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Next-gen_pulse

Finding the Right Next-Gen Assessment

What to look for in your online program.
By Todd Beach

As educators, we’re all familiar with the problems associated with traditional print-based assessment: It’s time-consuming. It has limited flexibility to assess student knowledge. And it’s slow, which makes it hard to get meaningful, actionable data in a timely fashion. Methods to help in one area—such as using bubble sheets to reduce scoring time—give rise to other problems, such as limiting question types and ways of assessing students’ subject knowledge.

Online assessment is one way to improve these areas, but it also has some drawbacks. Many online assessments digitize traditional print assessments to save time on scoring, but they lack significant improvement in key areas, such as immediate actionable data for differentiated instruction in the classroom. Plus, these systems don’t necessarily support new methods that enhance student learning.

A better answer: a next-generation assessment solution.

What does it take for an assessment tool to qualify as next generation? In my opinion, a “next-gen” assessment tool should be intuitive, adaptive, and flexible enough to continuously be a generation ahead of a school’s or district’s needs and goals. It should go well beyond simply digitizing the traditional assessment approach. It should include features that enrich both the teaching and learning processes.

At Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools (ISD 196), in Minnesota, we’re providing a truly next-generation assessment solution for our teachers. We started our search for a solution several years ago, and today we are reaping the rewards. We began in 2010 with a group of early adopters, and since then the platform’s use has spread, initially from teacher-to-teacher; last year it went district-wide. We have found that our next-gen assessment platform provides teachers with actionable data for differentiated instruction andhelps both impact and transform student learning through more meaningful student-teacher discussions, personalized feedback, and student reflection.

Richer Data for the Personalization of Learning

The most beneficial feature of a next-gen online assessment platform is the resulting in-depth, actionable, individualized, and immediate data for each student. The data provided by these platforms makes it easier to identify where students’ learning gaps are and where they have been. Having multiple years of data at my fingertips has allowed me to reflect on my teaching practices and better meet my students’ needs. At the district level, teachers across all of our schools are now having the same experience.  

Next-generation assessments also allow our teachers to generate assessments with their colleagues, and to share results with students instantly, without waiting for a printed version. This allows students to immediately reflect on their results, and to use the platform to communicate with their teacher about what they understood and what they may need additional help with. Our teachers can better understand how each student learns and thinks, and they can encourage students to take more ownership of their learning.

These rich nuggets of data are also extremely beneficial to parents. Although most grade books are now available online, looking at a current or final grade provides only superficial information about a child’s progress; it doesn’t offer insight into how a student learns. Next-generation assessments show student performance based on benchmark standards, informing parents where their child’s learning challenges and successes lie.

Richer Discussions

Next-gen assessments lead to more engaging, informative, and collaborative discussions between teachers, providing deeper inquiry into student understanding as well as potential instructional gaps. Our teachers collaborate within teacher teams online, sharing item development and assessment creation and instructional resources, and tying them together through shared curriculum maps. We use the results of common assessments to compare classroom performance by learning target as well as individual questions. This provides meaningful quantitative data to aid our professional learning community (PLC) discussions.

Richer Feedback and Reflection

Not all online assessment solutions are next generation. A next-gen assessment should provide the ability to gain deeper insights into students’ understanding and engage the student in learning. We use processes such as confidence-based assessment, student justification/journaling, and student self-assessment and reflection to facilitate student-teacher conversations during the assessment process. We believe that, in conjunction with a variety of question item types, these processes help our teachers reach a deeper understanding of their students and facilitate teacher-student feedback more successfully than traditional methods. Perhaps more important, these features facilitate student self-assessment and help students gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging more ownership of their own work.

Intuitive and Adaptive

At ISD 196, we’ve been using Naiku as our next-gen assessment solution since 2010. It fits the intuitive, adaptive, and flexible criteria I believe next-generation assessment solutions should have. From the outset I noticed features within the platform—the rich student performance data and metacognitive processes—that I immediately identified as long-term benefits for myself, my peers, and the entire student body. This next-gen assessment platform fit my needs wonderfully at the time. And as I expanded my use of Naiku, the developers responded to feedback to ensure it would meet my future needs, which has been incredibly valuable. Five years later, the program continues to adapt to our district’s needs.

This school year, Naiku added “Curriculum Maps” and “Adaptive Learning Resources” to its platform. These features further extend our teachers’ capability to collaborate on standards-based learning and help personalize learning for students. With Adaptive Learning Resources, in particular, our teachers can automatically provide instructional resources to students based on performance, immediately after test submission. For example, those students who do poorly on a particular standard can immediately receive remediation resources—perhaps an instructional video—while students who do well can be sent enrichment resources.

Your Next-Gen Solution

So what does next generation mean to you? What procedure have you implemented in recent years that remains useful and relevant to you and your educators?

As you search for an online assessment platform, I encourage you to evaluate whether the assessment solution you’re considering does what you need it to do rather than what it says you need. Consider the following questions as part of your checklist:

  • Is it intuitive for your teachers’ use?
  • Does it provide richer data that’s easily shared?
  • Does it facilitate teacher collaboration?
  • Does it help increase student-teacher feedback?
  • Does it engage students beyond the traditional assessment experience to accelerate learning?
  • Does it aid personalization of learning?
  • Will the platform adapt and grow with your needs?
  • Will its developers welcome feedback from users and make every effort to stay ahead of users’ needs and challenges?

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then you may have found your next-gen assessment. If you mostly answered “No,” then keep looking. The right solution is out there for you.

Todd Beach is the district curriculum lead at Independent School District 196 in Rosemount, Minnesota. He taught social studies for various grade levels throughout ISD 196 for nearly 25 years. In 2010, the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies named him the Minnesota Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Beach is also a consultant for the College Board.

Image:  Ian Lishman / MediaBakery

Skype_pulse

Demystifying Computer Science

Skype’s program connects students with industry experts to explain different computing jobs.

By Wayne D’Orio

Two facts: In just five years, one of every two STEM jobs will be in the computing field. About 9 out of 10 schools don’t teach any computer science. With Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code movement starting today, many schools and companies are beginning efforts to shed light on the first fact, and change the second.

One of those companies is Skype, which is taking the simple step of connecting students with computer science experts to show kids what the experts do, how they prepared for their job, and why they like the work.

“Skype enables students to engage with real people, putting a human face in front of the ones and zeros, taking the nerd out of it, and hopefully engaging students in the excitement of a career in technology,” says Ross Smith, the director of test for Skype and an Hour of Code participant. “These kids have grown up with technology, but they don’t make the connection” to computer science, he adds.

While most of the Skype calls are with middle school students, Smith says a colleague of his had a chat recently with kindergartners.

“It opens up a whole new world for these kids,” says Sandy Gady, a middle school design and engineering teacher in Des Moines, Washington. The class regularly uses Skype, and it’s become second nature for her students to set up a call. “Anything they can think up, they can automatically find a resource and set it up,” she explains. “They like the fact that they are in control of their learning.”

Skype in the Classroom, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, allows any teacher to sign up in less than a minute, and then explain who their students are and who they want to connect with. When a match is made, both sides are contacted to work out details. Microsoft YouthSpark and Skype’s program, while ongoing, supports Hour of Code.

Smith says that he constantly reminds today’s students to “dream bigger than you can” because it’s likely the future will outpace their expectations. “I work with people in India and Europe every day, and I walk around with all of human knowledge in my pocket,” he says.

Gady says her students even use Skype to set up ad hoc tutoring with classmates. She wonders if the connections will naturally cut down on bullying. “It’s hard to bully someone who is helping you,” she adds.

Schools can get involved with Skype in the Classroom at education.skype.com, or set up an Hour of Code event by registering at hourofcode.com.

Watch the video to learn more about Skype in the Classroom and Code.org's collaboration:

 

 Image: Courtesy of Skype

Salt-lake-city-pulse

Innovations Bold Gamble

Salt Lake school puts students in charge of their learning—and their curricula, and their schedules.
By Wayne D’Orio

Kenneth Grover had a big problem without an easy answer. As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, he saw firsthand the struggles of the city’s high schools. Graduation rates were slowly increasing but they weren’t budging beyond 80 percent.

Not satisfied with adding a percentage point of progress every year, Grover knew a different model was needed. “Nothing changes with outcomes if you don’t change the inputs,” he says.

He did his homework, absorbing Clayton Christensen’s seminal book Disrupting Class, poring through Daniel Pink’s writings on motivation and success, and even gleaning insights from Steve Jobs’s best-selling biography. He visited schools, hopping from San Diego to San Francisco to Florida, searching for models he could emulate. While none of that work resulted in an “aha” moment, he did slowly zero in on what he thought would work best. Simply put, he aspired to create a school where students were in charge of their learning, directing the time, path, and pace of their education.

All of this work led to the hardest part of his journey: getting the Salt Lake City Board of Education to turn his concept from an idea into a living, breathing school.

“We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” he says. “We wanted to teach kids how to structure their own day.”

Grover presented his idea to the board. After the proposal was tentatively approved, he gave the school a name, Innovations Early College High School, and started recruiting students. Board members reacted immediately. “They brought me in front of the board for a three-hour Q&A and none of the questions were positive,” he remembers.

Once they saw he was serious, it was more than some board members were ready for, Grover says. “Board members said, ‘That’s the craziest idea we’ve ever heard of. You can’t do it.’ They added, ‘Show us a model that works, and we’ll support it.’” When Grover told them no schools existed at this level and depth of student-directed learning, the board said it couldn’t approve the school.

That’s when the meeting got even more contentious. Grover told the board, “If the premise is to find something that’s successful, are we closing our traditional high schools?” He explained that with a graduation rate of below 80 percent, he didn’t consider any of the city’s existing schools a success. “That really shook them up,” he says. “You said you wanted leaders,” I told them. “This is what leadership looks like. I’m not a manager.”

From Drawing Board to Reality

Fast-forward three years: Grover is holding court in the gorgeous lobby of his new high school. Students check themselves in and out of the school by smartphone, set their pace in classes that they choose, and in some cases even pick which books they will read. However, in many ways, the school looks like a “regular” school. Students sit in classrooms, sometimes being taught by teachers but more often working alone with headphones on. They consult with peers or teachers when necessary.

So is Innovations successful? Has it reached the goals set by Grover? Yes, and no. Last year’s senior class of 55 students had a graduation rate of 89 percent, and Grover hopes this year’s group of 89 students hits 95 percent. But for a high school principal who tells parents, “A high school diploma is meaningless,” he’s aiming much higher. This year, one student is expected to graduate with an associate’s degree already completed, thanks to Salt Lake Community College, which shares the building with Innovations. “In five years, it would be nice if half of our students graduated with an associate’s degree,” Grover says. “That’s ambitious.”

During a recent visit, a group of nine students sat in a semi-circle, answering questions from visitors with nary a school official in sight. While they all spoke enthusiastically about Innovations, I noticed none of their answers was the same. One student came to Innovations because a medical condition caused him to fall behind in his studies and he needed time to catch up. (“Although I’m smart,” he added.) Another mentioned how the small environment allows people to get to know you personally. One student spoke of the freedom to take one class at a time, concentrating solely on a single topic for weeks, while another mentioned that a typical day for her ping-pongs between working on U.S. government studies, completing a creative writing assignment, and then, after lunch, taking part in student government.

In a way, the answers backed up Grover’s initial concept: Students are a collection of individuals and treating them that way will improve their engagement and allow them to learn at their own pace.

When I told Grover his students all seemed bright, and asked if the first-come, first-served public school catered to a somewhat elite group, he quickly mentioned that “a good 10 percent were reading two levels below grade” when they started at Innovations. But with the school’s blended concept, they were given the materials and the time to backfill their knowledge and bring themselves up to, and usually beyond, grade level. Another student got pregnant, and Grover said teachers told her she would have to frontload her work to stay on target. She did, took time off for childbirth, and remains on track to graduate, he adds.

Creating a New School Model

Setting up a school without too many rules is, in some ways, like building a house without a blueprint. Each decision has to be considered, agreed upon, and carried out, all without the benefit of following more than a vague outline.

“The first year was a rough transition,” Grover says. For instance, English teacher Heather Bauer notes she excelled at classroom management. But when she enthusiastically switched to Innovations, she realized her skills didn’t quite apply anymore. Since she’s not often at the front of the room, the dynamic is different; now, when a student acts out, she can talk to them one-on-one immediately.“It took me some adjustment,” she admits.

“I don’t lecture all day, but I do have classes,” says Bauer. “We do have lessons. They last as long as they have to. Some students leave early, others stay.” The best part of Bauer’s day, however, is the one-on-one time she has with students. “I get to reach each kid where they are and I get to help them move forward. Ten minutes of dedicated time with one student can mean more than hours of lecturing. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

The school’s curriculum is online. Some of it is purchased, some created by staff. Teachers are responsible for being in school eight hours a day (students attend six and half hours, anytime between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.). Salt Lake’s union contract calls for eight-hour teacher days, but about six and half hours of that is spent in school, while the rest is taken up by grading papers, creating lesson plans, and other work done after school. Innovations’ teachers do all of their work in school, with the expectation that they shouldn’t have to keep working when they leave the building. The fledgling school of 320 students has seven full-time teachers and one half-time teacher, all of whom chose to work at Innovations because of the model. No teachers have left, reports Grover.

Each teacher mentors just over 40 students, meeting them weekly either in person or via e-mail to assess their progress. Mentors send out a progress transcript to parents once a month. Math teacher Chris Walter says he regularly sends notes to fellow teachers detailing which students are behind in their class work; his colleagues then find their mentees on his list and address any issues in their next weekly meeting.

Language arts teacher Dana Savage talks about how something seemingly as simple as meeting students weekly took a while to sort out. Because students progress at their own pace, the conferences are helpful checkpoints during which to set goals. What Savage quickly learned was that many students preferred to connect on Mondays. With some weekly meetings taking up to 30 minutes, Savage realized she needed to formalize her process, mandating that students sign up for slots so she can balance her work. Savage spends her time divided among four tasks: mentor meetings, class meetings, grading, and helping students individually.

Grover, when asked what aspects of the school he’s nailed, and what he is still working on, grows animated. “We’ve nailed the culture, we’ve nailed the rigor,” he says proudly. “We’re working on cross-collaboration among teachers.” Teacher evaluation is also still being defined. With so many kids working on their own, Grover and the staff are puzzling over how to create an evaluation model that best fits the school’s workflow.

Acclimating Students

Giving students this much freedom, when most come from Salt Lake’s traditional schools, took some adjustments, too. “One of our teachers said it best today,” Grover says. “We hold their hand a little more until they can fly. Some figure it out in a few weeks; some take three to four months. We build in structure as needed.”

Freshmen start out with a rough schedule, making sure they understand the school’s ethos before being cast out on their own. Some students can earn a credit in one week’s time, while others accomplish nearly nothing, says Grover. “It’s fascinating to see the lights turn on.” Conversely, he notes that some students do have problems adjusting back to regular classes when they go to college, although “none are hampered by the rigor.”

Students are expected to earn eight credits per school year, though the pace is theirs to determine. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that most students would avoid math as much as possible. To block this, Innovations requires that students stay current and on level with their math and language arts studies.

Classrooms have a collection of students working on their own laptops; they can check out computers from the school, if needed. Students who want courses not offered at Innovations can travel to nearby high schools for these classes. (Innovations is co-located with the district’s Career and Technical Education Center, so classes in hairdressing and automotives are offered on-site.) The school has just a couple of clubs, but no sports or music classes; students can participate in those extracurricular activities at the school in their zone. The district of 25,000 students operates four other high schools.

Innovations offers AP classes, but with the community college located just across the hall, most students are choosing to simply take college courses for extra challenge. After paying a $40 registration fee, students can take as many college classes as their schedule allows.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

When asked if the Innovations model would spread to the city’s K-8 schools soon, Grover shakes his head. “Give me a break,” he says, with mock indignation. “This is hard. I don’t want to get fired.” However, the blended learning idea is already spreading to the city’s four other high schools, and a three-year plan exists to push student choice into middle schools.

Similar experiments are sprouting up in other parts of the country. Partly because Innovations’ model doesn’t call for any radical restructuring of a school’s physical space, other districts have started to create their own student-driven schools. Twenty-two school districts in Kentucky are implementing personalized learning after visiting Innovations. An extremely rural district in Indiana is implementing the idea, while other districts around Utah are piggybacking on the model.

“We’re starting to build a little network,” Grover says proudly.

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

Reading_pulse

Common Sense for the Common Core

Four ideas to help maximize your schools’ chances for success in implementing the new standards.
By Regie Routman

As a mentor teacher, leader, and coach who has been working in diverse classrooms and schools for more than four decades, I’ve learned that no matter what reforms, standards, or new programs come along, literacy achievement gains tend to be fleeting. Here’s what I’ve observed over and over: Without administrators who have a solid knowledge of effective literacy instruction, schools wind up focusing on implementation of isolated skills and/or standards with the hope that all the parts will add up to something meaningful. At best, this yields short-term gains and superficial learning. A good example is No Child Left Behind. After many years of a national commitment that cost billions of dollars, most students got good at phonics but showed no measurable growth in reading comprehension. My concern is we may soon see a similar outcome with the Common Core standards, and educators, parents, and the public will once again become disillusioned. So let’s take a look at the historical and present realities to assess what is possible and advisable.

The Common Core State Standards—or some set of common standards and framework for what kindergarten through high school students need to know and be able to do to pursue college and career goals—became necessary when it was blatantly apparent that not all students in U.S schools had equal opportunity to learn. In particular, factors including income inequality and school re-segregation doomed many poor and minority students, as well as English language learners, to an inferior education, with the result that many of these students routinely performed at least two years below grade level. In addition, many schools had not been challenging, engaging, or meeting the needs of large numbers of average-scoring and high-performing students for years. The need for common, high standards with content that spirals coherently from grade to grade was real.

Implementing the CCSS has become even more complex in the wake of the recent U.S. midterm elections, as more state governors have said they intend to replace the Common Core with homegrown standards. Also, some educators now view the CCSS as another fad that we need to “wait out.” The reality is that standards are necessary but insufficient; all standards are eventually replaced by “new” standards and expectations. Propelled by continuing pressure for quick results and high-stakes consequences for failure, schools understandably implement new reforms, mandates, and standards, but often without sufficient preparation or support for teachers. Predictably, we wind up with disappointing results.

So what’s a conscientious administrator to do? The vision and goals of the CCSS are commendable. In the hands of a masterful teacher supported by a knowledgeable administrator, standards are a plus. However, despite worthy intentions, two huge obstacles may eventually cause the downfall of the Common Core, and both are common-sense factors.

  1. First, the success of these new, higher standards depends on teachers and leaders knowing how to expertly implement them. Many teachers, principals, and administrators have not been properly prepared to teach reading and writing well, and they are relying on rapidly proliferating “Common Core-aligned” materials, most of which are severely wanting; even for experienced teachers, implementing the standards is daunting. The challenge for administrators is to provide professional learning that puts the highest priority on ensuring all teachers receive a deep foundational knowledge that transfers to expert instruction in the classroom. Without that theoretical and practical knowledge, teachers cannot effectively implement the CCSS or expertly teach and assess. Effective application of complex tasks and concepts requires a high level of expertise, and such expertise requires time and practice through well-planned, long-term schoolwide professional development. We are a “quick fix” society, and we often reject a commitment to long-term goals and outcomes. 

  2. Second, and attached to the first factor, is the high-stakes testing that accompanies the standards. History tells us that such stakes breed fear and distrust as pressure mounts for results. What’s on the test is what gets taught, resulting in a narrow curriculum broken into bits and pieces to “match” the test. Rather than relying on putting our efforts into high-level professional learning for all teachers and leaders, we waste enormous sums of time developing, preparing for, and executing tests with major consequences for students, teachers, families, and society.  

Administrators need to take the lead in providing the guidance, coaching, and expert professional development teachers need to successfully implement and sustain any set of literacy standards or learning outcomes. Here are some recommendations and actions for teachers—and administrators, too—for where put the literacy emphasis to increase student learning.

  • Become discerning readers and writers. We cannot teach what we do not know or value. Apply what you do as a strategic reader and writer to teaching readers and writers. Let students know how and why you read and write for real-world audiences and purposes that go beyond the classroom—and this may include blogs, social media, opinion pieces, and more.

  • Do more read-alouds of excellent literature. In the course of reading, think aloud to show students how readers figure out vocabulary, question the author, make inferences, reread when confused, notice the author’s craft, and so on. Your read-alouds should include more emphasis on nonfiction.

  • Embed shared experiences in your teaching. Before asking students to read complex text, read complex text with them. Demonstrate “close reading” and reason through how to find, use, and analyze evidence from the text to make meaning and support a point of view.

  • Organize curriculum through emphasizing big ideas and important concepts. The best place to start is with the K-12 Common Core anchor standards for reading. These include key ideas and details, craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, and range of reading and level of text complexity. Beware starting with small pieces of the standards; teachers and students can get stuck in the details and never get to the highest levels of understanding.

The Common Core State Standards are a worthy ideal of what’s possible for our students but they should be approached with perspective. Standards do not transform teaching and learning; effective teachers supported by knowledgeable principals and administrators do. Implementation and “how” to effectively instruct and assess student learning requires years of professional learning with skillful teachers, coaches, and leaders in a culture of trust, inquiry, coaching, collaboration, celebration of strengths, and, yes, even joy. In such learning cultures, students, teachers, and leaders thrive. It is up to knowledgeable administrators to ensure teachers and principals do not continue to drown in a culture of minutiae over testing and teaching to individual standards. Rather, savvy and courageous administrators ensure that being accountable for students’ engagement, enjoyment, and success as readers, writers, and thinkers comes before any set of standards, assessments, or mandates.

Regie Routman is an educator who works with teachers and administrators in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement for all students. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). She can be contacted on regieroutman.org.

Image: Getty Image

PD_pulse
How to Support and Develop Your Staff

Use professional development to boost teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

By Donald J. Fraynd

In part one of this story, I talked about how to best identify and interview the strongest teacher candidates.

Finding and hiring quality candidates are just the beginning of the journey, though. Quality professional development is the best way to develop and maintain teacher effectiveness and, ultimately, to increase student achievement.

Many districts may think they have effective PD programs yet don’t realize their teachers may not be benefiting much from these efforts. In 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked, “What do you think we spend on professional development each year? $2.5 billion. But when I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry. They are not feeling it.” A 2013 study by the Center for Public Education found that most teachers find their professional development programs to be “totally useless.” One-time workshops are the most prevalent model for delivering professional development. Yet researchers have found that workshops rarely influence or change teacher practice and student achievement. This is troubling for an industry that costs $2.5 billion annually. What’s worse is that when teachers don’t benefit from professional development, neither do their students. Schools are missing out on a huge opportunity to develop more effective teachers and increase student achievement. How do we fix this? We commit ourselves to implementing high-quality PD plans.

High-quality PD should include the following four characteristics: it’s personalized, it’s inclusive, it’s data-driven, and it uses technology.  

Programs should be highly relevant to the district, school, and most important, the teacher. Administrators have to address factors like low-income, special-needs, or gifted students. The most essential component of a quality PD program is that it is customized based on the strengths and weaknesses of an educator. As mentioned in part one of my column, research has found four key success indicators of an effective teacher: teaching skills, qualifications, attitudinal factors, and cognitive ability. This baseline candidate information is the foundation upon which a robust professional development plan is built. Quality PD addresses specific challenges in the classroom, school, and district in an effort to support teachers, giving them the knowledge and resources needed to be successful.  

Inclusiveness is another important component of a robust professional development plan. It’s important to get the teachers themselves involved. Teachers should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and they should be involved in the goal-setting process and creation of their program. What do your teachers think of the current PD program? Create a free online survey with a tool like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms to get feedback about your current program. By asking teachers which subjects or activities would be most helpful, they feel supported, appreciated, and involved.  

Data collection is increasingly popular in schools as it’s the most objective way to measure progress. Thus, a robust PD plan should include a strong data component in order to track teacher progress and show that the plan is working. Schools should be collecting teacher and student data so that they can align PD efforts with student success. Quality professional development will show improvement in teacher effectiveness, and in turn will improve student performance. For example, if we know that math instruction is a weakness for a particular teacher, we can look at teacher and student performance in a math unit before and after the teacher takes a math-instruction PD course. It’s important that teachers see where they are growing and what needs more work.

Finally, technology is an essential component of quality professional development. Technology makes PD more efficient, measurable, and relevant. Software has made it easy to plan, track, and grade. Programs like TeacherMatch Thrive, integrated with Schoology, Desire2Learn, and Moodle, allows you to search for courses based on set goals and send the course to a teacher to sign up. Tools like TeacherMatch Thrive automatically track progress and award credit-based progress in the course.

Perhaps teaching is perceived as an “average” career choice by today’s college students because schools have a hard time identifying and developing effective teachers. That perception was built by the teachers these students had while growing up—teachers who probably didn’t have access to quality PD. It’s time to elevate the teaching profession and give students the best opportunity to succeed by recognizing the importance of quality professional development programs and the impact they can have on teacher effectiveness.

Donald J. Fraynd is CEO of TeacherMatch, a data-driven, people-powered formula for success for K-12 education talent management. As a principal in the Chicago Public Schools, his school was rated in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report. He is part of a team that spearheaded the design and implementation of a comprehensive hiring and professional development plan involving thousands of teachers and used by the U.S. Department of Education. Contact him through TeacherMatch.

Image: Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Hire-teachers_pulse

How to Identify, Hire, and Develop More Effective Teachers
By Donald J. Fraynd

Is teaching a profession for “average people”? According to a recent poll by think tank Third Way, a large percentage of millennial college students look at teaching in this light. Yes, there may be average teachers out there, but it certainly takes an extraordinary person to be an effective teacher, one who advances student learning and achievement.

It’s difficult to develop and retain high-quality teachers, and equally difficult to identify which candidates can make the most impact on student achievement. A resume and brief interview don’t provide enough information. It’s important for administrators, principals, and fellow teachers to understand what characteristics will predict whether teacher candidates will be effective. Undoubtedly, certain qualifications provide clues to future performance, but many in the position of hiring overlook other, more powerful indicators that could explain why one teacher succeeds and another does not.

Assess and Identify

According to an extensive review of literature on teacher effectiveness, certain knowledge, dispositions, and traits from three areas are just as important as qualifications: 1) attitudinal factors; 2) cognitive ability; and 3) teaching skills. Recent research that uses results from this review have made it possible to develop a powerful tool that is used to predict the impact a candidate will have on student achievement. Developed by an interdisciplinary research consortium made up of top universities, scholars, and nonprofits convened by TeacherMatch, the educator’s professional inventory (EPI) represents a shift toward adding science to the art of teacher selection. After taking an online assessment, a tool like the EPI can rank candidates based on potential impact on student achievement. 

A district HR director once told me that when he first took on his job, he went through a list of all the new teachers who were hired over the past five years. He noticed a disturbing trend: All of the teachers hired had last names that started with A through F. He realized that the district system sorted resumes in alphabetical order and that the hiring managers were getting worn out by time they got to the candidates farther down the list.

The EPI eliminates this problem by displaying the top candidates for each position, not by an arbitrary filing system but by their potential to impact student growth. I generally recommend that districts start by interviewing the top five candidates on the EPI candidate grid. Candidates are invited to interviews based on objective measures related to potential success on the job rather than more subjective techniques like resume reviews or personal connections.

Interview and Hire

Used in concert with powerful interview practices, a tool like the EPI can help school leaders transform the hiring process. For example, TeacherMatch’s research from the Northwest Evaluation Association and the University of Chicago suggests that baseline attitudinal factors correlate with teacher effectiveness. Traits like emotional objectivity, empathy, the belief that all students can learn, and positivity are great indicators of an effective teacher. A University of Memphis study called, “Highly Qualified for Successful Teaching: Characteristics Every Teacher Should Possess,” found that compassion and humor increase effectiveness in the classroom. It’s important to look for these traits in the interview process. After using a research-based tool like EPI to rank candidates by their potential for having a positive impact on student achievement, interview questions can be designed to delve deeper into candidate attitudes. Some sample questions might be:

  • Describe a time when you did not succeed.
  • Give an example of a time when you had to adapt because a situation changed at the last minute.
  • How do you stay positive when others around you are not?

Knowledge of strong instructional practices and teaching skills are also extremely predictive of future success in the classroom. It’s critical to see candidates in action as part of the hiring process. Candidates in the final round of consideration should prepare and teach a sample lesson. Principals should use a rubric that measures the level at which a candidate is enacting strong instructional practices. It’s also important to gauge cultural competence. Another strategy: Give a group of final teacher candidates a culture-focused education article to read and then review the group as they have a discussion. A research-based assessment in concert with powerful interview techniques can give decision-makers the full picture they need to make strong hiring choices.

In part two of this story, set to run on December 2, find out how a strong professional learning program can help to support and develop your teachers.

Donald J. Fraynd is CEO of TeacherMatch, a data-driven, people-powered formula for success for K-12 education talent management. As a principal in the Chicago Public Schools, his school was rated in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report. He is part of a team that spearheaded the design and implementation of a comprehensive hiring and professional development plan involving thousands of teachers and used by the U.S. Department of Education. Contact him through TeacherMatch.

Image: Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Mathskills_pulse

Making Math Relevant

Connecting math to real-world jobs shows students its importance.
By Joseph Goins

“I'm never going to use this in real life!” This is a response that teachers, particularly math teachers, hear almost every day. To the students making this remark, math is just a bunch of computations on a screen or board that they're forced to wrangle with for no good reason.

As educators, we know that's not the case. Even manufacturing jobs now require strong skills in mathematical concepts such as fractions, decimals, and basic trigonometry. So how can we help students see the meaning in math? Hundreds of software programs have been developed to guide learners through mathematical complexities but how do educators convince those learners that the effort is worthwhile? The answer: Bring relevance and context to the subject.

Career and technical education (CTE) provides a prime example of how to help students make the connection between math and real life. Applying classroom learning while working with the technology required for a chosen career path has proven to be so engaging that the Association for Career and Technical Education reports that among the advantages CTE students exhibit are gains in motivation, engagement, grades, and math skills.

The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education took math skill advancement a step further by developing a Math-in-CTE model in which lessons emphasized the mathematics already existing within the occupational curricula. After just one year, students in the math-enhanced CTE classes performed better on standardized and community college placement math tests than students who received the regular CTE curriculum. Those results are especially impressive since regular CTE students were already reporting greater general math proficiency than students not involved in CTE.

To help teachers bring this concept into their own lessons, my company launched a career-based math solution, WIN Math, which contains math and project tools formed around 16 different career clusters.

Within the framework of linking real-world projects to math, teachers can include not just obvious choices such as STEM professions, but also law and public safety, corrections or security, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and natural resources. Lesson units can conclude with individual or collaborative projects based on authentic workplace tasks such as the following:

  • Creating a “green” blueprint (uses algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus/calculus, probability and statistics, linear programming)
  • Producing a marketing plan or performance chart (uses algebra, calculus, mathematical economics, statistics)
  • Developing a disease prevention/response program (uses pre-algebra, algebra, statistics, dimensional analysis)
  • Arguing a legal case centered on a math-based problem, such as time and distance in a murder trial (uses algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, finite mathematics, statistics)

The added advantage of the career-based approach is that it gives students a taste of what a particular profession entails. For that reason, the career paths chosen as lesson frameworks can be aspirational as well as practical.

The U.S. education system is facing increasing demands that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. To accomplish this, students need to understand why math matters. To do that, educators need to form a math curriculum around business and industry skills to help them connect what they’re learning to the real world.

Joseph Goins is executive vice president of WIN Learning, a software firm focused on career and college readiness initiatives. Goins is a doctoral candidate in education policy and administration at Vanderbilt University.

Image: Getty Images

Data-security_pulse

Busting the Student Data Privacy Myth

It is possible to balance security with data-driven instruction. Here are five ways to achieve a balance that works for administrators, parents, and technology companies.

By Jack Macleod

Tracking student data gives educators the power to make more informed decisions in their instruction for better student outcomes. But with great power comes great responsibility.

That’s why schools and ed tech companies alike are increasingly making student privacy a top priority. Still, many remain wary about data privacy issues—often due to confusion or lack of information on how the issue has progressed.

Let’s set the record straight on how education-technology companies and schools can find the right balance between the benefits of data-driven instruction and maintaining student privacy.  

Myth #1: The privacy-concern drawbacks of tracking student data outweigh the benefits.

Fact: Student data is an invaluable resource, not only to school leaders and educators, but also to parents and students. School leaders use student data to direct decision-making. With enough data, they are able to synthesize information about student performance school-wide and identify whether additional education resources need to be allocated. It also helps teachers drive their instructional choices because they can see where students are excelling and in what subjects they might need more support. Student data gives parents and guardians a window into the classroom so they can better support their child, and students have access to more comprehensive feedback so they can make better choices about their education.

The proof is in the research, too—data-driven instruction leads to better student performance. According to a 2012 report from the Data Quality Campaign, in a study of Oregon schools, those who provided embedded data training for teachers saw a significant boost in test scores and decreased the achievement gap in reading and math at a faster rate than schools without access to data training.

Myth #2: Digitally stored student data will follow a student for the rest of his or her life.

Fact: Best practices set by leading education organizations call for the safe and responsible deletion of student data. School leaders know that student data is not a new concept—schools have stored analog data in files for years. Not only is it easier to safely purge digital data records, but influential education organizations provide guidelines for schools on how to handle student data and make sure vendors are disposing of this data responsibly.

CoSN released the toolkit Protecting Privacy in Connected Learning earlier this year. Schools are advised to contractually require vendors to 1) only keep data as long as it is necessary to perform the services to the school; 2) return all records and delete all copies in possession upon termination of a contract; and 3) dispose of collected data by reasonable means to protect against unauthorized access.

Myth #3: Vendors will sell student data to marketers.

Fact: Under FERPA, a vendor cannot use education records in any way that is not authorized by the school district it serves. By penalty of law, vendors are required to protect student data and forbidden to sell the information. However, there is a valid concern that some companies will use the data themselves for marketing efforts. It is important for school leaders to make sure contracts with vendors specify that the school or district owns the data and clearly defines how the vendor will use the data. Many vendors committed to education are voluntarily making changes to contracts to address these concerns, as well as taking extra precautions with data security.

Myth #4: Student data can be hacked easily.

Fact: Many ed-tech companies are taking steps to protect student data. In an effort to be a trusted resource to the schools they serve, more and more companies are putting industry security standards and best practices into place to make sure student data is as secure as possible, including utilizing SSL encryption and performing regular penetration testing, vulnerability management, and intrusion prevention. At my company, Alma, one of the driving factors of creating an all-in-one secure platform is that data can flow seamlessly between tools with lower security risk. Schools are getting smarter about which companies they decide to work with, too. CoSN compiled a list of question that school districts should ask when looking into a potential vendor.

Myth #5: Parents don’t need to have an active role in setting privacy norms and policies.

Fact: Parents are key stakeholders in the issue of student data privacy. Schools have a responsibility to make sure parents and guardians understand what measures are being taken to protect their children’s information. The Department of Education released a list of best practices for such conversations. There are also a number of resources available from organizations such as Common Sense Media and the Data Quality Campaign that school leaders can suggest to parents so they can become more informed about privacy issues.

Ultimately, it comes down to finding that balance—a solution that offers mission-critical information to schools, teachers, parents, and students while ensuring that information is accessed safely and securely. Once the fear of “big, bad student data” is relieved, schools can receive the full benefits of the information and the insight that student data can provide.

Jack Macleod is president of Alma, an education technology company that offers a holistic student engagement platform for K-12 schools and districts. Alma has offices in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.

 Image: MediaBakery

Digital_pulse

Making the Digital Leap, Safely

Successfully adopting tablets in one small suburban district.
By Philip Ehrhardt 

In the fall of 2013, stakeholders from the district and I began to envision what 21st-century learning was going to look like at Benjamin School District 25. Because we are a small suburban district outside Chicago, we knew we faced challenges that larger districts do not encounter. We also knew we wanted to focus on creating an environment where students could learn whatever they wanted to learn, whenever they wanted to learn it.

Today’s students are accustomed to having information at their fingertips. They are tech-savvy and equipped to learn in a way that my generation never thought possible. Recognizing this new level of online engagement, we began our digital transformation to a 1:1 blended learning environment in the fall of 2014. Students in grades PreK-2 use clusters of iPads, while students in grades 3-8 receive Dell Venue 11 tablets.

The technology committee spent a year creating a strategic vision for the transformation. We developed a series of action steps to guide our shift, which was informed by visiting schools that had successfully integrated technology into their instruction. The Benjamin leadership team also drafted goals for curricular content, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity and innovation, which were affirmed by district stakeholders, including principals, teachers, and board members. And we specified strategies, responsibilities, and a timeline for implementation.

Choosing a Digital Solution

Selecting the right digital content and instructional tools is not an easy task. To find a solution that best fit our needs, a team of Benjamin staff members, parents, and students participated in the selection process for software and digital content. The team was looking for a tool that provided high-quality learning resources to support differentiated instruction, develop a formative learning environment, and ultimately engage students to perform at higher levels. During this search, the team followed strategies defined in the implementation plan to select a solution that fulfilled Benjamin’s instructional goals.

As a school district, we value resources that are curated and aligned to state and Common Core State Standards to save our teachers time, support assessment preparation, and provide measurement tools for personalized learning. We also wanted a solution that could be implemented before fully shifting to a 1:1 environment, giving educators enough time to familiarize themselves with the new tool and its support features. Based on our needs for curated, standards-aligned resources that support personalized learning, we chose icurio, an online content provider that also offers professional learning.

Developing a transformation plan and outlining district goals was key in helping us identify the solution that worked best for our schools. As districts begin their digital transformation, it is important to include a variety of people in the selection process, such as students, teachers, and school staff members. Their voices provide invaluable insight and support when making such a monumental decision.

Confronting Challenges

Digital transformations require professional development for teachers of all skill levels and experience. Smaller districts like Benjamin have fewer professional learning resources to support educators in such wide-scale transformations. Therefore, it was crucial for us to find a digital solution with quality implementation support.

To make the implementation process easier for the district, the selection team prepared a comprehensive overview of icurio for Benjamin’s board of education. The presentation explained how each grade level would use the digital resource and how students in all grade levels would benefit from the company’s more than 360,000 standards-aligned digital resources. 

Implementing these new resources prior to our full digital transformation also eased the process for our educators, as it gave them a chance to explore the application and request more content they needed for specific lessons and units. Choosing materials that can grow with our district was a major factor in creating a lasting and successful digital transformation.

Experiencing Success

Ultimately, we have been successful with our digital transformation because we focused on the instructional shifts rather than the devices used and we found a solution that supported our goals. As we did walk-throughs of classrooms, we saw an increase in student engagement and motivation. And students and teachers have told us that the resources from icurio are relevant and correlate closely with our district’s curricula.

Our short-term goal is to continue to provide customized professional development to enhance the integration of technology. Our long-term goals are to have students master curricular content and apply their knowledge at higher levels, including creating, evaluating, and analyzing. Also, the district is striving for students to more effectively use 21st-century skills like communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and creativity and innovation.

The digital transformation journey is a unique process for each school district, regardless of its size, and you must find a tool that works best for your district, teachers, and students. Embarking on this journey means that students will be more engaged in everyday lessons and will be learning valuable technology skills that will assist them throughout their lives.

Philip Ehrhardt is the superintendent of Benjamin School District 25 in West Chicago, Illinois. He has served students as a teacher and administrator for 39 years in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. He embraces technology as an energizing, engaging, and relevant tool for advancing learning and teaching.

Image: Cultura/ MediaBakery

Russoelection2_pulse

Who “Won” the 2014 Midterm Elections: Reformers, Teachers Unions, or Conservatives?

None of them, actually.
By Alexander Russo

Did so-called school reformers (pro-charter, pro-Common Core Democrats, mostly) win the November 4 midterm elections, did the teachers unions, or did anti-Common Core advocates (most of them conservative Republicans)?

A casual observer could be forgiven for not quite understanding the national education implications of this year’s just-ended election season. That’s because the dominant media narrative has shifted in the days following the midterms, and it remains somewhat unsettled now, more than two weeks later. 

Most of the attention focused on the battle between pro-reform Democrats and long-standing Democratic Party supporters in the labor movement.

The first wave of news coverage and commentary suggested strongly that the midterms were a big win for reformers. But the second wave of coverage and commentary suggested that the midterms may really have been a big loss for Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party as a whole but not specifically teachers unions.

So who’s right? What’s the real storyline? 

The reality is that the midterm outcomes were inconclusive and mixed for reformers and teachers unions and Common Core opponents. Of course, that hasn’t kept the different sides from doing their best to make it look like they prevailed.

To take the reformers’ side, there is some accuracy to the notion that they had a good election, and the focus on reform wins and union losses was strong in the days immediately after the elections were held. Unions spent on and lost big races in seven states: Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. This was all the more embarrassing given that three of those states—Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts—are thoroughly Democratic. New York's pro-charter, pro-Common Core governor Andrew Cuomo easily won re-election without support from the powerful state teachers union, as did pro-reform senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Immediately following the elections, media outlets such as Politico, Education Week, and others wrote about how well the reform wing of the Democratic Party had done in 2014. The Washington Post followed suit with the headline “Teachers unions spent $60 million for the midterms but still lost many elections.” Pro-reform advocacy group StudentsFirst (until recently run by Michelle Rhee) claimed that its efforts prevailed in more than 80 percent of the 104 races it got involved in. And the education advisor for Mike Bloomberg’s pro-reform Independence USA PAC trumpeted victories in five gubernatorial races, including for incumbents Dan Malloy (D-CT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), and Rick Snyder (R-Michigan), as well as challengers Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Gina Raimondo (D-RI).

“I have to wonder if there are any union leaders expressing misgivings internally about the current ‘defend-all-old-priorities’ strategy,” wrote Andy Smarick, who works for the moderately conservative Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.   

At first, there wasn’t much disagreement about how badly things had gone for the unions. The AFT cancelled a scheduled press call the morning after the results came in. Reform critic Diane Ravitch’s blog post the morning after the midterms was titled simply “Bad News.”  

However, most of the elections didn’t seem to turn on education issues and didn’t feature head-to-head matchups between pro-reform and pro-union candidates.

Much if not most of the money the teachers unions spent was designed to try to help the Democratic Party keep control of the Senate—an uphill battle that few expected to win. The unions were just taking one on the chin for the DNC. 

And so, a day or two later in the week, the media storyline began to change. While the midterms may have been a horror show for Democrats, the teachers unions began to push back against the notion that they’d lost on education issues. Teachers unions had “several victories to celebrate,” noted the Education Writers Association’s public editor, Emily Richmond. “Teachers Unions Say Midterm Losses Don’t Reflect on Them,” ran the title of a Huffington Post article featuring an interview with AFT head Randi Weingarten. “It’s hard for me to understand … what the business types and the testing types of this education debate think they won here,” she said. 

The unions won big with the election of Democratic Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf over incumbent Republican Tom Corbett, a race that turned in part on education cuts made in recent years. And the most closely watched and expensive race that pitted reformers and teachers unions against one another, for state superintendent of education in California, went narrowly to the teachers, with incumbent Tom Torlakson defeating challenger Marshall Tuck. It was closer than many expected, given the advantages of incumbency and the strengths of the teachers union in California, but it was still a win for the union side.

“It’s hard to believe a huge outpouring to defeat Obama—arguably the most powerful force ever to push for “education reform”—is somehow a resounding call for more education reform,” noted reform critic Jeff Bryant.

Understanding the meaning of the 2014 midterms isn’t just important on a factual level (i.e., knowing which side won which races). It’s also important because it shapes how the various parties and organizations think and feel and how fast and far they might try and push their agendas during the next few months and years. The midterm results are a signal to both sides about how they’re doing, and the simplified narrative that gets told and repeated for the next few months will shape those beliefs.

So where does this leave things for the near future?

The most fundamental issue that reformers and teachers unions face together—and have yet to deal with—is that the Democratic Party doesn’t currently appeal very much to white working-class voters who aren’t union members.

A secondary concern that’s been raised by the 2014 midterms is the prospect of further polarization down the line, creating situations in which education candidates beat each other to a pulp while Republicans or other candidates not necessarily so devoted to public education sneak into office.

Whether it’s congressional races, state governors’ offices, or even the White House in 2016, divisions among Democrats could in theory lead to Republican victories.

While unions have to worry about decreasing influence and the ability to deliver elections to the Democratic Party, reformers have to worry about a bipartisan retreat from annual testing required by all states under NCLB. Another reform worry is the rollout of the Common Core assessments this spring and the results they will provide. More than 30 states will receive scores from the new assessments this spring, and they’re not likely going to be easy to look at.

That’s why there were words of caution from the reform side of education’s civil war, too, in the days following the midterms: “We have one year to strengthen the argument for the core reforms under way all across America before the next set of candidates start locking in their positions,” cautioned Duncan’s former communications guru, Peter Cunningham. “The beach is secure, but the threats are never far away.”

Common Core opponents (most of them conservative Republicans, as well as some liberal Democrats), have to figure out how to strengthen their case, as well. They won state superintendent races in Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, noted the Wall Street Journal. Arizona also elected an anti-Common Core governor, Republican Doug Ducey. However, pro-Common Core governors won re-election in at least two other states, and pro-Common Core former Florida governor Jeb Bush seems to be inching closer to a run for president in 2016.

Photo (from left): Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Press; Sacramento Bee/ MCT /LANDOV

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