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The Whole Picture

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Most administrators reach for test scores when they think of data-driven decision-making. With geovisual data, you can consider the demographics of your district. By Heather Beck

In the Lake Oswego School District, we’re working hard to create an exceptional learning environment that meets the needs of all students. And one way we do that is by using data to support our decision-making.

Our teachers use the results of formative assessments to monitor their students’ progress and make sure they are on track toward meeting grade-level standards. We also use student achievement data to inform teachers’ professional learning and drive continuous improvement.

Our efforts aren’t confined to using classroom analytics, however. We are now deploying district-level analytics, including demographic information from our community, to anticipate future needs, plan ahead, and make the best decisions possible for our students and their families.

We were fortunate to be recognized by ZipRealty this past summer as a top-performing school district with affordable housing. This kind of recognition brings more interest from prospective families, and as families move into the district, we need to know where best to allocate our limited resources.

That’s why I’m excited about a new decision support tool we’ve just adopted called GuideK12. It’s an administrative decision support platform that allows us to overlay information from our databases onto a map of the district and then interact with the data. This lets us see the information through a whole new lens, adding another dimension to our strategic planning.

Here are three key ways that a geovisual support tool will benefit our district.

1. We can allocate resources more effectively.

We can use the software to visualize certain trends and patterns to anticipate future needs. For instance, we can see where our elementary students who struggle with math live, and we can assign an extra math specialist at the middle schools where those students are most likely to attend. This enables us to be proactive instead of reactive in addressing our biggest challenges.

2. We can plan more efficiently.

A couple of examples come to mind. We can draw a radius from any point in the district and determine the students living in that area to inform them of any emergency information needed. Secondly, if we were to add National Weather Service data on top of our student map during a weather-related emergency, we could see which schools and students would be most affected by the storm, and we could plan accordingly—such as figuring out the best locations for emergency shelters.

3. We can visualize the outcome of various choices.

We can run different scenarios to see how certain decisions would affect our community. Each scenario we run is stored in the software for future discussion. We can use this feature to make hard choices about sensitive subjects like school boundary changes with as little disruption as possible, reducing the emotion throughout our decision-making process. With a few mouse clicks, we can visualize the populations of students that would be affected, simply by drawing different boundary lines or making other changes.

Finding the ideal place for special programs that meet our students’ needs, understanding the shifts in our rapidly evolving demographics, analyzing the impact of various scenarios, and making smarter, more strategic decisions: All of these are now possible when we add a geographic element to our data use.

Being able to visualize such a wide variety information in real time will make us much more informed and efficient. Our teachers and administrators are excited about the possibilities for using data in much richer, more creative ways.

And expanding our thinking beyond student achievement data lets us use resources more effectively, and it allows us to be more proactive in our decision-making—which will serve us well as an evolving district in demand. Being able to see individual student information to help kids in the classroom is a high priority to ensure every student excels.

Heather Beck is superintendent of the Lake Oswego School District in Oregon.

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Audio and the Core Assessments

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Audio and the Core Assessments

All you need to know to choose between headphones and earbuds for test-taking students. By Tim Ridgway

 When school technology directors and administrators are thinking about this year’s newly mandated audio requirements for language arts assessment, their minds immediately turn to headphones and headsets. And they should. However, there’s another audio option that many may not be aware of, one that involves a much smaller investment: earbuds, which come in a variety of models that sport diverse features to fit the needs of any classroom. 

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced require audio technology be available to students for use during the English language arts test. Students who require text-to-speech features on the mathematics test also need this option. Earbuds fulfill Common Core State Standards assessment requirements.

Not all earbuds are created equal, though. Here is what decisions makers should look for when selecting earbuds for student use.

 Affordability

All school district leaders, regardless of district size, are looking for cost-effective solutions to maximize budget when investing in education technology. Earbuds are a budget-friendly strategy to prepare for assessments and equip students with a single-use solution in today’s classrooms. At a fraction of the cost of headphones, earbuds fulfill both assessment and daily-learning requirements.

 Warranties

An important factor to consider when purchasing audio ed tech is whether the tools come with a warranty. Saving money in the short term doesn’t help if you spend more later. Select earbuds include a one-year warranty specifically to cover use in schools. Read warranties carefully as consumer brands typically consider school use as “institutional” and more demanding than less stressful home usage. Those warranties may not cover the day-in and day-out demands placed on products by students in classrooms.

 Microphones

Headsets aren’t the only audio tools to feature microphones. Many earbuds offer inline microphones on the cords to support speech intelligibility and develop speaking and listening skills defined in state standards. Finding earbuds that include this feature can save money by investing in a single device for multiple types of work.

 Resizable

Not all learners are the same. Earbuds that include an extra pair of ear pads can better fit younger learners.

 Diverse Plugs

With 1:1 initiatives continuing to roll out in districts around the country, earbuds that are available with a variety of plugs are versatile tools that can work with a number of mobile devices. Some earbud options include a 3.5mm plug and similar plugs that can be used with computers, tablets, and smartphones, while some earbuds feature a USB plug for increased compatibility with devices. Each plug is designed to fit the needs of individual classrooms and can be chosen based on student learning needs and device availability.

 Single Use and Reusable

Because earbuds can be single use or reusable, they are appropriate for multiple educational settings. Single-use earbuds are the most affordable option for providing audio equipment, so they are a cost-savvy strategy for fulfilling testing and classroom needs. Reusable earbuds are an alternative option for classrooms using audio equipment in learning environments other than a one-time testing situation.

 Just as not all schools are the same, not all earbuds and AV equipment are the same. The advantage of this is that you have the opportunity to select from a diverse pool of solutions in order to maximize your technology investment and support learning and assessment goals in your district.

Tim Ridgway is vice president of marketing for Califone International LLC. To learn more about choosing the right audio equipment for your school, visit califone.com/blog

Image: Getty Images

Ed-tech_pulse

Check costs, demand guarantees, and don’t forget to ask for references.
By Rob Waldron

As detailed in the first article in this series, administrators and district leaders are tasked with finding products and services that support and meet the ever-changing needs of teachers and students. This challenging process can be simplified by following some key steps.

In this second article based on Curriculum Associates’ Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, additional steps to help successfully navigate the ed-tech purchasing process are provided. 

8. Pay Attention to Service. It is important to discuss service—including account management, data migration, roster sign-on, and the product roadmap—at length during the sales process. At the end of this process, administrators should know the following: how different tiers of support are handled; what the company’s contract renewal rate is; who will be the account manager (make sure to meet that person); and the CEO’s (or other executive’s) mobile phone number in case something needs immediate attention.

9. Understand Total Cost of Ownership. It is important to have a clear understanding of what a given product is going to cost, including any hidden fees, such as the professional development needed for staff to implement the product, ongoing costs for licensing, installation training, IT support, and troubleshooting. Regarding PD, a good rule of thumb is to assume that it will be 20 percent more than what was originally budgeted, so keep this in mind during the procurement process.

10. Demand Guarantees and Assurances. Administrators should always ask for a money-back guarantee and pricing assurance when negotiating a new contract for their district. To prevent being overcharged, ask vendors to send the last 10 sales prices (per student served) for districts of your size and ask that the vendor’s CFO certify the authenticity of this information.

11. Find Ways to Save. Work together with the potential vendor to figure out how both parties can save money. When asking for discounts, get a sense of the vendor’s real costs, such as having one of their employees travel to an all-day training at your district, and then discuss ways to economize. This could include having a company representative fly out and train everyone at the district once over a few days rather than making multiple visits, or exploring the differences between seat-based and site-based licenses. The top vendors will be able to provide the district with the best ways to be cost-efficient.

12. Ask for References. While this may seem like a no-brainer, references are one of the best ways to gauge a potential vendor. E-mail or call at least five references and leave the following message, “If you think the product and service of [the company] is truly outstanding, please call me back and leave a message. Otherwise, there is no need to call me back.” If the references don’t respond, you might want to find another vendor.

13. Implement, Implement, Implement. For a product to be successful, it is very important that it is implemented correctly and that everyone on staff who will use or support the product receives the proper training. Administrators should strive to find a product that works well for an “average teacher” first—not the highest performer or a struggling teacher—and then work to get everyone using it to take its usage to the next level.

14. Remember, it’s a Journey. With ever-changing technology advances, as well as curriculum requirements, there is no product that is truly future-proof. So it is important to focus just as much on which vendor you want to engage in a long-standing partnership with, and how well you believe they will adapt to any necessary changes. 

The last piece of guidance really sums up the ed-tech purchasing process: it’s a journey. Administrators should remember this and plan accordingly to make it a successful one for all involved.

Rob Waldron is CEO of Curriculum Associates. To download a complete copy of the Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, with in-depth information on each tip, visit www.curriculumassociates.com/lp/EdTech-buying-guide.aspx.


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7 Steps to Making Successful EdTech Purchases

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7 Steps to Making Successful EdTech Purchases

How to determine what you need to purchase to meet your goals.
By Rob Waldron

From blended learning and flipped classrooms to BYOD and 1:1 initiatives, the adoption and use of educational technology has grown exponentially in the past several years in many schools and districts nationwide. It has become an embedded part of the teaching and learning process. Now, with the transition to the Common Core State Standards, technology has the potential to play an even more pivotal role in classroom instruction if it is implemented properly. With the new, more rigorous standards, administrators and district leaders are tasked with finding products and services that are built for the CCSS to help students—and teachers—thrive.

Purchasing educational technology—either to address the CCSS, or to complement other teaching and learning initiatives—can be challenging. It can be simplified, however, with some guidance. This is the first article in a two-part series based on Curriculum Associates’ Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, authored by me and my colleagues, which will provide 14 steps to help you successfully navigate the ed-tech purchasing process. 

1. Take Inventory. It is important to take an audit of what technology—hardware, software, and apps—is already in place and being used regularly before looking to purchase new technology. When conducting the audit, which can be done electronically using a free tool like Zoomerang, be sure to ask all staff members: “Which tools are you using most?” “Which tools are you using least?” “What are your top three favorite tools?” “Which are your least favorite?” And, for all of these questions, ask “Why?”

2. Determine Your Educational Priorities. Create a small committee of three to ten people and share the results of the audit with them. Then, ask the key question put forth by Clay Christensen, author of Disrupting Class, “What is the product being hired to do?” When you figure out what that answer is—for instance, to increase student math scores by 10 percent, or move 25 percent of teachers from an effective to highly effective rating on their evaluations—make sure your committee unanimously agrees upon it.

3. Don’t Customize (Too Much). While each district has unique traits, it is important for administrators to remember that their technology needs are most likely not that much different from the needs of other districts. The bottom line is that spending extra money on customizations can often be unnecessary. Administrators should be specific with a given technology provider about what they want but be careful not to overreach.

4. Consider Collaborative Buying. By becoming a member of a purchasing consortium or buying cooperative, schools and districts can purchase products at a negotiated price lower than the one companies list. This can help a district save money, as well as time, since many of these organizations typically have already completed lengthy RFPs.

5. Make Real Comparisons. Require that vendors make clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of their product versus competitive products based on specific, data-driven criteria. Also, make sure to ask specific questions, such as “What are the results from your program in other schools?” and “What is your renewal rate as a percentage of sales?”

6. Know Data-Integration Capabilities. It is essential that all technologies be seamlessly integrated across multiple platforms and that the data garnered from those technologies is easily shareable among stakeholders. Administrators should work with companies that integrate and partner with other providers so that extra work is not being created for district staff members.

7. Consider a Pilot. Once a product has met a district’s initial criteria, administrators should consider launching a pilot. A pilot offers what a free trial often does not—the ability to use the product in one’s own schools with one’s own students. When coordinating the pilot with the vendor, it is essential that the planned pilot has the following: specific goals, internal champions (or eager volunteers), a sufficient length, a planned conclusion, transparency, and some type of monetary investment.

The second part of this article series will cover seven additional steps for making the ed-tech procurement process a smooth—and successful—one.

Rob Waldron is CEO of Curriculum Associates. To download a complete copy of the Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, with in-depth information on each tip, visit www.curriculumassociates.com/lp/EdTech-buying-guide.aspx.

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Killeen_pulse
Unlocking the Key to Personalized Learning

Blended curriculum allows for differentiation in this Texas district.
By Lynn Young

My diverse, 30-year career in K–12 education—including both general and special education—has taught me that each student deserves rigorous, standards-aligned instruction. While this has always been a foundational idea and professional vision of mine, it was not until recently that, through the help of technology, I was able to deliver a truly personalized, standards-aligned curriculum to all of my students.

As Killeen Independent School District’s (KISD) Executive Director for Special Education, I serve more than 52 elementary, middle, and high schools located in central Texas. From an outsider’s perspective, KISD may seem like a typical district; the student demographics, however, make Killeen unique. The district is comprised of more than 42,000 students. About 11 percent of our kids are in special education, while 50 percent are children of active military or civil service families. Both these groups present challenges to our goal of providing a rigorous and aligned curriculum that meets the needs of each individual student.

Take, for example, KISD’s transient military population. While a typical school may receive a few transfer students annually, KISD has a mobility rate of more than 30 percent—in other words, about one-third of KISD’s student population is either coming in or leaving due to their families’ military assignments every year. Each student arrives with a different educational background, leaving our educators and administrators with the important task of evaluating their knowledge quickly and efficiently, to identify their knowledge gaps and learning strengths. Similarly, in special education classrooms, KISD needs to deliver personalized instruction to students to close learning gaps and meet the state requirements of their IEPs.

When given the opportunity to implement a new math and reading curriculum prior to the 2010–2011 school year, our military and special education students weighed heavily in my thinking. In searching for a solution, I had three priorities:

  1. The solution must be customizable, allowing for personalized lessons and content for individual students, including assessments.

  2. The solution must easily and continuously track and report student progress.

  3. The solution’s software must be user-friendly for both educators and students.

 After months of research, I selected Pearson’s SuccessMaker, a researched-based educational software for personalized digital math and reading curriculum. I chose it because it focused on effectively addressing individual learning needs while supporting the instructional goals of our district. The implementation of SuccessMaker created a blended learning environment, with daily use of the software varying across schools. For example, during the first year of implementation the students at Clear Creek Elementary used the program for 15- to 20-minute sessions three or four times a week, while students at Harker Heights High School used it for 15- to 20-minute session three or four times daily. One of the strengths of the program is that it’s able to adapt to the learning needs of each student; it continuously analyzes performance, while identifying areas for remediation or acceleration, and effectively estimates the amount of time necessary for students to reach achievement levels.

The results speak for themselves. Within five months of starting the program, special education students at Harker Heights High School demonstrated 1.13 years of academic growth in reading and 1.43 years of academic growth in math. Furthermore, by the end of the 2013–2014 school year, 92 percent of special education students in Manor Middle School’s eighth grade who were building reading skills with the program passed the state reading assessment on the first attempt. For military special education students who spent the recommended time on the math curriculum, we saw a steeper learning trajectory than for special education students who were not using the program.

Additionally, we saw significant improvement on less tangible learning goals. Students were excited to interact with the technology and reported that the online program increased their confidence. One ninth-grade English language learner said,

“I like SuccessMaker because it helps make math and reading easier on the computer.  It is better listening on a computer than to a teacher. You get to have confidence in yourself.  SuccessMaker helped give me that confidence, a lot!”

To me, this testament speaks volumes. Anything that makes learning more enjoyable and increases student confidence, all while delivering aligned curriculum, is a huge asset. In fact, due to the success of the program, the 2014–2015 school year marks the first year that the online program will be made available to all special education students within the KISD.

Our adoption of SuccessMaker aligns directly with the national educational transition away from the traditional “seat time” methodology, in favor of a structure that promotes flexibility, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. The bottom line is this: It is our job as administrators always to be looking for avenues to enhance education for our students. Personalized learning tools provide the opportunity to further engage students, address diverse learning styles, and provide the resources and content that address their immediate and future educational needs.

Lynn Young, Ed.D., is currently the executive director for special education at Killeen Independent School District in Texas. She has worked in the education field for more than 30 years, in positions ranging from speech therapist to principal. She has spent the last 10 years specializing in special education.

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Middleschool_pulse

Benchmarking the Road to College

This school reverse engineered key college predictors to help students start to reach their ultimate goal as early as fifth grade.
By Mike Lucas

As a social studies teacher, a reading teacher, and now as a school leader, I’ve been part of Baltimore’s KIPP Ujima Village Academy since it opened in 2002. KIPP Ujima is a public charter school in Maryland that serves kids in fifth through eighth grades, and we’ve got our eyes on the prize: excellence without exception in every area of our students’ lives.

We serve just more than 500 students, 99 percent of whom are African-American and 85 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In the past 12 years we helped our students achieve some of the highest scores in the city on Maryland’s state assessment, a tremendous achievement by any scale. But that focus on state test performance diverted us away from our mission. We realized, as we saw our kids struggle to succeed in high school, that we weren’t giving them what they needed to determine whether or not their academic performance and behavior in school were putting them on track to enter college.

Research shows that middle school, the time when children enter adolescence and undergo profound developmental changes, can be treacherous. Kids report higher stress levels, relationships with family become tense, and on average we see a drop in school achievement and engagement. To counter these trends, we’ve put supports in place to meet the learning needs of all of our students. We’ve done this in two important ways: by creating a grade-level team-teaching structure that builds in planning time while fostering teacher collaboration; and introducing our Made for Maryland program, which helps us assess whether students are where they need to be in order to be college-bound.

We knew it was important to find a new way to support educators systemically in their grade and curricular area in order to serve students best. When our school opened in 2002, we had 90 kids per grade with five teachers and one special educator on a grade-level teaching team. We expanded and last year doubled to 180 kids per grade level. This increase in enrollment meant that we could now have two teaching teams at each grade level, with 90 kids each. This growth allowed us to structure our school day so that each teacher is afforded two built-in planning periods, plus lunch, for a total of three hours of planning time every day. With two teams per grade level, every instructor has a partner teacher who is covering the same subject.

Having time to collaborate with a planning partner allows teachers to constantly learn from one another to improve their practice and better support students in the classroom. Goal-setting is an important aspect of teacher collaboration for us. While each grade has its own goals, teachers are responsible for creating and implementing the plan for student achievement relative to those goals. For some, this can be as simple as grouping students. Our classrooms are heterogeneous, so teachers have to do their own grouping. Using assessment data for instructional differentiation, teachers are able to work together to make helpful comparisons among students that accelerate learning.

Beyond supporting great instructional work, we needed a workable frame for understanding whether or not our kids were on track to succeed in high school and college. This is the core goal of our Made for Maryland program. To build such a framework, we looked at the value of a place like the University of Maryland. This university is an affordable public school with a high graduation rate, including a 73 percent minority graduation rate. The University of Maryland is a great local target for our students, but it is also very difficult to get into, with a 47 percent acceptance rate. To gain entrance, students need proof of academic achievement.

With the University of Maryland as our target, we wondered how we could measure whether a student was on pace for acceptance, even as early as fifth grade. We created a three-part initiative that we called Made for Maryland.

First, we emphasized the importance of students’ everyday academic performance, as measured by grade point average. We know test scores help get you into college, but GPA is a much better predictor of college success. If students want to go to college, they have to get good grades in the years leading up to college. We set our bar at 80 percent for the honor roll. To be Made for Maryland, however, students must earn an 87 percent overall average.

Second, we have traditionally sent home a character report card at the end of each quarter. Like many KIPP schools, we teach and measure seven character traits that we believe are the key to academic success: grit, zest, optimism, curiosity, self-control, social intelligence, and gratitude. Students learn about each of these traits in homeroom every day. Teachers score students on a ten-point scale at the end of each academic quarter. Any student with an 8.0 overall average is Made for Maryland.

Finally, we wanted test scores that mattered. We needed test scores that went beyond the proficiency information we got from the state assessment. We found what we were looking for with the computer adaptive Measures of Academic Progress assessment from Northwest Evaluation Association. MAP provides immediate feedback to teachers about student learning by pinpointing where students are ready to advance and where they need help, regardless of grade level. Students achieving growth in the 75th percentile and above are deemed Made for Maryland, meaning that they are on track to be accepted into a highly competitive public university like the University of Maryland. Students in the 50th percentile or above qualify as “college-bound.

Because we now have ample information about where students are in their learning and how they are behaving, when a student has fallen behind or made a series of bad choices, we can demonstrate how these actions impact a specific part of the equation. This data helps us to clearly explain to parents where kids are, what their college outlook is, and what needs to change to get them on track.

“My daughter needed a school that was challenging and better than the average middle school. I was sold on the slogan Knowledge Is Power—and the commitment to prepare her for high school and college,” said Janet Alford, parent of a seventh grader.

We believe students need to be prepared in all three of these areas to be truly college- bound. So every fall, each kid looks at last year’s MAP scores and sets growth goals for the months ahead. We have conversations with kids about where they are and where they need to be in eighth grade. When we take MAP for a second time in winter, our kids are really excited. They defy the stereotype of the typical disengaged middle schooler. When you walk around our building during MAP testing week, 100 percent of the kids know their score and their goal. They earn stickers that say “I’m Made for Maryland,” “I’m college-bound,” or “I made my growth goal.” Our kids are achieving in a way that will get them into college, and we know it. That’s powerful. 

Mike Lucas is principal of KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter school in Baltimore serving more than 500 students in grades 5–8. At KIPP Ujima, students attend school for up to 8.5 hours a day, as well as three weeks in the summer. 

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MLK_pulse

Keeping Dr. King's Dream Alive

Students from across the country talk about discrimination, unrest, and demonstration.
By Kim Greene

As protests about the deaths of unarmed black men have spread across the country, conversations about race relations have perhaps never been more relevant in America’s classrooms. In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students from eight diverse schools joined together on a webcast to discuss King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as it relates to both current and historic events.

The webcast, which was held by New York’s Rochester City School District and Cisco, in conjunction with the Council of Urban Boards of Education and the Council of the Great City Schools, served as a national dialogue on racial inequality. It was a platform for students to educate others about how far the country has come in realizing Dr. King’s dream—and how far it still has to go. “The students are the teachers,” said Van White, board president of Rochester schools, who moderated the event.

Dr. King’s Key Ideas

Students dissected four themes from Dr. King’s famed speech: segregation and discrimination; unearned suffering; unrest, discontent, and demonstration; and his dream. For each theme, one school examined the idea in the context of events leading up to or during the civil rights era, while another school considered how the theme relates to the present day. Students expressed their ideas—and, in some cases, frustrations—in the format of classroom discussions, poems, and videos.

Participants from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9, a PreK-8 school in Rochester, talked about the history of segregation and discrimination. They discussed what King meant when he said African-Americans were crippled by the “chains of discrimination.” Students cited examples of separate and unequal access to education and facilities, all while passing around chain shackles that would have been used to restrain slaves.

Students from MetEast High School in Camden, New Jersey, were then charged with answering the question of whether or not segregation and discrimination exists today. Two students shared powerful poems referencing examples of present-day discrimination, including questions about police brutality toward the African-American community. “Why is it only our people hitting the ground?” asked one poet.

Primary Sources

The 2014 deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were central to the discussions throughout the webcast. But they were especially at the core of what students from those two cities contributed to the conversation.

Brooklyn Preparatory High School students were tasked with analyzing today’s unrest, discontent, and demonstration. The teens offered firsthand accounts—the stuff that primary sources are made of—since many of them have taken part in the recent Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. They debated if Dr. King would have approved of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and they drew comparisons between those protests and protests of the civil rights movement. One student noted that Dr. King was the face of civil rights, but in the Black Lives Matter movement, there are many faces. “We don’t just need one face. Eric Garner is a face. Michael Brown is a face. Trayvon Martin is a face,” he said.

Students from Missouri also offered a prime view of race relations. In the video “Are We Living ‘The Dream?’” students from McCluer South-Berkeley High School in Ferguson, Missouri examined whether Dr. King’s dream has been realized. Teens compiled footage of the protests taking place in their own community, as well as of a school walkout that occurred when a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown. To end the video, students asked school staff and fellow teens if Dr. King’s dream had been fulfilled. Some said yes, referring to examples of integrated schools and towns, while some said no, citing incidents in which they had been personally discriminated against. Others fell in the middle, summing it up in a few words: “Dr. King’s dream is a work in progress.”

Image: Courtesy of Ryan Griffith, Rochester City School District

OERs-pulse

Open Education Resources or OER:
What They Are and Why They Matter

By Tyler DeWitt

You’ve probably heard the term open educational resources (OER), but what are they and why are they important? And how can teachers use them in the classroom?

OER are a growing body of free and diverse online instructional materials that are in the public domain (read: no copyright issues). Most of these resources are the work of teachers and educational organizations with firsthand experience of what helps kids learn, and what doesn’t.

A growing number of innovative teachers and schools are adopting these versatile resources, which, in the K-12 education world, where I work, are in the form of lesson plans, video tutorials, PDFs, and all kinds of interactive learning tools. Teachers are using OER to supplement their own teaching materials, or to enhance (or even replace) traditional textbooks.

One of the beauties of OER is that the materials are typically offered in a mix-and-match format, making it easy for teachers to develop the curricula they find most effective. The key here is flexibility – and not only in how and where teachers and students use OER.

Already vast, the OER universe is expanding all the time. New content is constantly being developed, and since OER are copyright-free, teachers can often modify and redistribute these resources. What’s more, unlike traditional textbooks, which are updated perhaps once a year and tend to come with hefty price tags, OER are constantly absorbing and accommodating new information, and they’re always free.

Differentiate With OER

Let’s face it, everyone learns differently. With OER, teachers can search out materials that address each student’s needs – for example, video lessons that allow students to watch, pause, and rewind at their own pace or materials designed for English-language learners that help them master language skills and content. In fact, the blended-learning model, in which a teacher presides over a class of students, each of whom works with a customized set of instructional media, is essentially OER in action. But even in classrooms where teachers still use traditional textbooks, OER can enhance lessons by providing extra practice or deep dives.

Because OER often have a pedagogical component, they can help teachers identify strategies, activities, and supporting materials for introducing concepts in the classroom. Traditional textbooks are filled with information, but when a teacher needs to find creative ways to help students learn that material, they generally offer little guidance.

That’s where OER come in.

Say a teacher is covering weather. A textbook might talk about meteorology and weather patterns, but it’s extreme weather that’s more likely to spark students’ interest, at least at first. The first stop for a teacher using OER could be OER Commons (oercommons.org), where a search for “extreme weather” brings up ready-made worksheets and activity suggestions.

From Smithsonian Education (smithsonianeducation.org), educators can download activities created by the National Museum of Natural History about weather patterns and storms, complete with maps and exercises. It’s like taking your students to the museum! YouTube EDU (youtube.com/education), an education-only part of the video-sharing website, has tons of videos that both inform and inspire (full disclosure: I have a popular science-education channel on YouTube).

Assemble Powerful Tools

A common concern among teachers is how to integrate OER into existing curricula. Some sites, such as Betterlesson.com, organize content by Common Core standards so instructors can quickly find resources that supplement particular topics. Sites like Readworks.org tie material directly to specific textbooks that a teacher may be using in class. The site has a wealth of resources for reading comprehension, including activities and worksheets that can provide important contextual information or explore plot elements, literary devices, and characters.

Teachers who want to use OER to replace textbooks entirely also have good options. The CK-12 Foundation (ck12.org) and The Connections Project (cnx.org) allow you to assemble your own full-length digital textbooks (often with accompanying teachers’ manuals and other supplementary material) that are free, high-quality substitutes for mass-market texts. Even for teachers who want to continue with commercial textbooks, OER can help students understand material in different ways or from new perspectives.

Whether printed or virtual, textbooks paired with video are powerful tools for flipping the classroom and blending learning strategies. Examples of high-quality educational videos can be found at the Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) and YouTube EDU (youtube.com/education).

Find the Best Resources

Despite, or perhaps because of, the abundance of OER content, quality can vary. Even the best online libraries and information repositories find it hard to rank resources based on such a subjective measure as “quality.” But there are a few solutions. Search rankings can be proxies for quality rankings. Many websites let users review resources, with the best-ranked items moving to the top of search queries. Shopping by “brand” can also help assure quality. Once you’ve found a source you like, you can return to find other content.

Another option is to rely on your peers. A variety of content management systems, like Curriki (curriki.org) and Net Texts (net-texts.com), where I work, allow teachers to put together courses using OER from multiple sources (Net Texts offers a curated collection of material from other sources as well as a library of more than 1,000 original courses). These curricula can be shared with other instructors, who can reuse or modify them to fit their students’ needs. While all this requires a bit of front-end effort, once the initial work is done, it’s easy to incorporate incremental changes.

For teachers who embrace OER, the pedagogical opportunities are limitless. Used in 1:1 computing programs, blended learning environments and flipped classrooms – even in traditional classrooms that need to enliven core content lessons – they offer easy-to-implement solutions that can mean the difference between engaging and ignoring the infinite capacity of a young mind.

Tyler DeWitt is an education innovator and the first director of original content at Net Texts, a leading developer of OER-based teaching aids. Dr. DeWitt came to national attention when he created Science with Tyler DeWitt, one of YouTube’s top educational channels. His TED talk has been viewed almost 1 million times.

 

Image: 4Max/Shutterstock

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. 

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

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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.