Digital Promise Team Pushes Aggressive Agenda For Learning

March 21, 2012 - 1 Comment

Back in January, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students’ hands by the year 2017. Prompted by countries like South Korea and Uruguay – which have made similar moves – the Obama administration is seeking to create momentum on this key topic.

Adam Frankel Opens the League Meeting at Houston ISD

Yet when we look around us, most educators and superintendents in the U.S. are left scratching our collective heads as we witness our glacial progress toward fully deployed digital nationwide learning. Lack of data on “what works”, lack of best practices in district-level leadership, and a splintered procurement process are often cited as three major roadblocks to progress. As mentioned in earlier blogs here, Digital Promise’s newly formed “League of Innovative Schools” is hoping to change all that.

Unlike any other entity, the League now offers:

  • Non-partisan Congressional backing from its Digital Promise parent organization
  • Membership synergy across a unique collection of districts, funding foundations, research agencies, and technology providers
  • A mix of start-up software companies and large company footprint vendors
  • Three unique “pillars” of focused work:
    • Identifying district best practices in digital learning and innovative leadership;
    • Original research and data into “what works” in learning transformations;
    • New methods in education technology procurement to create “smart demand” for school districts
  • The group has gained the support of Cisco, Microsoft, Discovery Education, Wireless Generation, Follett Resources Library – and many small, privately held start-ups.

League Superintendents Discuss Research Issues

In a recent meeting hosted by Terry Grier and his team at Houston ISD, it was clear the superintendents were listening. Repeating districts came from New York, Washington, Illinois, Alabama, Idaho, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, and North Carolina. New districts signed up from Texas, California, and Kentucky. All the major urban center districts were there, including New York City Schools. Together these lead “best practice” innovating districts across the country now number thirty members.

The meeting opened with Mark Edwards from Mooresville, North Carolina injecting a note of urgency into the meeting when he said “our kids are waiting for the transition from textbooks to digital learning…they’ve been waiting. And we have a moral obligation to move to digital technology to prepare them for their future, instead of our past.”

On the research side, Brad Allan of the Harvard Education Innovation Laboratory presented the results of findings on recent studies showing the five most predictive factors in school success:

  • More time in school
  • Small group tutoring
  • Human capital management
  • Data-driven instruction and student performance management
  • Culture and expectation

Houston ISD’s Fondren School Principal Charles Foust Hosts League Visitors

Allan went on to say that today in the U.S., 50% of our largest urban districts have a graduation rate of 50%. He urged the group to consider doing more work on teacher feedback & development, using assessments & data more frequently, using technology to differentiate curriculum, and helping students develop non-cognitive & soft skills as well. Other research speakers, including Jonathan Guryan, of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab and Zoran Popovic, Director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, spoke about the need to isolate key factors in trials, and new research on how gaming offers learning breakthroughs. The team also discussed the R&D opportunity to create “the equivalent of the IHI Health Institute for education” by forming partnerships and sharing data between researchers and school systems.

As a panel of start-ups from ClassDojo, LearnZillion, GoalBook, and Knewton talked about their innovative offerings for schools – a number of themes emerged. Increased use of technology was really driving increased collaboration, and use of eTextbooks could finally lead to realizing the dream of personalized learning. All four companies presented a new way of looking at schools – which also included procurement and routes to market. Instead of marketing their products to district procurement, all companies offered their software apps free to teachers – in effect seeding the $650B schools technology market at a low cost of sales.

ClassDojo in fact has gone from 0 to 1.5M users in six months, largely through teacher word-of-mouth and App Store downloads. The app, which seeks to dramatically reduce behavior problems inside the classroom, is attacking one of the largest problems in schools – and one especially faced by new teachers.

But is the App Store the answer for accelerating our slow and splintered procurement? Issues still need to be resolved, including buying on bulk for the district, licensing rights for the schools, bulk volume discounts, and no ability to advertise in schools or re-sell user data.

So in this new App Store model of procurement, lightning fast when compared to the last two decades, who owns the app? Student or school? How to scale to thousands of users across a district? What about security? And what about the cloud?

These answers and more will be explored by the League as they continue to make progress on these critical issues. All the members in attendance would like to accelerate our country’s use of education technology, which extends to higher-bandwidth wireless access, video, collaboration, and cloud. See the team’s efforts and key goals recently profiled in this White House blog.

The timing for a new type of entity like the League is opportune. Who knows, if we can continue to make progress, maybe Arne Duncan and Julius Genachowski will get their wish by 2017.

For further info on the League of Innovative Schools, contact Sara Schapiro at:

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  1. Education Week published a Spotlight on the League of Innovative Schools on 3/22. Here’s the link: