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Making the Digital Leap, Safely

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

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

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

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

Choosing a Digital Solution

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

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

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

Confronting Challenges

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

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

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

Experiencing Success

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

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

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

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

Image: Cultura/ MediaBakery


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

None of them, actually.
By Alexander Russo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does this leave things for the near future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Mobile Device Classroom Management Made Easy

Free Webinar: Thursday, November 13th, 2014 3 p.m. EST

More students are using technology in class, from bringing in their own devices to carrying school issued laptops or tablets. These tools can be a boon to creating personalized education that engages each student. But if misused, they have the power to interrupt the flow of good classroom management. Learn from two experts how to best harness your students and their devices in class—and how to empower them to create amazing work on these machines in class and at home.

Click here to register for the webinar


Dave Saltmarsh - Educational Evangelist for JAMF Software

Dave Saltmarsh is a former classroom teacher turned IT & Library Director in Arizona and Maine. In addition to managing all facets of information technology, he has led implementations in 1:1 computers for students, as well as iPad & iPod Touch programs, and has focused on personalized learning, Over the last four years, he has traveled globally and gained a worldwide perspective on the use of technology in schools and business. Dave has a Master's degree in Instructional Technology and has earned CoSN's Certified Educational Technology Leader distinction.

Ben Johnson - Administrator, Author, and Educator

Ben Johnson is a career educator with recent experience on the campus and district office level. As an advocate of student-directed learning in all its forms, he is an arduous supporter of the use of technology as “tools to think with.” He is the author of “Teaching Students to Dig Deeper,” a college readiness book for students, parents, and teachers.

Andy Hopkins – 4th Grade Teacher, Harper Woods Public Schools, Michigan

Andy began his career in Harper Woods Public Schools, and has worked in both the Middle School and Elementary level for over 20 years. During this time, Andy was a member of the district’s technology committee, and has earned an Ed. Specialist in Instructional Technology. In the spring of 2012, Andy became an Apple Foundations Trainer. This led to his new role in Harper Woods as the District’s Instructional Technology Specialist, and lead Casper Administrator. He works with students and staff to incorporate technology district wide. Harper Woods is the first school in Wayne County Michigan to go 1:1 with technology, K-12.

Moderator: Wayne D'Orio

Wayne D’Orio is the award-winning Editor-In-Chief of Scholastic Administr@tor properties. During his 10+ years of field coverage, he has won numerous awards, including Neal Awards from the American Business Media and Ozzie awards from Folio: Magazine. He’s also interviewed many notable leaders in the field of education including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former NYC Chancellor Rudy Crew, and best-selling author Michael Horn. He frequently visits school districts, including recent visits to Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, Randle Highlands Elementary School in D.C., and the Big Picture High School in Nashville.

Fundraising2-pulseUnlocking Extra Money
for Your Schools

Six tips and strategies to help your district fundraise effectively.
y Stan Levenson

School spending varies greatly around the country, but the one constant is that every school would welcome more money. Since the 2008 recession, at least 29 states are spending less on education today than six years ago, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Fourteen states’ funding has dropped by at least 10 percent since 2008, and Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending plunged almost 24 percent in that time, according to an article in USA Today. It’s no surprise that outside fundraising is a key source of money for schools looking to prop up budgets. My new book, The Essential Fundraising Guide for K–12 Schools, offers an assortment of strategies, links, and information. Here are my top six pieces of advice.

Start a Development Office Now
Some school districts, including public charter schools, are discovering what universities and colleges have already learned: Development offices, staffed by experienced, competent people, can definitely raise more money than they cost to operate. More schools are taking this step, even on a small scale. I’m finding that within two to three years, these departments can become a steady source of funds for districts.

Grants for Teachers and Schools
Teachers are busy people. They need all the help they can get. How can they find funding for some of their basic classroom necessities or to replenish what’s been lost already? DonorsChoose.org and GrantsAlert.com are two great websites to get them started.

Making the Case for Support
A case statement is essential when gearing up for a fundraising campaign. Whether you are trying to increase annual giving, a capital campaign, planned giving, or foundation grants, it’s important to work through questioning strategies written from a donor’s prospective before beginning the case statement. Here are the top four questions to consider:

  1. Why are we contacting you at this time?
  2. Why is there an urgent need for money?
  3. Why is our solution unique?
  4. What will happen if we don’t get the money?

Cultivating and Connecting With Major Donors
Many prospective major donors are already right in your district. They can be graduates of the public schools, they can live or work in your community, or they may own local businesses or corporations. They can have children or grandchildren in your schools or be former teachers or administrators in the district. Learn how to identify and work with prospective major donors to make them feel like they are part of your schools and progress.

Lead Gifts and Naming Rights
Named gifts have been around for a long time on private school campuses and at colleges and universities. A number of public school districts are realizing that schools are a wonderful place for a family to leave a legacy by having a school building, a cafeteria, a ball field, or a seat in a theater named after them. In addition, schools and school districts are exploring ways of giving commercial vendors and corporations opportunities for naming rights, especially as they relate to gymnasiums, ball fields, auditoriums, stadiums, and signage.

Online Giving
There are more than 2 billion people online worldwide. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports online giving is growing far faster than all other types of donations. It seems clear that many donors want to give from their desktops, smartphones, and tablets. The potential for raising serious online money is enormous. Make sure your district is able to reach people online, take their donations easily, and make them feel like a part of your district’s progress.

Stan Levenson has been involved in K–12 fundraising for more than 40 years. His new book, The Essential Fundraising Guide for K–12 Schools, is available on Amazon.

Find out more about him at stanlevenson.com.

 Homepage Image:  Human/Veer

Education: National Contest Offers $500,000 in Grants and Scholarships and a Smart STEM Opportunity

When researchers asked educators in a recent poll if their schools or districts had integrated “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education into a single, cohesive curriculum,” the largest number of those surveyed answered that they had “not formally addressed STEM education yet.” Additionally, the study, developed by Education Market Research, showed that nearly 60 percent of educators surveyed indicated that STEM was still far from implementation in their schools or districts.

 And the number of teachers who said that their school or district had made room in its curriculum for “full integration” of STEM in all grades? Less than four percent. 


The Lexus Eco Challenge, a middle and high school competition from Scholastic and Lexus now in its eighth year, offers an opportunity to bring hands-on STEM education into your teachers’ classrooms along with a sizable prize—for eligible teams submitting projects that propose smart solutions for local eco issues, $500,000 in grants and scholarships awaits. The deadline this year is December 8.

Please invite teachers to visit the Lexus Eco Challenge website: scholastic.com/lexus or email us directly at ecochallenge@scholastic.com.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY to enter or win. A purchase will not increase your chances of winning. The Lexus Eco Challenge (“Contest”) is open to students in grades 6–12 who are enrolled in a public or accredited private school or who are schooled at home in compliance with the laws of the students’ primary state of residence and who are legal residents of the United States (one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia) by law. Only the winners from the Land & Water and Air & Climate Challenges will be eligible to participate in the Final Challenge. Click here for official rules.

Unlocking the Promise of Digital Curriculum

How to offer customized learning for each student.
By Cheryl Vedoe

Every day classroom teachers face the daunting task of accommodating students’ individual learning needs. The expectation of achievement for every student falls squarely on teachers’ shoulders.

With up to six class periods a day and students at different proficiency levels and with varied learning styles, it’s a challenge for even the most experienced educators to ensure that each student stays on track.

Digital curriculum makes it possible for classroom teachers to offer differentiated instruction based on individual student needs. The result is higher achievement for all students.

Individualized Instruction for Every Student

The amount of time and effort required for a teacher to customize a daily learning plan for every student is significant. How can we support teachers to meet the unique learning needs of each student? How can we enable teachers to provide individualized instruction tailored to each student based on his or her level of academic readiness? In many cases, digital curriculum can be the answer.

For more than a decade, we have seen schools integrate digital curriculum into their credit recovery programs and alternative schools to provide a different approach for students who have not been successful in the traditional model. Today, we are seeing more teachers integrate digital curriculum into their classroom instruction in a blended-learning model to customize the experience for each student.

Through a balance of scaffolded direct instruction, meaningful practice, and formative assessment, digital curriculum supports all students in mastering complex concepts and developing critical-thinking skills. With access to opt-in supports as well as opportunities for acceleration, digital curriculum meets each student—from those not prepared for grade-level academic challenges to those capable of accelerating their learning—where he or she is.

Active learning engages and motivates students while multiple representations address different learning styles and preferences. Students are able to progress at their own pace, spending as much time as needed to learn the material, or moving quickly through content with which they are familiar. 

Incorporating digital curriculum into classroom instruction in no way diminishes the important role of the teacher, though it does have the potential to change how teachers spend their time. Rather than focusing a majority of each class period on whole-class instruction, teachers are free to spend more time one-on-one with individual students or in small-group instruction.

With student progress and performance data readily available, a teacher can see where a student is struggling and provide the right support at that critical moment. If anything, the teacher as a facilitator of learning is even more important when digital curriculum is introduced into the classroom. 

Successfully Implementing Digital Learning

Planning is key to implementing a successful digital learning program to individualize instruction. The first step is to clearly define the educational goals, the desired student outcomes. The program design should incorporate best practices to achieve those outcomes and the implementation plan should ensure that teachers have adequate professional development and ongoing support. Periodic review and tailoring of the program based on results will ensure continued program success.

While there are many examples of the positive impact digital learning is having on student outcomes, there remains a tremendous opportunity to further support every student in reaching his or her potential. Through the integration of digital curriculum into classroom instruction teachers will be able to meet the challenge of individualizing instruction to meet the needs of each student and increase academic performance.

Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning, has spent her entire career in the technology industry and more than 20 years partnering with schools to improve educational outcomes. She is currently a trustee of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and is chairman of the Washington Technology Alliance.

Image: Frederic Cirou/Media Bakery


Six guidelines to follow when deciding how to store sensitive student info.
By Ray Ackerlund

More than 90 percent of school districts have electronically stored data on student demographics, attendance, student grades, student test scores, and much more, according to this Fordham Law national study. These school districts generally store data in one of two ways: on-premise or in the cloud.

Which one is better for your district? How can you keep this data safe? And what are the guidelines to follow when choosing a vendor? I’ll answer all of these questions to help you make the best decision for your district.

On-premise storage is installed and run on computers in a district building rather than a remote facility. Advantages of on-premise storage include complete control over all systems and data, and internal storage and handling of district data. The district needs to have dedicated staff for maintenance and support. Only a short time ago, on-premise storage was the most common approach; however, that has been surpassed by cloud-based solutions in the past five years. For districts that choose an on-premise approach, I recommend they include backup storage in a cloud environment. Skyward’s disaster recovery service for on-premise storage includes a rapid start-up service that can restore a district’s information within 24 hours if the on-premise solution is compromised.

Unlike on-premise storage, cloud computing is a model of data storage where the stored information spans multiple servers (and often locations) and the physical environment is typically owned and managed by a third-party company. Advantages of cloud computing include cost-effective services, limited software licensing costs, no new infrastructure requirements, and the storage company does most of the work, eliminating the need for extra IT staff.

As a student information system provider, Skyward recommends the cloud environment because it is a more effective use of resources. There is no right or wrong choice for school districts to store education data although they should assess their needs and resources before making the decision.

With the recent attention around education data privacy, the protection of student privacy within cloud computing has become a popular topic, although many educators are unfamiliar with the complexities of protecting student data. Because the protection of student privacy within cloud computing is generally unknown to the public and policymakers, districts should complete the following steps in order to ensure their student data is safe.

  •  Maintain physical measures to secure building locations of network equipment, including multistep processes to access network centers such as server rooms and a storage area network.

  • Establish separate network access points within buildings that segregate network access of administrative and classroom from students or guests.

  • Limit database administrator rights to a minimum number of staff—typically primary and secondary individuals such as SIS data administrators or district database managers.

  • Conduct routine security audits and network penetrator testing to ensure security measures meet current standards.

  • Establish a disaster recovery policy that protects data secured off-premise with the same level of protection as data stored on-premise.

  • Monitor network traffic to detect and block any unusual activity.

 As districts rapidly shift to cloud-based storage, many important processes are easily forgotten, as cloud services can be poorly understood, nontransparent, and weakly governed. Based on the Fordham Law study, only 25 percent of districts inform parents of their use of cloud services and nearly 20 percent fail to have policies governing the use of online services. Meanwhile, a sizable amount of districts have widespread gaps in their contract documentation, including missing privacy policies.

Districts frequently surrender control of student information when using cloud services. For example, fewer than 25 percent of third-party agreements specify the purpose for disclosure of student information and fewer than seven percent of the contracts restrict the sale or marketing of student information by vendors. Many agreements also allow vendors to change the terms without notice.

Given the limited control in some third-party agreements, districts considering a cloud-based data storage approach should follow these guidelines when selecting an SIS and cloud-computing provider.

  • Require a single contract that includes all parties and defines security requirements to ensure protection of student data.

  • Ensure the cloud provider meets recommended standards, with an SSAE 16 standard as a minimum.

  • Provide database management and monitoring services.

  • Provide database updating and application updating.

  • Maintain multiple data centers with redundant failover.

  • Continually monitor industry standards to ensure latest protection and security recommendations are being followed.

An increased awareness for district staff, parents, and local politicians about data storage are paramount for increases in security and privacy. The emergence of these discussions regarding proper privacy measures to protect student data will help districts strengthen their internal procedures, data management, and storage of student information.

Ray Ackerlund (@RayAckerlund) is vice president of marketing and product management for Skyward Inc. A 20-year industry veteran, Ackerlund guides the strategic execution of marketing and product vision for Skyward’s administrative software exclusively designed for K–12 school districts. Skyward serves more than 5 million students and 1,700 school districts worldwide.

Image: 4X-image/iStockphoto

Listening to School Leaders

DOE’s ambassador program connects policymakers with principals.
By Caralee Adams

Jill Levine has been in public education for 22 years, but no one from the federal government has ever asked for her opinion. “And I have lots of opinions,” says the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet, a PreK–8 magnet school in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Now, Levine is sharing her thoughts on everything from testing to professional development as one of three Principal Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s a great way to collect voices of principals and use those to inform the decisions that are made from here,” says Levine of the fellowship program, which launched as a pilot in 2013.

A Conduit to the Top

Modeled after a similar fellowship for teachers that began in 2008, the principal fellows work closely with the DOE’s communication and outreach office, as well as travel to meet with administrators around the country. Levine is based in Washington full-time, while two other fellows are part-time appointees. (Levine took a leave from her school and moved her family to Arlington, Virginia, for the year.)

“There is such a distance between the altitude where we set policies and form programs and the altitude where those policies and programs hit classrooms,” says Massie Ritsch, the DOE’s communications director. “A program like this aims to close that gap so we are hearing more directly from school leaders: what they need from the federal department of education, how faithfully our policies translate into practice when they get to the local level.”

Department officials say they are realizing the overload that principals face and how policies impact them. “A huge piece is just literally understanding what is happening in the school building,” says Gillian Cohen-Boyer, director of the fellowship program. “What we do becomes part of the equation…that can help and hurt.”

The fellows are trying to find more opportunities for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other officials to hear from principals at large conferences, at small roundtable focus groups, and in schools.

This fall marked the third year that the DOE hosted a principal shadowing day in October, where 30 officials worked alongside principals in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland schools.

At a debriefing of the event held at DOE headquarters last week, Duncan said he saw firsthand the challenges of running a large high school when he shadowed Rachel Skerritt, a fellow and a principal at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

Duncan said he saw a lot of energy expended, from checking in cell phones to complying with the district attendance policy, to “make sure the ship is afloat every day.” He also commented that he gained a new appreciation for the demands of the job and that more needs to be done to convey to young people that educators are fighting for their lives and that school is their lifeline.

Lessons From the Inside

While the fellows are sharing their perspective with DOE officials, they are gaining a better understanding of the inner workings of the bureaucracy.

“It’s a two-way street for learning,” Skerritt says. “The intention of the fellowship program was to get feedback from us, but we had a lot of learning to do about what the federal government does and doesn’t do.”

Rachel-pulse2Although he used to be an 8th-grade history teacher, fellow Sharif El-Mekki says the program has helped him realize the influence of the federal government and the control that states have over implementing education policy.

The potential impact of working collaboratively with education officials drew El-Mekki to the program. “Years ago, I thought that could never happen. It was two different worlds,” says El-Mekki, who is the principal at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a 7th- to 12th-grade charter school in Philadelphia. “I thought whatever policymakers came up with, practitioners would just try to fix it or disregard it.” Through the fellowship, El-Mekki has discovered that the DOE is interested in the advice of principals.

“I’ve been struck by how much people here care,” Levine says. “It’s very easy to make joking comments about ‘Oh, the federal government,’ but the hearts of people here when they talk about the work they are doing is so genuine.”

So, now that Levine has their ear, what is she saying?

“The thing I most want them to know is how important principals are,” Levine says. “If there is a great administrator in the school who believes in an initiative and who buys into it and has the leadership skills to make it happen, it will happen.”

Skerritt agrees. “Principals really hold the key,” she says. For instance, with a new Teach to Lead initiative that the department rolled out in the spring, success will boil down to the school level. “It is going to fall on whether the school leader buys into that concept for the teacher to even have an opportunity to take on a teacher-leader role in a building,” Skerritt explains.

Principals must provide teachers with support for instruction to improve, adds El-Mekki, noting that PD and sharing of best training practices can help.

Leading a building is a complex job, and the new fellowship program has, in essence, been a “national support group” for principals, Skerritt says. Administrators in schools large and small, rural and urban, are sharing common challenges. One frequent refrain heard from principals is a call for autonomy.

“Principals don’t actually mind the buck stopping with them and the responsibility line,” Skerritt says. “But they definitely want the autonomy around key levers: hiring and resources that impact school success. They are really longing for that and it needs to be considered when holding them accountable.”

Next Steps

During the summer, the fellows met with DOE staff to summarize what they were hearing from principals, and they will be asked to do so again at the end of their experience, says Ritsch. They also participate in meetings almost weekly in which they are asked to chime in with ideas on communication materials going out to schools or language going into a speech.

The information provided by the principal fellows has already changed the way the department thinks about policy, says Cohen-Boyer. Administrators must clearly understand reform initiatives if they are going to be implemented with fidelity, she says. With 90,000 principals (compared with 3. 5 million teachers), the number is more manageable to reach, she adds.

The fellows have provided a reality check. “Things can sound perfect in the abstract when you are designing them on paper, but you need a person running a school to tell you if that’s going to fly,” says Ritsch.

While the fellowship pilot lasts for 18 months, going forward the appointment will be for the academic year. According to Ritsch, new fellows will be selected in the spring for 2015–16. Last year, 600 applications were received for the three positions. Application information will be available by the end of this year here.

Image: Chris Adams

Keeping an Eye on Security

Learn how to create a risk-based plan to protect students and staff effectively.
By John Shriner

In less than a generation, schools have entered a complex new world of security concerns. They’ve gone from focusing on fire and earthquake drills to “hardening” against human intruders in response to the rising threat of shootings across the nation.

There have been 75 school shootings since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School less than two years ago. The research company IHS Technology reports schools will spend an estimated $4.9 billion on educational security systems by 2017, almost double what they spent just a few years ago. Schools are being flooded with money for security, but often without any guidance on how best to use the funds. School boards, superintendents, and facility managers find themselves doing double duty: their own jobs, plus the challenging work of security experts. Yet few have any real training or expertise in how best to approach an increasingly complex security environment.

In response to the new reality facing schools, some school boards and administrators have sought advice from security personnel or local police departments. While this is a good starting point, these recommendations can be general, rather than examining the specific risk factors that apply to individual schools. School officials can also seek advice and specific strategies from experts who have long-term experience dealing with these kinds of threats. Security experts working in banking and retail have successfully deterred assault and armed robbery for decades, and they are now sharing their expertise and risk analysis to protect schools from violence.

Creating an Overall Risk Strategy

Seasoned security experts advocate adopting a risk-based approach to school safety. This strategy would assess and prioritize risks from top to bottom for all schools in the district—from traditional threats like fires, earthquakes, and severe weather to modern dangers like active shooters and child abductors—and provide an appropriate response.

Many schools already understand the risks of natural disasters and have plans in place to address them. Far fewer, however, are prepared for shootings and abduction threats. A full risk assessment looks at crime statistics, incidents of violence, weapon availability, and other issues at the state, district, and local school level. It also considers the unique characteristics of each school.

Multiple Lines of Defense

The first line of defense against school violence has four components: a vigilant school community, perimeter fencing, a security camera, and a phone outside the school entrance allowing a receptionist to monitor all visitors.

While every school is different, most schools should implement security video cameras at all primary entrances and exits. Cameras help identify unauthorized visitors and trigger a security response if necessary, as well as provide police with evidence in the event of a crime. Recorded video can also serve as liability protection to demonstrate that a child safely left the school at a certain time in the case of an abduction.

Alarms, metal detectors, and panic buttons that alert the police, and other security systems provide a second line of defense. These devices can detect trouble and sound the alarm early so serious harm can be prevented. In school communities where guns and drug dealers are a reality, bulletproof windows and doors should be implemented at common entry points. Card systems that control door access can also be used to keep out unauthorized visitors.

Once a violent intruder is detected, a third line of defense is called for. Interior fencing, barriers, safe rooms, and electronic door lock strikes that are capable of locking down various areas of the school (perhaps linked to a panic button), as well as campus communication systems and bullet-resistant doors and windows, can all slow a dangerous intruder’s access into the school and movement within it.

As mentioned earlier, a vigilant school community is a crucial component of the first line of defense. Students and staff must be properly trained and drilled in the security policies, procedures, and the use of any necessary equipment. Ensuring that everyone at school is familiar with procedures will not only help avoid security errors—like leaving a security door propped open—but will also ensure they respond promptly and appropriately in an emergency.

While school boards and administrators have been thrust into a discussion they didn’t ask to enter, they have an advantage: They are in the business of learning. If educators can learn from the best security practices of industries long successful at deterring violence, they can make schools as safe as possible—so students, teachers, and administrators can get back to their core competency: education.

John Shriner is vice president of consulting at Installations Inc. (installations.org), a Michigan-based company that provides in-depth security consultation and security products to schools, colleges, banks, hotels, retailers, and government institutions. A 30-year industry veteran, he is the former international director of physical security for Wells Fargo Corporation.

 Image: W. Steve Shepard Jr./iStockphoto

Open a World of Possible
With Independent Reading: The 20-Minute Challenge

Giving kids access to books they love and the time to read them is the best way to help them achieve academic success and lifelong joy.
By Pam Allyn

If you could free up 20 minutes in class each day—no small feat, I understand—what payoff would you need to justify the commitment? Would boosting test scores, nurturing better writers, and creating students with a deep love of learning be enough? If so, then I have a challenge for you. Will you make independent reading a regular part of your school day?

Independent reading time is truly the simplest, most economical intervention we have to transform even the most struggling readers into kids who read with flashlights after their bedtime and who use reading as a tool to change their lives.

Olympic athletes don’t get to the podium because they filled in worksheets about their sport or listened passively to a coach for hours on end. They become strong and skilled through daily practice, through exercising many muscles, and taking initiative. Reading muscles grow strong in the same way, through regular, dedicated practice. It’s been shown that as little as 20 minutes a day of brisk walking provides measurable health benefits. A similar principle holds true for reading. Twenty minutes a day of the kind of reading where children select their own titles and where the time is spent fully engaged in reading will have a big impact and open up a world of possibility for each child. Practice does make perfect. And practice must start from a place of love and passion. There is not one thing you do well that you did not love to do first. We must make space for independent reading time in school because it gives children a chance to actually practice and to fall in love with the work of reading.

The Benefits of Daily, Independent Reading

Independent reading builds fluency, stamina, independence, comprehension, and an increased vocabulary. And, it leads to high test scores. Years of research by renowned experts have proven this time and time again. Richard Allington sums it up perfectly when he says, “It is during successful, independent reading practice that students consolidate their reading skills and strategies and come to own them. Unless children read substantial amounts of print, their reading will remain laborious, lacking fluency, and limited in effectiveness.”

Creating daily regular work around independent reading experiences exposes our students to the three major text types: narrative, opinion, and informational text. Daily independent reading time promotes high levels of critical thinking and comprehension skills. As Nancie Atwell points out, “Students who read widely and frequently are higher achievers than students who read rarely and narrowly.” The independent reading time gives students the chance to read widely—to browse and reread, to read across genres and text types, to read voraciously and to fall in love with authors.

The benefits of reading independently extend to our students’ writing lives as well. Reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out. Allowing students to immerse themselves in authentic texts gives them powerful models to inspire their own writing. It’s no surprise that a universal piece of advice that great writers give to aspiring writers is this: Read often. Ernest Hemingway, when asked how to become a great writer, responded: “Read Anna Karenina, read Anna Karenina, read Anna Karenina.” And he meant it; rereading counts. This is also a key part of independent reading: letting kids love the books they read and letting them read authentically too, which always, for anyone under the age of 12, involves rereading.

The Power of Student Choice

The integral ingredient of independent reading time is student choice. Having ownership of their own reading empowers children to build a strong identity as readers and is profoundly motivating for students, even and sometimes especially for struggling readers who may feel a lack of autonomy in many other areas of their academic learning lives. The 2013 Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found an astounding 92 percent of kids are more likely to finish a book that they chose themselves as opposed to one that was chosen for them. That is persuasive testimony not only to the power of choice but also to the good decisions children make when they are supported in making them.

Today’s independent reading time should be deeply connected to a child’s ongoing learning and to the learning timeline of the classroom literacy work. A teacher’s role should be to teach into that independent reading time, not away from it. Independent reading should be the fuel for whole-class instruction. For instance, if the teacher is leading a unit of study on characters and themes, the children should be exploring those same big ideas in their own independent reading, whether a child is reading Frog and Toad or The Chronicles of Narnia. Teachers can confer with students individually during independent reading time to discover what parts of their teaching are impacting that child’s independent exploration of texts.

PamallynpressphototwoThe launch of Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible campaign is a perfect moment for us as educational leaders to commit to providing every child with at least 20 minutes of independent reading time every day in every classroom and to commit to providing the kinds of books and texts children will stay awake all night for. Independent reading at home and at school puts the child at the center of his or her own learning, which fosters success and enthusiasm. So there is a new effort among teachers to help children find books to get them excited about stories and information, to link reading to fun, discovery, and curiosity, and to promote the sheer joy that reading can bring. A child with the right book becomes the driving force in his or her own reading, and that is the key to becoming a learner. Open a World of Possible points to independent reading as a doorway to imagination and discovery—a way to motivate children to read and learn and realize themselves.

It’s no coincidence that many of today’s trailblazers and entrepreneurs pinpoint reading and favorite books as the source of their inspiration. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that reading Nancy Drew mysteries changed her life and made her want to solve mysteries too, which is what she does today! Lest we think independent reading is supplemental or extra, to be done only on Friday afternoons, let’s think again. Take the Open a World of Possible challenge and put independent reading time at the center of your school community. Let’s leave a literacy legacy for our students they will remember always. Let’s give every child those 20 crucial minutes each day to change their lives.

Pam Allyn is a renowned author of award-winning books on parenting and teaching. She is the founder of LitWorld, a literacy advocacy initiative working nationally and globally to provide literacy to at-risk children.


BIGGER THAN WORDS: A Live Webcast with Usher

The best selling musician discusses how kids can open a world of possible through reading.

Thursday, November 6, 2014   
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT


An Exclusive Video. Global superstar and seven-time Grammy® winner shares which books have influenced her, and how reading and writing have opened her world. scholastic.com/taylorswift



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