Disruption at Scale: Three K-12 Districts Making Big Changes

K-12 districts large and small show that by taking risks, they can reap big rewards.

by David Ball, Public Relations Director, Pinkerington Local School District / March 27, 2018

K-12 education is often seen as resistant to change. Whether that’s a fair characterization or not, the history of school reform is littered with initiatives that began with great promise, only to wither on the vine. In districts of all sizes, even implementing programs and technology that have been successful elsewhere has often proven difficult. 

But change — even disruptive change — is possible. The following three districts transformed teaching, learning and technology at scale — by putting tens of thousands of devices in the hands of students, by taking on the textbook industry and by creating an urgency for change. Their deliberate strategies to drive disruption offer lessons for districts and their leaders everywhere.

In Miami-Dade, 1-to-1 at Scale

Officials at Miami-Dade County Public Schools knew they wanted to move to 1-to-1 technology. But with 365,000 students — Miami-Dade is the fourth-largest public school system in the nation — doing so meant avoiding the pitfalls that plagued other large districts with similar initiatives.

“Superintendent Alberto Carvalho believed this program could be transformational for children,” says Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer. “We agreed with him, but we were very deliberate in the way we proceeded, bearing in mind the lack of success of others who had gone before us.”

By 2014, 100 percent of Miami-Dade’s schools had access to high-speed wireless internet — three years ahead of schedule. Today, the district has issued 154,000 devices to students at all grade levels. In school, students learn from more than 11,000 interactive whiteboards — installed in every classroom over the course of one summer. According to Izquierdo, the district has the largest Wi-Fi footprint in the country, covering more than 45 million square feet. 

“It has been transformational in how teachers work and teach,” Izquierdo says. “It’s now ubiquitous.”

Among Miami-Dade’s strategies:

1. Focusing on the ends, not the means. Despite providing more than 150,000 devices to students over the past several years, Izquierdo says the devices were never the district’s key focus.

“One of the pitfalls some of our colleague districts that have attempted this at scale faced was focusing efforts around the device itself,” Izquierdo says. 

Instead, Miami-Dade emphasized what she calls the “ABCs of digital convergence”— first identifying digital applications that fit the district’s instructional vision, then ensuring bandwidth and connectivity across the district’s nearly 400 schools. Only then, Izquierdo says, did the district focus on “d”— the actual devices.

Instead of deploying a single device across the entire district, Miami-Dade conducted focus groups and studies for different age groups, ultimately deciding to deploy carts with laptops for elementary students. The district provides middle and high school students with tablets to take home. 

2. Leveraging multiple funding sources. The district announced its initiative after a confluence of events made paying for such a widescale investment in technology feasible. A $1.2 billion bond initiative for school renovations approved by voters in 2012 included $100 million for technology overhauls. Around the same time, the Florida legislature made it possible for districts to spend up to half of their textbook funds on digital materials and required students to take at least one online course, freeing up funding for digital applications. A district Race to the Top grant also allowed Miami-Dade to incorporate digital instruction into middle school math. The ongoing shift to digital assessments also incentivized the district to invest in student devices, prompting the district school board to take out a $6 million loan to lease them from suppliers.

3. Scaffolding rollouts. The first year the district focused on middle school math, deploying 10,000 devices across 49 middle schools.  The following year, 50,000 devices were deployed. Along with the redesigned iPrep math program, the content focus began with civics in middle school and world history in high school. 

“Social studies was the driver because that was where the strongest digital applications were at the time,” Izquierdo says.

Subsequent rollouts to additional subjects have followed as the digital applications to support them have matured.

4. Finding ways to close gaps. Whether they’re called “homework gaps” or “digital deserts,” most districts have students who don’t have access to the internet at home. Through its participation in Sprint’s 1Million Project, every ninth-grade student who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals at school received a smartphone capable of serving as an internet hotspot.Additionally, the district issued 500 take-home laptops to the families of pre-K students whose parents attended three training sessions at school.

5. Engaging teachers. Miami-Dade also ensured its emphasis on useful applications, not just the technology that houses them, extended to teachers. Along with focusing on practical uses of the new whiteboards in each classroom, the district partnered with Facebook to implement a workplace-focused version of the social network. Teachers use the network, called M-DCPS Workplace, to communicate in real time, share resources and best practices, and even livestream lessons to other classrooms in the district.

Together, these strategies helped ensure not only the successful deployment of 1-to-1 technology, but also the emerging blended and personalized learning models that have made the investment worthwhile. 

“It was a perfect storm, but in a good way,” Izquierdo says.

In Houston, a Line in the Sand

In 2013, Houston Independent School District (HISD) went to its textbook vendors and drew what Lenny Schad calls “a line in the sand.”

After implementing a district-wide learning management system (LMS), HISD made the decision to stop purchasing textbooks — itself a bold move, but one made more so by the limited availability of digital materials for all subjects and grade levels at the time. 

“(We told our textbook vendors), ‘You need to send us your content digitally, but you also have to adopt interoperability standards,’” says Schad, the district’s chief information technology officer.  

More specifically, the district wanted digital materials — not only the textbook content, but also related videos, links to materials on the internet and other resources — packaged in what’s called the Common Cartridge, a set of specifications built on top of a standards platform called Learning Tools Interoperability, or LTI. 

Common standards were key to ensuring material and resources from different providers could be used interchangeably in the LMS and aligned with curriculum and standards. However, implementing them had not been attempted on such a large scale before. With a roadmap in place to provide every high school student in the district with a laptop, the timing was critical.

“If it was true digital transformation, it had to be more than giving kids a laptop,” Schad says. “It had to focus on providing real content digitally, and we needed a digital ecosystem to house that content.”

That imperative changed how HISD worked with publishers, according to Schad.

“It had to be in that format, or we weren’t going to purchase it,” Schad says. “There was some skepticism initially — [publishers] had been hearing for years that digital content was the wave of the future. It wasn’t until we sent out the letters saying this is the new normal for HISD that they really recognized [print] was not going to be an option.”

Among HISD’s strategies: 

1. Leverage. It didn’t hurt that HISD is one of the largest districts in the country, and that because of its own size, the state of Texas has a significant influence on the K-12 textbook market. Other large districts joined HISD in demanding digital resources, and to publishers’ credit, Schad says, “they stepped up to the plate.”

The district played hardball at first with the largest content providers that provided the bulk of its resources. Now that standards and expectations are in place, HISD requires other content providers to at least have interoperability in their roadmaps, even if digital resources aren’t immediately available. 

2. Collaboration. For several years, HISD worked with large publishers and the developer of its LMS on refining the interoperability standards and ensuring they worked in practice. 

“It was a very iterative process and very productive, with a lot of back and forth,” Schad says. “All these players were coming to the table, checking their egos at the door and really trying to come up with solutions that work.”

3. Change management. HISD’s strategy to implement digital textbooks and its LMS involved more than training and communication, Schad says. By focusing on the “why” of the initiative, he says HISD was able to “take into the account the emotional side of these big change initiatives.”

“When you talk about teachers changing the way they instruct, that’s very personal and emotional,” he says. “When you talk about students not having textbooks, that’s very personal and emotional — even when they’ve grown up in a digital environment, they may not want the textbook pulled away.”

Cross-functional teams led the initiative. They were empowered by senior buy-in and supported — but not led — by the district’s technology staff.

“The core group understood why and how decisions were being made and worked to defend them,” Schad says.

As a result, the LMS and digital content represent a solid foundation on which to continue building, according to Schad. “Digital transformation is a journey,” he says. “We have laid those building blocks in the right order so we can continue to build on a foundation that is really solid.”

In Ohio, Starting from Scratch

Smaller districts face different — but equally challenging — issues when undergoing transformation. In Ohio, the 10,300-student Pickerington Local School District opted to start from scratch after assessing its existing technology.

When Brian Seymour became the district’s director of instructional technology in 2014 after starting as a teacher there more than a decade earlier, Pickerington students shared iPad carts and the district’s computer lab was consistently overbooked. Equally important, the district had no clear roadmap for technology use, which prompted Seymour to focus on building consensus around Pickerington’s technology needs and the purpose behind them. 

“The first step I wanted to take was to create a rather robust technology plan that led us through the next few years,” he says. 

Today, Pickerington is the largest district in Ohio to go fully 1-to-1 — from preschool through 12th grade.  More importantly, it is shifting to a personalized learning focus as part of a four-year plan that goes beyond the technology that drives it. Seymour calls the approach “tradigital learning”— a combination of traditional teaching methodologies, new digital resources such as virtual reality technology and more relevant learning opportunities, including a planned K-12 computer science pathway and a high school IT pathway that provides an opportunity to earn an associate degree before graduating.

“We’re not there yet,” Seymour says, “but we’re well on our way.”

Among Pickerington’s strategies: 

1. Focusing on the big picture. To develop a technology plan, the district created seven different committees to determine how it should use technology going forward. However, the discussion quickly broadened. 

“What it ended up being was not so much just a look at our technology, but more of an examination of teaching and learning in general, and the ways in which we could use technology as a foot in the door to transform traditional education by using more modern-day strategies and techniques,” Seymour says. 

That broader focus led to the decision to begin the preK-12 1-to-1 initiative, and the school board, which initially envisioned the rollout to be staggered over six years, ultimately provided funding to accelerate it to 14 months. The process also led to a second four-year plan focused on personalized learning.

2. Addressing the “why.” The initiative faced resistance from teachers, in particular those  concerned about classroom management and the appropriate use of technology, according to Seymour. But the bigger challenge, he says, was finding a reason for urgency.  The district was academically successful in terms of its test scores and graduation rate, so Seymour and other district officials focused discussions around a different question — were they really preparing kids for the future?

“That became our focus,” Seymour says.  “I think we need to look past the data we usually use to measure a school district. A great majority of that is content that students won’t ever use unless that content is specific to their job. We need to measure some of those other skills — the digital skills, the soft skills, the creativity, the communication, the collaboration-type skills that we’re getting from teaching and learning this way.”

Looking at technology in that way helped overcome resistance.

“We know technology has a huge impact on almost every single job that’s available out there,” Seymour says. “So if we train kids properly and give them the experiences they need in high school, they’re going to be far better prepared when they go into college or a career.”