A proposal to transform a 20th c. district into a 21st c. district: overdue!

The winning entry from Slate.com’s Classroom of tomorrow competition–very appropriate for the plan below!


In order to transform the mainstream of American public education, America’s mainstream public school districts will need to be transformed. This paper proposes one such transformation, over ten years. The main features of the district’s transformation are in the delivery mode of the instruction and the re-writing of curriculum. These will make for a “learning space” that is highly integrated with Information and Computer Technology (ICT) and that allows for highly effective, individualized, and collaborative instruction.

Educational setting and definition of problems

Imagine an entire K-12 suburban public school district of over 8,000 students currently operating in traditional 20th century modes. Weston and Brooks (2008) may have been describing this district’s main features when they characterized it as having:

(a) non-differentiated large-group instruction,
(b) access to information in classrooms
(c) non-engagement of parents, and
(d) summative assessment of performance

In 2010, the school board and superintendent’s office continue to provide the community an above-average 20th century learning experience for students.  This is a problem, given that gains in learning and instructional efficiency through Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) integration and an engaging new curriculum are foregone precisely when such changes are more important than ever (Nastu 2009, US Dept. of Education 2010).  As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan states in the Department of Education’s 2010 National Educational Technology Plan (NETP 2010),  schools need to apply  “advanced technologies…to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement [emphases added].”  The time is nowfor the entire district to transform itself into a 21st century learning institution that takes advantage of ICT integration, problem-based curriculum, and a redesigned school year and school day schedule to accommodate the changes.  Not only will student engagement in learning increase in a transformed district (Nastu 2009), but a culture of active learners created will mean a lowering in discipline and attendance issues (Roy 2010) and a cohort of learners who have a positive association with school.

Students in the transformed district will receive personalized educational plans delivered through web-based learning modules and a “blended” curriculum of online and face-to-face learning sessions in order to achieve learning goals. The “School of One” model, currently achieving results in New York City, is worth emulating in some regards (Microsoft 2010). Progress toward these goals will no longer be a function of “seat-time” in a subject, but individual achievement of standards. Teachers will be able to monitor and assess student learning through “just in time” metrics and make highly effective, dynamic interventions. Graduates of the district will be proficient in all Common Core academic standards, but they will also be collaborative, self-monitoring, and self-sufficient learners ready for the challenges of careers and higher education in the 21st century.

The curriculum, at the heart of any learning institution, will be re-written so that it is based on:

(a) cooperative learning
(b) differentiated instruction
(c ) problem- or project-based learning

Such a curriculum will result in

(a) genuine differentiation for each student
(b) teachers “mining” just-in-time data on the results of differentiation
(c ) teachers using technology to collectively plan continuous improvement

If the district can alter its main educational delivery mode and make use of the customizable, engaging, and more efficient learning made possible by ICT and a new curriculum, the increases in student learning and the decreases in current spending levels for the district will be enormous.  The following plan outlines a ten-year transformation program.

Learning Environment alterations

In order to move the K-12 district into “blended” learning within ten years, our classroom-centered schools will need to be transformed into ubiquitously wifi-ed buildings that contain variegated and flexible learning spaces that include 1:1 laptop:student open learning “lounges” or halls, traditional study carrels, and enclosed conference rooms for small-group learning and planning. The general purpose spaces of the schools–gyms, auditoria, etc.–would remain the same, although technology that further improve physical education (such as Microsoft’s X-Box Connect) or musical performance (such as Apple’s Logic) would be implemented when and wherever possible.  Since all of the district’s current buildings are air-conditioned, the year-round operation will pose no problems.

Much of the communication that now takes place in the district through server-based district email will occur via web-based social media such as Edmodo. For this reason, special care must be taken to make the school’s IT connections robust and secure.

Funding and resource requirements

Much of the move to the web allows the district to step free of licensing fees currently paid to software companies. For instance, currently $76,000/year is paid to Microsoft in Office licensing fees. Adopting a free alternative to the Office suite would free up $76,000, which at today’s prices (subject to further diminutions) would buy 400 netbooks, the approximate number needed by all of the incoming kindergartners in one year. Another $50,000/year in Windows networking fees in 2010 could be realized when the district IT is freed from MS networking software via open source solutions. That money could buy another 263 machines. Besides these cost-savings, it may be that district parents will want to purchase their child’s netbook through a “rent-to-own” program, which would create a revenue stream of perhaps $50,000/year that could be go to online and e-textbook fees). Other funding will be realizable from

  • increases in productivity as workers take their labors home, reducing facilities usage and increasing time “on the job”
  • decreases in paper and printing as documents are increasingly viewed and edited online or projected
  • decreases in education budget, as fewer teachers are needed to supervise learners
  • the creation of new revenue streams as student “edu-preneurs” are allowed to provide fee-based services for the community and the globe (as in the creation of educational resources and cultural content creation)

While the costs for transforming the district’s education (physical plant, IT enhancements, machine purchases, etc.) will be considerable, much of the financial burden will be lifted as the transformation “pays for itself” through savings and the creation of new revenue streams.


A necessary pre-condition for the proposal’s implementation is support and training from the top-level down. This would have to be a priority of the Superintendent’s Office and school board. Under the plan, results will be positive and savings accounted for within three years, which should demonstrate to future board members the continuing warrant for board support.  Although the political will of the community, expressed through its school board elections every other year, is an uncontrollable “external” variable to our change, the urgency of present conditions and early successes should supply their own momentum for the transformation’s perpetuation.

Here is what the authors of the NETP 2010 say about all stakeholders joining efforts–however imperfectly at first–in order to effect systemic change:

The NETP accepts that we do not have the luxury of time: We must act now and commit to
fine-tuning and midcourse corrections as we go. Success will require leadership, collaboration,
and investment at all levels of our education system—states, districts, schools, and the federal
government—as well as partnerships with higher education institutions, private enterprises,
and not-for-profit entities [emphasis mine].

If we can secure support from all levels of leadership, our plan will be able to get implemented. Those are the main “external” conditions of implementation.

Internally, implementation would require district’s IT departments to add personnel to ensure sufficient support and training, and make the transition as smooth as possible. Any delays will retard student progress; students show up regardless of district readiness.  Also internally important, the office of Curriculum and Instruction, the heart and soul of a district, would need an enlarged budget immediately, and for the first two phases of the transition (see timeline). As previously mentioned, the curriculum for each academic discipline and level would need to be re-written to incorporate collaborative, problem-based and competency-paced learning activities and online learning modules. Every department in the school would need its curriculum redone, requiring massive professional development hours. However, this piece of implementation is entirely consistent with the NETP 2010 plan, which states that,

21st-century competencies and such expertise as critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and multimedia communication should be woven into all content areas. These competencies are necessary to become expert learners, which we all must be if we are to adapt to our rapidly changing world over the course of our lives. That involves developing deep understanding within specific content areas and making the connections among them [emphases mine].

The inter-connection between content areas in curriculum re-writing is something rarely done in the district’s previous curriculum work, and would represent major cultural changes within schools, with math and English and Physical Education teachers working together in teams to make the changes real.

Over a ten-year period, the change could be implemented in the following stages:

  • Phase One 2011-13:
    • District communicates transformation goals to community via authentic discussions, public forums, and demonstration. Since parent buy-in will be necessary, effective introduction of transformation plan is essential.
    • Primary grades (K-3) adopt one-to-one netbook (or other personal digital device) program for approximately 25% of instruction.
    • Middle grades (4-8) and upper grades (9-12) begin de-linking progress with “seat-time,” allow students to advance at their own paces toward achieving Common Core standards.
    • The first “learning lounges” are introduced in schools; unstructured spaces for differentiated time begin to be use to meet individual student and collaborative group needs.
    • Major curriculum revision toward “blended learning” begins at all levels, with major emphasis at middle and upper grades, who can begin accommodating the one-to-one cultured students as they arrive in successive years.
    • Textbooks are steadily and carefully replaced with web-based learning platforms and other alternatives.
    • IT department makes necessary band-width and server modifications to accommodate robust school-wide wifi zones.
    • IT department begins shift away from proprietary software solutions toward open-source solutions; savings are used to acquire ever-more capable “netbooks” for system-wide adoption.
    • New progress reporting begins, based on personalizable earning algorithms, to keep parents informed of students progress toward achieving learning standards.
  • Phase Two 2014-17:
    • Middle grades (4-8) adopt one-to-one netbook program for approximately 25% of instruction. Under careful new policy and “firewall controls,” secondary students are able to adapt their machines to secure network use in order to supplement existing shortages at their schools.
    • All levels (primary, middle, and secondary) have curricula that have de-linked progress with “seat-time;” students to advance at their own paces toward achieving Common Core standards.
    • “Learning lounges,”  unstructured spaces for differentiated learning, are a part of every school. Invitations of the community into the schools begins–a program of volunteers is vigorously pursued and supported.
    • Major curriculum revision toward “blended learning” has been implemented at all levels; assessment, revision, and continuous improvement process begins.
    • Most courses rely on significant online and student-sourced resources; no further textbooks are sold.
    • Parents begin to rely on the “just-in-time” progress reports on student learning progress toward goals, begin active supportive interventions at home.
    • IT department maintains open-source server and application software, continuously finds and implements superior solutions for learning; wide bandwidth networks are maintained and strengthened.
  • Phase Three 2018-21:
    • All students now have 1:1 laptop adoption.
    • All learning at schools function within “flexible” spaces including “learning lounges” and group learning spaces; all curriculum is “blended,” with the precise “blend” of online and in-school learning customized dynamically to each learner.
    • All learning is assessed and progress reported with respect to Common Core Standards.
    • “Problem-based learning” modules predominate curriculum on all levels.
    • Student “edu-preneurs” develop revenue streams for district.
    • To ensure program viability, rigorous program reviews are continuously undertaken, with “transparent” data banks available to report progress to all stakeholders.

Challenges and opportunities

One of the biggest threats our proposal for transformation faces is the risk that national high stakes tests persist.  If we do not quickly replace the old ways of measuring success in public schools with new tests that demand skills students will need to compete in the new century (creative problem-solving, collaboration, and research and information fluency), our efforts may arrive too soon for any school district to risk adopting. The competencies of the 20th century reflected in the current high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT will not fit easily with the current proposal.

The ultimate fix for the systems across America may be when high-stakes standardized tests are altered to reflect 21st century literacies.  Since administrations as a rule do not innovate, but instead do precisely what the state demands and no more, then the states’ demands must change. Only when the measurement for success changes will most public school districts alter their instruction–no sooner. If there is not this “top-down” pressure, any plans to transform a district may be doomed.  The “key people” in this transformation plan, then, would be state and federal politicians, who can push for swift adoption of new standards, which would then drive the new high-stakes tests for which the proposed transformation would be highly complimentary.

Yet it is also a propitious time, with even “excellent” schools under NCLB (2001) being increasingly found inadequate, there is hope that the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will include more reasonable and meaningful measurements for the effectiveness of school districts.  The Common Core curriculum, adoption of which would require amending the ESEA’s explicit forbidding of a national curriculum, includes digital literacy and as part of the skills it values and would promote. The Common Core Initiative aspires to foster an educational system that makes students “self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.”  Such a description fits well within the “blended” model of the proposed transformation.  

According to its official document (2010), the Common Core Initiative values “creative and divergent perspectives” in student expression. And as immersive, virtual learning software improves, the day when students may be assessed in ways that reflect their ability to solve “real-world” problems may not be far off. In fact one of the Department of Education’s NETP priorities is in facilitating “private and public sector organizations to design, develop, validate, and scale up new technology-based assessment resources for both formative and summative uses. These efforts should include exploring the use of embedded assessment technologies, such as simulations, collaboration environments, virtual worlds, and games in new assessment resources.”  If these “new assessment resources” are implemented nationwide, the proposed transformation of our district could be seen as highly-effective.


In five years, we should be able to demonstrate improved competencies as students and teachers become accustomed to the new learning modalities.  There will also be financial gains realized that demonstrate the viability and attractiveness of the programs. Since parent-school communication will be more instantaneous, open, and inclusive, the “buy-in” by community will likely be enough to ensure program growth through the first ten years.

Ultimately, the graduates of the district, able to adapt successfully to the demands of higher education and career, will be its best resource for evaluating the success of the transformed learning program. Their feedback will be cultivated and maintained so that the alumni become a valuable knowledge and opportunity resource for students of the future.

As a wise man put it, “There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.”  -Jiddu Krishnamurti


Common Core Standards Initiative. Common core state standards for English Language arts and Literacy in History/Social Sciences, Science, and Technical subjects. (2010). Accessed 10 December 2010 at http://corestandards.org/the-standards

Microsoft in Education (2010). “Results from the 2010 School of One Pilot.”

Nastu, J. (2010). “Blended learning on the rise.” E-Schoolnews Special Report. November/December 2010. Accessed at 11 December 2010 at http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/10/27/esn-special-reportblended-learning-on-the-rise/

Nastu, J. (2009). “Project-based learning engages students, garners results.” E-Schoolnews. 27 January 2009. Accessed 25 November 2010 at  http://www.eschoolnews.com/2009/01/27/esn-special-report-2/?ast=47

“No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.” (2010).  Wikipedia. Accessed 11 December 2010 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act

Roy, C. (2010). “Laptop program leads to 44.4% drop in discipline.” Souly Catholic H.S. 19 November 2010. Accessed 10 December 2010 at http://soulycatholichs.blogspot.com/2010/11/laptop-program-leads-to-444-drop-in.html

US Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2010). National Educational Technology Plan. “Transforming American Education:   Learning Powered by Technology.”  Accessed 10 December 2010 at http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010

Weston, M., & Brooks, D. (2008). Critical constructs as indicators of a shifting paradigm in education: A case study of four technology-rich schools. Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research in Education, 2(4), 281–291.

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