Digital Learning

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, is no friend of charter schools. He’s been clear, for instance, that if he steps foot in City Hall, Bloomberg’s policy of not charging them rent would be stopped and frisked. In response, 17,000 parents, students, and teachers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday in support of charter schools and Bloomberg’s education policies. For a particularly good summary of the issue, take a look at Daniel Henninger’s piece in the Wall Street Journal. For our analysis, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

North Carolina and Los Angeles have both encountered problems with their high-profile tablets-for-students programs. In North Carolina, around 10 percent of the 15,000 devices distributed have reportedly been defective, leading the state to suspend the program. And in L.A., some enterprising students managed to hack the tablets’ security filters (score for teenage resourcefulness—send them all to programming class!), leading officials to disallow taking the tablets off-campus—and boding ill for the program’s future after the school board reviews it later this month....

The hacker edition

In this week’s podcast, Mike and Brickman talk tablet woes (and praise teenage hackers for their healthy disrespect for authority), charter support in NYC, and the research on voucher effectiveness. Amber tells us about PISA for geezers.

Amber's Research Minute

OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills by OECD (OECD Publishing, 2013).

Like many, I first became aware of Sal Khan and his Khan Academy when I watched his 2011 TED Talk and was blown away. I immediately jumped onto the site to begin trying practice problems and watching videos in mathematics, the financial crisis, and history. What wowed me most about the site, however, were not Sal's video lessons. Many of those are good and quite informative and instructionally sound as far as they go, but they are also sometimes kind of rudimentary and not always super engaging.

What I loved more was how the site tracked and encouraged student growth and then allowed teachers to monitor that progress. The potential seemed huge for use in traditional or flipped classrooms, yet Khan Academy was offering it all for free.

Since 2011, Khan Academy has grown by leaps and bounds—and seems to have gotten better, too. It's expanded its badging features (more on badges here) to reward students not only for mastering specific knowledge or progressing through lessons but also for being persistent or helpful to others through the site's rich coaching tools. The site also recently added a version in Spanish. Khan’s lessons are now part of multiple pilot...

If you were surfing the web in mid-2004, you were almost certainly using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to do it. Despite frequent concerns over its security, stability, and speed, this single tool for viewing content online was then used by more than 95 percent of Americans using the internet.

Shortly thereafter, and with the help of a crowd-funded, full-page ad in the New York Times, a small non-profit named Mozilla quickly began to erode Microsoft's market share with its new, open-source Firefox browser. Today, even though Internet Explorer remains the default software on the still-ubiquitous Windows operating system for personal computers, only about one in four web users browse with it, while many millions now use Firefox along with Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.

Today, Mozilla is undertaking a new challenge that, along with other recent technology-driven trends, has the potential to radically transform how Americans get educated and find work. The project is called Open Badges, and it might someday replace the résumé, the job search, and even education as we know it.

Classrooms are but one of many settings in which learning occurs, but demonstrating the sum total of what you know and what you can do on a college...

Note: This post is part of our Netflix Academy series. See background, and links to other educational videos worth streaming, here.

I love the dinosaur stage. Love, love, love. And when your child is ready to graduate from Dinosaur Train and take in some lifelike depictions of prehistoric monsters, this is where to start.

Walking with Dinosaurs is hard to beat, as are its cousins, Walking with Monsters (pre-dinosaur animals) and Walking with Beasts (post-dinosaur). The entire Walking series has a great narrative and is dominated by lifelike scenes of animals in action. The rest of these shows focus more on modern-day paleontologists—a great window into science but a tougher sell for short attention spans.

If I’ve missed something good that’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime, please let me know in the comments section.

Best dinosaur videos available for streaming

1. Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs

Using cutting-edge computer-generated imagery, this Emmy Award–winning series brings to life the Cretaceous, Triassic, and Jurassic periods, focusing on individual dinosaurs, or dinosaur families, to show the ever-changing Earth through their eyes.

Length:...

The rapid gentrification of many large American cities represents a triumph and an opportunity for Republicans—a triumph because it was mainly Republican ideas (welfare reform, aggressive crime-fighting tactics, pro-growth policies) that set the trend in motion, and an opportunity because the wealthier and (frankly) whiter new residents are more likely to vote for the GOP.

Cities are for strivers

Yet a natural Republican constituency—parents with children—continues to exit cities once their kids reach school age. This is bad for Republicans, to be sure, but it’s also bad for cities, as much capital—human, social, and financial—decamps for the suburbs and beyond.

So why are twenty-something, single city-dwellers turning into thirty- and forty-something, suburban moms and dads? It’s education, stupid: the paucity of high-quality urban public schools.

Some hope that current education-reform efforts—raising standards, holding teachers accountable, and creating more charter schools—could help persuade these parents to keep the faith with big cities. And they might, at the margins. But most of these efforts don’t address the fundamental challenge that urban schools face: the diversity of their student population.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean racial or ethnic diversity, which is a huge plus for everybody—the students, the parents, and society at large. Nor is it exactly socioeconomic diversity. The big challenge is academic diversity: Students are coming into school with vastly different levels of academic preparation. Finding a way to make sure that everyone gets what they need—including affluent children, who will tend to come in far ahead of their peers—is no easy trick. If you’re a Kindergarten teacher and some of your students are already reading Harry Potter while others don’t even know their letters, how on earth do you handle that?

Yet the typical liberal response to perplexed professional parents who worry about whether their children will be challenged? “Tough luck.” They sneer at “gifted-and-talented” programs, which they view as inherently elitist and inequitable; they deplore “selective-admissions” schools, like Stuyvesant; and they pore over charter school data for any signs of “skimming” the best and brightest.

The left’s leveling impulses, then, practically beg parents of means to choose private schools or pack their bags for the ‘burbs. But this approach is also problematic for the poor—in particular, “striving” families and their children who want to defy the odds and use academic excellence as a springboard to the middle class. Note the derision shown to the Success Academies, for instance—a non-profit network of Gotham charter schools that’s getting remarkable results with a mostly low-income student population. Rather than applauding Eva Moskowitz’s plans to expand to one hundred schools citywide, they work at every turn to slow her down.

The urban left’s brand of “equity” is perverse. It focuses on equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. It rejects the notion that fairness demands every child to be challenged, to learn something new each day, to fulfill his or her own potential. And it pretends that pushing ambitious students to the suburbs is somehow a more equitable outcome than providing city schools that serve their needs.

All of this offers an opening for the right, and for Republicans, who should become the Party of Strivers, as David Brooks argues. Brooks wrote in another column that we should figure out “what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?”

Here’s what: Republicans in general, and urban Republicans in particular, should call for the expansion of gifted-and-talented programs while maintaining tough, but fair, entrance requirements; charter schools that embrace a college-prep, high-expectations, no-excuses culture; selective-admission magnet schools that allow our most academically prepared students to push one another; and merit-based scholarships at flagship public universities.

Parents of high-achieving students—whether they be rich or poor, newcomers or old-timers—deserve schools that will challenge their children. If they don’t find them in the city, they will move. It’s up to Republicans to offer another alternative.

This piece originally appeared in slightly different form on the Manhattan Institute’s Public Sector Inc.

The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time draws closer for Congress to focus on reauthorizing the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the New York Times did a decent job of profiling the difference that it has made, particularly its emphasis on randomized studies—i.e. research based on clinical trials that test, for example, whether particular education textbooks or technologies are more effective than others. One disappointment? Most educators have no idea the data exist.

Amanda Ripley delivers a familiar admonishment to a new generation of Americans: The (mediocre) schools we have are the schools we deserve. In her first—and quite excellent—book on education, Ripley skillfully communicates this message through the experiences of teenaged U.S. exchange students inserted into three countries—Finland, South Korea, and Poland—for one year. All three countries have made recent leaps and bounds in educational achievement, and all three approach education in different ways: Finland’s “Utopia” model relies on highly trained, autonomous teachers and effective school choice. South Korea’s “Pressure Cooker” approach demands hard work in an ultra-competitive environment. And Poland’s “Metamorphosis,” which began in the late 1990s, focuses on rigor; accountability; high expectations; and district, school, and classroom autonomy. So with her veteran-journalist cap firmly in place, the author visits each of the three students in their host countries to compare their experiences—and perhaps gain insight as to why American students have lost ground. According to Ripley, American culture is a root cause of our education failings, including what parents want in a school, what kids learn at home, or officials’ unwillingness (or inability) to change teacher training, accountability systems, and curriculum. For instance, unlike the Finnish, we shield our children from failure and we don’t train our teachers like we train doctors, with ultra-selective schools, challenging graduate programs, and commensurate pay. And unlike all three of the nations featured, we lack a sense of urgency and the conviction that effective, rigorous education is the only thing that can prevent us from falling further behind in the global economy. Ripley’s message may not be new, but she imparts it with uncommon freshness, objectivity, and verve.

SOURCE: Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013).

The future is competency-based learning, according to this new, almost hour-long audio documentary from American RadioWorks—and that future is upon us. For generations, wealthy parents in the U.S. and abroad have employed private tutors to deliver individualized instruction to their children, thus recognizing and acting upon a truth long ignored by our school system: Not all children learn at the same pace or in the same way. In the past, tutoring has proved difficult to scale. But the creators of this documentary hail the Carpe Diem campus in Indianapolis and Moorseville Middle School in Moorseville, NC, for cracking the code with the use of modern education technology. Moorseville has a well-implemented “one-to-one” laptop initiative that seems to have played a role in the district’s complete elimination of a sizable gap in the high school graduation rates of its white and black students. The Carpe Diem schools have found a formula for student success in a more radical shift, largely replacing traditional classroom learning with computer labs and project-based group learning. Both Carpe Diem and Moorseville traded larger class sizes for fewer, more committed teachers, empowered to focus on individual students rather than providing basic instruction or grading simple assignments—most of which is done by technology, which also tracks student progress and allows students to learn at their own pace. The documentary makers remind us that technology is only as good as its utilization. The same might be said of competency-based learning. Nevertheless, a system that allows teachers to teach and students to work at their own levels of ability and prior achievement is surely promising.

SOURCE: Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith, “One Child at a Time,” American RadioWorks, American Public Media, August 2013.

When it comes time to pick a career path, young Americans certainly don’t perceive teaching to be the fairest of them all—in any sense of the term. This new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership emphasizes how pension systems are especially unfair toward young teachers and examines the effects of two cost-neutral pension reforms on teacher compensation for the ten largest U.S. public school districts. The first reform is switching from the traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension system, under which teachers accumulate little retirement wealth until later in their careers, to a “cash-balance” plan, which allows employees to accrue retirement compensation smoothly over their careers. The second reform—the “cost-equivalent” reform—decreases the share of teachers’ salaries devoted to retirement savings so that it matches the private-sector average, moving the difference into take-home salary. The authors concede that traditional DB pension systems do offer teachers the possibility of more retirement money. In most districts, however, that higher amount for a few comes at a cost to a great majority: The loss to teachers who choose to leave the profession after less than three decades exceeds the gains to those who remain. Indeed, the system is constructed on the assumption that many will drop out prior to receiving full benefits. That’s clearly off-putting to smart young folks considering taking up teaching, which means it’s also bad for teacher quality. The report’s recommendations do not address the elephant in the room—namely the huge unfunded pension liabilities that already face most school systems (and their states). But the recommendations are sound and provocative as far as they go. Modeling the teacher-compensation system after private-sector compensation systems is common sensical—and fairer overall.

SOURCE: Josh McGee and Marcus A. Winters, Better Pay, Fairer Pensions: Reforming Teacher Compensation, Center for State and Local Leadership, Civic Report No. 79 (New York, NY: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, September 2013).

Mike and Michelle join the WaPo in decrying the DOJ’s anti-voucher antics and debate who’s worse: private school parents or those who settle for failing schools. With Amber off saying “I do,” Dara takes over the research minute with a tale of unfair teacher-pension policies.

Growing numbers of parents, educators, and school administrators are calling for a local "opt-out" from state tests and accountability systems.

Is this opt-out a cop-out? Or would students benefit from a system that their own teachers and principals devised? Should all schools be offered an opt-out alternative, one in which they propose to be held accountable to a different set of measures? What about opt-outs for high-achieving schools or schools with good reason to be different? Would such a system move us toward or away from the goals of the Common Core? As for charter schools, must they continue to be tethered to uniform statewide accountability systems? Or should we rekindle the concept of customizing each school's charter and performance expectations?

The future is competency-based learning, according to this new, almost hour-long audio documentary from American RadioWorks—and that future is upon us. For generations, wealthy parents in the U.S. and abroad have employed private tutors to deliver individualized instruction to their children, thus recognizing and acting upon a truth long ignored by our school system: Not all children learn at the same pace or in the same way. In the past, tutoring has proved difficult to scale. But the creators of this documentary hail the Carpe Diem campus in Indianapolis and Moorseville Middle School in Moorseville, NC, for cracking the code with the use of modern education technology. Moorseville has a well-implemented “one-to-one” laptop initiative that seems to have played a role in the district’s complete elimination of a sizable gap in the high school graduation rates of its white and black students. The Carpe Diem schools have found a formula for student success in a more radical shift, largely replacing traditional classroom learning with computer labs and project-based group learning. Both Carpe Diem and Moorseville traded larger class sizes for fewer, more committed teachers, empowered to focus on individual students rather than providing basic instruction or grading simple...

Want to turn TV time into learning time? As I explain in greater detail below, free streaming videos from services like Netflix and Amazon are a boon to parents committed to a well-rounded education for their children—and not opposed to a little screen time on occasion.

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For the past several months I’ve been curating the best kid-friendly movies and shows available on major educational topics. Check them out and let me know what you think. (If there’s no link, it means that topic is still coming.)

Science

  1. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals
  2. Fish and other aquatic animals
  3. Insects
  4. Frogs and other amphibians
  5. Reptiles
  6. Birds
  7. Mammals
  8. Human evolution
  9. Earthquakes and volcanos
  10. Outer space
  11. Systems of the human body

Literature

  1. Classic children's books (movie adaptations)
  2. American folk heroes

U.S. History

  1. Native American cultures
  2. Age of exploration and discovery of America
  3. Colonial America and the revolutionary war
  4. George Washington and other founders
  5. Lewis &
  6. ...

A Chicago public school and public library will begin to share space on Thursday, breaking ground for a new “library-within-a-school” model that may be “copied and mimicked all across the city,” according to an enthusiastic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Windy City’s schools and libraries have both seen financial troubles in the last couple of years. Library Commissioner Brian Bannon has clarified that proliferation of this model would be about “reducing storefront and leased space” and possibly result in moving libraries, not closing libraries. Gadfly likes efficiency and books—so hat tip!

The school-funding crisis in Philadelphia has reached the boiling point: After Superintendent William Hite issued an ultimatum stating that schools may not open in time if the district does not receive at least $50 million more in funding by Friday, August 16th, Mayor Michael Nutter announced that it would borrow the cash, apparently obviating that eventuality. Now that the district will be able to re-hire some laid-off staff members, the School Reform Commission—Philadelphia’s appointed school board—will vote on whether to suspend portions of state law to grant Hite the flexibility to re-hire for reasons other than seniority. The...

This summer in Ohio has been oppressively hot and (for some reason) rainy. So for those who want to stay cool in the AC, or are looking for beach reading, here are several timely and insightful pieces that relate to education. Read on for our review of these reports and articles, and click on the links to access the entire article! -Angel Gonzalez

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Are Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs?

Aaron Churchill

We’ve seen the reports: the 22-year old, newly-minted college graduate—steeped in debt—who’s working at the corner coffee shop. But are these anecdotal reports worst case scenarios or are do they illustrate an emerging trend for college grads?  In a few charts, Richard Deitz from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York looks at what the U.S. Census Bureau and Labor Statistics data say about recent graduates and their employment. Deitz shows that while unemployment rates for recent grads are at a 25-year high, the unemployment rate of recent graduates (roughly 6 percent) remains lower than that of the general working-age population (8 percent).  Now, when it comes to underemployment, recent graduates are in dire straits, depending on their major. Nearly half (46 percent)...

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