Monday, November 21, 2011

open letter to trustees re new choice program

Dear trustees,

First of all, I notice this is your final meeting in the current composition, and I would like to thank you for your most recent three years of service to public education. You’ve been very busy with important work set in front of you, and the new board will probably face new challenges you did not but may also be able to avoid the incredibly difficult process of school closure and cutbacks. Good luck to those moving on to new opportunities.

Second, I notice that a choice program proposal for KRSS Northern Learning Centre is on the agenda for the Nov 22 board meeting. The proposal hits on all of the keywords of the new government plan, and will no doubt test the appetite for "21st Century Learning" among staff, students, and parents. It will also test some contract expectations related to distributed learning ratios, instructional time, school-based supervision responsibilities, etc. At this stage the proposal seems to be at the idea level and does not yet appear to be a teacher-driven program, as there are many teachers at KRSS that are unaware of this initiative, and have not been involved in the program planning. I realize, however, that staff-admin consultation is difficult during the current job action.

The proposal does have positive potential, though, and I believe the board should use the discussion of this program proposal as an opportunity to thaw some of the disconnect between teacher & student innovation with technology-embedded learning and a restrictive set of practices from the board office on similar projects elsewhere. Teacher buy-in, particularly by technology leaders, is required for success as they will do the heavy lifting for this program and have felt ignored and excluded by the school district on a range of technology issues over the last eight years. The last 3-5 years in particular has seen what has been referred to as a "chilly climate for 21st century learning" in our school district. There has been lots of talk about innovation and change, but the reality is that virtually every process for educators and district staff to align goals, leverage innovation, and dialogue about program development has been cut off (DTT, KTC, TFL, Tech Coach groups, Teacher Tech leadership positions, TLITE follow-up initiatives, workshop training program, etc.). In their place are a few learning team grants that allow schools to use release time for group study but do not affect district-wide approaches other than what teachers initiate themselves. The details of this “chilly climate” have been thoroughly documented in the feedback given to last April's "Enhancing Learning" presentation by board office staff - this multi-school contribution has been archived if you have not read it. The feedback from the PGSS tech team is an excellent place to start. Perhaps as the capacity for a district-wide collaborative approach to understanding technology for learning has diminished or been cut back, the ability to recognize "21st century learning" where it is thriving has also suffered. Six or more "21st century learning" projects proposed by teachers and administration in the last two years have been rejected by the board office, most of which have never received even an explanation of who did the rejecting, let alone an invitation to discuss why these innovative projects were dismissed. When passionate, talented educators volunteer to move the district's learning agenda forward, I cannot fathom why the default response has been "no.” Again, this irony, and the many restrictions encountered by teachers as they seek to understand how “21st century learning” notions might work for their students are well documented in the “Enhancing Learning” feedback. The proposed KRSS program looks like a proposal submitted at D.P. Todd two years ago (rejected) and also like one of the key recommendations from the QLG group in 2004. The QLG was a district- supported teacher & admin group that researched blended, distributed, personalized, and online education models. They suggested that all secondary schools encourage and be supported for pilots that combined dynamic teacher and student-group time with online learning and project-based learning. The QLG recommendations related to wide school-based online learning pilots were not well accepted by the board office admin and the mandate for developing online learning was instead given to CLA. While the CLA has done many excellent things in the interim, the focus on blended learning has not been a priority. Seven years later perhaps the board office is ready for a second look at these ideas with this KRSS proposal on the agenda. I am pleased that the focus for blended learning is going back out to schools as was suggested in 2004 -- this will help the board office walk its talk on educational change.

The proposal does raise many issues, however, the first of which might be jumping the gun on “21st century learning” prior to the ministry creating an overall plan and guiding framework, review of curriculum, etc. that were outlined in the new direction from the ministry. Aside from the reliance on vague keywords, the apparent lack of teacher buy-in (again, difficult during job action), and potential contract issues, the program does have merits that justify consideration if certain questions are answered. I would like to see a program like this work as I and others have proposed similar projects in the past, but we all need the foundation laid out and tough questions asked before this program is approved and before teachers can be asked to sign on. Getting this right could help warm up the chilly climate in SD57 for collaboration between the board office, admin, and teachers. Failing to do so will result in more misunderstanding and withdrawal from tech leaders and innovative teachers at KRSS and elsewhere.

As you review the proposal, I would suggest you start by asking a few questions:
  1. How can teachers be better involved in the program planning and development? 
  2. How will KRSS engage existing expertise in our district and UNBC regarding blended and/or distributed learning and independent project-based environments? 
  3. Does the lateral growth described in 2.3.1.a) signify that other schools will be encouraged and supported to build similar programs? 
  4. Does the program's existence mean that the board office is now willing to consider the kind of blended learning and 21st century learning projects it has rejected over the last two years? 
  5. Will program support and review benefit by the restoration of some (any) district-level tables for discussion of common issues and aspirations regarding technology and learning? 
  6. Does the program prejudice any contractual considerations re class size ratios, hours of instruction, hiring, and so on? 
  7. The proposal states that schools and teachers are performing for students rather than working with them. What does this mean? 
  8. Is there any accepted research backing the claims made about Grade 8/9 students being qualified to design their own learning plans and work with minimal supervision? 
  9. Are digital devices affordable by all students and do they really replace the need for staffed libraries? 
  10. How will the program address supervision of students when students are working independently, at home, or "out in the community?"

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