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TECH Update: Blended Learning

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology.
By Calvin Hennick

During the 2011–12 school year, Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans tried a blended learning model for the first time. The Ashe students, compared with students at three other schools in the charter network, gained an extra four percent in math scores. In English language arts, no substantive impact was measured.

Does that four percent gain in math mean the initiative was a success, given that teachers were implementing a new program? Or is it much too small a return for a school to expect after investing in new technology and training?

Your answer to that question likely determines how you view the latest research on blended learning. (Blended learning is a model in which students learn at least in part through online delivery of instruction, with some level of control over pacing, in addition to receiving traditional, in-person instruction.)

“When you’re looking at something as new as blended learning, there is no established, agreed-upon, single metric for success,” says Cheryl Niehaus, program officer for U.S. Education at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “It’s a very early-stage innovation, and there are different expectations about how quickly any intervention should start to demonstrate results.”

The Dell Foundation funded a May 2014 study that analyzed the impact of blended learning on students at Ashe and several other schools. As at Ashe, the results at most of the other schools showed a slight increase in gains compared with students at peer schools. The findings may be modest, but they’re strong enough that the foundation has continued to make investments in blended learning.

The approach remains exciting, Niehaus says, because of its potential to differentiate and individualize instruction. “The promise of blended and other personalized learning models is to pinpoint where each student is and identify a learning experience that is directly responsive to their needs,” she explains.

Another study, from December 2014, examined results in schools that implemented the Teach to One: Math blended learning model. That study showed gains in math skills that were 15 percent higher than the national average in year one, and 47 percent above national norms in year two.

These results are “promising,” says Douglas Ready, associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University and the author of the Teach to One study. But he acknowledges that it’s impossible to say whether the gains should be attributed to the new technology, the emphasis on differentiated instruction, or some other variable. A future study, Ready says, will help uncover “what’s inside the black box.”

Justin Reich, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, points out that these studies, like many others on blended learning, are quasi-experimental, meaning they don’t include a true randomized control group. The schools implementing blended learning are often extremely motivated to improve their performance, he says, which can skew the results. “In many cases, just about any intervention works a little bit if you have a group of people who are trying to get better at something,” he notes.

Reich says true experimental findings on blended learning can “charitably” be described as “mixed,” but he acknowledges that the idea of using technology to increase differentiation is compelling, and he thinks the model merits continued study.

The hope among blended learning advocates is that developers will use what they’ve learned from the existing research to improve programs—and that even better results will follow. “This is early days,” says Niehaus. “What is most important is leaders are looking at qualitative and quantitative data to understand what we know and what we need to focus on to keep getting better.”

Illustration: Viktor Koen

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

Self-reflection is key to helping drive school improvement. By Baruti Kafele

The principalship is a complex position replete with numerous day-to-day challenges that, quite frankly, not all principal candidates are built to meet. To be successful in this business, a principal must skillfully juggle challenges that range from student achievement, motivation, and conduct to staff effectiveness and morale to parental engagement and school safety—and everything in between. It takes a special person to lead a school, whether at the elementary, middle, or high school level and whether in an urban, suburban, or rural setting.

With the myriad challenges that principals face, the self-reflection process is unavoidable. To perform consistently at an optimal level, self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-adjustment must be major components of each principal’s practice.

There are so many aspects of the principalship that require regular self-reflection. When I compiled my 50 reflective questions for The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, I categorized them into the following 10 categories:

  • The Attitude of the Leader
  • School Brand
  • School Climate and Culture
  • Building Collegial Relationships
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Accountability and Responsibility
  • Planning, Organization, and Time Management
  • Professional Learning for the Leader
  • Professional Learning for Staff
  • Parental and Community Engagement

The first category—the Attitude of the Leader—sets the stage for everything that comes next in a principal’s school and career. The first question I pose in this category is simple but important: Do I lead with a definite purpose that drives everything I say and do? With this question, I’m asking the principal to reflect on several more specific questions: Why do you lead? Why do you want to lead? What is your purpose? What drives and moves you? Why do you bother to do this work?

A principal must have a clear and personal purpose for leading that goes beyond traditional responses such as “to provide my students with a world-class education.” While this is indeed a noble purpose, I want the principal to dig much deeper―to develop a unique purpose that is both reflective of himself and the overall school community. This will be the driving force behind everything he says and does within the realm of the principalship.

I often compare the principal’s purpose to the words in a dictionary. Each word has a definition. None has a blank space next to it. The definition is what gives the word meaning. The principal’s purpose must work the same way. If the principal has no defined purpose for her principalship―if there’s a blank space where a purpose should be―then the principalship has no meaning. The principal may show up to work and take the required actions on a day-to-day basis yet still remain at a leadership deficit with no direction. The principal’s leadership style and goals, in this case, are undefined.

A school’s overall success is directly tied to the principal’s sense of purpose. When I was a school leader, my purpose was “to motivate, educate, and empower every student in the building.” It was my alarm clock—my personal reminder of why I woke up in the morning. It screamed out to me every day and reminded me what was important and what I needed to focus on.

Finding and pursuing a purpose is not as simple as it sounds. A purpose brings expectations with it. Mine brought with it a heavy—but worthy—load to bear: my students’ motivation, education, and empowerment began with me. But, once that purpose was established and that expectation was set, they drove my daily words and actions.

Just like I did, I strongly encourage every principal to pay attention to why he or she leads. Determining this will then help the principal better understand his or her role and establish a plan. When it comes to school success, the attitude of the principal is a crucial factor: A school needs a principal with clear purpose and the drive to bring that purpose to life.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author. His most recent book, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, was published by ASCD in March. Under his leadership, Newark (N.J.) Tech High School went from being a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's best high schools.

Tax Preparation 101


Tax Preparation 101

Students at this Texas high school have generated $24 million in tax refunds—and counting. By Kim Greene

Students at University High School in Waco, Texas, have been burning the midnight oil for the past few weeks. They’re not cramming for tests or rehearsing a school musical, though—they’re preparing income tax returns free of charge for residents in their community.  

The students are part of the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program designed to help low- and moderate-income taxpayers file their returns. For the past 10 years, University students have completed roughly 15,000 electronic tax returns and generated $24 million in refunds. In 2005, the program’s first year, students filed 329 returns. As of April 8, the students had completed 2,400 returns for the 2014 tax year.

Prepping for Tax Prep

The 82 University students who are part of the tax program this year are all enrolled in the school’s Academy of Business and Finance, according to Angela Reiher, dean of academies at University High School. During their high school careers, the students in this academy take comprehensive classes that sound more like college courses: banking and financial services, income tax accounting, security and investment, and human resource management, to name just a few.

Students learn about tax preparation as early as ninth grade as part of their coursework. On top of that, both students and teachers must pass exams and be certified by the IRS to become official VITA volunteers.

“The students do not only 1040s—a lot of people don’t think the kids can do anything more than that—they do schedule A, schedule B, schedule C, schedule D,” says Reiher. “They have done taxes for foreign exchange students at Baylor [University]. They’ve really gotten well versed in many layers of the income tax code.”

University High School’s tax preparation clinic is open three nights a week beginning in mid-January and running through April 15. “Everyone in this area knows about us,” Reiher says, adding that some clients come from as far as Austin (an hour and a half away) because the cost of gas is cheaper than the cost of tax preparation with companies like Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block.

When clients arrive, freshmen act as greeters and start the interview process with a series of questions. By sophomore year, students typically start preparing simpler tax returns.

“The more experienced they get, the more complicated the returns become,” explains Reiher. “Seniors act as student managers and make sure the [other] students are doing what they’re supposed to. They do the quality control as well.”

The Payoff

Reiher first learned of a similar program at a high school in Florida when she attended a National Academy Foundation conference. (NAF is a network of career-themed academies that expose underserved high schoolers to career opportunities. Reiher's school is one of its 667 members.) She immediately thought a tax program could be a wonderful service to the community. “We knew that, in Waco, there was $3 million to 4 million left on the table that clients in this area could get for earned income tax credit, but they didn’t know about it or how to access it," she says.

Local residents are grateful for the assistance to access that money. Plus, the refunds bolster the local economy because the clients—like many other taxpayers—spend their refunds at nearby businesses. “The return to the community is great,” Reiher notes.

And it’s not just the clients who benefit. The students do, too. “They feel that sense that they’re really helping somebody else,” Reiher says. “Their self-esteem is out the roof.”

Of course, students also learn real-world financial literacy skills in addition to gaining experience that will help them decide on a career path. Many students have graduated from the academy and gone on to work for national accounting firms. Reiher believes it’s because they got their start doing income taxes.

That will likely be the case for current seniors Yanley Duarte and Miguel Jaramillo. Duarte plans to pursue a business degree after high school, while Jaramillo hopes to become an accountant. Both have volunteered at the clinic every night it has been open throughout their four-year high school careers. “That’s how dedicated they are,” says Reiher.

 “When we’re busy, there are nights that kids are here until midnight along with the teachers,” she says. “The last person in is the last person served. We don’t turn anybody away.”

Image: Jamal Wilson/Courtesy of University High School's AJ Moore Academy of Finance

Doug Lemov Shares His Secrets


Doug Lemov Shares His Secrets

What readers can expect from Teach Like A Champion 2.0. By Chris Borris

In Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, the follow-up to his enormously popular first book, Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools, provides even more techniques “champion” teachers use—all based on hours of observing and video­taping teachers in their classrooms. The result is an engaging narrative that suggests how educators everywhere can adapt these techniques.

Q | Is there a philosophy or attitude that helps someone “teach like a champion”?
A | You have to want results for your teaching to be about student outcomes. And you have to be the kind of person who likes thinking about refining your craft. That’s the mind-set of any effective teacher. But it’s important to view Teach Like a Champion as a set of tools, not a “system.” Any teacher who wants to get better should be able to find a way to use or adapt some of the tools. There’s synergy among them, but they are designed to serve teachers in becoming the best version of themselves they can be.

Q | Why should elementary teachers or principals read a book about helping to “put students on the path to college”? Is that premature? And where do schools start?
A | You might also ask if it’s too late. There’s pretty compelling evidence that the achievement gap already exists by the time kids enroll in kindergarten. In terms of vocabulary and reading and other skills, the path to college is being blazed from day one.

As to where to start, I would suggest teachers or schools choose a few things and implement them well—trying to do 10 things at once is a recipe for doing nothing well. Many are tempted to start with the behavioral techniques exclusively. There’s logic to that—you want to shape the classroom culture right away. But if you focus exclusively on behavioral aspects, it’s easy to distort what classrooms are about and to tacitly encourage people to forget the connection between classroom behavior or culture and rigor. Strong classroom culture ultimately serves academic rigor. If it doesn’t, it is an empty exercise.

Q | In the Plan for Error technique, one of the questions a teacher can ask a student is “Which of these options do you think is my favorite wrong answer?” What’s a “culture of error,” and why is it so important?
A | The most important skill of a great teacher is the ability to differentiate “They learned it” from “I taught it.” The process of understanding what students know is 10 times harder if they are trying to hide their errors. As we watched great teachers at work, we saw they were constantly socializing students to be unafraid to reveal their errors to their teachers and classmates. Good schools make it safe for teachers to reveal errors by treating them as a normal part of the growth process, and by studying unsuccessful lessons rather than punishing them.

Q | What are the hallmarks of the best professional development for teachers, and what are some PD pitfalls?
A | The best professional development addresses real challenges teachers are facing in their classrooms. It solves problems or seizes opportunities. It also draws on the knowledge of successful teachers to frame the solutions. And it involves practice and reflection. A common pitfall is trying to make PD “one and done.” We know from teaching students that it takes time to master skills. You have to study and practice and get feedback and reflect and apply your skills in new ways. You have to discuss what works and what doesn’t with others. So good PD should happen over multiple sessions and be tied to the other conversations about teaching.

Q | Do you envision a Teach Like a Champion 3.0 with, say, 120 techniques?
A | I’ve already started on 3.0. Honestly. About two days after the manuscript was final and my editors told me I could not under any circumstances make any more changes, I was watching classes and I had two or three really useful insights. So 3.0 is under way. In the meantime, I try to blog as I learn (teachlikeachampion.com/blog). But as for 120 techniques, no way. One of the big challenges is keeping the number of techniques small enough to manage. 

Image: Timothy Raab & Northern Photo

Interview with Carmen Fariña


Interview with Carmen Fariña

The NYC schools chancellor on testing, recentralizing control, and tech initiatives. By Alexander Russo

It’s been a little more than a year since Chancellor Carmen Fariña took over as head of the New York City Public Schools. Appointed by incoming mayor Bill de Blasio, the longtime educator came out of retirement to accept the job and has thus far avoided stepping into one of the many political and logistical sinkholes that make district leadership so challenging.

Looking back on a frenetic first year, Fariña talks about recentralizing control under regional superintendents, addressing parents’ concerns about overtesting, encouraging more sharing of ideas among teachers and schools, and avoiding ed-tech mishaps like Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad debacle.

Q | What’s your favorite part of the job, besides visiting schools?
A | This is my 49th year as an educator in this system, and I love being able to take everything I’ve learned—from my own experiences as well as my interactions with other educators, parents, and students—and turn it into priorities and policies that serve our students. Another favorite part of my job is meeting with stakeholders. I deeply value my parent meetings, teacher meetings, principal meetings, and superintendent meetings.

Q | What changes have you implemented since you took over a year ago—and what else are you planning?
A | There’s a renewed emphasis on collaboration over competition; a real mutual respect and positive working relationship with the principals and teachers who are educating our students; and a focus on understanding and meeting the whole needs of students and families, both in and out of the classroom.

| What specific district successes and accomplishments have occurred in recent months?
A | We have more than 53,000 students in full-day, high-quality PreK—more than double last year. We launched the largest expansion of after-school programs for sixth to eighth graders in New York City’s history. We also established a separate Department of English Language Learners and Student Support, and I recently announced that 40 new dual-language programs will open across the city in September 2015. Our new Learning Partners Program and Showcase Schools initiatives are bringing together teachers and schools from across the city to work with, and learn from, one another—these are programs that really underscore the importance of collaboration and innovation in our system.

Q | How have you addressed parent and teacher concerns about overtesting and too much class time spent on test preparation during the year?
| We have stressed that good, rigorous teaching is the best test preparation for our students. We have encouraged additional vocabulary work in every academic area to prepare for tests, and we changed the promotional criteria from being solely based on a test score to a more balanced approach. Life is full of challenges, and I think this commonsense approach works best.

Q | What’s the new division of responsibilities among school principals and district superintendents that you are moving toward, in terms of budgets, programs, and hiring?
A | I recently announced a new structure streamlining support and supervision, which will heighten accountability, especially for our most struggling schools. Beginning in the fall of 2015, superintendents will support and supervise schools, period. However, principals will retain control over their budgets, curriculum, and hires. These are the crucial levers of management.

Q | How has New York City thus far avoided the ed-tech deployment mishaps that have plagued other big-city school systems like LAUSD?
A | Our approach to technology is the same as it is for everything else: Does this benefit the students? Does it improve learning? That’s how we make our decisions, and I think it’s going to help us continue to use technology in positive, educationally beneficial ways.

Q | Can you change the pattern of some schools having all-star faculties of experienced, highly credentialed (and more expensive) teachers, and other schools having lots of rookies and subs?
A | We now have 80 additional minutes of professional development each week for every teacher in the city, plus numerous trainings and sessions that hardworking teachers are signing up for because they want to improve their craft. I also believe that the spirit of collaboration over competition can take us a long way, as teachers have so much to learn from one another, whether it’s speaking with colleagues at their own school or visiting other schools with strong practices through our Learning Partners and Showcase Schools programs. I am also amazed by the work teachers are doing—whether serving students with high needs or lower needs—at schools where there is a high level of trust.

| How much further can New York City schools go toward reducing out-of-school suspensions and other disciplinary measures without eroding school safety?
| We have a ways to go to preserve school safety while being fairer about school discipline. We can reduce ineffective suspensions and keep schools safe. But this is something we want to do right—that’s why we’re developing discipline policy reforms that work better for our students and families. We are also investing in many restorative approaches that teachers can use to increase positive classroom management and de-escalate [tense] situations.

Q | What myths or misunderstandings do parents and the public have about New York City public schools?
A | My goal is to make sure that all families in our system feel welcome and invited into their school buildings. And for parents who may not speak English as their first language, I want to make sure that they are directly encouraged to become involved in their child’s education and make a difference in their school district.    

6 Fast Facts About Chancellor Fariña

• Generally perceived as a friend to teachers, Fariña replaced 80 percent of the teachers at P.S. 6 in Manhattan when she was principal there.

• Fariña retired from the DOE in 2006: initially she said she wasn’t interested in being chancellor.

• She's from Spain—not Puerto Rico or Mexico, as many assume.

• Fariña met Mayor de Blasio when he was serving on a community school board and she was a principal.

• While many big-city systems are now run by non-educators (like her predecessor, Joel Klein), Fariña is a career teacher and administrator.

• The new standards and tests have been controversial in New York, but Fariña is a Common Core supporter.

Source: Adapted from "9 Things You Should Know About Carmen Fariña" (Huffington Post)

Image: Bryan Thomas/The New York Times/Redux

Working Together: A Recipe for PARCC Success

Working Together: A Recipe for PARCC Success

Illinois school district approaches new testing system with an “all skills on deck” approach. By R.J. Gravel

This spring, districts throughout the nation will embark on the first major wave of revised high-stakes assessments. Our industry is seeing a drastic shift from traditional testing to significantly enhanced, interactive assessments that leverage technology.

As schools prepare to implement these new digital assessments and testing platforms, there are many questions about the roles and responsibilities of staff members. With traditional testing, a small group of building leaders and assessment coordinators oversaw the exams; however, today’s testing system requires a much larger group of individuals to collaborate to ensure a successful experience.

Educating Your School Community

To successfully implement a system, it is important to understand the structure of the assessment. However, many of the rules and conditions that govern a student’s testing experience are still being defined. This is further complicated by the reality that many state education boards have joined to create two sets of rules: nationwide norms and state-specific addendums.

To ensure each school understands testing protocol, assessment consortiums, software developers, and state education boards have established a series of communication channels via e-mail and website postings. As new information is released, notices are transmitted to district superintendents and should be reviewed by all individuals responsible for coordinating the assessment process, including building technology coordinators and student information system managers. It is also important to provide a summary of relevant information to educators who will be serving as test administrators. At Johnsburg School District 12 in Illinois, we are implementing the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. We provide assessment updates at school board presentations and in bi-weekly newsletters to teachers. 

It is important to remember that while publishers and state agencies provide information on the assessments, the best communication comes straight from local school leaders. Use these assessments as an opportunity to develop a communication plan that balances electronic messages with face-to-face dialogue and training sessions. At Johnsburg, we developed a PARCC planning and preparation series that includes a test administrator training session.

Preparing for Students of All Abilities

Identifying and providing accommodations to ensure each student has an equal opportunity on state assessments is not a new concept. As the roster of accommodations is substantially updated, it is important that all faculty members—not just those working in support settings—understand available accommodations. Members of the special education and student services team need to work closely with building and teacher leaders to guarantee that individual student plans are updated to reflect the support available to students.

Continuous Communication

As we transition to a computer-based testing environment, a substantial amount of the responsibility resides in the domain of technology support personnel. The role of technology professionals is crucial to ensuring a successful testing experience, including safeguarding the local area network, designating testing rooms, and providing a sufficient number of devices (and back-up devices) for each student.

It is crucial that school technology teams be included in all of the communication related to test procedures, local testing schedules, and student groupings. For instance, if a student with a visual impairment requires screen magnification software, the testing room must be supplied with this tool. For this, technology support personnel should review the roster of students to ensure they have provided all necessary accommodations. Additionally, advanced technology support staff should be available to assist with issues that arise during the test administration. In our district, we will have up to three schools and 18 classrooms testing at a single time. Continuous communication between technology support personnel and building leaders will ensure that everything is ready to go on testing day.

Moving Forward

As districts move forward with implementing the Common Core State Standards, we know that challenges are inevitable. However, creating a culture of collaboration among school leaders, technology professionals, and student information system software providers, such as Skyward, will put us in the best position to support our students as we embark on this new challenge. The face of state assessment is changing, and we have the opportunity to affect its outcome. Let’s work together, share our experiences, and be part of the future.

R. J. Gravel, @rjgravel, is the director of instructional technology for Johnsburg School District 12 in Illinois. He is a nominee for the 2015 Illinois Computing Educators’ Educator of the Year award.

Image: Jose Pelaez/Corbis/Media Bakery

Here Come the Chromebooks

Tablets used to reign as schools’ top hardware choice. But Google’s low-cost laptops are cutting into Apple’s share of the education market.
By Michelle R. Davis

The iPad implosion in the Los Angeles Unified School District may have been the first sign of real rouble. But there had long been grumblings about the Apple table not playing nicely with other software and costing nearly twice as much as some alternatives.

Enter the keyboard-based Chromebook as challenger in the race for dominant digital device in K-12 schools. With its simplified technology management and a suite of Google tools and apps designed for students and teachers, the Chromebook is starting to draw market share away from the iPad.

Chromebooks can sell for as little as $150, while iPads can be several hundred dollars more. The Chromebook also has a keyboard, crucial for meeting Common Core testing requirements,and provides automatic operating system updates.

All of these factors combine to make Chromebooks attractive to schools and districts, says Douglas Levin, former executive director for the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Apple was a little bit challenged in providing those types of tools because the iPad was built first for personal use and not for enterprise use—either business or school,” he says. “Apple has since developed powerful tools, but Chromebooks were built for that type of use from the ground up.”

Despite its benefits, the Chromebook does face obstacles, including the perception that the iPad and other touch-screen tablets do a better job of encouraging students' creativity and curiosity. Additional issues are student data privacy concerns with Google software and districts’ disappointing experiences with a previous round of low-cost laptops known as netbooks.

Catching Up to the iPad

As of 2013, Chromebooks had 20 percent of education’s mobile computing device market, compared to iPad's 40 percent. But Chromebook sales have increased sharply since then, creating competition for iPads, which previously competed mainly with traditional laptops that cost more or lacked necessary computing power.

Apple claimed 85 percent of the U.S. education market for tablets last summer, but during the third quarter of 2014, about 715,500 Chromebooks were shipped to K12 schools, compared with 702,000 iPads, says Rajani Singh, a senior research analyst for the International Data Corporation, a market analysis company. “Chromebooks as a product category have become the hottest-selling device [for schools],” a first for the Google-centered technologies, she says.

It’s hard to compare school sales of the devices, since iPads are made only by Apple, while Chromebooks are produced and sold by a variety of companies, including Samsung, HP, Dell, and Acer. And iPads are much more popular than Chromebooks outside of education settings. Only about 20 percent of iPads are sold to schools, while 75 percent of Chromebooks sold wind up in classrooms, Singh said.

A “One-Stop Shop”

In the spacious cyber café at Kennedy Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, students might sit on wooden benches hunched over their Chromebooks or balance on inflatable blue exercise balls as they tap away on keyboards. The low-income school launched a one-to-one Chromebook initiative this year.

Those same students might also experiment with iPads mounted on tables in the cyber café, or use a PC or a different tablet in class.

Like many schools, Kennedy, which is part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, has a variety of devices for students to use, but the Chromebook is dominant: The school has 720 Chromebooks, about 50 iPads, and a scattering of personal computers and Samsung tablets.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is in the process of implementing a district-wide middle school one-to-one Chromebook initiative with nearly 33,000 devices. Price—each Chromebook cost about $220—was important, says Valerie Truesdale, the district’s chief of technology, personalization, and engagement. “It was a huge factor,” she says, noting that iPads cost $369 per device.

For Kennedy principal Kevin Sudimack, there are other benefits to Chromebooks, which run on Google’s Chrome operating system and host apps and data storage in the cloud. The whole system, which updates automatically, creates a “kind of one-stop shop,” he says. Students get access to Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and a host of other free tools and apps. Last year, Google began offering unlimited storage for students and educators, and in 2013, the company introduced Google Play for Education to give students better access to Chrome and Android educational games and apps. The cloud-based platform allows students to access their work from home, even though they are not yet permitted to take their devices out of school, Sudimack says.

Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist at Lee's Summit R-7 School District in Missouri, says his district, which has purchased 7,000 Chromebooks, likes the machine for many of the same reasons. “The biggest thing is the seamless integration with all of the Google applications. The management of them is just so easy.”

Integration Versus Creativity

From an IT perspective, Chromebooks are easy to manage, says Bob Jensen, the director of assessment, technology, and information services at Sioux Falls School District. The South Dakota district runs a one-to-one Chromebook initiative in grades 3-12, with about 24,000 devices. For younger students, the district offers iPads—about 3,000 of them, says Jensen.

From his office, Jensen can do things like push out specific apps soley to seventh graders (although that feature costs extra, a one-time license of $30 per device). For similar iPad management, Jensen had to purchase outside software, and it doesn’t always work seamlessly, he notes. Jensen also likes the automatic operating system updates from Google; during district and state testing time, he has the ability to freeze the updates.

But Jensen and others say there are things that iPads just do better. Until recently, for example, Chromebooks had no touch screen, a feature that's particularly important at lower grade levels, where most students aren’t adept with a keyboard.

Other educators point to increased creativity with iPads, particularly with video. Eric J. Chagala, principal at Vista Innovation and Design Academy, a grade 6-8 magnet school in California’s Vista Unified School District, says that unlike Chromebook cameras, the iPad camera can face toward or away from the user to shoot video, and the tablets are more portable. And editing apps like iMovie allow students to be more imaginative. For now, most of the Google apps “are not as creative and there are not as many options,” he says.

Security and Privacy Concerns

Google has had to face hard questions about the privacy and security of student data collected through its Apps for Education. Just this month, Google belatedly signed on to President Barack Obama’s “Student Privacy Pledge” to safeguard student information, after initially declining to officially support it. Apple and Microsoft signed up immediately.

Privacy and student data issues continue to be a concern for educators. Last year, Google’s admission that it data-mined student e-mails in a way that could be used for targeted advertising gave some educators pause. The company has since discontinued that practice and created an Education Trust website detailing company policies on education data protection, data ownership, and advertising.

The Chromebook’s reliance on the cloud is also a concern, Jensen says. Educators in the Sioux Falls district are barred from saving sensitive student information in the cloud. “If you’re using Google Docs and trying to store student names and I.D. numbers, that’s a no-no,” he says.

Even as Chromebooks increase their school market share, then, more traditional laptops, tablets, or even PCs will continue to capture a good portion of the market, says Sudimack, the Kennedy Middle School principal. Despite the one-to-one Chromebook initiative at his school, he’s made it a priority for students to access a wide range of devices and technologies.

“We’ve got to expose children to multiple platforms, so they’ll know how to use the iPad or iOS,” he explains. “We’re being intentional about using different platforms so we’re not so Google-heavy.”

Playing Nice

Where is the iPad situated among tablets in the education market? Five years after they were introduced, iPads are no longer as distinctive as they once were when it comes to what they can do or how well they can do it—especially when compared with hybrid laptop/tablets like Microsoft’s Surface Pro, e-readers like Amazon’s Fire HD Kids Edition, or even smartphones like the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S5.

And then there are the touch-screen Chromebooks that are in the works. In January, HP unveiled a touch-screen Chromebook that retails for under $450, and Acer has said it has one coming out, too.

In the meantime, the iPad and Chromebook are starting to interact a bit more effortlessly, says Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent of Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, which has a one-to-one iPad initiative. Burlington is a Google Apps for Education district, using Google apps offered through the iPad. “The Google environment plays a lot nicer with the iPad environment now,” he says.

Image: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

CoSN’s 2015 Team Winner: Henrico County Public Schools


CoSN’s 2015 Team Winner: Henrico County Public Schools

Fourteen years after first handing out laptops to students, this district continues to lead. By Caralee Adams

The fifth graders in Ellen Beane’s class at Sandston Elementary School in Virginia are scattered throughout the room, on the floor and at desks, working with an iPad in pairs to do a math activity about elapsed time.

“Focus, focus,” says Louis to his partner, D’Anthony, as both boys giggle. While one uses an app with the word problem, the other toggles between an app with an interactive clock and an app with a whiteboard to do his work. D’Anthony solves the problem and Louis enters the answer. On the iPad screen good work and a check mark reward the duo.

This scene is typical of how kids learn in Beane’s classroom. She spends less than an hour a day in whole-group instruction, preferring instead to customize activities for students to do in small, fluid groups. This past fall, Beane’s students used their devices to create digital portfolios for student-led conferences with parents.

“It’s like a magician’s briefcase that keeps opening up new opportunities. It’s their dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia,” Beane says of the tablets issued to the students as a pilot last year. “It opens up opportunities for these children that would otherwise be impossible.”

Sandston Elementary is part of Henrico County Public Schools, winner of the 2015 Team Award to be presented in March by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Henrico was the one of the first districts in the country to launch a major one-to-one initiative in 2001. Each student in grades 6–12 receives a laptop; last year, the district began to experiment with giving PCs to some students in third to fifth grades at Sandston. The 50,000-student district curves around the city of Richmond. It has a diverse population—40 percent of which is low-income—and technology is viewed as a tool to help level the playing field.

Now, the district is being recognized for continuing to innovate and build out a system that put students at the center of learning to prepare them for the increasingly digitally connected world.

“Henrico has been intently focused on identifying rubrics for defining 21st-century skills, implementing it countywide, and developing an accountability process to change instruction in the classroom,” says Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive officer.

It was 14 years ago that then-superintendent Mark Edwards led the district in its big splash with devices for secondary students. The well-respected technology leader has since moved to Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, where he has garnered numerous awards, including the CoSN Team Award in 2013.

The remaining technology team in Henrico continues to push forward, they say, because students, teachers, and parents have come to expect it.

There is no turning back, says Debra Adams Roethke, assistant director of Instructional technology, who has been with the district for 27 years and was part of the original 1:1 rollout. While some in the district didn’t know what a laptop was 14 years ago, cell phones and computers are now ubiquitous at Henrico.

“Everything keeps progressing at such a rapid pace,” says Roethke. “It’s the world of kids, so we have to go where they are.”

Using technology in the district is connecting teachers and students, and making the world one big classroom, says Kourtney Bostain, educational specialist for instructional technology in the district’s high schools.

“[W]e are doing a disservice to [students] if we are not leveraging modern tools in the classroom and really equipping [them] with the skills they are going to need to be successful outside of school,” Bostain says. The district is committed to integrating technology in the schools for the long term and that has helped keep the momentum going and empowered a diverse group to own the teaching process.

Developing a Common Language

Henrico’s laser focus on developing 21st-century skills provided a framework for teaching and technology. To prepare students in four areas—research and information fluency, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, and creativity and innovation—the district adopted a common instructional vision called TIPC, or Teaching Innovation/Integration Progression Chart.

A year in the making, TIPC has categories that include an overview of skills covered and expectations of students and teachers in each area. The rubric ranges from “entry” (student-driven instruction) to “ideal” (student-centered, teacher-facilitated) with the aim of becoming a 21st-century classroom with engaged, student-led learning.

“It’s been the introduction of the common language around TIPC that’s really allowed us to sustain over time,” says Katie Owens, educational specialist for instructional technology at the middle school level in Henrico. Through new initiatives and changes in superintendents, TIPC has been the fallback and document that guides all district activities, she says.

Building Community and Highlighting Success

Along with the instructional rubric, the county launched an online repository to swap best practices. Henrico 21 has 1,200 teacher-created projects and lessons that span all content areas and grades. Through this portal, the district is both honoring teachers’ work and providing a useful exchange platform for ideas, says Roethke.

The instructional technology team launched Student 21 in 2010 so students could post and share their work with one another, their parents, and the community. Going beyond the 1,000 items on the website, the country developed a competition to recognize the most innovative work. Each spring, winners are honored at a ceremony and the best student work displayed. The event has featured 3D printing and robotics demonstrations, gaming displays, and even a photo booth.

“That was an attempt to build community and raises awareness,” says Bostain. “It celebrates and helps everyone involved to see why we are doing this. The kids really shine at that event. It’s another outlet. We have sports and awards…this is another opportunity reach students.”

Keeping Everyone Up to Speed

Over time, the technology team says there have been lessons learned with professional development. Among them: “Lead with the skill, not the tool,” says Bostain. Although the equipment can be exciting, the real impact cannot be realized unless the focus is on quality instruction and training that accompanies the device.

Considerable staff turnover in the past two years has provided “fresh blood” and reenergized the technology team with new ideas, says Jon Wirsing, who works with the elementary schools as an educational specialist for instructional technology. “It’s not all been a bed of roses. We’ve had failures,” he says, noting that the team has collectively reviewed missteps but adapted and recovered.

Initially, it was all about the technology and computers, Roethke says. The team revamped its approach to training to revolve around creating a 21st-century classroom. At one point, they tried to take technology out of the framework for teaching, but that was a mistake, Roethke admits. Finally, a balanced approach of student-centered learning, technology, and content knowledge skills emerged and became the foundation for their model.

While there are still some large whole-group training sessions, smaller group PD and individual coaching have become more common. Job-embedded and consistent PD customized to the teachers’ needs has worked best, says Bostain.

Henrico technology experts help teachers work through new processes in small, scaffolded steps, notes Owens. The key: “Being patient,” she says. “Understanding what they want to accomplish…and build on success after each accomplishment.”

Leveraging Technology to Build Achievement

Henrico is continually working to improve instruction and innovative classroom practices, yet it has been difficult to show connections between the district’s progress with technology and student achievement.

While there was variation by school, overall, students’ scores dropped on the recent round of testing on the Virginia Standards of Learning. Henrico was not alone, however, as the commonwealth has changed its standards and made the test more rigorous, district officials note.

CoSN’s Krueger raises the question of whether the tests are measuring the 21st-century skills, such as creativity and collaboration, which Henrico is emphasizing. “Those are unlikely to be reflected in traditional, high-stakes tests,” he says.

Even if the scores don’t demonstrate it, Roethke says, students are learning more and the excitement in the classroom is apparent. Teachers have green signs on their doors when visitors are welcome for peer observation, and the culture of sharing best practices is spreading.

Using the testing data on specific areas where students are falling short, the district is trying to zero in on PD for teachers to address those deficits.

Student-centered learning is taking hold and each day kids are aware of their individual goals. In the elementary school, there are statements that start with “I can…” posted in the classrooms as a daily reminder of the academic expectations.

In a seventh-grade Spanish class at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, teacher Patrick Wininger moves through the classroom checking in on students as they work through a lesson on their laptops at their own pace. Contemporary Latin music provides soft background noise.

Wininger says the technology allows the students to be more creative, for instance, allowing them to create a digital storybook using a website about the things they do and don’t like to do.

“We can get a lot more specific. It is a lot more real-world solutions than just a simple test,” Wininger says. “I want them to be able to use what they are learning, not just learn stuff. The computers enable us to do that and everyone is equal in that regard—everybody has the same resources and opportunity.”

2015 CoSN Team Award
Merit Award: District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington D.C.: Given in recognition of DCPS’ successes as a large, urban district that is working to overcome significant socioeconomic barriers.

Merit Award: Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Texas: Honored for demonstrating an exceptional commitment to district infrastructure.

CoSN’s 2015 Withrow Award: Vince Scheivert

The chief information officer in Albemarle County PS aims to bring connectivity to each student’s home. 

As a teacher turned technology guru, Vince Scheivert is combining his expertise in the classroom with his passion for technology as chief information officer in the 14,000-student district in central Virginia.

His goal is to empower all students to have access to the latest tools they need to be successful—both at home and at school. To that end, Scheivert has advocated for a broadband, wireless network that will make high-speed Internet access available for free to students at home in his 768-square-mile county. The equipment has been field-tested and the rollout began this year.

“We always talk about providing a 21st-century learning environment. Well, it’s 15 years into the 21st century, I think our aspirations should be a little bit further. That’s what drives me,” says Scheivert, who has been with the district for 12 years and CIO for four. “If we know there is a better way, we should be pushing for it.”

In addition to universal online access, Scheivert is also overseeing a new 1:1 initiative where all students in grades 6–12 will receive a learning device to use at school and at home next year.

“You have to be willing to do something different,” says Scheivert. “You have to know you are making the right decision, and when you are making a decision that’s in the best interest of kids, you are doing it.”

Through his efforts, Scheivert is trying to eliminate the digital divide and live up to the plaque on his superintendent’s desk that reads all means all.

Image: Chris Adams 

The Whole Picture


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.

Image: Media bakery

Audio and the Core Assessments



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.


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.


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.


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.


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



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