What’s Working? Lessons from pioneer 21st century school districts – Part 2

by Bob Pearlman

Driving Question: Driving Question: What’s Working? Lessons from pioneer 21st century school districts – Part 2

[Originally published by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, September 24, 2012 at http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21blog/1088-bob-pearlman-whats-working]

Driving Question: What’s Working? Lessons from pioneer 21st century school districts – Part 2

How do districts make themselves (transform) into 21st Century districts? How can a district put in place systems and supports for 21st Century Learning? How can a district engage and ready its teachers and its principals to design the new curriculum and assessments and institute the new teaching practices that best engage students for 21st Century Learning?

For the past several years I have worked with and studied many aspiring 21st Century districts. I have posted profiles of many of these districts on my website. I have also posted there a Best Practices Implementation Checklist of 21st Century School Districts (PDF). I have seen two distinct patterns of development among aspiring 21st Century districts, one a systems approach and the other a start-with-innovation approach. This week, I’ll profile the innovations approach:

(Catch up by seeing last week’s post on the systems approach)

Development Pathway 2: Build out from and Leverage Practice from innovative 21st Century schools

These districts start with implementing an innovative school with 21st Century teaching and learning practices. The school serves as an R&D site for the district, builds district learning, and teacher capacity. Once the school refines its practices and systems, the school then serves as a district demonstration site and its teachers serve as teacher trainers and coaches as the district aims to scale 21st Century teaching and learning practices districtwide. Districts using a build-out from innovative schools approach include ManorIndependentSchool District in Manor, TX (northeast of Austin), and NapaValleyUnifiedSchool District in Napa, CA.

In the past 10 years several models of innovative 21st Century learning schools have emerged in the United States. These include Big Picture Learning (The Met Schools), Envision Schools, EdVisions Schools, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High, Internationals Network Schools, International Studies Schools (Asia Society), and New Tech Network. Most were originally supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from 2001 to 2007 and now are members of the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Community of Practice.

These schools feature 21st Century learning and assessment practices, particularly project-based learning and authentic classroom-based performance assessment of 21st Century Skills using rubrics.

In this district model the district sponsors the start-up of one small, innovative school. 3-4 years later, when the small school graduates its first student class, the school is ready to both serve as a demonstration site for the district and to provide a cadre of master teacher coaches to support professional development and mentoring districtwide.

Manor Independent School District, TX (northeast of Austin) launched Manor New Tech High School in 2007. At MNTHS, as in all schools of the New Tech model, students learn through collaborative project-based learning, authentic classroom-based performance assessments, and just-in time feedback through online “living” report cards. The school recruited many of its initial teacher cadre from the UTeach program at University of Texas, Austin. UTeach features project-based instruction (pbi) and is now a replicating university model nationwide for STEM teacher education. By 2010 the faculty of the small school, trained and coached by the New Technology Foundation (now the New Technology Network) had become so skilled in PBL and assessment that the school launched its own 4-day Think Forward Institute (TFI) for 21st Century teaching and learning practices. Under the leadership of Superintendent Andrew Kim and MNTHS Principal Steven Zipkes (see New Thinking for New Schools for the 21st Century), TFI has now trained teachers throughout Manor ISD and also teachers in districts nationwide. One elementary school and one middle school in Manor ISD have to date gone wall-to-wall PBL.

Napa Valley Unified School District, CA, also is leveraging the practice and knowledge of its NapaNewTechnologyHigh School, begun in 1996, the flagship school of the now 120-school New Tech Network. Starting in the winter of the 2007-2008 school year, former Superintendent John Glaser launched the Student-Centered 21st Century Classroom Initiative (SC21) with 2 New Tech classrooms in each of the district’s high schools and expanding the SC21 classrooms over the next few years. In June 2011 the district, under new Superintendent Patrick Sweeney adopted a four-year plan to spread its 21st Century teaching and learning practices to all its schools through a massive roll-out of PBL training and coaching supported by the Buck Institute for Education, the New Tech Network, and a cadre of Teacher Coaches drawn from Napa New Tech HS and other PBL schools and programs in the district.

Both development pathways lead to maturing 21st Century school districts, a process that takes 5-10 years or more. The systems approach gets the necessary district systems in place for sustainable and effective long-term implementation. The Innovation approach gets 21st Century Learning in place sooner in one small part of the district, gives other district educators the opportunity to see and conceptualize 21st Century teaching and learning, and gives the district its own cadre of 21st Century teacher trainers and coaches.

The systems approach to development could benefit from having a few 21st Century schools as demonstration sites and from having a cadre of 21st Century teacher-coaches and principal leaders. The start-with-innovation approach could benefit from early implementation of systemwide supports for 21st Century learning in learning outcomes, curriculum, and other aligned systems. Combining the two development pathways may be the most systemic and innovative approach.


bobpearlmanBob Pearlman is a 21st Century School and District Consultant and Senior Education Consultant to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and to Fielding Nair International, Architects and Change Agents for Education Design. Pearlman was formerly Director of Strategic Planning for the New Technology Foundation (now the New Tech Network), President of the Autodesk Foundation, Coordinator of Education Reform Initiatives for the Boston Teachers Union, and a high school teacher for 27 years. Learn more about Bob’s work at http://www.bobpearlman.org

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