Thinking about scale up and growth. When is the right time?
The question of when and how to scale a blended learning program is very complex. It seems fitting that this be the current topic, as, it is around this time of year that we begin to start planning for September 2014. It still feels strange to the ex-teacher inside of me to start thinking about next year when this year is only half over. And yet, with the new resolutions comes a renewed focus, a push for innovations, and the inspiration to reflect on what has worked and try again, with the hope of getting it better the next time around. So, naturally, at this time of year I find myself deeply involved in the challenge of figuring out what programs to expand? Where should these programs be expanded to? How do we finance this growth? What other organizational goals and objectives will support blended learning program expansions? What professional development is needed to expand these programs successfully?
Since Envision Schools is not yet ready to claim any specific goals for scaling up in the coming year, I will focus this post on the things we are considering and how we approach the complex task of designing, vetting, and finalizing our decisions. This process begins with some reflection on what has been successful and why.
This school year (2013-2014) we have been working on a number of initiatives. Firstly, we expanded our blended learning program into Geometry. This has involved training and coaching three more teachers. However, this year is very different. There were some major changes to the accountability measures that will be implemented – California is piloting Smarter Balanced Assessments of Common Core State Standards – and, consequently, we needed to revamp our internal benchmark measures as well as our curriculum. Both of these undertakings are by no means small. However, this has allowed our math department to focus on developing math-based tasks, something that is very aligned with Envision’s educational model as a whole. And technology is at the heart of this transformation. Technology has enabled teachers to build, or reuse, a wide variety of tools that allow students to play around with and investigate mathematical concepts. The technology has enabled teachers to monitor student’s proficiency of discreet skills and provide personalized and targeted assignments so that fluency is not a barrier to developing conceptual understanding.
Because of a number of variables, however, this year’s expansion of the blended learning program in Geometry got off to a late start. Not having the technology on day 1, has long lasting ramifications. This is definitely an area for growth in the coming years. Teachers have the reputation of not always wanting to be innovative, or try new things. While there is some truth to this I am lucky enough to work with a very adventurous and excited bunch. However, if the technology is not ready and relatively glitch free by opening day, it is not exactly confidence inspiring. And this loss of personal capital can leave a lasting impression. At the very least, it is vital that the technology staff and decision makers have a physical presence and make sure that the teachers feel 150% supported when the technology finally arrives.
This year we also piloted going fully 1 – to – 1 with a whole grade level, our 9th grade at City Arts and Technology High school. This was an exciting opportunity and we have learned a lot already. The first major decisions we made to kick off the pilot were primarily logistical, and yet even these decisions have educational outcomes. We decided, for example, that each teacher would have a class set of Chromebooks. The teachers preferred this method of organization to some of the other proposals – e.g. each student having their own to use throughout the day – and so far this has been a huge success. Each teacher has developed a system within his or her classroom that works with the rest of his or her routines, and there has been very little breakage and zero theft.
This pilot also provided our tech department with some important data about our wireless infrastructure and what our schools would need in order to function in a 1 – to – 1 fashion moving forward. This is huge. I have heard of schools rolling out new 1 –to – 1 programs without this information causing the system to totally crashed, and then staff and teachers are disheartened and so on. We hope that through incremental expansion and close monitoring we can avoid this pitfall.
My major take away from this year’s scaling up is that if scaling up involves new practitioners then it is almost like doing it the first time. Granted, we learned some important lessons the first time around, and were able to navigate development away from some potholes, but people need to learn things through experiencing the change, through making their own mistakes, and through adapting. I guess with growing any program it is important to have some one, or a team, to manage the chaos, someone to say “we have been here before and this is what we said we would do should we find ourselves here again.” It is important to have strong leaders in favor of this growth. Whether this be principals, superintendents or even teacher leaders, these decisions cannot be made only in an office. These decisions must be made by hearing all of the voices, hearing people’s fears and their excitement, and with an honest recognition that what worked well in on classroom or at one school, may work well at another and most certainly will end up looking at least a little bit different.