USA: Dr Allan C Jones

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Dr Allan C Jones - Emaginos Inc

Dr Allan C Jones describes how the innovative Tracy Schools model is delivering a vision of a transformed education system.

A career technology leader and educator with a history of management and innovation, Allan Jones has designed and implemented education programs that received national recognition and validation by the U.S. Department of Education. He taught high school mathematics for 7 years and subsequently served on the School Board in Oxford Massachusetts. Following several education and technology roles, he spent three years as Chief Information Officer at The Westminster Schools, a large, affluent, independent K-12 day school, in Atlanta, GA. A meeting with Jack Taub revealed a shared vision, and Allan Jones has been working on transforming K12 education ever since.


Educational Transformation

Dr Allan Jones is a long-term advocate of the need to transform education, believing that is self-evident that existing approaches are now outdated and that previous attempts to implement change have not succeeded:

"I recognized early on that our education systems are failing to prepare young people for the modern world. The system doesn't need reforming - it is so reformed, it is not a system anymore".

Using the intriguing metaphor of a luxury liner, he describes the attempts of both programs and politicians as:

"... tug boats behind or hanging on the side of the 'boat of education', resulting in a boat that is dead in the water".

Allan Jones argues the case for "transformation, a clean slate" and states the importance of
"... technology enhanced learning environments where the kids are engaged physically, actively and intellectually".

He describes his work at the Tracy school, where their innovative and technologically advanced teaching methods have moved them away from traditional teaching and curriculum. He explains:

"In the Tracy school we are dedicated to transforming K12 education and not to fixing a school. Our goal is to fix K12 public education, where scalability and adaptability are fundamental requirements".


The Tracy Model - Project-Based Learning With Integrated Technology

The Tracy model supports project-based teaching in small groups, where the children benefit from teachers who "know them and understand them"and largely opposes the use of textbooks, which Allan Jones characterizes as

"expensive, outdated and irrelevant as they focus on a single discipline, while projects have many disciplines".

He describes the process of project work as creating a powerful learning environment because students don't just acquire information or data, but solve problems and start to explore the application and manipulation of knowledge. He believes that projects help teach students

"... all those essential skills... research, analysis and validation, they learn to communicate, influence and work in teams."

Allan believes that with project-based learning at the heart of the model, the role of the teacher changes dramatically because

"They are not locked into somebody else's curriculum and instead they can use and exchange their own ideas - they thrive as teachers".

As well as addressing the needs of the 21st century learner with a new approach to curriculum, Allan Jones is also keen to point out that the school has an important role to play in taking care of an individual's needs in the widest sense. He recognizes that socio-economic factors are hugely influential in terms of an individual's educational prospects, and as an example emphasizes the importance of health:

"You can't be a good student if you are not healthy and by providing treatment in school you don't have to stay out of school to go to the doctor. This is of huge value to students, teachers and parents and reduces the health care cost for the whole K12 population".

Additionally, they have a wellness program built into the curriculum which teaches kids the importance of health and nutrition, and have made a point of providing students with nutritious lunches in school not allowing soda machines on campus; simple but important and effective measures that help address the health of the school population.

Allan Jones is convinced that their model is not only hugely beneficial in terms of delivering a valuable, relevant education experience to the student, but - crucially - scalable:

"What is wonderful is that we can figure out how to help these kids and we could be doing it tomorrow. We've been working with a company that delivers online education and professional development to teachers and can train as many as 500,000 teachers a year",

a number he thinks is achievable.

An often-mentioned reason for retention of the status quo in education is money. But with regards to budgeting concerns and the implementation the Tracy model, Allan Jones is bullish about his ability to deal with this issue head-on:

"Our goal is to transform all education in 10 years and within the existing budget. The Tracy School is running at 75% of what it costs to run other schools in the district. We do this by having far fewer administrators and clerical staff and we don't have guidance counselors at all... providing students with guidance on careers and college is part of the teaching function".


Barriers To Change

Allan Jones, along with many others concerned with educational reform or transformation, believes that one of the "biggest barriers to educational reform" is teachers' unions. He argues that by their very nature, unions gravitate towards small-scale reform measures as opposed to systemic change, explaining that:

"We have created remedial classes, after school programs or pre-school programs that are all ways to fix problems that were systemic".

He explains that:

"At the Tracy school, we went back, looked at the whole system and fixed the causes rather than keep the symptoms at bay".

and goes on to explain how technology is playing a fundamental role in delivering his vision of effective education for the 21st century.


Technology In The Classroom - A Fully Integrated Approach

Allan Jones is quite clear that technology has an important role to play in delivering education, and is insistent that it must be embedded across the whole school if it is to be used effectively. This includes not only delivery of content to learners, but assessment of students' progress, which has profound implications in that it allows teachers to maintain a constant understanding of an individual's progress.

There are practical issues to consider here, and Allan argues that the previous 'buy it outright and maintain it until it falls down' approach is no longer viable or necessary when considering technology in the classroom:

"In a typical school district when the equipment gets old, they apply for a bond to replace it and spread the spending over three years. As a result, when the technology gets old and unreliable, they have no money to replace it."

He adds that this has a knock-on effect for the teacher:

"In turn, when a teacher is faced with unreliable technology, they will choose not to use it and avoid the disruption caused by the technological breaking down".

At the Tracy school they recognized that if it is to work for the student, the teacher and the school, technology needs to be reliable, and that probably means replacing infrastructure every three years. Allan adds that it costs more to fix old technology than to replace it and explains that high quality on-site support is also important, describing how they have developed an innovative approach to this issue which meets the needs of the school whilst simultaneously giving students valuable real-world experience:

"We provide core tech program where students are trained to maintain the technology and support teachers. In turn they are getting paid twice the minimum wage, offered half of their pay at the time and the other half upon graduation".

For Allan Jones, technology is also a tool with which to empower the teacher, something he recognizes as motivating and powerful in helping achieve Tracy's overall aims:

"We offer teachers the tools to do assessments in real time and get real time reports on students' progress. We also give them the authority to make changes immediately".

Finally he explains that this innovative approach to technology has helped deal with the issue of resistance to new ways of doing things from teachers' unions:

"We have teachers unions behind us because teachers are treated like professionals and get paid more because they work longer and have greater responsibility".


The Future: Research-Based Transformation

Dr. Allan Jones describes his future plans and aspirations for transforming education in compelling terms. Firstly, he explains how he and his colleagues have encouraged the formation of a special commission - The Commission to transform K12 Education - and states that

"The commission is not committed to our individual company but to enabling people to support the transformation of K12 education independently".

He also outlines the formation of a new research center - the Discovery and Innovation Center in Sacramento - which will commission research into education and using an open source model:

"We are going to be an open research center, where all the info will be available and published because the power lies in what you do with the information".

He explains that many research institutions concerned with education focus on specific areas, resulting in a fragmented understanding of issues:

"Many universities do research on education and typically identify specific areas and focus only on them i.e. special education or technology... our research center is going to be looking at systemic solutions".

He adds that this research is key to the overall model, explaining that by capturing data across the whole education experience, informed decisions about the day to day running of a school can be made:

"We operate a continuous improvement model, using an online data gathering system, and I believe this means we have the best student info system available".

He explains that the software in place will

"... gather data and provide real time analysis of data that goes back to the teacher and research center, so if anything goes wrong, we will fix it tomorrow".

And suggests that the richness of this research data will be invaluable in helping schools and teachers modify their activities to deliver a continuously improving education:

"Longer term, this (data) will show us how to change the way teachers teach, change the way teachers themselves are learning and practicing in a project-based environment. This is not a simple solution, but you do not solve this by fixing pieces; you have to have a systemic approach".




A Grassroots Approach To Education

Finally, Allan Jones acknowledges that parents must be included in any movement towards profound change in education, and describes how he is using social networking and digital media as tools to reach not only parents, but other key stakeholders in this discussion:

"We put together some videos on YouTube with the collaboration of Blue State Digital, the people who ran the Obama campaign. We are really focused on grassroots support - working bottom up and not just top down".

Allan and his colleagues do not see themselves as the 'silver bullet' for education, nor as the only viable solution, but were compelled to act due to an apparent lack of ambition or capacity from other providers:

"We realized early on that we need to get political and industry support, a broad base support... we know a politician cannot get behind a single vendor or company, but we had to become vendors because nobody else was stepping up to solve the problem".

He concludes our interview with a statement of confidence about the potential of the Tracy Schools model, shifting attention back onto the major participants in the education debate; the people who, ultimately, will decide the future of education:

"Our expectation and almost our fear is that we will get to a point where we can't meet demand... If you were a parent and saw what is possible, you would want your kids there, today".