Five tips for digital communication in the new year

It’s important to match social media sites to audience preferences and needs.

With a new year approaching, it’s a great opportunity to re-evaluate what’s working—and what’s not—in your classroom, school, or district communications program. Here are five tips to power better communications and community relations in 2012, plus some thoughts to ponder as we enter a new era in public school choice.

1. Start using QR (quick response) codes for lunch menus, schedule changes, parent-teacher conference reminders, professional development announcements, contact information, website addresses, and other simple communications. Growing in popularity, QR codes—those goofy-looking bar-code squares you’ve been seeing everywhere lately—can be created and read using free online applications and are perfect for today’s mobile generation.

The codes can be distributed via digital and broadcast media as well as fliers, newsletters, and other printed publications. Students, parents, and teachers can then use their camera phones to scan the code and get the content. Only download codes from reputable sources. In some cases, security hasn’t kept up with hackers’ ability to attach malicious code to unsuspecting consumers.

2. Free up social media for student and teacher use, and for parent communications. Now that the FCC has lifted restrictions on social media use tied to eRate dollars, bureaucratic excuses are waning for blocking today’s fastest growing communication form. It’s time to shift from saying no to teaching stakeholders how to use social media wisely, well, and appropriately for learning and communication in school, at home, and on the go.

Students and employees need better guidance and training, however. Otherwise, social media missteps—like the recent tacky student tweet that resulted in a national free-speech debate and an apology from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for an “overreaction”—will continue unabated. Currently, according to Pew Research Center, more than half of U.S. adults use social media, primarily to connect or reconnect with family, friends, hobbies, and other items of personal interest, which could include their children’s schools or their own alma maters.

From a communications standpoint, it’s important to match social media sites to audience preferences and needs. The short bursts of information and mobile nature of Twitter, for example, is perfect for crisis communications. It’s faster than eMail and easier to use. Twitter also represents an effective way for public officials to stay in touch with constituents, despite some famous political meltdowns.


Opinion: Top five ways to fix the American education system

The American education system is broken. Politicians, educators and parents have debated how to reform public schools in the U.S. for the nearly 20 years, yet little to no progress has been made, says Tara Dodrill for Yahoo! News. Republicans and tea party members feel that federal control over the state education system is a constitutional travesty, according to the New York Times. The Times noted Democrats feel a federal role is necessary in fixing and punishing under achieving schools. That mindset has not worked and will never work. A common sense approach to teaching our children is long overdue.

* Total state control guided by local school officials is the first step in improving the education of American children. A one-size-fits-all approach has not achieved any true measure of academic progress. Every state and municipality faces its own unique set of challenges and attributes. What may help a struggling urban school battling gangs and drug abuse will not likely work in a rural district…

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Do teachers really come from the ‘bottom third’ of college graduates?

The conventional wisdom among many education commentators is that U.S. public school teachers “come from the bottom third” of their classes, says Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, for the Washington Post. Most recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took this talking point a step further, and asserted at a press conference last week that teachers are drawn from the bottom 20 percent of graduates. All of this is supposed to imply that the U.S. has a serious problem with the “quality” of applicants to the profession. Despite the ubiquity of the “bottom third” and similar arguments (which are sometimes phrased as massive generalizations, with no reference to actual proportions), it’s unclear how many of those who offer them know what specifically they refer to (e.g., GPA, SAT/ACT, college rank, etc.). This is especially important since so many of these measurable characteristics are not associated with future test-based effectiveness in the classroom, while those that are only modestly so…

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Alabama law limits students’ gifts to teachers

An Alabama teacher who accepts a Christmas ham or a $25 gift card from a student is breaking Alabama’s ethics law. The possible penalty? Up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine for the teacher who accepts the gift, the Associated Press reports. The law, which took effect earlier this year and is considered one of the toughest in the country, limits what public officials and employees can receive as gifts to a “de minimis” value, but it doesn’t define that amount. With most schools about to get out for the holidays, the State Ethics Commission has been flooded with calls about what students can give.

“The bottom line for me is, our teachers are being forced to make a decision between breaking the law or breaking a child’s heart,” said Amy O’Neal, a teacher at Pine Crest Elementary School about 30 miles southeast of Birmingham.

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Is unequal opportunity created by students themselves?

Disparities in success among students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and communities have long been attributed to the resources available to them from schools and their families, the Huffington Post reports. But a new report suggests that while home and institution are factors, inequalities in education also reflect differences in the resources that children can identify and secure for themselves in the classroom. According to a study released today from the University of Pennsylvania, children from middle class families ask their teachers for help more often and more assertively than children from working class families. As a result, middle class students tend to receive more support and assistance from their teachers.

“We know that middle-class parents are better able than working-class parents to secure advantages for themselves and their children, but not when and where they learned to do so, or whether they teach their children to do the same,” study author Jessica McCrory Calarco said in a statement Wednesday. Calarco is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology in UPEnn’s School of Arts and Sciences…

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Schools pepper sprayed students ‘repeatedly and regularly’

After a lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of eight high school students against the Birmingham Board of Education over the use of pepper spray against them at school, one attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center has uncovered something shocking: they could not find a single school district in the country that uses pepper spray on students as much as Birmingham Schools, the Birmingham News reports. How regularly? SPLC officials say that the frequency had reached about 100 times over the last five years. They argue that the district is violating students’ Fourth Amendment rights, WBRC reports…

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New guidelines for ed-tech research could help educators, vendors

SIIA is hoping for broad distribution of the guidelines, because one of its main goals is to improve the credibility of publisher-sponsored research.

To produce a stimulating 21st-century learning environment, school leaders see educational technology as a no-brainer. But using research to distinguish a truly effective ed-tech product from a less-than-effective product can prove difficult when the research is conducted by a vendor or for-profit company.

Now, new guidelines for vendors and educators aim to solve this comparison conundrum.

The report, titled “Conducting and Reporting Product Evaluation Research: Guidelines and Considerations for Educational Technology Publishers and Developers,” is authored by Denis Newman, CEO of Empirical Education Inc., and produced by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA).

It’s based on Empirical Education’s many years of conducting this kind of research, both for publishers and for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). A working group of industry experts also was established for evaluation, and it met monthly for more than a year to sort through the issues and draft a set of considerations.

The guidelines, available free of charge for members on SIIA’s website, are timely for educators and ed-tech providers because of the growing demand from schools for “evidence of effectiveness of products, especially as the resources for spending on program materials decreases and administrators have to make harder decisions about what will best solve the problems facing their districts,” said Newman in an interview with eSchool News.

He added that ED, through programs such as Investing in Innovation (i3), is showing a growing interest in gathering evidence of effectiveness, and this is also reflected in the draft reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which talks consistently of evidence-based programs.

“By evidence-based, they mean having evidence of the sort the guidelines help publishers and school district administrators obtain,” said Newman. “The guidelines are written in a style that can be understood by executives, whether they work for publishers or for school districts. District executives will find them useful not only to get clear on what they can and should expect from publishers, but because it can help them see how their own data can be used to evaluate programs they’ve already put in place and are considering expanding.”

The guidelines are also timely considering the amount of money the ed-tech market is expected to generate: $7.5 billion for non-hardware educational technology from pre-kindergarten through grade 12, according to SIIA. (See “Need for product evaluations continues to grow.“)


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