Devin Vodicka is the former superintendent of Vista Unified School District and now serves as chief impact officer of Altitude Learning.
Over the past two decades, I’ve had the privilege to be part of a number of efforts to improve and transform schools and school districts. It’s a complex challenge. And yet the imperative to evolve grows more pressing each day, as the world outside school continues to accelerate due to technological improvements, globalization and our collective shift into a post-industrial economy.
I’ve been fortunate to get to approach these problems wearing different hats to gain a unique purview. First, as a teacher, school administrator and then, ultimately, a superintendent, I got to work “in the trenches” to understand both the daily pleasures and pressures of providing a high-quality education.
More recently, in my role of Chief Impact Officer with Altitude Learning, I’ve had the opportunity to work side-by-side with dozens of districts around the country, providing high level strategy and tactical counsel about how to best approach district-wide transformation.
Based on those learnings, I offer a few observations about critical strategies to guide and drive the process of leading in learning communities.
1. Preconditions for change
Listen to your learners: Slow down, spend time with students, and truly listen to our learners.
If we truly want to be "student-centered" or "learner-centered," we need to put students at the center of decision-making within and beyond the classroom. Surveys can be helpful to get input, however the most powerful approach is to create forums for conversation.
While superintendent for Vista Unified, I engaged in a listening tour that led to more than 60 such forums with students. Their comments and emotions inspired me to act with urgency and to continually advocate on their behalf. Plus, I was far better informed about the realities of our challenges as a result of the unexpected suggestions that surfaced through the process.
For example, we learned that restroom improvements were urgent. This likely would not have been identified and escalated without open-ended opportunities to share their experiences.
Meaningfully engage all stakeholders: Expand who you might normally include in your feedback cycle. Create opportunities for all constituencies to come to the table and engage in the development, implementation, monitoring, and adjustments of strategy.
That includes students, families, staff members, community partners and collaborators from early education, higher education and the larger industry. Cross-stakeholder groups such as guiding coalitions, steering committees and advisory task-forces are powerful and necessary steps to sustain change efforts.
Shift from challenge to possibility: There are plenty of barriers and obstacles that can generate reluctance to begin the improvement process. In spite of those challenges, there are also examples of success for individual students, classrooms, schools and districts that show potential and opportunity.
The role of the leader is to continuously focus on that potential. Engage the community in asking “What is possible?” in a way that builds on the strengths, talents and assets that are present in any situation. Then, using this frame, engage with others to generate a clear picture of the desired future. This vision becomes the guiding reference for all that follows.
2. Creating a strategy
Measure what matters: Once you’ve established a vision, how would you describe the learner of the future? Identifying a learner or graduate profile is essential to create clarity around what needs to be accomplished. Working backwards from that learner profile to identify metrics aligned with that holistic portrait creates an opportunity to establish current reality, set improvement targets, understand progress over time and make adjustments.
This process was instrumental in Vista Unified where we worked with a High School Transformation Committee to establish a graduate profile, which helped to establish a foundation for our school to receive a $10 million XQ Super School prize.
Similarly, Altitude Learning has established a holistic model called the “Impact Framework” that focuses on metrics tied to learner agency, collaboration and real-world problem-solving. Odyssey STEM Academy in Paramount, California, is taking this approach to new heights using a competency-based reporting system tied to academic and social-emotional learning milestones. Knowing what is important and then measuring what matters is critical for success.
Define the learning model: Once there is clarity around the desired learning results, the next logical question is to ask, “What are the learning experiences that we believe will lead to these outcomes?”
At Vista Unified, this process led us to work with our community and create a “personal learning” star visual. Altitude Learning uses a learner promise, anchored on the Education Reimagined model.
Each of these examples includes five components that describe similar constructs using different terms. For example, Education Reimagined’s five-point model includes Competency-Based; Learner Agency; Open Walled; Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized; and Socially-Embedded. Regardless of the specific terms, being clear about your learning model is necessary to inform the improvement process.
Align resources: This part is far less glamorous and yet it has a huge impact on the likelihood of success. Roles and responsibilities need to be reconsidered and re-aligned with whichever goals you establish.
A strategic plan with specific resource allocations should guide your efforts. Legacy systems must be reconsidered if we are truly committed to a new vision for learners and learning.
3. Accelerate progress
Engage in continuous learning: The way forward is not a straight path. Making adjustments is inevitable. To help, use a learning orientation to bring teams together to understand progress, set plans, analyze impacts, and set next steps.
For example, Arcadia Unified School District uses an inspirational, voluntary model called “SWAGs” (Small Working Arcadia Groups) where teachers focus on topics of their own interest and share lessons learned along the way. This helps connect the dots for various teams throughout the process.
Scale: Finally, In order for these insights to take root and grow, the process and outcomes need to be shared with great frequency and high transparency.
Social media is an outstanding way to connect and share, and it remains an underutilized resource for most school leaders. We also found that periodic “roadshows” to bring updates to affected communities are a great way to create visibility into progress.