Virtual Academies at Work to Close the Achievement Gap

For decades the education community has been discussing and attempting to narrow the achievement gap. The educational “achievement gap,” refers to the significant difference in academic success among groups of students. Most frequently, it is discussed as the disparity between African-American and Hispanic students and their non-Hispanic white classmates or the gap between low-income students and their middle class and wealthier peers. More recently, however, we see an increasing focus on additional achievement gaps, such as those based on language, sex, and learning disabilities. We are at an extremely interesting time in which technology will provide a unique opportunity for better personalization for all students. Regardless of the group they identify with, technology means increased resources to track, monitor, and encourage individual growth in a manner that is both efficient and productive for educators and students.

Teachers, school networks, organizations, and policy makers around the country pledge a dedication to closing these gaps, but they are difficult, to say the least, challenges to take on. Technological advancements in education present a new opportunity to reach students in a unique and personalized way that allows for a customized education that adapts to the needs of students and provides options, choice, and the individualization provides a launchpad for significant growth.

Virtual Schools are in the hunt to close the achievement gap as well. Getting Smart Advocacy Partner and leading provider of K – 12 online school programs, K12 Inc released a new report highlighting three online charters, the largest K12 managed schools, that making progress toward closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and not disadvantaged students.

“For the 2013-2014 school year, K12 reported that its network of schools enrolled a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than the national average,” said Dr. Margaret Jorgensen, K12 Chief Academic Officer. “K12-managed schools are working to close the achievement gap, and in this report we look at three cases where schools are closing the gap between students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch and those not eligible. In other instances, we observed that students who were eligible for either free or reduced price lunch are achieving higher percentages at or above proficiency on state tests, while others who were not eligible for subsidized meals were making even greater gains in proficiency.”

Texas Virtual Academy (TXVA)

The core philosophy of TXVA is that all young people can achieve academic excellence if they are provided rigorous instruction, high standards, informed guidance, and individual attention.

Results: In Reading, comparing TXVA students enrolled 3 years or more to those enrolled less than 1 year, proficiency percentages increased with longer enrollment for Free Lunch Eligible students by 20 percentage points, for Reduce-Price Lunch by 18 percentage points, and for Not Eligible by 15 percentage points. Notable at TXVA is the impressive improvement in Mathematics for each category of students enrolled 3 years or more, with 74% of students eligible for Free Lunch reaching proficiency, 81% of students eligible for Reduced-Price Lunch reaching proficiency, and 94% of students Not Eligible for subsidized meals reaching proficiency.

Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA)

AZVA uses K¹² curricula to offer K – 12 students in Arizona an online learning experience. The individualized learning approach is designed to provide the tools kids need to succeed—in school and beyond.

Results: In Reading, proficiency percentages increased for AZVA in all free or reduced-priced lunch (FRL) groups. The gap between Free Lunch Eligible and Not Eligible narrowed from 17 percentage points for students enrolled less than 1 year, to 15 percentage points for students enrolled 3 years or more. In Mathematics, compared to students enrolled less than 1 year, AZVA students enrolled 3 years or more achieved higher proficiency percentages across all FRL groups.

Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA)

GCA partners parents and students with a highly qualified, Georgia-certified teacher to guide and track their progress and achievement through the K12 curriculum. Options for face to face meetings are incorporated into the student learning plans. Student-to-student interaction is also key, and GCA provides students frequent opportunities for social activities and engagement.

Results: In Reading, compared to students enrolled less than 1 year, GCA students enrolled 3 years or more achieved higher proficiency percentages, except for students eligible for Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible. The overall proficiency percentage of students eligible for Reduced-Price Lunch enrolled 3 years of more remained high at 95%. In Mathematics, compared to students enrolled less than 1 year, GCA students enrolled 3 years or more achieved higher proficiency percentages in all FRL groups.

This K12 report is a third in a series of white papers highlighting K12 partner schools and programs that have demonstrated improved results and raised student academic achievement. Other reports include: Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy: A Success Story, Prepared for Launch and Success at New Mexico Virtual Academy, Wisconsin Virtual Academy: Building Strong Relationships for Academic Success, and K12’s annual 2015 Academic Report.

For more information on Online Schools, check out

A Smart Planet: Dispatches from PBL World

I once took a child to the hospital who had a large cut on one of his fingers from a machete. He was five. He had been cutting down sugar cane (a tough job for anyone but especially a five year old) and the machete had slipped. The boy had difficulty keeping the wound clean, we were Tanzania and he didn’t have access to much clean water. It was the rainy season, the whole of our area was muddy. It was hard for me to stay clean as I walked everywhere and I did have access to clean water.

When he came back to my house a week after our trip to the hospital and showed me his wound (it was healing; he was using antibiotic cream to heal the cut), I was relieved and also frustrated with myself. There were so many children in the village where I lived with medical needs. I should have become a doctor, I thought. I even talked about it with my mom on the phone. I called her from Tanzania, something that in 2004 was quite difficult and expensive. Why was I in education and not public health?

I came back to the United States with a renewed sense of devotion to the field of education. I would not become a medical doctor (I don’t even like the sight of blood). Instead I would use my role as an educator to bring about the changes I so strongly wanted to see.

Why We Need A Smart Planet

I have found myself thinking about innovations in learning around the globe as I conclude my time at PBL World, sponsored by the Buck Institute for Education, an aptly titled conference with “World” in the title. There were educators in attendance from across the globe, sharing resources and ideas about revolutionizing education. On the last day, there was a lot of chatter about bringing global competencies to America’s students and encouraging best practices in project-based learning around the globe. (See Tom’s blog on 20 innovations that are making our planet smarter.)

Insights and Implications for a Smart Planet from #PBLWorld

Jamie Casap, Global Education Evangelist at Google, kicked things off with his keynote about how techology is a catalyst for revolutioning our schools.

Jamie asked the group, “How many have already used the internet today?” Almost everyone raised their hands. Generation Z is global, social, visual and technological, generation Z is so used to having wifi, so the implications for education are clear (and not new). Topics included:

  • How do we take advantage of technology in education?
  • Ask students, “What problem do you want to solve?” instead of, “When you grow up, what do you want to be?”
  • Let’s convert information into intelligence. Just having just having information is not enough. Information is a cheap commodity. We need Intelligence and critical thinking.
  • Let’s emphasize iteration and innovation to drive transformation.
  • Great education is the silver bullet.
  • 40% of their world is online. How can we reach the rest? The call to action is clear: teachers, let’s create education that reaches all students.

Other highlights from Global Day at PBL World:

  • VIF International Education is bringing global professional development to K-12 teachers in the US. They just won a Digital Media Learning award from the MacArthur Foundation and they are partnering with Digital Promise Global to develop micro-credentialing for professional development (this is something we also recommend in our Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning paper).
  • iEARN brings the world into the classroom and has loads of amazing lesson plans that allow educators to connect students around the world.

We Need You for a #SmartPlanet

One year I once led a lesson for my high school students called “The World Needs Your Love.” In that, students brainstormed specific skills and strengths they had and then also a list of problems in their neighborhood. The lesson was then to figure out how to spend a hypothetical one million dollars using their skills to address a problem. How we spend our time, energy and money matters. Help us in sharing the stories of people who are creating innovations in learning and transforming education across the globe.


This blog is part of an occasional series called #SmartPlanet where we will feature innovations in learning in developing and emerging economies. To contribute, email [email protected] with the subject line “Smart Planet.”

For more, see:

Success Takes Agency, Identity, and Competency

Academic skills are not the only thing a child needs to succeed in life according to a new report.

Young adult success takes agency, an integrated identity, and competencies. Drawing on research from many fields, theory and practice to identify building blocks for life success, The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research developed a framework for youth development.

Success is more than work readiness, according to the report, it, “Also means that young people can fulfill individual goals and have the agency and competencies to influence the world around them.”

The report defines success as workforce goals that are associated with college and career readiness and also identifies broader goals for learning:

“While building an educated workforce is one of the core goals of our investments in young people, it is far from the only goal. Success also means that young people can fulfill individual goals and have the agency and competencies to influence the world around them. This broader definition of success is based on the synthesis of literature from various fields, as well as interviews with practice experts and youth service providers, who articulated their larger role as helping young people develop an awareness of themselves and of the wide range of options before them, competencies to pursue those options, and the ability to make good future choices for their lives as engaged citizens in the world. This larger focus is inseparable from goals related to college and career.”

We think it’s important for parents to keep in mind that although our culture tends to reward success as a “good job” or attendance at a “good college,” in our hearts parents understand that success is in fact broader and more nuanced than that. And we heard this over and over in our Smart Parents blog series as well. Inspiring lifelong learning, and cultivating joy, curiosity and happiness are related to college and career success but are also more all encompassing.

Sponsored by the Wallace Foundation, the report says, children need four qualities that parents, teachers, after school professionals and other adults can help shape:

  • Self-regulation. The awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, and management of one’s attention, emotions and behaviors to achieve goals.
  • Knowledge and Skills. information or understanding about oneself, other people and the world, and the ability to carry out tasks.
  • Mindsets. Beliefs and attitudes about oneself, the world and the interaction between the two. They are the lenses individuals use to process everyday experiences.
  • Values. Enduring, often culturally-defined, beliefs about what is good or bad and what one thinks is important in life.

Parents and educators can nurture these qualities providing children and teens with rich experiences, and ensuring that young people have opportunities to reflect on the experiences. A key problem, according to the report, is that disadvantaged youth often face extra challenges, including fewer opportunities for consistent, positive developmental experiences and relationships.

The report is thoughtful regarding learner experience suggesting, “The intentional provision of opportunities for young people to experience, interact, and make meaning of their experiences the central vehicle for learning and development.”

Context is acknowledged as a primary factor in shaping how children develop and in the opportunities they can access.

For more, check out:

Better Understand Autism with Help from Dr Barry Prizant’s New Book: Uniquely Human

Dr. Barry Prizant has been a researcher, clinician, consultant, and has received ASHA’s highest recognition. We have been lucky enough to hear him speak several times as part of the SPED Ahead webinar series from PresenceLearning. He has recently written “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism” (with Tom Fields-Meyer, an author and father of a son with autism), which will be available in early fall 2015. Released by Simon and Schuster, this book is sure to be a landmark read on autism and a guide for better understanding individuals with autism.


Uniquely Human is organized around the stories of people that Dr. Prizant has worked with throughout four decades in the field. It is these personal stories that help frame a series of concepts that help us all to see autism in a different way, thus providing better support. Prizant describes his central message in the introduction:

The behavior of people with autism isn’t random, deviant, or bizarre, as many professionals have called it for decades. These children don’t come from Mars. The things they say aren’t— as many professional still maintain — meaningless or “nonfunctional.”

Autism isn’t an illness. It’s a different way of being human. Children with autism aren’t sick; they are progressing through the developmental stages we all do. To help them, we don’t need to change or fix them. We need to work to understand them, and then change what we do.


Understanding Autism

The first part of Uniquely Human dives into what it means to truly understand autism. Prizant highlights the importance of asking why, the value in listening with intention, and how enthusiasms and interests can build connections. He takes the reader through the experience of trust, fear, and control for individuals with autism and identifies 5 ways to build trust. He explains the impact of emotional memory and how prior experiences and memories are connected to behavior, and he dives into the challenges for people with autism in navigating the social world.


Within each story, it is clear that part of understanding autism is finding more similarities than differences between ourselves and those with autism. For example, a tendency for verbal people with autism is to repeat words, phrases, and sentences. This defining characteristic is known as echolalia and is often the first indication to parents that their child may have autism.

Prizant spent a year studying echolalia. He recorded 25 videotapes of children during their everyday activities. He identified and categorized over 1000 distinct echoes. What did he find? The children were communicating in a variety of ways through their echoes. Some were acknowledging what they heard, others were emulating conversation by taking turns, some were rehearsing for something they may say in the future, some repeating sounds that they found calming (Prizant compares this to chanting a mantra), and some were simply taking themselves through a process aloud to reassure themselves. “In other words, they were using language for the same purposes we all do. We just had to listen, observe, and pay attention.”

Living with Autism

The second half of Uniquely Human takes a more action oriented approach and shares insights into how we can all better support students with autism. Part of this requires looking into those who seem to “get-It” and those who don’t. Importantly noted by the mother of a young man with autism when asked about the qualities they look for in individuals that are working with their son. “The people we valued the most were the ones who never judged us, but they joined us on the journey.”

Particularly inspiring is Prizant’s highlight on the “real experts.” He shares how Ros Blackburn, Michael John Carley, and Stephen Shore have helped him (and countless others) better understand autism.

Ros Blackburn: Diagnosed with autism as a small child, Prizant describes Ros as “playful, quirky, mischievous, unique — and full of surprises (not to mention passionate about the movies she loves).”

Ros is also clear about how parents and professionals can best help in those situations, when a person with autism is panicked or anxious. “Don’t put your hands all over me, and don’t talk a lot to me,” she says. “Support me in silence. Support me with your presence.”

Michael John Carley: An accomplished playwright, a star baseball pitcher, a talented guitarist, and a host on a local NPR station, Michael was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome just a few days after the diagnosis of his four-year-old son.

He is determined to share with others on the spectrum the insight that so transformed his outlook when he received his own diagnosis: that many of the painful experiences they have endured in life have an explanation that is not rooted in their character but rather in their wiring and others’ unhelpful reactions.

Stephen Shore: Stephen was diagnosed in 1964 as too “sick” for outpatient treatment and recommended to be institutionalized. His parents chose to go a different route and began developing and implementing a program based on their own instincts. Stephen is now an author, holds a doctorate in special education, teaches at Adelphi University, and even advises nations on public policy regarding disabilities and has spoken on a panel with Dr. Prizant at the United Nations.

As an adult, Stephen has dedicated his life to helping people with autism and their parents conquer those obstacles and build fulfilling, productive lives for themselves.

Uniquely Human shares dozens of engaging stories, experiences, and perspectives that collectively share a storyline of understanding autism on a different level — one that has not been typically told. This book challenges the idea of a behavioral-assessment approach, where one is focused on a checklist of deficits and thus defines the child (or adult) based on these behaviors. Doing this misses the mark by devaluing the individual and their experience. Instead, Uniquely Human encourages us all to respect perspective and experience. It encourages us to ask questions and build relationships. It emphasizes that rather than focusing  on changing the person with autism, “the best way to help a person with autism change for the better is to change ourselves — our attitudes, our behavior, and the types of support that we provide.”

Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism is currently available for pre-order here.

Listen to Dr. Prizant talk more about new approaches to working with those on the spectrum and answer questions during PresenceLearning’s most recent webinar, Uniquely Human:  A Different Way to See Autism and Create Pathways to Success.

For more blogs my Megan, check out:


Building a Common School Vision For Your Makerspace

As more and more educational institutions are incorporating tinkering and “maker mindset” into their educational programs, the processes leading up to that incorporation vary broadly. In some schools, spaces for “making” and tinkering are outfitted before any programmatic discussions take place among the faculty (top-down). On others, a few teachers band together and develop a makerspace with little institutional support (bottom-up).

IMG_1839My school fell into a wonderful medium between the two: 3 years ago, our board offered to incorporate a new makerspace into the large construction initiative that was just beginning and recruited a small group of teachers to start investigating, experimenting, and preparing the way. In those three years, we’ve visited other makerspaces, purchased and experimented with different tools, added whole new arts courses to test out ideas, and developed new academic units moving towards that mindset. In the past year, we’ve worked with the architects leading our larger overall project to perfect the design for our makerspace, and led committees focused on exploring innovative teaching practices and deeper use of technology. Now, this summer, our space is officially under construction! One of my students and several teachers had the honor of first sledgehammer swings to start demolition of the existing space, right on the beautiful mural that student painted in anticipation of the demolition: Break Down The Walls In Your Mind With Inspiration And Imagination.

From beginning to end, our goal was to develop a community-wide vision for our “maker mindset,” and to bring the whole faculty along, so that our makerspace and our community would be ready for each other at the same time.

One of the final activities we undertook in ensuring whole-community enthusiasm and vision for our “maker mindset” was an activity first developed and published by Meehan, Gravel, and Shapiro at Tufts University. You can read their formal publication here, and perhaps my implementation can support other schools in developing community-wide vision for their own growing “maker mindsets.”

Following the structure of the Tufts activity, I developed a deck of cards around tools, skills, mindsets, and content areas to first use to pull out participants’ most important values. Similarly, I also developed a deck of cards – mercilessly stealing images from around the internet – highlighting a wide variety of the types of activities one often sees in makerspaces, educational or otherwise. The general idea behind the activity is that participants first sort the “values” cards according to those most important to them and to the institution’s mission, and then sort the “activities” cards according to which activities will best support the top values. (You can find PDFs of my values cards and activities cards at the links. Both documents are formatted ready for front-and-back printing with the cards aligned decently well.)


I invited the whole faculty to participate, and asked for invitations to bring the activity to their classes too. While the Tufts article  recommends conducting the activity with individuals, I conducted it with multiple small groups at a time, circulating to capture thoughts and explanations. Ultimately, I conducted the activity with:

  • A first grade class
  • A fourth grade class
  • A mixed group of 6th and 7th graders
  • Four small groups of teachers, mixed across the school
    • (self-contained primary, art, subject-area middle, administrators, teaching assistants)


For the classes of students, due to both time constraints and limited reading ability of the first graders, I started with a verbal brainstorm of “what are the most important values we have at our school?” or “what characteristics do you think our school community wants our graduates to have?”


An interesting difference brought out in the teacher groups, in which they sorted values cards that I had created ahead of time rather than coming up with their own list of values, was that the teachers had to also identify which characteristics and values were least important. Students only identified the “yes”es, while teachers identified the “yes”es and the “no”s. This brought out some interesting ideas and explanations for why actual subject areas like math or history are less important than soft skills like independent confidence, perseverance, and collaboration. Craftsmanship was more important than specifically 3D printers and power tools. Creativity was more important than robotics. Universally among the teachers, soft skills were at the very top of their priorities.


Sorting the activities, rather than the values, brought out the most interesting ideas among both students and faculty. With a large stack of about 50 activity cards, foremost, most of the teachers had not thought of most of the activities. Simply looking through and discussing the cards led to rich brainstorming sessions of how to apply the ideas to their own classes:

  • World language teachers were enthusiastic about incorporating green screen video technology to make travelogues for countries where the target language is spoken.
  • Primary grade teachers were enthusiastic about applying design thinking principles and tinkering to create solutions to class problems.
  • Middle school history teachers were enthusiastic about students creating gear-driven interactive dioramas.
  • Music teachers were enthusiastic about building novel musical instruments, using both digital and physical technologies.

Critically, though, is what arose regarding how these different specific activities will support the mission and values of our school.

In going through this exercise, one first grader told me that, when doing the kinds of projects we’ll do in our makerspace, “You’re learning to do things by yourself instead of being told ‘it’s too dangerous.’”

A fourth grader said, “Projects with robotics are harder, so you need to start them earlier. It connects to a lot of jobs later in life.”



The kinds of activities that universally were selected as the most valuable were activities that required solving real problems, and activities that required complexity and troubleshooting. Although many agreed it would be fun to, “create your own ‘Guess Who?’ game board with characters relevant to an academic unit of study.” This activity was universally identified as not critical to serving our school’s mission and values. On the other hand, “design, prototype, and test a solution to a community problem” was universally identified among the most valuable.

Some interesting smaller patterns also emerged:

Teachers were more likely to identify simpler activities as valuable, in that they would help students develop skills needed for the more complex activities.

Students – from first all the way to 7th – almost universally identified the most complex tasks as the most valuable. Building and programming robots, building a functional custom video game controller for a custom-built game, and building an electromagnetic motor were all very popular, while squishy circuits and hand-sewn puppets were not.


I found this exercise exceptionally valuable in helping me create common language and identify common values throughout the school as I begin the final outfitting of our makerspace. It was also spectacularly helpful in seeding a deeper understanding of the space throughout our community, growing broader enthusiasm and sparking brainstorming among the students and faculty. I highly recommend giving it a try, whether you’re in early stages of planning a makerspace or have an established makerspace that can use a community boost.

For more blogs by Lindsey, check out:

For more blogs by Lindsey, check out:

Your Child, Your Choice: Finding the Right School for Your Child

Gary R. Gruber

As parents, you have more school choices available now than at any time in recent history. There are traditional public schools, usually part of a larger district that range from very large urban districts, to smaller and more affluent suburban districts to rural districts with only one, two or three schools. There are charter schools, public schools of choice, entry to which is often by lottery.

There are magnet schools, pilot schools, alternative schools, and special needs schools. There are non-profit, independent schools, funded largely by tuition; faith-based schools which comprise the majority of private schools; proprietary, for-profit schools owned and managed by an individual or a larger corporation.

The challenge is how to make an informed choice that includes the age and stage of your child and his or her specific needs and interests. It is reasonable to expect that most children have the capacity to develop the skills and to acquire an education that will help them be productive members of a community as well as a happy and successful individual. It is also incumbent upon parents to zero in on your child’s strengths and capitalize on those to help develop the hidden talents that exist within every child.

The educational journey needs to have a vision that extends beyond one year or even four years and includes many experiences beyond the walls of a school. Parents do not need to be too concerned about short-term effects because learning is cumulative over time and education is a process, not an event.

What most parents seem to want, regardless of where they live or their socio-economic status is exemplified by a quote from a film, fourteen years in the making. American Promise, by Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster, documents their son’s and his best friend’s educational experiences at an elite private school in New York City:

“…parents want their children to acquire a sense of self-esteem and self-determination. And every permutation of the academic experience (single sex/coed, public/private/charter, racially diverse and downtown, or socioeconomically stratified uptown) is presented as some grand experiment that might reveal ‘The Solution’ to growing exceptional children, as if such a thing exists.”

As parents you want your children to be motivated, to be engaged in meaningful learning experiences and to have solid relationships with their teachers that are positive, supportive and inspiring. You want your children to be able to relate successfully to other children who may come from different backgrounds as this is what they will encounter in the larger world.  Perhaps most of all, you want your children to believe in themselves and their self-worth such that they know they are capable of being successful in whatever they choose to do. They will need this sense of themselves as they take on more and more responsibility for their own choices and their future life and work.

Happy are those parents whose children look forward to going to school every day and being immersed in learning and in those things that most schools want them to learn. Some of the stated priorities from good schools include critical thinking, problem solving, self-expression, creativity and a continuing curiosity about the world and themselves.   Many schools also emphasize the importance of being a compassionate, good citizen both in the school community and the larger neighborhood.

What is important is to find a school and a program that fits the child and his or her needs.   Instead of fitting the child to the school, think about fitting the school to the child. Too much of the “one size fits all” approach has resulted in students losing interest in learning, and they become bored, frustrated and disappointed with their school experiences. That is not a good formula for being happy or for a successful academic experience.

Here are three important considerations in choosing the right school:

  1. the individual child and his or her needs and interests;
  2. parents’ own expectations and values and how the school is or is not in accord with those;
  3. perhaps most important, the quality of the teachers and the culture of the school environment.

There is a process for evaluating each of these in some detail and there is help available for parents who want to know more about how to select the most appropriate school for a child. For more, see the book Your Child, Your Choice: Choosing the Right School for Your Child by Gary Gruber.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Gary Gruber is a lifelong learner, educator, and consultant to schools in transition. Follow him on Twitter, @GaryGruber.

Summit Public Schools Continue to Innovate and Expand Impact

Summer break? Not at Summit Public Schools. New schools, summer school, and a national partnership program keep Summit sites humming in June and July.

Given the compelling mixture of personalized playlists and projects, we think Summit is the most innovative secondary network in the country. Summit’s Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) promotes student agency and engagement. When school opens in August, the learning platform will have improved playlists, expanded college and goal setting tabs, and projects that can be personalized and self-paced. Every project combines collaborative elements with individual tasks and deliverables.

The seven school network will open two more schools in Seattle and Tacoma in August. The schools are small and diverse, reflecting the communities they serve.

Summer of Summit serves almost 1,500 kids on five campuses. Through a training partnership with Teach for America, 130 corps members teach alongside Summit teachers in the morning, and receive coaching and professional development in the afternoon. The experiences prepares TFA Bay Area corps members for their classrooms in the fall equipped with next generation tools and resources.

Through a program called Basecamp, Summit encouraged school teams to apply to join them on the next-gen journey. Twenty two grade level teacher teams were selected and spent the last two weeks in Redwood City.

Summit Everest in RedWood City
Summit Everest in RedWood City

The partnership schools are committed to:

  • Project-based learning with a focus on cognitive skills
  • Self-paced competency based progression
  • 1:1 mentorship
  • Building a self-directed learning culture
  • Using the Personalized Learning Plan (PLP)

Designed just like a Summit school, Basecamp is a sequence of projects that pose essential question, project steps, and final products. Teacher teams used the PLP platform they’ll use with students in the fall to engage in a sequence of projects supported by knowledge-building playlists. Projects cover goal setting, the role of teacher/mentors, habits of success, and parent engagement.

Partner schools provide 1:1 student access to technology and administer NWEA MAPs to measure academic gains.

Summit raised $2.8 million to cover the cost of the program for them and the school team. Former Summit math teacher and project manager Lizzie Choi directs the Basecamp project.  Five former Summit teachers support the 20 teams.  They’ll be making site visits this fall to ensure successful deployment.

CIO Jon Deane (headed to the Gates Foundation next month) said, “Learning with these teams has been incredible. More mind meld than replication, Deane said “We’re learning what experiences it takes to transfer a set of idea.” He added, “It’s been spectacular!”

This first Basecamp cohort left Friday with updated plans for fall implementation. A second cohort, with sights set on 2016 deployment, starts next week.

Why Summit matters. We include Summit Public Schools on our list of 100 schools worth visiting because it is the best example of a group of a network iterating on a school model and platform simultaneously with a clear vision for learning experiences and a broad set of outcomes. Only Brooklyn Labs and a few other NGLC grantees are doing similar work.

Summit makes interesting use of time and limited resources. It’s a great example of how, according to Michael Horn, the shift to blended learning will “free up teachers to focus far more on helping students work on meaningful projects, take part in Socratic discussions, engage in the community, and participate in other activities that allow students to discover their passions, create and innovate.” He notes:

Students engage in a total of 16 hours a week of “Personalized Learning Time” online, for which students set learning goals for the week; develop a plan to achieve the goals using Summit’s curated online learning playlists; and work through the plan. Because the learning is individualized for each student’s distinct needs, that’s enough time for students to master the core knowledge and skills of the curriculum. That frees up the rest of a student’s day for project-based learning, sustained reading time, physical education, and time to meet with his or her mentor. In addition, Summit provides its students with eight weeks a year of “Expeditions,” in which students learn largely off-campus in the real world. Students explore their passions in everything from elective courses to real internships to learn about career options.

Opening new schools is expensive and, as noted earlier this month, charter authorizing has become arduous. As a result, it takes a long time to build out an innovative school network. That’s why it’s so important that Summit decided early on to bring partner schools along with them on the journey. Five years from now there will be 100 Summit managed and Summit partner schools in every corner of the country. That’s the kind of proof point at scale that starts to change things.

For more, see:

Carpe ISTE: Sessions, Socializing, and The Food Scene

With more than 1,000 official sessions and countless events and opportunities to meet up at ISTE 2015, you will experience FOMO (fear of missing out), but resist the urge to overload your schedule.

The most valuable learning I’ve experienced at large conferences with massive schedules are those moments in between my official session plans, crouched on the floor around power outlets, talking about #eduwins or design thinking or which stylus works best for sketchnoting with people I just met.

So whether it is over a 6am cup of coffee, a big fluffy pretzel, or at the top of the Rocky Steps, do a little research, make a plan, and carpe ISTE 2015.

I searched the program for a couple topics I am interested in: sketchnotes, visible thinking, culture of thinking, creativity, curiosity, UDL (Universal Design for Learning), data visualization, grit, soft-skills, design thinking, and makerEd. From this search, here are some sessions that stood out to me. I highly encourage you to put in your own searches and see what comes up.


1. Notebooks, Pens and Pixels: Tools of the Trade for Today’s Student Writers.
Dr. Troy Hicks, Penny Kittle, Kristin Ziemke.

Participate and Share: Interactive Lecture
Tuesday, June 30, 10:45–11:45 am
PCC 105B

This session description stood out to me based on the focus of students publishing for an authentic and diverse audience and providing student choice in writing. It looks to be an examination of writing workshop practices with current technologies in mind. I especially resonated with the need for reflecting on our own writing lives and the role our personal learning networks play.

2. Blended Learning in the Makerspace
Kat Sauter

Participate and Share: Poster
Monday, June 29, 11:00 am–1:00 pm
PCC Broad Street Atrium, Table 38

Kat is incredible. I have seen her passion and creativity through the innovative makerspace she developed at the Ann Richards School for Young Women. I am always energized after talking with her at our local EdTechWomen Austin meetups where we unite over our love for design thinking and encouraging girls in STEAM. I am intrigued by the combination of blended learning and making she describes in this session. If you are interested in students creating and pursuing their personal interests and hearing from someone who built a makerspace from scratch, I do not think you will be disappointed.

3. Making, Love & Learning
Gary Stager

Listen and Learn: Lecture
Monday, June 29, 11:00 am–12:00 pm
PCC Ballroom B

I am geeking about seeing Gary in person. I often find his quotes, the influence of his work, and ideas in my own presentations and conversations about how students must have opportunities to create. His book, Invent to Learn, highlights how the maker movement, “Overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.” I have a feeling this session will be a call to action–a call to nurture the precious gifts of wonder and curiosity in our students through hands on projects, making, tinkering, and engineering.

I also thought this session title was a wonderful lesson in the importance of the comma (don’t worry if you don’t get that one).

4. Using Data Visualizations to Support Student Learning
Sujoy Chaudhuri, Shabbi Luthra

Listen and Learn: Lecture
Monday, June 29, 8:30–9:30 am
PCC 111

This one caught my eye due to my interest in using data more effectively to impact students. I especially see a great deal of potential in the visual side of learning analytics and am always on the lookout for people who can push my thinking and spark new ideas in what this might actually look like in practice. The entrepreneur in me also believes there are some major needs in data visualization that could make powerful impacts on teaching and learning if addressed by people who get it. I noticed it was recommended by ISTE’s Independent School Educators Network too, so I think I will give them a shot.

5. Building Grit, Curiosity, and Self Sufficiency in Your Makerspace Classroom
Rachel Brusky, Chris Fleischl, Trevor Shaw

Participate and Share: Interactive Lecture
Monday, June 29, 12:45–1:45 pm
PCC 121C

Despite the fact I already had a maker related session on the docket, I decided I must attend the only session to use the word grit in the title. After reading Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, and spending lots of time working with current students and teachers, I think more focus around soft-skills and noncognitive traits could go a long way. This session seeks to illustrate how a Makerspace curriculum can encourage habits of mind such as persistence, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

And just in case you are interested in either of these topics, here are my two official sharing opportunities.

1. Create Innovative Learning Opportunities with Visible Thinking
Michelle Cordy, Tracy Clark, Karen Lireman

Explore and Create: Workshop
Tuesday, June 30, 12:30-3:30
Marriott Franklin 4

This session does require pre-registration and an additional fee. In this session we will explore how to encourage metacognition (a.k.a. thinking about thinking) through hands-on activities and thinking routines with a digital twist. Michelle and Karen are incredible educators and I would love to just sit at their feet and hear them talk about their classrooms, which we will do as they tell their stories and share authentic examples of student work. If you want a list of apps this session is not for you (although we will use apps and give you the links). If you want to build thinkers with a set of ubiquitous tools, come hang out with us.

2. The Possibility Posture: Designing for Experimentation in Modern Learning
Tracy Clark, Ferdi Serim

Participate and Share: Interactive Lecture
Monday, June 29, 11:00 am–12:00 pm
PCC 120A

This is an inspirational talk to remind myself and all others who struggle with the fear of failure to put on the posture of experimentation and pull on some possibility thinking. We will share research, inspiring stories, and personal experiences aimed to motivate our fellow educators to get their hands dirty and give that thing they have been meaning to do a go.

Social Gatherings

CoffeeEDUCoffeeEDU is about expanding your professional learning network face to face. This is a great event for anyone looking to make new connections. The spirit is open, collaborative, and focused on connecting with others and doing this whole education thing together. It is also a great choice for you early risers and you do not need a special ticket or member badge. Join the conversation on Twitter with

6am everyday. All educators invited. Starbucks 1500 Market St. Philadelphia, PA


Young Educator Network ReceptionThe ISTE Young Educator Network is focused on creating networks, sharing resources, and having fun. The group is for educators in their 20s and 30s. This event will include food, drinks, entertainment, and prizes and does require a free ticket which you can register for here as long as there is space. This is another great opportunity to expand your circle and make some memories.

Monday, June 29, 2015 from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM. Lucky Strike Philadelphia, 1336 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.


Edcamp Organizers EventThe Edcamp Foundation is hosting this get together and dinner for Edcamp organizers who will be at ISTE. This is a great opportunity for Edcamp organizers to share their stories, ideas, and encourage fellow educators who love the Edcamp movement. If you plan to attend you can complete this form.

Tuesday, June 30,2015 7:00 to 8:15pm. String Theory School, 1600 Vine Street, Philadelphia.


EdTech Women MixerEdTech Women is a networked community for Women’s leadership in educational technology. They will be hosting a facilitated networking mixer at Ladder 15. If you are interested in making new connections with other women (and their supporters) in the edtech space this event will be an opportunity to do just that. A paid ticket is required and can be purchased, in advance here.

Monday, June 29, 2015 from 4:30-7:00pm. Ladder 15 1528 Sansom Street, Philadelphia.


What to Eat at ISTE 2015:

Places that strike my fancy. Note: Most Reading Terminal Market spots are cash only.

Taste of Philly Food Tour (Wednesday) If you can’t decide by Wednesday or you are still looking for more eats and treats, check out this Philly Food Tour which takes a deeper dive into the Reading Terminal Market.

Center City District Sips (Wednesday) I stumbled upon this on the Philly tourism website. It looks like on every Wednesday in the summer there are certain establishments with special happy hour menus for drinks and appetizers.

For more blogs by Tracy, check out:

Is Text-to-Speech Technology Beneficial for Struggling Readers?

Using text-to-speech educational technology to help struggling readers is becoming more common in today’s classrooms.. However, some may feel that using this technology, which reads text aloud as students follow the highlighted text on the screen, is a ‘crutch’. Teachers, parents and even students themselves may see this not as a tool, but as cheating.

But recent light being shed on the question shows that not only is text to speech not a ‘crutch’, but it is indeed an invaluable tool to help students improve results and importantly, stay motivated.

Holding to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, presenting content in auditory and visual formats provides learners with a variety of ways to access text, allowing each student to learn in the way that is personally most effective. This bimodal presentation of content improves comprehension and academic results. Wise, Ring, and Olson (2000) found that text to speech supports decoding, which frees the reader to focus on meaning, rather than the act of reading, encouraging an understanding of concepts and facilitating dialogue and writing.

But as Dr. Michelann Parr, Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University, Canada points out, this assistive technology has benefits: increasing motivation and self-esteem. Research shows,that belief in oneself and choice in what and when to read are motivators for children. Text-to-speech technology supplies these, facilitating independence since the student can read on his own what he chooses, and self confidence, as he is successful in both reading the text and understanding grade-level content with the others in his class.

“For those students who are frustrated because of a lack of decoding skills and fluency,” observes Dr Parr, “Text to speech is a confident internal voice, a support for comprehension and a valuable lifelong tool.”

This is where text-to-speech education technology, can eliminate decoding issues and allow struggling readers to participate with their peers in grade level activities.

Teaching reading through traditional methods develops the ability to decode and make the connection between sounds and letters. However, in some cases this is not effective for students who have difficulty with processing the information. Decoding can take a huge amount of effort and by the time the word is successfully decoded, the child may no longer have the energy to understand or use the content. These students risk becoming frustrated, or withdrawfrom text and cease to read. This can cause them to  lose contact with any text, undermining their reading development and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding in all subjects.

Text-to-speech technology offers these students hope. The technology decodes the text for the disabled learner. In this way struggling readers can work autonomously at grade-level, giving them the chance to set aside decoding challenges and move on to high-level thinking. Disabled readers are no longer stuck with basic decoding and low-level activities. They are given new and exciting opportunities to engage and make meaning from content and develop understanding and study skills.

While having a student read on their own is the goal, it is important to be realistic that not all students will read with a high level of fluency. “Most of the students with whom I worked could decode with between 90 and 95% accuracy, but their fluency rates were incredibly low—some of them were reading at 32 words a minute in order to decode with 95% accuracy,” explains Doctor Parr. “When they got to the task of meaning-making and comprehension, they had no energy left. They could not remember what they had read.”

In the future, struggling readers will be able to read what they need on a daily basis (medicine bottles, signs, menus, etc.), but for in-depth learning, struggling readers have far greater potential if given the support of text-to-speech technology.

Without the enabling tool of assistive technology these students would be denied access to content that allows them to learn at the same rate as the other students.

“Would you take a guide dog from an individual with a visual impairment?” questions Doctor Parr. “I offer that it is not our role to take something away, especially if it is enabling student engagement and self-efficacy. As readers, it is tough for us to fully understand, but if you introduce it, if you encourage it, and if you see the promise, you’ll be amazed at just how far your students can go.”

Teachers, parents and students can use solutions such as ReadSpeaker’s TextAid, Kurzweil’s Firefly or TextHelp’s Read&Write. They can even access a free trial of the complete ReadSpeaker text-to-speech solution and try it for themselves.

The real debate the community should be holding is why are we not making more of an effort to make this high efficacy educational technology available to all students in all learning environments.

For more, check out:

Amy Fowell is a consultant in education marketing. Follow ReadSpeaker on Twitter, .

Why Letting Youth “Run the Store” is Important for their Development & Life Success

John Weiss

It’s incredible what young people are capable of when adults have the courage to step back and give youth a chance to play authentic roles and make meaningful decisions.  At Neutral Zone, a youth-driven teen center in Ann Arbor Michigan, our emphasis is on providing youth voice, involvement and ownership at multiple levels of the organization.  This “youth-driven” approach helps youth achieve great things; at the same time it helps support healthy development, civic engagement and builds 21st century skills and socio-emotional competencies.


We start by letting youth have an authentic voice in our creative programs in music, visual arts and poetry. They not only create works and products driven by their own interests and ideas, they lead the charge for promoting and managing performances and exhibitions for themselves and others. Teens at Neutral Zone run their own 400-person concert venue, the B-Side, and book concerts of their peers. Teens also curate themed visual arts shows, providing a space for hundreds of teen artists to exhibit their works.  They also publish books of their peers and professional authors through our Red Beard Press.


Additionally, Neutral Zone teens drive their own programs.  We train them to serve as facilitators in our weekly programs, with adult staff serving as advisors. Teen facilitators develop agendas, run the meetings, ask guiding questions, and use active strategies to keep their peers engaged.

Neutral Zone’s Teen Advisory Council (TAC) decides what programs are offered at the center. TAC runs an annual fundraiser to raise money to grant to other programs. At the end of each year, the TAC teens conduct a program evaluation and present their findings to the Board.

At the highest levels of the organization, half of the members of the Board of Directors are teens. They are full voting members and sit on every Board committee, from human resources to finance. Teens do things that adults might normally be reluctant to let them do. They help cultivate donors, hire the leader of the organization, approve budgets, and discuss sensitive staffing issues.

Through 18 years of developing and practicing our “youth-driven” model, we’ve learned a lot of lessons that we have been sharing to help other programs support youth.  We believe many of these lessons can help parents better support their children.  Some of the most important ideas include:

  • Look for ways to support intrinsic motivationIntrinsic motivation is a powerful engine of learning and positive development.  Youth engagement and perseverance flourishes when they are involved in activities and structures that offer them a sense of control, tap their curiosity and challenge them in positive ways.  Parents should seek out programs for their children in school and after-school that tap this important motivator by helping kids pursue their passions.  Within the family structure too, parents can look for more ways to give children choice, control and challenge.  It might start by letting them design or decorate their own rooms.  It can further happen by inviting them to participate in planning or selecting family vacations or events.
  • Pay Attention to their Developmental Needs. Adolescents are at a critical time in their development, where their bodies and brains are growing faster than any other time in their lives besides infancy.  In their social development, they are developing identities outside of their families and in the larger community. Parents should recognize and accept their children’s special developmental stage – and understand that trying out new identities is their job as adolescents.  Furthermore, giving children opportunities to be more autonomous, make choices, and have meaningful involvement are all part of helping them become successful adults.
  • Ask Questions. One of the strategies we employ to tap youths’ curiosity, reasoning ability, creativity, and independence is by asking “open ended” questions. Questions help youth consider options, think critically, be reflective, and meaningfully consider options and ideas. Open-ended questions show youth that we trust them to have good ideas, think for themselves, and contribute. It helps them build a sense of autonomy and competence – leading to engagement and a deeper investment in their pursuits, whether it is at home, school or in after-school programs.
  • Exposure to Natural mentorsYouth need adults in their lives, outside of their parents, to help support their healthy development. Exposing youth to community leaders, youth workers, and neighbors helps them develop relationships with others that they can learn from while building their own social capital. These relationships are often most meaningful to youth when they can gravitate to the adults who they feel a natural affinity; this is different than traditional mentoring programs, which rely on a fixed pairing.

Giving young people voice, choice and decision-making opportunities is critical to support their healthy development and life success. They need to make decisions, act on their intentions and work collaboratively in school, in after-school programs and in family structures. Providing these opportunities before they become full adults is critical if we want them to have the best chance at success in their personal, educational, civic and work lives.

For more, check out:

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

john-weiss-headshot-75x75John Weiss served as the Executive Director of the Neutral Zone (NZ), Ann Arbor’s Teen Center for 9 years and has been serving as its Director of Strategic Initiatives since January. Follow him on Twitter, @youthdriven.