100 Podcasts You Should Check Out

Updated January 2021

It’s been roughly 15 years since the beginning of podcasting—a media format that, despite a slow start, has risen to peak popularity in the last few years. Things began to pick up for podcasting when Apple included a podcast player on the iPhone. Then, the format really gained traction when suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, Serial, the story of the disappearance of a popular Baltimore teen, went viral in 2014. Now in its third season Serial has been downloaded more than 340 million times.

Fast forward five years and there are now a couple million podcasts. More than half of Americans have listened to a podcast, and a third listen monthly. Maybe it’s a reflection of our busy lives—podcasts fit into the spaces in between: while working out, while commuting to work, while waiting in TSA pre-check lines (which are now longer than general boarding), and while cooking dinner.

Here’s an updated list of our favorites.

By and For Educators

Getting Smart Podcast: Check out more than 230 great conversations with innovative educators.

The 180: From Turnaround for Children, guests like Todd Rose and Linda Darling Hammond discuss using 21st century science to promote whole child learning.

Ed Chat Radio of BAM Radio Network: Focuses on a wide array of education topics with an equally diverse pool of hosts. Make sure to explore BAM’s library of podcasts. The volume and frequency of programs will keep you listening for a long time.

Harvard EdCast: A series of conversations with thought leaders in the field of education that serves as a space for educational discourse and openness, focusing on the myriad issues and current events related to the field.

Educate from APM: Stories about education, opportunity, and how people learn.

edYou: This podcast, coming in February 2020, is hosted by teachers, for teachers and covers current classroom research, trends, and ideas.

Iowa BIG Podcast: This podcast interviews key stakeholders, board members and faculty of the innovative Iowa Big School, sharing learnings, lessons and more.


Education Gadfly: Weekly policy and research review.

EdNext Podcast: This weekly podcast includes stories, interviews, and discussions of the latest developments in education from ESSA to teacher professional development. Be sure to also check out the Education Next Book Club podcast where Mike Petrilli interviews authors of new and classic education books.

The Education Exchange: This podcast from Education Next is hosted by Paul Peterson and covers education policy.

Higher Education

Times Higher Education: For our international listeners, this weekly UK HigherEd-focused program describes itself as the podcast “at the heart of the higher education debate.”

Future U: Michael Horn (@MichaelBHorn) and Jeff Selingo (@jselingo) discuss higher education.


EdSurge: Weekly podcast on edtech covering K-12 and higher ed (owned by ISTE).

Trends and Issues in Instructional Design: Abbie Brown and Tim Green review clips of the week and peer into their crystal ball.


Tech News Weekly: A great hour roundup of tech news (check out the whole TWIT library of tech pods).

Tech News Briefing: A daily briefing on tech news from the Wall Street Journal.

Marketplace Tech: Another daily briefing on tech news.

User Friendly: Weekly podcast from Deloitte on tech and business trends.

a16z Podcast Network: A group of podcasts on tech and venture from Andreessen Horowitz.

Leadership & Entrepreneurship

Tim Ferriss Show: Every week, Tim (4 Hour Work Week) posts a long interview with leaders in tech and entrepreneurship.

Trail Blazers: Walter Isaacson hosts a Dell-sponsored podcast reviewing historical innovations.

Curious Minds: Leading innovation podcast with authors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

The Knowledge Project: Shane Parrish helps you master the best of what other people have already figured out.

Startup: A show about startups from Gimlet.

HBR Ideacast: A weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in business and management.

The Pitch: Shark tank-style podcast, also from Gimlet Media.

Akimbo: Seth Godin’s podcast on entrepreneurship and leadership.

Killer Innovations from Phil McKinney: Focuses on innovations in technology and leadership.

How I Built This: Startup stories from NPR.

80,000 Hours: Long form inspiration for mission-oriented careers.

Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman: How do companies grow from zero to a gazillion? Reid Hoffman tests his theories with famous founders.

The Learning Leaders Show: Each week Ryan Hawk interviews well known leaders or authors on sustaining excellence.

That Made all the Difference: Brought to you by Bank of America, this show talks to doers about the things that made an impact on their journeys.

The Between Worlds Podcast: This podcast, hosted by Mike Walsh, focuses on the future of work—what’s a threat, what’s an opportunity, and how can we navigate the space in between.

People I (Mostly) Admire: Hosted by Steve Levitt from Freakonomics, where he has conversations about with “wildly intelligent people […] who are a little bit off the rails”.

The Michelle Obama Podcast: Michelle Obama sits down with friends and family to talk about leading, loving and relationships.

Markets & Economics

Marketplace: Daily podcast on markets and popular economics.

Make Me Smart: Ky and Molly from Marketplace host a giggly weekly recap of tech and markets.

Freakonomics: Weekly economic topics discussed in a way that will make you say, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.”

Planet Money: Life and money and markets from NPR.

Exchanges at Goldman Sachs: People from across the group share their insights on developments shaping markets, industries, and the global economy.

Smart People Podcast: Picking smart people’s “oversized brains” is what this podcast is all about. They interview people from various industries to bring their listeners episodes that satisfy those of us with insatiable curiosity.

McKinsey Podcast: Weekly discussion of economics and business leadership.

Conversations with Tyler: The smartest people on the planet interviewed by polymath Tyler Cowen, from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Equity: An end of week recap on venture capital news from Techcrunch.

AI & Big Data

Learning Machines 101: A gentle introduction to machine learning from Richard Golden.

Future of Life Institute: Weekly podcast about everything that could go wrong. Podcasts series including AI Alignment and Not Cool, a climate change series.

The Future of Everything: A weekly podcast from the Wall Street Journal.

A Glimpse Into the Future: A podcast on the global economy and fourth industrial revolution from the World Economic Forum.


Poetry Off the Shelf: One of many podcasts by the Poetry Foundation, this podcast extends past the reading of a poem to discuss trends, history, and identity.

Poetry Unbound: A new podcast from OnBeing Studios that breaks down a poem in-depth and revels in the magic and mystery of poetry.

The Slowdown: A daily podcast where former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith thoughtfully reads a daily poem.

News & Views

BBC World Service: Browse through podcasts about psychology, science, technology, or politics. The episodes are available for 30 days and updated weekly.

Fresh Air: An NPR classic hosted by Terry Gross, who interviews authors, thinkers, musicians, and other creatives in a no holds barred quasi-talk show with no time limit and no BS.

Fareed Zakaria GPS: Best “news and views” show on TV, via podcast.

Longform: This podcast interviews longform journalists about process, reporting, and much more.

The Intelligence: A daily global news show from The Economist.

Up First from NPR: This podcast from NPR is a great place to get 15 minutes of daily news, to help you make sense of what is going on.

Why We Do What We Do

On Being: Krista Tippett boldly takes on the question that we all ask at one point: “What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?” On Being is a Peabody Award-winner and Webby Award-winner.

Hidden Brain: Social science research brought to life (from NPR).

You Are Not So Smart: More social science (a staff favorite of Getting Smart), featuring interviews on topics like tribal psychology, narrative persuasion, and active information avoidance.

The Moth: Storytelling at its best. The Moth is a platform to record your own story, and listen to stories told by storytellers at Moth events. It’s a community for people who love telling it how it went down, and how it is.

This I Believe: With roots in Edward R. Murrow’s show with the same name, this podcast transforms essays from all walks of life into podcasts. You’ll definitely find something that inspires you with the 100,000+ library of stories.

This American Life: An hour of stories every week about living in America.

How to Save the Planet: This podcast, from Gimlet media, features stories, tips and science to help combat climate change.

How to Citizen: A podcast where host Baratunde “reimagines the word citizen as a verb and reminds us how to wield our collective power.”

Brené Brown Podcasts: Brené Brown has two podcasts: Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead, unique conversations and interviews that focus on being human and a modern way of leading.

STEM & Maker

How Stuff Works: You never know what you’re going to get with this podcast. Expect topics that range from cars to food to pop-psychology.

Mindscape: Author and physicist Sean Carroll has accessible and fascinating conversations with some of the world’s best thinkers.

TED Talks Education: Our team has yet to listen to a TED talk that didn’t inspire or ignite us with new energy for an idea or topic. Subscribe to TED’s education podcasts to hear from some of the brightest minds in academia today.

TED Radio Hour: Consolidates various TED Talks. Tom loves the episode on Memory and Jessica loves the Why We Collaborate episode.

Radiolab: Podcasts for the curious mind. Broadcast on over 300 radio stations across the United States, Radiolab explores science, philosophy, and the human experience.

Flash ForwardRose Eveleth explores potential and alternative futures.

Astronomy Cast: This website offers a weekly podcast centered on astronomy concepts like planets and cosmology.

Big Picture Science: Takes on big questions by interviewing leading researchers and weaving together their stories of discovery in a clever and off-kilter narrative style.

Distillations: Produced by the Science History Institute, this podcast explores the human stories behind science and technology, tracing a path through history in order to better understand the present.

Math Mutation: Short podcasts that explore mathematics. Topics cover strange and quirky concepts that aren’t normally taught in school.

NASA Science Casts: These video podcasts are short, fun, and bring unusual science topics to light. Podcasts are based on historical space missions completed by NASA.

StarTalk Radio: A podcast series that focuses on all things extra-terrestrial. Topics include stars, the big bang, space travel, black holes, and more.

The Naked Scientist: Cambridge University researchers and physicians are behind this podcast filled with humor and levity as they explore a diverse set of science topics. Their goal is to strip science down to its bare essentials.

Climate One: Host Greg Dalton talks with environmental scientists, policy makers, and everyday people about the state of our climate and the ways to navigate climate change.


British History: For history buffs, this website hosts regular podcasts that focus solely on the history of England from the ice age forward.

The History Chicks: A fresh look at history through factual and fictional characters. Podcasts go into detail about the time period, culture, and typical lifestyle of the person highlighted in each episode.

Revisionist History: Malcolm Gladwell’s “journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood.” Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time..


Splendid Table: A slightly more process- and idea-oriented take on a food podcast.

A Taste of the Past: This show goes long on food origins and food cultures, and is obsessed with following humankind’s tastiest traditions.

Milk Street Radio: Christopher Kimball answers questions and tells story about something that unites us all… food.

The Dave Chang Show: Celebrity chef Dave Chang chats sports, food and culture in this longform podcast.


Song Exploder: A rare peek behind the curtain of musicians and songwriters on process.

WTF: Marc Maron, one of the best interviewers around, interviews everyone from comedians on the comedy club circuit to Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen.

Armchair Expert: Hosted by Dax Sheppard, this podcast interviews guests about being human.

Nice White Parents: This podcast from The New York Times focuses on the ways parents shape schools — for better, and for worse.

What did we leave out? What podcasts should we check out to support our learning, teaching, and knowledge in general? Please comment to build and grow this list.

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Portrait of a School Wide Project Launch

When it comes to bringing happiness to a child, there may not be anything more universal than a toy. In an effort to engage in the power of toys, teachers at iLEAD Agua Dulce are challenging their TK-6th graders to a very ambitious school wide project: ‘How Can I Spread The Joy of Toys?’

The Purpose, The Vision

As a school, iLEAD Agua Dulce has already established the tradition of doing a school wide project at the beginning of the school year for a variety of foundational reasons. These are, according to Director Lisa Latimer, at the heart of what makes their learning community very special and successful. “Facilitating a school wide project creates collaboration, community, and sets the standard for the rest of the year,” said Latimer. “The learners understand their why and learn to be part of a real learning culture.”

This collaborative spirit is not only evident in the learners, but also in the facilitators. Through the school wide project, Latimer said the staff becomes more adept at problem solving, communication, and embracing an overall common mission. “The facilitators end up doing better work together overall and become part of a healthier facilitator culture,” said Latimer.

Fourth Grade Facilitator Chris Bojorquez-Engelhardt concurred with the benefits of implementing a school wide project early in the year. “It demonstrates the school synergy to both learners and facilitators, as well as community,” said Bojorquez-Engelhardt. “New facilitators have support on their first project since all facilitators are engaged in a similar pursuit.”

The Driving Questions

There are many ways individual grade levels can address the driving question. At iLEAD Agua Dulce, here is what ‘How Can I Spread The Joy of Toys’ looks like by grade level:

  • TK/K/1st/2nd Grades: How can we design toys that help kids stay connected?
    • Purpose: Learners will engage in the engineering and design thinking process to keep them connected with one another in order to create a sense of joy and normalcy during these unprecedented times.
  • 3rd Grade: How can we design toys that bring joy to other children?
    • Purpose: To connect learners with the idea of “paying it forward”, through philanthropic ideas and engage in engineering and design thinking.
  • 4th Grade: How can we use our knowledge of supply and demand to become more creative consumers?
    • Purpose: Learners will identify and interpret the multiple causes and effects of consumerism through the exploration of toy products and engage in the engineering and design thinking process.
  • 5th Grade: How can we design and market an innovative toy through a successful business model?
    • Purpose: Learners will understand the entrepreneurial spirit by exploring different ways to create a successful business through the exploration of toys.
  • 6th Grade: How can we use the evolution of toys/games to design and market an adaptable product for the present day?
    • Purpose: Learners will demonstrate their resourcefulness by utilizing their engineering and design thinking skills to create a toy/game and a successful marketing strategy that is adaptive for the present day pandemic.

Why This Resonates

Launching a school wide project needs to connect with learners, facilitators, and the school community. Facilitators agreed that this project resonated immediately with them intellectually, emotionally, and personally.

Outdoor Classroom Facilitator Aidan Bybee believes that this project speaks perfectly to childhood, as well as with the school’s play-based learning philosophy. Bybee said she can’t think of a more authentic project that could engage all learners. “The driving question connects to a personal aspect for learners and will capture their attention in a variety of aspects,” said Bybee.

Third Grade Facilitator Rhonna Horney thinks this project connects her service and philanthropic experiences, as well as the desire for the learners to give back. “This clicked with me because I’ve been very fortunate to experience the joy of giving,” said Horney. “I think it will resonate with my learners as well because they enjoy ultimately giving to others.”

Impact & The Joy Of Learning

Whether students are learning about marketing, service aspects, or even the design process, Bojorquez-Engelhardt loves how this project ultimately models for learners how to address needs in the community. He also sees this project as having endless potential products, pathways, and public outcomes. “I’m very excited to see the creativity learners are going to bring to this project,” said Bojorquez-Engelhardt. “I want them to see the why behind it.”

This project is a great vehicle for learners to really experience service, empathy and connection to others, according to Horney. “Facilitating life lessons, compassion and empathy are important values to instill in the future generations and one of my favorite aspects of teaching,” said Horney.

Latimer sees this specific project, as well as school wide projects overall, as a means to accomplish so much in a very global, collaborative effort. “This project sparks curiosity and inquiry, while being relevant, personalized, and engaging. It not only embodies design, engineering, entrepreneurialism, and philanthropy, but encompasses all areas of the curriculum,” said Latimer. “More importantly, it allows our learners to have the autonomy to have voice and choice on how they want to present their creative product, speak their thoughts, and have their opinions valued.”

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Getting Clearer: Student Access

As we read on responses to school closures and imperatives for schooling moving forward, there is continuous mention of student access. Many times, it’s in conjunction with equity, as phrases like “equity and access” are common in resources and professional development. What do we mean by access? Why do we need to mention access when the United States has a compulsory education structure? The presumption that students have access to learning is a nuanced reality, and there are specific social and educational structures that deny access points to students throughout our school systems.

Physical Access

One basic and simple understanding is physical access. Can students physically access learning? Different regions and circumstances impact students’ physical access to learning. Some students have limited access to learning resources, such as lab classrooms, and some students commute over an hour to school due to rural locations. Some students have physical access to technology, even new 21st century technology, and some students do not have access to any technology resources. Some students have access to climate controlled classrooms with functioning ventilation and windows, and some students are in classrooms that are in need of significant repair and no heating. This variance to physical access of location and resources profoundly impacts student learning experiences. There are key inequities for physical location and resource access that need to be addressed across the country to support improvement in learning experiences and outcomes.

Access to Social Emotional Wellbeing

Social emotional learning is a prevalent priority across school systems. However, not all learning environments provide students with access to social and emotional wellbeing. There are learning environments that are high stress environments, pushing initiatives and definitions of success that cause harm to students. Some learning environments promote cultural context and values that are oppressive to other cultural contexts and cause emotional harm to students not part of the dominant culture. Some learning environments are violent, with constant conflict, police presence, security structures, and strict regulations that can cause trauma to students. Learning environments that lack diverse representation in content, historical reference, and examples erase some student backgrounds from identity within the learning system. These are all examples of how some students are denied access to social and emotional wellbeing. They are prohibited from being seen and valued, they are traumatized by structures, and unable to access learning environments that cultivate joy, curiosity, and affirmation.

Access to Opportunity

The access to opportunity is one of the most prolific references for access. Opportunity means different things depending on legislation, school, and district context, and strategic priorities. This variance interrupts a consistent set of opportunities provided to students throughout their time in K-12 education. Opportunity is also the term we regularly reference when unpacking the intersection of schooling and economic class in America. There is more opportunity for students to access resources, experiences, school improvements, mentorship, etc. when in middle and upper class settings.

There is no equal access to learning improvements solely on what takes place in learning environments—inequality for access to opportunity begins at the home environment. Knowing that social structures and economic class circumstances improve or prohibit student access to opportunity, school systems do try to provide expanded points of access for students who need the school to provide context that their home environment does not. This also gets complicated in public school settings, as many times middle and upper class families try to “hoard” opportunities to preserve improved access for their students. A clear and relevant example of this is the current “learning pod” movement taking place in response to pandemic schooling circumstances.

Post-Secondary Access

When we think about the “American Dream” and the expectation that compulsory education provides all students with the “opportunity” to achieve that dream, we focus on post-secondary access. K-3 literacy goals are in honor of improved high school performance that results in improved college going rates. If all kids graduate college ready, they can be successful in life… or that is how the story goes. What K-12 schools don’t control or discuss in the details of post-secondary access is the fact that key determinants for college acceptance such as ACT and SAT scores are highly influenced by test prep access. Test prep access varies by class, as financial resources provide opportunities for private tutors, specialized courses, and even cultural context that better equips students to perform better on those exams than what is taught to them in school. Other factors, such as extracurriculars and elite courses are also limited or expanded depending on what schools and communities make available to students, and that causes national differentiation in access for students.

When students do find their way into college, it doesn’t mean they have equal access to the ability to persist in college. So, this caveat stains the efforts for post-secondary access initiatives, as they limit the work to getting “in” to college, not getting through college, and that defers the American Dream for some students that were striving for it since they entered kindergarten.

Access to Capital

Social Capital is a key player in the game of access for students. When students have access to experiences, well-networked mentors, specialized pathways, etc. they expand their capital and that expands to further points of access. Some students are born into wealthy social capital and put in little effort to know the right people or be part of the best experiences. Some students live in places that have schools and learning experiences that prioritize capital and provide students access to well-networked mentors, learning pathways, and extracurricular experiences. There is no mention of social capital as a key component for compulsory education, even though it is through that capital that college persistence and career opportunities are most able. This systemic denial of the necessity of social capital, or in some cases, the way some schools and systems pervert how students need to be to access that capital has significant impacts on the livelihood for students that spans across generations.

5 Action Steps Towards Improved Student Access

So, knowing all the nuance and complications of access for students, what can one do about it? Well, a lot. Here are five key actions that impact the access of students in your community and beyond:

  1. Engage with and/or be part of your local School Board. The school board is one of the most influential decision entities that provides or denies student access. Be part of the board to advocate for student access or be an active constituent making sure your board advocates for student access.
  2. Leverage resources and network to invite and empower students into more expansive social capital. Be an active community member that notices the abundance of social capital and invites in peers and students to build a more robust community of opportunity and purpose.
  3. If you are a parent of a student in school, make sure you are not complicit in opportunity hoarding. Ensure your decision making for what’s best for your child considers needs and access of all students in the community.
  4. Be an active citizen influence on state and federal education policy and legislation. Pay attention to funding priorities, distribution of resources, boundary, and choice initiatives, and vote/advocate in the best interest for students having access and opportunity.
  5. Practice reciprocity. We are part of communities, and when all children in our community are “our” children, and when we all belong to each other, we care and grow into community members that value access for all of us.

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Economic Mobility High: The New End Game for America’s High Schools

High schools celebrate graduates who share their hopes and dreams that mostly include a postsecondary plan with aspirations to make a difference in the world. Post-graduation, high school leaders exhale and often turn their attention to the next class of students. After these high school seniors graduate, how much attention do we pay to their success in college, careers, and life? How do we look at success beyond high school by race, gender, and economic status of students to ensure students from our community thrive? What is the role of the American high school leader in owning the success of students beyond high school?

What if we thought of high school less in terms of test scores and more in terms of economic contribution to our communities? High schools can and should be the economic development engines of our communities.

The ideal finish line is no longer college admissions, it’s a viable pathway to high wage employment–and that may or may not include a traditional college experience. The new finish line is a secure grasp on the first few rungs of a lifelong earn and learn ladder.

Heading in the Right Direction

Texas, through House Bill 3, placed a premium on school districts owning the success of students beyond high school. The Bill plans for a vibrant Texas economy by investing in inequitable college and work outcomes. School districts must now set equity goals for college and career success that includes college and career readiness, college enrollment, and college and work attainment rates by race, gender, and economic status. For every student that tests college-ready and enrolls in college, tests college-ready and earns an industry-recognized credential, or tests military ready and enlists in the military, school districts receive significant new outcomes bonuses. These bonuses are weighted by economic status so that low-income communities receive more dollars for producing valued outcomes to reinvest in talent and drive a strong Texas economy.

School networks like KIPP and Uplift Education have prioritized the road to and through college. As charter school organizations that have to raise funds to match the level of investment in traditional public schools, they must demonstrate a clear return on investment in college enrollment, completion, and job placement. KIPP and Uplift invest in college and career advising with a robust and individualized plan for every student with the personalized support to succeed. Additionally, they prioritize investments in alumni coordinators who stay with students through college completion and job entry. This economic mobility value proposition is a powerful message to parents, students, investors, community leaders, and industry partners.

About 60 schools in 25 districts in metro Kansas City (both Kansas and Missouri districts) are making high school more valuable to young people by incorporating more real-world learning including internships and client-connected projects, three classes of college credit, industry-recognized credentials and entrepreneurial experiences.

Economic Mobility High

How many high school leaders truly view their role as leaders of economic mobility? High schools have a major role in creating a path to economic mobility in the face of significant systemic barriers like racism, poverty, under-resourced communities, outdated state accountability plans, and insufficient data systems.

There are four ways school, system, and community leaders can help create economic mobility in high schools.

1. New Goals & Investments: Current state accountability systems focus on testing, students having a touch of college and/or careers, and minimum high school graduation requirements. We must be bold in setting new goals and shift financial resources to invest in those goals where every student:

  • Demonstrates college and career readiness (via traditional readiness tests and industry-aligned tools like NROC and ALEKS);
  • Conducts several community-connected projects that result in public products of value to the learner and community (products worth adding to a resume and LinkedIn profile);
  • Earns a minimum of 12 to 15 transferable college credits;
  • Earns an industry-recognized certification that includes authentic work-based experience with a trained career mentor who helps verify key employability skills like teamwork, work ethic, and the ability to clearly communicate in the workplace;
  • Enrolls in valuable postsecondary learning (including skill trades) with the financial aid and support they need to persist to graduate on time and/or is hired in a good job with a path to a living wage; and
  • Starts a business or launches a sustainable impact initiative.

2. Personalized Advice: Every learner deserves sustained adult relationships that monitor academic and social growth and provide personalized guidance from picking the right courses and projects to making an informed postsecondary plan.

Advisors know and care if learners are at school, they understand context variables, they listen and help uncover strengths and interests. They also push learners outside their comfort zone, they facilitate work-based learning experiences that stretch imagined possible futures, and they help build social capital in ways that expand opportunity.

3. Regional Partnerships: With clear and ambitious goals, it is obvious that high schools cannot do this work in isolation. The work of economic mobility must rest in a regional plan with both higher education and workforce taking the lead in key areas. Talented high school leaders are at the table defining:

  • Higher Ed Innovation & Data Sharing: Higher education must provide the new “programming” that scales and serves students equitably to achieve 15 transferable college credits and an industry-based certification for ALL students as a minimum bar. Additionally, higher education must share data back with high schools in real-time if high schools are to invest in alumni coordinators and support.
  • Workforce Investment & New Models: Workforce must invest in providing real work-based learning experiences that scale so ALL students have a path to an internship, industry-recognized credentials, and set of verified employability skills.
  • Community Accountability: It is often difficult for school districts and schools to run new data reports on new goals that actually matter for building an effective and equitable regional talent pipeline. An external group like a regional chamber of commerce or collective impact organization can be a tremendous partner by publishing regional scorecards and convening community leaders to support new and courageous school leadership.

4. Modern Data Systems: One of the blockages to an equitable talent pipeline is the lack of sharing information that empowers students and those that serve them across K12, higher ed, and work.

  • Student Agency (Hyper-Ledger): When a student earns college credit, an ACT score, a verified badge on teamwork from an employer, they must see it verified in real-time (like a verified LinkedIn profile).
  • Effective Case Management (CRM): When students earn valued skills and credentials aligned to new bold goals, school personnel must be able to see the same information to better case manage student success.

Dallas County high schools are served by one of the best current examples of modern data systems.

Today’s courageous high school leaders are embracing economic mobility and closing the hope gap that many students and families face. They feel an intense sense of responsibility not only to set students up for success beyond high schools, but to also actually build an intentional plan, redeploy dollars and resources, and build the measurement capabilities to ensure that all students realize their dreams and potential to experience success in college, careers, and life.

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From Test Prep To Active Learning: The El Paso Transformation

Imagine the intensity of a Syracuse full court press, the efficiency of Navy SEALs, the agility of a Silicon Valley startup, and the compassion and responsiveness of the Red Cross.

As I interviewed the leadership of the El Paso Independent School District over the last two weeks it didn’t feel or sound like most school districts. The remarkable level of talent, the mission alignment, the “whatever it takes for every student” mentality was striking.

When the pandemic struck in March, superintendent Juan Cabrera told his team, “From today forward, we are half education, half social services–whatever these kids need you have my permission to put that hat on—be completely responsive to their needs.” The speed and quality of response to the pandemic meant that education shifted smoothly to remote learning and new meal delivery protocols were quickly implemented.

A year ago, within minutes of the Walmart shooting in El Paso, the EPISD team sprang into action and created a family reunification center at a middle school near the scene. For 72 hours, the middle school served as a hub for federal, state and local agencies to support family members searching for victims. Cabrera asked EPISD staff on location to support any and all requests from agencies. EPISD’s staff provided grief counseling in partnership with local health providers.

Local agencies know they can turn to EPISD to help in local problem solving and for their help in effective dissemination of information. It’a a place that focuses on children and families and responds quickly and efficiently to their needs. But it wasn’t always that way.

Unusual Spark in an Unlikely Place

Sprawling around the southern end of the 7,000 foot tall Franklin Mountains and just north of the Rio Grande and Juarez, Mexico is El Paso, Texas. It’s four hours south of Albuquerque and the only part of Texas in the Mountain Time Zone. It’s closer to San Diego than Houston. The three million people in the border region make up the largest bilingual, binational workforce in the hemisphere.

One might not expect to find America’s best education transformation story in this unusual place. Making it even more unlikely is that just seven years ago the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) was focused on test preparation and was mired in a cheating and embezzlement scandal. In 2012, the superintendent was arrested and jailed and subsequently EPISD became the largest Texas district to fall under state control. The state took over the district and appointed a board of managers led by now mayor Dee Margo. In 2013, the board of managers appointed a bilingual teacher turned lawyer, Juan Cabrera superintendent.

After three years of teaching, Cabrera earned his law degree, practiced law in Texas and then spent five years leading corporate software teams in Latin America, Asia and Europe (and picking up a few new languages along the way). Cabrera returned home to Texas and built a statewide school-law practice supporting school districts. He knew district policy and politics–and knew that capable leadership sustained over time could change the trajectory of a school district and a city.

Growing up in a bilingual household in a Texas border town, watching his dad support workers and families in California migrant camps, and then cutting software deals in 17 languages gave Cabrera strong instincts for the value of the interpersonal skills embedded in a whole child and dual language approach to learning.

During the fall of 2013, Cabrera visited more than 90 schools and hosted evening town halls to discuss the future of El Paso’s largest employer. Along with his staff, he met with parents, business partners and staff members who asked for a broader set of learning goals focused on critical thinking and authentic problem solving and incorporating social and emotional learning and citizenship, rather than test-prep focus that had dominated El Paso for a decade (summarized below).

A rapidly developed plan set four priorities: active learning, great community schools, community partnerships, and leading with ethics and character. A completely new leadership team with the support of a few capable partners set to work.

Seven years later, and back under the leadership of a locally elected board, progress in the urban school district that serves more than 55,000 students has been impressive across the board with improvement on basic measures of achievement, college and career readiness, deeper learning, graduation rates and enrollment into meaningful postsecondary options. In 2018 and 2019, EPISD received the highest ranking of any urban Texas district with a majority of economically disadvantaged students.

El Paso achieved this academic success without focusing on test prep, in fact, Cabrera may be one of the only superintendents in America that did not discuss state accountability in his first five years. It was all about “kids first”, active learning, and community.

The district has become a trusted partner locally and a nationally recognized innovator. It is a more attractive place to work with 20% better salaries and positive culture. Passing a $669 million bond in 2016 doubled the number of learners who are or soon will be in modern facilities.

10 Building Blocks of the Transformation

After interviewing the board and leadership team in June, we identified 10 elements that contributed to the transformation of El Paso schools.

1. Great leadership: Cabrera assembled an extraordinary (majority female) leadership team that looks like El Paso and is committed, cohesive, and collaborative. Most of the 85 school principals were hired in the last seven years and are committed to the active learning and SEL agenda. “During my first 5 years, I spent the majority of my time identifying leaders with passion, agility, intelligence and a relentless desire to drive equity and support students” explained Cabrera.

2. Strong culture: The culture is student-centered, growth-focused, community-connected, agile and entrepreneurial. Many staff members proudly wear a badge declaring, “I am EPISD” that speaks to a shared and individual commitment to improvement and quality.

3. Whole child. Cabrera shifted the focus from narrow measures of success to focusing on the whole child.  As their site explains, “This approach seeks to assure EPISD graduates are academically prepared, well-rounded, civic-minded young citizens.”

“We chose to partner with CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) and other districts in the Council of the Great City Schools that recognize the importance of social and emotional learning,” explained Cabrera and he added “the shift to whole child has been the foundation of our cultural transformation.”

4. Active learning: The core of the academic strategy is high engagement active learning strategy for ALL students, regardless of their zip code. A partnership with New Tech Network, a national network of 200 project-based schools, jump started the transformation with 10 team-taught, project-based academies that quickly created high quality options and illustrated active learning. They include the only dual-language and STEAM-centered school for young women in the country and the only dual-language New Tech K-12 feeder pattern including Hart Elementary, Guillen Middle School and Bowie High School, all sit within feet of the US-Mexico border (listen to this podcast with the staff).

5. Investing in teachers: a partnership with Engage2Learn brought active learning to life for teachers through high quality professional learning. Active learning instructional coaches in every school support teachers on a daily basis. Significant investments in teacher salaries helped attract and retain great teachers and staff. Teacher investments were prioritized while the district budget and enrollment contracted.

6. Investing in technology: Rather than spending $10 million on quickly out-of-date science textbooks, the district developed a partnership with nonprofit CK-12 to develop open digital resources aligned with Texas standards. They used the savings to provide mobile devices for all learners. EPISD is the largest Apple partner in the U.S. with MacBooks for all grade 6-12 students and iPads for all elementary students. The phases of the PowerUp initiative linked improved technology access with teacher training.

7. Dual language: Starting with one dual language feeder pattern and traditional English language learning programs (i.e, exit to English only) at the other 50 elementary schools, the district, in partnership with UTEP, developed the most robust two way K-8 dual language program in the country resulting in biliterate and bicultural learners. The program is expanding as an option through all high schools over the next few years.

8. Lean operations: A focus on quality and customer services and competent financial management lead to cost savings in district operations that allowed reinvestment in teaching and learning. Highlights include automating back office systems, smarter procurement, and big energy savings.

9. Modernize facilities: El Paso has 45 campuses over 50 years old. After a decade without improvement, many were outdated. In 2015 Cabrera’s team developed a 10-year facilities plan and, in 2016, passed a $669 million bond. Now most students will learn in a modern facility.

10. Community partnerships: During the scandal and state takeover EPISD was inward facing and was not a strong community partner. Consequently this was a priority for Cabrera and now much of EPISD’s success is built on strong community partnerships in physical and mental health, safety, and learning opportunities. Business partners and philanthropies supported new academies. EPISD benefited from and contributed to  statewide initiatives in blended learning and good governance.

Pandemic Ready

“It felt like we’ve been getting ready for this pandemic for five years,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Carla Gonzales referring to the smooth transition to remote learning at the end of March.

The agile culture, common learning platform, active learning training, open online curriculum,  personal devices and broadband infrastructure made the transition to remote learning work pretty well for most learners and teachers.

The dramatic improvement in the district’s academic performance and admirable pandemic response led to Cabrera being named “2020 Superintendent of the Year” for the region.

More broadly, Cabrera engineered the transition from a district with deep governance, cultural and fiscal problems to one of the most innovative and admired urban school districts in the country.

“My proudest accomplishment,” said Cabrera, “is instilling a culture that there are no limits to what we will do to support the community inside and outside the classroom.”

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Student Leadership: The Ultimate Course for Career and Life Readiness

As a high school teacher, I learned early on that teaching electives had huge advantages. One, students chose to be there so there was a distinctly different mindset. The other was from the instructional vantage point. It seemed that electives offered the teacher all of the things that great teaching and learning should have: freedom, creativity, customization, personalization, and relevance.

I was fortunate to teach several media electives and enjoyed them immensely. In what turned out to be the middle of my career, I was challenged with teaching a Leadership class. The intersection between me, my students, the school, and the community was a perfect storm. Although it’s been more than 15 years since I taught this course, I still reflect on the experience almost daily. I didn’t realize it then, but now I think this might have been the complete course to prepare students for college, career, and life in a project-focused, globalized and collaborative world. This is why:

Real-World Problem Solving

As I started this new position, I learned that the school had recently undergone some racial tensions involving a high profile white supremacist group that ultimately produced an investigation from the Federal Office of Civil Rights.  I was charged with the mission of promoting tolerance, or beyond, with all students on campus.  In a move that would represent the best of my teaching intuition going forward, I immediately posed the challenge to my students.

The Harmony Diversity Talent Show was born. The students conceived, created and implemented a new special inclusion-focused show that would feature stomp from the African-American Club, traditional Hmong Dancing from the Asian-American Club, folk dancing from the Armenian Student Organization, the Latin Dancers, and even an Irish Folk Dance along with teams of students partnering with special needs student performances.

The school went from having an Office of Civil Rights investigation to winning awards from the National Organization of Students with Disabilities and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.  More importantly, these student leaders had demonstrated to the school and community that their diverse student body was talented, creative, powerful, and proud when united.

Other examples included what we dubbed School Improvement Projects whereby students had to identify a school-wide issue or challenge and work to address it in a creative way. This project alone birthed hundreds of public products such as a 9-11 memorial, art hops, student recognition programs, teacher and staff recognition programs, staff memorials, a special needs cheer program, school beautification projects, a CD of student bands and musical artists and so much more.

Service Education

More than anything, service education became my leadership classes’ primary mode of operations. What started as some on-campus outreach for your standard service or volunteer-type projects (food collection, money collection, etc.) soon became creating school events with the explicit design of raising both money and awareness for several community causes. Students created the Ambiance Fashion Show as a benefit for our local children’s hospital, a three-day blood drive for our regional blood centers, and a prom for a local boys’ group home. Eventually, they had several events that featured student performances and more that partnered with local hospice organizations, children’s groups, and dozens of non-profit organizations. They created Community Service Saturdays that would dispatch student teams, with student recruits from across the school spectrum, to several projects around the community focused on cleanup, planting trees, feeding the less fortunate, and more. They literally turned every traditional school event – rallies, games, dances – into opportunities to raise funds and awareness for someone or something in the community. Students not only transformed themselves but their entire school community and the public as well.

They learned skills and had experiences that would inform their future education and career choices while giving them a personal and collective mission for a lifetime. After graduation and a diverse set of higher education and career choices, they moved all over the country while starting new non-profits, socially-minded business ventures, new community collaboratives, social media campaigns, and service opportunities for their co-workers and colleagues. I experienced in real-time how the newer generations of young people are way more socially engaged than the generation of many of their teachers.

Larger Mission: Something For Every Someone

One of the primary and foundational challenges that I set for all of the leadership students – that they wholeheartedly accepted – was the ongoing mission to reach out personally to every student on campus in a meaningful way. Our goal was to offer some co-curricular or extra-curricular experience for each student.

This mission took on many forms. We had an annual Car Show that included and featured many students who had not connected to or bought into much of what the school traditionally offered. At lunch, we had a Guest DJ Program where students could sign-up and be DJ for a day. There, they got to play their music – hard rock, speed metal, punk, country, techno – for that day’s lunchtime music. This soon became a great way to honor students’ voices and make them feel that they mattered, their opinion or personal taste counted, and that they could have a schoolwide voice.

We brought in lunchtime guest speakers based on student interest – skating pros, surfing experts, chefs, beauty tips and you name it. Each Leadership student also had a caseload of students that they were charged with reaching out to, checking in with, and generally communicating to about opportunities catered to them.

Easily Replicated

Most high schools and middle schools in our country have some type of leadership class. All of the above is easily replicated. In too many cases, this is just a class that hosts dances and promotes school spirit. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, our students are capable of so much more. As educators, we should be turning every school challenge that we see over to them. Whether it’s school culture, safety, academics, or anything you can imagine, let’s invite our students to take them on as part of a project-based approach. Not only will our students surprise and amaze us, but we will also reap the benefits of a better school, community, and world.

To see some of the impacts that the leadership experience had on students long-term, feel free to take a look at these Student Testimonials.

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Safeguarding Back to School: Preparation for a Healthy Return to School in Downtown Brooklyn

Image Credit: SITU

The transition back to school this year will be unlike any in history. Guidance and rules are still being refined and released, and school communities understandably feel anxious and tentative about reopening safely. We are deeply aware of our obligation as educators to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of everyone in our school community—from our students, staff, and teachers to all of their families.

As leaders of an urban public school, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB), we understand that schools operating in dense built environments with limited points of entry and classroom space will face unique challenges with new requirements for operations and facilities. LAB has begun to design a Back to School Facility Tool Kit with ideas for addressing health, safety, and the requirement for social distancing. Importantly, our tool kit embeds equity at the core; we want to create a plan that meets the needs of our diverse student population and staff, particularly students with disabilities.

No school has the time or resources to tackle all of these challenges alone, and at LAB, we are excited about the opportunity to collaborate. Part of our contribution as a laboratory school is to create an adaptable tool kit that can be used by other schools. To that end, we are sharing our reopening plan with organizations including the Educating All Learners Alliance in the hopes of reaching special education, technology, and educational organizations that can tailor these resources for their own use. We are creating this tool kit to support planning for the Brooklyn LAB school building at 77 Sands.

First and foremost, our reopening plan will align with the recommendations of the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT), which include:

  1. Maintaining physical distancing.
  2. Putting the infrastructure and resources in place to test, trace, and isolate new cases.
  3. Deploying the public health tools that prevent the spread of the virus and aligning those tools with education strategies that meet students’ needs.
  4. ​Involving workers, unions, parents, and communities in all planning.
  5. Investing in recovery.

Beyond these requirements, we have set additional goals for our tool kit. It must be:

  • Applicable to all students, especially students with disabilities.
  • Practical and feasible to implement
  • Flexible and easy to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
  • Modifiable for use by other schools in other contexts.

Over the past two weeks, LAB has collaborated with several design firms, school community members, and a range of experts to develop a series of design ideas that will be considered for inclusion in our tool kit. During the next stage in this process, we will continue to refine the design ideas and begin to build mock-ups to test what works and what requires further refinement.

We are now sharing version 1 (V1) of our tool kit in order to start a conversation and share a range of perspectives about how facilities interventions can support the safe reopening of school buildings. We are sharing these design ideas now, before they are finalized, so that we can benefit from critical feedback from students, families, and staff.


Version one (V1) of our toolkit seeks to address complexities and offer a specific working example of how to honor public health guidance in logistical planning. To prevent viral transmission, we must coordinate facilities planning, educational approaches, and public health approaches into a single, unified plan. That plan will evolve as the available facts and data change.

V1 focuses on ideas to address two major needs:

  1. Mapping a safeguarded journey from home to the school. The first set of ideas responds to the needs of families, students, staff members, and community stakeholders about maintaining health and safety from the time individuals leave their front doors through the arrival and entry process at school. This first step in the mapping process took into consideration the very real entry and egress challenges LAB and many other schools face.
  2. Upgrading the classrooms. The second set of ideas focuses on practical and feasible remapping of classrooms, breakout rooms, and common spaces to comply with social distancing requirements.

Please remember that this version is still a draft. LAB Chief Operating Officer Aaron Daly describes V1 as a starting point for our community to begin discussions and further iteration. “It explores the plausibility of particular approaches to reopening,” he explains. This working example also aims to address group questions about feasibility, workability, and effectiveness of specific approaches.

For V1, we are looking to engage teachers, families, and students before we begin the next step to further refine our tool kit. We are inviting you to engage in one of five ways, depending on what makes the most sense for you:

  • Provide your feedback via a survey, so that our planning process can benefit from your insights, concerns, and recommendations.
  • Register for a focus group conversation.
  • Attend a webinar, which will include the AFT, design team members, and Brooklyn LAB teachers and educators.
  • Share the V1 tool kit with leaders in your school community, to consider the relevance of questions and solutions developed in relation to the Brooklyn LAB facility to your own context.
  • Email to offer input or propose ways we might work together to move this agenda forward in communities around the country.


We developed our V1 tool kit through a collaborative design “charette” that allowed us to listen to and incorporate insights from a range of stakeholders, including families, public health experts, students, teachers, parents, guardians, and peer schools.

To conduct this charrette, LAB partnered with leaders in urban design, including Urban Projects Collaborative (UPC), a firm dedicate to capital projects that improve quality of life and the build environment, and five design firms: Gensler, PBDW, PSF Projects, SITU, and WXY. The charrette process included the following steps:

  1. LAB teachers, special educators, case managers, deans, operations leaders, and administrators met with UPC in initial sessions to identify challenges reflecting student, staff, and family concerns related to their experiences with school closure and their concerns about safety protocols in future reopening.
  2. Five design firms agreed to bring their best thinking to the table to brainstorm ideas and preliminary designs to address the back-to-school challenge.
  3. The five firms held additional work sessions with LAB staff to home in on components of the challenges that they were best equipped to address, taking into consideration emerging state and public health guidance.
  4. The design firms developed concepts based on identified needs and anticipating what are likely to be appropriate practices to address social-distancing and other health-related requirements.

This process allowed us to hear from individual members of our community whose lived experiences are important to consider in our solutions. For instance, LAB special educator Anisa Phillip raised questions about what social distancing would look like for students with profound autism and intellectual disabilities. “How can we safely provide physical assistance to students who require support while walking?” she asked. “How do we keep masks on students at all times?”

Asking these specific questions about the needs of individual students and staff ground the re-entry planning process in the realities of our school community. “This version emphasizes the process of working through the challenge of re-entry,” says LAB Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Gomez. “The annotated examples and contextual framing establish a starting point, from which students, families, and staff are invited to engage and provide feedback.”


The next step in this process is to review and further develop these ideas. We are now gathering input from LAB students and families, and we are working with relevant authorities to ensure that every design idea we implement addresses occupancy and air-quality requirements, as well as hygiene protocols. In parallel, we are assessing these ideas for feasibility based on budget and schedule constraints. In recognition that guidance on opening schools may change if there’s a resurgence of the virus, we are also working to test how to smoothly transition from plans for in-school learning to remote learning.

We will continue to monitor and adjust our tool kit over the next 18 to 24 months. As we do, we’ll prioritize the most vulnerable students and put equity at the core of the design work. There may be waves of stopping and starting, progress and backsliding, and developments that change assumptions.

“Throughout this process, we must integrate the concerns of the most vulnerable students into every aspect of preparation, while regularly seeking to understand family concerns, needs, and experiences,” emphasizes Cecile Kidd, LAB’s bursar. “We must focus on preparation, and thus build the muscles we need to adapt, refine, and determine priorities appropriately.”

We are encouraged by our community involvement thus far; we know that as we work together, we will get closer to creating a safe reopening that works for all.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email [email protected] with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

Growing to New Horizons: The Environmental Charter School Reflects on Change

By: Deana Callipare

The Environmental Charter School (ECS) deployed its initial distance learning plan (DLP) on March 18, and as feedback from parents, staff, and students rushed in, online learning continued to evolve.

ECS, along with schools across the country, has transitioned to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. While all schools have struggled with the change, this unprecedented situation has caused a unique challenge for ECS due to the school’s connectivity and multi-disciplinary, out-the-door learning approach.

“The goal of the ECS distance learning plan is to define an educational experience for students that is consistent, effective, relevant and aligned with the ECS vision and mission of supporting the whole child experience,” Dr. Amanda Cribbs, ECS chief academic officer (CAO) said. “We created a phased approach to our plan that was intended to provide a consistent road map for educators and families and allow us to take small steps and evolve over time.”

The ECS DLP included four phases to help ease students and families into their new “normal,” and with the support of dedicated staff and faculty, the DLP not only promotes learning and engagement, but it also allows ECS families to stay connected to teachers, principals, and the schools.

“Throughout the DLP, ECS commits to building in opportunities for interaction, connection, and collaboration between students. Learning occurs either synchronously, asynchronously, or by using both methods to achieve those ends,” Vicky Hsieh, curriculum & PD associate director of Technology said. “We understand there are benefits and challenges to both styles of digital interactions between students and teachers and feel that a mixture of the two allows for increased access for students.”

ECS’s Continuity of Education Plan 

  • Phase One: Communication and Connection (March 18-27)
    • Staff and families were onboarded to the DLP platform website.
    • Students were asked to complete review and enrichment activities either virtually or with materials at home and reflect on the process with their teachers with the intended purpose of continued connection between the school and its families.
  • Phase Two: Connection and Building Learning Routines (March 30 – April 3)
    • While students continued to review content, the school provided recommendations on time and requirements for learning activities for families.
    • ECS  provided schedules and family support while internally prioritizing content for families for the next phase of DLPs.
    • The expected outcome was to maintain the connections with students and families and to prepare for the next phase of student work.
  • Phase Three: Teaching New Content & Explicit Connection (April 13 – May 1)
    • Weekly lesson structures were established, and teachers began teaching new content through required activities and plan lessons using instructional best practices.
    • More intentional office hours between teachers and students (morning meetings/social connection or based on academic need) were established as well as clear systems for feedback from students and families. The expected outcome is to provide experiences for students to continue their academic growth.
  • Phase Four:  Feedback, Assessment, Grading & DLP Evaluation Based on Readiness (April 20-End of Year)
    • Provide intentional feedback on explicit instruction and assessment
    • Evaluate and improve ECS distance learning plan based on family feedback and culturally responsive practices to continue academic growth of students.


While each phase contributed to the greater online learning plan, each one came with a new struggle that needed to be worked out. At times, families felt overwhelmed, and communications were heavy from teachers, principals, and district leaders. DLPs were originally long, and working from home while helping their children learn was not an easy feat.

Throughout this process, ECS has reminded families that they shouldn’t be “doing school at home,” but instead, the school asked parents to create a daily or weekly academic routine to provide engagement and learning opportunities. With the feedback of the ECS school community, the district has continued to revise each phase of the DLP to best fit parent and student needs.

Furthermore, the educational needs and DLPs were not the only focal point for the district. ECS families who relied on free and reduced lunch and student services that the school provided were facing unprecedented challenges that no one saw coming. Students missed social interactions like seeing their friends and teachers, playing on the playground, and going on nature walks. Parents were anxious about getting the rest of their children’s belongings and the thought of what next school year might look like continues to be a worry for many. Staff needed to clean out their classrooms, and some weeks were harder than others causing frustrations, burnout, and anxieties. The financial stability of our families and staff were also a concern. Some parents and staff spouses lost their jobs causing financial hardships.

All of these situations began to add up, and they took a toll on several. Through the help of several resources including the school’s parent community organization, families started to help each other. Donations were collected to provide families and staff in need with gift cards and books, food resource information was dispersed, and families with financial or student service needs were reached out to directly by appropriate school personnel. Virtual meetings, Facebook live events, and social media challenges were created to help students to continue to socialize with their peers and interact with teachers, and several check-in surveys were disseminated to families to gauge their thoughts and needs.

As a Pennsylvania school, ECS was mandated by the Governor on March 13 to close its doors. Since then, ECS has prepared families and staff for online learning for the remainder of the academic year, and the process allowed for school leaders to reflect on the situation and build for the future. In a communication at the end of April, Jon McCann, ECS CEO, took a moment to ruminate over the last few weeks as the school prepared to enter its seventh week of online learning.

“The constant change that has put a moratorium in our daily routines has caused many of us to feel uncomfortable with this “new normal,” but I am reminded that being comfortable with uncertainty may be the “new normal” for the time being,” McCann said. “As we continue to navigate through this ever changing situation, my hope is that we continue to change, expand, and grow to new horizons.”

ECS’s top priority is always the safety and well being of its students, families, and staff, and while ECS is not in the same location, everyone is working together to be stronger even when students and staff are apart.

For more information about ECS and its Distance Learning Plan (DLP), please view the Continuity of Education Plan or visit ecspgh.org/covid19-information.

For more, see:

Deana Callipare is currently the communication coordinator at the Environmental Charter School. She focuses on the school’s strategic public relations and integrated marketing communication efforts. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email [email protected] with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

Adapting Test Design to Make It Work in a Distance Setting

By: Eric Kalenze

Obviously, no one in education had much time to prepare for the recent moves to virtual schooling. The directives to halt in-person instruction progressed swiftly, and they landed square in the middle of teachers’ grading periods, instructional units, or class projects. For me, the shift to full distance learning comes as my ninth- and tenth-grade ELA classes are at the tail ends of multi-week units. It’s a timing I’m relieved about, frankly, as the hard parts of those units’ teaching and learning are effectively done.

Assessing the learning that happened over those units, though, is another deal entirely. I’ve done a lot formatively throughout the units to inform my planning and my support, but in both grades I was aiming kids toward fairly substantial final exams.

But now with all the distance learning, and with the fact that I can’t be in the room to supervise those tests, are they even really tests? Won’t kids just meet online and use their notes to complete anything I send them? And if they do all that, are my tests even worth giving?

After much twisting and much thought, I decided the answer is absolutely yes: even within the new realities of distance learning, going through with the tests is the right thing to do. In fact, staying the course could even provide a way for students to sharpen some crucial study/preparation habits—and via processes that might actually be preferable to similar work I’d planned for my physical classroom.

To make it work, though, I know the tests I design to be given from a distance can’t be just testing-as-usual. Some additional guides and procedures will have to be established, but I can make this work. Below are a few points I’m following to make testing work, for my students and for myself, in the current distance-learning moment.

Perspective Is Key

The COVID-19 outbreak has people frightened, uncertain, overburdened, and isolated, so I am remaining mindful of the weirdness of the situation, and I’m managing and redistributing my expectations in accord.

I’m not talking about lowering expectations, as I’m never about that. On some things, though, I have to keep the circumstances in mind and just lighten up. I have to get over myself and accept that perfectly replicating my physical classroom’s conditions—especially on a matter like test security—is simply not possible, and then plan accordingly.

To put it another way: with all the income being lost, ways of life being rearranged, and people fearing for the health and safety of their loved ones, I probably shouldn’t work myself into a lather when one of my students thumbs through his copy of Antigone so he can select “Teiresias” over “Eteocles” for a point on my test.

Use Test Design To Keep Conditions Rigorous (…and myself sane)

I can, though, ratchet the challenge level high, get a good read on what my students have learned, and keep my own workload manageable through my test design. Below are some principles I’m abiding by and strategies I’m enacting to do so.

1. Use the Available Tools

My students regularly use Google’s interface and I’m conducting most classroom business through Google Classroom, so I’ll be collecting student output with a Google Form. This will make grading a bit more manageable, as I have worked the form’s settings to log correct answers.

2. “Open-Note Test” Doesn’t Have to Equal “Easy”

I’ve accepted that students will use their notes (and one another) to work on the tests I administer. Still, “open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy.” Here are a few things I’m doing in hopes that students will prepare diligently for, not just coast into, test day.

  • Defining the time of the test window. The Google Form students are expected to complete for their exam will open at a certain time, and no answers will be accepted after a certain time. (I’m providing 90 minutes, considerably longer than usual, but enough time for all, including my IEP students with additional-time accommodations.)
  • Reducing over-reliance on “open-notes.” Within the 90-minute time window, I am designing the point distribution so that students can benefit from using their notes, but also understand that they need to prepare ahead. On one test, which is worth 100 points total, I’ve made sure the majority of the points (55) come through the test’s extended essay and short answer (2-3 sentences) sections. That makes less than half of the test multiple-choice, or notes-reference-able. And from there it’s just math: If each question takes 1-2 minutes of looking in notes to find answers, students will have used their entire allotted time on less than half of the overall test.
  • Communicating the above rationale clearly. I see this as a good way to teach some lessons about habits of preparation and attention, so I plan to start the week with some explicit reminders of the above points. I’ll put these out on my Google Classroom stream, definitely in writing and perhaps via video.

3. Teach, Structure, and Incentivize Retrieval Practice

Finally, I’m using the run-up to these tests as a way to get students preparing through content retrieval. If it’s not an idea you’re familiar with, the short version is that retrieving information from our memories is one of the most proven ways to make information permanent in our memories.

To replace the myriad ways I typically have students retrieve crucial content in my classroom, I’m taking steps like these:

  • Exposing students to the underlying science of retrieval practice with accessible videos like this one, from my friends the Learning Scientists.
  • Via extra credit rewards, encouraging students to prepare through retrieval practice. In my case, I’m offering extra credit to students who write quizzes using their class materials, as well as to students who take the quizzes written by their classmates.

All that said, though, I have to be honest: I have no idea how it will all go. None of us do, really, as highly successful virtual teaching and learning is still much more aspiration than reality for our enterprise.

And as such is true, I’ll stick to my basic classroom principles—and, of course, a genuine acknowledgement of our unique circumstances—and do my best translating them to the new normal. It’s the best any of us can do.

For more, see our Getting Through series including:

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Based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area, Eric Kalenze currently teaches high school and serves as Curriculum and Instruction Lead at Apple Valley’s FIT Academy, plus works with schools/districts as an independent consultant and serves as researchED’s US Ambassador. He is the author of 2019’s What the Academy Taught Us: Improving schools from the bottom-up in a top-down transformation era and 2014’s Education is Upside-Down. Follow Eric on Twitter @erickalenze

As Distance Learning Turns On, Students Increasingly Tune Out

As a classroom teacher, I’ve never felt more loved, respected, and resourced.

My colleagues and I are drowning in free software, enhanced wifi, expanded curriculum, and expert advice more than a month into our nation’s experiment with distance learning.

This kid-in-the-candy store experience is counterbalanced by an overwhelming feeling of indecision driven largely by the paradox of choice.

This apt phrase, coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, describes situations in which an abundance of choices does not increase our sense of well being but instead increases our levels of anxiety and can lead to wasted time and depression.

I thought my 15 years of work in the upper echelons of non-profit management at the Buck Institute for Education and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning would have prepared me for a situation in which I could grab all available resources. It didn’t.

So, I opted instead to get really good at the online tools I already had at my disposal, which mostly means developing expertise at Google Classroom and Zoom. That quest has been elevated by a decision to complete Google’s 13-unit online training program and to seek Google teacher certification.  Recent software upgrades by Zoom and Google, which includes the nifty integration of Meet into Classroom, have accelerated this process.

In a sense, I have been preparing my students all year for our current crisis by maximizing the resources already at hand. The middle school I teach at provides each of the 400 students with a take-home iPad. We use Google Classroom for content management, Apple Classroom for mobile device management, and PowerSchool as a student information system (SIS). We will, upon request, provide mobile hotspots.

I’m a bit of a data nerd, so back in August of 2019, I began tracking the number of students who were submitting their work via Google Classroom as opposed to those taking the old-school route of paper. The first four months of the year revealed that about 80% of the homework was coming in via paper, and there was no discernible trend related to the academic skills/status of the students who made that choice. On average, my students completed about 50% of the work in any given week.

That data point is tempered by the fact that my students attend a struggling school in a disadvantaged neighborhood in which nearly 70 percent of the students have one or more Fs and upwards of 50% receive language, emotional, or academic support. That was before coronavirus pushed us all into distance learning.

In recent weeks various articles have been posted that cite the dismal levels of online participation nationally among learners. NPR shared a news piece with the glaring headline: 4 in 10 U.S. Teens Say They Haven’t Done Online Learning Since Schools Closed. Not to be outdone, the New York Times ran a piece with the headline: As Schools Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out.

I do not doubt that dismal levels of participation are driven by lack of technology or wifi, inexperience with software or devices, the need to share the device with siblings and parents, lack of safe working space, ill-prepared teachers who need upskilling, and the spectacular contrariness of teens and preteens. I also worry that the message is leaking out that everything students do over these last few months will not count toward grades or graduation. We have been told in my county that online learning and resultant grades can “do no harm” to a student’s pre-coronavirus grade.

As I mentioned, I have a baseline to compare my current online participation levels to those pre-coronavirus. Here’s what I learned:

  • During the week of April 6, I assigned a reduced load of four social studies assignments and two English/Language Arts Assignment to my two core classes. The overall completion rate was 41%. The weeks before and after looked much the same.
  • During the week of April 6, the highest rate of completion from any class was 53%. Remarkably, my two lowest-performing classes far outpaced the participation rate of my two highest-performing classes. For this, I have no explanation.
  • During the first three weeks of distance learning, only 37% of my students joined more than one Zoom meeting or Google Hangout (these are held three times per week on a regular schedule).
  • Over the last month, I have been able to reach 91% of my students through some combination of phone calls, emails, direct messages, Google Classroom Stream, or texts. Of the four students who maintain radio silence, three of them had straight Fs before the online migration. This does not bode well for low-achieving students.

As always, I like to turn to the students to hear what they are thinking and feeling about our lengthy experiment with distance learning and the forced quarantine that drives it. I’m requiring my students to keep a Quarantine Journal, built on PowerPoint, in which they use various types of poems to chronicle their feelings. These two poems by sixth-graders Carlos and Anthony encapsulate the emotions we all seem to be feeling. They also give a preview of the extraordinary number of mental and emotional health issues we will face when school finally resumes. If we don’t prepare for those problems it doesn’t matter how much work the students turn in now.

I have two brothers.

We sure dislike each other.

This is our prison.


Quarantined alone.

No way to spend a birthday.

Or any day at all.


For more see:

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David will be chronicling his return to the classroom in a monthly series of blogs. Follow along.