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It’s Personal! Help Students Become Masters of Their Own Learning


It's Personal! Using an LMS to Help Students Become Masters of Their Own Learning

One district’s discovery of what personal learning is, and is not.

By Andrea Winters

If there’s one thing we’ve learned by immersing ourselves in 21st-century learning, it’s that there is a big difference between “personalized” and “personal” learning. It’s a small distinction, but as we found here at Clear Creek Independent School District, it’s an important one.

We’ve always worked to encourage students to take ownership of their learning, but in 2015 we formalized that approach when we incorporated the concept of personalized learning into our new strategic plan. As we defined it, personalized learning is an academic model offering flexible pathways for students to progress toward graduation in ways that are personally meaningful.

We were very excited about this new direction, but something interesting happened when we began rolling it out. Teachers and instructional technologists—professionals already burdened by the need to create fresh, relevant, standards-based material on a regular basis—began to panic. Telling them we were going to “personalize” learning for students made it sound like we wanted multiple lesson plans for students, and in some cases, multiple lesson plans for the same student. To them, “personalized” learning meant they were expected to create one lesson plan for every student—or 30 total plans for a 30-pupil class!

In hindsight this interpretation makes sense. The suffix “-ized” brought with it the notion that something was being done to or for people. But we didn’t want teachers to view this as something they had to do for their students. After all, the ownership of personal learning doesn’t lie with the teacher. It rests with the individual students. It’s the students who have to make the choices and take responsibility for those selections and the say they have in their own learning. We simply wanted to empower teachers to be better facilitators of that learning.

So for this student-centric learning approach to really work we knew that we had to drop that suffix and instead call it “personal learning.” Further, we knew that changing that one word alone wouldn’t be enough. We had to provide teachers with the training and the tools they’d need to be successful.

Using Technology to Help

Of course, administering and orchestrating personal learning can’t be done effectively without technology. After reviewing 15 different learning management systems, in May 2015 we selected the itslearning teaching and learning platform and immediately began implementation. From the beginning we knew this was the right system for us because of its “one-stop” structure to house and manage functions for creating and delivering courses, assessments, standards management, attendance, grades, and more. This platform works with everyone in our school system—helping us to work smart, collaborate, and communicate—all in one interface.

For example, our teachers can make, receive, grade, and collaborate on assignments with their students. Teachers, students, and even parents have access (as appropriate) to thousands of course materials and assignments we’ve loaded into our repository. We’re even working with Houston Independent School District, looking at ways to share their learning objects. Our teachers can also upload photos, videos, Scratch projects, Prezi presentations, and many other types of media and materials. We like the system’s integrated voice and audio capabilities; especially for our early learners, just being able to sit down and talk about what they learned serves as an invaluable personal learning tool.

We tell teachers that if students want to use a different method to express their knowledge and demonstrate mastery upon completion of a learning unit, let them! Perhaps the student is more comfortable doing a speech or creating a summary. It could be a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, or maybe it’s a poster or a diorama. We even had one student who wanted to code his presentation on Scratch!

Whatever the format, we want students to have the freedom to make it personal—to be creative and insightful in ways those traditional, paper-based tests and quizzes don’t allow. We now are able to routinely give them a variety of options to choose from, but ultimately the sky’s the limit. We want to let students exercise their voice and personal choice in how they engage in their learning, because it’s the only way they’ll own it. It’s personal and it’s learning.

Andrea Winters is director of learning technology at Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, Texas. The district serves more than 40,000 students, 3,000 teachers, and 13 city municipalities. Winters supervises 28 campus technology integration specialists and trains teachers, staff, and students to use technology to enhance learning.

Active Learning Environments: The Classroom of the Future Is Here Today


Active Learning Environments: The Classroom of the Future Is Here Today

Learn how technology and teaching combine to alter the way students learn at this middle school.

By Chad Lewis

At Tampa Preparatory School, our goal is to equip students with the skills they need to succeed before, during, and after college. In the digital age, this means preparing them with content knowledge and 21st-century skills. We do this by creating instruction and classroom environments that foster collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking – the four C’s of 21st-century learning.

To support this level of instruction and independent learning, we upgraded our classrooms to promote collaboration and inquiry. First, we successfully implemented an iPad 1:1 program for our entire school. Students are required to bring their personal tablet—with certain specifications—to school with them every day. Additionally, each of our teachers are given a MacBook Pro as well as an iPad. To take learning with these devices to the next level, we completely transformed the classrooms in our middle school building into what we call “Active Learning Environments” or ALEs.

Ed Tech Changing Classroom Design

When we began discussing the design of our ALEs, we had two goals in mind. First, we wanted students to be able to collaborate on the fly. And second, we wanted them to have equal visual and auditory opportunities wherever they sat in the classroom. We wanted all of our students to have a “front row seat” on learning.

To address our equity goal, we decided to create multiple interactive displays in each classroom. We installed two Epson BrightLink 595Wi interactive projectors and Walltalker dry-erase wallcoverings to create two completely interactive walls in each classroom. We implemented these projectors because of the return on investment: we could purchase two projectors for the price of a single interactive flat panel. The ability to display much bigger images and to use powerful collaborative software was an added benefit. In addition, we gave every teacher an Ergotron portable standing desk and every teacher wears a Lightspeed Redcat audio wireless microphone. This allows teachers to move around the room while ensuring that no matter where students are in the classroom, they can hear the teacher’s voice. This has effectively eliminated the “front” and “back” of the classroom, as students have multiple areas to view content.

To address our spontaneous collaboration goal, we threw out the traditional seating chart and brought in wheeled Steelcase chairs so students can easily reconfigure their desks for group work. Additionally, the interactive projectors have a functionality called Multi-PC Projection with Moderator, which allows teachers to project up to four students’ tablets onto the wall at once, for everyone to see. Students can then use the iProjection app’s annotation tools, dry erase markers, interactive pens, or the projector’s finger-touch annotation functionality to take notes or provide feedback on their classmates’ work.

The combination of these technologies and resources creates a flexible classroom design that is more conducive to collaboration.

Ed Tech Changing Lesson Design

Effectively providing students with a 21st-century education requires more than just implementing technology; it requires a shift in the way teachers teach.

For example, math teachers no longer just show students how to solve an equation on the whiteboard at the front of the room. Instead, they give students sample problems to try in small groups on their tablets. The groups then project a member’s screen onto the wall and the entire class provides feedback or discusses additional ways to solve the equation so everyone can learn. If the math teachers want to demonstrate how to solve an equation, they project an equation onto the wall and demonstrate how to solve it with the annotation tools—all while their MacBook is recording their demo. They then upload the video to the school’s library on YouTube so students can access these videos at any time.

Teachers can also post worksheets and other activities to our learning management system, Haiku, which students can open and annotate on their tablets and then project onto the wall using the Moderator function. Additionally, many teachers have students create newscasts, book reports, and videos using our portable green screens and their iPads. Regardless of the subject, teachers can easily share content from their own or students’ devices to enrich any lesson.

Due to the success we’ve seen in middle school, we’re building ALEs in high school classrooms this summer so our high school students can reap the benefits of active learning.

The days of teachers being tethered to the front of the classroom are over in our middle school because our ALEs have made strictly lecture-based lessons passé. By incorporating collaborative technology and furniture and then rethinking the structure of classrooms and lessons, we have changed the way students learn. They now learn by doing instead of by listening.

Chad Lewis is the director of technology at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida.

Photo: MediaBakery

Inside ESSA


Inside ESSA

As states start unpacking the new law, there are many questions about how they plan to meet the requirements—and take advantage of the newfound freedoms.

By Timothy Pratt

Now that the long fight to replace No Child Left Behind is over, the real work begins.

At the beginning of December, President Obama, surrounded by members of Congress, education officials, and schoolchildren, signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, dubbing it “a Christmas miracle.” The act, which replaces the much-reviled NCLB law, puts issues like school accountability, teacher evaluations, student assessments, and turning around low--performing schools into the hands of state education departments and school districts, largely removing them from federal purview.

States will still be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3–8 and, for grades 9–12, keep data on “subgroups” of students, including English language learners, special education students, minorities, and children in poverty. But apart from that, states should have a lot more autonomy when the law takes full effect in 2017–18. Officials and educators across the country are just beginning to figure out what should stay the same under the new law, and what they should change, to meet their own and the federal government’s criteria.

After a decade and a half of living under NCLB, many states and education leaders are optimistic about the new law, which will allow them to go beyond exhaustively gathering data and dodging sanctions to focus on the important work of helping all students achieve. It’s still early days, but here’s a look at the reactions and innovations in some states around the nation.

State of the States

A number of state education agencies are eager to start developing their own systems. In Iowa, state department of education deputy director Jeff Berger says, “We’re not going to wait for the feds to tell us [to start]—we don’t know how long they will take with their regulations. We’re just going to do the work we need to do.” 

By the second week of February, Berger and other officials had agreed to create eight working groups, each charged with examining areas of the new law. These areas ranged from teacher evaluations to communications, with district leaders and local education organizations eventually weighing in on issues like school accountability.

In Oregon, a “leadership group” of assistant superintendents and education department staff has been meeting weekly to analyze the new law since the beginning of January, says Dawne Huckaby, assistant superintendent in the Office of Teaching and Learning. Oregon has also set up five working groups that include teachers, administrators, community organizations, school board members, parents, and business leaders to “frame what issues are similar or different from what we’re doing currently,” Huckaby says.

North Dakota was even quicker out of the gates. In anticipation of ESSA, says, Kirsten Baesler, superintendent of public instruction, she formed a task force last summer focused on student assessment. The group has met monthly since August and includes K–12 teachers, university professors, special education experts, business leaders, legislators, and parents. “We’re looking at the purposes of assessment, and how to get each stakeholder the information they need,” Baesler says.

At the other end of the spectrum are states like New Mexico, which are taking the approach that their current setup already meets ESSA’s standards for student assessment and school and teacher accountability. “I don’t see many changes for us,” New Mexico secretary of education Hanna Skandera told the Silver City Daily Press, a local newspaper.

Many states are just getting started with the long process of adapting to the new law. The Council of Chief State School Officers will be partnering with Achieve, Chiefs for Change, and Ed Counsel to help states design accountability systems and other “best practices” to transition to the new law, according to Politico.

A Glimpse at the New Accountability

Sheila Quinn, South Carolina’s deputy superintendent in the Division of Innovation and Effectiveness, emphasizes the state’s commitment to measuring school effectiveness based on much more than just test performance. “This will be a completely different look at accountability,” she says. To that end, the state education department will not only be looking at assessment but at academic accountability measures such as college and career readiness and at non-academic measures of quality like “school climate.” The ESSA working group will then prepare recommendations for the state. 

North Dakota will maintain records on test scores in three core subject areas and data on high school graduation rates. “They have great value,” says Baesler. At the same time, she adds, the state’s school districts “have gone above and beyond, offering extra--curricular electives and career, tech, and arts classes. These classes have never been valued because they’ve never been measured.”

Some states are ahead of the game when it comes to using non-test metrics. Iowa, for example, already uses non-academic indicators such as staff retention in its school accountability measures, says Berger. Starting next semester, the district will figure in parent and community engagement. “We’ve been developing this already, and along comes ESSA saying, ‘You can use non-academic indicators!’ ” he adds.

Although Iowa’s experiment with these indicators has unfolded only in the past two years, Jay Pennington, chief of the state’s Bureau of Information and Analysis Services, says that it has been important to involve many stakeholders in adopting the new measures.

Moving forward, the state is “going to use the same type of process to engage folks,” says Pennington—adding that new indicators will be considered, given the flexibility allowed under ESSA. “We don’t want the existing system to limit our thinking,” he notes.

SBAC on the outs

The Every Student Succeeds Act is also compelling some states to take a second look at how they measure high school achievement. That’s because ESSA allows college entrance exams to be used for this purpose instead of Common Core–based exams like SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium).

Before ESSA went into effect, Oregon was one state that had recently begun using SBAC. But, says Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Education, “with the flexibility under ESSA, we will be having conversations across the state about whether or not we would shift to allowing the use of a college--entrance exam for high school accountability. We have definitely heard interest in this option and will be exploring it further.”

Seven states—Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—have notified the department of education of their intention to use the SAT or ACT for high school accountability, Education Week reports. ACT officials say that 10 other states may follow suit.

Reallocate SES Funds

North Dakota is one of eight states that isn’t under a waiver from NCLB. Baesler recently received federal notification that her state would no longer need to set aside up to 20 percent of its education budget for supplementary educational services, an NCLB requirement for low-perform-ing schools and districts.

For North Dakota, that’s about $4.9 million per year. For larger states like California, the figure may be as high as $230 million. Neither state has determined how to use the funds.

Rethink Teacher Evaluation

Several states among the 42 that have operated under waivers—including South Carolina, Oklahoma, and New York—are now reconsidering the teacher evaluation systems they have developed, now that ESSA allows them to approach the subject with less emphasis on high-stakes testing, according to Education Week. 

South Carolina state superintendent Molly Spearman is pushing an approach based on “student learning objectives,” a series of goals set by teachers. Rather than assigning a specific weight to meeting the objectives, Spearman wants outside evaluators to look at whether teachers are helping students. In the coming months, she intends to convene focus groups that include principals and teachers to gather input about the objectives and other aspects of teacher evaluation.

Oklahoma state superintendent Joy Hofmeister will consider including non-academic indicators in teacher assessment, such as the student surveys used in Tulsa schools. 

States under waivers that choose to change their teacher evaluation systems might face the need to change legislation, or at least regulations, as well. In Oregon, for example, the state’s system is enshrined in state law, so changing the system could mean changing the law. The same holds true for South Carolina.

Retool Low-Performing Schools

Another key area now under greater state control is identifying and improving low-performing schools and subgroups. Identifying the bottom 5 percent of schools will also include non--academic indicators, and states will develop their own plans for turning those schools around.

Berger, Iowa’s deputy director, says his state never had any interest in “heavy-handed, top-down sanctions” for failing schools, and “assume[s] that ESSA will allow us to throw resources at these schools and help them.” He calls the new law “foundationally different” from its predecessor, which was based, he says, on “high accountability, data flow, and sanctions.

“This is different. We can structure as we need to—but it’s all on us. After operating in compliance mode for 14 years, the question moving forward is, Can you shift gears into the bigger-picture paradigm?” 

Whether states can make good use of the new law without losing sight of improving achievement and serving high-risk students remains to be seen. But, says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, ESSA’s flexibility lets states “design accountability systems with schools…that can incorporate non-test survey metrics like Do kids feel safe? or Are they getting services like mental health?” The challenge, he says, will be to “keep academic assessment front and center.” 

PHOTO: Evan Vucci/AP

Teenage Mutant Screenagers


Teenage Mutant Screenagers

Walking through a high school hallway in 2016, you’re likely to encounter a sea of students scuffling along, shoulders hunched, heads down, and thumbs flitting across some kind of cell phone or other device. Before the advent of the smartphone, school hallways were full of students interacting face to face rather than texting and playing digital games. These changes have prompted some alarm among parents and educators, many of whom have raised questions about the effects of rampant technological use on adolescents.

Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, a new documentary directed by Delaney Ruston, examines how constant technological immersion, or “screen time,” affects both the psychological and emotional development of teens. Ruston, a physician by trade, was compelled to make the film after constant pressure from her 13-year-old daughter for an iPhone. She interviewed psychologists, educators, and experts around the country, and gleaned insight into how rampant smartphone use can affect the brain chemistry of teens.

“Studies indicate there seems to be a release of dopamine—the pleasure-producing chemical—whenever we seek out or find a new bit of information,” says Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, who is one of the experts featured in the film. This can be staved off by self-control, but research shows “kid’s brains haven’t properly developed to resist the impulse to self--distract.”

Another study cited in the film found that the same was true for PCs: “What we found is that when a computer enters a kid’s home, their test scores in reading and math actually decrease,” says Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy at the University of Washington.

Still, all of the news isn’t bad: The film shows that after-school activities—be they academic, athletic, or community-based—help kids put down their devices and focus on the present.

Screenagers is showing in select locations. To organize your own screening, visit screenagersmovie.com.

—Sam Blum

Photo: Stephanie Rausser


After years of increased standardized testing, districts are facing calls to cut back.

See how these schools are succeeding.

By Calvin Hennick

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind nearly 15 years ago, debate has raged among educators, parents, and observers about the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests.

That debate may have finally hit its crescendo.

A series of events during the past few months has changed both the conversation surrounding assessment and the rules governing standardized tests.

In October 2015, the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) issued a report outlining just how many hours students spend each school year bubbling in ovals and answering short-response questions. At the same time, the Obama administration announced new guidelines on testing, including a suggested cap to ensure that children spend no more than 2 percent of their classroom time taking required standardized assessments. Then, in December, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which relaxes high-stakes testing requirements and includes funding for states to audit and streamline their assessments.

Taken together, these events may mark a watershed moment. A number of districts across the country were already taking steps to reduce testing, but now they have data (and presidential approval) to back their actions, along with the prospect of increased flexibility from the new legislation. For the first time in a long while, many school districts are poised to give fewer tests in the near future than they have in the recent past. How will that affect what schools are doing and how kids are learning? And will it make for a better school climate?

Adding Up the Hours

“There was a pretty robust conversation going on nationwide about the degree of testing, but much of it was impressionistic and anecdotal,” says Michael Casserly, executive director of CGCS. “We wanted to see if we could get a handle on how much testing we were really doing.”

Working with its 66 partner districts, the group found that students were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between PreK and grade 12—a number that doesn’t include optional tests, diagnostic tests for subgroups like English language learners, or school- or teacher-designed tests and quizzes. In most grades, students took between 20 and 25 hours of standardized tests throughout the course of the school year, with a peak of 25.3 hours in eighth grade.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the assessment reform advocacy group FairTest, says that even for people who believe standardized tests play an important role in education, testing has reached the land of overkill. “Whatever you think about the value of testing, [the current environment] is clearly too much, and it is too high stakes.”

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says that many districts found themselves in a “perfect storm” of tests mandated by the state and federal governments, and then began adding their own interim assessments to avoid end-of-year “surprises” in the results.

“We had reached the point—not only here in Miami but across the country—where precious teaching time was being over-allocated to testing, in some cases superfluous or duplicative testing,” he says. “It became excessive.”

In grade 8, according to the CGCS report, the hours spent on assessment top out at 2.3 percent of the school year—barely more than President Obama’s 2 percent guideline. Still, some testing critics argue that 20 to 25 hours is quite a lot of time for students to spend on testing, and a number of observers have dismissed the 2 percent cap as being based more on politics than pedagogy.

Schaeffer calls the cap “hollow rhetoric.” Jeff Craig, superintendent of West Aurora School District 129 in Illinois, calls the cap “probably more arbitrary than meaningful.” (While Obama has recommended that states implement the 2 percent cap, it is not a federal requirement.)

“I think the blanket 2 percent cap is bad policy,” says Casserly. “It solves a Washington political problem without solving the underlying set of issues about the quality, redundancy, and coherence of these assessments.”

Quality vs. Quantity 

Matt Chapman, the chief executive officer of the test maker Northwest Evaluation Association, says it is crucial that tests provide actionable data for teachers, and that teachers receive this data in a timely manner. Many exams fail on both counts, he says, because they focus strictly on measuring performance on grade-level tasks (giving little useful information about students who are far behind grade level) and because results often come in months after tests are taken.

The NWEA creates assessments like the Measures of Academic Progress that are used by many districts but aren’t mandated by any states. Chapman pitches MAP as an exam that can provide information beyond grade-level competencies, allowing teachers to target their instruction at a level that individual students can understand. “A lot of the wasted assessments are those that [test] either way above or way below where the child is,” he says. “That frustrates the student, doesn’t give information that is useful, and wastes time and resources.”

“I believe you ought to assess kids solely for the purpose of improving instruction,” says Carvalho. “When it transcends that, when we are assessing kids driven primarily by a need to evaluate teachers and not to improve instruction, then I think we’ve taken a detour from the true purpose of accountability.”

“A lot of places have become data-rich and information-poor,” says Craig. “They have all of this data, and they don’t know how to access it or how to use it.”

Districts Taking Action

Individual school districts are limited by state and federal mandates as to which tests they can cut, but many have found ways to reduce testing while still complying with regulations.

“A lot of states and local school districts are going through the process of reviewing their testing portfolios, and a number of states and districts have moved pretty aggressively to rethink their testing,” Casserly says.

In Miami, for example, Carvalho has eliminated 290 end-of-course district exams, along with 24 other standardized tests. The changes have added up to 260 instructional minutes back into the school year in some grade levels.

Detroit Public Schools have cut the Star Reading and Star Math assessments from the district’s testing roster, along with pre- and post-tests in core subject areas. Like a number of districts, Detroit arrived at the cuts by examining its assessment program to promote quality and eliminate redundancy, with the goal of keeping the most helpful tests and eliminating others where possible.

“We can’t do anything about the state-mandated tests,” says Irene Nordé, executive director of the Office of Mathematics Education in Detroit. “However, when we looked closely at the district-mandated tests, we thought we had some duplicative assessments.”

Nordé says that the assessment review was spurred by student, parent, and educator complaints about over-testing, and that the response to the testing cuts has been overwhelmingly positive. “When we shared this with principals, we received applause as a result,” she adds. “They were very happy to take this back to teachers, and teachers have been singing our praises.”

Donald Owen, superintendent of Urbana School District 116 in Illinois, says he used to love “digging into” testing data, but that he now finds the practice doesn’t help the district reach its goals. “I found the more time I spent on that, the less progress we made,” he says. “And the more time we spent on teaching and learning, the better outcomes we had.”

After reviewing the district’s assessments, Urbana officials decided to phase out an English language arts exam in grades 2–12. “We gave ourselves permission to let go of some assessments and practices that people felt weren’t providing the information needed to improve instruction and learning for our students,” Owen explains.

The Great City Schools report lists more than a dozen additional districts that have taken steps aimed at reducing the number of tests they administer. In Washington, D.C., the district convened an assessment task force, resulting in small changes in the grade levels at which it administers some assessments. Houston has eliminated its norm-referenced testing, as well as all district-provided benchmarks exams at the beginning and middle of the school year. Milwaukee made changes that saved three and a half hours of testing time per child. Boston, Sacramento, and Seattle are among the other districts that have already taken steps to reduce testing.

Even some districts that aren’t cutting exams are attempting to improve their testing. In Garland Independent School District in Texas, officials initially were looking to eliminate some locally mandated tests, but instead decided to replace one test with another, says Kimberly Caddell, director of research, assessment, and accountability for the district. The reason? “[The previous test] didn’t provide the teachers with a lot of data to inform instruction,” she adds. “[The new test] gives teachers actionable things they can do to help their students.”

Looking Forward

NWEA’s Chapman sees great potential for change after the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. “It allows school districts and states to fix a policy decision that has been crushingly stultifying. This is an emancipation of schools from the constraints of a tragically grade level–focused assessment system.”

Specifically, Chapman believes states will abandon exams such as the Common Core assessment created by PARCC in favor of tests that provide better information about student growth. He acknowledges that parents and educators are tired of the rapid turnover of different teaching and testing philosophies, but he doesn’t think that will stand in the way of change.

“The change fatigue is very, very high,” Chapman says. “But equally strong is the opt-out movement and the legitimate criticisms to this approach to testing. I think in the 2016–17 school year, there’s going to be quite a number of states that adopt assessments that provide information about where each individual child is… that’s useful for instruction.” 

In West Aurora, Illinois, officials looked at cutting assessments, but they found they were able to make only a few changes to their testing regimen, at least for the time being. That’s because the district is required—by a waiver the state received from the federal government under No Child Left Behind—to factor student growth into teacher evaluations. To be fair to teachers, district officials wanted to keep a number of measurements in place.

Now, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states can be freed from those old requirements. West Aurora superintendent Jeff Craig says he thinks it is only a matter of time before states begin to create new accountability plans that rely less on standardized tests, especially as a measure of teacher quality.

“Nobody wants to be the first or the last to make a decision,” he says, “the first to say, ‘We’re going to strip away the expectation.’ That’s going to open up the door for other states.” 

Rising Resistance

Education observers credit the shifting dialogue on assessments to parents expressing frustration with the current system.

“I think [a turning point] came as a result of a very rapid growth of political pressure associated with parent groups that began to take notice of Common Core standards and assessment requirements,” says Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “That was a strong genesis for this conversation.” Up to 750,000 students opted out of standardized tests in 2015, including nearly a quarter million in New York alone, says Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the assessment reform advocacy group FairTest. “That was people saying, ‘We’re fed up, and we’re not going to play anymore.’” The opposition to testing hasn’t come from just an active and vocal minority. A 2015 survey by the PDK/Gallup Poll showed that 64 percent of Americans believed there was “too much emphasis” on standardized tests in the public schools in their community. Among public school parents, the number was even ­higher—67 percent.

SOURCE: Make Assessment Matter. Students and Educators Want Tests That Support Learning, NWEA, 2014

Illustration: istock images (left to right): HuntImages; Jesus Jauregui


How Game-Based Learning Helps Meet Three Key Educational Needs


How Game-Based Learning Helps Meet Three Key Educational Needs

Engage your students, increase their feedback, and foster collaboration by using games as a learning tool.

By Tim Ridgway

Game-based learning has exploded in popularity in the last few years. At the Texas Computer Education Association conference this year, there were no fewer than a dozen different sessions exploring game-based learning applications in the classroom, ranging from Crafting Your Curriculum With MinecraftEdu to Using Game-Based Learning to Differentiate Instruction.

There’s a compelling reason for this trend. Game-based learning aptly addresses a number of different needs in K–12 education today.


According to the most recent survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 79 percent of parents with school-age children (ages 6–17) say their children play video games at home. Game-based learning taps into students’ enthusiasm for gaming and leverages that experience to help them learn.

An enormously popular game is Minecraft, which Microsoft acquired last year from the Swedish game developer Mojang. The PC version of Minecraft alone has been downloaded more than 100 million times, Microsoft says.

Minecraft allows players to build and explore landscapes out of textured cubes in a computer-generated 3D world. MinecraftEdu, which Microsoft also recently acquired, is a version of Minecraft developed specifically for classroom use. Its creator, TeacherGaming, says more than 5,500 teachers in at least 40 countries have used MinecraftEdu to teach a wide variety of subjects.

A history teacher can download a map that recreates ancient Rome, for instance, and have students explore the city or build Roman aqueducts. Science teachers can design experiments in the game that have students test concepts such as gravity or fluid dynamics. Math teachers can have students learn math as they figure out how to build various structures. Even English teachers can incorporate Minecraft to increase reading comprehension.

“Minecraft has been responsible for the most successful unit that I have ever done,” wrote seventh grade world history teacher John Miller on the MinecraftEdu website. “My students struggle with reading and writing. It is very difficult for many of them as second language learners. Minecraft is motivating my students to read for understanding and enjoyment and write serious and highly creative narratives about their experiences with medieval history. Together, we are close reading and annotating short narrative vignettes in class. Students then pop into Minecraft and play out the scene that I’ve recreated using details from the story, adding additional characters, different points of view, and rich content.”

Microsoft will be coming out with a new educational version, Minecraft: Education Edition, this summer. More details will be available at http://education.minecraft.net later this year.

Student Feedback

During last year’s EdNET conference, keynote speaker Rob Mancabelli noted that Uber drivers receive an average of 5,100 opportunities for feedback on their driving every year—while the typical student receives only 150 opportunities for feedback on his or her work per year. Furthermore, these are generally high-stress situations such as quizzes, tests, and homework evaluations.

Game-based learning has the potential to change that by giving students much more frequent and timely feedback on their learning, delivered in an enjoyable and less stressful way.

Education author Grant Wiggins described several characteristics of high-quality feedback for a story he wrote for Educational Leadership. Feedback should be actionable, user-friendly, timely, ongoing, and consistent; this is the kind of feedback that games deliver to users constantly as they play.

With every decision a child makes during a game, he or she gets immediate feedback on whether that was a good or a bad decision. Players have a chance to learn immediately from their mistakes and correct them or try again in the game world, resulting in a constant feedback loop—something they don’t get with a test.


The ability to collaborate with others to accomplish a task or solve a problem is quickly becoming a foundational skill.

Working well as a team to make decisions and solve problems is the top skill that today’s companies most value among their new hires, according to a 2014 survey of hiring managers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers—and game-based learning can help students develop this critical skill.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft, require students to work together in teams as they complete various quests. In the process, students learn key collaborative skills that are directly transferrable to other settings. This fact isn’t lost on the creators of World of Warcraft in School, who have created instructional resources to help educators use the game to develop literacy, math, and 21st century skills among students.

In multiplayer games, players work together using various forms of digital communication, such as instant messaging or by talking to each other through gaming headsets. To enhance the experience for educators and students who are using MMORPGs as an instructional tool, Califone has introduced a new line of gaming headsets designed specifically for schools.

The GH507 model and GH131 model headsets feature surround sound, enabling a deeper, more visceral experience for game players—while a microphone-enabled chat feature enhances collaboration by allowing teams of students to communicate verbally as they’re playing the game.

Game-based learning still has its share of critics, but there is no denying its potential to help with these three critical needs in education today. As with any application of technology in the classroom, it’s only as effective as the teachers who are leading its use. To leverage game-based learning to its fullest potential and support high-quality pedagogy, educators should join user groups and talk with other game-based learning enthusiasts to share ideas.

Tim Ridgway is the vice president of marketing for Califone International LLC, a leader in the design, development, and manufacturing of audiovisual and supplemental curriculum products for use in education.

Photo: MediaBakery

Parent Engagement: More Than Just an Idea


Parent Engagement: More Than Just an Idea

How this district turned communication from a weakness to a strength.

By Butch Sloan

One-way communication is no longer cutting it. And school districts are discovering that technology alone won’t improve parent engagement. What technology can do, though, is spark parents’ interest and give them a window into their children’s education.

My district, Garland Independent School District (GISD), is home to about 58,000 students in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Here, parent and community engagement is more than just an idea. It’s a deep-rooted part of our culture that we reinforce through the application of technology.

Organize Around Engagement

Socioeconomic status affects community engagement. Eighty percent of students at GISD are from racial minority groups and 60 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged. To ensure that students from all backgrounds receive adequate support, we took the rare step of creating a Parent and Community Engagement Department. The department includes liaisons for the Hispanic and African-American communities, which collectively represent 69 percent of our students.

Some district leaders might balk at the logistical challenges of focusing an entire department on engagement efforts. But by redefining existing roles and incorporating online resources, our leadership has reorganized GISD in a way that emphasizes community engagement without making sacrifices in other areas.

Reel Them In With Tech

As GISD conducted ongoing reviews of our technology infrastructure, it became more important than ever to evaluate the role of technology. We knew that we wanted our student information system (SIS) to serve as a front door. If we could get parents in, we could familiarize them with what their children are doing at school and introduce them to some of the on-campus programs we have available.

Our SIS became a driving force in our family engagement strategy. Some questions we asked: Do parents log in to the system to identify upcoming assignments? Do teachers use the portal to send personalized communications on a regular basis? Do administrators know how to find the answers to these questions?

The answers we received played a big role in our evaluation process, which began in 2014 as we looked to move to a new vendor.

All Access, All the Time

When we launched our new SIS for the 2015–2016 school year, parents gravitated to it almost instantly. They dedicated part of their daily routines to logging in, checking grades, viewing assignments, interacting with teachers, and discussing school activities with their children. One-way communication gave way to collaborative, productive discussions between teachers and parents.

We wanted to raise awareness of the digital resources available in GISD, including Skyward’s Family Access, our new parent portal, so we hosted a Digital Resource Carnival. We originally thought 300 to 500 parents would attend, but more than 3,000 people came. The overwhelming feedback received at the Skyward booth was that parents were excited about the access they had.

This newfound online community was really put to the test on the day after Christmas, when a tornado hit our area and damaged several hundred homes. Our communication system became vital for our students and parents. We were able to make notes in student records, manage where they were staying, and keep students in school for the rest of the year. This has been one of our biggest community accomplishments.

Bring It Home

Parents want to be involved in their children’s education and we are always looking for more ways to facilitate that involvement. Thanks to our SIS, the process is more convenient for everyone. The online portal allows our parents and teachers to access up-to-date information and, most important, it helps us meet parents halfway.

Parent engagement has become one of GISD’s defining characteristics. And the right SIS has made all the difference in putting us on the path to success.


Butch Sloan is the executive director of Data and Administrative Systems at Garland Independent School District. GISD has used Skyward to implement its parent engagement practices. Skyward serves more than six million students in more than 1,800 school districts.


Five Points to Consider When for Looking for a New SIS

Determine what's right for your district. What might work for a neighboring district may not work well for yours. Decide which features of a SIS are non-negotiable for your district and be sure to state those requirements first. 

Choose an experienced vendor. Implementing a new SIS in your district is no easy process. It’s important to have a vendor with plenty of experience and a record of success. The most successful vendors have a step-by-step guide, provide regular times for check-ins during the planning and implementation stages, and offer ongoing assistance. Successful implementations aren’t done after the technology is in place. If you want your SIS to thrive, your district is going to need a helping hand through every phase of the process.

Determine how much information the firm shares with its users. Transparency is one of the most important factors for districts in an ultra-competitive landscape. For example, ask to see a company’s product roadmap or support tools. There’s a tendency for companies to avoid revealing information like this that might give competitors an advantage. But keep in mind, you’re a paying customer and deserve to be treated as such.

Be mindful of hidden costs. These can build up in a hurry if you don’t guard against them. Be careful of the details, and use your district’s bidding process to find out what each vendor’s idea of “implementation” is, including project management, consulting, and training. Pricing is always an important factor in your decision, and it will be made easier if you can recognize all costs early.

Ask about active user communication. The most successful technology companies have a genuine business interest in helping their user communities thrive. Make sure to ask about customer forums that may be hosted by the firm to see whether or not the general tone between vendor and customers is collaborative.

Eight Steps to Developing a Scientific Approach to Reading Instruction


Eight Steps to Developing a Scientific Approach to Reading Instruction

One first-year teacher’s methodical process showed her what was working and what wasn’t—and helped her students read and comprehend better.

By Stacy Hurst

I began my career as a first-grade teacher feeling confident that I had been well prepared to teach reading. I graduated from college with a reading endorsement and had maintained reading as a minor throughout the time it took me to complete two degrees. However, a few months into my first year as a teacher, I realized that I wasn’t as prepared as I’d thought. My experience is not uncommon. I have since trained teachers from Alaska to New Jersey—and many places in between—to teach foundational reading skills. During every training session, without fail, someone raises a hand and asks, “Why didn’t we learn this in college?”

How can we give teachers who are well past their pre-service days the necessary knowledge to build a solid, scientifically based foundation for teaching reading? Pointing fingers at those who teach pre-service teachers or rehashing the effects of policies and practices brought on by the reading wars will do nothing to help the students in our K–3 classrooms improve their reading ability. We can’t wait for every college of education to “figure it out” or for teachers to find time to read and understand every piece of research that has been conducted on effective reading instruction.

One thing we can do is engage teachers in applying the scientific method to their reading instruction. Doing so can empower teachers by increasing their professional knowledge of effective reading instruction. It can also provide an objective framework and a common language for teachers, administrators, and literacy coaches to use as they focus on students’ reading development. Here is one example of how I applied the scientific method to my reading instruction and how it influenced the way I taught my first graders to read.

Step 1: Observe

Throughout each day, teachers do a lot of observing. I observed that my students were not proficient enough at decoding words, and it was affecting their motivation to read.

Step 2: Ask Questions

The next step is to ask yourself questions based on your observations. One good question will help a teacher maintain focus on one thing at a time without becoming distracted or overwhelmed. For me, the question was “What am I missing in my reading instruction?”

Step 3: Research

The third step is to research possible answers to the question. Fortunately, I began teaching just after the National Reading Panel published their meta-analysis of the effectiveness of different approaches for teaching reading. The NRP identified five areas necessary for effective literacy instruction. I realized that I was lacking in the area of phonics instruction.

Step 4: Form a Testable Hypothesis

The next step is to form a hypothesis that can be tested and measured. The NRP found that effective phonics instruction is systematic, sequential, and explicit. Based on the research, I hypothesized that if I gave more explicit phonics instruction, my students’ ability to read would improve.

Step 5: Experiment

Without experimentation, it’s hard to know what works for certain. I changed my implicit, spontaneous approach to teaching decoding to explicit and intentional instruction using a sequence that I hoped would not overwhelm my students.

Step 6: Analyze the Data

In today’s schools, there never seems to be a lack of data. The challenge is knowing how to interpret all that information. It helps to consult with other teachers and reading experts. As I analyzed the running records of my students, I noticed that since I’d made my phonics instruction more explicit, students were reading more accurately and their comprehension was improving—even if it wasn’t at the rate that I’d hoped.

Step 7: Draw Conclusions

Conclusions not only help identify what works when teaching reading but can also help identify what doesn’t work. I concluded that teaching phonics explicitly had made a difference with my students. Conversely, my previous approach to teaching phonics did not work.

Step 8: Communicate Your Findings

In the world of science, findings are communicated anywhere from poster boards at science fairs to published articles in scientific journals. Sharing what I was learning with my colleagues resulted in improved reading proficiency across our whole grade level.

As a first-year teacher, applying basic principles of the scientific method to my reading instruction helped me improve the reading ability of my students. It also provided me with a solid foundation upon which I continue to build. I have since seen many teachers do the same. In the process, they have gained reliable, scientifically based, professional knowledge about teaching reading.

Stacy Hurst is a curriculum specialist for Reading Horizons and is a co-author of the Reading Horizons Discovery curriculum materials. Hurst taught first grade before becoming a literacy coach and reading specialist. She has extensive experience coordinating interventions for struggling readers in grades K-12 and has taught English language development classes to elementary students and adults.

    Photo: MediaBakery

When It Comes to Credit Recovery, Students Need Options


When It Comes to Credit Recovery, Students Need Options

Technology can help democratize the process of learning.

By John Kreick

What if your entire future depended on something about which you had little or no choice? Despite being presented with more choices and control in most other aspects of their lives, students today still largely have no say in their own education.

If they decide to pursue a college education, they will have more than 5,000 2-year or 4-year colleges from which to choose, but the quality and type of K–12 education they receive is largely tied to where they grow up. If it’s an urban area, they will attend schools run by districts where the average superintendent’s tenure is 3.2 years. School board members in these districts last only slightly longer—an average of three to six years. These districts exist within states that set their own academic standards and assessments and where per-pupil funding could be anywhere from $6,706 (if you live in Utah) to $18,000 (if you are a citizen of the District of Columbia). I think we can all agree that preparing and empowering our students is a national priority, but many of the factors that decide a student’s fate are governed by the whims of location and by a local leadership system defined by churn.

Students as Consumers

According the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education statistics, in the fall of 2015, about 50.1 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools. In 2011, the ad agency Digitas reported that this same demographic has $1.2 trillion in buying power a year—whether through their own direct purchases or the influence they have on their parents. Companies now spend about $17 billion annually marketing to children, as compared to the $100 million they spent in 1983. Companies bend over backwards to meet the needs and preferences of kids. In education, students are the only consumers and their learning is the only goal, so why don’t our school systems approach them the same way?

Washington Post reporter Ana Swanson’s 2015 article on waiting in lines speaks to a number of aspects of traditional education that cause students frustration. As she explains it, the factors that influence the experience of waiting in line are ideas of fairness, feeling out of control, and the perception of time. One of the article’s conclusions is that navigating one serpentine line is less stressful than waiting in a straight line or choosing between several parallel lines. Traditional education is one long, straight line in which grade levels and test performance serve as the mileage markers. Between those markers are a series of classes where students have to move at the same pace and in the same sequence as their classmates.

I have had the opportunity to speak to a lot of students in credit recovery, alternative, and blended learning programs. When I ask them when and in what manner they learn best, they often say, “It depends.” Some say they learn English language arts better in a classroom setting with other students, but that with math they work much better on their own online. For certain subjects and at certain times, a teacher is essential to assist their progress. Others times, they learn fine on their own. Time of day makes a difference for some but not for others. Across the board, they say that they are far more engaged and feel respected when they are given choice and alternatives.

Imagine being in a class—as many students who enter credit recovery are—where the teacher’s instructional style does not match the way you learn best. Or imagine you’re having difficulty with a certain concept that’s key to making further progress but there’s no time or capacity to provide you with the targeted support you need. Students in these situations end up feeling out of control, disrespected, and embarrassed—all of which leads to acute stress and a fight-or-flight mode that is death to long-term memory and learning. Biologically, their brains can’t learn while in that mode, yet they’re stigmatized for “not getting it.”

How Technology Can Help

If a doctor had 100 patients and 80 of them were in perfect health and didn’t need their assistance, five more had minor ailments and needed occasional checkups, and 15 were in acute trauma, would it make sense for that doctor to spend the majority of her time offering the same treatment to the entire group? Hardly. Yet that is how our traditional education model works. I believe technology can make it work better.

I don’t believe technology is a panacea for all things in education, but it does allow for options and access that were not possible or affordable in the past, and that exist beyond the confines of local budget realities, politics, and ideologies.

Hopefully we’ve all had the experience of learning a certain lesson or concept from a teacher who was a genius at presenting it. It is a transformative experience. There are thousands of teachers like that. Imagine if we could capture educators teaching those lessons and make them available nationally. With technology it’s not just feasible; it’s logical. Think flipped classrooms on a grand scale, where teachers could leverage the brilliant work of their colleagues and spend the majority of their time specializing or assisting the students who truly need it.

The good news is that many schools and districts are using this model. The evolution of technology is demanding it. Losing students to accredited virtual schools because they aren’t satisfied with their local options is prompting districts to expand their services. These are but small steps in a wave of expanded choice that will only continue to build.

In most areas of their lives, children have more options than ever. It’s time for that to be true in their education as well.

John Kreick is the vice president of marketing at Odysseyware.

Photo from 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.