Author Archives: innovationsforlearning

TutorMate makes splash in Seattle biz press

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Some 100 volunteers from 10 Seattle corporations and the Port of Seattle are helping impoverished children learn to read through Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program — and the Puget Sound  Business Journal has the story:

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To read the entire story requires a subscription.

It gives a good background on IFL’s programs (“the brainchild of Seth Weinberger, a former Chicago attorney. Two decades ago he decided to do something about illiteracy among children in disadvantaged communities. His idea: use technology that makes computer games so vivid and enticing to help young children read well from the get-go.”)

And it shows the enthusiasm with which volunteers embrace the tutor experience.

Introduced in Seattle this fall, TutorMate opens a door to community involvement for busy professionals who can carve out 30 minutes a week to tutor a student online but not the additional time needed to travel to a school.

“It’s very hard to break away from the desk and the building,” said Martin, a senior business analyst with Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser. “This really fits the bill for me.”

Thanks to writer Brad Broberg, for capturing the program so well.

 

 

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IFL off to a high-altitude start in Denver

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At most Innovation for Learning end-of-the-year get-togethers, tutors travel to schools to finally meet the students they’ve been helping each week over the Internet.

Denver did it differently.

On Wednesday, buses delivered children from two elementary schools to the city’s Janus Capital Group headquarters for a rooftop party.

Some 40 first-graders from the two schools, College View Elementary and Cheltenham Elementary, lined up for fruit, cookies and a book  — and then sat down with the Janus employee who’s been helping them learn their ABC’s. Together, they started the kids’ summer reading.

Denver Public Schools used IFL’s offerings in five classrooms this year as a pilot. Plans are to expand to 20 classrooms next year, said Dan Weisberg,  national director for IFL’s TutorMate program.

All the volunteer tutors came from Janus. The Denver Public Schools Foundation provided invaluable help in setting everything up.

It’s clear from the pictures that a good time was had by all.

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Kids line up to receive a book. They could choose one of three that Janus made available to them.

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— photos by Dan Weisberg

Florida Virtual School funding threatened while online enrollments on rise

040913-met-flvs-03Florida Virtual School is one of the oldest and largest online ventures for K-12 education, serving more than 150,000 students last year in full-time and part-time courses.

But a bill passed by the state legislature now threatens the program’s revenue stream, the Palm Beach Post reports:

Proponents say the bill, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, is meant to level the playing field because the virtual school has an advantage over traditional school districts with the current funding formula.

But Florida Virtual, or FLVS, says the changes will hurt its bottom line, and is forcing it to look at increasing its virtual class sizes, cutting back on its offerings or laying off some instructional staff.

“This is a time when there’s (an additional) billion dollars going into education,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer of FLVS. She estimates that FLVS will lose $36 million next school year with the funding formula change — although it is still expected to get more money next year than this year.

The formula changes would also affect school districts, which have come to rely on online course providers to help manage class size restrictions, tight school budgets and other requirements affecting the classroom, as well as provide students more course offerings. Under the new funding formula, districts would take in less money for each student who is enrolled in one or more online classes.

Florida has passed a law requiring every public school student take at least one online class in order to graduate. And the state has also authorized the creation of virtual charter schools.

“We’re looking at a shifting time in education,” said Debra Johnson, principal of Palm Beach Virtual School, told the Post. Her school has 230 full-time students and thousands of others taking some online classes part-time. “There’s a move to give students a variety of options to serve their needs.”

Take a look here at the Post story, which provides a good picture of how Florida Virtual School operates.

Florida Virtual, which began in 1997 with a staff of seven, has grown to employ 1,155 full-time teachers and almost 500 adjuncts. All instructors are certified by the state, which recognizes Florida Virtual as an official school district — just like any other, except that it has no geographic boundaries. Most students take its courses to supplement their regular school work.

Here’s more from the Florida Virtual School site.

 — photo by Palm Beach Post. View of Kim Bouchillon, a Florida Virtual School teacher (seen in lower right hand of computer screen), during a recent morning session. 

Education innovation goes Prime Time

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Education takes the TV spotlight tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 7) when PBS broadcasts TED Talks Education, an hour-long special featuring an array of speakers who will hold forth on teaching and learning.

Hosted by singer John Legend, who has a foundation dedicated to alleviating poverty by focusing on education, the program is a collaboration between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and TED, the nonprofit group behind TED Talks, an Internet phenomenon that puts thinkers in front of audiences to promote “ideas worth spreading.”

The lineup of eight speakers includes Bill Gates, whose philanthropy is sponsoring many education projects; Geoffrey Canada, longtime head of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Sir Ken Robinson, who calls for greater creativity in school have made him the most-watched speaker on TED, and Malcolm London, a young poet and activist dubbed the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation.

Check local listings for the time of broadcast.

For more on the program, here’s TED’s promotional material.

U.S. lags far behind in pre-school

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The United States is lagging far behind much of the developed world when it comes to enrolling children in preschool programs.

The U.S. ranks 24th and 26th among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in the enrollment and three- and four-year-olds, respectively, reports the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank:

While the U.S. enrolls just just 69 percent of its four-year-olds and 51 percent of its three-year-olds, other countries enroll nearly all of their young children in preschool programs.

But it isn’t just enrollment where America falls behind — it also fails to keep up in other areas, such as when children begin school, how much it spends on preschool, and the teacher-to-child ratio in its early childhood education programs.

The gap between the U.S. and other countries leads to gaps in achievement later on in childrens’ lives:

Japan, for instance, enrolls nearly all of its four-year-olds in preschool programs and outscored the U.S. by 40 points on the latest international test of fourth-grade math, CAP notes.

In the U.S., state-level pre-kindergarten programs have led to substantial gains for children compared to those who don’t receive early childhood education. Children in Tennessee’s state-funded program, for instance, “saw a 75 percent improvement in letter-word identification, a 152 percent improvement in oral comprehension, a 176 percent improvement in picture vocabulary, and a 63 percent improvement in quantitative concepts.”

But the U.S. isn’t just lagging behind countries it traditionally competes with. Emerging industrialized countries are also setting loftier goals and standards for the enrollment of children in public preschool programs, while the U.S. hasn’t followed the same path:

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Here are more details about pre-school in America and the Obama Administration’s $75 billion proposal to boost enrollments.

We at Innovations for Learning believe fervently in the importance of early education. We are impelled by the knowledge that too many children are starting school without the necessary foundations.

We’re working hard to bring our TeacherMate® and TutorMate® programs to school districts across America in hopes that every child can learn to read in the primary grades.Because we want to give every child the chance to succeed later on.

— Infographics from Center for American Progress

 

 

Rich kid, poor kid — all must, and can, get an education

What’s wrong with public education in America? Is it the poor quality of teachers — or maybe the low pay offered to teachers? The inflexibility of unions? An insufficiency of charter schools?

We’ve heard all of these, time and again, to explain what is inevitably described as the crisis in U.S. education.

But a couple of recent essays argue that these usual explanations are entirely wrong.

Sean F. Reardon, a professor education and sociology at Stanford, rejects the notion that U.S. education as a whole is slipping. “In fact,” he writes in the New York Times, “average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called National Report Card have been rising  — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s.”

But progress is not occurring in an equal fashion, Reardon says. There is a growing gulf in grades, test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment and completion.

It’s not a racial gap; the differences between whites and blacks have been narrowing slowly over the past 20 years.

The most dramatic disparities are  between the rich … and everyone else.

“The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly,” Reardon writes. “The rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.”

Why?

“The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school,” Reardon writes. He continues:

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages….

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

Meantime, a former history professor and high-school teacher named John Tierney sees a revolution emerging in K-12 public education — a massive, grassroots rejection of the accountability-based reform movement of the last dozen years.

Writing in The Atlantic, he says the weaknesses of the reform movement are becoming increasingly obvious:

Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail…

Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail…

Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed.

What, then, is to be done?

We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

We at Innovations for Learning are acutely aware that too many poor children enter the school system unprepared to learn. That’s the very problem we were created to address.

But we disagree that we must first fix such monumental problems as poverty and inequality if we are to see gains in education.

The work we’re doing in primary grades all across America is showing that if we focus on improving teachers’ tools, content and teaching methods, and provide teachers with adequate training and support, they can help students achieve — even those from high-poverty communities.

“I don’t deny that kids from advantaged communities will have life long advantages,” says Seth Weinberger, IFL’s founder and CEO, “but a basic education should be achievable for everyone.”

— Howard Goodman

IFL takes big step into Broward County, Fla., classrooms

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In one of its biggest expansions yet, Innovations for Learning’s programs are headed this fall to 120 classrooms in Broward County, Fla, — an aggressive effort to teach some 2,160 young students to read.

The Broward County Public Schools, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced the partnership with IFL today. The initiative is to begin in August, when the fall semester begins.

Plans call for scores of digital devices — laptops, iPads and iPod Touches — to be provided to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. The non-profit IFL will share in the costs for the equipment, as well as support staff needed to make the program run smoothly.

Robert W. Runcie, Broward’s superintendent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, which relies on 21st century tools and old-fashioned one-on-one attention from caring adults to bring reading skills to children who would otherwise lack the readiness to succeed in school.

“This initiative is critical because students who do not master the art of reading by the end of first grade are severely impacted, across all content areas, throughout their academic career,” Runcie said in a statement. “Early intervention, that is personalized to each student’s needs, is critical in improving the rates of students who enter our second grade classrooms as proficient readers on or above grade level.”

United Way of Broward will help in the effort to recruit volunteers from the business world to tutor the children, giving one-half hour a week to help them with their lessons remotely, using the Internet and telephones to communicate from their work places to the kids’ classrooms.

“This is a one of a kind program in our district that leverages technology to maximize personalized literacy instruction and provides a unique opportunity for community leaders to tutor students in a manner, which minimally impacts their schedule, “ said Dr. Marie Wright. the district’s executive director, for instruction and interventions.

Innovations for Learning is equally excited.

“Broward is the rare example of a large urban school district that was able to see an innovative idea and move it through their process with enthusiasm and move it through quickly,” said Barbara Gilbert, IFL’s national education director. “Normally, it gets very complicated and take a long time or you have departmental issues. Broward had none of that. It was very collaborative.”

— Photo (left to right):  Seth Weinberger, IFL Founder and CEO, Dr. Marie Wright, Executive Director, Instruction & Interventions, Broward County Public Schools, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, Broward County Public Schools, and Barbara Gilbert, IFL National Education Director.
Photo and story by Howard Goodman.

Tutors, sign up now to meet your students!

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It’s the time of year for Innovations for Learning tutors to be making plans for end-of-the-year get-togethers with the students they’re helping learn to read.

About 1,300 adults are devoting a half-hour each week to communicating, via telephone and the computer, with children in low-income neighborhood schools. From their desks in corporations like AT&T and agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard, the grownups are giving first-graders some precious personal attention and encouragement to get them started on a successful path through school.

To cap the experience, the volunteers will travel to the kids’ classrooms to read stories, play word games, enjoy story-building exercises, and — very often — bask in the glow of the kids’ appreciation.

dan's screen grabThis year, the process for signing up and planning for these school visits is streamlined, thanks to a new computer program on the IFL web page for tutors that allows tutors to sign up with a click on the “RSVP” button and to see instantly who else among their coworkers is planning to attend. The new tool also lets classroom teachers and TutorMate coordinators see how many visitors to expect.

The new system went active earlier this month, thanks to crucial help from IFL’s partner for technical matters, Photon, based in India.

Until now, organizing the end-of-year visits was rather haphazard. “We never knew who was going to come,” said Cary Zakon, IFL’s director of TutorMate operations. “Now, it gives us some foresight. If we see that registration is lagging, we can send out reminders to the coordinators. And if we get fewer than three people signed up, we’ll cancel the event.”

Hopefully, that won’t happen very often. Because one thing that tutors, teachers and students all have learned — these are great events.

As one tutor told us after a visit last year: “It was so great to have an opportunity to meet our students — we had an amazing time! The students were so excited to meet us in person and and they loved the books and our token gifts.”

For more information on the visits and registering for them, click here.

Photo: JP Morgan Chase employees at classroom party, 2011. From IFL video.

Staff reflections: Caryn Weiner

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In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Caryn Weiner, Co-editor, Publications.

I have known Seth Weinberger, Barb Goodman and their family for many years and had the pleasure of watching Seth’s wheels turning as he conceived and incubated what is now, 20 years later, Innovations for Learning. 

Our children were young, and Seth, Barb, and I helped to found a nonprofit preschool in Evanston, Ill., that focused on inclusion. For years after that, Barb and I worked as partners in a volunteer capacity to raise funds and awareness for our venture, all while raising our families.

I didn’t know 30 years ago how my work and personal life would intersect and come full circle.

My first job after completing my masters degree in social work was with a YWCA program in the Uptown neighborhood in the Chicago which housed an early childhood Title XX daycare program and an after-school program for school-age kids.

My next job was as a therapist with adolescents and families at Response Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I also worked closely with the schools in the area presenting programs and workshops for students and parents, as well as school staff.

I also had a stint for many years as a Roving Reader, a program founded by the Foster Reading Center in Evanston to promote literacy and now part of Child Care Center of Evanston. It was originally designed for school-age children, but by the time I joined, the program focused on early literacy skills — the building blocks for future success in school.

I visited a number of daycare homes twice each week. My job was to expose the kids and their daycare providers to quality literature and to offer stimulating and enriching experiences related to literacy.  

Over the years, I formed lovely relationships with the providers and watched as their charges grew up and moved on to kindergarten. My hope was always that I had left them with a love of books and reading.

Then, four years ago, I had the good fortune to join Seth and the amazing IFL staff, part time, as Barb’s work partner. Our mission then was to grow the online tutoring program, which today is known as TutorMate. That program grew, and as new full-time staff came onboard, Barb and I stepped back. 

To watch TutorMate develop into the program it is today has been amazing.

Back in the day, Barb and I did trainings in person with a slide show. The program itself was much less interactive and dynamic. There was no help desk, no online sign-up nor phone conference training, and there were way more bugs!

Still, each time we went out to talk with or train volunteers at their workplaces, it was quite clear that something wonderful was going on.

Tutors loved being part of their students’ lives each week, and their coworkers were hearing about it and wanted to participate, too. Heartwarming stories about tutoring and its rewards were being shared. And when Barb and I went out to visit classrooms and had the privilege of meeting the students and teachers, that was just further confirmation.

We spent lots of time online and on the phone with tutors and teachers: training, helping with scheduling, troubleshooting technical issues, and getting to know them personally. Many are still with the program. Compared with the scope and quality of today’s TutorMate, they were pioneers!

Today, my role is a bit in flux as Seth’s wheels continue to turn and new projects and ideas form. Barb and I are now working on communication projects and the annual report. I look forward to whatever my new role with IFL will be – and to watching the organization grow.

Innovation. It’s the name of the course

Indiana high school teacher Don Wettrick is so giddy about innovation that he’s teaching a course in it.

To be more accurate, the teenagers pretty much teach themselves. Wettrick’s main role is to set things up so this can happen. “My students, they teach me,” he says.

It’s the students who come up with subjects to explore and projects to complete. One kid, for example, had the idea of writing and publishing a book.

Wettrick’s response: “Let’s do it!”

Never mind that Wettrick didn’t know how to self-publish a book. He simply encouraged the kid to figure out what he wanted to accomplish and the steps it would take to get there. “We backwards-design everything,” Wettrick says.

They reached out to the worlds of business and tech and found experts in self-publishing. “You find that there are plenty of people dying to help,” he says.

The class began last fall with a dozen students, and already has reaped “amazing” results, Wettrick says — not least of which, being among the 8,000 winners selected to test the highly anticipated Google Glass (more about that below).

One group of kids worked with solar-energy companies to figure out how to get their school off the grid (getting the school board to implement the plan — that’s another hurdle). Another, inspired by a 60 Minutes segment, put iPads into the hands of autistic children.

Some students have started a site that enables kids to collaborate on books or videos on subjects that interest them. It’s called Student HackEd. For example, some students are holding a discussion on how teens can share knowledge globally through a high school MOOC  (massive open online course). So far, they have participants from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Uganda.

One politically-minded young man worked with the state General Assembly on educational reform and, with another student, started a TV round-table discussion show with the town’s local decision-makers.

“The class has provided me with the opportunity to do things that no pre-calculus class, no biology class, no traditional class can offer,” said the student, Connor Shank. “No other class can allow me to go the State House and talk to senators and congressmen and speak to them one-on-one.

“That’s real education. That’s innovation, and that’s the future.”

The high-energy Wettrick, 40, is a teacher at Franklin Community High School, outside Indianapolis. A dozen years ago, he quit teaching English to teach broadcasting.

His students were soon making documentaries about life around town, and he thought the works were so good that he started a film festival to show them off in a downtown movie theater. He also posted them on YouTube so that people outside their town of 25,000 could see them. Before long, the kids’ movies were getting 200 to 300 views. And the festival had expanded to include videos from schools throughout their own Johnson County, Ind.

Wettrick was floored by the quality of the students’ work, which grew out of the kids’ own passions and interests — such as this documentary about homeless teens.

Then he thought, why stop at filmmaking? Why not give kids other chances to let their imaginations loose and see what they can accomplish? By this time, the Indiana teacher was heavily influenced by thinker Daniel Pink’s TED Talk (5.2 million views to date) and book, Drive

“Freedom and autonomy are the key words of the class,” Wettrick says. “It’s up to the students to find a topic and then get two experts to collaborate with. When they’re done, they blog their findings.

“They also have to research the Common Core standards, find the ones their project deals with, and demonstrate their mastery of those standards.”

In February, a student named Briceson Hill saw a video about Google’s contest to find testers for its newest invention, Google Glass — a combination of eyeglasses and smartphone that puts online tools to use in real time — and quickly persuaded the Innovations class to enter.

Trouble was, the contest deadline was that very day. But in a scant two hours, the class wrote and produced a 15-second video featuring Wettrick — who normally talks at machine-gun pace anyway — rapidly laying out their case.

“If I’m selected, it won’t just be for me, It’ll be for my entire class,” Wettrick races to say in the video. “I run a publicly educated class called Innovations, and in this class we communicate and collaborate with other experts. This would allow us the opportunity to work with Google and then communicate our results to the world.”

Good news came on March 29. Google sent a tweet: “You’re invited to join our @googleexplore program. Woohoo!”

Wettrick is now waiting for word from Google to fly out to Silicon Valley and receive his pair of glasses, which will cost him $1,500 he says he’s happy to pay. He’s getting impatient. His seniors are graduating in a few weeks.

Once he gets the glasses, “I can be teaching a class and have other Google Hangout people watch my class,” Wettrick said in a TV interview. “I think that’s exciting, collaborating with people  — who knows? — all over the world.”

Not every class project has succeeded so well. “We fail beautifully. Nobody does that better,” Wettrick says exuberantly.

One student trained special-ed kids to run a coffee shop inside the school, but the administration closed it down after the cafeteria complained about the competition. Alternative energy-minded kids proved that converting Franklin Community High to solar would save money in the long run, but implementation will have to chill for want of $400,000 in start-up costs.

Nevertheless, Innovations projects keep expanding in scope. The class communicates all its doings on a YouTube channel called TheFocusShowOnline. And, increasingly, on Twitter, which Wettrick calls “the greatest educational development tool I’ve ever seen.”

“I’ve been connected with the world’s greatest teachers through Twitter. End of story.”

He urges other teachers to share what they’re doing, via Twitter or other social-media.

“I think our students are more savvy and innovative,” he says, “and it’s time people heard about the positive stories.”

 

— Story by Howard Goodman

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