Solving Education’s $1.5 Billion Problem

By Deborah Howard
There’s a $1.5 billion problem in public education throughout the country.
Recently, Education Reform Now released a new study about the cost of remedial education at the college level. The study reports that families and students spend more than $1.5 billion on remedial courses when they arrive at college – just to prepare for their two- and four-year degree programs.
There have been many stories over the years that decry the fact that too many low-income and minority students graduate from high school underprepared for college. They go on to attend college where they spend lots of money on remediation. Then, far too few graduate. It’s an all-too-familiar story to those of us who work with students who live in challenging circumstances.
But this study is different.
According to the report: “Hundreds of thousands of American families across all income levels are spending billions each year on extra college costs because our high schools are graduating too many students unprepared for college. Remedial education has been severely downplayed because it incorrectly suggests the need for remediation is a phenomenon solely seen among students from low-income families and within community colleges.”
But the remediation problem is more expansive: it reaches across economic strata. It impacts students from lower-, middle-, upper-middle and high-income families. It could affect all students.
And that’s why I think this study is a potential game-changer. When a problem has the potential to affect all students, regardless of economic status, there’s a better likelihood that it will be addressed.

Aligning Expectations

To solve this $1.5 billion problem, we have to consider the root cause. Students aren’t showing up to college unprepared because of a lack of skills or quality teaching. Instead, their college readiness is based on mismatched expectations between the high school and college levels.
Think about an English 101 college course. What do students need to know? If you talk to any college English professor, you’ll hear similar responses: to pass English 101, students must be able to write well. They must write often. They must write complete sentences and full paragraphs. They are required to compose complete papers. They must analyze and argue, draw conclusions and defend their positions.
College students must be able to write. Not once a quarter. Not once per unit. Not even once per week. First-year college students must be able to write constantly.
Now consider where high school English courses place their emphasis: literature. Don’t get me wrong. With degrees in English and Communication and a love for writing and grammar, I understand the importance of literature. Reading and understanding classic novels, poetry and prose is critical to understanding art, society, history and human nature. Through literature, we come to understand the art of the written word. But while understanding the art and mastering the craft are related, the skill sets are very different.
To help fully prepare students for their postsecondary educational experiences, we need to give educators and leaders in high school and college the space for open, honest dialogue about expectations and closing the readiness gap.
This seemingly simple solution has been very helpful in Early College High Schools throughout the country. At these schools, 9th and 10th grade students are enrolling in and passing the same college English courses that Education Reform Now’s study reports high school graduates are underprepared to complete. Early College students aren’t in the top 2% of their high school classes and they haven’t completed AP courses. On the contrary, many ECHS students were performing below grade level when they entered high school.
But in Early College High Schools, high school teachers, college professors and students sit down to talk about learning targets at both levels. They are clear about the expectations students need to meet. They fine tune the curriculum so students are fully prepared not only to read and analyze literature but also able to clearly write about, discuss and defend their viewpoints.
It’s just that simple. Who knew a $1.5 billion problem could be solved with simple communication?
For more, see:

Deborah Howard is the Chief Operating Officer at EDWorks, a KnowledgeWorks subsidiary focused on Early College High Schools. Follow her on Twitter, @DeborahHowardd.

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3 Key Ways to Inspire Student Engagement and Motivation

By: Kim Smith
Jasmine Lawrence isn’t investing in her career–she’s investing in her future.
Even though she just in her 20s, she’s already started a successful beauty and hair care product line and is a recent computer science grad working on the Xbox team at Microsoft. Jasmine is not leaving her future in the hands of others; she’s building her future herself by using entrepreneurial skills she learned in high school.
“Learning how to have an entrepreneurial mindset was key for me,” Lawrence said. “It taught me that my future was up to me and I could shape it by learning to recognize opportunity, take smart risks, and be persistent and flexible.”
The entrepreneurial mindset Jasmine learned is a well-researched way of thinking and approaching obstacles and opportunities. It includes several learnable skills such as how to be comfortable with smart risk, and how to adapt, collaborate, and persist through adversity. There’s a reason many people in business and academia alike refer to that collective set as workforce skills–they are the skills people will need this century in order to compete in the job market.
More and more, young students and young workers like Jasmine will have to rely on these entrepreneurship skills to create and manage their own career opportunities. Essentially, they will have to learn to become their own “do it yourself,” self-reliant practitioners proficient in a variety of skills and settings.
We can do more than help them–we can teach them the tools to help themselves. We can teach them how to be innovative, creative and collaborative through entrepreneurship.
Research has shown that young people who learn the entrepreneurial mindset are more self-reliant overall, do better in school, and are more goal-oriented in their career and life. Once you activate a person’s entrepreneurial mindset, it’s the ultimate, portable “do it yourself” tool.
By activating the mindset, I don’t necessarily mean that scores of young people should be taught to launch their own businesses. Entrepreneurship is mostly about learning how to find your own way, and applying what you know in order to be successful. And we can activate this mindset–the entrepreneurial mindset–in young people. At the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, we’ve been doing that for more than 27 years.
In more than twenty-five years of teaching the entrepreneurial mindset, we’ve been able to hone in on a few key pillars of inspiring student engagement and motivation:

Teach the Mindset

Because the goal of entrepreneurship education isn’t necessarily business creation, the best entrepreneurship education programs teach the mindset directly. Activities and lessons are linked directly and openly to relevant workplace skills. Students are challenged to collaborate, ideate and solve problems on a continual basis. Success is measured in both concept mastery and project completion and presentation.

Make it Project-based

Our entrepreneurship courses focus on the creation and presentation of a business plan focused on a concept for a product or service. The course is 100% student-centered, because it is focused on the student’s idea. Throughout the project, students engage many dimensions of entrepreneurial skills. By focusing on the end goal of completing the plan and pitching in competition, students learn how to work towards an end goal. Through project work, students learn the real value of investing in their work and even the power of smart shortcuts and efficiencies.

Make it Experiential

Owning your future is an active endeavor. We don’t teach concepts by lecture, reading and testing–we teach by “doing.” Students learn the mindset concepts through hands-on experiences. They create, they sell, they speak to their classmates and potential customers, they build prototypes and calculate market shares of their products.
With authentic learning, there is little substitute for the type of outcome-based, hands-on classroom experience that emphasizes skills such as flexibility, creativity, and persistence. Young people get it. They know these skills are the keys to their futures. Often, they see the connection themselves – and more clearly than academics do.
Mijin Ha is a senior English major at Rice University. In a story about universities investing in entrepreneurship programs, she told the New York Times:

“To be honest, our generation is no longer interested in doing one thing for the rest of our lives…Our generation is interested in learning different things, and if the environment does not provide it, we want to jump out and take a risk.”

Today’s and tomorrow’s workers have to be comfortable taking a risk and creating their own opportunities.
By teaching the entrepreneurial mindset, we can arm students with the skills they will need not just to navigate this new, uneasy economy, but to conquer it.
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 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, see:

Kim Smith is SVP, Programs and Research at the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Follow them on Twitter: .

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D.C. Extends Performance Contracting from K-12 to Pre-K, Residential & Adult Ed

Almost half of the K-12 students in Washington D.C. attend charter schools. Success in performance contracting has been extended to early learning, residential education and adult education.
Charter Pre-K. AppleTree Institute started 20 years ago as charter incubators focused on the achievement gap. Big gaps in secondary schools drove them to early learning. They created a lab school with 30 kids in a church basement.
Washington D.C. extended its charter legislation to early learning (the only jurisdiction to do so) allowing AppleTree to gain authorization and expand as a charter management organization. Today, AppleTree serves 800 three and four year olds on eight campuses–1200 learners on 10 campuses next year.
The Every Child Ready curriculum was developed with federal i3 grant funding. It includes curriculum (what to teach), professional development (how to teach) and assessment (how do we know if it worked). It includes 10 units plus 1 for summer and 1 for yr round  campuses (12 total) and over 100 Books that reflect students served.
Every classroom has a teacher, a Fellow and a Teaching Assistant. With comparable funding to elementary schools (about $15,000 per student) starting teachers make $50,0000-60,000 (about twice what early childhood teachers make in most cities).
Early care starts at 7:30. The school day runs from 8:45-3:15. Extended care is available until 6 p.m. Revolution Foods provides breakfast and lunch.
The goal of the program is kindergarten readiness. Many students leave reading chapter books requiring kindergarten teachers to adjust their expectations.
In addition to early learning charter schools, the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) authorizes residential and adult education charter schools.
Residential Learning. The SEED School of Washington is a public, college-preparatory boarding school. More than 320 students in grades 6-12 attend SEED and live on campus Sunday through Friday, enabling them to benefit from an integrated curriculum that incorporates academic, extracurricular and life skills learning.
SEED founders Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota successfully lobbied Congress and the city council to provide additional operating funds for boarding schools in the District of Columbia. The SEED Foundation now operates residential schools in Florida and Maryland.
Adult Education. Academy of Hope, Carlos Rosario and Goodwill are examples of public charter schools that receive about $7,000 from the D.C. government to serve adult learners.
PCSB has a track record of providing rigorous oversight leading to closure or improvement of low-performing schools and expansion of high-performing schools.
There are 114 public charter schools in Washington, D.C., operated by 62 nonprofits, located in 102 facilities.
For more on Washington D.C. schools see:

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6 Best Practices for Online Student Engagement

By Alicia Hill
It is impossible to deny the growing shift toward online education. Even some of the most traditional universities now offer online courses, with degree programs that are entirely online or a hybrid.
However, teaching an online course can be challenging when it comes to creating and maintaining that important teacher/student connection. So below are six strategies for increasing student engagement in the virtual classroom from high school to higher ed.

1. Have Students Post a Picture and an Introduction

This is a straightforward online engagement strategy. On the first day or during the first week of the course, ask students to post a picture of them, followed by a brief description of their hobbies and academic goals.
This helps students and the teacher get a better sense of the personality of others in the class, much like they would in a traditional classroom.

2. Utilize a Discussion Forum

This is perhaps the most important of all student engagement strategies. In a traditional classroom, students learn well by engaging with other students and the professor. Asking questions, receiving feedback, and externally processing the material helps students to better understand and to better retain the information.
There are many different ways to use an online discussion forum. Teachers can provide a discussion question for the week and ask each student to answer the question in the online forum. Students can then respond to minimum number of classmates by a particular deadline.
Another option is to divide students into discussion groups. You can change the discussion groups a few times throughout the course so that students have the chance to interact with more of their classmates.
Teachers can still pose a discussion question and require each student to answer the question. Then, each student can respond to each member of the discussion group. This strategy can facilitate a discussion that may even be more elaborate than one in a traditional classroom.

3. Provide Video Lectures

Many students learn best by hearing or watching someone talk to them. Your video lectures do not have to be elaborate documentaries, but you should utilize videos in order to accommodate a wider variety of learning styles.
Videos can be as simple as you giving a traditional-style lecture. You can also post relevant YouTube videos or clips of movies. All video content should be relevant to the course topic for the week, and it should be related to any discussion questions posed to the students.
When used well, videos can be one of the most crucial online engagement tools available.

4. Maintain Your Deadlines and Expectations

If an online class devolves into chaos, or if students do not engage in the discussion forum, it is likely because they do not take deadlines seriously. If your syllabus says that you will deduct five points for every day an assignment or discussion post is late, then actually deduct those points.
This does not mean that you cannot be flexible on a case-by-case. It does mean, however, that you take yourself and the class seriously, and that you expect students to invest in the class. If the class falls onto their backburner, their grade will be affected.

5. Include a Major, Media-Based Project

In the traditional classroom, students often have either a series of major exams, papers, or presentations to complete throughout the semester. In the online classroom, exams are not usually the most effective way to test students’ understanding of the material.
A far more effective student engagement technique is to require students to develop a presentation that utilizes online media. You can design the project requirements in whatever way makes sense for the course.
After students complete their research, they can present their findings using either PowerPoint or Prezi, or by posting a video. The videos can then be as creative as students desire. The students can make a miniature documentary, or they can simply video themselves presenting their research.
If you desire students to engage with each other, you can require that presenters provide discussion questions after their presentation that their classmates are required to respond to. This strategy utilizes the discussion board technique, and it can create conversation that might not happen in a traditional classroom setting.

6. Provide Routine Feedback

Make sure that you as the teacher interact with the students as much as you would in a traditional classroom. Respond to their discussion posts. Provide feedback for their media presentations. If a student emails you with a question, try to respond within twenty-four hours.
This is important for at least two reasons. First, when you provide routine feedback, you show that you care about your students and their educational development and that you take their education seriously. Additionally, you make yourself more approachable. Students who feel that they have a dedicated and approachable teacher are more likely to invest in your class by focusing more on lessons and actively entering discussions and providing feedback.
Second, routine feedback maintains an important element of traditional classroom learning. In the traditional classroom, students have easy access to their professors. If they are confused or stressed about something, they can speak with the professor after class. Students can receive immediate feedback in a traditional classroom.
Likewise, during class discussions, the teacher can interject if the students seem to misunderstand the material. This is a major part of why class discussions are important. In the online classroom, teachers have to intentionally provide feedback. The teacher is required to sit down and type a response.
You certainly do not need to comment on every student’s discussion post. However, Interacting with the students regularly can help them better learn the material and feel more personally engaged in the course.


While online education can be an excellent choice for many students, it can require a bit of a learning curve on the part of the teachers. Obviously many of the same teaching strategies for the traditional classroom are not applicable. Utilizing these tips can help both young-adult and adult educators engage students in variety of online class scenarios including business, professional, trade, career, instructional and even motivational and hobby classes.
Making some slight adjustments to course structure and utilizing the online engagement tools available can go a long way in making your online classroom a successful learning environment.

For more, see:

Alicia Hill is a training assistant for National Real Estate Learning, an online real estate training company. Follow her on Twitter: @its_aliciahill

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New DreamBox Learning Feature Provides Personalized Learning Experiences

Last week, DreamBox Learning announced the release of a new feature for its award winning K-8 Math curriculum. The new feature, AssignFocus™, takes a single assignment request from a teacher and automatically generates individual, personalized lessons for each student based on their needs.
How is that possible?
Even before the release of AssignFocus™, DreamBox Learning’s Math program included powerful assessment and reporting technology that provided teachers with a complete picture of student progress and proficiency. According to DreamBox, “the same continuous formative assessment that delivers personalization of path, pace and sequence for every learner also captures the instructional insights and learning data needed to make informed decisions about instruction and instructional programming.”
Now DreamBox is using the data to inform its own instructional programming. With AssignFocus™, DreamBox has built an internal feedback loop into its curriculum by leveraging the student progress and proficiency data it collects to generate lessons that are uniquely matched to each student’s level. Now, not only is DreamBox providing teachers with the ability to understand what students have done and where they are at, but it helps determine what comes next.
How does it work?
AssignFocus™ enables teachers to instantly create individually supported assignments. Teachers choose the applicable math topic or standard, which links to students’ real time data relative to the selected topic. Student’s names and progress levels are displayed and they are grouped into one of three categories based on their progress: Not Started (if they’ve not completed any lessons pertaining to the topic or standard), In Progress or Proficient. Teachers then can elect to create lessons for whole groups or student-by-student and DreamBox will personalize learning by sending different lessons on the same topic to each student.
A student who hadn’t started any work relative to the focus area will receive a lesson geared towards early introduction to the topic. A student “in progress” will receive the next lesson in the unit and a student who is already proficient will receive a review assignment for an advanced lesson in the unit.
Furthermore, because DreamBox uses formative assessment, AssignFocus™ can also differentiate lessons based on how well students perform in the first lesson of a new unit. Based on their performance, teachers can opt to provide lessons that prepare them for the next unit, give homework assignments or require review for an upcoming assessment.
Why is it awesome?
Because AssignFocus® keeps students’ math work appropriately linked to their place, path, pace and potential, it encourages them to understand and believe that they are good at math, which increases the likelihood that they enjoy it and promotes the desire to continue pursuing the development of math skills. As noted in our April 13th edition of EdTech 10 (check out the number two slot!), personalized math technologies such as AssignFocus™ have the power to help change students’ mindsets around their math abilities and positively impact their future.
For more on personalized learning or the importance of math skills, check out:

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The Case for Making Audiobooks Part of Curriculum

By William Weil
Audiobooks are more than a nice library resource or good for struggling readers–they are an important literacy tool, extending from early childhood through high school. This assertion may come as a surprise to many educators who are familiar with the latter and skeptical of the former.
Adding a listening component to reading instruction is highly effective. In fact, ‘just listening’ is now a standard in every state in the nation. Here’s the concept: repeated exposure to sophisticated spoken words drives vocabulary acquisition and retention, which is a key component of reading proficiency. So why is this important?
Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. 4th graders read below proficiency, according to the most recent NAEP scores. That number rises to 79% for low-income kids, and 53% of all students qualify as low-income. The root cause of the problem is a lack of vocabulary, famously described as a ‘word gap’ in Hart and Risley’s seminal study.
Reading proficiency is attained through decoding skills and word knowledge, the latter being a combination of vocabulary and fluency, (i.e., do you know a word, do you know the way it’s supposed to sound, do you have context for the word). Students who can decode words but lack an understanding of their meaning are not reading proficiently, and proficient reading is the key pathway to academic achievement.

Solving the Word Gap

Thus, in order to solve the achievement gap, we must first solve the word gap. It might then come as a surprise that vocabulary instruction is neither frequent nor systematic in most schools. How can this be? Let me suggest two reasons:

  1. Vocabulary is acquired through exposure to tens of millions of words; classroom teachers cannot move the needle on their own, particularly given demands on their time.
  2. Educators historically relied on parents, who in most cases were able to read aloud to their kids every day.

Not any more.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 51% of parents currently read to their children every day, falling to 39% in non-white families. Worse, 32 million adult Americans cannot read, and low-income parents are often not at home (working multiple jobs) or cannot read in English.

How Audiobooks Help

Audiobooks are a valid listening component, providing rich exposure to sophisticated spoken words in school and at home. We’ve seen evidence of this in the work we do at Tales2go, but wanted to be more rigorous in our approach and have data to support our argument. We contracted with WestEd, a leading educational research nonprofit, to evaluate the use of Tales2go in a San Francisco Bay Area school district.
The resulting study was completed in January 2016 and broke new ground by examining the impact of audiobooks on student vocabulary and literacy. The results were noteworthy, indicating Tales2go is a promising literacy tool. It was designed to determine the effect of adding an audiobook listening component to reading instruction, specifically the impact on student vocabulary, reading comprehension and motivation to read.
It was done as a randomized controlled trial with 2nd and 3rd graders in an afternoon program for 10 weeks. Study parameters included just listening (i.e., no paired text) and listening three times a week at school, and twice a week at home; each session was at least 20 minutes. Overall fidelity to implementation was good, particularly given the afternoon program coordinators’ other responsibilities and competing enrichment activities.
Key takeaways include:

  • Students using Tales2go attained 58% of the annual expected gain in reading achievement in just 10 weeks, putting them three months ahead of the control students.
  • The increase in annual gain corresponds to a 33% improvement in the rate of learning for the period.
  • The treatment group outperformed the control group across all measures, by 3.0x in reading comprehension, nearly 7.0x in 2nd grade vocabulary and nearly 4.0x in reading motivation.
  • Greater impact on reading achievement is possible if Tales2go is used on a regular basis, both in a classroom literacy rotation and at home.

On the one hand, none of this is controversial. Hearing more words leads to better student achievement. On the other, audiobooks shift the responsibility for reading-aloud away from parents and educators. This is an uncomfortable thought. Yet it offers a realistic and effective solution to the problem.

Listening at School and Home

There are many well-funded programs and initiatives that exist today to eradicate the word gap, ranging from listening devices clipped to children to count the number of words they hear, to the government’s recent $250M investment in Open eBooks for Title I students. Almost all of them are focused on parent-child interactions at home, with the assumption that parents are the key to the solution and/or placing more books in the home will solve the problem.
Let me be clear: all parents should read-aloud to their kids, and getting books into homes is a good thing. However, who exactly is going to be doing the reading? And while getting parents to talk with their children is helpful, it is not sufficient. The words children need to know are in books. Most parents will tell their children to: “Look over there” versus “Observe, child.”
Tough times call for innovative measures. District administrators should add audiobooks to their curriculum. Examples include dedicated listening stations as part of classroom literacy rotations, and required listening at home. Such a decision is consistent with State listening standards and will be appreciated by parents who need the help.
For more see:

William Weil is a founder and CEO of Tales2go. Follow him on Twitter: @wsweil.

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Blended, Project-Based and Social Emotional Learning at Thrive Public Schools

On a busy commercial street in the diverse northeast corner of San Diego is a big district middle school. Across the street is a former dental clinic that is home to Thrive Public Schools.
Both are pictures of America’s diverse future; a United Nations of education with immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Both have committed leaders and teachers but the converted clinic will give you a glimpse of the future of learning–blended, personalized and competency-based.
The entrance to Thrive, a 200 student K-8 school, is a makerspace where students build stuff and work out marble trajectories.

The small opening courtyard doubles as a playspace where primary-aged industrial designers build structures (the young man below said he was constructing a flying bridge).

Active learning is a sign of Thrive’s commitment to a project-based learning school where students “Learn to Do,” meaning students have hands-on, minds-on learning experiences that help them develop critical thinking, creativity, problem‐solving, motivation, communication and cooperation.”Cross‐disciplinary teacher‐created projects enable students to learn through active engagement and “doing,” incorporating best practices from partner organizations including High Tech High and Buck Institute. Following is the advanced section of the Thrive project development rubric.
Project Development Rubric

  • The goals of the project are tied to specific content area standards and 21st Century Skills.
  • Goals are rigorous enough to challenge all students.
  • Goals of the project require the students to use high-order critical thinking skills.
  • Goals of the project are clearly defined and successfully integrate content standards from multiple subject areas.
Entry Document or Event
  • Entry document or event seems likely to engage the student’s curiosity in a realistic scenario.
  • Entry document or event establishes a clear role and task for the students.
  • Entry document or event leads to a list of content-based “need to knows” and next steps.
  • Entry document or event establishes a clear timeline and assessment criteria.
  • Entry document or event successfully externalizes the enemy.
  • Entry document or event engages the students in a real world problem that they can help solve.
  • Entry document creates a thorough list of relevant, content specific “need to knows.”
  • Project is launched with the help of outside person or entity.
  • The project plan includes a detailed description of the various phases with progress checks and benchmarks.
  • The project has a complete list of resources and materials.
  • The project has a well thought out plan for implementation.
  • The project includes a description of student products and how they will be evaluated against the project goals.
Scaffolding The project has differentiated activities designed to help individual students and groups:

  • Work as an effective team on a long term project.
  • Reflect on their “need to knows” and to develop next steps.
  • Understand the content and make use of the resources available (including any necessary remediation that might be needed).
  • Several rubrics are used to evaluate multiple individual and group products based on the stated content and 21st Century goals of the project.
  • Assessment includes input from outside sources.
End Product
  • End product is composed of multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning (multiple products).
  • End product will be used by an outside person or entity.
  • End product incorporates the use of a variety of media.

The Thrive staff also uses a rubric to evaluate project ideas including authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, assessment practices and use of technology.
No Swiss Cheese
On my way to visit Thrive, a foundation executive said, “I don’t support project-based learning because it creates “Swiss cheese learning” with lots of holes.” Thrive founder Dr. Nicole Assisi said there was no risk of learning gaps at Thrive given their approach to blended and personalized learning. While blended learning rotations fill in content gaps, “project-based learning is necessary to engage learners, to build enthusiasm, and support authentic work and exhibition,” said Assisi. She added, “If school is just skills building and no application, where’s the joy?” The following short video explains Thrive’s approach to project-based learning.

Students at Thrive Learn to Learn with a focus on skill building in numeracy and literacy. Elementary classrooms feature blended learning centers incorporating Zearn, 10Marks, Waggle, ST Math and Lexia that allow each learner to progress at their own pace toward mastery of skills and concepts. Following is the advanced section of the Thrive blended learning rubric.
Blended Learning Rubric

Student Ownership
  • Students take pride in their work by producing high quality work.
  • Students can explain purpose, objectives and expectations.
  • Student can present work/learning to community with confidently and clarity.
  • Students know what steps they have to take to meet their goals.
  • Students are self-paced learners.
Teacher as Facilitator
  • Teacher supports students to ask deep questions and find complex answers throughout the learning experience.
  • Student driven learning space (voice and choice).
  • Student led discussions are clearly seen in the classroom.
  • Students’ plans are in students locus of control (not teachers).
  • Groups change as needed (daily, weekly, etc.).
  • Teacher has various grouping protocols (pairs, whole class, small group, independent, online, etc.).
  • Teacher uses data daily to inform next day’s mini lessons or reinforcement.
  • Data is used to create the PLP and help students understand their academic needs in numeracy and literacy.
  • Student goals and data are connect.
  • Parents are informed of data and what it means.
  • Teacher uses data from multiple sources.
Personal Learning Plan
  • T & S co-create goals by looking at needs and data.
  • Weekly checked and goals update as students meet their goals.
  • Parent communication and action steps for how to help at home.
Relationships & Feedback
  • Teacher, parents and students know where they are and where they are going in real time.
  • Feedback and check-ins given in real time both in and out of the classroom.
  • Student-to-student collaboration and student-to-teacher collaboration happens anytime needed.
Learning Tools
  • Students know what tools are available, how to use them and can and have independence with tool citizenship.
  • Clearly defined tool access (log on)/storage/check out.
  • School-wide systemized process students follow when introduced to a new tool (exploration, noticing, expectations discussions, non-negotiables, practice, reflection).
Procedures, Space & Time for Learning
  • Students are fluidly moving through rotations and work at their own pace.
  • Students have opportunities for self-directed learning.
  • Learning happens anytime, anywhere.
  • Teacher doesn’t have to be there to learn.
  • Space is flexible and moves to fit the learning mode.

Thrive teachers chart and explain the day’s blended learning sessions in a Powerpoint (see Jaclyn Vasko’s classroom below, her twitter stream @msjvasko and examples on teacher websites).

Curriculum such as Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop and CGI Math provide collaborative opportunities for small groups to work directly with the teacher, while other students work on Chromebooks or iPads. Watch a short video on Thrive’s approach to blended learning.
Another strategy that avoids the ‘Swiss cheese’ problem are well constructed step-by-step projects for elementary students. This second grade ambassador (below) explained the nine steps to a project that his class was working on.

The middle school math room, in addition to adaptive software stations, features Glenn Jacobson at the math bar (below) where students work out problems with manipulatives. He’s a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who relocated to do what he was learning in his EdTech master’s program. Glenn’s station assignments are visible upper left.
The middle school team uses Google Classroom to make and manage assignments. Math software includes ST Math and Zearn.
A big part of “learning to learn” at Thrive are the student led conferences which are held three times each year. A developmental rubric in each subject helps each student reflect on their progress. Students also present at culminating exhibitions.
Student led conferences are held during a week of half days during which Young Audiences provides arts enrichment.
Thrive is a Next Generation Learning Challenges grantee, which puts it in an elite class of several dozen schools exhibiting well developed plans for blended, personalized and competency-based learning (see NGLC profile).
Assisi started Thrive because she “wanted all families to have access to the type of education that I wish for my own child.” She dreams of “a day when all kids have access to schools that resemble the diversity of our state, the level of care and attention in boutique hotels and the innovation and adaptation present in some of the nation’s best startups.”
The Thrive model combines personalized and project-based learning in a sophisticated way that puts it in the category of Summit, Brooklyn Lab and New Tech Network.
Learning to Be
Nicole Assisi learned and taught project-based learning as an early teacher at renowned High Tech High. She earned a PhD at USC studying college readiness. After co-founding several innovative Los Angeles schools, Assisi worked as an Entrepreneur in Residence for the Charter School Growth Fund who supported the development of the Thrive network.
“Interwoven in all we do at Thrive is an emphasis on students’ self-advocacy and self‐actualization,” said Assisi. In addition to an engaging and rigorous academic curriculum, Thrive is also a community that values Social Emotional Learning, or Learning to Be. Watch a short video on Thrive’s approach to SEL.
“We emphasize self‐regulation and good decision making in the pursuit of ambitious goals, helping students understand that some of the greatest learning can come from reflection on ‘failures’,” added Assisi. Following is the advanced section of the Thrive SEL rubric.
Social Emotional Learning Rubric

Collaboration: Community Building
  • Teachers utilize a variety of grouping strategies that allow for all students to lead, follow and collaborate.
  • Teachers create structures and teach turn-taking skills that empower students to participate thoughtfully and effectively in groups of varying sizes.
  • Teachers explicitly teach and celebrate diversity, modeling what it is to be an ally for underrepresented groups.
Sharing: Empathy Communication
  • Teachers model, narrate, teach and redirect students to use appropriate listening behavior including body language and turn taking. Teachers teach and utilize questioning and connecting strategies that are developmentally appropriate for their students and create opportunities for students to use these strategies to question and connect with one another.
  • Teachers create regular opportunities for all students to share their ideas both in writing and orally. A system for universal accountability is employed to ensure all students’ voices are heard daily.
  • Teachers utilize technology as a means of enhancing communication and teach etiquette for appropriate digital communication.
  • Teachers have an empathetic method of conflict resolution they can (and do) employ when students need mediation. The method is student-friendly and can be adapted by students to mediate their own disagreements.
Thinking: Critically Problem Solving
  • Teachers probe student thinking in a way that inspires them to question, investigate and revise their work.
  • Teachers articulate and model multiple strategies for problem solving and celebrate innovative, out-of-the-box thinking in their students.
  • Teachers celebrate failure as part of the learning experience and normalize it as a byproduct of healthy risk taking. They encourage students to take reasonable risks.
  • Teachers model a growth mindset in their language when encouraging struggling students. They encourage and celebrate perseverance in problem solving and teach strategies for looking at problems in new ways.
Exploration: Curiosity
  • Teachers regularly build in opportunities for differentiation by student learning style and interest.
  • Teachers strategically provide opportunities for students to self-select aspects of their learning environment, content, approach and/or pace.
  • Teachers model and encourage students to apply previous learning to new situations.
Persistence: Resilience
  • Teachers recognize, model and celebrate persistence in the face of adversity.
  • Teachers hold all students to high expectations, regardless of learning profile.
  • Teachers model continuous learning themselves.
  • Teachers celebrate growth and improvement to the same extent they celebrate achievement.
  • Teachers model intrinsic motivation and a work ethic that contributes to student success. They articulate expectations that their students do the same.
  • Teachers model self-regulation, and explicitly teach students strategies to navigate their own emotions and persist through challenges.

Each grade begins with a morning meeting. Assisi said it’s part of developing “Responsiveclassrooms and a culture of belonging.”
Building a Network
“Thrive is a school that utterly walks its own talk,” said Andy Calkins, NGLC. “Their approach to professional learning and to distributed leadership and decision-making in the school deeply resonates with their ideas about student learning,” added Calkins (see 10 Dr. Assisi’s 10 Principles of Distributive Leadership).
Serving 200 students this year, Thrive Public Schools will add another 200 students including high school grades with their second campus. Assisi said they are shooting for five schools in five years. The Girard Education Foundation is supporting the expansion of the charter network with low cost facilities loans.
Thrive holds a free and low cost professional learning day in August to share tools and strategies from the innovative school model.
The Thrive model uniquely combines project-based learning, blended learning, and social emotional learning. It is well crafted and beautifully presented. Add Thrive to your list of schools to visit.
For more see:

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5 Strategies for Fostering Independence in a PBL Classroom

By James Fester
As a middle school teacher I understand that my students are at a developmental crossroads. They want to be seen as independent, responsible adults but at the same time still need guidance in order to be successful. This makes this age both challenging and rewarding to work with as it allows me as a teacher to help them as they become the independent students they see themselves to be.
It is not uncommon for teachers new to project-based learning to express skepticism or concern about “dropping the reins” and allowing students to take more control over the pace and scope of their learning. However, it is an essential aspect of good PBL. Ultimately, in order to be successful in the 21st century world, our students need to be able to manage themselves and work effectively with groups of peers. If it is true that the purpose of school is to prepare students for future success, then the building of these skills must start in the classroom.


How to start this process is a common question. The simple answer is that if the classroom has a strong culture of collaboration students will be more successful when working together, even absent the watchful eye of their teacher. But therein lies another question; how do you create this culture?
Although it can look different in every class, here are some possible approaches that may prove successful with your own students:

1. Make sure that team members know what is expected of them.

If not everyone is clear about the goals for the day or the tasks that they’ve been assigned nothing will get done successfully. Make sure to reiterate the shared goal of the project with all your teams. Post your project’s driving question in an easy to see place or create a learning wall that they can use to find their own answers independently.

2. Create norms and roles where appropriate.

Having established rules and routines helps groups get down to business and stay on task. Providing opportunities for groups to create written contracts or decide what roles each member will take. Early on it may be a good idea for you to set these yourself as a way of modeling for student what strong norms look like. Eventually you’ll want to empower groups to develop their own routines and rules, but make sure that everyone has had a chance to share their input as a way to promote buy-in.

3. Monitor progress constantly.

The most effective facilitators are regularly checking in on the progress of their groups so that at any given moment they have a pretty good idea of what is going on. That way you’ll be able to guide students who seem stuck towards solutions or resources that can be used to overcome the challenges they may be encountering. Don’t save check-in’s for just the end of the day. Don’t facilitate like you’re an anchor hosting a breaking news segment, be the weather channel with constant, small updates.

4. Celebrate even little successes.

Celebrations or positive feedback shouldn’t be saved for just the end of the project or your assessments. Make a point to try and catch each student doing something right. Studies have shown that positive reinforcement is by far the most effective method of getting students to adjust behavior. Even students who may not be the most productive members of a group can make progress if you take time to point out and celebrate the smallest successes, which can then be built upon by the student in the future.

5. Give students ways to informally develop cohesion on their own

People, like all living things, learn best through play. Wolf cubs in the wild wrestle and pounce on each other to learn hunting and self-defense skills through play first to prepare them for serious situations. Why should your student teams be any different? Offer them opportunities to interact in low-stakes ways, such as icebreakers, group challenges or games. These activities can even be linked to standards or content learning goals while still being fun. Once they can interact with each other in less formal ways it’ll be that much easier when it is time to get down to business.


Creating a culture of independent learning, like the planting of a garden, is something that takes time and constant attention. Don’t expect to see results immediately. Don’t expect everything you try to work immediately the first time. But if you’re willing to put in the time and commit consistent effort, the rewards will be evident in time.
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:

James Fester is a public school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area and a National Faculty Member at the Buck Institute for Education.  Follow him on Twitter @saintfester.

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Five School Systems to Watch in Texas

By Heather Staker
Point Isabel ISD. Cisco ISD. Birdville ISD. Pasadena ISD. KIPP Houston. Never heard of those school districts before? That’s about to change.
Each of these districts was selected as one of the top five school systems in Texas for showcasing blended learning. From a national perspective, Texas is about to shake things up.
Through a statewide competitive application process, these five systems were selected to receive up to $500,000 each and intensive technical assistance over three years to implement blended-learning plans and serve as statewide demonstration sites.

Raise Your Hand Texas is leading and overseeing the program and used the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools as the framework (full disclosure: I am a co-author of that book, along with Michael B. Horn of the Christensen Institute). CA Group is managing the grant implementation and coordinating technical assistance.


Courtesy of Raise Your Hand Texas

More on Each Winning School

Seventy-five districts and charter school networks competed for the five spots. The stories of the winners are varied and remarkable:
Birdville ISD is a close-knit, traditional community with a small-town feel, despite its growing population. Located outside Fort Worth, the community is becoming more diverse. District leaders are grappling with how to improve literacy, given the increase in its ELL student population. They are pioneering a two-part approach.
As a sustaining innovation, their three traditional high schools will use Station Rotation and Flipped Classroom models to tailor instruction to the needs of their 6th-10th grade students. Meanwhile, as a disruptive innovation, the district is piloting a novel Flex program for its alternative high school, both to recover dropouts and to incubate a new vision for how to deliver an engaging, student-centered high school experience.
Cisco ISD serves a small town of fewer than 4,000 people. It prides itself on its athletic successes, including 2013 AA Division 2 State Football Champions to go along with four other appearances in the championship game in the past 10 years. Its students consistently surpass state standards on the STAAR test (Texas’ accountability assessment); however, the percentage of students who reach the advanced or accelerated tier remains low.
Cisco ISD aims to boost more students to the top level by implementing a personalized Station Rotation model that is competency based, provides students with one-on-one time with teachers, and challenges students to deepen their learning with real-world projects.

RYHT Dallas

KIPP Houston is KIPP’s first and largest region in the country. One tenet that has made KIPP schools strong nationwide is the “power to lead” model—a confidence in KIPP’s school leaders to do whatever it takes to help their students. Today, KIPP Houston’s leaders are using that power on two fronts. They want more students to have the agency and academics to persist through challenging college classes.
They plan an in-class Flipped Classroom model to give students the opportunity to remediate and accelerate through math, such that 85 percent or more of students will complete Algebra 1 in 8th grade and be on track to complete AP math in high school. Second, they are pioneering a disruptive Math Boot Camp as a summer school program to prepare incoming 8th graders for Algebra 1.
Pasadena ISD is located outside of Houston. It serves 55,400 students, of whom more than 80% quality for free or reduced price lunch. With an eye for reinventing high school as we know it, Pasadena ISD partnered with Summit Basecamp to pilot test a new student experience, first at four of its high schools, and then across its secondary school system.
“Traditional, factory model, egg crate designed classrooms do not meet the needs of all students,” Pasadena’s leaders wrote in their plan. “This model is not engaging nor successful for most students and is exhausting for teachers.” Pasadena’s new model includes personalized learning time, real world projects, one-on-one mentoring, Socratic seminars, sustained periods of quiet reading time, AVID notetaking, and dedicated time to work on math skills.

RYHT Blog Pic 3

Point Isabel ISD is located at the southernmost tip of Texas. Next year, its autonomous team will incubate a Flex model for all 12th grade government and economics students—a safe harbor for priming a disruptive model before expanding it mainstream. The next year, the team will expand the Flex model to all core content 12th grade courses, and the year after that, extend it to core content in 10th and 11th grade as well.
Point Isabel leaders believe that providing a flexible high school schedule, coupled with personalized learning experiences based on relevant content in a competency-based setting, will boost student motivation, decrease failure rates, and better prepare graduates for life after high school in southern Texas.

Raising Blended Learners Future

Fifteen other districts and charters were invited to participate in the Raising Blended Learners Pilot Network. All of these systems will receive technical support to implement high-quality pilots. The resources they are using are available at the Blended Learning Resource Portal, which Raise Your Hand Texas opened to the public.
With the Raising Blended Learners initiative, Texas is poised to lead the way in demonstrating how to transform an old system into student-centered learning at scale. As Texas catalyzes transformation across its 1,200 traditional districts, other states will have an example for how to turn a big ship.
For more, see:

Heather Staker is the president of Ready to Blend and a spokesperson for student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter: @hstaker.

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Transforming Schools Through Strengths-Based PD

By Laura McBain
“You are allowed to be a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously.”
What would professional development look like if we focused on our greatest strengths as opposed to our greatest deficits?
Transformative change in schools begins with the recognition that every participant has a best practice to share. It is about helping teachers and schools become the best versions of themselves.
This was the mindset I started with when I began working with an urban school called Chicago Tech Academy in the South Side area of Chicago. In May of 2014, the school was on the brink of being closed by Chicago Public Schools. Low test scores, low staff morale and low student engagement laid heavy on a school already struggling with the violence and equity issues prevalent in Chicago. If students wanted to use the restroom, they were escorted by a security guard.
After speaking with the staff, we knew they were familiar with outsiders coming in and telling them how to teach and how to fix their school. Therefore, when we started helping with their professional development, we made a deliberate choice to focus on celebrations. We wanted the professional development to be a rebirth of their passion for teaching and their commitment to equity, rather than a laundry list of things to fix. Instead, we thought about the assumptions of appreciative inquiry which suggest that:

  • In every society, organization or group, something works;
  • What we focus on becomes our reality;
  • Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past;
  • It is important to value differences; and
  • The language we use creates our reality.

We began the work of designing a disruptive and celebratory professional development program. Our aim was not merely to shift the pedagogical practices of teachers but rather to create a program that cultivated a growth mindset toward teaching and learning.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 12.25.05 PM

We knew the teachers needed to experience deeper learning for themselves if they were ever to create it with their students, so we went out into the streets. On the first day of training, we visited the most prominent neighborhoods in which their students resided and investigated how a community creates and sustains a culture.
In groups, they explored, interviewed and created artifacts that represented their learning. Everyone participated. Teachers, aides and leaders alike were involved in the work. After the day was over, we unpacked the learning experiences. We broke down every exercise, every facilitator move and (more importantly) acknowledged that some of our initial assumptions about the students were incorrect.
For me, this opening day activity served two purposes. First, it acted as a unifying experience for the staff to help bring them together. Second, it served to disrupt the staff’s current thinking about what teaching and learning was supposed to look and feel like in schools.
But we knew a disruptive and unifying experience was not enough. Camille Farrington’s work on Foundations for Young Adults suggests that for a mindset shift to occur, one has to habitually be able to make meaning for themselves and have a shared sense of belonging in the community.
So we set about creating structures in the ongoing staff meetings that would engender reflection and community building in the hopes that we would create an adult learning where staff felt valued and were free to take risks. We hoped that if the staff were able to feel a sense of celebration and accomplishment about their own work, they would bring this same feeling to their students.
Two years in and what we started is working. The school has been given a three-year waiver by Chicago Public Schools, attendance is hovering at 90%, and 100% of seniors are about to begin academic internships. Instead of seeing students escorted to the bathrooms, visitors are greeted by student ambassadors in every classroom and student work covers the hallways of the schools.
HTH GSE Blog 3
This June, each staff member will conduct a presentation of learning on their successes, challenges and growth on implementing deeper learning. The work is not done yet. Like many of us who work in schools, the process of school change is never done.
Working with this school and its teachers over the past fews years has been tremendously rewarding. It has equally challenged and reaffirmed my belief that if we want to change schools, we have to start with the adults. No school is a masterpiece, but if we can design professional development that allows adults to become the best versions of themselves, then perhaps then we can create classrooms that allow students to be the best versions of themselves as well.

Ways to Practice Transformative Change

Offer Disruptive Professional Development Learning Opportunities to Staff

  • Send staff to museums to see how work is curated.
  • Conduct a staff professional development day where every staff member does an internship in an area outside education.
  • If practicing project-based learning, ask teachers to do the project themselves first before they do it with with students.

Create a Sense of Belonging

  • Start staff meetings with appreciative inquiry and celebrations.
  • Create a collegial coaching program where teachers visit and provide peer feedback.
  • Create your own promising practices blog or bulletin board that shares the best practices from all the staff.

 Making Meaning

  • Have teachers create their own personal learning plans focused on their own success and challenges.
  • Use protocols – such as project tunings or consultancies – with staff, allowing teachers to examine problems of practice.
  • Instead of a formal evaluation system, allow teachers to share their learning from the year in a presentation of learning to their peers.

And as Maxine Greene once said: “We are always in the process of becoming.” So take the time to celebrate, always.
This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Rethinking Professional Learning” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with High Tech High Graduate School of Higher Education (@hthgse). Join the conversation on Twitter using #EdLeaders or #RethinkPD and #SmartBundle.
For more, see:

Laura McBain is the Director of External Relations and Education Leadership Academy at High Tech High Graduate School of Education. Follow her on Twitter: @laura_mcbain

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.