In Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, the authors assert that it is not possible to make improvements at scale without first measuring the outcomes of smaller changes. In other words, without embedded measures in programs, it is not possible to intervene, anticipate, or understand if a change ultimately leads to systemic improvement. From a Digital Equity perspective, the administrative team in Meriden, Connecticut argues that it is not possible to make improvements for ALL students if the effects are not measured for EVERYONE in the district.
Driven by the mission that “here, students succeed,” the triumvirate of Superintendent Mark Benigni, Director of Curriculum and Instructional Technology Barbara Haeffner, and Supervisor of Blended Learning Susan Moore, have spent the last decade expanding opportunities for ALL students through a focus on digital equity, professional growth, and leadership. Comprised of over 8,600 students and 12 schools, the district serves a predominantly minority population (71%) in an underserved community (74% of students are eligible for free or reduced priced meals though ALL students in the district receive free breakfast and lunch). Additionally, 19% of the students qualify for special education services, and 15% of the students benefit from English language support.
Opportunity > Access
The district values the use of technology to create opportunity for all students. Initially, they launched a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) program. However, despite the intention to allow students to bring whatever they felt would best serve them as creative learners, the district quickly discovered that many students lacked access to either a device or the Internet. Therefore, the district shifted to a 1:1 Chromebook program and partnered with Kajeet to provide mobile hotspots for students who lacked Internet at home.
However, Meriden leadership recognized that simply increasing access to technology would not necessarily enhance learning. Whereas most districts focus primarily on traditional assessments such as test scores or attendance rates to measure success, the leadership team recognized the need to examine the entire system – including teachers and administrators.
Measuring the Logic of Equity
From the beginning, leadership looked not just at their population as a whole, but also at the sub-groups. According to their student centered learning logic model, the district intends that “each student completes secondary education having mastered the skills, dispositions, and knowledge to be ready to succeed in college, career, and civic life.” (Currently, 76% of graduates pursue a college degree, and the district provides numerous career readiness pathways in addition to higher education.) Therefore, to determine whether they can meet this goal first requires meeting the needs of ALL students – and that requires measuring EVERYONE – including teachers and leaders.
First, the leadership team measures participation in professional development as an indicator of future opportunity and to encourage educators to deepen their own learning. Based on the premise that when teachers learn then students learn, the district developed a multi-layered, blended learning model of professional development and created the I’m Charged program for teachers willing to become technology leaders in their buildings. After four years, every school has at least one I’m Charged teacher, signaling to the rest of the faculty that they have a mentor to whom they can turn for input or advice.
The district also measures participation with the leadership. Not only do principals and administrators participate in professional development alongside their teachers, but the district has also established a coaching model, administrator communities of practice, and a high school leadership academy. Each of these initiatives contributes to a multi-tiered system of support to ensure that once the teachers’ needs are met, the students’ will follow.
With students, Meriden recognized that they could not improve what they could not see. The district examines aggregate data as well as information about sub-groups of students: gender, race and ethnicity, family income level, English Language proficiency, those who qualify for special education, and more. Then, they examine participation in the arts, STEM, extended day programs, a summer bridge program to smooth the transition into high school, community classrooms, and ultimately college participation. Additionally, the district looks at disciplinary data, special education data, and non-cognitive skills such as perseverance and grit. Most important, the district examines school climate data. Over the past ten years, they have had an:
82% decrease in suspensions,
93% decrease in expulsions,
23% decrease in absenteeism across the district – including a 10% decrease in chronic absenteeism at the high schools,
80% increase in semester one averages for ninth-graders – a strong indicator of future high school success.
According to their most recent state accountability assessments, Meriden has shown a 5% overall improvement with all 12 schools making gains. They have three elementary schools of distinction, and posted some of the largest ELA and math growth scores for high-need populations in the state. By defining digital equity as equitable opportunity, and measuring what they hoped to improve, the leadership team in Meriden has been able to identify high leverage strategies to improve the learning experiences of ALL of their students.