Monthly Archives: October 2012

Miami-Dade wins Broad Prize for most-improved district

The Miami-Dade School District — an IFL partner — has won the Broad Prize, given to the district deemed to be the nation’s most improved urban school system.

The nation’s fourth-largest school district with 350,000 students, Miami-Dade was singled out for several reasons: increased percentages of Hispanic and black students achieving advanced levels on state exams; improved participation and performance on the SAT; a higher graduation rate for black and Hispanic students, especially especially between 2006-09, when it grew by 14 percentage points.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the $550,000 prize, to be used for college scholarships, in New York City on Tuesday.

Three other school districts, named as finalists, won $150,000 each in scholarships: Corona-Norco, Calif; Houston; and Palm Beach County, Fla.

This was the fifth year that Miami-Dade was a finalist for the award.

“What is encouraging about Miami-Dade is its sustainable improvement over time,” Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which awards The Broad Prize, said in a press release.

“Their gains are a testament to the hard-working teachers, administrators and parents who have embraced innovative new methods to modernize schools and ensure that students of all backgrounds get the support they need. There is still a long way to go before all American students graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a global economy, but Miami-Dade’s progress serves as an example for other urban districts across the country.”

Innovations for Learning is expanding its presence in the Miami-Dade district, growing from a pilot program last year. Children in 30 classrooms in nine schools will be using the TeacherMate digital program to learn how to read, aided by volunteers in the TutorMate program, which recruits office workers to connect with schoolchildren for weekly tutoring sessions via telephone and computer.

Details about Miami-Dade’s achievement gains can be found in this Broad Prize announcement.  A video of the award ceremony is to be posted here.


Human touch ‘makes all the difference’

Rocketship Education, a Palo Alto-based charter school network serving 3,700 San Jose students who are nearly all poor and speak little English, is showing strong results through its reliance on “blended learning” — a combination of traditional methods and computer-based instruction.

The network is getting a lot of attention for showing the way to an educational future that is very high-tech — perhaps, some say, to the exclusion of school-based learning altogether.

But after visiting the 640-student Rocketship Discovery Prep, policy expert Thomas Toch drew a different conclusion.  The secret of the school’s success, he says, is the intense involvement of teachers and parents.

Parents at Discovery Prep are asked to put in 30 hours a year of volunteer time — and most do, Toch says in an article for 

As a result, students have the sense that there are always adults ready to help, that their parents care about them, and that education is important. When I visited Discovery Prep, parents were reviewing young students’ rudimentary homework assignments, freeing teachers to spend more time on instruction.

The human element extends to more than instruction.

Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students (the oldest are 5th graders) sing and dance to songs by Michael Jackson and other pop stars, surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a “threshold invite.” Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.

“The younger and more disadvantaged students are, the more they need adults supporting them in many different ways, day in and day out — the more they need school to be a place rather than merely a process,” writes Toch, Washington director of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“It’s this human element that makes all the difference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, in many public schools, need far more adult support than they typically get — and certainly more than they’d get online in the digital future that many are predicting for public education.”

Do you agree?

(Photos: Discovery website, via

IFL recruiting hits 1,000-tutor mark

IFL recruiters marked a milestone this week: 1,000 tutors lined up since Labor Day.

This means that at least a thousand kids will be getting extra one-on-one help in reading this school year. “And we’re hoping to get to 2,000 by February,” said Dan Weisberg, IFL’s national director for corporate alliances.

Innovation for Learning’s TutorMate program taps employees of corporations and other large workplaces, asking them to spend a half-hour a week to communicate, via phone and computer screen, with young students in classrooms.

The goal is to bring literacy to underserved children.

With an expanded recruiting effort, tutors have been lined up in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Miami, Detroit, New York, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento and Denver, Weisberg said.

After taking part in a webinar for training, they’ll start working with students beginning in Oct 29.

The variety of organizations taking part for the first time is widening fast. A partial list includes the Janus Funds, Mizuho Bank, Costco, General Motors, Starbucks, the American Psychological Association, the National Institutes of Health, United Airlines, RR. Donnelley Co., the Miami Veterans Administration Hospital, the Miami Marlins, Weyerhaeuser, the insurance companies MetLife, PEMCO and Symetra, Weyerhauser, Booz Allen Hamilton consultants, the law firms Perkins Coie, Farella Braun + Martel LLP and Davis Wright Tremaine, and U.S. courts for the D.C. Circuit.

They join such longtime supporters of the program as Chase Bank, Accenture, AT&T, Microsoft, Comerica Bank, comScore, Morningstar, and Nielsen, among plenty of others.

Interested? Contact IFL at

(Photo: IFL)

Gallup leader: To improve schools, build on strengths

Most of the talk about American education has it backwards.

We are way spending too much time and attention focusing on the negative.  If we want to move our schools forward, we have to start playing to our strengths.

So says the head of Gallup’s education work, Brandon Busteed.

“Gallup has spent decades studying the behaviors of the most successful Americans,” Busteed writes in the Huffington Post.

“Among our biggest findings is this: No one ever became successful trying to fix his or her weaknesses. In fact, successful people do the exact opposite; they spend their time building their strengths, trying to become great where they are already good.”

Gallup has found that confidence in America’s public schools is at an all-time low of 29 percent in 2012, a plunge from the high of 58 percent in 1973.

Americans used to talk about their schools as the best in the world, and with good reason, Busteed writes. But now we focus more on the system’s weaknesses, criticizing teachers, pointing to gaps in test scores, complaining about scant resources.

It’s gotten so bad that we have popularized a term for what we’re doing right now, calling it an “education reform movement.” Reform may be one of the least inspiring and least motivating words in the English language. And we’ve attached it to our education system.

What should we do instead?

We need to spend every moment of our time focusing on — and replicating — what makes our schools and colleges great. For example, the best teachers are great at seeing each and every student as unique, getting to know him or her, and caring about what makes each learner tick. They build relationships with their students and their students’ families and communities.

Nothing about standardized testing, for example, enables that. And yet, all of our focus on fixing education in the U.S. today revolves around standardized testing and trying to fill students’ knowledge deficits.

Busteed points out that Gallup polls show that only 1 percent of Americans give public schools a grade of A. But when asked to grade the school their oldest child attends, 37 percent give those schools an A.

“This disparity has amazingly helpful and hopeful implications,” he says. “When we know our schools and our teachers, we like them because we are able to see all that is good about them. When we think about education more generally, we tend to focus on what we’ve heard about what’s wrong.”

As an example, Busteed takes a look at New Technology High School in Napa, Calif. It’s a place that puts the emphasis on technology and project-based learning. Teachers make the effort to find out a student’s strengths and passions, then assign students to teams to work on projects meant to get the most out of those attributes.

“We each have a unique set of talents,” Busteed writes. “America is strong in more than 311 million ways. Let’s not try to fix weaknesses. We are allowing weaknesses to get in the way of our strengths. The second we start thinking of America as a strengths-based nation is the second we start winning again.”

Read Busteed’s refreshing essay here.


Judging educational technologies

Let’s say you’re a teacher or an administrator, and an entrepreneur comes along who wants to sell you on a new piece of educational technology.

How are you supposed to know if it’s any good?

Well, you can test it out yourself.  But that would take a lot of time and maybe a lot of money.

You can consult the U.S. Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse, which reviews research on different programs, policies and practices in education. But, as critics have noted, the WWC doesn’t conduct its own research; it just reviews research done by others, and its list of software is limited.

You can look at EdSurge, which seeks to offer independent assessments of educational technology. Or EdShelf or ClassroomWindow.

These are all useful in their own ways. But two business professors say educators need a guide that’s more authoritative. They’re proposing to create an organization that would test new products, rate the results and publish the findings.

Aaron Chatterji, of Duke University, and Benjamin Jones, of Northwestern, propose EDU STAR, an organization that would be to computerized education programs what Consumer Reports  is to autos and washing machines.

In a paper written for The Hamilton Project, a creation of the Brookings Institution, the professors say their proposed nonprofit “would create transparency in the market, allowing the best technologies to emerge and allowing schools to maximize the returns to their investments in education technologies.”

EDU STAR plans to partner with one or more school districts whose students would spend a small amount of time each week working on the EDU STAR online platform. The kids would be randomly assigned to different products. They’d be tested before and after using each one.

EDU STAR would post its evaluations of each product, “including effectiveness in terms of skill improvement, how many students have used the software, how it was tested, user ratings from both students and teachers, and how the product works for different types of students.”

The project would need $5 million in startup money, which will be sought from U.S. Education Department and foundation grants.

EDU STAR would begin by focusing on instructional content, according to a Hamilton Project policy brief:

In doing so, the authors build on the work done to create the Common Core State Standards— a set of learning objectives that have been agreed to by forty-five states, the District of  Columbia, and three U.S. territories — unifying demand for instructional content around a set of well-defined, discrete skills. EDU STAR would evaluate each product on the basis of one or more of these standards.

The Huffington Post wrote about the professors’ project here.

More about choosing technologies can be found on the blog Mind/Shift.

New MP3 players to help kids get into books

Coming soon to classrooms served by Innovations for Learning:

A new generation of MP3 players that helps kids become readers of books.

About 2,500 of these iPod-looking devices are being readied for distribution to classrooms in Washington, D.C., Miami, Chicago and Seattle.

Children will use the devices to listen to a narrator read a book they’re holding. They’ll also hear that narrator ask the sort of questions a teacher would: “Look at the cover of the book. What do you think the story is about?”

“This will require them to think about the story, and not just passively listen to the story,” says Jackie Davis, IFL’s director of school services.

Hearing the stories while reading them builds the “concept of print” — the understanding that what you hear is represented on the page, says Michele Pulver, IFL’s director of teacher services. “It is also a tool to build fluency, because as students are exposed to good models, they will improve their own approximations of fluent reading. “

 A typical classroom will receive 10 of the players and a set of  about 50 printed books pegged to kindergarten and first- and second-grade reading levels. Each book has a corresponding recording in the MP3 player.

The design of the new player is especially child-friendly, with a large screen and four easy-to-use buttons to select the stories and control the volume.

Teachers will find the devices a big help for students who are having trouble reading on their own. Those kids will use the players in class during their independent reading time.

The handhelds are a big advance over the workstations that many teachers have used up till now. Those allowed several children to plug into a central device and listen to a story. But they didn’t carry as many titles as the handhelds. They didn’t allow for kids to advance at an individual pace as easily. And of course they weren’t portable.

An addition from IFL is the “teacher voice,” the narrator who reads the book as a teacher would, inserting questions before, during and after the reading to increase the kids’ comprehension and involvement.
“These are ‘think about it’ questions and do not require a response,” Pulver says. “In reality though, kids DO respond — answering right out loud.”

Celebrating World Teachers’ Day

Child in Iran
(Photo from eduinternational)

We’re happy to see that many people share our admiration of teachers — all around the globe.

Friday was World Teachers’ Day. A creation of UNESCO, it’s been celebrated every October 5 since 1994. The stated aim: to mobilize support for teachers and ensure that the needs of future generations will continue to be met by teachers.

This year, people were asked to send in photos showing how they were marking the day wherever they were.

They responded enthusiastically, with pictures of marches in Portugal and Nicaragua, rallies in the Philippines and Romania, a march for decent pay in the Democratic Republic of Congo, music and dancing in Mauritius, formal speeches, and casual poses of classes and colleagues in scores of other places.

The whole array, from Algeria to Zambia, is here.  Take a look and marvel at how widespread is the hunger to prepare the young for a better world, all over the globe.

Putting a dollar figure on the quality of teaching

Photo: Harvard University News Office

This year’s crop of MacArthur Genius Grant honorees includes a young economist whose work has shown that increasing the quality of teachers can result in tremendous economic benefits.

Raj Chetty, of Harvard, is only 33 but he’s already helped lead two studies that made news because they quantified the value of teachers. As the New York Times writes:

One study released this year, conducted with economists at Harvard and Columbia, tracked one million students in a large urban school district over 20 years and calculated that replacing an average teacher with an excellent one would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $1.4 million.

Good teachers who lifted standardized test scores also had students less likely to become teenage parents and more likely to attend a good college, among other positive results.

The study, released in January, studied more students over a longer period of time and used more data than many earlier studies. It was thus the largest look yet at “value-added ratings,” which attempt to measure the impact that individual teachers have on students.

A controversial topic, it’s at the heart of many current debates roiling school districts and teacher unions.

Chetty and his co-authors John Friedman, of Harvard, and Jonah Rockoff, of Columbia, both economists, found that replacing a poor teacher with an average one would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $266,000. Keeping a poor teacher in place over 10 years, therefore, is like losing $2.5 million in potential income, the researchers concluded.

Chetty said he began as a skeptic of value-added metrics, believing that factors such as students’ socio-economic backgrounds or motivation were being slighted.

But controlling for numerous factors, including students’ backgrounds, the researchers found that “the value-added scores consistently identified some teachers as better than others,” the Times reported, “even if individual teachers’ value-added scores varied from year to year.”

After identifying excellent, average and poor teachers, the economists then set out to look at their students over the long term, analyzing information on earnings, college matriculation rates, the age they had children, and where they ended up living.

The results were striking. Looking only at test scores, previous studies had shown, the effect of a good teacher mostly fades after three or four years. But the broader view showed that the students still benefit for years to come.

Students with top teachers are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to earn more money as adults, the study found.

The authors’ conclusion: Use value-added measures in teacher evaluations and remove the worst performers — no matter how disrupting it is.

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards are given every year to about 25 of America’s brightest minds by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The grants can’t be applied for. They just drop into the winners’ laps: $100,000 a year for five years.

Chetty was born in New Delhi and raised in the United States from age 9 by his economist father and physician mother. He graduated from Harvard in 2000 and had his doctorate three years later. He was a tenured professor at the University of California-Berkeley at 27, before returning to Harvard three years later as its youngest tenured professor.

“I’m motivated to ask these questions about why some students have good outcomes and some do not by reading the paper or observing the real world,” Chetty told the Times. “At a broad level government policies can impact people’s lives, but we often don’t have the scientific evidence.”

He is already immersed in his next project, the Times said. It explores what factors allow children to move up the economic ladder, relative to their parents.

Flipping classrooms

More and more teachers are making a fundamental change. They’re turning the traditional classroom on its head.

Instead of lecturing in class and giving the kids homework for after-hours, they’re assigning their kids lectures to watch at home on video, and then using class time to follow up those lessons with extra help or group activities.

This idea of “flipping the classroom,” popularized by the brilliant Khan Academy over the last couple of years, makes great use of the YouTube revolution: the availability to post videos cheaply on the Internet and the capability of anyone with a computer, smartphone or tablet to see them at their leisure.

It relieves students of the ageless struggle to fight boredom while listening to a teacher lecture, and instead uses classroom hours for more engaging exercises designed to cement their understanding of the material at hand.

Khan Academy’s founder, Salman Khan, has a terrific essay in the current edition of Education Week, in which he extols technology not as a replacement for teachers, but as a way to help teachers better pinpoint individual students’ academic weak points and devise ways to strengthen them:

When teachers have real-time data and a clear understanding of every child’s needs, they can use their precious classroom time more effectively and flexibly. When students are learning at a pace and level appropriate to their individual needs, they are less likely to disengage or act up.

The flipped classroom, which started in high schools, is catching on with lower grades, reports the Dallas Morning News. Officials from 10 north Texas school districts attended a regional conference on the flipped classroom in July, and an increasing number of classrooms are giving the technique a try.

Lisa Casto, the Dallas School District’s director of curriculum and staff development, told reporter Wendy Hundley that the concept is growing through the initiative of teachers, not from the top down. It’s catching on, she said, because it encourages a higher level of learning which is needed for the 21st century.

As students shift from a passive to active role, they acquire critical thinking skills, learn to collaborate and become independent learners.

“This lines up with the skills they will need,” Casto said.

Students told the paper they’re challenged more than in ordinary class set-ups, because the in-class exercises allow for sophisticated explorations of a subject. And they enjoy the freedom to watch lectures as they wish: re-running parts they don’t understand, pausing to take a break, or watching on their smartphones during a lull at soccer practice.  A teacher said test scores have risen up to 20 percent.

Some adjustments are required to make the concept work: teachers must be trained, administrators must be in support, and students must have access to computers or handheld devices.

But the pluses are formidable. It’s inexpensive, uses existing technologies that students are cozy with, increases social interaction and intellectual give-and-take, and creates habits for life-long learning.

Here’s the full Dallas Morning News story.

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