Good News from Our Nation’s Capital
By Charles Sosnik
It’s not often that we get good news from Washington D.C. As the seat of our nation’s government, we are inundated with stories about in-fighting and partisan politics. Even the school system, D.C. Public Schools, has traditionally been a political hot bed with far too many politicians weighing in. In fact, we have become so accustomed to hearing negative things about D.C and its schools that you may be surprised to hear what is really going on there. The district is in the middle of a digital equity revolution, being led by a particularly sharp Director of Education Technology and Library Programs, Dewayne McClary.
McClary is a visionary leader and strategic thinker who is adept at continually refining and advancing an organization. At DCPS, he has been able to take the helm and drive forward an ambitious plan, whose aim is to “empower a community of learners by leveraging technology to develop critical thinkers who curate, collaborate, create, and communicate, in order to broaden, accelerate, and share their understanding of a digital and globally competitive world.”
When McClary joined the district as the manager of educational technology in 2014, progress was less than stellar. And in fact, just three years earlier D.C. was a technological no man’s land, with no dedicated central staff, no vision or coordination, no standardization, no implementation support, limited data collection, limited program evaluation, limited fidelity to models, limited professional development, inconsistent resource use and only Isolated good examples of technology in practice.
Because of the poverty among families in D.C. Public Schools, digital equity and access to technology at home is a very real problem. Without home access to broadband Internet, students don’t have a chance at an equitable education and have virtually no chance to compete for the best jobs and an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty that is pervasive in the Washington inner city. McClary and his team are rolling out an Empowered Learners Initiative, or ELI. It includes $4.6 million in new funds from the Mayor’s Office in Fiscal Year 2020 to ensure a 3:1 device ratio in all grades and a 1:1 ratio for students in grades 3-12 over the next three years.
A Comprehensive Three-Year Plan
ELI is a comprehensive three-year plan to close the digital divide and empower every learner through investment in technology, curriculum enhancement, teacher professional development, information and access for families and change management support for school leaders.
The plan is working through a specific set of adopted principles to achieve its endpoint. Those principles include:
Intentional Leadership: School leaders championing a coherent and collaborative strategy that ensures digital technologies serve effective pedagogy to raise achievement for all students.
Learning Partnerships: Teachers, students, staff, and the community are informed and active partners in planning for, and implementing, an inclusive Empowered Learners strategy.
Enhanced Curriculum: Technology enhancements increase agency and authenticity for powerful learning that prepares students to contribute and thrive.
Powerful Pedagogy: With a deep SEAD focus, learner-centered and agentic practices instill foundational knowledge, while offering students opportunities to actively construct their own learning in collaboration with others. Differentiated, collaborative professional learning blends content, pedagogy, and technology to help teachers refine and develop effective teaching practices.
Innovative Learning Environments: Rethinking the different components, relationships, partnerships, and principles integral to learning environments to support more flexible and future-ready learning.
Robust Digital Infrastructure: The effective use of digital technologies supported by a network, as well as devices and equipment, tailored to serve future-ready learning and administration needs.
The district has also created five positions for Cluster-based Education Technology Specialists (ETS). These ETS positions work with educators to strengthen and refine technology skills.
Creating the Plan and Refining It
McClary’s plan to provide digital equity to the DC community through its schools was created in his Georgetown University Executive Master’s in Leadership program, which he enrolled in last year. The program allowed McClary to come together with senior leaders from both the school district and public charter schools, and he learned that both groups have the same challenge in realizing digital equity.
“When we took on the task of digitizing our curriculum, we saw two different forms of resistance,” said McClary. “We saw one from our veteran teachers saying, I was never trained on this and don’t know what this is. And we also saw another type of resistance from our younger teachers. They were actually utilizing the digital curriculum as a babysitter. We also had some resistance from some administrators that we had to get past. We found different ways to tackle that one through evaluations. And we also had workshops to help parents understand we’re not just putting your kid on a device and they’re going to sit in the corner. There’s going to be some integration pieces here too.
“That was a huge shift, to let teachers let go.”
“We also understood there needs to be more focus on professional development,” said McClary. What we found is that when a lot of our teachers come to us, they have gone through an educational system that did not teach them anything about digital learning or blended learning. We have educators that come to us now that don’t understand, ‘how do I manage this?’ So, we’ve had to look at how we come up with systems that will allow teachers to manage and lock kids down into applications. But we were fortunate to have leaders that actually understood the power of digital learning. A lot of leaders I’ve heard from throughout our area in DC feel like it’s a replacement of teachers, which is not true. The only way digital curriculum works is if it works alongside the teachers and to empower the teachers.
“One of the things we had to work through,” said McClary, “is when leadership would visit schools that were utilizing digital curriculum, they would come back and say, ‘Oh, I don’t even know what I saw. I didn’t see good pedagogy and teaching going on.’ So, what we had to do is align and create guiding documents with the teacher’s evaluation tools so that when an administrator or an instructional superintendent or a leader from central office walked in, they had a guiding document. So, when they did start station rotation or they did see kids collaborating on devices, or a kid in the corner doing personalized learning, they understood what they were seeing. Before that, we had a lot of teachers that were reluctant because they were actually getting points knocked off their evaluations because an administrator or a leader came in and didn’t understand the transition to digital learning.
“We’ve seen a huge influx of digital content in our district,” said McClary. “Not only digital curriculum, but also productivity tools. We’re not just putting kids on a curriculum and letting them sit and get, we’re allowing them to be creators and collaborators. That has forced our teachers to take a step back. Now they’ve turned into facilitators and that was a huge shift, to let teachers let go. That’s something they did not like to do initially, but when they did let go and they saw the power of it, they were very enthused and they’re now promoting even more. We created a few pilot schools where we did 1:1 application and then we had a few pilot schools that were our technology integration schools, which were doing productivity also. Having those models and sharing that out, creating spaces to share and collaborate helped us change the trajectory for our students.
“A lot of work remains,” said McClary. “Particularly in our community. The bulk of our curriculum at school is now digital. Students begin their work in school, but if they don’t have Internet connectivity at home, they can’t do their homework, and they end up falling behind the students who have Internet. It becomes a barrier to success. We aim to break down the barrier.”
About the Author
Charles Sosnik is an Education Journalist and serves as Editor in Chief at the Learning Counsel.