4 Voices of National School Choice Week

As we close out National School Choice Week (#SCW) and reflect on the events that were held around the nation, we wanted to give folks who may have missed a rally or event, a quick dive into the stories of those who’ve personally been affected thanks to benefits of school choice. Join me as we recap just four of many rallies that happened this week:

Timothy Samsa, Virtual School Teacher, South Carolina

Timothy Samsa_NSCW-editsTimothy Samsa spoke this week at a rally at the South Carolina State House and shared a story of when he first became a virtual school teacher. Timothy’s mother asked if he would still need to keep his part time job he’d had during graduate school. She was skeptical that this school wasn’t a “real school” so he wouldn’t be getting a “real” salary. His story made it clear that there is skepticism and confusion from a clear generation gap. In some states, many are unaware of the opportunities virtual school affords both teachers and students, so Timothy was thankful to be in South Carolina where he could choose to teach in a virtual environment.

Timothy has students who’ve enrolled in online school for a number of reasons. One is starting her entertainment career, another is a number one ranked tennis player, and a third has health restrictions that make a brick and mortar public school an unsafe and restraining option. While he acknowledged that the students could be successful in any school environment, the virtual setting works best for them.

Sterling Griffin, Student, Houston, TX

Sterling Griffith_NSCW-editsSterling is not only a student at the Texas Connections Academy at Houston, but she is also an actor who is steadily building her career. It’s clear she’s an active member of what we like to call, GenDIY. At her previous school, she felt as though there were too many “no’s” that shut the door to the potentials and opportunity of her acting career. During her speech on the stairs of the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Sterling stressed that the rules and restrictions were tough not only because of her career, but because she also has ADD. Sterling said it was tough to focus in class with all of the noise and that even with the accommodations the school provided, she struggled which caused her to be bullied.

Sterling feels as though she gets even more interaction with her teachers than she got in a traditional school and having her Mom serve as her learning coach has been a great experience that allows her Mom to feel more involved and able to participate in her learning. Virtual schooling has helped Sterling turn the no’s from traditional school into more yes’ and is thankful for the freedom, flexibility, and support virtual school has afforded her. “You do have a voice! And, Yes! You do have a choice!” she said.

Jane Eilers, Parent, Iowa

Jane Ellers_NSCW-editsJane Eilers, a parent of a student with Asperger syndrome who attends a virtual school in Iowa is passionate about having high-quality education options for every student in the state, and noted that school choice is an essential solution. Jane along with other parents joined forces in Des Moines, Iowa to discuss the freedom to select educational options that ensure high level academic learning experiences as well as character building lessons for their children.

The clubs, extra-curricular activities and specialists available to her son created opportunities that helped him grow as a student. “Three years ago” she said, “When anyone approached my son to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’, he turned his back and walked away because he had isolated himself so much from the world, the words didn’t register. If you approach him with the same greeting today, he will most likely look you directly in the eyes, smile and say, ‘I’m amazing.’” In closing, Jane thanked Iowa lawmakers for allowing public virtual schools, affording parents and students the power to choose the best educational option for their situation and said “We have our son back.” Now that’s a Smart Parent talking.

Braedon Higby, Student, Idaho

Braedon Higby_NSCW-225x225Braedon is a sophomore and was eager to share why school choice had the utmost importance in his life as he spoke at a capital city rally in Boise, Idaho. While in public school he was often getting bored and becoming uninterested in his education. He was unable to advance in the curriculum and felt held back from the potential he knew he had. The opportunity to choose virtual school has given Braedon a chance to move at his own pace. He took Algebra 1 in 7th grade and is now taking honors pre-cal. “School choice has allowed me to flourish,” Braedon said.

In closing, Braedon shared that school choice is vital to our society’s education because it allows all students to excel at their own pace and explores new ways to educate students across the country in a more personalized way.

It’s important to note that school choice week is about choice. It’s not virtual school week, public school week, charter school week etc. It is school choice week and should never be framed as either/or. It’s vital that parents and students continue to be afforded the choice to pick the school and educational opportunities that fits best for their students.

At Getting Smart we’re advocating for better, more personalized learning opportunities that allow students to learn at their own pace and graduate college and career ready. What are you doing to help ensure school choice is happening in your state? How did you get involved this week?

For more see:

Connections Education is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. Feature image via Instagram.com/SchoolChoiceWeek.

Developing a Deep Understanding of Math

“All students should develop a deep understanding of mathematics,” said Matthew Peterson, CEO of MIND Research Institute, “and when they do we’ll see problem solving and innovation at levels that we can’t imagine today.”

MIND hosted a STEM conference in Phoenix yesterday (#AZSTEM) kicked off by former AZ senator and WY chief Rich Crandall. Amy Wang of the Arizona Republic moderated the event.

“There are two different subjects taught in our schools, both called mathematics, said Ted Coe, Director of Math at Achieve. Coe provided animated examples of the real problem solving we do every day and the memorization of procedures common in many classrooms.

Tweets about Ted Coe: 2 different subjects being taught in our schools, both called math

“Heard of the zone of proximal development?” said Peterson, “It’s wrong.” He argued that rather than smooth and easy progressions it’s important to periodically give students something “that is way too hard for them, problems they are not equipped to solve.” Peterson said, “In a supported environment students learn from their mistakes,” and when they succeed, “it’s better than fun, it’s exhilaration.”

Peterson said rules and procedures (e.g., righty tighty, lefty loosey) may be useful to memorize and right most of the time but teaching math is more about understanding concepts than memorizing rules. “Learning by doing” said Peterson, “is part of an action-perception cycle.” The goal, he said, is for “students to develop a deep understanding in math.”

The learning-by-doing theme was reinforced by Dr. Jo Anne Vasquez of the Phoenix-based Helios Education Foundation.

Peterson demonstrated the critical thinking and supported hypothesis testing embedded in game-based ST Math. He modeled the importance of learning through failure.

 While there are thousands of teachers promoting deep understanding, the challenge, according to Peterson is creating ways to promote deeper learning at scale.

Tom Vander Ark said that STEM education benefits from teachers and leaders that embrace an innovation mindset. He gave examples of district leadership efforts that combine vision and empowerment–leadership from the top and full engagement of teacher leaders. 

Peterson said that hosting a fun family math night was a great way to build a positive problem-solving STEM culture.


MIND Research Institute is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner

7 Things EdLeaders Should Do

There’s a big opportunity to boost math and science achievement by using new tools to create powerful learning experiences and environments. That was the message at a Phoenix STEM conference sponsored by MIND Research Institute (see a recap of #AZSTEM).

Andy Calkins, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), describes these new environments as:

  • Learner-centered: a personalized path for every student;
  • Blended: combining online, project based, and small group learning; and
  • Competency-based: learners show what they know and progress as they demonstrate mastery.

With the explosion of free and affordable digital tools teachers have created hundreds of thousands of blended classrooms. But personalized and competency-based pathways take teamwork.  That means school and system transformation takes vision and empowerment–leadership from the top and full engagement of teacher leaders. It requires some pretty sophisticated organizational design and technology procurement. And, because these changes will result in new learning experiences and new forms of feedback and reporting, students and parents need to be partners in the journey. Together the organizational change, technology deployment, and community building represent three simultaneous leadership challenges.

Where’s an EdLeader to start? On Friday I told the #AZSTEM audience there are seven steps to transform a school or district.

1. Mindset check. Over the last decade Dweck, Duckworth, and Tough reminded us that a growth mindset matters. In addition to the importance of hard work, we think students need the opportunity to make stuff, to take initiative and working collaboratively.  In our new book Smart Cities we outlined the formula: Innovation Mindset = Growth Mindset + Maker Mindset + Team Mindset. (Read about classroom strategies for building an innovation mindset).

If leaders want teachers and students to develop an innovation mindset, EdLeaders should start by examining their own approach to the work by asking some tough questions: Do I recognize effort as well as reward performance? Do I create room and incentives for initiative?  Have I created a collaborative environment?

2. Share your next gen vision. Leaders should take every opportunity to describe a hopeful future where students and teachers benefit from personalized learning. It’s particularly helpful to describe the kinds of experiences you’d like to see more of (and maybe what you’d like to see less off).

Denver Public Schools crafted a vision that incorporates active engagement, co-created learning plans, and strong supports.

Harlem Success Academy principal Andrew Malone suggests simple powerful phrases packed with meaning as a result of lots of examples and conversation.

3. Develop talent. The most important lesson of the last 20 years is that talent development–recruiting and developing great teachers and leaders– matters more than anything else.

As discussed in Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning, educators should have the same kind of learning experiences as students–blended, personalized, and competency-based.

Services like MyEdMatch are making it easier for schools to find teachers with the vision and skills they are looking for.

4. Plan for access. Leaders put their vision on a timeline and help their community make a series of decisions that move them toward high access environments where every student has take home connectivity. As Mark Edwards illustrated in Every Child Every Day, connectivity costs about $250 per year per student. District like El Paso are making good use of open content to help pay for expanding 1:1 access. As discussed in the Blended Learning Implementation Guide, working in  three or four phases makes a digital conversion possible for every district.

5. Support new school models. As noted in December, in the first decade of this century we learned a lot about opening good new schools. More than 5,000 schools (both district and charter) were formed–most around the tried and true formula including a college prep curriculum, talented teachers, and a supportive learning environment. Sponsored by NewSchools Venture Fund and a dozen national and regional foundations, it became apparent that it was easier to open a good new school than to dramatically improve a struggling school–especially a high school.

With cheap devices and improving broadband coverage, this decade will be marked by the shift to personalized learning in blended environments. The most influential group packaging promising strategies into new and transformed school grants is NGLC. We tracked 14 of the 45 teams that received an NGLC grant and told their story in Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning (featured image). Each of these teams embrace high expectations for college and career readiness and personalized learning. They are approaching their work in a way that is scalable and sustainable. Grant funding helps initiate and support the work, but even without grant funding the NGLC framework is a good set of design principles.

Two districts combining support for teacher leadership and school redesign include:

  • CityBridge Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund launched the Education Innovation Fellowship, a professional development opportunity for 20 teacher-leaders in Washington DC. They meet monthly for a year, surveying all the sector knowledge about next gen tools and models and visit innovative schools. Two cohorts of Fellows have energized education in the city and supported new and transformed schools benefiting from NGLC grants.
  • Fulton County (in metro Atlanta) is growing a cadre of Vanguard Teachers (four per school) who have mastered the art of technology use with classroom instruction. This month the district will announce seven design partners that will work with cohorts of schools.

6. Partnerships for progress. Schools can’t do this work alone. Chapter four of Smart Cities outlines the importance of partnerships to meet the needs of youth and families, to promote college awareness and readiness, to develop talent, to build improvement capacity, and to incubate innovation. After three years of studying innovations in learning in America’s great cities is that ecosystems matter–and partnerships drive ecosystems.

EdLeaders need to be community conversation leaders; they need to  craft a series of temporary agreements that move schools forward with a combination improvement and innovation

7. Stick around! Different than the revolving door common in many urban centers, real equity producing progress takes time–a broad web of leadership sustained over a decade.

This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series.  If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

My Experience as a Full-time Online Intervention Teacher

Like everything else in education, the role of the teacher is evolving. Teachers now have a wider range of options to think about when deciding which type of school environment they want to teach in. With the use of technology many teachers are experiencing success with small group and one-on-one instruction with students. Below we bring you the story of an online intervention teacher from California Virtual Academies who compares her experiences in teaching online and teaching in a traditional classroom.

Mary Morganti

Like most online educators, I began my instructional career in a brick and mortar classroom, teaching K-3 grade levels over a period of 5 years. My switch to become a virtual educator was partially due to relocation for my family, but largely as a result of looking for a way to broaden my teaching experiences. Currently, as an early literacy, Tier 3 Reading Intervention Specialist for California Virtual Academies (CAVA) – a network of online charter schools serving students across the state – I interact predominantly with K-5 students, Learning Coaches, and other CAVA teachers across California on a daily basis.

Having had the opportunity to teach in both learning environments, I’m often asked to compare my current role as an online educator to my experience as a teacher in a traditional classroom setting. I believe that both settings have their individual merits when the student’s physical, emotional, and educational needs are a priority in deciding on the appropriate learning environment. Regardless of the classroom setting there are many responsibilities I have as an educator, but the commonality between these two spaces is my role to guide and support students’ journeys to becoming proficient readers.

Specifically, as an intervention teacher I identify each student’s areas of deficiency in their reading acquisition skill set and the data I obtain is used to set a specific goal to measure their progress. In an effort to ensure each student meets or exceeds their specified goal, I develop and execute a learning plan tailored to their individual needs. Fundamentally, this often involves working through a progression that can be frustrating at times for students; however the data driven instruction, tools, and techniques I employ to help each student overcome these hurdles are the same regardless of the classroom setting. Although the classroom environment may be different between the virtual versus physical classroom, the end goals of knowledge and proficiency remain constant.

Frequently, I hear concerns regarding the perception that the lack of physical presence, afforded by a traditional classroom, prevents virtual educators from establishing connections with their students. In reality, as an intervention specialist I have the opportunity to work with my students in a small group setting each day. Within my classes, I have the ability to have individual ‘break out sessions’ which allows for uninterrupted one-on-one interaction between a single student and myself just as any teacher would work individually with a student in the brick and mortar classroom environment. Adding to this is the ability to consistently interact and work with students’ Learning Coaches in workshops, weekly classes, and open office hours in addition to the regular communication regarding their student’s progress. My relationship with each family is very close as we work together to provide the best learning environment and support for each student.

One of the other misconceptions regarding this virtual learning setting is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to teach a primary student to read through a computer. However, it isn’t just a computer, but an interactive classroom environment where the students are taught, have the opportunity to practice and are supported in their learning. These lessons are interactive, engaging, and are designed to reach all learning modalities. We work hard as a class to establish a positive classroom community and work together to practice reading skills with visual, auditory, and hands-on activities just as students would in a brick and mortar classroom environment. The virtual lessons I teach support the students’ regular classroom curriculum and enable students to master the building blocks necessary to become proficient readers.

I believe a lot of the uncertainty regarding online education stems from a lack of exposure to the virtual environment structure and content delivery. One of the most amazing aspects of the virtual environment is the interactive toolset students are required to use on a daily basis. Structurally, our virtual teaching model employs small group settings, wherein each student is with their Learning Coach to support them as they work on their lessons. Students and Learning Coaches are also provided individualized support from their teachers in one-on-one meetings, individual support sessions and classes. In each lesson students utilize a variety of interactive tools where they can draw, write on a white board, point, raise their hand, and use their microphone to converse. A variety of digital media, web resources, electronic books, and manipulatives can be imported into our virtual learning environment for seamless interaction with each student. Lessons are engaging and are broken up into short activities. Tangible tools for students to use during class are emailed and provided to Learning Coaches before the class for any hands-on components to support all learning modalities. While structurally, each day is quite similar to what a student would experience in the traditional classroom setting, the virtual environment augments this by the constant use of technology.

I truly believe this is a value-added experience for our students and will give them an advantage in light of the increased need for technological proficiency in our daily lives.

Each day I have the opportunity to work with students and their learning coaches across California. I am encouraged and excited by their daily successes and enjoy seeing their progress as they overcome learning barriers. We are learning together every day and I am very grateful to have the chance to use innovative technology and online resources to support my students learning and very importantly, work in the profession I love.

This first appeared on blog.k12.com.

For more, check out:


Mary Morganti is as an early literacy, Tier 3 Reading Intervention Specialist for California Virtual Academies. Follow CA Virtual Academies on Twitter with .

Never The First to Finish: Why Pace Matters

Sarah Vander Schaaff

Remember how it felt to be halfway through a math quiz and a classmate gets up and turns it in to the teacher? Maybe that other student rushed, or maybe he or she just happened to be super speedy. Either way, I always came to the same conclusion: I’m just never going to be that fast.

Years have passed since I’ve had to take a math quiz. As an adult, I’m comfortable with my own strengths and weaknesses and the time it takes me to do particular things. But as a mother of a fourth grader, I relive those math quiz memories every time she comes home and says, “I’m just never going to be that fast.”

She is what you might call “slow and steady.” But many of her peers, some on grade level and some above it, sail through these drills.

The slower pace is not usually an issue at home or with homework. She does not get frustrated with the amount of time it takes to do her math work. She enjoys “crossing her t’s and dotting her i’s.”

But bring in a timer, and it’s a different story. I noticed this first when we worked on a website the school recommended for supplemental math work at home. I had to put a post-it note over the timer in the upper right of the computer screen.

Needless to say, the post-it was ripped off the computer, some tears were shed, and even when I tweeted the company for help hiding the timer from view, the damage was done. My daughter knew her times were monitored and a report of her performance was emailed to her teacher.

Then, came the timed tests in school. For the first minute of these drills, students work in pencil and cannot skip around. After one minute, they switch to pen and can go in any order. After three minutes, they stop and record their 1-minute score (up to their first mistake or skipped question) and their 3-minute score.

Now it wasn’t just one kid finishing ahead of her, there were many.

I was at a loss. My first instinct was to increase the things we’d already been doing: more flashcards, more drills, more practices online or with apps. But when I considered we’d been doing the same things for more than a year with little progress, I decided we needed some fresh ideas. I wasn’t going to figure this out on my own.

I turned to a tutor who had experience working with students with learning differences.

It can be hard to find the right tutor or resource for extra help. I was lucky. My friend was a math teacher at a school for children with learning differences and she had some open slots in her private after school tutoring sessions. Additionally, Understood.org is a useful site for many reasons, but in particular, they have an article “FAQs About Tutoring for Kids with Learning and Attention Issues,” that is a good primer. A cognitive assessment to better understand your child’s learning strengths and weakness can also be useful. It helped me narrow down the root cause of my child’s slower pace and eliminate some of my misconceptions. Schools and private clinicians can offer guidance with these evalutions, but I took advantage of the online cognitive assessment at Mindprint Learning, the educational company for which I work and write. And, finally, the website Smart Kids with LD can help walk parents with every part of the process, as well.

The first thing the tutor said to my daughter about the timed drills was something along the lines of, “They’re not fun are they?”

I’d forgotten that all-important piece to working with young learners, which is to acknowledge the fear or trepidation they feel confronting a task they find daunting. A little empathy went a long way.

Next, the tutor reframed the concept of the timer when it came to the online programs or apps. If she wanted my daughter to practice for twenty minutes, then the increase in time was a measure of that progress. Time was now on her side.

But the most surprising strategy was in how she helped my daughter learn and recall those fast facts. They drew houses for the numbers, with rooms for each multiple. And they sang songs with the multiples as the lyrics.

Fast? No. 

A good pace for my daughter? Yes.

It was around this time that I was able to give my daughter a cognitive assessment. I had wondered if all the difficulty and slower pace with fast facts was related to a weak memory. The assessment revealed that her memory was typical, but her processing speed was slightly weak.

This information helped us in a number of ways. I was better able to appreciate how hard my daughter was working and how frustrating it must have felt to feel that she needed to work twice as hard in this one area of school just to keep up. Metacognition, they say, can help students in a number of ways, but certainly giving a parent and child a vocabulary to talk about stressful setbacks or challenges, is not the least of its benefits.

Still, the timed practice drills at school persisted. And I understood the teacher’s emphasis on automaticity.

I told her teacher a bit about what was going on at home, with the tutor, and with the assessment. We weren’t in the position to ask for extra time with the drills or tests, but I did want to bring him on board with the larger picture.

The quizzes continued. But all those songs and houses eventually gave way to faster recall. She understood her pace might be slower, but deep down inside, she knew she could get to the answers, and that her pace was what it was. A great deal of the anxiety washed away.

When the long winter break arrived, her teacher sent her home with a packet of worksheets and more timed drills. Some students might get a break, but we all acknowledged that we were better off keeping these skills sharp.

Another thing the teacher did was front load new units by sending me material before he’d introduce the concepts to the entire class. This gave us more time to sit with the material and made sure she’d become a bit familiar with it before that day that it was presented for the first time in class.

When I write this out, it sounds like a lot of work, and a bit dependent on finding the right tutor, the right explanation for the slower pace, and the right teacher to accommodate your specific child.

But any parent who has seen a child suffer or become frustrated and eventually want to throw in the towel knows that the real pain comes from not knowing how to help.

The road to finding help or integrating a solution is at least filled with minor triumphs. Triumphs such as the time, not too long ago, when my daughter came home beaming because she’d finished her timed drill with seconds to spare.

Was she first?

No way.

But did that matter?

Not anymore.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject “Smart Parents.” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

sarah-mom-75x75Sarah M. Vander Schaaff writes the weekly blog, The Educated Mom. She is the managing editor of media and content for Mindprint Learning. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. Follow her on Twitter: @educatedmomMP

How Learning Will Work in the Near Future: 12 Features of Next-Gen Platforms

It’s still harder than it should be to create an effective sequence of learning experiences in K-12, postsecondary education, or organizational training. Owing to underinvestment and weak demand articulation, learning platforms are still five years behind the growing demand for engaging, learner-centered, competency-based experiences that result in employability (and other favorable outcomes).

The good news is that progress is being made on a dozen fronts. Next generation learning grant programs like NGLC and Race to the Top are creating focus and awareness. Collaborations like Digital Promise‘s League of Innovative Schools is aggregating demand.

Following are 12 components of next-gen learning and 12 development vectors, groups of organizations on a similar path to next-gen learning, and 12 suggestions for philanthropies that want to accelerate progress.

Next-Gen Components. Next-gen learning platforms will include a dozen core elements:

  1. Learning tools: social, collaborative, productivity, and presentation tools;

  2. Relationship tools: progress monitoring, academic advisory, scheduling, career/college guidance, links to health, youth, and family services;

  3. Content: easy content development and management tools, tagged libraries of open and proprietary content, and intuitive search;

  4. Assessment tools: test and quiz builder (e.g. MasteryConnect), database of performance tasks and rubrics (e.g. Literacy Design Collaborative), peer review tools (e.g., Peerceptiv) and tools that calibrate assessment of performance tasks (see market research);

  5. Super gradebook: combines multiple sources of formative assessment, and achievement analytics featuring data visualization (e.g., BrightBytes);

  6. Profile & portfolio: comprehensive learner profiles (see Data Backpacks for full description) and digital portfolios where learners capture artifacts that represent personal bests;

  7. Personalization: adaptive learning should be easily incorporated and/or learner profiles should drive digital playlists of recommended learning experiences; and

  8. Learning management tools: assignment management and dynamic grouping (e.g., Edmodo), achievement recognition and progress management systems (badges or other micro credentialing strategies).

Successful platforms will become ecosystems with a constellation of four aligned services:

  1. Student services: academic support, tutoring, work-based learning, financial aid;

  2. Teacher services: professional development (e.g., LearnZillion, Bloomboard), lesson and tool sharing (e.g., BetterLesson); behavior management (e.g., ClassDojo);

  3. School services: student information, implementation support, new school development, and school improvement services; and

  4. Back-office service: enrollment, finance, and personnel.

The whole ecosystem should be mobile-friendly because it will often be accessed via smartphone.

Development Vectors. There are also a dozen change forces generally coalescing around these next-gen components (we discussed 10 forces 14 months ago). They include:

1. Updated LMS. Some LMS providers have added personalized learning and MOOC-like features as well as open content: Agilix launched Buzz, Instructure launched Canvas.net, Desire2Learnlaunched Open Courses. Free learning platforms include Pearson OpenClass and Google Classroom. Given Amazon’s acquisition of TenMarks and their aggressive marketing of web services we’ll probably see more of them in the learning space.

2. Social learning. Free social learning platform Edmodo serves 46 million users. LMS platforms are adding social and collaborative features that improve the ability for instructors to utilize dynamic grouping and improve communication.

3. MOOCs. With 118 institutional partners, Coursera offers 900 courses to 11 million learners. It has primarily expanded postbaccalaureate learning but some community colleges are wrapping MOOCs in student services, and emerging low cost ecosystems likely to produce improved completion rates.

4. Anywhere anytime learning. A variety of job training sites starting with Lynda to Udemy support individual learners and corporate clients. General Assembly created a premium experience with talented instructors and a community of entrepreneurial learners.

5. Engagement. Most learning institutions want to better engage students to boost persistence and performance. Summit Public Schools is building an open platform that combines skill building playlists and standards-based projects; so is Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. School networks are collaborating to improve the ability to assess engaging projects.

In HigherEd, Fidelis is supporting learning relationships and Echo360 is promoting active learning.

6. Competency. Where it’s possible to backmap from job requirements, professional training will increasingly become competency-based, and that’s likely to include educator preparation.

In addition to a leading online program, Southern New Hampshire University developed College for America, an innovative competency-based degree program aimed at low wage workers and Motivis, a learning platform to support similar initiatives.

7. Data & assessment. The shift to digital launched an explosion of keystroke data, but today’s platforms are ill equipped to capture and synthesize information from multiple sources. Tablet bundles and online learning providers may be among the early leaders using data to improve learning and measuring learner dispositions including collaboration and mindset. Clarity from BrightBytes is a widely used research-based decision support platform. Secondary and postsecondary schools are encouraging students to build portfolios using apps like EduClipperPathbrite and Google Drive.

8. Adaptive learning. Elementary adaptive learning products including i-Ready and Dreambox are gaining widespread elementary adoption. ALEKS and Knewton are gaining secondary and postsecondary adoption. Current adaptive products live in a “walled garden” of proprietary content but as learner profiles improve, predictive algorithms will be applied across larger content libraries.

9. App ecosystems. A few platforms are attempting to harness the mobile app explosion. Edmodo has hundreds of apps. Fingerprint started by helping parents tame the preschool app market is now helping schools build app networks. Google Apps for Education has enough functionality to be considered an app ecosystem.

10. Ecosystems. The explosion of mobile apps suggests that it may not be a unitary platform that anchors learning ecosystems. It may be an app store and set of interoperability standards that promote a plug and play learning world.

11. Dashboards. First there were data dashboards like Aspire’s SchoolZilla and EL Haynes’ SchoolForce. Then came Summit’s Personal Learning Plan, a personalized learning interface that sits on top of the learning platform. FuelEd’s Peak is a new example of an object repository that sits on top of a legacy LMS and facilitates a modular personalized approach.

12. Personal growth. Watch the interest-based personal growth space for developments in modular mobile learning, quantified self, peer and social supports, game-based strategies, and learner analytics.

Smart planning and purchasing by districts and networks is the fuel behind many of these change vectors. By aggregating demand and improving market signaling, networks can accelerate platform improvements to better serve learners.

Advice. Learning platforms will be foundational to the development and adoption of next gen learning. Most K-12 and HigherEd institutions of learning will belong to networks that share learning experience (LX) features, support services and a platform ecosystem. These networks and ecosystems require large scale investment so it’s important to use the right form of capital for the right job. A recent impact investing paper summarized pros and cons:

  • Public: best at providing coverage and promoting equity; poor at flexibility and responsiveness.

  • Private, non-profit: best at taking a long view and serving vulnerable populations, poor at promoting efficiency and scale.

  • Private, for-profit: best at efficiency and scale; unlikely to target unprofitable segments.

As evidenced by the NYC iZone over the last decade, important innovations can occur when public leaders aggregate demand, when foundations promote equity, and when private enterprise creates and scales innovations.

Philanthropists contemplating strategies to accelerate development and adoption of platform ecosystems can consider four investment mechanisms:

  • R&D: attacking basic problems and exploring new learning opportunities (high risk, high potential return, low certainty);

  • Push: iterating and scaling what appears to be working (low risk, moderate return, high certainty);

  • Pull: used in inefficient markets, pull mechanisms including aggregating demand, inducement prizes, and eliminating regulatory barriers (moderate risk, potential for high return, low certainty) (see Using Prize & Pull Mechanisms to Boost Learning); and

  • Advocate: encourage public investment and adoption.

Following are a dozen examples of investment initiatives in each of these categories.


1. Lay the groundwork for super gradebooks by supporting standards and strategies that would make it easy to combine formative assessment data from multiple sources.

2. Support research resulting in comparable growth measures so that progress made in different learning environments can be easily be compared.

3. Support network and/or platform related research into developmental areas such as motivational profiles, recommendation engines, and dynamic scheduling.

4. Support capabilities demonstrations like predictive analytics and automated scoring (e.g.,Automated Student Assessment Prize).

Push mechanisms:

5. Support groups of new/transformed schools using a common platform (eg. New Tech Network, Summit Public Schools) and commitment to simultaneously iterate the learning environment and platform. Support a competency-based college developing a new platform (e.g., College for America and Motivis).

Pull mechanisms:

6. Support regional programs (e.g. NGLC) which are advancing a common vision of next gen secondary and postsecondary learning.

7. Support a group of districts adopting a common platform and blended learning strategies.

8. Support the New England Secondary School Consortium’s regional work to promote common principles for competency-based learning and their effort to build a HigherEd network willing to accept a proficiency-based diploma.

9. Sponsor a platform demonstration competition (e.g., XPRIZE).

Direct investment:

10. Using grants, program related investments (PRI), or mission related investments (MRI), foundations can back promising platforms (e.g., Girard‘s support for Activate Instruction).


11. Support a blog series, papers, and conferences advancing a vision of next gen learning (e.g.,Educause).

12. Construct a jointly funded project with a state to support low cost platform adoption (e.g.,Canvas adoption by Utah universities).

Informed and aggregated purchasers are the most important market drivers. Continued venture investment in promising companies, occasionally aided by some of these philanthropic strategies, will support continued platform progress.

This blog is part of the Learning Platforms Series brought to you by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned in for the final published project, Getting Smart on Next-Gen Learning Platforms and check out additional posts in the series:

Next Generation Learning Challenges, Literacy Design Collaborative, DreamBox Learning, Curriculum Associates, Agilix, Canvas – Instructure, Pearson, & Fuel Education are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

MasteryConnect, BrightBytes, Edmodo, LearnZillion, Bloomboard, Better Lesson, ClassDojo, Udemy, & General Assembly are Learn Capital portfolio companies where Tom Vander Ark is a partner.

Can Classroom Furniture Improve Student Engagement?

Victoria Bergsagel

When I was a principal observing classrooms I would often ask teachers about the types of feedback they wanted. Without fail, the most popular request was, “Tell me if my students are engaged.”

Going round-and-round about the types of data to collect, we would discuss how to cultivate passionate learners. We would consider students’ thoughts, feelings, behaviors and achievements. But back-in-the-day when students wedged themselves into what we affectionately called the one-armed bandit, we rarely considered how the actual furniture in the room might help.


Measuring Engagement

Fast forward several years and I now find myself working with educators to physically design more engaging learning environments.

Always on the look-out for resources that will help teachers leverage opportunities to cultivate more successful school cultures, one research article recently caught my eye.

Found in the Winter 2013 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Planning for Higher Education, the article offers twelve factors of student-engagement.

  1. Collaboration
  2. Focus
  3. Active involvement
  4. Opportunity to engage
  5. Repeated exposure to material through multiple means
  6. In-class feedback
  7. Real-life scenarios
  8. Ability to engage ways of learning best
  9. Physical movement
  10. Stimulation
  11. Feeling comfortable to participate
  12. Creation of an enriching experience

In the study, students and faculty were asked to compare their experience in traditionally-furnished classrooms with an environment designed to provide more flexibility in learning.

The results showed that classrooms designed for active learning—i.e., where physical space supports a focus on engaging experiences for students and faculty—had a statistically significantly effect on student engagement (p<0.001).

Flexibility, Collaboration and Making Learning Visible

Instead of filling classrooms with one-armed bandits, schools are increasingly populating their learning environments with flexible tables on castors, comfortable chairs and plentiful writing surfaces. Why? Because:

  • Easily-moved tables allow for a variety of activities and encourage collaborative learning experiences.
  • Chairs that students can swivel and move help to improve comfort and attention.
  • Lots of erasable markers to write on whiteboards, specially-painted walls, and even windows, allow thinking to become more visible.

Educators have known for some time that when students are encouraged to show their work publicly in emotionally-safe environments, they move beyond a fear of failure and learn to iterate together in meaningful ways. Given the right tools and mindset, they become adept at problem-solving together in successful approximations. Building upon one another’s thinking, they learn to cultivate a culture of collaboration and the skills they will need for success in the 21st century.


A Grant Opportunity

Cognizant that creative spaces featuring flexibility and inspirational aesthetics lead to greater student engagement, I was intrigued to read more about Steelcase Education’s pursuit of educational innovation.

Their Active Learning Center (ALC) grant, due February 27, 2015, hopes to help educators better implement active learning initiatives by leveraging the design of their physical space. Fifteen grants (valued between $35,000 and $50,000 each) will supply furniture, integrated technology, design, installation and post-occupancy evaluation for a classroom designed for 28 – 32 students. (Eligible classrooms must be in the United States and Canada and serve grades 6 – 12 or students in a college or university.)

Over the two-year program, Steelcase will also evaluate student and educator engagement in the newly designed spaces using their Active Learning Post Occupancy Evaluation.

Chosen grantees will have the opportunity to install Steelcase-developed learning environments, including the Node, Verb or Blended Learning classroom.

Many are familiar with the Node chair. Featured on 60 Minutes, the Node was designed by David Kelly and his team at IDEO. Allowing students to swivel and move about easily, it even provides a convenient place for a backpack.


The Verb team table system, while designed for group work that requires interaction and collaboration, maintains the ability to offer a personal work space as well. (For those times when students need privacy for testing or focus, small whiteboards can become privacy dividers.)


The Blended learning system includes a variety of components that allow instructors and students to customize their space for the activity at hand, since furnishings can easily morph from lecture mode, to independent or team work, to presentation, to discussion and back again.


A Community of Practice

For me, the most appealing feature of this grant is the fact that, in addition to receiving new classroom furniture, grantees will obtain professional development regarding student engagement. Best of all, they will also be given the opportunity to participate in a community of practice with other awardees to share insights and best practices.

Just Imagine

In today’s most progressive and celebrated schools, technology is ubiquitous, collaboration celebrated and movement encouraged. Multiple activities take place in adaptable environments.

Furnishings can aid or inhibit student engagement. ­­­

Just imagine the innovation and inspiration that can be born of active learning.

For more on design, check out:

victoria-headshot-2Victoria Bergsagel is the Founder and President of Architects of Achievement and currently works as an educational design strategist. Author of Architecture for Achievement, Victoria is a former teacher and principal. Follow Victoria on Twitter with @archachieve.

Photos courtesy of Steelcase Education.

EdTech 10: Super Bowl XLIX Edition

The NFL, Super Bowl and football in general might seem completely unrelated to the world of ed and EdTech. However, after this week’s top stories you’d be surprised how similar they really are.

First, some quick correlations between the two in addition to this week’s news:

  • NFL players have unique pathways into their profession, much like GenDIY.
  • With references and phrases like Beast Mode, Revis Island, and LOB, football and ed both have a nomenclature problem.
  • Like players and coaches, students and teachers are from very different generations that makes communication tricky.

Still don’t believe there is a connection? Here’s the top 10 news stories from this week that might make you change your mind.

Blended Schools & Tools

1. The playbook. Like EdLeaders, GMs are judged on how they spend their budget. Often, the wrong decisions can get you fired if your don’t do your procurement research first. Thankfully in ed, EdLeaders have resources like the Smart Series Guide To EdTech Procurement and CRPE’s new Blueprint for Effective and Adaptable School District Procurement.

2. Making the connection. From fantasy football to the sideline, the coordinator booth to the stands, football in 2015 is online. This level hyperconnectivity has found its way into classrooms many next-gen schools, but not all. Thanks to EducationSuperHighway, superintendents have support in making decisions that can help in upgrades vital to the future of learning.  

3. #SBMediaDay = BETT. Equivalent to the Super Bowl’s Media Day (#SBMediaDay), is EdTech’s BETT. Check out the highlights including videos, images, and updates from the four day event in London.

4. Game changers. Schemes, strategies, and techniques have changed a lot overtime for educators in the classroom, and players on the field. When an educator succeeds with a instruction technique, or a team innovates with new formations, when the changes stick, you know they’re potential game changers. Such is the case for competency-based learning, education, and pathways. Achieve released an infographic that visualizes the growing model.

Digital Developments

5. Sideline learning. Nowadays you’ll find tablets in the hands of almost every coach on the sideline, loaded with innovative apps that help them improve performance between the hashes. Similarly, students with access to iPads now have another innovative resource from Curriculum Associates, Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, to help improve performance in fact and computational fluency called Door 24 Plus. Download it here.

6. Partner up. NFL partnerships have enabled the league to do amazing work in providing access to children to exercise, like with the Fuel Up to Play 60 initiative. Ed is much similar in that partnerships can increase access to tools essential to digital learning. Such is the case with Communities in Schools (CIS), Microsoft, and COMPAREX who have announced that 1 million students will receive Microsoft Office 365 for no cost. Stay tuned in, Tom is addressing Microsoft’s Global Education Partners Summit this Tuesday.

7. Open practice. MOOCs are like open workouts in football. They’re great for learning new skills, everyone is welcome, and those who do show up are usually the ones who are most committed to improving their performance. Beginning February 9, MOOC-ed.org is launching an open course designed for teachers in their first three years of practice to skill up titled Learning Differences. A great resource we suggest for teachers looking to skill up is the Blended Learning Implementation Guide 2.0.

Stem Gems

8. Code of conduct. Coding powers the software that we use everyday. Especially the devices that football fans use to stay connected to the game. In partnership with Microsoft, we launched Getting Smart on Coding for College & Career Readiness to shine a light on the importance of coding knowledge.

Movers, Shakers & Ground-breakers

9. Hometown hero. For football fans, seeing a player from your hometown make it and succeed in the NFL can be a heartfelt experience. As Seattleites, when Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of Bellevue-based DreamBox Learning, Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, was awarded Seattle Business Magazine’s 2015 Executive Excellence Award, we couldn’t help but be feel proud and ecstatic about the announcement. Here’s 10 major trends in blended learning that we examined with DreamBox.

10. Pro bowling. If BETT is the #SBMediaDay in EdTech, SXSWedu is the Pro Bowl. In its fourth year, finalists were announced for SXSWedu’s LAUNCHedu competition, an amazing venue for ed startups. In March Team Getting Smart will be in Austin for SXSWedu, stay tuned for details!

Inland Empire Early College Paves Pathway to Postsecondary

In the Inland Empire sprawling east of Los Angeles, the promise of the American-California Dream can seem as remote as the Pacific and the Sierras. For a generation, families have been streaming into these cul de sacs as fast as they could be built, seeking safer streets, lower costs, and better schools, making the Riverside-San Bernardino County combo the twelfth largest metropolitan region in the US and the fastest-growing in California. It also became California’s leader in housing foreclosures and unemployment during the recent recession. Like similar sprawls around American cities like Atlanta and Phoenix, the Inland Empire is suburban in housing and transportation patterns but classically urban in its demographics: majority-people of color, working class, with only one in four adults a college graduate.

In good times and not so good, the Inland Empire has epitomized what might be called the “Big Box” approach to American public secondary education: large, inter-changeable comprehensive high schools all built within a few years of each other. The typical inland high school is about 2,000 students, though there are several in the region with 3,000 or more. They all operate on that fine line between suburban boosterism and urban challenge that often comes with a metal detector in school entryways. In 2008, 21 inland area high schools ranked in the top 100 in California for producing dropouts.

Against this backdrop, John F. Kennedy Middle College High School was a revelation for me.

To get to JFK, you go to Norco College, a 10,000-student two-year institution that is part of the Riverside Community College District with a campus initially constructed in the 1990s – when the Inland Empire began booming – and completed around 2010. The high school occupies the entrance wing of the college, so that one of the first things I saw when I walked in the dome-like front door of Norco College was the JFK Middle College banner with its howling Tinderwolf logo.

The next visual is a café-lounge area with groups of young people sitting around, talking. Are they high schoolers or college students? I perched at one of the tables and eavesdropped for a bit. Two boys are riffing about a piece of music they’re collaborating on, a fusion of jazz and hip-hop that involves a saxophone and a computer. Turns out they are JFK juniors taking a Norco music production class together, using their high school “passing period” to get some college work done. One is sipping a Starbucks Venti and the other is nursing a Gatorade.

JFK was founded in 2006 as what’s known in California education-ese as “an alternative school of choice” in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, one of several districts under the umbrella of the Riverside County Office of Education. Corona-Norco has more than 50,000 students and 10 high schools including several other alternatives (like adult ed and independent study) that are less choices than last resorts for students who couldn’t quite make it in “real” high school.

JFK had a very different target student in mind: the middle-achieving student who gets lost in comprehensive high schools that must devote most of their attention to students on either extreme of the spectrum. JFK’s approach redefines “teaching to the middle.” The high-fliers across the district have ample Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs (these are “the AP and IB kids,” said JFK’s former Principal April Moore. Dr. Sarah Ragusa in now the principal at JKF ), while struggling students have whole phalanxes of specialists focused on working with students to graduation, in this age of high-stakes district accountability.

JFK is a fraction of the size of the district’s comprehensive high schools: 600 students in grades 10-12. There are no freshmen. “We want ninth graders to try traditional high school first,” Dr. Moore says. “Otherwise we have a lot of attrition among freshmen who focus on what they’re missing when they come here.” JFK has no football or other sports teams and no pep rallies either, though student athletes can play for their “home” high school while attending JFK. More noticeably missing from the school are cliques, which students and staff alike attribute to its intimate scale and open setting. “We have a real mix of students here, including plenty of self-identified nerds, preppy and gothic types,” says Dr. Moore. “But we all feel like family.”

It’s a family with high expectations for its targeted middle students. Through its application process, the school ensures that 70% of its new students are in the 2.0-3.5 GPA range, but the goal is for “all to end up high-achieving,” Moore says. Students are expected to complete 30 college credits – the equivalent of a year of college – by the time they graduate JFK, and at least a handful of extra-ambitious students each year knock off 60 credits to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Students are supported along the way by participation in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a national college-readiness program that combines study skills, mentoring, inquiry-based reading and writing, and plenty of nudging on college exploration, test preparation, financial aid research and practice in self-advocacy. All JFK students take AVID as an elective, and the school provides ongoing college-focused guidance through another program called Excel, which features interactive goal setting exercises and checklists.

Most importantly, every student takes college courses across the way at Norco, where professors expect at least five high school students in each of their sections, and where JFK students take almost all of their electives. The college courses count for both high school and college credit, and the only costs JFK students bear are for books. When they graduate JFK, students can either matriculate fully into Norco or transfer their credits elsewhere. Recent grads have gone everywhere from the University of California system to Boston University to a conservatory to study opera.

JFK isn’t the first middle college program in the U.S. – Dr. Moore gives a shout-out to New York City’s LaGuardia High School as a forebear – though it is one of the oldest and largest. There are now 65 programs like it in California alone and more than 280 nationally, each with its own take on the model. Some call themselves “early college” rather than middle, and the debates around the differences between the two can get quite lively. (It either has to do with who the target students are – middle performers or high achievers? – or the number of college credits students are expected to complete by the end of high school – 30 or 60? It all depends on who you ask). Some early/middle college programs have foundation support – including substantial funding from the Bill & Gates Foundation – and others, like the P-TECH program in Brooklyn, have three-way partnerships with a higher ed institution and an industry, ensuring not just college credit but technical certifications as well. Together, these programs served more than 80,000 students across the country in 2014.

Policy-makers like the middle/early college model because it improves high school graduation, college-going, and college completion rates among historically underserved groups of students, particularly low-income students of color, and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Parents like these programs because they can lop off two years of college costs. But what my visit to JFK opened my eyes to was the unique lifeline that middle/early college represents for students in need of a different path.

One JFK student, Emily Garcia, remembers getting straight A’s in middle school but being bullied and overlooked at her 2,500-student comprehensive high school. “I didn’t want to be at school, so I stopped going one-two weeks at a time,” Emily says. “Teachers didn’t even notice I was gone. When I returned, they asked me for the homework as if I had been there all along.” Coming to JFK felt like coming home, Emily recalls. “If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this is a place where everyone belongs,” she says.

Emily’s classmate Adam Lanahan, who was uncomfortable with “inappropriate behavior” and social pressures at his traditional high school, senses that JFK’s college focus makes the difference. “The atmosphere and environment at JFK is amazing. Instead of saying ‘let’s go out and party,’ people say ‘let’s go out and do homework,’” he says. Classmate Janineannema Algabre adds, “At JFK, we set college goals rather than high school goals.”

Which kind of makes you wonder: If a college-like atmosphere, small student body, and high expectations make a difference for students at JFK and early/middle college high schools like it around the country, why not just scratch the high school piece altogether? Does “Big Box High” have a place in the world of GenDIY?

About “GenDIY”
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY.

For more GenDIY blogs, check out:

Bridging the Gap from Living Room to Classroom: FreshGrade

As teachers, we constantly find ourselves wishing there were a way to fully encapsulate what we see in the classroom. There are so many moments of greatness and so many more opportunities for growth that we capture mentally, but it’s near ­impossible to communicate these moments to the parents of the children we teach. What’s more, there could be powerful learning implications for students being involved in a “third­-person” review of their own performance. That is, if we could find a way to have students step outside themselves and self-­evaluate their own work from another’s point of view.

Parents often only get one side of the story: their child’s. While we would hope that everything being relayed home is positive and wonderful, how many times can you recall the following interchange:

“How was school today?”
“What did you do?”
“Did you learn anything new?”

Obviously, as this conversation repeats itself through a school year, at some point we have to acknowledge the hyperbole in our young learner’s interchange with their parent. Report cards are often too­-little­-too­-late and don’t really give a very complete picture of where the student excels and where they could use more help. Can we really simplify hours and hours of learning and practice into a single number or letter? What if we had a way to actually watch a learner develop their skills? What if we could check in along the way and provide real­time support? What if the communication line between parent and educator were truly open?

Enter FreshGrade. FreshGrade is a Learning Collaboration System that helps educators document student learning and progress through photo, video, work samples, and more. Parents can be notified on their smartphone when an update is made and actually see what’s taking place, instead of trying to decipher what it even means to get an 84 on last night’s homework. The teacher can take pictures of the learners in action, record audio or typed notes, or even shoot a video of what learning looks like for the day, posting them securely, viewable to just the one student’s parents, groups of parents, or to the whole class, at the discretion of the teacher.

If we stop and listen to ourselves, we will notice how often we talk about the need for parent-­teacher-school partnerships. We will become aware of our desire for the day’s learning to extend beyond just the short time we have in class and we will be able to recognize that no one group can do it alone. We need something that facilitates that kind of communication and moves us towards a true learning partnership. FreshGrade looks to be just that.

For more blogs by Greg Garner, check out:

Image via venturebeat.com