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Profile: J. Alvin Wilbanks


Meet J. Alvin Wilbanks

Gwinnett County continues to thrive with a veteran leader in charge. By Kim Greene

When a school district wins the Broad Prize for Urban Education once, people take note. But when the same district wins the award again as soon as it’s eligible to, people really want to know the secrets to its success. Such is the case with Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. The district, which is situated just outside of Atlanta, is led by J. Alvin Wilbanks and serves a diverse student body of almost 174,000 students. Gwinnett won the Broad Prize in 2010 and was named the corecipient of the prestigious award in 2014. Among the district’s accomplishments are higher proficiency rates for black and low-income students, as well as notable student participation in AP programs and the SAT.

Stability and the Status Quo

What’s behind Gwinnett’s big accomplishments? Stability, for sure. Wilbanks has been CEO and superintendent since 1996—a tenure that is almost unheard of for a big-district superintendent. His longevity is accompanied by an equally stable board of education. In fact, three of the five board members who hired Wilbanks still serve today. The newest member has been on the board for about a decade.

Board chairman Daniel Seckinger says Wilbanks and the board have a shared vision and mission that have helped foster their working relationship. “The longevity piece isn’t just the board or just the superintendent. In order for it to be dynamic, it has to be both,” Seckinger says. The two parties have an understanding that if they don’t agree on an issue, they don’t fight it out in public.

“Alvin is very savvy,” Seckinger continues. “On important matters, if he’s not certain of the board’s support for something, then we don’t deal with it. We work it to the point where we are in agreement about it. He’s famous for saying, ‘Sometimes slower is faster.’ ”

Despite the merits that stability brings, many might wonder why Gwinnett doesn’t rest on its laurels, or even stagnate. Wilbanks credits this to “a continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo.” He says the district is constantly asking questions like What if?, Could we?, and Should we? “The status quo won’t get you anywhere in the future. Education has changed,” says Wilbanks.

Closing the Achievement Gap

As evidence of this continuous improvement, the Broad committee noted Gwinnett has an ongoing track record for closing the achievement gap. Specifically, Gwinnett ranked in the top 10 percent of Georgia districts for black students scoring at the advanced proficiency level on reading, math, and
science assessments, as well as in the top 20 percent for low-income students. Wilbanks says much of this success is due to an instructional focus taught through the district’s Quality Plus Teaching Strategies. These dozen strategies are best practices that any teacher—from kindergarten through high school—should employ in lessons, including various methods of questioning and formative assessments.

Wilbanks also points out that the district’s range of Advanced Placement course offerings have benefited students of all backgrounds. In fact, the Broad team noted that 37 percent of Gwinnett’s juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam in 2013, landing them in the top 10 percent of Broad-eligible districts on that measure. Gwinnett students earned passing scores on 58 percent of the exams.

No matter what students score, Wilbanks says he believes the coursework better prepares them for college and beyond. “The more people you get to take AP courses, it’s a greater challenge to the average score. But does it benefit students? We think it does,” he says.

Homegrown Leadership

Maintaining academic progress rests largely on building-level leadership. Wilbanks saw a significant turnover in veteran administrative staff starting in 2000, mostly due to retirements, and he began succession planning that has paid off in the long run. Today, the district has its own Quality Plus Leadership Academy designed to prepare current employees to become future assistant principals and principals, as well as to keep present leaders up to date.

Marci Sledge, principal of Pinckney­ville Middle School in Norcross, was part of the first cohort of the Aspiring Principals Program, a subset of the leadership academy, in 2007–08. Participants attended sessions, some taught by Wilbanks himself, one Saturday a month. Though the program requirements have changed, Sledge says the focus is the same. “It’s about ensuring that the people who take over schools as leaders understand fully the level of expectation and the culture behind our system.”

The program also includes an important piece of principal training—an internship. Principal interns spend several months in a district school working directly with active principals to make day-to-day decisions.

New principals receive mentors for their first two years as well, typically a well-respected, retired principal from within the district. Sledge says this level of training is one of the most valuable things the district has afforded her.

“One of Mr. Wilbanks’s favorite sayings is ‘There are two types of people who work for our system, those who teach and those who support those who teach,’ ” she says. “He always adds, ‘You would not want to find yourself in a third category.’ The leadership academy is an integral part of continuing that level of clarity, vision, and purpose in our schools.”   

Wilbanks’s Dossier

Age: 72 
Base Salary: $276,714
Career Path: Wilbanks began his education career in Georgia’s DeKalb County Schools, where he served as a teacher, assistant principal, and then principal. In 1982, he was hired as Gwinnett’s director of vocational and technical education. He was appointed assistant superintendent in 1984, then became superintendent in 1996. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s in education, as well as an educational specialist’s degree.

Image: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/LANDOV

Career High

Career High

School districts are increasingly offering solid industry certifications to prepare students for college and career. By Kim Greene

When Rachel Rath graduates from Park Vista Community High School in Lake Worth, Florida, later this spring, she’ll not only have a diploma but also several credentials to her name—phlebotomy technician and certified medical administrative assistant, among them.

Rath, 18, is a senior in the school’s medical academy, which allows students to pursue career paths as emergency medical responders, medical lab assistants, and other health-care workers. Students are immersed in their field of study through a combination of traditional academics and hands-on clinical work. Rath, for example, has taken an anatomy and physiology class, while also visiting hospitals to shadow technicians in X-ray departments and laboratories.

This type of experience is impressive enough for a student to add to a résumé or college application. But like a number of other schools around the country, Park Vista offers students the opportunity to take industry-recognized exams and gain certifications. A passing grade demonstrates that students possess the knowledge and skill set necessary for a given job. The certifications help graduates land job interviews and can serve as a baseline to pursue further schooling in their chosen field.

Industry-recognized credentials span many career clusters—from hospitality services to manufacturing to visual arts. Some credentials are issued by states, while others are governed by national organizations. In some districts, the certification tests can even count as final exams for coursework.

Park Vista started offering industry certifications about six years ago to prepare students for postsecondary life, says Kim Fisher, the school’s academy coordinator. “When they graduate, they have the option to go immediately to work, such as in nursing homes, or they can continue on to college.”

In the case of the medical program at Park Vista, the vast majority of students, roughly 90 to 95 percent, are headed to college. Rath is one of those students. She plans to become a rheumatologist and believes her certifications will enable her career goals. Rath also says she won’t wait to complete eight to 10 years of medical schooling to put her phlebotomy certificate to work. “Instead of just going to classes [during college], hopefully I’ll be going to the hospital and other health-care offices to work,” she says. “Not only will it give me experience but also some money to pay for tuition.”

An Upward Trend

The face of career and technical education is changing in response to a demand for graduates with postsecondary or other specialized training, and more states are moving in the direction of offering these credentials, says Rod Duckworth, career and adult education chancellor in Florida. “We believe that if we’re providing students with opportunities that directly connect with the needs of industry, then we’re on the right track,” he says. “Industry certification is exactly that.”

It’s a win-win for both students and ­businesses. Students are better prepared for the workforce, and business leaders have a wider, deeper pool of qualified job candidates.

States are responding by putting money and legislation behind the effort. According to a February 2015 report by the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, 19 states passed laws or launched initiatives that focused on increasing industry-recognized credential attainment in 2014.

Arizona’s state budget for fiscal year 2015 includes $1 million for information technology certification programs, while Minnesota set aside $300,000 for IT education partnerships leading to certification. States are also incentivizing school districts to offer credential opportunities. Florida awards $1,000 to districts for each industry certificate a student obtains in a targeted career area, while Kansas distributes the same amount for each senior who graduates with an industry credential in a high-need occupation.

Duckworth says funding incentives like these help school districts improve their certificate offerings. “[The districts] are reinvesting that money in the program so they can buy additional equipment,” he says. “In information technology, there’s a lot of updating that’s required to make sure you have the best equipment possible and that students are getting the closest to real-world experiences as possible.”

While each state varies, Florida’s robust funding of career and technical education—due in large part to the Career and Professional Education Act of 2007—also helps districts cover the cost of administering certification exams. “Depending on the number of industry certifications that a district offers, they have a tendency to negotiate with testing companies to get the best deal if they’re buying a large number of testing opportunities,” Duckworth says.

What you Need to Know

Reginald Myers, principal of Park Vista, says the state funding piece of the puzzle is crucial: “If a school had to do it on its own, it could be a real challenge.”

Another key sticking point is finding the right staff. In the case of the Certified Nursing Assistant program at Park Vista, the Florida Board of Nursing requires that a certified nurse instruct the courses. Myers says he’s been fortunate to have a top-notch team of educational professionals who also have experience in their respective fields.

“Many of the teachers we have right now could probably remain in the private sector and make lots of money,” he says. “When they choose to join the education field, they’re giving up a lot. You have to be very passionate to go from making $60,000 or $70,000 to $30,000 or $40,000. That’s a lot to give up in order to teach.”

Duckworth believes a strong connection with the industry community dictates a program’s effectiveness as well. “Really successful programs have strong advisory committees that help advise what programs will be offered,” he says. These boards often decide which certifications are affiliated with school programs. The advisers can also shed light on the industry’s needs and job outlook in that particular region.

At Park Vista, Myers has a medical advisory board that meets monthly. Many of the members are parents of students, while some are affiliated with agencies. Myers says the advisers help him determine whether the program is properly preparing students.

The advisory board also helps the school establish partnerships in the medical com­munity. “Without them, there are no clinicals,” Myers explains. “We can do all of the classroom work here, but we have to be able to get the students out in clinicals to have hands-on experiences.”

IT Programs Rising

Myers and Duckworth aren’t alone in understanding the importance of advisory boards. Phil Vice, senior administrator of career and technical education in Wake County Public School System, has used committees to build a robust offering of credential programs in his North Carolina district. “We have an advisory committee to let us know what’s going on in the industry and what we need to move toward,” he says.

Industry in Wake County and across the country is pointing toward information technology as a burgeoning field of career opportunity. In the past, the district allowed students to take the CompTIA A+ certification exam (a test for computer technicians), but found it was quite challenging for high schoolers.

As a result, Wake County is currently part of a pilot program aimed at giving more students access to four additional certifications in computer engineering. North Carolina–based ExplorNet and the Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning (QTL) developed the program’s curriculum to prepare students for the CompTIA Strata IT Fundamentals exam, as well as three Microsoft Technology Associate tests.

In the new model, these four tests serve as stepping stones throughout students’ coursework and build up to the A+ exam, which serves as the culmination. “This new pilot brings that to the average student. We feel that we have a much stronger ability to reach more students going into this exciting engineering field,” says Vice.

The program, which is slated to be offered at schools nationwide next school year, engages students in hands-on training, teaching them to problem-solve hardware and software issues.

Vice says experiences like these build a well-rounded student. “Although we’re going for the certification skills, there’s a secondary major component in students learning problem-­solving skills that can be transferred into other areas, especially in core classes,” he notes.

Rachel Porter, executive director of QTL, believes the combination of skills is vital to student success. “The trend is toward more certifications being built in at the high school level. It follows the general trend that we’re expecting more out of schooling in general.”

“It’s not okay to send kids from high school into postsecondary or a career where they really don’t have the skills to thrive in that field or life in general,” Porter continues. “This is another way that it’s being addressed in K–12, in terms of creating those life skills that will allow them to be productive citizens.”   

Photos: Courtesy of Park Vista Community High School

Tech Tools: Software Picks 2015

Software Picks 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR provides material for elementary and middle school science students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literacy for All


Literacy for All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored Content: Making Connections

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

Comcast V14

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

The trial went off without a hitch.

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

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

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

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

More Bandwidth

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

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

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

Intradistrict Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data Centers and Cloud Computing

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

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

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

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

Connecting at Home

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Laura Rolwing

TECH Update: Blended Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Viktor Koen

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

5 Strategies for SPED Success with Common Core


5 Strategies for SPED Success with Common Core

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

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

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

1. Understanding the problem

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

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

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

2. Changing our mind-set

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

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

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

3. Getting creative and using a variety of learning activities

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

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

4. Finding strength in numbers

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

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

5. Taking advantage of Common Core–aligned resources

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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