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Middleschool_pulse

Benchmarking the Road to College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Jose Luis Pelaez/Media Bakery

MLK_pulse

Keeping Dr. King's Dream Alive

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

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

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

Dr. King’s Key Ideas

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

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

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

Primary Sources

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

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

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

Image: Courtesy of Ryan Griffith, Rochester City School District

Discovery-ed_pulse

Tech + Grit = Math Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Courtesy of Discovery Education

OERs-pulse

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

By Tyler DeWitt

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

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

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

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

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

Differentiate With OER

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

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

That’s where OER come in.

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

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

Assemble Powerful Tools

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

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

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

Find the Best Resources

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

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

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

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

 

Image: 4Max/Shutterstock

Salt-lake-city-pulse

Innovations Bold Gamble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Drawing Board to Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a New School Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acclimating Students

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

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

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

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

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

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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

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

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

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

Skype_pulse

Demystifying Computer Science

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

By Wayne D’Orio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Image: Courtesy of Skype

Mathskills_pulse

Making Math Relevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Getty Images

Next-gen_pulse

Finding the Right Next-Gen Assessment

What to look for in your online program.
By Todd Beach

As educators, we’re all familiar with the problems associated with traditional print-based assessment: It’s time-consuming. It has limited flexibility to assess student knowledge. And it’s slow, which makes it hard to get meaningful, actionable data in a timely fashion. Methods to help in one area—such as using bubble sheets to reduce scoring time—give rise to other problems, such as limiting question types and ways of assessing students’ subject knowledge.

Online assessment is one way to improve these areas, but it also has some drawbacks. Many online assessments digitize traditional print assessments to save time on scoring, but they lack significant improvement in key areas, such as immediate actionable data for differentiated instruction in the classroom. Plus, these systems don’t necessarily support new methods that enhance student learning.

A better answer: a next-generation assessment solution.

What does it take for an assessment tool to qualify as next generation? In my opinion, a “next-gen” assessment tool should be intuitive, adaptive, and flexible enough to continuously be a generation ahead of a school’s or district’s needs and goals. It should go well beyond simply digitizing the traditional assessment approach. It should include features that enrich both the teaching and learning processes.

At Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools (ISD 196), in Minnesota, we’re providing a truly next-generation assessment solution for our teachers. We started our search for a solution several years ago, and today we are reaping the rewards. We began in 2010 with a group of early adopters, and since then the platform’s use has spread, initially from teacher-to-teacher; last year it went district-wide. We have found that our next-gen assessment platform provides teachers with actionable data for differentiated instruction andhelps both impact and transform student learning through more meaningful student-teacher discussions, personalized feedback, and student reflection.

Richer Data for the Personalization of Learning

The most beneficial feature of a next-gen online assessment platform is the resulting in-depth, actionable, individualized, and immediate data for each student. The data provided by these platforms makes it easier to identify where students’ learning gaps are and where they have been. Having multiple years of data at my fingertips has allowed me to reflect on my teaching practices and better meet my students’ needs. At the district level, teachers across all of our schools are now having the same experience.  

Next-generation assessments also allow our teachers to generate assessments with their colleagues, and to share results with students instantly, without waiting for a printed version. This allows students to immediately reflect on their results, and to use the platform to communicate with their teacher about what they understood and what they may need additional help with. Our teachers can better understand how each student learns and thinks, and they can encourage students to take more ownership of their learning.

These rich nuggets of data are also extremely beneficial to parents. Although most grade books are now available online, looking at a current or final grade provides only superficial information about a child’s progress; it doesn’t offer insight into how a student learns. Next-generation assessments show student performance based on benchmark standards, informing parents where their child’s learning challenges and successes lie.

Richer Discussions

Next-gen assessments lead to more engaging, informative, and collaborative discussions between teachers, providing deeper inquiry into student understanding as well as potential instructional gaps. Our teachers collaborate within teacher teams online, sharing item development and assessment creation and instructional resources, and tying them together through shared curriculum maps. We use the results of common assessments to compare classroom performance by learning target as well as individual questions. This provides meaningful quantitative data to aid our professional learning community (PLC) discussions.

Richer Feedback and Reflection

Not all online assessment solutions are next generation. A next-gen assessment should provide the ability to gain deeper insights into students’ understanding and engage the student in learning. We use processes such as confidence-based assessment, student justification/journaling, and student self-assessment and reflection to facilitate student-teacher conversations during the assessment process. We believe that, in conjunction with a variety of question item types, these processes help our teachers reach a deeper understanding of their students and facilitate teacher-student feedback more successfully than traditional methods. Perhaps more important, these features facilitate student self-assessment and help students gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging more ownership of their own work.

Intuitive and Adaptive

At ISD 196, we’ve been using Naiku as our next-gen assessment solution since 2010. It fits the intuitive, adaptive, and flexible criteria I believe next-generation assessment solutions should have. From the outset I noticed features within the platform—the rich student performance data and metacognitive processes—that I immediately identified as long-term benefits for myself, my peers, and the entire student body. This next-gen assessment platform fit my needs wonderfully at the time. And as I expanded my use of Naiku, the developers responded to feedback to ensure it would meet my future needs, which has been incredibly valuable. Five years later, the program continues to adapt to our district’s needs.

This school year, Naiku added “Curriculum Maps” and “Adaptive Learning Resources” to its platform. These features further extend our teachers’ capability to collaborate on standards-based learning and help personalize learning for students. With Adaptive Learning Resources, in particular, our teachers can automatically provide instructional resources to students based on performance, immediately after test submission. For example, those students who do poorly on a particular standard can immediately receive remediation resources—perhaps an instructional video—while students who do well can be sent enrichment resources.

Your Next-Gen Solution

So what does next generation mean to you? What procedure have you implemented in recent years that remains useful and relevant to you and your educators?

As you search for an online assessment platform, I encourage you to evaluate whether the assessment solution you’re considering does what you need it to do rather than what it says you need. Consider the following questions as part of your checklist:

  • Is it intuitive for your teachers’ use?
  • Does it provide richer data that’s easily shared?
  • Does it facilitate teacher collaboration?
  • Does it help increase student-teacher feedback?
  • Does it engage students beyond the traditional assessment experience to accelerate learning?
  • Does it aid personalization of learning?
  • Will the platform adapt and grow with your needs?
  • Will its developers welcome feedback from users and make every effort to stay ahead of users’ needs and challenges?

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then you may have found your next-gen assessment. If you mostly answered “No,” then keep looking. The right solution is out there for you.

Todd Beach is the district curriculum lead at Independent School District 196 in Rosemount, Minnesota. He taught social studies for various grade levels throughout ISD 196 for nearly 25 years. In 2010, the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies named him the Minnesota Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Beach is also a consultant for the College Board.

Image:  Ian Lishman / MediaBakery

Testing_pulse

One district’s cross-district collaboration improves tests, speeds info to teachers.
By Cari Jo Kiffmeyer

In a growing number of states, K-12 directors of assessment like me are finding themselves in the center of a perfect storm. Districts are looking for ways to assess students in all subjects, not just those tested by the state. They’re trying to work out how to create technology-enhanced items and assessments to provide instant feedback to students and teachers. Yet they lack the funds to buy all the assessment content they need, and they lack the tools and processes to develop the content on their own. To add even more pressure, student performance data is now being used to measure educator effectiveness.

In Minnesota’s West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197), the primary purpose of our testing is to provide information to help improve instruction. However, we didn’t have a classroom assessment tool that was used district-wide, and therefore no way to accurately view data from a district perspective. We also wanted to be able to conduct standards-based item analysis for our classroom assessments, and compare that data to our district and state assessments. So, we turned to technology and crowdsourcing.

This fall, we began implementing a system called UNIFY that provides a computer-based platform where our teachers can collaborate and build common assessments. We decided to start our “crowdsourcing” initiative for assessment creation with mathematics teachers in grades 5-9. By launching a new initiative with a small group, rather than the entire district, we can provide more focused support and coaching for our teachers. We can also make sure we’ve set up the system in a way that will provide the most benefit for all stakeholders, and we can more easily make any adjustments that are needed before rolling it out to all students.

First, we provided our teachers with training on how to write quality assessments and how to analyze and use the data to drive their instruction. Then we created a block of time for teachers across the district to meet every two weeks. To eliminate travel time and expenses, teachers meet in professional learning communities (PLCs) via Google Hangouts.

We structured our PLCs based on the Professional Learning Communities at Work process created by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. Within this framework, our PLCs focus their work on four critical questions:

  1. What is it we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we respond when some students already know it?

During these 45-minute meetings every other week, teachers collaboratively develop common district assessments tied to designated learning targets and benchmarks. The teams also meet for extended periods six times throughout the year. They analyze and discuss the results from their previous assessments, both from a district perspective and an individual classroom perspective. Based on that data, they make decisions about how to guide their instruction.

In addition, once every nine weeks, teachers meet for a professional development day. During this daylong session, they create new assessments, refine existing assessments based on their data, discuss instructional strategies, and participate in training, if needed.

To date, the reaction to our crowdsourcing initiative has been very positive. Teachers have long had a desire for cross-district collaboration. Previously, common assessments were written only at the building level. This initiative has not only provided our teachers with opportunities for district-wide collaboration, but the tools and training to support that.

So far, one of the biggest benefits we’ve experienced is that we can now electronically tie each assessment question to a specific benchmark, which will give us valuable information later.

For example, previously a teacher and student might look at an assessment and see the student earned an overall score of 70 percent. While the score showed that the student passed the assessment, it didn’t tell them much more than that. In contrast, in addition to the overall score, they can now see how the student performed on each learning target or benchmark, so they know what the student mastered and where he or she needs additional support or practice.

If a teacher wanted this data before, he or she would have to do all of the analysis by hand. Now, with instant access to this data, our teachers have a much better understanding of how to guide their instruction to better meet their students’ needs.

At the district level, this data will also allow us to conduct better program analysis as part of our Academic Return on Investment (A-ROI) process, which we’re launching this year. We plan to use this process to compare a program’s cost to what the data says about its results. This will help us see which programs are having the biggest impact on student learning, so we can invest our resources wisely.

Through our assessment and A-ROI initiatives, we will be better able to evaluate our students’ progress against our standards, adjust our instruction to meet their needs, and enhance our efforts to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We will also be able to identify which programs are the most helpful for our students, holding our district accountable for offering the best possible education.

Cari Jo Kiffmeyer is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197) in Minnesota.

Image: © Randy Faris/Corbis

Reading_pulse

Common Sense for the Common Core

Four ideas to help maximize your schools’ chances for success in implementing the new standards.
By Regie Routman

As a mentor teacher, leader, and coach who has been working in diverse classrooms and schools for more than four decades, I’ve learned that no matter what reforms, standards, or new programs come along, literacy achievement gains tend to be fleeting. Here’s what I’ve observed over and over: Without administrators who have a solid knowledge of effective literacy instruction, schools wind up focusing on implementation of isolated skills and/or standards with the hope that all the parts will add up to something meaningful. At best, this yields short-term gains and superficial learning. A good example is No Child Left Behind. After many years of a national commitment that cost billions of dollars, most students got good at phonics but showed no measurable growth in reading comprehension. My concern is we may soon see a similar outcome with the Common Core standards, and educators, parents, and the public will once again become disillusioned. So let’s take a look at the historical and present realities to assess what is possible and advisable.

The Common Core State Standards—or some set of common standards and framework for what kindergarten through high school students need to know and be able to do to pursue college and career goals—became necessary when it was blatantly apparent that not all students in U.S schools had equal opportunity to learn. In particular, factors including income inequality and school re-segregation doomed many poor and minority students, as well as English language learners, to an inferior education, with the result that many of these students routinely performed at least two years below grade level. In addition, many schools had not been challenging, engaging, or meeting the needs of large numbers of average-scoring and high-performing students for years. The need for common, high standards with content that spirals coherently from grade to grade was real.

Implementing the CCSS has become even more complex in the wake of the recent U.S. midterm elections, as more state governors have said they intend to replace the Common Core with homegrown standards. Also, some educators now view the CCSS as another fad that we need to “wait out.” The reality is that standards are necessary but insufficient; all standards are eventually replaced by “new” standards and expectations. Propelled by continuing pressure for quick results and high-stakes consequences for failure, schools understandably implement new reforms, mandates, and standards, but often without sufficient preparation or support for teachers. Predictably, we wind up with disappointing results.

So what’s a conscientious administrator to do? The vision and goals of the CCSS are commendable. In the hands of a masterful teacher supported by a knowledgeable administrator, standards are a plus. However, despite worthy intentions, two huge obstacles may eventually cause the downfall of the Common Core, and both are common-sense factors.

  1. First, the success of these new, higher standards depends on teachers and leaders knowing how to expertly implement them. Many teachers, principals, and administrators have not been properly prepared to teach reading and writing well, and they are relying on rapidly proliferating “Common Core-aligned” materials, most of which are severely wanting; even for experienced teachers, implementing the standards is daunting. The challenge for administrators is to provide professional learning that puts the highest priority on ensuring all teachers receive a deep foundational knowledge that transfers to expert instruction in the classroom. Without that theoretical and practical knowledge, teachers cannot effectively implement the CCSS or expertly teach and assess. Effective application of complex tasks and concepts requires a high level of expertise, and such expertise requires time and practice through well-planned, long-term schoolwide professional development. We are a “quick fix” society, and we often reject a commitment to long-term goals and outcomes. 

  2. Second, and attached to the first factor, is the high-stakes testing that accompanies the standards. History tells us that such stakes breed fear and distrust as pressure mounts for results. What’s on the test is what gets taught, resulting in a narrow curriculum broken into bits and pieces to “match” the test. Rather than relying on putting our efforts into high-level professional learning for all teachers and leaders, we waste enormous sums of time developing, preparing for, and executing tests with major consequences for students, teachers, families, and society.  

Administrators need to take the lead in providing the guidance, coaching, and expert professional development teachers need to successfully implement and sustain any set of literacy standards or learning outcomes. Here are some recommendations and actions for teachers—and administrators, too—for where put the literacy emphasis to increase student learning.

  • Become discerning readers and writers. We cannot teach what we do not know or value. Apply what you do as a strategic reader and writer to teaching readers and writers. Let students know how and why you read and write for real-world audiences and purposes that go beyond the classroom—and this may include blogs, social media, opinion pieces, and more.

  • Do more read-alouds of excellent literature. In the course of reading, think aloud to show students how readers figure out vocabulary, question the author, make inferences, reread when confused, notice the author’s craft, and so on. Your read-alouds should include more emphasis on nonfiction.

  • Embed shared experiences in your teaching. Before asking students to read complex text, read complex text with them. Demonstrate “close reading” and reason through how to find, use, and analyze evidence from the text to make meaning and support a point of view.

  • Organize curriculum through emphasizing big ideas and important concepts. The best place to start is with the K-12 Common Core anchor standards for reading. These include key ideas and details, craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, and range of reading and level of text complexity. Beware starting with small pieces of the standards; teachers and students can get stuck in the details and never get to the highest levels of understanding.

The Common Core State Standards are a worthy ideal of what’s possible for our students but they should be approached with perspective. Standards do not transform teaching and learning; effective teachers supported by knowledgeable principals and administrators do. Implementation and “how” to effectively instruct and assess student learning requires years of professional learning with skillful teachers, coaches, and leaders in a culture of trust, inquiry, coaching, collaboration, celebration of strengths, and, yes, even joy. In such learning cultures, students, teachers, and leaders thrive. It is up to knowledgeable administrators to ensure teachers and principals do not continue to drown in a culture of minutiae over testing and teaching to individual standards. Rather, savvy and courageous administrators ensure that being accountable for students’ engagement, enjoyment, and success as readers, writers, and thinkers comes before any set of standards, assessments, or mandates.

Regie Routman is an educator who works with teachers and administrators in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement for all students. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). She can be contacted on regieroutman.org.

Image: Getty Image

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