Kentucky District Will Introduce Digital Backpacks to Track Student Progress and Stave Off State Intervention

By Henry Kronk
June 09, 2018

In the face of poor student performance and potential state intervention, a Kentucky district is taking a novel approach to public education. Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) announced this week the “Backpack of Success Skills” initiative. The program, among other things, will help educators and parents stay informed on a student’s progress and make learning a more competence-based process with the use of digital backpacks.

Despite multiple images depicting backpacks that announce the effort, JCPS will not be providing students with ‘smart’ knapsacks IoT-style. Instead, each student will be assigned a digital repository online. When they complete a project, a test, a particularly expressive art creation, etc., they’ll be able to put a copy or a record into their digital backpack. At the end of 5th, 8th, and 12th grade, students will be asked to demonstrate their competency in five different learning goals to advance.

Using New Digital Backpacks, Students Will Defend their Progress

These goals include becoming a “Prepared and Resilient Learner,” a “Globally and Culturally Competent Citizen,” an “Effective Communicator,” and a “Productive Collaborator.”

On the one hand, this effort advances district goals to generate deeper learning outcomes. It asks teachers to guide students in applying what they’ve learned in a given subject to a more tangible real-life goal.

Wikimedia Commons.

But it also seeks to fix a real problem in Louisville public schools. The student population at JCPS schools tends to be mobile. As families move, their children go to different schools. The district does not currently have any way of tracking student progress outside of their report cards. As a result, teachers have long struggled to identify students who are falling behind at new schools. On top of the backpacks, the district has also just invested $1 million in math and reading assessments. Those scores will be recorded in students’ backpacks as well.

“What we have right now is pockets of excellence around the district, where you have some schools that are doing some really impressive work,” said Superintendent Marty Pollio according to the Courier Journal. “But it’s not every kid, all the time.”

“We wanted to design a system where every kid, every student — no matter what ZIP code, what teacher, what school, what program they’re in, what level — has access to this type of learning,” Pollio said.

JCPS Faces State Intervention

In a sense, we’re burying the lead. JCPS is currently in the midst of an educational scandal. Following a 14-month audit of the district by the Kentucky Department of Education, it was found to be lacking in numerous areas. Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended the state take over operations to right the ship.

Lewis’ reasons included issues with the physical restraint of students, low achievement test scores, and a system that tends to leave JCPS’ most vulnerable students behind.

Lewis had been in his post for two weeks when he made the recommendation. Last month, members of the JCPS board voted unanimously to oppose the state takeover.

The decision is also questionable because Governor Matt Bevin has highly praised the work of Pollio and voiced optimism that the district is back on track. Facing a state takeover that would last up to three years, it’s difficult to see how policymakers could improve a district that’s doing supposedly phenomenal work.

The Editorial Board at the Lexington Herald Leader believe the move may be politicized. “Bevin and his former Education Secretary Hal Heiner, once a candidate for governor and Louisville mayor, may see advantages for themselves in using Louisville to impress Republican donors who want to break teachers unions and privatize education through charter schools,” the staff write.

Meanwhile, Lewis has expressed his intent to leave Pollio with a large amount of responsibility if the state assumes control. The digital backpacks are expected to roll out regardless of the outcome.