How Innovative School District Superintendents Are Transforming the High School Experience for Students

November 8, 2016
Alliance for Excellent Education 

by Bob Wise

Recently, fourteen district superintendents met with U.S. Secretary of Education John King at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Their hour-long discussion offered another confirmation that education’s change agents are growing. How quickly and effectively these district leaders receive support will determine our nation’s educational progress.

These engaged superintendents, invited from across the nation, had been meeting all day with ED and the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (Alliance’s) Future Ready Schools® (FRS) team to discuss their experiences with the FRS initiative and sharing ideas for improvements.

What excited me was how much these diverse superintendents agreed on the need to transform education, especially the high school experience. These district leaders were not asking for business as usual; they are committed to bold steps that achieve deeper learning outcomes for all students and the student-centered practice to achieve them.

Equally passionate at Secretary King’s long conference room table was Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and coauthor of the recently published Personalizing 21st Century Education. As head of the nation’s largest association of district leaders, Dan is outspoken on the need for transforming education. His book is a practical guide for superintendents and other education leaders about how to begin the personalized learning process.

Each of the superintendents in attendance has been a leader in the fast-growing FRS initiative to help district leaders plan and implement personalized, research-based digital learning strategies so all students can achieve their full potential.

Launched by President Obama in 2014 as a partnership between ED and the Alliance, FRS now stands on its own and includes nearly 3,000 district leaders—representing more than one-third of all students nationwide—who have signed the Future Ready Pledge to take action. FRS has conducted twenty regional summits and workshops, built a comprehensive interactive dashboard, and currently supports more than 1,200 district teams actively engaged in the no-cost planning process. No federal funds have been used. This structure has been built with cooperation of 50 national and state partners and the financial support of AT&T and McGraw-Hill Education.

Additionally, new guidance from ED validates the Future Ready Interactive Planning Dashboard as a self-assessment tool that school districts can use for ongoing improvement, as well as to support their applications for funding through the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants program. In addition, states may find resources from FRS helpful in addressing the “supporting all students” section of the consolidated plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This guidance will enable even more districts to take advantage of the free resources and support available.

It’s no surprise that the resourceful FRS superintendents at the meeting with Secretary King already are taking advantage of every assistance possible to bring massive change to their districts. Some are working in AASA’s first group of innovative districts. Others participated in the recent XQ Superschool competition—Devin Vodicka headed Vista [California] Unified School District’s successful application for one of the ten awards. Others are part of the Digital Promise League of Innovative SchoolsP-TechSummit Public SchoolsNew Tech NetworkInstitute for Student Achievement, and other learning and support systems.

After a few welcoming remarks, Secretary King asked what these district leaders need to transform their schools. As the group members shared their aspirations, experiences, and recommendations, money was not the lead-off request. Instead, quality professional development headed many lists. Another common theme was encouraging school leaders and teachers to teach toward higher student learning outcomes by personalizing learning and using technology effectively. Some requested more XQ-like competitions that require both planning and obtaining community buy-in to the goals and changes in education approaches.

Do these fourteen superintendents represent the more than 14,000 district leaders in the United States? These are the hard-chargers; the early adopters. But they represent a growing number who are willing to fight for transformational change. In numerous forums, I am steadily impressed at the growing numbers of district leaders ready to lead a transformative effort. But their needs are rapidly growing; the support they require to build public demand and provide guidance for implementation also is fast-developing.

During the meeting, I raised the concept of creating an infrastructure, largely digital, that could match district needs with organizations and resources that could help—an education transformation version of Facebook and that could respond to the many demand and supply issues, as well as the needs for different types of assistance. The affirmative response from the participants further encourages the Alliance’s continuing work with partners to build this network.

Whether these discussions occur with the Secretary of Education, at the second White House Next Generation High School Summit, at the New Schools Venture Fund annual summit, or through efforts like Remake Learningand Education Reimagined, it is clear that the movement is building.

When Secretary King concluded the superintendents’ meeting, he asked what each superintendent hoped to achieve. One superintendent from an economically challenged district stated “that in ten years, my kids are graduating with all the doors still open.”

The best way to ensure that all doors stay open for all students is to open communication and cooperation between all groups and organizations to maximize resource sharing to support all those represented by the district leaders in that ED conference room.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.

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