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Seeing Is More Than Believing


Seeing Is More Than Believing

Learn how this leading district uses videos to help improve teachers’ practices.

By Diane Lauer

Consider these facts:

  • A national survey from Scholastic reveals eight of ten teachers say they need more quality professional development to be successful.
  • TNTP estimates that teachers spend the equivalent of 19 school days per year on training activities.
  • A national report on professional learning found fewer than 50 percent of teachers rated their professional development as useful.

By my calculations that’s an astronomical amount of time spent on potentially fruitless activities! Furthermore, it leaves the education system with an urgent problem—districts need to provide effective, collaborative professional development that supports teachers through the implementation stages and addresses the specific obstacles to changing classroom practice (Gulamhussein, 2013).

Massive investments in daylong, sit-and-get workshops or “one size fits all” after-school lectures that require little more than passive participation will not change teacher practice.

We differentiate and personalize learning for students, so why not for teachers?

Here at St. Vrain Valley, we are.

Our district serves 32,000 students in seven towns northwest of Denver, and we’ve augmented our professional learning program with what we think is becoming the gold standard for improving teacher practice: personalized collaboration and differentiation via an online video-coaching platform for classroom observation.

It’s augmenting our one-on-one coaching and collaborative study teams, and we’re seeing great results.

Catching Ourselves on (Candid!) Camera

The addition of the Edthena video observation protocol in districts like ours is helping to make professional learning simple and personalized.

St. Vrain teachers using the platform analyze their instructional practice through a recorded video—taken from their iPad minis (although a flip camera, computer, tablet or smartphone would work just as well). With just a few clicks, they upload videos of their own classroom instruction and securely share them with their coaches or colleagues who provide time-stamped comments.

This practice has accelerated the rate at which our teachers implement differentiated changes to improve their craft, because they can now upload videos of classroom instruction directly from their mobile devices using the platform’s iOS app. In the same way that athletes learn from reviewing game tape footage, our teachers can analyze their unique teaching practice and notice changes in their practice over time.

Developed by a former science teacher and principal, the platform delivers on the full promise of how video can be used to drive individualized teacher learning. It’s helping our schools across the district implement video observation in a variety of scenarios, including teacher induction, teacher mentoring, professional learning communities, and peer observation.

Power Is Personalized in Pictures

Learning is collaborative, and learning to improve teaching is no exception. By offering teachers authentic collaboration, our PD program is helping to foster ideas about how to teach concepts in new and engaging ways.

But we know it’s hard to bring a group of adults into a classroom at the same time to observe and learn from real classroom practice. This platform solves this problem for our teachers and their coaches.

It instantly makes abstract theory concrete. It also offers our teachers the opportunity for pure, personal reflection because they can see themselves in action, acknowledging their strengths and identifying areas where they need to grow. And watching others can be just as beneficial.

With this observation platform, we now have access to the complete library of Measuring Effective Teaching Extension videos. The METX library, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one of the largest video collections of classroom practice, with more than 2,100 recorded lessons.

By accessing the METX videos inside the platform, our teachers and coaches can interact with and analyze the teaching videos using the platform’s commenting tools. While watching a video, it’s possible to add comments, just as with their own personal videos. Comments can also be linked to any teaching framework, again offering a highly personalized and differentiated approach, no matter what professional metrics are being measured by a school or district.

As I’ve expressed to my team, there is power in pictures, or in this case, video. When our coaches and teachers connect face-to-face, the teachers are primed for deep conversations that incorporate concrete examples such as using higher level questioning, moving fluently around the classroom, or scaffolding instruction for English language learners. And that’s beneficial for both veteran teachers and new hires.

One of our coaches used the time-stamped video to focus on the teacher’s classroom management technique, specifically the transition time between the ringing of the class bell and the moment that learners actually got to work. Together, they used the video to capture evidence of student behavior, and then they used the time-stamping feature in Edthena to measure it. Together, the coach and the teacher worked to increase classroom instructional time and illuminate what student engagement looks like.

We also documented a case in which a teacher’s reflection after a classroom observation raised questions about her ratio of positive interactions with students. She thought she was providing a high ratio of positive interactions, but she couldn’t recall concrete examples. So the coach invited the teacher to video her instruction, to note the positive engagements on her own. Even before the coach returned the following week, the teacher set a goal for herself of a 5:1 ratio—five positive student interactions each day for every negative one—and began changing her practice. There’s power in seeing live video action.

The fact that the online video coaching accelerated the pace of the professional development cycle even before the coach returned to the classroom was an important discovery for our PD coaches. Our teachers no longer had to wait until the next scheduled coaching conversation to reflect or plan a new goal.

Keep in mind, the classroom observation platform also helps us organize and manage the entire PD process . . . and not just video observations. The platform is flexible enough to allow us to set the timeline for the learning cycles and the standards to be measured against. And our teachers can also share non-video artifacts like lesson plans.

Results Reign

Ours is one of nine exemplar districts designated by the U.S. Department of Education to be “Future Ready,” and the integration of this video coaching platform has become an extension of our initiative to embolden our teachers through multidimensional, differentiated and personalized learning.

And here’s why.

Decades of research have confirmed three things:

  • Teachers get better when they watch themselves on video.
  • Teachers get better when they watch other teachers on video. (Tripp & Rich (2012) The influence of video analysis on the process of teacher change)
  • Teachers get better when they collaborate in communities. (Vescio, Ross & Adams (2008) A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning)

When you contemplate the possibility of video-based teacher PD for this year or beyond, keep in mind that this option empowers teachers and accelerates their professional growth, personally. It leverages differentiated, participant-driven professional sharing via 21st-century technologies that specifically allow educators to curate, create, and collaborate among themselves quickly and conveniently on the things that matter to them personally.

We are on the cusp of a transformation in professional development. As instructional leaders we are uniquely positioned to capture today’s teaching using technology as a means to provide rich self-generated and peer-to-peer learning, minus the constraints of time and distance. If we want differentiated and personalized learning for our professional growth, it’s time to let the full power of video reign.

Diane Lauer is the executive director of professional development and assessment at St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado.

Photo: MediaBakery

Six Ways to Stay Connected With Your Community This Summer


Six Ways to Stay Connected With Your Community This Summer

From surveying stakeholders to sharing a basketball court, one school district superintendent shares best practices for forging an ongoing bond between her district and her city.

By Jennifer Parish

Like every school district in America, mine—Poquoson City Public Schools in Virginia—is preparing for summer break. While summer is a great excuse to recharge and spend time with family, it’s important to engage parents and families in meaningful conversations while school is out.

Ours is a small district in a city of 12,000, so we don’t have a staff to focus on community engagement. I’m the superintendent and the PR person for the division. As we wind down one school year and plan for the next, it’s helpful to think creatively about how we can continue to meet the needs of our community.

Here are six strategies that work for me. With any luck, they’ll work for you, too.

1) Take stock with surveys.

Three years ago, we developed a six-year strategic plan for our school division. To get input on the development of that plan, we used Engage, a cloud-based survey and decision-making tool from K12 Insight, to gather thoughts and ideas from parents, community members, teachers, students, and staff.

Now, each spring we conduct follow-up surveys to see if we’re actually making progress on the performance indicators spelled out in that plan. Over the course of the summer, we’re able to digest the data and develop proposed next steps so we can present those ideas to our board in the fall when school opens up.

2) Set up an always-on listening station.
If our parents and students or other community members have questions or concerns about our schools and they want an answer fast, they can reach out to us using Let’s Talk! Designed to complement the deep insights from our community surveys, the online portal is accessible on our district website and lets us keep those lines of communication open throughout the year. Not having a PR staff makes it difficult to respond to every person, especially during the summer. Let’s Talk! makes my job easier by automatically routing questions to the right team member to ensure a prompt response. The portal lets community members pick from several “interest areas” relevant to ongoing school programs or policies. This summer, we plan to add topics to address questions about the upcoming school .

3) Make the most of your media.

In addition to using our own tools, we send weekly “tip sheets” to newspapers and media outlets. These may be pictures with captions explaining specific school programs or informational press releases for editors to either publish or follow up on with us.

We also use television. We have a public broadcasting station. It’s WHRO in Norfolk, and it’s actually owned by 18 school divisions. This gives us the chance to publicly address different programs in our schools. We link the content to our website and push it out there as well.

4) Get a boost from your city.

We work closely with our city government during the summer. I often ask our friends at City Hall to post our content to their website and social media channels. That way, we can reach community members who might not have students enrolled in our schools but who still want to know what’s happening at our facilities during the summer.

5) Put in some face time.
I try to get out there and be visible in the summer months, so that people are comfortable coming up to me and saying, “Hey, by the way, I saw this in the paper. Can you explain it to me more?” That personal, one-on-one interaction makes a huge difference.

In the same spirit, I do presentations to civic groups. The retired members of our community tend to be very involved in these meetings. Seeing and hearing me in person helps them stay connected with the division throughout the year.

6) Keep your doors open.

We go out into the community during the summer, but we also invite the community into our schools. We run a summer school program, so we have kids in our buildings all year round. Community groups use some of our fields during the summer, so that’s another way to maintain a positive connection between community members and the school division. Neighbors can jog on the track or join basketball leagues that use our gym, for example.

Each of these strategies keeps our community engaged throughout the school year. We recently completed our most recent spring survey. I’m looking forward to digging into that data as we get into the summer and seeing what we can do to improve our school division for our students and families when we kick off classes again in the fall.

Jennifer Parish is the superintendent of Poquoson City Public Schools in Virginia.

Illustration: MediaBakery

Weigh In


Flashlight vs. Hammer

“The greatest impact directly affecting our schools in the next school year will likely be related to our teacher evaluation system,” says Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s state school superintendent. “We will be seeking greater flexibility so that we will have more of a flashlight approach to teacher evaluation and professional development and growth, and less of a hammer [approach].

“We want to illuminate teachers who are really bringing up student achievement and [doing] PD that affects student growth. We want to take an approach that is more reflective and focuses on using good quantitative and qualitative information to guide instruction in the future.

“The greatest benefit of ESSA is the ability for states to have less regulation and more flexibility in how we use the funds, and [to enact] the kind of decision-­making we deserve at the state level. It’s those closest to students who have the best opportunity to serve them in the most appropriate and effective way. There will be a greater emphasis on an accountability system and student achievement that makes sense for our state. It will give us the flexibility to make adjustments that meet our needs in a more appropriate way at our state level without having to play the Mother May I? game with the federal government.”

Outside the Box

“We’re going to reevaluate our testing model,” says Georgia’s state school superintendent Richard Woods. “We have a testing audit going on throughout the state. We actually go above and beyond requirements so that we can begin to examine if what we’re doing is necessary.

“We are seeing some flexibility in our Title I funding. We do have a fairly significant poverty population within Georgia. We are talking with our school systems to see how we can open up and perhaps be a little more flexible. STEM or STEAM grants are one of the major things we’ll be focusing on as well.

“But we’re also looking at our accountability requirements. We were a little bit on the high side as far as looking at teacher accountability. We want to really explore that and see what’s best, and move away from a model of accountability that has probably existed since the conception of No Child Left Behind.

“For years, we’ve basically been a department of compliance. Now, ESSA allows us and the state to really use the knowledge we have to become innovative, to think outside the box, to move away from the one-size-fits-all mandate that we’ve lived under for about 15 years.”

Granular Work

“Everything is on the table to be reviewed,” says Jack Smith, interim state superintendent of schools in Maryland. “This federal legislation is going to really push school systems to think about what accountability should look like. How should we measure our schools? With that comes a lot of responsibility and a lot of hard, collaborative work to think about how we can get an accurate picture of how students are learning and growing—and how we can improve that over time.

“We look at gaps for achievement and growth in Maryland, and [the challenge is] how we can look at those things across many different indicators so we really know how students are doing.

“Sometimes, a gap or disparity can be hidden. For example, your school system might have a 92 percent graduation rate, but when you start peeling away the layers, you find out that, of your economically disadvantaged students, 10 percent have taken an advanced placement course, and of your non-­economically disadvantaged students, 67 percent have taken an advanced placement course. That’s the level of detail and granular work we should and want to do in Maryland, so that every kid gets a shot, and every kid has options.”

Three-Legged Stool

“When school leaders look at their communities, they see a three-legged stool,” says Eugene Schmidt, superintendent at Farmington Municipal Schools in New Mexico. “The school district providing education is one leg; the parents with the enrichment, gifts, and culture they bring as a family is a leg; and the community, which has a responsibility, is another leg. If all three parts of that stool are equal in length, high-quality education takes place in a hurry.

“Farmington is a microcosm of the nation in spite of being in rural New Mexico. We have 11,000 kids in our district. We have 3,000 Native Americans, 3,000 Hispanic, 3,000 Anglo, and a compilation of others.

“ESSA says that schools can’t work unless parents and communities get engaged. So we will use this act as a challenge to our parents and community to say, ‘Help us make our school system better through your involvement and engagement in the learning process.’ We’ll be inviting parents into the educational conversation to ask how they can help us with language and culture, and we’ll work with the educational component.

“We are going through a four-month strategic planning conversation. We’re in the process of surveying our community, asking what those things are that we do well and could do better. We will use that information, line it up against ESSA, and then grow our district from there.”       

R. Stephen Green


R. Stephen Green 

In DeKalb County schools, building a car from the ground up is just one of Green’s ambitious STEM initiatives.

By Michelle R. Davis

The wind swirled as the black helicopter came flying in over the Dunwoody High School football field in Atlanta. It touched down to cheers and the brass notes of a marching band. DeKalb County School District superintendent R. Stephen Green emerged, having helped pilot the landing after a short lesson.

Green was on the field in November to announce a new project: Students at two high schools—Dunwoody and McNair—would be building a street-legal car from the ground up as part of a wider effort to boost STEM experiences in the district. The car, a replica of a Ford 1965 Daytona Coupe, was donated by the Ford Motor Company and delivered in 30 boxes, and students would build the automobile, bolt by bolt. As Green knows from flying the opening-ceremony helicopter, “doing” is a lot more interesting that watching.

“The intent is to get students excited about STEM and projects that will engage them,” says Green. His enthusiasm, both for the helicopter ride and the Daytona Coupe project, has buoyed educators and students in the district.

“There are different ways to inspire students to learn,” Green adds, “especially those who may not be learners in the traditional manner.”

The 101,000-student DeKalb, Georgia, district is pushing forward with a widespread STEM initiative, an effort that predates Green’s time in the district. It was kicked off during the 2012–13 academic year with 12 schools, as part of a larger $34 million Race to the Top grant.

But under Green’s leadership, which began in July 2015, the STEM project has expanded. It now includes 96 district schools with plans that range from aquaponics to coding and robotics. Many of the projects are done in conjunction with industry partners.

“If you build the excitement and relevance on the front end, then you can introduce content-rich material,” Green explains. “But if you start with algorithms and the Pythagorean theorem, some students have lost interest from the very beginning.”

Stability and Innovation

Even before Green stepped into the helicopter in November, he was used to turbulence.

Before arriving in DeKalb, Green spent four years in Missouri leading the 16,700-student Kansas City Public Schools, building it from a system on the brink of collapse to one that at his departure was showing gains in student achievement.

The Kansas City district had seen a revolving door of superintendents, and Green brought stability and an ability to build consensus. He partnered with neighboring districts, community organizations, and businesses, a model he is continuing with his efforts in DeKalb around STEM initiatives. Besides partnering with Ford for the car itself, Green has brought in a local company, The Flying Classroom, to help lead the car build. And in the works are projects like the aquaponics one, where students are growing food, including raising fish, through soilless agriculture with the help of a $15,000 aquaponics lab, including two 500-gallon tanks. This project was done in cooperation with Georgia-based company HATponics Sustainable Agriculture. Elsewhere, elementary school students are working with the Atlanta zoo to create enrichment toys for the animals.

Hannah Maharaj, the district’s K–12 STEM coordinator, believes that the importance of such programs becomes clear when looking at Georgia’s workforce data, which reveals that the state needs 35,000 engineers to fill jobs in the next decade. And that’s not even including other types of STEM-related jobs, she says.

The car project gets students thinking about the automotive industry, but there’s also real-world math and science embedded in the process. Plus, there’s the “cool” factor. The district has found that attendance improves, suspension rates drop, and student engagement goes up when students are actively involved in a STEM project, says Maharaj.

But Green hasn’t mandated that all schools participate, nor has he mandated what that participation should look like when it occurs.

“At their own pace and in their own time, principals and instructional leaders will embrace STEM,” he says. “That’s part of the culture of our district.”

On the other hand, it doesn’t mean schools can sit this one out, Green says. His aim is to use these projects to raise the rigor of the type of learning taking place in STEM. His enthusiasm for the project, and the accolades and interest around what other schools are doing, have a “gravitational pull” that ultimately draws in the slow adopters. “They don’t want to be left out,” he says.

Students as Problem Solvers

Green paid a visit to Dunwoody recently to check on how the car build is going. Students already had the frame built and electrical wiring in and were preparing to install a 360-horsepower engine.

For Dunwoody sophomore Jackson Grant, the car build feels like real life. The manual that came with the Daytona Coupe didn’t match up exactly with the model students are working on, so trouble-shooting and adaptations are a priority. Collaboration is also key, Jackson says. “I’m definitely more excited about a hands-on class,” he says. “It gets kind of boring just sitting at a desk and listening.”

Rose Thomas, the engineering and technology instructor at Dunwoody who is overseeing the car build, says Green’s support makes a difference. She gets the resources she needs—a 3D printer, power and shop tools, computers with CAD engineering software. “The county gives us an incredible amount of support,” she says. “We’re trying to think about how students can be better problem solvers. We want them to be innovators.”

That’s what Green is hoping for as well. “We’re continuing to increase our depth and breadth with regard to STEM- and project-based learning,” he says. “We want to create pathways for students that answer the question of relevance but at the same time embed them in real-world experiences.” 

R. Stephen Green Bio

Age: 62  Salary: $300,000

Career Path: Green’s career in education has ranged from high school English teacher to assistant principal to superintendent. He has also spent time outside of school districts. He was president and CEO of Kauffman Scholars, an academic enrichment program, and he has been at the helm of the New Jersey Teaching and Learning Collaborative and the CollegeEd program for the College Board. Green was named superintendent of Georgia’s DeKalb County schools in July 2015. Before that, he was superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools from 2011 to 2015.


Tech Tools


The Latest and Greatest Education-Friendly Tech Tools.

By Brian Nadel

Lenovo Yoga Home 900.

It’s Yoga time at Lenovo with its Home 900 Education all-in-one design. The desktop PC combines a 27-inch HD touch screen with a high-performance computer that comes with Windows 10, Lenovo’s Aura interface, and lots of learning software. The system sells for $1,400. lenovo.com

HP Chromebook 11 G4 Education Edition.

The $200 HP Chromebook 11 G4 has been upgraded in all the right places to last longer at school. In addition to molded edging and a spill-resistant keyboard, it’s been test-dropped from roughly desk height. At 2.8 pounds, the CB 11 EE has an 11.6-inch screen that folds flat on a table, a Celeron processor, and a battery that will last all day long without a charge. hp.com

Acer Chromebase 24.

Bigger can be better with the Chromebase 24, a desktop that uses Chrome software and works well for labs, libraries, and study halls. It has a Core processor, a 23.8-inch display that can show full HD material, 802.11ac WiFi, and wired Gigabit Ethernet networking. The system can connect via a slew of USB ports and Bluetooth, and can be ordered with up to 8GB of RAM. Look for it later this year. acer.com

Lexmark CX860.

Consolidating a slew of school printers into a department-, floor-, or school-wide unit, Lexmark’s color laser CX860 can not only deliver better documents faster but it lets you do it for less. The CX860 can be ordered with up to four paper trays—including one that holds 2,200 pages—and pumps out up to 60 pages per minute. Able to punch holes (for loose-leaf notebooks) or staple a group of pages together, the CX860 also works with Lexmark’s Testing & Grading software. lexmark.com

Apple iPad Pro.

Apple is hoping that bigger is better with its $949 128GB iPad Pro. The jumbo tablet’s 12.9-inch display blows the competition away with 2,732-by-2,048 resolution, but at 1.6 pounds it’s a lot to carry around. Its Pencil active stylus and Smart Keyboard cover are must-have accessories that transform the pad into the equivalent of a small notebook or desktop computer, weighing 2.4 pounds and bringing the total price tag
to $1,217. apple.com

Logitech Lifesize Group.

With Logitech’s Lifesize Group video-conferencing kit, the next-generation parent-­teacher conference has arrived. At $1,000, the Group gear is cheap enough for most schools, its HD video camera can take in a wide 90-degree field of view, and the system includes a speakerphone with four microphones. Forget about monthly service bills for video conferences; the Group works with free services from Skype, Lync, Google+, WebEx, Vidyo, Zoom, and others. logitech.com

Satechi Type-C Hub Adapter.

Got one of those new notebooks or tablets that only have that odd Type-C USB port? Take heart, Satechi’s $35 Type-C Hub Adapter delivers three traditional USB 3.0 ports as well as flash-card slots for full-size SD and the smaller ­micro-SD cards. You can get it in gray, silver, or gold. satechi.net

Lego WeDo 2.0.

By putting an emphasis on creating and programming mini-robots, Lego’s WeDo 2.0 can help teach everything from the life and earth sciences to physics and engineering. The WeDo robots have motion and tilt sensors, a motor, and the processor-based Smarthub, all of which have been cleverly hidden inside and around regular Lego building blocks. The software works with iPads, Androids, PCs, and Macs; Lego engineers are working on a Chromebook interface. education.lego.com

Asus ZenPad S 8.0.

If tablets like Apple’s iPad Pro or Microsoft’s Surface Pro are too big and expensive, Asus’s $250 ZenPad S 8.0 could be just right. It offers an economical alternative that packs an eight-inch ultra-HD screen into a slim 10.6-ounce package that fits into a jacket pocket. It uses Android 5.0 software and includes 5GB of lifetime online storage space from Asus. asus.com

Promethean ActivWall 135.

Promethean’s huge ActivWall interactive projection system has just gotten a lot bigger with the introduction of the 11.25-foot model. The system provides 128.7 by 50.7 inches of ultrawide space for the class to collaboratively work with and is responsive to four pens at once. Plus, its LaserView projector will never need a lamp change, and any computer in the room can project wirelessly. prometheanworld.com


SwiftKey Symbols.

This ingenious app can help students who can’t communicate through traditional means by having them arrange icons into a visual sentence. This visual vocabulary includes words like I, you, like, and go, and teachers and students can add their own. Drag a symbol to the top of the Android interface to convey an idea, want, or comment. The sequence can be played back, creating a visual sentence and a new world of communication. play.google.com

iSpring Quiz Maker 8.1.

Schools run on tests, quizzes, and all sorts of assessments, but sometimes you need to write your own. iSpring Solutions’ Quiz Maker offers a wide variety of questions and the ability to branch them for a self-paced test. The free version lasts for a month, while the full version costs $397; check for educational discounts. ispringsolutions.com

Vito Technologies Solar Walk 2.

The best observatories in the world have been squeezed into an iPad app that can take you anyplace in the universe at any time—past, present, or future. Along the way it can show you where any satellite is and give valuable information on the planets, stars, and other celestial objects. It costs $2.99. itunes.apple.com

SchoolMessenger Passport.

If you spend too much of your time logging on to different programs and sites, Passport can be a single entry point. It allows students, teachers, administrative staff, and parents to sign on once to get to all of their school’s IT resources. The Web-based password service can not only save lots of time, but individual access rights can be set up, as well as instant links to online educational resources like Curriki and HippoCampus. schoolmessenger.com

Learn2Earn Whooo’s Reading.

Whooo’s Reading is a unique program that can help motivate students to read and write. Built around Common Core assessments, its interface is friendly, interactive, and can show the latest goings-on in the classroom. Each child can set up their personal avatar to guide them through the program, which features quiz questions on popular books in the K–8 classroom. whooosreading.org


Open House


Open House

Home visits, a once rare but growing practice, can lead to effective partnerships between schools and parents.

By Caralee Adams

As Jason Livernois walks into the home of one of his students for a visit before the start of the school year, almost invariably, the child’s face lights up. 

“Their teacher is in their house, and that’s a super exciting thing for a 4-, 5-, or 6-year-old,” says Livernois, who teaches kindergarten and PreK at Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Parents, on the other hand, don’t always know what to expect, but Livernois quickly assures them he is not there to inspect or lecture. It’s all about listening—to their hopes and dreams for their child, and to information on the child’s likes and dislikes, quirks and challenges.

“I go in with an open mind, because in a home visit I know I’m going to learn so much valuable information that I will be able to use in the classroom later,” says Livernois. After the visit, parents no longer see him as an adversary but as a partner in their child’s education, he adds.

Some schools are embracing home visits as an effective way to engage parents. Research shows there are real benefits, and the practice is gaining traction, especially as teachers try to bridge connections with families who are from different cultural backgrounds than they are.

Yet, home visits are still not common practice in most schools. Administrators may be hesitant to ask teachers to take on additional duties. And it does take time—each one lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. But advocates say the payoffs are worth it.

“[Home visits] are not the be-all and end-all of family engagement, but it’s an amazingly cost-effective, proven foundational strategy,” says Carrie Rose, executive director of the Sacramento-based Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project. This project started with eight pilot schools in 1998 and now has programs in 432 schools in 17 states. (The majority are elementary and urban, but that is changing rapidly.) “It’s something that almost everyone can do if they want to,” adds Rose. “It’s affordable for public schools, and it gets them great results really fast.”

Parent engagement is a real issue. A recent Gallup poll found that just 20 percent of public school parents are fully engaged in their child’s school, while 57 percent are indifferent and 23 percent are actively disengaged. Home visits are all about increasing engagement, and, sometimes, busting assumptions on both sides. Carol Mills, a counselor at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, first visits students in their homes as incoming freshmen, then as seniors for college planning, and in between as needed. “Both [the student] and the parent will confide things that do not come up when you are talking to the kid at school,” says Mills, who has been doing visits since her school adopted the practice and trained the staff about 10 years ago. “The very best thing is that there are no interruptions—no one is calling me or banging on my office door. You are focused totally on that kid and his parent.”

Since the majority of families whose children attend Luther Burbank speak a language other than English (mainly Spanish and Hmong), Mills often takes a translator along. She has found that some parents are reluctant to come to the school for a meeting, but most are very welcoming when she offers to come to them. “You end up getting a lot of hugs,” says Mills. “They say a lot of thank-yous in their language and in English.”

Building an Alliance

Using home visits in a strategic way first took hold in the United States in the 1960s with families of young children through the federal Head Start program. Other schools started making home visits for recruitment or to address discipline or attendance issues. But rather than having a negative event be the trigger for a home visit, the Home Visit Project approach offers educational home visits to all families upfront to establish rapport and communication, says Rose.

“Our first visit is always about relationship building. We don’t any take paper or pens, or bring academic expectations,” says Rose. “We walk into that visit with the main goal of finding out what we don’t already know [about] the strength of the family to help that child be successful.”

In this model, visits are voluntary—typically two each year for elementary schools. Educators go in pairs and are trained and compensated for their visits. Teachers acknowledge that parents are the experts on their own children, and the hope is to share expectations and set up an ongoing dialogue.

Often, children pick up on the new alliance. “When the child hears we are working together, [he or she] is less likely to have certain behaviors,” says Livernois. “We are switching the mind-set from ‘I’m going to call your parents because you did something wrong’ to ‘I’m going to call your parents because I want to celebrate what you have done.’”

For 20 years, teachers and principals at KIPP Charter Schools have done home visits and asked families to sign a pledge of commitment to the program. “It pushes all of us into mutual accountability,” says Kyle Shaffer, principal of KIPP Excelencia Community Prep, a K–8 charter school in Redwood City, California. 

More than the pledge, the visit is intended to build a bridge between home and school. Because the teacher and the school has initially reached out to parents, Shaffer says families are more likely to be responsive when there are problems and may reach out to teachers with concerns. The practice also helps educators overcome stereotypes about families from different backgrounds, he adds. “You consistently hear the passion from parents. There is a pervasive thought out there among middle- and upper-class people that low-income families don’t care or don’t want certain things. Every home visit, I hear how much parents want their children to succeed.”

Bridging the Divide

Because so many teachers do not live in the neighborhoods where they work, the challenge, and reward, of a home visit is to learn about the family and the child’s environment, says Gisela Ernst-Slavit, a professor of education at the College of Education at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington, who focuses her work on English language learners.

“In any teacher education program, one of the first lessons is to know your students,” says Ernst-Slavit. “This takes it one step further. When you meet their family, you meet who they are, their strengths and their challenges.”

Home visits on the parents’ turf sets the groundwork for families to trust teachers and makes it easier to have tough conversations when parents come in later for conferences. “If a teacher says your child is having issues, it can be a cut to your heart. So [as a teacher], you’ll want to build those relationships up first,” says Andrea Prejean, director of Teacher Quality for the National Education Association.

These visits have taught Sara Brown not to assume anything about her students. “There have been some homes where I had prejudgments and they were as wrong as wrong could be,” says Brown, who teaches kindergarten at Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington. She started making home visits on her own after researching the practice for her master’s thesis.

Once, when Brown, who takes a translator along with her when needed, visited a girl who was always well dressed and prepared with supplies, she discovered the child’s home had no heat. Another time, she visited a family that was living in a hotel. “Those are the things you aren’t going to know,” says Brown, who found that seeing her students’ circumstances made her more empathetic when they were tired or struggling in class.

The NEA has been supportive of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project for many years. In its Priority Schools Campaign, which supports schools that are struggling in 40 sites in 17 states, some use this model.

Prejean acknowledges there are barriers. A lack of time and money, and miscon-ceptions on both sides, can keep more visits from happening. “It’s not really been the culture of schools to do these visits,” she says. “Some teachers have asked us: ‘Is it really okay to go into somebody’s house? Are we sort of barging in? Is that our role to do that?’”

And there’s the question of compensation. Teachers in some states are paid for home visits. (In D.C., it’s $35 per hour; in Montana, the rate is $20 per visit.) Prejean says the NEA understands the money issue and other barriers and believes visiting students’ families should be voluntary. The key is to properly prepare your teachers for these visits.

Preparation and ROI

Home-visit advocates maintain it is crucial to train teachers so that they are prepared when going into homes and are sensitive to what they may encounter. The Flamboyan Foundation is one group that partners with schools to provide professional development. They walk teachers though a variety of scenarios that address concerns about safety, fear of dogs, or what to do when offered refreshments.

There are also a number of ways administrators themselves can prepare their teachers, including bringing in others who have done it and arranging for interpreters (see sidebar).

“Teachers who have done home visits will tell you the time they invest on the front end, they save throughout the school year,” says Kristin Ehrgood, president and board chair of the Flamboyan Foundation, a private organization that focuses on public education. “They feel it has transformed the relationship they have with families and has helped their classrooms function more effectively.”

A 2015 Johns Hopkins University study of 12 Washington, D.C., public schools that participated in the Flamboyan Foundation’s Family Engagement Partnership found that students whose families received a home visit had 24 percent fewer absences and were more likely to read at or above grade level compared with similar students who did not receive a home visit.

Teachers find home visits also lead to insight about issues such as why kids might respond in certain, sometimes inappropriate, ways or need extra support.

Katrina Branch was nervous when her nieces’ teachers from Stanton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., called to arrange a home visit about five years ago. Branch had just adopted her two nieces and two nephews following the death of her sister and she didn’t feel as though she had everything together. “I didn’t want the teachers to come and find something out of place,” says Branch, who has two older children of her own. “I thought that they were going to judge me.”

But on the visit—and several since—teachers shared a little bit about themselves and made Branch feel comfortable opening up. “At first, I didn’t feel I was on the same level as the teacher,” says Branch, who was moved by one teacher who asked about her goals for her niece. “No one had ever asked me that question.”

Branch eventually developed close ties with many teachers at the school, and says she feels welcome there and that her -nieces and nephews have excelled. She was inspired to get involved, and so she joined the Parent Teacher Organization; eventually, she became PTO president and now works part-time on-site with an after-school program.

In the end, it’s noticing the little things when conducting a home visit that can make a big difference, says D.C. teacher Jason Livernois. When one of his students was having a hard time transitioning to school, he noticed on a visit that the child had a car-shaped bed and lots of toy cars. Livernois instantly knew what to do: “I let him know I would have cars for him to play with when he came to school,” he says. “That was able to get him in the door without crying.” 

Home Visit How-To

Nine steps to rolling out and maintaining a home-visit program in your school or district

Find a champion, usually a principal or superintendent, who will provide vision and staff support for home visits.

Start small and provide training for teachers who are willing to try home visits. Ask them to share their experi­ences as you grow the program.

Make sure training provides opportunities to acknowledge and address cultural differences, fears, and assumptions that may exist primarily between school staff and families but can also include community partners.

If there’s a language ­barrier, arrange for an interpreter to accompany the teacher.

Identify funds to compensate teachers for time spent on visits outside of regular working hours.

Partner with the union, the community, and the district to clear any administrative burdens.

Have teachers avoid a formal agenda at home visits. Emphasize asking questions and listening. And absolutely no note taking!

Don’t bring stacks of ­printed material—sharing information happens in subsequent parent meetings.

After visits, gather staff for reflection about what they learned from families.
Ask: What did you assume was true before the visits? What did you discover? How will you apply what you have learned to more effectively engage your student?

Source: Carrie Rose, Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project

illustration: Patrick George; photo: Conde/Shutterstock



Increase Nonfiction Reading Now


Spurred by the Common Core, forward-thinking schools are bringing more nonfiction into their classes—and they’re loving the results.

by Jennifer L. W. Fink

Not quite three years ago, Duval County Public Schools drastically increased the amount of nonfiction text used in classrooms. The move was inspired, in part, by Florida’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which call for a 50–50 blend of fiction and informational text in grades K–5, with those proportions shifting to 45–55 by grade 8 and 30–70 in favor of informational text by grade 12. But the district didn’t want to simply boost the amount of nonfiction consumed by students—it was determined to increase student reading proficiency as well.

So Superintendent Nikolai Vitti launched a district-wide focus on reading. While many school districts nationwide gradually bumped up the amount of nonfiction in classrooms, Duval schools almost immediately aligned their nonfiction text usage with the Core standards. And they didn’t stop there. The nation’s 20th--largest school district also invested in new curriculum, additional intervention specialists, and professional development. They even added an extra hour to the school day at some schools.

Duval’s changes are paying off. It’s hard to accurately assess the measure’s impact on student reading scores—due in large part to a shift in standards and assessments in recent years—but, says Vitti, “what I see in the classroom is transformational regarding teacher-to-student engagement. Our kindergartners are now being exposed to core knowledge while they read. They’re learning about the human body. They’re learning about world civilizations. They’re reading and understanding knowledge and vocabulary that an average third grader wouldn’t [have understood prior to this initiative]. I can’t wait for those kindergartners to get into third, fourth, and fifth grade, because their capacity will be so much higher.”

That’s exactly the kind of outcome envisioned by the creators of the Common Core when they integrated the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading framework and literary/-informational text ratios into the standards. But it’s not exactly representative of what’s going on around the country. According to research from Renaissance Learning, most students’ school-reading experiences are still heavily focused on fiction. In most states, nonfiction accounts for just 20 percent of the text students encounter in school. That’s up from a few years ago, but just barely.

Given states’ sluggish adoption of nonfiction—and the general move away from the Common Core standards—some wonder if the focus on informational texts will eventually fade away, like so many other educational fads have done. Vitti sincerely hopes that won’t be the case.

“We can’t just abandon things because there is pushback, a lack of understanding, or political knee-jerk reactions,” he says. “You have to stick by what is right for kids.”

Why Including More Nonfiction Is the Right Thing to Do

First, it’s fair to question the proportions specified by the Common Core standards and NAEP. They are largely based on the work of one researcher, and that research “isn’t saying that these percent-ages are appropriate for kids developmentally,” says Christopher Lehman, founding director of The Educator Collaborative and coauthor of Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement.

Yet the overall push to increase students’ exposure to and experience with informational texts is a sound educational initiative, designed to remedy the fact that far too many middle and high school students lack a basic proficiency with nonfiction texts and content-specific vocabulary. As with so many educational initiatives, though, the devil is in the details.

It’s possible to increase students’ reading ability and content knowledge while increasing the amount of informational text used in the classroom, but doing so requires an organized,
deliberate approach. It’s not enough to simply increase the amount of nonfiction text in the curriculum. For students to truly benefit, you need to rethink your approach to reading instruction. Read on for some key strategies.

Change the Culture

Vitti has embraced the new standards, and, by example, he has encouraged his staff to do so as well. “We recognize that in reality, most people, when they read, read nonfiction informational text, not fiction,” he says. “With that in mind, we know that our children, the next generation of leaders, need to be exposed to more informational text, so we embraced that as a challenge, rather than a hindrance.”

It’s crucial to involve staff from the beginning, as Vitti did. “A powerful thing administrators can do is go on a walk through their building with a couple of teachers from different grade levels and look at classroom libraries together,” Lehman says. As you look at the texts, you should note how many are fiction versus nonfiction, and discuss how well the books reflect student interests. “When administrators involve teams of teachers, they create a culture of study, rather than a top-down directive,” Lehman says.

Support Content Teachers

Most science, social studies, and math teachers have little formal training in reading pedagogy. So while they may be comfortable reading nonfiction texts, they may not know how to teach the skills students need to effec-tively tackle these texts.

Without support and direction, many content teachers unwittingly adopt less effective approaches to help students learn content vocabulary, for instance. Often, Lehman says, teachers will simply give students long lists of content-specific vocabulary words, when a better approach is to focus on high-frequency nonfiction words.

Vitti has placed literacy coaches in every school in his district, and a district team provides support to both teachers and in-school literacy coaches. That’s a sound move, says Lehman, who has seen requests for literacy coaching of science and social studies teachers “go way up” over the past five years.

To effectively integrate nonfiction texts into the curriculum, administrators should “provide ongoing training for teachers, as well as more time for language arts teachers and content teachers to work together to plan,” says Donalyn Miller, a former classroom teacher and author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits.

Decouple Topic From Skills

Too often, educators get hung up on the content of nonfiction texts. A third-grade teacher might object to using a book about volcanoes in her class on the grounds that volcanoes are typically covered in fifth grade.

However, topic should not be your foremost concern when selecting informational texts for -students. “You have to decouple content from skills and understand that what you’re looking for are the best texts to teach these skills,” says Lauren Tarshis, author of the popular I Survived series. “Stop thinking about the topic, because nonfiction is a vehicle for helping kids become powerful, engaged readers.”

Instead of searching for scope- and sequence-appropriate texts, teachers should be encouraged to choose informational texts that build on students’ curiosity. This engagement will allow students to gradually build their literacy skills.

Differentiate Instruction, Virtually

“Kids aren’t going to independently read texts they can’t read with strength,” Lehman says. Research says that students need to be able to comfortably decode about 95 percent of the words in a text to read it with understanding, so it’s absolutely essential to provide informational texts that match students’ reading levels. And you will always have a range of levels in any given classroom.

Duval County Public Schools use the Achieve3000 platform, a cloud-based differentiated learning program, in grades 3–12 because it “offers informational text at each Lexile level,” Vitti explains. “Students can be assigned the same article or topic and read basically the same information. The program scaffolds throughout the school year, so students build up their exposure to text at a higher Lexile level and gradually become stronger readers.”

Other digital tools, including Scholastic’s Storyworks and the news and literacy quiz site Newsela, also allow educators to provide similar content at varying Lexile levels. Non-tech options include having students read (and discuss, and write about) similar books, at varying levels.

Choose High-Quality Texts

One of the dangers of the push to incorporate more nonfiction texts into -lessons is that “the emphasis on informational text is not going to improve the content of the curriculum,” says Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and coauthor of a Pioneer Institute study, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.

To improve students’ reading proficiency and core knowledge, it’s crucial to choose high-quality texts, such as biographies, essays, primary documents, and journalistic articles, whenever possible. Students, even very young ones, respond to human stories, especially those about children living through challenges. “That’s the number-one type of story kids love,” Tarshis says. Such stories “don’t just teach them facts but also help them ask questions such as Why? Why is this topic still important? You want texts that have them digging in, asking questions every paragraph, not just about the words but about the ideas. You want them engaging in the ideas.”

Those kinds of high-quality, informational texts naturally invite further exploration, creating many opportunities for close reading, writing assignments, and additional reading.

“When you build reading skills and stamina through a thrilling story,” Tarshis says, “it’s like taking your kids on a jog along a gorgeous scenic coastline instead of running on a treadmill.” 

Photos: urginguss/istock (red and blue books); southerlycourse/istock (yellow book)

Students Take Charge


Student-centered learning helps kids and educators prepare for the future. But what does that mean for assessment?

By Catherine Logue

Desks lined up neatly in rows. a teacher perched at the front of the room. Report cards dotted with As, Bs, and Cs. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

The basic classroom model has more or less weathered the test of time. But some educators are starting to consider a different approach: student-centered learning. In this model, kids are in charge of their own progress. Proponents of student-directed learning say traditional education is passive—teachers choose what students will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate their knowledge. Essentially, roles are reversed.

“The concept of student-centered learning has become quite widespread in the past four to five years,” says Rebecca Wolfe, director of Students at the Center, a Jobs for the Future offshoot dedicated to synthesizing current research on this type of learning. “There are now hundreds of schools, dozens of districts, and at least 15 states actively striving toward [a student-centered] system.” 

What does this look like in the classroom? Gone is the “sage on the stage” model, replaced by student-led discussions and projects. A kid who, say, develops an interest in the Asian experience during a unit on World War II would be encouraged to pursue it, even if the class isn’t. And work experience could be eligible for course credit. 

But if kids are in charge, how do you know they’re learning? Since assessments can factor in everything from school rankings to teacher salaries, how this new style of learning is translated into an evaluation of progress will be crucial to determining whether or not it can be implemented on a large scale. 

We looked at two models of assessment in student-centered classrooms to find out what’s working. The first, from a public charter in Hayward, California, is performance based, emphasizing students’ ability to apply content knowledge. The second, from Adams County School District 50 in Westminster, Colorado, is competency based, emphasizing self-paced learning and mastery of subjects over seat time. (Adams is now known as Westminster Public Schools.)

Performance-Based Assessments

At Impact Academy of Arts & Technology in Hayward, Tarshea Buffin stands at the front of her classroom and announces, “My work shows that I’m learning the skills needed to be a successful psychologist.”

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Tarshea will outline what those skills are and how she has learned them, answering questions from a panel of fellow students and teachers. She will speak about the critical thinking skills she developed while helping twins who struggle with auditory and oral issues learn to recognize blended sounds. She will talk about learning to identify patterns in human behavior by analyzing Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People. She will also speak about what she still needs to learn: She struggles with procrastination and anger management but is developing strategies to cope. In the end, Tarshea will receive good news: She is ready to graduate.

A presentation like Tarshea’s is known as a Portfolio Defense. To graduate, each of Impact’s more than 460 students must successfully complete two presentations—one at the end of 10th grade and one at the end of 12th—proving they’ve mastered the school’s core competencies (research, analysis, creative expression, inquiry, and workplace learning). The goal is to encourage intrinsic motivation. In 2016, Impact will add a seventh-grade class to its campus in the hope of catching disadvantaged students before they fall behind. 

In a defense, students present three teacher-approved “artifacts” carefully curated from class projects and work learning experiences (such as Tarshea’s with the twins). Each student is responsible for choosing the types of projects that make up his or her body of work, as well as the artifacts that best represent learning, readiness to graduate, and goals for the future.

“Our defense model illustrates our students’ ownership over their learning,” says Gia Truong, the CEO of Envision Education, which runs Impact and two other high schools and operates Envision Learning Partners, a consultancy that trains other educators in the Envision model. “You don’t really know if kids are ready to graduate until they’re able to defend why they are.”

A Competency-Based Approach

At Adams County School District 50, just outside of Denver, a student can decide, on his or her own, whether to linger on a course of study or move on.

Adams 50 practices competency-based learning. Students are sorted by know-how, not age, and promotion is determined by skills, not seat time. Aubrey Scheopner Torres, co-author of Competency-Based Learning: Definitions, Policies, and Implementation, a 2015 study from the Regional Educational Laboratory, puts it this way, “In a traditional math class, you could bomb the statistics exam and still earn credit for the course if you maintain a passing average and attend class. In a competency-based model, if statistics is one of the competencies of the course, you are not going to get credit.”

To move up a performance level, students must earn a three or a four on the Marzano Proficiency Scale, where three is proficient and four is excellent. Kids determine when they’re ready to be assessed on a competency (all align to Common Core) and how they’ll be assessed. For example, a student might demonstrate mastery of a competency through her work with the Girl Scouts. The district will soon start an internship program beginning in high school and continuing down, which will provide another way to demonstrate mastery.

“Students are more in the driver’s seat,” says Oliver Grenham, the chief education officer at Adams 50. “They’re able to articulate to you what they are learning, why they are learning it, and what’s going to happen next. All of our students are more fluent in their own data—even the very young ones [who are armed with data notebooks].”   

Why Do It?

“The momentum for this work comes from a confluence of powerful factors,” says Students at the Center’s Wolfe. Among them she lists “employers demanding a -better-prepared workforce,” “technological innovation enabling transformation at greater scale,” and “a call for assessments that measure learning—not test taking.”

“It’s a response to what we call social promotion,” explains Grenham. “Learning gaps are accumulative. That ricochets all the way up the system until kids are dropping out.”

In 2007, the Colorado Department of Education placed Adams 50, which serves more than 10,000 students at 21 schools, on academic watch. As Grenham explains, over the previous decade, the district’s demographics shifted to resemble that of a large urban district. Today, 81 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 45 percent are English language learners, and the student turnover rate is 39 percent.

Administrators realized that a heterogeneous district could not thrive on a one-size-fits-all model. So they rolled out their new approach between 2008 and 2011—first in elementary and middle schools, and then in high schools. Transitional Colorado Assessment Program scores dropped the first year, but they have risen every year since. As of August 2014, every school was out of turnaround -status.

Envision Education had a similar goal in mind for adopting a student-centered approach: reaching underserved students, particularly future first-generation college students.

In 2014, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) published Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap. Researchers conducted in-depth case studies of four high schools in Northern California, including Impact Academy. Where possible, they compared student outcomes at those schools with those of other students in the districts that each group resided in, controlling for demographic variables.

“We found that the students in these four schools are far outperforming the [other] students in their districts,” says Diane Friedlaender, a lead researcher at SCOPE. In California, core courses, known as “a-g courses,” are required for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. In Impact’s district, 44 percent of graduating students had completed their a-g courses, such as one year of U.S. history. For African-Americans and Latinos in the district schools, those numbers were even lower. At Impact, which has a student population that is 55 percent Latino and 17 percent African-American, 100 percent of students had completed the courses.

According to Friedlaender, college persistence rates for the four schools in the study were also very high when compared to the rest of the district. As she explains it, the persistence rates for the schools studied are “far above national averages, particularly for students who are first in their family to go to college.” Truong, of Envision Education, attributes this to the culture of revision created by the Portfolio Defense, a high-stakes assessment. Not every student is as successful as Tarshea was the first time. Many are asked to redo a portion of their defense. And some won’t walk in the graduation ceremony. Adds Truong, “We promote a growth mind-set so that our students both get into college and stay enrolled.”

What’s the Catch?

The shift hasn’t always been easy, especially for teachers. Early on at Adams 50, some educators left the district. To help, Grenham provides extensive professional development throughout the year, including a five-day orientation for new -teachers.

“One of the major challenges is resistance from students who are doing well in a traditional system,” says Torres, author of the study on competency-based learning. “When you change the report card to reflect standards-based grading, how are colleges going to look at that?” But both Torres and Grenham have found colleges like the thoroughness of a standards--based report card. Making sure scores translate to other secondary schools is tougher. “One of our criteria would say ‘Not Yet Complete’ (NYC),” says Grenham. “When they see that, they sometimes default to an F.” The district revised the report card and is now working with the Colorado Commission of Higher Education to develop a process that’s fair to all.

Likewise, at Impact Academy, supporting teachers’ and students’ needs has required revisions. “Last year, the principal, Sean McClung, realized that 10th- and 12th-grade advisers had a lot of extra work in the spring semester because all their students were defending their learning,” says Truong. “In collaboration with teacher-leaders, he redesigned the advisory structure in a way that still pairs advisers with students for a two-year loop but assigns them a mix of, for example, ninth and tenth graders. The change to mixed-grade advisories doubled the amount of adult support students.”

The effort pays off: “Graduates come back from college and say: ‘I feel so much more prepared because I’m able to defend my thinking and to speak publicly,’ ” says McClung. “That’s not something everyone gets to do in high school.”  

The Dos & Don’ts of Student-Led Learning

Do: Communicate With All Stakeholders

Any major change in the classroom is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Be sure to clearly communicate your goals and expectations to teachers, students, and parents. One group that may need extra support: students who are thriving under the current system.

Don’t: Skimp on PD

Just because kids are taking a leadership role in their learning doesn’t mean that teachers’ jobs are getting any easier. In fact, some teachers have felt that their jobs are only getting harder. Work with your staff to make sure they understand the core beliefs that motivated your shift to a student-led model.

Do: Collaborate

Teachers are not experts on all subjects—nor should they have to be. Encourage your teachers to collaborate. For example, a teacher might connect a student who is interested in robotics with a colleague who has experience in the field. Also, reach out to local businesses for mentorship opportunities.

Don’t: Ignore the Traditional System

If you have a unique way of reporting student grades or achievements, you need to ensure that your method is accessible, and comprehensible, to both college admissions officers and administrators at other schools and districts (in case a student moves).

Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Going Open


Going Open

Free educational resources are being used—and created—by more educators every day. Learn how this can affect the classrooms in your district.

By Wayne D'Orio

The thing about predicting revolutions is that you are bound to be wrong a lot more frequently than you are right. And so, while this magazine has forecast the end of textbooks a few times, the reality is that schools nationwide still spend about $8 billion annually on bulky, out-of-date-as-soon-as-they-are-printed textbooks.

But having a bad track record doesn’t mean you should forgo any more predictions. So here it is: Open educational resources (OERs) will revolutionize education. Not tomorrow, and maybe not even by 2021. But change is coming, and the momentum is real.

Why will this prediction be more valid than our earlier attempts? The biggest reason is that today there is so much more data pointing in this direction. For instance, the OER movement is not all about banishing textbooks and about saving money. Sure, that’s a factor, and it may be the number-one reason some educators embrace it. But for others, the movement is about finding, and using, the best teaching material. These two factors don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Making a movement based on the improvement of education seems a lot more sustainable than an initiative that is only trying to wring savings out of perennially tight school budgets.

Moving Past Dabbling

Beyond the growing number of schools using these materials, another real sign of momentum is the diversity of players starting to use OERs. Nestled within the cornfields of rural Illinois, Williamsfield Schools started dabbling with open educational resources to replace math textbooks three years ago. The adoption has become so widespread throughout the tiny district, and schools’ success with them so eye-catching, that then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stopped by for a visit last fall.

In Washington state, it’s a different story. The momentum came from the top down, when the state passed legislation in 2012 allowing the creation of openly licensed materials. State officials vetted a series of full-course curricula, such as EngageNY, that can be used to cover an entire class. The state also encouraged in-state teachers to create and upload their existing lessons. By combining crowdsourcing with a strong ability to link lessons to specific state standards, Washington is creating an easily accessible library, one where teachers don’t have to spend 45 minutes searching for a 50-minute-lesson. 

Maybe the biggest push has come from a source few expected—the federal government. The DOE hired Andrew Marcinek as its first open education adviser last fall, and he wasted little time in helping to set up #GoOpen, the initiative that encourages schools to use openly licensed materials. In less than four months, the project has 31 districts that will replace at least one textbook with open materials next year. One of those is Vista Unified Schools, a 22,000-student district in northern San Diego County, where Superintendent Devin Vodicka has pledged to make this happen. And a further nine districts that already use OER have promised to share expertise with others trying to make the change. Thirteen states are creating efforts to support switching to open materials. Even more important, the campaign has gotten heavyweights Microsoft, Amazon, Edmodo, and Follett to agree to create new products to help the effort.

By no means is the momentum limited to the United States. South Africa has been using open textbooks for math and science for three years. Australia “is light years ahead of us,” says T. J. Bliss, of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. And by 2019, using OERs will be the norm for every country in UNESCO. 

“It’s really an exciting time for OER. I’m a bit stunned [at the recent progress],” adds Bliss.

During his visit to Williamsfield, Secretary Duncan marveled at how the change had transformed the district and allowed its students to collaborate and access a world that was much bigger than the rural town. “This is a really, really big deal,” he said.

The Dawn of a New Era

The whole idea of OERs started in the late 1990s. David Wiley, the founder of OpenContent.org, was an early champion; he launched the project to promote open materials and initiate sharing. The Hewlett Foundation got involved in 2001 when it made a grant to MIT for an open courseware project. Hewlett’s then program director, Mike Smith, worked with UNESCO to create definitions and terms for how materials could be used. In 2002, Creative Commons, a nonprofit founded in 2001 to enable the sharing of creativity and knowledge, became the standard licensor for the sharing and use of materials, including OERs.

In the past, the biggest problems for teachers and schools was not only finding quality materials but also matching them with the standards they were trying to teach. In 2011, when Marcinek was director of technology at Grafton Public Schools in Massachusetts, his school went one-to-one with iPads, and he and others on staff began looking for digital materials to use. “Resources were out there, but they were hard to find,” he recalls. “We had a handful of teachers who weren’t using textbooks, but they were sifting through a lot of different haystacks.”

In the past two to three years, the problem has turned around. Materials abound, but zeroing in on the one, or the handful, that you want, has become a major task.

“There are 18 million-resources [now], but the only number that matters is one,” says Randy Wilhelm, the CEO and co-founder of Knovation. This Cincinnati company collects OER materials while evaluating each piece of information and aligning it to various standards. Knovation adds 10,000 new resources each month, but, Wilhelm admits, “that’s a ‘layup’ compared to maintaining the resources.”

Other factors have led to OERs’ recent prominence. As more schools look to differentiate content for various learners, many teachers and administrators are going online to find additional resources. And while districts continue to upgrade their Internet connections, more schools are adding devices or embracing bring-your-own-device policies to significantly boost the amount of technology in every student’s hands.

One interesting twist: While most people equate OERs with digital learning, there are a significant number of schools that are converting these materials to print. Duval County in Florida, for instance, adapted the EngageNY curricula but is printing the content out for students and teachers, says Marcinek. With nearly 130,000 students, the district saved $7 million by making this change. Similarly, a district in north Kansas City used OERs to create science content for grades 6–8; instead of spending $600,000 to replace textbooks, the district spent just $65,000 to print out the new OER-based content, Marcinek adds.

Common Core’s Contribution

One of the biggest factors in the growing momentum of OERs might be one of the most overlooked. The best-kept secret about the Common Core is that for all the debating and arguing about this set of standards, its legacy may be how the uniformity made it much easier for materials to be shared by different states. The new standards did more than create uniformity. States looked for new materials to fit these standards and realized that many publishers weren’t prepared to meet the demand.

Open educational materials were ready to fill the gap. Consider the EngageNY curricula, for instance. Using a $2 million grant from Hewlett and the state’s Race to the Top money, the New York State Education Department developed a full set of curricula in 2011 for grades PreK–12 in both math and ELA. (Last year, the state added social studies.) These materials have been downloaded 20 million times and are in use in spots as diverse as California, Louisiana, Illinois, Washington, and Arizona.

EngageNY “showed this could happen,” says Marcinek. “It was not some far-off dream. Here’s this whole curriculum; educators can take it, modify it, and share it again. That’s a big, big thing that really opened a lot of people’s eyes. It was a bit of a tipping point. It showed the possibility of what OER could be.”

From Theory to Practice

Mountain Heights Academy, formerly the Open High School of Utah, is probably the most radical, and first, example of widespread OER use at a school. The online school, which opened in 2009 and has 530 students in grades 7–12, uses only OER materials. It was “created on a dare” by founder and open materials guru David Wiley, says Sarah Weston, the school’s technology and OER director. In addition to being ranked the top online school in the state in 2015, students pass between 78 percent and 85 percent of their classes, according to the school’s 2014–15 annual report. Student and parent surveys show overall satisfaction at 98 percent and 97 percent, respectively.

A much more typical path is the one that Williamsfield started in 2014. The rural district was looking for a new math textbook series that fit with the Common Core standards. Frustrated by the price and the lack of alignment of texts, Superintendent Tim Farquer suggested teachers consider open source materials.

“A big portion [of our solution] was just watching the behavior of our kids when they are outside of our walls,” Farquer says. “How do they look for info to solve problems in their life?” The road was bumpy, but when the original effort showed some success, it quickly spread in the tiny district. The effort has been cost-neutral for Williamsfield, since there was an outlay for computers. But Farquer and his staff have found lots of unintended improvements. Learning is “so much more student driven,” says Farquer. “That’s a big shift.”

The story started similarly for Texas’s El Paso Independent School District. The district wanted to buy laptops, but it didn’t have the money. When the total for a set of new science textbooks hit $2 million, the district canceled its order and used its state allotment to buy technology, while creating its own textbooks. Instead of setting teachers free to find materials, director of technology Tim Holt turned to CK-12 Foundation, a non-profit that offers standards-aligned open content in STEM subjects. Over a summer, his teachers created their own “flexbooks,” consisting of lesson plans, videos, simulations, and even quizzes.

At first, El Paso teachers were hesitant, Holt says. “Their attitude was, ‘If you’re not paying for it, it’s not good.’ I told them, ‘Who owns the periodic table and the water cycle? Nobody owns information.’ ” That, and the fact that Rice University had adopted OER materials that could be used in El Paso’s AP classes, persuaded the skeptics.

CK-12 maintains that any materials used and altered by schools must be republished so that they are available for other districts. Already, Holt says, nearby San Felipe Del Rio CISD is using the El Paso flexbooks, and districts from West Virginia and South Carolina have been calling Holt to find out what El Paso is doing. 

Signing Up Amazon and Microsoft

In addition to lending support to districts willing to make the transition to OERs, the DOE flexed its muscles to entice companies to help. Amazon created Amazon Inspire, a free site that will use the retailer’s recommendation engine to list and rank lesson plans. Users will be able to rate lessons, follow specific authors, and instantly see how lessons correlate to the DOE’s Learning Registry. At an AASA session in February, Andrew Joseph, vice president of strategic relations for Amazon Education, said access to the site will remain free, but promised Amazon would figure out ways to make money from its effort.

Microsoft is creating a learning tools interoperability app that will allow educators to access OERs directly from their learning management systems. DOE partner OER Commons will include a remixing tool on its site that will give schools the ability to sequence OER material into full courses. And Edmodo is integrating its Spotlight product into #GoOpen, allowing teachers to more easily create and share resources. The company will also offer tailored open resource recommendations to each teacher on its platform.

Going forward, one of the biggest changes that must be made is the mind-set of educators who are used to flipping to Chapter 1 when they start a course. Educators need to go from having to justify using open resources to “needing to justify paying for content,” Bliss says. “I don’t know if that can happen in five years; it might be more like 10 years.”

LearnZillion’s CEO Eric Westendorf is more blunt. “Changing the mind-set is very hard until it’s not. The next three years will continue to be hard. But I believe the shift is inevitable.”               

Where and How To Search For Resources

DIY meets OER. When it comes to gathering materials, there are nearly as many ways to reach your goals as there are resources to sift through. Some districts prefer to grab an entire curriculum package, à la EngageNY; others prefer to pick up bits and pieces and cobble together their own courses.

“We know you don’t want car parts, you want a car that drives,” says LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf. His company, obviously, offers full-course resources. But at an OER session at February’s AASA conference, several attendees said their teachers would prefer to go à la carte. There are plenty of resources either way. Here are some of the top places to find open content.

OER Commons The digital library collects and organizes 50,000 resources and allows users to search by subject, education level, or standard.

LearnZillion This private company hires a “dream team” of 1,000 teachers to create open content. Teachers can access the cloud-based curricula for free, while districts can opt for a pay model to get more features.

CK-12 FOUNDATION The nonprofit offers free access to roughly 5,000 online materials and allows schools to create “flexbooks,” collections of resources that can be shared.

Project Gutenberg This longtime site offers 50,000 e-books.

Knovation The company behind netTrekker and icurio offers professionally evaluated, standards-aligned online resources. Knovation is used in both Houston and Mooresville, North Carolina, two of the districts leading the digital transformation.

Amazon Inspire As part of the DOE’s #GoOpen initiative, this free platform will host already created OER materials, using all the power of Amazon’s famed recommendation engine. Users will be able to search, rate, review, and follow favorite authors.

OpenEd This popular nonprofit claims to be the biggest OER library, boasting more than a million resources, ranging from lesson plans to homework assignments and assessments. More than 1,000 teachers sign up on the site every day.

OpenStax College Rice ­University’s nonprofit develops free textbooks. K–12 schools can access these texts to teach AP classes.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare The Web-based publication of all of MIT’s content is an early example of OER.

EngageNY Written by teachers and vetted by authors of the Common Core State Standards, it offers full PreK–12 curricula in math, ELA, and science.

PHOTO: ibooo7/iStock

Catching Up With Larry Ferlazzo


Catching Up With Larry Ferlazzo

This prolific California teacher blogs everywhere, and is always plugged into the top education trends. 

By Alexander Russo

With more than 51,000 Twitter followers and a social media influence score of 70—not too far behind education brand names like Arne Duncan and Diane Ravitch—Larry Ferlazzo may be the best-known teacher in America you’ve never heard of.

Originally from Staten Island, Ferlazzo spent 19 years as a community organizer before he started teaching. He settled in Sacramento, where there are large numbers of Hmong refugees. Now 12 years into his teaching career at Luther Burbank High School, he works with a wide range of students, some of whom have never attended school or learned a written language. Besides teaching many English language learners, Ferlazzo also has International Baccalaureate and regular courses at a school where 75 percent of the school’s students get free or reduced-price lunch.

Ferlazzo began blogging more than eight years ago, in part as a way to find interesting resources to use with his students. His blog posts became known through the Center for Teaching Quality and the British Council (for whom he writes a monthly column on teaching ELLs). He also contributes to Education Week. In addition, he has a book coming out about Common Core and ELL
students, and he writes a weekly column on teaching English language learners for The New York Times’s Learning Network blog.

How did you decide to add blogging to what you are already doing in the field of education?

As I was trying to gather resources on high-interest books to promote literacy, I was seeing a lot of other material. There’s so much you can get for free on the Internet: stories, nonfiction audio, visual support for text. I thought, ‘Hmm, I might as well start sharing this. Maybe other teachers will find this useful.’

Does blogging help you as much as it helps your audience?

Writing helps people develop their thinking and expand their horizons. It’s a form of intellectual stimulation. It’s been really good to interact with people from all over the world.

Why do so many people follow your writings?

What I write is very practical—I share resources. I write about the chal­lenges I face in my classroom. People like the honesty. I always publish my class evaluations, warts and all. [One of them appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet column in The Washington Post a few years ago.]

What do your students think about your blogging?

They take things more seriously when they know I’m going to share it publicly. And it’s good modeling for them. I let my students grade me, and I post their feedback online.

How do your colleagues feel about it?

People have been very supportive. Many of my colleagues have contributed guest posts to my EdWeek or my regular blog, and I’ve shared resources with them or had them as guests on my BAM! Radio show. I certainly write about my school and colleagues and students—fortunately, I have lots of positive things to say.

What about administrators and central office people—do they know or care what you write about?

Former administrators from our school now have district-wide roles, and we talk regularly; some have contributed to my various columns. The district’s press office periodically asks me to talk to reporters, so I guess they feel okay with what I say or write. [Earlier this year, the district asked Ferlazzo to do an interview and video for the Sacramento Bee that turned into a front-page feature.]

How do you get all of your blogging done, in addition to teaching?

I’ve got a high capacity for work, and I’m teaching at a great school. I also play a lot of basketball. When I’m not on the court or preparing lessons or assessing papers, I spend a fair amount of time in the evening writing or reading about education issues. Plus, my wife is very supportive, and the kids are out of the house.

How has ELL instruction changed over the 12 years you’ve been teaching?

Depending on where you are, it’s not unusual for teachers of ELLs to not be very experienced, or for schools to not be very supportive. There are too many schools where the least experienced teachers [are teaching ELLs]. But there are also lots of great ELL teachers working with tried-and-true strategies. And it’s been a big change for ELL teachers trying to apply the Common Core State Standards. There’s minimal guidance about how to apply them.

How did NCLB affect ELL instruction, and how will the Every Student Succeeds Act change things, if at all?

That’s one of the few decent legacies of NCLB—it made schools more conscious of and accountable for ELLs. Some schools looked for opportunities to push their ELLs out, in the same way that charters “cream.” But many schools took ELL instruction more seriously. The interesting thing with ESSA is that it pushes schools to recategorize ELLs at a higher level, but the potential problem is that some schools may recategorize them as non-ELLs without actually increasing their language skills.

What’s wrong with recategorizing English language learners?

There’s a lot of research showing that if you recategorize too soon, development doesn’t continue without continuing support. It’s an artificial benchmark. It takes six to seven years to become fluent in academic English. That’s a long time.

Didn’t that pressure exist under NCLB?

I know there was pressure on the test scores, but as far as I could tell, there was never any direct pressure to recategorize kids under NCLB.

Tell us a little bit about your school.

The school is located in south Sacramento. It’s divided into smaller learning communities in which 20 teachers loop with kids through all four years of high school. It’s harder for students to get lost in the mix. If someone is having a great day or having issues, [the teacher is] right across the hall. It works well.

How does your organizing background shape your teaching?

There are a lot of similarities between effective teaching and organizing. I think both need to focus on developing intrinsic motivation, and the way to do that is to learn people’s stories and their hopes and dreams and help them develop a different interpretation of what it’s going to take for them to accomplish [those goals]. Relationships are the key in both.

Are there other parallels between organizing and classroom management?

Sometimes the only thing worse than losing a power struggle is winning one. In a classroom, you might win a power struggle with a student, but the cost can be immeasurable and could poison your relationship forever. Similarly, in organizing, you can win a campaign, but you might burn a whole lot of bridges and burn everyone out, and your organization is hollow after that.

How do you hope to influence the conversation on education?

I share what I believe in terms of serious efforts at education policy. From my perspective, teachers unions are the most realistic power to make that happen. I can have influence online, but the power lies with more organized people on the ground, and money. The group that has that, that I am most committed to, is organized labor. I spout off, and maybe somebody listens to it, but what I’m doing online is not organizing. Basically, I want to teach, write, play basketball, hang out with family, and support my union.

Teacher activism is big these days. Have you ever been an activist or taken a leadership role at the school or in the education community?

I’ve done more behind-the-scenes work with our union local. And I was ap­­pointed by Tom Torlakson, the California superintendent of public instruction, to serve on a statewide Educator Excellence Task Force a few years ago that, among other things, developed recommendations for teacher evaluations. 

PHOTO: Laura Morton/Getty images


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