Let’s face it. Nationwide, schools weren’t prepared to withstand the shock that COVID-19 pandemic sent through the system. Inequities that already existed grew wider, and challenges we’d patched over burst at the seams. That’s a reality we’ve all had to recognize and confront again and again throughout the last year.
At Washington Leadership Academy (WLA), from the beginning of our school’s founding, we put technology and innovation front and center to help prepare our students to lead and change the world. And one year into a pandemic, we’re so glad we did, because our students and teachers were able to adapt to remote learning seamlessly.
Now, as we plan for a return to the physical classroom, school leaders and educators have an opportunity to push for educational equity. We’ve reached a moment in which schools nationwide are ripe for adopting new digital tools, taking full advantage of the technology at students’ fingertips, and implementing new ways of teaching and learning. But if we aren’t careful, we’ll rush to adopt change without consulting those who will be affected by change the most. That’s why the way forward relies on listening to the needs of students and teachers.
Creating Education Technology with Accessibility and Equity at the Center
Here’s one example. When WLA was looking for a high-quality English Language Arts curriculum that was engaging, rigorous, and connected with students and their experiences—there was a dearth of adequate curricula. In the end, WLA school leaders knew we had to create a curriculum that could seamlessly integrate with technology in the classroom to address student and teacher needs fully and effectively. It’s critical for teachers to have easy access to organized grade-level material that integrates with existing platforms to empower quality instruction and save time. And students want and deserve tools that are more engaging to navigate and manage than pen and paper, but also flexible enough to accommodate individual preferences. That’s why WLA turned to CommonLit, a nonprofit edtech organization with expertise in literacy instruction, to develop it.
Together, CommonLit’s engineers, data scientists, and content creators learned alongside WLA’s students and teachers in the classroom to build and refine a curriculum that met our needs. It took three full years of constant iteration. It meant implementing a continuous feedback loop: CommonLit observed more than 300 hours of classroom instruction over the course of a year to design the materials. They interviewed teachers and students throughout the year to test assumptions and made changes informed by real needs. Today, the lessons look nothing like they did at the start—and that’s a good thing. Close collaboration meant that we could find problems, root them out early, and make sure the curriculum and the technology delivered results for our students.
In the end, we built a comprehensive, rigorous, and culturally responsive curriculum that meets grade-level standards, while providing scaffolds of support for students who need it. It’s called CommonLit 360, and it’s openly licensed so that schools everywhere can take advantage of what we built. Every part of the curriculum was intentional. In fact, when we couldn’t find the right literary materials that met our needs and diversity standards for a specific theme, we commissioned authors with lived experiences to write new stories for us.
Harnessing Teacher and Student Insights in Education Technologies
The results are exciting. After just one year using our new curriculum, we saw a 10.4 percent increase in WLA 10th grade students meeting state expectations over the previous year. In fact, students with learning disabilities posted the biggest gains—and that’s because we worked alongside these students to build a curriculum that specifically centered their needs.
When we struck up a partnership with CommonLit three years ago, we had no idea that in the middle of our project, a worldwide pandemic would change education overnight. But because we built the English Language Arts curriculum on a digital platform designed with student input, teachers, students, and families adapted quickly to remote learning. In fact, our students’ Language Arts scores have improved, even as their learning in other subjects have experienced anticipated slips.
We have a long way to go to build a truly equitable education system. Too often, new education technologies are created in a vacuum without asking students and teachers what works and what doesn’t. But the WLA-CommonLit curriculum development partnership shows how we can harness a moment that is ripe for innovation. The curriculum and technology we built together is a testament to what we can achieve when we ask the most central people in any classroom—students and teachers—what they really need. As we consider the future of education, take it from us: it’s well past time to make decisions not just with students and teachers in mind, but with them leading the way.
Learn more about Washington Leadership Academy and all the XQ Schools at: xqsuperschool.org/schools
Originally from the Bronx, New York, Eric moved to the District of Columbia in 2010 where he began his career in education teaching reading intervention and English Language Arts for six years. In 2016, completed the National Principal Academy Fellowship with Relay Graduate School of Education and transitioned into school leadership. In November 2019, he took on the Principal role at Washington Leadership Academy PCS, a DC public charter high school that develops all students in the area of Computer Science and supports young leaders to thrive in the world to change it for the better. Eric is driven to create equitable learning environments that incorporate personalized learning, trauma-informed practices, and culturally relevant pedagogy to empower and prepare students for the demands of the 21st century.
Michelle is the founder and CEO of CommonLit, an award-winning nonprofit education technology organization dedicated to closing persistent opportunity gaps in literacy education. Under Michelle’s leadership, CommonLit has become a robust free online reading program that has been accessed in 75% of American public schools. Michelle holds a B.A. in English Literature and Spanish from Butler University and a master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to starting CommonLit, Michelle was a classroom teacher; she has taught in urban and rural environments and at the university level. Today, Michelle speaks frequently about technology in education, and the importance of grounding innovation in the science of what works. She was a finalist for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Change the World Competition in 2016 and the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for her region in 2018. In her spare time, Michelle coaches early stage edtech entrepreneurs and blogs for [email protected]