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7 takeaways from ConnectED to the Future

6 min read


On Wednesday, Nov. 19, 110 of the nation’s top superintendents, U.S. Department of Education officials and representatives from a myriad of organizations, convened at the White House for the Superintendents’ Summit, declared “ConnectED to the Future,” by President Obama. The event was an an extension of the ConnectED Initiative launched earlier this year.

Obama kicked off Future Ready, a bold new effort to maximize digital-learning opportunities and help school districts move quickly toward preparing students for success in college, a career and citizenship. In his speech, he said that it’s time to “yank our schools into the 21st century when it comes to technology, and provide the training and tools our teachers need” and that “every child deserves a shot at a world class education.”

In his concluding remarks, Obama led all 110 superintendents in a digital pledge signing ceremony, where they joined over 1,100 additional superintendents, from all 50 states in a promise to transform their districts into ones that better prepare students for their future. The initial signing had an impact on approximately 10.9 million of our nation’s students.

The Future Ready Initiative provides districts with resources and support to ensure that local technology and digital learning plans align with instructional best practices, are implemented by highly-trained teachers and lead to personalized-learning experiences for all students. The Alliance for Excellent Education and the U.S. Department of Education are leading this initiative with the support of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital  — LEAD — Commission and a vast coalition of organizations.

The summit was well organized and featured a variety of ignite talks and panels with some of the most respected teachers, superintendents and principals in the nation. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of the Office of Educational Technology Richard Culatta organized a question and answer session, where superintendents shared their biggest struggles and areas were roadblocks need to be removed.

A number of themes developed, seven of which are highlighted below.

1. Empowered, dynamic leadership is vital.

The summit convened 110 of the nation’s best and brightest thought leaders on digital learning; many already having a track record for transforming their district. It’s highly evident that districts that are getting the results, and have instituted systemic change, are led by high-octane leaders who empower those around them and remove roadblocks for digital transformation. Without a doubt, school leaders can be the greatest promoter of an innovative culture, or the largest roadblock in achieving the end goal.

2. Connectivity is king.

The average school in the U.S. has the same connectivity as the average home, but with 200 times as many users. It has been said that getting on wifi in some schools is like sucking peanut butter out of a straw.

Two days before the summit, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed making additional funds — up to $1.5 billion — available for schools, which if enacted would bring our schools a step forward in being future ready. In a Future Ready School, students have reliable broadband at their fingertips and teaching and learning is supported by high quality digital content.

3. An innovative school culture with empowered teachers can do anything.

A toxic school culture wrecks havoc on morale and in turn, student learning. In a Future Ready School, teachers are empowered to take ownership of their own learning and risk taking is encouraged by leaders that create a culture of innovation.

4. Professional learning must be personalized and relevant.

All indications point to the vast majority of professional learning in our nation utilizing a top-down, one-sized-fits-all approach, where seat time is used as the metric for growth; not instructional transformation. At the summit, Rafranz Davis, a technology coach in Texas, shared how personalized professional learning has shifted mindsets and transformed culture in her school district. In a Future Ready School, teachers are empowered to take ownership of their own professional learning and the leader is transparent and models his own growth. At the summit, The Office of Educational Technology released this professional learning toolkit.

5. Student voice is paramount.

A number of students attended the White House Summit, and were given a platform to share how Future Ready Schools value student voice and get students involved in the change process. Very often, students view school as something done to them, as opposed to something of which they are a vital part. Future Ready Schools leverage student leadership and utilize the incredible skills of their students throughout innovative transformation.

6. Districts must carefully plan for progress.

Two years ago on Digital Learning Day, former Governor Bob Wise, now President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, called out districts to “stop buying the stuff until a systemic plan and vision was created.” Wise’s call to action lead to Project 24, a key resource for the Future Ready Initiative, and was entrenched with a foundation that overlapped a theme at the summit: Districts must carefully assess and plan for systemic digital learning transformation. Future Ready Schools plan before they buy; they don’t buy before they plan.

7. High-quality instruction is the difference maker.

Jimmy Casas, principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa, during a panel discussion said he never looks to new tools as silver bullets and that “Great teaching is the equalizer, not a particular device.” When it comes to Future Ready Schools, pedagogy is the driver. Technology is the accelerator.

Bob Wise, President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, announced a series of regional summits where district teams will develop action plans and metrics to measure their progress in using digital tools to improve teaching and student learning outcomes. The summits will focus on a comprehensive set of issues that drive student learning, will highlight the experiences of districts in each region, and will offer district leaders tangible ways to build capacity among their teams and throughout their districts.  In closing, Wise said, “Though the government may be known for gridlock, digital learning is moving forward at a gigabyte speed.”

It’s time to prepare our students for their future — not our past. Let’s go. #FutureReady

Thomas C. Murray serves as the state and district digital learning director for the Alliance for Excellent Education. He has testified before the United States Congress and works alongside that body, the US Department of Education and state departments of education, corporations, and school districts throughout the country to implement digital learning. Murray’s served as the director of technology and cyber education for the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, Pa. Connect with him on Twitter @thomascmurray or at

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