How John King can help schools truly become future ready

King's appointment as acting Secretary of Education, may signal greater support to superintendents in developing a shared understanding and changing mindsets across their leadership, teachers and community.
By: | Issue: March, 2016
February 4, 2016

Most recognize the role of technology as an equalizer for information and access. Yet, it is amazing that only 2,000 out of 13,000 superintendents signed the Future Ready Schools pledge. Of those who signed, it is likely that only 300 to 400 school districts are taking steps toward the seven commitments outlined within it. While the pledge helps start personalized learning conversations, district leaders struggle with how to take action after signing.The Department of Education must redefine its efforts to support the implementation of personalized learning beyond a pledge and focus on actionable results.

During my initial research for the Personalized Learning Playbook, I came to realize that the success of programs like Future Ready Schools, measured by the fidelity of implementation and sustainability, are rooted in developing a shared understanding and common operating philosophy. But most district leaders, teachers and administrators lack this common ground and signal that one or more parts of the organization are not ready to make a change. Many administrators and teachers are not ready to integrate technology as part of a high quality educational experience; those who are ready lack the tools and support needed to execute within the constraints of their district’s expectations. We must focus less on specific, siloed initiatives and more on developing the mindsets of districts to recognize – and communicate to parents and board members – how different our world is today and why the education system must evolve with it.

With John King’s appointment as acting Secretary of Education, the Department needs to focus on supporting superintendents in developing a shared understanding and changing mindsets across their leadership, teachers and community. The current resources available to districts are toolkits, but have nothing to do with developing a culture within an organization. A district’s inability to change will lead it to a destiny no different than that of camera film manufacturers like Kodak, movie rental services like Blockbuster, newspapers, pay phone providers, and the US Postal Service.

It is crucial that John King does not simply follow in Arne Duncan’s footsteps, but finds ways to do better. The Future Ready pledge is a great theory, but signing a paper does not call districts to action.

I offer the following recommendations:

Provide more support for district leaders: Dialogue and resources currently provided to district leaders are too narrow. They need more lessons in change management and shifting culture to build the case for personalized learning in their community and district.
Do not expect district leaders to find money on their own: I recently heard someone from the Department say the hope is that business leaders will step up and support Future Ready districts. And in some cases, that hope is being realized. But in many others, they are struggling to find the funds to do the work. When money is limited, the work either does not happen or devices get purchased and professional development gets ignored. We must provide more guidance to districts on how to find funds, provide more direct funding, or establish more partnerships to support them.
Make the pledge mean more: Districts must honor the commitments they are making to their students and communities. The approach should be tiered, and schools named “Future Ready” more exclusively. We need to recognize the districts that are truly doing the work and transforming learning environments and experiences for students.
Aim even higher: Supporting districts to be Future Ready is important work, but supporting students to reach their highest potential is even more so. Do not rely solely on technology or 21st century skills. We must support continuous innovation of school districts to allow all students to thrive in environments that support their own learning paths. That is when we move from future-ready districts to students empowered to create their own futures.

My research and experience working with district leaders across the country provides me with a perspective that people sitting in DC often do not have. So my final piece of advice to John King is to ask us. Ask the district leaders, community members, teachers, students and partners who are trying to support them. We all want to help.

ÑAnthony Kim is founder and CEO of Education Elements