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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.

Tax Preparation 101


Tax Preparation 101

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

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

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

Prepping for Tax Prep

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Payoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Science of Hiring


The Science of Hiring

How to hire the right teacher (almost) every time. By Wayne D’Orio

Maybe it’s happened to you, too, even if you don’t want to admit it. You’re watching TV, some infomercial comes on, and despite all your intelligence and resistance, the sales pitch starts to work on you. I’m sucked in when products promise to solve a bevy of problems, whether it’s a set of knives that can cut through everything from tomatoes to pennies (?!), or some rubber sealant that can fix objects as disparate as broken flowerpots and leaky gutters. 

I don’t actually buy those products, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But for the 60-second vacation they offer, you start thinking of how much better your life would be if only you had those things.

As school leaders, you certainly have a multitude of problems with which to grapple. How to improve student learning is the top one, of course. But on any given day, your list could include teacher evaluations, the struggle to successfully implement a new technology, and whether you finally want to deal with that ineffective teacher who’s not improving.

Instead of tackling each of these tasks individually, what if you had a “magic” solution, sort of like an educational version of an infomercial? Your magic solution could be as straightforward as improving your hiring practices. And it’s not magic at all, really, but rooted in cold, hard data.

Now, you might feel there’s nothing terribly flawed about your current hiring practices. But what if a few key improvements could lead your district to make consistently better hires? What would happen if those better teachers started to spread throughout your district? Student learning outcomes would certainly rise. But think longer term. With a stronger cadre of teachers, decisions about tenure would be easier. Implementing new programs, and new technologies, would also be simpler with a motivated workforce. And that drawn-out process of firing an ineffectual teacher that you’ve been dreading? Well, the better your teachers are, the fewer times you’ll face this disheartening process. There’s one more benefit: With less of your time devoted to problems, you can actually brainstorm more ways to improve teaching and learning in your schools instead of constantly putting out fires.

How hard is it to change your hiring practices? And could your district really see the benefits described above?

Don’t take it from me, the salesman of this story. Listen to your peers talk about how they made the needed changes, and what benefits they are seeing.

The Importance of Each Decision
“If you make better hires up front, you can avoid a lot of trouble down the line,” says Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research at the University of Washington. “Interventions don’t work, [and nobody wants to deal with] the politics around teacher dismissals.”

Dale S. Rose is even more blunt. “If you believe better teachers make for better student outcomes, then why not do everything you can to improve hiring?” asks the president of 3D Group, a consulting firm dealing in human resources assessment. Rose is also the coauthor of Hire Better Teachers Now.

Research, says Rose, has proved that students with a good teacher will see gains of 1.5 grade level equivalents per year; those with a bad teacher, only 0.5.

“Better teacher selection not only has the potential to improve the quality of the teacher workforce, it is likely to be far more cost-effective than other avenues of reform,” writes Goldhaber in Screen Twice, Cut Once: Assessing the Predictive Validity of Teacher Selection Tools, a report on Spokane (Washington) Public Schools’ hiring practices that he coauthored.

How costly can a bad hire be? Gold­haber’s conservative estimate is that for every teacher hired and tenured, a district is making a potential investment of about $2 million. If you’ve forgotten how hard it is to get rid of a tenured teacher, consider these examples: Chicago Public Schools mandates 27 steps before firing, while in New York City it costs about $250,000 to fire a teacher.

Of course, choice is a big factor in hiring. In Spokane, a district with 45 schools and 1,750 teachers, human resources gets about six applicants for each job. Nationally, studies have shown that there are just over two applicants for every teacher hired. Variances can be large; in Pennsylvania, 75 percent of the districts have at least three applicants for each job. But for popular jobs, such as elementary, math, and English spots, there were 10 applicants for each hire.

Rule One: Formalize Your Process
If there’s one rule everyone interviewed for this story agreed on, it was this: Formalize your hiring process. While it’s standard for many large districts to have a process they follow for each hire, this isn’t always so. “In a lot of school systems, especially small ones, a principal may hear about a person, interview two people, and hire someone,” Goldhaber says.

Even if your district has a process, it might be too informal, warns Rose. “A huge majority of schools are using processes that are not grounded in the science of what works best.”

Simply rating every applicant on the same scale, from an out-of-town candidate to the best friend of your top ­teacher, goes a long way toward making better hires. In Spokane, where Goldhaber’s study evaluated the district’s hiring practices over four years, starting in 2008, the HR department rates each applicant on a 21-point scale. Then principals can request certain candidates, say everyone scoring above a 14. School personnel re-rate each candidate on a more rigorous 60-point scale and decide whom to interview.

“The actual structure of the system helps to prevent the ad hoc-ness of hiring,” says Goldhaber, who is continuing to analyze Spokane’s hiring practices. “When you put people through the same process, there’s a certain degree of fairness and some independence.”  

Pick the Right Factors
If it’s relatively easy to set up a formal hiring system, the real work is assessing what traits are most important in new hires while de-­emphasizing those skills that do little to boost student achievement.

“Use the same indicators that you will evaluate them on” when they are teachers, suggests Sid Camp, executive director of human resources for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Too often, says Rose, the hiring process is “driven by individuals rather than what predicts results in classrooms.” Rose sets up a list of 49 key skills in his book, but he knows that each district, and sometimes each school, will have its own criteria. “Take a careful, thoughtful look at your school,” he says. “Classroom management is a standard skill, but in a large urban district that’s overcrowded, management is even more important.”

If you’re just starting the process, ask your top teachers to help identify what skills are the most valuable. After you’ve created a system, Rose adds, collect data on your hires and review their interview scores to see if the numbers correlate with who the best teachers are.

In Spokane, this work led Superin­tendent Shelley Redinger and chief HR officer Tennille Jeffries-Simmons to recognize that classroom management, collegiality, and a professional manner were three important characteristics of good teachers.

What isn’t as important as you think? Grade point average and where a candidate went to school. Google famously used to refuse to hire any candidates with a GPA below 3.0, but now the company doesn’t even consider GPA when screening for jobs. “Research has shown that GPA isn’t that predictive of performance,” Rose says.

Spokane also changed its policy to make letters of recommendation confidential. “That changed the content,” Redinger says. While candidates choose who writes a recommendation, often this includes a supervisor, and getting an honest assessment can be revealing, she adds.

“I know people are skeptical about references,” says Jennifer L. Hindman, assistant director of the School Leadership Institute in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education and the author of Effective Teacher Interviews. “They feel people may not disclose all they know.” She recommends making phone calls to further vet your group of finalists.

Changing your interview questions to delve into scenario-based queries can also help reveal key differences among candidates, says Camp. Gwinnett has stopped asking applicants about their philosophy of education and now asks: What type of students do you like to work with? The district also hands candidates a set of student data and asks them to design an instructional plan that’s differentiated based on the data. “It’s a scientific approach,” Camp says. “We have very structured interview questions.”

Another suggestion is to ask candidates to respond to revealing questions, such as how they would handle a parent’s complaint about their child’s grade, says Hindman.

Actively Recruit and Act Early
“One of the key things people conflate is the difference between recruiting and selecting,” says Rose. “Recruiting is extraordinarily important.”

Both Spokane and Gwinnett heavily emphasize the importance of recruiting.

“You can’t just post a job on your website or the Internet and pray that someone qualified applies,” Camp says. “You have to build talent pipelines.” Gwinnett, a district of 134 schools that hired more than 1,700 teachers this school year, has a variety of initiatives designed to improve the number and skill of applicants. Officials work closely with local college deans, branding the organization to education students while making sure graduates are ready to be solid teachers. “In 2004, we had 250 student teachers. This past year, we had over 1,800,” Camp adds.

A microcosm of this work is reflected in the district’s ties to Georgia Gwinnett College, a liberal arts school created nine years ago as part of Georgia’s university system. Camp says the district was involved before the school even opened. “We helped them put together a conceptual framework of teaching,” he says.  

Spokane’s path was similar. It reached out to colleges to let candidates know about the district. While it has done a good job of getting applicants, the district was losing many top candidates because it took too long to make job offers.

Spokane revamped its process to get applicants out to principals more ­quickly, allowing for faster job offers. But Redinger decided to go further. When the district identifies top teaching candidates who are juniors in college, it offers them teaching contracts that became effective once they graduate.

Gwinnett does something similar, putting teachers under contract in March for the following fall. The best teacher candidates are available in March, Camp says. “The bell curve declines [as we move] into June and July. If we hire earlier, we get a better share of teachers.”

No matter how hard you work to fill a spot, sometimes the best choice is not to hire someone. “The most courageous decision is to list your teacher as ‘TBA,’ ” Hindman says. She recommends filling a classroom with a strong sub and recruiting more, or waiting for ­additional graduates in December.

After the Hire
No matter how excellent your hiring process, sometimes a bad fit occurs. Both Gwinnett and Spokane try to quickly weed out hires who aren’t working out.

“The number of nonrenewals has gone up,” says Jeffries-Simmons. “We want to continue to make sure that if somebody is not a match, we [enact] nonrenewal swiftly but fairly.” Washington state recently revised its rules, requiring certified hires to work provisionally for three years before granting tenure.
Since Georgia is a right-to-work state, Gwinnett doesn’t have tenure. While Camp emphasized that the district worked hard during the recent recession to avoid layoffs, he says teachers are faced with nonrenewal if they aren’t working out.

The work in these two districts appears to be paying off. Spokane has increased its graduation rate from 60 percent to 83 percent in the past five years. And Gwinnett took home its second Broad Prize last year as the outstanding urban district in the country.

“I’ve seen this play out over and over again,” Redinger says. “You’re only as good as your people. We’re not shy about it. We’re looking for continuous improvement.”    

The $$ Factor
Pay has a role to play when hiring the best staff but it’s not the most important factor. When it comes to attracting the best teachers—and keeping them once they are hired—how important is pay?

Though both Camp and Redinger say it’s not the top factor, it is important. Camp says that Gwinnett, which has one of the top pay scales in Georgia for veteran teachers, is looking for ways to increase starting salaries. And Spokane is just beginning a study to compare its salaries with those of nearby districts.

Across the country, districts have tried financial rewards to make jobs more attractive.

Urban districts typically have a tougher time attracting candidates than suburban counterparts, due in part to lower salaries. Oakland’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is trying to face this problem head-on by proposing to raise salaries by 10 percent over three years. Rural districts can sometimes face the same problems as their urban counterparts, typically paying less and offering fewer social perks than a metropolitan area. In South Carolina, the state government will knock $5,000 off a federal Stafford loan if a teacher spends five years in a low-income school. In-state loans can be forgiven, too, if the recipient fills a high-need position.

And in maybe the most extreme pay experiment in the country, teachers at one charter middle school in Manhattan make $125,000 a year.

A recent study of the Equity Project school shows that achievement was higher for students who attended for four years than for students at similar New York City schools. But the teacher attrition rate was a whopping 47 percent after one year, almost twice that of nearby public schools.

The generous pay teachers receive at schools like Equity also bring extra responsibilities. These demands can cause burnout. Teaching is a delicate balance of skills, and while pay is a key component, it’s
certainly not the most important factor.

Image: Science Museum, SSPL via Getty Images (beaker); Juanmonino/istockphoto (figure)

Creating College- and Career-Ready Students

Creating College- and Career-Ready Students

Use these five practices to help teachers help students. By Michael Moody

There’s great potential in College- and Career-Readiness Standards (CCRS) to significantly increase our students’ academic performance, and also their chances of success beyond graduation. But none of it can happen unless our teachers are prepared and supported.

In the past, professional development for teaching with new standards was often based on building awareness of the standards and implementing aligned instructional practices. For CCRS, however, that is simply not enough.

New Standards Require a New Approach

As district and school leaders, the first step you should take in successful implementation of the standards is to ensure a common understanding among teachers of the characteristics of a college- and career-ready student and to recognize what mastery really looks like at all levels. Only then can teachers make sound instructional decisions and apply appropriate strategies.

While that sounds simple enough, there are few relevant resources currently available to educators that provide clear indicators of aligned instructional practices and student behaviors.

What to Look for in Every Classroom

Based on more than a decade of experience and the Insight Core Framework, we’ve developed five Core Practices, which outline distinct, observable teacher and student actions and help you gauge the effectiveness of CCRS-implementation classrooms.

Core Practice 1: Know the discipline well

Observable student actions:

  • Demonstrates precise content knowledge
  • Uses academic vocabulary
  • Uses resources that are high quality and appropriately complex

Observable instructional practices: The teacher has a deep understanding of the content he or she is teaching and is able to communicate it in a way students can understand.

Core Practice 2: Prioritize evidence over opinion

Observable student actions:

  • Responds to questions with evidence-based answers
  • Uses evidence when building arguments, making claims, or explaining thinking

Observable teacher practices: Not only does the instructor need to give students opportunities to find and use evidence to support answers—she or he needs to challenge students to go beyond weak arguments and basic opinions.

Core Practice 3: Grow and improve students’ knowledge base

Observable student actions:

  • Makes connections within and across disciplines
  • Applies acquired knowledge in real-world situations
  • Exchanges and analyzes multiple perspectives

Observable teacher practices: The teacher facilitates connections across disciplines and provides students with the opportunity to practice applying their knowledge in authentic situations with real purposes.

Core Practice 4: Assess progress toward mastery

Observable student actions:

  • Demonstrates understanding in various contexts
  • Receives, acknowledges, and incorporates teacher feedback

Observable teacher practices: Mastery is more than just tracking grades. The teacher provides timely feedback to students and structures learning activities toward relevant data.

Core Practice 5: Promote intellectual risk-taking and persistence

Observable student actions:

  • Feels part of a supportive and challenging learning environment
  • Demonstrates academic curiosity

Observable teacher practices: The teacher gives students multiple opportunities to persist through challenges and learn from mistakes by celebrating perseverance. With the CCRS, it’s not only about getting the “right” answer—it’s about persisting and developing skills for solving challenges for later in life.

Putting It All Together

The CCRS are drastically different from standards in place even a few years ago and are unique in their focus on the student—as opposed to simply the content.

While this is an exciting and worthy vision for K-12 education, it will require a great deal of preparation, a long-term vision, and relevant supports in order to be successful. In particular, districts and schools must have a succinct, clear-cut approach to not only identifying indicators of college and career readiness in students, but also illustrating the real link between teachers’ practices and student mastery.

Michael Moody, @DrMichaelMoody, is the founder and CEO of Insight Education Group. His experiences as a classroom teacher, school and district administrator, and consultant have given him a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities in education today. The complete Insight Core Framework is available for free download, including the rubric and meta-analysis research data for each practice.

Image: MediaBakery

Motivating for Math

Motivating for Math

Incorporate these real-life examples into your instruction. By Mollie Guy

 “Why do we have to learn this?”

When it comes to math, this is the question so many young students ask their parents, themselves, and of course, their teachers. Students argue that they won’t need math for a career in acting, car racing, or construction. While there may be some truth to this, it is our responsibility as teachers to help students understand the practical everyday applications for math that go well beyond what may be required for a particular job or career.

Middle-school math presents its own unique set of challenges, as this is often the time when math concepts move from primarily computational to more abstract, relational concepts. Add to this the new Common Core or state standards, which focus largely on applying mathematical concepts through higher-order thinking skills, and it’s easy to understand why motivating students is becoming a more arduous part of teaching. Yet, by uncovering new motivational methods, we can move students from math apathetic to math enthusiastic.

Yes, Math Is an Important Part of My Life!
Inevitably, most students grapple with the notion that “math doesn’t matter in my life.” As teachers, we can try to explain why math does indeed matter, providing a plethora of both practical and more intricate examples. However, like many life lessons, some academic lessons are better left to students to unravel themselves and draw their own conclusions.

With this thought in mind, students across the country (including the 130 that I teach) recently took the “Math Every Day” challenge offered by our school’s supplemental, Web-based math instructional system, Think Through Math. “Math Every Day” challenged students to provide examples of “how math is all around you”—in art, technology, food, nature, sports, and fashion—inspiring them to see the world in a mathematical way. Students were also challenged to submit examples that went beyond “I pay money for X.

Needless to say, students stepped up to the challenge. Their unique and interesting examples incorporate a broad range of math concepts.

From metric conversion… “When I’m helping my mom bake, sometimes we have to convert the amounts in a recipe. When we want to double or make only half of the recipe, we have to make adjustments.”

To spatial positioning… “To prevent from ramming into or brushing up against another car when pulling into a parking spot, you look out your window to check the space between your car and theirs.”

To linear equations… “In figure skating, judges add up how well you landed the elements that are needed. For example, how long the skater’s spin lasts.”

To measures of center and variability… “Geometry is used in basketball to show the different angles and spots on the court where players take shots. Coaches and players can also track the percentage of made and missed shots.”

To symmetry and ratios… “Coffeemakers are designed with symmetry to look pleasing to the eye. Math is also used when coffee is brewed. We use ratios to determine how much water and coffee go into each brew.”

And even economics… “Farmers need to know how many hogs they raise and how many are sent to slaughter. They are conscious about the age and weight of the hogs because they want to produce the freshest product for distribution. They need to know how much to feed the hogs. They must understand costs of gas, supplies, and labor before packaging and delivering the pork to local markets. This process uses math to determine supply and demand as well as profit margin.”

Applying mathematical concepts to everyday activities can be an eye-opening experience for students. That newfound appreciation for the relevance of math in everyday life can light a motivational fire within them. For a teacher, this exercise can not only illustrate students’ aptitude of math concepts but also provide an unexpected glimpse into their thought processes and their personalities beyond what is typically visible in the classroom.

Of course, this motivational technique is just the tip of the iceberg. Whether employing creative new concepts or leveraging tried-and-true classics, incorporating engaging motivational techniques is as important as teaching fundamental mechanics in order to instill a lifelong love and appreciation of math.

Mollie Guy is a sixth-grade teacher at Indian Knoll Elementary School in Canton, Georgia. Think Through Math (www.thinkthoughmath.com) provides rigorous adaptive lessons built upon each state’s learning standards, and is supported by online math teachers who can assist struggling students.

Image: MediaBakery

Doug Lemov Shares His Secrets


Doug Lemov Shares His Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Timothy Raab & Northern Photo

Creating a Visitor Management System

Creating a Visitor Management System

5 steps to fortify your schools’ safety. By Jim Vesterman

In America today, more than 80 percent of schools use pencil and paper to track visitors entering school buildings. In practice, this is the equivalent of leaving the back door open to the public.

Pencil-and-paper tracking has several inherent flaws. At the most basic level, nothing compels an individual to write down his or her real name.  Even if the person does write the correct name (and you can read it), that doesn’t tell you anything else about that individual and his or her suitability for entering the building. Pencil-and-paper sign-in sheets are also nearly useless in emergency evacuations and they don’t allow for reporting at the district level. 

Schools and districts are realizing that in today’s environment, enhanced security measures are a necessity. In response to the need to track and screen visitors, a growing number of schools are using visitor management systems. These systems provide an easy way to track visitors and identify potential threats, contributing to a safe learning environment for students, faculty, and staff. Some systems even have the ability to instantly screen entrants against a national database of sex offenders, as well as against a custom alert database for child custody issues.

Consider the following tips when selecting and implementing a visitor management system.

Create a Single Public Entrance

Establishing a single point of entry ensures that all visitors check in before going any further into the school building. Maintain a uniform check-in process in all district buildings and ensure that staff, as well as the school community, are aware of proper procedures.

Have Visitors Produce a Valid Photo ID

Your visitor management system should require visitors to present a valid photo ID. This ID will allow the school to confirm identity. For privacy purposes, schools should use systems whose scanners collect only the data necessary for screening and do not keep a photocopy of the ID. This scanning is quicker than manually entering the information and reduces the risk that information will be entered incorrectly. If the system is web-based, it will allow users and emergency personnel the ability to see who is in the building even in the event of an evacuation or other emergency that cuts off physical access.

Print Badges

Districts that utilize pencil-and-paper sign-in sheets usually present visitors with badges to show they have been granted access to the school. However, those badges are often lost or simply not returned, and they generally don’t contain proper visitor information. Printed badges should include the individual’s photo (so that the badge can’t be used by another person), and the name, date, and destination/purpose for the visit, all of which help school officials confirm identities and spot potential threats if visitors are not in their designated area.

Instant and Automatic Screening

An important requirement when selecting a visitor management system is that it be able to check instantly and automatically against the sex offender databases for all 50 states. If the check is not instant and automatic, it more likely than not will be skipped. Beyond that, look for systems that let users develop custom alert lists. This is especially beneficial when there are custody issues involving a student. Custody issues can have huge financial implications for schools. For example, a California district was held responsible for releasing a student to a non-custodial adult who subsequently kidnapped the student. The district was required to pay $2.8 million in damages.

Communicate With the School Community

Changes in procedure or policy are often met with resistance. Take time to introduce your staff to the system and be sure that they understand the proper procedure for admitting visitors. Involve parents in the process from the beginning by sending out parent communications, and listen to any concerns that parents may have. Send a letter letting the school community know that a new process is being implemented, when they can expect it to begin, and what they will now need to do when visiting the school. Posting signage around school entrances is another good way to inform visitors of proper procedures. This creates an atmosphere that deters potential threats from even attempting to enter school buildings.

Jim Vesterman is the CEO of Raptor Technologies, which provides visitor management technologies to over 12,000 K-12 schools. You can learn more about the benefits of visitor management systems in this free whitepaper.

Image: JLP/Jose Luis Pelaez/Corbis/Media Bakery



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