U.S. Education: A Fallen Champion

In the academic race, we once reigned supreme. Now chasing the coattails of other countries, America currently ranks 15th, 23rd and 31st in reading, science and math respectively. In a CNN primetime special, Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education, Fareed Zakaria investigates our failing education system.

Zakaria discusses just how lacking the current state of US education is by illuminating the successful attributes of current leading academic systems—South Korea and Finland. In South Korea the school day lasts from eight a.m. to four p.m. Their academic calendar consists of two hundred and five school days. This scheduling provides South Korean students with almost two more years of schooling than American students receive in their academic career.

In contrast, Finland finds that success begins and ends with their teachers. When teaching is a greatly respected and desired profession, as is the case in Finland, teachers are held to a higher standard and a higher quality of teaching results. Focusing on this latter aspect, Zakaria discusses the quality of teachers in America with Bill Gates.

“If I was in charge of a school district, it [education structure reform] would be about hiring the best teachers,” states Bill Gates.  Proud receiver of a three-year grant on the efficacy of personalized learning platforms from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, MetaMetrics aligns with Gates’ call of action to improve teaching. In this CNN interview Gates continues, “One study says that if students had a top teacher for four years straight, the achievement gap between blacks and whites would disappear.”

 Gates’ makes a compelling argument that the cultivation of great teaching is undeniably necessary for the United States to regain leadership in the academic world. We applaud The Gates Foundation and their colossal efforts in fixing education.

Improving teaching is just one highlight of Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education. An informative broadcast; we encourage everyone to check out this CNN Special as Zakaria sheds light on America’s current education state and reformation process.

A “Road Map for Kansas”

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback held a Literacy Summit this month to discuss his “Road Map for Kansas” and establish three measurable literacy objectives for said roadmap.  Based on NAEP data, Governor Brownback proposed the following three measurable literacy objectives:

1)  Kansas 4th grade students will have a 9% increase on their state reading assessment scores in 2013, meeting Kansas’ current goal of having 95% of students qualify to “Meets Standard” status.

2) For average 4th grade reading scores in 2014, Kansas will be in the top 5 states for highest scores.

3) For average 4th grade reading scores in 2018, Kansas will rank number 1. According to previous data, this boost in ranking would require an increase of 14 points on Kansas NAEP scores. 

Among the literacy experts and educators that were invited to Kansas’ Governor Brownback’s December 7th Literacy Summit include President of Literacy First, Bill Blokker, Director of the University of Kansas Center for Research, Don Deshler, Education Specialist for Save the Children, Cara Schrack, and our own MetaMetrics’ President and Co-founder, Malbert Smith. Malbert discussed the research concerning summer loss in reading and the need to address it.  In addition to summarizing the research, Dr. Smith shared strategies and tools, such as Find-A Book, that states and districts can employ to reduce summer loss.

Governor Brownback concluded that, “This summit was a great opportunity to meet with educational leaders and stakeholders to discuss the challenges we face and the solutions we seek.”  We applaud Kansas on their effort to make student literacy a top priority.

Khan Academy in the Classroom

We’ve written before on the efforts of Khan Academy – a free, online classroom that is available to anyone with an Internet connection.  Khan Academy offers thousands of video lessons on everything from specific mathematical concepts to explanations of the mortgage loan crisis.  Because Khan’s videos are easily accessible, students (and parents) are able to take advantage of its ‘always-on’ access to review videos in their own time. 

Khan’s work has gotten the notice of educators across the US and a number of Foundations and educational organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are looking to capitalize on Khan’s approach to individualizing education:

Each student’s math journey shows up instantly on the laptop Mr. Roe carries as he wanders the room. He stops at each desk, cajoles, offers tips, reassures. For an hour, this crowded, dimly lighted classroom in the hardscrabble shadow of Silicon Valley hums with the sound of fingers clicking on keyboards, pencils scratching on paper and an occasional whoop when a student scores a streak of right answers.

The software program unleashed in this classroom is the brainchild of Salman Khan, an Ivy League-trained math whiz and the son of an immigrant single mother. Mr. Khan, 35, has become something of an online sensation with his Khan Academy math and science lessons on YouTube, which has attracted up to 3.5 million viewers a month.

Now he wants to weave those digital lessons into the fabric of the school curriculum — a more ambitious and as yet untested proposition.

This semester, at least 36 schools nationwide are trying out Mr. Khan’s experiment: splitting up the work of teaching between man and machine, and combining teacher-led lessons with computer-based lectures and exercises

The most promising aspect of Khan’s work is that it harnesses technology to promote individualized instruction.  We’ve written before on the importance of blending technology platforms with instructor interaction to promote differentiation, or even individualization for each student.  By providing a platform that monitors each student’s progress and then responds with more instruction for students who are not ready to move on or with new concepts for those that are, Khan is upending the more traditional assembly-line model of the classroom, allowing teachers to monitor student progress and respond to struggling learners, while allowing proficient students to move forward.

Not it appears that Khan is getting the chance to put his model to the test at larger sites and with more classrooms:

In the past, math class at the Summit schools was always hands-on: the class worked on a problem, usually in small groups, sometimes for days at a time. But getting an entire class of ninth graders to master the fundamentals of math was never easy. Without those, the higher-level conceptual exercises were impossible.

That is where the machine came in handy. The Khan software offered students a new, engaging way to learn the basics.

Ms. Tavenner says she believes that computers cannot replace teachers. But the computer, she recognizes, can do some things a teacher cannot. It can offer personal feedback to a whole room of students as they work. And it can give the teacher additional class time to do more creative and customized teaching.

“Combining Khan with that kind of teaching will produce the best kind of math,” she argued. “Teachers are more effective because they have a window into the student’s mind.”

Khan’s efforts are worth noting.  Khan’s work is inspiring and is likely just the beginning of the work that can be done with virtual classrooms.  We’ve incorporated Khan’s work into our own tools on the Quantile Framework for Mathematics website.  In Math at Home, for example, students can select textbook chapters and lessons and search for supplemental material by which to review their primary lessons.  In many cases, they will find a variety of Khan videos available to help review core skills and concepts.  If you haven’t already, be sure to take a look.

Expecting Success

Writing in the latest issue of Kappan, Robert Maranto and James Shuls (subscription required) argue that KIPP schools, particularly in the Arkansas Delta region, have been undeniably successful in educating students and preparing them for college.  They contend that KIPP’s success is a result of a few key ingredients: explicitly defining the mission, hiring the right teachers for the mission, paying specific attention to classroom routine and management.  All KIPP hires are trained in maintaining the focus on instruction and learning and they all use the same cues and practices to address discipline problems.

In addition to a strong committment to classroom management, KIPP teachers work continually to create a culture of learning  – a culture that emphasizes the academic mission of getting each student to and through college.  I had the privilege of attending the KIPP ELA/Humanities Summit this past weekend in Austin, Texas and even got a chance to visit classrooms at KIPP Austin.   While the summit was stimulating, the real inspiration came in visiting the active classrooms at KIPP Austin.  A few observations worth sharing:  .

  • The culture of college preparedness permeates all aspects of KIPP: The halls and classrooms throughout the school are filled with college pennants.  And almost every classroom contained the teacher’s college degree in a frame above the desk.
  • Each classroom has signs that reiterate core KIPP values.  In particular, I noticed signs in most every room encouraging personal responsibility, indicating only interest in things that students can control.  The school motto, ‘Work hard. Be Nice’ is also displayed prominently in every classroom.  There are also signs discouraging the use of the phrase, ‘I don’t know’ and urging it to be replaced with statements like, “I need more information’.
  • The teachers speak to students constantly about what they can expect in college, using phrases like, ‘at the university…’ ‘in college you will be expected…’  Teachers also speak openly about their own experience in college.
  • Classroom management appears to be systematized across the entire school and classroom expectations are made very clear.  Teachers maintain control over behavior the entire class period.
  • They use phrases like:
    • “Miguel is speaking, all eyes are tracking Miguel”
    • “With a college-prep hand, Miguel is about to speak”
    • “All eyes are tracking me on 3-2-1-…”
    • Many of the students use standardized hand signals: thumbs-up to signal agreement, waving hands to signal passionate agreement.
    • To encourage classroom participation, teachers often use phrases like “I’m only seeing 30% of you answering.  Let’s try again.”  Or, “I want to hear your thoughts, but I can only take two…”
    • Teachers rely heavily on timers to manage time and classroom transitions: “You have 1 minute to move to the rug”.  You have 90 seconds to discuss.  You have 2 minutes to write your response.  And many utilized large, visible timers to constantly keep things moving. 
    • Teachers use student nicknames and other devices to indicate personal knowledge of students. 

What was clear from my visit to KIPP Austin and the time spent at the summit was that KIPP has done an excellent job of explicitly formulating a mission and methodically building a culture in which nothing is taken for granted – every aspect of the culture is built around the idea of sending each student to college.  Classroom management- far from an afterthought to instruction – is a central part of the instructional process and KIPP teachers effortlessly blur the distinction, blending instructional and behavioral expectations. 

For any individual who gets an opportunity to visit a KIPP classroom, it’s worth the time and is an inspiring look at the admirable work being done to ensure that so many low-income students have a chance for success in the post-secondary world.

Digital Learning Day

An important requirement of the Common Core State Standards is that students are able to ‘utilize technology and digital media strategically’.  So kudos to the Alliance for Excellent Education for sponsoring Digital Learning Day:

… a year-long campaign to celebrate bold, creative innovative teachers in classrooms across this nation. These front-line innovators are already embedding digital learning into new instructional practices to ensure that every student leaves the classroom ready for college, career and life success.  We ask you to join with us, as with them, as we launch an unprecedented, collaborative effort to expand innovation into every city, town, school and classroom in America!

 The first national Digital Learning Day is Wednesday, February 1, 2012.  Please join the Alliance and our more than 20 nationally recognized core education partners as we work together to rally support and action to enable digital learning everywhere.

Some classrooms are already focusing their efforts on integrating digital media and technology into instructional practice.  This school in Kentucky, for example, has found a way to ensure that their educators are keeping up with the latest trends in technology and are able to utilize digital resources in their classroom:

What is the purpose of giving each teacher a laptop? As is the case for many other jobs, employees need to be able to work anywhere, including from home. The teachers at Eminence need to be given the opportunity to create awesome lessons using the best technology. In order for them to prepare students to utilize technology, they must become proficient with it first. The ultimate goal is to equip each student with 21st Century skills and to prepare them for their future, be that college or the workforce. It takes a village (a school district) to raise a child, and the Eminence administration gave each teacher another tool to assist in that process.

We applaud the Alliance for drawing attention to the importance of 21st century skills and finding a way to stress the importance of helping educators introduce digital skills into the classroom.

There’s an App for That

Tip of the hat to Scholastic’s Math Hub for pointing to Common Sense Media’s helpful reviews of hundreds of educational apps.  As Math Hub reveals, over 52% of U.S. children have access to a mobile device of some sort (iPads, video iPods, or smartphones) and 29% of parents have reported downloading apps specifically for their children.  Given the size of the market, the availability of educational apps has, predictably, ballooned in size; and there are now literally thousands of apps from which to choose.  The abundance of educational apps is a positive step, but with so much choice parents are bound to be hopelessly confused by such a wide array of possibilities.

Thankfully, Common Sense Media offers detailed reviews for many of the available apps.  The reviews are quite candid and parents will find that Common Sense Media was frank in their assessment of what each app offers – and what they lack.  The reviews not only offer a written description, but also offer the appropriate age range and then rate the games on: educational value, ease of use, violence, sex, language, consumerism, drinking/smoking/drugs, and privacy/safety.  We applaud Common Sense Media for offering an easy way for parents to wade through a vast catalog of choices. 

It’s critical that student instruction extend beyond the school day.  We’ve documented the effects of shortened school days and summer slide across the socio-economic spectrum.  If students are to experience a lesser degree of learning loss, than it is imperative that parents keep students engaged in instructional activities as often as possible.  Educational apps are one way of doing that.  While many may be of questionable educational value, many others offer quality digital instruction in a fun, familiar setting.  Plus, by providing on-demand, easy access, app developers allow students access through the devices that students prefer.  Ultimately, that’s a good thing – anything that reinforces and supplements basic skills is bound to help foster a love of learning.

Digital Promise: Math for Every Student

Tip of the hat to Scholastic’s Math Hub for posting this piece on the state of technology in math education.  Though many math educators report still relying on a basal textbook, many more are employing a variety of digital resources to help reach struggling math students:

On average, math teachers reported spending more than one full class period per week using digital tools or content, and many spent significantly more time utilizing technology. Specifically, among teachers who report using digital content or tools during more then 26% of class time (high digital use), the highest percentages are remedial math teachers and grades 6-8 math teachers. The most commonly used digital tool is interactive whiteboards. Teachers considered interactive whiteboards to be the most important supplemental material in addition to textbooks. This demand for whiteboards is a change from 2008 when interactive whiteboards were not even part of the survey. Math teachers and educators value the “faster reporting” and “detailed student/class information” generated by computer-based programs, features that traditional textbooks and workbooks cannot provide.

What many math educators have discovered is that moving from whole-class instruction to differentiating for struggling students requires going beyond the textbook to solutions that harness technology to adapt and respond to a student’s learning trajectory.  Technology of that sort can take multiple forms, but some important features include the ability to individualize for a student’s needs, provide supplemental resources, and multiple explanations for math skills and concepts.  As many educators now understand, one size does not fit all when it comes to math instruction; and ensuring that students graduate ready for the mathematical demands of the post-secondary world entails matching student math ability to the level of the lesson. 

At MetaMetrics, we’ve attempted to harness technology to supplement and strengthen student math ability through Math at Home.  Math at Home serves as a portal for matching students to targeted math resources across a variety of mediums.  Because each student has a different preferred learning modality, Math at Home offers online resources, video tutorials, skill practice sites, literature guides, games, and hand’s-on activities – a wide variety of resources to keep students engaged in math activity.  But Math at Home is more than a mere portal.  There are plenty of activity portals widely available.  What distinguishes Math at Home from other student portals is the Quantile Framework.  Math at Home uses the student’s Quantile measure to establish the student’s math level.  The list of available resources differs for each student and is based on their Quantile measure, or math level.  Additionally, Math at Home utilizes a large database of textbooks to match students with resources of their choice based on their current textbook lesson, but at their own math level.  If you haven’t already tried it, be sure to take a look.

Minimizing the Digital Divide: Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials Program

As educators and policy makers have attempted to eliminate the achievement gap over the years, one of the well-documented pernicious gaps continues to be the “digital divide”.  In fact, a google search on “digital divide” yields over 4 million hits as of October 12, 2011. While there are several definitions of the term, Wikipedia captures the essence in the following description:

More recently, some have used the term to refer to gaps in broadband network access. The term can mean not only unequal access to computer hardware, but also inequalities between groups of people in the ability to use information technology fully.

Last month, we as a country made a major step in addressing this problem with the joint announcement by the Comcast Corporation, FCC, and District of Columbia Public Schools. This major step is the national roll-out of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which will provide affordable internet access to low income families. At an Internet Essentials launch event, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski assessed the digital divide and the need for affordable broadband. With broadband being essential to the academic success of America’s youth, Chairman Genachowski reflected that “the digital divide is seriously troubling; more troubling now than in the past, because the costs of digital exclusion are rising”. Genachowski continued this sentiment noting, “Students increasingly need to go online to complete their homework assignments.” Chairman Genachowski further remarked on the stark statistics and detrimental nature of the digital divide. He referenced research that shows one-third of all students and most of all low-income students do not have internet access at home.

This lack of resources available due to the digital divide results in a lose-lose situation in education. When faced with this problem, teachers will either assign Internet-based homework or not. Either the students without Internet access at home are hurt, or the students do not learn how to utilize the Internet and do not attain necessary Internet skills. However with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, teachers can escape this lose-lose situation. (more…)

Digital Promise

The Department of Education recently launched Digital Promise, an effort to identify the best in education technology and get it into classrooms across the country:

The National Science Foundation will also be one of the first contributors to the effort, announcing today $15 million in awards to support research on how best to create contemporary, digital learning environments.

“The projects within the NSF portfolio for cyberlearning stand to demonstrate and promote learning technology, to transform our schools and to enhance our lives,” said Farnam Jahanian of the NSF’s directorate for computer and information science and engineering.

It’s good to see so much effort go toward recognizing the innovative ways technology can be put to use in the educational sphere.  In addition to a host of other benefits, like reduced cost and more efficient content delivery, applying technology in the classroom helps educators accomplish two other critical goals: individualizing instruction and extending instructional time.  We’ve written quite a bit on Oasis, a personalized learning platform that allows students the opportunity to practice writing at a targeted level, read text targeted to their reading level, and even engage in vocabulary activities.  Oasis is built around the idea that targeted practice, when distributed over time, can help improve a student’s reading and writing ability.  Best of all, because Oasis is online, it can be accessed year round and anytime of day; and because Oasis is self-guided, students have the opportunity to engage in targeted practice with limited teacher involvement. 

Kudos to the Department for their effort to recognize the best in educational technology and to utilize it to ensure opportunities for all students.

Feeling the Pressure: Getting Parents Involved in Education

A recent Pew Research study reports that two-thirds of the American public think parents are not putting enough “pressure” on their children to study hard.  Over 20 countries were surveyed and the U.S. is more likely than any other country to report that we were not putting enough pressure on our students.  Interestingly, China was almost the complete opposite in reporting the belief that they put too much pressure on students (68%).  As a country we are starting to recognize the important role that parents play in shaping and promoting their children’s educational achievement.  In fact, this same survey indicated that, in 2006, 56% of the US public thought parents were not putting enough pressure on their children.  In five years the trend has increased by 8 percentage points.

Years ago, Susan Hall and Louisa Moats wrote Straight Talk About Reading, in which they argued for conceiving of literacy achievement as a shared responsibility.  If we are going to compete with other countries and have every child graduate from high school prepared for the rigors of college and career, parents will have to play a larger and vital role in supporting their children’s educational attainment.  My belief is that all parents want to be good parents and want a better future for their children.  While it is fairly easy for some parents to get involved in their child’s education, many parents, especially our low income parents, have trouble figuring out how to be involved.  Due to time constraints and perhaps their own lack of educational success, they become passive observers instead of active participants in their child’s education.

As we think about this latest Pew Research, educators and policy makers need to think through how we can best enlist and encourage active parental involvement.  “Pressure” is not what we really need.  For most of us pressure has a negative and stressful connotation (see, for example, these common meanings for the word ‘pressure’). What we really need is for parents to create an environment at home that supports academic achievement.  To accomplish this shift in parental expectations and involvement, we will need to conduct a comprehensive and concerted campaign of education and support of parents.  Through PTAs, PSAs, teacher conferences, pediatrician visits, community meetings, library sessions, and many other outlets, we need a crisp message for parents on what they can do to promote their child’s achievement.  The critical importance of school attendance, of devoting space and time at the home for homework,  of turning off the TV and reading, and the use of public libraries, to name just a few, all need to be part of the message.

It is also incumbent upon educators to build or introduce parent friendly tools and resources for parents to use with their children.  Here at MetaMetrics we’ve attempted to do just that with tools like ‘Find a Book’ and Math at Home.  ‘Find a Book’ allows parents and students to match themselves to book of interest at their own individual reading level.  Built around research demonstrating both the importance of targeting readers at the right level and of allowing students to self-select their own reading material, ‘Find a Book’ allows users to indicate their Lexile reading level as well as the topics on which they prefer to read.  Students can then select titles of interest within their own reading range and create book lists to print or save.  Best of all, ‘Find a Book’ links up with public libraries, allowing students and parents to immediately see which books on their list are available through the public library, as well as the closest branches that carry those titles.  ‘Find a Book’ is free to use.  Check it out here.

Math at Home functions in a similar way.  Based on the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, Math at Home allows students to select free, targeted math resources to help augment their textbook lessons.  Like ‘Find a Book’, Math at Home is built around the idea of targeting students at the right mathematical level.  Parents or students simply select the textbook lesson(s) they wish to supplment and they are immediately presented with a range of resoruces targeted to the individual student’s level.  Users can then create multiple resource lists for use over the summer or all year long.  Math at Home is also free to use and available here.

It’s our hope that an increasing number of parents will elect to be involved in their children’s education and that educators will welcome participation from enthusiastic and caring parents.  We also hope to see more tools and resources available that help supplement and codify the lessons learned in the classroom, tools that families can use as a way to prepare students for life after graduation.

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MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.