Digital Curriculum | Feature

Budget Crisis Inspires Award Winning Curriculum Redesign at Byron Senior High School

Byron's homegrown math curriculum is available to students online any time they're ready to learn.

Byron High School faced a crisis when the state of Minnesota issued new student achievement standards. Byron's existing textbooks didn't meet state standards and they couldn't afford new books. So when Principal Michael Duffy's teachers came to him with a radical new idea.

Since they couldn't afford new textbooks, Byron High's math and science teachers offered to donate time to sift through the best free resources and create virtual textbooks. The kids would have access to the lessons 24/7 and the department would have lessons that met the new state standards. Duffy gave them his blessing.

Once the administration proved they were open to change, the teachers upped the stakes. In addition to virtual textbooks, why not add on YouTube videos of individual lessons? Kids would still have normal classroom instruction, but now they'd be able to rewind and fast-forward their teacher. No matter what time they did their homework, the teacher would be there to help them brush up on the day's lesson.

After countless donated hours of hard work, Byron High School adopted the teacher-initiated program. Although improvements in test scores can never be attributed directly to any one thing, the results at Byron have been impressive. In 2007, only 29.9 percent of Byron's 11th graders met the state's math proficiency requirements. In 2010, that number soared to 65.6 percent.

Since they were understandably proud of themselves, the teachers nominated Byron High for Intel's Schools of Distinction Award. In September, Byron was chosen as one of this year's six winners for their achievements in math education.

The award came with a $10,000 grant from Intel, a trip to the awards ceremony in Washington, DC, and a technology package with products from sponsors including SAS, Dell, BrainHoney, Pearson, BrainWare Safari, LanSchool, Smart, iCan, and Knowledge Delivery Systems.

With this award, Byron Senior High School made a 180-degree turn from being so desperate they couldn't afford textbooks to having a wealth of high tech resources they can share with the entire Byron school system. We talked to Principal Michael Duffy about the inspiration and evolution of his school's innovative and award-winning curriculum.

Chris-Rachael Oseland: What inspired you to make such a huge digital leap?

Michael Duffy: Our state standards were revised recently. We looked at our old textbooks and they didn't match. The textbooks only had about 30 percent of the material in the new standards. Honestly, we weren't happy with any of the currently available textbooks. They weren't directed at Minnesota standards.

We have identified with a laser focus things that are essential. We want to make sure our students can do those things before they can move on. We have a tight focus on the essentials. So we took those essential order outcomes and we decided textbooks weren't covering the material. Not only could we not find a textbook that covered all our essentials, we couldn't afford new textbooks.

Oseland: That must have been incredibly stressful.

Duffy: We're lucky to have an incredible staff. Our teachers came to us. They told the administration they saw an opportunity. We could sit down with the standards board and make sure we're covering the essential things, then search through multiple open textbook locations on the Internet to find the best examples of how to teach this one outcome. Instead of using one book, we would find one outcome from one book, another from a second, and gather them all together to make our curriculum.

There are lots of free textbooks out there and free teaching materials. They pulled together a custom-designed series to use in our classes.

Oseland: That sounds like a huge amount of work on top of their existing teaching load.

Duffy: The teachers donated tons of time in 2010. We got a small grant from the Byron Excellence foundation and bought a little bit of software to help support them.

Oseland: With your budget constraints, it sounds like they didn't have a lot of choice.

Duffy: This was all teacher-initiated. Our textbooks were out of date and on a cycle to be replaced and we didn't have the money. We had a technology director here who was supportive and could help us along the way. Our teachers volunteered to jump in and do this in order to help our kids. They came to administration and we said we'd remove all the roadblocks we could for them and make it as easy as possible. We did our part but they sure made it work.

Once they chose the lessons, the teachers asked us how we were going to deliver this material. We thought we'd hit print and put it in a folder. They weren't satisfied with that as an option. They thought there was a better way, so they suggested we make YouTube videos of all their lessons. Our building is only six years old. We had smart boards and sound systems geared for students who are hard of hearing. We can record straight off the smart boards. The picture of the teacher and their hand isn't there, but their voice and whatever they write on the board is recorded. There's no highly unusual video equipment. You hear the instructor off camera, you see the problem solving on the smart board and you can watch along.

Oseland: Do you record your own videos for every lesson or do you use existing resources such as the Khan academy?

Duffy: All the YouTube videos we use are original. Our teachers make them. They can reference the Khan academy. If a student wants to see another example of the lesson, [that's] a supplementary source. They also refer students to other teachers in their own department. They can say, "If you don't like the way I did it, go watch another teacher in our school and see how he did it." The teacher's attitude is that he doesn't care how you learn it, as long as you learn it.

A student can watch the video before they come to class. When the teacher does the same presentation in class, they're hearing it for a second time. They can go right on and do their homework problems in class. They can get support from their classmates. There's a solutions manual with step-by-step guidance online. We've tried to provide all the support for them.

Oseland: YouTube lessons require computers and bandwidth. Do all of your students have access to the right technology at home?

Duffy: We surveyed our kids and found that less than 2 percent didn't have access at home. Almost all of our kids have computers. If they don't have Internet [access], we put the video lessons on a thumb drive and they can take it home. We can also print things or let them watch the videos here at school.

Oseland: Doing away with textbooks is a big change. How did parents react?

Duffy: Honestly, we got a little resistance from people in the community, but not from parents. Parents jumped on the idea. Kids come home and say, "I can't do this problem, Dad, help me." Dad says, "I knew how to do this 20 years ago when I was in high school and can't remember it." Now, they can watch the video with their kids and it all comes back to them. Now parents and students and teachers are all using the same language, the same vocabulary, and it helps parents help their kids.

We opened up our technology so students can bring their cellphone, laptop, iPad, iTouch, all those kind of things, and use them in class. They're watching the videos on them and then go on and do the rest of their work. They can stop the video, back up, and watch that part again. It's like rewinding the teachers. You see kids on college campuses trying to record all their lessons, and write everything down. Our kids can focus on the lessons instead of on writing things down.

A student who is absent knows where to go, find the video, [and] watch the video they missed in class. They can show up tomorrow prepared for class rather than being a day behind.

Once banned, mobile devices are welcome in Byron high's classes, as long as they're being used for learning.

Oseland: A lot of schools have cellphone bans. How did people react to you going in the opposite direction and encouraging kids to bring their phones to class?

Duffy: People in the community thought all the kids would be doing was playing games. If they're caught playing games, we have disciplinary practices. The reality is kids are so used to cellphones being a tool in their life they don't even blink. We were kidding ourselves when we thought we could stop them. It wasn't realistic.

Some parents were worried we would be burning all the kids' cellphone minutes. We have two Wi-Fi systems here on campus, one for the teachers and one for the students. They can access all our lessons wirelessly without burning their minutes. It uses our bandwidth instead, but that's what it's for.

Oseland: How have the kids reacted to the change?

Duffy: We still have some infractions. Under our old policy, if you took your cellphone out and held it during class, that was a misuse. Now, if you use it for learning, we're good with that. It comes back to asking what is your concern? Is it that they're misusing technology or just that they have it at all? They can use it for learning.

Oseland: How does the emphasis on technology change the learning environment for kids?

Duffy: First of all, it puts learning on their time lines. It used to be we were here from seven in the morning to three in the afternoon. Now we're open 24 hours a day. Kids can access the videos at midnight. Others can do it at six in the morning before they come to school. We don't have the highest demand at two in the morning, but if that's when they're doing homework we're here.

We can track which kids are online, how many minutes they're online, and which videos they're watching. We can also see when they access the solution manual and what part they're using.

Many of the resources we're talking about aren't costing us any money. We use an open source software program, the YouTube videos are free, the solution manuals are free.

The biggest change is one teacher watching another's video. As a professional development tool, it's similar to the Chinese lesson design where teachers learn from each other and build their systems stronger and stronger without having to sit in on classes. They can watch the videos instead.

We do have some students watching videos from other classes. I have students say I don't like how my teacher presents it but I do like how another teacher does. This system lessens that luck of the draw aspect of school where if you have a teacher who teaches with your learning style, you win. Now, you can watch both videos and you've got it. Your learning style and your teacher's learning style are both there. It's not luck of the draw anymore.

Oseland: Do you plan on expanding the program outside math and science?

Duffy: Yes. The equipment and supplies that we won as one of Intel's Schools of Distinction, it's not something just a high-schooler can use. These are resources we can use system wide. SAS has software for English, social studies and Spanish for a 6-12 curriculum. They're going to teach us how to use that and how to embed it into the curriculum we already use. It's tremendous.

Oseland: You said you wanted to create a laser focus on essential order outcomes. Have you seen any measurable improvements in student performance?

Duffy: Yes. At one point we were below the state average in ACT scores. Now we're above the state averages.

The district added data coaches. We have five people in the building who crunch all those numbers so we can make informed decisions. They take all the different sources of data and compile it into trends. We can ask them to do studies to compare [grade 6 students] or we can follow them from [grade 3] up with the same kids as [a] growth model. We have a vast amount of data. They help us interpret it to make it useful.

Oseland: Do you have any non-statistical indicators that kids are really learning and retaining more under your new system?

Duffy: We have tremendous anecdotal data from students. Lots are reporting they like it because they can review the material. If they're trying to factor a quadratic equation, sometimes they need to go back and review a method they learned in 8th grade. Maybe they're doing a complex equation and need to learn how to multiply fractions. For those sort of things, there's no scoring. We're hearing from students that they like it. We're hearing from parents that they like the videos because a lot of them can't remember the vocabulary term from when they were in school. Now they can watch the videos with their kids and still be part of the learning process.

It's very frustrating to have parents come to conferences and say, "Well, I hated math too." This gives the parents the tools to help themselves. They can feel smart and knowledgeable in front of their kids.

Oseland: You've credited YouTube, cellphones and virtual textbooks for your success. Are there any non-technological parts of the program you believe led to its success?

Duffy: Teachers. You have to have amazing, motivated teachers who love this stuff. We went out to celebrate a little after the Intel awards. The superintendent and I were sitting with five teachers and our IT person. Forty-five minutes after we received the award, they were huddled around saying, "Here's an improvement we can make and here's what we can change." The superintendent and I stood back and said, "Let's get out of their way." Forty-five minutes later and all they can think about is making it better.

If we tried to force the teachers to do this from the top down it wouldn't have worked. The teachers came to us. That's what really made it happen. There's no way we could've made them do this. They knew our problem. They came up with a solution. It was all driven by them.

With the award, one of the big things Intel looked for was something that could be replicated in other schools without a huge budget expenditure. I can't say the smart boards are commonplace, but the Internet is there in every classroom. A recording system can be very simple. It's not an expensive program in technology dollars. It's expensive in staff hours. The time people put in to do this was huge. More and more there's free software out there and free public information sources where you can pick and choose the information you want. There are great resources for free teaching materials. What we did was take the time to pull it all together while retaining a laser focus on the outcomes.

Oseland: Were there any controls in place to give you concrete data on how the new technology impacted student achievement?

Duffy: We've only had the program in place for one school year. In one of our calculus classes, the teacher is using the exact same test from before the change. The student score gains this year are substantial. That's one of our internal tests.

Oseland: Are you reusing all of the same tests from the year before the technology change?

Duffy: No. Some of the tests are different. Where we do use the same tests, we compare the data. The students who take the tests under the new program do much better than students did before. We'll need more than one year to have more data.

Oseland: What are your plans for the future?

Duffy: I want to focus on two areas. One is to use this notoriety to help other schools say, "Maybe we can do some of that." We want to do what we can to help other schools adapt part of what we're doing. The other part is I want to spread it within our own district. I want it to grow as a culture that is curriculum wide. The excitement is going to carry on. This is a watershed moment for our district.

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