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How Play Fits Into Social and Emotional Learning

How Play Fits Into Social and Emotional Learning

All of Chicago Public Schools are seeing big gains by allowing students to play.

By Jill Vialet

It has long puzzled me that educators frequently fail to connect play with social and emotional learning.

Consider something as simple as a game of foursquare. For kids to keep the game going, they have to practice social and emotional skills. They must learn to follow and create rules, settle conflicts, notice and manage emotions when their turns are over, support and include other students, and set goals and learn from failure.

The same is true of make-believe, soccer, or tag. As researchers from the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute write, emotions, logical reasoning, and body sensations are not opposed to each other. Instead, they are the joint infrastructure that supports students’ thoughts, and all contribute to learning.

So what better way to learn “nonacademic” social and emotional skills than through “nonacademic” activities? On the playground, social and emotional learning and growth is immediately apparent for teachers who want to check for understanding.

Yet too often, schools sideline play or cut back on recess time, even as they strive to introduce social emotional learning curricula into the classroom. This is a mistake: students desperately need opportunities to practice SEL through play and through activities they care about—the activities most likely to help them learn.

So what does a school look like when it values and supports social and emotional learning through play? And how can schools hold themselves accountable?

Recently, The New York Times sparked a conversation about how and why we should measure Social and Emotional Learning outcomes at schools. While the best strategies for measuring SEL are up for vigorous debate, the Chicago Public Schools’ Supportive Schools designation provides a different way to frame the question.

The Supportive Schools designation is not intended to directly measure students’ social and emotional learning, but represents a different starting place. We know that adult practices have a huge impact on students’ social and emotional skill development. Supportive Schools asks the essential question: “What are the adults in the building doing to establish a foundation to promote these skills?”

Justina Schlund, CPS’s executive director of the Office of Social and Emotional Learning, explains that the process essentially has four steps. The first and perhaps most important step is the team’s self-assessment. Schools that choose to do so (about 40 percent of the 500 CPS schools) explore and reflect on their own practices to promote positive cultures. They measure against district standards that support the creation of safe, nurturing, and participatory learning environments.

According to Schlund, getting schools to think in this way is half the battle. So, the process for measuring supportive schools may in itself promote social and emotional learning.

Schools that submit these self-assessments are then asked to submit evidence, such as professional development plans and descriptions of established community partnerships. Schlund’s office reviews the evidence and gathers recommendations to determine which schools are eligible for consideration for the highest rating, Exemplary. Nominated schools have a half-day review by a cross-disciplinary team from the district, after which certifications are awarded.

I first heard about Chicago Public Schools’ Supportive Schools designation in an e-mail from one of the Playworks staff. Playworks is the nonprofit organization I founded to promote healthy play in schools. One of the schools we partner with, Chappell Elementary, was rated Exemplary. Everyone was ecstatic, and for good reason: of the 175 schools that applied this past year, so far only 15 have received this rating.

Chappell’s principal forwarded the comments from the reviewer to us, including the following:

I was particularly taken by the strong peer-to-peer interactions demonstrated in classrooms, hallways, at recess . . . I was especially impressed with the recess transitions. I wish I had been able to take video of your Playworks recess coordinator going over the expectations with students before opening the door to go outside—she did it in a way that was efficient, interactive, fun and only lasted about 15 seconds.

This evaluation paints a picture of a district that understands that SEL should be encouraged not only in the classroom, but also while children are at play or transitioning between activities. It hints at a school where staff teach social and emotional skills both directly and by serving as strong role models—by, for example, demonstrating empathy for students’ desire to get to recess quickly.

My hope is that when we ask what schools can do to encourage social and emotional learning for students, the answer will always include an “efficient, interactive, and fun” 15 seconds of expectation setting, before opening the door to let them go outside and play.

Jill Vialet is the founder and CEO of Playworks.

Photo: GettyImages

A Superintendent’s Guide to Doing More With Less


A Superintendent’s Guide to Doing More With Less

A veteran educator extols the virtues of character education.

By Gary Quinn

Do more with less. After 39 years of working in public education, I can tell you that doing more with less is a challenge teachers and administrators will likely always face, particularly due to economic cycles and the effect they have on school revenue. As a superintendent, I am constantly asking how we can best serve students with the resources and budget available to our district.

And now on the eve of retirement, as my 17-year stint as the superintendent at Bartlesville Public Schools in Oklahoma comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting more on how superintendents that succeed me can give more to students while receiving less funding. Though I don’t have the perfect answer, I’ve found that prioritizing the initiatives you determine to be the most productive is the key to success. And as you invest your efforts in character development, you are rewarded with a culture where learning can more easily take place.

Charting the Course to Character Development

Superintendents have to manage responsibilities such as technology implementation, assessment deployment, and building expansions. With all of these items on your district’s plate, it’s easy for issues like character to fall through the cracks. This is why our district made it a top priority.

In addition to preparing students for their academic futures, educators play a role in teaching students communication and citizenship skills. If students aren’t taught how to respectfully interact with adults and their peers, schools often have challenges with bullying, negative behavior, and an atmosphere where learning is not valued. Focusing on character development both facilitates a positive school culture and prepares students for life beyond graduation.

Without a concerted plan in place, efforts to foster citizenship skills will get lost in the whirlwind of endless tasks and responsibilities teachers and administrators face. Through a non-profit professional development program called Great Expectations, we have implemented a consistent approach to character development throughout our schools. Now, all of our students and teachers have similar behavioral expectations. We wanted to be specific and laser-focused about how teachers would foster character development so the students would see consistency as they matriculate from building to building in their school career. We wanted everyone to practice the same philosophy so that students would benefit from consistent expectations.

In this case, our district determined how to do more with less by sticking to one plan and getting all of our staff on the same page. A district-wide character development initiative makes it possible for students to have a consistent school culture from PreK to high school graduation. Students are then more prepared to become productive citizens that can hold down jobs and remain involved in the community.

Quality Over Quantity

No matter what initiatives you have in place, the key is to focus on a few that are extremely high quality. This is the case whether you are streamlining character development or rolling out a new blended learning model. Decide what is best for your district and stay focused on those few items. These initiatives should function at such a high level that it becomes a part of the organization and culture, which is what we have done with our character development program.

Some districts use the “shotgun approach,” in which they divide professional development funds to try many diverse programs. Your district’s funds will be much better spent if you invest in one cohesive plan. As you build upon the few initiatives you have prioritized, your organization will get better at what it seeks to do.

From One Superintendent to Another

Looking back at the past 17 years in my district, concentrating on a handful of initiatives at a time has led to our greatest accomplishments. These accomplishments include providing assessments and interventions that significantly help our students be more successful and more visible improvements such as renovating our facilities. Throughout my career, I’ve found that there are additional strategies that sustain the quality of the initiatives in your district that take priority.

Leadership training is crucial to improving a district. This has been another focus in our district as we seek to do more with less. A team of exceptional principals, assistant principals and administrators will support the initiatives your district selects and implements at a high level.

The most vital takeaway from my career that I would share with other superintendents is to listen. Every school has a different culture. As you enter a district, you need to understand why people believe what they do and think what they think. In order to make adjustments that will help the district improve, you first need to embrace the culture. Everyone loves their own school, and as a result, we need to do everything we can to maintain and improve what makes each school uniquely great.

Dr. Gary Quinn is the superintendent for Bartlesville Public School District in Oklahoma.

Photo: MediaBakery


Finding the Best Tech Tools for Today’s Cutting-Edge Classrooms

Fulton 1
Finding the Best Tech Tools for Today’s Cutting-Edge Classrooms

How one district decided on interactive tools to help each student.

By Tim Dunn

Providing a consistent education-technology experience district-wide is important for students, teachers, administrators, and even parents. Prior to starting the process of standardizing new future-proof technologies, our district’s technology was not centrally purchased, which meant our classrooms were outfitted with a hodgepodge of presentation equipment. Some classrooms had old projectors, some had interactive whiteboards, and some classrooms had nothing at all.

We hoped to change this in 2010 when our district began lobbying for community support of a special bond referendum to use local tax dollars—called “special-purpose local-option sales tax” funds—to help fund our technology initiative. We informed our community about the outdated technology we had in place and explained how creating an interactive learning environment in each classroom would improve students’ learning. The community approved of our district using the sale tax funds to outfit each classroom with a new, universal presentation technology.

Weighing Advantages and Disadvantages of Technologies

After getting approval from the community to use these funds, we needed to do our research to decide which presentation hardware would be the best to implement. We wanted the most advanced technology that was also future-proof, so we wouldn’t have to reinvest in technology again for several years. Fulton County Schools has approximately 6,100 classrooms, so we had to find a solution that was affordable. We knew we wanted to move away from the interactive whiteboards some classrooms had, so we looked at two options: flat-panel displays and interactive projectors. In the end, we chose the Epson BrightLink® 595Wi interactive projector because of its affordability, bright images, and its easy-to-use interactivity. As we made our decision we weighed the following factors.

Cost: When doing our research we found that interactive flat panels tended to cost much more than interactive projectors for the same viewing space. We also looked at non-interactive flat panels, but we felt it was important to have finger-touch interactivity to really allow students to interact with the projected contact.

Display Size: In order for all students in a classroom to easily see what is being projected, we required a large screen size, 100 inches, which interactive flat panels could not meet.

Installation: The weight of the equipment and ease of installation played a factor in our choice. An interactive projector weighs around 12 pounds, while an interactive flat panel is heavy enough to require two or three people to install. We also liked the ability to install an interactive projector over a white board, thus allowing the wall space to be used in multiple ways. The interactive projector we chose can also be installed on a table or cart allowing for a mobility. This is much more difficult to do with a heavy interactive flat panel.

Maintenance: Lastly, we found there were significant differences between the maintenance of a flat panel and an interactive projector. If a flat panel needs to be repaired or replaced, it has to be removed from the wall and shipped back to the manufacturer, which on its own is a labor-intensive process. And while the flat panel is being fixed, teachers are left without a way to present content. With an interactive projector, maintenance is limited to replacing the lamp. Lamps currently have a lamp life of up to 10,000 hours, which means that they will most likely need to be replaced only once in the lifetime of the projector. If the projector does need to be repaired or replaced, it’s very easy to take it off its mount and send it to the manufacturer. Also, it’s much less expensive and convenient to have a back-up interactive projector on hand for emergencies than it is to have a back-up flat panel. We chose Epson’s projector because of its Road Service Program, which will ship a new projector overnight free of charge when we need one repaired or replaced.

Making an Informed Decision

After our extensive research, we began installing a BrightLink 595Wi interactive projector in all of our classrooms. During Phase 1 of our implementation, we installed an interactive projector in 3,100 classrooms that lacked presentation equipment. Starting in November 2015, we moved on to Phase 2—replacing all existing equipment, called “legacy equipment,” with an interactive projector. This major implementation will be complete in August 2016. With its affordable price point, we were able to outfit all classrooms with the funds we had available.

The interactive projector has all of the previously listed advantages, but we were also impressed with its brightness and its compatibility with Promethean ActivInspire® and SMART Notebook®. I have always said the learning “magic” teachers create is in the software. Being able to give teachers the flexibility to use the software they already know along with a cutting-edge interactive projector was the ideal solution.

Tim Dunn is the director of IT program management in Fulton County Schools, Georgia.

Photo: Courtesy of Fulton County Schools

Parent Engagement: The White Whale of Education


Parent Engagement: The White Whale of Education

Insights from a rural school district superintendent.

By Adam McDaniel

Ask principals or superintendents about their most consistent challenges, and parent engagement will frequently be at the top of their list. Particularly among low-income families, parent engagement can be a white whale of an issue, even though the solution not only improves the family and school relationship, but also results in better engagement and outcomes for students overall.

At Onaga Unified School District in Kansas, three small communities make up our school district, and we face a unique challenge: the Onaga community specifically carries the district and makes the majority of the decisions for the three communities. We’ve had to work together to understand that the three communities are stronger when they work together, and parent engagement strategies have played a crucial role in developing this understanding.

The How-To

Parent engagement starts with an open door policy in all of our offices and school buildings. I frequently tell parents that they can come to the school and discuss any issue that they feel the district needs to address. In implementing an open door policy, we’re addressing the needs of our parents proactively rather than reactively, and we don’t wait for problems to arise.

To do this we use our mass communication system to send out information about what’s happening in the school to keep parents informed on a weekly or daily basis. We’ve also set up a PreK–8 group called Parents and Teachers Helping Students to help disseminate information and ensure that accurate information is circulating in the community. To fill the rest of the gaps, we have a parent outreach team working with the FAST program to engage parents we don’t often see in the office or at the school. We meet for eight weeks with parents in this group, and give them the opportunity to talk about everything they want to discuss from academics to problems in and out of the classroom.

For a small community, face-to-face parent interaction is extremely beneficial, and we’ve seen parents more willing to come to the school to discuss their concerns directly because we like to address a situation quickly after it’s reported. In a smaller school, bureaucracy isn’t as large a barrier to decision making as it might be in a large district, so we’re able to solve problems efficiently without having to funnel through multiple avenues.

But we have our own challenges. People in rural communities sometimes have the attitude that “if it was good enough for me 40 years ago, it’s good enough now.” Addressing that mindset comes back to educating parents, explaining why we do the things we do, and being open to what they need. Decisions won’t always be popular or perfect, but eventually we see a majority of our families form an understanding and trust in our schools.

Why Parent Engagement Matters

If parent engagement isn’t a priority for a school district, administrators and teachers need to step back and reevaluate what they’re doing. At Onaga, we’ve made it a priority, and it’s an area we’ve spent considerable time improving over the last few years. As curriculum has changed from knowledge-based standards to college- and career-readiness standards, and as we’ve moved teachers into different positions, maintaining open lines of communication has helped us better explain to families what is happening in our schools.

We recognize that every family has its own unique challenges and that some of our parents struggle financially. For these families, being involved in their children’s school is less of a priority. When they have to fight to make ends meet and some of their basic needs go unmet, how can you get them to take homework seriously, or meet with a teacher? By trying to educate our parents, we try to talk about why the things we do are important, why our curriculum has changed, and why that’s okay.

Final Thoughts

If you want parents within your community to be involved in their child’s education and the school as a whole, the simplest place to start is to create more opportunities for more parents to attend school events. Open more lines of communication. The advice I received when I started in administration was “Don’t ever quit.” You’re going to have some successes and failures, but the only thing you can continue to do consistently is to try new things. Our job is to do what is best for kids, and at the end of the day, if I can leave my office feeling like I tried to do my best for every student in my district, it was a successful day.

Adam McDaniel is the Superintendent of Schools for the Onaga Unified School District in Kansas. He also serves as the elementary school and high school principal.

Photo: Steve Debenport/GettyImages


Three Lessons in Three Hours


Three Lessons in Three Hours

A look inside Massachusetts’ Revere High School, where a flood of new initiatives are helping to revitalize this urban school.

By Wayne D’Orio

REVERE, MASSACHUSETTS—One of the most intractable problems in education today is how to reverse the fortunes of troubled urban schools. In 2009, Revere High School, just outside of Boston, wasn’t exactly a failure factory, but with its demographics changing quickly, its achievement gap was widening.

Seventy-three percent of its students graduated in 2009, but fewer than two in three Hispanic students got diplomas. White students exceeded the state ELA performance target, but low-income and Hispanic students did not. In math, the results were reversed; low-income and Hispanics showed small increases, but white students had slipped.

Yet today, the 1,800-student school has racked up numerous awards and seen its five-year cohort graduation rate spike to 93 percent. Hispanics still graduate at a lower rate, 76.5 percent, but that number has risen 11.6 percent. The school got the highest rating in Massachusetts for reducing the achievement gap, and its suspension rate is less than two percent while the number of students taking AP classes outpaces the state average.

So what’s different? Just about everything. The school’s principal, Lourenco Garcia, who took over in 2010, has changed the culture through a series of bold initiatives. He’s shifted to student-centered learning, created a culture where enthusiastic teachers support one another, and fostered an atmosphere where students are actually asking to add time to the school day.

The school has garnered an impressive list of awards. It won the 2014 High School Gold Award from the National Center for Urban School Transformation, it ranked silver on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of best high schools in 2014, and it was one of 18 schools chosen to present at this year’s National Association of Secondary School Principals conference. Garcia, a native of Africa’s Cape Verde, was chosen as the Revere Journal’s 2014 Man of the Year. The school has attracted visitors from 10 different school districts this year, as well as four separate visits from doctoral students at Harvard. And last year, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded the school a three-year grant worth $1 million a year. “With modesty, we’re a model for the nation,” Garcia says.

I toured Revere High School during the Education Writers Association conference last month. During my short visit, the positive momentum seemed to gather around the following three areas.

  • One decision can be a domino for many other (even bigger) changes.

One of the first things Garcia did after coming to Revere was to adopt block scheduling. This shift to four 80-minute periods a day isn’t novel; about one-third of U.S. high schools follow this schedule. But it was what the change allowed that really enabled Garcia and his staff to turn around the school’s performance.

Administration wanted to shift the emphasis from whole-class instruction to student-directed learning, and going to longer periods forced teachers to realize they couldn’t lecture for the entire block. This dovetailed with the high school’s move to flipped learning, where students take in the bulk of the lesson outside of school and complete the sometimes messy homework and practice while in the classroom. (Students were given iPads to help them access all their needed work outside of school.)

The last big change that was helped by the new schedule was the administration’s decision to realign its discipline policy. Before the switch to block scheduling, students were routinely sent to the office (or worse) for acting out. But now, says assistant principal Stephen Pechinsky, “with 80-minute classes there was too much information to miss to kick a kid out.” The school began a restorative justice program. While earlier data on out-of-school suspensions wasn’t available, just 35 of the school’s 1,800 students were suspended in 2014–15, a 1.9 percent rate that is significantly lower than the state average of 4.7 percent.

  • Let students drive learning, no matter what the impediments.

“The real change has been around the culture of who owns the learning,” says Superintendent Dianne Kelly. Flipping the classroom puts students more in charge. “Our teachers now understand what we need help on and what we understand,” says junior Samantha Karl. “We get to go at our own pace.”

In addition to the testing gains, Garcia notes that students are getting accepted at more competitive colleges and are prouder of their work. “It’s all part of the growth mindset,” he says.

Another change involves better integrating new students. Because the school has become a magnet for students and families entering the United States, the principal started a newcomers academy as an afterschool program. When the students lobbied him to move the program to school hours, allowing these students to better mix with their classmates, Garcia agreed. Students’ attitude and behavior have improved this year, he says. “That tells you that as adults, we don’t have all the answers.”

Garcia adds that although school gets out at 2:20 p.m., many students are still in the school two hours beyond that because it’s a safe place to be. Indeed when the student Samantha Karl suggested adding a fifth period to the school day, Superintendent Kelly was listening. “We’ve talked about that,” the superintendent said, making no promises.

  • There’s no substitute for teacher enthusiasm.

It was the kind of comment that’s made in high school classes everyday. For weeks Nancy Barile had been trying unsuccessfully to get one of her English students, a sophomore named Jordan, to read outside of class. He steadfastly refused, and despite his obvious intelligence, his grades started to plummet.

He told her he was a visual student who preferred watching The Walking Dead to reading. While she told him she wasn’t keen on zombies and violence, he patiently explained the show had the type of themes and character studies she referenced in the books they discussed in class. Then it came out. “Maybe if you watched The Walking Dead I would start reading,” he told her.

Barile accepted the challenge. She started watching and discussing the show with Jordan as she binge-watched through all six seasons. Jordan honored his promise and his grades started to climb. If the story ended there, it would be nice. But Barile saw the greater good in this example and decided to create an entire course around the popular cable TV show. When more than 60 students signed up, officials greenlighted her to teach two sections this fall of the new class, Digesting The Walking Dead.

Garcia has cultivated a staff that works together by valuing their input on items from big to small in the school. While research showed block scheduling was a good change to make, he still had teachers vote on its acceptance. (It passed narrowly, but now the whole staff loves the schedule, he adds.) “My job is to build teacher leadership,” he says. “If I don’t have buy-in or communicate effectively, it’s a message falling on deaf ears. When you give [teachers] a voice, they’re more eager to jump on the ship and help you. . . . People can only produce when they are happy. We are constantly celebrating the work they do. This place is positive.”

Teachers meet twice a week in professional learning groups, going over pedagogical strategies and looking at student work. “They examine each other’s approaches in the classroom,” Garcia says. Sitting on a panel with five teachers, Barile adds, “I’ve gone to every single teacher here for something.”

Garcia notes that two grants from Nellie Mae allowed the school to undertake many of these changes, paying for professional development and clearing more time for teachers to meet. He also realizes that the breakneck pace of change can’t be sustained, so he admits his next goal is to slow down. “We need to let the structures take hold before we do too much more. If we want teachers to maximize, every element has to become self-sustainable.”

Photo: Emily Richmond/EWA

Modernize Your Back Office

Modernize Your Back Office

Still doing student registration manually? It’s time to switch to online.

By Forum Desai

As many administrators know, a traditional, paper-based student registration process can be unnecessarily complicated, inefficient in meeting a district’s operational needs, and costly. Costs add up due to paper consumption, postage, and employing staff to manually enter and reenter data that they collect from families and input into student information systems. Moreover, a paper-based process does not enable real-time access to accurate data that districts need to communicate with families and to make timely enrollment and school staffing decisions.

Making the shift to a technology-enabled, online registration process provides a viable and effective solution for districts looking to streamline operations, increase data accuracy, improve communications with parents, and save time and money. An online system enables districts to monitor the student registration process with insight and ease, access registration information from anywhere, sync student registration data with their student information system, complete fee transactions, and communicate with parents electronically. District leaders should also look for systems with mobile accessibility that allow parents to fill out their child’s application, stay in touch with the school, and monitor their child's status from anywhere.

After parents submit all registration forms, an online system enables these forms to be routed to the appropriate school or district staff—transportation, student services, and so on—so they can manage students’ data, complete the registration and enrollment processes, assign students to classes and transportation routes, generate reports, and communicate with parents.

School districts nationwide—including Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Vancouver (WA) Public Schools, and Camden City School District—have benefited from taking the registration process online. Cleveland, for example, uses an online system to manage its school choice program. Previously, the district’s school choice program had been complex and clunky for parents and its administrative team because technology was not being used to its fullest extent to manage the choice, selection, matching, waitlist, and registration processes. School choices, as a result, were often being made in inconsistent ways.

By implementing an integrated end-to-end system, the district is now able to effectively and efficiently manage its school choice program. This has informed administrators’ system-level thinking, allowed them to better manage the high volume of application data, and provided the tools needed to send timely communications to parents. And, because of its successes to date, the district plans to expand its usage of the online system when the school choice program for its charter schools is rolled out in the future.

For districts looking to implement an online registration system, it is important to engage in some prudent planning to ensure success for all stakeholders. Administrators spearheading the process should see to the following:

  • Ensure the online system meets the district’s unique needs by creating a comprehensive list of requirements, including whether or not the system needs to support the school choice process.
  • Confirm the system offers mobile accessibility. The vast majority of families own smartphones, and in the case of lower-income families, phones may be their only link to Internet access.
  • Designate a project manager to oversee the district’s implementation plan.
  • Communicate early and often to parents, letting them know that the district is switching to an online system and what they can expect.
  • Make time for staff training so the administrative team can become proficient in the new online registration system.

Overall, an online enrollment and registration process is faster, cheaper, more reliable, and much easier to use, making it a needed choice for districts today. When districts implement a comprehensive online enrollment system, they save significant time and resources, and have the year-over-year data needed to make informed decisions for their students.

Forum Desai is the Cofounder and COO of SchoolMint, the leading provider of mobile and online enrollment and school choice systems for PreK–12 public, charter, and private schools.

Photo: GettyImages

Truly Individualizing Instruction With Educational Enterprise Management


Truly Individualizing Instruction With Educational Enterprise Management

For one district, consolidating multiple data streams into one system facilitates personalization and saves money that can be reallocated to instruction.

By Steve Boynton

As the superintendent of Lincoln County Schools in Oregon, I needed to find a way to truly and holistically individualize instruction, to keep our kids interested and focused on learning. We needed a way to assign standards on an individual basis to each and every kid, regardless of their grade level or state test scores. We also needed a system that could consolidate all of our teaching and learning data and resources in one place so teachers, students, parents, and our administrators had access to everything we needed to surround our students with a system of support, allowing every stakeholder to focus on student success. My leadership team and I are strong believers in using Bloom’s Taxonomy to vary the way we ask students to think and learn. We also needed a configurable system that allowed us to customize our curriculum and analyze all data to help kids. The more I looked, the more it seemed I was searching for something that just didn’t exist.

What we finally found was a concept called education enterprise management (EEM). EEM is the idea that teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders who need information can securely get what they need to see, when they need to see it, and in the way they want to access it. EEM is a solution to an ongoing ed tech problem: Few systems “talk” to each other, and teachers are often asked to use multiple systems with different user interfaces and multiple log-ins. As a result, teachers actually use only the one or two systems that are required for compliance.

We needed a system that was customizable enough to meet our needs and still give us the necessary data dashboards and analytics to see how all of our resources were being used and to what effect. We also wanted to look at other varying factors like attendance, teacher professional development, behavior measures, and item analysis of assessments to get a clear picture of what was working for which kids. Without thinking of this on an enterprise level, we could not do everything we needed to help our students.

That’s the idea behind EEM. For a few decades now, education technology has been primarily focused on compliance and on what some would call “ornamental” technology: hardware or software that looks cool and seems trendy but fundamentally has not changed the way we teach. Better devices don’t always translate to better education, but EEM puts and keeps the focus on instruction and student learning.

Ed tech companies and school districts have been working on integrating systems for a long time, with varying degrees of success. Part of the issue has been that technology companies usually do not think like teachers. Some of the best companies have been able to bridge the chasm between education and technology, but many others haven’t. They tend to think like programmers, designing systems to perform a certain function in a certain way. This is not always conducive to good teaching practices.

After searching for a single system to do everything my district needed, I finally found MIDAS Education. The MIDAS system is built on a single Amazon Web Services data structure and is permission- and role-based, so only those with permission can get access to the parts they need, while others are not granted access. MIDAS’s simple user interface includes an SIS, LMS, CMS, assessment, and content generator. MIDAS also allows us to configure our roll-out to meet our needs over time.

As we evolve in our use of MIDAS Education’s software, the company is evolving with us to help us look at instruction in all its aspects. We are able to see how different variables influence student learning: How does attendance relate to student performance? In what ways? And to what measurable effect? Which professional development programs have the most positive impact on student performance? Which curricular resources have the greatest positive effect on student learning? Without coordinating the data, we cannot know just how wide-ranging the impact is; we can only guess.

Not only does this type of analysis facilitate individualized instruction, it can also save a tremendous amount of money that can be reallocated to instruction. When we move fully to EEM software from MIDAS, we will be able to eliminate, and stop paying for, seven separate software systems. We are transitioning over a three-year period to full enterprise level for all of our instructional practices. When the transition is complete, we will pay roughly 40 percent of what we used to spend on software licenses for one system that does it all.

As budgets get tighter and communities ask more and more of their districts, EEM is a path to the future. It only makes sense that our Web pages, our learning management system, our student information system, and most other instructional support software is in one consolidated database. That way, we can access it through a single user interface to do what we need to do to help kids and measure whether or not it’s working the way we need it to.

Steve Boynton is the superintendent of Lincoln County Schools in Oregon.

Photo: GettyImages

ISTE 2016: Virtual Reality, Big Ideas, and a Freak Hailstorm


ISTE 2016: Virtual Reality, Big Ideas, and a Freak Hailstorm

Here’s what caught my eye during a typically busy ed-tech show.

By Wayne D’Orio

DENVER—The beauty of going to a conference like ISTE is that actual experiences can replace preconceived notions. More than once, I found myself changing my mind as I came face-to-face with products I’d only heard about. While I certainly wasn’t able to cover the whole floor, never mind hit the sessions, here’s my short list of interesting developments at the three-day show.

Virtual Reality

The star category of last year was back, and despite my big dose of skepticism, I was impressed with the variety of experiences that falls under this heading. The category ranges from Samsung’s Gear VR headsets to Google’s inexpensive Cardboard experience. I visited two companies new to me, Lifeliqe and zSpace. Lifeliqe puts out a large headset that was so realistic it caused me to stumble a bit; I was impressed by the depth of STEM-related topics, from engines to a human heart, available with the set. zSpace uses a special computer monitor and a much lighter pair of glasses. It even allows for the experience to be shared with classmates who don a pair of glasses that look like they came straight from the local multiplex. zSpace also targets STEM topics, and school officials who already use the product raved about how much their students loved the experience.

Amazon’s Belated Unveiling

When Amazon officials told me on June 27 that they were “introducing” Amazon Inspire, I had to check a calendar. The service, a way for schoolteachers and administrators to locate open educational resources, or OERs, has been openly discussed for months, so its official launch seemed a little anticlimactic. The good news? The service works just like I (and probably you) imagined it would: Users can sift through a wide variety of materials using various filters, from student grades to authors to subjects. As the site ramps up, the number of items posted will exponentially increase, as will the number of practitioner grades and playlists that will help users better find the exact materials they want. I do have to note that the company faced some immediate copyright claims as several people claimed materials were posted without permission. This could be a key problem if Amazon can't solve the discrepancies quickly. In a flip, Apple executives were at the show to talk about something that had a quiet launch just prior to ISTE—Swift. This new open language is meant to help students learn to code and build apps for everything Apple, from iOS to the Apple Watch.

Vernier’s Latest

Maybe the single best device I saw at the show was the small Vernier FLIR ONE thermal camera. This device docks into an iPad’s lightning port and, using a free app, allows students to take thermal images and instantly compare the temperatures from a single video, whether it’s the air you exhale out of your nostrils or the glass of ice water you’re holding next to your face. The $250 device allows young scientists to export their data to create charts.

Discovery’s Big Hire

While not technically a part of ISTE, Discovery Education announced that decorated Mooresville superintendent Mark Edwards will join its team as senior vice president of digital learning. Edwards, whom we’ve written about several times in the past, is known for transitioning his small, poorly funded North Carolina school district to one of the top educational models in the country. Among many accolades, President Obama chose Mooresville as the location to announce the White House’s Digitial Promise program.


Denver Weather

While walking to an event on June 28, I found myself caught in some weather I didn’t think possible. When the summer skies opened up, superball-size hail pelted me as I sought cover under a courthouse’s overhang. Forty-five minutes later, after some torrential rain and heavy winds, the streets were so flooded that cars were stalling out. I was able to finally able to leave my refuge, and I dragged my wet self back to my hotel. A 15-minute walk had turned into a Gilligan’s Island experience. Lessons learned: It can hail during the summer, and a cab isn’t always a bad idea.

Five Reasons Gaming Should Be Used in Schools


Five Reasons Gaming Should Be Used in Schools

Collaboration, motivation, and normalizing failure are just some of the benefits gaming could bring to your students.

By Ping (Benson) Cheng Yeh

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for an article on classroom cheating, and I talked about how gamification solved this problem for me at the University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor. Indeed, gamification solves an array of problems in the classroom: Games boost student engagement, empower students with the responsibility for learning, encourage success while taking failure lightly, promote collaboration, and make teaching easier for instructors. I believe that gamification is not only a nice-to-have but a must-have in any classroom because it’s based on what we all do: strive to win!

  1. Games motivate and therefore empower students.

Children innately love games. In fact, according to a recent NBC news article, 97% of kids under 18 play video games in the United States. During their free time, children play with their peers, with inanimate objects, or on their devices. In fact, play is essential to child development. Because children naturally love play, mixing it with classroom learning makes learning more fun and motivates students to actively participate. A recent Stanford study shows that mixing traditional learning techniques with games is more effective than just implementing traditional classroom techniques or just playing educational games.

I recently met Rene, a math teacher in Mexico who used my social-learning game, PaGamO, to turn his classroom around. PaGamO is a virtual world in which students must answer questions assigned by their teachers in order to expand their space and develop their land. “My D students are now receiving A’s and B’s,” he told me. His struggling students were uninterested in the subject, until he entered his math question bank into PaGamO and assigned it as a mission to his students. When his students played the game and answered the math questions correctly, they would level up in the game and gain tokens and land to cultivate. Suddenly he discovered that his struggling students were so motivated to play the game that they have now started to learn his math material in order to do well in the game. Students who had previously labeled themselves as “bad at math” were now catching up to their peers. This is not only true for James’s class. Gaming has proven to be effective with struggling students; 47% of teachers have seen that low-performing students do the best in gaming classrooms, 30% have seen that all students benefit equally, and only 1% believe that their students do not benefit at all from gaming in classrooms.

  1. Games enable students to take charge of their own learning.

Once students are motivated, the games enable them to take responsibility for their learning and and practice self-empowerment. Games provide self-accountability for problems and a way of checking progress, and they help students learn at their own pace, all of which improve a students’ learning experience and empower them to take charge of their learning.

For example, students’ personal profiles on PaGamO keep track of their correct, incorrect, and corrected questions, enabling study outside of school without teacher guidance or instruction. Students can monitor their progress based on their game statistics; they can even see how long they have practiced a specific subject on a particular day, giving them more control over and insights into their learning progress and development.

  1. Games encourage normalization of failure.

Best-selling self-help books such as Originals and The Confidence Gap stress the importance of the normalization of failure in order to achieve success. When failure is labeled as a “big deal,” students become immobilized from fear of failure and are unable to move forward in their studies. Instead of providing students with so many tests, stressing them out from the process and making it a huge deal, we should instead be educating students that it’s okay to fail, and that failing multiple times will lead to success. Games are disconnected from reality, enabling students to practice concepts in a low-pressure setting.

Moreover, games provide students with immediate feedback. When the answer is incorrect, students know right away. They don’t have to wait weeks for a test to be graded to know that their concepts were wrong. Because of the immediate feedback, students can get in the habit of correcting their mistakes as soon as they arise.

  1. Games foster collaboration.

   Games allow for peer-to-peer collaboration. This year my start-up company, BoniO, hosted the worldwide Calculus World Cup. Students were invited to collaborate in teams of three and asked calculus-related questions. I’ve realized that students love to work collaboratively and also to watch other students work collaboratively.

Games also foster teacher-student collaboration. In a game that I’ve created to boost student engagement in Taiwanese MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), students design their own questions, share them with the teacher, and have other students solve their problems to earn badges and points. In this way, students are empowered because they can contribute to the curriculum design.

  1. Games revolutionize teaching.

Games can provide better one-on-one instruction—personalized content, real-time assessment, adaptive learning and the ability to teach mixed-proficiency groups. On PaGamO, teachers are able to upload their own personalized content. This is important because it helps teachers connect with students. Instead of automating learning, we’re customizing learning. Teachers can see in real time how students are doing in their classes, group high-performing and low-performing students, and send them questions that best cater to their abilities. Because of this feature, teachers can instruct mixed-proficiency groups and achieve a one-on-one atmosphere even in a large classroom. Games affect classrooms in unexpected ways; I’ve seen games end up motivating teachers and parents just as much as students. Teachers often ask if they can play PaGamO with their students—that’s a yes—and parents who play with their kids even sign themselves up for PaGamO competitions!

Ping-Cheng (Benson) Yeh is the co-founder of PaGamO, BoniO inc., and holds many offices at National Taiwan University including director of the MOOC Program, associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Development, and professor in Electrical Engineering.

Photo: Gettyimages

How Blended Learning Is Closing Achievement Gaps at Our Elementary School

John Albert

How Blended Learning Is Closing Achievement Gaps at Our Elementary School

California school uses online reading program to gain success.

By Dr. John Albert

At California Elementary School in Orange, California, 95 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and as many as 90 percent are English language learners. When I became principal during the 2014–15 school year, 40 percent of our students were reading far below a basic reading level. We knew we had to find an effective solution that would quickly address the academic gap and help students reach their full potential.

After careful planning, we determined that incorporating a blended learning approach to instruction could address multiple needs for our staff and students. Our results have been remarkable: We’ve seen dramatic gains in the reading abilities of our students—as well as better student and parent engagement and higher satisfaction among teachers.

Blended Learning Improves Learning—and Attitudes

The Christensen Institute defines blended learning as an education model in which students learn partly through face-to-face interaction with their teacher and partly through online or digital instruction, “with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” This approach appealed to us because it would help teachers to personalize learning in a more flexible manner for every student.

To incorporate a self-paced online element to our instruction, we have set up station rotations in which students in grades K–5 work independently for up to 80 minutes per week on a reading program called Lexia Reading Core5.

The program provides personalized, systematic instruction in the six core areas of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, structural analysis, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each student follows a personalized learning path that delivers highly targeted instruction that is specific to that child’s needs, and teachers receive norm-referenced performance data without having to interrupt the flow of instruction to administer a test.

In a blended learning model, students can learn at their own pace—in school or at home—as they develop core reading skills. Teachers can individualize instruction using the data provided by the software, which helps identify students who are struggling in specific areas. The program groups the students appropriately for small-group instruction so that teachers can provide more individual, one-on-one support.

Since we began using an online reading program with our students, we’ve seen a 53-percent increase in the number of students who are reading at grade level. These academic gains have resulted in an improvement in student attitudes toward learning as well.

When students see their own academic success, it contributes to a positive campus culture. Once students see they can master a skill or a subject, they become excited to learn every day. Since we began taking a blended-learning approach in the classroom, attendance has risen to 97 percent and suspensions have been on the decline.

Technology Empowers Great Teachers—It Doesn’t Replace Them

At our school, we emphasize that technology can never replace the role of teachers in the classroom. It is caring adults who build supportive relationships with students, not software. We believe that technology can help improve learning and elevate teacher effectiveness by harnessing the data to support one-on-one teaching moments with students.

To ensure teachers are benefiting from our blended learning initiative, we maintain a very keen focus on the continuous tracking of data. For example, our school has a “Mind the Gap” progress-monitoring team that meets weekly to review data and usage of the blended learning program. Setting aside this time is crucial to identifying academic concerns and supporting teachers in this process.

Not only has student satisfaction improved since we’ve moved to a blended learning model, but our teachers are more satisfied as well. They’ve found that blended learning has helped make their lives easier by identifying the students needing help and the lesson materials to support them. Teachers are seeing dramatic increases in their students’ ability to read, and they’ve said this is the best year of teaching they’ve ever had.

We have also benefited from the ability to blend learning to engage and motivate parents as well. When parents have access to the online software from home, they can keep track of their child’s progress and provide additional support. Our school hosts monthly parent technology trainings to ensure that parents know how to access these resources from home. As a result, our parental engagement has increased, and we’re seeing more parents asking for student data reports so that they can help support their children at home.

Keys to Blended Learning Success

When beginning a new initiative like this, start by finding a program that supports great instruction, and leverage the program data to empower teacher effectiveness. Invest the time and resources in a thorough professional development and implementation plan to make the transition smooth and build internal capacity. Finally, engage some early adopters to demonstrate success and share their enthusiasm for the gains they’re achieving—they will help promote the initiative to the rest of your staff.

Now that we have found an effective blended solution for reading, we are in the process of looking for a similar solution for math. I believe this kind of innovation will have a meaningful impact on the success of our students and teachers for years to come.

Dr. John Albert is the principal of California Elementary School in the Orange Unified School District.

Photo: Courtesy of California Elementary School

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