Career Ready High Schools

What if high school offered a fast path to a great first job?

After reviewing Ryan Craig’s new book outlining “the faster + cheaper revolution that will upend the traditional college route, we searched for examples of high school programs that put young people on the first rung of an attractive economic ladder. We found a growing number of high schools and career centers offer a direct path to high wage, high demand jobs with real growth potential powered by on the job and formal postsecondary education programs.

For generations, young people in Europe have had access to quality apprenticeship programs. In the last decade Switzerland became recognized as the gold standard for vocational education and job training by focusing on high wage, high demand jobs and by building in transferability into other occupations and into further and higher education.

While the Europeans were improving vocational training, American educators and philanthropists (including me) pushed college for all. We did a good job of getting more low-income students through high school and into college but not through college–and millions left with piles of debt and no credential.

As sectors have been augmented and automated, millions of high skill, high wage jobs have been added. And some have strong advancement opportunities–equal or better than many college degrees.

Following are high school programs that prepare young people for high wage, high demand, high growth jobs; students graduate with skills, work experience and credentials and connections that prepare them for employment.

Tri-Rivers Career Center

The RAMTEC program at Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion Ohio offers a robotics program that features industry certification on leading equipment (not the generic training available at most community colleges). Honda has been eager to hire high school graduates from the program and pay for continuing education. Graduates can make $60,000 and over $90,000 with additional internal certifications.

RAMTEC also offers an Advanced Machining program including Computer Numerical Control (CNC) certifications. The welding program leads to $15 per hour jobs with some experience.

Tri-Rivers, like many career centers, has a Construction Trades program where students gain commercial construct experiences and certification. Superintendent Chuck Spellman said they are working on an early apprenticeship training program and early college program.

It’s worth noting the big difference between the upside in these programs. Some like the robotics lead to further learning and process leadership opportunities. Others, like welding, can be more limited to individual contributor roles and more place dependent in terms of income opportunity. As a result, informed local guidance is critically important to make good trade-off decisions.

Other high wage, high demand programs

GPS Education supports southeast Wisconsin learning centers in manufacturing plants where high school juniors and seniors take blended courses and conduct internships. Students also participate in a community college rotation. They graduate with one or two industry certificates, some college credit, at least two work experiences and often a job offer.

Northland CAPS students in Kansas City can participate in an internship at a Magna plant where they make car chassis. After graduation, young people can work as a machine operator and participate in a three-year program in maintenance tooling. Magna pays for tuition and books at the local community college where students earn an industrial maintenance certificate.

CISCO Academy is a 20-year-old program offered by 10,000 institutions worldwide supported by Talent Bridge, a job matching program.

About 80 P-tech high schools offer high tech work experience and college credit opportunities culminating in job offers from leading companies including IBM.

Coding bootcamp increasingly serve as an alternative to higher education for careers in IT. More than 20% of Coding Dojo graduates only have a high school diploma or GED when starting the program. These graduates experienced 117% salary growth from their prior job to their new career post-coding school.

There are several healthcare certificates and some are prerequisites to short-term (two years or less) health care programs that lead to high need and medium to high pay.

Guidance Gap

Given how rapidly the job market is changing and how quickly alternative training pathways are emerging, high school students are not receiving adequate guidance. The subtle difference between welding and machining opportunities in a region could spell the difference between being feeling trapped in a low wage job and having significant upward mobility.

The lateral and vertical mobility experienced in Switzerland would be complicated to replicate in American. It’s not only a function of program with design with significant academic rigor, it relies on a strong social safety net and subsidized college costs.

Career ready high school programs offer a viable alternative to college for many students but for them to be offered equitably requires thoughtful guidance and a supportive education ecosystem.

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101 Top School and Charter Networks

School networks are one of the most important innovations in the modern era of U.S. K-12 education. They have boosted achievement and graduation rates and expanded quality options in the communities that need them the most. They’re so important that we recently released a new book on the subject called Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks For Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning.

Today, we are recognizing 101 great school networks ranging from membership associations to charter management organizations that have achieved scaled impact to improve education for millions of children. (The * means they were mentioned in Better Together.)

Deeper Learning Networks

Personalized Learning Innovators

Great East Coast Charter Networks

Great Central Charter Networks

Great Western Charter Networks

Faith-Based Networks

Other Interesting Networks

Curriculum Networks

In Better Together, we described some partial school models that are widely adopted and important networks in their own right

Bonus: District Networks

For more, see:

Is there a network you’d add to the list? Share in the comments section below. Check out our other recent Smart Lists at our Smart List Series.

This Smart List was developed by Getting Smart, who helps schools, districts, and impact-oriented partners design and implement powerful learning experiences and forward-leaning strategies, and thought leadership campaigns. Learn more about how we can help you extend your impact.


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My Daugther Just Graduated HS: 5 Game-Changing Reasons I’m Most Proud of Her Accomplishment Earning a CTE Certification

By: Robyn Bagley. This piece was originally published by LinkedIn.

My daughter just graduated. Like most kids in America, she attended a traditional public high school. It didn’t suit her well, as the systems over students approach stymied her passion for learning. A relic of the past, traditional K-12 education by nature of its design impedes students from taking charge of their learning. My daughter was resigned to following the rules of a sit-and-get model where the few decisions she controlled were relegated to limited course choices such as which extraneous electives to endure or how much math to take beyond what’s required (as little as possible, as the system taught her she was a failure at it). Bottom line, as a student she had very little control over her education pathway. She did partake of the traditionally celebrated early college avenues by earning AP credit and taking concurrent enrollment classes, knocking out a semester’s worth of freshman college credits. These were positive achievements; however, they didn’t provide the types of hands-on experience and meaningful career exploration that can empower a student as they embark on their post-secondary journey.

Enter a hidden gem within the system, one with little notoriety that exists far from the limelight, Career and Technical Education (CTE) that is aligned to industry certification. CTE programs still bear the ugly step-child image of the past in a system that struggles to move into the future. While a well-informed movement has emerged to shift this paradigm, skills training programs, if offered, are rarely afforded the positive attention, promotion, or respect they deserve considering the extreme value they can provide to a student’s college and career readiness. Traditional course offerings continue to be prioritized, while the actual structure of the model itself places barriers in the way of participating in learning paths that deviate. As a result, far too few students take advantage of skills training opportunities.

Our family was fortunate to have a firsthand understanding of the tremendous opportunities presented to those who pursue and earn career certifications. This is because I founded and served as Principal of a CTE focused, early college charter school (careerpathhigh.org). Armed with knowledge, my daughter chose to pursue a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) pathway. A very positive change occurred in her learning engagement at that point. A light was ignited! She transitioned from passive learner, where the education happens to you, to becoming an active participant in her learning, taking control of where she wanted her education to lead her. She successfully acquired her certification, earning college credits to boot. What she gained from participating in a CTE program, she was unable to obtain from any other secondary curricular experience available to her.

While I am certainly proud of her traditional AP and concurrent enrollment accomplishments, I am most proud of her achievement in earning her industry aligned CNA certification. Here are 5 game-changing reasons why.

  1. Empowered Over Learning Pathway: My daughter was in control of choosing a pathway directly tied to her college and career goals. In addition, her pathway opened a door to one of her passions, caring for the elderly. She was now able to do something she loved through a skilled occupation.
  2. Ignited Passion For Learning: My daughter found daily joy learning new skills in a college-style environment. She had a desire to be there. What was being taught had a relevant connection to her future, thus elevating her sense of engagement as well as her sense of accomplishment.
  3. Hands-on Experience: Clinicals (CNAs equivalent of an internship) provided superior training, mutually beneficial to both my daughter and the hosting medical facility. The daily skills training, unlike traditional high school classes, required mastery and provided her with real-world experience. Ultimately, it was the hands-on experience of the CNA program that most directly influenced her decision to enter the medical field and pursue a nursing degree.
  4. College Readiness: My daughter is better prepared for college. She received access to the skills and knowledge needed for academic success. Having a CTE opportunity in high school provided her with valuable career exploration prior to entering college. There is no substitute for actual experience to help students discover firsthand whether or not they are interested in or well-suited for a particular career field.
  5. Career Readiness: A focused, customized approach prepared her with employable skills right out of high school. Armed with an industry aligned certification in a high demand field, she had more job opportunities and was able to command a much higher wage than her peers. She literally had her pick of where to work, receiving multiple job offers on the spot!

I will repeat what I recently shared in a blog, Blended Learning Leads to More Life Choices – In an economy where jobs and skills are changing rapidly, it’s imperative that our children graduate high school with more than the traditional diploma. They need access to opportunities and resources that better prepare them with the skills necessary to face the workforce challenges that lie ahead. We live in an age of unparalleled innovation that calls for equally innovative measures to ensure that students aren’t sidelined by skill deficits and educational gaps in the future. High school is a crucial time for laying the foundations to prepare them for the best and brightest futures possible, and today we have the tools to make this happen.

Opportunities like the one my daughter accessed should be abundant and mainstream for all students. Rethinking our approach to education beyond the traditional model is key to empowering learners over their education and career pathways.

Robyn Bagley is President of Rethink Education Consulting, LLC and Founder of Career Path High School. You can follow her on twitter @gallagherrobyn.

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Three Ongoing Trends in Education Data

Education data (eddata), whether through the facilitation of measurement for personalization, the optimization of budget planning, or efforts to ensure equitable access to strong outcomes, has the potential to be a powerful tool for improving learning for more students. Unfortunately, many would say that it is currently not being used to its full potential, for a number of reasons–but there are a number of promising trends that provide a reason for hope.

The aspect of eddata that gets the most headlines today is privacy and security. This is an undercurrent throughout the field (as it should be), including the three trends highlighted below.

However, three other ideas that continue to gain momentum (but that see fewer spotlights) in the use of education data are interoperability, meta-analysis, and continuous improvement–these shifts can make data usage easier, more widely applicable, and more effective, respectively.

1. Interoperability

Of the three trends in this list, interoperability appears to have the most momentum behind it.

This shouldn’t be surprising, as it arguably has the greatest effect on actual data usage. Administrators often want to see student data from various tools compiled into one dashboard. Teachers want to avoid manually entering student data into several systems when getting started with a new tool and spend less time interpreting data in multiple forms. Students and parents want a clear picture of academic performance compiled in a readable format from various learning environments. However, too often, significant portions of this data live in different silos and in formats that are either inaccessible, or that cannot be easily analyzed alongside each other.

Project Unicorn is a noteworthy approach to solving this issue. So far, 3,200,000 students and 419 school systems (a number that continues to grow) are now operating under their pledge, which includes commitments to adopt and integrate data interoperability standards (including procuring educational tools that are ranked Level 2 or higher on the Project Unicorn interoperability rubric) and provide access to quality digital infrastructure.

2. Meta-Analysis of Usage for Optimization

A second trend gaining steam is the meta-analysis of the usage of edtech tools. One organization facilitating access to this practice is LearnPlatform. I recently spoke to Karl Rectanus, Co-Founder and CEO of LearnPlatform, who said that their mission is to “expand equitable access to edtech that works.”

LearnPlatform is an EdTech management and rapid cycle evaluation tool that organizes and streamlines the process of analyzing the impact of various tools and teaching practices. It enables administrators to automatically organize the data surrounding their edtech tools in one centralized place, rather than through homemade spreadsheets. It can also be used as a vendor procurement tool.

Their goal is to enable “IMPACT” (Integrated Metrics Producing Analytics on Classroom Technologies) analysis. LearnPlatform has signed the Project Unicorn pledge, and have even gone one step further–at this year’s IMS Global Learning Impact Leadership Institute, they launched IMPACT-ready designation, which any provider can earn by making 4 basic commitments around transparency and access:

  • Student data privacy
  • Commitment to data interoperability (signing the Project Unicorn vendor pledge)
  • Transparency on their own accessibility
  • Vowing to provide utilization data when requested in a useful form via either CSV, IMS, Ed-Fi, or LearnPlatform

They expect this to streamline acquisition by 4-8 weeks, reducing the back-and-forth between vendors and schools that can take months as new questions come up.

“Product companies have sold the sizzle, but we’re focused on improving outcomes and budgets,” says Rectanus. “We aim to, in January, give admins the data they need on what they should be keeping, changing, and how they should be adjusting instructional practices in their district.”

On a smaller scale, LearnPlatform also provides an “edtech review” feature that is free to educators. It is more research-based than your basic “out of 5 stars”-type system (according to Rectanus “80% of apps on the iTunes store have 4.2 stars.”), and integrates public data from schools across the U.S.

3. Continuous Improvement/Formative Practice

We’ve been learning a lot from the How I Know initiative, an effort to discover and share out best practices around formative assessment sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. At the heart of this is the idea of shifting from summative, end-of-quarter/semester/year feedback to more day-by-day, growth-oriented feedback and mindset changes.

Similarly, in the world of eddata, there is an ongoing effort to shift from a retrospective, accountability-based approach to data analysis, to a more formative focus.

This “day-to-day data,” and a number of districts’ efforts to make the most of it, was recently covered in detail by Benjamin Herold on Education Week. “Examples of what an improvement-based data infrastructure actually looks like in practice are few and far between,” he writes. We are optimistic that as interoperability and better-optimized edtech selection become a reality in more and more districts, this type of approach will be more and more common.

Closing Thoughts

Privacy and security will continue to be a priority in the management and use of eddata. This is an important foundation off of which to build trust and accelerate momentum in the market. Ultimately, when we are able to more safely assume that that side of the issue will be properly handled, it will be interesting and valuable to see discourse shift more toward the three trends discussed above.

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Why High School Students Deserve Extended Challenges

Most schools value compliance and routines–worksheet assignments, small blocks of content, and a predictable daily schedule.

Most young people are going to lead lives full of uncertainty and complexity in a freelance economy buffeted by exponential technology and colliding systems.

To contribute now and in the future, young people deserve extended challenges–long projects that take on tough problems. To build agency and collaboration, students and teachers can co-construct projects that cross disciplines and result in public products that make real contributions.

There are seven key design variables for projects. They range from short teacher-designed and managed activities to long-term student defined projects:

  • Outcomes: Clearly defined up front, guided discovery, or open-ended
  • Direction: Teacher designed, product options, topic options, or student designed
  • Scope: Focused (modern poetry), integrated (bioinformatics) or multidisciplinary (STEAM)
  • Steps: Short problems, multi-step project, or extended multi-step challenge
  • Approach: Individual or team
  • Manager: Teacher managed, heavy scaffolding, teacher coaching, or student managed
  • Combinations: Project-based learning, projects and personalized learning, or multiple learning strategies

Short teacher directed projects can be useful at achieving specific outcomes, but big integrated challenges boost students agency, communications, and pathfinding to encounter new situations. Projects with no right answer develop design skills, they require research, empathy, and prototyped solutions. Extended projects also teach collaboration and project management.

Extended challenges allow students to take on local versions of some of the most important issues in the world such as poverty, clean water, sustainable agriculture, and the safe use of artificial intelligence. Students at schools where extended challenges are core to their learning progressions often start with a topic of high-interest and high-need that is right in their backyard and then seek ways to apply that knowledge or understanding on a global scale.

Picture of Good

Many schools are still focused on passing tests. Following rules and routines guarantees a good grade. The move to mastery requires a picture of what good looks like. We shouldn’t assume that young people know what a good publication, research report, or campaign looks like.

Ron Berger developed Models of Excellence, a curated, open-source collection of exemplary high-quality K-12 student work. The purpose of the site is “to catalyze the use of models to help build student skills and dispositions for success in college, careers and life.”

Where we’ve seen teenagers do world class work it’s not just a product of individual teacher practice, but part of a school model, culture and community. Three practices appear to be critical to spinning the flywheel of high expectations:

  • Outside in. A school culture that brings the outside in and where open feedback is valued.
  • Real work for real clients. Authentic challenging work combined with expectations of value creation are an invaluable learning experience.
  • Public work. Requiring regular public presentations of work creates a global audience, and can lay the groundwork for a legacy of quality.

With the help of over 90 partners and 3,600 schools, we developed and launched a framework for high quality project based learning that stresses authentic intellectual challenges, that require collaboration and reflection, and result in a public product.

The highest quality student experiences are those that extend over longer periods of time and require students to grapple with really intellectually challenging and complex problems. Throughout the duration of the project students weave in and out of individual, partnered and team challenges, all adding to the final product they are working to create–a production, publication, or presentation they’ll remember in 20 years.

Schools in the New Tech Network embrace team-taught integrated projects. Most existing schools don’t have the schedules, double classrooms, or tools to support extended challenges. They will need to work from the edges integrating where possible; an occasional integrated block where teachers collaborate or an intersession period or an after school robotics club.

As Seth Godin suggested, we need young people that, like firefighters running into a burning building, attack complexity and uncertainty with purpose, skill, confidence, and teamwork. That requires extended challenges.

For more see:

This post was originally published on Forbes.


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Flipped Learning 2.0: Rethinking the Flipped Classroom Model

By Scott Nadzan

Flipped learning has been a commonly-used buzzword in education for several years now, and everyone has different feelings about it. For the uninitiated, flipped learning is an approach that blends face-to-face interaction in the classroom with independent study outside of it, often through viewing assigned video content. However, most teachers and instructors of all levels, from grade school through university, simply aren’t using video to its fullest potential in their flipped classrooms.

At its most basic level, teachers will instruct students to watch a long-form lecture or recorded slideshow video at home, then come to class prepared to discuss its concepts, similarly to assigned readings. Of course, recording lecture videos and making them available to students is beneficial to and important for a modern, accessible classroom. And providing content for students to review on their own time and actively discuss in the classroom has been a crucial part of learning since the dawn of academia. But while the basic lecture video flipped learning model has been shown to improve student outcomes, it just isn’t that engaging for today’s students.

So how can teachers and instructors take the flipped learning model to the next level: Flipped Learning 2.0? The answer involves creating short-form, engaging and interactive videos that students actually want to watch, and encouraging students to create their own video content.

Create video content students want to watch –– and don’t make viewing it a requirement

Piling on mandatory video content for students to review outside the classroom in addition to regular homework can be overwhelming, and unfortunately, it can be common for teachers just getting started using flipped learning for their classrooms. However, supplementary content that complements lessons and helps further understanding of key concepts –– but is not required –– can be more appealing to and beneficial for students.

For instance, Jasper Fox Sr., a science teacher at Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School in Yorktown Heights, NY, says even though he’s never made his videos mandatory, all of his students make use of them. In an anonymous survey conducted with his students, even though videos were not required, every single one of his students said they watched them.

So why did the students watch them, even if they weren’t required viewing for his classes? Fox says that it’s because he created videos that actually piqued his students’ interest, and built in opportunities for them to engage further.

However, if a teacher or instructor does want to make video viewing a requirement in their flipped classroom, that’s okay too, as long as the content is engaging and helpful. To ensure students are actually engaging with video content, many custom video platforms for educational institutions offer analytics tracking that show which students have watched which videos how many times and for how long.

Use engaging, shorter-form videos –– not just hour-long lectures

It’s no secret that shorter, two to five minute long videos are more digestible and memorable than speeches that last an entire class length. That’s why it’s not enough for teachers and instructors to just record classroom lectures and put them online for their students. Video can provide a unique opportunity for educators to feed students’ natural curiosities without disrupting a classroom agenda, or completely digitizing the role of a teacher.

Fox says his recipe for a successful video is keeping it short, including his voice as narration and incorporating multiple modalities like drawing or demonstration. So, instead of simply recording one’s voice walking through a slideshow, or filming oneself talking about a topic, educators can consider creating more exploratory and visually-stimulating videos, like science experiments or mathematical demonstrations that explain why something works the way it does. Ultimately, this is more helpful to students than delivering more facts and formulas to memorize via video.

Or, educators can use video as an opportunity to take their students somewhere they’ve never been before. Because field trips can often be difficult to coordinate due to timing and budgetary reasons, one of Fox’s video series entails him visiting a place in New York and providing visual clues about where he is. Then, students can compare the video to a reference table he’s provided and guess where he is, so it’s like a “virtual” field trip.

Encourage students to create their own video content

A common misconception of today’s students is that because they grew up during the digital age, they are inherently masters of technology. However, that’s not the case. Of course, many students have been creating their own videos and sharing them on social media for most of their lives, but that’s often where their technical expertise ends. Effectively communicating through visual media is an important modern skill in almost every career a student may pursue, so educators should be able to teach students how to use the technologies necessary to create engaging, informative video content. “Learning by teaching” is an extremely effective way to absorb material, so teachers and instructors should give students the opportunity to teach their fellow classmates through video instead of just watching the video instructors provide.

However, there are privacy concerns associated with students creating and uploading video assignments, particularly for younger students. That’s why many schools have begun implementing custom video platforms that allow for easy, private uploading of videos only accessible to instructors or classmates.

Further, these custom video platforms for educational institutions also allow a greater range of features that are necessary for education accessibility, like audio descriptions of visual media, automatic video closed captioning, interactive video transcripts and more. This ensures that all students, no matter their abilities, have access to all course video content.

Don’t settle for simply making your existing classroom content available online. Create fully interactive, engaging experiences for your students that take full advantage of the benefits of video technology. That’s Flipped Learning 2.0, or the future of flipped learning.

For more, see:

Scott Nadzan is the co-creator and VP of Marketing of Ensemble Video.


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Friday Five: Robots, Rebels, and Radical Markets

Hope you had a good week. We sure did. The Getting Smart team had a great retreat spent in the mountains of central Washington where we planned more great learning opportunities for the coming school year. Here are a couple things we learned this week:

1. Passion-Driven Learning? You may discover your passion (like my mid-career stumble into edu) and spend the rest of your life working on it but don’t tell your kids that’s how it works. Instead of a magic light bulb that fires years of effortless toil, it works the other way more often–hard work develops a passion. That’s the conclusion of a new paper from Stanford’s Carol Dweck and Great Walton (summarized in The Atlantic). “It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”

2. Rebels Learning. This week on Hidden Brain (@HiddenBrain), Shankar Vedantam interviewed Francesca Gino, a social science professor at Harvard Business School, who has spent much of her career studying nonconformists. “Rebels are people who break rules that should be broken. They break rules that hold them and others back, and their way of rule breaking is constructive rather than destructive. It creates positive change.”

Young people are experiencing more nonconformity. We should teach them how and when to break the rules. Gino’s new book, Rebel Talent and this podcast interview are a good start.

3. Writing to Learn? Fordham posted a report on Reading and Writing Instruction in America’s Schools and concluded that kids aren’t doing enough of the right kind of writing: “By the time students graduate high school, they should be able to construct a coherent argument. Yet the results suggest that teachers are still prioritizing creative expression over evidence-based writing.” Predictably, they also wanted more content and more classics.

4. Robot Learning. What do you get when you combine cheap robotics, powerful networks, and Airbnb? You get really smart robots. Scientists at CMU wanted to evaluate generalization in robotics, so controlled lab environments wouldn’t cut it. For Robot Learning in Homes they tapped Airbnb to gain access to lots of home environments fast.

Jack Clark observed that “that robot component costs are falling while network performance is improving sufficiently for academic researchers to conduct large-scale real world robotic trials and development, which will no doubt further accelerate progress in this domain.” We think it’s a great example of creative data wrangling for a good cause (we call it Cause + Code: the new impact formula)

5. Markets Learning. Marketplace’s Molly Wood dove into radical economics this week with Glen Weyl of Microsoft Research and co-author of a new book “Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society.” Weyl says inequality is at the root of most problems facing our world, and those problems are worse because our “free” markets are not free enough. So-called “free market champions” used capitalism as a veil to further entrench privilege and power, he says, and a real free market could make things more equitable.

Radical Markets is full of radical ideas–but it will take big changes in our political economy to avoid the negative effects of the radical concentration of wealth that seems inevitable with the march of AI.

5 Discoveries

  1. Gig: A couple days after retiring as Albemarle County superintendent, Pam Moran announced that she’s taking over the Virginia School Consortium for Learning, a 30 year old network. Stay tuned for a great podcast with Pam on August 29th
  2. Pic: our picture of the week is Pam Moran visiting one of the very cool multiage classrooms in Albemarle; it’s the kitchen hub of the new space at Agnor-Hurt Elementary.
  3. Book: Apple’s long time VP Education, John Couch has a new book out, Rewiring Education: How Technology Can Unlock Every Student’s Potential. Stay tuned for a podcast with John that we’ll publish on September 5th.
  4. App: Nonprofit Gooru developed Navigator – a GPS for Learning. They also have a new subscription based Navigator for Math. Check them out.
  5. Org: Uptake.org is the philanthropic arm of a Uptake, an industrial AI company. Their  Student Union initiative is taking on the college under-matching problem and personalizing counseling with machine learning.

Check out last week’s Friday Five: Notes from the Frontier. And to stay up to speed via email, sign up for our week Smart Update Newsletter


Inspiring our Future Leaders with the Maker Movement

By: Connie Liu

There are not enough people working on our world’s most pressing issues. From the refugee crisis to climate change to disaster relief, there are an infinite set of problems to solve, but not enough people standing up to address them.

And it is clear how differently our most vulnerable populations are served by innovation. For example, while Amazon has robotic warehouses and a 2-day delivery promise, we still have the same antiquated ways of getting donations to people on time after a hurricane hits.

There are huge disparities in how our most marginalized communities are served. It is clear that it is not more bankers and consultants that we need, but more impact-driven problem solvers. We need people willing to step up and find new ways to address age-old problems.

And our youth are the generation to do that. But in order for them to play a role in building a better future, they need to be equipped with the tools to take action and the confidence to step up.

With Project Invent, the initiative I lead, we spend our days thinking about how we can catalyze youth to build a better world. Because all youth have ideas that can change the world. We just need to help them see that.

So we get young high school students tackling real problems in their own communities, giving them a chance to empathize with the challenges people face, build creative solutions, and share their innovations with the public.

And they have not let us down: students in Project Invent have designed incredibly impactful technologies, inventing everything from smart wallets to help the blind detect bill denominations to new products to combat stress & anxiety. 60% of our teams have been recognized in national competitions and 80% continue their projects into the second year, inspired to continue to create their impact. Driven by their desire to make a change, students are eager to learn the tools and processes to get there.

And what we have found is that when you give students the chance to make an impact, they step up to the challenge. But a lot of design goes into crafting learning experiences that best empower students. And for Project Invent, making has become a core part of the way we catalyze young changemakers. We have students tackle problems through making so they can literally see their ideas become a physical reality. When students see themselves create something that buzzes upon a turn or lights up at the wave of a hand, it’s nothing short of magical. However, when they learn these skills in the context of making an impact, it adds a whole new dimension. Imagine if the motivation for making something buzz when you turn is to help a blind person cross a street safely. What about if the light that turns on at the wave of a hand helps an aging individual make their way down the stairs safely in the dark?

Through making, students develop the creative confidence that they can create anything. Through making for impact, students see that they can change the world.

And we’ve found that the six elements of high-quality project-based learning shared by HQPBL have been key to building these empowering experiences:

  1. Authenticity: We connect students with real people in the community who become their project partners throughout the year and give them feedback, stories, and support throughout their invention process.
  2. Public Support: The most powerful vote of confidence in a student’s work is seeing people outside of their parents and teachers care about what they do. Students in Project Invent all present their work at Demo Day, a final showcase where students pitch their impactful inventions to tech leaders and investors for the chance at funding.
  3. Intellectual Challenge: We push students to build skills beyond what they think they are capable of. Making happens to do a great job at that.
  4. Collaboration: The idea of a lone genius or lone inventor is a myth. Students need to learn how to work with one another, balance multiple perspectives, and build on each other’s ideas to develop truly impactful innovations.
  5. Project Management: Students need to be in charge, making all of the key decisions, votes, and compromises that make the experience truly real-world.
  6. Reflection: In order to best make an impact, students need to reflect on their own privilege, have the humility to defer to their user and admit that they don’t know the best solution (and the user does), and deeply empathize with the problems that exist around them.

And it is crucial that students are getting these empowering experiences before college. By the time students go to college and enter their careers, it becomes steadily riskier to test their ideas for changing the world. If we want students to question the status quo and take action to build a better world, we need to show them how early on.

With the goal of inspiring youth to step up in the face of urgent problems, we need to teach them that they have both the ability and responsibility to build a better, safer, more equitable future.

There is a budding ecosystem of organizations working to empower youth to bring their ideas to life. LaunchX is bringing entrepreneurship programs into schools. The Future Project is building programs for underserved youth to make their dreams a reality. Dent Education has created an incredible program for empowering the high school students of Baltimore. One Stone puts design for good at the center of their school.

This is critical work if we want to disrupt the status quo. If students in every school had a place to create their ideas for building a better world, there is no doubt that our world would be a better place. Our youth are some of the most passionate, empathy-driven individuals our world has to offer. We can see that in the uprising of the Parkland teens after their school shooting or in Alexis Lewis, young inventor and spokesperson for youth. Imagine if we could catalyze every student to take action and live a life of impact.

And despite the focus on making, invention is also incredibly accessible. You don’t need a decked out makerspace; you don’t need to be an engineering major. We have run our programs in classrooms with a Chromebook, Arduino, and cardboard. We just need people ready to create powerful learning experiences for youth and catalyze them to change the world.

Connie Liu is the founder of Project Invent. Follow Project Invent on twitter: @project_invent

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SmartStart: Starting the School Year Off Right

Jim George’s now infamous quote –  “It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish” – has been lauded by many as almost a foundational philosophy for life. However, for those of us who are responsible for starting the school year each year for millions of students, we may want to flip that line of thinking on its ear. Seems that how we start the school year might have more to do with how we finish than anything else.

In all my years as a classroom teacher, program advisor, and site leader, I worked hard to make the first day and week of school was engaging, inspirational and motivational as possible. But no matter how hard I, and many of my colleagues, tried, it seems that the institutional expectations took over and the emphasis became less about student engagement and more about rules, expectations, syllabi, policies, contracts, books and academics. That’s right. After all, does it seem reasonable that the earlier we start academics, the more academic success we would have?

Well, as I suggested earlier, maybe it’s the exact opposite. Turns out a happy accident showed me what I always had known and tried to create. And that is if we focus on anything but academics to start the school year – such as culture, opportunity, creativity, relationships and the “why” – we may actually produce a more academically successful student and school year. This happy accident was as the school year opened in the fall of 2008 when then brand new Minarets High School prepared for the first week of school.  As our luck would have it, our new school buildings and campus were not going to ready or inhabitable that first week.

Indeed, we were going to have to bus our new student body of 9th and 10th graders to an off-campus location and mimic what would seem like the first week of high school. We, fortunately, found a lakeside conference center that would serve as our campus this historic first week. But instead of classrooms and standard presentations about the aforementioned scripted rules and policies, we would be forced to meet as a large group in the conference room and then peel off in small groups for intimate sessions on varied topics. It’s this conference environment that inspired us to completely scrap the standard first day/ first-week jargon and reinvent the first week of school. And ultimately, this is what would later be dubbed as SmartStart by my colleague and co-conspirator Jon Corippo.

Our first week of school focused on all students getting to know one another, as well as every teacher and staff member. We shared lessons, activities, talks, simulations, challenges and guest speakers on things such as success skills, technology, relationships, careers, project ideas and more.

We had several goals (deliverables) in mind for this first week. They included, but were not limited to every student knowing whom every staff member was, how our school and their experience was going to be different, how we cared about what students thought and wanted, how they need to engage and produce in productive (but personalized) ways, how they now had good friends the first week of high school and how learning could be relevant and fun.

This first week of school, SmartStart, became a tradition that was improved, expanded and redesigned each and every year. It became a collaborative effort where all staff submitted lessons and presentations that were shared and commonly implemented. It expanded into tech integration and project management where all of our students (even when we had 500 students) would produce a video, a podcast and a presentation the first week of school. In addition to culture building and schoolwide lessons, we modeled that all students could and would produce high-quality work.

Topics for SmartStart sessions can almost be anything. Here are some examples we focused on each and every year (sample schedule here):

  • School-wide activities, challenges, culture building
  • School-wide messaging – i.e. digital footprint
  • School-wide skills – i.e. presentation
  • School-wide technology lessons – Google, other
  • School-wide forms, formats, rubrics, workflows
  • School-wide life lessons, professional lessons
  • School-wide products, sharing, showcasing, exhibiting
  • School-wide guests, professionals, experiences

SmartStart, or some derivation of the same, continues today at Minarets High School. And many other schools have been doing something similar. These have included school-wide design challenges, learning expeditions and service learning experiences – all with the idea of emphasizing everything but academics in order to build the skills and culture conducive to academics.

Each year, some teachers and staff members struggled with the concept. They fell the traditional pressure of “getting started” on schoolwork. We continuously had to remind them, and ourselves, that it was the student and staff culture we built that first week of school that would make high-level student work and academics a reality throughout the school year. Indeed, we knew whatever we created, or didn’t create, that first week of school, would indeed define the year. We also knew that whatever good things were born during SmartStart, that they would have to re-visited, nurtured, refined and modeled throughout the school year by staff and students.

Additionally, when one enjoys success based on some innovation or departure, such as SmartStart, it also influences and creates other innovations. We continued to take our SmartStart philosophy to other aspects of the school year that needed a redesign or boost. For example, any day before a long vacation (Thanksgiving, Winter Break and Spring Break) became an opportunity to not only re-visit our school culture and climate priorities, but engage students in new ways through service learning or career activities that would be a departure from the typical class schedule and non-productive days before vacations. Even our year-end activities became giant celebrations of culture, performances and recognition – instead of the last day of school being another lost day. These final days before breaks are often now called Lame Duck Days. We turned them into SmartStart or SmartReboot days. These last days before vacations became giant intercessions where both teachers and students go to pursue specialized and unique topics, lessons, careers or volunteer work that was outside of their normal course and school work or experience.

This is the power of SmartStart. How we start anything – a lesson, a project or even a school year – might be the most important thing in terms of what gets finished or the end result. Let’s not only rethink how we do school, but how we start school. Here are some additional resources for SmartStart:

If you find this to be a valuable exercise, I hope you’ll share more about your experiennce in the comments section below.

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Camp C-Block Introduces Blockchain Technology to Black Girls

As Tom Vander Ark shared in his post, How Blockchain Will Transform Credentialing (and Education), “Blockchain will end paper based certificates, automate the award, recognition and transfer of credits, increase learner ownership and control over their own data, reduce institutional data costs and risk but only if open standards are adopted.” Unfortunately, while many may know the word Blockchain, there is a big information gap when it comes to understanding what it is and how it will affect our lives (myself included). One group, Project Bitmobile, is working to address this gap.

Over the course of the next six-months, Project Bitmobile will tour the country in an RV providing introductions to the field of blockchain technology and to the possibilities of cryptocurrencies. The aim of Project Bitmobile is to provide real-life introductions to blockchain technology and to empower women and girls in this emerging technical field. The goal is to also investigate the commonplace understanding of bitcoin and blockchain technology and increase awareness of the possibilities of blockchain technology and crypto assets.

One way Project Bitmobile is introducing people to this space is by educating young girls in coding and blockchain through week or day-long programs. These programs will take place during the summer of 2018 or as an after-school program this upcoming fall.

C-Block, which stands for Conscious Coding and Cryptography, is an example of one of these programs. The first C-Block Camp kicked off last week in Durham, North Carolina with the hope to educate, inform, and inspire young women in the fields of coding, cyber security, cryptography and blockchain technology . Similarly to Black Girls Code, Jen Hill, Founder of Project Bitmobile and Lead Experience Designer at C-Block, saw a great need for providing access and opportunities to black girls and youth to learn about these types of technologies.

C-Block is free to the girls and is being offered to 6th and 7th graders from the Durham-Raleigh area. Jen Hill shared that from scan of the research and experience as a Director at local STEM school, that if middle school aged girls get hands-on experience with STEM, they are more likely to pursue STEM as field of study or career.

Project Bitmobile was inspired by Pierce Freelon’s Blackspace, a digital makerspace for Black and Brown youth in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Blackspace hosted the first Camp C-Block. Blackspace offers local youth a breathing space to create, cultivate and manifest their dreams by any medium necessary. Culturally relevant STEAM curriculum is at the core of the Blackspace programs, which are designed to instill traits of self-efficacy and self-worth that allow our youth to build the skills they need to succeed. Their ‘wokeshops’ (conscious workshops) include:

  • Open Studio, Digital Storytelling
  • Poetry Writing and Performance
  • Conscious Coding
  • Hip-Hop Production

We stopped by Blackspace during the inaugural C-Block program to see what the girls were up to and talk to their parents. One parent shared that her daughter was very nervous about the camp, but couldn’t stop talking about it after the first day and couldn’t wait to come back. At the end of the first day of camp, when the girls shared their highs and lows, they all said they were challenged by coding and were excited to learn more.

In addition to programs and camps, Project Bitmobile will also conduct pedestrian interviews and surveying in cities across North American and will demonstrate how cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin are made, with an on-board mining rig.

Bitcoin Magazine is the media sponsor of this project and will be featuring the camps and interviews every week on their website. Project Bitmobile was founded by Jen Hill, former Summer Programs Director at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM). Please contact her for more information at [email protected] and @bitmobilerv

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