New frontiers for charters in 2013

Innovation is the theme of the 2013 Hopes, Fears & Reality report by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. Are charter leads fully using their autonomy to experiment with new ways to teach? asks Robin Lake.

It includes:

Charters Branch Out: Do Moves Into Affluent Areas Signal an Important Trend? Jeffrey Henig of Columbia University explores the issues around the growth of charter schools in suburban and affluent neighborhoods.

Incubate For America? Ethan Gray of the CEE-Trust examines a new breed of organizations—charter school incubators—emerging in cities across the U.S., bringing some private-sector strategies to the charter school start-up scene.

Tech-Based Learning: The New Frontier for Charters? Michael Horn of the Christensen Institute writes about charter schools in California that have innovated through technology and asks what it will take for more to follow nationwide.

To Survive, Charters Cannot Ignore the Bottom Line.Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University urges the charter sector to get innovative about designing a more sustainable cost structure.

Teaching grit

Educators are focusing more on perspiration than inspiration these days, looking for ways to teach determination, resilience and grit.

Can technology teach grit? asks Anya Kamenetz. A new U.S.Department of Education report touts the potential of new technologies to provide optimal challenge (not too easy or hard), “promote academic mindsets, teach learning strategies, promote the development of effortful control, and provide motivating environments.”

Some of these tech tools and applications attempt to teach strategies like mindfulness (including meditation), metacognition (knowing about knowing), and growth mindset (the belief that one can change one’s own abilities by working harder.)

Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth believes grit is “more essential to academic achievement” than intelligence, writes Kamenetz.

. . . while teaching 7th-grade math . . . she noticed that some of her strongest performers weren’t necessarily the smartest kids, and some of the smartest kids weren’t necessarily doing that well.

“I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn, if they worked hard and long enough,” she said. “ I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational and psychological perspective.”

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher told my parents I wasn’t quick in learning math, but I sunk my teeth in like a “bulldog” and held on till I got it. I scored a gritty 4.5 on Duckworth’s eight-question grit quiz.

Superfun sameness

In a New York Times op-ed, editor Pamela Paul points out a “farcical reversal” of our concepts of work and play: “schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach.” Video games in particular have reversed (or mixed up) these roles; schools are making increasing use of video game technology in the classroom, while many recreational video games come packaged with a purported educational purpose. This ends up compromising both study and play:

Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

I agree with Paul but would call this “superfun sameness” instead. Study and play have become more and more alike–especially when “driven” by computer games. What’s more: they are alike in a disturbing way: hyped up, cloyingly interactive, and oh, so much fun. The result: students lose tolerance for things that seem slightly boring at first.

This happens on many fronts (not only with video games). Students get the message that their studies are supposed to be immediately gratifying and tailored to them. I often hear students (not at my school specifically, but in many places) complain that this or that book isn’t “relevant” to their lives and that they don’t enjoy it. What they’re really saying is that they haven’t learned to exercise patience and stretch the imagination.

I haven’t tried this experiment, nor do I plan to do so, but I’m willing to bet on the outcome: Give a high school class a unit on Hamlet. One group gets just the book (and a few video clips of performances); the other gets an interactive Hamlet video game, where they get to take photos of their friends and dress them up as the characters, follow the ghost around the castle, reenact the final swordfight, etc. Each group is aware of the other. One week into the project, students are given a survey on their interest levels and their desire to remain in their current group. The survey is repeated at the completion of the unit and then a year later. I imagine the first survey would show many students wishing to switch from the book group to the video group (but not vice versa); the second survey would have a less pronounced result, and the final survey would show a preference for the book group.

In other words, if you can persuade kids to stick with something that’s initially difficult or not palpably fun, you see their interest grow over time. But if you give up, you encourage the “relevance” crutch: you feed their demand for studies that feel good and seem to meet their needs and wants, right now. “Relevance” and “fun” are not exactly the same, but in their shallowest form they become close to synonymous. When omnipresent, they become that shallow.

It takes a lot of energy to get students to stick with something in their studies that doesn’t immediately grab them–but it’s worth the struggle. Then they become capable of a larger range, and they overthrow the tyranny of relevance.

In contrast with Paul (or seeming contrast), I see many instances where play could be educational (for instance, working with an electronics kit) and study could be fun (for instance, learning songs in Russian). The problem lies not in the overlap but in the homogeneity, the cutesiness, and the appeal to a lazy part of the mind and character.

Personalized learning with 48 students

In The Right Mix, Education Sector’s Susan Headden profiles a charter high school in Los Angeles that’s using blended learning to personalize instruction — despite having 48 students in a class. The Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology High School “combines online and traditional instruction and allows students to learn in three different ways,” she writes.

On this particular fall day, 16 students are getting traditional in-person instruction in Algebra I from teacher Wendy Chaves; roughly the same number are doing math problems online; and still others are gathered in clusters of four tutoring each other. No matter where they are in the rotation, they see the student-to-teacher ratio as what it effectively is—an ideal 16-to-1.

Students work at their own pace, Headden writes. “With the software taking up chores like grading math quizzes and flagging bad grammar, teachers are freed to do what they do best—guide, engage, and inspire.”

Tennenbaum’s BLAST model breaks the day into two-hour blocks with students spending 40 minutes at each station.

Students report to stations based on what regular pre-tests have shown they can do. The low performers go right to direct instruction with the teacher, the high performers start with the collaborative session, and those in the middle start with online work.

Let’s say the English lesson is about effective use of literary devices. Students might start with a teacher-led lesson on metaphor, personification and the like, followed by an online tutorial on the MY Access! writing program. They write a short essay, which the computer immediately scores for mechanics and grammar. If the student has too many mistakes, he takes another tutorial and writes the essay again. He sets himself a deadline (say, all clean by the third draft), and when he has met it, submits the piece to the teacher for feedback on meatier qualities like content and orga­nization. Finally, in the collaborative session, students critique each other’s work, making suggestions for improvement based on what they have learned from the teacher and online.

Students don’t move ahead until they show mastery. Online programs let students review a lesson until they understand it. The software analyzes keystrokes to collect data on each student’s learning.

Tennenbaum has excellent teachers, but mediocre software, says Principal Michelle Tubbs.  “There is no A-plus software out there,” Tubbs says. “Most of it is C-plus or below.”

Technology lets the school hire fewer teachers, but the savings are wiped out by technology costs. However, once the school reaches full enrollment, the technology is expected to pay for itself.

“When computer-assisted learning fails, it is usually because technology has been deployed as an add-on,” writes Headden. “BLAST shows that for technology to make a difference in student learning, it must be integral to instruction, and it must come with humans attached.”

Public Impact’s new Opportunity Culture Charter School Network hopes to use technology to enable excellent teachers to reach more students. Four new schools plan different approaches to creating an “opportunity culture” for teachers: Foundations College Prep (Chicago), Ingenuity Prep (Washington, D.C.), Touchstone Education (Newark) and Venture Academy (Minneapolis).

 

From cohorts to competency

Technology makes it much easier to personalize education through show what you know” promotion, concludes The Shift From Cohorts to Competency, a Digital Learning Network Smart Series paper.

The cohort model — children are grouped by age — moves on students who aren’t ready and holds back students who could excel, the authors write. ”A competency-based system frees up students to learn at their own pace and according to their own needs,” said Carri Schneider, one of the authors. “Competency education is the ultimate path to personalization.”

Are iPads worth it?

Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids Learn?  Maybe not, writes Peg Tyre on Take Part.

Wall Street is pouring money into education technology companies, but the enthusiasm may be cooling: Investment in education technology declined in 2011, Tyre writes.

Every new wave of technology that has been tried in classrooms—radio, television, videocassettes, desktop computers and smartboards—has ridden a wave of enthusiasm, rapid adoption and, then, brutally dashed expectations.

“First, the promoters’ exhilaration splashes over decision makers as they purchase and deploy equipment in schools and classrooms,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classoom in an email to me. “Then academics conduct studies to determine the effectiveness of the innovation [and find that it is] just as good as—seldom superior to—conventional instruction in conveying information and teaching skills. They also find that classroom use is less than expected.

While some teachers are using iPads in the classroom in effective ways, most are not, writes Tyre. And hoped-for savings may be illusory.

Adding in training, network costs and software costs, iPads cost school districts 552 percent more than textbooks, writes Lee Wilson of PCI Education on his blog. Wilson’s chart is below.

                                 

In a Broad Foundation debate, panelists ask: Which is more important, great teachers or great technology? (I guess we can’t have both.)

Digital immigrants, unite!

Students are supposed to be “digital natives,” while teachers over the age of 35 are “digital immigrants.” That implies teachers’ expertise is obsolete. That’s just not so, writes Bill Ferriter, a sixth-grade English teacher, on The Tempered Radical.

Sure, today’s kids CAN play video games and surf YouTube videos and send text messages and check their Facebook profiles without any help.

And YES, they have Pinterest pages long before their parents figure out that Pinterest isn’t some clever marketing campaign for newfangled online savings accounts.

They ARE successfully liking and poking and friending their way through life without our help.

But is that REALLY something to celebrate?

Aren’t those entertainment-fueled behaviors nothing more than concrete evidence of a troubling disconnect between what kids CAN do and ARE doing with technology?

Ferriter’s digital friend, Brad Ovenell-Carter, asked high school students in Vancouver what they’d do with two hours in a tech-loaded room and no assignments to tackle.

While some of Brad’s kids planned to spend their time making videos for the greater good or creating digital art, most figured that Instagramming it, editing themselves into Justin Beiber’s videos or printing 3D images of Harry Styles to take home would be more fun.

He asked if they agreed there’s “a gap between what you CAN and ARE doing.”

One student responded: ”Maybe there is a gap, but perhaps only because we don’t exactly know what is all possible.”

Another said: “I would try and change the world… but I’m not sure how yet.”

Teachers can build start “a bridge between what THEY know about technology and what YOU know about efficient and effective learning,” Ferriter concludes.

It’s the best and worst time to teach

It is the best of times — and the worst of times — to be a teacher, writes Justin Reich on Education Week‘s EdTech Researcher.

In his seventh-grade U.S. History class, students had a textbook and a primary source reader with 20 documents, Reich writes.

Today, a history teacher can choose from the millions of documents archived online by thousands of libraries and archives around the world, including not just texts but images, audio recordings, film clips, and ephemera.

Students can create “multimedia performances of their understanding” and “share their work with peers and audiences around the world.”

It has never been easier for educators to connect with one another, to share best practices, to see best practices from around the country or around the globe, and to connect across schools with teachers who share our subjects, or our interests, or our peculiar circumstances. Never before has the fraternity of teachers been more connected.

Yet teacher “morale is at a 20 year nadir”  as “narrow content standards and high-stakes testing pushes ever more teachers towards an ever narrower, test-focused curriculum,” Reich writes.

Audrey Watters’ annual review of trends in education technology lamented that “technology — like schooling — is something we do TO kids.”

“So, we face a moment where technology dramatically widens the scope of educational feasibility while policy dramatically narrows the scope of classroom possibility,” concludes Reich.

Asians dominate Silicon Valley jobs

Asian-Americans hold half of tech jobs in Silicon Valley, according to an analysis of Census data by the San Jose Mercury News. Asian tech workers grew from 39 percent in 2000 to 50.1 percent in 2010, while white workers, once a majority, are now 41 percent of the Bay Area’s high-tech workforce.

The dramatic shift in the changing composition of the high-tech workforce represents a new generation of homegrown and imported workers drilled in science, technology, engineering and math studies. But the shift in workplace demographics — at least among tech companies — fails to reflect the gains of California’s Hispanic and Latino population, which lost ground in tech jobs along with African-Americans.

The “failure of STEM education” has created a “crisis,” writes Dane Stangler in Inc. CEOs can’t find skilled workers because young people aren’t learning science and math well enough to learn technical jobs or succeed in STEM majors. And there’s not much economic opportunity for young people who can’t use math or understand science.

Teachers: Technology cuts attention spans

Diverted and distracted by technology, students can’t focus or persevere, say teachers in two new surveys.

In a Pew Internet Project survey, nearly 90 percent of teachers said digital technologies are creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  Although the Internet helps students develop better research skills, teachers said, 64 felt technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

Seventy-three percent of teachers said entertainment media has cut students’ attention spans, according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit. A majority said it hurt students’ writing and speaking skills.

“Distraction” could be seen as a judgment call, Pew’s Kristen Purcell told the New York Times. Some teachers think education “must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn.”

But teachers worry about that too, the Times reports.

“I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said Hope Molina-Porter, 37, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., who has taught for 14 years. She teaches accelerated students, but has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of their written work.

She said she did not want to shrink from the challenge of engaging them, nor did other teachers interviewed, but she also worried that technology was causing a deeper shift in how students learned. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.

“Are we contributing to this?” Ms. Molina-Porter said. “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”

Both younger and older teachers worried about technology’s impact on their students’ learning.

It’s not likely students have lost the ability to focus, responds cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. But flashy technology with immediate rewards may have eroded students’ willingness to focus on mundane tasks.

Kids learn early that very little effort can bring a big payoff, he writes.

When a toddler is given a toy that puts on a dazzling display of light and sound when a button is pushed, we might be teaching him this lesson.

In contrast, the toddler who gets a set of blocks has to put a heck of a lot more effort (and sustained attention) into getting the toy to do something interesting–build a tower, for example, that she can send crashing down.

“It’s hard for me to believe that something as fundamental to cognition as the ability to pay attention can moved around a whole lot,” Willingham writes. “It’s much easier for me to accept that one’s beliefs–beliefs about what is worthy of my attention, beliefs about how much effort I should dispense to tasks–can be moved around, because beliefs are a product of experience.”