U.S. Education Innovation Cluster Leaders Gather to Support Advancement in Teaching and Learning

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Leaders of various organizations that want to support K-12 schools as they try new techniques and technologies are meeting here this week to share ideas, experiences, and make future plans. 

Just as Silicon Valley is known as a “tech hub,” these education stakeholders are working to make their cities or regions into “education innovation” zones. The organizers are bringing together diverse groups to support teachers and administrators with the trial and error involved in finding new ways to advance teaching and learning.

Digital Promise, which organized this gathering, identifies 25 education innovation clusters across the U.S. in the communities on the following map.

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An education innovation cluster will typically organize around a large school district or the school systems in a region, bringing together educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, the community, and other interested parties to respond to specific problems the schools are trying to solve.

This following video from Digital Promise explains the purpose behind so-called EdClusters, and how they are intended to work.

Representatives from several of these clusters reported their progress during the two-day meeting and talked about their challenges. From the short presentations by the groups:

Philadelphia: Called a “nascent cluster” by Youngmoo Kim, the director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, Philadelphia has more than 40 partners that offer key opportunities for the Learning Innovation Network. “Drexel is not the ringleader for this,” said Kim. “We saw a need and a place where we could potentially help push this process forward. We’re hoping to create an entity that is a stand-alone,” he said.

William Hite, the superintendent of schools in Philadelphia, said the district is grappling with questions like: “How do we think about accountability in a system that also allows for innovation?” and “How does the district innovate with the least amount of disruption to the lives of students and educators?” It does no good to open a new school if no student meets the required standards in Pennsylvania, for instance.

“Part of what we’re trying to do,” Hite said, “is to create structures where we allow learning and engagement to be the outcomes, and innovation to serve as the means” to attain those outcomes.

Boston: LearnLaunch serves as the hub of the Boston cluster. It is dedicated to creating an ecosystem that “drives innovation to transform learning”  in the region, said Eileen Rudden, who chairs the board of the LearnLaunch Institute. The organization holds 35 to 40 events a year and the LearnLaunch Accelerator will form its 8th ed-tech accelerator cohort in September.

LearnLaunch also hosts the public-private Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech Consortium (MAPLE), a partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Its goal is to “catalyze personalized learning” in the state to better prepare students for their future.”There’s a huge demand for learning about personalized learning,” Rudden said, noting that 42 districts representing 23 percent of the public school students in Massachusetts are now members of this consortium.

Educators are interested in personalized learning because of the opportunities for better differentiated instruction, more student engagement, “and because their own classrooms are more diverse than ever, and they need help,” Rudden said. Districts are launching initiatives that range from project-based learning to adaptive software programs. Personalizing teacher professional development and leader development are top district priorities. As for the future, Rudden said, “We really believe an evidence base has to be built for this to expand … to move into major adoption.”

Chicago:  Efforts here are underway to measure the personalized learning practice in a classroom, school or district, said Courtney Reilly, the director of special projects at LEAP Innovations. LEAP built a framework based on the experiences that a learner should have in a personalized learning environment then defined the strategies practitioners can use to create those experiences.

Students and educators can take a survey that will help determine whether their learning environment reflects emerging, moderate or high levels of personalization. The instrument is intended to help teachers and school leaders answer the question, “How do we know practice is changing?” and it was developed with research firms to ensure its validity. Reilly said the surveys are tools that education clusters can use for free to see where they are on the continuum of personalized learning.

The surveys do not rely on one definition of personalized learning, she said. “They are a way to have some common language and a common metric” even though different schools, districts, and clusters are approaching new approaches to personalized learning in a myriad of ways.

Bay Area: For the San Francisco area, Mind Catcher was introduced by Nakeyshia Kendall, its founder and CEO. The organization works to show students and teachers how to co-design a project idea, then identifies industry partners “to help it come alive,” Kendall said.

Based on the idea that students are motivated to learn when they have a voice in creating their own educational experiences, Mind Catcher is working to help public schools serving low-income youth and students of color make their best ideas a reality. Among the projects undertaken by middle school students included learning from the international design and consulting firm IDEO, and projects that involved climate change, creating a mural, and pitching business ideas in a shark tank.

Research showed that “87 percent of students were more excited to learn after our process,” said Kendall, who is expanding her program this fall.

National Education Innovation Cluster work: Digital Promise will continue to facilitate connections and projects among various clusters throughout the coming year, said Cricket Fuller, who heads the project for Digital Promise.

Certain challenges will be addressed, she said. In today’s sessions, groups worked on identifying issues under five specific topics, including “workforce development and college and career readiness,” and “reaching traditionally disadvantaged or underrepresented students.” These and other topics will be part of future work for the clusters.

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