What To Expect When You’re Expecting…The Every Student Succeeds Act

By Samantha Tankersley

The Unexpected Bipartisan Deal

For eight years, Congress tried–and failed–to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Despite broad agreement on the need to overhaul key provisions of the law, there was little consensus on the exact solutions. A central element of the debate was defining a federal role that balanced state authority with protections for struggling students. By 2015 however, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the conditions the Administration placed on waivers from the law had grown incredibly unpopular on the left and the right.
Much to the surprise of the education world, in December 2015 President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the conference report to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It passed the House by a vote of 359 – 64 and the Senate by a vote of 85-12.
The strong bipartisan vote of support was generated by a compromise federal framework that substantially reduces the federal role and gives more authority to states and school systems while also maintaining accountability for the success of all students by preserving annual assessments and key reporting requirements.

An Uncertain First 18 Months

As you can see in the timeline below, Congress has given states a full 18-months to transition to ESSA (new accountability requirements and most new opportunities do not take effect until the 2017-18 school year). This transition period gives states a tremendous opportunity to use their new authority to adopt innovative approaches to accountability and promote state-determined policy priorities.
But states also face uncertainty from a number of sources:

  • Legal uncertainty. While ESSA returns a ton of authority to the states, that authority is not absolute. The legislation includes a number of unclear provisions that must be clarified through U.S. Department guidance or regulations.
  • Stretched state capacity. Most states must unwind their ESEA waivers and continue their transitions to new assessment systems, all while revising their accountability systems to meet new requirements and take advantage of new flexibility.
  • Presidential election. In case you haven’t heard, a new President–and a new Secretary of Education–will assume office in January 2017. This new Administration will take over the implementation process, including the approval of new state accountability plans. Or, in a worst case scenario, they could change the regulations and the entire approval process.

Don’t Panic: What States Can Do Now

State policymakers should not overreact–in fact, they have an incredible opportunity to advance bold reforms and new innovations.
As the timeline helps illustrate, states should not use the 2016 legislative session to make major changes to their accountability systems that may be out of compliance with ESSA before the U.S. Department of Education has issued crucial regulations interpreting the new law.
However, states should begin to plan around several important strands of work:

  • Build consensus for a thoughtful transition to a strengthened state education system. The 18-month implementation timeline gives states an opportunity to be thoughtful about their transition to the new law. States should: begin looking at data on what is/is not working under their current system; consult with national state level education reform groups as well as local education leaders; and build political will around rigorous and fair school accountability systems and other state-determined priorities.
  • Prepare for new accountability requirements and responsibilities. States should begin to think about how to use the new flexibility to improve accountability. For example, states ought to begin to consider which additional indicator of school quality or student success is most appropriate to include in their accountability systems. Many indicators and measures are important, but would be better included in the new school report cards instead of the systems that identify which schools need improvement.
  • Identify menu of school interventions. Perhaps the least discussed area of ESSA implement that will be the most challenging is identifying the interventions and supports for the low performing schools identified by state accountability systems. Under NCLB, states were prescribed a cascading set of federal consequences (including tutoring and school choice) for schools that failed to meet performance targets.

Under ESSA, those interventions are completely up to the state and districts. States should start to think about what interventions they want in their “turnaround toolbox” such as recovery school districts, turning over the management of a school to a high performing charter organization, creating an intensive reading intervention program, or using digital learning models to help improve student learning.

  • Lead with fewer, better tests. States have the opportunity to use federal funds to audit their assessment systems to identify unnecessary or duplicative tests. They can also experiment with new, more efficient assessment delivery options involving computer-adaptive assessments or rolling up interim assessments into a single result at the end of the year.
  • Prepare for new opportunities for innovation. States should start to identify the policy priorities they would like to support using their allotment of a new Student Support and Academic Enrichment block grant, which could equal up to $1.6 billion (depending on annual appropriations). These funds can be used to help accelerate state literacy, STEM, arts, or computer science programs.

They could also be used to help schools acquire the tools and connectivity to support personalized learning. The Weighted Student Funding pilot will provide up to 50 districts with the opportunity to advance student-centered funding reforms and create the proof points needed for future reauthorizations to include full funding portability supporting choice.

ESSA Resources:

ExcelinEd Information and Resources on the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

For more, see:

Samantha Tankersley serves as Policy Coordinator for The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd). Follow ExcelinEd on Twitter @ExcelinEd

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

4 Ways to Use Project-Based Learning to Support English Language Learners

If you are a teacher in America, chances are you have an English Language Learner (ELL) in your classroom. Take note: that number–approximately 10% of students currently–is rising. How do you reach and teach ELLs? If you currently teaching using project-based learning (PBL) as an engagement lever or pedagogy, or if you aspire to, you may find some inspiration in the educators we interviewed to tell how us how PBL is being used to support language learning and acquisition.
Buck Institute for Education is an organization whose mission is to create, gather, and share high-quality project-based learning practices and products. Members of the organization recently traveled with their national faculty to an island off the coast of California to lead professional development around how project-based learning (PBL) can reach all students. This includes the increasing number of English Language Learners (ELLs) across the United States.
As a network of project-based schools, New Tech Network (NTN) thinks about how to design projects–and a school-wide culture that supports them–one that is effective and inspiring. “We don’t want to teach language or content to our ELL students, we want to teach language plus content, and we want it to be meaningful with social purpose,” says Alix Horton, NTN Literacy Coach.
Sache Crouch, ELL teacher for Shelby County Schools (Memphis, TN) said, “Using PBL in my ESL classroom has proven to be an effective strategy. It allows me focus on the required standards-based content and it requires interest from my students. It relates to something meaningful and useful in their lives.”
Suzie Boss and John Larmer, authors of PBL for the 21st Century: Teaching Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication and Creativity, offer insights from their book in order to utilize PBL to engage and teach ELLs.
Here are 4 best practices for using PBL with English Language Learners.

Encourage academic content that is broken down for comprehensible input.

This idea of building schema is one way in which ELL students really benefit from PBL. Projects allow students to experience through creating and therefore pulling knowledge that they already have–despite the language.
Alix notes that schools need to be very intentional and thoughtful as to how scaffolding comes into play, from the initial explanation of the project to the student’s presentation of their work. For example, presenting can be terrifying for ELL students, which is why teachers should have a plan to help practice and prepare (start with the individual, then practice in pairs, then small groups, etc). You use language to present to an audience and content is embedded.
Alix says that the tendency can be to have ELL curriculum simplified rather than amplified, which is why she has really appreciated the tools and resources from Understanding Language at Stanford. It is important to recognize project-based learning as authentic instruction, and integrating deeper learning and collaborative discourse can be really good for ELL students.

Some of the initial work of the cohorts has focused on supporting ELL students in building and presenting arguments. They have found that rethinking something as simple as a graphic organizer can be extremely helpful in supporting students in pulling evidence from text and sorting through that evidence to find the best support to an argument. Extending the opportunity for more guided practice has been key. NTN is excited to see that these cohort are also starting to spontaneously scale at the individual school sites. For these cohorts, it really starts with a deep analysis of student work and using the best practices they know to be true to intentionally scaffold learning.

Engage students in meaningful learning through flexible, individualized strategies and practical time limits and goals.

Consider this example of PBL in Sache’s classroom: “In Memphis we live about 120 miles from New Madrid Fault line. Students were curious about earthquakes and how it would impact our city. Earthquakes are also a part of the science standards. The goal of the assignment was to create a news broadcast using iMovie to reflect what would happen if there were a strong earthquake at the New Madrid fault line. What are the effects?  How do earthquakes occur?  Students worked cooperatively and also had individual roles/assignments based on levels.  Mini-grammar lessons throughout focusing on oral and written language. Peer and self assessments of learning. Time frame was 4-6 weeks. Once completed, we invited other classes to watch our broadcasts with us.”

Model PBL for all educators.

New Tech Network has built a cohort of educators that are using improvement science to develop better supports for their ELL students. The work, supported by a Hewlett Foundation grant, allows teachers and schools with similar concerns to come together to analyze the problem, figure out ideas for change and go back to individual schools sites to try ideas out. It is an opportunity for these project-based learning (PBL) teachers to take on their own project. They work to divide the problem into parts, spend time working on each part individually, then come back together regularly to share findings and iterate. The biggest challenge can be the process itself. It is a very disciplined cycle that requires the time and energy of already very busy individual teachers, but it has turned out to be a great example of what growth mindset looks like at the adult level — the teachers have to be comfortable trying strategies and reporting back both their successes and failures.

Promote discussion and dialogue among peers and student/teacher.

Good teachers who do PBL encourage work cooperatively with peers. “PBL is an excellent tool,” says Amy Carrington, a teacher at Tuttle Middle School in Indiana. “Through projects, students explore language in depth, building from what they know.”
How do you use project-based learning to Support ELL students? Share with us your ideas at #SupportELL.
This blog is part of the Supporting English Language Learners Series with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned for the culminating podcast, infographic and publication.
To engage in professional learning about PBL, check out the upcoming conference, PBL World in Napa Valley June 13-16 and join in the conversation using #PBLWorld.
For more see:


EdTech 10: Going Deep with Deeper Learning

This year’s Deeper Learning conference focused on equity and entry points to deeper learning. From the maker movement to empathy hacks for school wide change, this conference covered the tangible and practical while also encouraging us all to advocate for equitable access to education for all students.
Powerful student and educator speakers from High School for the Recording Arts showed videos and spoke about their art and craft, relationships with their teachers and students and the power of unconditional support. Promising practices in the equity movement exist. Who can you/your organization connect with in this great group of edleaders, teachers and organizations who are supporting all of our students? From the people at Buck Institute for Education, Envision Schools, New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, Internationals Network for Public Schools and many more, as well as educators from districts around the country and around the world, we know this work saves lives.
As Tom Vander Ark has quoted from the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, “Deep work is the killer app for the idea economy.” Let’s go deep.

Blended Schools & Tools

1. Hi-yah! Online classroom sharing platform ClassDojo announced that school leaders will now be able to join and participate in ClassDojo discussions alongside the teachers, parents and students in their school in order to connect whole schools. In addition, all teachers and school leaders in a school will now be able to safely and easily communicate with all parents in their school on ClassDojo.

Dollars & Deals

2. Start me up. Degreed, which offers tools for tracking lifelong learning and earning additional credentials, recently acquired Gibbon, a European startup that helps students learn by curating and sharing playlists of learning-related content. 


3. Opportunity to thrive. Our friends at Mayerson launched an amazing opportunity for schools and districts to prioritize social emotional learning (SEL) through its “Transforming School Cultures for Student Success” Request for Proposal (RFP). The grant opportunity will help schools create Thriving Learning Communities and is open to U.S. public, private or parochial schools committed to increasing student motivation, engagement, learning and performance in grades 5-8. Visit the Thriving RFP section on the website to learn more.

Stem Gems

4. Ready. Set. Code. Thanks to the BBC, its Micro:bit is in the hands of one million 11 & 12 year-olds across the UK this week, who are now able to build an air guitar, a step counter, a pocket pet or a fishing game. The hope in this mass distribution is to boost students’ coding education and further ignite interest in STEM fields. Getting Smart’s Mary Ryerse wrote about this great device and her son’s experience with it in her blog Technology Will Save Us is Powering MakerEd in UK

5. To infinity and beyond. Arizona State University has received a $10.18 million grant from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Education Community to create new, digital science courseware that engages students through virtual simulations and hands-on exploration of science. During the five-year program, ASU-based teams will work with the Inspark Science Network and ASU’s Center for Education Through eXploration (ETX) to develop a new way of learning and teaching through exploration of the unknown, at scale, via a digital learning design platform.

Higher, Deeper, Further, Faster Learning

6. Stay on target. The University of California at San Diego is in the process of rolling out its “Time to Degree Early Warning System” that aims to condense millions of data points into a simple metric used to determine if students are in danger of taking longer than four years to graduate. The system could one day automatically suggest helpful programs and services to students who show signs of falling behind.

7 . To a higher degree. Tom Vander Ark highlighted the work of the Lumina Foundation on HuffPost Business this week. The Indianapolis-based foundation is focused on quality degrees as well as recognized job credentials, and is leading efforts to boost America’s higher education attainment rate from about 40% to 60% by 2025.

Policy Pieces

8. Policy priorities. iNACOL, an organization that provides policy advocacy and lawmaker education on core policy issues related to personalized, next generation learning, released 11 Strategic Policy Priorities to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning. The list provides recommendations for policymakers to consider that will foster innovation, expand access to educational opportunity and ensure quality. Policies include: innovation zones and pilots, broadband access, student data privacy, competency-based systems and several more. See iNACOL’s newly enacted strategic plan for more information.

Teachers and Tech-ers

9. Planning master. Pearson released its 2016 Science and Engineering White Paper with Educator Case Studies and Implementation Worksheets detailing the results of successful Mastering and MyReadinessTest implementations. It offers best practices and, for the first time, combines the Implementation Planning Toolkit and the Results White Paper. The white paper combines technology implementation planning toolkit with case studies and worksheets to facilitate strategic decision making for course redesign.

Let’s Get Personalized

10. Learning the Charleston. CompetencyWorks just kicked off a new blog series based on visits Chris Sturgis made to Charleston County School District (CCSD), where she witnessed a district of staff, personalized learning coaches, principals, teachers and partners engaged in working toward effectively introducing personalized, competency-based education in medium- to large-sized districts.

For more EdTech 10’s, check out:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Transforming Teaching and Learning at an Early Age: EPISD Early Childhood Integration Model

By Tim Holt
The El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) in El Paso Texas is a district that is in the midst of a system-wide cultural change. One of those systemic changes is the shift away from traditional teaching and learning strategies towards a more personalized, active learning model. Another shift is away from paper pencil assignments towards more digitally infused activities that engage students and teachers as well. The district is also on a path towards a districtwide dual language approach where students learn their content in equal parts English and Spanish.

Early Dual Language Learners

Nowhere is that more evident than in EPISD’s Early Childhood Technology Integration Program. This program, the brainchild of the District’s Director of Connecting Languages Mariana Balsiger, combines technology in the district’s early childhood classes (Pre-kinder to Second grade) across the district that promotes learning in two languages through the use of content creation programs.
“We do not want our students using technology as just a substitute for paper-pencil exercises,” stated Balsiger. “We want our students creating, connecting and using technology in ways that simply cannot be done with older pedagogical techniques. We want to transform learning and we can do this through a combination of technology and pedagogical shifts.”
Working with the district’s early childhood teachers and the District’s Instructional Technology Specialists, Balsiger and her team researched how to use technology (iPads) to move beyond simple “click and get” programs. The teachers were tasked with finding programs (apps) that would engage the students, and would be used to create a program that integrated a combination of technology as well as a blend of traditional small group teaching.
The stated goal of the teacher’s work is to increase the use of oral language and content appropriate vocabulary in both English and Spanish at the district’s Title 1 Campuses.

Active and Blended Learning Engagement

The result is the EPISD Early Childhood Integration program, where teachers use active learning strategies with their students, blended learning (such as the station rotation model) in all classes and an emphasis on writing in all of the core (Science, Math, Social Studies and English Language Arts) content areas.
The program supplies each teacher’s class with a set of eight iPads, which can be used in station models or in small group settings. The preloaded apps that have been vetted by program teachers to achieve the stated goals above. These apps are heavy on content creation, not on simply looking at the screen and clicking on a picture. For instance, students might use a program such as Sock Puppets to create a small conversation between two characters that explains a concept that they learned in class. The “puppets” might have a bilingual conversation, with one of the them speaking in English and another in Spanish. In any case, the technology makes the lesson outcome more engaging, more memorable and more fun.
All teachers in the program received ongoing professional development that includes work on the Pentadura SAMR model of technology integration. The hope is that teachers use the SAMR model to reflect deeply on how lessons are truly integrating technology into the learning cycle. Of course, professional development also includes the proper use of the provided technology. Many teachers will gravitate towards low hanging fruit when it comes to having students integrate technology, but the El Paso program emphasizes the state of Texas’ Technology Application standards that are based largely on the ISTE NETS for students.

Is This Model Working?

Is the El Paso model a success? Early indicators are that it is. The combination of Active Learning Strategies, Blended Learning models, Technology Integration and dual language learning seems to be potent. Teachers report students being more engaged, usage of the technology is higher than in similar campuses without the program and teachers report a certain level of excitement themselves from the change.
There is little argument that the dual language approach to teaching and learning creates students that will be more successful not only in later in their academic career but in their post academic life. The El Paso model seems to be, at least in its early stages, a model for early childhood academic success.
This blog is part of the Supporting English Language Learners Series with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned for the culminating podcast, infographic and publication.
For more see:

Tim Holt is the Director of Instructional Technology for the El Paso Independent School District. Follow him on Twitter: @timholt2007 and on Holtthink.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Going Public: The Power of Local, Community Partners in PBL

By Mike Kaechele
Ever have a project that students don’t get very excited about? Chances are that it was lacking a quality audience and purpose.
Deciding on the right public product that is authentic to students can be one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of designing a gold standard project-based learning (PBL) project. Sometimes teachers try to force a project on a set of standards in an artificial way. A way to avoid this is to start with an excellent, local partner.

How We “Went Public”

In our community, Grand Rapids, a couple of local citizens started an organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater, dedicated to removing dams from the Grand River in order to restore the original rapids for economic and ecological reasons. They raised money and political capital until it became obvious that their dream was going to become a reality. My colleagues and I immediately recognized that this was going to be the biggest change to our city in decades. We had to get our students involved!
Our team recognized ties to science standards in ecology and social studies standards around the development of cities, urbanization, and the long-term effects of industrialization. We decided to have our students build a scale model of Grand Rapids around the river. Students researched and made surveys, and then designed new features for the community. Students used geometry to scale their model. English standards were met with written reports and public speaking to communicate their learning.
Students were so excited by the authenticity of the project because it was tied to a real purpose in their community. After weeks of hard work and preparation, we had a showcase that included many important guests including one of the co-founders of Grand Rapids Whitewater.
We had never seen so much student buy-in before. Students got excited about the project and selected themselves as leaders. At one point when student leaders had a meeting about logistics and communication for the project, they turned to the teachers and said, “We don’t need you right now. We got this.” Students took over and owned the project in ways that we had never anticipated.

So how can you design a project with maximum local impact? Here are three steps to connect your students.

1. Brainstorm Potential Partners

You might be surprised by how many connections you already have. By yourself or with colleagues, brainstorm potential partners by asking yourself questions such as:

  • What businesses or organizations are active in our community?
  • What kinds of community events are popular in our area?
  • What is the “hottest” local trend in your area?
  • What is your community “famous” for?
  • Who is doing something unique in business, education, or community service in your area?
  • What professionals do you know who are doing meaningful work in your community?

Make a list of the biggest annual events, important community events, local leaders in their fields, higher educational institutions, major businesses, natural resources, etc in your area. Even better, brainstorm this list with your students. Consider making a parent survey to find out what experiences and connections that they have that could be a community partner for you.

2. Connect to Standards

Look for connections between your community connections to the standards in your curriculum. Science and social studies standards connect with a myriad of local topics. English standards apply to the research and documenting of your project. Math calculations are needed as you design solutions.
If you are an elementary school teacher, consider how things on the list may connect with multiple subjects that could be integrated into one project. Secondary teachers could team up with different content areas to integrate a gold standard project.

3. Connect to Partners

Finally, connect with individuals in the context that you have targeted. Connect by an email, phone call or personal visit. Challenge students to take on the roles of connecting with the community also. This is a great opportunity to teach students how to communicate in a professional manner. Students may get better results than adults, and it will get them excited about the project.
If one door closes, don’t bail on the project, but be persistent until you find someone willing to work with you. Finding local partners takes some effort, but the payoff for students is so worth it!
This post is in partnership with Buck Institute for Education (BIE) as part of part of a blog campaign titled Getting Smart on Edu Blogging. BIE national faculty are writing about how project-based learning (PBL) is engaging students and transforming classrooms and schools. To engage in professional learning about PBL, check out the upcoming conference, PBL World in Napa Valley June 13-16 and join in the conversation using #PBLWorld.
For more, see:

Mike Kaechele is a National Faculty member of Buck Institute for Education and uses American History to teach students to think critically, evaluate bias, empathize with others and to make a difference in the world. Follow him on Twitter: @mikekaechele

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Putting the “Learner” in Learner-Centered STEM

High school freshman Arnold Langat investigated the role of radio-magnetic frequencies on the grazing habits of animals. He won the school network-wide science fair, took the leading prize at the Fort Worth Regional Science Fair, and will now compete in the State Science Fair in San Antonio and on the world stage at the I-SWEEEP in Houston. Of course not all students in Harmony Public Schools take the top prize, but each of the 30,000 students in 46 Harmony schools do have the same opportunities as Arnold. That’s because they’re in a school that focuses on Learner-Centered STEM–a model of learning that is possible at scale for all students.
We invited the Harmony community to describe the learner experience–what learning looks and feels like for students, how that differs from learning in a traditional classroom and why this makes Learner-Centered STEM a powerful way to learn!

What Do Students Say?

We heard from students that it comes down to these four things:

  • Academic Support
  • Positive School Culture
  • Relationships
  • Focus on College, Career and Life

Academic Support. “It is a school that allows me to use my full potential. The classes are challenging and varied; the teachers are helpful and their techniques for teaching are the best. After school programs are interesting, educational and a fun way to expend your time. There are many students that don’t know how to speak, write or read English like me, and they provide a lot of help for us. They provide help for the students who have learning problems.” Lorena G., 11th grader at Harmony Science Academy-North Austin, 11th Grade
“I have the opportunity to get one-on-one help from teachers and counselors. I can visit the counselor anytime I want.” Jesus R., Harmony Science Academy Brownsville, 8th grade
Positive School Culture. “This is a small and safe environment. Here everybody knows each other and the teachers are really helpful, as compared to other schools where there are too many students for the teachers to really pay attention to every single one of them. To them you are just a number. I have been in Harmony since I was in the 4th grade and it’s been great getting to know a lot of people. It is also the best place for me because you really form a bond with the friends that you make in school and you can learn together, and it’s just a good place to be.” Gabriella O., Harmony Science Academy-North Austin, 10th Grade
“I choose Harmony because of all my friends and family that told me it was a good school. When I came, I saw that it was all true. Everyone was nice and helpful. It’s a privilege to go to a school like this. Teachers treat you like a real person. School is fun and they have so many fun activities. I also love that they support no bullying which is a great policy.” Anonymous Harmony Student

Relationships. “There is a lot of diversity at the school. I have been exposed to many languages and cultures that I wouldn’t have even heard of if I didn’t go to Harmony school. I have also made a lot of friends that I have cultural ties with, something none of my friends that don’t go to Harmony has been able to say. The classes are small so you really get to know your classmates and are able to interact with your teachers to do better in school. There are actually a lot of things to do at the school, we just have to work together and get them ourselves, which has perks to teach kids to work for something they want. Overall I have many stories and interesting experiences coming from my 7 years at this school.” Naurin N., Harmony Science Academy-North Austin, 11th GradeLearner-Centered STEM at Harmony Public Schools

Focus on College, Career and Life. “Teachers and staff make sure I get a good education and care about my life and future which is an extra support to succeed in college and life.” Brenda, Harmony Science Academy-El Paso, 11th grade
“Harmony is a good place for me because it gives me opportunities that I want to achieve in my future career. I get an excellent explanation of how the real world will be like.” E. Montano, Harmony Science Academy San Antonio student
“It helps me grow as a student and citizen.” Anonymous 12th Grade Student, Harmony Science Academy

What Do Teachers Say?

Across the network, Harmony teachers described the learner experience in many ways, confirming what students had to say about their own experiences as learners. They described Learner-Centered STEM as:

  • “Student centered and active learning through hands-on projects where students take charge of their own learning through research, collaboration and dialogue with peers.”
  • “Hands on learning and relevance to daily life.”
  • “Student-led, problem-solving classrooms.”
  • “Structured chaos as students work on projects and discuss and collaborate.”

  • “Individualized learning opportunities.”

  • “Authentic research on weekly basis.”

  • “Students following their own interests and ideas and incorporating those things into their studies.”

  • “Student driven and personal.”

  • “Peer to peer interaction via project based learning.”

  • “Students aspiring to expand their views.”

  • “Personalized and highly STEM-focused.”

  • “Authentic and relevant.”

Strategies for Creating a Learner-Centered STEM Environment

A truly learner-centered model doesn’t happen without instructional strategies that empower and engage students.
Harmony Instructional Coach Robert Thornton explains, “Within classrooms that truly implement the Harmony model, learning looks like students engaging students within a safe intellectual environment that is planned, structured and supported by a teacher. At its best you will observe students who are excited to share their learning gains with their teacher. Not right answers but actual, sometimes painful, strides forward in academic skill.”
Harmony Project Director Burak Yilmaz adds, “Learning looks fun and engaging in Harmony thanks to our unique PBL approach. (See STEMSOS.com for more info on the model.) From what I observe in the classrooms, it feels authentic and relevant to students. They feel like what they are learning matters and they feel and express their growth through projects both academically and socially. They get to be vocal about their learning and use data and arguments to support their reasoning. They get to form and test hypotheses and share their findings with peers and teachers. Their learning is experiential and dynamic, not static like memorizing mere facts and formulas as we typically see in traditional settings.”
Creating and sustaining an environment that looks like this takes dedication, time and energy. Teachers play a vital role in making the Harmony vision a reality for students.
Learner-Centered STEM at Harmony Public Schools We’ll focus more on teachers and their role as learning facilitators in the next blog in our “Getting Smart on Learner-Centered STEM” series. So far we’ve learned from engaging with the Harmony community that in a learner-centered model, teachers and leaders must:

  • Act as Facilitators and Guides
  • Provide Anytime, Anywhere and On-Demand Support
  • Embody Core Values
  • Truly Encourage Students Drive Their Own Learning
  • Create Real-World and Authentic Learning Experiences
  • Leverage Technology to Personalize Learning
  • Commit to Professional and Personal Growth

Make no mistake; being a student, teacher or leader in a Harmony Public School isn’t easy. Expectations are high across the board. It’s this balance of “high press and high support” that creates the conditions where both kids and adults thrive. Nearly every teacher we connected with had a story to tell that confirmed why everyone is willing to put forth the effort.
From the ELL student who struggled through middle school Math then by tenth grade decided to pursue a STEM major in college, to the student who was sure he could disprove Einstein and was encouraged to do so.  There was the young student who said she had never imagined she would take AP Physics, then went on to pass after completing a PBL STEM project that she was so proud of she said she would share it with her grandchildren. There’s the student who started off disengaged and disinterested who, thanks to commitment and collaboration between the teachers and his family, went on to earn third place in the Regional Science Fair and later a Silver Medal with his Coding project using Scratch, and gained a newfound confidence and motivation to succeed.
While Harmony Public Schools have the tools and technology to create next-gen learning experiences, it’s not the 3D printers or Chromebooks that make the STEMSOS model work for students. It’s a system that puts–and keeps–students at the center.
For more see:

This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Learner-Centered STEM” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Harmony Public Schools (@HarmonyEDU). Join the conversation on Twitter using #STEMSOS.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Teaching the Teacher: Lesson Planning and Powerful PD in One

By Suzanne Simons
Have you ever watched a child learn to tie shoes? It’s no coincidence that most children learn to tie their shoes (after much trying and failing) just at the point when they seek independence from adults. It all begins when they realize they need their shoes for important independent things like running and playing games on their own, and when their fingers finally have the motor control to be able to wrap and pull those laces tight.
Vygotsky called this moment the Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP), and teachers spend their days seeking each students’ ZDP in order to provide them with just the right scaffolding to acquire that new knowledge and expertise. These learning moments are often magical for both teachers and students in the way they combine apparent ease of learning with just the right amount of productive struggle.
Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) tools work a lot like this shoe-tying analogy. They were developed to provide teachers with a way to intentionally create more of those extraordinary moments with their students by providing just the right amount of scaffolding for teacher planning. The reward in using these is two-fold. Students learn the content of the disciplines plus the literacy skills they need to acquire that content, and have fun while learning. Teachers learn new things about their own instructional craft and have fun collaborating with their peers.

Saturn Elementary School and LDC

Della and Tiffany are teachers at Saturn Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified School District. They began using LDC to teach close reading to their Kindergarten and fifth-grade students. Then they moved on to writing longer reading-to-text assignments that build enduring skills from one lesson to the next.
By meeting weekly in their professional learning community, these teachers discovered something far beyond lesson planning. They discovered that their weekly collaboration around their LDC planning work was helping them get “unstuck” as teachers.
“We were so used to doing things the way we always had and I think I was really stuck,” said Tiffany.“Working with my teaching partners has helped me become inspired again, because I’m learning so much while I’m doing my lesson planning.”

Student Instruction and Professional Development Tool

What LDC offers Della, Tiffany and teachers like them across the country is a system of tools that not only helps them provide more critical moments of instruction for their students’ learning, but for their own as well.
Using the LDC tools to plan for student learning builds teachers’ own skills, fosters teachers’ own developing teaching competencies, and it helps teachers have those same magical moments of struggle and learning that they are creating for their students. For these teachers, LDC serves a double purpose—nurturing learning in themselves while nurturing learning in their students.
LDC assignment templates are fill-in-the-blank prompts that teachers use to write sturdy, standards-driven assignment tasks for their students. Because the templates contain the cognitive demands highlighted and privileged in academic standards, teachers can be assured that their students will be thinking critically and deeply when working on an LDC assignment. And because the structure of the prompts requires that interesting content be combined with engaging questions, students thrill at the chance to learn new content with the right amount of support.
Teaching students is how a teacher also learns, and to continue doing this work well they must improve and refine their skills. They are needed in the classroom though, which makes going outside the school for professional learning a challenge. With LDC they can plan, teach, tie their shoes, guide students in tying their own and move together from one extraordinary moment to another. LDC is helping teachers learn while doing the regular work of teaching.  What could be better?
This blog is part of a series brought to you by Literacy Design Collaborative. Sign up for your free account a tcoretools.ldc.org/login. For more, stay tuned in April for the final published Smart Bundle, Getting Smart on Teachers as Collaborative Curriculum Designers, and the accompanying podcast and infographic. You can also check out additional posts in the series here:

Suzanne Simons is Chief Academic Officer at Literacy Design Collaborative. Follow LDC on Twitter: @LitDesignCollab.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

How World Language Learning and Global Competence Complement Each Other

Meriwynn Mansori, Manager of Curriculum, VIF International Education
In a statement marking 2015’s International Education Week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted the issue of equal access for students to experiences and opportunities that build global competency and noted that, “access to world language courses and overseas educational experiences are still considered luxuries, rather than essential components of a well-rounded, world-class education.”
Educational organizations widely cite proficiency in another language as a key component of global competency and 21st century learning. If, as Duncan said, these are still luxuries available to a select few, how do we create the conditions to make high-quality language learning opportunities available to more students?
VIF Article 6_Graphic 1
While evidence demonstrates the cognitive and academic benefits of dual language immersion programs, we can’t currently provide those experiences to all of our students. However, basic world language classes or programs are already part of the infrastructures of almost all U.S. school systems. By focusing world language programs on building students’ proficiency and global competence, we can use existing educational infrastructure to provide high-quality, meaningful language learning experiences to larger populations of students. Here is what it takes:
Use world language instruction to enhance global competence skills.
Proficiency in another language is a key component of global competence–but second language proficiency does not guarantee global competence.
Development of those skills still requires exposure to the cultural contexts of languages. Only a small percentages of students are able to study abroad or participate in dual language immersion programs, so world language learning experiences in the U.S. must include deeper explorations of the often subtle cultural dimensions of learning a language generally gained through immersion or study abroad experiences.
VIF 2 Article 6_Definition 1For example, in traditional world language courses students learn the formal and informal ways to address different people, but they may not be instructed on the cultural dimensions of power distance. Absent the cultural knowledge around power distance, the choice of using or usted may seem minor but it is actually laden with cultural nuance around showing respect. A recent flap in which a Spanish journalist addressed King Felipe using the informal underlines the importance of understanding the culture contexts for language variations in countries where the language is spoken.

VIF 3 Article 6_Graphic 2

Additionally, language learning is another area where students can personalize their learning through inquiry approaches that allow them to make relevant connections to the content they are learning. A lesson about the cuisines of Spanish- speaking countries becomes an opportunity for perspective taking when students explore cultural differences around what is acceptable to eat and why. In Peru, the guinea pig is a delicacy but in the U.S. it holds a privileged status as house pet. On the other hand, the U.S. relies heavily on processed and genetically modified foods that are often banned in other countries. Students might explore local connections with groups that speak the target language in their communities to engage with issues that matter to them.
Support world language teachers in increasing instructional time in the target language and their knowledge of cultural contexts.
For world language teachers to create classroom environments that produce proficient second language speakers, they must be prepared to confidently and effectively utilize the target language during instruction at least 90 percent of the time. This requires tools and support for world language teachers to maintain or improve their own target language proficiency and to expand or enhance their own cultural contexts for the target language through classroom partnerships, study abroad opportunities and competency-based professional development.
At VIF International Education, we have been experimenting with a world language course structure that equips teachers to build global competence and Spanish proficiency in novice language learners at the same time. The course’s flipped learning structure helps students explore cultural aspects of Spanish-speaking countries. The design allows teachers to frontload information in English that would be inaccessible to novice learners in the target language. In class, teachers focus on creating student-led, project-based learning experiences that emphasize the use of Spanish at least 90% of the time.
Initial feedback from teachers piloting the course has been positive. One teacher, after teaching the formal and informal forms of address through the framework of power distance, observed, “My students truly know now when to use versus usted, not by memorizing a formula, but by understanding about formality, respect and power distance. I am happy to say that 100% of my students can really understand when to use each.”
We continue to refine approaches to support high-impact language experiences for students without access to immersion or study abroad experiences, and we recognize there is still work to be done. That work starts with defending the right of all students to high-quality educational experiences that prepare them to be global-ready citizens.
This post is part of a blog series on global education and equitable preparation in the classroom produced in partnership with VIF International Education (@vifglobaled). Join the conversation on Twitter using #globaled. For more, check out (Global Education and Equitable Preparationand:

Meriwynn Mansori is the Manager of Curriculum at VIF International Education. Follow Meriwynn on Twitter, @Meriwynn.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

To Leaderboard or Not: The Art of Motivating and Monitoring Performance

A few years ago I walked into an elementary school and all of the assignments for all of the students were displayed on a public data wall.
I appreciated the focus on achievement and the commitment to transparency, but it made me wonder if the practice produced positive effects. Could it actually be a serious detriment for many struggling students?
Leaderboard 1 600 pxw
Last year I spotted a string of progress charts hanging over the coat racks in a New England school where kids see it coming and going. Is it a great reminder that growth matters or a constant reminder that some kids are way behind?
Leaderboard 2 600 pxw
Last fall I visited NOLA schools and saw an extensive example of publicly posted graded written work product. It created a very clear picture of what good looked like but also made clear which students were struggling with writing or English language.
Leaderboard 3 600pxw
Down the hall from the writing was a GPA Wall where student names were listed in order. Probably a great incentive for top students, perhaps a source of discouragement for struggling students.
Leaderboard 4 600pxw

Leveling Up or Public Humiliation?

Most kids grow up playing video games these days, so they’re always somewhere on a leaderboard. But that’s different, it’s a voluntary environment with avatars and nicknames. What can we learn from gamification about motivating growth?
Steve Kamb created Nerd Fitness to turn life into a game. His book, Level Up Your Life, describes how gamifying things can increase engagement and turned self-improvement into a game using the same techniques that real games employ (listen to an interview).
Noel Fernando at Nerd Fitness said, “Leaderboards motivate some people. So having that option is really great for the members of our community with more competitive personalities. For others, it’s totally humiliating, and they opt out of participating.”
Your Fitbit and iPhone track your steps. Stridekick allows you to join a fitness challenge. Strava tracks and benchmarks your runs and bike rides against other enthusiasts. Like games, is the key that these are voluntary and (generally) anonymous leaderboard applications?

Does the Measure Matter?

Schools that value deeper learning encourage authentic work product and public presentations. The documentary Most Likely to Succeed features a High Tech High student that fails at public presentation of learning. How is that failure like or unlike notated academic failure on a GPA wall?
Positive versus negative motivation. Do they both lead to results? Do they have other impact in a student’s development, such as their feelings toward school and their ability to do well? How does this connect to growth mindset? Do the gold stars below motivate future performance? What about the students with little or no progress?
Leaderboard 5 600pxw

Math Measures

Because intermediate math appears to be the most frequent use of public leaderboards, we surveyed the adaptive math providers. Alex Khachatryan with adaptive middle grade math program Reasoning Mind said, “Our teachers use [leaderboards] in most of our 500+ schools.” (Watch for an interview with Dr. Khachatryan on performance monitoring.)
Other providers are more cautious. Here’s a representative response from an adaptive learning provider, “We aren’t big fans of leaderboards given concerns about public humiliation but some of our sites do use them.”
“Student leaderboards can be problematic on a number of different levels,” according to Tim Hudson from DreamBox. “Not everyone is motivated by competition so if they’re used at all, they should probably be opt-in.” Tim is worried that they they can create resentment. “Some math programs with competitive aspects show students getting excited and giving each other high-fives when they win; but in the background you can see the losing students are devastated. Similarly, leaderboards publicly show winners and losers, which can negatively impact a student’s growth mindset and agency.”
DreamBox doesn’t have student leaderboards, but does sponsor a school-based Math Challenge every March. “When classrooms set collective goals for completing a high number of DreamBox lessons, students encourage each other,” adds Hudson. Because students are working on different grade level content in DreamBox, it’s important to focus on a metric like “completed lessons” rather than how far students have advanced in the curriculum. Hudson thinks, “Any measurement used for a leaderboard should give everyone a reasonable shot at being in the top spot. That means the leaderboard should re-set frequently enough that it’s attainable for anyone. It’s demotivating and demoralizing to be so far behind that you have no chance of catching up.”
It’s pretty common to see a penguin progress charts in the 3500 schools that use ST Math (representing the mascot penguin JiJi). Sometimes it’s individual students, other times (like the picture below) it’s a class competition.
Leaderboard 6 600pxw
“We’ve seen DreamBox schools create their own leaderboards at the classroom and/or grade level,” said Tim Hudson. “When the first graders complete more lessons than the fifth graders in a week, it gets interesting. That approach helps peers encourage each other more than an individual leader board.”
This series will attempt to answer these questions:

  • What forms of performance monitoring best promote persistence and performance?
  • When and how are public data displays productive?
  • What differences exist between formal/compulsory and informal/voluntary environments?

Have advice on leaderboards or performance monitoring? Questions? Examples? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

How to Create Your Anywhere, Anytime Learning Playlist

By Lisa Haugh
My favorite playlists have purpose. I have playlists for running, when I need a consistent, high-energy beat, and playlists for paddle-boarding, when I prefer something I can zone out to.
You can build a customized learning playlist to get your career jamming too.

Pick your format

Your first step is to choose a learning platform, and the good news is you have plenty of options. A lot of students, especially those on a budget, head straight to Google and YouTube for educational content. While you’ll find unlimited sites and videos, it’s tedious and time-consuming to sift through so much content to determine which is right for you. Similarly, the level of quality is all over the map.
If you prefer more structure and an academic flavor, massive open online courses (MOOCs) affiliated with a university or college might be for you. In MOOCs, the course curriculum follows a set schedule, complete with deadlines and assignments. MOOCs are to be commended for helping students who couldn’t have attended these institutions otherwise, but the courses can be tough to keep up with if you’re already working full-time (or carrying a full course load) and have other time constraints. For MOOC, check out sites like edX, Coursera and Khan Academy.
If you prefer a subscription model à la Spotify and are okay with mostly tech and business courses, a private online learning provider might be the right fit. You might find it limiting, however, if you want to learn about a different field or sample a few categories to see what clicks. For subscription models, check out sites like SkillshareUdacity and Lynda
Finally, if you’d prefer to choose from a variety of instructors and course styles to build your own curriculum, you might give Udemy a try. Udemy is an online marketplace where anyone can take or teach a course. It offers the convenience of online learning but with more flexibility and a wider selection of topics. Rather than replicating university material online, Udemy courses are created by everyday experts from around the world who are passionate about sharing their knowledge.
Students are free to start in the middle of a course, start a new course without finishing the last one, etc., to craft the online learning experience that best fits their needs–whether that’s learning a very specific action like how to make a pivot table in Excel or a complete introduction to programming with Python. Among millennials, the most popular Udemy course categories are web development, programming languages, mobile apps, entrepreneurship and design tools.
But don’t just take my word for it. On Udemy, 68% of our students are millennials, the generation that first embraced the Internet to control their entertainment experiences too. Just as millennials watch whatever TV shows they want, whenever they want it, wherever they take their devices, now they’re flocking to “anywhere, anytime” learning for the same program-your-own experience. Here are a few success stories from real Udemy students:
Alexa. Moved to New York City after graduation to pursue her dream of working in an art gallery but had to take another job to pay the bills. She took courses to learn about marketing and transformed the job she thought she’d settled for into a different kind of dream job.

Lesson learned: Be broad-minded and proactive about upskilling, and amazing opportunities can open up to you.

Kyle. Figured he’d make his parents happy by becoming a doctor but realized med school would be a waste of time and money if he didn’t really want it. He took Udemy courses on programming, quit an insurance job he hated, and is now working as a developer.

Lesson learned: Don’t be trapped by others’ expectations; put in the work, and you can turn your your interests into a career.

John Anthony. Felt like he had no job skills when he graduated, but he did have a product idea, so he took entrepreneurship and tech courses to launch and grow his own business.

Lesson learned: You can be bold and carve your own path if you have access to resources and people to show you the ropes.

Mohamed. Majored in civil engineering but was passionate about sports management and wanted to switch fields without going back to school. An unenthusiastic college student, he discovered he loves learning online and has successfully changed his career path.

Lesson learned: Your major is not your destiny, and you can learn (and enjoy it), even if traditional education wasn’t a fit for you.

Anthony. After working as a freelancer, he aspired to a full-time UX design job but didn’t think he was qualified. He upskilled with Udemy and got his dream job.

Lesson learned: Believe in yourself; with hard work and grit, great things come within reach.

Do your homework

Whether you’re thinking ahead to college, getting ready to graduate, or have just embarked on your career, learning is the key to reaching your goals and building the life you imagine for yourself.
In order to get the most value out of your online course-taking, here are a few things to consider:

  • Budget: Subscription services can be expensive, so make sure you’ll be able to take enough courses to justify a monthly fee. Also note that some providers will let you take courses for free but will charge for certifications and other credentials.
  • Schedule: Look at whether your course will be self-paced or if you’ll be held to an established schedule of deadlines and deliverables. You may not get “credit” for the course if you don’t keep up and finish on time.
  • Format: Think about which you prefer, a highly structured experience dictated by the course provider or a looser approach that lets you enroll in any combination of courses and take lectures in any order you want.
  • Interactivity: We all get stuck and have questions when we’re learning something new. Make sure you’ll have a way to ask questions and get reliable, timely responses. On Udemy, course discussion areas are usually lively, and the most successful instructors interact directly with students and create a personal connection.
  • Variety: You may not know all the courses you want to take at first. While it’s common for students to take courses from multiple providers simultaneously, you may prefer a one-stop shop that covers the full range of hard and soft skills and business and personal interests. Udemy students tell us they also like the variety of getting different perspectives and teaching styles from different instructors.
  • Practicality: There’s a difference between academic learning to broaden your mind and skill-based courses that teach you something specific you’ll need for a job. Make sure you’re not signing up for one when you really want the other.

Mix it up!

My final piece of advice for creating your learning playlist is not to get stuck in one genre. If I could tell my 20-something self one thing, it would be to value cross-training. I dove straight into hyper-technical corporate law topics without realizing I’d need different skills, like public speaking and knowing how to read a balance sheet, to be a better leader.
If you’re not someone who’s naturally excited by the prospect of learning, that’s okay. Your career is not doomed! But you may want to take extra steps to get the most out of your online course-taking. Just as you’d grab some friends to join you for a run when you’re trying to exercise more, you can take courses as a group or just meet up regularly to talk about your goals and progress. The beauty of learning online is that it’s all up to you, not an administrator or professor. You might discover you are a lifelong learner once you’re the one in charge.
About “GenDIY”
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)– how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love – on The Huffington Post and GettingSmart.com. This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:

Lisa Haugh is VP of People and General Counsel at Udemy. Follow Udemy on Twitter, @udemy.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.