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Audio and the Core Assessments

Headphones_top

 

Audio and the Core Assessments

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

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

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

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

 Affordability

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

 Warranties

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

 Microphones

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

 Resizable

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

 Diverse Plugs

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

 Single Use and Reusable

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

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

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

Image: Getty Images

Ed-tech_pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image: Media Bakery

7 Steps to Making Successful EdTech Purchases

Tech-part-1_pulse

7 Steps to Making Successful EdTech Purchases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Image: Hiya Images/Corbis/Media Bakery

Middleschool_pulse

Benchmarking the Road to College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Jose Luis Pelaez/Media Bakery

MLK_pulse

Keeping Dr. King's Dream Alive

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

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

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

Dr. King’s Key Ideas

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

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

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

Primary Sources

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

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

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

Image: Courtesy of Ryan Griffith, Rochester City School District

Discovery-ed_pulse

Tech + Grit = Math Success

Mathematics scores are trending upward with the help of digital resources.
By Wayne D’Orio

For students today, math is too often a four-letter word, to be avoided at all costs. We’ve seen the numbers and heard the reports—math education is a major weakness for today’s children, we aren’t creating enough students with the right skills to fill high-paying STEM jobs, and our students are falling significantly behind compared to other countries.

Yet amid all the gloom and doom, a panel of five experts gathered recently at Discovery Education headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss ways to improve math education, re-energize students and teachers, and end what many think has become a pattern of declining math performance.

“We’re on the cusp of tremendous opportunity,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, in North Carolina. “We recognize our deficiency and can use digital resources to help students.”

Francis “Skip” Fennell, professor of education at McDaniel College, in Westminster, Maryland, argued that perception is one of math’s biggest problems. Test scores on the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study bear him out. In 2011, fourth-grade U.S. students scored 12 points higher than in 2007, although eighth-grade students’ scores were flat. Fourth graders ranked behind just eight countries, while placing ahead of 42 education systems around the world. For eighth graders, 11 countries placed higher than U.S students, while 32 placed below. Math achievement can be improved, but students are making progress, said Fennell.

Actor and best-selling author Danica McKellar agreed with Fennell. McKellar writes books to help encourage girls to pursue math, such as 2008’s Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss. At book signings, she has talked with girls who put down their math achievement, only to reveal that they are getting good grades. It’s a vicious cycle, says McKellar: “For most parents, math brings back bad memories.” We need to tell students that “doing math is like going to the gym for your brain,” she added.

Other panelists included Michele Weslander-Quaid, Google’s chief innovation evangelist and Portia Wu, assistant secretary of employment and training administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. The event was held in conjunction with Discovery Education’s new Math Techbook, a digital textbook designed to encourage inquiry-based learning.

To really turn the tide, said Edwards, schools that are used to celebrating success have to celebrate progress as well, especially by struggling students. In Mooresville, he added, where test scores are among the highest in North Carolina, there is “a relentless belief in every child.”

“We evaluate children for their potential,” said Edwards. “We have math nights in all of our elementary schools to teach parents about math. There’s a constancy of reaching out. This is not a short-term effort.”

Weslander-Quaid said teachers’ reactions to mistakes could deter students. Mistakes should be corrected but they should not be viewed as proof that a student can’t succeed, she added. “In the tech world, if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not pushing hard enough.”

Wu previewed the upcoming job market, saying that more than 1 million STEM jobs will be created in the next decade. STEM jobs currently pay twice as much as median wages, she added, yet there are not enough qualified workers to fill these spots.

To watch the entire Discovery Education event, visit www.discoveryeducation.com

Image: Courtesy of Discovery Education

OERs-pulse

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

By Tyler DeWitt

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

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

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

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

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

Differentiate With OER

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

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

That’s where OER come in.

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

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

Assemble Powerful Tools

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

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

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

Find the Best Resources

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

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

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

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

 

Image: 4Max/Shutterstock

Salt-lake-city-pulse

Innovations Bold Gamble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Drawing Board to Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a New School Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acclimating Students

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

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

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

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

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

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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

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

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

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

Skype_pulse

Demystifying Computer Science

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

By Wayne D’Orio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Image: Courtesy of Skype

Mathskills_pulse

Making Math Relevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Getty Images

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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.