Byron Garrett on Professional Development, the Role of Families and the Possibilities of Edtech

Byron Garrett on Professional Development, the Role of Families and the Possibilities of Edtech


Byron Garrett has played just about every role in the education process: educator (as principal of the Progressive Leadership Academy in Phoenix, AZ), parent advocate (as CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association and Chairman of the National Family Engagement Alliance), policymaker (as co-convener of the Helping America’s Youth Initiative for the White House), and, in his latest role, Director of Educational Leadership and Policy at Microsoft. So, he’s got relevant experience and advice for--well, just about everybody.

Read on to hear about Garrett’s most powerful moments in education, the most common mistake edtech entrepreneurs make, and why you should apply for the Digital Innovation in Learning Awards by October 1!

EDSURGE: What are some of the experiences that have shaped your views on education?

GARRETT: Certainly being a principal, where I worked with students, parents and educators on the front line of a campus. At that particular time, 97% of our students [at Progressive Leadership Academy] were on free or reduced lunch. I developed a very acute understanding of the access and resources that affluent districts had versus non-affluent districts, and the difference in outcomes for students, and the kinds of resources and tools they needed. It also helped frame my perspective around how technology has the capacity to bridge the gap and provide folks with access.

From your involvement in the Parent Teacher Association and the Family Engagement Alliance, how do you see the role of families in terms of technology in education?

Parents have access beyond the bell to help shape what a student does or does not learn beyond what the actual classroom. I always tell people: families have 2-3 times more time than the educational system does, so they can do full-time what educators have tried to do. They’ve got [the students] beyond the bell, they’ve got them on breaks, they’ve got them throughout the summer. So it’s great to have families as a partner in the education process.

Specifically, PTAs and family engagement organizations raise tons of money to purchase technological devices for students. You also see families really pushing either for bond referendums to get additional funding into districts, so that districts can improve their technological aspects and equip students to be learning in a 21st century environment.

How do you think technology has changed education outside of the classroom?

Part of the educational system’s responsibility is to help a father, a mother, an aunt, an uncle or a big brother to think differently about how they use technology from an educational perspective. Just as a dad could get online on his phone and go check the stats on a sports game, he could also look and figure out, What are the educational apps I could download to support my son or daughter’s learning process? That’s something you couldn’t have done 15 or 20 years ago. [Technology] doesn’t replace the traditional teaching process, but it transforms that process to lead to better student learning and outcomes.

What does your current role as Director of Educational Leadership and Policy at Microsoft entail?

Working on the ConnectEd initiative with the White House, for example, I’m often the voice at the table representing a tech perspective. I get to hear what people would find most useful and what’s needed. How do we help fashion and create solutions that meet the needs of that particular base? How do we conspire to do what’s good and what’s right for a particular community?

What’s a mistake commonly made by edtech companies when addressing the needs of students and schools?

Professional development is both a challenge historically and a great opportunity. In a variety of scenarios you see people buy the technology--it could have been smart boards or Promethean boards at one point in time, now it’s 1:1--and then deploy it without the appropriate professional development to help the staff figure out how to best utilize it. There’s nothing worse than going into a classroom and seeing an incredibly expensive smart board with a piece of flipchart paper taped to it.

What should be a best practice, regardless of what a company offers, is partnering with the district to offer really high-quality professional development that helps the educators and educational leaders understand how best to utilize technology to improve the learning process. To have a well-defined plan for how a district is going to use [a product], and how something will move forward student achievement, and clear knowledge of how a tool will enhance what educators are doing, you’ve got to have a robust professional development program.

Why is the recognition from the Digital Innovation in Learning Awards important?

Think about the actual title of the awards: Digital Innovation in Learning Awards. They help people understand that there is a value and a premium placed on utilizing technology to transform the learning process. The awards really provide a unique platform and opportunity to show that in society, we do value how educators utilize technology in a very innovative way to improve the learning process. That’s key for continuing to recognize the best and brightest who are pushing the field of education.

What’s the advantage of giving awards for particular traits or skills, like the “Sharing is Caring” or “Better Together” awards?

Where you see a great educator, you can find the applicable key tenets that are the cornerstone of great education and look to import that into your school or district. Having awards focused on identifying key efforts or initiatives explaining how individuals got there helps folks see what they can specifically take away and bring back into their environments to improve what they’re doing.

What do you look forward to seeing in exemplary candidates?

Folks that not only espouse, this was our aspiration, but actually walk through and illuminate the steps that helped achieve a certain outcome and quantify how it improved particular metrics that led to student achievement. I’m looking for examples where individuals document how action A led to action B led to improving student outcomes.

Do you have any other advice for individuals or organizations who are considering applying?

Apply, apply, apply, apply! Even if you aren’t selected, there is great value and recognition in the fact that you even apply. It strengthens your skill set and background to document your experience, and there’s tremendous value there. There’s really a prize in the process of getting prepared to submit. I think that’s incredibly important. Even if you think it’s a simple idea to you, that doesn’t mean your practice is commonplace somewhere else. So please, apply and make sure you get everything in by the deadline on October 1!

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