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Strengthening Data Conversations

Five ways to make your data become a catalyst for growth.
By Susan Millemann and Kristin Moran

Assessment data can be a critical tool when used to inform planning that advances student achievement and growth. But how do we discuss, investigate, and analyze data in the most effective way? One way to do this is data conversations, which use data as the start of inquiry, and through discussion, further analysis, and collaboration, can drive powerful changes in schools and districts.

Here are five considerations that will help data become a catalyst for exciting growth.

1. Keep students at the center of the conversation.

It’s essential to remember the faces represented by student data and the stories that data can tell about individual students, classrooms, and schools.

How can a busy administrator manage the analysis of individual student data? Consider following a cohort of students throughout the school year or across multiple school years. The use of student case studies can help administrators and teachers identify what is working at the individual student level. This highlights the implications of data at all levels of the school or district and keeps everyone focused on the ultimate goal of increasing students’ academic growth and achievement. Case studies can include:

  • pictures of the student
  • data from quantitative and qualitative assessments
  • strengths and areas of concern based on the data
  • a plan for taking action
  • strategies and resources needed to support the family and teachers in reaching the identified plan

Katie Magnuson, assistant principal of Skinner North Classical Elementary in Chicago, works closely with teachers to assess trends in student performance and begins at the classroom level. She and the teachers sit down with results from the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, Lexile® information, and data from other tests, including classroom and district benchmarks. All get combined with teacher insights. “We start by looking at general trends for each class,” Magnuson says. “How are students performing in each subject? To what extent are they improving as a whole?”

In existing professional learning communities and in data teams led by Magnuson, Skinner North faculty identify areas for growth at the student and classroom level. Using these conversations, they build intervention plans for students in need of significant help, create new instructional groups based on ability levels, and, in some cases, spur the development of new units for classes struggling with a particular concept.[1]

When educators spend time learning the in-depth stories of a small cohort of students, it can strengthen the connections and conversations between staff and students and contribute to the development of a high-performing culture of data use.

2. Use a strengths-based approach in data conversations.

When we examine data, we usually note a success, then quickly turn our attention toward deficiencies. But what if we investigated strengths the same way we investigated deficiencies? By investigating strengths first, a new set of questions opens up: Under what conditions is this student, teacher, or administrator succeeding? What data could give me more information about the overall environment in which this person is successful? Can we leverage or replicate some of the conditions in which this individual is succeeding into other arenas?

For example, let’s say the majority of your school’s third-grade students are not showing growth in math. Instead of focusing on math deficiency, investigate which programs have demonstrated success. Let’s say the first-grade teachers use flexible reading groups across the grade level. Instead of having each first-grade teacher differentiate instruction by multiple groups within each class, the three first-grade teachers have grouped all first-grade students into three flexible groups, with each teacher focusing on one group to maximize instruction. Fourth-grade students have also been paired with first-grade students to mentor them in reading. The majority of first-grade students experienced strong growth in reading from fall to spring. Using a strength-based approach, analyze how some of these successful reading program components at the first-grade level could be applied toward building success in the third-grade math program.

In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instructional data teams at Mountain View Middle School have capitalized on data indicating that some students are ready for new challenges. A subset of students demonstrated, via the adaptive MAP assessment, that they could read and interpret high-school-level content, including passages from Shakespeare. “This has driven us to do special projects that we wouldn’t have otherwise considered and helped those high-performing students grow further,” notes eighth-grade language arts teacher Ellee Weaks. Weaks and her instructional team organized these students into small groups with the opportunity to take on reading and writing projects of their choosing. One of the student groups created and self-published a book as a team.[2]

This strengths-based approach can be applied to all levels of the organization, including teacher and student, teacher and parent, principal and teacher, district administrator and principal. Using a conversation guide—a set of questions that help structure the conversation away from definitive answers and toward an investigative style of dialogue—can support finding the roots of success in any data conversation, regardless of the role or position of the stakeholder. The questions might include:

  • Under what conditions is this student, teacher, or administrator succeeding?
  • What other kinds of data or information could give me more clues about this success?
  • What are some other possible reasons for this person’s strengths?
  • How can these strengths be applied to other situations?
  • What support and resources do we need to help apply strategies to other arenas?

As data from assessments are increasingly being used for evaluative purposes, it becomes essential to create an environment where stakeholders engage in conversations that leverage successes, rather than target failures.

3. Build data literacy for all stakeholders.

Before productive conversations can occur, it is important for students, teachers, and administrators to have a common understanding of data-related terms and how data will be collected and used. Clarity on assessment purpose, scoring, scale, and reporting features will ensure an equal playing field during data conversations. Understanding the purpose of each assessment allows educators to identify gaps or replication in the school and district assessment portfolio and to develop an understanding of the interrelationships among assessment, curriculum, instruction, and student learning. When an assessment’s purpose is neither understood nor aligned with its use, the data loses value, no matter how well structured the process for interpreting and analyzing it.

Using shared definitions for assessment terminology can help ensure consistency. These definitions become especially powerful when they are a visible part of the school culture, discussed in staff meetings, posted in the halls and classrooms, and consistently utilized during data conversations.

At Skinner North, data has become part of the language of the school community. The intensive work of assistant principal Magnuson and her colleagues extends to older students. “We help students in grades four, five, and six set goals based on their midyear MAP scores,” Magnuson says. “They really respond to the opportunity to set targets and take ownership for their learning. They learn how to self-analyze MAP reports, and the process increases buy-in among students. More than anything, they’re excited to see the growth they’re making throughout the year.”

The faculty also use data to inform conversations beyond the classroom. “We share MAP information with parents, along with different resources for working on particular skills at home. Parents are responding positively, and many appreciate having another piece of information to use in conversations with teachers,” Magnuson notes.[3]

Administrators particularly need to understand data at all levels of the organization. By focusing on individual student data, administrators will begin to see more connections and have a deeper understanding of reports at the school and district level.

4. Bring a learner orientation.

When having data conversations, progress is just as integral to success as end results. Coming to the data conversation as a learner rather than an expert allows stakeholders to support one another in sharing information, asking questions, and engaging in deeper investigation. A learner mind-set enables all concerned to find the story in the data.

To safeguard stakeholders’ connection to the data and keep a growth mind-set, think of the data as a “third point.” In Leading Groups: Effective Strategies for Building Professional Community, Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman describe how to create a third point when facilitating group work (in this case, assessment data) to shift the attention away from the stakeholders and onto the material or report being shared. They suggest making eye contact and pointing to the “data” as a way to depersonalize the information, creating an environment that enables team members to come to the conversation as learners. In turn, this learner orientation will support participants’ openness to investigating the data, a critical element in the discovery process.

5. Develop a collaborative environment.

A collaborative environment encourages involvement, active participation, and ownership of both the process and the result. Sharing information, strategies, goals, and plans that spring from these data conversations across the organization encourages a variety of perspectives and ideas aimed at achieving a higher level of success. According to a 2014 survey of administrators, teachers, and students conducted by Grunwald Associates on behalf of NWEA, educators who collaborate on assessment results are more confident in their ability to interpret and use these results to support teaching and learning.

Developing a productive collaborative culture needs to be intentional and well planned. The National School Reform Faculty provides several protocols for reflective dialogue, including one on data-driven dialogue. With the discussion structured in three phases, all members have equal representation and work to develop a shared understanding of the data. The protocol describes how participants begin with Predictions, where they discuss assumptions, expectations, wondering, and possibilities. Moving into the next phase, Observations, participants stay engaged with numerical information, analyzing trends and patterns and avoiding any conclusions or presumptions. The final phase, Inferences, is where participants begin to generate conclusions, determine additional data that needs to be collected and analyzed, and start to identify potential next steps. Following certain protocols, especially those that promote active participation and structure for all voices and perspectives to be heard, can further contribute to an environment of inclusivity and partnership.

Investing in the development of productive data conversations at schools like Mountain View Middle and Skinner North Elementary supports putting data into action, leading to positive results for student achievement and growth. At Skinner North, teachers have built more effective scope and sequencing for literature instruction by targeting areas of weak overall student performance. An intensive focus on critical thinking, identified through data analysis as a priority by the Mountain View team, resulted in a 10 percent increase in student proficiency in that area in the course of a single school year. And in schools across the country, the growth mind-set engendered by collaborative, data-driven conversations has broadened horizons for teachers, leaders, and students.


Kristin Moran is a senior curriculum specialist for NWEA Professional Development. She has more than 16 years experience in education, as a teacher, administrator, curriculum manager, and student achievement manager for online programs.

Susan Millemann has designed and conducted professional learning sessions on a national level for the Northwest Evaluation Association and the Success for All Foundation since 1997.  The primary focus of this work has been to support educators in building and sustaining internal capacity to increase student growth and achievement.

[1] Fleming, Jean. “Portraits in Partnership: Chicago Digs Into Data.” Teach. Learn. Grow. The education blog. Northwest Evaluation Association. April 8, 2014. Accessed online August 4, 2014.

[2] G. Gage Kingsbury, Edward H. Freeman, and Mike Nesterak, “The Potential of Adaptive Assessment,” Educational Leadership, March 2014.

[3] Fleming, Jean.

Images (from left): Ron Chapple Studios/Thinkstock; AVAVA/Thinkstock

Broad prize pulse

Broad Prize: Two for One

A pair of finalists take home foundation’s top prize.
By Wayne D'Orio

When the finalists were announced for this year’s Broad Prize, it was somewhat of a letdown. Instead of the typical four or five districts battling for the unofficial title of best urban district, there were only two: Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Orange County Public Schools in Florida.

That mood shifted when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the announcement in New York Monday, saying, “I feel like Santa Claus. We have two winners.”

The tie was a first in the foundation’s 13-year history; the two districts will split the $1 million award. And it was Gwinnett’s second victory, newly eligible again after winning the prize in 2010.

Interestingly, while the districts have similar profiles, they took different paths to success.

Gwinnett has some of the most stable leadership in the country. Not only has superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks led the district for 18 years, but the most junior member on the district’s five-person board has nine years experience. The tenure of the longest-serving board member even predates Wilbanks, stretching back to the 1970s. The district’s steady progress netted it the highest SAT participation rate among the 75 Broad Prize-eligible districts, and its students had one of the top AP participation rates.

Orange County’s progress has been more dramatic. The district’s low-income middle school students showed improvement in reaching the highest achievement levels in state tests. In reading, student scores rose 6 percentage points at the highest levels, compared to 1 percentage point of growth for the rest of the state. The district also narrowed the achievement gap between Hispanic students and white students in elementary, middle, and high schools in both math and science.

“We wrestled with performance versus improvement,” said former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell, a member of the prize’s selection jury. “We were impressed with Gwinnett County’s steady, sustainable gains and with Orange County’s urgency and commitment to improve student achievement quickly.”

Gwinnett has about 170,000 students and spends $7,548 per pupil. The district has 55 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 16 percent English language learners. Orange County has 187,000 students and spends $7,965 per student. Sixty percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while 13 percent are designated as English language learners.

Advice from Tony Blair, Arne Duncan

Held at Time Warner in New York’s Columbus Circle, the Broad Prize event drew a large crowd of top education leaders, including former education secretary Rod Paige, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Philadelphia superintendent William Hite, and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair kicked off the event by remembering the struggles he faced when he started to reform Britain’s worst-performing schools. “I think the toughest thing you can do in life is to take a system in the public sector and make the changes and improve it.”

“When you first propose change, people resist it,” he said. “When you are doing it, it's hell, and when you are through doing it, you wish you did more of it.”

Blair joked that Britain and the United States had “a disagreement a couple of hundred of years ago,” but added that both countries “learn best when we learn from each other.”

Duncan spoke next, and he recounted vignettes from his recent three-day bus tour through the South. The secretary marveled at the hardships some children overcome to continue their education. He spoke of children fighting to be the first in their family to graduate high school. “They have amazing potential to do well if we meet them halfway,” Duncan said, praising the teachers, principals, and counselors he has met.

“I’m hopeful about where we are going. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, half a million more African-Americans are in college—we’ve made huge amounts of progress. Yet we come to work every single day because we are not getting good enough fast enough.”

Publicly available data from 2009 to 2013 was used to screen districts this year. Districts can’t apply or be nominated for the award; the 75 largest districts that serve significant percentages of low-income students are automatically considered.

Photos (from left): Invision for The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation/AP Images; John Raoux/AP Photo



Education On the Move

New bus connectivity can improve safety, communication, and student efficiency.

By Wayne D’Orio

Mobile is one of the biggest trends in education as more students and staff use portable devices to access information and do their work. While districts are quickly extending Wi-Fi to all corners of their schools, typically one mainstay of education is left out: the school bus.

AT&T and Alcatel-Lucent have a plan to fix that. The two companies have teamed up this fall to offer a “Connected Bus” that includes onboard Wi-Fi, real-time streaming video, and broadcast speakers. “Today’s education climate has increased pressures not only to keep students safe but also to meet their digital expectations,” says Neal Tilley, of Alcatel’s education division.

The Connected Bus package offers multiple benefits. On the security side, the connectivity allows for remote monitoring of students and the bus driver, as well as GPS and RFID scanners. Principals can talk directly to students who are on the bus, resolving a security issue while allowing the driver to concentrate on the road. One school district told Alcatel that 70 percent of its discipline issues occur on buses. In putting together the package, both companies spoke with superintendents, district IT members, bus drivers, teachers, and even school boards.

The device, which is roughly the size of a hardback book, can also help improve students’ work time and extend the learning day, according to Richard Marvin of AT&T’s education division. The connection is LTE where available from AT&T; when LTE isn’t available, the service drops down to 3G or 2G. The Connected Bus is “basically a classroom on wheels,” Tilley says.

One district told the companies that it would use the bus’s video feed to help prepare teams as they travel to competitions. “Some kids can be on buses for two or three hours a day, two or three times a week,” Tilley says.

 The setup isn’t inexpensive: The list price runs from $5,000 to $7,000, including installation and the necessary antenna. Video cameras, speakers, and other communication tools cost extra. Because the device runs on DC power, it can easily be moved from bus to bus.

Image: Courtesy of AT&T and Alcatel-Lucent

Education: National STEM Contest Offers $500,000 in Grants and Scholarships to Schools, Teachers, and Students

Scholastic and Lexus have partnered in 2014 to bring the Lexus Eco Challenge into middle and high schools nationwide for the eighth year.

The contest is intense, with teams competing to develop and implement the best innovative solutions to address environmental issues in their communities. (See past winners’ projects.)




The contest features $500,000 in grants and scholarships available to winners, so the time to talk to teachers about it is now.

We know teachers make a difference every day. We want to support them in their education efforts.

Please invite teachers to visit the Lexus Eco Challenge website: scholastic.com/lexus or email us directly at ecochallenge@scholastic.com.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY to enter or win. A purchase will not increase your chances of winning. The Lexus Eco Challenge ("Contest") is open to students in grades 6–12 who are enrolled in a public or accredited private school or who are schooled at home in compliance with the laws of the students' primary state of residence and who are legal residents of the United States (one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia) by law. Only the winners from the Land & Water and Air & Climate Challenges will be eligible to participate in the Final Challenge. Click here for official rules.


5 Steps to Inquiry-Based Learning

Unsure about how to make the shift to inquiry-based teaching under the Next Gen Science Standards? Follow these steps to lessen teachers’ anxiety.
By Ronald J. Korenich

As school districts begin to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), they may find teachers and staff are worried about how to implement inquiry-based methods of teaching. For many teachers, inquiry-based instruction can be scary, or at the very least, require a leap of faith.

I know this first-hand. More than 10 years ago, in my role as district coordinator of elementary education for Fox Chapel ASD in Pennsylvania, my charge was to implement inquiry-based instruction for both science and social studies.

Teachers wanted to provide quality instruction but were uncomfortable because they didn’t feel equipped. When students engage in inquiry, lessons can take many twists and turns, and teachers were concerned they wouldn’t have the content knowledge to answer student questions or wouldn’t be able to tie in the overarching concepts students were required to know.

Although progress was gradual, the end result was such an improvement in both teacher confidence and student learning that I don’t think any other method of learning is even an option now.

For any district moving from a non-inquiry-based curriculum to an inquiry-based one, there will always be a steep learning curve. Here’s what we learned in my district.

  1. Start with pedagogy, but don’t forget content. Teachers need to know the pedagogy of inquiry-based learning—their role, students’ role, how to implement the lesson—in addition to the content. For better or worse, you can’t learn one without the other. In the beginning, though, most of our training focused on pedagogy. We walked teachers through sample lessons: what might happen during a lesson, how to handle veering off-course or unexpected experiment results. Teachers were excited to see that once they knew strategies to capitalize on those moments, incredible learning occurred.

  2. Rich materials are crucial. Schools must not only choose materials that are robust in content for their science curriculum but also those that provide teacher support. Publishers that provide training sessions or whose materials are tied to Web-based support are the most helpful. In my district, teachers also appreciated curriculum that was structured so they could take specific steps to reach student goals.

  3. Schools need to accept initial teacher missteps. Teachers may not be completely successful at first, and that’s to be expected. Rather than view these experiences as failures, schools and districts need to understand them and continue to support the teachers. We found that sharing “mistakes” during professional development sessions provided some of the best learning opportunities.

  4. Teachers need to accept mistakes, too. It can be difficult for teachers to pull back from “teaching” and let students pursue their own conclusions. However, when teachers create an environment where kids aren’t afraid to be right or wrong, they are much more inquisitive and engaged. The teacher can always turn “wrong” answers into learning opportunities by pointing out common misperceptions or by making a connection between the mistake and critical learning content.

  5. Professional development needs to be ongoing. Training for inquiry-based learning is continuous. For example, we were surprised in one of our schools that a simple unit on levers and pulleys generated sophisticated questions that required physics knowledge. The district brought in more content training on physics, and as a result, both the students and teachers achieved a depth of knowledge on the subject that we had never imagined previously.

When most of us think back on what we know, we realize that we’ve learned best when we were actively engaged in the learning but had someone supporting and guiding us. It’s the same for elementary students. Teachers who understand how to meet students where they are and guide them along a path of inquiry are engaging students in the real work of scientists. Today we have the opportunity to encourage children’s natural curiosities, coach them on how to interpret what they’re discovering, and help them understand the impact of what they’re learning while they acquire important knowledge about science content and process. This engagement and resulting depth of knowledge is where we want our students to be in STEM subjects. Other teaching methods can’t achieve this, which is why implementing inquiry-based learning, although sometimes bumpy at first, is so critical in today’s schools.

Ronald J. Korenich, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and former coordinator of elementary education at Fox Chapel Area School District, Pennsylvania. He is a member of TCI’s Science Advisory Board.


Image: Creatas/Thinkstock

Top_PD mistakes

PD Mistakes to Avoid in the New School Year

By Alvin Crawford

This summer at the NEA Representative Assembly in Denver, we met a lot of teachers—representing the 3 million educators nationwide. We asked them, “How many hours of professional development does it take to change your practice?” Staying true to the rampant culture of testing we live in, we offered multiple-choice answers:

a. 1 hour
b. 8 hours
c. 50 hours

Among the responses: “If it’s good PD, one hour.” Or, “I’m guessing eight hours.” 

Quite a few of the more experienced teachers nodded and said, “Of course, 50 hours.” They’re right; according to the research it takes 50 hours of PD to change practice. And, according to Teaching the Teachers from the Center for Public Education, it takes, on average, “twenty…separate instances of practice for a teacher to master a new skill, and this number may increase if a skill is exceptionally complex.”

College- and career-ready standards, like the Common Core, are challenging the status quo in the U.S. We hear the frustration of parents who struggle to help their second graders with math homework. We hear from teachers about the lack of training they’ve received on implementing these standards. Now more than ever, professional development is critical to achieve a transformation in teaching and learning.

How do we make the seismic shift needed for change when teachers feel the intense pressure in this era of accountability and testing? 

To start, there are a few PD mistakes we can avoid going into this school year:

  1. Reconsider the One- to Two-Day Workshop: These workshops are easy to plan and great for filling seats during in-service days, but PD experts suggest they have little to no impact on teacher practice. Think about ways to engage teachers in more active, collegial learning that goes deeper than traditional butts-in-seats practice.

    Solution: Think about approaches like lesson study or intensive PD initiatives supported by ongoing coaching.

  2. Reset Your PD Approach and Go Deep: As referenced in Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?,” we have a habit of not prioritizing PD time. Research says it takes 50 hours or more on a specific content or pedagogy to change teacher practice, so we actually need to plan to respect and value time for ongoing PD. This is critical if we are to see students succeed.

    Solution: Allocate time each week for ongoing professional learning for your teachers. Get creative with how you do it—lesson study meets virtual community of practice meets online courses; 1:1 coaching over extended periods of time.

  3. Scale Your Initiatives for Impact: Districts struggle with scaling professional development for big initiatives. If you do only face-to-face PD, think about how long it will take to establish a common language and understanding for all the teachers in your district. This poses a challenge for ensuring every child is getting the same quality of education.

    Solution: Consider online and blended PD and virtual communities of practice to scale PD district-wide. If other industries can do it, so can we.

  4. Create Real PLCs: If you have professional learning communities in your district—congratulations! This is a major step toward a change in practice. Unfortunately, many districts don’t, or they have a PLC in name only. Train your principals and coaches how to lead PLCs and get started immediately. It’s important that teachers engage in ongoing, collaborative professional learning that creates meaningful approaches to solving the needs of each school.

    Solution: Empower your teachers to learn from one another. They are your greatest resource, your most valued asset.

  5. Avoid Test Prep: We focus too much on evaluation and accountability in the U.S. with very little actual support for teachers. In our culture of testing, we tend to put an emphasis on test prep, rather than on developing teachers for teaching more effectively.

    Solution: Rethink the goal of this year’s assessment results. In light of transition to college and career standards, like the Common Core, use this year’s results as a benchmark for your PD efforts, rather than as solely an evaluative measure of your teachers. This will take the pressure off teachers when it comes to test results and will allow them to focus on how to more effectively support student learning—and that’s something we can all get behind.

Alvin Crawford is president and CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS), a leading provider of blended and online professional learning solutions for K–12 school districts and educators. With more than 20 years of experience in education and media, he is dedicated to building innovative, transformative professional development solutions that support teachers and districts.



Windows XP: The End is Here
By Brian Nadel

April 8, 2014, was a bad day for schools—it marked the end of Microsoft’s official support for Windows XP. After all, at 13 years old, the software was older than many of the students it was being used to teach and had been superseded by the release of three major operating systems in the intervening years.

Despite its age, XP served education well, and based on an Avast survey of 1,800 schools last year, 96 percent of them still use the venerable OS. Most continue to put off upgrading to newer software because XP is simple, effective, and able to use a slew of software titles.

It’s time to put XP in the IT rearview mirror and not look back, but schools still using Windows XP face a crisis. Although they can continue to use the software, there’s no safety net—Microsoft will no longer provide support, bug fixes, new hardware drivers, or, most important, security updates. Schools are coping with the demise of XP in a variety of ways, from replacing computers wholesale to putting the software onto servers.

Here are three ways that schools are dealing with the situation.

Plan A deals with XP’s end by replacing it with new software. However, since most of the computers that currently use XP are too old to be converted to use Windows 7 or 8.1, upgrading them is a nonstarter. After including the setup and labor required for installation, the bill for a large district could hit seven or eight figures.

Plan B involves swapping XP-based PCs for inexpensive Android tablets, Chromebooks, or Linux-based computers. Their price tags can be half that of the typical PC notebook or desktop system, but on the downside, the assortment of available classroom titles is tiny compared with Windows.

Plan C lets schools continue to use their seemingly obsolete PCs by virtualizing the software on a server. The way that virtualization works requires rethinking how school computers interact. Forget about running software directly on the computer’s hard drive; think instead about using a server that sends the necessary graphic elements, commands, and data directly to each computer via a network connection.

Virtualization offers the best of both worlds: new software while continuing to use the old hardware. It allows schools to get several more years out of outdated computers because there is less computing stress placed on them. “Schools are using virtualization to move up to Windows 7. It’s a logical step away from XP,” says Dave Burton, vice president of marketing at NComputing.

With NComputing’s vSpace virtualization platform, every PC at school is turned into a thin client system, or the school can buy new thin client hardware. Regardless of whether a math teacher is showing how to add exponents, a student is researching an English paper at a library kiosk, or the assistant principal is collating the quarter’s grades, the systems look and act the same as always, right down to the ubiquitous Windows logo.

“It looks like Windows and acts like Windows,” explains Burton. “It runs all the software and is just as fast, but all the software is running on a server. They would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between native Windows and vSpace virtualizing it.”

Network-Centric Scheme

Virtualization software does put extra stress on the school’s network because more data is flowing back and forth between system and server. The software avoids bottlenecks by automatically compressing data, caching the most frequently used items, and balancing the load among clients. That way, if a class opens up the same worksheet or watches the same video via vSpace, the system doesn’t come to a grinding halt.

This streamlining of the client–server relationship is done in the background. “Unlike VMware’s VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] system,” Burton says, “vSpace doesn’t require an army of IT staff.” In other words, VDI is more appropriate for a large corporation that has a dedicated IT staff to keep it running smoothly.

To make virtualization work, there’s a client app as well as a midrange server to house and distribute the software. Figure on setting up one vSpace server for every 100 clients versus less than half that for a VDI installation. It costs about $50 per seat when purchasing for hundreds of users, but NComputing counts concurrent users, and a school will likely never have every computer being used at the same time. According to Burton, a typical school with roughly 1,000 students and staff might need between 400 and 500 licenses.

Pana Community School District No. 8 in central Illinois replaced 400 XP-based computers for its 100 teachers and 1,400 students with vSpace running Windows 7 on a dozen servers. Rather than recycle its antediluvian PCs, the district went a step further and bought NComputing’s L300 thin clients and mated them with existing displays, keyboards, and mice. All told, the district had upfront costs that were between half and one-third what new PCs would have cost.

But, as most administrators know, purchase costs are only the start. Gartner analysts have estimated the total cost of ownership, which takes into account everything from initial outlays and maintenance to repairs and power costs. To nobody’s surprise, the typical PC setup is the most expensive at $2,290 in annual costs, with traditional VDI a close second at $1,982. The cost of setting up and running vSpace comes out on the low side at about $576 a year.

Schools can even save money by using vSpace to centrally manage their computers, which can lower support and maintenance costs dramatically. “Running a school network is never easy,” Burton says. “The software ensures that every computer has the most up-to-date drivers and software.”

Shopping Smart.edu

Shmoop buying-softwareWorried about how to evaluate software before you buy? Consider these seven tips before finalizing that PO.

By David Siminoff

If you surf www.SnakeOilSalesmen.com you will find the pantheon of educational technology products that didn’t work. Lots of promises. Lots of noise. No tangibly good results for our kids. Waste.

 It’s a story replayed too many times in our districts, and the world of technology is getting more complex, more ripe for abuse.

 When you buy tech, you wear two hats—you play both offense and defense. You are trying to let your students take advantage of truly new things (e.g., iPads), not rehashes of the past (“new” paper textbooks). You take risks: Will the technology work? Will it actually teach…better? Will it deliver the value it promises in helping our children find dots of light in the darkness of educational space?

You mitigate risk as well: If you play it safe, you…don’t get fired. (See the guy who managed the LAUSD iPad debacle for details.) You order paper texts—they don’t need batteries. You…do the same thing your predecessors have done for 300 years. The kids get their education, more or less. And they move on. Defense.

The “right” answer probably circles a balance of both offense and defense. I present to you a series of what I believe should be key questions you ask of your vendors in defining that space:

1. Can you spot “lazy” tech?

Is the “brand new” technology just an old paper textbook whose pages have been scanned, copied. and pasted onto a vanilla web page? Brilliant. Cutting-edge technology. Bazinga.

Is the “new” product essentially the same thing the company offered three years ago, but the cover/title page has been changed to include the words And now with Common Core!? It always had the Common Core. Somebody took a day or two to numerically tag the Common Core grids. Is this a reason to shell out money for a “new” product?

When companies offer “new” products that leave you scratching your head, then it’s likely you are buying an empty basket.

2. Can you believe it's not butter? (Or, is the data real or not?)

Can you trust that the product actually works? Is there quality data, which backs up the supposed findings? (“Quality” means a smart 15-year-old can understand the data.) The sample size was big. There are testimonials from people who actually implemented the product. The product actually worked—i.e., it wasn’t just a “paid study.” And the post-tech-application result was demonstrably better than the control group’s. If the product is really good, it’ll let you track to the individual student, the classroom, the area of study, and time spent on the platform.

3. Is this a transaction or a relationship?

Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of the room the minute you shake hands with your vendor? Big companies are publicly traded entities run for shareholder profits. They have sales quotas to hit and pressure to sell, sell, sell. Small companies have pressure as well—but their “greed” is often more of the long-term flavor (healthy) than the short-term flavor (think: your last stockbroker).

Don’t be misled by large companies who claim to have 10,000 service center employees, but when you reach out, nobody returns your calls. In many small companies, you get the founder or top officer who cares about a long-term relationship actually working. Their company’s survival usually depends on it. They’ll do right by you (i.e., do what they say they will do)—or they will die fast.

4. Should you test the system?

Yes. Here’s an easy one: Send an email to the company’s Contact Us button with a clear, reasonably simple question and see what happens. Just because it has a big PR firm/marketing agency that claims to have great customer service doesn’t mean that it actually does. And to be very clever, if you work for a gorilla like LAUSD, don't send the email from that vaunted account. Send it from your personal account and see if you get a quality reply any time soon.

5. Is there fair value in the product? 

One of the reasons that I started Shmoop was that I found myself responding angrily to the textbooks my children were bringing home. To wit, the history book was basically the same one I had in high school 30-plus years earlier—little if anything had been added to give context and relevance to the vast changes in society today versus the 1980s. Yet the textbook cost $220. It was still unfathomable on many levels, not Internet-friendly, and used the same $5 words that made the teacher feel smart and the student feel stupid. If the new technology doesn’t feel like a leap forward over whatever was in the past (think: iPad relative to a laptop), it’s usually a pass.

6. Does the vendor truly love its own product?

Love matters. It’ll keep us together, it hurts, and it’s a battlefield. Founders know all of this about their products—they love them. Sometimes the product loves them back, and other people fall in love with the same simple clarity or voice or vision that the product imbues to its category.

 Small things matter—is the product actually updated regularly, or does it just say it is? Digital is designed for regular updates; paper not so much. Is the product easy to implement without requiring that the teacher have a Ph.D. in computer science?

Does it serve pages well on an iPad, an old Dell laptop with an Explorer browser, on a Samsung Mega, on a new Mac?

7. The acid test: Do students actually use the product? Do they, perhaps, love it?

If they do, it “will love them back” in nonobvious ways. Take an ungodly boring task like studying for the SATs, or reading Kants, or diagramming orbitals. If the new tech makes that process painless, maybe even fun-ish, then the student, who fights to spend the least amount of time possible on a given task, will spend much more time. And learn more. Perhaps the student will “feel” instead of just “know” the topic.

David Siminoff is the founder and chief creative officer of Shmoop University, www.shmoop.com.

Image: Olaru Radian-alexandru/Hemera/Thinkstock

Match Point

Cici-bellisHow top high school athletes balance studies with tennis.

By Wayne D'Orio

In the week before Labor Day, most 15-year-old girls
spent at least part of their free time buying the
perfect backpack, checking class schedules with friends, and planning what to wear on the first day of school.

For Catherine Bellis, CiCi Bells to her fans, the to-do list was slightly different. Bellis, a top amateur tennis player, earned her first invite to the U.S. Open this year. On the tourney’s second day, the 15-year-old from San Francisco was thrust into the national spotlight by becoming the youngest player in 18 years to win a match at the major when she knocked off Dominika Cibulkova, the 12th seed.

Despite picking up more than 2,000 Twitter followers and having her second-round match shown live in prime time, Bellis is still just a 15-year-old about to start her sophomore year in high school. (Bellis lost her second-round match, but played into the second week in the junior doubles and singles tournaments.)

So how do Bellis and the 127 other teenagers in the junior tournament in New York City keep up with their studies while devoting so much time to tennis and training? The short answer is online classes, but the way these student-athletes put together their schedules varies greatly.

Bellis says she is home-schooled, but she takes most of her courses from K12’s offerings. Other athletes interviewed at the tournament used various online courses, while sometimes mixing in classes at their local schools.

“Our students get to pursue their dreams without jeopardizing their education,” says Miriam Rube, K12’s head of school. “She doesn’t have to worry about class when she’s on the court, but when she plugs in, we are there for her.”

Flexibility is the biggest reason most students take classes at Florida Virtual School, says spokeswoman Tania Clow. They can work at their own pace and can access the classes from anywhere. More than 190,000 students take classes through this virtual school, including a number of prominent teen athletes, actors, and musicians.

Reilly Opelka, a 6’ 9” 17-year-old starting 12th grade, lives year-round at the USTA training center in Boca Raton, Florida. He spends five hours a day playing tennis and doing fitness training. He takes all of his courses through Florida Virtual School. While admitting he’d “love to be in school with my friends,” about four hours north in Palm Coast, Florida, he says the school’s flexibility works well with his frequent traveling.

Opelka likes “stacking” classes, where he takes a few subjects and completes a year’s work in mere months. Earlier this year, he took English, math, and marine science, completing each course in four months. He plans to start this year’s classes “right after this,” he adds, moments after winning a first-round match. (He lost in the second round of singles on Wednesday.)

Opelka has been taking online classes since ninth grade and says he’s now better about keeping up with his work rather than cramming it all in at the end. He thinks all students should experience taking a class online, but he adds, “It’s not ideal to teach yourself math.”

Clow says Florida, among other states, mandates that all students take an online class before they graduate from high school. She says while there is a recommended pace for each class, instructors check in with students regularly and communicate with parents each month to relay students’ progress.

Caroline Dolehide, a 15-year-old player from Hinsdale, Illinois, who also spends five hours a day on tennis and training, actually finds it easier to take biology online than in person. (Making up lab time in person can be difficult, she says.) She split her schedule for her freshman year, going to school until 11:30 and supplementing with two online classes from Illinois Virtual School. She had planned to do the same this year, though because she’s already missed two weeks of school (she won her first three singles matches, making it into the quarterfinals), she may take all of her courses online through Laurel Springs School, an online private school that caters to athletes and performers.

Like many high school athletes who juggle sports and school, both Dolehide and Opelka are keeping open the option of going to college—and staying current with their schoolwork, even amid the glamour of a major tennis tournament, is important.

“You can have more than one focus in life, but it takes planning and commitment,” says Rube. “That’s a life skill.”

Image: Matthew Stockman/gettyimages

Creating On Demand PD

One of the biggest trends in education the last few years has been the push to differentiate learning for the various students in each classroom. With technology’s help, teachers are now able to more easily assign tasks that challenge each student to do his or her best, no matter the student’s level of proficiency. School Improvement Network thought so much of this trend that it is trying to bring it to teachers’ professional learning.

SIN’s new service, Edivation, includes videos, courses, and lesson plans that teachers or administrators can review on their own, creating personal learning plans that cater to specific skills. Educators can access content from any computer or mobile device.

“Since launching on-demand video resources in 2007, our offerings have expanded to include management tools, online groups and communities, lesson plans and comprehensive implementation support,” says Chet D. Linton, CEO and president of School Improvement Network. “Edivation was created as a new technology platform to support these resources and to help educators become as effective as possible.”

The service is available for $4,995 for one year, or for $3,995 per year with a five-year contract.


-Kim Greene

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