Improving Achievement With Digital Age Best Practices


Christopher M. Moersch

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    We live in a results-now world. Seldom do we hear about a college football coach, school superintendent, or a business CEO maintaining his or her job tenure without demonstrating both immediate and measureable results impacting the bottom line. Imagine legendary figures, such as college men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski—who has coached four national championship teams— getting fired after posting losing records during two of his first 3 years at Duke University or IBM's CEO Louis Gerstner, who posted an average net profit of $5.8 billion from 1994 to 2002, losing his job after his first year as CEO for generating a modest end-of-year profit of $3 billion in 1994.

    School systems nationwide are notorious for following a similar modus operandi. The craze to bolster test scores often forces districts to expend the majority of available funding as well as their collective focus to this single purpose at the detriment of other competing initiatives (e.g., 21st Century Skills, differentiated instruction, student-directed learning environments). Employing a one-size-fits-all mentality to increase student achievement may achieve limited short-term success, but its long-term ramifications often result in school systems, especially those within an urban setting, repeating a vicious cycle of continuous remediation.

    Technology use Practices

    The heavy investment that schools spend nationally on digital tools and resources (e.g., laptops, interactive whiteboards, mobile devices) in the United States exceeds five billion dollars annually, yet seldom are technology solutions factored into any viable equation for improving student academic achievement. In fact, the pervasive use of digital tools in K-12 classrooms has not changed dramatically during the past two decades. According to data released from the national LoTi® (Levels of Teaching Innovation) survey in 2012, the predominant LoTi level nationally remains at a LoTi Level 2.

    At a LoTi Level 2, the instructional focus emphasizes content understanding and supports mastery learning and direct instruction. Student learning focuses on lower levels of cognitive processing (e.g., Bloom levels—remembering, understanding, applying; Webb's levels—recall and reproduction, working with skills and concepts). Digital and/or environmental resources are used by students for extension activities, enrichment exercises, or information gathering assignments that reinforce lower cognitive skill development relating to the content under investigation.

    Digital Age Best Practices

    How can school systems leverage their available digital tools and resources, curriculum initiatives, and limited local, state, and federal funding to achieve academic success in their schools? There is no single variable responsible for any school system's turnaround. Achieving success on all fronts of the curriculum and instruction spectrum requires a synergistic effort to maintain a high degree of fidelity to a common set of principles over the course of a lengthy period of time. These common principles are what I refer to as Digital Age Best Practices. These best practices include

    • Bolstering purposeful inquiry through student questions
    • Promoting shared expertise with networked collaboration
    • Personalizing and globalizing content by making authentic connections
    • Accelerating individual growth through vertical and horizontal differentiation
    • Anchoring student learning with digital age tools and resources
    • Clarifying student understanding with formative assessments
    • Implementing student-centered learning environments

    The term digital age is used judiciously to signify a set of classroom best practices that (a) can be seamlessly expanded when used in conjunction with digital tools and resources (e.g., mobile devices, interactive whiteboards, digital responders) and/or (b) apply the principles of 21st Century Skills (e.g., critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration).

    The use of the Digital Age Best Practices provides a solid foundation for instructional decision making while supporting other district initiatives, such as new teacher evaluation systems, classroom walkthrough protocols, academic benchmarking, differentiated instruction, technology integration, and “conventional” best practices in the classroom.

    Can school systems designated as low achieving according to state and federal guidelines achieve academic excellence? Exemplars do exist that document the efficacy of Digital Age Best Practices, strategic team building, flexible professional development, and shared accountability to bring forth such dramatic improvement. One example is the Atlantic City School District in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This urban school system comprised of a 98% Title 1 population in the PreK-8 schools was designated as a high performing district by the New Jersey Department of Education during the 2011 through 2012 school year—one of a handful of urban school systems in the state to move from a “school in need of improvement” to “high performing.”

    A Different Approach

    This book chronicles how one urban school district, Atlantic City Public Schools, overcame institutional inertia, poverty, and gang violence to elevate student and teacher performance with dwindling federal and state financial resources through a common set of best practices known as Digital Age Best Practices. These best practices, however, are not limited to an urban setting but flourish equally well within any K-12 school system. Collectively, they can help transform static, didactic bastions of information processing into vibrant learning communities without the need for additional spending. The Digital Age Best Practices can provide value-added benefits to schools that have already invested heavily in well-conceived initiatives ranging from one-to-x mobile device acquisitions to a new math adoption.

    The organization of this manuscript uses the common thread of the Atlantic City Public Schools as the backdrop to highlight both success stories as well as the obvious challenges embedded with implementing the change cycle. To this end, the book is divided into four progressive stages. Section I discusses each of the seven Digital Age Best Practices, including implementation challenges and their corresponding solutions, while Section II offers a broader perspective of Digital Age Best Practices within the context of national, state, and local initiatives. Section III provides a specific road map that school systems can follow to retrofit the Digital Age Best Practices into their own unique teaching and learning paradigm. Section IV highlights specific characteristics required of instructional leaders in the 21st century to optimize the benefits of Digital Age Best Practices, resulting in increased student academic progress and improved classroom pedagogy.

    A Word of Caution

    The reader, however, should not be confused by the book's sequential organization. The book is far from being a “how-to” instructional manual; rather, it is a guide to both tantalize and inform the reader with suggestions, illustrations, examples, and strategies aimed at elevating the teaching and learning experience. The use of well-intentioned theories is kept to a minimum; instead, the book relies on pragmatic examples that have helped many classroom teachers engage seemingly disgruntled, disenfranchised learners. The enclosed collection of sample lesson plans, frameworks, implementation strategies, and truisms is best utilized by readers who

    • desire suggestions based on actual experiences rather than on theoretical constructs,
    • recognize that change can be a slow yet satisfying process, and
    • are willing to do the work.

    Yet, a word of caution is offered as you peruse the ensuring sections. Don't be concerned about making too many changes too fast! To paraphrase Dr. Robert Marzano from his speech to the New Jersey Federal Providers Association in 2012, even incremental change in teacher effectiveness can have a statistically significant impact on student achievement.


    I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many individuals who saw me through this adventure; to all those who provided encouragement, talked things over, read, wrote, offered comments, allowed me to quote their remarks and, in some instances, borrow their ideas.

    I am deeply indebted to the work of our LoTi Team, LeeChel, Dennee, Fred, Mark, and Jeremiah, who provided the foundation for this work. I want to especially thank LeeChel Moersch, my wife, partner, and co-collaborator, who provided the initial idea for writing the book and who encouraged me through challenges too many to mention and orchestrated a clear pathway for the book's completion. I would like to thank representatives of the Atlantic City Board of Education and especially Marilyn Cohen, who provided the inspiration and insight into the operation of a high-performing urban school system.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Roxie R. Ahlbrecht, Teacher, Consultant, Adjunct Faculty

    Sioux Falls Public Schools, Augustana College

    Sioux Falls, SD

    Neil MacNeill, Head Master

    Ellenbrook Independent Primary School

    Ellenbrook, Western Australia, Australia

    Leslie Standerfer, Principal

    Estrella Foothills High School

    Goodyear, AZ

    Kathy Tritz-Rhodes, Principal

    Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Schools

    Marcus, IA

    Bonnie Tryon, Former President

    School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS)

    Latham, NY

    About the Author

    Dr. Christopher M. Moersch For the past fifteen years, Dr. Christopher M. Moersch has been the principal investigator of the LoTi project and Executive Director of LoTi Connection Inc. In that capacity, he has worked with thousands of educators nationwide promoting the tenets of digital age literacy and professional development in an effort to transform low performing schools into high performing schools. He has more than twenty years’ experience in the areas of curriculum development, program evaluation, and technology integration practices. His specialization includes implementing school improvement initiatives, creating 21st century learning environments, and facilitating organizational change.

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