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:
Educators at a Chicago elementary school spent the summer redesigning their reading program for the first and second grades.
They came up with the “CY-BEAR.” This fall, each student will receive a stuffed animal to read aloud to.
Sounds goofy, but principal Shawn Jackson says it reduces the anxiety to read in front of others and can help improve scores for the many children whose parents don’t read to them. That accounts for a lot of Jackson’s 930 students at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. About 85 percent read below grade level and nearly all are from low-income homes.
It took about two months to come up with the plan — an example of how schools increasingly are seizing the summer break as an opportunity to innovate.
“During the school year, there are so many other variables that can come into play. Day-to-day operations, sometimes we get into their own silos, teachers have to worry about the 30 students in front of them,” Jackson told the Associated Press.
According to a story by AP reporter Philip Elliott, Jackson and his team competed in the Chicago Public Education Fund’s Summer Design Program, an innovation challenge that offered educators up to $10,000 to test their ideas.
“Most people would take the time to relax,” Jackson said.
Instead, he and his team rewrote the school’s reading program, overhauling how his youngest students spend two hours each day.
Elsewhere, educators are seeking to prevent the learning loss that many students experience while school’s out for summer
Without classes to attend, most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.
That’s according to the National Summer Learning Association, But summer learning programs targeted to low-income students can help close the achievement gap, the association says: “The effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after participation,” long-term studies indicate.
In Harlem, 40 students attended a day camp this summer intended to keep up their reading skills. At LitWorld Camp, they could read whatever they wanted over the six-week period.
If students show an interest in cooking or animals, hip-hop or vintage toys, leaders find books that match up with their interests. Students wrote songs based on books on hip-hop and designed their own toys based on the ones they read about from the Depression, Colonial times and ancient Egypt.
Read more about creative uses of summertime here.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews: Youngsters attending LitCamp.
Innovations for Learning has recognized eight organizations for their outstanding support of the TutorMate program.
The annual awards were sent to the recipients on Tuesday.
IFL picked one outstanding organization in each of the cities in which TutorMate operates.
Tracie Zettler was named “most dedicated” because she tutored twice a week after realizing that her student needed more help. (The standard requirement is to tutor once a week for 30 minutes.) If Zettler ever called and didn’t get an answer, she made sure to reschedule and call back until she got through.
Julia Martin was named “most inspirational” because “the level of detail in Julia’s tutoring feedback each week was amazing,” said Cary Zakon, national director for TutorMate operations.
“Reading them, it was so clear how much she cared about her student and also how much fun she was having with him. It was also clear that she was writing for the teacher’s benefit, too, and sometimes even included a message for her student there.”
The winning organizations were recognized for the following criteria:
- Outstanding and engaged support from our coordinators
- Meeting and exceeding tutor recruitment goals
- High participation rates in the end-of-year tutor/student meet-ups
- High levels of tutor persistence and dedication
- Notable atmosphere of collaboration within your tutoring team(s)
In reply, we’ve heard from some grateful and enthusiastic recipients:
Tracie Zettler, General Motors, Detroit, “Most Dedicated”: “I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed tutoring this year. I was terribly disappointed that I could not be at the ‘meet your student’ day but I received a card that my student (Daniel) made me and it brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face. This was such a rewarding experience; knowing that I made a difference in this little boy’s life means so much to me.
“I was so shocked by my award today! When it came up on the screen, my eyes were as big as lunch plates! Thank you so much for that; I am going to print it and hang it in my cube next to the newspaper article of Daniel and I tutoring.”
Julia Martin, Weyerhaeuser, Seattle, “Most Inspirational”: “I’m very honored. And I was very fortunate in my assignment. The kids were highly engaged and the teacher (Cate Simmers with Arbor Heights) highly supportive. AND I didn’t have to deal with ‘yellers’ in the background at all which made my job really, really easy!!
“I’m really looking forward to next year!! (2013-14 that is!!)”
Joan Ai, Employee Engagement & Volunteerism, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase & Co.: “Thanks Cary, for your kind message and the award. The recognition is not necessary as we are glad that we were able to participate in such a meaningful program to benefit the children in your program.”
Stephanie Beck, Human Resources Manager, CBRE: “Again, thank you. We all loved the experience with the kids. Thank you so much for the recognition.
Lori Hulvey, Asset Quality Review, Comerica: “Thank you so much, Cary … this is so exciting!! Can’t wait to display this in the office.
Karen Veitenhans, Manager, Community Investment & Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund: “Hi Cary. I just wanted to weigh in and thank you … This is a such an innovative idea and great opportunity for our employes to have a significant impact on student achievement. We’ve been pleased with the positive feedback our employees have provided, and look forward to growing this effort. Thank you again for approaching Weyerhaeuser and providing us with the opportunity to engage our employees!”
A revolution is under way:
At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help.
In theory the classroom will be “flipped”, so that more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge (in the same way that homework does now, but more effectively).
The promise is of better teaching for millions of children at lower cost—but only if politicians and teachers embrace it.
The British-based news weekly takes a global look at what its headline writer calls “e-ducation.” What it finds is mostly hopeful. (“Used properly, edtech offers both the struggling and the brilliant a route to higher achievement. The point is to maximise the potential of every child.”)
But it also notes that “edtech will boost inequality in the short term, because it will be taken up most enthusiastically by richer schools, especially private ones, while underfunded state schools may struggle to find the money to buy technology that would help poorer students catch up.”
[That passage underscores the importance of Innovations for Learning’s mission: We work in America’s largest urban — read “cash-strapped” — school districts as a nonprofit seeking to make tech-based education in the primary grades as available as possible.]
It’s an excellent overview, showing the impact of a phenomenon that has started in America and spreading across the world. It’s well worth your time. Here’s the full version.
Illustration: The Economist
- 11 Dutch Schools To Open With iPad Focused “Steve Jobs” Learning (macgasm.net)
- Pros and Cons of Flipped Learning (meredith554.wordpress.com)
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: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.
As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.
I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.
Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.
Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions. I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.
Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools. At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.
I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.
I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused attention.
We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.
Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008, we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store, charge, distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.
Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)
But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.
We have come a long way.
Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.
Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.
A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read
Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.
I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One. Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)
My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.
— Cary Zakon
Some of the people who volunteered as tutors this year became pretty attached to the children they helped learn to read.
Take Lisa Mach. An engineer for the Port of Seattle, she tutored a first-grader named John at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Elementary School, speaking to him every week by phone from her desk at work, going over his lessons for a half an hour as each looked his reading assignment on their respective computer screens.
When it came time to meet John in person at an end-of-the-year party for tutors and students, however, Lisa had to be out of town. She felt badly about missing the chance. So she composed a card for John to be delivered in her stead.
She put a picture of herself on the cover. On the inside, she listed a dozen suggested “Summer Books After First Grade” and wrote a message:
I can’t be there to visit you at school today because I am on a trip visiting my baby grandson.
I sent this card to tell you what a really GOOD reader you are. I liked that you sounded out every single word until you knew what it was. I also liked that you used your voice and gave the words feeling. If the story was fun, you made it sound happy. When a boy or a girl was scared, you made it sound a little scary. Soon you can read longer stories about people and their adventures.
I hope you can visit the library during the summer and get books to read so you will be a strong reader when you go back to school for second grade.
Have a fun summer!
“I am really glad the card worked, though I sure would rather be there to meet him in person,” Lisa said last week in an email. “This is my first time with TutorMate. I have a small sense of what it might be like for teachers to say goodbye to their little ones at the end of each year.”
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
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: Seth Weinberger, founder and CEO. A good account of Seth’s background and history with IFL can be found here.
He wrote the following a few days ago, as an email to the rest of the staff. It stands so well as a statement of IFL’s potential and purpose, we wanted to share it with everyone:
Today I observed a Chicago south side first grade classroom in a school that is 97% African American, 75%+ low income, and on academic probation. The teacher is a first year novice. Two-thirds of the students entered her classroom below grade level literacy.
Against these enormous odds, here is what this teacher achieved: the LOWEST group is near Level I (grade level). The middle group is reading second and third grade chapter books, and the highest group is independently reading Charlotte’s Web, a classic TEACHER read-aloud book.
This teacher has enthusiastically embraced the TeacherMate System from the start of the school year, and credits it for much of her success. She is also a natural teacher, and will be a star if she stays in the profession.
Not every teacher is a natural, and not everyone will embrace our system, but this teacher has demonstrated what is possible. And what is possible ought to be what our goal is.
Every student reading, most students flying.
— Seth Weinberger
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:
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.