What Have We Learned?

It’s time for a collective time out.

I’ve thrown a lot at you these last few months, and with the 25th annual Model Schools Conference fast approaching, let’s take a step back and ask, “What have we learned so far?”

Lesson #1: Culture Trumps Strategy
What are your core values? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What do you believe about student learning and achievement?

High-performing schools have developed a crystal-clear vision of what they want to accomplish. They foster a culture that supports and encourages positive change. Until you can articulate a vision, you will too often just be spinning your wheels. Until you develop a positive culture, any strategy you employ ultimately will fail.

Our organizational structure, our entire culture, is grounded in our traditional vision of public education. We exist to prepare students for the middle class. There’s just one small problem: the middle class is disappearing.

This is a phenomenon I call “the missing middle,” and it is being dramatically accelerated by the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Simply put, this revolution is the combination of biotech, nanotech, and information technology. It is creating cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems.

That’s a problem. To believe it’s OK to prepare students for middle-class jobs is to believe in a future which will exits for few of them. Unless we change, many students face a life of low-skill labor and no real chance for self-sufficiency. 

Lesson #2: Change Must Be Evolutionary
You know what happens to revolutionaries, don’t you? They get pushed back, if not killed! So, change must be evolutionary.

How do you get started? Step one is to adopt the practice of zero-based budgeting. This form of budgeting forces you to justify your expenses for each new period. More importantly, it encourages continual goal- and innovation-driven thinking.

What if you began building your budget by asking, “What do we need to do right now to prepare every student in our school for successful careers and lives?”

Lesson #3: Adopt a Growth Mindset Model
Most schools today operate with a fixed mindset philosophy. Alas, nothing much changes in a fixed-mindset school.

Schools with a growth mindset philosophy operate differently—much differently. They focus on getting their students ready for the world after school. They don’t obsess about the next test, the next grade or even the next level of education.

Instead they try to envision what the world will look like in three to five years and then build back their instructional programs from that point.

Lesson #4: The Learning Criteria
The Successful Practices Network, of which I serve as chairman, developed — and the International Center for Leadership in Education uses — the Learning Criteria to help schools better evaluate their students, with the goal of creating well-rounded students ready to succeed in school – and beyond.


Most schools focus on foundation learning—knowledge a school requires all students to achieve. Sounds logical. But it’s wrong. Most schools, sadly, can’t get their students beyond foundation learning, and therefore never reach the three other levels.

Rapidly successful schools take a different approach. They focus on personal skill development first, and then move to student engagement and stretch learning.

Guess what? In this scenario, foundation learning takes care of itself!

Effective Uses of Technology

Many schools are excited because they are going “1-to-1.” For those of you who may not know, 1-to-1 is a term for programs that provide students in a school, district or state with their own laptop, tablet computer or other computing device.

Great! But the cold, hard truth is 1-to-1 is of little value—and not truly innovative—unless you change how you teach.

We don’t let students use their hand-held devices when they take a test because they might CHEAT by either looking up the answer or sharing the answer with other students. But they would be using resources and/or working with others! Two of the most basic skills needed to be successful in the world beyond school!

Are you trying to force 21st century technology to conform to our 20th century schools OR are you trying to transform our 20th century schools into the realities of our 21st century technology-based society and workplace?

Our nation’s most rapidly improving schools are using technology to fundamentally change what and how we teach.

Best Practice 1 — Flipped Classrooms
Clintondale High School, Clinton Township, Mich.: In 2010, Clintondale became the first school in the country to become a fully “flipped” school. Before 2010, the school struggled to educate its high number of at-risk students. So teachers prepared instructional videos that students watched outside of class. This allowed teachers to provide far more hands-on and personal guidance for each student in the classroom. For more information, please see Our Story.

Best Practice 2 — Leveraging Technology to Teach Self-Directed Learning Skills
Penn Manor High School, Millersville, Pa.: Today’s students are “digital natives,” comfortable with technology and constant change. The school’s goal was to help teachers make the transition to 1-to-1 mobile devices for students, thus placing the power of learning in the hands – and heads – of students. For example, some students have difficulty with concepts associated with writing complete sentences. The solution? Teachers use an Edmodo online assessment which scores students’ responses and shows them their gaps in understanding. Students then learn how to analyze the results and develop an individual virtual learning plan. A recent post-assessment of this exercise showed an average learning gain of 15 percent.

Best Practice 3 — Technology Integration Through “Julius Caesar”
New Milford High School, New Milford, N.J.:  Several ELA teachers asked students to use Twitter to build on and engage in content authentic to William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The teachers began by researching the history of the Roman Forum. This ensured the ensuing discourse though social media was within a relevant historical context. Teachers guided students through an exercise to deconstruct a typical tweet. They also instructed students how to use Mozilla Thimble to create memes. The integration of technology made it possible for students to approach the topic in a fresh way, while also raising levels of rigor and relevance.


At this year’s 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, held June 25-28 in Nashville, we will showcase schools which are incorporating technology into their lesson plans. Join us!