Digital Learning

Assessing the Educational Data MovementWhen it comes to using data for education policy and reform, two factions emerge: modern Luddites who fear the mechanization of schooling and tech-savvy number crunchers who tend to believe that data will solve all of education’s woes. This book by IT pro Philip Piety deftly weaves between the factions and offers a valuable read for teachers, administrators, and policymakers looking to work productively with educational data without becoming overwhelmed. Piety divides it into three sections. The first lays out the history of the educational-data “movement” and the current debate surrounding value-added measures and testing. The second discusses best practices in and applications of administrative infrastructures—which include data systems about teaching methods and students. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) program created a powerful research tool and a nexus of information crucial to federal, state, and local policy goals. The third examines how data can be helpful to the “technical core”—that is, students, teachers, materials, and classrooms. Even more helpful, the author showcases how Teach For America and KIPP use metrics innovatively to, among other things, improve instruction.

SOURCE: Philip J. Piety, Assessing the Educational Data Movement (New York, NY: Teachers College, Colombia University, 2013)....

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After a sandstorm of education bills swept through the last few weeks of the Lone Star State's eighty-third legislative session, the dust cleared to reveal the passage of five major education bills:

  1. HB 5 rolls back the number of required end-of-course exams from fifteen to five and creates two high school diploma tracks
  2. SB 2 expands the state’s charter school system, increasing the state cap on charter school contracts from 215 to 305 over the next six years
  3. HB 866 will allow students in grades 3–8 who score well in either the third or fifth grade to be excused from certain standardized tests (this one requires federal approval)
  4. HB 2836 limits the number of “benchmark” exams districts can administer in grades 3–8 and orders that the state’s curricular standards be studied by a mandated commission
  5. HB 1926 requires that all districts, beginning in middle school, offer students the option of taking online courses (setting the limit at three per student, per year) and opens the virtual-education market to nonprofits and private companies, to be authorized by the Texas Education Agency

The big battle that was won: As Greg Richmond of NACSA reports, SB 2 is quality legislation that promotes both growth and accountability; in addition to raising the cap on charter contracts, it strengthens the application process and creates a default closure mechanism for failed schools. The big battle that was lost: HB 5 is a major setback. As Checker Finn warned when the...

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Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation last week that places a one-year moratorium on new virtual charter schools outside Chicago and directs a state commission to study the effects and costs of virtual charters. These actions were clearly responses to suburban districts’ angst over the growing presence of K12 Inc. Relatedly, we’re sure that local bookstores favor blocking Amazon.com so that we might “better evaluate and understand” its impact. Is that next up?

Now in its fifth year, Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland—Ohio’s only charter school exclusively serving gifted children—is a haven for over 300 students, drawing K–8 youngsters from forty school districts in and beyond the Cleveland metro area. It's also the subject of a profile by award-winning journalist Ellen Belcher. To read more, visit the Ohio Gadfly Daily.

And now, from Nevada, a riddle about poor school-funding policy: What do you get when you add the third-largest fraction of English-language learner (ELL) students in the nation (a full fifth of Nevada’s 2010–11 student population) to a school-funding formula that doesn’t allot districts any extra state cash to educate said youngsters? Answer: Only 29 percent of the state’s ELL students in the graduating class of 2010–11 made it across the stage with their cohort. Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor of Nevada, has proposed $50 million over two years to go towards ELL programs; the state’s Senate majority leader has countered with $140 million. While money alone won’t solve Nevada’s achievement woes, extra...

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Blended learning: It’s the talk of the town and perceived favorably, but it hasn’t found widespread use…yet. Fordham’s May 2013 publication Half Empty Half Full: Superintendents’ Views on Ohio’s Education Reform surveyed 344 of Ohio’s 614 district superintendents: 59 percent of superintendents thought that blended learning would lead to “fundamental improvement.” However, despite the vocal support for blended learning, few superintendents (a mere 5 percent) report that it has achieved “widespread” use in their school district. In fact, 31 percent of superintendents reported that blended learning was of “limited or no use” in their district.

Blended learning refers to an instructional model that mixes virtual education with traditional face-to-face instruction. The model can vary depending on what instructional model the teacher chooses to implement. (Heather Staker and Michael B. Horn, Classifying K-12 Blended Learning, identify four blended learning models.)  

Who are the most laggardly of the laggards in terms of using blended learning? It seems, as might be expected, that superintendents of rural districts are the most likely to report little to no use of blended learning. And, importantly, it’s not on account of attitudinal resistance to blended learning from these rural school leaders.

Chart 1 shows that rural superintendents view blended learning favorably—as favorably as their peers in larger, more urban districts. Sixty-one percent of rural superintendents view blended learning favorably, a percentage that mirrors that of urban (61 percent) and suburban superintendents (66 percent), and is considerably higher than small town superintendents (45 percent). 

Chart...

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Blended learning: It’s the talk of the town and perceived favorably, but it hasn’t found widespread use…yet. Fordham’s May 2013 publication Half Empty Half Full: Superintendents’ Views on Ohio’s Education Reform surveyed 344 of Ohio’s 614 district superintendents: 59 percent of superintendents thought that blended learning would lead to “fundamental improvement.” However, despite the vocal support for blended learning, few superintendents (a mere 5 percent) report that it has achieved “widespread” use in their school district. In fact, 31 percent of superintendents reported that blended learning was of “limited or no use” in their district.

(Blended learning refers to an instructional model that mixes virtual education with traditional face-to-face instruction. The model can vary depending on what instructional model the teacher chooses to implement. Heather Staker and Michael B. Horn, Classifying K-12 Blended Learning, identify four blended learning models.)  

Who are the most laggardly of the laggards in terms of using blended learning? It seems, as might be expected, that superintendents of rural districts are the most likely to report little to no use of blended learning. And, importantly, it’s not on account of attitudinal resistance to blended learning from these rural school leaders.

Chart 1 shows that rural superintendents view blended learning favorably—as favorably as their peers in larger, more urban districts. Sixty-one percent of rural superintendents view blended learning favorably, a percentage that mirrors that of urban (61 percent) and suburban superintendents (66 percent), and is considerably higher than small town superintendents (45 percent). 

Chart...

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GadflyThe D.C. charter board has rejected the application for the proposed One World Public Charter School, whose high-status organizers include a former Sidwell Friends principal—due in part to “multiple grammatical and spelling errors” in the application. The board also rejected six other applications while okaying just two: a Montessori elementary and an adult-education program, both of which had been turned down in previous years and came back with stronger applications. Hat tip to the D.C. charter board for showing us how quality authorizing is done.

The online-education provider Khan Academy—with a little help from a $2.2 million Helmsley grant—has announced a plan to develop online, Common Core–aligned math tools for teachers and students. Hat tip number two!

After a bit of competition from within the ranks, the always-controversial Karen Lewis has been reelected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union. You get the champagne, we’ll get the party hats, and CTU will break out the celebratory lawsuits.

On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that three more states—Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia—will be granted NCLB waivers, bringing the tally to thirty-seven. This is another win for Hawaii, which (finally) eked out a teacher-contract deal just last month—and which just might get to keep its Race to the Top dollars, too. In the meantime, seven states remain in “waiver...

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How Blended Learning Can Improve the Teaching ProfessionTaking a page from Public Impact’s "Opportunity Culture” playbook, this paper from Digital Learning Now! (the seventh in its “Smart Series”) argues that blended learning will help improve teacher satisfaction and reinvigorate the profession. Both are surely good things when one considers current teacher-satisfaction rates—which have dropped substantially over the past few years. The DLN/Public Impact team argues that blended learning allows for improved working conditions (with more opportunities for collaboration), more tailored professional development, more varied career advancement, and professional flexibility (including the ability to teach remotely). To be sure, the authors do not make a convincing case for heightened teacher satisfaction through all of their suggestions, such as why teachers would intrinsically support increased class sizes (in order to make the technology affordable). However, most recommendations make good educational sense. Profiles of schools (mostly charters) that have utilized blended learning to increase teacher effectiveness and streamline teacher workload speckle the text, reminding us that blended learning is about leveraging technology, not replacing teachers.

SOURCE: John Bailey, Bryan Hassel, Emily Ayscue Hassel, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, How Blended Learning Can Improve The Teaching Profession (Tallahassee, FL: Foundation for Excellence in Education, May 2013)....

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A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.

Due in large part to this report, we now judge a school by whether its students are learning rather than how much money is going into it, what its programs look like, or its earnest intentions. Education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability and benchmarking—by school, district, state and nation. This is new since 1983 and it’s very important.

Yet we still have many miles to traverse before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more and our schools need to become far more effective.

To recall the impact of A Nation at Risk these past three decades and to reflect on what lies ahead, watch this short retrospective developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute: A Nation at Risk: Thirty Years Later.

This sixth paper in the Digital Learning Now! “Smart Series” details how archaic education-financing structures represent a fundamental barrier to innovation (whether that be digital learning or faithful implementation of rigorous standards) in today’s K–12 sector—and sets forth four “design principles” for a modern funding structure. None of these recommendations for restructuring school funding is new (indeed, they’re largely built off work Fordham produced in 2006), but they’re worthy all the same: To allow innovation to take hold, funding must be weighted, flexible, and portable. It also must be based on performance, the authors argue. (A good idea—though one challenging to implement.) This paper provides a solid primer on all four—including tangible examples of states and districts that have made these changes. San Francisco, for example, rolled out a weighted-student funding system in 2002 that provides dollars to schools based on student grade level, socioeconomic status, special needs, and English language proficiency. Each school is then responsible for creating a budget tailored to its specific needs, with the central office in charge of training and monitoring schools. Yet another helpful DLN paper, chockablock with smart, actionable policy recommendations.

SOURCE: John Bailey, Carrie Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, Funding Students, Options, and Achievement (Tallahassee, FL: Foundation for Excellence in Education, April 2013)....

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Kudos to the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Digital Learning Now! team: Its new fifty-state analysis of digital-learning policies offers a comprehensive, navigable, and timely look at the state-policy landscape for digital and blended education. The report scores each state’s policies against DLN’s ten “elements of high-quality digital learning” (including student access, funding, and quality choices), measured by the group’s thirty-nine underlying “metrics,” or policy criterion by which states are officially scored. Under “funding,” for example, is the metric “funding is provided on a fractional, per course basis to pay providers for individual online courses.” Overall, Utah comes out on top, garnering the lone A-minus. Another five states—Florida, Minnesota, Georgia, Virginia, and Kansas—earn Bs. Twenty-one states register Fs. The report doesn’t simply shame those with inadequate digital-learning policies, though. It provides numerous best-practice cases of states that passed quality digital-education legislation in 2012, including Georgia, Louisiana, and Rhode Island. And through its interactive web module, the report articulates state-specific recommendations. Most importantly, it stresses the need to ensure the quality of digital instruction through state policy—even though it stumbles a bit over how to define or ensure that quality. (According to the report, forty-four states have “quality content” for digital courses, which they define as content “aligned to state standards or the Common Core.” But it makes no mention of who determines or verifies that alignment—or if it is done at all.) Still and all, there’s much value here for everyone engaged in state-level policy for digital learning.

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