In the Business of Learning

A veteran educator focuses on implementing what schools actually need and want.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Discovery Education Karen Beerer.pngKaren Beerer began as a grade two elementary teacher, then also taught fifth grade, seventh grade and graduate level courses. She served as a reading specialist and an elementary principal as well as a Supervisor of Curriculum and Professional Development. More recently, she has served as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment in the Boyertown Area School District (PA) for eight years. Karen has a passion for professional development, specifically helping educators utilize research-based practices in instruction to ensure the achievement of all students. She received her Ed.D. from Lehigh University where she studied Curriculum and Instruction. Most notably, her experiences in two public schools in Pennsylvania in the areas of curriculum, instruction and assessment have resulted in higher achievement gains for students. In total, Karen has more than 30 years of experience in education. Today, she is Discovery Education’s Vice President of Learning and Development. Her enthusiasm is refreshing, and her in-the-trenches knowledge of education is revealing of a person with a passion for helping educators and students.

You believe “schools should not be in the business of implementing technology initiatives, but rather, only learning initiatives?” Could you expand on this?             

Karen: Absolutely! So, in my 30-plus years of experience as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent and now Vice President of Learning and Development at Discovery Education, the focus of my work has always been on improving student academic achievement. From Scantron tests to the use of VHS tapes to the introduction of digital white boards, technology was always a part of my work, as a critical tool. However, it was just that—a tool. My work as an educator never focused on the technology I was using to achieve my goal of ensuring the success of all students. Rather, my focus stayed squarely on students, and the technology was just one of the many resources I used to get us where we needed to go.

When we consider technology’s role in education today, we also need to consider the importance of the human element, and specifically the tremendous teachers behind each one of these stories.

So, when I work with school districts across the country as they create dynamic digital learning environments, I encourage my school-based colleagues not to think of their efforts as a technology initiative, but rather, as a learning initiative that is driven or accelerated by technology. The implementation of the technology itself is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to create environments in which talented teachers are, through a combination of digital content, educational technologies, and sustained, job-embedded professional development, positioned to better implement what we know to be good educational practice in a fashion that improves student performance. By calling this a learning initiative instead of a technology initiative, better clarity of the intended outcomes is given to all stakeholders.

Why is sustained professional development so critical to the success and return on investment of any tech-driven learning initiative?

Karen: Okay, so here is a scenario for you that I recently ran through with local education policy-makers that goes something like this: If I put you in a kitchen, stocked it with the finest ingredients and the best appliances money can buy, and I tell you to make the best meal you can, what would you do?

According the policy-maker, he said he’d most likely make something he’d cooked before. His reasoning was that by using a familiar recipe and tools he was comfortable with, there was less risk of a mistake, and that while the dish he created would be just ok, it would be predictable. So, why would he change his recipe?

CREDIT Discovery Education.pngProviding an educator a host of new digital resources and educational technologies and then sending them into the classroom without any additional professional development while expecting different results is similar to the kitchen scenario. While an educator many have new tools and resources, without clarity on how to use them effectively that educator will most likely fall back on the instructional methods and strategies they employed in the past and the new resources provided them will not be used. In the best-case scenario, through trial and error, the educator will eventually learn to use the new technologies in some capacity.

So, I would say to the policy-makers, school administrators and school board members out there, please, as you create tech-driven learning initiatives, be sure to include in your thinking plans for a strong professional development initiative. You are making tremendous investments to provide your teachers the best possible tools and resources needed to reach today’s tech-savvy learners. The simplest way to see a return on the investments you are making is to provide your educators the learning and know-how they need to effectively integrate those resources into their teaching in order to evolve their classroom practice. 

What are some of the key markers of a successful PD program supporting a tech-driven learning initiative?

Karen: The first two words that come to mind are immersive and practical. Because best practice instruction today includes the use of digital content and tools, this looks different than what most of us have experienced in our own education and certainly, in our preparation for teaching. So, educators need professional development experiences that immerse them in effective digital pedagogies. This allows educators to see what students will encounter as digital learners and plan for success with their learners and their classroom structure. These immersions also include the element of reflection, an integral professional development practice that allows educators to identify what they have in place and areas where they need to grow.

Then, while immersing educators in these learning experiences, there is also an element of practicality that occurs. Educators actually see and hear what instruction looks and sounds like; they need the opportunity to transfer their learning to their lessons. Successful professional development provides teachers with these opportunities for transfer – time to plan lessons collaboratively, time to share student work, time to reflect on and revise instructional practice. This should occur both within professional learning sessions as well as through job-embedded coaching, another critical marker of a success professional development program. 

What are some of the key questions school administrators should ask as they are working with a company such as Discovery Education to design a PD initiative to support their tech-driven learning initiative? 

Karen: As I work with schools around the country, many of the outcomes that they are looking to achieve are really similar. In addition, the areas of focus are often similar as well – STEM, personalized learning, student-centered instruction, to name a few. One thing that is not similar, however, is the process of change. What I mean by that is that each system has its own process of change, much of which is governed by the culture of the system. So, first and foremost, school administrators need to identify and recognize their system of change and then ask questions of their potential partners to ensure that what they bring aligns to their change process.

In order for any initiative to go well, communication is integral.

Secondly, in order for any initiative to go well, communication is integral. This sounds somewhat trite, but in many situations where our district partners have faced challenges throughout an intended transformation, the underlying factor has been communication. School administrators need to ask how ongoing communication will be handled. How will teachers know and understand the initiative? How will progress be communicated? How will building level administrators know and understand the initiative? Certainly, communication to the community is essential as well.

These are some of the foundational questions administrators should ask.

However, I would also include these questions as well:

  • How does your professional development take a systemic approach?
  • What research both supports and informs the professional development you provide?
  • What measures of success will ensure that the professional development initiative is aligned to the tech-driven learning initiative?
  • How will capacity-building and the sustainability of growth be achieved? 

Can you share any examples of school districts that are doing this really well?

Karen: There are many examples! And, what’s so interesting is that these examples are from small districts, large districts, urban, suburban and rural districts as well as public and private school systems.

So, here are three school districts that are different in size and demographics, but are really doing great work:

  • East Stroudsburg Area School District, located in rural Pennsylvania near the Poconos Mountains has 10 schools with approximately 7,000 students and is the 7th most diverse school in Pennsylvania. As they integrated more technology into the classroom, they recognized the importance of a systemic, collaborative approach focused on the improvement of instruction through digital tools and resources. So, they have two strands of professional learning interwoven throughout their district, one focused on the intentional support of their building level leaders and the other designed to grow teachers as leaders to build capacity and sustain meaningful change around effective digital pedagogy.
  • In Nashville, Tennessee, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is quite the opposite in size from East Stroudsburg. MNPS has approximately 86,000 throughout its approximately 157 schools. However, MNPS also valued the importance of a systemic approach. They decided to tackle this goal through a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Transformation plan. Through a unique combination of dynamic digital content, immersive professional learning and sustained, job-embedded classroom support, MNPS will cultivate inquiry-based transdisciplinary instruction across the district’s middle schools.
  • Finally, Missouri’s Mehlville School District, which serves close to 11,000 students, is a great blend of East Stroudsburg and Nashville. Mehlville has embraced the “teachers as leaders” approach and uses this model to transform their teaching and learning in both the areas of STEM as well as a specific focus on Math.

One other final point as we celebrate and acknowledge the success of these districts is the fact that they recognized that this transition does not happen overnight. They have committed to a multi-year focus, minimizing the “last year’s new thing, this year’s new thing” mentality that sometimes pervades our educational culture. 

This transition does not happen overnight. They have committed to a multi-year focus, minimizing the “last year’s new thing, this year’s new thing” mentality that sometimes pervades our educational culture. 

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days? What makes you say that? 

Karen: Overall, I think the state of the American K-12 educational system is strong.

Now, that is not to say we are not facing some very serious issues within education – we are. Equity issues, funding issues, the poverty many of our students are facing at home—these challenges are very real, and we, as a nation, need to do a better job of addressing them.

However, in the face of these challenges, our education system continues to improve. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, academic achievement in America has improved over the last 40 years, and minority students in particular have experienced some of the biggest gains. Record numbers of students are now attending college, and according to the 2016 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, the share of Americans giving positive grades to the nation’s public schools has grown 7 percent since 2014. Why? I strongly believe the answer lies in the great work of the talented teachers and administrators who are the backbone of K-12 education in America.

In the face of adversity, each day our educators are working hard to prepare millions of students nationwide for success beyond school. Teaching is not a job—it’s a calling, and educators in our schools across the country are answering that calling by helping prepare our students for successful lives beyond the classroom. For this reason, I am very optimistic about the state of education in America today. 

I am very optimistic about the state of education in America today. 

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education these days? 

Karen: Well, as I alluded to earlier, technology has always been a presence in my career. However, what I think has changed is our collective perception of the power of technology to improve academic achievement.

Now, make no doubt, I’ve seen first-hand the impact digital resources can have on teaching and learning. In school systems like South Carolina’s Rock Hill Schools and North Carolina’s Asheboro City Schools and many others across the country, these resources are having a positive impact on student achievement. These systems and so many others like them have redefined “best practice instruction.” They’ve shown us that teaching today includes research-based instructional strategies and digital content and tools. Notice the word “and,” not or.

Additionally, when we consider the technology’s role in education today, we also need to consider the importance of the human element, and specifically the tremendous teachers behind each one of these stories. In every case of a successful tech-driven learning initiative, you will find dedicated teachers supported by forward-thinking administrators who believe in the power of professional development to build capacity for great instruction that meets the needs of all learners.

I think if we keep in mind the importance of continuing to provide our educators sustained, job-embedded professional development as new educational technologies enter the classroom and impress upon education policy-makers, the tech community and other stakeholders the importance of this connection, we’ll continue to see technology’s impact on teaching and learning grow.


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Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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