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State of the union – what would keep kids in school until they graduate?

January 24, 2012

In the State of the Union address, president Barack Obama called on states to require students to remain in school until they graduate or turn 18.  Educators know that this is a daunting task; it’s not as if schools haven’t tried to do this.  Simply requiring students to attend school under force of law will not reach all students or families.  What can school leaders do?

We know that alternative education programs , career and technical education, and online education can provide opportunities for students at risk or who otherwise have not been successful in traditional schools.  In anticipation of the reaction from state departments of education, schools and districts can do some preparation:

1. What incentives exist to keep students in school?  What are their incentives for leaving before they finish, and how can schools counter those  incentives?

2. How do schools identify students at-risk in the traditional sense?  Can schools identify students in danger of falling behind on graduation requirements, which can increase the likelihood that they will later drop out of school?

3. What do schools do to retain students who communicate their intention to drop out of school?  Are there partnerships with community agencies to support students who otherwise would not finish school?  Do schools have and exercise the flexibility to change course offerings or programs to meet the needs of at-risk students?

4. How do schools engage families and community partners to support students at-risk of dropping out?  Are there opportunities for students to gain or keep employment while still enrolled in school?

5. What do schools and municipalities do now to maintain school attendance?  Are those efforts working?

6. Are schools punished for retaining students who take longer than four years to complete graduation requirements?  How can these disincentives be restructured or mitigated to encourage schools to provide effective services to students who have already fallen behind?

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Now districts can “Race to the Top”?

January 23, 2012

This week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his plans for a new round of Race to the Top funding targeted to school districts.    Although the specifics have yet to be fleshed out, Secretary Duncan made it clear that he feels more innovation can be and is being realized at the local level, especially in states he calls “less-functional,” or those that haven’t be awarded any federal competitive grants.  With $550 million up for grabs, districts that are currently doing or planning significant reforms to improve student achievement and teacher effectiveness should be pleased with this news.  Whether  the district competition will mirror the state application requirements is unclear; the Department will likely gather stakeholder input before making any decisions.   It is safe to assume that with the new funding, districts will be under the same tough scrutiny as states to follow through with their plans. The Department has taken a hard stance on accountability, and is not planning on softening it any time soon.  So, districts already instituting or planning to institute some aggressive reforms in a non-Race to the Top state might be awarded nicely in the near future.  However, districts should expect to back up promises with results.  Leaders should expect to: set and justify high academic standards, track individual and collective achievement data, and demonstrate the impact of improvement efforts.

Bullying as a violation of human rights

January 20, 2012

On January 16, NPR’s Michel Martin interviewed Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, known for its work on topics such as human rights abuses and genocide.  Kennedy (Robert Kennedy’s daughter) was speaking about the Center’s recent decision to include school bullying in its advocacy efforts.   A prime initiative is their Speak Truth to Power curriculum, freely available from rfkcenter.org.  The Center is to be applauded for their strong stance on bullying prevention.

School leaders must deal with bullying regularly; some states require bullying prevention programs and reporting for incidents of bullying.  It is sometimes difficult to defend the efficacy of these programs in and of themselves.  A 2008 meta-analysis of research into bullying intervention programs published in School Psychology Quarterly found minimal and weak evidence that these programs led to an actual reduction in bullying behavior, with the most effectual programs:

… enhancing students social competence, self-esteem, and peer acceptance; in enhancing teachers knowledge of effective practices, feelings of efficacy regarding intervention skills, and actual behavior in responding to incidences of bullying at school; and, to a lesser extent, in reducing participation by students in bully and victim roles … (p. 38)

Questions for school leaders:

  1. How are bullying incidents reported?  Are they tracked over time?
  2. Is or can the effectiveness of local interventions be measured using existing metrics?
  3. What is the policy and practice of dealing with acute or chronic bullying when existing measures prove ineffective in particular instances?
  4. Do staff, leadership, and other students view bullying as a human rights issue, rather than a purely social or developmental issue?  Does this view affect how they react to bullying when confronted by it?

Assessing student discussion in online courses and online learning tools

January 18, 2012

Student engagement in the classroom is relatively easy to understand, and constructs exist to measure it.  In online courses the concept becomes more abstract, mostly because students are not present, in the classical sense of the word.  Student interaction with instructors and peers takes place through online discussions in an asynchronous, or non-simultaneous, manner; these discussions cannot be observed as they occur, but the content and quality of student comments can be reviewed.  Some teachers choose to assess these discussions as a way to measure students’ engagement in the course, and/or as part of the students’ grades.

A study by Solan and Linardopoulos published in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching in December assesses how students feel about having rubrics that outline expectations for online discussions.  The results are that, when available, students appreciate and frequently review rubrics, and feel that they benefit from the clear expectations presented.  Nothing new here – the same things are often true about other, more traditional classroom activities.  All the same, Grainne Conole, an expert in online learning speaking to the online outlet Virtual College, said that teachers and learners often need all the help they can get using online learning tools and methodologies.  She says that teachers are gradually getting better at combining traditional and e-learning tools, and can benefit from expert support.  Effectively implementing tools such as discussion rubrics can be part of this support.

Questions:

  • Do your online learning offerings include the opportunity for interaction among students and between students and instructors?  Do those interactions support and encourage meaningful discussion of key course outcomes?
  • Do teachers assess the quality of student discussion, or is assessment based solely on student products?
  • Are teachers using online learning tools being explicitly supported in using those tools effectively?  Do teachers have the opportunity to interact with experts in online learning about their practice?

Teacher evaluations and teacher pressure

January 17, 2012

Since the beginning of the 2011 school year many cheating scandals have come to light across many public school districts in the USA. In the hotbed of that scandal, Georgia, many educators and their defenders pointed to the unrealistic expectations of standardized tests and their potential implications for teachers.

In what may be a response to these concerns, Georgia districts participating in Race to the Top will pilot a new teacher evaluation program, which will gauge teachers partly on student improvement on state mandated tests as well as attendance, classroom observations, and student surveys.  However, “some critics say it’s difficult to track down which teachers are responsible for a student’s academic progress because many students get tutoring or extra help from a variety of teachers.

The changing focus of teacher evaluations, and the stakes attached, have not gone unchallenged. Groups such as the NEA and AFT (The American Federation of Teachers) argue that the delimiting factors that affect student performance such as environment, school biases, inadequate accommodations for students of special populations and for many other reasons that basing employment of teachers and principals on student academic performance is unsatisfactory.

Education Next published a review of Cincinnati’s Teacher Evaluation System, in development as of the Summer of 2011, which uses some extended metrics, including so-called “value-added” measures.  They noted that the system seemed to have some success at predicting improved student outcomes while working with highly-rated teachers.

Leaders working with new evaluation systems should be aware of the issues surrounding judging teachers based on student performance. The metrics used in some systems attempt to balance test scores with other characteristics such as teaching practice and behaviors, or input from students, parents, or colleagues.

Key Questions:

  • What are the practices and behaviors incentivized by the evaluation system, and are those things that truly impact student performance?
  • Would an excellent teacher, in the eyes of the leader, fare well in the evaluation system?
  • Would the system help the leader identify a poor or struggling teacher, and provide the information necessary to help that teacher improve, or otherwise assist the leader in making personnel decisions?
  • How much flexibility is afforded the school leader in the system?
  • Will teachers feel pressured to comply with the letter of the evaluation system, or is there sufficient buy-in such that they understand the spirit of the system?

How important are light fixtures in schools

January 13, 2012

We’ll finish off the week “light” (sorry) – James Monroe Elementary School in Washington state has replaced almost all of their light fixtures with LED-based products.  Administrators say they are willing to absorb the high up-front costs for the promise of long-term energy savings and the associated cost savings.  Teachers at the school say the light is “warmer” and better for reading.

The science of light frequency has been of interest to ergonomic and human performance experts for years, and has been touted in advertising for light bulbs for about as long.  Some experimental studies have found little measurable difference in cognitive performance among various lighting products, including incandescent, fluorescent, and so-called “full-spectrum” lights, but anecdotal evidence still suggests that “warmer” light (associated with incandescent and fire-light) is easier on the eyes, and full-spectrum products can make black print easier to see on white paper.  Fluorescent lighting, on the other hand, has been linked to seizures due to the imperceptible flickering inherent to the design of the bulbs (or the very perceptible flickering present when a bulb or ballast goes bad).

School leaders looking for energy cost savings who can access a significant capital outlay might well look to replace lighting fixtures throughout buildings.  Understand that those energy savings will be the primary interest when it comes to hard evidence, though ergonomic concerns should be considered.  Get samples of products and test them with staff and students, and get stakeholder input from the people who will have to work under the new lights all day.

Building and strengthening school-business partnerships for mutual benefit

January 5, 2012

The Pikes Peak Gazette covers a conference between area education and business leaders.  Participants noted the need for close working relationships between educators and business to prepare students for post-school transitions.  One problem discussed is the lack of communication between the groups; businesses need to get timely information and have lines of communication to the schools, while schools need to have a strategy to get business and community groups interested and involved.

Bettina Lankard Brown, writing for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education in a 1999 publication, emphasizes the importance of providing and highlighting demonstrable value for businesses contributing to educational programs.  Partnerships should be driven by consensus reached by negotiation to develop a close working relationship, rather than a one-sided “donor-charity” relationship.

Questions:

1. Does your school or district have a point-of-contact or other channels of communication intentionally designed to communicate with community businesses and organizations?  Do they meet regularly with partners and potential partners?

2. What economic, organizational, or structural benefits do your business partners reap from their partnership with you?

3. Do you have explicit goals for each partnership?  Do business and community partners know what those goals are, and what they mean to your students?

4. Are all stakeholders (schools, businesses, parents, community members, students) involved in the partnership in a genuine way?