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April 2, 2014

The role of technology in early education

toddlertabletAs technology becomes an increasingly important and ever present part of our lives, many are starting to ask what the appropriate role of technology is in the lives of young children.  While some parents and child advocates are concerned about possible negative impacts of excessive “screen time” for children, others believe that appropriately used digital media has the ability to help children learn in new ways and prepare them for a lifetime of learning. A recent brief from the New America Foundation proposes several essential actions to prepare early education for the digital age.

There are three important characteristics that must be taken into consideration when deciding the appropriate role of digital media in a child’s education: the content, the context, and the characteristics of the child.  Passive use of digital media or allowing children to watch adult-oriented TV shows can have negative consequences, but when the context and content are aligned to meet the needs of an individual child, interactive media can be used to promote learning and exploration, even for very young children.

There is enormous potential for technology use in early education, but expectations need to be set high and technology needs to be used as a supplement to, not in place of active play and exploration. We need to retire the harmful idea of “technology as a babysitter” and instead see it as something that can productively promote back-and-forth interaction between children and their parents, teachers, and classmates.

This can take many forms: reading an ebook with a classmate, video chatting with a relative who lives far away, or using a math app to practice counting skills while a teacher supervises. If technology is integrated into learning activities both at home and at school, children start building skills at a very young age that prepare them for a future as a student and citizen in the digital age. However, as with many of the issues we discuss here, the risk lies in poor implementation.

We can give toddlers tablets, but unless they have parents and teachers engaging with them to ensure the media they are consuming is developmentally appropriate and substantive, we might just be providing preschoolers with very expensive playthings (and veering into that “technology as babysitter” territory). As the role of technology in our society continues to evolve, I am hopeful that networks of parents, teachers, providers of children’s media, and other professionals who work with young children will work together to share information and high-quality materials.






January 9, 2014

EdWeek Ranks State Education Systems

Today, Education Week (EdWeek) released its annual special report Quality Counts 2014, which included its annual State of the States report card. Massachusetts earned top honors in the Student Achievement category by earning a B while the nation as a whole earned a C-minus, up from a D-plus in 2008—the first year EdWeek graded states on measures of student achievement. The U.S. earned higher grades in the other two categories– School Finance and EdWeek’s Change for Success Index– where the nation as a whole earned a C and C-plus respectively.

EdWeek’s annual report card shows once again that states vary considerably not only in achievement but how they fund their schools and the opportunity children born in their state are likely to succeed later on in life. States such as Massachusetts and Maryland not only received high marks from EdWeek but have also been compared favorably to high performing countries in previous studies while those states receiving the lowest grades from EdWeek typically scored below most industrialized countries as well. In these lower performing states, the typical student will less likely to be able to compete in the global labor market upon graduating high school.

How states can boost student achievement in this post-recession era of fewer funds and more rigorous requirements is certainly not clear. EdWeek attempted to provide more clarity to this question by surveying school district administrators across the country about how to best improve our public schools. Respondents were generally supportive of charter schools, virtual learning, and homeschooling but didn’t see these alternatives as having a major impact. These district officials also didn’t feel state and federal policymakers had much influence on school policies. In their opinion, it was school district officials and local school board members who have the most impact on school policies, not state and federal officials who seem to drive more of today’s reforms. So for states to increase their grades and become more competitive internationally, real reforms need to come from the local level and for states and federal officials to support those efforts.

Here are some of the key findings from this year’s report card:

K-12 Achievement Index

How do states compare on the academic achievement of their students in elementary through high school?

  • Public schools improved slightly since 2012- the last time the index was reported—but still earned a C-minus just as in 2012.
    • The grade is based on the academic status and growth over time in math and reading scores, narrowing of poverty-based achievement gaps, as well as high school graduation rates and the performance on the advanced placement test.
  • Massachusetts was once again top of its class in 2014 just has it has since 2008 by earning a B. Maryland and New Jersey scored slightly lower, but still earned a B and B-minus respectively.
  • Just two states–Mississippi, and the District of Columbia– received failing marks in 2014 compared to four states in 2012.
  • Thirty-two states earned grades between a D and C-minus.

Chance for Success Index

What are the odds that the average child who grows up in a particular state will do as well as the average child in the top-ranked state, at each stage of his or her educational life? (these stages are: the early childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood)

  • Massachusetts ranked first for the sixth consecutive year by being the only state to receive an A-minus, while Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota earned a B-plus.
    • This means that children in Massachusetts have the best chance of achieving positive life outcomes, according to EdWeek.
  • On the other hand, children in Nevada, New Mexico, and Mississippi have the least chance of achieving positive life outcomes by earning a D and D-pluses, respectively.
  • The nation as a whole earned a C-plus just as in 2013.

School Finance

How much do states spend on their schools? Is the spending distributed equitably?

  • Overall, the nation earned a C in School Finance similar to last year.
  • Wyoming’s grade dropped from an A to an A-minus but still received the highest grade of any state just as in 2013. However, West Virginia, New York, and Connecticut were close behind, all earning a B-plus.
  • On the other hand, four states — Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — received a D while Idaho received a D-minus. No state received a failing grade.
  • Out of the 12 states that improved their school finance scores North Dakota, North Carolina and New Hampshire made the greatest improvements by boosting their grades a half a letter.
    • However, 35 states actually saw declines in their school finance score.
  • States vary greatly in how much they spend on education even when taking regional cost differences into account.
    • Wyoming spent the most per pupil with $19,534 and Utah spent the least with $6,905—a $12,629 difference in per pupil spending.
  • There are also major differences in per pupil spending within states as well.
    • On average states spend $4,566 more per pupil in districts at the 95th percentile in school spending than in districts at the 5th percentile.
    • Alaska has the greatest difference at $13,023, while Utah had the smallest difference at $1,997 per pupil.
    • Only seven states-Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming spent more in low-income districts than in the states’ wealthier districts.

School District Administrator Survey

  • Nearly 9 of 10 respondents believed that accountability pressures have been a major driver of change in their districts.
    •  A slightly higher percentage of respondents believed economic and fiscal challenges were major drivers of change.
  • About half believed private schools, virtual schools and homeschooling had some influence on their districts.
    • A smaller percentage indicating that charter schools had some influence (probably because charters are present in far fewer districts nationwide).
    • Keep in mind, just 1 in 10 respondents thought these other options had a significant influence on their district.
  • Fifty-four percent of respondents believed that there needs to be a change in the current governance structure to meet today’s challenges.
    • The most common change happening in districts surveyed were:
      • Changing superintendents (66 percent).
      • Expanding school choice (48 percent).
      • Central office reorganization (30 percent).
    • Mayoral takeover had happened in 3 percent of surveyed districts.
  • Most respondents supported non-traditional options such as virtual learning (74 percent), charter schools (59 percent), and homeschooling (58 percent).
    • Few supported vouchers (14 percent).





May 3, 2013

Exciting possibilities: Coursera and professional development courses

Coursera, an organization currently facilitating free online access to courses taught by college professors, has announced it will be dipping its toes into the professional development arena.  I have to admit that when I read this headline, I was thrilled.  For teachers to have free, online access to courses offered by experts on education research and teaching methods is a step in the right direction.

First, these courses could allow schools to have resources for teachers to improve their skills that are differentiated for the specific content teachers teach.  Because hiring consultants is expensive, districts often rely on generic workshops that they offer to all teachers.  I’ve sat through my fair share of these: classroom management, assessment, alignment.  However, research shows that teachers aren’t interested in generic professional development, and it doesn’t have an impact on teacher practice or student achievement.  On the other hand, professional development that is tailored to the content one teaches, specifically exploring the elements of the course students struggle with, has been shown to make a real difference in teachers’ practice and students’ learning.  With free online courses, teachers could focus on courses tailored to their content area.

Furthermore, each teacher brings his or her own unique set of strengths and weakness to the profession.  Teaching is a job that demands a lengthy list of skills which are both emotional and cognitive.  Just as some students have more natural talents in certain areas than others, the same is true with teachers.  When I co-taught a class with another teacher, I got to see this full force.  My co-teacher managed the emotional needs of a class flawlessly, while my own strengths were in lesson planning.  Working together, we got to improve our areas of weakness.  Having online courses which are free for teachers allows teachers to think about what areas they need to improve on, taking courses focused on those areas instead of sitting through PD sessions not tailored to their area of need.  Just like we urge teachers to differentiate for students, recognizing that not all students are the same, access to online PD taught by experts allows for differentiation for teachers.

Second, it could save districts lots of professional development money that they can spend more wisely.  There’s a decent amount of evidence to show that districts spend a substantial amount of money on professional development, anywhere from 2 to 7% of their total budget.  Unfortunately, most of that spending is going towards one-shot, generic workshops.  Consultants are expensive, certainly one reason that districts can only afford to have whole-school, generic sessions instead of content-specific sessions.  Nonetheless, by spending copious amounts of money on consultants and staff for workshops, districts often don’t build in professional development support as teachers aim to implement those new skills into the classroom.  The reason that’s problematic is that research studies consistently show that teachers struggle immensely with new skills during implementation of those skills in the classroom, and that without support at this stage, teachers are likely to get frustrated and simply abandon the new skill altogether.  Of course, this makes sense.  Learning how to write is easier than actually writing; learning how to ride a bike is easier than actually riding a bike. Implementation is challenging.  Therefore, schools need to develop support during the implementation stage.   When schools do this, through individual instructional coaches who observe and conference with teachers or through time for collaboration, teachers improve their teaching and students learn more.

However, having teachers meet with coaches or collaborate with colleagues takes time, and teacher time is exceptionally expensive.  School districts either have to buy this time in a teacher’s contract, pay substitutes to cover classes, or hire more staff to reduce teaching loads.  Despite that fact, research on professional development shows that opening up this time and having teachers supported during implementation of new skills is exceptionally important.  In an analysis of over 1,300 studies of professional development programs, researchers found that programs that were less than 14 hours had no impact on student achievement .   But if schools were able to cut down on some of their consultant costs by having teachers participate in free, open Coursera courses, schools might be able to buy more teacher time for deep learning experiences such as coaching or collaboration.

Of course, in all discussions about the role of online courses, it’s important to note that they can never stand alone as one’s only exposure to learning, something that’s been validated repeatedly .  However, there’s good reason to think these courses could be a nice addition to a school’s professional development tool kit.  –Allison Gulamhussein

Filed under: CPE,instruction,online learning,teachers — Tags: , — Allison @ 10:06 am





February 5, 2013

Hard to take new report on Khan academy and flipped classroom seriously

The report’s title caught my eye: One World School House vs. Old World Statehouse, The Khan Academy and California Red Tape. I’d interviewed Sal Khan, the founder of the insanely popular online warehouse of instructional YouTube videos, about a year ago

Khan was one of the general session speakers at NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference and I found him to be an incredibly smart and down-to-earth individual, who from the start batted down any attempt to label him as an educator to the masses. No, no, no, he was just a regular guy who’d discovered this gift to explain complex concepts like differential equations or mitosis, first to his family and then, to his surprise, growing legions of fans. Khan saw a need and he just wanted to help.

I still think that’s who Khan is, but boy, you wouldn’t get that from this “report” published by the free-market think tank, Pacific Research Institute. To begin with, to call it qualitative would be kind; the study reads more like a love letter to Khan, heavily citing his 2012 book The One World School House— or even worse, the Washington Times book review written by none other than Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

I’m sensing a theme here, which frankly made it difficult to take this report seriously. But I tried. I read through each of the 36 pages and while I can’t disagree with some of the findings— awarding a student course credit should be based on content mastery and not seat time—- some of them are conditional and others downright ludicrous.

Yes, the “flipped classroom” model, which Khan sees his academy dovetailing with, is one of the hottest trends in education because it makes sense. Why wouldn’t you want all classroom time to be cerebral and interactive and outsource all that boring, lecture-hall, rote memorization stuff to kids at home, where they can learn at their own pace thanks to technology?

Because not every home has a computer or Internet access, which is why I suppose one of the charter school’s profiled in the report has groups of students taking virtual courses from online provider K-12 (that’s another story) on campus … which kind of negates the purpose of a flipped classroom, no?

Sort of the final straw in this report for me was the great leap it made by positing that the integration of programs like Khan Academy into school’s instructional model could save them tons of money because it wouldn’t have to hire and retain as many teachers. I found this fascinating not only because it sounds preposterous— it surely can’t be easier to deliver thought-provoking and participatory lessons to a class of 60 than it is to a class of 30—- but because Khan himself described his own volunteer stint at teaching as preposterous because he couldn’t manage the class.

Don’t get me wrong, I have much respect for Mr. Khan and his obvious passion for helping those who have struggled with learning one subject or another, much of which has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the poor way in which that material is handled and presented. I guess, you could say, that’s the same problem I have with this report.






January 25, 2013

The future is still the future?

Honestly, I’m not a Luddite. But sometimes I feel like I’m playing one here at CPE.

Last year we examined what was known — or more accurately what was not known — about online courses and cyberschools, and their overall impact on student learning. The report, Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools, found that despite some very exciting things happening in online education, the overall impact of virtual courses and schools on elementary and secondary students is either undocumented or bleak.  We also found that the fault is mostly with inadequate monitoring systems for students working online, with the result that many of them appeared to be dropping in and out of the cyberworld unnoticed and often untaught.

Recent news from Pennsylvania isn’t making us any more hopeful. Earlier this week, an independent education news service in Philadelphia reported on allegations by former employees that a major virtual charter school provider, K12 Inc.

“aggressively recruited children who were ill-suited for the company’s model of online education. They say the schools then manipulated enrollment, attendance, and performance data to maximize tax-subsidized, per-pupil funding.”

K12 operates the Agora cyber charter which enrolls 8,000 of the state’s 32,000 full-time cyber students.  In addition to actively seeking students who are most likely to do poorly online, the former K12 employees further described the company’s practice of skirting attendance requirements while continuing to bill the state for students who are clearly not participating in the instruction.

The charges are part of a class action suit filed by investors in K12 which reported $522 million earnings in 2011. According to the article, most of K12’s revenue was generated by managing public virtual charter schools.  While the investors have their reasons to be unhappy, the real victims here, of course, are the students.

Then yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released recalculated AYP numbers for all charter schools in the state. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the recalculations were called for after it was revealed that AYP requirements for charter schools were more lenient than those for traditional public schools. The new numbers show that 43 charters met AYP, down from 77 under the former rules.

Of particular interest was that not one — zero — virtual charter schools made AYP.  As we reported last year, Stanford University researchers had earlier looked at Pennsylvania virtual charter schools over the period 2007 and 2010. They found that they consistently performed worse in terms of student gains than the traditional public school the students would have otherwise attended. Obviously, nothing has changed.

A now legendary 1955 documentary heralded the approach of a new technological age, proclaiming that “the future is now.”  I have seen how technology is transforming classrooms for the better, especially when blended with face-to-face instruction with a teacher. But for the idea there will be a brave new cyber world of schooling, the future still seems to be in the future.






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