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ESSA: The Kinder, Gentler NCLB

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ESSA: The Kinder, Gentler NCLB

What’s the same—and what’s different—in the new law.

By Gene Kerns

For educators, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) despite the fact that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has replaced it. Two major reasons that NCLB left such a lasting mark is that the legislation was particularly far reaching in terms of requirements, and it remained in place for a long time, across the administrations of both Presidents Bush and Obama.

Though NCLB was with us for quite some time and remains fresh in our memories, ESSA is now the law of the land, and intense work is beginning across the country as states develop their ESSA plans. As we navigate the paradigm shift of changing federal requirements, it is important to understand several key elements of ESSA.

Some things remain the same.

Just like NCLB, ESSA requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3–8 and once in high school, and to hold schools and districts accountable for student proficiency. States must also assess science at least once in grades 3–5, 6–9 and 10–12. Within these continuing requirements, ESSA does afford states more latitude in setting the parameters and timelines for reaching proficiency. From this point on, however, differences become more apparent.

There’s tremendous flexibility.

A major difference between ESSA and NCLB is flexibility. Any conversation about ESSA must begin with the fact that there are now many more options. As a result, outside of a few immovable requirements (e.g., mandatory testing), it is difficult to make blanket statements that will apply to everyone. The impact that teachers and students feel will be very much determined by the options their states take in responding to ESSA.

There are new types of “tests.”

In first exploring what the testing and accountability requirements of ESSA are, we are somewhat like students who often ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” Not everything in ESSA relates to the tests.

While states must still assess the points outlined above, ESSA offers more options in the type of assessment(s), including:

  • A traditional single, summative assessment
  • Interim assessments throughout the year, resulting in a single summative score at the end of the year

In addition, states can apply to be one of seven states that will be permitted to try out new, innovative assessment approaches.

States are also now free to use computer adaptive tests (CATs), resolving the tension between the adaptability of CATs and NCLB’s requirement of assessing students on grade-level standards.

In terms of innovative new assessment approaches, New Hampshire has attracted much attention for its Performance Assessment in Competency Education (PACE) project. Students there will undertake rigorous performance tasks designed locally, but based on competencies identified by the state. The result hoped for is a more authentic and personalized assessment process.

Many are excited by the opportunities these assessment options present, while others express concern. If, for example, multiple interim assessments throughout the year result in a summative score, will the interim assessments remain close to teaching and learning, or will they take on the feel of frequent summative tests? To what extent can we develop and score dynamic, performance tasks in a reliable way on a large scale? Time will tell.

High schools can potentially substitute one assessment for another.

Also new in ESSA, states can allow districts to administer a nationally-recognized high school assessment (e.g., SAT or ACT) in place of the state-selected assessment for the 10–12 grade span. The result will clearly be a reduction in testing.

Non-academic measures are included.

In a move to acknowledge that there’s more to school than test results, ESSA requires that at least one “non-academic measure” now be included in states’ accountability systems. Such measures could include information from school climate surveys, measures of engagement, absenteeism, or school safety data to bring a more holistic picture of school quality.

Growth is an optional other dimension.

Throughout much of the NCLB era it concerned us that the legislation’s emphasis was solely on proficiency. While high expectations are a good thing, factors such as language acquisition, learning disabilities, and poverty all profoundly impact proficiency. ESSA allows considerations of growth as an optional component in states’ accountability plans. In states where this option is exercised, conversations will turn to how to best measure growth.

The definition of professional development is more specific.

Finally, what constitutes professional development has become much more specific under ESSA. Defined in very broad and open terms in NCLB, professional development is now defined in ESSA as activities that “are sustained (not stand-alone, one-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused.”

This is a kinder, gentler NCLB.

Ultimately, the mandatory testing requirements at the core of NCLB remain in ESSA, but with increased flexibility and the expanded scope of ESSA (e.g., non-academic indicators), we will likely view this newest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as kinder and gentler than its predecessor.

Gene Kerns, Ed.D., is the vice president and chief academic officer at Renaissance. Kerns is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to K12 administrative experience.


When Equity Means Accessibility

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When Equity Means Accessibility

How to use today’s digital materials with students who are visually impaired.

By Sarah McManus

Of the nearly 55 million students who attend primary and secondary schools in the United States, about 60,000 are visually impaired, meaning they’re either blind or have low vision. Because students with visual impairments make up such a small segment of the overall student population, their specific learning needs are often an afterthought. This is particularly the case as teaching and learning in our schools increasingly rely on digital materials and online platforms that too often offer limited accessibility to students with visual impairments.

Certainly, the profusion of digital materials and online learning carries with it tremendous potential to enrich the educational experience for all students. But without careful forethought that addresses the accessibility challenges of students who are blind or have low vision, we’re likely to see greater inequality and widening accessibility gaps. Unless we ensure that students with visual impairments have the same access to instructional materials and the same ease of use that their sighted peers have—in both digital and print formats—we are excluding these students from the learning opportunities that empower them to be engaged and independent learners.

Reconsidering What Accessibility Means

Sadly, students who are blind or have low vision are frequently and inordinately burdened with additional challenges that are independent of the content and skills they are trying to learn, simply because instructional materials are not easily accessible. As a result, they may struggle to learn, not because they do not understand the material or are unable to master the skills, but because their individual learning needs have not been accounted for in the design of the materials. Accommodations for students who are blind or have low vision too often stop short, providing the minimum in terms of accessibility without seeking to maximize the learning experience for students with visual impairments.

Encouragingly, technologies such as screen readers and refreshable braille displays have made it easier for students with visual impairments to access digital and online materials. Although the types of assistive technologies these students use depend on their individual needs, when learning materials are adapted to work with the most prevalent technologies, they enable students with visual impairments to be independent in the classroom. These students can benefit from an inclusive educational experience, rather than being restricted to using learning materials that have been transcribed into braille ahead of time, or dependent on an instructor to read non-braille text and transcribe responses. As a result, students who are blind or have low vision are able to learn just as easily as sighted students, albeit through different means, and they have access to a broad array of learning materials and opportunities.

At the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I am the director of digital learning, educational equity is much more than ensuring our students have access to the same quality of learning experiences that their sighted peers at mainstream schools have. Our goal is to help our students reach their highest potential by removing barriers to success and maximizing the learning opportunities available to them. To this end, we provide an expanded core curriculum—not just a basic course of study that accommodates our students’ visual impairments—and rigorous instruction that encourages students to be autonomous, self-sufficient, and emboldened to take on new challenges. In this respect, our educational philosophy extends far beyond mere accommodation of certain needs. Rather, it is about facilitating empowerment, personalized learning, and student growth unrestrained by limited access to learning materials and opportunities.

The Next Step in Equitable Accessibility

Assessments are frequently a vexing aspect of education for students with visual impairments and their teachers. In the past, paper assessments were transcribed into braille, but now that most assessments are administered online, accessibility has become more challenging. Unless computer assessments support the use of screen readers and refreshable braille displays, students who are blind or have low vision are denied access to the very tools they use in the classroom to learn. One of the most significant consequences is that assessment results for students with visual impairments are not as accurate as they could be because rather than reflecting what students know and can do, the results are skewed by the difficulties students have just completing the assessment.

With the growth of computer adaptive tests, accessibility challenges for students with visual impairments have become greater. Because computer adaptive assessments adjust the difficulty of successive questions based on a student’s responses to previous questions, the experience cannot be replicated with fidelity and accuracy when taking adaptive assessments on paper using braille. Such tests require large, unwieldy books, making the experience frustrating and the results less accurate.

But things are changing. This year our students field-tested the newly accessible MAP growth assessment, developed specifically to meet the needs of students who are blind or have low vision. This was the first time our students were able to take an adaptive assessment online using their screen readers and refreshable braille displays. Observing the ease with which they took the test—without the need for transcribed braille books or someone reading questions aloud and entering or transcribing their responses—was very encouraging, and the students were enthusiastic about the experience.

The accessibility of MAP really breaks new ground. It empowers students by allowing them to utilize the tools they use in the classroom on a daily basis and to focus on the content of the assessment without having to worry about technical impediments or depending on others when completing the assessment items.

When students with visual impairments know that assessments and instructional materials are designed with them in mind, enabling them to become independent learners, it signals to them that they have access to the same educational opportunities as any sighted student and that their learning needs matter. It’s hard to overstate how powerful and inspiring this kind of equity really is.

Dr. Sarah McManus is the Digital Learning Director for Education Services for the Deaf and Blind Schools at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh, North Carolina. She serves the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, the North Carolina School for the Deaf and the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf.


A Partnership That Works for the School and the Company

A Partnership That Works for the School and the Company

Learn how an ed tech firm worked with a charter school partnership to improve student outcomes.

By Thomas Arnett

Industries from retail to health care to energy are forging partnerships with technology companies, and education is no exception. Districts all over the country are rushing to buy shiny devices and license sophisticated ed-tech platforms to provide their students with cutting-edge instruction. But all too often, blended learning initiatives do not deliver. Devices and software can encumber districts’ budgets, burden their IT staff, and complicate teachers’ classroom processes without producing noticeable gains in student learning.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Over the last year, one school system and one ed-tech company’s collaborative efforts proved that innovative approaches to instruction can have a profound impact on student outcomes. Leadership Public Schools (LPS), a charter school management organization that operates high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Gooru, a nonprofit ed-tech company, each found that their independent efforts to improve education were falling short of their respective visions, so they undertook a major collaborative effort to redesign Gooru’s technology to support LPS’s approach to blended learning.

Their story, as documented in a recent case study by the Clayton Christensen Institute, surfaces a number of key insights for school systems and ed-tech companies that are wrestling with how to connect teaching and tech to impact student outcomes.

Teaching practices should guide technology. LPS didn’t start by looking for technology that could help it improve instruction. Rather, one of its veteran math teachers began experimenting with new ways to engage his students and differentiate their instruction. From his experimentation, he developed creative uses of Google Sheets to facilitate his practices. By the time LPS teamed up with Gooru, it had already figured out a successful instructional model. The focus of the partnership wasn’t to create new models, but to figure out how to facilitate LPS’s instructional model at a larger scale. Consistent with this approach, the two organizations’ first task together was to hone a clear vision of core design principles for transforming teaching and learning, and then design the technology to align with those principles. Not all school systems have the opportunity to work closely with a tech company in this manner, but the key takeaway for most schools is to start by designing and developing a successful instructional model and then finding the right technology to facilitate that model.

Solving complex challenges requires intensive collaboration. In order to ensure that Gooru’s redesigned technology accurately aligned with LPS’s instructional practices, the math teacher who designed LPS’s blended learning instructional model became an embedded member of Gooru’s design team. This level of intensive collaboration proved critical to ensure the technology aligned with teachers’ needs. With two very different skill sets working together—teachers and tech engineers—the project team was able to test their design assumptions by running them past LPS’s lead teacher. In some instances, the teacher even created simple prototypes in Google Sheets to pilot feature ideas in classrooms before moving those features into full-scale design and production. For any school system that wants to implement blended learning, technology decisions need to be made with both tech and teaching experts at the table. Although this kind of collaboration can be time-consuming, it is critical to ensure a technology solution actually works with classroom practices.

Successful innovation requires the right business model. Every organization has a business model that dictates how its resources and processes are stacked up against various initiatives. The success of these initiatives depends on whether or not the organization’s business model supports and prioritizes implementation efforts. LPS and Gooru’s partnership succeeded, in part, because it was fully funded by grants that expected them to improve student outcomes in a way that had potential to scale. For other school systems that want to develop innovative blended learning initiatives, the key lesson from LPS and Gooru is to fund initiatives not just based on how good they look on paper but on how well they measurably improve student outcomes.

After the first year of incorporating the technology LPS and Gooru developed in LPS’s classrooms, the average learning improvement in math was 2.82 times higher than the national growth norm, as measured by NWEA MAP assessments. Additionally, LPS saw noteworthy changes in students’ attitudes toward math. According to surveys administered at the beginning and end of the school year, the percentage of students who reported feeling comfortable with math jumped from 32 percent to 56 percent and the percentage of students who believed they were good at math because they worked hard increased from 32 percent to 50 percent.

Gooru and LPS are now working to scale their technology and its associated personalized learning practices to other K–12 schools and teachers, and as a first step, they have made their technology and instructional resources available for free at Gooru.org. But regardless of whether your school system aims to do something similar to LPS and Gooru, or has a completely different vision for using blended learning to better serve students, this case study provides key insights for ensuring success.

Thomas Arnett is the education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Who’s That Knocking on My Door?

Who’s That Knocking on My Door?

How to Facilitate an Inclusive Environment for Students on the Autism Spectrum.

By Barbara Boroson

Even as classrooms become more diverse, teachers are expected to bring all students to a common destination. Differentiating for students on the autism spectrum in this seemingly paradoxical context sets a high bar for general educators. With autism affecting one out of every 68 students today, students on the spectrum are being placed in general education and inclusive classrooms in unprecedented numbers. These students commonly bring myriad challenges with them: anxiety; erratic sensory systems; mercurial moods, actions, and reactions; repetitive, rigidly restricted areas of interest and conversation; limited language or social communication; and many other challenges. In a large classroom, the assaults on these challenges can be relentless; these students are easily overwhelmed, and teachers and others reliably come knocking on your door. Here are a few key strategies to help you support your faculty and your students on the spectrum, their classmates, and their families.

1. The Inclusive Classroom: In this era of Common Core and other new, rigorous curricular standards, general educators struggle to guide these uncommon kids toward common goals. For this reason, you may find teachers teaching in uncommon ways. Enlightened teachers of students on the spectrum (especially those teachers who have read my book!) will make frequent use of, for example, interactive visual schedules (as described in Chapter 3); sensory sanctuaries, minimally decorated classroom spaces, and creative seating arrangements (Chapter 4); lessons that incorporate seemingly obscure elements (Chapters 5 and 11), and innovative instructive and adaptive technology (every chapter).

Many teachers around the country share with me that they feel intense pressure from their principals to exhibit a highly decorated classroom with a conventional seating arrangement and tried-and-true instructional strategies. Consider that classrooms can and should be cheerful and inviting without being cluttered or overwhelming. Encourage teachers to aim for clear, calm, and color-blocked. Trust that lessons that reach far outside the box may draw all kinds of different learners into the box. Try to support and celebrate the ingenuity of your teachers as you acknowledge that extreme differentiation can occur in unexpected ways.

2. The Inclusive Building: As districts become ever more inclusive, the education of students on the autism spectrum extends beyond the walls of the classroom. Consider that elementary students are out of their all-important comfort zones as soon as they step outside their differentiated classroom, so their anxiety is elevated. Be aware that at all levels music, art, phys ed, and even library demand intense sensory immersion and peer collaboration. When students on the autism spectrum arrive in the cacophonous gym or the pungent, sticky art room, sensory overload can happen instantly. As students decamp to lunch and recess, carefully calibrated staff-to-student ratios fly out the window even as the social and sensory demands skyrocket.

To this end, all faculty and staff members should be educated about ASD and given strategies for meeting students’ needs across various contexts. Make a point of inviting all special area teachers to team meetings, and share the conclusions and recommendations of team meetings with all involved personnel. Consider scheduling PD sessions specifically geared to the needs of special area faculty and of bus and building staff. Pass around copies of the four reproducible Fact & Tip Sheets included at the back of my book (pp.227–234)—one each for special area teachers, coaches and phys ed teachers, classroom paraprofessionals, and bus and building staff.

3. The Inclusive Community: Believe it or not, the ASD-related challenge that teachers all over the country report as the most vexing is not any of those mentioned above. Instead, it’s parents. Educators and parents/caregivers of students with ASD often experience the same students very variably. While educators tackle acute academic and social challenges, parents confront chronic practical and painfully emotional challenges. These discrepant perspectives often cause friction between school and home. Moreover, any one child can function dramatically differently in different contexts—a scenario that can result in doubt and distrust between teachers and parents.

School leaders often find themselves caught between these conflicting factions, but are, in fact, perfectly positioned to serve as liaisons. Help your teachers to understand that living with a child on the autism spectrum takes a heavy and never-ending toll on a family in practical, financial, emotional, and other ways. Meanwhile, help parents and caregivers to understand that school is representative of the real world, and may therefore be quite challenging. Remind both parents and teachers that with careful guidance and support, school should stretch students gently outside their comfort zones—stretch them but not stress them—because that is where the learning and growth happen. Through mutual understanding, parents and professionals become a powerful force in bringing out the best in the challenging children we share.

The challenges of students on the autism spectrum are likely to pervade every aspect of their functioning and every corridor and classroom in your district. Facilitating a truly inclusive environment means bringing everyone on board with practical strategies, personal investment, open minds, acceptance, and an abundance of patience—educational standards that will ultimately benefit us all.

Barbara Boroson is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD (Scholastic, 2nd Edition, 2016). She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and professional development provider with 25 years of experience in autism spectrum education, and is the mother of a teenage son with ASD.

Four Strategies to Simplify Performance Evaluations

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Four Strategies to Simplify Performance Evaluations

Use these strategies to personalize professional development for your staff.

By Michael Kurhajetz

What do you do when your school district has 3,000 teachers, 1,800 educational support professionals, and 700 related service professionals spread out over 76 school buildings and your state initiates a new performance evaluation requirement?

Rather than wait for Minnesota’s teacher evaluation requirement to take effect, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) jumped right in. In 2011, we began collaborating with teachers and principals to determine the best way to conduct evaluations to better support teachers’ growth and development.

Prior to 2011, MPS had no uniform system for teacher evaluations. Some schools used paper-based systems while others used online document sharing. None employed a consistent rubric or structure. This made it impossible to analyze data across grade levels, subject areas, and schools.

As we set out to develop our new teacher evaluation system, we had one simple goal in mind: to provide teachers with useful feedback and targeted professional development.

Here are four strategies we’ve implemented to create a cohesive, efficient system for more meaningful performance evaluations.

  1. Eliminate silos of data.

In MPS, our teacher evaluation system includes three measures: classroom observations, student achievement results (such as value-added reports), and student perception surveys.

We believe that incorporating multiple measures produces a fairer, more accurate understanding of a teacher’s impact on student learning.

Unfortunately, our paper-based process for observations led to silos of data. Moving forward, we wanted to place our observation data in one centralized location where it could be securely accessed by teachers and school and district leaders. In addition, we wanted to create one report with data from all three measures to make it easier to act on that data.

  1. Automate the process.

To do this, we needed to automate our evaluation process. At the time, we were using an online system for professional development. Since we wanted to make it easier to connect teacher evaluations with professional development, we decided to partner with the provider of our professional development system to add an evaluation component to it.

In our district, we have a different evaluation plan for each of our 12 groups—teachers, principals, assistant principals, assistant educators, and eight different related service groups (psychology, social work, counseling, nursing, occupational therapy/physical therapy, developmental adapted physical education, audiology, and speech language pathology). Each group has its own observation process, which includes a group-specific rubric for each observation plan. In addition, the observation plans for some groups may have multiple tracks within a plan. For example, in the “teacher” group, we have separate tracks for probationary teachers and tenured teachers—with different observation models for each.

So, to simplify things for each group, we decided to implement a role-based evaluation system. This allows us to define specific user roles (e.g., teacher, principal, psychologist), along with the observation plan(s), rubric(s), and data available to each. As a result, we can now automate an unlimited number of evaluation plans to serve our different groups, while protecting each user’s privacy and ensuring that all users have access to only the data they need to fulfill their role.

Using this system, observers can now easily provide each individual with concrete feedback against a clear, detailed performance rubric. This not only improves consistency and efficiency, but it gives teachers the timely, tangible information they need to improve their practice.

  1. Encourage collaboration.

Of course, any change in a district’s processes or technology can be challenging. To shift the culture and the mindset in our district, collaboration was—and still is—key.

We developed our teacher evaluation system based on feedback from over 900 teachers and principals from across MPS. We also created a Stakeholder Advisory Group with members representing each of the user roles detailed above. This group advised us on the design and implementation of the evaluation system, including the specific rubrics and observation plans to be used. This group also made it easier to gather feedback and spread the word about the changes taking place, and to ensure that the new system was being implemented with fidelity.

Today, our stakeholders continue to provide ongoing feedback to ensure that our evaluation system remains beneficial to teachers, leaders, and students.

  1. Align evaluation outcomes to professional development.

In addition to simplifying the complexities of performance evaluations, automating our system has made it easier to personalize professional development. As a result, less time is spent juggling paperwork and more time is spent driving educators’ professional growth.

Data from our multi-measure evaluation system now informs professional development decisions at every level—for the classroom, the team, the school, the department, and the district as a whole. When teachers receive observation feedback, they can immediately connect to specific courses or an online catalog of offerings to meet their needs. School and district leaders can also use that data to identify trends and provide training to immediately address any areas of need. For example, at the district level, last summer we identified student self-assessment as being very low across the district, so our professional development included courses to improve that. We can also use that data to inform our recruitment and selection strategies.

In addition, the different evaluation plans for each of the different professional specialties (psychology, counseling, etc.) allow for easy customization of what is being evaluated and how, which further supports this goal of alignment. This helps ensure that each of these groups is receiving feedback on the skills and professional responsibilities of their respective specialties. This also empowers the people in those teams to really own their growth and development.

Ensuring that all students are on track for a successful college or career experience is a key element of MPS’s strategic plan, and this requires us to focus on a single goal: great teaching in every classroom, for every student, every day. By creating a consistent way to provide regular feedback to every teacher, and coupling that feedback with support and professional development, we’re strengthening our teaching, and building stronger, more effective schools.

Michael Kurhajetz is the performance management coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. The district uses the Truenorthlogic solution from Performance Matters.


Using Digital Tools to Help Students Write

Using Digital Tools to Help Students Write

Free up your teachers without cutting back on writing assignments.

By Sean Tupa

Fifty-eight percent of students find it “challenging” or “very challenging” just to get started writing when composing an essay or paper. This comes from a recent survey that Turnitin conducted on the difficulties students face when doing research-based writing (paper pending). These results are not surprising. Who hasn’t felt anxiety when confronting the challenge of filling the daunting void of a blank page? Fortunately, tools are readily available online to help students overcome this initial hurdle in the prewriting process.

Teachers charged with guiding 120 students through English classes don’t have time to coach and encourage (or cajole) every student. But, technology, applied in the right situation can help. For instance, digital graphic organizers can assist students’ launch into their writing by letting them take a more visual approach. These tools offer two primary benefits: 1) writers can literally see how their ideas connect to and flow from one another, and 2) they’re fun and engaging.

Concept Mapping

Some graphic organizers come in the form of concept- or mind-mapping tools. The mapping technique lets students capture the atoms of their thoughts into individual bubbles, which they connect using simple lines or arrows. This approach works especially well for both brainstorming concepts and for organizing ideas in preparation of crafting an outline.

If your students are younger, I recommend checking out Popplet. This web-based software employs a very user-friendly and flexible interface that young learners will be able to pick up in no time. For more complex mapping activities and a richer feature set, try the Inspiration Maps app for iPad. The program offers a wide range of personalization options, and makes it easy to convert diagrams into outlines and vice versa.

Timelines and Comics

If an essay relies upon the demonstration of cause and effect, is process-oriented, or needs to show a flow of events, then students will find timeline and comic strip tools to be very useful. The Timeline tool from ReadWriteThink offers a very user-friendly and interactive way of displaying a sequence of events. Students can drag and drop images or text along a timeline that can be organized by date, day, or event. Comic strip generating tools, such as the one available from Chogger, allow students a very personalized method of storyboarding events that appeal to their more artistic side. Templates and tools make the creative process simple and quick. Once the student completes their timeline or storyboard, these artifacts can be used to structure their paper, and even be used in the finished work.

Supporting Evidence

When students plan out their writing for evidence-based papers, they need to make sure they have a solid thesis statement and figure out how they can best support that statement with relevant evidence. This is a difficult skill to learn, especially for younger writers. Intel provides a simple solution, called Showing Evidence, that can help them out. Through a visual format, students enter their primary claims and explanations for that statement. They then create a list of evidence statements that they can connect to their claim, identifying each one as being either supportive of it or in opposition to it, all the while rating the quality and strength of each statement. Going through the process should give students a strong understanding of the arguments they make.

Conquering the Blank Page

Of course, this is only a limited list of all the resources, many of them free, that are available to students and educators to aid the prewriting, writing, and proofreading processes. What is important to keep in mind is that none of these tools will, on their own, contribute to student success in learning how to write. That success absolutely depends on the robust and diligent guidance of the dedicated teacher; these tools are only their supports. As resources, they should prove useful by empowering students to get started on their writing and to face the now-not-so-scary blank page.

Sean Tupa is an expert in education technology and education-related data analysis. He specializes in educational psychology, technology, and best practices. He currently is manager of education programs for Turnitin.


Helping Students With Diabetes

Helping Students With Diabetes

Use coordination and collaboration to improve the care, and outcomes, for these learners.

By Griffin P. Rodgers

This time of year, across the country, millions of children will be returning to the classroom. It’s an exciting time, but for many of them it’s also stressful. More than 200,000 of these students live with the added challenge of diabetes, a serious chronic disease in which blood glucose (sugar) levels are above normal due to deficiencies in insulin production, insulin action, or both. Diabetes requires a careful balance of food, exercise, and medication to minimize the risk of additional diabetes-related health problems.

For some students, managing their diabetes requires assistance, especially younger children. Everyone from the bus driver to the school nurse to the teacher must collaborate to support effective diabetes management for students. The National Diabetes Education Program’s recently updated guide, Helping the Student with Diabetes Succeed: A Guide for School Personnel, is designed to help school personnel manage the daily care of students with diabetes.

The guide contains three important tools for helping schools implement effective diabetes management: a sample diabetes medical management plan, a sample template for an individualized health care plan, and sample emergency care plans. It also outlines the federal laws that apply to a school’s responsibility to help students manage their diabetes.

Three levels of training for school personnel are outlined to ensure effective school-based diabetes management. An “Actions” section defines the roles and responsibilities of administrators, school nurses, key school staff members, parents/guardians, and the student with diabetes. For example, school nurses and other school personnel who have received training in diabetes care can be prepared to assist the student in completing diabetes-related tasks such as insulin administration and blood glucose monitoring. Teachers and food service staff may need to make allowances for access to food and beverages in the classroom and during meals and/or snacks.

Students with diabetes should be able to thrive in the classroom and during after-school activities such as drama club, band, and sports. The school guide is designed to empower school personnel and administrators to create a safe learning environment and equal access to educational opportunities for students with diabetes. Working together, school personnel can ease the stress of going back to school by providing an environment where students with diabetes can flourish.

Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D., M.A.C.P., is the director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Photo: MediaBakery

How to Become a Learning Leader

How to Become a Learning Leader

Learn how to wisely adopt today’s technology to maximize student engagement.

By Mac Bogert

“Two things you develop before you need them: capabilities and relationships. You manage things, lead people. People are not things.”  —Bill Taggart

I started teaching in the age of chalkboards, film strips, and mimeograph machines. The technology has tectonically shifted, especially over the past decade, yet many teachers still try to use this new technology within a chalkboard framework.

By that I mean too many teachers haven’t moved from the framework of classroom management to classroom leadership. As we better understand (and embrace) different learning styles among our students, and different learning opportunities from the world of virtual instruction, we can shift from acting as learning managers to acting as learning leaders.

As leaders, we serve as models of continuous discovery and exploration, trusting that students have more capacity than the traditional environment may encourage. We become resources rather than supervisors. It is not a question of abandoning management, but of making leadership paramount.

Management-based learning focuses on predicted, quantifiable outcomes. This model, founded on the industrial approach, is not up to our current environment. The main reason for this is that management-based teaching assumes that chaos is a threat to learning. The reverse is actually true, and there’s lots of data, from Malcolm Gladwell and Ricardo Semler to Daniel H. Pink, that clearly demonstrates we need to relax the tight fist of control not just in the workplace but in the classroom.

Here’s a chart that shows the difference between the management mindset and the leadership mindset (adapted from a presentation by Warren Bennis):

            MANAGERS                                                                          LEADERS

           Administer                                                                             Innovate

            Short-range view                                                                 Eyes on the horizon

            Ask How? and When?                                                        Ask What? and Why?

            Support status quo                                                             Challenge status quo

            Promote stability                                                                  Embrace change

            Value “the still pond”                                                           Seek “stones and ripples”

            Chaos = off task                                                                  Chaos = on task

In the case of project-based learning (PBL), we shift our role to that of a coach, a resource, a conductor. And that image—the conductor—is very apt. After all, the conductor cannot play everyone’s instruments for them, and, as Ben Zander points out, “the conductor depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.”

Some teachers talk of empowering their students. Let’s drop empower, okay? It’s a transitive verb, which means you do it to people, so who really has the power? Let’s frame our thinking in terms of power sharing, which you can only do with people.

Once we let go of some of our management habits and think in terms of power sharing, we can realign how we provide leadership to students in a PBL environment. Think about a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between product, process, and people.

In a leadership- and project-focused environment, we engage our students in all three of these realms. They will need to strike a balance between their product (what will we make and how will we know its success?), process (how are we going to gather information, stay focused and divide up our work and practice accountability?), and people (as we progress, what will we do and need to learn to help us work better together, understand each other and our stakeholders, and be sure all of us feel involved and energized?).

I do most of my work with tall children (adults) these days—and 99% percent of their work is project-based. I don’t expect them to sit in rows and suffer death by a thousand slides. They’re challenged and involved from the moment I ask them to generate the class objectives. Once they realize they’re in charge, not only of what they do but what they get out of it, they become excited, engaged, and focused. Just like the young project-based learners they used to be: children. After all, aren’t our littlest learners constant paragons of project-based learning, whether they’re focused on mud or bicycles?

Project-based learning is not a panacea for our educational dilemmas. It does, however, offer an invitation to a different level of engagement and excitement if we can lead instead of manage. That apparent loss of control is simply a looser hand on the wheel so our students can learn to steer, not just ride.

Mac Bogert is the founder of AZA Learning, which provides leadership coaching and learning design support to 200 clients nationwide. His latest publication is Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education. The book explores the disconnect between what schools do and how people learn.

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Three Essential Steps to Scaling Personalized Learning

Three Essential Steps to Scaling Personalized Learning

Here’s how even the biggest district can tailor instruction to every student’s needs.

By Eileen Murphy Buckley

Teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, and politicians may have different philosophies of education, but at the end of the day we all have one goal in mind: empowering students to become critical thinkers. As a teacher for 15 years and then as the director of curriculum and instruction for 115 schools in Chicago, I saw firsthand that critical thinking skills are hard to teach and hard to learn. And implementing the kind of personalized education required to truly nurture these skills is especially challenging on a large scale, where districts serve multiple stakeholders with multiple needs using multiple apps and no central system.

While technology is part of the solution, it does not in and of itself guarantee innovation. Students sitting in cubicles with computers, unengaged, is not innovation. Educators like myself have known for decades what it takes to facilitate personalized learning in the classroom. And research proves it. True learning takes collaboration, individualized feedback, and engaging topics worth learning about. Above all, it takes reading and writing across subjects. Decades of research from the University of Chicago shows that reading and writing across content areas as little as three times per month leads to career and college readiness.

So if that’s all it takes, how do we ensure that every student, in every school and every district, benefits from these research-based best practices? It’s not about making more curriculum. It’s not about finding new ways to assess the kids. It’s about creating and scaling great instruction. Here are three key steps that districts can take to personalize instruction system-wide.

  1. Commit to maximizing student outcomes.

To implement personalized learning at scale, instructional leaders must overcome fear of change and embrace new technology in significant enough ways to matter to the school and district leadership, align their resources accordingly, and make decisions guided by efficacy data in the classroom.

Brad M. Wieher, the district division coordinator for English language arts, reading and ELL at Bloom Township District 206 in Chicago Heights, Illinois, calls personalized learning “our recipe for success.” To offer personalized learning to a wide range of students, the district offers reading courses from strategic to college prep to honors. In these courses, Wieher said, “We utilize resources like ThinkCERCA to tailor literacy instruction to each student’s individual needs and provide both teachers and students with the growth data needed to continuously drive instruction forward through calculated increases in text complexity.”

  1. Embrace rapid cycles of iteration.

I know what it’s like to feel the heavy responsibility of making decisions with taxpayer dollars and our children’s future. But since becoming an entrepreneur, I’ve learned some powerful lessons about rapid, continuous improvement. Like other startups, my ed-tech company, ThinkCERCA, was built on a “build-measure-learn” mentality. Identify a problem you want to solve, determine a metric for success, build a viable solution, and measure its success. Success is about learning and iterating quickly to get to the best solution faster. District and school leaders can easily apply this same mentality to learning.

For example, Farmington Municipal Schools in Farmington, New Mexico, conducts short-cycle assessments every quarter to align learning goals and develop individual teacher action plans. According to director of curriculum and instruction Nicole Lambson, “Teachers and administrators are involved in item analysis of each short-cycle assessment, allowing an in-depth look into the skills needed to be successful on assessments and tasks that align to Common Core shifts and expectations.”  

  1. Support teacher innovators.

Districts that support teachers integrating technology-based resources into meaningful units of study are the most successful. As a first step, I strongly encourage every district leader to offer grants for early adopters.

Since student outcomes take time, make sure that any pilots these early adopters undertake are long enough and the sample size large enough to generate actionable results. If the timeline is shorter, collect evidence that indicates a strong promise of student results based on improved teaching and learning practices. It also helps to create institutionalized innovation spaces for rapid but true product testing so others can see great implementations for themselves.

Lambson says two of Farmington’s middle schools enlisted the support of literacy expert Dr. Katherine McKnight, who “provided opportunities for center-based literacy instruction and encouraged teachers to break away from traditional systems and lean on the innovation, creativity, and curiosity that our students come with naturally.”  

Technology alone is not a solution. The goal should be to find technology that makes it easier and faster to implement research-based practices, freeing teachers to spend more time one-on-one with students. As Wieher concluded, “ThinkCERCA has provided our students with the necessary tools and individualized literacy platforms to move them towards becoming active readers, writers, and thinkers. It is these honed skills that will help promote academic success in all of their coursework, both in high school and beyond.”

Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a leading provider of personalized literacy solutions. She taught English for 15 years, was the founding English department chair at Walter Payton College Prep, and is the former director of curriculum and instruction for more than 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools. She is also the author of the book 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE, 2011).

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Putting Over-Testing and Test Prep in Perspective

Putting Over-Testing and Test Prep in Perspective

Reduce interim testing and embed performance assessment into the curriculum.

By Stuart Kahl

What’s the Problem?

In our increasingly data-driven world of education, concerns about over-testing are greater than ever. The number of tests students take over and above the classroom tests developed and administered by teachers has risen dramatically over the past decade. This increase is partly the result of federal policy that attaches high stakes to the results of student testing through the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top Program, and NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Some research studies estimate that, on average, a student can be expected to take well over 100 of these “external” tests during his or her precollege years in school. The real issue is the instructional time not only lost to test administration but to test preparation as well.

Which Tests Are Necessary?

There is no question that the proliferation of testing in the U.S. is problematic. So it’s not surprising that efforts are underway at many levels (local district, state, and federal) to identify and eliminate unnecessary testing and related test preparation activity. Let’s dig deeper into just what assessments might and might not be necessary.

Classroom assessment is a vital part of the learning process. Informal and formal measures used in the instructional process of formative assessment and classroom summative assessments used for assigning grades are all necessary. Regarding statewide accountability assessments, it has been said in the past that a corporation would never devote as little time and as few resources to evaluating the quality of its products or services as states commit to this testing. Because states are responsible for public education, statewide assessments are necessary, and they can provide valuable information to guide program improvement. So the real over-testing problem, consistent with the findings of the research, is due to the large number of interim assessments that school districts utilize.

General achievement measures, with a thin sampling of the content and skills covered in a full year of instruction, are sometimes used on an interim basis for purposes of growth monitoring and “early warning”—the identification of curricular topics or students requiring additional attention before high-stakes summative testing. But how many such interim measures are really necessary or even useful? If too many general achievement measures are administered, the learning intervals between test administrations become shorter, and measurement error could overshadow real growth in terms of what the test results show. For statewide accountability systems using growth models, it is growth over a full year that is of interest. State-provided pre- and post-measures in some grades and subjects are all that are necessary for those grades and subjects. For growth monitoring or “early warning” purposes, how many external general achievement measures administered throughout the school year would be needed? One or two, at most?

Other interim tests are benchmark tests covering recently taught material. Regular classroom summative tests—end-of-unit or end-of-marking-period tests—are benchmark tests, but so too are some of the tests districts get from external sources. So here is where there is some duplication. The teachers’ tests are probably better aligned with the content of local instruction than “off-the-shelf” tests from external sources. However, teachers, in producing their own tests, may draw high quality items from item banks from external sources to produce well-aligned benchmark assessments or benefit from some other customizable tools provided by vendors.) In any case, in addressing the over-testing problem, unnecessary duplication in the use of various interim assessments should be examined.

When Is Test Prep Time Important?

It’s certainly not unusual for districts to allow several days of review for final exams. This reinforcement—revisiting of curricular content—is important in the learning process. Why should this be different for state end-of-year tests? The content of these tests is important and closely aligned to the state content standards to which local curricula and instruction are supposed to be aligned. Committees of teachers and curriculum specialists work with state departments of education and their testing contractors to assure that this is the case. So the problem isn’t that teachers and students spend too much time preparing for statewide end-of-year tests. A problem arises only if there are too many other tests for which prep time is allotted.

What’s the Best Use of Interim Tests?

Some districts have decided to forgo final exams and base student grades on interim benchmark tests. Similarly, the Every Student Succeeds Act now allows states to combine results of interim measures to satisfy accountability requirements. One of the problems with this approach is that interim testing occurs right after tested material is taught, and performance would not likely be as good if tested later. Clearly, retention of important content and skills should be a goal of instructional programs!

If interim state assessments involve the same kinds of efficient tests used at the end of the year, focusing on foundational knowledge and skills as opposed to deeper learning, then they just increase testing and disruption of instructional programs. Ideally, interim measures for statewide accountability programs would test what the efficient, end-of-year measures cannot test effectively: deeper learning—the ability to apply foundational knowledge and skills to significant, real-world problems.

The Solution

Thus, in the opinion of this writer, the solution to the problems of over-testing and too much test preparation is to eliminate unnecessary interim testing and to implement a two-component state accountability assessment system. The two components would be (1) an abbreviated, efficient end-of-year test and (2) interim performance assessments that are curriculum-embedded—that is, integral parts of tried-and-true, state-approved instructional units, yielding student work evaluated for both local and state purposes. In this way, a state’s interim assessments would no longer require additional, separate testing and associated preparation time.

Stuart Kahl is founding principal of the nonprofit assessment organization Measured Progress. A former elementary and secondary school teacher, Kahl frequently writes about the value of assessment in education.

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