Pilots and lighthouses

I took a long drive the other day and happened to go past a school building that I visited years ago.  It was a pilot school/lighthouse school for a concept that was going to revolutionize education as we know it.  The superintendent, principal and staff were so passionate about the program.  It was going to be everything that any student could ever want.  All schools need to be modeled after this one.  It was a pretty strong and forceful message.

Today, the school is closed.

I took a little peek inside one of the classroom windows and recognized a bit of what was in there.  Once a highlight for educational tourists, it appears to be just sitting there collecting dust.  I sent an email to a friend who used to work in that district and asked what happened.  Well, the superintendent and principal moved on to other things and the basic concept behind this pilot/lighthouse project was left in the hands of their successors.  They didn’t have the same passion and so the program died.  Eventually, so did the school because of declining enrollment.

It was never replicated anywhere else that he knew.

I remember driving home from a visit to see that school in its heyday with my superintendent.  We got into a discussion about whether or not we could do something like that and it quickly evolved into a conversation about psychology.  I was pretty sure that we were witnessing something successful because of the Hawthorne effect.  He was pretty sure that I was wrong and the success was because of the Halo effect.  That discussion was worthwhile in itself.  It reminded me of why I found psychology so interesting at university.  Regardless of who was right, we both agreed that it couldn’t be replicated because it needed corporate sponsorship.  How could it possibly be replicated throughout a school district, much less an entire province?

Around the same time, I recall sitting in a presentation at an ECOO conference with a salesperson from a technology company very active in the province.  As it would happen, the presentation was about a pilot/lighthouse project highlighting all their successes and explaining why all schools needed to be modeled after this one.  I asked her why her company didn’t do pilot/lighthouse projects.

I expected an answer like “No money” or “We do but not with your district” or something.  The response has stuck with me.  It was “Pilot/lighthouse projects in education are a sink hole for corporate money.  They’re typically ‘one off’ implementations that don’t have a process to evaluate them, they get their glory for a few fleeting moments and then sustainability is left to the district.  They can’t afford to sustain it and so it dies.”

You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m writing without specific examples.  That’s on purpose – I don’t want to embarrass anyone and you could probably plug in any glitzy initiative that you’ve ever seen or experienced and note the same results.  The project starts with high expectations about changing the world and then eventually fades as reality kicks in.  Say it’s technology and you have this huge infusion – it will need to be replaced after the technology life cycle is complete.  Can you afford to replace it?  Can you afford to replicate it everywhere?  Can you afford to provide professional learning for the teachers involved?

The whole concept is nicely fleshed out in this article “Districts Struggle to Judge Ed-Tech Pilot Projects“.  It’s a very good read with links to the complete study.  There’s so much to think about.  You don’t have to go far to look at failed or useless pilot/lighthouse projects.  Some of the bigger fails make the headlines as well.  As indicated in the report, it’s generally about buying “stuff”.

The one thing that is consistent through all these pilot/lighthouse deals is teachers.  What if the focus of any project was on teaching and good pedagogy with the types of things that districts are already acquiring for all their schools?  That way, if a teacher or principal or superintendent moves physical location, they take the results of the project with them.  Not the “stuff” but the savvy that’s needed to use the “stuff” effectively.  Once again, I’ll confess to being a big supporter of an ongoing system of professional learning.

And yet, I know that there’s a need to evaluate the “stuff”.  In my perfect world, this is a glorious opportunities for Faculties of Education to take the lead.  Their mandate is to prepare teachers between courses and professional teaching placements in schools. What would happen if demonstration laboratories of new “stuff” whether it be hardware or software is an integral part of their program of studies?  Superintendents and principals and district researchers could be regular learners as well as part of their own professional learning.  They would graduate with the experience from both the present and, possibly, the future.  Computer consultant groups could schedule their own learning at times when education students are in the schools.  Let your teaching staff make visits and learn about the new “stuff” in an learning, not mission critical environment.  With this background, if the “stuff” ever made it to classrooms, there would be a base knowledge to support successful implementation.

Having taught at a Faculty of Education, I can tell you that some of the brightest and most enthusiastic learners are there.  Provide them with a first hand look at the present and the future, coupled with ongoing learning since that’s what they do at the faculty.  It seems to me that this is the route to go for teachers of the future with the ability to make it work and make it sustainable.

In the meantime, every time a district talks about having a pilot/lighthouse project, newspapers and trustees among others are well within their rights to ask – do we know that this will give us any improvement in doing what it is we’re doing? How will this be spread to other schools in the district? How can we sustain this, and most importantly, how will ongoing professional learning be provided for those involved?

2 thoughts on “Pilots and lighthouses

  1. Oh, you made me cry with this one. I think we’re wasting some of our greatest resources by not having B.Ed programs work as an incubator for new ideas. It is, was, and always has been about the people, not the stuff, and those bright, shiny students are some of the people we need most, especially if equipped with some new ideas!

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