Closing the Opportunity Gap with #FutureReady

Opinion | Surveys

Closing the Opportunity Gap with #FutureReady

By Jimmy Casas     Dec 6, 2014

Closing the Opportunity Gap with #FutureReady

This article is part of the guide: From School to Shining School: 52 Stories from Educators Across the U.S.

There I sat--in a room with over one hundred of our country’s most innovative school Superintendents who had been invited by the White House to commit to a pledge of cultivating a culture of digital learning in their school districts by working with students, educators, families and members of the community to become #FutureReady. It was truly one of the most incredible life-changing opportunities that ever came across my way.

I was completely moved from the speeches by Education Assistant to the President Roberto Rodriguez, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2014 National Superintendent of the Year Alberto Carvalho and most importantly, the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

As I sat and listened to each one of them speak, I suddenly found myself inspired to take action. But the question that kept running through my head related to what action could I take that would make the greatest impact, not only on my school community (#bettpride), but for students and families across Iowa and across the country. How would I confront the challenges and move forward with a sense of urgency so that the passion, hope, and energy I felt over these two days in Washington D.C. would not simply fade away into the pitfalls of the daily grind once I returned to Iowa?

As I perused the notes on my phone on the plane back home, one comment in particular that was shared by Secretary Duncan struck a chord with me: “We must close the opportunity gap first before we can begin the work of closing the achievement gap for kids.”

So it begins--a call to action for us to commit to begin to identify and provide opportunities for all members of our school communities, as well as with those members of our personal and professional networks. The work is too great for the load to fall solely on the shoulders of Superintendents to bring about #FutureReady opportunities that will lead to #FutureReady change--more exactly, #FutureReadyChange.

Our focus needs to shift to providing opportunities for #FutureReady leaders, teachers, and students to come together on a regular basis to help carry the load. If we truly believe that every individual has the capacity to lead, then perhaps the success of our organizations should be measured by the number of opportunities we provide for others to demonstrate their leadership and impact on both the personal and professional learning by all members of our school communities.

#FutureReadyChange (#FRC) requires…

1. Opportunities for Model Leaders... to come together more often.

Taking on a leadership role at any level is tough. It takes courage, resiliency, and toughness to withstand the barrage of challenges, negativity, and stress that comes with most leadership roles. And yet here we sit trying to navigate this journey alone, our thoughts, ideas and worries isolated from our peers and sometimes our own families. #FRC will require us to surround ourselves with a network of excellence in order to grow and nurture our own need for personal and professional growth. We must take action by cultivating opportunities for teams of leaders to come together in more meaningful ways.

Signing the #FutureReady Pledge

One recommendation I recently shared with some Iowa Superintendents was to make the time to come together in each other’s school districts during PD/meeting days and learn from each other by observing model programs, sharing resources and discussing best practices. I encouraged them to take advantage of every opportunity to come together as a consortium of leaders and turn it into a learning opportunity for themselves and for their school districts by visiting their neighbors in surrounding school districts across the state regularly, rather than meet in an isolated meeting location.

2. Opportunities for Model Teachers… to grow and develop their craft.

Let’s admit it. Being a lifelong learner is no easy task. It takes time, effort, commitment, focus, discipline, desire and a sense of vulnerability to want to push ourselves to the next level. And yet, I still believe that with the right support and level of trust, most of our staff not only aspires to reach the next level, but wants to achieve a greater sense of accomplishment for themselves in order to have a greater impact on their students.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to purposefully invest in new teachers, but we must also make sure to find opportunities to invest in our veteran teachers. #FRC will require us to provide meaningful teacher-led professional development by both new and veteran teachers in order to cultivate a culture where all teachers feel valued for their expertise and contribution to a school’s success. We must find ways to highlight their work as well as their students’ work around the building, utilizing social media and local media to showcase the great lessons, projects and learning that is happening in their classrooms. We will also need to invest, re-invest, and trust in our teachers by providing opportunities for them to attend state and national conferences as a team in order to support a collaborative culture that will move the needle on the barometer from pockets of excellence to a network of excellence.

3. Opportunities for Model Students… to showcase their character, talents and brilliance.

The question comes down to this. Do we truly value our students’ voice in the decision making process? Or do we simply give it lip service?

Creating a platform to spotlight #stuvoice requires trust, belief, high expectations, patience, intentional fortitude, and a mindset that a student can provide meaningful content, conversation and feedback and can represent our schools in a positive manner in any given situation. And yet, as far as we have come in providing students a stage to demonstrate their learning in authentic, non-traditional, and meaningful ways, we have landed short in trial after trial of flattening the hierarchy that exists in schools today when it comes to placing a value on the student voice. This opportunity gap is even more noticeable at the elementary and middle school levels.

Although we have made some progress in amplifying student voice, #FRC is going to require us to be more consistent and thorough in providing student led initiatives that give students a voice in curriculum offerings, school policies, design of classroom and other learning spaces, lesson/unit design, student-led conferences and feedback on teacher effectiveness in the classroom. In addition, we will need to see more shifts in classroom instruction with consistent implementation of practices such as genius hour, 20% time, gamification activities, project-based learning, student presentations, and other student led learning options that require students to demonstrate their learning through presentation, modeling, and performance.

It has been less than two weeks since I witnessed over one hundred of the best, most creative and innovative Superintendents from across the country sign off on the #FutureReady pledge, committing to work as one. Two weeks of opportunities to bring teams of school community members together to close the gap have passed since the pledges were signed. We cannot continue to sequester our leaders, teachers and students if we want to inspire our communities to be #FutureReady.

There is a #FutureReady in all of us, but we must think beyond ourselves and not look at this challenge as an individual, school or district competition, but as an opportunity to come together as a collaborative community to be the #FutureReadyChange for a nation of schools that our children deserve.

Will you join me?

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative (representing the state of Iowa). This post originally appeared on the author's blog.

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