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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6

Looking on the Bright Side

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Spotlighting moments of success, even amid challenges, can be the catalyst for meaningful system-wide change.

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LeadershipTechnology
Looking on the Bright Side
Credit: TAYLOR CALLERY / IKON IMAGES
Our young and usually chipper technology director took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, sighing with frustration. "My guys are being buried with Chromebook repairs," he said. "We can't keep up."
It was February 2021. Students and teachers had come back to the classrooms of our mid-sized K–8 school district with newfound tech skills, and teachers had become accustomed to counting on our instructional technology staff to provide the responsive service they had witnessed during an epic pivot to distance learning. But now, back on campus, lines of middle school students with tech issues stretched office bandwidth and encroached on instructional time. Schools were running out of loaner devices. Students were missing assignments and class time without them.
As the IT staff worked their way through student tech help tickets, a disquieting number seemed to point to behavioral issues as well as technical problems: rearranged letter keys, damage indicating unusual use or force, and repeat tickets for the same students in short periods of time. District technicians shared this information with individual schools, yet the requests continued. Schools in our district saw the repairs as a tech issue. District IT staff sensed an unsustainable pace of damage without shared ownership of the problem. Frustration grew, and the situation, coupled with prolonged staffing shortages, slowed response times to other district-wide tech needs, including staff tech help tickets and longer-term projects on system security upgrades.
At the monthly meeting of representatives from the teaching and learning and technology departments to coordinate projects, we were at a loss for an adequate response to these intersecting challenges; the frustration was in the air. Then, after a long moment, our coordinator of innovation (who leads STEM initiatives for the district) ventured: "Could we mine this problem for a bright spot?"

A Positive Approach to Sticky Problems

The coordinator of innovation's question referenced an experimental professional learning series that three of us (including herself; our director of data analysis and accountability; and myself, director of teaching and learning) had completed in the fall. The Stanford University d.school's k12 Lab had invited educational leaders to learn about a process of identifying and studying positive deviants—that is, standout success stories—in data sets as a starting point for systems-based change, based on the book The Power of Positive Deviance by Pascale, Monique, and Sternin (Harvard Business Press, 2010).
We were particularly focused on fortifying our community's relationships and strengths, especially then. Recent district staff surveys had indicated that trust-building and positive feedback among staff were welcome and needed after two years of COVID-related safety mandates and transitions in and out of distance learning during the pandemic. Returning to "normal" practices (especially traditional, top-down requirements like testing and data review) would require replenishing and deepening trust among the whole learning community.
Finding positive deviants for analysis seemed promising, but it isn't always easy. Pressure from government policy to fix "learning gaps" have instead forged a culture focused on deficits and punishment in education. Furthermore, engaging in case analysis requires more time than education leaders typically have to spend on any one initiative. After completing the d.school training, the three of us had quietly started looking for the bright spots in our district benchmark data as test cases. We found the process both challenging and rewarding and started referring to it as "mining," based on how much it required us to "dig deeper" in our analysis of the data.

The change in mindset and practices involved in bright spot mining helped leaders build empathy toward collective problem solving.

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As we considered ways to share and scale the process, our continued learning-by-doing highlighted some key steps: First, find the data bright spots (for example, high reading gains sustained across student groups in a grade level), then reach out to teachers and principals to explain the success stories that we found and coordinate site visits to classrooms. These site visits facilitated student and teacher focus groups to answer questions and provide context about the promising practices we observed. This process succeeded in spotlighting effective classroom practices while fostering trust-building interactions between district administrators and principals, teachers, and students.

Finding the Outliers

Back at the tech collaboration meeting, the desire to support our colleague kickstarted further conversations to better understand the challenge of all the damaged computers in our middle schools. Were the behaviors related to frustration with old and outdated devices? Or had the long, uninterrupted time with school devices caused students to forget that the Chromebooks were still school property? Did students strategically break devices to get newer ones? Did some students use their need for tech help as a reason to miss class?
To help the team better understand what was really happening, as my colleague had recommended, we attempted to look for a bright spot. Our technology director quickly found one. One grade level at one of our two middle schools had a fraction of the number of tech help tickets compared with every other grade level across both schools. Leaning heavily on the trust between the director and his team, we managed to convince the technician at the school site to invest time (that he didn't have) to engage in the bright-spot mining process with us. After observing classrooms and conducting student and teacher focus groups, we uncovered a few outlying, yet very logical, practices that made this school stand out.
These practices included behaviors such as designating places for backpacks at recess that were out of the way of contact sports and bustling spaces. In focus groups, students described an internal sense of responsibility, identifying things they did to protect their devices from accidental harm. Then, in a teacher focus group, we saw the connection between students' sense of responsibility for their devices with teachers' classroom procedures: clear expectations for accessing loaner devices, ways to access classwork without a device, and school-to-home communication whenever tech issues arose.
After our visit, our team drafted a list of promising practices around expectations and family communication to share with the other middle schools in the district. In May, we set up meetings with site administrators to review the menu and to offer choices in implementing one or two practices that fit their contexts. We were proud of our discoveries, and knew we'd hit upon some promising solutions.
Then we hit a roadblock. Our time-strapped building administrators were honest with us. They said, "We don't have time to figure this out. Just tell us what to do."
We had fallen back into a trap of rushing too quickly to a technical "checklist" solution that added to administrators' overload. In that honest moment, it was tempting to wonder if we were wasting our time. But we weren't yet ready to give up bright-spot mining. We looked within to consider how empathy for site administrators, and a deep understanding of their work capacity, might empower us to connect in new ways.

Building Integrated Solutions

In their book Street Data(Corwin, 2021), Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan argue that school transformation requires leaders to look beyond the satellite data of large-scale quantitative measures and find ways to attend to "street data," or data that is gathered alongside those closest to the work.
We had zoomed in on the street level with IT staff, students, and teachers, but site leaders still needed our perspective and support as part of an integrated solution. Before the close of the school year, the IT department let site administrators know that a large-scale replacement of all district Chromebook devices would delay getting the computers out to the schools in the fall. With the extra time this delay provided, the IT department was able to take feedback from students into consideration and get Chromebook cases for each device.
Meanwhile, we needed a systematic way of increasing students' sense of ownership of their devices while teaching them how to use these tools safely and responsibly. In August, drawing on our bright-spots discoveries, our teaching and learning department put together a student technology onboarding presentation aligned to the district's technology policies for students and in the same format that schools teach other behavioral expectations each year. Teachers would need to present the slides to their students and be accountable for following through with them. Administrators would need to identify staff who could take charge of parent communication. Meanwhile, IT had added a "questionable use flag" to help tickets, programmed a way to automatically share the "flagged" students with schools, and drafted templates of corresponding parent letters that schools could send home.

Finding positive deviants for analysis seemed promising but it isn't always easy.

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The director of technology and I called a meeting with principals in the fall to clarify and streamline their role in implementing the new tech policies. In addition to outlining the findings from our case analysis, we shared an improvement package with the tools, process, and specific follow-through we needed from each school. The plan also required students to sign tech agreements with IT staff before receiving new devices and covers. At the end of the meeting, we gave principals a choice: they could either opt into the new system or not. Each principal not only opted in but fulfilled site level commitments within a week.
Our solution turned out to be more straightforward than anticipated. We defined and coordinated actions and roles to work together in a connected and systematic manner. We made the solution responsive to the problem based on the street data gathered, and we explicitly named the actions and roles needed from schools to be part of the solution. By flushing out a more explicit and connected system of supports, we were able to make a valuable change.
Six weeks into the school year, our tech collaboration team met to review help ticket counts to gauge the impact of our work. Our technology director, even more chipper than usual, told us that he had had to re-check the data with his team to make sure they were accurate. Tech help tickets were down 80 percent compared with the same time the previous year. Tech office hours now could address more serious issues, which allowed the team to discover manufacturer issues within the district's warranty window, in time for manufacturer replacements and fixes. Loaner devices stayed in classrooms. IT staff were able to visit other school sites, increasing visibility and responsiveness. Time opened up to resume work on improving district security systems and protocols.
Meanwhile, with the change in demand on their time, the IT team added their own idea to supporting students' investment in responsible care for school devices. With the time and money saved on repairs, they could conduct a monthly "tech check" to reinforce students' responsible care of technology. These events gave students an opportunity to spin a colorful wheel for prizes. The first Tech Check brought out crowds of excited students willing to wait in line to demonstrate their responsibility and have a chance to spin the prize wheel. The changes we made because of bright-spot mining continue to save time and resources while facilitating positive interactions between the IT staff, the students, and schools in our district.

One Collective Effort

Through these experiences, we have learned that the change in mindset and practices involved in bright-spot mining, or moving from big data to careful case analysis, helped leaders solve problems collectively. This process has the potential for powerful change, even when bandwidth is stretched, and needs to be assets-oriented and inclusive at its core.
The collective ability to learn and adapt is at the heart of any organizational change. Our experience with this small moment in systems improvement reminds us that real learning is interdependent, supportive, and increases bandwidth. As a team, when we look for promising practices within our learning community, integrate the voices and ideas of our colleagues and those closest to the issue, and tap into the systems and assets we already have in place, we can create meaningful positive change, together.

Pam Cheng serves as director of teaching and learning at Campbell Union School District in Campbell, California.

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