The overarching goal of CA Group support for the Raising Blended Learners (RBL) demonstration sites is to assist each team to build capacity within the individuals and team to ultimately “do and lead” innovations to achieve student-centered blended learning at scale. Following the competitive grant award announcements, CA Group immediately began developing a trusted partnership to work alongside the winning sites to put into action their RBL business plans and initial pilot concepts. This was a first step toward meeting each site’s larger multi-year pilot objectives aligned to improving student achievement.
While each site-based Project Manager (PM) served as the primary CA Group contact, assistance extended across multiple stakeholder groups. These included vertically aligned cross-functional pilot teams (including teachers, school leaders, district coaches, superintendents), their colleagues and department heads. CA Group provided customized supports based on each team’s readiness to shift mindset and behavior to achieve the significant level of school redesign envisioned in their RBL business plans.
TYPES OF SUPPORT
During the first year of RBL implementation, CA Group provided the following types of support:
- Strategic Implementation Guidance. CA Group provided expert consultation on blended and personalized learning implementation, data driven instruction in a blended context, and other related concepts and practices. CA Group also supported leaders to recognize the need for changes in culture, systems and processes in order for pilots to remain viable and become effective implementations. This involved helping teams problem solve when pilot work conflicted with traditional cultural norms or existing structures and operations.
- Development of Innovation Competencies. CA Group worked with the PMs and other site based leaders to develop and apply innovation competencies. Foremost among these was supporting PMs and other site leaders to 1) shift mindsets and behaviors toward a common vision for BL success; 2) maintain a sense of urgency around RBL priorities, and 3) stay on course despite a natural tendency to revert to “business as usual.”
- Custom Templates and Tools. CA Group developed and utilized customized templates and tools to help sites document their design and implementation work in a way that aligned with, complemented or revised existing system structures. Consistent use of the templates and tools helped build a foundation for sustaining the year 1 pilots and leverage the initial pilots toward scale. They also supported culture change. Specifically, repeated reference to templates espousing a common vision for the new student experience helped pilot teams internalize a unified vision and provided a framework for change. Using common tools also supported effective collaboration across sites.
Each of these areas of support are further detailed below.
Strategic Implementation Guidance
CA Group provided strategic guidance to demonstration sites as they found success, experienced failure and worked to reflect, learn and iterate their pilots, structures and operations. During ongoing consultation calls and in person meetings, CA Group provided strategic guidance focused on three major areas: 1) supporting teams to continuously engage in the challenging work of change; 2) providing blended learning expertise; and 3) helping teams to effectively manage and optimize other ecosystem supports. Throughout the year at every demonstration site, CA Group helped teams persist through challenges. Often this involved facilitating challenging conversations as pilot leaders and team members engaged in conversations of change. In most cases, these discussions increased self awareness, uncovered issues and led participants to identify solutions.
Change conversations moved at varied paces in districts; teams were supported to move as quickly or slowly as needed for all stakeholders to authentically engage on the topic. Demonstration sites also benefited from CA Group serving as a barometer to gauge incremental success and anticipate roadblocks as the first round of innovators honed their instincts and abilities to identify risks and effectively measure progress.
CA Group also provided blended learning expertise to help district leaders effectively support campus teams to allow teachers’ mindsets and classroom practices to pivot toward the sites’ reimagined student experiences. Demonstration site PMs depended on CA Group as a thought partner to problem solve and lend advice and resources to enable actual classroom implementations to take shape. Having access to an experienced blended learning educator provided an immediate resource for feedback on a myriad of technical issues as pilot teachers reformulated their classrooms. This also helped teams consider how to adjust existing school structures and processes to support the new models of learning they piloted. This included rethinking professional learning agendas, considering new roles for teachers and instructional leaders, and creating opportunities for cross collaboration within and across multi-grade level teaching teams. For example, in one site the superintendent worked with campus principals to redefine the role of the campus based instructional leaders to make time for ongoing coaching related to rigor in a blended context. In another site, two innovative Principals worked with the PM to identify a “demonstration teacher” at each campus who was finding early success with blended implementation to support their colleagues during an extra planning period granted for this purpose.
The final area of strategic guidance involved assisting PMs and district leaders to understand the range of ecosystem supports made available to RBL winners. While sites were delighted to receive these funded supports, most needed assistance to fully understand the potential benefits in relation to site-specific innovation plans, and optimally stage supports for maximum impact. Ecosystem providers brought expertise in areas commonly associated with districts attempting to develop, scale and sustain effective student centered learning models. This included assessing and revising instructional practices; utilizing student surveys to incorporate student voice into planning new models and measuring impacts; planning for financial sustainability; and vetting educational technology tools.
Several supports that proved especially valuable across all sites for creating a high sense of urgency and challenging the status quo were student surveys and a formal diagnostic assessment of teaching and learning practices. Hearing from students and understanding fundamental challenges with teaching and learning created significant additional momentum for change. In most cases, this broadened stakeholder support for the promise of RBL and helped align personalized blended learning to other district priorities and initiatives. Further, several sites benefited from financial consultation related to assessing trade off expenditures as they began to think ahead to sustainability and scale.
Biweekly calls between site based PMs and a CA Group Implementation Manager were the most consistent touchpoint with sites for supporting district level representatives to develop innovation competencies and receive strategic guidance. The PMs were charged with overseeing all aspects of year 1 implementation and the CA Group counterpart served as an external partner throughout the first cycle of innovation. For some consultations, agendas were formal and other stakeholders (e.g., district or campus leaders) were invited to participate. Other consultations were less structured and focused on the most pressing issues, which typically included discussion of the most significant challenges the pilot team was facing. The most common consultation themes included: 1) dissonance between the new teaching and learning practices pilot teachers were trying to implement and the status quo (traditional school cultures and structures); 2) struggles to onboard all necessary campus and district stakeholders around a common vision for the work, especially across autonomously led district departments; and 3) challenges maintaining a high sense of urgency for the work given competing priorities and the relatively small year one pilot size at most sites. When deemed necessary to support site progress, in-person consultation meetings were scheduled. These proved especially helpful for working through cross departmental issues, and differences between district and campus leaders.
Another important function of the consultation calls was to support the PMs to manage a large scale innovation project, a first for the majority of the PMs. In their role, PMs coordinated and monitored internal implementation; communicated and scheduled supports from all RBL ecosystem providers; planned and coordinated learning expeditions and other professional learning opportunities; and, responded to grant requirements (implementation templates, financial documents, student surveys) and funder requests (site visits, evaluation requirements). The grant stipulated PMs spend 50% time on the RBL project. Realistically, PMs spent considerably more time as they worked passionately and tirelessly to realize program objectives in their respective sites.
Development of Innovation Competencies
The human capital capacity work undertaken with sites was built on the seven leadership competencies defined by Fullan and Kirtman in their book, Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change. In this work, the authors explicitly set out to “delineate the traits, characteristics, values, and behaviors of leaders who can focus on their own improvement, build capacity in others, and focus outwardly on the future trends in education.” They characterized innovation competencies for whole systems change as follows:
- Challenges the status quo to solve root causes to core problems
- Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results in improving student achievement
- Creates a commonly owned vision, builds trusting relationships, and leads the innovation scale process
- Supports new student experience implementation through rapid cycle prototyping, evaluation and iteration
Further, the authors state: “[The book] gives leaders the tools to take action regardless of what level of the system they operate from because the model is based on the premise that you have to be your own change agent and cause ripple effects by mastering the seven competencies as you lead change in your own jurisdiction and beyond.
While the “change agent” notion proved critical for RBL district and campus leaders, it also extended broadly to include other members of the pilot teams. Becoming “sustainable at scale” means that meaningful change must occur in the mindset of each person who is a part of the change process. Lasting change requires changing how school districts do things (processes) and perspective on why they do things (mindset). The work of implicitly developing innovation competencies was important to the first year of RBL success. More explicitly providing support on these concepts is a year two priority. To that end, CA Group defined subs-skills related to necessary mindset and behavior shifts as exemplified below for “challenges the status quo.”
Personalized Blended Learning Templates, Tools and Processes
RBL templates and tools were developed to complement the initial design work demonstration sites undertook based on the Christensen Institute theory of disruptive innovation in education as examined in the Horn/Staker book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. CA Group provided resources and supports in a modular format to empower teams to take them, use them and make them a part of their new systems and routines.
Like CA Group’s approach to human capital development, all design and implementation support was delivered with an eye toward developing the capacity of every pilot team member doing the work. This was accomplished through the development of a deliberate process or routine around the use of each RBL tool. PMs were explicitly taught how to effectively utilize RBL templates and tools, and follow corresponding processes. By the spring/summer planning sessions, PMs and other district leaders and coaches stepped up to help facilitate team discussions that CA Group has previously led.
CA Group utilized a variety of methods to invite pilot teams into the messy work of innovation and challenge them to make meaningful and sustainable change. These included: 1) design studios and learning expeditions, 2) ongoing consultation through consultation calls and meetings; and 3) flexible modular content. Each of these services is described below.
Design Studios: Making Meaning through Authentic Design and Shared Experience
During design studios, pilot teams created and refined a commonly owned plan for challenging the status quo to improve student achievement. Design studios occurred several time a year based on team needs and generally included vertical team members and pilot teachers. Specific design studio objectives were developed in collaboration with the team PM based on the critical elements of their pilot work at a specific point in time. This often meant creating new and customized activities and content to provide learning opportunities targeted at site specific needs. As a result, no two design studios were exactly the same. For example, within the same month, one team might have focused on building a common understanding of the core elements of their reimagined student experience (termed “Student Experience Design Pillars”), while another team explored curated content and scaffolded activities to gain a new understanding about student agency. Several artifacts from design studio content are below.
All design studio activities invited teams into the act of design and making meaning with their colleagues. For example, teams often participated in activities such as the “pillar connection” activity to deepen their understanding of and connection to the Student Experience Design Pillars (artifacts below). Attendees frequently commented on the power of physically standing by the pillar that most resonated with them, and having to articulate how the pillar could address the problem and root causes their site was attempting to solve through personalized blended learning. The conversations that evolved from this activity often unearthed a recognition of the connections and interdependence between pillars designed as a cohesive student experience. Regarding the pillar connection activity, one design studio participant commented,“it helped me to see and understand how all the parts fit together; and, listening to why others chose specific pillars, helped to push my own thinking.”
Another common sentiment expressed in design studio survey feedback pointed to the “safe space” created during the sessions. One participant wrote, “I enjoyed the fearless environment. I felt like I could really ask the questions I needed to ask.” By developing activities accessible to participants regardless of their prior knowledge, scaffolding deep discussions, modeling effective facilitation techniques and reserving judgement, pilot teams felt empowered. They engaged with the content, asked challenging questions and made their own meaning.
Design studios also proved an effective way to onboard new team members and subsequent cohorts of pilot teachers (during the spring) to build a collective understanding of the site’s new vision for students and the critical elements of pilot implementation. These shared learning activities provided opportunities for team members to continue building a common framework, language and community of practice oriented around their school and district-wide innovation efforts.
Learning Expeditions through Virtual Playlists and Site Visits
Early on, CA Group recognized the significant value of targeted, authentic classroom examples and worked throughout the year to provide pilot teams as many opportunities as possible to see “blended learning in action.” The positive impact and momentum derived from RBL pilot teams “seeing” other educators’ applications of blended learning in practice is described in this recently published blog post Mindset and Behavior Shift: Seeing is Believing. To meet this objective, virtual playlists and in-person learning expeditions to other personalized blended learning classrooms and schools were deployed.
Virtual Playlists. Design studio activities often included playlists of curated videos and artifacts to explore. One example below was aimed at developing the capacity for pilot team members to notice and name their site’s Student Experience Design Pillars and Strategies in action through curated examples.
As the year progressed, demand for curated examples of targeted, authentic classroom implementations grew. Pilot teachers and those supporting them recognized the power of seeing blended in action for helping pilot teachers get from thinking I believe personalized blended learning could work to believing this is how I can make it work. Thus, for winter and spring design studios, demonstration site teams engaged in learning through customized Student Experience Strategies Playlists (example below). The playlists included a combination of video and digital examples of student and teacher interviews, pilot classroom artifacts, and additional resources from a few national resources. Using RBL examples was especially powerful as pilot teachers were able to learn from other Texas educators working in similar school and district contexts and at a comparable early stage of implementation. By the end of the year, CA Group had curated customized playlists for most demonstration sites.
In-Person Learning Expeditions. For RBL stakeholders, campus visits served as very powerful motivators for change. Observing blended classrooms, talking with students and other educators in a similar context, and experiencing campus cultures embracing innovative routines and practices turned out to dramatically boost teachers’ and campus leaders’ belief that they too could effectively make changes. Some teams arranged on-site learning expeditions independently. The majority, however, were organized through CA Group and included both a campus visit and post-visit programming to help visitors communicate and make sense of what they saw through the lens of their own pilot work. Many pilot teachers and campus leaders returned to their campuses and leveraged these visits to push their models forward. Educator responses are presented in the blog post Mindset and Behavior Shift: Seeing is Believing.
In the early part of the year when most RBL teams were just getting started, several pilot teams opted to visit prearranged tours at two Texas districts already innovating with personalized learning. Demonstration site teams from Cisco ISD and Birdville ISD visited personalized learning campuses within Dallas ISD which were two to three years into implementation. Likewise, pilot teams from Point Isabel ISD and Birdville ISD visited Pasadena ISD, a sister RBL demonstration site launching a second year of personalized learning, to learn about their implementation of the Summit Learning program.
CA Group arranged visits focused primarily in the Houston area where teams had access to multiple RBL campuses ready to showcase. These included Clear Lake City Elementary (Clear Creek ISD) and Austin High (Houston ISD). These campuses provided early examples of strong personalized blended learning models (including station rotation, individual stations, and flex), which embraced a range of student experience design pillars and strategies across elementary and high school grade levels. All demonstration sites participated in at least one learning expedition and some engaged in multiple visits. For example, Cisco ISD and Point Isabel ISD sent large contingents to Clear Lake Elementary; a pilot team from the Birdville ISD alternative campus and the district teaching and learning department visited Austin High; and, members of senior RBL leadership teams from KIPP and Pasadena ISD also joined in the Houston area convening.
Flexible, Modular Tools and Content to Build Capacity and Expand Reach
Design studio content and RBL Templates were developed as tools to support teams in the acts of design, implementation and iteration. CA Group attempted to build content and implementation tools in a manner to empower people to learn “to do and lead.” All materials were developed as open access resources with clear connections, throughlines and scaffolded supports. This approach reinforced the intention for the materials to be reused, refined, and re-delivered by sites as their district and campus leaders gained experience and confidence to utilize the tools to onboard new team members, teachers and campuses.
During the summer before launch and into the first several months of the year 1, teams were supported to complete a series of RBL templates to articulate and document how they would translate their winning pilot designs into practice. The templates were developed to make actionable the design work teams had participated in during the competitive grant process. Each template focused on a critical area of implementation significance and all were aligned to the Christensen Institute theory of disruptive innovation in education, the theoretical framework upon which the RBL grant program was built. The templates served as working documents from which teams were able to iterate throughout the year and build upon as they planned for year 2 implementation in the spring and summer of year 1. The templates were linked to a landing page for each site as exemplified below.
Within each demonstration site, PMs and other district leaders gained ground toward building innovation competencies in various change agents across multiple stakeholder groups. However, traction for sustainable change took many twists and turns and leadership took on many faces — sometimes emanating from the PM, other times from campus teams, and still others from the pilot teachers themselves. To be sure, through the various types and methods of support, demonstration sites developed considerable internal capacity to “do and lead” as they became more comfortable and skilled with data driven approaches to rapid prototyping at the classroom, school and district level.