How growth strategies guide schools through ‘seismic shifts’

To chart future education needs, a Florida business group did not analyze the state’s wealthiest schools
By: | March 1, 2021
(GettyImages/Jutta Kuss)

To help chart the future needs of education, a group of Florida business leaders made a point of not analyzing the state’s wealthiest schools.

Instead, they looked for the growth strategies deployed in districts with high performers and high free-and-reduced lunch rates, said Bob Ward, president and CEO of the nonprofit Florida Council of 100, in his Future of Education Technology Conference® 2021 keynote speech.

“All of us intrinsically know education is changing and the culture is changing,” said Ward, whose nonprofit organization advises state leaders on various policy issues. “There are about to be seismic shifts in the way people are prepared for the world of work.”

Ward shared details of The Florida Council of 100’s “Horizons 2040 Project, Grades PreK-12,” which includes 100 of recommendations for improving the state’s education system.

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He highlighted the report’s 10 “Beacons,” or key strategies, for how schools can best educate and prepare all students, particularly the children who face the most challenges.

Empowering students academically

The first beacon calls for all students to arrive ready for fourth grade—a goal that Wards admits may be impossible in a state as big as Florida. But it’s a worthy goal that would also bring high standards, rigorous assessments and strong accountability.

“Accountability often gets a bad name, partly because sometimes accountability has been inappropriately used as a hammer,” Ward said. “It should be used as a tool to help.”

Some successful strategies include more rigorous pre-kindergarten and part-time and volunteer literacy coaches to assist in the classroom.

Closing a ‘rigor gap’

There is significant gap between students’ scores on Florida’s end-of-course tests and their grades in those same classes, the Florida Council of 100 has found.

The organization hasn’t determined the reason for the gap, but is now doing further analysis.

The gap is one key reason some students are showing up for college unprepared, said Bob Ward, the group’s president and CEO.

“If the end of course exams can’t be trusted then how do parents to decide between the grades the students received in class and those exams,” Ward said. “How do they decide which one better helps them make decisions about whether their child is ready.”

“We truly believe that we need to empower our students with knowledge to take responsibility for their own educational futures,” Ward said. “Most students enter the process not knowing what that means.”

Creating safe environments

Educators also need to redouble efforts to create safe school environments because of the number of students who don’t feel safe at home or in their neighborhoods. This includes developing afterschool, evening and weekend progress where students can continue to learn.

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One way schools have created safer environments is by partnering with healthcare and other organizations to provide social services to students, families and community members, Ward said.

Other leaders have expanding counseling services in their buildings.

This safe environment also requires recruiting teachers who are content specialists, particularly in math and science.

Promising recruitment tools include allowing alternative certifications, housing allowances and hiring bonuses, Ward said.

Sense of belonging

Educators must work with lawmakers and others to increase teacher salaries and benefits.

But as important as pay is giving teachers a sense that they have a role in school and district decision-making, Ward said.

Leaders in successful schools know how to foster teams and how to empower teachers in setting high academic standards.

“It’s not ‘How can I make your life easier?’” Ward said. “It’s how can WE do something together that’s hard and do it really well and accomplish something?”

Quick interventions

The key to helping struggling students in to quickly provide interventions and academic assistance.

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Districts have taken approaches such as extended school days and more rigorous summer programs.

More districts are turning to mastery-based assessments that allow students to progress when they can demonstrate a skill rather after they’ve spent a pre-determined amount of time working on it.

Students also are benefitting from modern career and technical educations models that are preparing students for more profitable careers while ensuring they continue with core academics.