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Edjourney-pulse

On the Road, Seeking Out Innovation

Author Grant Lichtman on why America’s best schools are adaptable and creative.
by Kim Greene

Grant Lichtman packed his bags, climbed into his 1997 Prius, and embarked on an epic cross-country road trip, at least by an educator’s standards. Over the course of three months in the fall of 2012, he visited 64 schools, from California to New York, public and private, suburban and urban. His goal: to learn what the word innovation means to schools, what obstacles educators encounter, and what successes they have found. His findings form the basis for his new book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education. We caught up with Lichtman at his home in California to delve deeper into what the senior fellow with the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence learned while on the road.

Q: Early on in the book, you say change in schools isn’t hard—it’s uncomfortable. How does an administrator create a school culture that embraces change necessary for innovation?

A: The biggest obstacles to innovation and change in all organizations are fear and inertia. These are very much present at schools. Leaders need to have the courage to take risks, primarily to overcome the fear and inertia. Schools have always had a unique and difficult relationship with the idea of risk both as learners and as adults. Yet we know that organizations are not capable of changing unless we do take risks. In a time of rapid change, we have to engage strategies where risk is not a bad word. It’s not dangerous. Actually, the risk to an organization of not changing frequently is greater than the risk of making some changes. The book is full of examples of how school leaders are changing their approach and mind-set to the idea of risk—how they are changing the management structure to create more distributive, creative processes and allowing those processes to happen within their organizations. The real hallmark of innovation is the ability to move quickly, which does not happen when we have rigid, highly vertical, hierologic reporting structures.

Leaders are recognizing they need to value employees with different strengths than they’ve had in the past, rather than just valuing teachers because they’re experts in a particular subject or because they’ve had longevity in the system or because they’ve demonstrated ability to manage a classroom. We place a high value on people who have a willingness and capacity to create something—to collaborate as members of a team—as much as we do knowledge of subject. Those are some of the similarities of schools that seem to be developing a capacity for change.

Q: You spend a chunk of the book outlining the characteristics of an innovative classroom. If we walked into one today, what words would you use to describe it: adaptable, creative, dynamic?

A: I think it starts with those words. Those words are ones that I synthesized from so many schools and so many interviews with so many educators. They tend to be messy, noisy, and slightly chaotic.

I use the word permeable a lot. This follows on the thinking of my colleague Bo Adams, whom I cite in the book. We have to break this boundary between the concept of school and the rest of the world. This means breaching the physical boundary by getting off campus more, even if it’s only a few steps, to use the world as a learning space.

Certainly, teachers are becoming much more nimble and adaptive. They’re changing their curriculum each year, allowing students to help negotiate and change that curriculum, doing that as co-learners rather than as a teacher and a student at opposite poles.

Q: You make the point that innovation and technology are not terms to be used synonymously. Why do some educators think that putting a tech device in the hands of students is instant innovation?

A: We have to look at the history of it. We don’t have to go back more than 15 years—or, for some schools, the last 10 years—to when computers really started percolating into the classroom and school space in a meaningful way. A number of people felt that placing this technology in the classroom would be disruptive innovation that would fundamentally change learning. This included Clayton Christensen, who built a lot of the disruptive innovation idea around the example of computers in the classroom. What we found is that it does in some cases and it dramatically doesn’t in other cases.

I wrote an article for ISTE a year ago (“Take Aim at Innovation,” Learning & Leading With Technology, September/October 2013,) and its punch line was, technology is the bows and arrows in our quiver. Our goal as educators is not about bows and arrows; it’s about training the archer. I think that we’ve seen in the last few years a shift, importantly in the minds of educational technologists. Eight or 10 years ago, they felt what they were bringing to the table was the innovation. Now when I meet with them, many of them understand the shift is in the pedagogy and the learning space, the practice of relationships between teachers and students and knowledge.

Q: It’s difficult to imagine the types of innovations you talk about happening in schools that have so many requirements and regulations. Private and charter schools have more flexibility and, as a result, seem riper for innovation. What changes are necessary to help foster innovation in traditional public schools?

A: You’re right. Charter and private schools are a legacy of the old laboratory schools of the progressive era. This is exactly what they were meant to do—try new things and hopefully some of those will percolate, and of course did percolate, into the public system.

Public school leaders have to recognize a few things. If public schools do not change to better prepare for the future rather than the past, they’re going to continue to lose students to other learning opportunities. The range of opportunities families have to choose from today is vastly greater than five, 10, and certainly 15 years ago. Because of that choice, families who understand that the traditional method of learning is not preparing students for the world they’re going to inherit will make other choices.

Also, we are trapped in this existential discourse between the role and importance of standards-based learning versus what we could call a more progressive learning style. I do not believe the Common Core de facto is an inhibitor of deeper learning. In fact, I think if people view Common Core as a foundation upon which to build, much of what it outlines allows for these sorts of innovative learning conditions. I think regions, states, and areas that view the Common Core or any set of standards as so vital and so important that they require teachers to take on an ever more rigid, test-focused set of activities in the classroom, are on the wrong side of history.

Finding Excellence

Lichtman says he’s frequently asked to name the most innovative schools he visited. On his list of exemplary schools are these two public institutions:

  • Science Leadership Academy (SLA), Philadelphia: SLA is a public magnet school that faces the same challenges as other schools in Philadelphia’s system, including poverty and funding. Yet the school, which follows a project-based philosophy, boasts that 90 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges.

Among the many assets that make SLA successful, Lichtman points to the agility and speed with which the school makes decisions. SLA founder and principal Chris Lehmann told Lichtman, “We iterate fast and we are not afraid of ideas. But we also ‘problematize’ well. We consider the worst and negative consequences of our best ideas, and we do all of this quickly.”

Lehmann does not rely solely on senior administrators to make decisions about innovation. “When we have someone new to the school, we often have to coach them up to this level of decisional empowerment so they will just go and make things happen,” he said.

  • Denver Green School (DGS): DGS is a choice school operated under Denver’s Board of Education.Lichtman says the school has “the most intentional system of distributed authority” of any school he visited. Seven partners (master teachers, of sorts) founded the school and act as the leadership team. They’ll continue to add partners as teachers become interested and committed. With a growing mass of partners, they hope these leaders can then start their own schools with this same management structure.

Lichtman says this innovative management style works because it alleviates the problem of placing a single individual at the top. If that one weak link fails, Lichtman notes, the whole organization is at risk. But with distributed authority, the school has a better shot at long-term success.

Photo Credit: Julie Lichtman

Games-pulse
Getting Serious About Games

How to ensure the games your students play pay off academically. 
By Dan Norton

Who doesn’t like a good game? From chess to bowling to flapping (possibly even angry) birds, games have permeated our culture. With social and mobile technology infusing every aspect of our life, even Grandma has been known to cultivate a virtual farm or crush some candy from time to time.

For people who love games, this is great news. But now that games are accepted as a mainstream medium, it’s time to see if they can be moved past the point of mere entertainment.

The field of learning games itself has been around for decades, with venerable titles such as Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail blazing the path. But there is new research and products that seek to unleash the power of gaming in your district’s classrooms.

So while mixing games and education is no longer frowned upon, the rules for evaluating whether a game deserves to be part of your district’s classrooms are certainly different from those you use to judge a game you play for diversion. Here are five tips to help you determine whether what you use your classrooms will offer students quality learning as well as fun.

1. Games Are More Than Fun

Yes, games are fun, but that’s just a tiny piece of what they have to offer. When evaluating games for your classroom, look past the amusing story or the pretty graphics and think about what players are actually going to do in the game. The gold standard to ask is, “Does mastering this game mean students will have mastered the targeted learning objectives?”

Great learning games use the natural gameplay cycles of challenge and feedback to ensure players excel, and the progress connects to the learning objectives in an obvious and measurable way.

2. Games Create Context for Content

Games, of course, can hold educational content, but the unique power of quality games is that they create a context to surround the content. This context creates authentic ways of interacting with the content. The gameplay in each game is actually a set of “verbs.” That is, players interact with the content in a way that closely mirrors actual mastery of the objectives.
The context that games create is so powerful that you can use it in classroom activities and materials after the game is done. Drawing on the gameplay experience, classroom activities can also connect related learning objectives back into the game’s story. For example: ”Remember how we grew those plants in Reach for the Sun? How do you think the plants actually turn that sunlight into energy?”

3. Games Create Practice With Purpose

Games don’t just create verbs, they create identities that give purpose. Quality learning games make explicit why the objectives matter. Games make heroes out of writers, scientists, thinkers, and problem solvers. Students want to know why learning material matters—and games help paint that picture!

4. Games Explore Systems

Games are, at their heart, simply a set of rules that players inhabit. These rules create a system that players experiment with and try to understand in order to get better at the game. Think of these rules as a simulation, and players as “researchers” testing the boundaries of the simulation through play. This makes games well suited to express complicated, systems-driven concepts that are so often found in science and math.

5. Games Are an Opportunity

When evaluating games, think of them as an opportunity to connect, create context, and inspire your students, not just to entertain or distract. When you evaluate the games you want to put into your classrooms, think of them not as a temporary diversion, but as a powerful new tool you can use to enhance your entire curriculum.

Dan Norton is the chief creative officer and founder of Filament Games. He has designed games about a broad range of topics, ranging from marine turtle ecology to legal argumentation. His games have won numerous industry awards and have been played millions of times in classrooms across the country.

Twitter-pulseWhy Your Teachers Should Use Twitter

Powerful PD—one tweet at a time.
By Kim Greene

There comes a point when we have to acknowledge that one-size-fits-all professional development isn’t cutting it. Just as students need to be treated as individual learners, so do the teachers in your schools. And while your district may offer workshops and webinars, there’s another PD resource right at your teachers’ fingertips. It’s open 24-7, connects educators from around the globe, and covers countless topics across grade levels and subject areas.

It’s Twitter.

We know what you might be thinking. There aren’t enough hours in the day to check another social media site. Well, we have good news for you. You and your teachers can spend as much or as little time as you want exploring ideas—wherever and whenever you want. Twitter is a giant professional learning network (PLN) that helps educators step outside of their classrooms and schools. Together they problem-solve, share, and refine their craft.

We’ve assembled a guide for you to share with your teachers so they can make the most of Twitter as a PD tool.

To get the scoop on Twitter as PD, we spoke with two tweeting teachers, Lyssa Sahadevan (@lyssareads), a first-grade teacher at East Side Elementary in Marietta, Georgia, and Allison Hogan (@AllisonHoganEDU), a transitional kindergarten/first-grade teacher at the Episcopal School of Dallas.

For teachers who have never been on Twitter before and have just created an account, where should they start?
Allison: My first piece of advice is to take the time to create your profile. When someone follows me, I look at their profile to see if they’re a teacher, principal, etc. Also, follow people in your school community to see how they use it.
Lyssa: A friend of mine took an online Twitter how-to. She was so overwhelmed! I suggested she just go for it, and that route worked for her.

When it’s time to start tweeting, what’s your best advice?
Allison: Start with a chat in your comfort zone, like your grade level or content area. Move to larger groups once you get the format down.
Lyssa: I started simple with #1stchat (first-grade chat) and just sat on the sidelines!

How do you start to form a PLN out of a sea of strangers?
Lyssa: It all starts with hitting reply. If something speaks to you (and you might not always be in agreement), you reply. A conversation ensues. You retweet them, they retweet you, you ask questions and share resources. You might meet them in person one day at a conference. It’s awkward, but it’s also exciting! You already know you have something in common.

How do you maximize your Twitter time without it taking over life?
Allison:
I investigate topics and lean toward what I will need and what I have to offer. Think strengths and weaknesses.
Lyssa: I often miss my favorite chats because the times do not work, so I devote a little Saturday-morning coffee time to going through the archives. I pick and choose. If I’m working on an improving math workshop, I make time to attend the chat. If there is a conference going on, I try to check in on Twitter or make a note of the hashtag so I can follow.

In terms of social media, do you think Twitter has something unique to offer teachers that Facebook and other platforms don’t?
Allison:
Twitter is way better than Facebook just because of the access—meaning a hashtag can unite hundreds of educators at one time and for a purpose. I can also ask a question using the same hashtag, and it will reach those who follow the hashtag, so more ideas will flow.
Lyssa: The openness of Twitter is unbelievable. The year I co-taught, I posted a tweet asking for tips. At least 10 or 15 teachers reached out to me with advice, special education resources, and blog posts. It was so encouraging! These teachers were strangers who just wanted to help. I had expert advice immediately.
Allison: Once teachers see the effects of Twitter, it will be easy to transition to a class account to share their work and wonderings with the world. I feel Twitter and Skype have torn down the walls of my classroom.

#HASHTAGS

Hashtags are keywords that categorize what you’re tweeting about. For instance, you might use “#edtech” at the end of a tweet about how your students use tablets. You can also search Twitter for a hashtag that you’re interested in. This will bring up tweets from other users who have tweeted about that topic. Here’s a look at some (but definitely not all) of the most popular education hashtags.

General education: #teaching, #teachers, #learning, #k12, #PLN, #edreform, #commoncore, #ccss, #teacherproblems, #edcamp, #globaled

Educational technology: #edtech, #elearning, #edapp (or #edapps), #byod, #blendinglearning, #ipaded, #1to1

Content or grade-level specific:

Literacy: #kidlit, #literacy, #readaloud

Math: #math, #mathed

Science: #scied, #STEM, #NGSS, #scienceteacher

Social studies: #socialstudies, #historyteacher

Arts: #artsed, #musiced

Early childhood: #earlyed, #preschool, #ece

ESL: #esl, #ell (or #ells)

Special education: #sped, #specialneeds, #autism, #dyslexia

Physical education: #PEgeeks

Speech and language: #SLpeeps, #speech

Other hashtags to note:

#tlap: Inspired by Dave Burgess’s (@burgessdave) Teach Like a Pirate

#comments4kids: Denotes when teachers want others to comment on students’ blog posts.

#flipclass: The latest and greatest ideas about flipped learning

CHATS

Educators join up for Twitter chats every day of the week. Moderators pose questions to keep the discussion on topic. Everyone uses the same hashtag in his or her tweets so it’s easy to follow the conversation. (You’ll also find that people use these hashtags throughout the week.) You can search for the hashtag manually on the Twitter page or try programs like Hootsuite and TweetDeck to follow along. Ready to give it a try? Pop in on some of these popular chats.

WHO TO FOLLOW

Companies and Organizations:

@ScholasticTeach: Scholastic’s official account for teachers

@IRAToday: Literacy ideas for all educators

@NCTE: Teaching tips for English teachers

@NCTM: All things math education

@NSTA: Ideas and opportunities in science education

@ASCD: Professional development and educational leadership resources

@NAEYC: News and tweets about early childhood education

@educationweek and @EdWeekTeacher: The latest education news

@edutopia: Inspiration for K–12 educators

@TeachingChannel: Online community of K–12 teachers

@Edudemic: Education and technology

@MindShiftKQED: Trends in education

Educators:

@KleinErin: Erin Klein, teacher and ed-tech blogger

@cybraryman1: Jerry Blumengarten, co-moderator of #edchat

@MrSchuReads: John Schumacher, teacher-librarian and cohost of #SharpSchu monthly book club with Colby Sharp (@colbysharp)

@donalynbooks: Donalyn Miller, a.k.a. The Book Whisperer, and a facilitator of #nerdybookclub

@bradmcurrie: Brad Currie, school leader and #satchat cofounder

@pernilleripp: Pernille Ripp, middle school teacher and creator of Global Read Aloud

@kylepace: Kyle Pace, instructional technology specialist

@Larryferlazzo: Larry Ferlazzo, urban teacher and ELL specialist

@coolcatteacher: Vicki Davis, blogger, teacher, and IT director

@web20classroom: Steven W. Anderson, instructional technology expert and #edchat cocreator

@mssackstein: Starr Sackstein, teacher, blogger, and co-moderator of #sunchat

@pamallyn: Pam Allyn, literacy expert and founding director of LitWorld and LitLife

 

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong/theispot.com

 

Ebola_pulse
Ebola in Schools

Fear is growing as various districts take different actions to try to protect students and staff from the virus and misinformation.

In U.S., Fear of Ebola Closes Schools and Shapes Politics
NYT: Some school officials take leaves as other schools close for “deep cleaning.”

The Ebola Effect: Schools Shut Down, Sanitizer Sales Spike
ABC News: Domino effect as officials track passengers on plane with Duncan nurse.

Dallas ISD Suspends 2 Over Cleaning at Schools Affected by Ebola Case
Dallas News: Should workers cleaning the schools be outfitted in hazmat suits?

Dallas ISD Schools Under Ebola Scrutiny to Get Fever Scanners
Fox: Scanners will be set up in five schools.

Ebola Anxiety Prompts N.J. School to Bar Students from Africa
N.J.com: Students from East Africa will undergo voluntary 21-day waiting period before enrolling.

Central Texas Schools Closed Amid Ebola Scare Reopen
KXAN: Three schools in Belton reopen after cleaning; students on flight with Duncan nurse will stay home for 21 days.

Dozens Declared Free of Ebola Risk in Texas
NYT: People in contact with first U.S. victim are no longer at risk of contracting the disease.

Image: AP

Mooc_pulse
Learning by the Thousands

Can high school students learn in MOOCs?
By Wayne D’Orio

In less than four years, massive open online courses have been hailed as the next big thing to hit education—and disparaged as an empty promise where very few of the students complete the courses they sign up for.

You’re probably aware of the basics about MOOCs: After more than 150,000 students signed up for Stanford University’s first course in 2011, companies such as Coursera and Udacity, which pair with universities or other companies to offer content, seemed to sprout up overnight. MIT and Harvard, later joined by other universities, then created the nonprofit edX to offer classes for free. Today, more than nine million people take MOOCS, choosing from more than 1,200 courses.

Most K-12 administrators have been able to ponder the merit of MOOCs from the sidelines, as these classes have mostly involved college or post-secondary students. But with edX’s recent announcement that it will offer 27 courses next fall specifically for high school students, the question has landed right on administrators’ doorsteps. They have to wonder, will this work for my students, and if it does, how will it change how we educate our kids?  

Students are ready for it, says Anant Agarwal, edX’s CEO. The group surveyed high schoolers and found that 95 percent of them asked for advanced courses. Indeed, 150,000 of edX’s current 3 million students are in high school, he explains.

But that isn’t the only reason edX is expanding. Agarwal knows that many high school graduates aren’t ready for college, having to wade through remedial classes at university prices before they start earning credit. “We want to fix that,” and the courses offered should help, he says. edX will start by offering 15 AP classes among its 27 courses for high schoolers. It hopes to add 100 more high school courses in the next few years.

Another reason for the expansion is that a disproportionate number of edX students are teachers themselves. “It turns out that teachers want to know other ways of teaching a course,” Agarwal says. If a high school chemistry teacher can watch a Georgetown University professor teach chemistry, why wouldn’t they, he asks.  

The courses are all free, but for a varying fee, students can earn a certificate, Agarwal says. Of course, students in AP classes can sign up to take the AP test in the spring.

The certificate is also an answer of sorts to the conundrum posed at the start of this story. If course completion rates hover around 4 percent, as a study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education showed, are MOOCs worth it? Yes, Agarwal argues, because when students are asked to pay between $25 and $100 for a verified certificate, the completion rate jumps to 60 percent. (edX’s general completion rates are 7 percent, Agarwal says.)

Students are using certificates to help them get accepted to college, while teachers use them to get continuing ed credits, he adds.

In the end, though, “you can’t judge a MOOC by the same metrics” as a regular college class, says Agarwal. “If you pay $50,000 to attend college, you’d better pass. MOOCs are free. A lot of people take classes just to learn something new.”

Image: Spanic/iStockphoto

SLO_pulse
Lessons Learned: Launching a SLO Initiative

By Jo-ne Bourassa

In Georgia, as in many states, approximately 75 percent of teachers teach subjects that are not assessed by state tests—for at least part of the instructional day. To meet the student growth and academic achievement component of Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, teachers of these non-tested subjects must implement student learning objectives (SLOs) to gauge student growth.

As one of the original 26 Race to the Top districts in Georgia, Bibb County School District jumped in early on to launch a SLO initiative. In the first year of the pilot, during 2012-13, the Georgia Department of Education required that 52 SLOs be given. To help districts prepare for this, the DOE provided training in assessment alignment and SLO creation.

In Bibb County, we decided to use a pre-test/post-test format to determine student growth over a semester or school year. Several challenges became apparent during year one.

Year One Challenges

To start, we faced a steep learning curve and a massive amount of work. As part of Georgia’s system, student growth and academic achievement are measured by student growth percentiles in tested subjects, or SLOs in non-tested subjects. Only 25 percent of our courses provide growth percentiles through Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Testsin grades 4-8, or end-of-course tests in high school. That meant we were now responsible for creating and administering SLO assessments—and arriving at SLO scores—for 75 percent of our courses.

To save time, we initially used public-domain SLO assessments created by other districts. This, unfortunately, meant our teachers felt no ownership of the materials. In addition, the administration and grading of the 52 pre- and post-tests caused almost all other activities to come to a halt. The tests took two to four days to administer. All were done via paper and pencil, which consumed our paper and copying budgets. The student scores (about 52,000 scores) were collected by hand on an Excel spreadsheet and sent to the central office for summarizing.

Mid-Year Changes

By the end of the first semester in year one, it became clear that teachers, students, and parents did not take the SLO assessments seriously. They even joked and complained about students taking “SLOW” tests.

So, in December 2012, we decided to change our SLOs to GLOs — growth learning objectives. We also switched out the labor-intensive assessments for instruments we already had for PreK-3, including AIMSweb for reading and math in grades 1-3; district writing assessments for English language arts in grades 1-3; Gkids portfolio pieces for kindergarten ELA, math, and reading; and Bright from the Startportfolio pieces for PreK literacy and numeracy. We had to live with the assessments in the other grade levels until we could write our own.

Year Two Revisions

For 2013-14, our district was required to have at least one growth measure for every certified teacher from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. This included P.E., fine arts, and career, technical and agriculture education (CTAE) teachers, as well as any class for which a teacher did not have an existing GLO or student growth percentile. This necessitated the creation of 100-plus additional GLO assessments.

We knew this would be a nearly impossible task without technology. So, after issuing an RFP and evaluating several systems, in January 2013 we selected the SLO Module from Performance Matters, along with the company’s assessment and data management system. Then, from February to July, we revised and developed 100-plus GLO assessments in ELA, math, science, social studies, P.E., fine arts, and CTAE.

In June and July 2013, we conducted training on the Performance Matters platform for our administrators and testing coordinators. Then, in August, we administered the GLO pre-tests in all 41 schools via plain paper scanning and online testing. Instead of having to collect the pre-test data on a spreadsheet, the results were automatically available in the company’s system, which also made it easier to send to the DOE. In addition, our teachers could now see the baseline assessment results and growth targets for each student. This allowed them to more easily monitor students’ progress toward the growth target during the school year, and identify what their students needed and which standards they needed to focus on to reach that target.

We went through the same process to administer the post-tests. Even though we were now administering twice as many assessments, we saved a significant amount of time and energy over the previous year, when we had to gather and analyze the data by hand. Our teachers and administrators could now access the target score and the results data from the pre- and post-assessments for each student under each SLO. With the SLO Module’s automatic calculations, teachers could see whether or not each student met the SLO, as well as the overall percentage of students achieving the SLO by class or by course. In addition, school leaders could use the data to group teachers into the appropriate ratings category—exemplary, proficient, needs development, or ineffective—on the SLO portion of their annual evaluations.

Lessons Learned

Here are some key takeaways from our successful launch of an SLO initiative.

  • Develop clear and concise test administration instructions to guide school testing coordinators and teachers through the pre- and post-test process.
    We created a spreadsheet with “administration notes” for each course. These notes instruct testing coordinators and teachers how to administer and score each test, which eliminates confusion and ensures consistency in each course.
  • Form two teams of teachers to develop SLO assessments—a team of writers and a team of reviewers.
    Having a team of writers and a separate team of reviewers not only improves the quality of the assessments, but it also encourages teacher buy-in since they are actively involved in the test-creation process.
  • Train teachers on test development and assessment alignment.
    Within each course, teachers should be able to determine which standards are most important for students to master the course and prepare for the next grade level. They should be able to plan what percentage of course time should be spent on each of these “power standards,” taking into consideration the percentage of the test that will cover the standard. They should be able to dissect each standard and identify exactly what students must be able to know, understand, and do to demonstrate mastery. They should also be able to articulate the depth of knowledge of each standard, so the assessment item can match that level of cognitive complexity.
  • Allow at least six months—and a large team of teachers — for the development, review, and input of the SLO assessments.
    It is also important to gather input from teachers of English-language learners and students with disabilities who can provide insight into what, if any, modifications might be required to meet specific needs or individualized education plans.
  • Create an item template to ensure consistency.
    Instead of purchasing an item bank, we collected items from a variety of sources, including state-released tests, or we developed our own. Each item was created using a template, which included the following fill-in-the-blank components: question number, DOK level (1-4), curriculum code, question stem, answer choices A-D, and correct answer. Having this template made it much easier to review and vet the items, before we put them into the assessment and data management system.

When we launched our GLO initiative more than two years ago, we had no idea how much work it would be to create and administer the assessments, and then crunch the data for each GLO to determine if students achieved the academic goals set at the beginning of each course. The use of technology has allowed us to automate and streamline the GLO process and ensure more accurate calculations for effectiveness ratings for our teachers. It also gives our teachers easier access to the data they need to inform their instruction, so they can meet the primary purpose of the SLOs — to improve student learning in the classroom.

Dr. Jo-ne Bourassa is the Race to the Top coordinator for the Bibb County School District in Macon, Georgia.

Image: credit: Zero Creatives/Media Bakery

OERs-pulse

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

By Tyler DeWitt

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

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

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

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

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

Differentiate With OER

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

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

That’s where OER come in.

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

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

Assemble Powerful Tools

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

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

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

Find the Best Resources

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

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

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

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

 

Image: 4Max/Shutterstock

Canada_top

Debating Race in School

How race affects tracking, placement, and more in public schools.
By Wayne D'Orio

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, race remains a huge factor in education, affecting tracking, who gets suspended, and where the best teachers teach, said Geoffrey Canada during a panel discussion at a recent Broad Foundation awards event in New York City.

Canada, the president of Harlem Children’s Zone, drew on his career in teaching, and his own childhood, to articulate the many ways race continues to influence education. He spoke on the panel Race in America’s Public Schools with former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Russlynn Ali, a former assistant secretary for civil rights for the U.S. Department of Education.

Canada spoke most passionately about how schools continue to track students, even if that word never gets uttered. “The data is very clear—the darker you are, the poorer you are, the less of a chance that people are going to believe that you are going to be successful,” he told a crowd of more than 100.

“Adults assume they can tell whether a 7-year-old is ever going to amount to anything,” he said, referring to experiences during his childhood. While he was tracked in a high-performing class, he said, his brother wasn’t. “My mother freaked out. She went to the school, used some bad words, and got him in a better class.” His brother recently retired as an engineer for a nuclear power plant.

Today’s system is less overt, Canada said. Many students of color don’t take high-level courses in middle school, and are thus unable to qualify for or keep up with advanced placement courses in high school. “If you start worrying about AP in high school, it’s too late,” he warned. At Harlem Children’s Zone, he fixed this by upping the rigor of classes offered to seventh and eighth graders.

The panel turned to a discussion on discipline discrepancies, and Ali explained how data proves that black and brown students are disciplined much more severely, even as early as in kindergarten. “This problem has been pervasive for a long time,” she said. Black girls are disciplined more harshly than boys of every race except boys of color, said Ali, now the managing director of the education fund for the Emerson Collective, an organization concerned with social entrepreneurism.

Canada agreed, saying, “We’ve allowed a set of behaviors to become criminal. Kids are tossed out in the blink of an eye. They don’t learn how to manage their behavior.”

Villaraigosa addressed the thorny issue of tenure, arguing strenuously against it, while maintaining that he’s not anti-union, “What if I ran [for office] and said, ‘Vote for me, I’ve been here the longest,’” he said, to laughter. “We can’t have every decision made on how long you’ve been there.” He said that teachers instead should be paid based on their performance.

Canada agreed, noting that without merit pay, good teachers are often tempted to flock to better schools. This leaves students in inner-city schools with the newest or weakest teachers, he added. “You can’t teach AP classes if you yourself barely know geometry.”

In one area, however, Canada said race is not a factor. “Great teaching has no color,” he proclaimed. He argued for teachers who have both passion and knowledge. “People give up on these kids too quickly. Loving your students isn’t a prerequisite for great teaching, but it certainly helps.”

Image: Linda Rosier/New York Daily News via Getty Images

Top Stories for Thursday 9/25

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Broad prize pulse

Broad Prize: Two for One

A pair of finalists take home foundation’s top prize.
By Wayne D'Orio

When the finalists were announced for this year’s Broad Prize, it was somewhat of a letdown. Instead of the typical four or five districts battling for the unofficial title of best urban district, there were only two: Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Orange County Public Schools in Florida.

That mood shifted when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the announcement in New York Monday, saying, “I feel like Santa Claus. We have two winners.”

The tie was a first in the foundation’s 13-year history; the two districts will split the $1 million award. And it was Gwinnett’s second victory, newly eligible again after winning the prize in 2010.

Interestingly, while the districts have similar profiles, they took different paths to success.

Gwinnett has some of the most stable leadership in the country. Not only has superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks led the district for 18 years, but the most junior member on the district’s five-person board has nine years experience. The tenure of the longest-serving board member even predates Wilbanks, stretching back to the 1970s. The district’s steady progress netted it the highest SAT participation rate among the 75 Broad Prize-eligible districts, and its students had one of the top AP participation rates.

Orange County’s progress has been more dramatic. The district’s low-income middle school students showed improvement in reaching the highest achievement levels in state tests. In reading, student scores rose 6 percentage points at the highest levels, compared to 1 percentage point of growth for the rest of the state. The district also narrowed the achievement gap between Hispanic students and white students in elementary, middle, and high schools in both math and science.

“We wrestled with performance versus improvement,” said former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell, a member of the prize’s selection jury. “We were impressed with Gwinnett County’s steady, sustainable gains and with Orange County’s urgency and commitment to improve student achievement quickly.”

Gwinnett has about 170,000 students and spends $7,548 per pupil. The district has 55 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 16 percent English language learners. Orange County has 187,000 students and spends $7,965 per student. Sixty percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while 13 percent are designated as English language learners.

Advice from Tony Blair, Arne Duncan

Held at Time Warner in New York’s Columbus Circle, the Broad Prize event drew a large crowd of top education leaders, including former education secretary Rod Paige, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Philadelphia superintendent William Hite, and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair kicked off the event by remembering the struggles he faced when he started to reform Britain’s worst-performing schools. “I think the toughest thing you can do in life is to take a system in the public sector and make the changes and improve it.”

“When you first propose change, people resist it,” he said. “When you are doing it, it's hell, and when you are through doing it, you wish you did more of it.”

Blair joked that Britain and the United States had “a disagreement a couple of hundred of years ago,” but added that both countries “learn best when we learn from each other.”

Duncan spoke next, and he recounted vignettes from his recent three-day bus tour through the South. The secretary marveled at the hardships some children overcome to continue their education. He spoke of children fighting to be the first in their family to graduate high school. “They have amazing potential to do well if we meet them halfway,” Duncan said, praising the teachers, principals, and counselors he has met.

“I’m hopeful about where we are going. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, half a million more African-Americans are in college—we’ve made huge amounts of progress. Yet we come to work every single day because we are not getting good enough fast enough.”

Publicly available data from 2009 to 2013 was used to screen districts this year. Districts can’t apply or be nominated for the award; the 75 largest districts that serve significant percentages of low-income students are automatically considered.

Photos (from left): Invision for The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation/AP Images; John Raoux/AP Photo

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