Can Innovation and Redesign Start Small?

September 11, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have another guest post by Bob Wedl, who offers some motivation for those of you starting out on your innovation journey in education. We hope you enjoy his thoughts on how to break through the doubts and start small.


Bob Wedl’s career in public education includes experience in both district as well as chartered schools, state department leadership and higher education. Bob served as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education in the late 1990’s leading Minnesota’s innovative standards and measurement initiatives, electronic data collection systems and new finance models including having revenue following students to the sites they attend. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s while serving as deputy commissioner of education, he was a leader in the development of much of Minnesota’s choice policy including open enrollment, post-secondary enrollment options, “second chance” programs and the nations first charter school law.

Bob served as the Executive Director of Planning and Policy for the Minneapolis Public Schools where he led the development of new models for serving students, expanded the Response to Intervention (RtI) model and assisted develop a “value-added growth accountability model.” He also provided direction to the district’s nine chartered schools and 33 contract alternative schools. Bob is an adjunct faculty member in the education administration departments at the University of Minnesota and the University of Saint Thomas. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Saint Cloud State University.

Can Innovation and Redesign Start Small?

By Bob Wedl

Indeed it can…and is actually the only way it will.  Win Wallen started his work on redesigning medical devices to treat heart disease in his Minneapolis garage.  Steve Jobs started Apple in his garage.  I’m not sure if Bill Gates had a garage, but the concepts behind MicroSoft started on a small scale.  Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook when he was a student at Harvard.  None of them had a support network behind them.  But each had two things in common: a vision and a strong drive to make that vision come alive.  Their vision was not to improve what already existed.  Rather, the vision was to redesign; to create new.

As a teacher, you too may have a powerful vision about what could be.  You may have said at a faculty meeting, “We could make learning just amazing.  What if….”  And the responses were, “We can’t do that.” Or maybe, “That’s not in the curriculum.” Or perhaps, “We have too many things on our plate now.  Don’t add any more.” Or, “How do you know that would work?”  So with a deflated ego you sat down.  Not to worry. It happens to all leaders of redesign.

Most redesign ideas have far more push-back than support.  The “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude is prevalent in most organizations and that status-quo mentality is not unique to public education by any means.  Clearly most everyone is supportive of improving what is currently being done.  But redesign is a different matter and the redesign’s are the big break-throughs in any field.  But because of cultural resistance to change, when companies want to make redesign changes, they frequently separate the part of the company working on redesign so those opposed to redesign won’t be able to sabotage the change.   When the Dayton’s Board started Target, they knew it had to be a separate entity so the Board appointed a president of Target rather than having Target report to the Dayton’s president.  Employees of Dayton’s were not supportive of Target because they saw it as competition and besides, Target sells cheap stuff and we are Dayton’s after all!  Educators think the same way.  That is why it is so difficult to start a new redesign school in the same building as a “traditional” school.  One teacher told me recently that when she decided to teach in the redesign school (in the same high school building) her colleagues accused her of, “Going over to the dark side.”

So what to do?  Maybe two or three teachers like the idea you proposed at the staff meeting and came up to you afterward and said, “We like your idea and have been thinking the same thing.  Let’s start having coffee on Saturday mornings to think more together.”  (You do not have to have coffee in your garage!)  So you develop your idea together and you boldly go to the principal and reminded of the reactions of other teachers when you brought the idea up at the staff meeting.  Or maybe your group knew the reaction of the principal would negative but you recall the new superintendent saying she wants new ideas so you decided to approach her instead. Pretty risky perhaps but innovators usually embrace risk as a natural part of the endeavor.  But alas, the response is, “Well that is very interesting.  Thank you so much for bringing that idea forward.  It is certainly something we will need to think about further.  But with the budget as it is right now….”

So now what?  Because “Let’s just forget it” is not in your vocabulary.  The group comes up with ways to implement parts of the redesign in your current classrooms.  The principal is ok with it “as long as you teach to the standards.” So the three of you begin implementation. You collect data and continue to refine the model. Student motivation to learn sky-rockets. The results based on your data are promising.  The next year’s results are even better.  Parents tell you their kids love school like never before. You present the data at staff meetings. Some teachers are impressed.  Others “considerably less so.”

Your team knows you are ready to expand to more teachers or maybe the whole school.  You know many students will fly if only they could have the opportunity to be with your team.  Not every student of course because you understand students learn in different ways.

You can write the end of this story…when you ask, “What if we….”

Student Advisories:  Forging A Different Path Forward

August 13, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on the benefits of multi-age advisories and how they work at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Special thanks to NWPHS and Peter Wieczorek!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Student Advisories:  Forging A Different Path Forward

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


What if schools in America had never been?  Imagine how they might be today if we were creating them for the first time.  Would they look very different?

It’s hard to say.  Tradition wields a mighty stranglehold in education.  But the fact is, our centuries-old approach to schooling falls short of what today’s world demands and is well-behind what research tells us we should be doing.  In the digital age, an unconventional, highly personalized journey is fast replacing an outdated curriculum that has been both time and space-bound. Despite annual school improvement efforts, schools find it hard to keep pace with change.  

Perhaps the future begs a different path.  Instead of trying to make the old model better, what if we set out to create the kind of schools kids need?       

Northwest Passage High School, a charter school in Coon Rapids, Minnesota did just that when they broke with tradition 15 years ago.  Originally designed as a school for credit-recovery, they could have stayed the course and did what many alternative schools do.  They could have dished out packets of work to complete while counting down seat time until students amassed enough credits to earn a diploma.  But they listened when their students told them why and how school had failed them.

Peter Wieczorek has been an employee at the school for 15 years.  For the first eight years, he was a biology advisor (teacher). For the last six, he has served as its director.  Having been there while the school experienced its transformation, he’s also part historian.

According to Wieczorek, when the school first opened, students said they loved its small environment and the intimate class sizes.  But most of all, they valued the connections they were making at the school. “Having someone who was looking out for them, someone who connected with them personally was what they had missed in previous settings.”  Students insisted that if they had experienced this type of program earlier in their school career, they would not have failed and would not have had to rely on credit recovery.   

Research supported what their students were telling them.  “Teenagers need strong mentors and role models besides their family,” notes Wieczorek.  “We knew and believed in the power of small groups, and we wanted to create that.”

To the staff, it has been a hero’s call to action ever since.  With an inspiring mission statement to guide them, bit by bit, they’ve built a project-based program where students take responsibility for their own educational plans.   

Student advisory groups serve as the foundation for keeping things up close and personal at Northwest.  Advisory groups are not a new concept in education. They’ve been around for decades. Unfortunately, in traditional secondary schools, most have devolved into brief study halls with little purpose.  Not so at Northwest Passage High School. At Northwest, students’ entire educational experience stems from their advisory program.

First, advisories are used to set the culture.  From the start, they were always multi-age. “We wanted to strip down the hierarchy of traditional school models,” says Wieczorek, “and get away from the idea we had to separate students by age and grade.  Instead, we wanted a learner-centered model.”

Second, staff knew they wanted to focus more on project-based learning, which is highly individualized.   They wanted students to earn credits based on their interests, not what grade they were in because of their age.  Advisories became a natural drive wheel for personalizing the curriculum.

One reason multi-age advisories work so well at Northwest Passage High School is that students can enroll at any time in their high school career.  In fact, roughly two-thirds of students enroll in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Grade levels no longer serve a purpose. There is no stigma of what grade a student is in.  If it takes less time or longer than four years to graduate, that’s okay.

“Our approach has freed students up to really focus on their goals,” says Wieczorek.  “Students are often surprised when they dig into it [the curriculum] and they aren’t labeled by grade.  And they look at each other as individuals, not around labels and grade-level stereotypes.”

How Northwest organizes their multi-age advisories is not left to chance.  Students new to the school are carefully placed to ensure a cross-section of experienced students are available to teach and mentor new students.  As the director, Wieczorek does an intake meeting with each student and family.  In it he listens for the student’s interests, their prior learning experience, what has gone well, and what has not so he can match the new student with the right advisor or group.  Students stay with the same advisor for the entire time they are enrolled, which further builds a sense of belonging within the school community.

One would think advisory is for a period of the day, but here again, Northwest Passage breaks with tradition.  After 45 minutes of schoolwide silent sustained reading every morning, advisories open with announcements and other routine check-ins, but from there it can go a variety of directions.  

Morning advisory sets the tone for the day.  Advisors intentionally engage students in the group experience, which never exceeds 15 students.  Seated in a circle, sharing begins. Questions may be asked, topics may be explored, or the conversation may go organic based on what’s on students’ minds.  Yet advisors carefully guide their group to ensure connections are made.

According to Wieczorek, “Advisors get students to talk about what’s going on in our kids’ world.  This approach really helps personalize and humanize everyone there. We’ve found it helps to reduce things like conflict and bullying.  Kids get to know the people in their advisory as a person.” Advisories also create an identity, something that ties the members together.  This further builds group cohesion.

Beyond their morning meeting, advisories are not defined by time.  Students could be in their advisory all day long working on their individual projects.  Or they move around the school as needed for projects that require certain spaces, such as a science lab.  There are also numerous student committees where students take an active role in democratic forms of student governance.  What better way to enlist the commitment of students?

It’s not only about forming relationships at Northwest Passage.  As of last year, the school converted fully to a project-based model.  The advisor plays a critical role in helping students create their individual projects.  “They are the front line,” Wieczorek says. “The student drives the process, but there is a lot of teamwork between the advisor and each content specialist to create the student’s personalized learning plans.”  This ensures state standards are met and competencies are formally assessed. A student’s advisor signs off on each project.

It’s easy to see that at Northwest Passage High School, advisors are more than a teacher.  Because advisory groups are kept small, advisors have the benefit of seeing the big picture in each student’s life and get to know them on a deep level.  They are their students’ advocate, their life coach, their cheerleader, and the one ready to deliver tough love when needed. The role comes naturally to staff, says Wieczorek, because they believe in what they are doing.   

When asked what advice he’d give to schools that want to deepen the advisory experience, Wieczorek becomes reflective.  “In too many large traditional high schools, the connection between adults and young people has been lost. There are too many classes and too many students.  The relational piece has gone missing. People who want to teach want those connections too. The best way to support kids,” he says, “is to build long-term relationships with them.”  

That’s good advice.  

What will your advisories look like come September?  

You can visit Northwest Passage’s website at

EdVisions Comprehensive Assessment Program

July 19, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we are sharing findings from the ECAP – EdVisions Comprehensive Assessment Program – which was completed over the 2017-2018 school year in coordination with eight charter schools. ECAP was lead by Dr. Ron Newell of EdVisions, Scott Wurdinger, PhD,professor of experiential learning and leadership studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, and En Sun Kim, Experiential Education Graduate Student, MNSU, Mankato, Minnesota.

EdVisions Comprehensive Assessment Program

The Schools

The ECAP was presented at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year to schools in the EdVisions network of schools. Eight schools were chosen and agreed to provide data for us to attempt an assessment of four items, three of which are not typically assessed in middle or high schools. As the EdVisions network schools are charters, and have a distinctive program model, the alternative assessment program was intended to showcase what the personalized, project-based, teacher powered schools, can do for students in their care.

The eight schools are comprised of six charter schools in Minnesota and two charters in Wisconsin. All eight schools have been successfully operated for more than 15 years. They all started utilizing the Ed Essentials of creating small communities and full-time advisories; personalized, project-based learning; authentic assessments; and teacher ownership. As teachers in charters, they were in control of their own environment, and were accountable for their results.

The data from the six Minnesota schools compared to the state of Minnesota data in the following manner: both the EdVisions Schools and the state of Minnesota averaged approximately the same number of white to non-white, with white numbering 68% in EdVisions Schools, 67% statewide; they were also very close in the number of free and reduced populations – 40.6% to 37.2%. There is divergence in special populations, however – EdVisions schools averaged 35.8% special education students to the state’s 15.7%; EdVisions Schools spent on average 25.2% of their ADM on special education, where schools across the state spent 18.7%. Despite the large number of special education students, the ACT averages were quite similar – 20.73 to 21.77. College enrollees from EdVisions Schools consisted of 59% of graduates, 75% for the state; but they were again similar in the percentage of students who persisted into a second year and accrued credits, 70% to 79%.

What do we make of the above data?  The fact that so many special education students are flocking to charters ought to indicate the need for different types of schools. The small community schools that are made up of full-time advisories and personalized, hands-on, authentic projects, appear to meet the needs of students who learn differently, or do not fit in, or have been labeled, or who have been harassed.

As charter school enrollees come to the schools with more deficits than previously, the school personnel are taxed to their maximum capacity to achieve academic goals; yet they do so quite well. The reading proficiency of students in EdVisions Schools was 63%, and in Minnesota 60% in 2016. Not only do they educate the difficult to educate, but they also meet other goals, goals not addressed or assessed by the states.

Attention paid to the social-emotional state of students has gained credence within the educational community in the past 5 years. Our assessment program has looked at both the social emotional climate of the schools, and also the life skills students are developing. Those two elements are rarely, if ever, attended to in middle and high schools.

The Assessments

The social-emotional assessment used by EdVisions is the Hope Survey, which measures hope, engagement, autonomy, belongingness, goal orientations, and academic press. The surveys are designed to determine the level of hope and the level of engagement of the students. The rest of the surveys are intended to show a school whether their institutional climate is conducive to raising hope, and capable of reversing the national trend of a lowering of student engagement each year from 6th through 12th grades.

We chose to utilize NWEA’s Measure of Academic Progress for academic growth because all but one school gave the assessment twice a year. The RIT score from that assessment is a sliding scale number, as are the hope and engagement scales. RIT scores can be followed each year to see how students are progressing. The scores from 2017 to 2018 could be spring to spring, or fall to spring, depending on how the schools administered the assessments.

For life skills, we found that the eight Partner Schools had many forms of assessments of student growth in life skills. We chose to look at several rubrics used by the schools, pull out some basic elements from each, and to utilize nationally known life skill assessments.

In the end, we decided that we ought to minimize the number of traits and settle on two major concepts of life skills all schools developed in students; Self-directedness, and Collaboration/Interaction. These two traits were witnessed in schools with high levels of emotional engagement, autonomy, and mastery goal orientations. The project-based model, with full-time advisors who oversee all factors of a student’s development, generally produces a student that is an independent thinker, a goal setter, uses resources well, can manage themselves, has internal motivation, is reflective and can evaluate themselves, and is adaptable. Those traits were woven into a rubric.

Also, witnesses, and case studies of students from these schools, constantly referred to how well students could interact with each other and adults, noting how mature and respectful students were. As there were several local rubrics that included some aspects of these traits, we decided to include them as a second general area. The traits of a collaborative and interactive student include; has communication skills, has developed social skills, they exhibit responsibility and tolerance of differences, interact with peers and adults in mature and respectful ways, develop good presentation skills, and the exhibit skills as a organizers and leaders. These skills were also woven into a rubric.

The scoring on the rubric was on an eight-point scale. Level one was where a beginner more than likely would have little awareness of how to manage the personalized, project-based system. In other words, a novice. Level 2 would be some awareness of what are the needs and expectations, and the student has attempted to meet some of them; a 3 is where students are advancing novices and demonstrate some items on the rubric, but still need prodding and coaxing; a 4 means an advanced novice who has inconsistently exhibited most traits; a level 5 means the student is becoming a strategic learner and demonstrates most traits with encouragement; a level 6 demonstrates the learner has demonstrated enough of the traits at a high level and would be ready for graduation; a level 7 means the learner needs little support and is an emerging expert; a level 8 means the student can function at a high level on their own, and is confident of their ability to succeed.

The rubrics were presented to each school via an online instrument called Qualtrics. The online system worked well, as we had 646 responses. Most assessors were comfortable with those concepts, and could utilize their own rubric assessments in scoring the rubric. We believe this system worked well enough in this study to not only continue to use it, but to broaden the assessments to more schools in the future.

Findings from the Surveys

The first item assessed was engagement. Engagement was measured by a self-perception survey embedded in the Hope Survey. Engagement is measured on a scale of -10 to +10. It is measured in two categories; behavioral and emotional. Any score under 0 is considered very low, low 1.00 to 1.49, moderate from 1.50 to 2.99, high from 3.00 to 4.49, and very high any score above 4.50.

These surveys indicated that the eight EdVisions Partner Schools were able to increase engagement in new students that enrolled in their schools in the fall of 2017, by 1.13 points in behavioral engagement, and 3.78 points in emotional engagement. Over the past two years, the schools were able to maintain high engagement in the schools (on average) of 3.59 points in behavioral engagement, and 3.74 points in emotional engagement. As both of those numbers are considered to be in the high range, and the fact that most of these schools maintain this high average across the grade levels, the model program using the Ed Essentials has proven to more fully engage students than is expected in most schools.

Engagement has been correlated to hope. “Hope” reflects an individual’s perceptions regarding their ability to clearly conceptualize their goals, develop the specific strategies to reach those goals (i.e., pathways thinking), and initiate and sustain activity based upon those strategies (i.e., agency thinking). According to hope theory, a goal can be anything that an individual may desire to experience, create, obtain, accomplish, or become.

Higher hope has been linked to student behavior, attendance, academic achievement, and increased confidence as achievers. Higher hope students set more challenging goals for themselves, and perceive they will be successful in achieving their goals. Higher hope students will have a greater chance of success in college and beyond.

It was the intention of the EdVisions Assessment Program to measure hope in students over the 2017-2018 calendar year to see if the 8 schools indeed raised hope and engagement. In a past study in 2007-2008, hope was found to have a high correlation to achievement in math and reading. This study intended to see if this was still true, and to include not only hope, but also a life skills assessment.

For this assessment, we wanted to have matched student-by-student scores. In the eight schools there were 604 students who took both a 2017 survey and a 2018 survey. The average level of hope for these students increased from 47.87 to 49.03, an increase of 1.15. This is considered a significant rise. The hope scale is a scale of 8-64, and 48 is considered an average score across the nation.

Many of the students come to EdVisions Schools with hope levels below 40. We also find that low hope students’ scores fluctuate more wildly than do higher hope students. If a school has significant number of low hope students (the average incoming student across the 8 schools is now approximately 44), then we have more students who have difficulty raising their hope levels. Moods affect them negatively and at times we see large drops in scores. We also see large gains, so they do even out. But we must remember, it is in raising hope that these young people will have a chance to be successful in their future.

The gain of 1.15 in hope was encouraging. If students can gain that much a year, it is possible for one scoring 44 upon enrolling to raise hope to 48 in four or fewer years. One discouraging note is that only 56% of the students increased their hope levels. Schools need to have a positive influence on more students than that in the future. This leads us to think that we must strengthen network schools by placing more emphasis on raising hope than on raising math and reading scores.

Historically strengthening hope and developing higher hope in students is done by paying attention to the other variables in the Hope Survey; engagement, autonomy, belongingness, mastery goal orientation, and academic press. We know that the Ed Essentials put into operation by skilled and caring advisors can raise engagement and hope. We also believe that higher hope in students will make a difference in their achievement, whatever a school sees as achievement.

This goal of this study was to see if the Partner Schools indeed did have high engagement, could raise hope, had good achievement results, and could assess life skills as part of that achievement. We have shown that engagement can be raised, and that hope was raised in matched students.

Other Achievements

The data from all assessments was downloaded and shared with Dr. Scott Wurdinger of the Experiential Education Department ay Minnesota State University – Mankato, and a graduate assistant researcher from the same university, Ms. En-Sun Kim. Together we crunched the numbers and analyzed the data.

The following chart indicates what we found:

N Assessment Score 17 Score 18 Change
604 Hope 47.87 49.03 +1.15
560 Math RIT 230.81 234.27 +3.46
550 Rdg RIT 224.72 226.73 +2.01
646 Self Dir. 3.55 4.58 +1.03
646 Coll./Int. 3.81 4.82 +1.01


The scores held some surprises, but generally the data indicates what we expected to see – a raise in hope, positive movement along the RIT scale, and an increase in life skills. One surprise was how well the schools did in raising math skills. This had been difficult years ago when these schools were previously studied. Because many students come to these schools behind, in math especially, the schools had to develop means of providing the necessary resources, time, personnel, and method to increase math skills. They are doing well in that area.

There was an expectation that reading skills would grow at a greater rate than math, as that was the case in the 2008-2009 study. Sustained silent reading, with students reading what they wish to read according to a personal reading plan, generally helps students gain in skills assessed. This RIT gain was a bit less than expected, but still respectable.

We had no expectations concerning the life skill rubric – but where the numbers fell indicate that the average student (if there is ever such a thing) is in the middle of the rubric. The rise of over one point on the rubric for both skills assessed is, we believe, an expected change that advisors would see in their charges. As this was the first time such a scoring rubric was used, it will take more time to see trends and have expectations.

The Correlation Study

We did a correlation study to determine if hope was correlated to other achievements, and to see if there were correlations of life skills to reading and math. To determine a correlation between elements, a group of students that were assessed in all variables had to be found. A correlation study cannot be done with varying populations. Amongst all the students, we found only 252 that had all ten variables assessed.

This is less than half of those assessed in other areas, and is unfortunate. Because we only have these 252 responses on all items, we do not have a strong picture of how these items correlate. As will be seen when the data is studied, there are some differences in the changes from the chart above. There are differences in the averages in hope, for example.

Why were there so few in the correlation study? We found that there were many students who missed one assessment or another; a pretest or posttest, a survey taken in one year, but not the other, etc. Schools find it difficult in a highly mobile and transitory population to have all students assessed on every item.

The Findings from the Correlation Study

The following chart indicates the numbers in the variables, with pretest and posttest changes:

N = 252 Score 17 Score 18 Change
Hope 47.03 47.69 +0.65
Math 231.15 235.04 +3.88
Reading 225.33 227.69 +2.36
Self-Dir. 3.20 4.48 +1.28
Coll./Int. 3.50 4.73 +1.22

As can be seen by comparing the previous chart to this one, Hope was overall lower and raised less, and RIT scores went up more. Obviously, in this group of students, there is no correlation of Hope to RIT scores. And the derivation from the formula showed just that. This is different from a study done on EdVisions Schools 10 years ago, where strong correlations were found.

The numbers presented below are correlations between data for the 252 matching students from the 2018 data. The 2017 data showed very little difference. Take into account that a weak correlation is any number over .10 to .30, a moderate correlation is from .30 to .50, a strong correlation is anything over .50. So what did we find?

There was a weak correlation of Hope to Collaboration/Interaction (.23); and Hope to Math (.12). There was a moderate correlation between Hope and Self-Direction (.31); between Math and Self-Direction (.37); between Math and Collaboration/Interaction (.31); and between Reading and Self-Direction (.31). There were two strong correlations: between Math and Reading (.70), and between Self-Direction and Collaboration/Interaction (.86). Both of these are obvious and totally expected.

So what can we say concerning the correlations? We were disappointed that there were not strong correlations between Hope and anything else studied. But there is a positive in that Hope is moderately correlated to Self-Directedness, and has some small correlation to Collaboration/Interaction. Creating environments that encourage self-directedness, collaboration, and interaction skills is necessary for the well-being and success in the future. The growing of those skills and hope are worthy goals in and of themselves, never-mind the lack of correlation to math and reading.

In fact, taking in consideration the study done 10 years ago showing a strong correlation of Hope to Math and Reading, it could be said that paying more attention to the academic needs may have had an adverse effect on the growth of Hope! Having to pay so much attention to Math means less time on interest-driven projects, which may be more valuable to most students in that the build the life skills. Something to ponder.

The lack of correlation of Hope to academic achievement in this study is no reason to believe Hope does not matter. Hope is, in and of itself, a goal well worth attention. We took a look also at whether at students raised in hope versus those who had a loss of hope on the survey. There were 56% of the students who were assessed on all assessments who raised Hope – 44% that did not. Does it matter if students are scoring lower on the Hope Survey?

The changes are listed below:

Assessment Higher Hope Lower Hope
Hope +6.66 -6.87
Math +4.39 +3.00
Reading +2.58 +1.96
Self Dir. +1.43 +1.13
Coll/Int. +1.34 +1.11

Obviously the larger differential is in Hope. But the point is that if Hope is not attended to, students who lose Hope will not do as well on other assessments. The fact that the assessments show such gains, even those with lower hope, is a credit to the schools and advisors. And, of course, the students. But it is also obvious that you want to affect students’ concept of themselves as goal setters, positively seeing themselves as achievers. It would be interesting to see that if the percentage of students who raise Hope is over 60%, for example, what would happen to other assessment results?

A correlation study was done on these two groups. We will refer to the following chart:

Correlation Hope Increased Hope Decreased
Weak (.1 to .3) Hope to Self-Direction;

Hope to Collaboration/Interaction

Hope to Math;

Reading to Self-Direction;

Reading to Collaboration/Interaction

Moderate (.3 to .5) Math to Self-Direction;

Math to Collaboration/Interaction;

Reading to Self-Direction;

Reading to Collaboration/Interaction

Hope to Self-Direction;

Hope to Collaboration/Interaction;

Math to Self-Direction;

Math to Collaboration/Interaction

Strong Math to Reading;

Self-Direction to Collaboration/Interaction

Math to Reading;

Self-Direction to Collaboration/Interaction

Hope only appears as a weak correlation to the Life Skills among the hope increasing group. Apparently, as Hope rises, so will Life Skills to some degree. Or, as Life Skills grow, Hope may also be positively affected. But stronger correlations exist among Reading and Math with the Life Skills. To those whose Hope is rising, Life Skills apparently are tied to student’s skills in Math and Reading. This would appear to be logical, as does a small correlation to Hope. It is apparent also that Math and Reading skills went up to greater extent among this group than those who lost some measure of Hope.

To those who did lose some measure of Hope, their Hope was a stronger correlation to Life Skills than with those whose Hope rose. In other words, the fact that their Hope decreased, their Life Skills rose at lower rates. Reading and Math are more linked to Life Skills amongst those whose Hope increased; Math and Hope more linked to Life Skills amongst those whose Hope decreased.

Raising math scores takes a great deal of time and effort. Might it be that increasing Math scores had a detrimental effect on Hope and Life Skills (might they have raised at a greater rate if fewer students lost Hope)? What did Life Skills have to do with Hope decreasing? The data will probably not answer those questions, as those hypotheses were not really measured.


Summing all this up is difficult, but we have some measure of what is possible in schools that adhere to the Ed Essentials. First, Hope for over 600 students increased 1.15 points on the Hope scale, from just below average, to slightly above average, an increase of 1.8%. The Math RIT scores rose 3.46 points, an increase of 1.2% for the 560 students who had pretest and posttest data. The Reading RIT increased 2.01 points, an increase of .7%. The Life Skill of Self-Direction rose 1.02 points, for an increase of 12.9%; and Collaboration/Interaction rose 1.01 points for an increase of 12.7%.

RIT scores can be compared to national average gains –  the Math and Reading increases commensurate to the national average growth for 7th and 8th graders and well above the norm for 9-11th grades. We know that a Hope gain of 1.15 is quite significant, as we can compare to gains in past years. The Life Skills assessment was used for the first time, and it will take a number of more uses to establish norms.

Not having a strong correlation of Hope to other measurements is not terribly concerning – weak and moderate correlations were found. But we re-iterate the point that Hope is not just a corollary to learning – it is a core outcome, and paying attention to growth in Hope will benefit students in many more ways. The fact that schools can in fact raise Hope, especially when so many are coming to our schools with lower than average Hope, is gratifying; yet it is daunting, as well. We have to do more for students than ever – raising Hope for the future ought to be a goal, a mission. We must pay attention to the needs of children with little Hope.

We need to continue this kind of study – to see trends, gather data on more students and more schools, to see if different types of schools with different programs have different data, etc. EdVisions would be interested in any school community that would like to account for the social-emotional well-being of their students, and to see if that affects basic skills and life skills. Join us in assessing what really matters in schools; raising hope and developing life skills, while raising achievement.

Autonomous School Governance: Create a Culture of Commitment

June 29, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on how autonomous school governance can create a culture of trust and commitment that is sustainable.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Autonomous School Governance: Create a Culture of Commitment

By Nancy Allen Mastro

The school accountability movement began in the 1990s out of a growing fear that student achievement was edging toward the brink of disaster, especially when comparing American students’ academic performance to their international peers. With nothing but standardized test scores to defend or debunk the assumption, the conversation around schooling in the United States whipped into a political frenzy. Even before then, state and federal regulation had been on the rise. But when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, the focus on accountability reached new heights. Power shifted considerably from the local level to the state house, and judging a school’s performance almost exclusively on test results was here to stay.


Since then and multiple iterations later, policy makers have continued to focus solely on conventional solutions that include hundreds of pages of mandates prescribing what schools, teachers, and principals must do, all in the name of getting better student outcomes. The accountability movement could just as well be dubbed The Compliance Movement. Legislators have taken the stance that they know best, leaving those closest to the students little room for making decisions. Increasingly, schools don’t look and feel like places where practitioners are trusted or respected, and teachers are more frustrated than ever.  


But teachers are a determined lot. After more than three decades of being sidelined, some are taking matters into their own hands and acting on what they believe is best for students. Through autonomous school governance, an approach in which teachers design and run the school by making decisions together with input from students and parents, the landscape is changing.


Autonomous school governance increases everyone’s commitment. Decisions that affect students most are made by those who know them best. A clear and compelling vision drives teachers’ actions, which are guided by their combined professional knowledge, insight, and expertise. When teachers believe that what they do and how they do it makes a difference in how well students learn, they have collective efficacy. Collective efficacy is powerful because those who possess it are bound together by a shared sense of responsibility.  


Responsibility is different than accountability. Teachers have long argued they cannot be held accountable for student learning; only the student can be, and they are right. Accountability is individual in nature; one cannot be accountable for another’s actions or inactions. But responsibility can be shared, and teachers are responsible for creating the conditions for learning. Autonomous school governance places that responsibility squarely in their hands.


The idea of teachers governing their work is not new. Its roots can be found in past pursuits like site-based management, which goes back decades. Then, teachers were given more say, but they were not given the power to affect change. As a result, a massive amount of time was spent processing, but little actually changed. Autonomous school governance comes with a different promise. The distribution of power goes deeper, and teachers are given real authority to make decisions.


Perhaps the best known model for autonomous school governance in today’s terms can be found in the flourishing Teacher-Powered Schools movement. A total of 120 teacher-powered schools dot the national landscape in at least 18 states, and the list is growing. Their guiding question is, “How do we make school better for kids?” From there, all decisions flow.


Recently I spoke to Alex Vitrella, Director of Network and School Support at Education Evolving. Vitrella is an enthusiastic advocate for teachers taking the lead. A former teacher in Minneapolis who was frustrated with what she was seeing in schools, she now sees great hope. Several years ago, St. Paul-based Education Evolving was seeking a way to promote student-centered learning. Intuitively, they knew it would require ways for teachers to work more autonomously. They decided to collaborate with the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina and together they launched the Teacher-Powered Schools movement in 2014. Vitrella joined Education Evolving four years ago and has been working with the movement ever since then.


Unfortunately, traditional models for school leadership can prevent teachers from having or feeling like they have autonomy. According to Vitrella, teachers don’t feel like they have the time or space to plan on a larger scale with their colleagues in the traditional arrangements offered, such as curriculum committees, site teams, and other ways school leaders attempt to distribute leadership. It can be difficult for communication to flow freely and effectively between the different layers of decision-making. Add to that the range of leadership levels within the system and you create the added potential for a breakdown in message and intent. This web of complexity, Vitrella points out, causes teachers to turn inward and focus on what they can control, which is what happens in their own classroom. Many close the door and keep doing what they’ve always done.  


By sheer virtue of its name, a teacher-powered school sounds like one in which there is no longer a principal. On the contrary, it doesn’t mean eliminating administrators at all, says Vitrella. “It’s about inverting the traditional hierarchy and moving those at the bottom of the triangle who know the kids and families best and giving them more of a say. That can be done with or without school administrators. Admin is still there and have an incredibly important role. It’s a way a lot of really good leaders lead. This [the teacher-powered model] formalizes that.”


Trust is foundational to the success of a teacher-powered school. Getting teachers to follow teachers means changing the culture. “It requires a lengthy trust-building process so that teacher feel like professionals and act like them too,” Vitrella states. A lot of time and energy is centered around building shared purpose. “This can be overlooked when it comes to running a school but it is so rewarding.”


One of the most important things that autonomous school governance offers is the ability for a school culture to sustain itself, even when changes in leadership or new teachers come on board. The culture is not dependent on one individual. It empowers all the individuals in the school. Stable cultures are good for everyone, especially students. In steady and secure environments, initiatives can be fostered and supported through the normal stages of development, thereby increasing the chances for success. What isn’t working at first can be gradually resolved, allowing the best ideas to take root and evolve in deep and meaningful ways. Add to that a continuous improvement cycle and you have a winning combination.  


When asked if there is a typical way in which leadership is organized, Vitrella says each teacher-powered school is arranged differently. “It depends on the culture. There can still be a principal, or there may be lead teachers, rotating leads, or the whole school makes the decision.” Teacher-powered schools are charter schools as well as district schools. Of the 120 around the country, about half can be found in each setting, meaning even a traditional school become a teacher-powered school. “It’s easier in a new school school because you get to select people who are passionate about the system you are building and are committed to its purpose. But there are schools in traditional districts who are teacher-powered, and the movement has seen quite a few of them successfully convert.” But, Vitrella admits, “it is hard to change an existing system. When it gets hard, people go back to what they know.” However, it can be done, as evidenced by schools finding success no matter their type.


The elephant in the room would seem to be teacher unions, but Vitrell insists they have found incredible support from local unions. “Teacher-powered schools transcend the traditional divides between management and union. It [teacher autonomy] is a concept everyone seems to be able to get behind. Unions see it as the next step in professionalizing teaching.” That said, having a formal agreement, a memorandum of understanding, or waivers with the local union is important. For example, in addition to selecting teachers, teacher-powered school leaders need to be able to deselect them when the fit is not right. This and other important aspects of the master agreement need to be fleshed out in advance for true autonomy to exist.  


The rewards of being a teacher-powered school are many, and Vitrella is quick to point them out. “Teachers feel respected; if they have a problem, they have to change it themselves. You don’t have the ‘water cooler’ complaining.” They have the autonomy, in fact the responsibility, to fix it. She also claims a lot fewer teachers leave teaching in a teacher-powered school because there is a much stronger shared purpose. Students and adults know what is expected. There are even rewards for the principal. “You get to lead in the way you had hoped to lead. Principals were former teachers who want to do this work. They did not want to be paper pushers. They like the collaborative model, and they don’t feel so alone.”


No matter how a leadership structure is organized in schools, one thing is for certain: Teachers need to have a voice. While this can be accomplished in a number of ways, we need to keep in mind that substance is more important than structure. Whether you are in a traditional school, a charter school, a private school, or some other configuration, ensuring a seat at the table for teachers that is a real, authentic, and impactful part of the power structure is important.


What does the leadership structure look like in your school? How are teachers given voice, what decisions do they make, and what do they see as their responsibility? If you have a union, how would it look upon granting waivers for schools wanting to assume greater responsibility for critical decisions? These are questions we increasingly need to ask.


If you are interested in finding out more about autonomous school government, considering visiting the Teacher-Powered Schools website. It provides an expansive and detailed guide for those who are ready to wade into the waters and start empowering themselves and those around them. Better yet, visit a teacher-powered school. You can find one close to you by checking out this list. There is even a national conference in November in Boston, which offers yet another way learn more.

How Personal are Your Learning Plans?

April 25, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her deep dive into personal learning plans and some best-practices suggested by Dr. Steven Rippe of EdVisions.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


How Personal are your PLPs?

By Nancy Allen Mastro

Students in any college of education are exposed to many theories, but two stand out as fundamental to understanding how students learn and what motivates them to do well in school.  Jean Piaget gave us his stage theory of cognitive development.  Children, he said, learn by exploring their world. They construct knowledge by linking new information to what they already know, enabling them to add skills to their repertoire.  In each successive stage of development, they process information in more abstract terms.  Abraham Maslow articulated a hierarchy that reveals the range of underlying needs that motivate behavior and thus influence cognitive development.  Needs such as food, safety, and love must be met before striving to reach levels of esteem and self-actualization.

Most remember Piaget and Maslow more than others because their theories make so much sense.  But knowing a theory only brings value to an educator if applied to practice.  It’s difficult to step back and take the time to let students construct knowledge; we have mountains of standards to cover.  It’s difficult to meet students’ emotional needs when a single teacher may see upwards of 150 students every day.

Yet we try.  We attempt to recognize each student for who they are and do whatever we can to help them grow as a person and master content so they can move on to the next grade.  For some students in today’s classrooms, this somewhat superficial experience is enough. For others, it is not. Inequities, underfunding, and mixed political agendas compromise and strain the system.  And somehow, childhood and young adulthood seem to have become more complex. As a result, so has teaching.

If students’ most basic needs are not being met, how can we expect them to acquire new knowledge and expand their skill set?  If new learning builds on what students know, how do we gauge when to introduce new content?  To optimize learning for all students, we need a reliable and sustainable way to meet each learner where they are at on their personal journey towards maturity.  This requires the use of an individualized plan.

Individual plans have been around at least since the 1970s if not before.  The most widely recognized efforts began in 1975 with PL 94-142, the first federal special education law which guaranteed a child with a disability a free appropriate public education.  Outcome-based education followed shortly thereafter with its emphasis on mastery learning.  Those who’ve been around a while know many more systems for instruction were posited and tried, but the goal of meeting individual needs remained largely elusive.  Fast-forward to today and conversation centers on personalized learning plans (PLPs).  Is it possible that after half a century of admiring the problem we are on the verge of a solution?  

It’s quite possible.  A few things have changed since then.  Despite the ills of the accountability movement, one positive effect is that it has made it impossible to ignore the number of students for whom the system is failing.  We are desperate for an answer on how to ensure the success of all students.

Second, we have better tools to help us assess student learning and measure growth.  We have endless ways to capture learning in real time, and technology has multiplied how we can communicate about student progress with all stakeholders.  We’ve also made great strides in articulating what it is we want students to know and be able to do.

And third, we’ve had time to iterate.  As pointed out, we’ve tried a few things since the early days of individualized learning plans.  We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t to the degree we can position students and teachers for real success.  The question is, are we willing to acknowledge those lessons and transform our practice?

While many people have been writing and wondering about PLPs, EdVisions has been creating them.  They’ve been on the ground with educators, digging deeply into what it takes to develop PLPs that are as meaningful to students as they are to the adults in their world.  Dr. Steven Rippe, EdVisions’ Director of the Hope Survey and Organization Development has spent the last two decades working with over a hundred schools on personalizing learning.  He started shortly after the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) published Breaking Ranks.  “This is when it got in everybody’s mind we should do them,” he recalls.  But the accountability movement, with its focus on high-stakes tests, sidelined the growing emphasis on developing PLPs.  

However, the draw of personalized learning managed to persist in the wake of the accountability movement, even among policymakers.  Mandates to develop them for all students emerged. But impact fell short of good intentions. Plans complied with the mandates but were short on substance.  They were largely principal or teacher-created, and most were teacher-driven.  Typically, students completed them using a standard template.  Students did not find meaning in what looked to them like another fill-in-the-blank assignment.  

Rippe recalls the time well.  “I realized the whole spirit was gone, and that we needed to restore the idea of helping the individual student understand who they are, what they need, and how to advocate for themselves.”  

In response, he and EdVisions convened groups of people to work on PLPs in different places around the country.  For those new to the work, EdVisions shared their current best practice. Those who’d been developing PLPs were asked to share their best work.  What emerged was an ongoing dialogue now over a decade-long and still flourishing.  

According to Rippe, a fundamental priority from the start was to avoid adding things to teachers’ and students’ plates, which are already overflowing.  Instead, the focus was on changing the work.  EdVisions coached teachers in how to transition to a new theory of knowledge.  The goal was to make PLPs the center of their work and to make PLPs effective and efficient.  

Over time, students were engaged in the development process.  Rippe reports about a third of the students they interviewed liked PLPs.  Another half were open to them, but adults had to sell them on the idea. Not surprisingly, approximately 20 percent had no interest at all and were openly critical.  EdVisions probed further to find out why.  

“There is a significant amount of pressure on students to perform,” Rippe says. “They don’t feel they have time with all the pressure to participate in cocurriculars.  They are wary of PLPs and told us they feel they are too scripted.  We ended up realizing that for a PLP to be authentic, each individual needs to create it in a way that genuinely reflects who they are and what their values are.  You can’t have a standardized approach for this kind of thing.”  

What was missing, they realized, was the personal in personalized learning plans.  

The feedback from students was invaluable and sparked the newest generation of EdVisions’ work with students and teachers that makes the personal element the primary focal point.  By deconstructing, then reconstructing the PLP they have been able to give students the autonomy to drive their PLPs. This has transformed understanding of the role and purpose of the PLP.  More importantly, it has led to developing plans that are more meaningful and useful.  

Even though each plan may look different per the individual, there are several essential elements.  The PLP must include self-exploration. Students need to know who they are as an individual, as a learner, and as a member of a community.  Second, a student-led conference is held three times a year where they present who they are, what they’ve achieved, and what they are challenged with.  Rippe is quick to note, “It is not a student-parent-teacher conference.  Kids need the freedom and flexibility to do it their way.” Student reflection is a third critical element.

One challenge is coming up with a way for the PLP to begin at ground zero and evolve in a manner that represents a truly constructivist approach.  “We don’t begin with an end in mind,” Rippe insists, such as a portfolio or other common format.  “There are some guidelines, but it is left to the student to determine how to organize their PLP.”  

The adults’ role, Rippe says, is to provide students with a vehicle to explore, a time to present, a time to reflect (document), and a time to grow and regenerate the PLP.  It is a recurring cycle that ensures the PLP is a dynamic, living plan that serves as the focus for a student’s learning. “It (the plan) can take a lot of different directions, almost like a menu,” he points out.  Their newest work is about collecting activities to generate such a menu.

Barriers to creating a PLP do exist.  “The biggest challenge,” says Rippe, “is the mindset of teachers and students.  What we find most often is that teachers are trying to personalize learning plans for students but not doing it themselves.  Teachers also need to create their own PLP so they understand what the student experiences.”

And why not?  Teachers have long wanted to have more control over their own professional development.  When working with a school, EdVisions encourages teachers to create their own PLP to serve as the focus of their individual learning needs and interests.  

They even encourage the entire school to create a schoolwide PLP.  Student and teacher PLPs living inside a school PLP help to simplify what might otherwise feel like a daunting undertaking.  This nested approach (Figure 1) builds a common framework that includes the following elements:

  • A shared, consistent mental model
  • A clear set of practices that are easily understood and replicated, and
  • Momentum around personalization as a central programming feature

 Figure 1.

When working with a school, EdVisions turns to the students and staff to help them make PLPs simple and sustainable.  Years of work on perfecting PLPs has been captured in a new book by Rippe and Nicole Luedtke, along with a group of students from Valley New School in Appleton, Wisconsin.  Luedtke is an advisor and EdVisions coach at Valley New School. Coming out this spring, Transformational Personal Learning Plans, A Universal Approach for Everyone summarizes 12 years of EdVisons’ work with over 100 schools throughout their network to design and develop PLPs, including Valley New School.  Their ongoing collaboration with students and staff is featured in the book and will be a useful resource for practitioners who want to take their PLPs to the next level.  


Faced with today’s challenges, we need to remember that teaching is about developing people.  While providing good content and helping them acquire skills are cornerstones of their formal education, they are not enough to inspire students towards greatness.  Through personalized learning plans, we can engage students’ heads and their hearts in all aspects of schooling, but only if each plan is authentic and genuinely personal.


Consider how PLPs fit into the culture at your school. Are they personal?  What do students say about them? Are they grounded in using sound theories of cognitive development?  Do they take into consideration students’ social and emotional needs? Depending on what you find, it may be time to deconstruct your PLP and allow a new iteration to emerge.  When you do, don’t forget to let the masters like Piaget, Maslow, and others influence your effort.


If you’d like more information on PLPs from Dr. Steven Rippe, you can contact him at or call him at 612-601-1083.

Redesigning School Spaces

April 11, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on redesigning school spaces for personalized learning.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


The Highly Personalized Learning Setting: Redesigning School Spaces

Education is no longer confined to four walls.  Technology has made the world a veritable classroom.  But even though students can search the globe for information, learning continues to have a communal aspect.  There will always be a nexus between a student and teacher that occurs; space for them to come together is still an essential part of the exchange, even in one that is virtual.  

Outside of what students can learn online, it is likely they will continue to spend a good portion of their day in a place called school.  Besides educating its members, society depends on schools to serve as caretakers of the children while parents work. This is not likely to change anytime soon.  But the dynamics of the space called school are changing. As the demand for personalized learning grows, so too does the need for us to rethink about how we configure schools and classrooms.  If form truly does follow function, a highly personalized setting begs a different look.

We are in an era where we know much more than we ever have about what it takes for students to be successful in school.  We possess an insider’s view of how the brain functions. As a result, we have a deeper understanding of effective pedagogy.  And we can document the importance of student engagement. Traditional spaces are frustrating for those trying to create the kind of classroom environment that takes each of these into consideration and deliver innovative programs.  If we want to personalize learning, schools and districts need to do their part to transform that which is limiting into something that is genuinely transformative. It’s time for a redo.

Three key things can power the conversation.  First, we need to invest in the right infrastructure.  Machine learning will continue to dominate well into the future.  Whether using wireless personal devices or hard-wired network stations, seamless interaction from any location at any time, in or out of school, is the new gold standard. This applies to access for students, teachers, and parents.  While it may tempt schools and districts to over-rely on wireless technology, current reality requires a dual system to deliver programming until wireless is more reliable.

Second, a variety of different spaces are essential for personalizing learning.  Many assumed a computer-based education would eventually mean less brick and mortar, but this has been a misguided notion from the start.  For all the attention it gets, technology is only part of what fuels education in a knowledge economy. If used only to replace direct instruction, we will fail to use it to its full potential.  

Students are consumers of information.  Information is useless, however, unless converted into knowledge.  Interactions with others and hands-on learning are vital to facilitating the transfer.  Space for one-to-one instruction, project-based learning, cooperative learning, and collaborative learning are all necessary complements that depend on more room, not less.  In a very small school, this is easy to achieve. In larger schools, students and teachers will need to share spaces, requiring new ways of thinking about scheduling and coordination, not to mention allowing for more freedom of movement for students.

Third, hard and soft surfaces that are both functional and comfortable enhance the physical and emotional comfort of the learner.  When we tend to students’ well-being, we remove artificial distractions and create conditions for real learning to occur. Furniture that can be quickly and easily moved to suit a variety of purposes rounds out the personalized environment, tapping a simple and underutilized resource as a catalyst for learning.  Even teachers are opting for mobile desks that look nothing like the behemoths of old, enabling them to have freedom of movement as well.

Schools and districts across the country are taking the lead in creating these types of personalized spaces that are energizing and inventive.  According to Paul Aplikowski, a partner and Educator Planner at Wold Architects and Engineers’ office in St. Paul, times are changing for school architects, too, as they respond to the shift in priorities.  “We used to stay out of the teachers’ way, but that’s changed. What’s been transformative for me is that people now expect architects to create spaces that are inspiring for students.” He thinks a big driver behind the change is the way new generations of students perceive their world.  

“Kids are wired differently today.  They have access to technology, and the level of hyper-personalization they are exposed to is creating a demand at schools, too.  Their world is instantly accessible to them. Schools have to adapt to that,” he says, “or they will lose them.”

Aplikowski and his team see a mix in the demand for personalized space.  He says everyone knows about personalization, but it is not widespread in practice.  “The client has to be ready for it,” he stresses. “We see a reluctance to let change in, especially among teachers who have been successful in the traditional structure.”  They often see personalizing learning as “turning kids loose,” but those in the know know better. If the school or district is reform-oriented, he notes, then the building project is progressive in its design.      

As an architect, he’s excited about the trend toward personalization and sees great potential for learning.  “I find myself in a very different position the last few years, having to advocate for what future schools should look like.  What’s been done before continually comes up, but in our cutting-edge designs, learning studios have replaced the classroom.” The design conversation encourages teachers to think about how they are doing things.  Where they land on paper covers the spectrum. “None of the classrooms are like what we did 10 years ago. More are along the lines of being open and flexible.”

What teachers want, he suggests, is ultimate flexibility, and that comes in the form of being able to reconfigure the space easily.  “They want a Swiss army knife for their space. Typically, furniture, technology, and walls are the keys to making space flexible.”

Designers can do anything architecturally, but barriers like a traditional school culture or the budget can be roadblocks to innovation.  However, Aplikowski is surprised at what they’ve been able to do. For example, open areas are very inexpensive and can completely change the look and feel of a space.  When people see the effect, it changes their thinking. And while features such as glass are more expensive, they provide natural light and more open sight lines. Schools will trade other things to make them affordable.  However, if the owner isn’t willing to make those trades and seeks to build both traditional and innovative designs into one building, costs increase.


Photo courtesy of Wold Architects and Engineers


One good example of how new spaces are dotting the landscape is Riverview Elementary School in Farmington, Minnesota, located just outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  They created a multi-age setting by renovating an old, unused locker room. The results were stunning. Large and small spaces are the primary feature; moveable glass walls and doors make the space altogether flexible.  Students are free to move about and find what is comfortable for them. Spread throughout the design are spaces for direct instruction and small conference rooms. The space cost nothing more than it would have to build traditional classrooms.  What made it different was the vision for teaching and learning the teachers and principal had in mind when they began the planning process with Wold Architects and Engineers.         

Photo courtesy of Wold Architects and Engineers

New designs for schools sometimes stretch the imagination of parents and community members, who often have to pay for renovation or new buildings.  But Aplikowski finds they are open. “What feels like a new concept for schools has already made its way into the buildings adults work in, which are increasingly designed for more collaborative work, so to some degree, it’s natural for them to think schools should be the same way for collaboration and working together.”  


Photo courtesy of Wold Architects and Engineers

Students, he notes, love when they get to be part of the design.  When he visits with students once they are in the new spaces, they say they love the freedom, they love being trusted to do what they need to do.  A lot of the things the adults worry about happening simply don’t pan out. “Kids can focus, and the expanded uses of technology do work. If you give kids responsibility, they tend to take that responsibility to heart.  If you treat them with dignity, they will behave with dignity,” he maintains.


Ready to redesign your space?  Aplikowski encourages teachers and principals to find someone in your organization who is already doing it, and empower them to do it more.  “We’ve done some small things that start the process, like opening up a wall between two rooms, then study what comes out of that.” He also recommends visiting places that have reconfigured existing space or built new designs altogether.  

Everyone wants schools to be everything to everyone, do more with less, and ensure success for all students.  Schools can fulfill the promise, but not without help, and not without changing simple things like where walls should and should not exist.  Thinking outside the proverbial box that is the traditional classroom is quite literal in this case. Timing has never been better.

If you’d like to speak to Aplikowski directly, you can reach him at 651.227.7773 or email him at


Reform Education?

April 4, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a post from EdVisions’ very own Dr. Ron Newell. Ron was instrumental in the creation of EdVisions and MNCS. We hope you enjoy his thoughts on redefining learning as a way to address the problems of the education system.


Dr. Newell is presently the Director of Assessment for EdVisions Schools, and has served as the Director of Learning Programs for the Gates/EdVisions replication efforts. Dr. Newell was a founder of the Minnesota New Country School and EdVisions Cooperative. He has published four books that explain the rationale and practices behind the learning program and governance of the EdVisions Schools. His work with development of coaches training, staff development and evaluation has lead to creation of processes and materials that enhance the development and sustainability of newly created charter schools. His work with Mark Van Ryzin in development of the Hope Study has lead to an assessment of school culture that is becoming nationally recognized.

Dr. Newell was a high school history teacher and coach, a mentor teacher, a college professor, a Director of Clinical Experiences at two universities, and is a founding member of the EdVisions Leaders Center. His interests are learning theory, adolescent development, alternative assessment, decentralized distributive education, use of technology in education, and development of new curriculum for the development of Life-long Learning Skills.

Dr. Newell graduated with a B.A. from St. Olaf College, an M.S. from Minnesota State University – Mankato, and an Ed.D. from the University of South Dakota.


Reform Education?

By Dr. Ron Newell

Since the 1960’s there have been many attempts to reform education; curricular changes, new approaches toward teaching reading and math, teacher preparation, programs for the disadvantaged, different instructional approaches, new technologies introduced, and so on. Yet little has changed. Why? They failed because they took into consideration the one thing that has yet to change; a new definition of learning.

What is learning? What is to be learned? In another article I made mention of the need for educators to reach beyond merely knowing arcane facts and skills to transformational learning.  I equate transformational learning with productive learning, and it is still either misunderstood or ignored. Learning needs to be carried beyond knowing what our parents and grandparents knew. True transformational learning is about changing the habits, the mindset, the will of a person in order that they fulfill their potential and become an asset to society.

Skill in relationships and monitoring one’s own behavior have been considered as attributes a student ought to already have when coming to school. They are not considered to be attributes a school setting can add to a student’s repertoire. The same can be said for curiosity, determination, and creativity. Social-emotional goals have become fashionable, but still serve as means rather than ends. In other words, skill in relationships, curiosity, creativity, etc., are to be stimulated in order to pass courses and get good test scores. Yet they ought to be meaningful ends in themselves. And they are achievable, as schools following the EdVisions’ model have repeatedly shown.

When a school, or system, if one can be so bold, states as goals attributes such as hope, self-directed learning, collaboration and interaction, problem-solving, and the ability to monitor one’s own emotional state, then true educational reform can and will occur. But not when the same concept of rigor is repeatedly placed at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, and remains the primary way in which schools are graded and funded.

It remains a continual puzzle why schools that do not rate highly on a state’s measuring systems still have high ratings among parents and students. That happiness, positive relationships, enjoyment of learning, safety, emotional engagement, and so forth, are placed above rigor by parents and students ought to tell us something. Education is about “passing life” and not simply “passing tests.” Finding a way to assess positive growth in dispositions ought to be as much of a policy endeavor as changing how teachers organize and how schools are created. It is not enough to create more schools that simply have the same outcomes (but better) as the old schools. Why bother? Why not transformative, productive learning?

Until education systems change their concept of what learning is, what learning is truly productive, we will continue to have learning fads that go away as fast as they come. True systemic reform will always be another decade away, the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. We at EdVisions attempt not only to change how and what students learn, how teachers teach, and how teachers organize, but also attempt to illustrate that different outcomes do not mean weaker outcomes – that transformational learning is a positive, productive path, and worthy of regard.

When Our Best Plans Fail

March 28, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a post by our very own Dr. Steven Rippe. Steven is the Director of the Hope Survey and Organization Development. In this post, Steven points out that growth and change don’t take linear paths and offers a few tips for evaluating ideas and projects in school environments.

Dr. Steven J. Rippe has over 20 years of experience working with educators and school leaders designing and implementing innovative schools and programs throughout the United States. A successful teacher, principal and University administrator, Steven has worked with passionate educators to create nationally recognized schools and works with struggling schools to reinvent themselves into high performing, dynamic learning organizations.


When Our Best Plans Fail

By Dr. Steven J. Rippe

When the first months of school have passed, I often step back and reflect on all the ideas we had as a team over the summer and how they were implemented at the start of the school year. I am often surprised when I look at what I thought was such a great plan and when we went to implement, the work struggled. As a team we often have to rework great ideas, apply band-aids or abandon the idea totally. Over time I have gotten used to the idea that when we team, the collective work we develop often has to go through a phase of “continuous improvement” before we get to a process that really matches our intent and school culture.

I have also learned to honor the reality that for most teams, whenever we are trying to learn something new, we will experience an “implementation dip” as we move to implementation. In other words, the first attempts look pretty ugly and clumsy.

Michael Fullan (2001) states that all successful schools experience implementation dips as they implement new ideas, observable with a literal dip in performance.

Before I kick new ideas to the curb during the implantation dip, I like to stop and review of the work of Knoster (1991) and Ambrose (1987) on the Factors of Managing Complex Change. This work has been extremely useful in helping teams identify the missing components needed to be successful. Review the graphic below and facilitate a discussion with your team before you abandon new ideas/innovation. The essential question:  as we moved to implement XYZ do we need to revisit and strengthen any of these areas (Vision, Skills, Incentives, Resources and Action Plan)?

Education in the United States needs to be fueled with new ideas and innovation.  Being aware of the “Implementation Dip” and the Factors in Managing Complex Change can be very useful in helping take great ideas into sustainable best practices.  If you would like help facilitating this discussion with your team or more information on our professional development services, contact us at

Teacher Empowerment, Student Choice, and Equity in School Districts

March 19, 2018 no comments S

We hope you enjoy this special guest post by Dr. Charles M. Reigeluth of Indiana University who proposes ways we can flip the bureaucracy to make public education really work for students AND teachers. As he puts it, “We can design a system that combines the best aspects of public and private schools. We can design a system in which there is choice and competition, but at the same time greater equity, teacher professionalism, and community involvement and ownership.”

Charles M. Reigeluth is an educational theorist and researcher who focuses on instructional design theories and systemic transformation of educational systems, transforming from the teacher-centered paradigm founded in time-based student progress to the learner-centered paradigm founded in competency-based student progress. He has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Instructional Psychology from Brigham Young University. He is a professor emeritus at the Instructional Systems Technology Department at Indiana University, and is a former chairman of the department.


Teacher Empowerment, Student Choice, and Equity in School Districts:

A Non-Bureaucratic Alternative for School Organization and Accountability

Dr. Charles M. Reigeluth Indiana University

“It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which … there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve ….”

– Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers 


We are at a critical juncture in the history of education in the United States. There are powerful forces that want to replace the public education system with a privatized one. While there are advantages and disadvantages with any system, many are concerned about the inequities that a privatized system would likely engender, while others are concerned that, because education is a public good – one that does not benefit just the individual who receives it, but also that individual’s family, community, state, and country – community influence over the schools and what they teach is an important feature that a privatized system would lack.

Fortunately, it is not an either/or choice between public schools and private schools as we know them. We can design a system that combines the best aspects of public and private schools. We can design a system in which there is choice and competition, but at the same time greater equity, teacher professionalism, and community involvement and ownership.

This paper offers 12 principles that could guide the design of such a system. These principles are offered not as THE solution, but as a starting point for conversations about the design of alternative solutions. We expect and encourage different states to explore different solutions that can be compared with each other. The main point is that we need to move beyond the current adversarial positons that are polarizing education, toward a collaborative process of designing a system that addresses the best aspects of each position. To truly improve education, we need a design process, not a decision-making process. It is our hope that state legislatures across the country will rise to this challenge.

The Problem

There is a great deal of contention in public education around vouchers, choice, accountability systems, teacher quality, equity, and quality of education. Some of the concerns include:

  • There is much disagreement between people who want more competition in education and those who want more equity.
  • There is much disagreement between people who want more accountability and those who want more autonomy and flexibility for educators.
  • Teachers are treated more like assembly-line workers than professionals.
  • Teachers are given responsibility without authority – they are disempowered, having little control over resources and little control over who they work with.
  • Teachers feel undervalued and overworked and often leave the profession early.
  • There is a severe shortage of excellent teachers.
  • Bureaucratic (top-down) accountability systems (e.g., high-stakes testing) are not delivering wide-ranging improvements in student learning and have negative side effects.
  • Bureaucracy is rigid, not responsive to the needs of students, teachers, or parents.
  • Bureaucracy is expensive.
  • Bureaucracy impedes innovation and flexibility.
  • Students and parents have little choice of school, let alone teacher.
  • Many slower learners are being left behind, while many faster learners are being held back from learning up to their potential.

These contentious problems may seem overwhelming and insurmountable, yet we propose there is a very feasible and affordable solution – one that creates common ground between the warring factions.

The current paradigm of education is dominated by top-down, bureaucratic decision-making structures, a focus on compliance (i.e., disempowerment of both teachers and students), rigidity, seniority, political influence, and little-to-no choice for students or teachers.

In this report, we propose a fundamentally different organizational structure and decision- making system that bridge the divide between those who want more competition and those who want more equity, diversity, and professionalism in education. Key features of this system, described below, include small teacher-led schools, choice for students and teachers, greater equity, improved accountability to those who matter most, greater incentives for excellence and innovation, and stronger relationships between teachers and parents and other community members.

Toward the Solution

Building on work by Reigeluth and Karnopp (2013), we propose 12 principles for an educational system that addresses the problems listed above. These principles are organized into four themes: 1) schools as “firms”, 2) district administrative system as servant, not master, 3) district and state governance structures that serve rather than control, and 4) other possible structures. These principles are offered not as THE solution, but as a starting point for conversations about the design of alternative solutions.

1.  Schools as “Firms”

Professionals in most walks of life organize into “firms,” such as those for architecture, accounting, and law. They run their firms, including all managerial decisions. Those firms tend to be small, avoiding the need for expensive bureaucracy. The professionals are not only responsible, but also empowered, to serve the best interests of their clients. Could such an organizational structure work in public education?

In fact, it is already working in public education. The Minnesota New Country School was established in Henderson, MN, in 1994 by about 10 teachers who wanted to collectively run their own school. They were able to do so as a public charter school, but such a school could become the norm within public school districts, with some restructuring of the district. The survival of the Minnesota New Country School depends on attracting enough students, just as an architectural firm depends on attracting enough clients. The teachers choose their leader (usually called a director or lead teacher rather than principal), who is also primarily a teacher, but most of the management is done by the teachers in various committees (personnel, finance, curriculum & standards, operations, public relations, and a few others), sometimes with the help of an administrator whom the teachers hire. (With educational firms located within a restructured school district, the central office could be contracted by the firm to carry out many of these functions.) This school (and many others in the EdVisions network – is a professional model of teaching, rather than a supervisory (labor-management) model. This school was recognized as one of the top eight charter schools in the country by the US Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement, in 2006.

This teacher-led-school approach was so successful that Ted Kolderie of Education|Evolving and Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality created the Teacher-Powered School Initiative in 2014 (see This initiative helps schools to form or convert into ones that are collaboratively designed and run by teachers. As of 2016, there were more than 90 teacher-powered schools in 18 states, and another 30 were under development (Berry & Ferris-Berg, 2016). More than half of these schools are in school districts.

Some of the major features of this professional kind of organizational structure are:

  • Teachers have the authority as well as responsibility to best meet each of their students’ individual Their authority includes the power to set the mission of their school, build a structure that supports their mission, and allocate resources as needed to fulfill the mission.
  • Teachers can decide which other teachers to work with.
  • Teachers are accountable directly to their individual students and their parents (choice-based accountability), rather than indirectly to them through a bureaucracy and elected officials (bureaucracy-based accountability).
  • Flexibility and innovation are not impeded by an expensive, slow
  • Students and parents choose not only a school, but also a teacher.
  • They are public schools, so they cannot charge any tuition or decide who to admit, so all students have equal access.

But “the devil is in the details,” as they say. And teacher-led schools are relatively new. So how are they likely to evolve, or more importantly, how should they evolve, to best serve their students, parents, and community? We offer the following three principles for educators and all other educational stakeholders to consider.

Principle 1: Small Teacher-Led Schools

Teachers run their small schools, including hiring, firing, budgeting, and other managerial decisions.

In architecture and law, professionals run their own firms. In a similar way, teachers in this new organizational structure for education own and run their public schools – within a school district.

Teachers band together at any time to create small schools, typically three to twelve teachers each, that are licensed (or chartered) by the school district and rent space from the district. Each such educational firm, or edfirm for short, functions like an independent contractor within the school district (with some requirements, to ensure much greater equity than is typical in public schools today) and is not controlled by the district office.

Facilities. In larger traditional school buildings, each edfirm rents a wing or floor of the building from the district and typically shares some facilities, such as the gym, library, and cafeteria. Anywhere from one to 20 edfirms are located in a single building, depending on its size. New educational buildings have a very different design that places shared facilities in a central area, like the hub of a wheel, surrounded by an edfirm on each spoke of the wheel.

Staff. An edfirm may have some teachers who are “partners” and others who are “earning their stripes,” so to speak, as in law firms. The teachers may also choose to hire teacher interns, teacher assistants, other staff, and volunteers of various kinds. The teachers have full responsibility for the success of their edfirm and a high level of authority for meeting that responsibility.

Teacher choice. A teacher can try to move to a different edfirm at any time, and teachers can choose their focus area and the developmental level of their students. (A developmental level typically spans three or four years in a child’s life.) The new system removes these decisions from the bureaucracy-based decision-making process. Also, the teachers in an edfirm may decide that each teacher’s pay will vary in part according to the number of students each has. Teachers who want a lighter load could be allowed to choose the number of their students, recognizing that opting for fewer students will reduce their salary.

Autonomy. The teachers in an edfirm have full authority to decide how they spend their revenue, including the amount of space they rent from the school district, the nature and amount of learning resources they buy or rent, and the number and types of staff they hire. In this regard, edfirms are much like a public charter school or private school, but are “owned” by the teachers (instead of a board of trustees) and are licensed by a school district.

Advisory board. Each edfirm has an advisory board made up primarily of their students’ parents but may also include community members who are committed to education. The board is made up of volunteers who are either appointed by the teachers or elected by the parents. The board provides advice and assistance to the edfirm.

Principle 2: Choice for Students and Parents – with Greater Equity

No school can turn students away or charge extra.

When a student is about to enter a new developmental level, the student or her parent(s) requests, in order of preference, their rank-ordered choice of three teachers, which could be in the same or different edfirms. Alternatively, the choice could be among edfirms (which are far more diverse than current schools), with the edfirm assigning the student to a teacher. An independent Family Support Agency (described under Principle 6, “Administrative Structures”) provides information and assistance to parents to help them make the best decision for each child, or to make it for them if they don’t care, thereby enhancing equity. Student choices are made with the understanding that different kinds of teachers (and edfirms) are better for different kinds of students. With several edfirms in a single school building, parents and students have choice without needing to leave their neighborhood school. Furthermore, teachers give students and their parents some choice about what to learn and how to learn it, to develop students’ unique talents and interests, as well as their self-directed learning skills.

Quality vs. popularity. The Family Support Agency helps to keep this system of student choice and incentive bonuses (described under Principle 3) from being a popularity contest by providing Consumer Reports style ratings on all teachers and edfirms. Furthermore, it is well recognized that education is a public good, meaning it does not just benefit the student who receives it, but also benefits the whole community and state through lower crime rate, greater economic development, more taxes received, and much more. Therefore, there is a rating mechanism that allows other community beneficiaries of education, such as employers and senior citizens, to provide input to inform student/parent choices. This is done with a product rating system, similar to that used by Amazon,® for rating individual teachers and/or their edfirms, which influences students’ or parents’ selection of teachers.

Equal access and diversity. Each edfirm decides how many students to accept each year, but it does not decide which ones to accept. This policy ensures that students have equal access to the best schools for them. “Which ones” is decided by a stratified random lottery that maximizes the number of first choices filled district-wide, within the constraints of balance guidelines regarding race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and whatever other diversity factors the community or state values.

Resource allocation. Public funds follow each student to whatever edfirm they attend. The revenue per child is equal across all edfirms for a given developmental level, except for supplements for special-needs children and disadvantaged socio-economic status. The revenue per child is higher at higher developmental levels. Interestingly, according to Education Week (Feb. 14, 2018):

The U.S. Department of Education is officially opening up the Weighted Student Funding Pilot in the Every Student Succeeds Act. … Under the funding pilot, participating districts can combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, poor children, and students in special education – who cost more to educate – would carry with them more money than other students. (p. 4)

Unlike that program, we advocate that those monies only follow students to public schools for the simple reason that private schools typically have admissions criteria and additional tuition that bar disadvantaged students from attending.*

* If a private school were to give all applicants an equal chance of being admitted, regardless of ability, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., and were to not charge anything beyond the public funds that follow each student, then such a school could, in our view, be included in the program.

Principle 3. Innovation and Incentives

Better edfirms receive resources to grow, while worse ones fade away.

The higher the demand for an edfirm’s teachers (i.e., the weighted average number of first-, second-, and third-choice requests by students), the higher the incentive bonus an edfirm receives from the state (as a percentage of its per-student revenues). This provides an incentive for teachers in an edfirm to help each other improve, to innovate, and to adapt to the ever-evolving educational needs of their community.

Teachers lead. The incentive bonus is a pool of money the teachers collectively decide what to do with. For example, they could purchase more learning resources to improve the quality of education and/or leverage teacher time. Or they could choose to hire more assistants or other support staff, allowing high-demand edfirms to mentor assistant teachers to eventually become members of the district’s pool of experienced teachers from which students can choose, and also providing a way for successful edfirms to take on more students. Or the teachers could choose to put a certain percentage of the incentive bonus to pay its teachers more (and reduce the rate of teacher turnover that hurts students), as happens in other professions where the more successful professionals get to charge their clients more. A teacher’s income is no longer based on seniority but on performance as perceived collectively by one’s colleagues in the edfirm. Teachers can also decide to move to a different edfirm, even in a different school district, without the current problem of losing seniority. This provides much greater choice for teachers.

Non-bureaucratic decision making. Conversely, low demand for an edfirm reduces its enrollment and revenue, thereby forcing it to reduce the number of teachers or their incomes, much like an architectural or law firm would do. Ineffective teachers, therefore, do not receive a full salary and might decide that teaching is not the best career for them. This decision is made by the teacher and his or her fellow teachers in the edfirm, precipitated by the choices of students/parents, rather than through a contentious process between the administration and the teachers’ union. This non- bureaucratic decision-making system combines the benefits of competition among edfirms (providing incentives for excellence and responsiveness to the community’s diverse and changing needs and wants) and cooperation within each edfirm (providing support and encouragement among teachers) to make better and quicker decisions at a significantly lower cost.

New edfirms. Incubation policies encourage the formation of new edfirms. If a group of teachers solicits enough parent signatures to support creation of a new edfirm, the district’s Edfirm Support Agency supports its creation with a grant for start-up funds and expertise to plan and start operations. This agency is described in greater detail under Principle 5, “Administrative Structures.”

Continuous renewal. Our current educational system is highly resistant to change, making a crisis necessary for significant change to occur. To prevent the new system from being equally resistant to change, it must be a self-adjusting learning organization in which crises are minimized because change is continuous. Teachers are in charge of adapting their practices to the changing educational needs of the community and students – for them to survive – rather than administrators and politicians controlling the changes. However, the school district can adopt certain policies to ensure that the edfirms live up to community (and state) values.

2.  District Administrative System as Servant

The district-wide administrative system serves a dramatically different role than is typical today.

Thus, it has a very different structure, as reflected in the following three principles.

Principle 4. The District Administrative System

This system serves the edfirms, rather than controlling them.

The district administrative system is designed to support rather than to control, so it receives most of its budget from the edfirms, rather than the other way around. The edfirms buy its services, though it typically must compete with outside vendors to offer those services, including government bodies such as county offices (e.g., for transportation, facilities, purchasing, etc.). There is still a superintendent, and the district office provides a variety of support services to the edfirms and to students, primarily through the Edfirm Support Agency and the Family Support Agency.

Principle 5. Support Services for Edfirms

The district’s Edfirm Support Agency (ESA) serves three roles.

Landlord. First, the ESA serves as landlord for all edfirms and manages and maintains all common facilities in each building: cafeteria, library, gymnasium, etc. The budget for this role comes solely from fees paid by each edfirm.

Support services. Second, the ESA may be contracted by each edfirm to provide such support services as financial and accounting, purchasing, janitorial, transportation, special education, technology support, family services, and coordination with community organizations, such as health and sports.

These services may be:

  • Provided by ESA personnel
  • Outsourced to private or nonprofit contractors by the ESA at a group-negotiated rate
  • Outsourced to private or nonprofit contractors directly by an edfirm
  • Some combination of

The budget for this role also comes solely from fees paid by each edfirm.

Incubation and enforcement. Third, the ESA supports the incubation of new edfirms and enforces the small number of district policies and regulations (adopted by the district school board) for all edfirms.

The budget for this role comes from either the state (based on student enrollment districtwide) or from local taxes, depending on the policy adopted by the state regarding this.

Principle 6. Support Services for Students

The district’s Family Support Agency (FSA) serves two roles.

Student placement. First, the FSA is a placement counseling service for matching students with teachers (or edfirms). It provides diagnostic testing and interviews with students to help parents make the best decisions when choosing teachers and edfirms — and to actually make the choices for parents who don’t want to participate in this process. This assistance helps to break the cycle of poverty by ensuring that all students are well-matched with a teacher.

Information collection and dissemination. Second, the FSA serves as a Consumer Reports type of service for collecting and disseminating information about the performance of all the district’s edfirms, their teachers, buildings, and support service providers. Comprehensive measures of performance for each of these are prepared by the FSA (often with help from the state department of education) and are available to parents and students. User ratings are also maintained to further help students and parents make good choices. Of course, teachers in the edfirms and learning centers also have access to this information, so they can make improvements.

The FSA’s budget comes directly from the state and is based on the number of students it serves. This keeps it independent and unbiased.

3.  Governance Structures

On both the local and state levels of governance, the new structure differs from the current, top-down, bureaucratic system, as indicated by the next three principles.

Principle 7. District Governance System

The district governance system supports the edfirms, rather than controlling them.

Standards, policies, and regulations. Unlike the current setup, the district board does not micro-manage and control the affairs of the educational system. The choice-driven decision-making system assumes that function. The district school board sets and monitors the attainment of community standards, and it establishes a small number of policies and regulations that ensure the choice-driven decision-making system promotes equity, diversity, excellence, and other community values. A non- profit charter school authorizer in Minnesota called Innovative Quality Schools (see provides a good example of how this kind of school district could operate.

Dispute adjudication. The district board also manages a Citizen Review Board that adjudicates disputes among stakeholders (teachers, parents, students, edfirms, and other service providers) and protects the rights of disadvantaged students. A state-level review board is in place for cases that the district boards cannot resolve.

Principle 8. State Governance System

The state governance system supports the local districts, rather than controlling them.

State standards and tests. The state board of education and department of education set statewide standards and monitor their attainment. Relatively few standards are required – that decision is left mostly to the choice-based decision-making system. And the department no longer dictates how or when the required standards are to be mastered. It also no longer requires state tests.

State policies and regulations. The state school board and department of education establish policies and regulations that ensure the choice-driven decision-making system promotes equity, diversity, excellence, and other state values, as a kind of check-and-balance on local values.

Support. The department of education provides consultants and manages networks to help school districts (ESAs and FSAs) to do a better job of supporting edfirms and families.

Research & development. Finally, the state department of education supports research and development to help edfirms, ESAs, and FSAs improve their practices and to provide them with better educational tools and resources.

Principle 9. Educational Finance System

The state provides an equitable revenue collection and distribution system.

Property taxes are the most regressive way to support public education. In the current systems, lower-income people end up paying a larger proportion of their income to school taxes, and communities with fewer businesses are at a disadvantage. However, state income tax revenues fluctuate considerably from economic expansion to recession, and the periodic huge budget cutbacks have a strongly negative effect on schools.

Income tax option. One solution is to fund education with a dedicated portion of the state income tax, but this approach would require creating a reserve representing a certain percent of the annual education budget during years of economic expansion, to be used to maintain the education budget during years of reduced tax revenues. Perhaps a 10-year budget could be projected for public schools that builds in an adjustment for student population and inflation. Then identify a metric for strength of the state economy to automatically determine when the state budget should allocate money to the reserve, and how much, so that the state budget can be planned accordingly.

Property tax option. An alternative solution is to use property taxes to fund education, but to set local school tax rates on a sliding scale, so less expensive single-family dwellings and less-expensive apartment buildings are charged a lower tax rate. However, this does not address the inequities inherent in some communities being poorer than others or having fewer businesses that pay school property taxes. State income tax could be used to even out such inequities.

Hybrid option. The new system must find a revenue stream that is both more stable throughout the economic cycle and more equitable across communities of differing means to support it. Perhaps some combination of the two options just described would be the optimal design. Minnesota has developed an interesting system that entails districts collecting a uniform percentage of their wealth (say, 1.25% of property market values) for education and, whatever that rate raised in dollars, for the state to pay the balance up to a per-pupil amount deemed appropriate. In addition, Minnesota adopted an innovative tax-base sharing program that “has narrowed significantly the disparity in commercial- industrial valuations per capita” (Kolderie, 2018, p. 89)

Revenue distribution. Another issue is how the revenues are distributed. Several mechanisms are needed. First is that money goes directly from the state to each edfirm (bypassing the district board) through a formula based on the number of its students, the age of each student, any special needs each student may have, and a supplement for socio-economically disadvantaged students. Second is money that goes directly to the ESA for its third role – incubating new edfirms and enforcing regulations on all edfirms – through a formula based on the number of students in the district. Third is money that goes directly to the FSA for its placement counseling service and Consumer Reports type service, again through a formula based on the number of students in the district. Fourth is money that goes directly to the district school board for the board, superintendent, and perhaps one or two staff members, depending on the size of the district.

4.  Other Possible Structures

The above-described structures are foundational to improving teacher empowerment, student choice, equity, accountability, and innovation in an educational system. However, there are at least three additional structures that could further enhance this new kind of system: learning centers, collaboration with family service systems, and the concept of a learning cooperative.

Principle 10: Learning Centers

Some learning resources may be too expensive or used too infrequently for an edfirm to be able to afford. One solution is for students in all edfirms to have access to various learning centers. A learning center provides instruction in a focus area, which might be any of the following and more:

  • A traditional discipline-oriented area such as biology
  • A cross-disciplinary thematic area such as pollution or cities
  • An intellectual area such as philosophy
  • A technical area such as automobile maintenance and repair

In all cases, centers integrate instruction on basic skills and higher-order thinking skills into the focus- area instruction, and the edfirm teacher helps each student put together parts of their personal learning plan that represent a good progression for acquiring skills and meeting required or desired standards through activities in the learning center as well as in their own edfirm.

Differences by developmental level. At lower developmental levels, learning centers are seldom used, but a teacher’s “homeroom” (which could be a defined area within a larger space) contains mini learning centers, as in Montessori Schools. At higher developmental levels in places where there are several edfirms, learning centers operate independently of edfirms.

Passes. Every few months students receive a certain number of passes that entitle them to use any learning centers of their choice; and students can earn additional passes. The number of passes varies with developmental level, and edfirms that issue fewer passes have more resource money to put into their own learning centers. Therefore, as a general rule, the older the child, the more the child uses the centers.

Choice and budgets. Budgets for learning centers are based on the number of students served (the number of passes tallied), giving learning centers considerable incentive to attract students and satisfy edfirm teachers’ needs. This means that a combination of competition among learning centers and cooperation within a center exists to maximize performance.

Innovation and change. As in retail businesses, competition pressures learning centers to adjust their offerings to meet the changing needs of students and their edfirms. Learning centers spring up and die off on a regular basis, like stores in a mall. Incubation policies and resources encourage the formation of new learning centers to support a continuous renewal process.

Types of centers. We envision three types of learning centers:

  • “Shopping mall” centers are centrally located facilities with many learning centers, like stores in a mall, ranging from a one-person “craft shop” operation to a regional or national They offer powerful learning environments that incorporate a range of resources — from hands-on materials to web-based multimedia learning environments.
  • Community centers are located in community settings, such as museums, zoos, and These centers bring in extra income and tax breaks for their sponsors to support the learning center activities, and they offer students important learning resources in real-world settings.
  • Mobile centers travel from one school building to another and even from one community to They are found mostly in low population areas and for particularly expensive learning resources, such as an electron microscope or a mass spectrometer.

Cooperative arrangements are made so children may use learning centers located in other school districts, like the Challenger Learning Center in the Indianapolis Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township.

Staffing. Learning centers are staffed by certified teachers and technical and creative experts as well as parents and community members as volunteers.

The Edfirm Support Agency could implement this concept.

Principle 11: Collaboration with Social Service Systems

Family services are more important than ever in modern society. Raising children is more difficult in this age of complexity. Everything from installing a child car seat correctly and monitoring your child’s use of the Internet to avoiding child predators and promoting good nutrition and exercise weighs heavily on many parents who also are typically working full time, volunteering with their children’s activities, and trying to carve out a little time for themselves, friends, and each other. Also, with so many conflicting opinions, expectations, and studies about raising children, parents increasingly need a reliable source of information, someone to turn to with questions about parenting, health services, and much more. To meet the real needs of students in this increasingly complex and dangerous world, school systems should be thought of more broadly as systems of learning and human development, so social service agencies and schools need to collaborate more than ever before.

Social services. The new system integrates social services on all levels. The first level is for newborns through five-year-old children and their families. The Independence (MO) School District has implemented such a collaboration for students and their families. The new system also integrates a full range of family services for older children and their families, including healthcare, parent education, counseling, childcare services for working parents, and family literacy efforts.

The school is the one place in a community with which a majority of families associate for an extended period of time. This new organizational structure maximizes the opportunities for leveraging that contact to shore up the family’s resources and commitment to education and thus enhance equity and maximize the positive development of all children. Therefore, the FSA typically takes on a third role to help such social service agencies work with families in each building, in homes, and in community locations.

Principle 12: A Learning Cooperative

Many people over the age of 18 in a community still need the level of education that the public schools offer. To the extent that the edfirms and learning centers can offer them such education, the better off the community as a whole will be. Therefore, each edfirm and each learning center could serve as a community learning hub that functions as a learning destination for all members of its community. But how could edfirms afford to do this?

Volunteer for credits. Individuals over the age of 18 must earn credits to use an edfirm’s or learning center’s facilities by donating time to helping others learn, providing child care services, volunteering in the cafeteria, providing custodial or maintenance services, or contributing to the operation of the edfirm or learning center in some other way. With such volunteers, edfirms and learning centers could be open to students from early in the morning to late at night, seven days a week, and the community’s adults would have flexible and affordable opportunities to advance their job skills, parenting skills, and other information needs, which strengthens the community. Furthermore, community members could collaborate with edfirms or learning centers to support student learning out in the community to earn those credits. And students could occasionally work with adult community mentors on projects involving service learning.

Safety concerns. To ensure this functions in a safe and reliable manner, all adults who provide such volunteer services to the school must pass appropriate background checks, and related liability insurance and legal issues must be addressed. With those logistics handled appropriately, the learning cooperative concept goes far to lower the cost of public education and make it an effective educational system that truly serves the public.

The Family Support Agency might be the best structure for implementing the learning cooperative concept.


We are at a critical juncture in the history of education in the United States. There are powerful forces that want to replace the public education system with a privatized one. While there are advantages and disadvantages with any system, many are concerned about the inequities that a privatized system would likely engender, while others are concerned that, because education is a public good – one that does not benefit just the individual who receives it, but also that individual’s family, community, state, and country – community influence over the schools and what they teach is an important feature that a privatized system would lack.

Fortunately, it is not an either/or choice between public schools and private schools as we know them. We can design a system that combines the best aspects of public and private schools. We can design a system in which there is choice and competition, but at the same time greater equity, teacher professionalism, and community involvement and ownership.

This paper offers 12 principles that could guide the design of such a system. These principles are offered not as THE solution, but as a starting point for conversations about the design of alternative solutions. We expect and encourage different states to explore different solutions that can be compared with each other. The main point is that we need to move beyond the current adversarial positons that are polarizing education, toward a collaborative process of designing a system that addresses the best aspects of each position. To truly improve education, we need a design process, not a decision-making process. It is our hope that state legislatures across the country will rise to this challenge.



Kolderie, T. (2018). Thinking out the how. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond Press.

Reigeluth, C. M., & Karnopp, J. R. (2013). Reinventing schools: It’s time to break the mold. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Improving Assessment

March 13, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on why and how we should rethink how we assess students to make sure they are future ready.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Improving Assessment

With diploma in hand, a vast majority of college graduates believe they are ready for the workplace.  Hiring managers disagree, however. They routinely report that essential communication skills such as writing and speaking, teamwork, critical and analytical thinking, decision making, and the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information are lacking  (Hart Research Associates, pages 11-12). The readiness level of high school graduates is equally concerning. Whether they enter the workforce or enroll directly in postsecondary study, missing is an overarching ability to integrate their thinking in a specific context and apply the appropriate skills for the task at hand.  

High school and college graduates’ demonstration of what they know and are able to do is largely based on their experience in school.  Home life matters, to be sure, as does individual drive and determination, but if school is not giving them a compelling reason to think and act critically in regard to what they are learning, why should we expect them to perform differently in larger life contexts?      

We need to take a much broader view in terms of how we ask students to show what they know and demonstrate what they can do.  In an age of over-testing and misguided dependence on standardized scores as the primary gauge of academic proficiency, our teaching roots call us back to more authentic assessments, which begin with authentic learning.    

In an authentic learning task, students wrestle with schoolwork that is rich in complexity and high on relevance; assignments are important to them personally.  Good examples include things like projects, field studies, essays and position papers, presentations, developing practical solutions, building things, conducting experiments, and solving complex problems.  Ideally, students should be part of designing the learning task, at least to some degree. How we measure learning in the context of those tasks and projects must also be authentic.

Authentic assessments help drive a learning task to the top of Bloom’s taxonomy when students are given a well-designed rubric that provides clarity on what they are expected to know and be able to do.  It serves as both a guide for the student and as a scaffolding device for teachers to ascertain when and what type of support to offer. Check-ins and checkpoints along the way help a student learn to manage time and sustain effort.  In the end, when orchestrated effectively by student and teacher, the final assessment should provide clear evidence of learning.

Co-curricular activities and the fine arts, which are heavily performance-based, provide a window into how to motivate and inspire students to do their best.  Students consistently refer to their participation in sports, clubs, activities, and the arts as highly meaningful to them personally. They learn things like leadership, teamwork, solving problems in collaboration with others, and how to persevere when challenged with a difficult situation.  They insist this is where they learn the most about themselves as an individual and who they are as members of a community. It is no surprise that students who participate in co-curriculars and the fine arts generally do better in school. They do so, in part, because they must apply with skill all of what they have learned as they strive toward a specific purpose that matters to them.   Herein lie the kinds of experiences that lead to the gradual development of the sweeping range of hard and soft skills that are needed in all walks of life.

The same kind of authentic tasks and corresponding assessments in co-curriculars are even more critical for students to experience in classroom and thus should not be limited to the court or stage.  Real-world tasks versus those that are contrived require students to integrate their thinking and transfer their learning from one situation, one context, to the next. Interdisciplinary learning, personalized learning, and small learning communities all help make this type of thinking and doing more plausible and ultimately more natural for students.  

Creating such an environment where authentic learning is the norm rather than the exception is not without its challenges.  Traditional educational models enable students to be passive. They can show up, expend little effort, and still pass. On the other hand, when expected to bring a more active mindset to school, it can come as a bit of a shock to them.  In speaking with Jason Becker, Director of the New Century Academy in Hutchinson, Minnesota, students often need guidance in how to become an engaged learner. “Surprisingly, it’s more difficult now to get kids to take ownership of their own learning and come up with ideas they’re interested in compared to what we’ve seen in years past.  They have information at their fingertips but don’t know how to use it in the regular world” (personal communication, December 5th, 2017).  New Century Academy is helping students think critically and solve real-world problems through project-based learning.

What gets in the way in part, Becker laments, is Minnesota’s extensive number of academic standards, a heavy emphasis on standardized tests as a single measure of success, and an exhausting number of state mandates.  All prevent their school from spending more time on authentic learning tasks.  “We want to do things differently, but we are held to old standards. It’s hard for teachers to take risks. They feel the pressure and go to a safe place and tell kids exactly what they need to know so hopefully they’ll do well on the tests.”

Not to be discouraged, New Century Academy is dedicated to finding creative ways to put students in charge of their learning.  Senior portfolios and senior projects are key elements to their redesign efforts. Students begin learning the research process when they enter the Academy.  According to Becker, “In seventh and eighth grade, we have them do mini-projects and a lot of smaller, exploration projects so they learn what they might be interested in.  As they go into ninth and tenth grade, we have them do one or two longer-term projects per quarter.”  This sequence gradually prepares students for the expectations of their senior year. Students at the school are opening a coffee shop and recently started a daycare service for dogs. Becker is optimistic. “We hope they will learn real-life, hands-on application in things that really matter in kids’ lives.”     

The school environment and student attitudes toward school also play a significant role in leading students to be integrated thinkers.  Students do better when schools do an effective job creating an atmosphere where student agency is fostered and students feel a deep and secure sense of belonging.  Successful schools do not leave this to chance and are intentional in understanding students’ perceptions so they can determine what they can do to grow strong, self-directed, capable learners.

The Hope Survey is one of many inventories available to assess the school environment and gauge the feelings of students within that environment.  Used by EdVisions to help schools measures student perceptions of autonomy, hope, academic press, belongingness, and goal orientation, data gives staff insights into students’ level of engagement and their dispositions toward achievement.  According to Dr. Ron Newell, Director of Assessment at EdVisions, the Hope Survey can be a powerful tool for schools that want to foster a culture that positions students for success well beyond the classroom.  “There is so much for schools to understand about themselves. Schools really can increase hope for students,” he says (personal communication, November 30, 2017).  With data in hand, schools are able to zero in on the total culture and devise strategies to improve student perceptions about self and school.  

The primary vehicle to channel improvement efforts is through advisories, which are foundational to supporting students.  Dr. Newell believes a robust advisory system is a central component of any improvement effort because advisories have proven to work best for cultivating engagement and goal setting.  “The Hope Survey is a good perceiver in terms of how successful students think they can be.  Having goals helps people’s hope to continue to grow. When we help students set goals, as in a personalized learning plan, this helps them to become goal-oriented.  They have decisions they need to make, and when they make decisions they become self-directed. These are the ‘learning to learn skills.’ That’s what life’s about, and that’s what we’re trying to teach kids to be about.”  He reflects that when schools implement the kinds of strategies that EdVisions helps them target, they see improvement.

Real-world learning, authentic assessments, robust data, goal setting for students, and regular feedback on progress are just of few of the things that are needed to change the narrative on how well graduates fare in the workplace, no matter when they enter it.  “We won’t get to authentic learning if we aren’t measuring it,” says Dr. Newell. “If people see the necessity for authentic outcomes, they’ll see the need for authentic learning.”   He, like many educators, hopes that legislators will begin to see the importance of authentic outcomes.  “It can’ just be about tests – they aren’t authentic.”  They are not a bad thing, he reasons, “but they are not the end-all.”       

If you’d like further information on authentic assessments and how EdVisions can support you, or if you’d like information on how to utilize the Hope Survey to improve student outcomes, please contact Dr. Ron Newell  He can also be reached at 507-317-2223.


Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.  Washington, DC.   Retrieved from