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Making the Digital Leap, Safely

Successfully adopting tablets in one small suburban district.
By Philip Ehrhardt 

In the fall of 2013, stakeholders from the district and I began to envision what 21st-century learning was going to look like at Benjamin School District 25. Because we are a small suburban district outside Chicago, we knew we faced challenges that larger districts do not encounter. We also knew we wanted to focus on creating an environment where students could learn whatever they wanted to learn, whenever they wanted to learn it.

Today’s students are accustomed to having information at their fingertips. They are tech-savvy and equipped to learn in a way that my generation never thought possible. Recognizing this new level of online engagement, we began our digital transformation to a 1:1 blended learning environment in the fall of 2014. Students in grades PreK-2 use clusters of iPads, while students in grades 3-8 receive Dell Venue 11 tablets.

The technology committee spent a year creating a strategic vision for the transformation. We developed a series of action steps to guide our shift, which was informed by visiting schools that had successfully integrated technology into their instruction. The Benjamin leadership team also drafted goals for curricular content, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity and innovation, which were affirmed by district stakeholders, including principals, teachers, and board members. And we specified strategies, responsibilities, and a timeline for implementation.

Choosing a Digital Solution

Selecting the right digital content and instructional tools is not an easy task. To find a solution that best fit our needs, a team of Benjamin staff members, parents, and students participated in the selection process for software and digital content. The team was looking for a tool that provided high-quality learning resources to support differentiated instruction, develop a formative learning environment, and ultimately engage students to perform at higher levels. During this search, the team followed strategies defined in the implementation plan to select a solution that fulfilled Benjamin’s instructional goals.

As a school district, we value resources that are curated and aligned to state and Common Core State Standards to save our teachers time, support assessment preparation, and provide measurement tools for personalized learning. We also wanted a solution that could be implemented before fully shifting to a 1:1 environment, giving educators enough time to familiarize themselves with the new tool and its support features. Based on our needs for curated, standards-aligned resources that support personalized learning, we chose icurio, an online content provider that also offers professional learning.

Developing a transformation plan and outlining district goals was key in helping us identify the solution that worked best for our schools. As districts begin their digital transformation, it is important to include a variety of people in the selection process, such as students, teachers, and school staff members. Their voices provide invaluable insight and support when making such a monumental decision.

Confronting Challenges

Digital transformations require professional development for teachers of all skill levels and experience. Smaller districts like Benjamin have fewer professional learning resources to support educators in such wide-scale transformations. Therefore, it was crucial for us to find a digital solution with quality implementation support.

To make the implementation process easier for the district, the selection team prepared a comprehensive overview of icurio for Benjamin’s board of education. The presentation explained how each grade level would use the digital resource and how students in all grade levels would benefit from the company’s more than 360,000 standards-aligned digital resources. 

Implementing these new resources prior to our full digital transformation also eased the process for our educators, as it gave them a chance to explore the application and request more content they needed for specific lessons and units. Choosing materials that can grow with our district was a major factor in creating a lasting and successful digital transformation.

Experiencing Success

Ultimately, we have been successful with our digital transformation because we focused on the instructional shifts rather than the devices used and we found a solution that supported our goals. As we did walk-throughs of classrooms, we saw an increase in student engagement and motivation. And students and teachers have told us that the resources from icurio are relevant and correlate closely with our district’s curricula.

Our short-term goal is to continue to provide customized professional development to enhance the integration of technology. Our long-term goals are to have students master curricular content and apply their knowledge at higher levels, including creating, evaluating, and analyzing. Also, the district is striving for students to more effectively use 21st-century skills like communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and creativity and innovation.

The digital transformation journey is a unique process for each school district, regardless of its size, and you must find a tool that works best for your district, teachers, and students. Embarking on this journey means that students will be more engaged in everyday lessons and will be learning valuable technology skills that will assist them throughout their lives.

Philip Ehrhardt is the superintendent of Benjamin School District 25 in West Chicago, Illinois. He has served students as a teacher and administrator for 39 years in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. He embraces technology as an energizing, engaging, and relevant tool for advancing learning and teaching.

Image: Cultura/ MediaBakery

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Cyber Crime Fighters!

The teens hacking away at NYU’s CSAW competition are quite possibly our next line of cyber defense. 
By Chris Borris

The future of cyber security was in full incubation in a stuffy gymnasium on the campus of NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering in downtown Brooklyn on a recent blustery November day. There, representatives from companies like Yahoo and Yelp and organizations like the NSA and DARPA watched as high school and college students hacked their way through challenges like a murder mystery involving a fictitious retail store breach and a marathon Capture the Flag competition. These kids were a select group winnowed from among 20,000 worldwide semifinalists who participated online prior to the four-day annual Cyber Security Awareness Week competition.

“Your personal decisions will have an effect on hundreds, thousands, or even billions of people,” said keynote speaker and Yahoo CISO Alex Stamos, speaking of their potential careers in cyber security.

For the murder mystery competition, high school students had to use skills like steganography (detecting messages such as images or audio files hidden within other media) and malware analysis to solve what amounted to a digital game of Clue. “They had to detect who breached the system, what relation they had to the point-of-sale breach, and who the murderer was,” said Emily Wicki, a sophomore at NYU Poly and a student leader for the high school forensics competition. Wicki is also a student assistant for NYU Poly’s summer tech program for high school girls.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the finalists made it here largely on their own initiative. “We provide what we think is a strong STEM program, but it’s the kids with the spark who go beyond, who take the initiative to form their own student-run clubs,” said Mark Estep, a computer science teacher at Montgomery County’s Poolesville High School, in Rockville, Maryland, which had two teams competing.

Senior Umesh Padia, captain of Poolesville’s PHS 1437 team, become interested in computer science in middle school. “By the time I entered the Science Math Computer Science (SMCS) magnet program at Poolesville, I was really enthusiastic about competing in engineering and computer science contests such as FIRST FRC Robotics, CSAW HSF, and the DC3 challenge. Participating in these competitions amplified my interest.”

“They find clues, and they get hooked,” said Namrata Pandya, a math and business teacher at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, which also had two teams in the race. (The winners are awarded scholarships to NYU Poly and garner money for their school science programs.) “These kids will spend eight to ten hours on the weekend on their own projects; for them, it’s like a sport.”

In the end, Estep’s PHS 1437 team prevailed to identify whether it was Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the library or another character who committed the cyber crime. PHS 1437 scored the most points based on a rubric and correctly identified the perpetrator by his code name.

“When we found evidence that we knew was important, such as credentials to a fictitious person’s online account, or an encrypted Snapchat confessing that “I killed _____,” we knew we could be on the right track or on a sneakily planned dead-end,” said Padia, who spent last summer working at the NIH where he “developed new molecular modeling/docking algorithms, some of which I based on techniques used in cybersecurity, to find potential drugs.”

“When they come here, the kids can see how much others want their skills,” said Estep. No doubt. The reps from Yelp and DARPA were watching closely.

Image: Courtesy of CSAW

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Who “Won” the 2014 Midterm Elections: Reformers, Teachers Unions, or Conservatives?

None of them, actually.
By Alexander Russo

Did so-called school reformers (pro-charter, pro-Common Core Democrats, mostly) win the November 4 midterm elections, did the teachers unions, or did anti-Common Core advocates (most of them conservative Republicans)?

A casual observer could be forgiven for not quite understanding the national education implications of this year’s just-ended election season. That’s because the dominant media narrative has shifted in the days following the midterms, and it remains somewhat unsettled now, more than two weeks later. 

Most of the attention focused on the battle between pro-reform Democrats and long-standing Democratic Party supporters in the labor movement.

The first wave of news coverage and commentary suggested strongly that the midterms were a big win for reformers. But the second wave of coverage and commentary suggested that the midterms may really have been a big loss for Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party as a whole but not specifically teachers unions.

So who’s right? What’s the real storyline? 

The reality is that the midterm outcomes were inconclusive and mixed for reformers and teachers unions and Common Core opponents. Of course, that hasn’t kept the different sides from doing their best to make it look like they prevailed.

To take the reformers’ side, there is some accuracy to the notion that they had a good election, and the focus on reform wins and union losses was strong in the days immediately after the elections were held. Unions spent on and lost big races in seven states: Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. This was all the more embarrassing given that three of those states—Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts—are thoroughly Democratic. New York's pro-charter, pro-Common Core governor Andrew Cuomo easily won re-election without support from the powerful state teachers union, as did pro-reform senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Immediately following the elections, media outlets such as Politico, Education Week, and others wrote about how well the reform wing of the Democratic Party had done in 2014. The Washington Post followed suit with the headline “Teachers unions spent $60 million for the midterms but still lost many elections.” Pro-reform advocacy group StudentsFirst (until recently run by Michelle Rhee) claimed that its efforts prevailed in more than 80 percent of the 104 races it got involved in. And the education advisor for Mike Bloomberg’s pro-reform Independence USA PAC trumpeted victories in five gubernatorial races, including for incumbents Dan Malloy (D-CT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), and Rick Snyder (R-Michigan), as well as challengers Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Gina Raimondo (D-RI).

“I have to wonder if there are any union leaders expressing misgivings internally about the current ‘defend-all-old-priorities’ strategy,” wrote Andy Smarick, who works for the moderately conservative Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.   

At first, there wasn’t much disagreement about how badly things had gone for the unions. The AFT cancelled a scheduled press call the morning after the results came in. Reform critic Diane Ravitch’s blog post the morning after the midterms was titled simply “Bad News.”  

However, most of the elections didn’t seem to turn on education issues and didn’t feature head-to-head matchups between pro-reform and pro-union candidates.

Much if not most of the money the teachers unions spent was designed to try to help the Democratic Party keep control of the Senate—an uphill battle that few expected to win. The unions were just taking one on the chin for the DNC. 

And so, a day or two later in the week, the media storyline began to change. While the midterms may have been a horror show for Democrats, the teachers unions began to push back against the notion that they’d lost on education issues. Teachers unions had “several victories to celebrate,” noted the Education Writers Association’s public editor, Emily Richmond. “Teachers Unions Say Midterm Losses Don’t Reflect on Them,” ran the title of a Huffington Post article featuring an interview with AFT head Randi Weingarten. “It’s hard for me to understand … what the business types and the testing types of this education debate think they won here,” she said. 

The unions won big with the election of Democratic Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf over incumbent Republican Tom Corbett, a race that turned in part on education cuts made in recent years. And the most closely watched and expensive race that pitted reformers and teachers unions against one another, for state superintendent of education in California, went narrowly to the teachers, with incumbent Tom Torlakson defeating challenger Marshall Tuck. It was closer than many expected, given the advantages of incumbency and the strengths of the teachers union in California, but it was still a win for the union side.

“It’s hard to believe a huge outpouring to defeat Obama—arguably the most powerful force ever to push for “education reform”—is somehow a resounding call for more education reform,” noted reform critic Jeff Bryant.

Understanding the meaning of the 2014 midterms isn’t just important on a factual level (i.e., knowing which side won which races). It’s also important because it shapes how the various parties and organizations think and feel and how fast and far they might try and push their agendas during the next few months and years. The midterm results are a signal to both sides about how they’re doing, and the simplified narrative that gets told and repeated for the next few months will shape those beliefs.

So where does this leave things for the near future?

The most fundamental issue that reformers and teachers unions face together—and have yet to deal with—is that the Democratic Party doesn’t currently appeal very much to white working-class voters who aren’t union members.

A secondary concern that’s been raised by the 2014 midterms is the prospect of further polarization down the line, creating situations in which education candidates beat each other to a pulp while Republicans or other candidates not necessarily so devoted to public education sneak into office.

Whether it’s congressional races, state governors’ offices, or even the White House in 2016, divisions among Democrats could in theory lead to Republican victories.

While unions have to worry about decreasing influence and the ability to deliver elections to the Democratic Party, reformers have to worry about a bipartisan retreat from annual testing required by all states under NCLB. Another reform worry is the rollout of the Common Core assessments this spring and the results they will provide. More than 30 states will receive scores from the new assessments this spring, and they’re not likely going to be easy to look at.

That’s why there were words of caution from the reform side of education’s civil war, too, in the days following the midterms: “We have one year to strengthen the argument for the core reforms under way all across America before the next set of candidates start locking in their positions,” cautioned Duncan’s former communications guru, Peter Cunningham. “The beach is secure, but the threats are never far away.”

Common Core opponents (most of them conservative Republicans, as well as some liberal Democrats), have to figure out how to strengthen their case, as well. They won state superintendent races in Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, noted the Wall Street Journal. Arizona also elected an anti-Common Core governor, Republican Doug Ducey. However, pro-Common Core governors won re-election in at least two other states, and pro-Common Core former Florida governor Jeb Bush seems to be inching closer to a run for president in 2016.

Photo (from left): Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Press; Sacramento Bee/ MCT /LANDOV

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Top Stories for Thursday 11/13

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Obama Putting a Stop to Teacher Inequities

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 Mobile Device Classroom Management Made Easy

Free Webinar: Thursday, November 13th, 2014 3 p.m. EST

More students are using technology in class, from bringing in their own devices to carrying school issued laptops or tablets. These tools can be a boon to creating personalized education that engages each student. But if misused, they have the power to interrupt the flow of good classroom management. Learn from two experts how to best harness your students and their devices in class—and how to empower them to create amazing work on these machines in class and at home.

Click here to register for the webinar


Dave Saltmarsh - Educational Evangelist for JAMF Software

Dave Saltmarsh is a former classroom teacher turned IT & Library Director in Arizona and Maine. In addition to managing all facets of information technology, he has led implementations in 1:1 computers for students, as well as iPad & iPod Touch programs, and has focused on personalized learning, Over the last four years, he has traveled globally and gained a worldwide perspective on the use of technology in schools and business. Dave has a Master's degree in Instructional Technology and has earned CoSN's Certified Educational Technology Leader distinction.

Ben Johnson - Administrator, Author, and Educator

Ben Johnson is a career educator with recent experience on the campus and district office level. As an advocate of student-directed learning in all its forms, he is an arduous supporter of the use of technology as “tools to think with.” He is the author of “Teaching Students to Dig Deeper,” a college readiness book for students, parents, and teachers.

Andy Hopkins – 4th Grade Teacher, Harper Woods Public Schools, Michigan

Andy began his career in Harper Woods Public Schools, and has worked in both the Middle School and Elementary level for over 20 years. During this time, Andy was a member of the district’s technology committee, and has earned an Ed. Specialist in Instructional Technology. In the spring of 2012, Andy became an Apple Foundations Trainer. This led to his new role in Harper Woods as the District’s Instructional Technology Specialist, and lead Casper Administrator. He works with students and staff to incorporate technology district wide. Harper Woods is the first school in Wayne County Michigan to go 1:1 with technology, K-12.

Moderator: Wayne D'Orio

Wayne D’Orio is the award-winning Editor-In-Chief of Scholastic Administr@tor properties. During his 10+ years of field coverage, he has won numerous awards, including Neal Awards from the American Business Media and Ozzie awards from Folio: Magazine. He’s also interviewed many notable leaders in the field of education including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former NYC Chancellor Rudy Crew, and best-selling author Michael Horn. He frequently visits school districts, including recent visits to Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, Randle Highlands Elementary School in D.C., and the Big Picture High School in Nashville.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.