GUEST BLOG: Reflections on Straight A Innovation — Spiraling Forward — Dr. Peggy Sorensen and Dr. Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio Department of Education
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.