The Digital Promise in Education

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 15, 2012, Ritter Elementary School elementary students practice their math skills in Los Ang
In this photo taken Tuesday, May 15, 2012, Ritter Elementary School elementary students practice their math skills in Los Angeles. As teacher layoffs result in larger class sizes, schools are increasingly looking to technology to help bear the load. Some charter schools are investing heavily in classroom computers, and Los Angeles Unified is also exploring the idea. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

by Matt Akin, Dr. Linda Clark, Dr. Mark Edwards, Dr. Cynthia Elsberry, Adam Frankel, Dr. Christine Johns, Dr. James Ponce, Dr. Steven Webb

There are few more urgent challenges facing America than preparing our students for successful careers and lives in the 21st century. Over the past several decades, educators, reformers, and policy makers have tried many approaches to help us meet this challenge, but the result is the same: test scores, imperfect but reasonable yardsticks of performance, are flat lining or showing modest growth. We must accelerate our progress to prepare all of our students to compete in the global economy.

There are, of course, no silver bullets when it comes to education. But we are seeing islands of innovation across America, where digital tools -- from adaptive assessments to real-time data dashboards -- hold the promise of revolutionizing the way teachers teach and students learn, empowering educators to personalize instruction so they can reach every student. The question is how to build bridges across these islands of innovation and scale up personalized learning across the country, opening up opportunity for all students.

One answer can be found in the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of 28 public school districts in 18 states that collectively serve roughly 2.5 million students. Through partnerships with universities, entrepreneurs, and one another, the League's members are committed to piloting, evaluating, and scaling up innovations that work, serving as a national hotbed for accelerating innovation in public education.

This week, the League's prospects for enacting its vision received a big boost when a consortium of its members was named a finalist in the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top-District competition. Led by Vancouver Public Schools in Washington state, the consortium includes Horry County Schools in South Carolina; Joint School District No. 2 in Idaho; McAllen Independent School District in Texas; Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina; Piedmont City Schools in Alabama; and Utica Community Schools in Michigan.

These districts, where the coauthors serve as superintendents, reflect the reach of public education in America, serving students from the sons of Michigan autoworkers to the daughters of Alabama mill workers to the children of immigrants in Texas. And we are rising to meet the challenges of public education by harnessing the power of technology to personalize learning, raise student aspirations and achievement, and rebuild and renew neighborhoods and communities.

With the support of Race to the Top funding, the League will enact a common but flexible approach that leverages our collective power, while making room for our individual strengths and differences. In particular, districts are committing to:

Design, implement, assess and scale up personalized learning environments that will enable all students to achieve college- and career-ready standards;

  • Incorporate rich, project-based learning experiences;

  • Leverage data dashboards that provide students, parents, and educators with real-time information about students' learning;

  • Engage in a cycle of continuous improvement to assess and enhance what we're doing; and

  • Make the most of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools as a vehicle for sharing promising practices and lessons learned with the larger community of students, parents, educators, and policymakers across the country.

    America's public education system has, in many ways, been resistant to change. While other sectors of society have been transformed by technology and other advances, the way we educate our children remains much as it did more than a century ago at the dawn of the industrial age. But the movement for bringing innovation to public education has begun -- and the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools is leading the way.

    Matt Akin is superintendent of Piedmont City Schools

    Dr. Linda Clark is superintendent of Joint School District No. 2

    Dr. Mark Edwards is superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District

    Dr. Cynthia Elsberry is superintendent of Horry County Schools

    Adam Frankel is Executive Director of Digital Promise, a bipartisan, public-private partnership chartered by Congress to spur innovation in public education. Previously, he was a Special Assistant and senior speechwriter to President Barack Obama.

    Dr. Christine Johns is superintendent of Utica Community Schools

    Dr. James Ponce is superintendent of McAllen Independent School District

    Dr. Steven Webb is superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools