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By: Guest Blogger
In four years with the Straight A Fund innovation project, I have been gifted with the experience of seeing some highly creative and effective changes to the way we do school across the state. Ohio’s Straight A Fund supports ideas from local educators to promote better learning and cost savings within schools and districts. Working with our projects has led me to understand not only what works on the path to improvement, but also some of the pitfalls and distractions that may interfere with solid innovative thinking.
Successful change starts by defining a problem. A problem may be some nagging area that demands a solution, but a problem, in innovation terms, may also be something that is currently working but could be improved. Defining a problem before we look for solutions may seem quite simple, obvious even. However, without thinking about what we want an innovation to accomplish, it is very easy to become sidetracked into adopting some shiny new solution that does wonderful things—but is not a good fit for our situation. In education, just as in our personal lives with things we purchase, new bells and whistles can sometimes be very appealing. But like a Christmas toy that is only played with for a few moments before it is cast aside, some attractive new education toys also fail to live up to expectations. They may be too difficult in comparison to their value, poorly understood by the students who use them or offering a solution to a problem we don’t have.
As an example of innovation working well, the Straight A Fund has created a number of technology solutions. These projects have purchased hardware and software and trained teachers to be able to use them. As we consider how well these projects put their new technology to use, it is clear that the ability to successfully use these innovations and keep using them over time is increased by understanding the distinction between technology “toys” and technology “tools.” Successful projects have put technology tools to use in solving a problem they identified up front. Problems that have been addressed using technological tools include the need to teach students in a classroom who all have different strengths and abilities or the need for small and rural districts to connect their students to a wide variety of courses.
Defining a problem may require that we take a careful look at the way things are—even things that have always been and seem to be working as expected. Transporting students to and from school is an example. One of our innovative projects has improved transportation at a lower cost by merging across districts and using software to lay out the most efficient routes, compute idle time and even track when students are picked up and dropped off. This first required them to think outside the box of what they were accustomed to (that every district must have their own transportation system). A bonus associated with that project was the launch of a mobile app to communicate with parents on whether their student’s bus is on time, running late or on the way. And, the savings they experience from innovation can help expand on other education programs.
One final understanding that is helpful to the identification of a problem is look at it locally. Research and data can help us spot general trends in education to be on the lookout for. But, they may still need to be considered in terms of how they impact our own district. As an example, the cause and strategies to address chronic absenteeism will vary for each district.
In 2017, we hope to see continuing innovation in schools across the state, building on what we have learned in the Straight A Fund innovation program.
Dr. Susan Tave Zelman is an executive director at the Ohio Department of Education and oversees the Straight A Fund. You can reach her at Susan.Zelman@education.ohio.gov.
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By: Guest Blogger
“It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!” This is what we say when some new thing — an innovation — is likely to make a difference in the way we do things. In fact, selling bread as a collection of single slices made many things different. Sliced bread made sandwiches a standard size. Sliced bread meant an evenly toasted result popping up from toasters. Sliced bread was easier for children too young to use sharp knives.
And yet, we know one grandmother who sent her son back to the store when he brought home the first sliced loaf. She argued that it would get stale too quickly. Over time, bakers learned to make sliced bread last longer by adding preservatives (and subtracting some nutrition and fiber-containing bran). Generations came to accept that bread comes in plastic bags filled with soft white slices and stays soft for days. Between 1900 and 1970, sales of flour shifted from being 95 percent for use by home bakers to 15 percent, as the factory-made sliced version became accepted. Henry Ward Beecher described this change saying, “What had been the staff of life for countless ages had become a weak crutch” (Flamming, 2009, pp. 109-110).
But this is not the end of the story. As middle class Americans traveled the world, they experienced other foods and cultures. By 1973, James Beard noted new interest in a more wholesome and less standardized bread product. Some Americans were drawn to the yeasty aroma and better nutrition (Flamming, 2009, p. 110). This example shows that innovation does not travel a straight line. Change tends to be more of a spiral. While change takes us “forward” across time, innovations also go back and forth, like a pendulum. Our forward path looks more like a coiled spring or spiral.
Change in education is similar. Our forward path also moves back and forth in response to changing concerns. This pendulum movement turns our forward motion into a spiral. The Ohio Department of Education has just finished four years of funding innovative projects through the Straight A Fund. This is a good time to look at how we have spiraled forward.
As we look at the results of Straight A innovation, we see two sets of opposite forces. One set moves back and forth between making things standard and making them more personal. The other set teeters between academic learning and vocational education. Neither of these tensions is new, but today, we have a new context. Today’s school context is one of leaving behind a world of assembly lines and preparing students for a world of information.
Industrial-age learning moved students from classroom to classroom in an assembly line fashion. Schools were organized as if every 8-year-old had roughly the same needs and abilities. Teachers understood that not every student was the same, but if they aimed for the middle, most students could learn something. This has never been the entire picture of American education (Schneider, 2015). Even though many see public schools as being factory-like, they also were influenced by educators like Piaget and Dewey and theorists like Vygotsky and Montessori, who urged more consideration for individual student needs (Educational Broadcasting System, 2004).
Today, our Straight A projects can use technology to better meet the needs of each child. Montessori proposed classrooms with organized learning activities and a teacher trained to observe student behavior and provide the right lesson at the right time. Some of our Straight A projects have used technology to evaluate students’ needs and provide the right lessons at the right time. This includes individualized programs in early reading and mathematics (Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District’s DigiLit, Beaver Creek City School District’s e-Spark, Painesville City Local School District’s Early Literacy Initiative) and technology-rich “learning zones” or labs (Canal Winchester Local School District, Beaver Creek City School District’s School Labs).
In some cases, technology prompted major building renovations. For example, Mentor Exempted Village School District has worked every year since its 2015 grant to update more classrooms. This includes current technology. But, it also includes flexible spaces for individual student work, whole-class teaching or small, student-led groups. As teachers have learned to use technology, they have started writing their own online courses. This means students don’t have to choose between two courses scheduled at the same time. North Canton City School District moved from desks and tables to “flexible furniture” that can easily be moved into different groupings.
Putting students first also has inspired innovation in education for groups with special needs. Cincinnati City School District and Princeton City School District trained more teachers to teach students learning English as their second language. Their project also translated forms and notices into other languages. These have been shared online with schools across the state.
Two projects use computers to help students with disabilities. The Autism Model School is using special online comic books to help students understand what they read. The Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County is helping parents and teachers work together to support student behavior. Its online system lets it share videos of the students. Then, professionals can suggest ways to help that work at home and at school.
The second set of tensions is between academic and vocational focus. When public education for all children was developing, John Dewey was promoting manual education. Dewey saw manual training as important to social and intellectual development. He suggested this would enhance other learning. Others ran with the notion of students attaining employment skills for trades. This led to the development of industrial arts and vocational education for some students and more academic education for others.
Many people today believe we need more vocational education. Some talk about children who do poorly in academics but “know how to work with their hands,” or “are really good at tinkering with cars.” What this misses is that cars today are tuned by computers. Many things that used to be handmade are now digitized. If we want to get students ready to go to work, we must know what jobs look like today.
What we learned through our Straight A innovation schools is that job skills and certifications have changed. Trumbull County Career Center replaced a carpentry program with a program in personal training. It added aspects that focused on building a healthy working environment for staff and students. Tri-Rivers Career Center developed new programs in FANUC robotics — based on the hiring needs of local industry. Tri-Rivers also is showing other career centers how to meet their own local industry needs. Butler County Educational Service Center and Mentor Exempted Village have added courses in gaming, coding and story booking.
We see that business doesn’t need skills in transcription, key punch or shorthand. It does value management skills, like the Six Sigma program. Noble Local School District used GPS tracking and computer analysis to merge transportation systems with other districts. Their efficiencies and cost savings were evaluated for them through Lean Ohio’s Six Sigma program, which demonstrates the value of this new certification program in schools across the state.
Moving forward, many of those who implemented Straight A projects will be watching for changes in test scores and graduation rates but also expect to see other changes for students after they graduate. They tell us that they hear from other districts interested in what they are doing. Innovation takes time to take root and bring change. We anticipate a deeper understanding of results over time.
Dr. Susan Tave Zelman is an executive director at the Ohio Department of Education. You can reach her at Susan.Zelman@education.ohio.gov. Dr. Peggy Sorensen is a social sciences research specialist at the Department. She can be reached at Peggy.Sorensen@education.ohio.gov.
Educational Broadcasting System. (2004). Concept to Classroom. Retrieved from WNET Education: http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index_sub4.html
Flamming, J. A. (2009). The taste for civilization: Food, politics and civil society. University of Illinois Press.
Schneider, J. (2015, October 10). American schools are modeled after factories and treat students like widgets. Right? Wrong. The Washington Post.
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By: Steve Gratz
During the summer after my first year of teaching, I went over to my colleague, Jim Boyd’s, biology classroom and snooped around to see what I might be able to “borrow” to enhance my teaching — I was working on embedding more science principles into my agriculture curriculum. While I was rummaging around his classroom, I found a syllabus from his 10th grade biology class, and I realized it closely paralleled my sophomore class agriculture syllabus. However, it did so through principles rather than the context from which I taught. For example, Mr. Boyd taught cells: homeostasis, respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis and meiosis; and genetics: fundamentals, DNA, RNA, inheritance and expression. I taught AgriScience 200 (Animal and Plant Biology): genetics, anatomy and physiology, growth and development, reproduction, and nutrition. The parallels were uncanny.
Aside from spending a majority of that summer conducting home visits to students, I invested many hours rewriting the agriculture curriculum with my colleague Brad Moffitt. Brad and I graduated together from The Ohio State University, and we focused on embedding more science principles into our agriculture curricula throughout our teaching careers.
During the fall semester of my second year of teaching, Jim stopped down to my classroom and asked me about my curriculum. I quickly shared with him my syllabus from my sophomore agriculture class. He carefully reviewed it, paused and said, “No wonder your students know the answers to all my questions, you are teaching biology in your ag class.” This was sheer luck and not planned on my part, but it really motivated me to continue to highlight the embedded science in the agriculture curriculum.
In addition to teaching animal and plant biology, I also remember introducing gel electrophoresis to my students. Gel electrophoresis is a laboratory method used to separate DNA fragments (or other macromolecules, such as RNA and proteins) according to molecular size. In gel electrophoresis, the molecules to be separated are pushed by an electrical field through a gel that contains small pores. Of course, gel electrophoresis has evolved tenfold since the last time I was in the classroom. These are just a few examples life sciences embedded in agriculture.
The National FFA saw the importance of embedding more science principles in the agriculture curriculum. In fact, it created a recognition program for teachers of agriculture who brought science to the forefront. Brad (1985) and I (1986) were both recognized by the National FFA for outstanding work in agriscience. We both experienced increases in program enrollment because of the curricular change. However, we weren’t satisfied and set our sights on ensuring that our students could receive science credit through our agriscience courses. In Ohio, local districts control the awarding of credit, and we saw a handful of schools granting science credit for students in agriculture courses due to the embedded sciences.
When I started working at the Ohio Department of Education, I provided leadership to the agriscience initiative that was sweeping the country. At the Department, I immediately started working to ensure more students could receive science credit through agricultural education. I recall visiting with staff from the Office of Educator Licensure to determine the coursework agriculture teachers needed to become certified science teachers. After several meetings, we determined that agriculture teachers needed a physics class to receive certification to teach science. I reached out to Ohio State and arranged for a physics course to be taught on Saturdays to help agriculture teachers get science teaching certificates.
With the passage of House Bill 59, schools may now integrate academic content in a subject area into a course in a different subject area, including a career-technical education course. Upon successful completion of the integrated course, a student may receive credit for subject areas that were integrated into the course. Moreover, credits earned for subject area content delivered through integrated academic and career-technical instruction are eligible to meet the graduation requirements.
Integrated coursework benefits students by creating authentic learning experiences, deepening student understanding and creating space in students’ schedules for additional learning experiences. These experiences can include elective courses, College Credit Plus, work-based learning or other innovative educational practices. Integrated coursework mimics real-world situations and makes learning more authentic. Students are actively engaged in learning because the design of the integrated curriculum creates challenging, meaningful tasks that help students connect information.
Innovative school leaders who take advantage of the integrated coursework initiative really can change a student’s experience in and out of school. I’ve witnessed this as a teacher and by visiting schools across the state. Below are videos showing how schools have integrated different subject areas into different courses. The Department will continue to capture examples of integrated coursework as this initiative gains momentum.
Dr. Steve Gratz is senior executive director of the Center for Student Support and Education Options at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversees creative ways to help students in Ohio achieve success in school. You can learn more about Steve by clicking here.
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Last Modified: 6/1/2016 4:16:44 PM