Testimonials for my work and LIFT Consulting

Over the last 15 years, I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best people and best educators (usually one and the same) in the world. A few of them have been nice enough to share their thoughts on our work together… With deep gratitude, I share them with you.

The work with Chris Habetler deeply accelerated the trajectory of my school and ultimately the network at large. Chris’s work was nothing short of transformational.  And what started out as I think more technical, and systems building became an exercise in purpose.

As a result of our work together, I became far clearer on the rationale and the why. And to this day, when we make decisions that impact the culture that best reflects him supports who we are and our vision. I think about the work that Chris and I did together. It was truly transformational and I don’t use that lightly. 

I think when Chris arrived, it would not have been extreme for someone to use the term combustible to describe our culture. It was uneven, it was unsure. And I would say pretty soon after his arrival, we reached a place of stability and predictability. And we’ve built from that and continue to build from that. And objectively would now say that our scholar culture is one worth wanting. So far from where it can be because our kids are amazing and powerful. Chris’s work was nothing short of transformational.

Jerel Bryant – CEO @ Collegiate Academies, Principal GW Carver HS, 

Louisiana State Principal of the Year 2021 

“Chris has been instrumental in helping radically improve school cultures and academic outcomes at AF.

He is strong at three key aspects of the work: helping school leaders design clear visions and strong systems, leading high-quality / practice-based Professional Development sessions, and providing effective site-based coaching.

Our school cultures are much stronger thanks to Chris. Our school leaders name his coaching and support as having a very high impact, and they push hard to get as many “Chris days” at their schools as possible.

Chris’ vision for a great school culture includes the “full symphony” of strong student classroom management, effective school-wide systems, student investment, teacher-student relationships, joy, character development, and parent relationships. Moreover, he gets that school culture and academic culture are linked.

I would highly recommend Chris to any school, CMO, or district looking to make dramatic school culture – and overall school – improvements.” 

Doug McCurry – Co-Founder, CEO, and Superintendent @ Achievement First 

Chris is an exceptional relationship builder and I honestly can’t think of a person who doesn’t love him. This allows him to understand complex dynamics, describe them clearly, figure out how to improve them, and authentically partner with clients to build vibrant and thriving organizations.

Paul Astuto – Chief of Staff @ Prospect Schools

“Chris pushed me to look past my own mental blocks and the limits that I was placing on myself, my teachers, and our students without even knowing it. He asked the right questions to get me to take a hard look at my practice and to make small shifts that made a big difference–especially in the second year of implementation. His coaching was personalized and customized to my school and context, but the lessons I learned have been applicable to a completely different school environment as well.”  

Kendra Engels – Campus Director @ Citizen Schools Santa Fe New Mexico 

“Over the past several years, I have had the great pleasure of working with Chris as he assisted us in transforming our school culture. Chris Habetler is perhaps one of the most thoughtful individuals working on school culture in the field of education today. Through our partnership with Chris, we were able to identify the core “non-negotiables” of our approach to creating a healthy and vibrant school culture that facilitated learning. Rather than a cookie-cutter approach, Chris instinctively pushed us to become clear about what our community truly valued, resulting in a considerably more focused and enjoyable school experience. Since we began our work with Chris, student attrition has plummeted and student achievement has soared. I would highly recommend him to anyone who is looking to transform their school climate.” 

Chris Bostock –  Managing Director of High Schools @ KIPP New Orleans | Former Principal @ AF Brooklyn High

In my first year as a school administrator, I had a head full of ideas and no sense of how to execute them. Chris not only helped me to connect those dots, but he imparted to me the confidence to execute any idea I might have down the road. If a teacher’s most difficult task is to make the most obscure skills feel instinctual, Chris is the best around. He did not change me; he did not manage me; he showed me a more complete version of myself and how to fill that role. By the end of our tenure, I could and did recommend his guidance to any and all of my colleagues. He’s that good.

Dan Parsons – Dean of Students @ Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy

“Chris has had a significant impact across our schools for the past 5 years – driving the implementation of strong school-wide culture systems, which has resulted in dramatically increasing learning time for scholars. I’ve been struck not only by Chris’ unique skill in execution with students but also by his ability to strategically think through building and improving school systems. In fact, I’ve worked with Chris directly as a Principal and Regional Superintendent in our network, and I see how he has skillfully navigated countless adaptive challenges – enlisting dozens of very different school leader personalities in a shared vision and leveraging strong relationships with each individual so that the close collaboration is both welcomed and successful in driving results.” 

Amy D’Angelo – Regional Superintendent @ Achievement First 

“I began working with Chris in my first year in a leadership role.  During this time, our new administration had just begun the process of re-setting the organization’s culture with initiatives and policies aimed at raising the academic and behavioral expectations for students. Chris not only helped us “calibrate” our bar for what excellence looks like in the classroom but helped us create clear systems to achieve it.  His work with us went far beyond dictating what rules should and should not be in place school-wide; he pushed us to think deeply about student character, and to constantly frame our decisions in the context of “what’s best for kids.” And over the course of our three-year working relationship, he helped us become a school that invested its students and stakeholders in our mission and values. Chris played a critical role in our school’s turnaround, and his work had a transformative impact on the entire staff and student body of our school.” 

Stu Warshawer – Executive Director @ Artist Year; Former Principal @ Mastery Charter Schools


“I still remember Chris’ first, informal visit to our school. When he visited, the school was just about at a low point. Chris started formally supporting us the next year as I embarked on a complete school culture overall with two new deans of students. Chris’s monthly visits were a catalyst for the dramatic growth we experienced in the following years and still to this day. He was able to gain a deep understanding of our school and staff so that his constant recommendations and development of our deans were really matched to what we needed most at any given moment — and part of a bigger vision Chris helped us form around the culture of our school. On our network’s school evaluation system (the AF Report Card) we went from the lowest-performing middle school to the highest-performing in the history of our network. Truly, Chris was no small part of that.” 

Tom Kaiser – Founder @ Authentic Leaders | Former Chief Talent Officer @ Achievement First 


“Our students described the culture of our school as calm, safe, fun, and student-focused! We were able to create a positive school culture that aligned with our mission by working with Chris. Through building strong relationships with my staff, he led professional development, coached my leadership team, and provided us with feedback that continued to make our school community improve. Chris built the capacity of my school leadership team by increasing their ability to provide feedback to teachers, created systems and structures for our school discipline vision, and supported them with change management. I know that more students are experiencing a rich learning environment as a result of working with Chris!”  

Kinnari Patel-Smyth – President @ KIPP Foundation, Former Chief Academic Officer, KIPP Metro-Atlanta 

“Mr. Habetler spent one and a half days on our campus in year two, but his impression has left a mark for years. In minutes he could identify the root causes of culture breakdowns, and equally important, a list of ways to dramatically alter those breakdowns immediately and long-term. He has remained a thought partner and I know that when I am most challenged to solve a cultural issue, he will be there to talk, share, empathize, and then help me make tough decisions to make my school excellent.” 

Rachel Yanof – Founder and Chief Executive Officer @ Phoenix Collegiate Academy

“If there is one person in the country who I would turn to in order to learn how best to develop and sustain a positive, achievement-focused school climate in an urban public school, it would be Christopher Habetler.  He understands the conditions necessary for students from low-income households to succeed, and he knows exactly which levers to pull to ensure those conditions become part of a school’s DNA.” 

Scott Given – Founder @ The Croft School | Founder and CEO @ UP Education | Former Principal @ Excel Academy 

“Chris Habetler is one of the nation’s leading experts in building high-performing schools. I routinely introduce him as “the Michael Jordan of instruction and school culture.” Let me offer two data points. In 2005, before Chris arrived at Excel Academy as Dean of Students, the school ranked 471st on the Massachusetts 8th grade math exam; by 2009 – after Chris’ fourth year – the school ranked 1st in the state. In 2010 – before Chris started working with Achievement First – the four AF New York middle schools scored at the 38th percentile of all New York City schools on the annual DOE report card (which factors in student achievement, growth, and culture). By 2012 – after Chris’ second year – the same four schools were at the 93rd percentile. These two trends are not a coincidence. Chris brings a tremendous amount of skill and experience that helps schools become game-changing cathedrals of joyful instruction and character. This is, in part, why I tell my school leaders, ‘Listen to every word that he says.’” 

Chi Tschang – Founder @ Excellence Reflex LLC | Regional Superintendent @ Achievement First

Code Central – THE 5-12 Coding Curriculum you want

In my work supporting schools across the country, I often come across new products and ideas that are just too good not to share. I want to tell you a bit about one of them…Code Central.

What is Code Central?

Code Central is a standards-aligned, state-accredited, 5-12 Computer Science curriculum and platform (complete with its own LMS, standards-aligned scope and sequence, lessons, and student and teacher portal) that could easily serve as the foundation of your school’s computer science program, or support an elective or after school offering. What I like most about it is that it is built for teachers by teachers. While you can use it as a minimally supervised, self-directed study, what sets Code Central apart from other offerings is that it provides teachers with daily, task-driven lessons and resources, training, and real-time support for teachers. The custom-built LMS serves as an engaging platform that gamifies coding into challenges, assessments, and projects. While some knowledge of coding basics is needed for the instructor, she need not be a coding wiz to help her students become wizzes themselves.

What Does Code Central Provide?

Code Central’s Level-Up Curriculum consists of engaging instructional materials and an easy-to-use platform that allows schools to provide the highest quality Computer Science education for students. Our project-based curriculum was created and developed in-house by members of the Nevada Department of Education K-12 Computer Science Standards writing team and has been refined over several years of continuous development through practical application and use by thousands of students and was recently accredited by the Nevada DoE.

Code Central’s curriculum and Learning Management System provide schools with everything needed to ensure grade-level standards are being met. In addition to aligning with state requirements, we utilize industry-standard tools to ensure that students are learning real-world job skills. 

Code Central provides teachers and schools with all the necessary tools and materials needed to successfully implement accredited Computer Science learning in the classroom, including:

  • Instructional guides to assist teachers in implementing student collaboration in the classroom
  • Professional Development for teachers from our curriculum specialists
  • Educational & Technical support from a team of experienced instructors and technicians
  • Initial and ongoing consultation

Learn More

If this sounds like something that would be of value to you or your students, please shoot me an email (chris@habetlerconsulting.com) and I’ll connect you directly with the team so you can schedule a call to learn more.

Check them out: Code Central Website

Can After-School Programs Help Children Recover From the Pandemic?

DETROIT — A fleet of vans and a bus picked up dozens of students and dropped them off at the Downtown Boxing Gym here on a chilly Monday afternoon in March. Inside the spacious facility, students learn more than just how to throw a jab or perform pushups and plank exercises. From athletics and academics to enrichment classes in other fields like cooking and graphic design, the programming is primarily driven by student interests, and staffers say that’s the big draw for kids to come — and keep coming back.

Just ask Christian, a sixth grader who attends the local charter school Detroit Prep. He’s been attending this after-school program for the last three years. Early on, Christian says, he was a little reserved and shy, but participating at the gym helped improve his communication skills. Working with one of the program’s tutors also boosted his skills in math, a subject he doesn’t enjoy very much.

Lately, he’s in good spirits, in part because he feels ownership over how he spends his time after school. He’s writing a speech about gang violence for a youth public speaking competition called Project Soapbox and recently got elected to the gym program’s student council.

Being given a space to explore keeps Christian engaged.

“I like the choice to do what I want to do here,” he says.

Christian’s positive enrichment experience is exactly what federal education officials and advocates for after-school programs are hoping to replicate across the country. The Engage Every Student Initiative is a national campaign, started in 2022, that calls for communities to provide high-quality, out-of-school-time learning opportunities for all interested students by using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 .

After-school advocates and providers agree that the expansion of high-quality programs touts a slew of academic, behavioral and social-emotional benefits for many students whom they say are still grappling with lingering negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The push has also spurred innovation within the field driven by youth needs and interests, as demonstrated by two long-time after-school programs based in the Midwest, the Downtown Boxing Gym in Detroit and After School Matters in Chicago.

While advocates welcome the national initiative’s goals to boost after-school options, they say challenges remain regarding programming accessibility and sustainability due to barriers that include limited funding and staff shortages.

A National Push for More After-School Options

Last July, more than two years into a pandemic that roiled school districts across the country, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Engage Every Student Initiative. Multiple partner organizations, including Afterschool Alliance, the School Superintendents Organization and the National League of Cities, provide connections and assistance to communities wishing to expand access to after-school and summer learning offerings, per the initiative’s website.

One of its aims is to encourage states and school districts to invest some of the billions of dollars set aside in the American Rescue Plan legislation for learning recovery efforts into after-school offerings such as subject-based tutoring. But the initiative also encourages school districts to partner with community and faith-based organizations to design programs that support and develop students in a more holistic sense, says Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Afterschool Alliance.

It’s an opportunity to have healthy relationships with peers and caring adults and mentors.

— Jodi Grant

“While after-school programs have academic support, there’s also all of these other things that are happening, whether it’s workforce skills, it’s participating in sports and theater. It’s an opportunity to have healthy relationships with peers and caring adults and mentors. And so much of that was lost during the pandemic, as well as the academic piece,” Grant says. “Engage Every Student is really trying to shine a light on where this is happening well, and to encourage more local school districts to use their money to create or expand partnerships, so that we can serve more kids.”

The use of federal COVID-19 relief dollars may help communities create more affordable and high-quality after-school programs, Grant notes. In Afterschool Alliance’s “America After 3PM” report released last year, the organization found that between 2014 and 2020, participation in after-school programming decreased and barriers to participation and unmet demand grew. Parents were more likely in 2020 to cite cost, lack of available programs, and not having a safe way to transport youth to and from programs as reasons why they didn’t enroll their children in after-school programs than they did in 2014. Low-income, Black and Latino households were also more likely to note these barriers, the report found.

The Engage Every Student Initiative actively tracks the ways communities are using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to create after-school and summer programming through its investment map . So far, Grant has seen innovative offerings sprout up across the country, like aviation and welding programs in North Dakota and a mobile after-school program inside a bus equipped with internet access that travels to trailer parks and serves youth and families in rural Colorado.

Grant also sees energy for after-school expansion in states such as California, Minnesota and Alabama. Mostly state education agencies have spearheaded this charge in creating programming in areas that didn’t have access before, Grant says, adding that the local level paints a less encouraging picture.

“The reality is that in most places, the school districts are not partnering right now,” she says. “So we still have our work cut out for us. And we know that demand has not diminished.”

Teenagers participate in a band class. Photo courtesy of After School Matters.

Does After-School Remain an Afterthought?

According to the “America after 3PM” report, parents view after-school programs favorably, because they help youth build life skills, receive assistance with homework assignments and get access to healthy meals and snacks. Eighty-seven percent of parents surveyed also support public funding for these programs.

Yet key challenges persist that inhibit more students from accessing high-quality programs.

For example, in Michigan, roughly 750,000 K-12 youth are waiting for a spot in an after-school program, says Erin Skene-Pratt, the executive director of the Michigan Afterschool Partnership, a statewide coalition that advocates for equitable access to quality out-of-school-time programming, which includes activities offered before school, after school and during the summer.

We don’t have enough places for our youth to go.

— Erin Skene-Pratt

“We basically have an after-school crisis, right in the state,” she says. “We don’t have enough places for our youth to go.”

Even when a student gains a program spot, often those providers are strained for staff and other resources. In a 2021 report, the coalition found that Michigan’s youth-to-provider ratio was 376-to-1, which the organization says underscores the scarcity of programming despite the demand. In southeastern Michigan, the ratio was much higher, at 531-to-1. The national ratio, Skene-Pratt says, is 211-to-1. None of these figures is ideal, she adds.

On top of that, the availability of pandemic-era dollars to fund after-school programs has not translated into an explosion of new offerings in Michigan, despite the Engage Every Student Initiative’s aims. Skene-Pratt is appreciative of the initiative’s efforts to spotlight the importance of after-school activities yet says more work needs to be done.

“So I still don’t necessarily see after-school as a priority across the board,” she says. “However, there certainly are certain school districts, certain administrators who do prioritize this, but again, they’re always struggling to address the funding piece of it.”

Among the biggest barriers to making after-school programming more robust and widespread are insufficient government funding, staffing shortages, and in some areas, a lack of transportation. While Skene-Pratt points to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program as a helpful mechanism to create after-school programming in high-poverty areas, she says additional funding must be approved by state lawmakers to help expand programming in Michigan, which could also help boost the workforce needed to operate after-school activities. Providers often have difficulty filling jobs related to these programs, which tend to be low-paid.

And commuting to programs can also be a vexing problem for students. For example, in Detroit, about a third of residents don’t own a car , and the city’s transportation system is widely considered unreliable.

All of these hurdles mean that some youth miss out on enrichment opportunities, which after-school advocates say help to improve academic outcomes and keep students safe and away from criminal activities or other detrimental behaviors. This can also become a child care problem, Skene-Pratt adds, since working families often worry about leaving their children at home alone once the school day ends if they don’t have another safe place to go.

Cultivating Well-Being and Community

Improving access to after-school programs could help to address an acute concern for today’s students: their mental health. The pandemic worsened an existing youth mental health crisis , which in turn altered the ways some after-school programs conduct business.

When the pandemic hit, the staffers at After School Matters in Chicago moved quickly. They shifted all of their programming online, which included visual arts, media and STEM offerings. Instructors sent out activities to youth participants to keep them engaged. The organization also began surveying both youth and instructors about what their needs were. Students reported high levels of anxiety and stress.

The majority of the organization’s programs eventually returned in person. But three years later, many students are still dealing with adverse mental health problems induced by the pandemic.

“They’re definitely still there,” says Melissa Mister, chief of strategy and staff for After School Matters. “We’re of the mind that these were challenges that existed, but light was shone on them differently during the pandemic.”

Now, through a local partnership with Adler University Community Health Services that began in 2020, After School Matters offers free individual counseling for youth participants; access to telehealth services; workshops on mental health awareness, grief, loss, intergenerational trauma and healing; and trainings for instructors to identify youth mental health needs.

“There was a ton of work that went into trying to figure out how to make telehealth services available, how to kind of remove the stigma of getting mental health support,” Mister says, adding that the partnership has grown.

The organization, which serves high school students ages 14 to 18, has also made it a priority to embed social-emotional learning across its programming.

“We want to make sure that [when] young people come to our programs, they feel connected, they feel hopeful. They learn skills, not just in their content areas, but also social-emotional skills,” Mister says. “At the end of every session, there’s a reflection. And so just having some of those pieces built into the framework means that there’s room and there’s time and space to talk and to share concerns, to share celebrations, to connect with people differently than you may in other settings.”

Carvell Anderson, a 19-year-old After School Matters alumnus who also served on the program’s youth leadership council, says the integration of mental health supports created a safe environment for his peers to express their personal obstacles as they grappled with anxiety, depression and stress. Those supports also helped them build community with each other.

“It allowed for the teens, for us, to become closer and know how to check up on one another,” he says.

Youth Voice Transforms Programs

Back in Detroit, students flood the halls of the Downtown Boxing Gym, brimming with pinball-like energy and confidence as they sport black T-shirts designed by one of their peers for 313 Day, an annual celebration named after the city’s famous area code. In one room, elementary students are buzzing during a reading class. Another room houses microphones and recording equipment for podcasting. Tonight’s dinner includes mostaccioli, Hawaiian rolls and fruit cups.

Children take a coding class. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Boxing Gym.

Established in 2007, the Downtown Boxing Gym serves about 200 youth ages 8 to 18 and provides mentorship and support remotely to young adults through age 25. Staffers hope to grow the number to 300 students, including alumni, in the near future. Right now, there are more than 1,000 youth on the waiting list. To accommodate the need, the organization has purchased land nearby with plans to construct a new building. After the space is built, the Downtown Boxing Gym will be able to expand programming and double the number of students served.

The gym’s leaders say that they currently aren’t partnering with a school district or another organization participating in the Engage Every Student Initiative, nor have they received federal financial support through the American Rescue Plan. Yet they’ve been able to provide transportation, programming and meals for free to students thanks to corporate, philanthropic and individual donor support — which is somewhat uncommon within the after-school arena. Many programs still require a fee in order to participate, which raises concerns about the equitable reach of after-school opportunities .

“The problem with most programs being parent-funded is that it means that more and more kids don’t have access,” says Grant of Afterschool Alliance. “We want all kids (whether or not their parents can pay) to have the chance to get these same rich experiences and opportunities, because they help support success in the workforce and in life.”

It’s rare that the Downtown Boxing Gym’s offerings are repeated since they ebb and flow based on youth participants’ interests, says Katie Solomon, the programs director. It’s an example of how children and teens have helped to reconfigure the after-school landscape. Today’s offerings are rife with game design, sound engineering, culinary classes, coding and more.

The best after-school programs, advocates say, involve partnerships with community-based organizations and do not mimic the routine and structure of a traditional classroom. In these less restrictive environments, students are given space to explore academic or career interests without the added pressure of testing or performance evaluation.

“When they walk in, they get to choose what their night looks like. So there’s never this adult telling them you have to sit in this chair, do this homework assignment and do this worksheet, and follow these more educational, like, societal standards,” Solomon says. “Because those standards aren’t serving our students.”

DaSean Moore, an 18-year-old senior at Harper Woods High School, has been participating at the Downtown Boxing Gym for the last six years. He says the instructors have helped him mature and handle difficult social situations. Before, Moore says, he’d become reactive during a conflict, but now he is more calm and measured when heated situations arise. He’s been accepted to multiple colleges and is interested in becoming either a handyman or a photographer, passions he discovered during after-school sessions.

There are a lot of advantages to participating in after-school programs, according to Moore.

“It’s really helpful for young people like me, because some people, they’re going to school, they graduate, and then they realize they never had a goal,” he says. “This place kind of lets you explore your options.”


K-12 and Higher Ed Institutions Lead Consortium to Advance EdTech Innovation and Trust

Does your school district or higher ed institution use a learning management system (LMS), digital curriculum resources, learning tools, assessment applications, a badging platform, a single-sign-on application launcher or a student information system? Then your institution has benefited from a quiet but powerful 20-year revolution of connecting edtech ecosystems.

Previously, it would take months of time and tens of thousands of dollars to connect these common edtech components, ensure they are rostered with the right sets of users and display the student progress and assessment information properly. Now, this integration can take just a few minutes. That results in massive time and cost savings. Most importantly, the user experience and instruction time are now the primary focus rather than how to connect products.

How did this advancement happen? Several hundred districts, higher ed institutions, state agencies and supplier and end-user organizations came together through a non-profit collaboration known today as the 1EdTech Consortium . In 2006 the consortium featured 50 member organizations. Today, nearly 900 organizations participate from 28 countries.

Shaping EdTech Strategy and Connectivity

Active participation operationalizes establishing an open, trusted and innovative ecosystem while fostering better edtech for all.

Today, there are over 8000 edtech products that the 1EdTech community certified as meeting 1EdTech standards for quality and trust. 1EdTech’s technical interoperability standards, such as Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), Common Cartridge, OneRoster, Question and Test Interoperability (QTI), Caliper Analytics, Competencies and Academic Standards Exchange (CASE), Open Badges and Comprehensive Learner Record, have become nearly ubiquitous in edtech.

The best way to partake in this revolution is by being part of the 1EdTech movement called TrustEd Apps . School districts and higher education institutions leading the future in making their tech ecosystem work for the needs of faculty and students see the 1EdTech collaboration as a core part of their transformation strategy. Active participation operationalizes establishing an open, trusted and innovative ecosystem while fostering better edtech for all.

Members Make the Difference

1EdTech is a global leading organization, roughly equivalent today to the well-known World Wide Web Consortium in size, and its growth is accelerating. But how 1EdTech got to this size may surprise you. Yes, 1EdTech is known for world-class technical work, but the secret sauce has been in the leadership, partnership and collaboration among the members. While members of each type have their own workspaces to discuss priorities, the members of all types come together to share and build trust through common goals that improve the lives of faculty and learners. It is from this leadership that such growth and gains have been reached. The 1EdTech community is working daily to develop the leveraging connectivity that will make a difference for decades to come.

Today, the 1EdTech community is focused on enabling four key strategies that will have a major impact now and in the future.

Recommended Resources
  1. Ensuring that every institution, regardless of size and resources, has a digital ecosystem that is trusted and responsive by leveraging the latest advances in standards-based student data privacy and connectivity.
  2. Ensuring that a wide range of strategies for personalized, student-centered learning and pathways can be achieved by enabling a choice of digital learning products that can be configured for the needs of each student.
  3. Creating a sea change in how institutions recognize achievement that enables learners to do a much better job “telling the story of their learning journey” and connecting them to better opportunities.
  4. Dramatically reducing the cost associated with enabling a “data rich” edtech ecosystem and thus helping learners, faculty and administrators achieve access to data and analysis in time to improve learner success.

Join Academic and Technology Leaders

Our community thrives by getting together, and we conduct some 500 workgroup meetings a year. But the best place to collaborate is (thankfully, now, post-COVID) in-person at our Learning Impact annual event held June 5-8 in Anaheim, California. You don’t have to be a member to attend. This year we will get to the bottom of the impact of AI in education, the state of personalized learning, best practices in adopting digital micro-credentials, where we are really in terms of getting data to the right person at the right time and more.


To Improve a Child’s Education, We Must Be Willing to Let Old Practices Die

At the first staff meeting of the 2022 academic year, our entire team of coaches and coordinators was exhausted. We’d spent the first two weeks of the year subbing in buildings, covering lunch duties and pitching in wherever we were needed. COVID-19 was surging and our time in the buildings, while mentally and emotionally exhausting, reinforced the difficulties our students and educators were facing as they recovered from the losses of the pandemic. We were reflecting on our current challenges when my boss shifted the conversation towards the future, asking:

What are we willing to lose in order to change a child’s life?

The question hung in the air.

As a teacher, when something needed to change, I usually found myself pointing my finger at someone “in charge” who I believed had the power to resolve my issue quickly. When I became an administrator, some of this attitude remained, but after shifting from class to class and building to building for two weeks, I started to realize that the person that needed to make the changes was actually me. As I moved from school to school and classroom to classroom, teachers were telling me the technology was too much, and the students had given in to the permanence of education on computer screens long after we left the days of learning from tiny boxes on Zoom.

As the weeks turned to months and the surge from the pandemic finally ended, the question still hung in the air: what are we willing to lose in order to change a child’s life? We are still buckling under the weight of the inequitable education system that preceded the pandemic and the makeshift solutions created during the pandemic. At the same time, we fear losing what has kept us going. In order to answer this question, we need to shift from a mindset of scarcity and claim abundance.

Minimum Viable Product

When we fear letting go of what no longer serves us, we adopt a mindset of scarcity, believing that once something is gone, nothing new will grow in its place.

In the technology world, a minimum viable product is a version of a product that is developed only for accessibility for the end-user. If you are coding a piece of software, the minimum viable product would have just enough features for the user to be able to test the functionality of the app; it works, but it is the bare minimum. In education, this is often described as “building a plane while we are flying it.” A new state requirement is announced, but the date of implementation happens before any school can acquire the necessary resources or knowledge for success; so naturally, people do their best, make do and move on.

The weight of the old mandates and demands of teaching were intensified by the aftermath of the pandemic and had been compounded by the technology we quickly acquired to meet the moment’s needs. Over and over again, we come up with the minimum viable product and move on. Whether these solutions were out of necessity or habit, they take up space in our our classrooms and our desires to improve the education system. We know we must move on, but we are afraid to lose what we have.

Moving Beyond Scarcity

When we think about loss as an absence of what once was, we often mourn what is gone. In the days of subbing last year, I mourned the loss of my job as I believed it should be, the projects left untouched and the meetings that were canceled.

Loss can also be something else. Sometimes we must lose what we have to make space for more important things. This loss is generative and necessary, but it is difficult to welcome the expanse that emerges from simply letting things die. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” In education, this familiar suffering manifests as the everyday rigamarole of requirements and mandates, programs and procedures, meetings that could have been emails and other duties as assigned. When we fear letting go of what no longer serves us, we adopt a mindset of scarcity, believing that once something is gone, nothing new will grow in its place.

If our goal is transformational educational experiences for children, experiences that change their lives and our communities, some things must go.

I am choosing to let go of tools that are no longer serving students, of policies that take up time and energy, of meetings that could have been emails and the belief that there is only one solution to every challenge. At its best, a minimum viable product helps a developer to shed what is no longer working and quickly focus on the most important features for the users to rapidly develop a strong tool. We must turn our minimum viable products into useful practices, policies and systems that transform education for our students and educators.

What are we willing to lose in order to change a child’s life? What are the practices we are willing to let die in order to change an educator’s life? What are we willing to lose to make a positive impact in our communities? These are the questions that now hang in the air.

Imagining and Claiming Abundance

If we are going to truly transform and improve education, all administrators, policymakers and leaders must let old practices die and imagine something better.

When we welcome the expanse that comes after shedding what is not working, we start operating out of abundance. In early spring, gardeners prune roses so they can start the growing season and welcome blossoms on healthy plants. This is abundance. When we remove programs that fill time and space in our classrooms but do not expand the hearts and minds of our children, we hold space for creativity and deeper learning experiences. This is abundance. Our students and our educators deserve abundance.

As a new administrator, I have often imagined this abundance, but I have not always acted in ways that opened space for those around me. I planted more and pruned less, not realizing that to grow, we all need a little room. Moving from imagining to claiming abundance takes will and purpose; it takes a recognition that in order to give the best to our students, we need to give the best to our educators. If we are going to truly transform and improve education, all administrators, policymakers and leaders must let old practices die and imagine something better.

Manifesting Justice

The first time I visited my school after being hired for my first teaching job, I did not have keys to my classroom, so I peeked through the window in my door. I had no idea how I would teach, who my students would be, or what my rules, policies or procedures would be. That night, I went home and filled ten notebook pages with my ideas and dreams for the year.

Sometimes when I get caught in the weeds, I think back to this moment and what actions I can take to give students and educators just a little bit more of that wonder I felt the first time I looked at my empty classroom. What can I let go of to change a child’s life?

Although I am one administrator in one department in one district, I am committing to letting go of what no longer serves us to create space for the imagination, creativity and hope that brought me to this profession. Together, we must move from scarcity to abundance to manifest education justice for all.


These States Have the Most ‘Underqualified’ Teachers Stepping in to Fill Open Positions

With school districts in some parts of the country feeling the pain of teacher shortages, states have tried to address the problem with a patchwork of policies that expand who can lead a classroom: from undergrad teacher trainees in Arizona to fast-track certifications for military veterans in Nebraska.

Researchers at Kansas State University dug further into education workforce data to find not just where teacher shortages are taking hold but to what extent states are relying on “underqualified” teachers .

That’s defined by the report as teaching positions filled by people who have an “irregular, provisional, temporary, or emergency certification” to teach. It also includes certified teachers who are filling positions outside their subject of expertise — like a history teacher assigned to a math class.

Tuan D. Nguyen, an assistant professor at Kansas State University’s College of Education, and his colleagues found at least 163,000 teaching positions nationwide are held by underqualified teachers. Another 36,500 teaching jobs sit vacant , according to their 2022 report.

Source: Kansas State University. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

The consequences for students in those districts can vary, Nguyen says, as schools dealing with teacher shortages may merge classes — up to 34 or 35 students, in some cases — or cancel others altogether.

“They may say, ‘We’re not going to be able to offer physics classes,’” Nguyen explains, “or use substitutes just to have somebody in that class and keep the class under control. [Or they might] put somebody who isn’t qualified to be there, like an English teacher teaching biology.”

Particularly for STEM courses, Nguyen says it’s important to have an instructor who has not just the pedagogical knowledge but also the content knowledge to effectively teach the class.

Teachers who don’t have standard certifications — like provisional or emergency certificates — are also more likely to leave the school or the profession, according to the report.

“You get this cycle of churn, and it’s costly for the district,” Nguyen says. “Those are the main two problems. Are these the best teachers for this subject so students aren’t hurt by a teacher who doesn’t have content [expertise]? And so the school doesn’t have to replace them?”

Hot Spots

New Hampshire topped the list of states with about 349 underqualified teachers for every 10,000 students. Looking at the figure in terms of staffing, that’s 40 underqualified teachers for every 100 teachers in the state.

The state’s top education official points to New Hampshire’s five alternative teacher certification programs, which each require a bachelor’s degree, as a factor explaining this ratio.

“New Hampshire has a rigorous alternative pathway to licensure program that [has] been successful in providing competent, qualified, knowledgeable and professional educators,” Frank Edelblut, commissioner of the state’s education department, said in an emailed statement. “Because of our robust alternative certification pathway, we are able to attract highly qualified individuals outside of the education profession to enrich the lives of students in New Hampshire.”

While New Hampshire is having trouble finding teachers in certain subject areas — upper level math and middle school science, for example — officials told ABC News the state overall was not dealing with a shortage in a national analysis published in February.

Washington, D.C., was a distant second at 237 underqualified teachers for every 10,000 students — or about 29 underqualified teachers for every 100 teachers. The nation’s capital and the surrounding suburbs were hit with a spike in teacher resignations last summer.

But a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C., Office of the State Superintendent of Education doubted the data’s accuracy, noting that the figures about the city’s schools come from a federal report that dates back to 2018.

“This ranking may not necessarily reflect the current landscape of the educator workforce across the country,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement, adding that more than 90 percent of Washington, D.C., teachers are considered “in-field” as of 2022.

The term recognizes teachers as “having a university degree in their field of teaching, an active certification in their field of teaching, and/or at least one year of effective teaching in their field as measured by the [local education agency] teacher evaluation system.”

North Carolina, Massachusetts and New Jersey rounded out the top five.

Meanwhile, the problem is least severe in Iowa. That doesn’t mean the picture is rosy in the Hawkeye State, where many districts started the school year without a full roster of teachers and substitutes.

Source: Kansas State University. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

When does the ratio of underqualified teachers become a problem? That depends on each community, Nguyen says.

“Does that seem high to you or low to you? This is subjective to what you’re willing to accept,” he says. “In a high school, I don’t want 30 underqualified teachers serving there.”

The reasons for both the teacher shortages and use of underqualified teachers vary depending on the state, he explains. Some states don’t have enough people enrolled in teacher prep programs, while others are seeing more teachers retiring and higher turnover. It’s an issue Kansas State University researchers are going to continue digging into.

When it comes to shoring up the teacher workforce for the long term, Nguyen says the education field will have to not only attract more people to teacher university programs but also incentivize people to stay. But, he adds, it’s about more than the numbers.

“In the long run, we need to think about changing the narrative of what it means to be a teacher in this country,” he says. “Teachers should be respected, and the salary should match the level of experience they have. If we don’t, it’s hard to see how we change the overall picture. If we can increase salary, prestige and respect, if we can increase production and lower turnover, that would help vacancy and underqualified teacher rates.”


The Role of Technology in Personalized Learning

Personalized learning has been a buzzword in education since the turn of the century. But what does it really mean? This past fall, I met with several education leaders to discuss this very topic and codify what it looks like in the classroom.

Defining personalized learning

Technology is associated with personalized learning for a variety of reasons. As we can’t truly be a one-to-one ratio teacher to student, using devices becomes important to help student learning be genuinely personal. Lindsey Blass, an education specialist at Adobe , mentions that it’s much more than students plugging into devices while following some self-guided playlist. “We see personalized learning as students really having agency and ownership in their learning experience,” she shared.

Students thrive when they have a choice in what they learn and how they engage with the content.

Differentiation plays a role in the definition of personalized learning as well. Zareen Poonen Levien, the director of digital learning at San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), suggests that technology can be leveraged to fully engage a student to give them choice and creativity. “A really important part of it is that students feel like they belong and have a place in the classroom,” she shared. Studies do show that deeper learning happens when students have this sense of being understood.

Student agency also plays an important role in personalized learning. Students thrive when they have a choice in what they learn and how they engage with the content, such as “having a way for them to demonstrate their learning that makes the most sense for them,” adds Rebecca Hare, a community engagement manager at Adobe. Identifying all these different pathways for students to demonstrate their learning is the basis for high-quality personalized learning.

The current state of education and why personalized learning matters

Zareen Poonen Levien
Director of Digital Learning, San Francisco USD

Identifying personalized learning practices is the first step, but putting those practices into action can seem challenging. Teachers who feel overwhelmed while also managing district and state mandates will struggle to create an optimal personalized learning environment. Levien works in a large urban district and has seen firsthand the struggles of teaching and learning during and after Covid with interrupted classes and student absenteeism, symptoms of the trauma and uncertainty many students felt.

This year, we’ve also seen an influx of new teachers as many experienced teachers have left the profession. While it’s exciting to have fresh energy, it also means a lack of support staff to truly help with interventions and extensions of learning. So without this support, creating an environment where students have that sense of agency and belonging is essential. Technology plays a major role in increasing engagement and getting students excited about their learning.

One major takeaway from the pandemic is that we don’t necessarily need to do direct synchronous instruction all the time. Hare mentions using video to record short, direct teaching sessions, allowing students to rewatch lessons at their own pace and time. It also allows the teacher to make more time for one-on-one or small-group interactions.

Students aren’t the only ones who need to feel empowered in their learning. Blass mentions how important it is for teachers to also feel that sense of ownership and choice when it comes to how they teach and learn.

Lindsey Blass
Adobe Education Specialist

Steps for schools to go from traditional to personal

San Francisco USD dedicated much time and energy to bringing personalized learning into the classroom. They met with staff, students, leaders and parents to interview their community and figure out what personalized learning truly meant.

“The first step is identifying the ideal state [of personalized learning] and then recognizing the current state to identify that gap in between,” Blass says. This process takes much more than just a single person or department. It is a collaboration from all stakeholders, determining mission-driven actionable steps.

What an ideal personalized learning space looks like

Just like instructional practices, the environment can strongly affect personalized learning outcomes. An ideal space is flexible so that the students can create, make, debate, collaborate and ultimately engage in the activities. “There is no magical stool or table that’s going to fix this for everybody,” Hare states. Rather than hanging posters on the wall for the entire year, have students put their artifacts for learning on display instead. Small touches, like letting students choose the song of the day for when they enter the classroom, give them a little extra ownership in the classroom environment.

Rebecca Hare
Adobe Community Engagement Manager

While it’s easy to see physical changes like extra devices and flexible furniture, Hare mentions how important it is to invest time in teachers’ mindsets before you purchase. It doesn’t take a lot from the budget to make some small shifts in the learning environment to make it more personalized. One extra consideration that Blass mentioned was that as a teacher, it’s acceptable to create your own space in the classroom. Teachers spend most of their waking hours in their classroom, so why not make it a more comfortable and creative space?

Watch the full “The Role of Technology in Personalized Learning” webinar on-demand now.

Making personalized learning ubiquitous

One of the challenges of personalized learning is getting all the teachers in a building to buy in and believe in what is possible. Giving teachers a chance to see each other in action is much more impactful than attending a training discussing personalized learning theory. Getting substitute teachers so that teachers can observe others is one way, but in SFUSD, they also utilize video. Since many of the teachers were already comfortable with Zoom due to the pandemic, recording themselves and sharing with colleagues is a simple and less intimidating option.

The role of technology in personalized learning

The main purpose of this webinar was to discuss the role technology plays in personalized learning. While it certainly plays a role, it’s really about finding “the tools that enable the right behavior,” Levien mentions. This is beyond using adaptive software; it’s about making thinking visible.

Schools owe it to students to give them opportunities to be producers more than consumers, a skillset that will serve them well in their futures.

The panel also mentions that it’s important for staff to have a core set of tools to use. We want to give students choices regarding tools to make their learning visible. However, we can also overwhelm them with options. A school doesn’t need to have 50 different apps for creating. Focusing on creative tools like Adobe Express allows students to do many things, like making a website, portfolio or video to express their learning, all within one program.

Honing in on a few evergreen tools that can be used in multiple subjects with multiple outputs rather than giving students lots of consumptive tools, personalized learning focuses on the tools that invite creativity. Schools owe it to students to give them opportunities to be producers more than consumers, a skillset that will serve them well in their futures. That’s a goal of any technology used in a personalized environment: to encourage individual student growth in authentic competencies.


The Power of Microcredentials and America’s Higher Education Dilemma

This semester, the Community College of Aurora rolled out the first microcredentials in its history. These short courses offer students the opportunity to study behavioral health, which aligns with jobs in our region related to human services, sociology, counseling, psychology and social work.

Community colleges, which have historically served as comprehensive institutions offering associate degrees with transfer articulation agreements to four-year colleges, have also served as workforce drivers through their array of educational credit and non-credit courses. However, as industry and technology have evolved rapidly, inadequate higher education funding and rising costs due to inflation have affected higher education’s responsiveness.

In order to understand the significance of microcredentials, their ability to help meet workforce demands , and the dilemma these short-term credentials are causing to traditional higher education, we must first walk through the ways college has evolved during its nearly 400 years of history in our nation.

Origins of Higher Education in America

From the establishment of Harvard University, America’s first university, in 1636, higher education in America was designed with an original purpose that differs greatly from the realities of today. Prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, nine institutions of higher learning known as the Colonial Colleges were established. Most were designed to educate clergy, according to research by Phillip R. Shriver.

Fast forward to 1862, the Morrill Land Grant College Act set aside federal lands to create colleges to benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts . In honor of Native Americans, it is important to note that by signing the act, more than 10 million acres were expropriated from the tribal lands of Native communities and assigned for the development of land-grant institutions. According to historian Benjamin T. Arrington, in 1860 the economic value of enslaved peoples in the U.S. exceeded the invested value of all of the nation’s railroads, factories and banks combined. Interestingly, on the eve of the Civil War, cotton prices were at an all-time high . While the Civil War wouldn’t end for several years, strategically, the Morrill Act positioned the U.S. to transition away from human slavery as its dependent workforce for crop production and infrastructure development .

From 1890 to 1940, higher education in the U.S. experienced what Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz describe as the “formative years .” As their research describes, “technological shocks” that swept the “knowledge industry” widened the scale of concentration, public funding and support for higher education’s increased scope of service to society.

The Expansion of America’s Higher Education System

During this same period of time, a new class of wealthy industrialists and a prosperous middle class was birthed as a result of industrialization and a population boom. According to the National Library of Medicine , at the beginning of the 19th century, the world’s population exceeded 1 billion people for the first time. By 1920, the world had surpassed 2 billion people.

In the U.S. alone, the population grew from more than 92 million in 1910 to more than 226 million in 1980. After World War II and the Vietnam War, America’s residents had grown by more than 145 percent. The country grew from having more than 500 institutions of higher education during the 1869-1870 school year to more than 3,000 by the end of the 1980s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With such industrial, technological, infrastructural, societal and economic growth occurring in the country, higher education became seen as a key pathway to success.

America’s Workforce Dilemma

During the 2019-2020 academic year, U.S. postsecondary institutions conferred about 5.1 million awards , according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Ranging from certificates below the associate degree level to doctorate degrees, these credentials were conferred by public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit institutions.

Clearly, the country’s higher education system has come a long way. However, as we envision the future of higher education , there are numerous factors converging on society that will forever affect the sector, as well as Americans’ trust that college has a positive effect on the country.

The U.S. economy regained the 25 million jobs it lost in the pandemic. But in dozens of states, employment still lags pre-pandemic levels. Why? Well, the American workforce is shrinking . According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2022 nearly 3 million fewer Americans were participating in the labor force compared to February of 2020.

To further complicate matters, the U.S. birth rate has been declining since the 1970s. Despite the U.S. economy reporting the addition of 4.8 million jobs in 2022, there simply aren’t enough people in the job market to fill these roles. And as of 2021 , more than half of the U.S. population aged 25 or older had not completed a bachelor’s degree. This means not only does America lack an available workforce, it lacks a prepared workforce.

Here is where microcredentials serve as a powerful and timely solution.

The Power of Microcredentials

Microcredentials are incremental qualifications that demonstrate skills, knowledge or experience in a specific subject area or capability, as defined in a Forbes article . These innovative awards can offer an alternative to traditional credentialing like certificates, diplomas and grades by recognizing discrete skill development via digital icons called badges, according to an article published by the journal TechTrends.

With such a large share of the current and emerging American workforce lacking a credential, and growing industry needs for workers, recently the Colorado Community College System and my institution, the Community College of Aurora, partnered with Educational Design Lab to develop five behavioral health microcredential pathways. Designed in direct partnership with local industry partners, like Aurora Mental Health & Recovery, these microcredentials serve as a critical instrument to increasing workforce preparedness in our region.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation , only about a third of the need for mental health professionals in Colorado is currently met, driving demand for additional qualified behavioral health workers. By offering microcredential pathways in patient navigation, peer support specialist, behavioral health associate, and behavioral health+, these new credentials are designed to address Colorado’s mental health workforce shortage by preparing people for these roles in less than one year.

They are also designed to be affordable. With microcredentials ranging in length from three to 18 credit hours, resident tuition ranges from $600 to $3,000, with financial assistance available. Compared to the cost of average tuition and fees at public four-year universities, which comes out to $9,400, these microcredentials create more affordable academic options that lead to economic mobility and high returns on investment for students.

In describing her collaboration with my institution, Kelly Phillips-Henry, CEO of Aurora Mental Health & Recovery, shared, “Our relationship with Community College of Aurora exemplifies the best in finding workforce solutions. Together we dug into the details to develop curriculum and training experiences that prepare students to meet the requirements for specific job responsibilities in behavioral health.”

On the institution side, Jennifer E. Dale, dean of Online and Blended Learning at the college, expressed, “Our industry relationships were critical in the development of these microcredentials. Once drafted, we returned to our industry partners to review and revise that curriculum to ensure our students would learn the key competencies needed in their entry-level positions, as well as set students up for success as they continue their educational pursuits.”

Considerations and Complex Realities

When building these innovative pathways, it is imperative for institutions of higher education to work in direct partnership with the industry partner prior to and during the development of the microcredentials. Such collaboration will ensure a seamless pathway for students seeking to obtain the critical skills and knowledge necessary to obtain their desired job. Furthermore, such collaboration will promote instructional alignment with the knowledge, skills and abilities that industries need from their workers.

Herein lies the dilemma. By nature of the credential’s design, students are encouraged to pursue these short-term credentials as an alternative to the traditional academic pathway. Critically speaking, the speed of these programs will not proficiently train students on soft (or essential ) skills such as teamwork, interpersonal relations, complex thinking, or emotional intelligence. Furthermore, whether built as credit-bearing or non-credit pathways, microcredentials are by no means a substitute for the intensiveness or comprehensiveness of traditional higher education pathways.

However, systematic credentialing redesign is a necessary step toward America addressing its own workforce shortage . As described by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce , if every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have 4 million open jobs. With such a high level of imbalance, all solutions should be welcomed.


We Can’t Keep ChatGPT Out of the Classroom, so Let’s Address the ‘Why’ Behind Our Fears

Recently, I was in a meeting with department chairs and administrators at my high school. We were discussing the agenda when the topic of ChatGPT elicited a collective groan. It had only been a few weeks into the semester, and we had already sent dozens of students’ names to administrators to report this new version of plagiarism. After discussing revisions to our existing policies, a colleague added, “We have to go back to old-school methods. It’s time for handwritten essays in class without devices. That’s the only way to get around this.”

I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed in other professional circles I follow, and I wince at the prospect every time. In these same conversations, I hear teachers eager to revert back to timed writing by hand, the five-paragraph essay, and other formulaic approaches to writing. While I understand their concern about the threat of ChatGPT, is this really how we create possibilities for our students to grow as writers? How can students thrive if we place even more restrictions on their already-clipped wings?

The Source of Teachers’ Concerns

Years ago, I learned about artificial intelligence (AI) assistance in student writing in an online forum for English teachers. We used to wring our hands about its ability to paraphrase work for students. When ChatGPT was released last November, the group’s concern quickly shifted to panic. Teachers tested prompt after prompt, and while the essays ChatGPT spit out weren’t exemplary, it was human enough for students to pass the work off as their own.

Like most hand-wringing, though, I suspect that teachers are not actually worried about students cheating or their jobs becoming obsolete; after all, cheating is nothing new . As we returned from winter break, knowing our students were armed with this information, we were more concerned about what might happen when our students no longer interacted with the skills developed in our courses.

My favorite moments are always when a student arrives to class breathless telling me they’ve scrapped an entire essay. “I was in the middle of research and realized I was completely wrong. Can I start over?” Or when they ask, “So if I’m writing to this senator, I have to actually find out what she thinks first, right?” Formulaic writing, especially tasks completed within the span of a class period, robs students of the opportunities to consider their audience and think strategically about their argument and voice. Like many teachers who grappled with ChatGPT, my initial concerns were that these moments would become another casualty of AI.

Pulling Back the Curtain

As publication after publication announced the end of my career and the discipline I love so dearly, I knew ChatGPT wasn’t just another round in the long game of whack-a-mole we play when it comes to preventing students from cheating. The more I played with the interface and read about ChatGPT’s less famous – but potentially more effective – cousins, the more I realized that my efforts to curb cheating would soon become futile.

So, I did what I usually do when I need to find hope for the future : I turned to my students. I prepared a few Socratic Seminars about their impressions of AI and its potential implications for the future of writing and education. Then, I pulled back the curtain, and we played with ChatGPT as a class for the first time.

I asked students to enter the same essay prompt they’d written back in October into ChatGPT, then compare their work to ChatGPT’s instant essay. They scored ChatGPT’s work using the same College Board rubric their essays were evaluated against. Once they were done scoring, the students determined that the computer was no match, confirming that it lacked the specificity, musicality and soul that their writing exhibits. Over the past year, we’ve been unlearning some of the restrictive practices of formulaic writing that students have been taught since elementary school. As it turns out, ChatGPT studied these same formulaic patterns, and the students picked up on them instantly.

“Look,” a student pointed out in one seminar. “It has nice transitions and everything, but it’s not saying anything.” Though I’m sure my students will still be tempted by the siren’s call of AI assistance to circumvent other assignments, I’m proud they have developed a discerning taste for writing that says something.

In a way, systems that favor formulaic writing have created this monster. ChatGPT learned from uninspired and methodical prose, and now students finally have a tool to fight back against the low bar set for them in the five-paragraph essay. This format has trained our students to write in standardized formats, and we shouldn’t be surprised that a robot has suddenly turned into one of our most consistent students.

What Matters More to Students

Since our first seminars about AI, we’ve returned to ChatGPT, whom I affectionately referred to as our “new student” in the classroom. Recently, we were reading a speech by Nikki Giovanni, and I wanted to practice a new way of approaching conclusion paragraphs. We asked it to write us a rhetorical analysis essay to work from so we could focus on our conclusions. They all balked at what it churned out. “That’s not even what she’s doing in her speech! It’s totally simplifying it!”

As we moved through these seminars, my students helped me realize I was focusing on the wrong tensions in the debate around ChatGPT. Instead, I was reminded how my students face pressure from multiple sources to chase the perfect resume, oftentimes to the detriment of their mental and physical health . It is not our careers and subjects on the line but rather our students’ relationship to writing and the lack of compelling and purposeful reasons we’re giving them to write in the first place. For students who have the weight of the world on their shoulders, why would they spend their limited time writing about which character is the tragic hero in a book they only pretended to read for class discussions? Why should students be excited to write when a specified number of sentences and paragraphs limits their voices?

This is not a call to abandon classic literature or rigorous expectations for writing. However, if students were able to explore the questions that matter to them in a format that best serves the writing goals they were empowered to establish, maybe they would be less tempted to outsource their writing to peers, essay mills and ChatGPT.

Focusing on Worthy Priorities

In my composition course, I often remind students that the test they prepare for at the end of the year is only the beginning of their writing journey. One day, they’ll be writing a speech for their best friend’s wedding, a eulogy for a loved one, a cover letter for a dream job or an introductory text on a dating app. Students deserve the opportunity to develop a sense of who they are as writers – how they generate ideas, which conditions are optimal for their ideas to flow and when it’s time to hit the delete button. If ChatGPT takes this opportunity from them, how will they ever have a chance to cultivate this skill and transfer it when it really matters?

As teachers grapple with the reality of ChatGPT becoming a permanent fixture in our students’ lives, it can be easy to lose sight of the larger goals that quality writing instruction aims to accomplish. However scared we may be, returning to old-school methods won’t solve the problem. Our students have valuable perspectives the world needs to hear. They deserve the opportunity to sharpen their voice and share their ideas with a broader audience, and they cannot do this if we place more limitations on their writing process.

ChatGPT offers us an opportunity to address our fears, release our fixation on preventing cheating and focus our attention on more worthy priorities: providing students with compelling reasons to write, inviting them to wrestle with important questions and crafting a piece of writing that cannot be mistaken for a robot’s work.


Inside the Quest to Detect (and Tame) ChatGPT

Since the release of ChatGPT, which can generate original text that seems like it was written by a human, educators have expressed concern about students using the tool to write their essays for them. So naturally, companies are rushing to create tools that they say can help detect when text is written by a bot.

But will these tools work? And even if they do at first, will this approach continue to be effective as AI gets more sophisticated?

Or does this new breed of AI require a new approach to checking for academic dishonesty?

On today’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we’re going behind the scenes on some up-to-the-minute efforts to detect ChatGPT — and other efforts to incorporate checks on the technology that would help educators.

To do that, EdSurge talked with educators and technologists at the forefront of exploring these questions, including:

  • Edward Tian, a senior at Princeton University who built a bot detector called GPTZero;
  • Eric Wang, vice president of AI at Turnitin, which plans to release an AI detector before the end of the academic year;
  • Alfred Guy, director of undergraduate writing at Yale University who is watching the growth of AI chatbots closely to see how to adjust his teaching;
  • and Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Khan Academy, which last week announced a new tool that attempts to incorporate the AI behind ChatGPT into its online system for students.

Their efforts to tame this powerful new technology show that the stakes are higher than how to check student work for cheating. What is the best way for educators to prepare students for a time when it will be hard to tell if anything you read has been written by a human or a bot?

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts , Overcast , Spotify , Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page.