Whistle While You Work

Snow White’s wicked stepmother’s sole intent to consult the mirror and check her reflection may have been considered an act of narcissism. Alice and Wonderland took a peek through the Looking Glass to learn experiences, make decisions, and pay attention to details matter. And though both are fairy tales, the reality for education today is to teach students towards their college and career goals. What have I learned along the way through my professional story? 1) Reflections are the proxy to a happily ever after. 2) Mentors are timely, caring, and a comforting irritant that may come in the form of a fairy godmother or 7 miners. 3) Goals keep you focused on what matters.
Once upon a time, I was a first year teacher who avoided the mirror at the end of my day. After catching a glimpse and realizing how I looked like I had been run over by a Mack truck, I was mesmerized by the fact that my hair really could stand straight up on the top of my head. But, what surprised me more than the anti-gravity in my classroom was the fact that neither my students nor colleagues gave me any heads up. Similar to Cinderella, I pouted about not having an advocate or the ability to catch a break. A magic wand would have been perfect, but I am pretty sure that I would have wished myself out of the profession. Instead, I was forced into a determination of how to get it right. Reflection became an active part of my lesson planning.
Daily Questions throughout the lesson strengthened both my formative assessments and pace. I frequently asked a few key questions. “How do I know each student understands?” “What is the priority of today’s outcomes if a task requires more time?” Who looks and sounds like they are doing the most work?”
Planning Questions pointed me in the direction of the end. Beginning with the end in mind informed and enhanced the design of my workshops or units. Sticking to a few simple questions kept the lesson plan focused. “How do I want students to show what they know?” “How will students know what they know?” “What does the data tell me about the strengths of the class, areas needing improvement and scaffolds, and specific needs of individuals?”
Being focused expanded the opportunity for student engagement and ownership of the outcomes. Taking the time to ask the right questions designed a slipper that magically fit more feet than mine.

I’ve determined throughout my twenty-one years in education that the right people will come along and sprinkle their fairy dust at the right time. I just had to learn to open my eyes, listen, accept the challenges, and be open to both feedback and change. I had to let go and trust in someone’s view of what I may need and their expertise. In short, I needed to follow the leader for a short time until I had the endurance and confidence for independence. Yes, the first year teacher pouted about not having an advocate worried, well ok, sometimes snubbed advice. Now as I reflect. Who did I think I was? I was Alice making some right decisions without knowing why they were correct, but making mistakes that were quite noticeable. I needed a White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat.
School years come and go. Colleagues bond with common experiences and goals, but mentors are permanent imprints on your professional heart, mind, and soul. As I began my reflection and brainstorming for this blog entry, I arrived at four mentor characteristics.Noelle_GS_graphic
Miners dig into the problems right beside you. Though you may be in a slight panic, their light and sense of direction lead you through the correct tunnels. When the riches are discovered, they don’t race you to the jewels; rather, proudly observe as you tinker away to fill your bucket. The miners are your coaches.
Crickets know your every wish, but don’t do the showing of how. The cricket’s nurturing wisdom is shared in a series of tips, sayings, proverbs, and sometimes direct warnings. This type of mentor tends to be unassuming in your professional world, but words are powerful. They never say, “I told you so,” even when you don’t take their advice. Crickets know you are going to make mistakes. This mentor tends to be advisors.
White rabbits and Cheshire cats challenge your thinking in ways that may push you into a case of your own productive struggle. What I’ve admired about the rabbit is this mentor always models best practices. At first the behavior seems frantic and difficult to catch by observation, but with closer discussions and analysis, this mentor is a refined practitioner. The Cheshire cat pushes you to a point of frustration not because of a tendency to be sarcastic or elitist, but because answers are provided in a series of questions or riddles. This mentor knows you will come to your own answers because of the eagerness to learn. Their focus is to move you from good to great. This mentor is the expert practitioner.
Fairy godmothers watch with a careful eye, and only come to the rescue when absolutely necessary or when requested. These mentors often choose their mentees because they see the big P: Potential. They see the talent because knowledge, interest, and determination are evident. Fairy godmothers know skills can be crafted if the core foundations exist. These mentors are the teachers who tutored you after school when Calculus was making you cry, the principal that hired you for your first job, and the district administrator who asked you to be a teacher leader. These mentors are teachers and administrators; otherwise known as your peers- educators.
Because I often left school at my wit’s end every day of my first year, then it’s easy to conclude that my main goal was to get home and then sleep away the trauma. If you have also concluded that I did my lesson plans on the way to work the next morning, then you are on to something. My post traumatic syndrome continued until I realized one day that I was doing the teaching thing all wrong. My principal noticed my errors and sent me to three professional learning engagements. This decision put me on a new trajectory. There is no doubt without these three opportunities that I would have not stayed in the profession. The first seminar I attended taught me that everything starts and ends with classroom management. I left these sessions with a couple of additional questions. “Do my students know that they are going to learn something every day in my classroom?” “Do they know how to use the classroom and access the learning opportunities?” “Do I focus on positive or negative reinforcements more?” My second gift of instructional learning educated me on learning outcomes, instructional best practices, and formative assessments. My new  found knowledge slid me into a mindset that everyone in the room deserves goals. In order to achieve the goals we had to have an action plan and know the rules of the game.
It’s not new information that goals need to be SMART, or specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Nor is it uncommon to ensure that students are an active participant in not only the goal setting, but the conferencing to monitor their own progress. However, a friendly reminder is to start this task on day one. How can we achieve college and career if we don’t focus on every student’s end goal that is on his/her mind?
Earlier in the summer, I had the honor of leading a conference in sunny Orlando. The magical location was brought to life by 400 educators’ quest for community, updated instructional practices, and sharing success stories. Their voices and participation inspired me. They reminded me to stay focused, keep learning, and be proud of the work that we do. So, stay strong and enjoy Back to School. Take time to reflect. Find a new mentor that aligns to your next challenge. Become a mentor to one of our new colleagues. And, set your goals, but get to know others’ as well. Let’s all be happy in 2014-2015.
Noelle Morris is an Implementation Manager with Scholastic Achievement Partners. As an Implementation Manger, she ensures the thorough implementation of school improvement plans, monitoring both teacher and student understanding and achievement. As part of the original READ 180® implementation team, Noelle is a pro in scrutinizing data and building customized models to match the needs of each and every school and classroom she works with.

Teachers Deserve Better Tools for Tracking Subskills

The good news is that a growing percentage of students are learning, practicing and applying math in several engaging modalities most providing frequent instructional feedback. The same is true in other subjects, just a little more slowly. The bad news is that most schools have no way to combine the assessment information from multiple sources in ways that are useful for driving instructional improvement or managing student progress.
The solution to this problem requires clarity around common expectations and how those expectations will be assessed and a common tagging scheme for content and assessment. It would be useful to have a couple recognized/widely used practices for combining and using assessment data in competency-based environments and better growth measures to compare progress in different environments.
That all seems doable, right? Well, not so fast. Talking to school leaders, gradebook vendors, and assessment providers, there appear to be four significant problems:
1. Different standards. States leaving the Common Core will need to figure this out on their own–another reason it’s dumb for small states to create their own odd little academic cul de sac. About half of the states remaining in the Common Core are making substantial edits and additions to the standards. Even in Common Core states, “Very few are directly assessing Common Core, they use their own version of standards,” said Justin Meyer from gradebook JumpRope. Most schools and districts have their own way of expressing and assessing standards. The most common reason for local standards is gaining adequate grain size to make informed instructional decisions (as Will Eden describes in this post on ELA standards). The bottom line is that even where standards are common, they’re not always the same requiring a semi customized solution to aggregate formative data from multiple sources.
2. No agreement on tagging data. In short, sub-skill tracking is complicated. The state EdTech directors (SETDA) worked with the assessment consortia to create an enhanced schema (GIM-CCSS) for aligning resources to the Common Core. Doug Levin said, “The problem we set out to solve with granularity was to provide a mechanism to ensure that the breadth and depth of the standards was able to be evaluated in alignment judgements in assessment (formative and summative), instructional materials, and professional development resources.” The proposed SETDA solution reflected the richness of the standards statements which frequently encompass several different competencies which may be diverse enough that one couldn’t teach or assess them in the same lesson or at the same time. However the standards authors and other experts were never able to reconcile their beliefs on how to do so. Standards author Jason Zimba thought “splitting standards was a bad idea from the start.”
Tim Hudson, DreamBox Learning, said they’re seeing more schools use the CCSS Publisher’s Criteria, something he sees as a positive development in part because the associated Toolkit focuses on clusters not subskills. In a Toolkit essay, Daro, McCallum, and Zimba say, “Fragmenting the Standards into individual standards, or individual bits of standards, erases all these relationships and produces a sum of parts that is decidedly less than the whole.” They note that focusing too narrowly on sub-skills contributes to the mile-wide, inch-deep problem we’ve had for some time in math.
For this reason, Hudson thinks educators and students will might find more value in CCSS cluster-level reporting–perhaps some in the form of heat maps that also emphasize proficiency and growth in the the Major Work areas. Zimba proposed a “wiring diagram” that reflects sub-skill clusters and relationships. Jen Medbery, Kickboard, thinks it may be necessary to keep the sets of subskills distinct and allow gradebook users to build rules groupings sub-skills. Districts and networks could choose from couple different credentialing or badging schemes linked to skill clusters.
Amplify uses a honeycomb data visualization tool. President Larry Berger said, “There are sensible sub-skill sequences, but they are often idiosyncratic to a given instructional approach. So the one we use at Amplify enables us to report on granular progress in the interstices between standards, but it isn’t one that others would agree to standardize on.”
Sometimes sub-skill sequences are developmental (most brains in most contexts would learn them in that particular order), the rest of the time the order of learning is shaped by the order of teaching.
3. No agreement on defining competency. The definition is simple–students demonstrate mastery to progress–but there are many variations of competency-based environments. Some use big gateways–end of course exams or big interdisciplinary demonstrations of learning–while others use small frequent gateways that combine multiple assessments. Combining multiple assessments in consistent and reliable fashion is important in all of these environments, particularly those where they guide student progress. The schools doing this well are individual rotation models with custom built platforms (e.g., Summit & EAA Buzz) that combine several assessments at a unit (or cluster) level. Otherwise, there’s little agreement about how to combine assessment (i.e., weighting, trailing average, most recent, etc).
The challenge to standards-based grading, according to Justin Meyer, is there is no one place to find out about it and nobody wants to agree. CompetencyWorks is a great start–it’s an online community of educators working hard to figure this out–see The Art and Science of Designing Competencies by curator Chris Sturgis.
4. Inadequate tools. Performance feedback from any learning experience should flow automatically into a super gradebook (called instructional management system or learner profile); with the exception of a couple closed systems and small pilots, it never works this way. Most schools use spreadsheets to managed multiple sources of data–it’s like running an airport air traffic control tower with a bunch of scratchpads. Teachers manually add data to spreadsheets and then manually enter grade into a gradebook. New gradebooks like Engrade, Kickboard and JumpRope support customized deployments but it is still a technical and manual process that will prevent competency-based education from scaling.
Here’s a common response from an education software provider, “We definitely want to support better information for teachers and explore ways to integrate more closely with the gradebooks.” The tools won’t get better until there is more philanthropic investment and/or more aggregated demand (i.e., more schools doing things the same way) that drives investment.
Next steps. As the amount of assessment data grows, three million American teachers struggle with the inability to combine assessment data from multiple sources. They’re using spreadsheets to collect data when simple data integration tools would do that automatically. Schools are making up rules about student progress and reporting when a couple widely used templates should be available.
If simply tracking a checklist of skills won’t cut it, solutions will need to include micro-standard tagging grouped into skill clusters–a two or three layer hierarchy supporting the ability to combine fine grain and broader performance assessments. As Medbery said, a couple different options and the ability to customize would be helpful. The SETDA GIM solution appears to be worth reviving and supporting–it’s a good start from a capable and well positioned organization.
With one or more widely recognized options for tagging CCSS resources, networks and districts will need the ability to manipulate a rule set (i.e., how assessments are combined, weighted) to manage student progress and reporting. The EAA strategy of requiring students to bring forward three form of evidence for each unit appears to increase student agency and motivation. This functionality should be built into next gen gradebooks (and instructional management systems).
To boost student engagement and simply stakeholder reporting, the solutions should be, as Michael Fullan suggests, “irresistibly engaging” for students and “elegantly efficient” for teachers. Students should be able to log into a mobile application and quickly understand what they need to learn and options for demonstrating mastery. Teachers should be able to efficiently monitor progress, benefit from informed recommendations and dynamic scheduling, and pinpoint assistance for struggling students.
This is an education problem more than a technology problem, a political problem more than a psychometric problem. Solving this set of nested challenge will require leadership and investment. It will require groups of schools (e.g., League of Innovative Schools, Great Schools Partnership, New Tech Network, etc) to agree on competency-based protocols and use their market leverage (and some grant funding) to drive investment to solutions for their instructional model. The next gen gradebooks are all willing and capable partners. Students and teachers deserve better tools.

3 Useful Google Docs Add-Ons

Google Docs Add-Ons are new tools created by 3rd party developers that add functionality to Google Docs. Users can access and search for Add-Ons through the menu bar in any Google Doc or Spreadsheet. There are many handy tools to Add-On to Google Docs to improve  efficiency and help get work done, and there is even a section for education. Here are a three of my favorite Add-Ons, which I believe are well-suited for teachers and students.

Clipboard by Diigo for Google Docs

The Clipboard Add-On by Diigo is useful for writers. The tool streamlines the editing process by providing users with a sidebar clipboard for managing content. The content on the clipboard is accessible from any Google Doc. The tool helps users  collect and manage content, and use it again when needed. Just open an existing Google Doc, clip selected content to save it to your clipboard, then use it again when working in any of your Google Docs. Contents on the clipboard remain there until they are deleted by the owner.

Mindmeister for Google Docs

The Mindmeisiter Add-On helps users turn a bullet pointed list into a visual mind map. Simply create a list, highlight it, and select Create Mind Map from the Add Ons menu. After a couple of seconds a mind map is generated and inserted right into the Google Docs. While this is a simplified version of the app and online tool, it is certainly quite useful for adding visuals to any idea.

Text Help Study Skills Highlighting Tools for Google Docs

The Text Help highlighting tools provide Google Docs users with the functionality of collecting and organizing highlighted text that is displayed in separate document for use. This trick to using this tool with students could be to help them think about and define the organizational structure of a piece of writing prior note-taking so the colors can be used effectively.  The example below presents one organizational structure. The makes of this Add-On provide some suggestions and help for teachers which I found to be quite useful.

More Google Docs Add-Ons

Perhaps the beauty of Add-Ons lies in the fact there is an entire store full of 3rd party tools to choose from and users can self-select their own tools. Google has published documentation to help developers create their own Add-Ons, which indicates that new Add-Ons will frequently appear. To grab an Add-On, select the Get Add-Ons option from the Google Docs menu bar to jump to the Add-Ons store. After you select an Add-On it will appear in the Add-Ons menu of all your Google Docs., ready for use.


Smart Cities: Washington D.C.

“After a lifetime here, I find it hard to believe how much experiments, excitement, progress and change are taking place in Washington,” said a veteran D.C. edreformer. “Just five years ago, the DC Public Schools were the worst performing public school system in the U.S. and…On the two NAPE tests since, we showed considerable improvement.”
What happened? A combination of great charters, college scholarships, and tough reforms:

  • Charters. A handful of charters (SEED School, Maya AngelouCesar ChavezFriendship) launched in the District after Public Charter School Board (PCSB) was formed in 1996. FocusDC summarizes the remarkable growth, “public charter schools now educate 44% of public school children in Washington, D.C.–a higher share than any other big city except New Orleans…over 35,000 students are enrolled at over 100 campuses.” Because charters are growing at a 10 percent rate, they’ll soon serve nearly half of the student population.
  • Scholarships. Don Graham launched DC-CAP in 1998 and Bob Craves launched College Success Foundation in 2004 (with a lot of help from Jim Shelton and the Gates Foundation) capitalizing on the DC-TAG law, which allows them to go to state universities with a federal scholarship for some of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. Pre-DC TAG, about 700 students were headed to college. Last year almost 2,000 enrolled in a 2 or 4-year college.
  • Reform. Michelle Rhee ran the school system for three-plus years. She blew up many established patterns and focused attention on learning outcomes. When Michelle’s sponsor, Adrian Fenty, lost an election she was succeeded by her deputy Kaya Henderson. A focus on talent development and instructional improvement remains strong.

“The combination of high school college counselors and industrial grade financial aid seems to be changing D.C. into a real college preparatory school district,” said Bob Craves, one of the Costco founders who has devoted himself to running scholarship programs in Washington D.C. and Washington State. “The six high schools and middle schools in the toughest part of town, Wards 7 and 8, have transformed in the past five years to a culture of college awareness, preparation and with the help of college counselors, execution of a plan to research, plan and apply for college.”
Despite the progress, D.C. has the nation’s highest proportion of 4th and 8th graders in the “below basic” category–and the lowest in proficient/advanced.
District Blends. DCPS is a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a network of two dozen forward leaning districts.
DCPS brought the team that developed School of One to Hart Middle School. The Washington Post said, “It cost $1 million to bring Teach to One to a single classroom at Hart this year, including $600,000 from D.C. Public Schools’ central office for renovations, and $400,000 in donations from the CityBridge Foundation and the D.C. Public Education Fund.” Chancellor Kaya Henderson said “If it works like we think it will, it’ll be a game-changer.” Jason Tomassini, Digital Promise has a great trip report.
Kramer Middle School has a home-grown classroom rotation model in partnership with Florida Virtual School.
Elementary school students in many schools are using TeacherMate, a reading intervention program on iPod Touch devices. They can work with online volunteer tutors who work with them on reading fluency and comprehension. “DCPS schools have access to a suite of high-quality online math content aligned to the Common Core. Schools are at various points along a spectrum of blended learning, and are benefiting from the focus on student data; differentiated, small-group instruction; expansion of student learning beyond the classroom; and greater student engagement through use of technology,” according to the district.
Scholar Academies, based in Philadelphia, has two D.C. campuses, a turnaround and a startup. Tomassini reports that Scholar “uses a variety of technology, including interactive whiteboards, laptops, iPads, and content from providers like DreamBox Learning and ST Math.”
DCPS has by far the highest private placement of special ed students. To address this expensive solution, AdvancePath supported the development of a successful blended district special education program that saved the district a lot of money and graduated 35 students last year, but it was closed in a vortex of convoluted district politics (I’m on the AdvancePath board).
Dell Foundation is supporting pilots at two DCPS elementary schools and report be impressed by the district team.
More Great Charters. D.C. is home to some well known charter schools. KIPP DC has four K-8 campuses and a high school featuring KIPP Through College, which helps students not only get into a four-year college but graduate within 6 years. Friendship Public Charter Schools operates six charters and five turnaround schools in Baltimore and D.C. including Collegiate Academy and Tech Prep which feature AP classes, Computer Science, and football.
D.C. has some extraordinary school leaders like Jennie Niles, a force of nature at the blended, competency-based E.L. Haynes Public Charter School where she has created a culture of innovation resulting in development of learning content platform LearnZillion, information platform SchoolForce and Capital Teaching Residency, a yearlong training program formed with KIPP that recently won a $10 million RTTD grant.
Also of note:

The high school graduation rate for D.C. public charter schools is 18% points higher than DCPS despite higher levels of poverty. Charter boards benefit from recruiting and training from Charter Board Partners (see more on how great boards create great schools).
Center for Education Reform ranks D.C. first in the nation for its charter law. D.C. gets a high B rating on the Brookings Education Choice and Competition Index because of all the great charters and the small but controversial voucher program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship.
Human Capital. There are 350 Teach For America corps members in D.C.–one in five low-income kids are taught by TFA members. There are more than 1,600 alumni in the area including 13 school system leaders, 33 school leaders and five elected officials.
Education Pioneers has 68 Fellows in the D.C. Metro Area working at more than 35 partner organizations. There are 200 alumni in the area and about 70% have finished graduate school and are working in education.
CityBridge Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund launched an Education Innovation Fellowship, a competitive one year fellowship that introduces a cohort of Washington, D.C.’s strongest teachers to the most promising innovations in blended learning. (See Don Soifer’s summary.) Every metro area needs a teacher fellowship program like this.
Impact Orgs. MetroD.C. is home to dozens of national impact organizations including:

Catalog for Philanthropy features another dozen impact orgs serving students and families.
Katherine Bradley’s CityBridge Foundation has been generous and innovative. Mario Morino chairs the Venture Philanthropy Partnership which supports charter schools and youth and family services. The DC Public Education Fund is also devoting a good bit of time and energy here. It’s hard to raise local donations because there are not many foundations in town. Some national education philanthropies invest in D.C. because the projects gain national visibility.
The Philanthropy Roundtable is a D.C. based group that informs and convenes forward-leaning foundations. Council on Foundations is a broad focused membership organization.
DC School Reform Now is a local advocacy group pushing talent, options, and equitable allocations.
Not surprisingly, the biggest private employment sector in metro D.C. is defense and aerospace. But the nation’s capital is also the most important confluence of online learning organizations on the planet. D.C. area public companies serving the education sector include:

  • K12, in Herndon, is the publicly traded online learning leader (NYSE: LRN). They run 33 statewide virtual schools, and support hundreds of district programs. In February of 2014, they released their annual Academic Report (reviewed here) revealing the strengths and challenges of online learning.
  • Strayer Education(NASDAQ: STRA) offers undergraduate and graduate programs on 92 campuses and online. Like other for-profits, Strayer saw enrollments decline the last two years given new competition and federal regulations.
  • Rosetta Stone (NYSE: RST) the leader in online language learning, is headquartered in Arlington.
  • Discovery Education a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, (NASDAQ: DISCA) is a nonfiction video content giant.
  • 2U (NASDAQ: TWOU) in Landover, helps brand name colleges develop next-gen programs. Founded by John Katzman, CEO of Noodle.

Blackboard is the leader in higher ed learning platforms. Providence Equity Partners acquired Blackboard in 2011. The company acquired EdLine in 2011, Moodlerooms and NetSpot in 2013, and MyEdu in 2014. Blackboard is building a consulting services business around online and blended higher education.
Echo360 is powering the real revolution in higher education with a learning platform that powers blended learning at 10% of US institutions. It is backed, in part, by Steve Case’s Revolution Growth.
Other EdTech companies of note include:

  • LearnZillion has more than 10,000 instructional resources produced by 400,000 registered dream team teachers (see feature).
  • Washington Post, parent of Kaplan, is in D.C. but Kaplan is headquartered in Florida.
  • ePals is a social learning platform.
  • EverFi provides online financial literacy and substance abuse curriculum.
  • Mathalicious provides applied math videos (and occasionally goes off on Khan).

Connections Education, Laureate, and the other Sterling spinouts are up the road in Baltimore (as detailed in Baltimore blog).
There’s a growing list of incubators in D.C. and Baltimore supporting startups including a few EdTech companies, 1776 has become most prominent.
New Markets Venture Partners is headquartered north of D.C. and has a big education portfolio (as detailed in the Baltimore blog). There are a couple private equity firms (like Carlyle and Revolution) that will look at an education deal. There was a pretty well attended EdTech meetup in December.
National Advocates. National ed reform groups headquartered in and around D.C. include:

Advocates for quality options include:

Every few weeks, the leading pro-Core, pro-choice education reform advocacy organizations and related human capital shops get together in D.C. For at least the next few years they have a Department that is largely in sync.
Think tanks that weigh in on education include American Enterprise Institute, Center for American Progress, Brookings, Fordham, Heritage, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. There’s also Society for Science and the Public, the science fair folks, and The National Academies, the experts that opine broadly.
Business advocates for better education include Business Higher Education Forum (see feature), Business Roundtable, Council on Competitiveness, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Digital learning advocates include Digital Learning Now, run by John Bailey, the country’s second EdTech director, and International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), led by Susan Patrick, the country’s third EdTech director. There’s also SIIA and Educause, the higher ed EdTech group that hosts NGLC (see 3 part series on 20 next gen models).
UNCF and National Council of La Raza collaborate on Gates Millennium Scholars.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future is doing some cool work on learning studios, a challenge-and team-based approach to interdisciplinary studies.
All the associations and employee groups are in D.C. as well, including governors, chiefs, state boards, school boards, state EdTech directors, district EdTech directors, elementary and secondary principals, superintendents, and urban districts.
And there are lots of advisors including Education Counsel, Penn Hill Group, Grayling, and Whiteboard Advisors.
Eight Observations.

  1. Urban reform is brutal. It is much harder to transform a failing school than to start a good one. It is easier and cheaper to build a high performing network of schools from scratch than to turnaround a bureaucracy.
  2. Good authorizing is hard work. PCSB is often more interventionist than my early conceptions of on/off authorizing, but it’s working.
  3. Like most cities, public charter schools don’t have good facilities in the District and they don’t even get access to empty public buildings. (As noted last February, school operations should be separated from facilities management.)
  4. Given the brain trust in D.C., it’s embarrassing that the schools were so bad for so long. Great networks and groups like Charter Board Partners are making it easier for smart people to plug in and make a difference.
  5. Scholarships and college bound aspirations have some ‘pull power.’ Making college not just possible but expected is making a difference in D.C. However, scholarships are expensive because of runaway college costs—it’s not a cheap solution to the dropout crisis.
  6. D.C. spends more than $19,000 per student which is more than 2.5 times what Mooresville spends (as detailed in the #SmartSeries paper Funding the Shift and in a Getting Smart feature). There is funding available to support blended learning implementations.
  7. It doesn’t look like the D.C. schools leverage community assets well, including ED, NASA, Smithsonian, Library of Congress, etc. Every museum should have a flex school associated with it (as suggested here). Imagine a high school that spent a year deeply embedded in four different Smithsonian museums.
  8. For all the talk of innovation in D.C., there isn’t much in the schools. Despite all the next-gen brain power in the 20036 zip code and the online learning capability in the 20171 zip code, the shift to personal digital learning is in a very early stage in the nation’s capital.

This post is a compilation and update of prior posts. Digital Learning Now, K12, Pearson, MIND Research, FLVS, K12, Connections are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners. Tom is a board member at Charter Board Partners and iNACOL. LearnZillion is a Learn Capital Portfolio Companies where Tom is partner.

OECD: Innovation Can Improve Learning, Equity, Efficiency and the Economy

“Innovation in the public sector in general, and in education in particular, could be a major driver for significant welfare gains,” says a new report from the OECD, Measuring Innovation in Education.
The OECD report suggests innovation can 1) improve learning outcomes and the quality of education provision, 2) to enhance equity, 3) to improve efficiency and 4) remain relevant to a changing economy.
Here’s the headline conclusion, “Countries with greater levels of innovation see increases in certain educational outcomes, including higher (and improving) 8th grade mathematics performance, more equitable learning outcomes across ability and more satisfied teachers.”
Now for the backstory. The report uses data from 2003-09 so it’s five year old and doesn’t consider the mobile inflection and app revolution we’re living through.
The report confuses improvement (i.e., doing things better) and innovation (i.e., doing things differently) as evidenced by the introduction, “The ability to measure innovation is essential to an improvement strategy in education.
By surveying the public and employees of learning institutions, the methodology attempts to measure viable innovation categories including 1) new products and services, 2) new delivery processes, 3) new ways to organizing activities, and 4) new marketing techniques. But the details don’t always add up.
And now for the punch line: the report scores the U.S. near the bottom of the pack. This strange and dated index puts Hungary, Indonesia, Slovenia, and Russia in the top 10.
Here’s an example of a response that just isn’t credible: 70% of graduates employed in the education sector consider their establishments as highly innovative, on par with the economy average (69%).
During the considered period of 2003-09, innovations in U.S. education included scaling great school networks with the backing of new talent development organizations. Thousands of new high schools targeting low income students were developed. Big city districts made big strides in aligned instructional systems and differentiated school support. Together, they formed the basis for portfolio strategies evident in most urban centers today. The other big innovation of the last decade not evident anywhere else on the planet but not fully considered by this survey was the quite growth in online learning in the U.S. During the considered period, students in most states gained access to full time online learning. Districts began expanding part time access to online classes. Dropout recovery models were developed. Given school improvement, new school development, and new online options grad rates climbed by more than 10 points (66% in 2001 to 81% in 2012).
The ironic thing about the index is that what the U.S. scores high on–what everybody loves to hate–the use of standardized testing. Some of the OSCD conclusions are interesting, some are just off base, they are all pre-revolution.

TRECA: Supporting Schools, Developing Leaders

When working with superintendents with short attention spans, Tim Hilborn takes “them to the edge of wanting more and drops them, repeatedly, with multiple pedagogies that they can use in their world,” he wants to create enough urgency and interest that they want to dig in for more.
Hilborn is Chief Instructional Officer for TRECA. Founded in 1979 as an IT support center for 36 school districts in north central Ohio, the TRECA staff also provide back office and instructional support. But what is really remarkable is the learning opportunities that Hilborn and his team create for superintendents.
Most education conferences continue to use theater seating, microphones on draped tables, and panels that go bla, bla, bla–no evidence that anyone planning the session considered anything about adult learners. It’s refreshing to work with someone like Tim who works hard to create powerful learning experiences for education leaders.
The TRECA PD team is made up of former administrators, teachers and digital natives who focus on supporting the entire system in a year long project to establish personalized learning models. They recently took a group of central Ohio superintendents to Boston for a three day retreat. By leaving town, they were able to build long uninterrupted days that included both fun and reflective time. The team guided the superintendents as they:

Every session was well constructed with desired learning outcomes; they were fast paced, interactive, and partially self-directed. They all included reflective activities that encouraged an unusual amount of openness among superintendents who are often more eager to share successes than challenges.
The superintendents will continue to meet quarterly to evaluate progress and identify additional learning opportunities and will soon be joined by their Leadership Team to define and expand the initiative. Team TRECA will provide the same learning opportunities to building principals as they lead the movement to personalization at the building level.
Hilborn’s team also operates TRECA Digital Academy, a public online K-12 school serving nearly 3,000 students. The school has a full curriculum and has demonstrated expected success with dropout and prevention students.
I appreciate how Tim’s team frames the opportunity of personalized learning and supports leaders where they are on the journey. TRECA makes the work of being a superintendent a little less lonely and the path forward a little more clear.
For more, watch my 12 minute Google Hangout with Tim.
TRECA is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Middle Grade Humanities: Going Beyond the English Class

The middle grades serve as important years for students to immerse themselves in reading and writing across content areas. Schools are increasingly finding ways to create opportunities for students to write and read in content areas that go beyond the English class.
David Ruff joined us for a Google Hangout to chat a little bit about blended, integrated project-based humanities. David is executive director of Great Schools Partnership and leader of the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC), a network of high schools in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The network has established a framework with standards that are supported by performance indicators. Schools within the NESSC are breaking through what used to be traditional content areas and are re-tooling the curriculum to ensure the learning is more integrated. As David mentions in the chat, learning in the “real world” is much less isolated and more immersive than in traditional silos or content areas. He wonders, why we are teaching content areas in such isolation?
Last week, David headed up a “design thinking” conference with educators from the NESSC, and David shared with us some of the new thinking around ways to approach teaching Humanities in the middle grades.

Here are some key ways of thinking about an integrated approach to middle school humanities, and the importance of going beyond the English class.
Competency-based Learning. The Great Schools Partnership, the NESSC, and other organizations such as Competency Works place an emphasis on competency-based, or proficiency-based, learning. The NESSC uses a seven part definition of proficiency-based learning:

  1. Students advance upon demonstration of mastery of content, 21st century skills, and dispositions that prepare them for college and careers;
  2. Learning standards are explicit, understood by students, and measurable;
  3. Assessments–formative, interim, and summative–measure and promote learning;
  4. Demonstration of learning uses a variety of assessment methods including in-depth performance assessments that expect application of learning;
  5. Instruction is personal, flexible, and adaptable to students’ needs–both initially and as required by ongoing student learning;
  6. Students both direct and lead their learning even as they learn from and with others–both within and outside of schools; and
  7. Grading is used as a form of communication for students, parents, and teachers–not control or punishment.

By creating and having larger, broader and more thoughtful standards, students can integrate their work across subject areas and can think through big and more complex ideas. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation also has competency-based learning as one of its 4 key tenants for learning and believes that true mastery should be demonstrated by students rather than moving students forward based on the outdated “seat time” model.
Leadership is Key. High quality instructional leadership encourages prioritization of ensuring that Humanities are fully integrated across content areas. We know that for any initiatives to be successful in school, we need high quality school leadership, which includes principals and teacher-leaders. Instructional strategies can expand the learning for students, create opportunities for integration, and include a more holistic approach to learning.
Writing Across the Curriculum. Quality writing is really everybody’s job, not just the responsibility of the English teacher. It’s important for teachers to share and look at student work together. There are many protocols in place that educators can use when reviewing student work together, and through these discussions, teachers can learn more about what high quality looks like and strategies for providing the most effective forms of feedback to students.
If you are a teacher who has ever been frustrated by the hours you spent giving a student feedback on his or her writing only to find the piece of paper in the trash, learning the most effective ways to give students’ feedback on their writing (and ensuring they act on that feedback) is critical. These days, many teachers are turning to cloud-based technology, such as using Google Drive or other digital portfolio options with students, so that students can’t “lose” drafts of writing. Students can, however, mark a piece of feedback as “resolved,” without making additional changes. Educators could and should encourage students to save multiple drafts of their writing to demonstrate their improvement. These drafts all show evidence of an effective writing process which could be showed at a student-led conference or student exhibition of their learning.
Technology Helps. Technology is a huge assist to improving writing and promoting integration of content. As David Ruff said in the Google Hangout, “I don’t think that you can talk about personalizing the learning without technology. That is both in terms of instructional and learning strategies and the management of each student’s individualized learning plans.”
A high degree of personalization will encourage the engagement of students in expanding the writing across the curriculum, and ensure that middle school Humanities goes beyond the English class. In the real world, we read and write in all disciplines. Taking writing beyond the English class showcases how writing is used in real world settings.
This blog is brought to you by The Nellie Mae Education Foundation as part of a series on blended humanities. For more stayed tuned for the Getting Smart on Blending Middle Grade Humanities bundle and see the other posts in this series:


Infographic: How Google Glass Might Be Used in Education

By: Tess Pajaron
Ever since Google announced “Project Glass” in 2012, the education space has been buzzing with speculations about how this technology will affect teachers and students.
Although Glass has only just been made available to the general public and is still too pricey for the average consumer to seriously consider, early adopters have already begun documenting its uses and potential in educational settings.
The following infographic compiled by Open Colleges presents 30 examples of how Google Glass could be used to facilitate learning, from recording and documenting lessons to providing personalized feedback and even organizing virtual field trips.

How Google Glass might be used in Education – An infographic by the team at Open Colleges
Clearly, Google Glass has the potential to effect positive change in education, but whether or not it will become a permanent fixture in classrooms around the world remains to be seen.
What do you think of using Google Glass in education? Are there any other ways in which it could be used to enhance learning?
Tess Pajaron is part of editorial team and Community Manager for InformED, a blog about e-learning and education. On her spare time, she loves to travel and read about current events , education, technology and life psychology. You can personally find her on Twitter. Check out InformED on Twitter and Google+.

Playing to Win: How Game-based Social Skills Interventions Can Help Kids Make Friends and Succeed Academically

By: Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D.
Games are a hot topic in the education world – and for good reason. Studies have shown that games improve problem solving skills, motivation and engagement towards learning, and test scores. Educational games have primarily addressed academic subjects, but game-based learning could be applied to other topics—such as social-emotional development.
Social skills are often overlooked as a key part of the student success equation, but evidence suggests that positive social skills, such as emotion management, conflict resolution, empathy, and the ability to assess social situations and act appropriately, are just as important as the skills taught in core academic subjects.
Strong social skills improve chances of success
Research shows that children with positive social skills achieve better grades and higher standardized test scores, have better lifelong physical and mental health, and have higher self-esteem. Many of these effects are linked to the ability to develop positive peer relationships.
Children who are unable to establish positive relationships are more likely to have negative long-term outcomes, including:

  • bullying or being bullied
  • social isolation
  • poor academic performance
  • more school absences and dropouts
  • mental and physical health issues
  • criminal behavior

Untreated peer problems tend to worsen over time, increasing the likelihood of negative outcomes.
This is why social skills training (SST), programs that teach students positive social skills to establish and maintain healthy relationships, are critically important for present and future happiness and success.
Why traditional identification methods, interventions, and evaluations fall short
SST programs are often administered in schools, but schools are limited by available funds and time, which makes it difficult for schools to implement any intervention.
When schools are able to implement an intervention, the tools typically used do not provide reliable and valid data. For example, attendance records, report cards, and disciplinary records are often used to identify at-risk students and evaluate SST outcomes. While they’re readily available and easy to evaluate, making them both time- and cost-efficient, they’ll likely catch only students who externalize their problems through school absences, low grades, or poor classroom behavior. They won’t capture students who internalize their problems and feelings, and these students won’t get the help they need. Getting reliable and valid data is especially important when what’s being assessed is difficult to measure or can go unnoticed until more visible problems emerge.
The powerful potential of game-based interventions
This is where game-based SST comes in. They’re both cost- and time-efficient and produce accurate and reliable results. Educators need minimal training to implement them, and the only limiting variables are the number of computers available and the number of students in the intervention.
Effective game-based SSTs work by adapting the level of difficulty to the student’s performance. This approach helps ensure that:

  • Students are learning at their own pace
  • The learning experience is challenging enough to keep students from getting bored but not so challenging that they’re likely to become confused or frustrated
  • The student is engaged, which in turn increases the likelihood that results will be accurate, since the student is genuinely trying at the game

Game-based SSTs can also give students opportunities to interact with characters with a diverse range of social skills, temperaments, and behaviors. Characters can demonstrate both negative and positive examples of social behavior and challenge the student in real-world contexts. Through these scenarios, students can safely explore the consequences of different social choices without having to deal with real-life consequences of those decisions.
Game-based SST can also include elements such as staggered instruction and the incremental principle to increase student engagement and maximize learning and retention. In a staggered instruction approach, the student is given just enough information to begin and then additional information is provided as needed as he or she progresses through the game. Games that use the incremental principle encourage players to generalize their learning from specific scenarios encountered early in the game and apply those newly-gained skills or knowledge to more complex situations that arise later in the game.
Using game-based SSI with special populations
The adaptive nature of games makes them especially well-suited for children with special needs, such as children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Traditional SSTs for children with ASD are typically administered in small groups by mental health providers. While these SSTs can be very effective, it can be difficult to find trained providers and assemble groups of children who are at a similar developmental level. Furthermore, group interventions limit the provider’s ability to personalize treatment to best meet any one child’s individual needs.
Not only do games allow each child to have a customized social-emotional learning experience, but they can be administered in settings outside of clinics, such as schools or homes. However, children with ASD may experience games in a fundamentally different manner, so it is important that game-based SSTs are designed to address these differences. For example, children with ASD may not be able to process facial expressions well, so having an avatar that is expressive may make it hard for children with ASD to identify with their avatars, and when there is a disconnect with the avatar, learning may suffer. More research on these differences is needed before employing game-based SSTs for children with ASD and other special needs.
Games hold strong promise for effective and time- and cost-efficient SSTs for students with a variety of needs, but before using a game-based SST, you should make sure the game has solid evidence backing its efficacy claims. Look for rigorous research – specifically randomized clinical trial studies – demonstrating the game positively impacts children’s social behavior and relationships compared to children who have not received the game. You’ll save time and money, but more importantly, you’ll maximize the likelihood of positive change for your students.
Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of 3C Institute, a research and development company that develops social-emotional learning products for children, adolescents, and parents for use in schools, clinics, and community agencies, and partners with outside organizations to develop customized web-based applications for their programs and research. The company’s products, including the recently-released book, Social Skills Assessment through Games: The New Best Practice, can be found at 3C Marketplace.

Blended Reading Success in the Intermediate Grades

We met Cypress-Fairbanks principal Becky Koop at the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program in Houston last week.  She mentioned having “very good success” with READ 180, a blended learning reading program so we followed up to learn more.
Last year, Koop opened Pope Elementary in a beautiful new building in a new suburb of Houston. They used READ 180 in a full class model in 5th grade and an intervention model in 4th grade. Scholastic’s System 44 is used in special education and for the most challenged readers in Grades 3-12 who are not ready for READ 180.
Before Pope, Koop was principal of Matzke Elementary, a Title 1 school. They used READ 180 in 4th and 5th grade classes with struggling readers–half special education students with a significant number of English language learners.
In both locations she saw significant reading growth — more than a grade level. Some students have been below grade level and not passed state tests but showed a high pass rate after using READ 180. “It’s a great program for students with an ADD or ADHD,” said Koop.
“It is good teaching,” said Koop, “Even if you don’t use the READ 180 program, the blended model is great, It would make a great model to run a classroom.”
Four modalities. Most often deployed in a rotation model, the READ 180 program supports four instruction strategies (see featured image and this infograph for more):

  • Whole group instruction: knowledge and vocabulary building strategies for educators and exemplary texts for students at multiple levels, both informational and literature.
  • Small group learning: close reading of text, gathering evidence, and sharing their understanding and knowledge through a variety of research and writing tasks.
  • Modeled & independent reading: students engage with a wide variety of literature and informational text; educators monitor student progress towards independence with complex, grade-level text.
  • Adaptive learning: individualized practice in reading, spelling, vocabulary, and writing.

Koop finds the deployment model useful, “Kids can preview movies and things about the content to get background knowledge, then read and take tests on the computer.”  Students use the spiral bound books as a supplemental tool. Teachers pulls struggling students out for a short period of time to give them more support.
Both schools use laptops to support the station rotation model. READ 180 is also available on iPads with some cool new features.
Cypress-Fairbanks uses READ 180 in secondary schools so there’s no risk of readers dropping off in middle grades.
“I will be honest with you, I think this is an awesome program,” said Koop. “I love seeing kids celebrate their successes; they come to love reading!”
For more, see:

Scholastic is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner