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The Parent’s Guide to Privacy Rights


The Parent’s Guide to Privacy Rights

This new work is the perfect introduction to the myriad privacy concerns and questions that parents and students face in schools. By Brenda Leong

Data privacy is the issue of the day—not only in the broader society but also in our nation’s schools. As districts increasingly rely on technology to improve student-learning outcomes, collect and store electronic data for administrative efficiency, and provide online resources for students, many parents have expressed confusion about their rights to information that concerns their child’s privacy. 

In April, the Future of Privacy Forum worked with the National PTA and Connect Safely to produce A Parents’ Guide to Student Data Privacy in an effort to help parents understand current student-data privacy policies and protections under the law.

The guide provides straightforward, easy-to-understand explanations for who can access student data, what education companies can do with student information, and how federal laws protect student data. It also includes information about when parents can opt out of sharing their child's information, and how parents can gain access to, make corrections to, or request deletion of their child’s information.

Without question, the guide is both timely and much needed. For administrators, it’s a perfect way to introduce parents to the myriad privacy issues that can seem overwhelming.

Old Policies, New Technology

Consider that current student data laws were written in the years before student records were maintained electronically, and before much student learning and school administration were handled via third-party technology vendors.

Many stakeholders—including vendors, policymakers, and educators—believe these laws need to be updated, and there are numerous efforts at both the state and federal level to amend or rewrite them to more directly address the current state of education technology. 

Moreover, there has been an increase in the volume of national discussion about educational policies and practices generally—addressing everything from curriculum standards to testing—and student privacy has figured more and more prominently in these debates.

For these reasons, we felt this was the right time to step in to help explain to parents what their rights are to access and correct information about their child in the education ecosystem.

The foundational law regarding parental rights to a student’s education record is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), written in the 1970s to help parents access information held by the school about their children.

Most current education records are recorded electronically, and access rights must be understood in the context of information shared with third parties via learning management systems and online assessment programs. Our guide explains how, even though records are now maintained electronically, parents still have the right to use FERPA as a vehicle to view their child's information.

For children under 13, another law—the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)—places strict requirements on vendors whose sites or products gather information directly from children. Critically, before a website or service can collect that information, “verifiable parental consent” must be obtained, meaning a parent must expressly allow the child to provide the information. The Parents’ Guide explains how, in an educational setting, the school is authorized to provide that consent, but only for educational purposes.

In all cases where a school partners with outside companies to provide either learning tools or administrative programs, the school must maintain control and authority over all individual student data. With limited exceptions, such as to improve or develop their products, companies may only use the information for authorized educational purposes. Parents still retain the FERPA right to access the information (via the school), and the school can require the vendor to delete the data when the educational purpose is complete.

Opting Out

Another topic that has received substantial attention recently is “opting out.” In the context of privacy and student data, this means—for certain uses—parents may instruct the school not to share their child’s information. Schools are authorized to designate certain types of personal data (such as name, address, and telephone numbers) as “directory information” and share that information. Examples of this would be data given to yearbook companies, or information shared for school events such as stage productions, awards ceremonies, or sports teams. However, each year the school must first clearly tell parents what information it has included in this category, and must then give parents the chance to “opt out” of having it shared for these optional activities.

Finally, there may be times when parents disagree with the accuracy of something in their child’s record.  In such cases, parents have the right to request corrections, make an appeal if their request is denied, and file complaints or concerns about these rights with the appropriate government agency. The guide helpfully and in detailed form lays out a step-by-step process to help parents take these actions, specifying the federal laws governing this process and providing specific contact information.

The education system is evolving and transforming at a unmatched pace. Within that cycle of change, student data and its privacy implications play a central role. It’s understandable that parents feel a sense of detachment or anxiety about how these changes—in both policymaking as well as digital application—are impacting how information about their child’s education is being affected and protected. We developed this guide to address and answer these needs.

Of course, blueprints like ours only go so far, and they must be matched by an ongoing, proactive effort by parents to engage on this issue with their schools. It will also continue to be important for parents to collaborate with other key stakeholders—such as teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers at all levels of government—to ensure that student data and privacy remain at the forefront of any debate over education policy.

To get a free copy of the guide, visit ferpasherpa.org/parents-guide.html.

Brenda Leong is senior counsel and director of operations at the Future of Privacy Forum. She works on education technology industry standards and collaboration on privacy concerns and partners with parent and educator advocates for practical solutions to student-data privacy challenges.

Image: Ian Sanderson / Media Bakery

What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System


What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System

Determining your schools’ needs will help you zero in on the right choice for your district. By Maged Atiya

Being in school every day is vital for a student’s success, and with state funding associated with attendance, it is also important financially for school districts to minimize absenteeism. Improvements in ID Card System technology are helping to streamline the attendance process in timely, cost-effective ways.

Many districts have discovered that implementing such a system is well worth the commitment and investment, and others are finding that it’s time to upgrade their current systems.

There are a number of important factors to consider when you’re shopping around for an ID Card vendor/partner; here are some key elements to think about.

Dumb Cards or Smart Cards?

What do you want your card to do, how much functionality do you need, how secure must it be, and how fast does the card need to be read?

Dumb cards: These are cards with a magnetic stripe or bar code on them that usually do only simple things: they can open a door or pull up a food service or library account. Staff members typically swipe these cards to enter a building, which is easy enough to do. However, the wear and tear of swiping reduces the card’s lifespan.

Smart cards: These cards provide a host of options. They are contactless and use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology; students tap their cards onto a reader and they are logged in, quickly and easily. Readers can be installed on buses, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gym, or in the auditorium, which makes tracking students extremely efficient. In fact, some configurations can process a thousand students in just minutes.

Smart cards are coded with a unique ID number that is assigned to one individual; it’s the back-end computer that maintains all the information on that person. This means that additional functionality can be added quickly, all at once, at any time, on the base computer. School districts can start with a straightforward ID system, and add features at a later date when budgets or needs change.

Some smart card companies can interact with legacy card programs—those ID card systems that are already in a school district. So the upgrade to smart technologies doesn’t always mean the existing service cannot be used.

To Cloud or Not To Cloud?

We hear all about “the cloud”—and we know it’s important—but do you need a cloud-based ID card system?

In a non-cloud-based system, your data resides in a server somewhere in your school district. It is maintained by your IT department, and if you needed to expand your memory or upgrade your processing speed, then the district would buy a new, bigger computer/server.

If you want to upgrade functionality or software, your IT person has to go from school to school and manage each computer. And if there was a flood, fire, system crash, or security breach, all of your data could be lost and you’d have to start from scratch. Maintaining a traditional land-based system like this can be very costly—in time as well as in money spent.

Cloud computing means that your data resides virtually, in off-site servers, with backup systems in place, so if something happens, your data is safe and always available. Improvements are also simple to make: because the program resides in one place, it has to be upgraded in only one place, and added functionality can be transferred to every school instantly. This service-based process is more streamlined and cost effective.

Cloud services offer significant advantages, but make sure that your vendor/partner uses the highest level of data security available. There are international security standards (PCI, FISMA, SSAE16, to be specific), which are used by banks, credit card companies, hospitals and others, so look for them in your cloud-based ID card system.

Emergency! Emergency!

Sadly, it seems as though we hear about school lockdowns on a weekly basis. ID card systems can certainly help keep your buildings more secure, but there’s more to it than just knowing who came in the front door.

When there’s an emergency, look for an ID card system that can ensure that:

  • All doors in a building or across the district can be locked down with a single command, which can be issued from any wireless device or any computer. This immediacy improves time to action and can save lives.
  • An accurate location report is available on a tablet or computer that shows which staff members and students used their card for attendance and therefore can be identified in the building, in a specific room, which can help first responders react fast.

To automate the process even more effectively, some districts provide their local police and fire departments with precinct- or school-specific ID cards that allow them immediate access into school buildings.

Active or Passive RFID?

School districts have to strike a delicate balance between protecting students when they are on campus, and protecting a student’s right to privacy. You can defend yourself from litigation by making sure your RFID-based ID card system is passive, not active. You can also save yourself some money, too.

Usually battery-powered, active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source that is used to run the card’s microchip circuitry and to broadcast a signal to a reader (the way a cell phone transmits signals to a base station). This allows a student’s or teacher’s card to be read at any time—the card can be hanging around a person’s neck, held onto his or her belt loop, or in their backpack, and the reader can pick up its signal, as long as it is within a certain range.

Because the card transmits data, badge holders can be tracked and found anywhere, at any time. And while this may be an enticing scenario, schools have to consider student privacy rights as well. Also Active RFID cards require a battery and are heavier, more expensive, and need significantly more maintenance.

Passive tags have no battery. Instead, they draw power from the reader, and require a student to take an action, like tapping it on a screen, for the card to be read. This process makes it easy to track where students are, and you can get an accurate count of how many students (or teachers, or staff) have checked in at any particular time. However, because it is a passive process, these ID cards do not infringe on privacy. Also, passive cards are less expensive and last longer, hence they have lower overall cost.

Imagine That

Technological advances with ID card systems can make a host of administrative processes easier and more efficient. Here are just a few examples of what’s already happening in school districts across the country.

Attendance: An automated ID card system that generates a list of late/absent children; the parents of those children are then called by an automated system that reports them as absent, making the process more streamlined so office staff can focus on other tasks.

Classroom: Students tap their cards upon entering a classroom, so teachers don’t have to take attendance and substitutes always have an accurate count. Children tap out if they leave the class early and tap into the main office/nurse/guidance office, etc., which makes student movement easy to track.

Visitor Management: When a visitor arrives, there are visitor management modules that determine if he or she has been to the school before. If the person is recognized, a paper badge can be printed; if he or she isn’t in the database, the system determines if there are any district-defined exclusionary alerts regarding the person, while simultaneously checking for a match against the sexual offender database. An automatic alert is sent to the district, making the school even more secure.

Location and Time Clock Management: Staff members use their ID cards to open locked doors to enter school buildings or portable classrooms. Students with disabilities or injuries use their cards to access building elevators. Facility staff members use time clock kiosks to sign in and out of work, which keeps track of their time spent, their current location, and any overtime hours they work.

Students: ID cards are used at cafeteria registers and at libraries to check out books. The database carries personal schedule information, and cards are checked by hall monitors using mobile devices to verify that students are going to the correct class for the proper period.

Accountability and Control: ID cards are tapped for events that take place in buildings after school and/or at night. Students tap in to attend a sporting event, dance, concert, or any other school-sponsored program, which adds accountability and control to event administrators and lets them know who is in the venue for that event.


It’s important to plan ahead. With the pace of technology advances, make sure you find a partner that understands the needs you have today, what you might want in the future, and how you can plan to get there. And now that you’re armed with these important ideas, you can find an ID card system that works best for your schools.

Maged Atiya, Ph.D., is ScholarChip’s founder and principal partner, responsible for managing system and application developments with an eye towards emerging technologies. He founded the company to provide school districts with fast and powerful computing in order to centralize security and operations into a single low maintenance system.

Senators for a Day

Senators for a Day

Students can craft and debate legislation at the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute. By Wayne D’Orio

When the bus finally pulled up to its field trip location, history teacher Steven Moynihan rushed off.  Heavy Massachusetts traffic had delivered his students to their destination about an hour late but that wasn’t the reason for Moynihan’s haste.

“I wanted to see my students’ reactions when they entered,” he says. He wasn’t disappointed. When his Barnstable High School students came through the doors of the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, they were wide-eyed.

That’s because the centerpiece of the 68,000-square-feet building is a nearly exact replica of the Senate Chamber. Moynihan’s students were there to play senator for a day, designing and debating an immigration reform bill that they would vote on. But their first order of business was to take in the heady feeling of being on the Senate floor. The students, some dressed in business attire, others a little more informal, including one in a fedora, couldn’t help but look up at the gallery or check out how it felt to sit at one of the 100 desks. Quickly, actors leading the day’s events swore in the students and they got to work.

The institute opened on March 31 as the realization of Edward Kennedy’s desire to make the Senate and its work meaningful to future generations of students. Being senator for a day helps students “understand the tenets of democracy,” says Nell Breyer, the center’s director of programming and education. Like a compressed version of the Model Congress program, the institute allows students to craft a bill, debate appointments, consider amendments, and ultimately vote on their work, all in a two-hour block.

The heart of the activity is a carefully created simulation that plunges students right into matters as current as immigration or as historical as the Compromise of 1850. While Kennedy was a longtime Democratic leader, the institute takes pains to remain bipartisan. The offices of senators John McCain and Harry Reid vetted the immigration Senate Immersion Module (SIM), and the institute’s content advisory committee includes both Richard Baker, the Senate historian for more than 30 years, and Alan Frumin, the Senate’s chief parliamentarian for more than 10 years. New SIMs are being readied, Breyer says, and soon students will be able to debate the Civil Rights Act and the Patriot Act. All the SIMs are created to sync with Common Core standards, she adds.

“There’s a humility in students and an earnestness to solve problems,” Breyer says. “I’m amazed at how serious they take this.”

The institute uses technology to engage and inspire students, handing each of them a tablet when they enter. The tablet is preloaded with all the specifics they’ll need to play their role for the day. The students are randomly assigned to a party and a state, are told what key points their constituents are worried about, and are given their personal strengths.

Moynihan says one of his students stated that she definitely didn’t want to be a Republican during the exercise. But when she found out she was, she gamely went along. At the end of the day, she was happy for the opportunity to see the other side of the issue.

“It’s a safe environment for talking about contentious matters,” Breyer says.

Moynihan, who sits on an advisory committee for the institute, says some of his students didn’t like the somewhat simplistic talking points presented on their tablets, saying it limited what they could consider. However, with a lot of ground to cover in a short time, he says the restraints are necessary. “It allowed them to focus on the skills of negotiation,” he says. The institute does offer both pre- and post-visit activities to help deepen the learning.

The SIMs eventually will be available to schools without having to make the visit to Boston, Breyer says. But on this day, the sense of place was a big part of the experience. “As high school students, it was cool for them to be treated like senators. That elevated their participation,” says Moynihan. He added that he will definitely bring future classes back, and said he is looking forward to hearing students debate the Patriot Act.

After being sworn in, Moynihan’s students broke into small groups to discuss appointees and various parts of the legislation, and to bargain with one another for support. The students considered using biometrics to track immigrants’ whereabouts but eventually rejected the measure as unconstitutional. Staff members fondly mentioned that a student on a previous visit staged a filibuster during his class’s SIM.

When students are ready to vote, they return to the Senate floor and one by one state their preference. Moynihan says some of his students complained that their peers didn’t stick to the role they were assigned to when it came time to cast their vote. The group’s law, to allow immigrants a path to permanent residence status, passed 26-8.

The institute, which is booked for the rest of this school year, is free to students from Massachusetts. Out-of-state students pay $8 each, although group rates are available. The institute can host up to 100 students at one time. Some eighth graders have visited, but most participants are from high schools and colleges. The institute is located on Columbia Point, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and just steps away from the University of Massachusetts.

Edward M. Kennedy spent nearly 47 years in the Senate, and one part of the institute is a reproduction of his Washington, D.C., office, right down to the tennis balls he had on hand for his Portuguese water dogs. Around the replica Senate are interactive exhibits that show the history of the legislative body.

A star-studded cast of politicians that included President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and numerous senators were there for the opening. The re-creation of the chamber is so realistic, says communications coordinator Natalie Boyle, that many senators went straight to their chairs at the beginning of the ceremony.

Image: Courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute


Everyone Graduates

Everyone Graduates

By moving to a performance-based model and giving students a choice in how they learn, this rural Kentucky district has eliminated dropouts for the last six years. By Charles Higdon

Taylor County is a rural community in central Kentucky. We have three schools serving approximately 2,900 students—60 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

We don’t fit the typical profile of a poor, rural school district, though: We haven’t had a single student drop out of school in more than six years, and in the last two years we’ve seen a 100-percent graduation rate.

We’ve achieved this success by embracing an innovative, student-centered approach to teaching and learning.

In Taylor County, we have moved to an entirely performance-based model in which students are placed in classes based not on their age, but their ability. What’s more, we no longer require seat time for students to advance.

While other schools in the state require 176 school days to get through the curriculum, we operate differently. Our students work through the curriculum at their own pace, and when they are ready to move on, they can—provided they can demonstrate proficiency on an exit exam.

To operate in this way, we have received special approval from the state. We’re one of the first five districts in Kentucky to be designated as a District of Innovation.

Three years ago, the Kentucky Department of Education invited districts to apply for this status, which gives those chosen more flexibility to be creative in their approach to educating students. There are now roughly a dozen Districts of Innovation across the state.

When we applied for this status, we had to submit a plan describing what we intended to do that would be innovative. Our performance-based model allowed us to apply, and in return, we were granted a waiver from the state’s seat-time requirements.

We also give students a choice in how they learn, because one size definitely does not fit all. We have implemented a “wagon wheel” approach, which places the students at the center, surrounded by six spokes, each of which represents a different way of learning.

Both our students and teachers choose which approach to instruction is right for them, and then we match students to the teachers and modes of instruction they desire.

Included in this model is a traditional approach, in which students come to class for 176 days and receive direct instruction from a teacher. Some students and teachers still prefer this method.

But we also offer five other, more innovative approaches, for those who want to learn in a different way.

Online learning: Students can work at their own pace using Odysseyware’s online courseware. We have created a virtual academy in which students log in to their online classes from a computer lab, and a fully certified teacher serves as an on-site guide. Since we’ve opened our virtual academy, many of our at-risk students are now actually moving through the curriculum at an accelerated pace and graduating early.

Project-based learning: Students can learn the curriculum in the context of authentic, real-world projects. For instance, a local business donated LEGO engineering kits to one of our elementary classes, and students worked together in groups to design factories.

Self-paced learning: In this “flipped” approach to instruction, teachers record their lessons and students can watch these videos as often as they need in order to learn the material. Teachers serve as facilitators during class time to help students master the content.

Peer-led instruction: In these classrooms, students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. For some students, it helps to hear an explanation of the content from one of their peers as opposed to a teacher.

Cardinal Academy: In this new high school program, students develop their own learning plan. They have an advisor, who oversees them to ensure they’re completing the objectives they need to and are pacing themselves correctly, but students can choose for themselves what subjects they will work on, and when. They can also learn off campus through internships.

Letting students learn at their own pace, and giving them a choice in how they will learn, empowers students to take control of their education—and we have seen this approach pay off.

As educators, we’re not here just to ensure that students score well on state exams; we’re here to educate students fully, and prepare them to succeed in college or a career. And we are doing that here in Taylor County.

Charles Higdon is assistant superintendent for Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools. He can be reached at charles.higdon@taylor.kyschools.us

Image: Media Bakery

Instructional Rigor

Instructional Rigor

It’s a hard goal, but achievable if principals make sure their teachers follow these three critical guidelines. By Barbara R. Blackburn

Over the past few years, the concept of rigor has taken hold in education. Although it is typically used when referring to the Common Core or other state standards, it is also addressed in discussions about improving student performance.

One of the challenges is that rigor is a loaded word. Many teachers quote the dictionary definition (“extremely thorough”) as a reason not to implement rigorous instruction. But instructional rigor is not harsh or rigid. It is not assigning more homework or work that is not achievable.

Rather, instructional rigor focuses on student learning. In my book, Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, I define rigor as “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels” (2012).

There are three main components of instructional rigor. First, in a rigorous classroom, there are high expectations for students. We must expect all students to learn, not just the high-achievers. All students are capable of rigorous work including those at risk and with special needs. For example, Level Three (Strategic Learning) of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge requires that students be encouraged to explain, generalize, or connect ideas. All students can be taught to do this, beginning at the earliest grade levels. Some may struggle more than others, but all can learn how to explain their ideas and justify opinions.

When I work with principals, I ask them one simple question: “When you are observing teachers, do you look to see if the teacher is asking higher-order questions?” Unanimously, they respond positively. However, if a teacher asks a higher-order question but accepts a low-level response from a student, that is not rigorous. Teachers should probe and encourage students to expand on their answers, rather than answering for them or moving on to the next student.

Next, students are supported so they can achieve higher standards. They are not expected to learn without appropriate scaffolding. I regularly hear educators say, “But students should be able to do the harder work.” Rigorous work is challenging, and we should not expect students to simply jump to that higher level. Do you remember the first year you were a principal? Did you need help? If we need assistance with challenging experiences, why wouldn’t students?

Support and scaffolding can take several forms. Teachers might model expectations through thinking aloud or showing samples of student work. Chunking is an important part of all lessons. Providing graphic organizers so students can visualize what they are learning makes a difference. And, at times, students may need separate direct instruction in small groups. Both generalized and individualized support are important.

Finally, each student demonstrates learning at high levels. There are two aspects of this. First, each student demonstrates learning. Often, teachers lead a class discussion and periodically call on a student. When this happens, only a very few students get to demonstrate their understanding. In a rigorous classroom, the teacher shifts to providing opportunities for all students to show they have learned the information or concepts. Teachers can use thumbs-up/thumbs-down, exit slips, small dry-erase boards, clickers, iPads, or simple pair-shares to allow students to demonstrate their learning. Rigor demands that we know whether a student is making progress, and these formative assessments provide that opportunity.

Students also demonstrate learning at a high level. Too often, we are asking students low-level questions, or we give them work that requires basic recall skills. How often have you picked up a handout or worksheet from a teacher that was at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy? Have you ever looked at a teacher’s rubric and noticed that it evaluates for completion of work rather than quality of work? It’s important that we push students to higher levels of learning, and that requires application, transfer of learning, and deeper thinking.

Ultimately, rigor is about students learning at higher and higher levels. Rigor is never-ending since there is always room for growth. Isn’t that exactly what we want for all of our students?

Dr. Barbara Blackburn is the author of 15 books, including Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders. She regularly provides professional development to leaders and teachers on motivation, rigor, and leadership. 

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

Profile: J. Alvin Wilbanks


Meet J. Alvin Wilbanks

Gwinnett County continues to thrive with a veteran leader in charge. By Kim Greene

When a school district wins the Broad Prize for Urban Education once, people take note. But when the same district wins the award again as soon as it’s eligible to, people really want to know the secrets to its success. Such is the case with Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. The district, which is situated just outside of Atlanta, is led by J. Alvin Wilbanks and serves a diverse student body of almost 174,000 students. Gwinnett won the Broad Prize in 2010 and was named the corecipient of the prestigious award in 2014. Among the district’s accomplishments are higher proficiency rates for black and low-income students, as well as notable student participation in AP programs and the SAT.

Stability and the Status Quo

What’s behind Gwinnett’s big accomplishments? Stability, for sure. Wilbanks has been CEO and superintendent since 1996—a tenure that is almost unheard of for a big-district superintendent. His longevity is accompanied by an equally stable board of education. In fact, three of the five board members who hired Wilbanks still serve today. The newest member has been on the board for about a decade.

Board chairman Daniel Seckinger says Wilbanks and the board have a shared vision and mission that have helped foster their working relationship. “The longevity piece isn’t just the board or just the superintendent. In order for it to be dynamic, it has to be both,” Seckinger says. The two parties have an understanding that if they don’t agree on an issue, they don’t fight it out in public.

“Alvin is very savvy,” Seckinger continues. “On important matters, if he’s not certain of the board’s support for something, then we don’t deal with it. We work it to the point where we are in agreement about it. He’s famous for saying, ‘Sometimes slower is faster.’ ”

Despite the merits that stability brings, many might wonder why Gwinnett doesn’t rest on its laurels, or even stagnate. Wilbanks credits this to “a continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo.” He says the district is constantly asking questions like What if?, Could we?, and Should we? “The status quo won’t get you anywhere in the future. Education has changed,” says Wilbanks.

Closing the Achievement Gap

As evidence of this continuous improvement, the Broad committee noted Gwinnett has an ongoing track record for closing the achievement gap. Specifically, Gwinnett ranked in the top 10 percent of Georgia districts for black students scoring at the advanced proficiency level on reading, math, and
science assessments, as well as in the top 20 percent for low-income students. Wilbanks says much of this success is due to an instructional focus taught through the district’s Quality Plus Teaching Strategies. These dozen strategies are best practices that any teacher—from kindergarten through high school—should employ in lessons, including various methods of questioning and formative assessments.

Wilbanks also points out that the district’s range of Advanced Placement course offerings have benefited students of all backgrounds. In fact, the Broad team noted that 37 percent of Gwinnett’s juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam in 2013, landing them in the top 10 percent of Broad-eligible districts on that measure. Gwinnett students earned passing scores on 58 percent of the exams.

No matter what students score, Wilbanks says he believes the coursework better prepares them for college and beyond. “The more people you get to take AP courses, it’s a greater challenge to the average score. But does it benefit students? We think it does,” he says.

Homegrown Leadership

Maintaining academic progress rests largely on building-level leadership. Wilbanks saw a significant turnover in veteran administrative staff starting in 2000, mostly due to retirements, and he began succession planning that has paid off in the long run. Today, the district has its own Quality Plus Leadership Academy designed to prepare current employees to become future assistant principals and principals, as well as to keep present leaders up to date.

Marci Sledge, principal of Pinckney­ville Middle School in Norcross, was part of the first cohort of the Aspiring Principals Program, a subset of the leadership academy, in 2007–08. Participants attended sessions, some taught by Wilbanks himself, one Saturday a month. Though the program requirements have changed, Sledge says the focus is the same. “It’s about ensuring that the people who take over schools as leaders understand fully the level of expectation and the culture behind our system.”

The program also includes an important piece of principal training—an internship. Principal interns spend several months in a district school working directly with active principals to make day-to-day decisions.

New principals receive mentors for their first two years as well, typically a well-respected, retired principal from within the district. Sledge says this level of training is one of the most valuable things the district has afforded her.

“One of Mr. Wilbanks’s favorite sayings is ‘There are two types of people who work for our system, those who teach and those who support those who teach,’ ” she says. “He always adds, ‘You would not want to find yourself in a third category.’ The leadership academy is an integral part of continuing that level of clarity, vision, and purpose in our schools.”   

Wilbanks’s Dossier

Age: 72 
Base Salary: $276,714
Career Path: Wilbanks began his education career in Georgia’s DeKalb County Schools, where he served as a teacher, assistant principal, and then principal. In 1982, he was hired as Gwinnett’s director of vocational and technical education. He was appointed assistant superintendent in 1984, then became superintendent in 1996. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s in education, as well as an educational specialist’s degree.

Image: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/LANDOV

Literacy for All


Literacy for All

Panel discussion highlights issues on combating illiteracy at home and around the world. By Kim Greene

The International Literacy Association (ILA) declared April 14 as Leaders for Literacy Day with the goal of inspiring collective action to address global literacy. The day included both online Twitter chats (#AgeofLiteracy), as well as a panel discussion at the Institute of International Education in New York City. Moderated by Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report, the panel included Marcie Craig Post (executive director of ILA), Steven Duggan (director of worldwide education strategy at Microsoft), Bernadette Dwyer (lecturer in literacy studies at St. Patrick’s College in Ireland), David Kirp (professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley), and Susan Neuman (professor and chair of the teaching and learning department at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development).

The conversation touched on an array of topics, but circled around five “big ideas”:

1. Literacy changes lives. Illiteracy has an equally powerful impact. Consider these statistics: Though global illiteracy rates have dropped in recent decades, 12 percent of the world’s population is functionally illiterate, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. That leaves 781 million adults and 126 million youth around the world unable to read and write. Roughly two-thirds of illiterate adults are women.

In the United States, 14 percent of the adult population—a staggering 32 million adults—can’t read. “What’s more shocking is that we haven’t moved that needle in 10 years,” said Post.

Why is literacy so important? “We know that literacy helps people escape the bonds of poverty and live longer,” said Post. “We know that people who are literate are more inclined to vote, take part in their community, and seek medical help for themselves and their families. They’re also better equipped to take advantage of knowledge jobs, which are growing at explosive rates.”

2. This work requires collective action and collaboration. Several members of the panel emphasized the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships in combating illiteracy. “We cannot be successful if we work in our own individual silo,” said Jill Lewis-Spector, president of ILA, in her opening remarks.

“As much effort as we all give to this, as much money and resources are poured into the effort, ultimately no single organization or entity can fix this problem alone,” added Post, who urged genuine partnerships between government, businesses, NGOs, educators, and families.

On the part of industry, Duggan noted a change in philosophy in how Microsoft has approached these collaborations. “We started to listen,” he said. “If anyone knows technology companies, you know that’s probably not our strength. We tend to walk in the door and tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it.”

Of what he has learned from these partnerships, Duggan said, “Technology companies aren’t thought leaders in education. What we are is really good tool kits that can be put to good use by people who know more than we do.”

3. The digital divide is wide. There’s no doubt that digital literacy is becoming increasingly important. Though print and digital literacy should not be an either/or situation, the panelists said progress has to be made to develop students’ technological skills in meaningful ways. One of the biggest challenges, according to Dwyer, exists in high-poverty schools. “We know they’re either not getting access to technology or they’re using tech to develop low-level skills. Their more affluent peers are using these technologies in challenging, authentic ways,” she said. “It’s what I call the digitally determined Matthew Effect. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Rather than closing the gap, tech is actually compounding the difficulties.”

4. We can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to interventions. Neuman places a high value on understanding individual communities and contexts before attempting to deliver literacy interventions. For example, when Neuman studied “summer slide” in one community in Washington, D.C., she found there were no preschool books available to children. For elementary-age students, there was one book for every 832 children. Neuman looked at where people congregated in the community—the church, health center, and grocery store—and put vending machines with books in those areas. “We’re reaching families where they are. The goal is to say, ‘Let us not go in and expect a certain intervention will work. Let’s learn from our communities, let’s respect our communities, and let’s work within them,’ ” she said.

 Similarly, we can’t expect that adding tech devices will be a magical literacy intervention either. “I’ve seen no technology intervention in education that started with the purchase of a device and ended with success,” said Duggan. Instruction and teacher expertise still trump all.

5. Don’t be afraid to fail. The panelists acknowledged that the education community at large—from teachers and schools to NGOs and for-profit businesses—are afraid to take risks and fail. On a small scale, a teacher or school may be concerned that a new approach might not work for students. On a large scale, a nonprofit organization may worry about losing funding if a project flops. “Failure should be the baseline for informing the next revision of what could be a very good, worthwhile project that could have major impact, but we’re afraid of that,” said Post.

“Failure is great. Failure is something we have to accept and embrace. For a lot of the agencies we work with, that’s hard to do,” said Duggan. “We have to use real-time data so we fail quickly. And let’s fail forward so we can put that learning into place.” 

 Images:  Courtesy of Colleen P. Clark/International Literacy Association.

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

How to instill a growth mind-set in your students.
Marcella Bullmaster-Day and Aleta Cruel

It’s a challenge educators face every day. Engaging students in meaningful academic learning is no small task. They often get discouraged, stuck in a perpetual cycle of being unable to tap into their full potential. However, when students grapple with problems or work to make sense of challenging ideas, they engage in a process of productive struggle—effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching to build lasting understanding and skills.

Typically, most students work at learning through rote repetition; for example, reading and rereading a text or solving problems of the same type that practice the same skill set to burn that individual skill into memory. These activities have short-term benefits when they are employed right before a test, but they rarely lead to meaningful, long-term learning. Often, the student is unable to recall the information at a later date and has to relearn it.

In contrast, successfully meeting the more rigorous Common Core standards requires building long-lasting understanding of concepts so that students can apply previously learned facts and skills to new situations. This kind of durable knowledge is achieved through productive struggle.

Productive struggle entails effort and persistence. Students encounter new information through their limited short-term working memory, which concentrates attention by filtering out most environmental stimuli. Working memory holds new information for only a few seconds while it seeks associations between the new material and concepts students already know. The more actively students work with new material over time, the stronger the associations and the better new facts and skills are organized and integrated into existing knowledge. Building lasting connections between new and old information requires conscious work to repeatedly retrieve newer information from memory, including making and correcting mistakes through feedback and practice.

Productive struggle also enhances a student’s ability to set learning goals, plan strategies to meet those goals, monitor progress, and know when and how to ask for help.

When a learning goal is clear and the challenge is set at the appropriate level, students are more likely to be motivated to engage in productive struggle to achieve the goal.

Motivation for productive struggle requires
a “growth mind-set,” the understanding that success is a result of effort more than of raw ability. A growth mind-set makes students eager for new challenges and fosters an enthusiasm for learning from mistakes. Students who believe their ability levels are “fixed” are less motivated to engage in productive struggle because they fear failure, resist risks, and worry about the judgments of others, which impedes their learning.

To motivate students, teachers must find ways to inspire them. How do we help students see the value of productive struggle in their everyday lives? For example, top athletes challenge themselves and struggle to become great. They put tremendous effort into their practice. When they fall, they pick themselves up and work to improve their technique. They don’t become great overnight.

A student’s drive to persist in the face of a challenge is affected by the quality of the teacher-student relationship and the scaffolding provided through feedback and support. When a student becomes frustrated because the goal is unclear or out of reach, it is up to the teacher to intervene as soon as it is apparent that the student is not making progress.

Effective feedback clarifies goals and helps students measure their progress and understand what they need to do next. Instead of merely correcting student errors, effective feedback guides students to develop better strategies for processing and understanding the material so that they gain mastery, confidence, and motivation. Digital tools can also provide useful feedback through access to hints and customized suggestions, which empower students to seek help when they need it.

Several strategies have proved particularly effective for building lasting learning by challenging students to repeatedly retrieve information over time, thereby strengthening long-term memory and transfer. These include low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; spacing study and practice over time and locations; and mixing different types of problems.

Low-stakes, ongoing quizzing requires students to express, from memory, what they understand about new material, and allows them to pinpoint and correct their knowledge gaps or misconceptions. Productive low-stakes testing methods include creating flash cards; generating summaries, outlines and questions; and taking multiple-choice or constructed-response tests.

Spreading study, quizzing, and practice sessions over time and locations has been shown to produce lasting learning because long-term memory of the material is strengthened each time information is actively retrieved. And practicing different kinds of questions and problems builds learning-for-transfer more effectively than the more common massed-practice approach of working on one type of problem at a time until it appears that students have mastered it. This is an area in which personalized digital practice tools that challenge students at their individual levels of performance, allowing them to progress at their own pace, are particularly useful.

Teachers who use these strategies to motivate and engage their students in productive struggle for lasting learning are able to identify individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, adjust goals appropriately, and accelerate academic achievement. Look for tools and ideas that facilitate this model and begin setting students on a path to lifelong academic success.

Marcella Bullmaster-Day, Ed.D., is the director of the Lander Center for Educational Research at Touro College.

Aleta Cruel is a sixth-grade English and history teacher at TEACH Academy of Technologies in Los Angeles. She uses Triumph Learning’s Waggle to implement productive struggle in the classroom.

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

5 Strategies for SPED Success with Common Core


5 Strategies for SPED Success with Common Core

Handle tasks head-on to speed student success. By Christine Fax-Huckaby

As the Common Core State Standards have been implemented this school year, with many states in the midst of using the new standardized tests, the transition has been mired in challenges. The Common Core is a critical step toward ensuring students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life beyond graduation, but teachers and students alike have been apprehensive and overwhelmed. They need greater support, more empathy, and better communication from school and district leaders to help them overcome their anxiety.

This anxiety is even more prevalent in the special education community, and as a special education academic support teacher, it’s my job to make sure teachers and students in my district are as prepared for Common Core as possible. Here’s what’s working well in our district:

1. Understanding the problem

When I’m talking to special educators in my district, I often draw from my own experience in the SPED classroom and think about how I would feel in their shoes.

Essentially, Common Core requires special education teachers to become pseudo-subject experts. Before Common Core, special educators were mostly focused on helping students gain access to information across various subjects, but they had never been asked to be “experts” in a particular subject.

Now, a special educator might be asked to teach math, science, and health lessons, guiding the students to mastery in subjects in which they are not themselves masters. That’s a very heavy burden to carry, and if you can understand this problem, you’ll be better equipped to face it head-on.

2. Changing our mind-set

Once you’ve identified the problem (“Common Core is a lot to handle”), try to frame it in a different light.

Most special educators are familiar with the buzzwords: Universal Design for Learning. The educational framework suggests that the best way to design classrooms is to think about how that design will affect every student, whether blind, deaf, learning disabled, or challenged in some other way. This often means creating multiple support systems in the classroom ahead of time, giving students plenty of options for being introduced to and completing tasks.

Similar to UDL, one of Common Core’s biggest goals is to reach students in multiple ways, allowing them to demonstrate mastery in the way that makes the most sense to them. For Common Core to succeed, K–12 teachers across the country will need to weave UDL principles into their instruction. That means SPED teachers should be celebrating Common Core, not running from it!

3. Getting creative and using a variety of learning activities

Common Core has the potential to give both SPED and general education students some freedom in how they choose to demonstrate mastery of what they’re learning. Instead of requiring every student to write an essay, which may exclude the students who aren’t good writers, teachers can now afford to let students get a little creative.

Encourage them to design PowerPoint presentations, make an iMovie trailer, shoot a documentary, or write a song – whatever speaks to them. Rather than treating every student the same, Common Core asks students to represent what they’ve learned in their own way.

4. Finding strength in numbers

My philosophy is, “Nobody knows everything when it comes to Common Core, but everybody knows something.” Our district has set up cohorts for subject departments, and meeting in these smaller groups, or “zones,” has been immensely helpful.

Not only can special educators attend these zones to ensure sure that they are kept abreast of the shifts happening in their subject area as a result of Common Core, but they are also given an opportunity to share some relevant UDL principles and SPED strategies to help the general education teachers improve their lesson plans.

5. Taking advantage of Common Core–aligned resources

Educational technology companies are investing thousands of dollars to make sure their products are aligned with Common Core, so don’t create more work for yourself. Find good Common Core resources, and take advantage of them!

For example, my district has been using Learning Upgrade, an online math and reading curriculum that employs catchy songs and fun games to address Common Core standards in a relatable way. The courses also have built-in reporting features that make them ideal for case management.

We’ve also found Gizmos’ iPad-friendly science activities and labs to be very helpful for lesson planning, and using Canvas as a learning management system allows us to share new information as well as discuss challenges with our colleagues district-wide.

Whether you’re a special educator, a general education teacher, or an administrator, these tips will help you and your students prepare for success with Common Core. It may seem daunting, but I fully believe that Common Core has the potential to make a positive difference in students’ learning.

Christine Fax-Huckaby is a special education academic support teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District in California. She has worked in special education for 19 years and spent the first 15 years of her career in the classroom.

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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