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Loudoun County leaders talk innovation in education

Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Williams at a Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce event Sept. 7. Courtesy Photo/Loudoun County Public Schools
As students face an increasingly digital future, education leaders and policymakers continue to examine how to best prepare the next generation for the 21st century workforce.

Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams, Del. Tag Greason (R-32nd) and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) Vice President of Workforce Development Steven Partridge spoke before Loudoun Chamber of Commerce Members Sept. 7 on how K-12, higher education and state government work and partner together to achieve this goal.

“We’re at a very exciting time in Loudoun County,” Williams said. “We are off to a great start with putting a bigger emphasis on project-based learning as a means of putting authentic, challenging problems at the heart of teaching and learning.”

Under Williams, LCPS has launched initiative that places project-based learning at the heart of education instead of teaching to standardized testing. Williams said by centering teaching around challenging problems, students’ learning is deep and long-lasting.

At the commonwealth level, Greason said the House of Delegates has worked to consolidate SOL tests to reduce the number of standardized tests students have to take.

In addition to project-based learning, LCPS has launched greater initiatives with personalized learning, focusing on students’ strengths, needs and interests to provide customized support so students can fully engage, Williams said.

Re-examining how students are taught is necessary to move forward, Greason said. Greason, who chairs the education innovation committee in the Virginia House of Delegates, said delegates of both parties talk every year of education reform.

The Virginia General Assembly has tasked five grant winners with redesigning how high schools are structured as if the conventional, agrarian design and all regulations did not exist. The results are expected back later in the fall, Greason said.

“I’m super excited to see. I get the honor of sitting in the seat that decides what happens in innovation at the Commonwealth level, but I’m not an expert in education,” Greason said. “When the experts come in October/November and say, ‘Here’s what we would do,’ that gets my attention and that’s the path we’re going to be on here in the commonwealth to redesign our high schools to prepare our kids to be productive citizens … just to be better people.”

In addition to redesigning the high school experience, Greason called for re-examining the thinking around the college experience. Greason said NOVA is one of the region’s greatest and underappreciated assets. All pathways to education and the workforce should be equally valued, he said.

“Just because your high school graduate isn’t going to JMU next year, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be wildly successful,” Greason said. “They go out and learn how to code in the fourth grade … they’re going to go out and have an amazing career and never even step foot on a college campus if that’s the right path for them.”

The job market has also called for an increased digital presence in K-12 education. LCPS has begun integrating coding as early as elementary school and continues to emphasize the importance of STEM fields with the creation of the Academies of Loudoun, set to open fall 2018.

The Academies of Loudoun will house the Academy of Science, C.S. Monroe Technology Center and the Academy of Engineering and Technology. Additionally, LCPS offers advanced placement and dual enrollment options where students can earn college credits while still in high school. Partridge said dual enrollment is a strategic option that should be utilized more countrywide.

Greason applauded the increased emphasis on coding and technology fields. Partridge said IT and health care fields have the largest supply gaps and are projected to have the most growth in the next 10 years.

“We’re guilty as parents of buying into the four-year degree as the only solution because we went and got ours and those in education got theirs, yet recent college grads, 44 percent of them hold bachelor’s degrees and are in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree,” Partridge said. “Directly from high school to the job market is an option for a lot of people.”


@Another Concerned Citizen: I second your point about the poor state of SpEd in LCPS. SpEd kids are treated like the proverbial redheaded stepchildren by the school system here, and it’s become much worse since Mary Kearney retired. The director who replaced her, Dr. Suzanne Jimenez, is completely unresponsive to concerned parents. What a disgrace!

John M, I’m sure you are familiar with many modern management techniques such as 6 sigma, Deming’s TQM, and Taylor’s scientific management.  Their findings were often counter-intuitive.  For example, Taylor found that when any environmental factor changed in the factory (including making the lights dimmer), worker effort improved because they believed it was attempt to help them.  Likewise, TQM and 6 sigma say to basically forget focusing on the final outcome and worry about the process.  By perfecting the process, you will get a great output.

The same is true in education.  The Gates MET study found that teachers who focus on teaching concepts generate the best growth and thus the best test scores.  These teachers didn’t “test prep”.  Many teachers don’t understand this.  They focus on memorization.  They either believe the myth about “test prep” or they can’t teach conceptually.  Reviewing material is necessary (thus, we have periodic tests) but teaching concepts is the key.  Those that teach concepts well will naturally have kids perform well on the SOLs.

So yes, change in SOL scores (not SOL scores themselves), are important.  But teachers should only worry about test results as feedback about their teaching.  Teachers now give students periodic tests during the year to measure their progress.  These results should inform both the teachers and the administrators about how effective the lessons are.  This data can isolate understanding on each standard.  One of the reasons Tracy Stephens banned me from my kids’ school because I suggested this detailed data should be given to all parents (she resisted). 

Maybe the data will show we are using the wrong curricula to teach to the standards.  Maybe we should track students by ability to get better growth for each group.  The effectiveness of these policies can be measured.  Likewise, the effectiveness of each teacher in conveying concepts can be measured.

There are very few things any kid must memorize.  For example, I take a block of wood (say 4x8) and remind the kids that the area of the wood is equal to a multiplication problem (4x8 = 32 sq units).  It doesn’t matter if I turn the wood vertically or horizontally, the area of the face remains the same.  They have just learned the commutative property.  The same applies to the length of two sticks combined in any order.  Rather than having kids memorize a “property” show them what it means so they always remember it.  If teachers taught concepts, understanding would naturally improve AND be retained.  By reviewing online videos of LCPS math teachers, I am learning there is very little conceptual teaching at all.  It’s just a bunch or “rules” and “tricks”.  You can’t blame the SOLs for that.  It’s how the material is being taught that’s to blame.

We don’t know how teachers are instructing their students.  Math teachers at my kids’ MS are putting lessons online.  This allows parents to provide objective feedback.  It doesn’t appear that many principals or deans are providing any academic feedback.  Ideally, feedback is incorporated and the best lessons are used countywide (with the caveat that there may be more than 1 “best lesson” for each topic).  Growth would rise countywide.  (scores might decline based on student cohort backgrounds and aptitude but each child would grow more academically which is the ultimate goal)

This represents a TQM or 6 sigma approach to teaching.  But this is rarely conducted in LCPS.  We have great teachers but their material is rarely used outside the 4 walls of their classrooms.  We hope the less effective teachers would adopt the best instructional content and be able to convey the concepts as well.  But the solution is process-related.

As a first step, it would help if the LCPS administration and school board would actually read the research (e.g. MET study) and have open forums on the topic.  I’ve heard some LCPS administrators cite research that supported the reforms I champion even though they clearly did not understand what the research concluded.  However, when you have admins and school board members that reject any validity of test scores, mainly because they scored poorly on similar tests, is there any hope such discussions will occur?

So the answer to your question is that yes test scores are important as a measurement of growth.  But don’t conflate how material is taught with whether testing is useful.  Reviewing how your kids’ teachers convey content is most important.  As more teachers put their lessons online via Google classrooms and the like, maybe teachers can actually see how other teachers are teaching.  And maybe the teachers will incorporate feedback provided by parents who review those lessons.  I will be providing regular Facebook posts reviewing the lessons in my kids’ classroom.  I invite folks to read them.  Maybe they disagree with me.  Maybe others can offer their take.  But if more parents, particularly those with strong backgrounds in specific subjects, do the same, I am confident we can change teaching in LCPS.  It’s not going to happen through the current school board.

SGP, I’m interested in your thoughts on SOL testing. Since my kids have been in LCPS, I have noticed that some teachers are teaching to the SOLs only, basically frantically teaching the test and not much else and as soon as SOLs are over, the teachers check out mentally and school becomes days of movie watching or “do what you want” type stuff. I understand that the purpose of SOLs is to give an indication of student aptitude, teacher ability and overall school effectiveness but I’ve often heard it is more about budget numbers than anything. Teaching kids to just memorize a test to me does not seem like such a good idea and couple that with no more final exams and our kids will not be ready for college at all after LCPS.  I would appreciate your insight. Thanks.

Sad to hear about LCPS resistance to SpEd accommodations. If anyone has ever talked to parents who brought school-aged kids from Fairfax to LCPS, they all lament the underperforming LCPS schools. It doesn’t have to be this way but change will require a complete overhaul of LCPS board and administration. With the amount of $$ we throw at them and the very favorable conditions (low ESL/FRL rates compared to other districts), there are no excuses for LCPS.

LCPS’s SpEd Department has suffered tremendously since the former director left. The admin is terrible and stuffed with dead wood, making good money, and NOT working in the best interests of the student.  If you run into trouble, immediately file a complaint with the state.  The state is far more responsive and with enough complaints, we can only hope to make a d difference.

Someone needs to let these people know that LCPS Special Ed IEP and 504 teams won’t even let disabled children use simple technologies such as a note taking app on their phone or a tape recorder requested by their physicians’ and justified by evaluations. LCPS is so far from being innovative that realtors advise those new to the area with kids not to cross the LCPS/Fairfax Co. line, noting that Fairfax County is SO far ahead of Loudoun. I wish it weren’t true, but I agree with them.

They should focus with the basics .... like innovate bus routes where kids don’t drive around for 2 hours…these folks think big, but produce very little…

Agree with McHale, this is all propaganda to provide cover for them to make the changes they want.  Those changes are anything but innovative as most revolve around scrapping all accountability.

Greason is the most responsible for the loss of accountability.  He crafted the law that coerces kids to retake SOLs solely for the benefit of the school while often violating their privacy (folks learn which kids failed).  He opposed any growth data being used to evaluate schools (or even being used at all).  And Greason is systematically working to end all SOLs (“innovation districts” can get a waiver on even participating in the tests).  We are definitely living in a “1984” world here in Virginia.

And the NOVA rep says dual enrollment should be utilized more countrywide.  Is he saying that community college reqts are so low that they can be accomplished in high school as regular classes?  If so, why not just let kids graduate after 11th grade?  Or raise the standards (or lower the reqts) to obtain a degree?

Typically, AP courses were provided to kids who were on an advanced track and needed to be challenged.  Dual enrollment are often only valid at community colleges or public schools in a single state.  This appears to be simply a marketing ploy to “lock in” potential students to their college network.

What we need to work on is better STEM instruction for ALL students, not just a few at the top.  AOS is fine to challenge those that need it but we need math concepts being taught by folks who understand math beginning in the 1st grade.  Putting the math videos online is a great start (see my reviews of Math 6/7 videos on my Virginia SGP page.  I will post them all year long now that they are accessible to the public).  But let’s wait and see if we can get the teachers to incorporate the feedback from those in the community who understand and work in math fields.

I could go on but the first step is getting rid of these clowns…

I have zero faith in this group to come up with educational innovations, when they can’t even figure out how to operate a school bus schedule.  Couple that with the fiasco of how Williams handled the Brewer situation last school year, any my confidence is below zero, if possible.

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