Boston Setting the Pace

Advancing STEM, personalizing learning, and catalyzing change.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

credit-bps-tommy-chang-with-teacher-studentsLike its famous marathon, and with a resilient spirit, Boston is advancing its students toward a strong, enduring, personalized, and meaningful future. Tommy Chang, Ed.D., was appointed as superintendent of the Boston Public Schools in July 2015. He leads Boston Public Schools, the nation’s first school district, serving more than 56,000 students in 125 schools, and serves as a cabinet member to Mayor Marty Walsh. Previously, he served as the Local Instructional Superintendent, Intensive Support and Innovation Center at the Los Angeles Unified School District where he oversaw 135 schools and approximately 95,000 students. He also previously served as special assistant to the superintendent of LAUSD.

As a tool to improve education, technology should increase access to information and opportunities for students, empower educators to experiment with new learning environments, and open up lines of communication between schools, communities, and parents. Most importantly, technology scales best practices that put students at the center of their own learning.

Superintendent Chang is a former teacher (nearly six years in Compton Unified) and principal (Green Dot public charter schools). He holds an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Loyola Marymount University, an M.Ed. from the Principals Leadership Institute at UCLA, an M.Ed. from the Teachers Education Program at UCLA, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “It is the role of school system leaders to foster innovation and create environments where teaching and learning can truly be transformed,” he has said. “To create such an environment, there must be genuine empathy and authentic collaboration where relationships can be formed and best practices can be shared. Only in this way can we truly inspire excellence.” With this earnest approach and as part of his push to positively disrupt learning, recent work in Boston to advance STEM has spread to nearly a dozen other states, teacher training included. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently celebrated Active Learning Day sharing new commitments from organizations that will engage students and train teachers to best prepare youth for careers in STEM. As part of this news, i2 Learning (the program behind Boston STEM Week) announced that it will conduct STEM Week in 10 states including Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, serving more than 100,000 students in the 2017-18 school year. In preparation, they’ll also train 5,000 teachers in active-learning strategies. Boston pioneered this approach that is now gaining national recognition (a short video of the Boston pilot is available here). This follows the recent completion of the first-ever Boston STEM Week earlier this month where regularly scheduled classes for 6,500 Boston Public middle schoolers were put on hold for a week of hands-on STEM learning. Students learned coding to build interactive monsters, designed lunar colonies, practiced surgical techniques, and more. Through a partnership between MIT, MathWorks, and other corporate and foundation support, the week and the materials for the hands-on activities were provided at no cost to the school system. While Superintendent Chang has long-advocated strong measures to rapidly improve schools, he understands that catalyzing change doesn’t happen overnight. With an inevitably long run ahead, that doesn’t keep him from pushing forward.

In a big city school system, there’s good and bad news. Let’s focus on some of the good stuff, especially the role of technology. What’s happening with the city of Boston and BPS right now?

Tommy: This past month, 36 BPS middle schools and 6,500 students participated in the first-ever Boston STEM week, a week-long immersive STEM experience for 6-8th grade students and teachers in the city of Boston. This five-day program replaced students’ regular classes with an innovative, hands-on curriculum developed by i2 Learning, MIT, and other leading STEM education organizations. All of the courses implemented during Boston STEM week presented real-world challenges that included activities and investigations drawing from many subject areas; teachers were encouraged to discuss implications of new technologies and other STEM developments on society with their students. We were excited to see Boston at the forefront of this platform this year; for the 2017-18 school year, STEM Weeks are being planned in multiple cities across the country so that students can experience working in teams in different locations on STEM projects mirroring today’s real world work environment.

On a national level, what would you say is the state of education these days? What makes you say that?

bps-tommy-chang-stem-week-oct2016Tommy: Nationally, and here in Boston, we have reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of education. Recently, Stanford published a study showing a small narrowing of the achievement gap across the country. This past year in Boston, graduation rates reached a record high, and today we have 46 level 1 and 2 schools [the highest ratings under the state’s accountability system], which is also a record high. What might give us more cause for optimism, however, is the shift in mindset around education. As a country, we are beginning to realize that students need more than the foundational academic skills covered by our state tests. We are seeing that the traditional model of education needs to change immediately to reflect the dynamic ways that learning can and should take place today, and the cognitive and social skills that our young people need in order to take on the challenges of tomorrow—in additional to a strong base of academic knowledge. To give each student this type of high quality educational experience is a daunting challenge for us, and for districts around the country. What gives me hope is what I see every day in Boston: our educators’ tireless commitment to excellence, and the growing support from those around us. Universities, nonprofits, for-profits, foundations, and community organizations are stepping up to ask, “What can we do to help?”. We have a lot of room for improvement, and we’ll only get there when we all work together.

What role should technology play in education? I’ve heard about your “3-screen day” ideas: learning, producing, sharing content.  

Tommy: Technology plays a vital role in education, just as it’s playing an increasing important role in all our lives. As a tool to improve education, technology should increase access to information and opportunities for students, empower educators to experiment with new learning environments, and open up lines of communication between schools, communities, and parents. Most importantly, technology scales best practices that put students at the center of their own learning.

Boston is unique in that it has one of the largest concentrations of higher education institutions, as well as over 400 edtech companies (I know you’ve earlier visited LearnLaunch during your listening tour). How does this environment, this “ecosystem” – play into your purposes to enhance and improve the student experience at BPS? What collaborative efforts have you pursued in this area? Do you intend to nurture relationships in this direction for the benefit of BPS students and teachers?  

Tommy: Boston STEM Week was a great example of gathering many of the city’s leading organizations and foundations to bring new, innovative learning opportunities to BPS students. This week was made possible due to support from Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, MIT, MathWorks, Vertex, i2 Learning and a number of Boston-based foundations, including the Lynch Foundation and Boston Foundation. It was fully funded through foundation and corporate support and was provided at no cost to BPS.

Just as we’ve brought in these great partners into our schools, we are also working with academic and industry leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to expand learning opportunities outside of the school day. These include coding opportunities, pitch contests, and internships that allow our students to explore their interests, build a lasting sense of curiosity, and discover their own paths to college and career success.

You’ve worked in the charter schools arena, you’ve alluded in the press to schools following a startup incubator model – where students are entrepreneurs of their own education, tinkering, learning, innovating. Are you advocating drastic change to the existing template?

Tommy: Yes, we believe that the traditional approach to teaching and learning is outdated, and leaves too many of our students behind. Our job as a district and as educators is to create learning environments that a) equip students with knowledge, b) prepare them to be resilient and to work well with others, and c) provide them with the opportunities that spark their passions and make them lifelong learners. If we do these things well, we will be amazed at what our students produce.

Our job as a district and as educators is to create learning environments that a) equip students with knowledge, b) prepare them to be resilient and to work well with others, and c) provide them with the opportunities that spark their passions and make them lifelong learners.

Tommy: What highlights have you witnessed regarding technology’s role in education? Are there any models you have observed that tend toward the ideal, that you would like to implement in Boston and scale up?

Tommy: With edtech, there is no perfect product—at least not yet. The models that tend toward the ideal are those that give students more ownership around their learning paths, more feedback about their progress, and allows for scaling across schools. Some of the existing models that we’re looking at include Summit schools in California, Building 21 in Philly, and here in Boston, the Boston Day and Evening Academy, which is using technology to support their competency based learning model.

Do you want Boston to be the model system for edtech? What are your thoughts in this area? What sort of conversation would you like to lead in the area of 21st-century education transformation?

credit-bps-tommy-chang-buildingTommy: In Boston, our focus is not on being the model system for edtech so much as being the model system for personalizing education for each of our students. Undoubtedly, edtech plays a huge role in that goal, and we are most interested in technologies that allow us to scale personalization. In regards to conversations, we’d like to lead discussions on how technology allows students to drive their own learning path—to explore, create, share, and communicate—and also how technology connects our students with the many great resources Boston has to offer.

What is your viewpoint about technology in Boston schools?

Tommy: We have a tremendous technology team that supports and monitors our infrastructure and device deployment to schools, and we’ve certainly seen an uptick in schools’ use of technology. Our next step is to support the use of technology as a tool towards personalization, not merely as a resource for differentiation or a means towards small group instruction. This means a clearer articulation of our vision around technology and personalized learning, as well as aligning that vision with the instructional work we’re already doing around rigor and cultural and linguistically sustaining practices.

Los Angeles and Boston are quite different systems. What lessons in technology integration have you learned in LA that carry over to your Boston experience? 

Tommy: My experience with tech integration in LA has taught me the importance of finding tech that aligns with our vision for teaching and learning. That discipline and commitment to vision is especially important today, with the explosion of edtech in recent years. I also learned to create the right conditions for responsible experimentation and innovation with technology. In Boston, we are working to identify the schools and classrooms that are doing new and exciting things with technology to share those practices across the district, while also pushing them and ourselves to explore other possibilities to better personalize learning.

In Boston, we are working to identify the schools and classrooms that are doing new and exciting things with technology to share those practices across the district, while also pushing them and ourselves to explore other possibilities to better personalize learning.

Is such disruption merely “experimenting” with education, dabbling with what might end in unworkable results, and is this irresponsible?

credit-boston-stem-week-2016Tommy: The status quo in education is delivering unworkable results at scale. We know that the current, traditional education model needs to be disrupted, and that this disruption is a collaborative effort. We also know that we don’t have all the answers right now, so experimentation is necessary and productive, when it’s done so responsibly. At the district level, it’s our responsibility to communicate a vision around this work, establish some indicators of success, and create an environment that encourages classroom innovation. We know that the latter is particularly important because we believe our educators are the experts on helping their students learn. When we create that ecosystem where teachers and students are allowed to be creative, and build those lines of communication, then we can disrupt education meaningfully for all our students.   

Is there anything you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, Boston’s success in this area, or Boston’s potential? What lies in store in the immediate future in terms of BPS and edtech? 

credit-bps-chang-with-studentTommy: In Boston, we have so many talented students, committed educators, vibrant communities, and industry leaders who all want a public school system that works for all students. We’ve made improvements in recent years, but we also have a long way to go to get to our goal. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what technology can do to advance our vision for Boston Public Schools. We need to communicate and align around a clear vision for that use, to deliver better supports and training to our educators, and to find the right tech tools that advance our mission to ensure that every student graduates with BPS with the curiosity, compassion, and resiliency to succeed on the path that they’ve chosen for themselves.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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