Mooresville Graded School District, near Charlotte, North Carolina, has become a national leader over the last decade in using digital learning tools to improve student achievement. Use of classroom technology, such as providing every student in grades kindergarten through 12 with access to a laptop or tablet for home and school use, has been credited with helping to elevate graduation rates and close the achievement gap for poor students, all while keeping the district’s per pupil spending around $7,000 per year.
The leader of the district’s digital learning efforts, Mark Edwards, has served as superintendent of the 6,000-student school district since 2007. Edwards recently announced that he will be leaving his post to serve as senior vice president of digital learning at Discovery Education, based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The Hechinger Report spoke with Edwards about Mooresville’s successes and how they could be replicated in other public schools.
Looking back on your time as superintendent, what do you think made Mooresville’s digital learning programs so successful?
I really think the key to our success has been building a really strong culture within the school system. It is associated with our motto, “every child, every day.” A lot of people say that’s a cliché. But actually, it really became the cornerstone of our work and aligned with our digital conversion. We’ve had thousands of people visit here, and when I look back over the decade, we have never had one visitor who commented, “Wow, these are really cool laptops.” Almost every visitor who comes through talks about the culture, whether it’s the student engagement, the efficacy of teachers or the synergy of teamwork.
What does it take to establish that culture and make sure teachers and administrators are on board?
For one, it takes a lot of hard work. A lot of times, there’s this sense that building a strong culture is something associative to the foundation. But I think it’s primary. That means you have to work on building teams. That means having respect for each other, having the instincts and understanding around collaboration, creating a dynamic where people have a voracious appetite for learning and a real commitment to every child.
Is this something other public schools can do? What might be holding them back?
It’s hard work, and I think effective leaders, a superintendent or other leaders, understand that the culture of an organization matters. I do think it’s replicable. I can name several districts that we’ve worked with who, in their districts and their states, replicated it and have done a phenomenal job.
Building a focus on student achievement while using digital resources and creating conditions for teachers and schools to thrive are the key frames that are essential to building this out.
What are the best ways for schools to measure the success of a digital learning program?
From the very beginning, we tied it to measurable indicators: student achievement. We look at the North Carolina assessments. We had some significant areas of deficiency, where there were a high number of students who were not successful. So we really focused on that. We focused on graduation rates. We had some abysmal graduation rates. We built that up to the point where we have gone over 90 percent and stayed over 90 percent for seven consecutive years.
We looked at scholarships, because that’s an external indicator — if a university believes they can invest in a student. But it’s also an indicator of whether or not the student had the resources to apply for the scholarship. We have had a 350 percent increase in scholarships over the last nine years.
Finding the resources to get digital learning programs off the ground required the district to make tough decisions, such as eliminating teaching jobs and increasing class sizes. How did you make that work?
The community said. “We believe that this effort to bring equity for all students would be of vital importance.” We did have to make tough decisions, but for the last five consecutive years, we’ve ranked top three in the state in achievement, and yet we rank, currently, 101st in funding out of 115 districts. The whole time I’ve been here, we’ve been at the bottom of the state in funding, but we’ve been able to see some really phenomenal improvements and indicators of success for students.
To tell you the truth, our class sizes have been high and remain high, and funding in North Carolina has remained low, so it is a constant challenge.
Do you think there are limitations to classroom technology?
Two years ago, we initiated Gateway Projects at grades three, six, eight and 12. There’s a term research paper, students work with a mentor and ultimately build a multimedia presentation and do a stand-and-deliver. We have developed and integrated elements of this into our regular instructional process, where students are constantly giving presentations and having dialogues and debates. I think it’s important to realize that, as important and vital as a digital resource is, we cannot forget or diminish the importance of human dialogue and understanding how to collaborate.
I think it’s incumbent on teachers, principals, superintendents and boards to realize that the digital resources are important, but the human dynamic is still the driver. The key to our success here has not been a computer. It has been great teachers working with students who wanted to learn in a community that believed in both.
Is there anything you think you’ll be able to accomplish in your new role at Discovery Education that you weren’t able to accomplish as superintendent?
The CEO of Discovery Education, Bill Goodwyn, has always said that if we impact, in a positive way, teaching and learning, the business will take care of itself. It’s not the idea that we’re going to go pressure sales. If we help teachers, and help students, good things are going to happen. I heard him say that several years ago, and he still says it.
I’m a supporter of public education. I truly believe it’s the cornerstone of democracy and it’s of vital importance of the United States of America that we support public schools, teachers, principals, superintendents. And I hope that in a small way, I’ll be able to push that influence out further than I have here.