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OERs-pulse

Open Education Resources or OER:
What They Are and Why They Matter

By Tyler DeWitt

You’ve probably heard the term open educational resources (OER), but what are they and why are they important? And how can teachers use them in the classroom?

OER are a growing body of free and diverse online instructional materials that are in the public domain (read: no copyright issues). Most of these resources are the work of teachers and educational organizations with firsthand experience of what helps kids learn, and what doesn’t.

A growing number of innovative teachers and schools are adopting these versatile resources, which, in the K-12 education world, where I work, are in the form of lesson plans, video tutorials, PDFs, and all kinds of interactive learning tools. Teachers are using OER to supplement their own teaching materials, or to enhance (or even replace) traditional textbooks.

One of the beauties of OER is that the materials are typically offered in a mix-and-match format, making it easy for teachers to develop the curricula they find most effective. The key here is flexibility – and not only in how and where teachers and students use OER.

Already vast, the OER universe is expanding all the time. New content is constantly being developed, and since OER are copyright-free, teachers can often modify and redistribute these resources. What’s more, unlike traditional textbooks, which are updated perhaps once a year and tend to come with hefty price tags, OER are constantly absorbing and accommodating new information, and they’re always free.

Differentiate With OER

Let’s face it, everyone learns differently. With OER, teachers can search out materials that address each student’s needs – for example, video lessons that allow students to watch, pause, and rewind at their own pace or materials designed for English-language learners that help them master language skills and content. In fact, the blended-learning model, in which a teacher presides over a class of students, each of whom works with a customized set of instructional media, is essentially OER in action. But even in classrooms where teachers still use traditional textbooks, OER can enhance lessons by providing extra practice or deep dives.

Because OER often have a pedagogical component, they can help teachers identify strategies, activities, and supporting materials for introducing concepts in the classroom. Traditional textbooks are filled with information, but when a teacher needs to find creative ways to help students learn that material, they generally offer little guidance.

That’s where OER come in.

Say a teacher is covering weather. A textbook might talk about meteorology and weather patterns, but it’s extreme weather that’s more likely to spark students’ interest, at least at first. The first stop for a teacher using OER could be OER Commons (oercommons.org), where a search for “extreme weather” brings up ready-made worksheets and activity suggestions.

From Smithsonian Education (smithsonianeducation.org), educators can download activities created by the National Museum of Natural History about weather patterns and storms, complete with maps and exercises. It’s like taking your students to the museum! YouTube EDU (youtube.com/education), an education-only part of the video-sharing website, has tons of videos that both inform and inspire (full disclosure: I have a popular science-education channel on YouTube).

Assemble Powerful Tools

A common concern among teachers is how to integrate OER into existing curricula. Some sites, such as Betterlesson.com, organize content by Common Core standards so instructors can quickly find resources that supplement particular topics. Sites like Readworks.org tie material directly to specific textbooks that a teacher may be using in class. The site has a wealth of resources for reading comprehension, including activities and worksheets that can provide important contextual information or explore plot elements, literary devices, and characters.

Teachers who want to use OER to replace textbooks entirely also have good options. The CK-12 Foundation (ck12.org) and The Connections Project (cnx.org) allow you to assemble your own full-length digital textbooks (often with accompanying teachers’ manuals and other supplementary material) that are free, high-quality substitutes for mass-market texts. Even for teachers who want to continue with commercial textbooks, OER can help students understand material in different ways or from new perspectives.

Whether printed or virtual, textbooks paired with video are powerful tools for flipping the classroom and blending learning strategies. Examples of high-quality educational videos can be found at the Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) and YouTube EDU (youtube.com/education).

Find the Best Resources

Despite, or perhaps because of, the abundance of OER content, quality can vary. Even the best online libraries and information repositories find it hard to rank resources based on such a subjective measure as “quality.” But there are a few solutions. Search rankings can be proxies for quality rankings. Many websites let users review resources, with the best-ranked items moving to the top of search queries. Shopping by “brand” can also help assure quality. Once you’ve found a source you like, you can return to find other content.

Another option is to rely on your peers. A variety of content management systems, like Curriki (curriki.org) and Net Texts (net-texts.com), where I work, allow teachers to put together courses using OER from multiple sources (Net Texts offers a curated collection of material from other sources as well as a library of more than 1,000 original courses). These curricula can be shared with other instructors, who can reuse or modify them to fit their students’ needs. While all this requires a bit of front-end effort, once the initial work is done, it’s easy to incorporate incremental changes.

For teachers who embrace OER, the pedagogical opportunities are limitless. Used in 1:1 computing programs, blended learning environments and flipped classrooms – even in traditional classrooms that need to enliven core content lessons – they offer easy-to-implement solutions that can mean the difference between engaging and ignoring the infinite capacity of a young mind.

Tyler DeWitt is an education innovator and the first director of original content at Net Texts, a leading developer of OER-based teaching aids. Dr. DeWitt came to national attention when he created Science with Tyler DeWitt, one of YouTube’s top educational channels. His TED talk has been viewed almost 1 million times.

 

Image: 4Max/Shutterstock

Salt-lake-city-pulse

Innovations Bold Gamble

Salt Lake school puts students in charge of their learning—and their curricula, and their schedules.
By Wayne D’Orio

Kenneth Grover had a big problem without an easy answer. As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, he saw firsthand the struggles of the city’s high schools. Graduation rates were slowly increasing but they weren’t budging beyond 80 percent.

Not satisfied with adding a percentage point of progress every year, Grover knew a different model was needed. “Nothing changes with outcomes if you don’t change the inputs,” he says.

He did his homework, absorbing Clayton Christensen’s seminal book Disrupting Class, poring through Daniel Pink’s writings on motivation and success, and even gleaning insights from Steve Jobs’s best-selling biography. He visited schools, hopping from San Diego to San Francisco to Florida, searching for models he could emulate. While none of that work resulted in an “aha” moment, he did slowly zero in on what he thought would work best. Simply put, he aspired to create a school where students were in charge of their learning, directing the time, path, and pace of their education.

All of this work led to the hardest part of his journey: getting the Salt Lake City Board of Education to turn his concept from an idea into a living, breathing school.

“We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” he says. “We wanted to teach kids how to structure their own day.”

Grover presented his idea to the board. After the proposal was tentatively approved, he gave the school a name, Innovations Early College High School, and started recruiting students. Board members reacted immediately. “They brought me in front of the board for a three-hour Q&A and none of the questions were positive,” he remembers.

Once they saw he was serious, it was more than some board members were ready for, Grover says. “Board members said, ‘That’s the craziest idea we’ve ever heard of. You can’t do it.’ They added, ‘Show us a model that works, and we’ll support it.’” When Grover told them no schools existed at this level and depth of student-directed learning, the board said it couldn’t approve the school.

That’s when the meeting got even more contentious. Grover told the board, “If the premise is to find something that’s successful, are we closing our traditional high schools?” He explained that with a graduation rate of below 80 percent, he didn’t consider any of the city’s existing schools a success. “That really shook them up,” he says. “You said you wanted leaders,” I told them. “This is what leadership looks like. I’m not a manager.”

From Drawing Board to Reality

Fast-forward three years: Grover is holding court in the gorgeous lobby of his new high school. Students check themselves in and out of the school by smartphone, set their pace in classes that they choose, and in some cases even pick which books they will read. However, in many ways, the school looks like a “regular” school. Students sit in classrooms, sometimes being taught by teachers but more often working alone with headphones on. They consult with peers or teachers when necessary.

So is Innovations successful? Has it reached the goals set by Grover? Yes, and no. Last year’s senior class of 55 students had a graduation rate of 89 percent, and Grover hopes this year’s group of 89 students hits 95 percent. But for a high school principal who tells parents, “A high school diploma is meaningless,” he’s aiming much higher. This year, one student is expected to graduate with an associate’s degree already completed, thanks to Salt Lake Community College, which shares the building with Innovations. “In five years, it would be nice if half of our students graduated with an associate’s degree,” Grover says. “That’s ambitious.”

During a recent visit, a group of nine students sat in a semi-circle, answering questions from visitors with nary a school official in sight. While they all spoke enthusiastically about Innovations, I noticed none of their answers was the same. One student came to Innovations because a medical condition caused him to fall behind in his studies and he needed time to catch up. (“Although I’m smart,” he added.) Another mentioned how the small environment allows people to get to know you personally. One student spoke of the freedom to take one class at a time, concentrating solely on a single topic for weeks, while another mentioned that a typical day for her ping-pongs between working on U.S. government studies, completing a creative writing assignment, and then, after lunch, taking part in student government.

In a way, the answers backed up Grover’s initial concept: Students are a collection of individuals and treating them that way will improve their engagement and allow them to learn at their own pace.

When I told Grover his students all seemed bright, and asked if the first-come, first-served public school catered to a somewhat elite group, he quickly mentioned that “a good 10 percent were reading two levels below grade” when they started at Innovations. But with the school’s blended concept, they were given the materials and the time to backfill their knowledge and bring themselves up to, and usually beyond, grade level. Another student got pregnant, and Grover said teachers told her she would have to frontload her work to stay on target. She did, took time off for childbirth, and remains on track to graduate, he adds.

Creating a New School Model

Setting up a school without too many rules is, in some ways, like building a house without a blueprint. Each decision has to be considered, agreed upon, and carried out, all without the benefit of following more than a vague outline.

“The first year was a rough transition,” Grover says. For instance, English teacher Heather Bauer notes she excelled at classroom management. But when she enthusiastically switched to Innovations, she realized her skills didn’t quite apply anymore. Since she’s not often at the front of the room, the dynamic is different; now, when a student acts out, she can talk to them one-on-one immediately.“It took me some adjustment,” she admits.

“I don’t lecture all day, but I do have classes,” says Bauer. “We do have lessons. They last as long as they have to. Some students leave early, others stay.” The best part of Bauer’s day, however, is the one-on-one time she has with students. “I get to reach each kid where they are and I get to help them move forward. Ten minutes of dedicated time with one student can mean more than hours of lecturing. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

The school’s curriculum is online. Some of it is purchased, some created by staff. Teachers are responsible for being in school eight hours a day (students attend six and half hours, anytime between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.). Salt Lake’s union contract calls for eight-hour teacher days, but about six and half hours of that is spent in school, while the rest is taken up by grading papers, creating lesson plans, and other work done after school. Innovations’ teachers do all of their work in school, with the expectation that they shouldn’t have to keep working when they leave the building. The fledgling school of 320 students has seven full-time teachers and one half-time teacher, all of whom chose to work at Innovations because of the model. No teachers have left, reports Grover.

Each teacher mentors just over 40 students, meeting them weekly either in person or via e-mail to assess their progress. Mentors send out a progress transcript to parents once a month. Math teacher Chris Walter says he regularly sends notes to fellow teachers detailing which students are behind in their class work; his colleagues then find their mentees on his list and address any issues in their next weekly meeting.

Language arts teacher Dana Savage talks about how something seemingly as simple as meeting students weekly took a while to sort out. Because students progress at their own pace, the conferences are helpful checkpoints during which to set goals. What Savage quickly learned was that many students preferred to connect on Mondays. With some weekly meetings taking up to 30 minutes, Savage realized she needed to formalize her process, mandating that students sign up for slots so she can balance her work. Savage spends her time divided among four tasks: mentor meetings, class meetings, grading, and helping students individually.

Grover, when asked what aspects of the school he’s nailed, and what he is still working on, grows animated. “We’ve nailed the culture, we’ve nailed the rigor,” he says proudly. “We’re working on cross-collaboration among teachers.” Teacher evaluation is also still being defined. With so many kids working on their own, Grover and the staff are puzzling over how to create an evaluation model that best fits the school’s workflow.

Acclimating Students

Giving students this much freedom, when most come from Salt Lake’s traditional schools, took some adjustments, too. “One of our teachers said it best today,” Grover says. “We hold their hand a little more until they can fly. Some figure it out in a few weeks; some take three to four months. We build in structure as needed.”

Freshmen start out with a rough schedule, making sure they understand the school’s ethos before being cast out on their own. Some students can earn a credit in one week’s time, while others accomplish nearly nothing, says Grover. “It’s fascinating to see the lights turn on.” Conversely, he notes that some students do have problems adjusting back to regular classes when they go to college, although “none are hampered by the rigor.”

Students are expected to earn eight credits per school year, though the pace is theirs to determine. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that most students would avoid math as much as possible. To block this, Innovations requires that students stay current and on level with their math and language arts studies.

Classrooms have a collection of students working on their own laptops; they can check out computers from the school, if needed. Students who want courses not offered at Innovations can travel to nearby high schools for these classes. (Innovations is co-located with the district’s Career and Technical Education Center, so classes in hairdressing and automotives are offered on-site.) The school has just a couple of clubs, but no sports or music classes; students can participate in those extracurricular activities at the school in their zone. The district of 25,000 students operates four other high schools.

Innovations offers AP classes, but with the community college located just across the hall, most students are choosing to simply take college courses for extra challenge. After paying a $40 registration fee, students can take as many college classes as their schedule allows.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

When asked if the Innovations model would spread to the city’s K-8 schools soon, Grover shakes his head. “Give me a break,” he says, with mock indignation. “This is hard. I don’t want to get fired.” However, the blended learning idea is already spreading to the city’s four other high schools, and a three-year plan exists to push student choice into middle schools.

Similar experiments are sprouting up in other parts of the country. Partly because Innovations’ model doesn’t call for any radical restructuring of a school’s physical space, other districts have started to create their own student-driven schools. Twenty-two school districts in Kentucky are implementing personalized learning after visiting Innovations. An extremely rural district in Indiana is implementing the idea, while other districts around Utah are piggybacking on the model.

“We’re starting to build a little network,” Grover says proudly.

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

Data-security_pulse

Busting the Student Data Privacy Myth

It is possible to balance security with data-driven instruction. Here are five ways to achieve a balance that works for administrators, parents, and technology companies.

By Jack Macleod

Tracking student data gives educators the power to make more informed decisions in their instruction for better student outcomes. But with great power comes great responsibility.

That’s why schools and ed tech companies alike are increasingly making student privacy a top priority. Still, many remain wary about data privacy issues—often due to confusion or lack of information on how the issue has progressed.

Let’s set the record straight on how education-technology companies and schools can find the right balance between the benefits of data-driven instruction and maintaining student privacy.  

Myth #1: The privacy-concern drawbacks of tracking student data outweigh the benefits.

Fact: Student data is an invaluable resource, not only to school leaders and educators, but also to parents and students. School leaders use student data to direct decision-making. With enough data, they are able to synthesize information about student performance school-wide and identify whether additional education resources need to be allocated. It also helps teachers drive their instructional choices because they can see where students are excelling and in what subjects they might need more support. Student data gives parents and guardians a window into the classroom so they can better support their child, and students have access to more comprehensive feedback so they can make better choices about their education.

The proof is in the research, too—data-driven instruction leads to better student performance. According to a 2012 report from the Data Quality Campaign, in a study of Oregon schools, those who provided embedded data training for teachers saw a significant boost in test scores and decreased the achievement gap in reading and math at a faster rate than schools without access to data training.

Myth #2: Digitally stored student data will follow a student for the rest of his or her life.

Fact: Best practices set by leading education organizations call for the safe and responsible deletion of student data. School leaders know that student data is not a new concept—schools have stored analog data in files for years. Not only is it easier to safely purge digital data records, but influential education organizations provide guidelines for schools on how to handle student data and make sure vendors are disposing of this data responsibly.

CoSN released the toolkit Protecting Privacy in Connected Learning earlier this year. Schools are advised to contractually require vendors to 1) only keep data as long as it is necessary to perform the services to the school; 2) return all records and delete all copies in possession upon termination of a contract; and 3) dispose of collected data by reasonable means to protect against unauthorized access.

Myth #3: Vendors will sell student data to marketers.

Fact: Under FERPA, a vendor cannot use education records in any way that is not authorized by the school district it serves. By penalty of law, vendors are required to protect student data and forbidden to sell the information. However, there is a valid concern that some companies will use the data themselves for marketing efforts. It is important for school leaders to make sure contracts with vendors specify that the school or district owns the data and clearly defines how the vendor will use the data. Many vendors committed to education are voluntarily making changes to contracts to address these concerns, as well as taking extra precautions with data security.

Myth #4: Student data can be hacked easily.

Fact: Many ed-tech companies are taking steps to protect student data. In an effort to be a trusted resource to the schools they serve, more and more companies are putting industry security standards and best practices into place to make sure student data is as secure as possible, including utilizing SSL encryption and performing regular penetration testing, vulnerability management, and intrusion prevention. At my company, Alma, one of the driving factors of creating an all-in-one secure platform is that data can flow seamlessly between tools with lower security risk. Schools are getting smarter about which companies they decide to work with, too. CoSN compiled a list of question that school districts should ask when looking into a potential vendor.

Myth #5: Parents don’t need to have an active role in setting privacy norms and policies.

Fact: Parents are key stakeholders in the issue of student data privacy. Schools have a responsibility to make sure parents and guardians understand what measures are being taken to protect their children’s information. The Department of Education released a list of best practices for such conversations. There are also a number of resources available from organizations such as Common Sense Media and the Data Quality Campaign that school leaders can suggest to parents so they can become more informed about privacy issues.

Ultimately, it comes down to finding that balance—a solution that offers mission-critical information to schools, teachers, parents, and students while ensuring that information is accessed safely and securely. Once the fear of “big, bad student data” is relieved, schools can receive the full benefits of the information and the insight that student data can provide.

Jack Macleod is president of Alma, an education technology company that offers a holistic student engagement platform for K-12 schools and districts. Alma has offices in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.

 Image: MediaBakery

Skype_pulse

Demystifying Computer Science

Skype’s program connects students with industry experts to explain different computing jobs.

By Wayne D’Orio

Two facts: In just five years, one of every two STEM jobs will be in the computing field. About 9 out of 10 schools don’t teach any computer science. With Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code movement starting today, many schools and companies are beginning efforts to shed light on the first fact, and change the second.

One of those companies is Skype, which is taking the simple step of connecting students with computer science experts to show kids what the experts do, how they prepared for their job, and why they like the work.

“Skype enables students to engage with real people, putting a human face in front of the ones and zeros, taking the nerd out of it, and hopefully engaging students in the excitement of a career in technology,” says Ross Smith, the director of test for Skype and an Hour of Code participant. “These kids have grown up with technology, but they don’t make the connection” to computer science, he adds.

While most of the Skype calls are with middle school students, Smith says a colleague of his had a chat recently with kindergartners.

“It opens up a whole new world for these kids,” says Sandy Gady, a middle school design and engineering teacher in Des Moines, Washington. The class regularly uses Skype, and it’s become second nature for her students to set up a call. “Anything they can think up, they can automatically find a resource and set it up,” she explains. “They like the fact that they are in control of their learning.”

Skype in the Classroom, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, allows any teacher to sign up in less than a minute, and then explain who their students are and who they want to connect with. When a match is made, both sides are contacted to work out details. Microsoft YouthSpark and Skype’s program, while ongoing, supports Hour of Code.

Smith says that he constantly reminds today’s students to “dream bigger than you can” because it’s likely the future will outpace their expectations. “I work with people in India and Europe every day, and I walk around with all of human knowledge in my pocket,” he says.

Gady says her students even use Skype to set up ad hoc tutoring with classmates. She wonders if the connections will naturally cut down on bullying. “It’s hard to bully someone who is helping you,” she adds.

Schools can get involved with Skype in the Classroom at education.skype.com, or set up an Hour of Code event by registering at hourofcode.com.

Watch the video to learn more about Skype in the Classroom and Code.org's collaboration:

 

 Image: Courtesy of Skype

Mathskills_pulse

Making Math Relevant

Connecting math to real-world jobs shows students its importance.
By Joseph Goins

“I'm never going to use this in real life!” This is a response that teachers, particularly math teachers, hear almost every day. To the students making this remark, math is just a bunch of computations on a screen or board that they're forced to wrangle with for no good reason.

As educators, we know that's not the case. Even manufacturing jobs now require strong skills in mathematical concepts such as fractions, decimals, and basic trigonometry. So how can we help students see the meaning in math? Hundreds of software programs have been developed to guide learners through mathematical complexities but how do educators convince those learners that the effort is worthwhile? The answer: Bring relevance and context to the subject.

Career and technical education (CTE) provides a prime example of how to help students make the connection between math and real life. Applying classroom learning while working with the technology required for a chosen career path has proven to be so engaging that the Association for Career and Technical Education reports that among the advantages CTE students exhibit are gains in motivation, engagement, grades, and math skills.

The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education took math skill advancement a step further by developing a Math-in-CTE model in which lessons emphasized the mathematics already existing within the occupational curricula. After just one year, students in the math-enhanced CTE classes performed better on standardized and community college placement math tests than students who received the regular CTE curriculum. Those results are especially impressive since regular CTE students were already reporting greater general math proficiency than students not involved in CTE.

To help teachers bring this concept into their own lessons, my company launched a career-based math solution, WIN Math, which contains math and project tools formed around 16 different career clusters.

Within the framework of linking real-world projects to math, teachers can include not just obvious choices such as STEM professions, but also law and public safety, corrections or security, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and natural resources. Lesson units can conclude with individual or collaborative projects based on authentic workplace tasks such as the following:

  • Creating a “green” blueprint (uses algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus/calculus, probability and statistics, linear programming)
  • Producing a marketing plan or performance chart (uses algebra, calculus, mathematical economics, statistics)
  • Developing a disease prevention/response program (uses pre-algebra, algebra, statistics, dimensional analysis)
  • Arguing a legal case centered on a math-based problem, such as time and distance in a murder trial (uses algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, finite mathematics, statistics)

The added advantage of the career-based approach is that it gives students a taste of what a particular profession entails. For that reason, the career paths chosen as lesson frameworks can be aspirational as well as practical.

The U.S. education system is facing increasing demands that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. To accomplish this, students need to understand why math matters. To do that, educators need to form a math curriculum around business and industry skills to help them connect what they’re learning to the real world.

Joseph Goins is executive vice president of WIN Learning, a software firm focused on career and college readiness initiatives. Goins is a doctoral candidate in education policy and administration at Vanderbilt University.

Image: Getty Images

Top_UDL
The Growing Case for UDL

How a movement that started with environmental and product design could revolutionize learning in your school.
By Kim Greene

In the past two years, Adam Deleidi has seen a dramatic improvement at his school—the kind of change that makes you do a double take. Both special education and discipline referrals are down by 50 percent. Out-of-school suspensions have plummeted by 70 percent as well, according to the assistant principal of Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Revere, Massachusetts.

Deleidi says it’s because of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The school began to implement the framework in the 2012–13 school year. “There’s a misconception that this is a technology or special education initiative. It’s not either,” he says. “It’s about figuring out different ways to represent ideas and varying ways we allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.”

What UDL Is—and What It’s Not

The Center for Applied Special Technologies, or CAST, in Wakefield, Massachusetts, pioneered UDL in the early 1990s, drawing on neuroscience research to understand the needs of diverse learners. The term universal design for learning derived from the universal design movement in architecture. Ronald Mace, the architect who led the charge, sought to design products and environments that were “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

You don’t need to look far to find universal design in your everyday life. Take, for example, closed captioning on TVs. Though originally a feature meant to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captioning is useful for a wide variety of users. You’ll realize this the next time you’re watching TV at an airport or while on the treadmill at the gym.

UDL aims to do the same—to give the widest spectrum of students access to the curriculum from the outset. UDL is not a curriculum itself, but rather a framework for delivering instruction. Educators design lessons to align with three principles: multiple means to engage, multiple means to represent information, and multiple means for students to show what they learn through action and expression. In providing this variability, teachers will reduce the impact of barriers—such as dyslexia, ADHD, or limited English proficiency—to the learning process.

UDL in Action

When Deleidi walks into a UDL classroom, what he sees is far from the one-size-fits-all approach. In a history class, he’s not likely to observe a ­teacher assigning a five-paragraph essay on the Roman Empire. “You might have a kid who knows a ton about the Roman Empire but isn’t a great writer. The teacher is bound to misassess the student’s understanding,” he explains. “You give the kids choices of how they can demonstrate their understanding. If the students put together a skit, you’re going to tap into a different part of the brain.” This approach, Deleidi says, promotes creativity and retention.

Deleidi also commonly sees students in UDL classrooms accessing written text in different ways. “We have a number of students who come to us not reading at grade level,” he says. “When they’re in a history class and the only mode for them to access the curriculum is written text, that’s a barrier. Reading and writing are of the utmost importance. We value that. But that shouldn’t mean that [kids] are not learning in science or social studies.”

To reduce that barrier to learning, Deleidi’s teachers give all students—whether it’s a child who is struggling or an honors-level student—options for accessing the text. One might choose to listen to an audio of it on an iPad. Another might stick with reading.

Teaching students to choose which option is best for them is key, says Katie Novak, author of UDL Now! and assistant superintendent in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts. And that, she explains, means getting to know each student as an individual learner.

For example, a textbook might tell Novak to differentiate by providing struggling readers with a graphic organizer and above-level students with a writing prompt. That’s not something she is comfortable with. “It’s giving different kids access to a stronger curriculum where other students only have the option of a more watered-down curriculum,” she says. “Why are we not providing the best tools for all students? I want to teach you whether you need the graphic organizer or not, regardless of your ability, background, or language proficiency.”

The Common Core Era

What place does UDL have in the age of Common Core? “We see the Common Core as the ‘what,’ ” says Grace Meo, senior director of professional learning and outreach services at CAST. “It lays out the goals and expectations. It’s the destination. UDL provides the ‘how.’ ”

In fact, UDL is included in the standards’ supplement called “Application to Students With Disabilities” as a method to help students with special needs meet the standards. (UDL advocates are quick to point out that the framework, by its “universal” nature, is meant to benefit the entire student population, not just special education learners.)

Critics might argue that the real world, with its rigorous expectations, doesn’t offer the kind of flexibility that UDL puts forth. PARCC and Smarter Balanced will require students to write developed pieces, like five-­paragraph essays. There will be no choice in the matter.

Novak agrees, but she sees plenty of ways to embed variability in lessons to prepare students for the assessments. She recalls her time as an English teacher. “Yes, they had to take the standardized tests, and yes, they had to respond in a certain amount of time,” she says. “Even though there’s not a lot of choice, you can choose to access these exemplars or choose to use this checklist to monitor your progress.” These skills, such as self-regulation and self-assessment, can be taught using the UDL framework and will lead to success on tests, Novak says.

Practice What You Preach

A growing number of school districts are putting UDL practices like these into action. But getting a program off the ground isn’t quick—it requires a substantial mind shift for many educators. Meo says implementation generally takes two to four years.

Because no one district goes about implementation in the same way, there is no set cost. “It’s not a shrink-wrapped box that says, ‘Here’s what it costs. Put it into place,’ ” Meo says. The largest financial investment is PD. The price tag will vary depending on the route you take. A course like CAST’s UDL Institute—an intensive, weeklong program at Harvard University—cost $2,645 per person last summer.

Deleidi’s district began by sending a small team of administrators to the CAST institute in the summer of 2012. During that school year, a cohort of teachers, coaches, and administrators continued to learn about the framework. They eventually formed the school’s UDL leadership team, disseminating the information in principal meetings and professional learning groups.

“The goal is to get information in as many brains as possible. We can do that directly through CAST and Harvard or we can do it through a ‘train the trainer’ model,” Deleidi explains. “We’re doing a mixed bag.”

Once you’ve started implementation, Novak recommends shifting staff meetings and professional development to a UDL-friendly format. In a traditional staff meeting about safety protocols, an administrator might rattle off a list of rules. “That’s the classroom that UDL is trying to get away from,” Novak says. At her own meeting on the topic, she would allow staff to choose from a few options—break off into groups to discuss the protocol, read about it on their own, or view a PowerPoint presentation.
For PD sessions, Novak has offered a menu of options to suit the diverse needs of teachers as learners, including small-group book studies, large-group workshops, and online modules. “Staff have [varying] interests and ways they like to learn, as well as time they have to commit to learning about new practices,” Novak says. She has noticed that educators are more confident and willing to take on new PD when it’s offered in ways that meet their needs.

Deleidi says that following this model of implementation has paid off for his students. He credits the decrease in suspensions and referrals directly to UDL.

“The best way to minimize classroom discipline issues is with effective lesson planning,” he says. “When we have fewer discipline issues, that means students are engaged in learning.” He also believes the drop in special education referrals is evidence that teachers are better able to help students who would otherwise be evaluated for special services.

“The big idea with us is meeting the needs of the kids,” he says. “That’s how we’re measuring our own ­success.”  

Low Tech UDL

UDL, at its heart, is not technology driven. But both traditional and assistive technologies can create opportunities to meet the framework’s three principles:

1 | Multiple Means of Engagement

•  Apps that create a backchannel during lectures, such as Edmodo and Schoology
•  Websites that facilitate feedback, such as Study Island and NoRedInk
•  Traditional social media sites

2 | Multiple Means of Representation

•  Computers/tablets with audio recordings and/or text-to-voice capability
•  Teacher microphone (originally used for students who are deaf or hard of hearing)
•  CAST UDL Book Builder or creating digital books with built-in supports

3 |Multiple Means of Action & Expression

•   Presentation websites, such as Prezi
•  Computers/tablets with voice recognition technology
•  Apps for student creation, such as Videolicious, Animoto, and Sock Puppets

 

Illustration: MIGUEL DAVILLA

Career-ready_pulse

Creating College and Career-Ready Students

How a NYC public school prepares graduates for careers, and higher education.
By Gerry House

In today’s world, having a high school diploma is rarely sufficient for a diverse and rewarding career. Because most high-demand jobs require advanced skills, ensuring that all students have access to postsecondary education has become an equity issue. Those who are not prepared for college will unfortunately lose out. Yet not all students want to go directly on to postsecondary education. Some can’t afford it, and some are more interested in transitioning directly into technical and career pathways.

Career and technical education (CTE) offers a solution that addresses equity concerns. CTE programs give high school students opportunities to learn the technical and vocational skills needed for career pathways that interest them, while also providing them with an intellectually challenging curriculum that prepares them for postsecondary education. By the time they’re ready to graduate, students have completed the coursework and exams required for higher education, and they’ve earned a certificate that qualifies them for a career. In addition, CTE programs provide students with skills, knowledge, and work habits—such as persistence and time management—required for success in the workplace and in college. Because CTE programs prepare students for both career and postsecondary education, they differ from the vocational training of earlier eras where students selected a vocational track that could exclude them from the possibility of pursuing higher education.

Successful CTE schools and programs develop close working relationships with industry, higher education, and community partners. They also have support from their district. Industry and higher-ed partners collaborate with the district and school to create an appropriate curriculum that aligns with the school’s CTE focus, as well as provide work-based learning, internships, and mentoring opportunities for students. In addition, higher-education partners give students access to college classes and course credit. Community partners provide service-learning opportunities for students, as well as additional industry-related experiences. And the district ensures that the overall CTE program receives the necessary guidance, resources, and developmental support to produce the desired outcomes. The stakeholder partnerships and the collaboration and communication with students, parents, staff, and partners are key to CTE success.

The Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights, a New York City public school located in Queens, exemplifies the power of partnerships for CTE schools. IHPCH, created in collaboration with the Institute for Student Achievement and now in its second year, introduces students to particular health professions and provides a rigorous, college-preparatory instructional program. During their high school career, students have the opportunity to earn industry-recognized certifications such as an EMT, or emergency medical technician designation. At the same time, students take an inquiry-based, Common Core–aligned college preparatory course of study that qualifies them for admission to a two- or four-year college or other postsecondary institution.  

Through IHPCH’s partnership with the North Shore-LIJ Health System’s Center for Learning & Innovation, hospital faculty guide students through unique learning opportunities, including CPR training, EMT courses, simulated surgeries, and more. This partnership introduces students to careers in the health professions such as nutritionist, radiology technician, and nurse anesthetist. North Shore was also integral to the development of the Institute’s internship program, participation in which is a graduation requirement. Students at the institute have volunteered at local elementary schools and at Queens Hospital—an internship that led to a part-time job for one student.

The school’s partnership with Hofstra University provides students with authentic college experiences. By attending classes at Hofstra, students get a feel for the demands of college, and being on campus helps them see themselves as belonging there.

The school integrates its health theme into the core curriculum. For example, in a 9th-grade social studies unit on early civilizations, students learned about medicines used in ancient Egypt. In a 10th-grade world history class, students created a simulated talk show and had Enlightenment thinkers as “guests” to discuss the connections between medicine and the place of humans in the universe. Offerings in art include medical illustration courses, and students have opportunities to integrate the arts and their health curriculum learning. One project asked students to use Picasso’s Cubist style to draw representations of the eyeball. 

As this Queens school demonstrates, CTE experiences can engage students in a rich academic experience that prepares them for college while also teaching them specific career and technical skills that ready them for a career pathway and certification. With the support of committed educators and active community, business, and higher-education partners, CTE programs can provide students with the opportunity to graduate with the skills, technical knowledge, rigorous academic foundation, and real-world experience that support college success and access to high-skill, high-demand careers.

Gerry House is the president of the Institute for Student Achievement.

Image:  Ian Lishman/Media Bakery

Next-gen_pulse

Finding the Right Next-Gen Assessment

What to look for in your online program.
By Todd Beach

As educators, we’re all familiar with the problems associated with traditional print-based assessment: It’s time-consuming. It has limited flexibility to assess student knowledge. And it’s slow, which makes it hard to get meaningful, actionable data in a timely fashion. Methods to help in one area—such as using bubble sheets to reduce scoring time—give rise to other problems, such as limiting question types and ways of assessing students’ subject knowledge.

Online assessment is one way to improve these areas, but it also has some drawbacks. Many online assessments digitize traditional print assessments to save time on scoring, but they lack significant improvement in key areas, such as immediate actionable data for differentiated instruction in the classroom. Plus, these systems don’t necessarily support new methods that enhance student learning.

A better answer: a next-generation assessment solution.

What does it take for an assessment tool to qualify as next generation? In my opinion, a “next-gen” assessment tool should be intuitive, adaptive, and flexible enough to continuously be a generation ahead of a school’s or district’s needs and goals. It should go well beyond simply digitizing the traditional assessment approach. It should include features that enrich both the teaching and learning processes.

At Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools (ISD 196), in Minnesota, we’re providing a truly next-generation assessment solution for our teachers. We started our search for a solution several years ago, and today we are reaping the rewards. We began in 2010 with a group of early adopters, and since then the platform’s use has spread, initially from teacher-to-teacher; last year it went district-wide. We have found that our next-gen assessment platform provides teachers with actionable data for differentiated instruction andhelps both impact and transform student learning through more meaningful student-teacher discussions, personalized feedback, and student reflection.

Richer Data for the Personalization of Learning

The most beneficial feature of a next-gen online assessment platform is the resulting in-depth, actionable, individualized, and immediate data for each student. The data provided by these platforms makes it easier to identify where students’ learning gaps are and where they have been. Having multiple years of data at my fingertips has allowed me to reflect on my teaching practices and better meet my students’ needs. At the district level, teachers across all of our schools are now having the same experience.  

Next-generation assessments also allow our teachers to generate assessments with their colleagues, and to share results with students instantly, without waiting for a printed version. This allows students to immediately reflect on their results, and to use the platform to communicate with their teacher about what they understood and what they may need additional help with. Our teachers can better understand how each student learns and thinks, and they can encourage students to take more ownership of their learning.

These rich nuggets of data are also extremely beneficial to parents. Although most grade books are now available online, looking at a current or final grade provides only superficial information about a child’s progress; it doesn’t offer insight into how a student learns. Next-generation assessments show student performance based on benchmark standards, informing parents where their child’s learning challenges and successes lie.

Richer Discussions

Next-gen assessments lead to more engaging, informative, and collaborative discussions between teachers, providing deeper inquiry into student understanding as well as potential instructional gaps. Our teachers collaborate within teacher teams online, sharing item development and assessment creation and instructional resources, and tying them together through shared curriculum maps. We use the results of common assessments to compare classroom performance by learning target as well as individual questions. This provides meaningful quantitative data to aid our professional learning community (PLC) discussions.

Richer Feedback and Reflection

Not all online assessment solutions are next generation. A next-gen assessment should provide the ability to gain deeper insights into students’ understanding and engage the student in learning. We use processes such as confidence-based assessment, student justification/journaling, and student self-assessment and reflection to facilitate student-teacher conversations during the assessment process. We believe that, in conjunction with a variety of question item types, these processes help our teachers reach a deeper understanding of their students and facilitate teacher-student feedback more successfully than traditional methods. Perhaps more important, these features facilitate student self-assessment and help students gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging more ownership of their own work.

Intuitive and Adaptive

At ISD 196, we’ve been using Naiku as our next-gen assessment solution since 2010. It fits the intuitive, adaptive, and flexible criteria I believe next-generation assessment solutions should have. From the outset I noticed features within the platform—the rich student performance data and metacognitive processes—that I immediately identified as long-term benefits for myself, my peers, and the entire student body. This next-gen assessment platform fit my needs wonderfully at the time. And as I expanded my use of Naiku, the developers responded to feedback to ensure it would meet my future needs, which has been incredibly valuable. Five years later, the program continues to adapt to our district’s needs.

This school year, Naiku added “Curriculum Maps” and “Adaptive Learning Resources” to its platform. These features further extend our teachers’ capability to collaborate on standards-based learning and help personalize learning for students. With Adaptive Learning Resources, in particular, our teachers can automatically provide instructional resources to students based on performance, immediately after test submission. For example, those students who do poorly on a particular standard can immediately receive remediation resources—perhaps an instructional video—while students who do well can be sent enrichment resources.

Your Next-Gen Solution

So what does next generation mean to you? What procedure have you implemented in recent years that remains useful and relevant to you and your educators?

As you search for an online assessment platform, I encourage you to evaluate whether the assessment solution you’re considering does what you need it to do rather than what it says you need. Consider the following questions as part of your checklist:

  • Is it intuitive for your teachers’ use?
  • Does it provide richer data that’s easily shared?
  • Does it facilitate teacher collaboration?
  • Does it help increase student-teacher feedback?
  • Does it engage students beyond the traditional assessment experience to accelerate learning?
  • Does it aid personalization of learning?
  • Will the platform adapt and grow with your needs?
  • Will its developers welcome feedback from users and make every effort to stay ahead of users’ needs and challenges?

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then you may have found your next-gen assessment. If you mostly answered “No,” then keep looking. The right solution is out there for you.

Todd Beach is the district curriculum lead at Independent School District 196 in Rosemount, Minnesota. He taught social studies for various grade levels throughout ISD 196 for nearly 25 years. In 2010, the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies named him the Minnesota Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Beach is also a consultant for the College Board.

Image:  Ian Lishman / MediaBakery

Testing_pulse

One district’s cross-district collaboration improves tests, speeds info to teachers.
By Cari Jo Kiffmeyer

In a growing number of states, K-12 directors of assessment like me are finding themselves in the center of a perfect storm. Districts are looking for ways to assess students in all subjects, not just those tested by the state. They’re trying to work out how to create technology-enhanced items and assessments to provide instant feedback to students and teachers. Yet they lack the funds to buy all the assessment content they need, and they lack the tools and processes to develop the content on their own. To add even more pressure, student performance data is now being used to measure educator effectiveness.

In Minnesota’s West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197), the primary purpose of our testing is to provide information to help improve instruction. However, we didn’t have a classroom assessment tool that was used district-wide, and therefore no way to accurately view data from a district perspective. We also wanted to be able to conduct standards-based item analysis for our classroom assessments, and compare that data to our district and state assessments. So, we turned to technology and crowdsourcing.

This fall, we began implementing a system called UNIFY that provides a computer-based platform where our teachers can collaborate and build common assessments. We decided to start our “crowdsourcing” initiative for assessment creation with mathematics teachers in grades 5-9. By launching a new initiative with a small group, rather than the entire district, we can provide more focused support and coaching for our teachers. We can also make sure we’ve set up the system in a way that will provide the most benefit for all stakeholders, and we can more easily make any adjustments that are needed before rolling it out to all students.

First, we provided our teachers with training on how to write quality assessments and how to analyze and use the data to drive their instruction. Then we created a block of time for teachers across the district to meet every two weeks. To eliminate travel time and expenses, teachers meet in professional learning communities (PLCs) via Google Hangouts.

We structured our PLCs based on the Professional Learning Communities at Work process created by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. Within this framework, our PLCs focus their work on four critical questions:

  1. What is it we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we respond when some students already know it?

During these 45-minute meetings every other week, teachers collaboratively develop common district assessments tied to designated learning targets and benchmarks. The teams also meet for extended periods six times throughout the year. They analyze and discuss the results from their previous assessments, both from a district perspective and an individual classroom perspective. Based on that data, they make decisions about how to guide their instruction.

In addition, once every nine weeks, teachers meet for a professional development day. During this daylong session, they create new assessments, refine existing assessments based on their data, discuss instructional strategies, and participate in training, if needed.

To date, the reaction to our crowdsourcing initiative has been very positive. Teachers have long had a desire for cross-district collaboration. Previously, common assessments were written only at the building level. This initiative has not only provided our teachers with opportunities for district-wide collaboration, but the tools and training to support that.

So far, one of the biggest benefits we’ve experienced is that we can now electronically tie each assessment question to a specific benchmark, which will give us valuable information later.

For example, previously a teacher and student might look at an assessment and see the student earned an overall score of 70 percent. While the score showed that the student passed the assessment, it didn’t tell them much more than that. In contrast, in addition to the overall score, they can now see how the student performed on each learning target or benchmark, so they know what the student mastered and where he or she needs additional support or practice.

If a teacher wanted this data before, he or she would have to do all of the analysis by hand. Now, with instant access to this data, our teachers have a much better understanding of how to guide their instruction to better meet their students’ needs.

At the district level, this data will also allow us to conduct better program analysis as part of our Academic Return on Investment (A-ROI) process, which we’re launching this year. We plan to use this process to compare a program’s cost to what the data says about its results. This will help us see which programs are having the biggest impact on student learning, so we can invest our resources wisely.

Through our assessment and A-ROI initiatives, we will be better able to evaluate our students’ progress against our standards, adjust our instruction to meet their needs, and enhance our efforts to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We will also be able to identify which programs are the most helpful for our students, holding our district accountable for offering the best possible education.

Cari Jo Kiffmeyer is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197) in Minnesota.

Image: © Randy Faris/Corbis

Staff-meeting_pulse

A few simple rules can bring order to your school meetings.
By Jeffrey Benson

Schools, at their best, are hotbeds of ideas and innovation. The building is filled with well-educated, passionate, and verbal staff, and improvements are always needed. Yet differing perspectives on what is most urgent can provoke as many conflicts as concrete plans. The battles often emerge in the first moments a new idea is presented, even when an administrator is offering the innovation. Let’s examine this landscape and how to manage potential landmines.

Here’s an all-too-common scenario: A principal floats an idea at a staff meeting. There’s a barrage of questions and critical comments, and the atmosphere turns tense. It’s an exhausting ritual. This causes some principals to shy away from sharing ideas, retreating into silence. Others develop a small and trusted inner circle of supporters who hatch all the plans, further alienating staff members. Still others listen with increasing dismay to the negative reactions and stubbornly say, “I’m doing it anyway.”

Often the problem is that the principal does not know if a comment or question is because a teacher hates the idea and has every intention of sabotaging it, likes the idea with some reservations, or has some thoughtful advice to offer. Without knowing the speaker’s intention, it can all sound like intransigence and obstruction. A wise principal will understand that in any hierarchical system, especially one so dependent on language and intellectual discourse, questioning is a tool, and that tool can be used to advantage.

One way to raise the level of communication is to ask people to preface their remarks with one of these four options when you open the floor up for commentary and questions:

1) “I love this idea and…” This opening gives permission to those who may think silence is agreement. And it gives those who appreciate your idea a way to improve the proposal.

2) “I am in favor of the idea but I have a concern about a detail.” Many teachers have a facility for detail. Once they identify a small concern, they feel a responsibility to pass it along—not as a criticism, but as a form of support. They want you to get this right. By identifying their intention, their contributions will be clear, and welcome.

3) “I like the idea, but I have a significant concern, and if it is not addressed, I can’t back the proposal.” What might look like a great idea in the principal’s office might not work day-to-day for teachers. They may spot a fatal flaw, perhaps an implementation landmine, which needs to be attended to. These teachers are not asking you to abandon your idea; they are acting responsibly. You may not be able to address their concern in the moment. Instead, you can say, “I will look again at the plan to see what we can do about that. Thank you.” Always thank teachers who able to identify their intentions in the interest of a better plan.

4) “I do not like this plan at all.” In a diverse and complex school culture, there are few plans that will meet everyone’s expectations and demands. If you find a large portion of the staff prefacing their remarks with this perspective, your proposal is probably deeply problematic. More likely, it’s only a small faction of teachers that will shoot down your idea altogether, offering no constructive criticism. Politically, you may still need to address their concerns and fears, but not at the larger meeting.

Implementing this protocol is not without its risks. Here are a few implementation pointers:

*All protocols take a little practice and adjustment to become a norm. Find the phrasing that works best for you and your team. Many adults chafe at being given scripts; the key to this protocol is not a rigid script but an expectation to state one’s position. Your leadership team may want to kick around phrasing that they like and offer the staff a variety of options for making clear their positions. In that way, you share the ownership and implementation of the new protocol. Don’t get stuck on the wording.

*Set aside “think time” between the airing of a proposal and the first comments. For example, you can say, “I want to hear where people currently stand on this idea. First, let’s take 30 seconds so each of you can frame a comment, if you wish to share one. Please remember to let us know your initial standing on the idea before you tell us the rest of your thinking.” This small investment in time will support your more reflective staff to engage in the conversation; the discussion is also less likely to be hijacked by the most immediately vocal people, whose opposition drives their passion to speak.

*Use the power of your position as principal to model a healthy discussion, and remind staffers to identify their intentions as they begin to speak. When someone fails to do so, you can honestly say, “Wait a moment. I don’t know if you like this idea a lot, or if you are identifying a small concern, or a potential fatal flaw, or whether you truly just don’t like this plan at all. I’ll hear you better when I know where you are coming from.”

*Be sure to give teachers the same level of transparent intention when they come to you with proposals. Since a principal is often besieged with requests, information, and opinions on a daily basis, make it a practice to say, “I want to give myself some think time with every proposal. Please send me a quick e-mail. Then I can let you know where I initially stand on it, as well as share with you my ideas and questions.” The extra time you spend with that e-mail will be well worth the headaches you deal with when your teachers feel that their best ideas are too quickly evaluated.

Let’s celebrate the fact that schools are hotbeds of ideas, opinions, and passion. That celebration is more likely to be genuinely felt when everyone works within this framework of intentions. The principal’s power to shape a culture of clear intentions is a small key to unlocking a culture of robust innovation.

Jeffrey Benson has worked in education for 35 years, from elementary schools to graduate programs. His book Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most(ASCD, 2014) shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections. Connect with him at jeffreybenson.org.

Image: Media Bakery

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