Todd Dugan

Reflections on Public Education in Illinois

Public Reflection Blog

Now in my 20th year of serving in public education in Illinois, this blog will serve as a public reflection of current practices and policies that are having an enormous impact on the children, and subsequently the future, of this great state of Illinois.  Although Illinois has received (no…on second thought, it has earned) a reputation of being one mired deep in corruption and fiscal disaster, those of us who call this prairie state home know that it is also filled with something else in abundance: good, good people.  The people of this state deserve much more than what we have had to make do with lately as a result of policies and practices beyond most people’s control.  Hopefully by highlighting what is working for the benefit of Illinois children and also what is working to deepen the stark inequities in place across our state, Illinois will finally be able to live up to its full potential.

As a practicing public school superintendent, these blog posts will also serve as a public reflection for my own benefit, allowing me insight as I reflect on the many changes hurtling across our state.  Feel free to share your own thoughts, and also follow me on Twitter at Todd Dugan on Twitter

Featured post

When Inventions Become Innovation

tl summit philly

Each year in late June, the biggest educational technology conference in the world, ISTE’s annual conference, is held in some large US city drawing educators and administrators from across the globe. Hailed as the premier gathering for all things “ed tech,” ISTE conferences hosts some of the largest and most interactive displays of classroom technologies, many claiming to be capable of innovating teaching and learning. What sets these products apart, whether they be software or a new device, from the numerous ed tech inventions flooding the growing K-12 ed tech marketplace?
For me, the answer to this question was not answered at ISTE, but at the annual pre-ISTE Tech & Learning Leadership Summit held in Philadelphia. As is typical with a Tech & Learning Summit, the weekend kicked off with site visits of two schools that were doing amazing things for kids in the classroom with the help of technology. Beginning at First Hand Philly’s Science Learning Academy, an entire school that had embraced Project Inquiry learning, student centered projects were on abundant display. These included a re-imagining of what a student desk should be, complete with snack boxes and a built-in privacy screen. These and other student-led inquiry projects at SLA demonstrated how empowering students and providing them access to the tools needed to create can lead to end results every educator and administrator strive to see daily: demonstrated competencies.

The second site, the Drexel EXCITE Center for Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies, highlighted more of the same, with more emphasis on the advanced expression involving “technologies.” As students demonstrated the game they had coded now for sale on Xbox One Marketplace (the game is called Sole) or showed how they learned to program an automated drum set to play the “Super Mario Brothers” theme song, or even wrote the necessary code to ensure a robot could “see” via an Xbox Kinect sensor, the transformative approach of allowing students to personalize their own learning, including their assessments, adorned the center.
Throughout the summit, other outstanding examples of schools that were bold enough to innovate the manner in which students’ learning was assessed were highlighted. Building 21, in urban Philadelphia, shared many of their bold initiatives the following morning, many of which created the capacity for student success with high school students entering the program at a 5th-grade reading level yet creating rigorous and relevant contributions to both the school and surrounding businesses, including both professions and vocations, the 21st century’s definition of career readiness. This extraordinary success, part of Philadelphia’s Innovative Network, combined personalized learning pathways with a strong culture focusing on staff-student relationships while being completely immersed in problem-based learning. The school’s laser-like focus on “improving skills, not percentages” seemed to be paying off in preparing students for success outside the school walls.

robot kinect
Throughout the weekend of learning and networking in the City of Brotherly Love, many more examples of “best practices” regarding instruction with technology were shared. And while later in the week at ISTE, many new inventions were sure to be on display, this practice of boldly using any available technology (devices, shop tools, software, musical instruments, etc.) to transform the teaching and learning experience into something more meaningful and personalized to students is true innovation

Data and Innovation Merge at Summit

colorado summit

Data, as anyone who utilizes such online giants as Netflix and Amazon can attest, is being used in an increasingly number of predictive uses. As advanced algorithms compare data points for shopping or viewing trends then use these trends to successfully predict likely trajectories of online viewing and purchases, it seems only natural that other fields adopt similar technologies.
This past weekend while attending the Big Data Summit in Denver sponsored by Tech & Learning and Bright Bytes, I was able to experience how this predictive analytic approach based on large amounts of data points could positively influence the future of education, altering the trajectory of not only students, but the profession itself.
For approximately the past ten years, data-based decision-making has been a common buzz word in education. While grounded in the best of intentions of removing subjectivity and biases from educational placement and intervention decisions, any researcher understands that the effectiveness of this approach to making decisions depends heavily upon the amount and validity of the date being analyzed. By compiling benchmarking scores obtained sometimes in as little as fourteen minutes, data-driven approaches in education often focus on very precise areas (i.e. math computation, or reading phonemic awareness) that can then be addressed with a specific math or reading strategy backed by research, a very successful scientific approach referred to as RtI (Response to Intervention.)

data points
With the advent of promising new approaches to data collection, education has the opportunity to address early in a child’s academic career certain risk factors that have been correlated (not necessarily in a causal relationship) to disengagement and eventually dropping out of school. After witnessing Dr. Kristal Ayers’ @kristalayres1 presentation on the Diary of a Teenage Dropout which highlighted the scientific gathering of many various types of data points (attendance, family structure, tardies, grades, disciplinary infractions) IN ADDITION TO more traditional data points, including test scores, can be inputted over time and used in conjunction with an algorithm to determine students in “Early Warning” phases, even as young as grade school, it became evident to me that what the education field has long been referring to as “data-based” decision making is exactly that: based on data. What Bright Bytes and Dr. Ayres are pioneering is far more innovative: it can be said to be data-infused decision making, for it is an approach inundated with nothing but vast amounts of (seemingly) unrelated data surrounding students.
While such an approach shows immense potential in curbing drop-out rates and decreasing the number of students failing school across the board, its true value will be measured in a set of data much more difficult to quantify yet vitally more important: preventing schools from failing students!

Tech & Learning – Live Chicago 2017

Tech & Learning events are always notable in that when you leave, you feel almost overwhelmed by powerful new ideas.  The Tech & Learning Live Chicago 2017 was no exception, but the unintentional (or was it intentional?) common thread that seemed to connect all of the sessions emerged early in the morning and continued to surface throughout the day was one not so much central to “tech” as it was to “learning.”

Instructional Coaching

During the morning mini-keynote sessions on Academic Coaching, one phrases that truly resounded with me was, “If you insist, they resist.”  This phrase was actually shared during a session on the essentials of 1:1 and peer coaching models.  As the mini-keynote session continued, this point was solidified by one of the comments made toward the end, which stated that anyone could be forced to do something, but it wouldn’t necessarily be done well.

Moving to the Cloud

This powerful notion of inspiration versus coercion (an essential pillar of leadership) was discussed in length during the leadership strand on moving to the cloud.  As different administrators from various progressive districts (such as Nick Polyak @npolyak from Leyden 212) suggested, mandating one standardized learning management system (LMS) appeared to present as many problems as it did solutions.  Echoed by Hank Thiele (@henrythiele from Downers Grove 99), he felt that by mandating one district-wide and supported LMS, as opposed to allowing teachers to choose based on their own preferences and comfort levels, the “organic” nature of truly artful teaching could be lost, or harmed.  When deciding to move district instruction into the cloud, it appears most are at least wary of causing the unintended “if you insist, they resist” effect.

Making Space for Maker Space

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This commonality even managed to permeate some (at least one) of the smaller “Anything Goes” sessions.  At Table 6, I was fortunate enough to have been selected to facilitate a practical discussion on “making space for the maker space” within the general curriculum.  During this presentation (which can be viewed at: ) a topic that emerged during both occurrences was how to empower more teachers to incorporate the maker movement into their lessons.  Participants were curious if districts were mandating a minimum use of the maker space?  Or how were districts overcoming teacher hesitation in utilizing maker spaces?

While the presentation was not intended to be one that provided answers but rather encouraged the sharing of strategies and successes in a comfortable yet professional “round table” format, consensus was reached that forcing teachers into the maker space would not be the most effective in encouraging teacher (and subsequently student) risk-taking.  Again, anyone can be forced to do something, but not as well as if they embraced it willingly.


After attending these always enlightening sessions, I pondered the implications arrived at during the three-hour drive from Chicago back to downstate Illinois.  Instructional coaches mostly agree that it is best not to force teachers to integrate technology with which they feel uncomfortable; at least, now without assistance and professional encouragement.  District-level administrators also concur that while moving to the cloud with instructional delivery, choices surrounding the particulars of these decisions were best left to the individual teachers most impacted.  From a building-level perspective, forcing teachers to use a school’s maker space would most definitely not lead to the engaging and innovative teaching sought.  At each of these cross-points during Tech & Learning Live Chicago, I caught myself thinking “If you insist, they will resist.”  Yet in the year 2017, as our schools are adapting to better prepare students that are innovative and curious enough to avoid having their jobs/skills replaced by automation, why do we so often insist on a one-size-fits-all approach when assigning student work?  Especially when as adult professional educators, we realize “if you insist, they will resist.”


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