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Driving Question: What’s Working? Lessons from pioneer 21st century school districts - Part 1

bobpearlmanBob Pearlman is a 21st Century School and District Consultant and Senior Education Consultant to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and to Fielding Nair International, Architects and Change Agents for Education Design. Pearlman was formerly Director of Strategic Planning for the New Technology Foundation (now the New Tech Network), President of the Autodesk Foundation, Coordinator of Education Reform Initiatives for the Boston Teachers Union, and a high school teacher for 27 years. Learn more about Bob’s work at


It is not easy to make a 21st Century school district – a district where all students achieve mastery of 21st Century Skills and know how they are doing on acquiring these skills. How might the kids know? Learning outcomes would include the 4cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) and other 21st Century Skills, curriculum would embed the skills in all subjects (collective learning outcomes), classroom-based performance assessments would assess the skills, and students would receive just-in-time feedback from online “living” report cards, updated whenever there is any new information.

The US Education Department through its policies and practices has not been much help to school districts implementing 21st Century Learning and Teaching practices. Thus far 17 of 50 states have become P21 Leadership States. Some states have implemented 21st Century Learning support structures for curriculum, professional development, assessment, lesson-sharing, etc., but many have not.

One notable leader is the West Virginia Department of Education, a P21 state. Led by former Superintendent Steven Paine and current Superintendent Jorea M. Marple, West Virginia has created a cornucopia of online resources -- Teach21, Learn21, Global21, Parents21 -- and provided systematic and extensive leadership development and professional development for principals and teachers.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) do represent a major improvement in the standards of most states and emphasize depth of understanding and critical thinking. The CCSS incorporate some 21st Century Skills, but not enough in my opinion for effective 21st Century learning. Ken Kay and Valerie Greenhill, in their new, definitive book, The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education, write that district and school leaders should “view CCSS as the floor but not the ceiling” and should implement the CCSS in ways that intentionally address 21st century competencies such as collaboration, creativity, global competence, financial literacy and self-direction. 

(editor’s note: P21 also embraces this philosophy in its recommendations provided in the P21 Common Core Toolkit)

To become a 21st Century district or school goes way beyond setting the standards and outcomes for learning. Curriculum must be developed, assessments designed and implemented, systems of reporting must be established, teacher capacity must be built. Kay and Greenhill have identified seven common steps for 21st Century district development that they have observed throughout the country, including visioning, building community consensus, system alignment, professional development, curriculum and assessment embedding the 4Cs, teacher support, and continuous improvement (See Ken Kay's blog series on the 7 Steps at Edutopia).

Most school districts that have begun the journey to 21st Century Learning have been on their own and have had to construct their own development pathway. Kay and Greenhill write that “there is no one model of implementation, “no “cookie-cutter” approach for undertaking 21st Century education initiatives.”

How do districts make themselves (transform) into 21st Century districts? How can a district put in place systems and supports for 21st Century Learning? How can a district engage and ready its teachers and its principals to design the new curriculum and assessments and institute the new teaching practices that best engage students for 21st Century Learning?

For the past several years I have worked with and studied many aspiring 21st Century districts. I have posted profiles of many of these districts on my website. I have also posted there a Best Practices Implementation Checklist of 21st Century School Districts (PDF). I have seen two distinct patterns of development among aspiring 21st Century districts, one a systems approach and the other a start-with-innovation approach. This week, I’ll profile the systems approach:

Development Pathway 1: Systems Approach

In a systems approach a district implements a strategic plan for 21st Century Learning that puts in place systemic Learning Outcomes, curriculum frameworks, performance rubrics, common benchmark assessments, communications, human resource policies, skills-based report cards, and teacher development. Additionally these districts implement significant professional development and leadership development programs to engage teachers and build teacher capacity. Innovative districts using a systems approach include Catalina Foothills School District (Tucson, AZ) and Virginia Beach (VA).

Catalina Foothills School District (CFSD), Tucson, AZ

Starting with board adoption of its 21st Century Learning plan in December, 2005, CFSD engaged over the next five years its teachers and principals in action teams to identify the districtwide Learning Outcomes, design curriculum, and develop and roll-out common assessment items (rubrics). Starting in 2007, the district put in place extensive system supports for 21st Century learning:

  • Curriculum and Assessment - Rubrics for CFSD 21C Skills and K-12 System Thinking, Measurement Topics/Benchmarks for Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, and Science, Curricular Performance Rubrics K-12, Common Assessment Items
  • HR, PD, and Staff Mobilization - Knowledge & Skills Career Ladder Teacher Compensation System linked to PD for 21st Century teaching and learning, Collegial Coaching, Data Teams (PLCs), and a Staff Intranet for 21C Skills implementation (lesson-sharing, resources)
  • New Student Report Cards - K-8 and 9-12 Standards- and Skills-based Grading and Reporting and Parent Internet Viewer for students and parents to see student grades
  • Technology expansion to support 21st century learners and teachers -  1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio, fiber to schools , and a PD cadre of Curriculum Technology Integrators (CTIs) to support teachers

The district has also done an outstanding job throughout the implementation years of communicating with its teachers, principals, parents, and the community. The district homepage proudly declares “Preparing Students for the 21st Century” and links viewers to its 21st Century Learning section with its resources, description of its K-12 programs, and links to videos of each of the district’s 21st Century Learning Outcomes. Superintendent Mary Kamerzell also posts an annual video message on “Our Commitment to 21st Century Learning”.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS), VA

In October 2008 the Virginia Beach City Public Schools adopted its Compass to 2015: A Strategic Plan for Student Success and immediately launched action teams to begin implementation. Teams worked to align curriculum, instruction, PD, assessment, learning environments, leadership, and community partnerships with its 21st Century student outcomes. Each school was also charged with aligning its Plan for Continuous Improvement to Compass to 2015 and to the student outcomes. “Vanguard” schools led the way for the district’s schools. The district's journey is well told in Compass to 2015: One School District's Story, a presentation by Superintendent James G. Merrill, on November 18, 2010, and also in Kay and Greenhill’s The Leader’s Guide (pages 48-51).

In assessment, the district moved towards Balanced Assessment. “We know teachers will teach to the test. We want to create a test that’s worth teaching to,” said Dr. Jared Cotton, Assistant Superintendent, VBCPS Department of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. The district adopted the College Work and Readiness Assessment (CWRA), which focuses on critical thinking, problem solving, analytic reasoning, and written communication, to balance the state tests.

VBCPS, like CFSD, has communicated robustly with its teachers, principals, parents, and community through its website, the Compass to 2015 web section, specialized newsletters, 21st Century Skills in Action videos, and the Superintendent’s Digital Portfolio. The district homepage proclaims “A commitment to provide all students with the necessary skills to thrive as 21st century learners, workers, and citizens.”

Stay tuned next week for Part II - outlining Leveraging Innovation Pathway approach.

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