ASCD speakers: Get authentic reform

How to address a glaring disconnect between the demands of the new knowledge-based economy and the drill-and-practice mentality currently driving education in many of the nation’s classrooms: This was a key theme addressed by the thousands of educators who gathered in Orlando April 2-4 for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) annual conference.

Guided by a federal law often criticized for its reliance on standardized test scores, more than 11,000 teachers and administrators from every state and more than 35 countries met to trade ideas about how best to prepare the nation’s antiquated education system–and its students–for life and work in the 21st century.

“We are at a tipping point in the technological revolution,” cultural anthropologist and author Jennifer James told educators during a rousing keynote address April 3 in which she encouraged teachers to embrace technology as a tool for engaging students and improving the overall quality of education in the nation’s schools.

“Technology is changing everything,” said James, who believes a “cultural shift” is under way in the nation’s classrooms.

Whereas it used to be enough simply to herd learners through the system with a firm grasp of basic skills, James says, that approach falls short in today’s information era, where advanced skills–such as critical thinking and deductive reasoning, to name two–are at a premium.

“This human shift brought about by technological change is creating many new openings,” James explained. To take advantage of new opportunities, however, teachers first must equip students with the necessary skill sets.

But it won’t be enough simply to outfit the nation’s classrooms with the latest gadgets. For technology to have its intended impact, teachers must do their part to drive new methods of instruction.

“In the 21st century, learning must dictate how technology is used,” ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter told a group of educational technology advocates during a special session on the closing day of the conference. Although there are a few shining examples of effective technology integration in schools, Carter said, “the average teacher is still using [technology] at very low level.”

Rather than using technology as a vehicle to highlight the very methods schools have relied on in the past, James encouraged educators to focus on projects and assignments that instill such higher-order thinking skills as problem solving and critical analysis.

“Many of us have in our gut this sort of 1965 view of what education should be,” James said. “If you walk through the halls of your schools and see nothing but mythology, then you’re suffering from cognitive dissonance.”

And schools aren’t the only places where the realities of the 21st century seem to be passing us by, she said: Many of the nation’s top education leaders, including the framers of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), also are missing the point.

“One of the reasons we have NCLB in the United States is because the group that cooked it up has no idea what they are doing,” James said to applause from the crowd. “When you don’t understand something, the first thing you try and do is measure it.

“Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for accountability,” said James in reference to the federal law. But teaching students to memorize information meant to produce higher marks on state tests is not the way to prepare them for life and work in a global economy, she said.

“Memorization is a very low-level skill,” James asserted, adding, “I could teach pigeons to spell.”

ASCD’s Carter reinforced James’ criticisms of the law, calling its focus on standardized test scores “inappropriate.”

Falling in line with visionaries in the business world, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose private foundation has donated close to $1 billion to school reform, James advocated for the creation of smaller, more intimate learning environments and increasingly diverse student bodies (see “Gates, governors: Upgrade high school“).

The idea, said Carter, is to create new environments focused on “deep learning,” which includes the development of a rigorous, relevant curriculum–some of which involves the use and application of technology.

“We are changing faster than any culture ever has … and the learning curve is straight up,” James said. Lucky for us, she added, today’s students are developmentally predisposed to the revolution.

Unlike adults, many of whom must pore over technical manuals to grasp even the most basic functionalities of their Palm handhelds or cellular phones, “children don’t read manuals,” James said. “They have new neural pathways.”

Kids don’t see technology as an obstacle, she said. Rather, they view it as an extension of how they operate in everyday life. Unfortunately, she said, the nation’s classrooms have been slow to embrace this reality.

Calling technology “a third hand for education,” James encouraged educators to begin looking for ways technology can cut down on administrative burdens in efforts to provide more time for teaching higher-level skills.

From the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, which can automatically track student attendance, to the integration of data systems intended to target the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners, she said, teachers today have at their disposal a myriad of tools designed to help make better use of their time.

James wasn’t the only distinguished guest who encouraged conference-goers to embrace technology as a catalyst for widespread educational reform.

Though technology is enjoying an expanded role in the nation’s classrooms, University of Pennsylvania professor Ted Hershberg said new innovations also are needed to help schools meet the rigorous reporting and assessment demands ushered in under NCLB–from measuring student performance to gauging the overall effectiveness of classroom teachers.

Though our education system has worked well in the past, the increasing presence of technology and the demands of a new century have made it nearly impossible for teachers to rely on what has become an outdated approach to teaching and learning, said Hershberg, who also serves as executive director for Operation Public Education, a research group that develops strategies for education reform.

If change doesn’t occur soon, he warned, the United States is in danger of ceding its economic prominence to other, more aggressive nations–most notably India and China, whose workers offer the same, if not better, skills at a fraction of the cost.

“Our schools were good for the past,” Hershberg explained. But we cannot expect “an old system to produce new results. … It’s time to get on with the process of change and stop blaming each other.”

Echoing the harsh rhetoric of other speakers at the conference, Hershberg put much of the blame on NCLB. If students are to improve, he said, educators “have to make a significant investment in a whole new way of doing school.”

Though he credited the four-year-old law for prompting educators to think seriously about student achievement, Hershberg said it’s not enough simply to gauge student success based on “adequate yearly progress.” Whereas NCLB focuses on yearly benchmarks and a battery of test results, Hershberg wants schools to raise the bar on student achievement even higher, taking the data that are collected and using them to implement more effective reforms.

Dubbed “value-added assessment,” Hershberg’s preferred approach to effective data use in schools seeks to measure individual student progress over time, rather than the progress of large groups of students on an annual basis, as is the case with NCLB. Developed by a statistician named William Sanders for use in Tennessee, this alternative approach has been adopted for statewide use in Pennsylvania and Ohio and currently is used in more than 300 school districts across the nation, he said.

Under this “value-added” approach, schools are asked to keep track of individual student data year after year, for a period of no less than three years. After this time, educators are encouraged to use the information collected to measure the effect of curricula, professional development, and pedagogy on overall student achievement. The idea: Let schools glean a better understanding from the data collected and studied on individuals year-over-year, as opposed to yearly based on grade level.

This way, Hershberg said, educators have information they can use to better target instruction to meet the individual needs of students.

“Teachers need to be able to compare patterns to solve problems,” he said of the system. It’s about starting a conversation across grade levels “to improve craft.”

Breaking data out year-over-year also enables administrators to see which groups of students are struggling in what classes and to make deductions about the effectiveness of certain teachers, he said. In some cases, it might even enable them to provide more targeted professional development, helping less effective teachers connect with more students.

“Struggling students are disproportionately in classrooms with ineffective instruction,” he said. “If you don’t get help to the teachers who need it, you’re always going to be dealing with these problems.”

Of course, changing the way data are collected and used is only the beginning.

“Value-added [assessment] is just a thermometer,” Hershberg said. To make use of the information, educators have to band together to help create effective change. From philosophy to practice, data are only as good as the teachers who use them to get results.

“You don’t make a cow fatter simply by weighing it,” Hershberg pointed out. Benchmarks help identify a learner’s strengths and weaknesses, he said, but they do not make a student any smarter in the process. That job still belongs to the teacher.

James expressed the same view. The key in classrooms, she said, is for educators to tell a good story. In short, they need to sell what it is they’re teaching. To do that, educators must build lessons that attract and enthrall a generation of students weaned on the interactivity of the internet.

The “Net Generation,” as she called today’s students, wants short, interactive lessons dispersed with, but not dominated by, the use of technology. To them, she said, technology is a tool to fuel discussion.

Unfortunately, the majority of the nation’s schools have yet to realize what their students already know, she said.

“Why is common sense not common practice?” asked James. Isn’t it time our nation’s schools begin to reflect “the realities of the outside world?”

Moving from promise to practice was the goal in the exhibit hall and throughout the Orange County Convention Center as educators traveled from session to session, taking time throughout the weekend to peruse some of the latest solutions for use in the classroom.

Here’s a look at some news from the exhibit floor.

Curriculum solutions

Kaplan K-12 Learning Services Group, part of Kaplan Inc., has developed a new college preparatory curriculum that it is marketing to school systems. Already deployed across Philadelphia, this new curriculum covers every major discipline taught in secondary schools–from math and science to language arts. Early results on the TerraNova, a district-wide assessment taken by Philadelphia students, reportedly show significant gains in the areas of reading, math, and science among ninth-graders using the specially designed curriculum. At a time when the nation’s leaders, including President Bush, are calling for higher standards and pushing for widespread high-school reform, Kaplan and other for-profit companies have invested significant resources into developing alternative learning solutions for schools. Whether or not the trend takes off will have a lot to do with what happens in Philadelphia over the course of the next several months, educators say.

Dedicated to helping children succeed through the development of personal, social, and organizational skills, Premier–an educational company with offices in Washington state and British Columbia–used ASCD to push its Premier Go Program, a combination online and DVD-based character development program featuring the teaching of Sean Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” Teachers use the step-by-step lesson plans, video teaching illustrations, activities, and quizzes to administer weekly lessons, which can be taught in 15 to 20 minutes. An online assessment delivered before, during, and after the program helps educators measure its effect on student conduct and behavior. For more information, see the company’s web site.

From Boston-based Texthelp Systems Inc. comes Read&Write 7.1, an award-winning literacy software solution for learners who struggle with reading. Geared toward learning-disabled and English as a Second Language students, the interactive software package converts text to speech and speech to text to improve comprehension; provides phonetic spell-checking from a 180,000-word dictionary; reads web sites aloud for students who have trouble surfing online; and provides private folders for storing and accessing student work, a talking calculator to help with numbers, and an improved scanning feature that enables teachers to scan in reading exercises and book excerpts for quick access. A special “Teacher Toolkit” helps students prepare for exams, gauges student achievement, and enables teachers to create individualized reports to track student progress. New in April, Read&Write 7.1 also offers translation tools for Spanish-speaking students.

As the SAT and other important standardized tests begin putting a greater emphasis on writing, Vantage Learning has released a new tool designed to increase student achievement through the act of writing. Powered by IntelliMetric, an artificial intelligence scoring engine, My Access! lets teachers instantly grade open-ended essays online, saving more class time for targeted instruction and one-on-one remediation with students. With no software to download, the online solution provides unlimited writing practice for students from any internet-connected computer. Using IntelliMetric, the company says, teachers receive instant feedback evaluating students’ mastery of selected writing techniques, as well as access to professional development exercises designed to enhance their ability to teach writing. My Access! also contains a number of tools for writers and instructors, including model essays, a writer’s guide, online graphic organizers, spelling and grammar checkers, and a multilingual dictionary/thesaurus to encourage students to build their vocabulary and use words more effectively. Pricing and additional information is available by contacting the company or visiting the web site.

Assessment & instructional management

Excelsior Software, the Colorado-based maker of ASCD-endorsed assessment products for schools, made several announcements during this year’s show. Among them, the company announced it is working with world-renowned assessment expert and author Robert Marzano to improve the capabilities of Excelsior’s Pinnacle Plus student assessment tool, with the goal of helping more schools effectively track student proficiency toward district benchmarks.

Excelsior also announced a partnership with instructional management system (IMS) provider SchoolNet Inc., giving its school customers two-for-one access to Excelsior’s Pinnacle Plus Gradebook Assessment tool and SchoolNet’s IMS, which enables users to analyze student data in order to provide targeted curriculum for individualized instruction.

During the show, ASCD executives reportedly gave a formal endorsement to the use of Pinnacle Plus as a means to help bolster student achievement under NCLB. “Our renewed collaboration with ASCD represents a real validation of our development efforts with our Pinnacle Plus system,” said Excelsior’s chief executive, William Zaggle. “It affirms our commitment to provide the educational community with productivity tools that increase their effectiveness and increase student achievement.”

For educational publisher Harcourt Inc., “it’s all about learning–first.” That’s the slogan that accompanies Harcourt’s latest Stanford Learning First instructional assessment system. The multi-purpose, web-based tool facilitates both online and paper-based assessments in mathematics and reading for students in grades 3-8. Using the program, educators can measure students’ proficiency on state content standards, blend assessment activities into existing lesson plans, deliver online or paper-based assessments, and receive web-based professional development to support the effective use of student data. The goal: to help educators glean a unique understanding of their pupils’ individual strengths and weaknesses for more targeted instruction.

LearningStation, a maker of customizable desktop solutions for schools, and Canadian software provider Vital Knowledge Software Inc. recently announced an alliance intended to evaluate classroom practices and help educators improve their craft. The deal will make Vital Knowledge’s P.E.T Learning Styles Solution (a web-based teaching assessment and management tool) part of LearningStation’s Education Desktop, now reportedly used by more than 850,000 students, teachers, and administrators nationwide. Based on the work of Carl Jung and the research of Patricia Cranton and Robert Knoop, the P.E.T Learning Styles Solution correlates variables such as personality preference with such elements as learning, teaching, conflict resolution, leadership, management, problem solving, stress, and teamwork. The goal, according to Vital Knowledge Chief Executive Officer Nola Chiasson, is to provide educators with the means to assess, manage, and understand the differences between individual students and their unique learning styles.

During the conference, LearningStation also announced the start of a new grant program entitled “I will LEARN today!” Through this program, LearningStation will provide $500,000 worth of grants to K-12 schools to support the integration of LearingStation services. Grant applications are available online at

Also at ASCD, LearningStation co-sponsored a joint forum between leaders of the International Society of Technology in Education, the Consortium for School Networking, and the State Education Technology Directors Association to highlight the role of technology and scientifically based research in improving the quality of education under NCLB.

Pearson NCS, an education company that has spent more than 40 years building tools and assessments designed to meet the individual needs of teachers and students, showcased a suite of technology-based solutions geared toward helping educators more accurately assess student progress.

Using Pearson’s ExamView Pro software application, for example, educators can generate tests and quizzes aligned with state and local standards. An electronic distribution option lets administrators send assessments to individual classrooms or across an entire district.

Used in conjunction with ExamView, the Prosper Assessment System gives immediate feedback on electronic test results, including reports outlining student gains and highlighting potential weaknesses. The data then can be exported to electronic gradebooks and other scoring repositories for easy access and review. The Prosper Assessment System also lets educators compare students’ proficiency and aptitude across multiple tests.

Another product, the Classroom Performance System from eInstruction, uses handheld wireless response devices to give teachers immediate feedback during classroom presentations. Whether participating in an interactive lecture or taking a pop quiz, students can use the interactive handhelds to submit answers to questions and provide instant feedback to their teachers.

Pearson also offers online Summary Reporting tools designed to generate web-based progress reports broken out by grade, teacher, school, and district. The reports are password-protected and managed by school administrators who have the power to grant and deny access to certain individuals within the school system, based on the individual’s level of clearance and overall position. See the Pearson web site for more details on these and other products.

From Qwizdom, a maker of wireless testing and response systems for schools, comes the Interactive Learning System (ILS). With ILS, students beam their answers to teachers’ questions via Qwizdom’s line of handheld quiz-taking devices. The electronic system lets educators automatically receive and track student results to better target in-class instruction, according to the company. ILS also comes with a series of learning games designed to make class time more engaging and fun, as well as features for tracking student progress and individual test scores over time.

RISO, a Massachusetts-based provider of printer and copier solutions designed specifically for educators, highlighted the benefits of its Assess Express (AE) tool. With the goal of providing educators with immediate testing feedback at a fraction of the cost, AE lets educators print their own bubble-style testing sheets on plain paper for as little as half-a-cent a page–a far cry from the five to 25 cents per sheet that most schools are paying now, company executives say. Using one of RISO’s multifunction printers, educators can scan students’ tests on site, cutting down on the time it takes to get results–not to mention the potential costs of sending exams elsewhere to be graded. RISO calls AE “an easy and inexpensive way to incorporate automated testing & to assist teachers in identifying student needs in pop quizzes, and to assist teachers in identifying areas that need additional focus.”

Software Technology Inc. (STI), a provider of educational data management solutions for schools, announced the release of Curriculum Manager, a new educational management system that uses assessment data and student information to help educators target learning to the individual needs of students. Edmundo Gonzalez, STI’s vice president of product management, said the goal is to provide educators with the tools they require to deliver effective remediation. “Imagine if doctors didn’t have a stethoscope to find heart murmurs and a pharmaceutical reference to write the correct prescription,” he said, drawing a parallel between the challenges often faced in the classroom and those encountered by doctors and nurses in the medical field. “This is true for many educators, who often have to evaluate and improve students’ academic health without the proper tools and direction.” Combined with STI’s Assessment tool, Curriculum Manager enables educators to build quizzes and tests correlated to district benchmarks and standards; individualize instruction with resources targeting specific student needs; share assessment data and reports with parents, as well as state and federal officials; track student progress year over year; access curriculum resources aligned with state and local standards; incorporate new resources into instruction, including teacher-created lesson plans; and produce reports to determine where more resources are necessary to improve instruction. Pricing for STI Assessment and Curriculum Manager is based on a subscription model. The programs are available separately or as a bundled solution. More information is available by calling the company or visiting the STI web site.

Professional development

Atomic Learning, a provider of online technology tutorials for teachers, students, and parents, promoted its ever-expanding line of 24-7 technology integration tutorials. With its online library of more than 10,000 tutorials covering 70 of the most common software applications used in schools, Atomic Learning currently reaches more than 2,000 schools and universities worldwide. Its product reportedly is used for self-directed staff development, as a supplement to on-site training courses, as course curriculum for students, and as an online resource textbook. The service includes a number of tutorials for both Windows and Macintosh-based software applications–from guidance navigating operating systems to information about word processing, document creation, and presentation tools. A special section for teachers includes a list of lesson plans and resources designed to integrate technology instruction into the fabric of traditional classroom exercises.

Educational publisher Houghton Mifflin, perhaps best known for its line of classroom textbooks, demonstrated its new catalog of professional training and career enrichment programs for educators. From how to teach reading more effectively to improving mathematics instruction and leadership for school administrators, the series of print and online courses is designed to provide educators with the training they need to do their jobs better. More information, as well as a wealth of teaching resources, is available for free on Houghton’s Education Place web site. This online library of K-8 resources for teachers, students, and parents is stocked with information on Reading/Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Intervention, Professional Development, classroom activities, games, textbook support, and more.

Professional development is the focus of the Boston-based WGBH Educational Foundation, which was on hand during ASCD to showcase its Teacher’s Domain, a collection of online training courses designed to bolster learning in science and social studies classrooms. Using streaming video clips and other digital media, the online courses provide educators with new perspectives intended to generate excitement and engage learners. Each eight-session course is designed in part by educators for educators and corresponds to national standards. Schools can register for the online service free of charge.

Other solutions

To provide parents with a direct link to what their children are doing in school, Washington-based EdGate, a maker of customizable learning, communications, and assessment solutions for schools, has unveiled SchoolNotes, a web-based tool for teachers to communicate with students and parents through the online posting of grades and assignments. Another online tool, Total Reader, looks to improve students’ reading proficiency by helping teachers create more individualized reading plans, identify and provide remediation for struggling readers, and track the effectiveness of the curriculum through the use of accountability metrics.

Mitsubishi Electronics put the focus on classroom projectors, demonstrating its 2005 product line, including its wide range of ultra-portable ColorView projectors and classroom display monitors. For details and model specifications, as well as pricing, see Mitsubishi’s projector web site.

ASCD session reviews

A score of volunteer educators became eSchool News Conference Correspondents during ASCD, attending and assessing key workshops and sessions and then reporting to fellow educators on what they experienced. Their reviews–along with staff reports filed during ASCD by the eSchool News team–are available at the eSN Conference Information Center


ASCD session reviews by eSN Conference Correspondents

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

eSchool News Staff

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