools that have isolated STEM programs are not STEM.  They are a school with some extra work in math, technology, engineering, and/or science.  STEM is inclusive and not exclusive, and does not discriminate.  STEM is not an elective or a singular technical education preparation program.

STEM demands integration into everything you do, and only then can you call your school STEM.

Value Added or Value Diminished?

It all starts with research.  One paper, one idea.  University of Tennessee professors Dr. Robert McLean and Dr. William Sanders set out in 1984 to describe a statistical method for assessing teacher effectiveness.  Yes, 1984.  For those of you who were schooled in the 80’s, remember those California Achievement Tests?  McLean and Sanders took results from grades 2 through 5 from one school system and three years worth of data to statistically show that teachers could be assessed for their effectiveness by running a mixed-model regression analysis.  The study was repeated for two other school systems and results proved similar (not the same).  So, lets take a second to let that sink in.

Here is what we just found out:

  • Our teacher effectiveness (or value added) model is based on scores of second through fifth grade students.
  • These scores are based on a single testing instrument implemented once in a school year.
  • The California Achievement Test, a test that was not aligned to Tennessee curricula in the 1980’s (or since), was the deployment for assessing teacher quality.
  • The California Achievement Test, as is the case with how standardized tests are created, also shoots for items that are answered correctly by 40 to 60 percent of the population.  Items deemed more difficult and challenging are expunged from the test.  In other words, mediocrity is the aim.  If you get all of the mediocre questions correct, you are smart.  Or better yet, if you get more of the mediocre questions correct in grade 4 than in grade 3, your teacher is awesome.
  • Let me make it really real: If your daughter got 35 out of 50 middle of the road questions correct in 3rd grade, and then got 37 (yes, ONLY two more) middle of the road questions correct in 4th grade, YOUR DAUGHTERS 4TH GRADE TEACHER IS AWESOME.

For those of you who have read the Tipping Point, you would also thoroughly enjoy reading the history of how Tennessee adopted Value Added in 1991 into state law. Long story short, Tennessee was in the bottom five percent in test scores. Accountability and testing must be the answer but we need “something” to implement that can help us “judge” teachers.  Hey, those two guys from the University of TN are pretty smart.  Perfect.  They have research on the California Achievement Test and they tell us we can denote the good teachers from the bad teachers.  Write it in the law, let’s vote, approved.

Before I go on, let me also note that Tennessee is STILL in the bottom five percent in testing across the country… and it is the year 2012.  Ironically, the law makers in 1991 wrote a document titled “Tennessee Challenge 2000.”  Yeah, the HOPE was Tennessee would be out of the cellar by the year 2000.  21 years in… still in the cellar… and…

The model is even more convoluted.  Instead of focusing on 2nd through 5th grade students and teachers, we now have a value-added system that impacts every teacher.  So, we “predict” the score of a 9th grade Algebra student based on scores from elementary and middle school.  The “statistics” associated with this process is deemed too difficult for anyone to understand, so it is never shared with the public or the teachers.  Yet, the math is really not all that complicated.  Let me explain how simple regression works.  I know I am simplifying the statistics, but the real math is not much different, just longer.

  • Suppose your daughter went to elementary school X and got an average score of 85.  Then your daughter goes to middle school XX and got an average score of 82.  When she goes to 9th grade at high school XXX, she is “predicted” to get an average score of 79. (ie down three points each school level)
  • Now suppose your son went to elementary school Y and got an average score of 85.  Then your son goes to middle school YY and got an average score of 87. When he goes to 9th grade at high school YYY, he is “predicted” to get an average score of 89. (ie up two points)
  • Now, lets suppose that both your son and daughter get a score of 84 on the Algebra test.  High School XXX (where your daughter goes) will be promoted as one of the best high schools in the state of Tennessee.  She beat her predicted score by 5 points.  High School YYY (where your son goes) will be publicly destroyed as a horrible place for students.  While your daughter beat her predicted score by 5, your son was 5 lower than his… AND YET they both had the EXACT SAME SCORE in elementary school and the EXACT SAME SCORE in high school.
  • Finally, the other dirty secret about the testing is that the difference between scoring a 79 or 84 (for example) may be answering two more questions correct. Yes, it makes complete sense for a teacher to spend an ENTIRE YEAR to have a student answer two more questions correct.  Please note my sarcasm here.

The three high schools that earned recognition in Tennessee this year for being phenomenal schools are high schools like High School XXX above.  And they also earned those distinctions because of scores that happened in 9th grade Algebra only.

What value added does to our schools:

  • It creates a climate where teachers must focus instruction on mediocrity (its all about getting the most mediocre questions correct).
  • It creates a reward system that is flawed and not only unfairly punishes one school, but absurdly rewards another.
  • It makes school about answering questions correct that can be googled in five seconds, and perpetuating a mindset that kids will be better prepared for college/work/life if they answer two more multiple choice questions correctly.

We want to engage students in innovation, critical thinking, and collaboration. Value added promotes none of these.  The longer we reward excellence as two more questions correct on a test, the longer we diminish the value of our educational system.

5 Changes That Mark The Death of School As We Know It and What To Do

I began my teaching career with one thought in my head – I could teach better than those who taught me. Well, at least most of those who taught me.  My passion for becoming a teacher was to engage the minds of the kids in my class and make education fun.

Then I started teaching.  It was hard.  Really hard. Eventually I figured “it” out.  I spent countless hours perfecting my presentations and class assignments, and kids would even say they liked my class.  I got “good” scores on teacher effectiveness and had parents clamoring for kids to be in my class.

Yet what I had created was an isolated piece, for isolated kids, of an isolated positive experience.  I couldn’t differentiate my lessons to meet the needs of every kid.  I viewed my class as one of the courses on a kid’s schedule and didn’t concern myself with other courses being taught by other people.  The activities I created had little to do with learning the skills necessary to be successful in life, but rather skills necessary to be successful in school.  And there is a marked difference between those two skill sets.

In a world where having a degree was a distinguishing factor between those with jobs and those without, playing school is fine.  In a flat world where a degree is just as likely to land you in your parents basement as it is in a job where you can actually live on your own, playing school well is not a given to opportunity.

When the jobs of tomorrow do not even exist, how can we possibly think that what we are doing in the classroom can remain the same?  Regardless of how many times you hear that our kids need to have good critical thinking skills, be innovative, and know how to collaborate, its just true.  Yet we don’t change schools.  We accountability them to death.

So what is next?

Here are the five changes that will change how we do school and mark the death of school as we know it.

1. Wireless devices.  Five years ago, I would have called you absolutely insane if you tried to explain to me what an iPad was.  Five years from now, who knows what the next generation of tech will be. But with the invent of the laptop, then the iPad, and now the economical feasibility of every student having a mobile device, it doesnt matter what we have in five years.  We know that every kid will have some device that works wirelessly and it will have access to more information and content than we could access in a million lifetimes.  Life will be about how to access this monstrosity and apply it.  Teachers will not be viewed as experts in content.  They will be needed to help navigate and guide.  Explanations will be so readily available, waiting on a teacher for an explanation will be considered archaic.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  Putting as much money and time into building infrastructure that supports wireless devices.  Yes, it will be important to purchase wireless devices.  But even more important is to make sure that when the device is handed to the student, the tech infrastructure is in place to meet the wireless access load.

2. Blended Learning.  Educators need to be aware that varied forms of blended learning, a mix of classroom experience and computer/online instruction, is creating havoc on accountability measures.  There are only a handful of public schools across the country that have implemented blended learning for several years.  In those schools, learning outcomes are crushing those of non-blended schools with similar demographics. And these schools are doing it with less staff.  Business leaders understand what a disruptive innovation is.  Educators have no idea.  Yet they are about to become the slaughtered lambs.  We know teachers are vital to the success of students and learning.  However, we are finding out very quickly that by using blended learning approaches, we need less teachers AND we get better results.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  Planning and implementing a blended learning model into every school over the next three years.  This may seem like a short timeframe, but it is not.  Blended learning is the tidal wave coming.  Disruptive innovations are not concerned with people.  They are created by situations where economics and results dictate change.  Its time to get on the wave before you have no chance of getting on it.  If systems are too late, they will find themselves in battles with teachers, PR nightmares, lawsuits, flight from public schools to online schools, and infinitely other issues.  Simply put, instead of making a gradual transition, systems will be forced to make huge cuts at one time and the teachers who stay will not be ready.  A gradual transition will provide schools and systems the opportunity to implement blended learning models with a focus on quality and learn from small mistakes.

3. PBLs.  PBLs are problem/project based learning activities that require students to work collaboratively to apply content and create new ideas.  PBLs are the backbone to STEM education and the business world collective needs – critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration.  Quality PBL work is the closest and most realistic learning activity to business work.  Without PBL work, school is a series of test taking strategies and unapplied content regurgitation.  PBLs are the integral piece to developing holistic student thinking, and increasing student marketibility.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  Defining and describing the planning steps associated with developing PBLs at each grade level.  The PBLs must be cross-curricular and include performance tasks that demonstrate student understanding and application of content area standards/learning targets.  This is an area that is challenging for teachers, as it requires educators to think about schools as a whole, rather than a series of disconnected individual parts or classes.  This year should be the year for someone on every school staff to learn about PBL work.  Next year, every school should be implementing at least one pilot PBL across the content.  Within five years, PBLs should be required across all grade levels.

4. Individualized Learning.  Differentiation is one of the most popular words used in education.  Yet, the dirty little secret about differentiation is that its almost impossible to do.  In study after study, time is cited as if not the biggest constraint, in the top three.  So how can individualized learning be on this list?  Simple.  In the last year alone, all of the largest online education content providers have been working to introduce tablet based courses for almost all the curricula you would find in any school.  The courses include direct instructional videos by some of the best teachers in the country, real time practice and feedback tools, and online assessment opportunities that provide immediate results.  The notion of everyone sitting in the same class, at the same time, with the same teacher, talking about the same stuff is something that my daughters (who are six and seven) will think is asinine by the time they are high school age.  The software is already here for PCs.  It will be here within the next nine months on tablet devices as well.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  In the blended learning models that are implemented, schools and systems should make sure that individualized learning opportunities exist for some of these implementations.  It will be important to pilot a blending learning model, like a flex model, where students pace individually and a teacher holds workshops for students with similar needs.  Needs may include activities that apply the learning completed on an online module, and, of course, remediation for those who are having difficulty with a certain standard/ learning target.  Within three to five years, all math courses should be taught using individualized learning.  Those schools who teach math traditionally will be lapped by those using individualized learning blended models.

5. Grading and Assessment.  For any school not using standards based grading, communicated grades are filled with items that skew the accuracy of the grade.  For example, kids getting credit for doing homework, yet not having mastery over the content is grading malpractice.  Yet we continue to think of grading in terms of quantity, as opposed to quality.  We also focus on when kids know information, as opposed to if they know the information.  As schools adopt blended learning and PBL work, grading will change.  The focus of our assessment attention will move from when and compliance to if and level of quality.  Teachers will have a difficult time making this change as they have very little experience in how to grade any other way.  However, when time is no longer a determinng factor, but rather if the student knows and can show us they know the content, grading will change.  Teachers will adapt, but, ironically, this will be the most difficult adjustment for educators and parents.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  There is a definitive need for schools and systems to look closely at their current grading practices.  An easy intermediate step is for schools to move away from categories in the gradebook of assignment types (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.) and require categories based on standards (in English, for example, writing, literature, speaking, etc.).  This will force teachers to enter grades that only show what a student knows about the standard.  This step should be implemented within the next two to three years.

The next five years will be the most impactful five years in the history of modern education.  We will not recognize our schools.  For those that adapt earlier, we will be singing their praises.  For those who do not adapt, they will be leasing buildings or running prisons.