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: Paolo DeMaria
One of the things I love about my job is traveling to different schools around Ohio and seeing education policies in action. On April 4, Gov. John Kasich’s annual State of the State Address was held in Sandusky, Ohio. In events leading up to the address, I visited several northern Ohio schools and got a glimpse of just a few of the outstanding education programs offered in our schools.
One of my first stops was to Tiffin Middle School, where I spoke with students and mentors in the Seneca Mentoring Youth Links program, made possible by a Community Connectors mentoring grant. Students in the program otherwise may not have positive adult role models in their lives. It was encouraging to hear directly from students and mentors about the roles they play in one another’s lives. Particularly notable was the observation that mentors learned and grew almost as much as their student mentees.
I visited a preschool at Bellevue Elementary school. This amazing program earned five stars — the highest rating — in Ohio’s Step Up To Quality rating system. I was impressed with how these students are already developing a sophisticated academic vocabulary. During one activity, they were naming shapes like “sphere,” “cone,” “cylinder,” etc. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing that when I was 4 years old! The district’s investment in its youngest students — many from low-income backgrounds and who may have other special needs — will lay the foundation for future success in school, including giving them a leg up on meeting the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. My visit concluded with a discussion with the students’ families, where they shared with me the powerful impact the program has made in their children’s lives.
At Terra State Community College, President Jerome Webster hosted a great event that highlighted the power of partnerships. I heard from panelists representing businesses, colleges, high schools and education partners. The panelists talked about how the partnerships they formed are meeting the area’s workforce needs and creating hope and opportunity for adult learners. Programs like the Ohio Adult Diploma and College Credit Plus are helping Ohioans, young and old, find paths to better employment or advanced education. College Credit Plus helps students get some college credits while in high school. The program is free and can help students reduce student loan debt and begin their college freshman year ahead of their peers. Earning an Ohio Adult Diploma can be life changing for the 1 million adults in Ohio who do not have high school diplomas. It opens new doors to better jobs and, for many, it offers a pathway out of poverty.
Culinary students at EHOVE Career Center treated me to a fantastic lunch, where school leaders joined me to discuss programs at the career center. We toured the school and experienced 21st century learning as I tried out the school’s fascinating virtual reality model of a human heart. The school exemplifies project-based learning in its Fab Lab. It was phenomenal to see what students were able to create here! The lab lets students identify engineering projects and see them through from concept to design to production using a wide variety of high-tech equipment (laser cutters, 3-D printers, etc.). Students have fabricated everything from engines to a huge version of Ohio’s state seal — all while gaining STEM skills and exploring in-demand jobs. Superintendent Mastroianni is providing great leadership at one of Ohio’s great career centers.
Next, I visited Perkins High School in Sandusky. At an Ohio Business Roundtable discussion, business and community leaders talked about how to develop a skilled workforce that can grow Ohio’s economy. We learned about programs in Perkins Local School District and Sandusky City Schools that are creating partnerships with businesses, as well as opportunities for students to make connections to careers. Students made presentations about how the skills they are developing now will help them in the future. It was inspiring to see students making those career connections early on and taking full advantage of their high school experiences to get ready for the future.
My final visit was to Sandusky High School. Sandusky City Schools received Straight A Funds that they used to create internship opportunities for students. The students are interning at local companies and organizations that are connected to the global economy, such as NASA, PNC Bank and the Ohio Army National Guard. I very much enjoyed talking with students in the program. They have great insight and they tell it like it is — one student asked me about the emerging alternative graduation requirements, wondering what motivation students would have to attend classes and do their best if we make graduation easier. I also enjoyed talking with teachers about the joys and challenges of teaching in high school.
It was really neat to see so many aspects of Ohio’s education system in a single day! My colleagues on the State Board of Education, President Tess Elshoff and Board Member Linda Haycock, joined me for several events. At every event, we were able to have meaningful, engaging dialogue with educators, students, families and citizens. It was clear to me that we all want the very best for our children. Educational opportunity is critical to advancing individual students and Ohio’s economy as a whole. I genuinely appreciate all of the teachers, administrators and school personnel who work every day in the best interests of our students. I also want to thank all of the schools and districts who hosted these events. There are some truly fabulous things going on in our schools. It was an incredible experience, and I learned so much in our conversations.
You can follow State Board of Education President Tess Elshoff at twitter.com/Tess_Elshoff and Board Member Linda Haycock at twitter.com/linda_haycock.
Paolo DeMaria is superintendent of public instruction of Ohio, where he works to support an education system of nearly 3,600 public schools and more than 1.6 million students.
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