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Celebrating One Who Got Away

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A onetime district technology director, Ramona Pierson has taken her expertiseto the private sector. Her work, and her exit, are something we can learn from.

Ramona Pierson“IT IS SAVING MY LIFE from the assessment pointof view.”

The it that Ken Pendergrass, a music teacher at Frantz H. Coe Elementary School in the Seattle Public Schools, is referring to is Learn, a social-networking gathering hole for students, parents, and teachers that is tucked into a secured part of the district’s website, a student information system called The Source. The evolution of the site is the story of an incredible innovator who passed through the education system all too swiftly.

Ramona Pierson is—or was—the brain and the leader behind Learn and The Source. She began her technical career in the military, working in aviation. Unfortunately, she was hit by a drunk driver in 1984, resulting in multiple surgeries, a fractured leg bone that required titanium to be installed, a loss in weight that left her below 70 pounds when she was discharged from the hospital, and blindness. The blindness was partially relieved when, after 10 years, surgical techniques improved sufficiently to ease the pressure on her optic nerve.

Pierson found considerable professional success as a neuropsychologist, and motivated by her own vision deficiencies, took to developing assistive software for those with impaired sight. Another career shift led her to Silicon Valley, where she worked inventing intelligent software solutions.

After deciding to try her hand in education, Pierson joined the Seattle Public Schools, where she worked in several different capacities, ending up as the district’s director of educational technology, research, evaluation, and assessment.

Responding to the need for a tool that could provide information to parents about how their kids are performing, Pierson and her team created The Source. Accessible to teachers, parents, and students, The Source became a data warehouse full of grades, attendance, homework, and test scores. The SIS grew over three years to include student learning plans tied to a student’s ID number, summer school enrollment tools, a developmental reading assessment, a grade book, reporting tools for the grade book and all test data, and plenty more. One early benefit of the system that drew the attention of principals and teachers was the reduction in the time needed to get test results “cleaned” and available for parents and teachers in decipherable reports. The four months the process took using the old SPSS statistical program was shaved to a week and a half with The Source’s reporting tools.

In building The Source, Pierson and her team heard about other needs of teachers and parents. They set up focus groups and began to design what was to become Learn—think MySpace for students, teachers, and parents. Teachers and students can use Learn to upload video, podcasts, blogs, etc., and comment on them. Even more important, however, is that Pierson was able to link the Web 2.0 features of Learn to the SIS data on The Source.

This is where the system is a lifesaver to Ken Pendergrass and hundreds of other Seattle teachers. The state of Washington is implementing a policy concerning testing in the fine arts. School districts will be required to create classroombased performance assessments benchmarked at grades 5, 8, and 10. (The state will be introducing a similar system for social studies.) Music teachers such as Pendergrass are to record students’ scores and match those against rubrics created by the state. Districts do not send the scores to the state, but they must assure the state that students have taken the assessments and that the results are available through the district. The state does not have a standard way for districts to store these performance assessments.

After learning that the new state requirement would be piloted in 2008, Pierson decided to use Learn as a repository. Now Pendergrass and his colleagues record students’ performances, upload them to Learn—a secure site—and tag each one to the appropriate student’s identification within The Source. In addition, the state rubric automatically pops up, and, using radio buttons, teachers can evaluate each student’s performance; the performance and the evaluation are automatically stored. After logging in to The Source, parents can use their child’s unique identifier and gain access to the performance and the evaluation.

What did it take to do all this? The first year, 1.5 FTEs were devoted to The Source. The following two years or so, that figure was ramped up to a total of 4 FTEs. There was no dedicated budget. Pierson would negotiate for FTEs with other departments that were seeking solutions her team could provide through the innovative use of technology. Pierson was able to accomplish this by practicing skills she learned in the private sector; by using a systems approach to developing solutions that scale; by working incredibly long and productive hours; and by involving all the stakeholders in the creation of the products. In short, as they say on car and truck commercials: “PROFESSIONAL DRIVER. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.”

As you may have noticed, unfortunately I’ve been speaking in the past tense. Having outgrown the school system, Pierson left Seattle Public Schools this summer to start her own company, Synapticmash. She already is building products for schools and companies serving education, one of which will roll out in February.

And this brings a regrettable ending to what I wish was an unmitigated celebration of one of education’s best and brightest. Pierson’s exit raises a pressing question: What can we do to keep smart, driven, dedicated technology people with a passion for education in education?Maybe for someone such as Pierson, someone with high ambitions and always looking for additional challenges, we can’t offer enough. But is there something in our culture that is unwelcoming to innovators and their innovations?

I raise the question during the same month T.H.E. Journal honors its annual class of Innovators. I am not sure how we can hold on to this select group of pioneering educators. But if we don’t, I fear we will not make the progress that we must. To return to a George Bernard Shaw quote that I have used before: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Hanging on to the unreasonable people in our midst may be the very thing we need to do.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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