For the past year I have observed the integration of new technologies in classroom lessons, school programs, and districts. I have begun writing chapters for a book that will appear in 2018. From time to time I will publish posts here taken from the manuscript that I am writing.
In Silicon Valley there are 77 school districts arrayed across five counties in the San Francisco Bay area. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire schools with WiFi, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops on technology integration and then cross their fingers that teachers will use what the district has provided for daily lessons. Voluntary participation is the rule. Teacher choice of using devices and software means that great variation exists not only in every single school within a district but across each district heralded as embracing high-tech.[i]
Only two districts, however, have gone beyond having a plan, buying devices, building infrastructures and then crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software in daily lessons. Only two districts have adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blend learning, and create personalized lessons. Only two districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance with the explicit expectation that all district teachers would go beyond considering use the new technologies in their daily lessons and actually incorporate the hardware and software into their 45 to 90-minute customary sequence of activities.
These two districts are Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District and Milpitas Unified District.
In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in both schools. In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two elementary school principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-grade classrooms. I did visit classrooms and interviewed principals and teachers at each school as well as district administrators.
Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, I used a tri-focal lens—classroom, school, and district. I sought to understand how implementing policies aimed at changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving district performance is no easy walk in the park.
Describing the move from policy to practice illustrates the complexity of all the interacting factors that come into play when policymakers seek to see their decisions unfold in classrooms, schools, and districts.
Each of these three systems is nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.
There are so many moving parts in this loosely-coupled system called a district. Because there is so much interaction and overlap in these nested communities, any hope of effective implementation depends not only on having money and staff but also continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators building and sustaining a culture of working together. Not an easy set of tasks to keep settings smoothly operating, especially since districts and schools are vulnerable to outside influences ranging state policies impinging on district actions, angry parents condemning a new curriculum, vendors lobbying administrators, civic and business leaders wanting quick improvements in student performance, and controversies over teaching evolution, language in textbooks, and other similar issues.
Furthermore, district and site administrators unendingly search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include also among the many moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher and what is a “good” school district.
The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also show it in their decisions about access and use of new technologies in classroom lessons.
If educational decision-makers cannot let go their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to flit here and there seeking school reform in brand new technologies yet be ever disappointed in the results.
District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and within each of the three organizational levels. The path toward classroom, school, and district improvement is closer to zig-zags of a butterfly than a bullet fired at a target.
[i] I have an expanded view of “Silicon Valley” which historically referred to the stretch of land between San Jose and San Francisco. But the label for the terrain in 2017 encompasses Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties in the Bay area. Other researchers could include other counties. I chose these five. From these counties, I identified 77 school districts.