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Tech Tools: Software Picks 2015

Software Picks 2015

The latest and greatest education-friendly tech tools. By Brian Nadel

In OverDrive’s library, e-books are just like physical volumes, only more navigable. The software lets students browse the catalog and check out e-books that can be read on free versions of OverDrive for PCs, Macs, Androids, iPads, and Chromebooks. The e-book is automatically returned to the collection on its due date. OverDrive displays the material in several fonts and sizes, plus readers can get definitions, use bookmarks, and easily search the entire book. You can even use the software for audiobooks, which can be played at a variety of speeds. overdrive.com/schools

Aerohive ID Manager.
Whether you use Macs, PCs, or Androids—or all three—Aerohive’s ID Manager can make sense of an increasingly complicated networking landscape. The app emphasizes the self-service approach by providing every new client with a secure encryption key that can be generated from a student list or configured on the fly for a guest. Students can be added or dropped at any time. Price upon request. aerohive.com

Netop Vision ME.
Netop’s Vision ME not only puts the teacher in control of what every student sees on
their screens and blocks Web access but also broadcasts to a select group or displays any student’s screen on the projector. It’s integrated with Google Drive and Dropbox so that items can be stored locally or online. Available for iPad only. Price upon request. netop.com/visionme

SchoolCircle can streamline the complicated process of setting up a parent–teacher conference. It’s as simple as inviting a parent to a meeting. The system can also be used for scheduling field trips, events, and open-house nights, as well as providing key documents or daily classroom updates to parents. Free. schoolcircle.com

Kickboard Parent Student Portal.
Kickboard’s classroom management system consolidated everything needed to educate kids, but one thing was missing: parental involvement. That changes with the company’s Parent Student Portal, which delivers easy-to-read behavior and progress reports as well as alerts for assignments that have not been completed. Free. kickboardforteachers.com

Building STEM Excitement With Hands-On, Real-World Classroom Activities

Building STEM Excitement With Hands-On, Real-World Classroom Activities

NASCAR provides material for elementary and middle school science students.

At the heart of the Next Generation Science Standards—the first major revision of school science standards in more than 15 years—is project based learning, or the practice of learning by doing. Developed by science education groups, including the National Science Teachers Association, researchers, and individual science teachers, NGSS supports classroom instruction that pushes students to take an active role in the practices of science. This new focus means a shift from teacher-centered learning to student-oriented learning.

“The role of the teacher is going to be a little different,” says Donna Webb, an independent curriculum writer and a Ph.D. student in education at Portland State University in Oregon. “The teacher will no longer be the container of information who spreads information to students. The students will take on a more active role in their learning.”

NGSS also introduced a new inclusion of engineering, technology, and applications of science. Engineering is all about application, experimentation, and learning to work within constraints. “As students build things, they see the limitations of their designs,” explains Kenneth Huff, a sixth-grade science teacher at Williamsville Central School District in New York and a member of the NGSS writing team. “Then they have to ask, ‘What can I do to make this better? How can I optimize my design so that it fulfills the task
or challenge?’ ”

Carolyn Higgins, a science teacher at Winman Junior High School in Warwick, Rhode Island, addressed these two shifts by challenging her students to build a model of the human respiratory system using soda bottles, balloons, and straws. The project involved much trial and error and integrated both engineering practices and scientific knowledge. “To build their models, my students had to understand the function of the parts of the respiratory system, as well as why and how the pieces work together,” Higgins says.

NASCAR has joined the effort to bring hands-on, real-world activities into the classroom with the NASCAR Acceleration Nation youth platform featuring the Three Ds of Speed classroom program. Elementary and middle school science classrooms used the program’s lessons on aerodynamics to conduct experiments about airflow, air pressure, and drafting, all while touching on standards such as motion, force, and velocity. With the support of NASCAR air pressure videos and aerodynamic graphics, students observed how air influences hand-built cars and paper. Fifth-grade teacher Charlotte Wilson noticed that while using the program, her “students’ excitement motivate[d] them toward making connections, and exploration led them to investigate and test out other theories that were forming in their minds.

“They kept making connections that made them want to explore further,” Wilson says.

The program materials—available for free online at scholastic.com/nascarspeed—align with NGSS’s push for scientific practices to be at the center of students’ engagement with science in the classroom. When teachers access the lesson plans and student activity sheets, they will find a range of supportive materials, including a classroom poster, pre- and post-assessments, a standards alignment chart, resource sheets, experiment instructions, a car template, videos, and graphics. Together, the materials drive excitement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through the lens of NASCAR racing. The program’s real-world focus and interactive experiments supports the NGSS’s push to involve students in hands-on applications of science.  

The ultimate goal of practice-driven, real-world science is to tap into students’ natural curiosity and spark their enthusiasm for STEM. Back in Wilson’s fifth-grade classroom, she notes that her students “made [her] imagine what NASCAR engineers may experience as they test out their theories in the lab.”

“It was very exciting to watch,” she says.

Literacy for All


Literacy for All

Panel discussion highlights issues on combating illiteracy at home and around the world. By Kim Greene

The International Literacy Association (ILA) declared April 14 as Leaders for Literacy Day with the goal of inspiring collective action to address global literacy. The day included both online Twitter chats (#AgeofLiteracy), as well as a panel discussion at the Institute of International Education in New York City. Moderated by Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report, the panel included Marcie Craig Post (executive director of ILA), Steven Duggan (director of worldwide education strategy at Microsoft), Bernadette Dwyer (lecturer in literacy studies at St. Patrick’s College in Ireland), David Kirp (professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley), and Susan Neuman (professor and chair of the teaching and learning department at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development).

The conversation touched on an array of topics, but circled around five “big ideas”:

1. Literacy changes lives. Illiteracy has an equally powerful impact. Consider these statistics: Though global illiteracy rates have dropped in recent decades, 12 percent of the world’s population is functionally illiterate, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. That leaves 781 million adults and 126 million youth around the world unable to read and write. Roughly two-thirds of illiterate adults are women.

In the United States, 14 percent of the adult population—a staggering 32 million adults—can’t read. “What’s more shocking is that we haven’t moved that needle in 10 years,” said Post.

Why is literacy so important? “We know that literacy helps people escape the bonds of poverty and live longer,” said Post. “We know that people who are literate are more inclined to vote, take part in their community, and seek medical help for themselves and their families. They’re also better equipped to take advantage of knowledge jobs, which are growing at explosive rates.”

2. This work requires collective action and collaboration. Several members of the panel emphasized the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships in combating illiteracy. “We cannot be successful if we work in our own individual silo,” said Jill Lewis-Spector, president of ILA, in her opening remarks.

“As much effort as we all give to this, as much money and resources are poured into the effort, ultimately no single organization or entity can fix this problem alone,” added Post, who urged genuine partnerships between government, businesses, NGOs, educators, and families.

On the part of industry, Duggan noted a change in philosophy in how Microsoft has approached these collaborations. “We started to listen,” he said. “If anyone knows technology companies, you know that’s probably not our strength. We tend to walk in the door and tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it.”

Of what he has learned from these partnerships, Duggan said, “Technology companies aren’t thought leaders in education. What we are is really good tool kits that can be put to good use by people who know more than we do.”

3. The digital divide is wide. There’s no doubt that digital literacy is becoming increasingly important. Though print and digital literacy should not be an either/or situation, the panelists said progress has to be made to develop students’ technological skills in meaningful ways. One of the biggest challenges, according to Dwyer, exists in high-poverty schools. “We know they’re either not getting access to technology or they’re using tech to develop low-level skills. Their more affluent peers are using these technologies in challenging, authentic ways,” she said. “It’s what I call the digitally determined Matthew Effect. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Rather than closing the gap, tech is actually compounding the difficulties.”

4. We can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to interventions. Neuman places a high value on understanding individual communities and contexts before attempting to deliver literacy interventions. For example, when Neuman studied “summer slide” in one community in Washington, D.C., she found there were no preschool books available to children. For elementary-age students, there was one book for every 832 children. Neuman looked at where people congregated in the community—the church, health center, and grocery store—and put vending machines with books in those areas. “We’re reaching families where they are. The goal is to say, ‘Let us not go in and expect a certain intervention will work. Let’s learn from our communities, let’s respect our communities, and let’s work within them,’ ” she said.

 Similarly, we can’t expect that adding tech devices will be a magical literacy intervention either. “I’ve seen no technology intervention in education that started with the purchase of a device and ended with success,” said Duggan. Instruction and teacher expertise still trump all.

5. Don’t be afraid to fail. The panelists acknowledged that the education community at large—from teachers and schools to NGOs and for-profit businesses—are afraid to take risks and fail. On a small scale, a teacher or school may be concerned that a new approach might not work for students. On a large scale, a nonprofit organization may worry about losing funding if a project flops. “Failure should be the baseline for informing the next revision of what could be a very good, worthwhile project that could have major impact, but we’re afraid of that,” said Post.

“Failure is great. Failure is something we have to accept and embrace. For a lot of the agencies we work with, that’s hard to do,” said Duggan. “We have to use real-time data so we fail quickly. And let’s fail forward so we can put that learning into place.” 

 Images:  Courtesy of Colleen P. Clark/International Literacy Association.

Sponsored Content: Making Connections

As schools increasingly rely on resources outside the district to deliver instructional content and operational applications, a strong, reliable network is more important than ever. Article sponsored by Comcast.

Comcast V14

To test his network in preparation for the Common Core–aligned PARCC assessment, Keith Bockwoldt packed a gymnasium with 225 iPad-wielding students and asked them to all fire up YouTube videos at the same time.

The trial went off without a hitch.

“We didn’t have any buffering or any loss of connectivity,” says Bockwoldt, director of technology services for Township High School District 214 in northern Illinois. “A couple of years ago, we wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth to support that.”

In 2004, the district switched from an early networking technology with limited bandwidth to Comcast Ethernet. Since then, the schools have upgraded their capacity several times to keep up with demand.

“We’ve had exponential growth,” says Bockwoldt. “We currently have over 9,000 iPads deployed for 12,000 students. Next year, we’re looking at all students having a device, so it’s critical for us to have the capacity to support instruction in the classrooms.”

Two decades after the Internet began to transform the way teachers and students access information, most educators are well aware of the need for a fast connection. But high-speed Internet is only one piece of a school district’s connectivity puzzle. Strong connectivity between schools and other sites, in the form of a robust wide area network (WAN), is just as important. Increasingly, so are connections to external data centers and cloud-hosted systems—both of which can expand schools’ IT capacities without adding any physical infrastructure on-site. Finally, recognizing that the need for connectivity doesn’t end with the school day, a number of districts have found ways to help students and their families get online when they’re at home.

More Bandwidth

When the Internet first came into schools, it was largely used for basic research, and everyone was happy to wait a minute or two for webpages to load—that was still much faster than taking a trip to the library and riffling through the card catalog. That has all changed—­dramatically.

“You have streaming videos, with sites like YouTube and Khan Academy,” says Bock­woldt. “And there’s a plethora of tools that teachers are accessing. You need to have the bandwidth and the infrastructure. Otherwise, teachers and students aren’t going to have a good experience, and your staff will lose trust
in the system.”

In a 2013 Pew survey of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers, 92 percent said the Internet has a “major impact” on their ability to access content, resources, and materials for their teaching.

Intradistrict Connections

A high-speed Internet connection won’t do school districts any good unless they have a network robust enough to support it.

“While the Internet pipe needs to be big enough, so do those connections that go to the schools,” says Bockwoldt.

Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana gets its Internet connection through the state but relies on Comcast Ethernet to connect more than 50 sites in its WAN, and the district recently doubled the connection speed to its high schools to keep up with increasing demand.

Jack Byrd, director of technology for Fort Wayne, says that high-capacity intradistrict connections are vital, especially for delivering multimedia learning tools. “If we have any Internet or wide area network disruptions, that’s affecting instruction,” he says.

A WAN that is private, secure, and highly available is the foundation for resource distribution within a school district. It’s what allows schools to adopt new applications that enhance both instruction and business operations, and then push those applications out to every school in the district.

For example, both District 214 and Fort Wayne have moved away from analog phone systems to voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), which offers districts new features and can also reduce phone bills. Byrd notes that VOIP would be impossible if Fort Wayne hadn’t upgraded its WAN more than a decade ago. “Our voice communications, our video communications, and, of course, our data—that’s all done through Comcast’s network,” he says. 

Data Centers and Cloud Computing

When school districts run out of space to store servers—or when they simply want to move their data to a more controlled environment—they often turn to third-party data centers. Or, if they want to outsource some or all of their servers entirely, they look to cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

A data center allows districts to rent space with adequate power, cooling, and security for their servers, eliminating the chance that a custodian might accidentally spill water on the equipment or unplug it. Some districts connect to these off-site data centers via the Internet, but increasingly, schools are using an Ethernet connection that replicates the performance of their WANs.

Cloud service providers allow school districts to eliminate their physical servers and rent out virtual servers instead, and these virtual servers can be accessed via the Internet or a private connection to the provider.

Even among districts that continue to maintain their own servers on-site, nearly all schools are using some type of business or instructional software that is hosted in the cloud. Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365, which allow students and staff to create, edit, and collaborate on projects that are stored in the cloud, are prime examples of this. Many districts also rely on the cloud for applications like teacher evaluation programs and learning management systems.

Connecting at Home

Fort Wayne is getting ready to switch to Office 365, which allows students to store their work in the cloud. If they save a draft of a research paper while they’re at school, they can access that same draft at home later—but only if they’re connected to the Internet. The district and Comcast have joined forces to make sure all students can have a robust home connection.

A number of Fort Wayne students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch receive home Internet service through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers broadband at a reduced rate for those students and their families.

The district has participated in the program for several years, but Byrd says that home Internet is becoming increasingly important as schools move toward more cloud-hosted learning software that students need a connection to access.

“One of our goals is that kids can learn anytime, anywhere,” Byrd says. “Learning doesn’t stop at the school walls.”

Illustration: Laura Rolwing

TECH Update: Blended Learning

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology.
By Calvin Hennick

During the 2011–12 school year, Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans tried a blended learning model for the first time. The Ashe students, compared with students at three other schools in the charter network, gained an extra four percent in math scores. In English language arts, no substantive impact was measured.

Does that four percent gain in math mean the initiative was a success, given that teachers were implementing a new program? Or is it much too small a return for a school to expect after investing in new technology and training?

Your answer to that question likely determines how you view the latest research on blended learning. (Blended learning is a model in which students learn at least in part through online delivery of instruction, with some level of control over pacing, in addition to receiving traditional, in-person instruction.)

“When you’re looking at something as new as blended learning, there is no established, agreed-upon, single metric for success,” says Cheryl Niehaus, program officer for U.S. Education at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “It’s a very early-stage innovation, and there are different expectations about how quickly any intervention should start to demonstrate results.”

The Dell Foundation funded a May 2014 study that analyzed the impact of blended learning on students at Ashe and several other schools. As at Ashe, the results at most of the other schools showed a slight increase in gains compared with students at peer schools. The findings may be modest, but they’re strong enough that the foundation has continued to make investments in blended learning.

The approach remains exciting, Niehaus says, because of its potential to differentiate and individualize instruction. “The promise of blended and other personalized learning models is to pinpoint where each student is and identify a learning experience that is directly responsive to their needs,” she explains.

Another study, from December 2014, examined results in schools that implemented the Teach to One: Math blended learning model. That study showed gains in math skills that were 15 percent higher than the national average in year one, and 47 percent above national norms in year two.

These results are “promising,” says Douglas Ready, associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University and the author of the Teach to One study. But he acknowledges that it’s impossible to say whether the gains should be attributed to the new technology, the emphasis on differentiated instruction, or some other variable. A future study, Ready says, will help uncover “what’s inside the black box.”

Justin Reich, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, points out that these studies, like many others on blended learning, are quasi-experimental, meaning they don’t include a true randomized control group. The schools implementing blended learning are often extremely motivated to improve their performance, he says, which can skew the results. “In many cases, just about any intervention works a little bit if you have a group of people who are trying to get better at something,” he notes.

Reich says true experimental findings on blended learning can “charitably” be described as “mixed,” but he acknowledges that the idea of using technology to increase differentiation is compelling, and he thinks the model merits continued study.

The hope among blended learning advocates is that developers will use what they’ve learned from the existing research to improve programs—and that even better results will follow. “This is early days,” says Niehaus. “What is most important is leaders are looking at qualitative and quantitative data to understand what we know and what we need to focus on to keep getting better.”

Illustration: Viktor Koen

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

How to instill a growth mind-set in your students.
Marcella Bullmaster-Day and Aleta Cruel

It’s a challenge educators face every day. Engaging students in meaningful academic learning is no small task. They often get discouraged, stuck in a perpetual cycle of being unable to tap into their full potential. However, when students grapple with problems or work to make sense of challenging ideas, they engage in a process of productive struggle—effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching to build lasting understanding and skills.

Typically, most students work at learning through rote repetition; for example, reading and rereading a text or solving problems of the same type that practice the same skill set to burn that individual skill into memory. These activities have short-term benefits when they are employed right before a test, but they rarely lead to meaningful, long-term learning. Often, the student is unable to recall the information at a later date and has to relearn it.

In contrast, successfully meeting the more rigorous Common Core standards requires building long-lasting understanding of concepts so that students can apply previously learned facts and skills to new situations. This kind of durable knowledge is achieved through productive struggle.

Productive struggle entails effort and persistence. Students encounter new information through their limited short-term working memory, which concentrates attention by filtering out most environmental stimuli. Working memory holds new information for only a few seconds while it seeks associations between the new material and concepts students already know. The more actively students work with new material over time, the stronger the associations and the better new facts and skills are organized and integrated into existing knowledge. Building lasting connections between new and old information requires conscious work to repeatedly retrieve newer information from memory, including making and correcting mistakes through feedback and practice.

Productive struggle also enhances a student’s ability to set learning goals, plan strategies to meet those goals, monitor progress, and know when and how to ask for help.

When a learning goal is clear and the challenge is set at the appropriate level, students are more likely to be motivated to engage in productive struggle to achieve the goal.

Motivation for productive struggle requires
a “growth mind-set,” the understanding that success is a result of effort more than of raw ability. A growth mind-set makes students eager for new challenges and fosters an enthusiasm for learning from mistakes. Students who believe their ability levels are “fixed” are less motivated to engage in productive struggle because they fear failure, resist risks, and worry about the judgments of others, which impedes their learning.

To motivate students, teachers must find ways to inspire them. How do we help students see the value of productive struggle in their everyday lives? For example, top athletes challenge themselves and struggle to become great. They put tremendous effort into their practice. When they fall, they pick themselves up and work to improve their technique. They don’t become great overnight.

A student’s drive to persist in the face of a challenge is affected by the quality of the teacher-student relationship and the scaffolding provided through feedback and support. When a student becomes frustrated because the goal is unclear or out of reach, it is up to the teacher to intervene as soon as it is apparent that the student is not making progress.

Effective feedback clarifies goals and helps students measure their progress and understand what they need to do next. Instead of merely correcting student errors, effective feedback guides students to develop better strategies for processing and understanding the material so that they gain mastery, confidence, and motivation. Digital tools can also provide useful feedback through access to hints and customized suggestions, which empower students to seek help when they need it.

Several strategies have proved particularly effective for building lasting learning by challenging students to repeatedly retrieve information over time, thereby strengthening long-term memory and transfer. These include low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; spacing study and practice over time and locations; and mixing different types of problems.

Low-stakes, ongoing quizzing requires students to express, from memory, what they understand about new material, and allows them to pinpoint and correct their knowledge gaps or misconceptions. Productive low-stakes testing methods include creating flash cards; generating summaries, outlines and questions; and taking multiple-choice or constructed-response tests.

Spreading study, quizzing, and practice sessions over time and locations has been shown to produce lasting learning because long-term memory of the material is strengthened each time information is actively retrieved. And practicing different kinds of questions and problems builds learning-for-transfer more effectively than the more common massed-practice approach of working on one type of problem at a time until it appears that students have mastered it. This is an area in which personalized digital practice tools that challenge students at their individual levels of performance, allowing them to progress at their own pace, are particularly useful.

Teachers who use these strategies to motivate and engage their students in productive struggle for lasting learning are able to identify individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, adjust goals appropriately, and accelerate academic achievement. Look for tools and ideas that facilitate this model and begin setting students on a path to lifelong academic success.

Marcella Bullmaster-Day, Ed.D., is the director of the Lander Center for Educational Research at Touro College.

Aleta Cruel is a sixth-grade English and history teacher at TEACH Academy of Technologies in Los Angeles. She uses Triumph Learning’s Waggle to implement productive struggle in the classroom.

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

5 Strategies for SPED Success with Common Core


5 Strategies for SPED Success with Common Core

Handle tasks head-on to speed student success. By Christine Fax-Huckaby

As the Common Core State Standards have been implemented this school year, with many states in the midst of using the new standardized tests, the transition has been mired in challenges. The Common Core is a critical step toward ensuring students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life beyond graduation, but teachers and students alike have been apprehensive and overwhelmed. They need greater support, more empathy, and better communication from school and district leaders to help them overcome their anxiety.

This anxiety is even more prevalent in the special education community, and as a special education academic support teacher, it’s my job to make sure teachers and students in my district are as prepared for Common Core as possible. Here’s what’s working well in our district:

1. Understanding the problem

When I’m talking to special educators in my district, I often draw from my own experience in the SPED classroom and think about how I would feel in their shoes.

Essentially, Common Core requires special education teachers to become pseudo-subject experts. Before Common Core, special educators were mostly focused on helping students gain access to information across various subjects, but they had never been asked to be “experts” in a particular subject.

Now, a special educator might be asked to teach math, science, and health lessons, guiding the students to mastery in subjects in which they are not themselves masters. That’s a very heavy burden to carry, and if you can understand this problem, you’ll be better equipped to face it head-on.

2. Changing our mind-set

Once you’ve identified the problem (“Common Core is a lot to handle”), try to frame it in a different light.

Most special educators are familiar with the buzzwords: Universal Design for Learning. The educational framework suggests that the best way to design classrooms is to think about how that design will affect every student, whether blind, deaf, learning disabled, or challenged in some other way. This often means creating multiple support systems in the classroom ahead of time, giving students plenty of options for being introduced to and completing tasks.

Similar to UDL, one of Common Core’s biggest goals is to reach students in multiple ways, allowing them to demonstrate mastery in the way that makes the most sense to them. For Common Core to succeed, K–12 teachers across the country will need to weave UDL principles into their instruction. That means SPED teachers should be celebrating Common Core, not running from it!

3. Getting creative and using a variety of learning activities

Common Core has the potential to give both SPED and general education students some freedom in how they choose to demonstrate mastery of what they’re learning. Instead of requiring every student to write an essay, which may exclude the students who aren’t good writers, teachers can now afford to let students get a little creative.

Encourage them to design PowerPoint presentations, make an iMovie trailer, shoot a documentary, or write a song – whatever speaks to them. Rather than treating every student the same, Common Core asks students to represent what they’ve learned in their own way.

4. Finding strength in numbers

My philosophy is, “Nobody knows everything when it comes to Common Core, but everybody knows something.” Our district has set up cohorts for subject departments, and meeting in these smaller groups, or “zones,” has been immensely helpful.

Not only can special educators attend these zones to ensure sure that they are kept abreast of the shifts happening in their subject area as a result of Common Core, but they are also given an opportunity to share some relevant UDL principles and SPED strategies to help the general education teachers improve their lesson plans.

5. Taking advantage of Common Core–aligned resources

Educational technology companies are investing thousands of dollars to make sure their products are aligned with Common Core, so don’t create more work for yourself. Find good Common Core resources, and take advantage of them!

For example, my district has been using Learning Upgrade, an online math and reading curriculum that employs catchy songs and fun games to address Common Core standards in a relatable way. The courses also have built-in reporting features that make them ideal for case management.

We’ve also found Gizmos’ iPad-friendly science activities and labs to be very helpful for lesson planning, and using Canvas as a learning management system allows us to share new information as well as discuss challenges with our colleagues district-wide.

Whether you’re a special educator, a general education teacher, or an administrator, these tips will help you and your students prepare for success with Common Core. It may seem daunting, but I fully believe that Common Core has the potential to make a positive difference in students’ learning.

Christine Fax-Huckaby is a special education academic support teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District in California. She has worked in special education for 19 years and spent the first 15 years of her career in the classroom.

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

Self-reflection is key to helping drive school improvement. By Baruti Kafele

The principalship is a complex position replete with numerous day-to-day challenges that, quite frankly, not all principal candidates are built to meet. To be successful in this business, a principal must skillfully juggle challenges that range from student achievement, motivation, and conduct to staff effectiveness and morale to parental engagement and school safety—and everything in between. It takes a special person to lead a school, whether at the elementary, middle, or high school level and whether in an urban, suburban, or rural setting.

With the myriad challenges that principals face, the self-reflection process is unavoidable. To perform consistently at an optimal level, self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-adjustment must be major components of each principal’s practice.

There are so many aspects of the principalship that require regular self-reflection. When I compiled my 50 reflective questions for The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, I categorized them into the following 10 categories:

  • The Attitude of the Leader
  • School Brand
  • School Climate and Culture
  • Building Collegial Relationships
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Accountability and Responsibility
  • Planning, Organization, and Time Management
  • Professional Learning for the Leader
  • Professional Learning for Staff
  • Parental and Community Engagement

The first category—the Attitude of the Leader—sets the stage for everything that comes next in a principal’s school and career. The first question I pose in this category is simple but important: Do I lead with a definite purpose that drives everything I say and do? With this question, I’m asking the principal to reflect on several more specific questions: Why do you lead? Why do you want to lead? What is your purpose? What drives and moves you? Why do you bother to do this work?

A principal must have a clear and personal purpose for leading that goes beyond traditional responses such as “to provide my students with a world-class education.” While this is indeed a noble purpose, I want the principal to dig much deeper―to develop a unique purpose that is both reflective of himself and the overall school community. This will be the driving force behind everything he says and does within the realm of the principalship.

I often compare the principal’s purpose to the words in a dictionary. Each word has a definition. None has a blank space next to it. The definition is what gives the word meaning. The principal’s purpose must work the same way. If the principal has no defined purpose for her principalship―if there’s a blank space where a purpose should be―then the principalship has no meaning. The principal may show up to work and take the required actions on a day-to-day basis yet still remain at a leadership deficit with no direction. The principal’s leadership style and goals, in this case, are undefined.

A school’s overall success is directly tied to the principal’s sense of purpose. When I was a school leader, my purpose was “to motivate, educate, and empower every student in the building.” It was my alarm clock—my personal reminder of why I woke up in the morning. It screamed out to me every day and reminded me what was important and what I needed to focus on.

Finding and pursuing a purpose is not as simple as it sounds. A purpose brings expectations with it. Mine brought with it a heavy—but worthy—load to bear: my students’ motivation, education, and empowerment began with me. But, once that purpose was established and that expectation was set, they drove my daily words and actions.

Just like I did, I strongly encourage every principal to pay attention to why he or she leads. Determining this will then help the principal better understand his or her role and establish a plan. When it comes to school success, the attitude of the principal is a crucial factor: A school needs a principal with clear purpose and the drive to bring that purpose to life.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author. His most recent book, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, was published by ASCD in March. Under his leadership, Newark (N.J.) Tech High School went from being a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's best high schools.

Tax Preparation 101


Tax Preparation 101

Students at this Texas high school have generated $24 million in tax refunds—and counting. By Kim Greene

Students at University High School in Waco, Texas, have been burning the midnight oil for the past few weeks. They’re not cramming for tests or rehearsing a school musical, though—they’re preparing income tax returns free of charge for residents in their community.  

The students are part of the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program designed to help low- and moderate-income taxpayers file their returns. For the past 10 years, University students have completed roughly 15,000 electronic tax returns and generated $24 million in refunds. In 2005, the program’s first year, students filed 329 returns. As of April 8, the students had completed 2,400 returns for the 2014 tax year.

Prepping for Tax Prep

The 82 University students who are part of the tax program this year are all enrolled in the school’s Academy of Business and Finance, according to Angela Reiher, dean of academies at University High School. During their high school careers, the students in this academy take comprehensive classes that sound more like college courses: banking and financial services, income tax accounting, security and investment, and human resource management, to name just a few.

Students learn about tax preparation as early as ninth grade as part of their coursework. On top of that, both students and teachers must pass exams and be certified by the IRS to become official VITA volunteers.

“The students do not only 1040s—a lot of people don’t think the kids can do anything more than that—they do schedule A, schedule B, schedule C, schedule D,” says Reiher. “They have done taxes for foreign exchange students at Baylor [University]. They’ve really gotten well versed in many layers of the income tax code.”

University High School’s tax preparation clinic is open three nights a week beginning in mid-January and running through April 15. “Everyone in this area knows about us,” Reiher says, adding that some clients come from as far as Austin (an hour and a half away) because the cost of gas is cheaper than the cost of tax preparation with companies like Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block.

When clients arrive, freshmen act as greeters and start the interview process with a series of questions. By sophomore year, students typically start preparing simpler tax returns.

“The more experienced they get, the more complicated the returns become,” explains Reiher. “Seniors act as student managers and make sure the [other] students are doing what they’re supposed to. They do the quality control as well.”

The Payoff

Reiher first learned of a similar program at a high school in Florida when she attended a National Academy Foundation conference. (NAF is a network of career-themed academies that expose underserved high schoolers to career opportunities. Reiher's school is one of its 667 members.) She immediately thought a tax program could be a wonderful service to the community. “We knew that, in Waco, there was $3 million to 4 million left on the table that clients in this area could get for earned income tax credit, but they didn’t know about it or how to access it," she says.

Local residents are grateful for the assistance to access that money. Plus, the refunds bolster the local economy because the clients—like many other taxpayers—spend their refunds at nearby businesses. “The return to the community is great,” Reiher notes.

And it’s not just the clients who benefit. The students do, too. “They feel that sense that they’re really helping somebody else,” Reiher says. “Their self-esteem is out the roof.”

Of course, students also learn real-world financial literacy skills in addition to gaining experience that will help them decide on a career path. Many students have graduated from the academy and gone on to work for national accounting firms. Reiher believes it’s because they got their start doing income taxes.

That will likely be the case for current seniors Yanley Duarte and Miguel Jaramillo. Duarte plans to pursue a business degree after high school, while Jaramillo hopes to become an accountant. Both have volunteered at the clinic every night it has been open throughout their four-year high school careers. “That’s how dedicated they are,” says Reiher.

 “When we’re busy, there are nights that kids are here until midnight along with the teachers,” she says. “The last person in is the last person served. We don’t turn anybody away.”

Image: Jamal Wilson/Courtesy of University High School's AJ Moore Academy of Finance

The Science of Hiring


The Science of Hiring

How to hire the right teacher (almost) every time. By Wayne D’Orio

Maybe it’s happened to you, too, even if you don’t want to admit it. You’re watching TV, some infomercial comes on, and despite all your intelligence and resistance, the sales pitch starts to work on you. I’m sucked in when products promise to solve a bevy of problems, whether it’s a set of knives that can cut through everything from tomatoes to pennies (?!), or some rubber sealant that can fix objects as disparate as broken flowerpots and leaky gutters. 

I don’t actually buy those products, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But for the 60-second vacation they offer, you start thinking of how much better your life would be if only you had those things.

As school leaders, you certainly have a multitude of problems with which to grapple. How to improve student learning is the top one, of course. But on any given day, your list could include teacher evaluations, the struggle to successfully implement a new technology, and whether you finally want to deal with that ineffective teacher who’s not improving.

Instead of tackling each of these tasks individually, what if you had a “magic” solution, sort of like an educational version of an infomercial? Your magic solution could be as straightforward as improving your hiring practices. And it’s not magic at all, really, but rooted in cold, hard data.

Now, you might feel there’s nothing terribly flawed about your current hiring practices. But what if a few key improvements could lead your district to make consistently better hires? What would happen if those better teachers started to spread throughout your district? Student learning outcomes would certainly rise. But think longer term. With a stronger cadre of teachers, decisions about tenure would be easier. Implementing new programs, and new technologies, would also be simpler with a motivated workforce. And that drawn-out process of firing an ineffectual teacher that you’ve been dreading? Well, the better your teachers are, the fewer times you’ll face this disheartening process. There’s one more benefit: With less of your time devoted to problems, you can actually brainstorm more ways to improve teaching and learning in your schools instead of constantly putting out fires.

How hard is it to change your hiring practices? And could your district really see the benefits described above?

Don’t take it from me, the salesman of this story. Listen to your peers talk about how they made the needed changes, and what benefits they are seeing.

The Importance of Each Decision
“If you make better hires up front, you can avoid a lot of trouble down the line,” says Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research at the University of Washington. “Interventions don’t work, [and nobody wants to deal with] the politics around teacher dismissals.”

Dale S. Rose is even more blunt. “If you believe better teachers make for better student outcomes, then why not do everything you can to improve hiring?” asks the president of 3D Group, a consulting firm dealing in human resources assessment. Rose is also the coauthor of Hire Better Teachers Now.

Research, says Rose, has proved that students with a good teacher will see gains of 1.5 grade level equivalents per year; those with a bad teacher, only 0.5.

“Better teacher selection not only has the potential to improve the quality of the teacher workforce, it is likely to be far more cost-effective than other avenues of reform,” writes Goldhaber in Screen Twice, Cut Once: Assessing the Predictive Validity of Teacher Selection Tools, a report on Spokane (Washington) Public Schools’ hiring practices that he coauthored.

How costly can a bad hire be? Gold­haber’s conservative estimate is that for every teacher hired and tenured, a district is making a potential investment of about $2 million. If you’ve forgotten how hard it is to get rid of a tenured teacher, consider these examples: Chicago Public Schools mandates 27 steps before firing, while in New York City it costs about $250,000 to fire a teacher.

Of course, choice is a big factor in hiring. In Spokane, a district with 45 schools and 1,750 teachers, human resources gets about six applicants for each job. Nationally, studies have shown that there are just over two applicants for every teacher hired. Variances can be large; in Pennsylvania, 75 percent of the districts have at least three applicants for each job. But for popular jobs, such as elementary, math, and English spots, there were 10 applicants for each hire.

Rule One: Formalize Your Process
If there’s one rule everyone interviewed for this story agreed on, it was this: Formalize your hiring process. While it’s standard for many large districts to have a process they follow for each hire, this isn’t always so. “In a lot of school systems, especially small ones, a principal may hear about a person, interview two people, and hire someone,” Goldhaber says.

Even if your district has a process, it might be too informal, warns Rose. “A huge majority of schools are using processes that are not grounded in the science of what works best.”

Simply rating every applicant on the same scale, from an out-of-town candidate to the best friend of your top ­teacher, goes a long way toward making better hires. In Spokane, where Goldhaber’s study evaluated the district’s hiring practices over four years, starting in 2008, the HR department rates each applicant on a 21-point scale. Then principals can request certain candidates, say everyone scoring above a 14. School personnel re-rate each candidate on a more rigorous 60-point scale and decide whom to interview.

“The actual structure of the system helps to prevent the ad hoc-ness of hiring,” says Goldhaber, who is continuing to analyze Spokane’s hiring practices. “When you put people through the same process, there’s a certain degree of fairness and some independence.”  

Pick the Right Factors
If it’s relatively easy to set up a formal hiring system, the real work is assessing what traits are most important in new hires while de-­emphasizing those skills that do little to boost student achievement.

“Use the same indicators that you will evaluate them on” when they are teachers, suggests Sid Camp, executive director of human resources for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Too often, says Rose, the hiring process is “driven by individuals rather than what predicts results in classrooms.” Rose sets up a list of 49 key skills in his book, but he knows that each district, and sometimes each school, will have its own criteria. “Take a careful, thoughtful look at your school,” he says. “Classroom management is a standard skill, but in a large urban district that’s overcrowded, management is even more important.”

If you’re just starting the process, ask your top teachers to help identify what skills are the most valuable. After you’ve created a system, Rose adds, collect data on your hires and review their interview scores to see if the numbers correlate with who the best teachers are.

In Spokane, this work led Superin­tendent Shelley Redinger and chief HR officer Tennille Jeffries-Simmons to recognize that classroom management, collegiality, and a professional manner were three important characteristics of good teachers.

What isn’t as important as you think? Grade point average and where a candidate went to school. Google famously used to refuse to hire any candidates with a GPA below 3.0, but now the company doesn’t even consider GPA when screening for jobs. “Research has shown that GPA isn’t that predictive of performance,” Rose says.

Spokane also changed its policy to make letters of recommendation confidential. “That changed the content,” Redinger says. While candidates choose who writes a recommendation, often this includes a supervisor, and getting an honest assessment can be revealing, she adds.

“I know people are skeptical about references,” says Jennifer L. Hindman, assistant director of the School Leadership Institute in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education and the author of Effective Teacher Interviews. “They feel people may not disclose all they know.” She recommends making phone calls to further vet your group of finalists.

Changing your interview questions to delve into scenario-based queries can also help reveal key differences among candidates, says Camp. Gwinnett has stopped asking applicants about their philosophy of education and now asks: What type of students do you like to work with? The district also hands candidates a set of student data and asks them to design an instructional plan that’s differentiated based on the data. “It’s a scientific approach,” Camp says. “We have very structured interview questions.”

Another suggestion is to ask candidates to respond to revealing questions, such as how they would handle a parent’s complaint about their child’s grade, says Hindman.

Actively Recruit and Act Early
“One of the key things people conflate is the difference between recruiting and selecting,” says Rose. “Recruiting is extraordinarily important.”

Both Spokane and Gwinnett heavily emphasize the importance of recruiting.

“You can’t just post a job on your website or the Internet and pray that someone qualified applies,” Camp says. “You have to build talent pipelines.” Gwinnett, a district of 134 schools that hired more than 1,700 teachers this school year, has a variety of initiatives designed to improve the number and skill of applicants. Officials work closely with local college deans, branding the organization to education students while making sure graduates are ready to be solid teachers. “In 2004, we had 250 student teachers. This past year, we had over 1,800,” Camp adds.

A microcosm of this work is reflected in the district’s ties to Georgia Gwinnett College, a liberal arts school created nine years ago as part of Georgia’s university system. Camp says the district was involved before the school even opened. “We helped them put together a conceptual framework of teaching,” he says.  

Spokane’s path was similar. It reached out to colleges to let candidates know about the district. While it has done a good job of getting applicants, the district was losing many top candidates because it took too long to make job offers.

Spokane revamped its process to get applicants out to principals more ­quickly, allowing for faster job offers. But Redinger decided to go further. When the district identifies top teaching candidates who are juniors in college, it offers them teaching contracts that became effective once they graduate.

Gwinnett does something similar, putting teachers under contract in March for the following fall. The best teacher candidates are available in March, Camp says. “The bell curve declines [as we move] into June and July. If we hire earlier, we get a better share of teachers.”

No matter how hard you work to fill a spot, sometimes the best choice is not to hire someone. “The most courageous decision is to list your teacher as ‘TBA,’ ” Hindman says. She recommends filling a classroom with a strong sub and recruiting more, or waiting for ­additional graduates in December.

After the Hire
No matter how excellent your hiring process, sometimes a bad fit occurs. Both Gwinnett and Spokane try to quickly weed out hires who aren’t working out.

“The number of nonrenewals has gone up,” says Jeffries-Simmons. “We want to continue to make sure that if somebody is not a match, we [enact] nonrenewal swiftly but fairly.” Washington state recently revised its rules, requiring certified hires to work provisionally for three years before granting tenure.
Since Georgia is a right-to-work state, Gwinnett doesn’t have tenure. While Camp emphasized that the district worked hard during the recent recession to avoid layoffs, he says teachers are faced with nonrenewal if they aren’t working out.

The work in these two districts appears to be paying off. Spokane has increased its graduation rate from 60 percent to 83 percent in the past five years. And Gwinnett took home its second Broad Prize last year as the outstanding urban district in the country.

“I’ve seen this play out over and over again,” Redinger says. “You’re only as good as your people. We’re not shy about it. We’re looking for continuous improvement.”    

The $$ Factor
Pay has a role to play when hiring the best staff but it’s not the most important factor. When it comes to attracting the best teachers—and keeping them once they are hired—how important is pay?

Though both Camp and Redinger say it’s not the top factor, it is important. Camp says that Gwinnett, which has one of the top pay scales in Georgia for veteran teachers, is looking for ways to increase starting salaries. And Spokane is just beginning a study to compare its salaries with those of nearby districts.

Across the country, districts have tried financial rewards to make jobs more attractive.

Urban districts typically have a tougher time attracting candidates than suburban counterparts, due in part to lower salaries. Oakland’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is trying to face this problem head-on by proposing to raise salaries by 10 percent over three years. Rural districts can sometimes face the same problems as their urban counterparts, typically paying less and offering fewer social perks than a metropolitan area. In South Carolina, the state government will knock $5,000 off a federal Stafford loan if a teacher spends five years in a low-income school. In-state loans can be forgiven, too, if the recipient fills a high-need position.

And in maybe the most extreme pay experiment in the country, teachers at one charter middle school in Manhattan make $125,000 a year.

A recent study of the Equity Project school shows that achievement was higher for students who attended for four years than for students at similar New York City schools. But the teacher attrition rate was a whopping 47 percent after one year, almost twice that of nearby public schools.

The generous pay teachers receive at schools like Equity also bring extra responsibilities. These demands can cause burnout. Teaching is a delicate balance of skills, and while pay is a key component, it’s
certainly not the most important factor.

Image: Science Museum, SSPL via Getty Images (beaker); Juanmonino/istockphoto (figure)



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