Today I am experiencing a sense of great pride and sincere sadness as a transition occurs for me and a project I started, led, and grew over 5 years. Mostly I’m happy though that, once again, some of the state’s top Career and Technical Education Teachers and their STEM Academic counterparts are joining together to show that there are incredible ways to teach academics AND illuminate diverse, exciting careers and career-ready skills to kids.
Enclosed is a picture of what I will guess is probably about the 18th CTE Online Model Curriculum Institute as it begins today for a number of teacher-teams from across the state of California in Sacramento. All the pieces are familiar, tables with laptops, notes, materials, hovering instructional leads (all current or former classroom teachers by design), and the CTE Online site up on the screen. While I don’t see it, I am certain there is coffee and danishes and fruit in the back of the room, and with any luck, a variety of flavored creamers. (which always seemed like one of the most difficult and absurd things to secure given all of the other technical moving pieces to this puzzle)
However, I am not there this time around as I have been asked to help aid similar projects now with the USDOE. After growing and leading this program in CA since 2005, I have placed it in the capable and caring hands of good friends and colleagues that have worked with me on this in various capacities over the last 5 years. Today, they take it forward without me, and for that I am proud. But as I write this, and work on other projects now on my plate…I do so missing the excitement of meeting new teachers, the exhilaration of hearing their project plans and instructional approaches, sharing a cup of coffee and discussing students, resources, and how frustrating and promising technology can be in the classroom. Mostly I miss the incredible projects these folks put together for kids beyond a text-book, and often time beyond the confines of the classroom itself.
In 2005 we dared to consider using an online lesson authoring tool integrated with high-end digital resources and then state academic and CTE standards to allow these great teachers to create and share the detail of their best lessons and projects. The first pilot we performed was in Chico CA and involved about 25 educators working independent of one another, all autonomous in their disciplines ranging from Auto Teachers and Early Childhood Educators to Culinary Teachers and Engineering/Architecture Instructors. They each created what they considered to be their 4 best lessons in the online environment and were guided by the tool and a small team of me and two technical support staff. Once we published those 100 or so lessons to CTE Online, the site’s access immediately grew from an average of 10-20 visits a day to 200 in the first 3 weeks. Over the years we expanded the program to include institutes all over the state, and involved up to 145 teachers in a given year. We also started soliciting teams of teachers from academies and programs where academic core staff and CTE/STEM staff worked together to create project-based units of multiple lessons. We paid the teachers for their curriculum, we treated them like professionals, we selected some of them to serve as specialists and instructional leads to support future teams and groups in our program. We did dinners together, and convened in hotel rooms to work through ideas late into the night. We made lots of friends amongst these teachers many of whom I call on and connect with regularly to this day. (below, growth of users per month on CTE Online from 2010-2014)
As the culture grew, the site grew. So in addition to friends, we also inadvertently made some people very uncomfortable. In part, introducing a statewide professional development and curriculum training model that took some new approaches seemed to challenge and threaten various existing models and systems:
- Compensate: Pay teachers for their time away from their own homes and families and for their expertise as almost all other professional industries do.
- Respect: Dispense with the cult of expertise that castigates teachers to the role of sitting and listening to the purported wisdom of experts, and instead place teachers in the role of sharing and leading and learning with one another from one another.
- Disclose: Be open, transparent, and forthright with your budget. Openly discuss where and how the dollars are used, how much money you’ve received, and the diligence you afford to being responsible custodians of those dollars.
- Cover: Make participation in the program cost-neutral for teachers by covering their travel, hotels, meals, incidentals and for the districts/schools that send them by covering substitute pay. Make it inclusive by engaging teachers from all over the state, at all levels of teaching experience and topic areas/disciplines.
- Invest: In order to afford much of the above, resist sinking significant percentages of the budget on full-time positions within the agency receiving these project dollars, instead invest in authentic activities and measurable outcomes tied to the project’s objectives.
- Produce: Take on a production mentality that allows you to objectively demonstrate the deliverables and artifacts created and published as invested in by the funding. Collect and report measurable, objective data to account for all expenses and outcomes. (For $1 million dollars, we work with almost 200 teachers annually and produce over 400 lessons that are then used by nearly 2,000 educators each day across California and conduct definitive entry and exit surveys to identify the exact skills gleaned during our direct support components of the program.)
For a few years, I was under the impression that we should aggressively document and share these approaches and offer our strategies and methods to assist other statewide program agencies and their leads at the department of education. We could help many of them stop running afoul of many or most of these tenets. I was naive in that belief.
Instead of pats on the back, we were primarily marginalized as a technology project that replaced rigorous curriculum examination and experts with computers. We weathered apathy that ranged from polite disinterest to completely ignoring our data and in some instances, active dismissal and direct undermining by other projects and their leads when we suggested all programs should minimally collect and disclose performance data tied to their objectives and their budgets. Perhaps our legacy was not meant to be one of systemic change.
However, along the line we did find those few leaders at the state department, and amongst local agencies that saw our approach and our data for what it was worth. They waded into the bureaucratic tangle we caused and pushed beyond the rhetoric to lend us support and shield us when the barrage became the heaviest. They have the scars to show for it. I thank them for that, and the teachers who were brave enough to bare their curricular thinking and planning and trusting us to not critique or judge but instead to ask questions, guide, coach and always collaborate in bringing out their excellence and allowing us to help tell the story of their effectiveness and commitment to students. (See Projects Here)
Last week I listened in on an exciting planning session led by the wonderful woman who took over the lead position. Afterwards she sat and reflected with me about the incredible teacher-teams that had signed on to attend their first institute and concluded by sharing, “I just keep telling everyone, I have the best job in the world now with this project.”…and another colleague then sends me these pictures today of all the teachers starting their process, and one of the instructional leads I recruited two years ago who is there now leading other Engineering and Math teachers text me, “This is going awesome. The new website and tools are so cool and the teachers love it.”…
I am clear on the real legacy of this project in the minds of the people that count. Yet, I bristle at the fact that each and every year, we have to fight aggressively to qualify the effort, time, and investment in getting this project supported, while the state continues to throw millions of dollars at projects led by university-based agencies on behalf of high schools that assembles professors and “curriculum specialists” from various universities and agencies and then subjugates a handful of teachers to these “experts” to create, not projects or lessons or activities to use in the classroom, but instead, mere administrative outlines for courses that focus on UC math, science, english, and lab requirements to the detriment of legitimate CTE/STEM skills and career exploration for students. Given $3 million a year, and operating for 4 years now, they produced 35 pdf-based outlines. What does a $342,000 outline look like you might ask? Here ya go…UCCI Outlines. Our project received $850,000/yr. and produced 56 outlines, 500 Unit Plans, 4,000+ Lesson Plans all with embedded activities, materials, and assessments that can be used as published as a fully digitized resource or modified for direct implementation in the classroom. And are accessed over 2000 times a day by teachers. Ultimately, I’ve had to put all that in the ol’ bucket of “things I can’t control” for my own mental health. I guess if I am honest, our project has some hurdles too that we struggled to overcome. For instance, one of the participating teachers emailed me a few moments ago and said, “I must admit, the workshop is going great, even without you here…sorry. But if it is any condolence, they did forget to get flavored creamer for the coffee again.”