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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – First-grade teacher Frances Curry had an iPod Touch in her fingers and a pair of headphones on her ears. She peered at the three-inch screen, her fingers tapping.
Then she paused. And smiled.
“The kid reads a word,” she said, “and then the program tells him to say the word. And then the kid hears it back, in his own voice.
“And then the program asks them, ‘Did you read that correctly?’ “
She sounded as if she had experienced a marvel.
Would her students benefit?
“Oh, my God, yes. They love technology!” she said. “When I talk to them, it’s just …”
She fluttered her fingers — an illustration of an attention span floating away into thin air.
“But with technology, they’re right there with it.”
Curry, who teaches at inner-city Sunland Park Elementary, was sampling an Innovations for Learning program that her young students will hold in their hands, a small package of creative software that vastly improves the teaching of reading.
She was among some 45 teachers, reading coaches and principals who gathered after school last week to train for a major initiative coming this month to six Broward County elementary schools. All located in low-income areas in and around Fort Lauderdale, the schools are newly equipped with $76,000 worth of laptops, iPod Touches and MP3 players and a resolve to try a new approach to teaching reading to beginners.
They are the first of 13 Broward schools scheduled to adopt Innovations’ TeacherMate system this year — a bet by the school district that smart technology in the hands of turned-on teachers will make a dramatic difference in the lives of children who badly need the boost.
For two afternoons last week, the Broward staffers gathered at North Fork Elementary School to learn how to get started with the system, scheduled to launch in classrooms the week of Sept. 9. They reviewed everything from how to turn on an iPod to how to roll up a clutch of power cords. And most important, how to use the lively software to create differentiated learning plans for each of their students.
Michele Pulver, Innovations’ director of teacher services, came down from Chicago to lead the sessions. She was joined by teacher ambassadors Jessica Nasset from Seattle, Melinda Cunningham from Chicago, and LaVonia Martin-Chambers, Kim Sanders and Carmen Valdez from Fort Lauderdale. (Teacher ambassadors are Innovation employees who are assigned to specific schools. They back up teachers to make sure TeacherMate runs smoothly, and monitor the whole process of literacy instruction by modeling best practices and giving guided support.)
“You are the pioneers for a digital approach to learning,” Michele Rivera, the school district’s director of literacy, told the group at the sessions’ outset. She said the partnership with Innovations was designed to lead “to our ultimate goal: to get kids ready for college and the real world. To get them to work independently, collaboratively, to problem-solve and be technologically competent.”
The teachers broke into small groups to become familiar with three “stations” they’ll be setting up in their classrooms. At one station, up to 10 students will work on interactive word-building lessons, using iPod Touches. In another, a second group of kids will listen to a story from a narrator over an MP3 player while reading along from a book. At the third station, the teacher will interact personally with a group of students, teaching them decoding and comprehension strategies and guiding their reading practice.
After sessions that last about half an hour, the student groups will rotate from station to station.
Each student’s progress will synch via the cloud to the teacher’s laptop computer, giving her a precise read on how quickly each kid is learning each concept and allowing her to adjust the next lessons accordingly.
The Broward staffers sounded enthusiastic about their first brush with the system.
“I love how it blocks out all the other sounds,” said Chris Carney, principal of Bennett Elementary, after hearing a story read over a headset. “That’s going to really help some of our guys” — children who are easily distracted.
“We know that as soon as reading scores go up, everything else — the science and the math, the writing — they all go up,” said LaFerne McLean-Cross, assistant principal at Sunland Park Academy, which was an F-rated school two years ago, but saw 88 percent of its students make learning gains last year and hopes to continue the momentum. “That’s why we’re putting so much focus on this.”
The next seven schools are scheduled to get going with TeacherMate in a few weeks. Training for that staff is scheduled for Sept. 27, assuming that Title I federal money arrives on time. Innovations for Learning laid out the $76,000 needed to equip the first six schools, in the interest of getting the program off the ground.
In October, if all goes according to schedule, the district will add Innovation’s program of virtual tutoring, called TutorMate. It will link volunteers from corporate workplaces with first-graders for one-and-one sessions via the Internet.
Broward County Public Schools is in the midst of a fundraising drive, looking for $500,000 to fully equip the 132 classrooms in the 13 schools with hardware and seeking 620 volunteers to tutor children, remotely by computer hook-up for half an hour a week. For more information, please click here.
Story and photos by Howard Goodman
The education book of the moment is a work of journalism that shows how the countries with the best educational systems are succeeding — while the U.S. treads water.
Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way tracks the experiences of three American exchange students who spend a school year in Poland, Finland and South Korea. Each of those countries outranks the U.S. in international comparisons.
In each place, the American kids are “startled by how hard their new peers work and how seriously they take their studies,” says The Economist‘s review of Ripley’s book.
Maths classes tend to be more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.
Ripley finds that much of Finland’s success comes from ensuring high-quality teaching from the beginning, “allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America,” says reviewer Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
Those better-prepared teachers can be given more autonomy, making them more likely to love their jobs and stay in the profession. It’s just the opposite of how we do it in America, where teaching’s mediocre status and pay attract few top students in the first place, and teachers are subject to morale-killing “complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as Paul puts it.
Just as important, Ripley finds: School systems excel when they demand high-quality work of every student.
Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”. Low expectations are often duly rewarded.
Not all is rosy in these high-performing countries, Ripley reports. South Korea’s pressure-cooker culture — all study, all the time — is a “hamster wheel” that has “created as many problems as it solved.”
All three counties revamped their education systems when they grew alarmed by the poor state of their economies and national sense of worth. Ripley thinks that America might soon reach a similar moment.
“She cites the World Economic Forum’s most recent ranking of global competitiveness, which placed America seventh, marking its third consecutive year of decline,” The Economist writes. “Meanwhile Finland, that small, remote Nordic country with few resources, has been steadily moving up this ladder, and now sits comfortably in third place.”
Not that Ripley’s findings are entirely new. PISA, the international survey of 34 countries’ education systems, has reached many of the same conclusions. Check out this video:
With the school year ending, many Innovations for Learning tutors are visiting the classrooms to meet in person the children whose progress in reading they’ve been guiding long distance, via telephone and computer.
Jacqui Howze, an administrative assistant at the law firm DLA Piper LLP in Chicago’s Loop, remotely tutored a young boy at Fiske Elementary on the city’s South Side. Her office is in a gleaming office tower created by famous architects. At Fiske, 95 percent of the children are classified as low-income.
She visited the classroom the other day for the first time — and loved it so much that she sent this note to the teacher:
Good morning Mrs. House,
I would like to thank you for allowing me and the Innovations For Learning tutors to visit your classroom yesterday. It was the highlight of my day!
I enjoyed meeting Kavin and the other children. You have a wonderful group of students who display a passion for learning and who have respect for you, their fellow students and their school. I am very proud to be a part of it all.
I would like to say Kudos to you for the way you handle your class and for all that you do for those lovely little minds. You too are wonderful!
I look forward to tutoring next year and I would like nothing more than to continue to tutor Kavin, but in the event that I cannot, I know that whomever I tutor will be just as bright and eager as Kavin. Thank you again Mrs. House for having us and I hope to visit your classroom again next year.
Have a wonderful Summer!
The teacher replied:
What a beautiful note! I was very enthusiastic, as were my little ones, to meet you guys as well! With your support, my kindergartners have skyrocketed in their levels of reading and writing. I know because all of the skills that you worked on were revisited by me and I saw the major jumps.
It feels so great to know that all of the hard work is seen because I am working constantly to keep the kindergartners at a higher level than the norms. I am so grateful to TeacherMate/Innovations for Learning and my students were eagerly waiting for your calls/sessions. I watched them go from dependent, curious minds to independent, conscientious thinkers, still curious (smiles).
I, too, agree that you should stick with Kavin and the other tutors should stay with their little ones. You can definitely track the growth by following. Thanks so much and talk to you soon…
— photos of Fiske Elementary by Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times
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.
— photos by Dan Weisberg
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.”
“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
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.
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.”
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.
This 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.
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
- Google Glass Testing Goes To High School (daniweb.com)
I’m known at Innovations for Learning as a tech guy, but I’ve done a little of everything over the years — from restaurant ownership to law enforcement to mortgage brokering, as well as computer repair and maintenance.
I came to IFL in the summer of 2009 to fill a temporary position doing TeacherMate field installations in Chicago Public School classrooms.
My position has morphed. Now it’s mainly online tech support for our TutorMate program. My main task is to provide real-time support for our volunteer tutors and students coast to coast. I work from a bank of computer screens in suburban Chicago, communicating to dozens of classrooms every school day.
Keeping that all going has its challenges. When you combine kids and personal computers, you’re going to have lots of little things go wrong: adjusting the volume, resizing windows, closing programs that students open by accident. Children often change settings on the PCs in the classroom, sometimes disrupting tutoring sessions in mid-session, or prevent them from starting.
I have created my own systems to keep us afloat. My mornings are filled with preparation, preparation, and more preparation — making sure I am properly connected remotely to all the classrooms, for starters.
As you might imagine, new technology is not always 100 percent, so we are almost always finding ourselves thinking outside the box when trying out solutions. And I’m always communicating with teachers to correct problems or fix the settings themselves.
Although I provide support to so many, I myself receive support from many team members. This goes a long way to getting to our collective goals.
My perfect scenario is seeing all the processes of tutoring flow together to create that great tutoring experience.
Every year there are certain classrooms, teachers and tutors who just get it. They come together time after time to get their sessions up and running, like a mini orchestra. From these observations, I can always predict which classrooms are excelling, it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold. That makes my day.
My goal is to see more of those classroom-tutor-teacher combos excel as they get it.Frank Spranze firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a startling look at the high cost we all pay for every high school dropout:
The infographic was created by Rethink Education, a venture capital firm that invests in educational technology.
The information largely comes from a publication released last July 4 called “American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation is Going To Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy.” The 300-page work was produced by GSV Advisors, merchant bankers who encourage investment in educational innovation, and is well worth a good look.
Generally, we think of education as making a crucial difference in the lives of individuals. But as Tom Segal, an analyst for Rethinking Education, argues in a recent blog post, education is the lynchpin for society as whole.
What good is the economy without a learned population speaking a common language and operating at a high level? What good are human rights without a populace that knows the existing law and understands the cost/benefit analysis of change?
How can we have a legitimate discussion about tax policy if the majority of Americans do not understand where cuts would be coming from and how they would affect their lives? How can we spark change in the financial sector if the average citizen does not understand loans, interest rates, and basic budgetary planning? …
“Education” as a sector is about so much more than just “education.” It touches everything from Health to Economics to Defense. In other words, education spurs development and progress across the board.
- Inheriting An Education (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- Sharp rise in middle and high school dropouts in Thessaloniki (ekathimerini.com)
- Straight A’s: Dropout Factories by State; English Learner Dropout Dilemma; MD, MS, MO, TN, & WV Govs (virtualschooling.wordpress.com)
- Can New Teaching Strategies Lower Drop Out Rates? (usdailyreview.com)