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If He Had His Way, It Would Pay to Recycle in Dubai...Literally

Recycle GlobeGrowing up, Mohamed Hassan watched as other people used their ideas to create success and build legacies. The observation inspired him to use his creativity to make his ideas come alive. He became interested in technology and found that it provided him with the ability to test ideas and bring them to life.

I happened to meet Mohamed at the 2017 Imagine Cup World finals. His team, Green Jam, is made up of university students from the American University in Dubai. The UAE has a goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030. Mohamed noticed that the recycling stations in Dubai were rarely used correctly and set out to improve the situation. His solution was to create automated public recycling stations that automatically sorted recyclables and also rewarded individuals for their use – a technology that can be used not only in Dubai but cities worldwide.

Interview with Mohamed Hassan

Further Reading:

Waste Management World - Project for Paper Recycling Launched by Dubai Culture

Gulf News - Over 48 tonnes of paper collected for recycling

Construction Week Online - Dubai’s Dnata cuts ground equipment waste by 110t


About Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed Hassan HeadshotMohamed Hassan attends the American University in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. He is a student of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department. His Imagine Cup team, Green Jam, was the winner of 2017 United Arab Emirates National Finals, and competed in the 2017 Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle.




About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Virtual Classrooms Blend with Brick-and-Mortar Around the World

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The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is THE pioneer institution of online and blended learning. It’s fair to say that it has long since become relevant in many places other than Florida; it has reached across the nation and beyond to sixty-five other countries. Dr. Polly Haldeman, FLVS’s Chief Customer Officer, has been helping lead the expansion charge.

FLVS is evolving from a blended learning platform for public school students in the state of Florida to a multi-national curriculum licensing operation. When asked about the content created by FLVS, Polly says, “What we have is quality, rigorous, and full of integrity; and it’s built upon the principles of educators and all the great things that we know that we should do for kids.”

Polly is a Florida native who grew up in a rural area, where she graduated high school with a class of 13 students. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, a Specialist of Education in Teacher Leadership, and a Doctorate of Education. She has been with FLVS for nearly 14 years and has grown with it through all the changes that have happened over that time. All indicators point to Polly leading FLVS into an even brighter global education future.

Interview with Dr. Polly Haldeman

Interview Transcript:

Dr. Rod Berger:  Polly, it's nice to spend some time with you today. I'm continuing to get very interested in what we're doing globally. I think what's compelling about Florida Virtual is its origins in the State of Florida and how that has expanded to provide services and opportunities around the world when we're thinking about ministries of education and groups that are trying to understand virtual education, blended environments and satellite campuses.

With that as the backdrop, what is it like to be in charge of and to work on the global scene with regards to Florida Virtual and how has that changed since your time being at Florida Virtual?

Dr. Polly Haldeman:  I've been with Florida Virtual for almost 14 years, so I have a good perspective on the changes, the growth, the implementation, and just a lot of different viewpoints. I think that the greatest thing in having a global audience is that we can partner and learn from a variety of different implementation models; and specific learning needs that are addressed by our global clients are things that we can take back and learn from, too.

It's not just all about what we do and how well we do it and sharing that. It's about that exchange back and forth of best practices and all the things that are going to benefit kids at the end of the day.

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RB:  Tell me a little bit about where Florida Virtual is at when we're thinking about the growth globally. How many countries is Florida Virtual in and what is the appetite for a virtual learning environment?

PH:  Today, we're in 65 countries ─ and it could be in a variety of different ways. Obviously, we have our global school so students can come on a tuition basis and take courses from us just like what our Florida students do as part of the state’s public education system.

Globally, they come, and they take a course or two. Mostly, though, our business is in the area of licensing our content to other school districts, schools and, and even states.

Educational centers, there's a variety of different customers’ profiles that license content for whatever ─ they're virtual (or blended, now, even) needs are.

So I think that is the area in which we see the growth.

RB:  What does it say about the market that they are reaching out wanting to license the content? I think a lot of people thought that they could figure it out but it takes a lot of time and money and research and to review that research and application to follow that through. Is that part of the reason why you think people said, “You know what, who’s been doing it the longest and who knows what they're doing?”

PH:  “Why reinvent the model when they created the model?” is what we really hear. We welcome folks to do what they think is in the best interest of their students but what we've found is that we do it pretty well.

What we have is quality, rigorous, and full of integrity; and it's built upon the principles of educators and all the great things that we know that we should do for kids. And you really can't go wrong there.

But I think one of the common things I hear from my position is that folks go and try to develop, but they forget about the maintenance of that development or the idea that you can use open-ed resources for so long, and then you might need more, and then you've got the license things and then you've got copyright things.

There's just a lot to it, and we have spent twenty years doing just that. So we become natural at it, so to speak. And so, why don't you take your program and implement it the way that you need to and we'll take care of the content?

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RB:  A lot of people want to try to predict where education is going, and that makes for a great fodder for discussion at conferences and Twitter chats and the like.

But I would think that from your position and you start to see what's going on based on the questions that you receive from other countries or states that are looking to license content that if you really had to, you might be able to make not just a prediction but sort of color in some of the lines with where we may be going and understanding the people’s concern which is “Is something going to be always, exclusively virtual? Is it going to be blended? How do we preserve what we have with brick and mortar and accentuate the positives?”

Where do you stand in that not to sort of say that you've got to have one opinion but, I guess, that you would see some things that might be some markers we can all take from an industry perspective?

PH:  From a personal and professional perspective, I've always been a fan of online learning simply because of the access. I've grown up in rural Florida. I would graduate from the smallest public high school in the state of Florida a class of 13 kids ─ yeah, really really small.

I didn't have access to anything more than the other 12 kids that needed whatever course we were taking. I didn't get advanced math; I didn't get all these foreign languages beyond the Spanish every other year.

So that's why it started the way it did for me, personally.

But what I've noticed is that we had to move too far beyond. It's really about access, and that access doesn't necessarily have to mean that you're either all or nothing, virtual or not.

I hate to be cliché because it sounds like “blended” is the word of the day, but it really is being able to maximize access opportunities for kids in the way that they need it.

And the school districts and schools and parents should all have a say in that, and we enable the facilitation of that much, much easier. We don't have to draw a line in the sand that “Here's the way it's going to be forever and always.” Our courses allow them to change and fluctuate and meet the needs however they need to meet them for any given year.

In the future, it's more of that. Of course, I can imagine a time where there's just a whole lot more virtual, but at the end of the day, I don't see in my foreseeable future that parents of kids are going to not be able to work and stay home with their virtual students. There still has to be a location or a place where kids can socially interact even in person and do labs together.

I think a good blend of virtual and access that allows the brick-and-mortar experience to be developed and implemented. I think, together, is what we're going to see.

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RB:  Let's close with this, Polly. One of the compelling narratives in education is the role the publishers play in content curriculum. If you have a different opinion, correct me if I'm wrong but the virtual world and thinking about blended environments has given us cause to reflect on how we consume curriculum, how we want to interact with it, and where is it more beneficial to a physical environment. And where we can enhance it in an online space.

What are we seeing with curriculum and content? The interface between student and the topic of the day or what they're learning and how we can better provide it. So that we avoid what you and I went through, which was the "one way" and "the only way" whether you were in rural Florida or the suburbs of Detroit like I was?

PH:  That's a great question. I won't give you a high-tech answer although the answer probably is very technical. I think the user is defining the experience more so than ever.

Back in the day, Mr. or Mrs. Smith defined the experience with the textbook, and you went in sequential order, and you went chapter by chapter, and that was the experience.

I think, now, it's led by where the students are at and taking them to some point. The great thing is that time is not even a factor anymore ─ at least; virtual doesn't make it that it has to be.

So it's user-led, and I think how analytics are now capable of the student experience versus learning outcomes, and how that all feeds together is booming.

The curriculum should not limit the ability for a kid to go and move at whatever speed, rate, and direction they want. It should facilitate it.

I think that we're going to see more and more of that. It's pretty exciting if you really think about it.

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RB:  I appreciate what you said about time. That's a piece where kids understand school and learning as just a part of life, and it's not something that is eight to three like we were saying when we were growing up.

You can start to dive in because it's just a part of what you do. You can gravitate towards things that you like and, hopefully, it keeps kids connected to what we all care about - education.

Polly, it's been great to catch up with you. There's got to be an analogy with pulling up with your car there and having a conversation about blended environments and moving at the speed of light.

Safe travels and we'll look forward to catching up with you in the near future. Thanks, Polly.

PH:  Thank you.


Further Reading:

Education Week - Is Blended Learning at a Tipping Point?

Chalkbeat - How Colorado could see more “blended learning”

Sierra Star - Individualized, unique education


About Dr. Polly Haldeman:

Polly HaldemanDr. Polly Haldeman currently serves on the Executive team at Florida Virtual School as Chief Customer Officer, where she is responsible for defining local and global sales strategies; and providing program support and ensure client satisfaction.

Polly is a Senior Leader with more than 11 years of online education experience. She is credited as a creative and resourceful leader with exceptional skills in analysis and strategic planning. She has a successful track record of exceeding student enrollment goals and exponentially increasing annual franchise revenue and profitability. Polly is recognized as an avid relationship builder, who excels in customer satisfaction, creating partnerships that promote both effective online education solutions and drive revenue.

Follow Polly Haldeman on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Teaching Tech Enthusiasm to the Next Generation


Shawn Patrick Higgins is a Computer Science and Technology Teacher at Parkrose Middle School in Portland, Oregon. Although computer science has established itself fairly well at the high-school level, technology in the middle school arena is still a bit of a unknown and untested education tool. Shawn combines his enthusiasm for computer science with the creative arts to help his students learn and thrive. He strives to get his middle school kids passionate about computer science through game making and coding.

Shawn focuses on using audio with his teaching, because stripping the visual component out simplifies the learning process for students. Many of his students are Title 1, and may not have the computer skills that other kids have when coming into Shawn’s program. Shawn creates audio projects using collaborative Soundtrap software and uses tracks extracted from already established video projects. By removing the visuals, Shawn uncomplicates the task thereby helping younger kids with little or no experience understand and jump into production with both feet.

By using cloud-based services, Shawn’s kids can access their projects from anywhere, including home, which boosts their enthusiasm level. Shawn’s energy is infectious as demonstrated in the interview below, and it comes through clearly in his interactions with his students.

Interview with Shawn Patrick Higgins

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:   Shawn, it's nice to spend some time with you. You are in a much more comfortable environment than I am today. I'm jealous!

Shawn Patrick Higgins:  I didn't realize we'd have a video component to this, so don't mind the unmade bed and the laundry on the floor.

RB:  It just means you're busy working hard. I like that.

SPH:  Yes. I got home a second ago, and I was running a little late so I didn't have time to properly clean up as much as I should but ─

RB:  No! Look, you're in education. There's a lot going on. And I wanted to talk to you… I read a piece in EdScoop and the title was How a Cloud-Based Music App Adds New Energy to Computer Science Instruction.

I think of computer science back when I was in school ─ I'm 40 now; I've passed that threshold ─ but it was very different back then than what it is now.

Catch up the audience to computer science in teaching children. How has technology impacted your ability to add excitement with students when leading them in that fashion?

Computer Brain

SPH:  I think one of the main things if I'm talking to someone and introducing myself especially when I talk “I'm a middle school teacher” and they go, “Oh, what are you doing?” ─

“Computer Science.”

“What would that look like?”

I also say, “Creative technology,” and I combine those two aspects although from state to state and from district to district, there isn’t a unified vision of what that looks like.  There's CSTA ─ Computer Science Teacher Association and IFDE and their standards, but those standards are all over the place.

A big thing that is happening all over the country; and all over the world - there are a few select countries that are beating the United States out.

Surprisingly, Vietnam has one of the most comprehensive K-8 introduction to computer platforms. They do a lot of offline stuff which was kind of bizarre especially compared to the United States and where we should be at.

There have been a lot of changes, so there's a kind of the original technology class. It's typing and at this point, it’s in the Office Suites.

But what that has evolved to on a middle school level looks very different. Computer science is starting to thrive and doing well at the high school level. There are a lot of focused efforts to expand. They just introduced a different AP exam that incorporates Scratch and some of the intros to coding languages where they focus on concepts, instead of a specific language and syntax.

But at the middle school level and the elementary K-8 level, computer science is all over the place.

What we're trying to do is get students passionate about using technology in creative ways, and it becomes game-making. There are partnerships with Minecraft and things like that.

Microsoft has had a big push as they picked up Minecraft two years ago. Code.org is also up in Seattle on the West Coast has been super huge and influential in building this entire idea and structure of what computer science looks like K-8 and in high school as well.

That's a general update.

Girl Browsing

RB: I appreciate the update. I'm glad to know other people are like me in wondering exactly how computer science has evolved from a curriculum and how you interface with students in that way.

Tell me about the audio component because I know that that was one of the things that you discussed in the article. Tell me about the power of audio and technology in the way you have been looking to integrate it into the work you're doing with your students.

SPH:   Right! I think there are two different ways I focus on incorporating audio. One is with my students. I focus with students and I've been teaching in a school that's over ninety percent Title 1. Many students don't have a lot of access to technology at the middle school level and some students haven't had hardly anything in elementary.

It's trying to get them passionate about interfacing and making basic skills ─ all the workflow, how to save things even using a mouse in sixth grade. Some kids aren’t super comfortable saving a file, deleting a file, and things like that.

So, how to get students passionate is to get them involved. And that often is, if you talk about “Hey, we're going to create a podcast and edit some audio” in the abstract - it doesn't necessarily catch the kids. They're like, “What do you mean?”

Most students have phones that are capable of recording mp3. So they can record on their phone and get that sense of email but even that is building very basic level skills; and on a sixth-grade level, that can work well.

But if you talk about “Okay, if Drake and Rihanna want to talk about their feelings for each other, what we can do is we can find conversations that they're having and we're going to chop them off and make them talk to each other. How about that?”

And kids will go, “Oh, yeah!”

Or Drake and Chris Brown need to fight. If you try to create, try to focus on social media and pop culture and use that then audio is just manifesting something that they're interested in and creating a story with. We get that currency and that buy-in until they're like “Alright, we're interested in this project” and go from there.

Before, as we mentioned a little bit at the start, my background was actually in photo and video; my degree is in video before I came to teach. I've been here six years now; and the year before, I taught after-school photo and video classes with Portland Community Media, which is our local public access.

Almost all my audio projects are what used to be my video projects but we've taken out the visual layer, so it's a lot easier for younger students and students who haven't had a lot of experience. Jumping into Premiere Pro or something like that is kind of high level and pretty intimidating.

You try to strip out different pieces as technology. It's been evolving to this kind of cloud base where students can access it from home or they can access it in the classroom, they can keep working on the same projects.

My classroom is where I have found the most success in that the students can keep going.

I used to have an entire Adobe CSx six years ago and I got some licenses. But the kids couldn't use it at home.

Ultimately, I had to give that up in favor of the more cloud-based stuff and that was for the visual stuff; there's Pixlr. And just last year was the first time I got to use Soundtrap.

I tried to use Audacity and some of the free stuff but they can't access it from home. The easier you make it, the better. Make it cool and you make it easy. And that's how you get kids interested in the beginning.

If it's not either of those, you'll lose kids on both sides.

Troubleshooting Robot

RB:  Even the adults  - you'll lose.

SPH:  There's that, too. I get so involved and I've been doing it for a while, especially in Scratch which is the intro to programming language out of MIT. Scratch and LEGO Mindstorms both came from the same place. There is this whole idea of visual block-based coding as an introduction for students.

I think those are the two big ones. There are a lot of startups and a lot of newer things the last two or three years, but I think the old dogs in Intro to Coding are Scratch and Mindstorms.

Also, in Scratch, there's an audio tab, too. That's kind of how I focus my class ─

You asked about this earlier. In Scratch, there are three tabs. Sprites which is visual; Sounds and you can import your Sounds tab, and then there's the coding tab.

All the focus and I think rightfully so, has been on the coding ─ getting kids involved in coding. But in Scratch, there's not just the coding tab; there are the other two. There's the visual tab, the arts tab, and the audio tab.

How I sell what I do is “Okay, we're going to build up this pyramid and Scratch is at the top. But underneath it, we need to think about game making; we need to think about logic; we need to think about our visuals, our posters, our visual design; and we need to think about our audio.

So those are the three building blocks, that's how I visualize it.

RB:  Shawn, let's go into this. The folks who are listening to our interview, I'm sure that they can feel the energy that you have. Here's what I think is interesting and exciting.

When we find professionals and, more importantly, people who are passionate about working in education ─ and if you go down the rabbit hole with me...I think we do not do a very good job in education of marketing all the fun, interesting, innovative things that you can do (depending upon your talent or the areas that you enjoy to pursue) that are challenging to you.

We see that in other industries. But we don't often see it in education. The energy that you convey with what you're able to do with students and that it changes all the time ─ where does that come from? Do you get the same sense that I'm getting or is it just that I'm experiencing you as your students do -  which I would imagine they must adore you because you integrate things that are pop culture, things that they will experience when they get out that make it creative, challenging and fun?

SPH:  Yes. I'm in a unique position. I've been in this for six years. For the first three years, I think I was the only middle school computer science teacher in Portland Public Schools District. I think that there are two others that have that title now.

So I'm in a rare position because of this focus. And then, I'm in an even rarer position because we're a very small charter school. I teach all the kids.

Computer science as opposed to being this elective which is a very different class mindset ─ if it's elective, it's just the kids who are down that are like, “Yes, let's do this; let's focus on this.”

I've got everybody. So I think the focus and the passion are “I've got to make it interesting. I've got to be able to go where they're going, ” or I will lose kids entirely.

You need to be passionate about it. A lot of the kids were not primed to be interested in technology. I mentor all the girls in the class; we have about a hundred students this year and I teach everybody every day. So that's a unique position to be in on that kind of computer science coding model.

Being excited about is a product of what I set for the kids. If I can get excited about it, we can kind of keep that stirring around. When I've tried a couple of things that I didn't know well and I wasn’t excited about - they fell totally flat.

Girl Learning

RB: I think it's wonderful. To your point there at the end, the fear of failure is something that I think we're starting to embrace. It's okay whether it's at the building level, the district level, the teacher level, the student level, or the parent level.

I think that little small bit at the end is key to the whole thing to stay engaged.

It's been so nice to catch up with you, Shawn. Continued success!

The kids in your school are very lucky to have you and I can imagine what my career would have been like if I had computer science in your classroom.

SPH:  You would have probably got into podcasting a little bit earlier ─

RB:  [laughs] Thanks, Shawn.

SPH:  Absolutely! Thank you.

Further Reading:

EdScoop - A cloud-based music app adds new energy to computer science

Westworld - Big Gigantic Donates Computer Lab to Youth on Record

Money Magazine - This Coding School Will Pay YOU to Attend


About Shawn Patrick Higgins:

Shawn HigginsShawn Patrick Higgins has many years of experience teaching youth about video and creative technology, with more than 5 years experience teaching middle school computer science and managing educational technology. He specializes in project-based, collaborative learning in new media and fostering STEAM learning environments as a creative alternative pathway to student success.

Shawn is currently the Coordinator of Digital Literacy at Self Enhancement Inc, one of the oldest education and equity non-profits in Oregon. Self Enhancement is a charter school, after-school program and wrap-around family services organization focused on supporting high-needs youth of color in the Portland area.

Follow Sean Higgins on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Using Better Approaches to Improve, Showcase and Assess Student Work

Digital assessment and learning

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Wisconsin’s Mineral Point Unified School District and author of the new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work. His work has covered using digital portfolios to enhance student learning, effective uses of classroom technology, teaching students how to engage in self-directed learning, and through his blog, Reading By Example, he provides insights and expertise on literacy and leadership.

In this interview, Renwick explains why it is important to showcase student work through student portfolios in addition to assessing it; shares advice for schools and districts to evaluate digital portfolio solutions; describes why new approaches to literacy instruction, such as gamification, are necessary to consider; talks about how teachers can help students develop the emotional domain of reading; and more.  


Rod Berger: In your new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom, you describe assessment as “messy.” Can you explain why assessment is often messy and how digital portfolios can help make sense of the messiness?

Matt Renwick: Assessment in education is messy because we are attempting to measure student growth and achievement. We are working with kids, very dynamic individuals who each bring their own interests, strengths, and needs. How can a single score or one grade truly gauge a student’s abilities or potential? That’s a rhetorical question; they cannot. I think education has used grades, scores, and levels for so long that it is very difficult to think differently about how assessment might better represent student learning in more accurate and affirming ways.

Digital portfolios can help a teacher and students get closer to understanding how a student is progressing and succeeding as a learner. Audio, images, and video can capture so much more regarding a student’s response to instruction. You can hear their enthusiasm in a speech they give, and see the pride in their faces when presenting a project they’ve worked hard on over the course of several weeks. Why would any teacher want to diminish their work by only giving it a score or a grade? Digital portfolios can become that necessary technology for communicating learning in the original form that it was created.

RB: The subtitle of your book is “Showcasing and Assessing Student Work.” We often focus on the assessment part and overlook the showcase element. What are some of the ways digital portfolios create a good showcase for student work and why is this important?

MR: Students, and really everyone, want to be recognized for their accomplishments and best efforts. Our society has little problem with handing out trophies and medals for success in sports and extracurricular activities. Celebrating academic work should not be a significant shift for anyone when we consider this context.

Digital portfolios can facilitate showcasing student work in a variety of ways.

  • Post pictures of students’ final products. These images should be shared with an accompanying text caption in which students describe what they created, how they did it, why it’s important, and what they want to work on for next time. This explanation, self-reflection, and goal setting provides context for student work and their future goals.
  • Upload video of student performances. Our families cannot attend every play, concert, and demonstration of learning, nor should they be expected to. Digital portfolios can bring families into the classroom by documenting their performances via video and then uploading this media for families to watch and enjoy at a later time.
  • Record audio of students’ current skills and understanding. Showcasing our students’ best efforts should not be limited to only final projects and performance tasks. There are reasons to celebrate every day. Maybe a student achieved the next level on a reading benchmark assessment or was finally able to pronounce a specific sound during their speech and language intervention. Parents can experience this success with their kids by hearing evidence of their accomplishments.

RB: Are there any specific digital portfolio tools you’d recommend? What do you like about it/them?

MR: The best digital portfolio tool is the one that allows students to best represent themselves as learners. Which technology a school or district selects depends on the discipline(s) that would incorporate digital portfolios, the level of access that students have to technology, the types of devices, and who would be the audience for student work. But above all of these factors is the big question: Why does a teacher or school want to use digital portfolios? The purpose for integrating digital assessment is the priority.

For example, Josh Beck and Chris Haeger at Cudahy High School in Cudahy, Wisconsin have their students use Google Sites to post their best work in English language arts. Students embed their artifacts in reading, writing, speaking, and listening into these personalized websites. Twice a year, sophomores and seniors have to present these best work portfolios to a panel of educators and community leaders. Their purpose for using Google Sites is to provide an authentic opportunity for students to showcase their abilities as readers and writers for people that matter to them. The other factors are important, such as types of devices they might have, but they are not essential.

RB: Shifting topics for a minute, you’ve done a lot of work on literacy. You’ve had your blog, Reading by Example, since 2011, and your Twitter handle is even @ReadByExample. One of my questions around literacy relates to the need for new approaches to reach and engage all learners. What is your perspective on the potential of new literacy approaches, such as gamification, to make a difference for young readers?

MR: Being literate in today’s world requires a much different understanding than when I first entered the education profession in 2000. Back then, print was almost the only text my students read as an elementary teacher. We visited websites for research and used computers for writing reports, but that was largely the extent of my students’ interaction with digital text. Seventeen years later, I could not imagine being a teacher of readers and writers without considering how to incorporate all of these new ways of reading and writing online.

Digital portfolios can be that entry point into delving into the new literacies, such as digital literacy, media literacy, and global literacy. For example, students could maintain a process portfolio on a blog such as Kidblog or Edublogs. They can reflect on their learning experiences in a safe online environment for an immediate audience, namely classmates. Using a blog as a digital journal can lead students to make connections with other classrooms around the world. Teachers in different parts of the globe can set up collaborative projects and guide students to comment on each other’s work. This can lead to sharing of digital products, such as public service announcements, that garner feedback and affirmation in the form of blog comments. The only limits we have with these new ways of being literate is our imaginations.

RB: Sticking with literacy for one more question, I’m interested in strategies that help students develop the emotional domain of reading: their interest, confidence, and motivation. What are some of your tips for helping students develop in these areas?

MR: Students should have, above all, access to books they want to read, can read, and can choose to read. Voice and choice are the essentials for developing students’ interest and motivation in reading. Confidence comes from many hours of practicing reading real texts and becoming better at it because of the time and access teachers provide. Teachers are wise to use the texts students are choosing to read as a way to assess their abilities to decode and comprehend texts. This can happen in small group/guided instruction and independent conferences.

These are not my original ideas; I am only sharing what I have learned from literacy experts on the topic of the emotional domain of reading. I wish I would have had this knowledge a decade ago when I was still in the classroom. If I did, I know I would be spending the majority of my time learning from the students about their reading lives and providing real time, personalized feedback, instead of all the time I spent teaching. In raising our own two children, we never taught them how to read. My wife and I just read aloud a lot of books to them. They knew how to read going into school.

RB: For our final question, I want to ask about ways to support students with special needs or second language learners. Are there a few specific ways to recommend using digital tools - whether digital portfolios or otherwise - to benefit learning for students with these particular needs?

MR: I have learned that when we perceive our students through a label, educators tend to lower their expectations for students with specific needs. Instead, let’s keep our expectations high for all students. This might mean not digging into student files right away. Instead, teachers can build relationships and a classroom community the first days of school. Allow students the opportunity to rise to the potential. If we seem them struggle, then we can ascertain as to why.

A favorite digital tool that can support struggling readers includes digital books that include narration and text support such as selecting a word for a visual definition to pop up. This can relieve the students of the decoding work so they can enjoy the text and comprehend it. Apple’s App Store and Nook (Barnes and Noble) Books both offer many titles with these features. Another recommended digital tool is voice dictation. Students who struggle to write can speak what they want to say and the application transcribes it into text. Now a student has a written first draft to work with and revise. Most computing devices now have this option available.

Further Reading:

School Leaders NowUsing Digital Portfolios to Give Students Control of Their Learning Journey

Getting SmartEngaging Parents to Engage Learners: Digital Portfolios Can Make it Happen

edCircuitNo More Hand-Me-Down Tech: Developing K-8 Learning Interfaces for Schools

About Matt Renwick

Renwick headshotMatt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Wisconsin’s Mineral Point Unified School District. He is the author of the new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work, as well as 5 Myths About Classroom Technology, both available from ASCD.

He also authored a free e-book, The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning, available from FreshGrade. Matt’s blog, readingbyexample.com, was named one of the Top 50 Education IT blogs by EdTech K-12 in 2013, 2015, and 2016. He was named an Onalytica Top 100 EdTech Influencer in 2015 and 2016 and was one of EdTech Digest’s EdTech Leadership Award finalists in 2017. Learn more about Matt at mattrenwick.com or follow him on Twitter @ReadByExample

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington PostScholasticAmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Authentic Assessment vs. Accountability: The Balancing Act

Chalkboard Test
Eric Simpson is the Director of Learning and Leadership Services at the Texas Association of School Administrators and is heavily involved in the Texas Performance Assessment Consortium, commonly referred to as TPAC. The consortium is comprised of 44 school districts; the purpose of the group is to advocate for community-based accountability in schools, something Eric says that schools and administrators are severely lacking.

Eric’s kids are enrolled in a member district, so his involvement in the TPAC group takes on a personal element. He feels a personal responsibility to influence schools, not just in his district but everywhere, and as he says, “stop going down a path that creates shallower expectations and shallower learning experiences based off of a very limited way of assessing learning.”

Listen to the discussion with me below as it demonstrates Eric’s openness to having hard discussions about the shortcomings of our current education system. He offers a refreshing willingness to examine concrete ways that we, as a society, might attempt to turn things around for the better.

Interview with Eric Simpson

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:  Eric, it's nice to spend some time with you. I will tell you that I'm pretty lucky in what I do because I get to talk with thought leaders in education that are tackling some very big challenging topics.  And I think what's going on in Texas is noteworthy and we should all know what's going on when it comes to how we're evaluating assessments, and we're talking about that as school leaders.

With that as the backdrop, tell me a little bit about TPAC. Spell that out for folks. Let us know its origins of that and how that got started so that we can see how it applies to us outside of Texas and what we can learn for districts that are currently not a part of it.


Eric Simpson:  It stands for the “Texas Performance Assessment Consortium.” We're rooted in the relationship between assessment and accountability and making sure that that assessment is authentic; that it is informative to all stakeholders in the system; and, above all else, that it tells a complete story of what's going on in a school district.

The way that this was started, in 2006 through the Texas Association of School Administrations, we had convened about 35 different superintendents who were looking at what it means to be future-ready and what it means to really be educating students for the 21st century.

In education, we talk about “21st-century learning and 21st-century preparedness.” We're seventeen years in, right? The 21st Century is here.

If we're looking at the impact of technology in education, the impact of technology on the culture and in career and in college, what exactly does that mean for traditional schools?

And so, these 35 superintendents came together to really author a new vision for public education in Texas. They constructed these five articles that they felt leaders needed to really pay close attention to, to further the way that we're serving the new generation of students.

Part of it is the way that we address the digital environment. With technology and with this new way of interacting with information, it's very different from the traditional system when you and I were in high school, which was about finding the information that was out there and reporting it back.

And so, the challenge was actually locating enough sources to be informed. So you'd go to the library; you're trying to get six or twelve sources on your topic; you're limited to what's in front of you.

The new way of interacting with that is that they have the opposite problem now. Students have a glut of information, and the trick is figuring out how to think critically and deal with that new information in a way that not only builds upon their knowledge but also useful in an authentic way for what they encounter in the workforce, in college, and everything else.

The thing is, this new environment requires new learning standards. And that's really what that Article 2 is about. If Article 1 is digital learning, Article 2 is about those new learning standards that have to be in place to make sure that students are encountering skill building that helps them succeed in that new world.

Articles 3 and 4 are about assessment and accountability. And the funny thing is that whenever they are running the assessment and accountability in Texas, we were part of the force that started the ever-reliance on standardized tests-based accountability.

The very first standardized tests appeared in Texas around 1980. It becomes high stakes around 1984.

So whenever you look at the adaptability of the systems in public education, we continue to innovate; we continue to try to differentiate for students, but so much of assessment is based on something that's designed to resist differentiation. That's what standardizations are there for, right?

Kid Reading

RB:  A lot of folks are talking nationally and looking at, as I’m sure you are in Texas, authentic assessment. Is that a point of discussion within TPAC when the superintendents are talking about how we make something authentic yet reliable when we're trying to understand how to allocate resources and better prepare teachers and support them as well? Where does the term “authentic” fit into this conversation?

ES:  I think you're right on. We feel like students are not experiencing tests or assessments in general that are representative of the actual experience they're having in schools and the knowledge and skills they're obtaining. They're not experiencing assessments that are meant to measure their amount of skill acquisition.

Their rank order tests are meant to compare them to other students within their age range. There's a selection of content that is tested, but it's not tested for mastery. Those test items are meant to separate high-, medium-, and low-achieving students in that subject area.

The schools are not receiving ratings; they're not receiving information based upon the actual work of students; it's based on just kind of one-time, end-of-year test that's supposed to represent how a student has developed.

What we've really tried to do in TPAC is focus on what educators actually learn about their students from the school year.

Assessment happens year round. There's assessment for the process. There's assessment for the actual skills that are learned. There are so many different pieces to assessment that, frankly, are ignored whenever we put so much pressure on one single test.

The schools and the districts receive their rankings based off of, largely, this end-of-year test; and what results is really an incomplete audit. You have one small part of what somebody does in school that is, then, applied to the rest of the school system.

We're going to be looking at a district as actually trying to do a performance-based assessment and have portfolios for students for each of their core classes.

There's no way to represent that in the accountability system at this time. It's all based on that one moment of assessment.

The same can be said with the assessment of a district. No matter how much work they complete and offer professional learning experiences to teachers to better differentiate it for students and to increase content knowledge of their teachers and increase pedagogy, that's just not apparent in the current system. They look very same as somebody else who perform the same on the test.

Though you can see certain gaps in student performance through those standardized tests, what you can't really see is any true causation for the problems.


RB:  Eric, let's dive in, if we can, to TPAC. I think it's really interesting. For those who don't work in education, there's a mystery about thought leadership in education and how we get to where we are now whether it's policy or practice.

Speaking of auditing and sort of changing the narrative if we're using assessment as sort of the backdrop, tell me about the conversations amongst the TPAC members as a method of sort of self-checking that even the way in which the conversations are going, the questions that are being asked that they are taking a new path or that they are challenging old narratives that we're trying to break.

I think it's human nature that we kind of just continue to repeat the wheel. And if we can do a really good job of having these open conversations about what we're used to seeing and challenging each other and sharing each other’s stories, that that's when we can really find a new method of interaction.

ES:  I think a lot of the challenge and thinking about the accountability system is making sure that it's meaningful to both the public and to educators. The educators need an accountability system that really can inform their practice and allows them to have some agency in areas they're accountable.

The public school is the bedrock of the community and so much of what we've done in accountability has been to take that agency away from local school boards and give it to a state agency that takes this incredibly complex system and distills it into something that's easy enough for the general public to understand and that can be understandable and useful for districts.

They end up failing on both sides because I think there's an inherent underestimation of the public when it comes to accountability reports. They say, “Well, it's got to be simple. Everybody understands A through F. We all went to school. We all have an A in something. We probably all had an F in something at some point.”

We get that scale. And so, we're informed if we see that there are schools of B or a C. We know what that means.

In actuality, we don't know what that means. It's an oversimplification in such a way that you feel informed but, really less informed than when you began.

RB:  And I think that's a key point. Even the acknowledgment from thought leaders like you to say, “Look, we can all come to an agreement that it doesn't give us the complete picture.”

It really does speak not only to the transparency of education for the teacher and the student but how we can incorporate the community and parents as well.

Do you agree?


ES:  I do. I feel like if the reports that we give the community can really engage them and the values they accept for their school system, and it's able to give them some tangible representations of the things that need to be worked on and the struggles in the system as well as the successes - then, you're really well-informed about your child’s education.

If you're looking at standardized test scores and overall printouts, you're really learning more about non-schooling factors than your schooling factors. And a lot of those are just not a surprise.

People know what they look like. People know the makeup of their schools. What they really need to understand is what the educators are doing to address all of the needs of their diverse community.

If you're in a compliant system, there's no way to really overachieve. You can't be more compliant. I mean, it's either you're compliant, or you're not.

And so, I think that's where people try to make these assessments do things that they're just not designed to do. You can't determine college-readiness with a compliance-based high school test. You can want that, and say, “Boy, we think if they scored this high on it, they're likely to do well in college.”

But, again, there's no causation. It's an illusion of being informed.

I think we all know that the only way to be informed about our students’ education is to be involved in our students’ education. I mean, you have to ask some really difficult questions, and you have to really engage with your school to understand exactly what's going on.

I feel like the state system, sometimes, unintentionally, discourages parental involvement in those questions. They say, “Here, we've given you the information. We've told you what that information means, and there's really nothing else for you to do besides either want it to be better or be happy that it's not worse.”

Whereas if we're really involving our constituents in setting educational goals for the system and holding the leaders accountable for those decisions right now, community-based accountability would be a greater accountability than we've ever faced.

School leaders were not being held accountable for what we're actually doing in our districts. It's an illusion of accountability.

“If your kids don't improve in reading, we're going to give you an unpleasant consequence.”

Everything is really about avoiding that unpleasant consequence rather than doing what almost every industry does which is setting expectations for professionals with those professionals being involved in carrying those expectations out and reporting out a preponderance of evidence that they have exceeded the expectations.


RB:  I agree with you there. There are a lot of kids who wish that their parents had that discipline at home.

Let's close with this, Eric. What is your hope with TPAC when you look back at it retrospectively? What's the goal that you personally have for the conversation, the community that has been generated around this consortium and looking at performance assessment and accountability and how that interfaces with the community?

ES:  I'm lucky enough to have my personal children actually going to a district that has decided to join TPAC. I feel I have a personal responsibility for making sure that my kids have a wonderful education and that they have a rich chance at deep, profound learning.

My personal hope is that we stop going down a path ─ as a profession and as a society ─ that influences that profession greatly, that we stop going down a path that creates shallower expectations and shallower learning experiences based off of a very limited way of assessing learning.

The thing is, the fact that the accountability system doesn't actually hold us accountable, that it doesn't actually give us a true accounting of the work that school districts do, that's unfortunate ─ and it can be better.

However, the thing that's actually damaging is the assessment and accountability system itself in the way that it incentivizes very, very narrow experiences for students.

The example I'd give is you would never ever spend a week giving a test prep packet unless you had a test to prepare for at the state level. There's no way that ─ as a practitioner ─ you would rely upon very limited worksheet-based, multiple choice-based ─

RB:  You'd lose your students.

ES:  You would ─ absolutely! The only way that activity is meaningful is if you have a test to prepare for and you have to tell your students, “Well, we have to prepare to this test so we've got to do this thing here and ─”

The tail wagging the dog, the small one-time assessment ends up influencing your entire year.

And I think the argument that people bring forward on standardized testing is “Well, it's only once a year.”

But it adds up. Yes, it's once a year for every subject that your state decides to test. But if it's high stakes, the teachers feel like you have to prepare them for that and the learning suddenly becomes secondary.

If we, as a system, make reading goals and we say, “Okay, our big goal is that we are going to have everybody reading on grade level by the time they hit tenth grade,” that's a different goal than “We're going to try to make sure that everybody passes an on-level standardize test on reading” because what that turns into is people trying to get students who read below grade level to pass an on-grade level test. And it sets us up for failure.

Instead, it really should be about the outcomes we're most concerned with, and that's the actual students’ skill development and getting them ready for post-secondary success.

Often, these tests serve a proxy for that and we begin to prepare for this proxy rather than actually prioritizing the skill acquisition itself. It's not because the leaders don't get it or because the teachers value the tests more. It's that the state values the tests more. It's that all of the decisions at the state level hinge upon that compliance piece.

And so, it becomes a very real threat to schools that struggle the most of receiving less support or receiving fewer funds. And it drags us all down.

Test Tubes

RB:  And it requires a breath of fresh air and an openness and a willingness to have a conversation about what is accountability and how we reevaluate what is authentic and not authentic. And that's when it's going to get fun to check in with you periodically to see how TASA and TPAC are working in tandem to expand the conversation.

I know that it is right there within your home state of Texas. But I think there's a lot that we can learn not only outside of Texas but globally as well because the global classroom is real and it's thankfully spreading to administrations and leadership development in a way in which we're changing the path of education.

Continued success, Eric, and thank you again.

ES: Thank you very much.

Further Reading:

My Plainview - Most area schools meet accountability standards

The CT Mirror - Feds give nod to CT’s plan for education accountability

Corpus Christi Caller Times - Corpus Christi, Texas fare well in TEA accountability

About Eric Simpson:

Eric SimpsonEric Simpson is the Director of Learning and Leadership Services at the Texas Association of School Administrators. Prior to his role at TASA, Eric served as a secondary literacy and language arts administrator for Lewisville Independent School District, a large suburban district north of Dallas. He also served as the English language arts content lead for the TASA on iTunes U project.

Simpson taught English at the high school and college level for nine years before moving into curriculum and professional development. Eric has presented at conferences for the National Council for Teachers of English and SXSWedu. In 2015, he was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator and received the North Star of Texas Writing Project’s Leslie Patterson Leadership Award for his contribution to literacy and writing instructional leadership.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Helping Genius Communicate and Share Brilliant Ideas

Sloan Management
As the CIO at the 
Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Letchford is working in a very technologically advanced and progressive environment, and that fact dictates how he manages things. He has to have the mindset that every piece of brilliant technology that they build today is going to be obsolete tomorrow. As a result of this philosophy, he must continually strive to get ready for tomorrow's Next Great New Idea.

He has to tread a fine line between promoting structure and promoting free-for-all creativity to properly fertilize that creativity; as he puts it, “If you have too much structure, you can inhibit innovation, and if you have too little structure, you can inhibit innovation.”

He is dealing with two sets of people: 1.) Students who are digital natives and crave a rapid pace of change over the short time they are going to spend at MIT, and 2.) Faculty and staff who are in it for the long haul. This classic push-me-pull-you dynamic requires John and his team to keep open lines of communication with all the constituent groups to make sure everyone can achieve maximum productivity with minimal conflict or contention.

Listen below as we discuss what it's like being the conduit for communication among some of the most dynamic and brilliant minds in higher ed.

Interview with Jon Letchford

Interview Transcript:

Rod Berger: John, it's nice to be spending some time with you today. What's really interesting when we look at the role of a chief information officer in higher education is that a lot of people don't know the significance of what CIOs are doing to help not only integrate interesting and fun technology for students but also to serve as a gatekeeper. I mean that in a very positive way so that we allow good things to come and push back on innovations that are not ready yet for implementation in the higher environment.

Tell me about what your day-to-day and how you take that role. Is that description fair or unfair?

John Letchford:  I think it's very fair. I sit as the CIO for Sloan School of Management at MIT which is a very innovative place. I have to come into the office every morning with a mindset that anything we build is legacy the next morning and there are going to be very large numbers of creative ideas that come to the forefront in the discussions during the day.

A very large proportion of my day is trying to work out where that sweet spot exists between having an appropriate level of streamlining/standardization and having innovation.

If you have too much structure, you can inhibit innovation and if you have too little structure, you can inhibit innovation. I think we're always trying to work out the right way to go about doing that and, certainly, in terms of how we can manage data or information across the school in a way that really drives insight and value. We're always looking at “What is the optimal way to architect things in terms of systems of records of engagement?” and how things can come together in a way that really works for everybody ─ the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni, and so forth.

RB:  I'm glad you brought that part at the end because I would imagine that one of the potential challenges for you in your role is assessing technology and saying, “Okay, this looks like it's going to be very beneficial for our students at MIT.”

But we also have to understand the adoption rate from faculty. It can have two wildly different positions that we have to take and understand because the students are coming in as digital natives and that does not necessarily fit the description for faculty in all cases.

How do you go about marketing ─ if that's the way to put it ─ a message to faculty knowing full well that from your perch, you see a very valuable technology that you have to create buy-in from the faculty and then, deploy to the students?

JL:  You're dealing with two very different constituent types. We have students who are going to be here for a very fixed period of time who want to have a very fast pace of change. Equally, we have a world-renowned faculty who has very clear priorities and we want to make sure that we're not doing things which are unnecessarily disruptive; and have a very long-term focus.

The way we go about it is through communication and collaboration. We work with everybody in the staff as well as alumni in making sure that we're engaging people of all different constituent types appropriately.

It is a bit of science, making sure requirements are understood; and some of it is a little bit of making sure that everyone has a voice. We want to make sure everyone’s voice is taken into account.

From a philosophy standpoint, as most people in MIT know, the better way to do it is iterating a little bit at a time. I find that to be quite effective ─ versus trying to do something big bang and explosive which has a higher risk of maybe not working for all the constituents.

We certainly have a very fast iteration-cycle approach of implementing things. When we’re introducing new platforms for collaboration or learning management or administrative processes - we will start off and work out what is the minimal thing we need to do here?

And then, iterate, iterate, and iterate. I mean, if we actually did track all the versions of the different solutions we’re putting in place, there are many, many, many iterations and we just keep putting things gently and it allows us to manage expectations, I think, quite effectively.

Block Chain

RB:  John, are there inborn pressures on your end because you are at MIT, to present for review technology that has a certain level of brand awareness? Is there a challenge that we may not be thinking about just because of the well-known nature of MIT and its legacy, to your point earlier in the discussion?

JL:  From my perspective, yes. I think MIT is a truly wonderful and unique environment and culture. Although people tend to focus ─ at least, this is a personal reflection ─ on the technology within MIT, what MIT to me is an incredible ethos around innovation.

It creates an interesting challenge. In fact, what I'm trying to do here is create an environment that can continuously innovate and, more importantly, is responsive to ever-changing needs. I'm trying to look at things from that perspective rather than just from a purist technology perspective. When I say that things are “legacy,” they ought to be implemented. It is the mentality that we take here because the pace of change in terms of meeting the needs of faculty and students is so high that we're always iterating.

Now, on the flipside, if you think about the 80/20 rule, we're never spending time to get to a hundred percent because that isn’t the best value that can be delivered. It's a culture that you have to get accountable with because if you have an expectation of coming here and building the most comprehensive, complete solution that will keep everyone happy, to me, that's just not the way we do things here.

We're iterating. We're creative. We're innovating. And the moment we've got something, we're already looking to the next thing.

And so, there are two sides to that coin.

RB:  I would imagine that, on the flip side, you probably have technologists and even small shops that would love to integrate and be part of the iterative process at MIT but just the sheer name alone makes it hard to say to them, “Look, we are open for business. We are looking for innovators regardless of the size of your company.”

Is that true? And how do you approach it so that you don't miss innovation that may really have an opportunity to grow in a legacy fashion?

JL:  I am always open to building partnerships and relationships. Without specifying names, there are certainly companies with whom we will work. An example, in the next couple of weeks, one vendor is working with some of my staff to basically do a two- or three-day hackathon to develop some code and web bots.

It's great because we have very wonderful employees, students, staff and so forth; and from my perspective, the level of expertise is very high.

I'm trying to work out how I make sure the people here are always engaged having those relationships with vendors. And they get a lot out of it as well, obviously, dealing with high-caliber individuals.

I'd definitely like to build partnerships up and, frankly, look at every possible way to be creative as to how we deliver things. I'm sure, with many others schools of business or management we're definitely trying to work at how we push further up the stack and really think about data and less about why it's not pushing.

We really want to be pushing things up to the cloud and try to be as value-oriented as possible.

Techno Clash

RB:  One of the things that one of your professional colleagues in North Carolina talked about was the focus and the desire to understand identity management with faculty and students at the business school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Is that something that you're looking for or exploring in a world where we're trying to really understand our students better beyond just that fixed term of them being on our physical campuses?

JL: Definitely! There are many different aspects to identity management ─ the key “how do you manage” authorization and authentication and single sign-on type of stuff. There's managing the identities from a broad-relationship perspective.

Like most of the schools, we're exploring, “What is the best way to create that comprehensive 360-degree view?”

The one thing that I'd say we're definitely doing here ─ and I have to give a nod to my predecessor ─ is we're taking a very platform-agnostic way of looking at our relationships with individuals, corporations or countries or whatever it might be ─ the whole relationship of the school.

We’re early in that process but one of the things that we've developed as a comprehensive central system of record around a lot of stuff that we do at the school. It becomes the system of record and then, we can plug in many of these systems of engagement. Making many of the companies and software and services that you're probably very familiar with - the front end.

We kind of have a hub-and-spoke model and that, to me, feels like a very good long-term sustainable model for thinking about identities and how to manage all different attributes of information related to people as well as the more traditional or single sign-up types of stuff.

And then, there's the whole cyber security aspect which we're working on how to make sure that the information we have is protected and also being made available to those specific identities who should have access to it.

Robot Friend

RB: John, let's close with this. What is exciting to you that maybe we don't know, as the general public? And the second part of this would be, from a technology perspective, are there lessons from what you are seeing down the pike in technology in higher ed that we can also apply to the K-12 environment? We're starting to see more entities connecting the dots so that when we transfer students from high school to college and graduate school experiences, there is a level of continuity that impacts their learning, their engagement, and, hopefully, their success as well?

What are you seeing coming down the pike that is really interesting to you that we may not know about? And are there ways in which we can see them bearing fruit in K-12 as well?

JL:  That's a really good question. MIT has always done this but we're trying to do more at the staff level within the Sloan School - is the existing culture of hacking. We had our first big multi-day staff hackathon last December and it was a huge success. We're focusing on how we drive connectedness across the school.

Those are things which necessarily don't have a strong technology bent at the beginning but they do, generally, at some point, lead to a technology integration - or solution-type implementation. Those are the things that I think are huge. Looking at K through 12, I do wonder how we can introduce more and more of these whole hackathon cultures further down into our youth.

I think I read a story that you'd written about how the students who are focused on being less consumers and more creators are going to be the most successful students in the future. That's what we're trying to do here. How do put the staff in the driving seat to actually go out and create great things? Certainly, that culture, I think, is just contagious whoever the constituent. Putting people in those positions, especially working at MIT - it's the core of what we do. I think there's huge potential.

I would also answer your question the other way around as well. What can K through 12 teach us? I'm sure there are plenty of things there as well.

Super ?

RB:  That's a point well taken. It's going to benefit everybody when we're looking at the student body. There are increasingly alternative ways to acquire post-high school success in education; and that can, then, impact a number of students who are coming to our campuses.

Obviously, it's potentially a little bit different at a school at the level of MIT.

Let's close with this. I can't help but wonder just how exciting it is professionally and personally to be at MIT every day around that kind of mindshare and the quality of learning. That has to be exciting.

JL:  It is. It's also very humbling, let me tell you. I've done a number of senior-IT leadership roles. Coming here, it makes you realize how little you know when you're surrounded by some incredible brain power.

It's wonderful and humbling all at the same time.

RB:  It's been wonderful to catch up with you, John. Continued success!

JL:  Thank you very much.


Further Reading:

Boston Globe - Could an MIT team’s discovery one day restore the memories of Alzheimer’s patients?

Quartz - MIT scientists created “living” jewelry that moves

MIT News - MIT hosts STEM boot camp for veteran students


About John Letchford:

John LetchfordJohn Letchford is currently the CIO for the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Prior to that John had a one year appointment at Tufts University, assisting the University CIO with the transition towards an integrated IT operating and shared services delivery model as part of a larger university-wide effort to transform administrative processes and practices.

Before moving into Higher Education, John was CIO at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As CIO, John set strategic direction and led IT programs across executive government. In this role he served as the chair of the state’s IT governing body, the CIO Cabinet, and also served as a member of the State 911 Commission, Governor’s Health IT Council, and on the board of the Mass Broadband Institute. John was a director on the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) Executive Committee and in 2013 was named as one of Government Technology’s 2013 Top 25 Doers, Dreamers & Drivers in Public-Sector Innovation nationwide.

Prior to becoming State CIO, John was Deputy CIO, with overall responsibility for day to day service operations of the Information Technology Division and for overseeing the state’s information technology infrastructure consolidation program.

John was born in the UK and holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Exeter, and a master’s degree in information processing from the University of York.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Piercing the Darkness with Compassionate Technology

As Computer Science Students from Romania Andrei Isac and his partners recently competed in the 2017 finals of the
Imagine Cup, an innovation and technology competition hosted by Microsoft. His project, deTpression, is a tool that aids doctors in the diagnosis and treatment of depression by capturing remote observations at the patient's home.

Andrei believes that students in the field of technology have both an increased opportunity and a responsibility to do something to help others. According to Andrei, eighty percent of people that suffer from depression cannot afford treatment. DeTpression makes treatment more affordable by allowing doctors to observe and remotely recommend treatment. Listen below as we talk about his passion to help those who can't afford to help themselves.

Interview with Andrei Isac  

Further Reading:

Futurism - Scientists Don’t Understand the Connection Between Obesity and Depression

Science Daily - Will ketamine treat your depression? Check your activity monitor

ABC7 - Do smartphones lead to depression in kids?


About Andrei Isac:

Andrei IsacAndrei Isac is studying computer science at the Politehnica University of Bucharest in Romania. He is passionate about machine learning, cloud computing and web applications. He previously developed a distributed image aggregator like Pinterest hosted in the cloud, a GitHub project analysis platform for assisting professors in grading students’ homework and a smart robotic arm. All available at GitHub. Andrei’s future plans include continuing his education by obtaining a Master’s Degree in computer science at ETH Zurich.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Finding Communication Solutions to Higher Ed Problems

City Burst
I spoke to Kevin Boyd, Chief Information Officer at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in my series of conversations with Higher Ed CIOs. 
Kevin was recently named by the Chicago CIO Leadership Association as a finalist for their ORBIE Awards CIO of the year non profit category; he is well known and respected, especially in the Chicago area.

Kevin is responsible for managing the global technology needs and services for all the University’s campuses including Chicago, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

In our conversation below we discuss the rapid changes in technology in higher education, and some hits and misses that have occurred along the way. Kevin stresses that there is not one universal approach that applies to all universities; different universities have different needs, and one institution may use technology in a completely different fashion than another.

Additionally, we spoke at length about communication needs between the school, faculty and students and interestingly, how email is still king. When I asked him why, he replied, “it’s simply because nothing better has come along to replace it.”

Interview with Kevin Boyd

Interview Transcript:

Rod Berger: Kevin, I've enjoyed speaking with CIOs from around the country, and the discussions have centered on new ways that we look at supporting both students and faculty in higher education.

For those who aren’t too familiar with the role of a CIO in higher education, how has the profession changed over the last few years especially with the way we are adapting to technology so rapidly?

Kevin Boyd: It has been a time of rapid change with technology. I think what's been interesting is how technology in the classroom has been changing things with some of the faculty, particularly what we've seen with MOOCs starting about five years ago ─ the massive open online courses.

There was a time when everyone thought that MOOCs were going to change the world for higher education. People have pulled back a little bit on that thought. But I think that a lot of the concepts and tools that MOOCs introduced are making their way into classrooms in other ways like the creative use of video for a flipped classroom where you have faculty recording parts of their lecture and asking students to watch it before they come to class so that the class could be more interactive or the creative use of blogs, and discussions. There are a lot of other electronic tools and technologies that five or seven years ago many faculty weren’t interested in.

RB: I think five or seven years ago we were talking about technology and tools as being nice add-ons for students in the classroom for the lecture experience. Now, we have seen it where technology plays a role in retention.

Last fall, you wrote a piece about that. I'm just curious if you could expand on the way in which you look at retention ─ meaning, it is a lot of different things but simplicity should play a role in that. How do you view retention when you are examining technology’s role in the classroom and in the school?

KB: Are you talking about retention of content?

RB: Retention of students ─ engagement of students. I think we're entering into a world where students who are now approaching higher education as the next step in their growth. They have many different opportunities, strategies, and paths that they can take that you and I didn't have when we were growing up. It's pushing some buttons for those in higher education to figure out ways to not only retain students but engage them in new ways that are blended experiences that connect campuses across the world. I think it's changing the way we look at retention.

KB: I think that's true. What we're seeing with some of these technologies is how they're being used and what the goal of the technology is. Often, it's very different depending on the institution and the mission of the institution.

When you look at some of the large state schools, their goal is reach. They want to reach as many students in that state as they possibly can. I think some of these tools are giving them the ability to do that.

In other cases, it's less about numbers of students or the reach that's possible, but it's actually about the effectiveness of the experience. It is maximizing the value of that classroom time.

Perhaps, for students who are taking a stats class, they're spending less time actually sitting in that stats class watching the instructor at the board doing a lecture. Now, they're seeing that in a video. But when they're in the classroom, they're asking questions and doing exercises. It's much more interactive. As a result, it is improving their learning experience.


RB: Improving the learning experience and providing a path for the next generation to experience higher ed in a newfound and connected manner.

Let's talk about the role communication plays. You talked about that piece that I referenced earlier. You said, “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” If you feel like you're communicating twice as much as you think people want to hear, it's probably about half as much as what they actually want to hear.

How can we do a better job when it comes to connecting with students, not just the infrastructure of the university but with students in a way that keeps them connected?

We hear stories around student services being disconnected and students already feeling at the start of their experience on campus as being one where it's very fragmented. To me, it ties back into the technologies and it potentially ties back into the overall goal in a way in which we're communicating retention as an objective and a goal from the university’s perspective.

KB: That is still one of our challenges. How do we improve communication with our students?

Today, so much of the communication with students is still via email. In the last three to five years, we've introduced a tremendous number of collaboration tools that the students are using to work with each other, work on projects, and work in classrooms.

We've also introduced many tools ─ for example, tools to help them within some of their students groups. The platform that they use as they're forming student clubs and student groups is far more robust than it was in our days when we were attending school.

But it is still amazing how much interaction between the institution and the students is done via email.

RB:  Why do you think that is? Why is it that we can be advancing in so many different areas but that one element seems to be missing?

KB:  I think that there hasn’t been something yet that replaces it and it actually works both for the institution and the student. We've spent a lot of time talking to the students about what they want. Would they rather get text from us? And the answer was “no.”

If it's something urgent that they've got to have the answer in the next two minutes, then, “Yes, send me a text.” But if it's something that’s happening later they still would prefer an email.

In many cases, they want better tools to manage what they get, when they get it, and how they get it. And that's a challenge.

Tech Slider

RB: In previous discussions that I've had with CIOs at the higher-ed level, the phrase “identity management” came up. What does it mean to you?

KB:  For us, identity management means when they log into the system, it's knowing who they are and what they get access to and what groups they belong to within our systems and what they should see and what they shouldn’t see.

RB:  Is that something that has continued to change? The question from people outside of higher ed that I often get is this wonderment or bewilderment at the perceived notion that we don't truly know the very students who are on our campuses or in our K-12 classrooms like we should. We haven't updated the profile of our students in a way that has more texture and more understanding of who they are and how they like to interact and communicate.

KB: I don't necessarily agree with that. Here, at least, we know a tremendous amount of information about them. From the time they first interact with us, we begin collecting that through their admission application and every subsequent interaction with them. We do collect a lot of information about the students.

I think the challenge is deciding what to do with that information, how you use that information to tailor the experience, and what degree of tailoring is appropriate.

RB: One thing that has been very compelling is the secondary role of marketing for CIOs and how you communicate information about technology that you deem appropriate and necessary for your institution. How you communicate that value proposition to faculty and down to students.

How does the marketing side of it play for you? Is that something that is a part of your daily experience as a CIO?

KB: It very much is. It is not enough for us to go out and do good work. We have to go out and do good work and then market it ─ and keep marketing it. That goes back to the comment earlier that we have to communicate twice as much as we think we need to and it's usually about half as much as what we really need to; that's really where that phrase comes from. It's finding more and more ways to reach our different audiences, be it faculty, staff or students.

It's listening to them and finding out what their needs and pain points are. It's going and finding the right technologies, implementing those technologies, and then letting them know that they exist.

And that's going to be done through emails, through our website and, in some cases, paper and posters. It's ongoing communication because, with students, one of the real challenges is that they're constantly turning over. It's not enough just to introduce that great technology; it's also recognizing that, in the business school world, every quarter there are new students coming in.

How do you communicate with them about the full suite of tools and technologies that are available to them while they're here?

Digital World

RB: Kevin, let's talk about the providers of technology. What are some hallmark mistakes that technology companies are making when they approach higher education institutions?

When you talk to vendors and technologists, they are often very hesitant to work in higher ed because either they don't understand it or they think that it's a long process. They just don't have the bandwidth to really understand the demographics of the people that they would be working with, like you.

What advice do you have for them? What do you notice and you just say to yourself, “Ah, the same mistake made over again by a technology company that may have good intentions and some good foundational technology but it would never fit in higher ed”?

KB: That's an interesting question. I think there are a few things that we see over and over again.

In our environment, we have a highly decentralized environment. A lot of vendors make the assumption that they're going to walk in here with some really cool technology and they're going to sell it to me and I'm going to purchase it and tell all the faculty to use it tomorrow.

There's not an understanding that in higher education, that's not how things work. You generally don't tell faculty to do anything.

RB:  If you're smart, right?

KB:  Yes, if you want to keep your job. With faculty, it is about providing technology that enables things for them. So it is all about enabling. It's about going to them and saying, “Hey, we found something that we think makes your life easier, makes your life better, will help you do this with students, do something that you couldn't do before, do something better or easier or faster or more collaboratively.”

It's about getting some percentage of them on board, and hopefully they will talk to others and get more on board. That varies from institution to institution. There are some higher-ed institutions that are more centralized than others. We happen to be a very decentralized one.

But I think that's the most common mistake that vendors make. It's thinking that they're going to walk in and sell one person and everyone is just going to adopt it. That very rarely happens.


RB: Do you find that the higher ed industry does a good job of communicating how they want to be interfaced with by vendors? Are we, from higher ed’s perspective, doing a good job of sharing the playbook? Ultimately it provides better technology a more seamless onboarding that makes your job and life easier when higher ed is doing a good job of informing technologists of both the areas of need and then how to navigate that path.

KB: No. I think we probably could do a better job of that. There's definitely an opportunity for us to do more. The other thing that you see is vendors aren’t doing a great job of is just listening, getting into higher-ed environments, and really trying to understand what the needs are.

There seems to be, too often, the “Hey, we've got this gee-whiz idea!” They offer a solution in search of a problem. We like problems in search of solutions.

RB: I love that. It makes it very visual. What is something that you're seeing in the space that hasn’t been adopted yet or that higher ed is itching to take on and tackle from a technology perspective? Something that we should be looking at as a next iteration or innovation that could impact not only higher ed but maybe K-12 and the consumer side?

Is there a technology that we really want to go after or that we are desperately in need of?

KB: I think it's on the K-12 space where it's likely to be adopted first. I think the greatest opportunity is in adaptive learning ─ the ability for each student in the classroom to have a lesson that is truly tailored to them, and, potentially, those lessons are all tied together.

Let's say, you have a classroom full of 30 students and the instructor in the front can actually see how each of those students is doing. At any given time, you probably have 60% who are in the middle where you might expect them to be, and then you have 20% who are lagging, and you have 20% who are out ahead.

It's the ability to actually have lessons that can adapt to those students and bring greater challenge to the ones who are out ahead and adapt the lessons to the ones who are struggling, then let the instructor know which students are struggling which allows the instructor to work with and guide them.

The real challenge in the industry is that the players who are best positioned to be developing that type of software and that type of content are the textbook manufacturers. They have the content and, unfortunately, I think they also have the least incentive to do it because it cannibalizes their existing market. And I think that's what is preventing us from seeing greater progress in that space right now.


RB:  That's a great point. Kevin, we'll close with this. Are you a Bears or a Packers fan given that you've been in Chicago and in the Milwaukee area. Those are sort of competitive neighboring towns.

KB:  I've been here for a long time so I'm definitely more of a Bears fan although they've not been making that easy for the last few years.

RB:  I grew up in Detroit. Being a Lions fan, there's not a lot of sympathy coming from this side of the microphone.

KB:  I understand.

RB:  Kevin, continued success! We really appreciate getting to know a little bit more about the role of a CIO in higher education.


Further Reading:

Forbes - Digital Skills — The New Literacy Debate

The Chronicle of Higher Education - Grad School Is Hard on Mental Health. Here’s an Antidote.

Education Dive - Strong oversight, communication key to smooth higher ed IT shifts


About Kevin Boyd:

Kevin BoydKevin B. Boyd is the Chief Information Officer at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He has responsibility for the technology at Chicago Booth’s campuses in Chicago, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Prior to coming to Booth, he was the Vice President of Product Management for Tribune Company. Boyd previously served first as a PMO Director and then as Director of Quality Assurance and Testing for CNA Financial in Chicago. Boyd previously worked for United Airlines as Director of Ecommerce Systems.

He was also an adjunct professor at Northwestern University for nine years, teaching classes in ecommerce and working with students on entrepreneurship-related independent study projects.

Boyd holds a Bachelor’s degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, and a Master’s degree in Communication Systems, Strategy and Management from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Teaching the Lessons of Life Through Music

Jazz Band

Growing up in New Orleans, Keith Hart has always known his destiny - become a music educator and pass his passion on to the following generations. The music community encouraging him to become a teacher and mentor to carry the tradition of music that is so important to the lives and culture of the Crescent City.

Eleven years ago when he founded the music program at KIPP Believe College Prep Middle School and began to cement his legacy. He convinced the principal that all students in the school should be in the band, and he agreed; all enrolled students in the school joined. They came up with the rallying cry “One Team, One Sound” to let the students know that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.


Since then, Keith has used music to teach kids all kinds of values and skills, including conflict resolution, team building, and anger management. This year he was a top ten finalist for the GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year award. Listen below as we talk about his journey from being a street musician to being a mentor for students of all ages. His story is a story of passion.

Interview with Keith Hart

Interview Transcript:

Rod Berger: Keith, it's so nice to spend some time with you today. I continue to be amazed at the quality of people who are part of the Grammy Educator of the Year Award. Being a top ten finalist, what has it been like for you to join that community or educators around the U.S. who are so passionate about music education?

Keith Hart:  It's an honor and a privilege to be a part of an organization that deals with quality and is able to highlight the things that really matter in education today and to sort of focus on those intangibles. It's been a pleasure to be honored for all of the hard work that I've put in for the children and their parents.

RB:  Tell me about your path. Did you ever imagine that your love of music would have gotten you this far? I've read some pieces on you talking about the impact a music teacher had on you when you were a young boy. Tell me if you could have ever imagined what your life is today based on the way that music has impacted it.

KH:  The story that comes to mind is that I pretty much knew that I was on the right path led by a great educator named Herman Jones. I met this gentleman in seventh grade, middle school. He was able to impact not only me but a lot of kids in a very meaningful way.

I can clearly remember that there was one student who struggled behaviorally with hitting other students. He was able to bring that kid in tears talking about this idea of choices and habits and how habits define who you are. These are the things that I remember ─ those sound bites and talking points that he would talk about how your choices define you.

And he was actually able to change a student who really struggled behaviorally and impact his life until this day. We still talk about it when we meet ─ a good friend of mine and Mr. Jones.

And so, I knew then ─ looking at him being the blueprint or the copy of what I wanted to be ─ that I wanted to take up the mantle of education and continue the legacy of education because he impacted me in a very deep way that particular day. And from then on, I was on the path to be an educator.

RB:  Keith, you're in the hotbed of music or what many would call the “center of music” in the U.S., and that's in New Orleans. What's the impact of being in New Orleans on your students and the opportunities that they may have that others might not have just because they're not in a city like New Orleans?

KH:  Music is the core of the city. As a kid, you grow up immersed in the culture. And the beauty of New Orleans is all of the elders, as we call them, or seasoned veterans would make it a point to introduce to arts, to teach how to see with the third eye, the importance of those intangibles you need like grit, perseverance, integrity, the importance of what we call the “tradition-bearer” which is what I'm labeled at in my community.

Every kid gets a piece of it. It's almost like it's the norm. The norm is what it means to embrace the arts, embrace the culture, to have that rich cultural background in terms of how you treat people and how you make the world a better place.

That's very unique here and it's a beautiful thing to be a part of.

Trumpet & TASCAM

RB:  Keith, let's talk a little bit about the social impact of music and music education. When we talk about athletics in public schools, we talk about the ability to bring children together who, otherwise, might be in very dangerous situations just in their own personal lives in the communities that they live in, and that sports can provide a bit of a north star and a purpose.

Is it fair to say that music can do the same and have you seen that in a city like New Orleans that has seen many challenges that we are aware of nationally but, of course, there are stories that go untold and the impact after a devastation like Hurricane Katrina even after so many years?

KH:  Music literally saved my life. When I began this program here at Kipp Believe ─ I can't believe it ─ 11 years ago, the story that comes to mind is, back then, my principal wanted every student in this school to be in the band because I sold him on the idea that music is academic and that there has to be a balance between the right and the left side of the brain to educate the “whole child.”

We came up with this motto, “One Team, One Sound,” which meant that every student in the school was a part of something bigger than themselves and that we had this bond that would last a lifetime.

And so, I used my constant development in pedagogy to find ways to more deeply teach critical-thinking skills, their skill of decoding music and then apply that thinking to conflict resolution, team building, and anger management.

What I found in doing that along with the parents was that it spilled outside the walls of the classroom, and it was contagious throughout the whole school.

That became the rallying cry that the whole school rallied behind ─ this idea of how to reach the inside because I believe that the kids are saying, “I'm in here. Just come in here and get me.”

And so, the program is guided by three principles: making music as very personal and teaching music starts with a connection to the student behind the horn, that's one; the family behind the student, that's two; and the community behind the family.

By music being academic ─ we know that the world makes sense ─ it helps students make sense of the world. And so, we try to send the message that all other subjects are subject to the arts. And then, if you tie the two and marry the two together ─ core subjects with the arts ─ the kids will be able to change the world and create the world that they want to see no matter what zip code they're from.

RB:  This is not a profession for you. This is a passion. Is that fair to say, Keith?

KH:  Yes. This is a passion. This is my duty. This is me paying a debt to all of those who gave me the mantle. I was titled a “tradition-bearer” growing up. They called us the “The Talented Ten,” if you will. There were ten of us who, out of many, to whom they said, “Hey, you have to carry the mantle. We're choosing you for the legacy of education. You have to be the one to do what we're doing to keep it going.”

And so, I'm proud to be a tradition-bearer, one who carries on the traditions of the community.


RB:  I think it's an incredible story. I'm at a loss for words ─ just thinking about those children and the community of New Orleans where I was just in a couple of months ago ─ to think about someone as passionate you are who sees it as a duty and who understands the legacy that you are a part of. And I would imagine that the next Keith Hart is there in your classroom or around New Orleans just waiting to be recognized for their own humanity and their own spirit in the classroom and what they can do to help impact others.

This has been a real honor to talk to you, Keith. Continued success! I'm so glad that the Grammy has got it right and identified you as one of the leading music educators around the country.

Thanks so much, Keith.

KH:  Thank you.

Further Reading:

The New Orleans Advocate - Sound instruction: New Orleans music teacher is up for a Grammy

EdSurge - Thinking Outside the Music Box: Using Digital Tools to Teach Music and More

The Fader - This Grammy-Nominated Teacher Is Using His Classroom To Prepare Students For The Rest Of Their Lives

About Keith Hart, Sr.

Keith HartKeith Hart, Sr. is the Music Director for KIPP Believe College Prep Middle School in New Orleans. A New Orleans native, Keith founded the music program at KIPP Believe 11 years ago, where he enrolled all of the students enrolled at the school into the band.

Keith has been awarded the Kipp National Excellence in Teaching Award; Band Director of the Year District VI of the Louisiana Music Educators Association for three years; and his program has been named an Exemplary Music Program from Festival Disney.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Rectifying Education Funding Misconceptions

Money Keyboard

EdBuild Founder and CEO Rebecca Sibilia

One perpetual and seemingly unsolvable problem in education is finding adequate funding for public schools; everything from classroom supplies to teacher salaries and building maintenance are affected. Education funding across the country is mostly from local sources with limited help from the state and federal levels, and local income disparity and economic segregation creates sharply divided districts of haves and have nots. With education funding mostly based on local tax revenue, it stands to reason that a student in an affluent suburb of Portland is going to grow up with a vastly different educational experience than a student from a poor rural area in the Louisiana bayou country.

Rebecca Sibilia is Founder and CEO of EdBuild, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC that is focused on more equitable ways for states to fund local schools. As she points out, because of a couple of key supreme court decisions, we don’t have a national school funding problem to deal with, we have 50 independent problems, one in each state.

She explains the history of the legislation and politics the led us to the position we find ourselves in regarding education funding, including the notion that the education system is actually “flush with cash” but is simply mismanaged.

Finally, Rebecca says that EdBuild is trying to “better match up the accountability and the authority for the provision of education, which rests at a state level, with how schools are being funded to bring those two issues together.” Check out the interview above to hear how they are trying to accomplish this noble goal.

This interview is part of a series of discussions I conducted on the Financial Health of the U.S. Education System. The idea spawned from conversations I had with Jess Gartner, CEO and founder of Allovue, a noted connector in the space bringing voices in financial management together. During the Future of Education Finance Summit, Gartner popularized the term #EdfinTech and it has been gaining steam ever since.

Interview with Rebecca Sibilia

Interview Transcript:

Dr. Rod Berger: Rebecca, a lot of people, especially with the Trump transition in DC, are looking at what our education landscape is going to be and how it’s going to be impacting those that are in schools as practitioners, as students, as community members, and also those that are working to support the educational system at large.

We’ve been looking at the financial health of the US education system, and it seems like what you are doing with EdBuild is keenly tied to this area of focus.  Where are we in how we look at and examine the state of the financial health of the US education system?

Rebecca Sibilia: One of the things that I think doesn’t get enough attention, in terms of the education landscape as a whole, is the supreme court ruling in San Antonio V. Rodriguez. What the supreme court said in that case in the early 70s is that education is not a fundamental right that is guaranteed by the US Constitution. This, in essence, pushed almost all of the requirements down to the states, in terms of guaranteeing access to a great education for kids.

All of the funding policy related to how schools are resourced is largely driven on state by state basis. So answering the question of how the general fiscal health of our schools is doing, really requires 50 different answers.

RB: And does therein lie the problem? We’re battling with local control versus federal oversight. From your position, is there an answer that says “we can fix this if we do X?” I know, in doing research, looking at the fault lines in these different areas that you’re designating and sort of carving out, if we’re to establish what these fault lines are, and how to shore them up, is it from a local perspective, or do we need the federal oversight?

Supreme Court

RS: If you want a holistic fix throughout the country, then you need to revisit two really important supreme court cases, San Antonio V. Rodriguez, and a really understated one, Milliken V. Bradley. A lot of people don’t focus on Milliken, but we actually think that it had one of the broadest sweeping impacts on education to date. What Milliken basically said is that, if there is a school district order that is drawn anywhere for any reason, by the state, that the US Supreme Court doesn’t have the authority to mandate desegregation across that school district order.

And so what in essence did, is give wide sweeping power to the states, to draw lines wherever they so chose. What we now see is that, in a lot of cases, those lines tend to be extremely segregating both a racial and a socioeconomic perspective.

If we want to see holistic change, we have to go back at the supreme court. But there are certainly things that states can do to smooth out the negative effects of school district orders.

States can move to a much more progressive way of funding schools moving away from this reliance on local property taxes and toward a state-funded system. States can annually review their school orders to see whether or not there are drastic changes and differences between the socioeconomic status of kids.

We do that pretty regularly for electoral borders, why we don’t it for school district borders is kind of beyond me.

And so there are a number of things that states can do, but again on in order to encourage states to do that, organizations like EdBuild have to go state by state to change those policies.

RB: Let’s talk a little bit about those alternative funding sources. There’s an ongoing argument about public-private partnerships in this country, and yet other countries are looking at ways to bring in private enterprise to public school communities. And, from my perspective, this is to great benefit to everybody who is involved.

Is there a reality that we need to come to grips with, that our children are marketed to on a daily basis, everywhere outside of school, in school, and with technology, and that there’s got to be a way to capitalize on that, in a thoughtful, systematic manner?

RS: One of the most of the promising areas is social impact bonds. We’ve seen a few of them come to the United States. The idea is that you have a number of product investors who will make a bet on something that will eventually bring savings to the state.

There is probably no other area where investment can yield significant long term outcomes than education. The problem is that usually states are issuing social impact bonds, but the states delegate a lot of authority for how schools are being funded to the local level. And so you have a mismatch, in some cases, between where a social impact bond could actually sit at the state level, versus who’s actually carrying out the provision of education, which is largely the locals.

What you’re looking at in an education system is essentially 16,000 different decision makers, that is the number of school districts that we have in the US.


RB: I don’t know if that’s troubling more as a parent or as someone who’s working in education. How should we understand it from the community member perspective? If you’re at a local community event or picnic, or after school event, and someone’s willing to know about what you do at EdBuild,  how do you communicate it in a way that is not daunting?

I think for those of us in the industry, it is a bit daunting to think about thousands and thousands of decision makers, and local versus state and federal control, and all of the provisions or the hurdles that prevent innovators from wanting to even work or interact with the education sector.

RS: The first thing I try to do is to establish to folks the baseline that the federal government actually does not have a lot of oversight as it relates to school district policies. Largely, states are making decisions on most of their education policy themselves. And that is being carried out at the local level. So the real line of accountability is with the state, but the state is allowing the locals to resource their schools however they’d like.

What EdBuild is trying to do is better matchup the accountability and the authority for the provision of education, which rests at a state level, with how schools are being funded to bring those two issues together. But in terms of explaining this to a layperson, the notion is that for a long time, we have funded schools based on the local wealth of the community or the resources that were in the school the teacher, the system, the computer, the pencil, the apple, everything else. What we’re looking to do is to move funding systems for the needs of students rather than the resources and the wealth of the community. And that doesn’t take a lot of work, it takes a lot of political capital at the state level.

RB: Yeah and that’s the part that I don’t think a lot of folks think that are in the industry, is just how political education is. When you first started in your career, was that sort of eye-opening as to how political in the industry it really is?

RS: What’s actually interesting about education is that everyone has had experienced in the education system. Therefore, everyone has an opinion on whether or not schools are working. One of the things that I found throughout the course of my time though is that education is not necessarily motivating people at the ballot box.

You don’t often see a lot of local elected officials campaigning on education priorities. They’ll campaign on what I think are normal kind of political platforms. Education very rarely plays a significant role there. Where it does play a role is in funding. You'll hear a lot of local officials talk about the level of funding in schools. That means that folks have to give up the notion that they will be locally funding their schools, which is almost impossible. Where it ends up really at the end of the day is a game of winners and losers.

You’ll see a lot of folks vote across party lines on education funding, depending on whether or not it is going to benefit their school and their constituents. So it is one of the areas where it’s overly political but it’s political in a way that we normally don’t define our state and local politics. This is not a party-driven issue, education funding, this is a game of winners and losers.


RB: Speaking of that, President Trump talked about the education sector being flushed with cash but obviously mismanaged. Is that accurate from your perspective? I think that there’s this notion that we spend more per pupil than any other western country but that we obviously struggle in the results around achievement. Are we really flushed with cash in education?

RS: No. I think if you would go to a lot of states and talk to a lot of teachers, who are incredibly underpaid, and they would absolutely tell you that their classrooms are not well resourced, that they are underpaid, and we are absolutely not a system that is flushed with cash.

So a couple of reasons why this is important. First, when we report education funding statistics, we don’t cost adjust. What happens is $12,000, $14,000, $15,000 in Connecticut is actually only worth let’s say $10,000. And so when we come up with these aggregate averages across the US, we’re not taking into consideration the fact that there are a number of northeastern states that are just completely blowing that average because we’re not cost adjusting for the costs there. What we found is that once we actually cost adjust, that number drops significantly.

The second thing that I would make note of is that we do a lot of talking about the absolute investment in education. So two things about those OECD numbers, which are what’s normally reported. The first is that in some cases, they include both higher ed and K-12 education. You have to pull those two apart. The US spends a lot more on higher education than other countries, and so that’s something that skews the numbers in some cases.

But the other number that is really important is the table that’s published in the book right after the talking point. And that table is what percent of our GDP are we actually investing in education. And when you look at that number, what you'll find is that the US runs right about middle for all industrialized countries in terms of the amount of our wealth we are investing in our education system.

So it’s slightly misleading just to look at the numbers and absolutes. You have to cost adjust, you have to make sure that you’re taking into consideration wild variations in economies. But when you’re looking in a multi-national level, taking into consideration the ability of a country to pay, may be even more important than its absolute investment.

RB: So it’s about providing context and obviously building that context into the conversation.

I want people to know that you can learn more about Rebecca at edbuild.org. You’re doing some really groundbreaking work there. And obviously when you’re talking about 50 different states and systems within that state, we need people and professionals like yourself to be going out having those conversations that are obviously quite complex and unwieldy at best.

Further Reading:

WMCAction News 5: Mississippi one of six that doesn't provide for ELL

The Clarion Ledger: Senate budget officer joins EdBuild

Sun Herald - New formula could cut funds, increase property-tax in some Coast districts

About Rebecca Sibilia:

Rebecca SibiliaRebecca Sibilia launched EdBuild in June of 2014. Prior to starting EdBuild, Rebecca served as the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President for Fiscal Strategy at StudentsFirst. In her fiscal strategy role, she led a team in analyzing per-pupil funding levels and state funding mechanisms that ensure “equity” and “adequacy” considerations. Her team also studied and made recommendations to state and district officials on directed reforms to support more innovative use of resources across the public education spectrum.

Prior to her work at StudentsFirst, she served as the Chief Financial Officer for the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, where she oversaw the investment of more than $1 billion in local, state, and federal student funding and the calculation of per-student funding based on state policy priorities. In prior roles, she created congressionally funded education programs; held state and local education policy roles; and developed venture philanthropy programs to serve low-income students in accessing quality education in appropriate settings.

Rebecca holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from Clemson University and an honorary fellowship in American Government from the University of South Carolina.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Down the Hall are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.