NOTE: This is part two of a three-part blog series in which Matthew Friedman, EdD, shares his findings about the trends, strengths, and weaknesses of the Future Ready Schools® network across the four regions of the United States and looks at the exciting possibilities for personalized learning in schools in the post–COVID-19 world.
When we look at the bright lights of Silicon Valley, hear of young innovative entrepreneurs or read about cutting-edge computer scientists in our country, we are often proud of our brightest and best and might think that the United States education system fosters all the twenty-first-century skills we need for long-term success moving forward.
Unfortunately, that often is not the case due to many schools and districts in the United States still working in a system with its roots dating back to the 1800s.
While federal and state efforts have attempted to make technology available to schools and districts to bring twenty-first-century learning methods to all students, not all schools and districts have had an equitable opportunity to embrace this change. Meanwhile many districts simply have shied away from implementing this huge paradigm shift in their classrooms. Unfortunately, we still have twenty-first-century learners being taught by twentieth-century teachers in nineteenth-century classrooms. So, why have some schools raced along the personalized learning path while others are falling behind?
A Demographic Question?
The Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) Future Ready Schools® (FRS) program is working to help districts move toward personalized learning experiences for all learners through the use of technology.
This analysis collected data from FRS partner schools and districts during the 2018–2019 and 2019–2020 school years. Partner schools and districts completed a comprehensive needs assessment survey to determine how far along the path to personalized learning they perceived they were and what barriers remained on the path ahead for a full transformation to take place.
But, for data to be useful, it must first be interpreted, and that’s where I come in. My study, in cooperation with FRS, examines the survey findings to ask, “How future ready do our district leaders think they are? And are there any similarities or differences in their perceptions?”
We looked for trends and patterns and investigated a looming question that had not been explored before: Does it make a difference where your school or district is situated in the United States for you truly to be future ready?
The FRS Framework Is Designed to Help
It’s not easy to change a complicated system, full of diverse individuals and communities. FRS acknowledges this complexity, and its framework provides a pathway to guide schools and districts along the way.
The framework includes seven categories for which district teams need to plan, prepare and implement:
- curriculum, instruction, and assessment
- personalized professional learning
- budget and resources
- community partnerships
- data and privacy
- robust infrastructure
- use of space and time
The framework also has four stages of readiness within each category: investigating, envisioning, planning, and staging.
Each of these categories and stages requires significant resources, cooperation, mindset changes, and work before changes can be fully embedded.
Consider the Technology Gear
Robust infrastructure requires schools and districts to have enough devices available for students and staff. Furthermore, they also must consider the network on which the devices will run. Is it powerful—and secure enough—to cope?
And, of course, technology is only great as long as it’s working. Schools need to have excellent on-site technical support to maintain their devices and networks and to fix hardware and software problems as they occur.
Another consideration is the fast pace of development. Every week there seems to be something new and better on the horizon. Districts need to have review-and-replacement cycles in place so that the oldest equipment and networks are maintained regularly and replaced over time.
In the end, providing technology boils down to money and expertise. Complicated and expensive as it may be, in many ways, the robust infrastructure gear has proved the most manageable framework for most schools to complete.
Space and Time Are Challenging
The use of space and time gear has a different set of requirements.
In this gear, districts and schools must consider how to enable flexible, anytime learning. How can they reconfigure school spaces to promote and enhance the new learning style?
Instead of needing vast computer labs, we now have portable devices that can work anywhere. So, students require places for quiet, individual work, and others where they can collaborate in groups.
Teachers need nooks to gather instructional groups, and schools also need makerspaces, project rooms, and outdoor facilities to create those personalized learning experiences for students. On top of that, we still need to have specialized spaces for the arts, physical education, and science to flourish.
It’s not just the size of the new spaces. Leaders also need to consider the furniture, color schemes, decorations, storage, lighting, and even the heating and cooling to make a space truly effective. You can’t cram a makerspace into a dark cupboard and expect creativity and problem solving to shine.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the space and time gear is proving to be an enormous challenge.
Analyzing the Data
District and school leaders considered a vast number of questions about their readiness to implement each gear. To analyze these results, we assigned a point value to each answer and a range for each stage. That enabled us to use the following rubric.
District leaders are becoming more deeply informed about emerging research, trends, best practices, and added value related to digital learning. They are supported in their investigation through conference attendance, webinars, and in-depth discussions at district leadership meetings to ensure deep understating that informs their vision of digital learning.
District leaders have identified viable new directions for the school district. They have reviewed the possibilities, built scenarios for how those possibilities would look in their district, and—working in tandem with key stakeholders—established a common vision of the future.
District leaders have established indicators of success based on the vision, set a baseline, and conducted a gap analysis. They have forged a plan for closing the gaps and identified key strategies for making progress toward those targets. They have projected benchmarks and milestones and created timelines, associated work plans, management plans, and budgets.
District leaders have enacted policies, established new structures, identified budgets, and assigned roles and responsibilities that collectively stage the district well for achieving the outcomes described in the vision. Where appropriate, they have undertaken pilots to document the efficacy of the elements of the plan. Once the district reaches the staging level, it is ready to begin full implementation.
Assigning a point value allowed us to group schools, calculate the mean scores, and view the trends to see if demographics are significant in school and district readiness. In other words, can the data show if some regions of the United States are better prepared for personalized learning than others?
Overall, the data did show that almost half of the school districts surveyed were located in suburban areas, and more than one-fourth of districts were in rural areas. Districts in cities and towns comprised the remainder of the sample.
It’s essential to consider this demographic because a rural school in Pennsylvania, for example, is likely to have very different needs and resources to those of a school in an urban setting like New York City.
The study also looked at trends across four broad regions of the United States: North, South, Midwest, and West. It finds that districts’ readiness differed depending on the area in which they were located.
We analyzed perceived readiness to implement student-centered learning by calculating the mean scores of the seven gears within the Future Ready Framework.
Schools and districts in North reported the highest overall combined gear score. This indicates that schools in the North are furthest along the path to fully implementing personalized learning.
They were followed by the schools and districts in the South and West. Meanwhile, the Midwest reported the lowest overall gear scores, meaning schools there tend to be least ready to move to a new, technology-based personalized learning ecosystem.
When we calculated the mean scores by category, the data shows that none of the seven framework gears scored in the lowest stage of readiness, investigating (0–3.99), or the highest stage, staging (8–10). So, progress has been made in all U.S. regions, but very few districts are ready to implement personalized learning fully across the board.
Over the total sample of schools and districts across all four regions, the robust infrastructure gear received the highest mean score (7.25), showing that many FRS schools have invested in the technology to implement modern learning practices.
Scores fell after that, with data and privacy having a mean score of 7.09, and the personalized professional learning gear coming in at 6.08. All three of these categories fell into the planning stage of readiness.
The gear with the lowest overall score was use of space and time, which had a mean of just 4.57.
But, when we looked at the data region by region, we found that overall, schools and districts in the North scored significantly higher collectively on all seven gears than those in the other three U.S. regions.
Out of the seven gears, Northern states had the highest mean score on each one. Southern states had the second highest mean score on five of the seven gears while Midwestern and Western states were third or fourth.
What Does All This Mean?
FRS districts have all pledged to move their schools toward a more modern personalized learning environment. That is the thread that they all have in common.
But the data shows that districts are not operating on an equal playing field. Schools in the North are consistently moving faster along the path than those in other regions, notably the Midwest.
A modern education system envisages equal opportunity and access to personalized learning for students and staff wherever they live. Our country will be richer materially, culturally, and socially when all its children are prepared successfully for college, varied career pathways, and workplace readiness.
We cannot truly achieve these goals when many schools and districts are lagging behind in the FRS framework.
Now that the data is in, districts, schools, states, organizations, and communities know where to provide targeted support and who needs it most.
Download the full dissertation, Evaluating District Leaders’ Perceptions of Preparedness to Transition from Traditional Personalized Learning Environments.
Matthew Friedman, EdD, currently is the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction of the South Orange Maplewood School District in New Jersey. In addition, he is a university professor in the graduate school of education at two universities and a nationally recognized consultant. Connect with Dr. Friedman on Twitter @mfriedmanPGH.
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