Merit pay and ‘loss aversion’

Uh oh, educators, hold onto your hats! It appears that a new catchphrase is coming to school reform, and it’s called “loss aversion,” explains Larry Ferlazzo, a high-school teacher in Sacramento who writes a blog for educators and a teacher advice column. Loss aversion is a psychological finding that losing something makes us feel worse than gaining the same thing makes us feel better. A group of economists published a study two weeks ago implementing this strategy with students. They wanted to see if students would try harder on a standardized test if they knew they would get cash or some other kind of immediate prize if they improved on their results. They tried offering these rewards in a couple of different ways, but found the biggest test improvement would come if they gave the student the money ($20) or non-cash award before the test and then told them they would have to give it back if they didn’t score well. There are a number of issues with this study, including the fact that the gains do not appear to have carried over to carry over to the future and that it appears to be a relatively small number of students. The authors also appear to ignore recent studies that have shown that loss aversion can have particularly damaging effects on many people…

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CPS, CTU agree to hire more teachers for longer school day

According to the Chicago Sun-Times , the city of Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) have reached an agreement that will put more teachers in the classroom in order to work the 20 percent longer school day. The agreement between the two parties comes in light of the threat of a CTU strike loomed on the horizon, specifically a 90 percent strike authorization vote and months of discussion on how the lengthened school day would be staffed and funded…

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New Mac operating system goes on sale Wednesday

Apple Inc. will release its new operating system for Mac computers on Wednesday, with features borrowed from mobile devices and a tighter integration with online file storage, the Associated Press reports. Dubbed Mountain Lion, the new software narrows the gap between the PC and phone software packages, making Mac personal computers work more like iPhones and iPads. It’s similar to what Microsoft Corp. is doing with its forthcoming Windows 8 system. That system, to be released Oct. 26, will bring the look and user interface of Windows Phone to PCs. Mountain Lion will cost $20 and will be sold only as a download. Only computers running the two most recent versions of Mac OS, Lion and Snow Leopard, can be upgraded. Macs bought on or after June 11 can be upgraded for free…

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Intel, schools hoping to lure more students into science and engineering

Intel’s Carlos Contreras said they often don’t know that engineering can be a creative process—or even what engineering is.

Would you buy a deodorizing shoe rack? How about one that suggests outfits to go with your footwear?

To a layperson, brainstorming about how to build a better shoe rack might not look like engineering.

But working together to create new things is part of engineering, and Carlos Contreras of Intel said young people need to get that message. He said they often don’t know that engineering can be a creative process—or even what engineering is, exactly.

“In a survey of teens, we find that they have high regard for engineering as a profession, but don’t know what engineers do or how much they make,” he said.

That’s important to Contreras, who is Intel’s education manager. The company recently had to pay $100,000 to Sandoval County, N.M., because its Rio Rancho plant failed to hire enough local employees, which Intel officials said was owing to a lack of qualified applicants, particularly those with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Contreras said this is a problem nationally.

“This is really a big national issue that everyone is grappling with,” Contreras said. “For every available STEM worker, there are two openings.”

For more news about STEM education, see:

Obama proposes $1B for science, math teachers

Report: STEM education needs more money, support

How corporations can really support U.S. public education

Inquiry-based approach to science a hit with students

Throughout New Mexico and the rest of the nation, groups from Intel, the national science labs, universities, and other organizations are trying to get students more interested in such subjects and get them qualified for high-tech jobs.

It’s an issue experts say starts in the early grades, where many students don’t get enough hands-on science projects, so they decide at a young age they don’t like science.

Some teachers and students say this is because increased emphasis on reading and math, which are measured on high-stakes tests, has squeezed the time spent on science. And although math is tested and is a building block of science and engineering, New Mexico’s emphasis in recent years has been on improving reading scores.

According to the most recent state standardized test scores, only 43 percent of students statewide can do math at grade level.

State education chief Hanna Skandera said she believes reading is a key building block for all other skills, but she plans to roll out some STEM initiatives soon.

Russ Fisher-Ives, who runs a nonprofit focused on those subjects and who co-founded the state’s largest robotics competition, said adding emphasis on math isn’t enough, because students need science to see math in action.


Report questions efficacy of full-time virtual schools

“The current weak measures of effectiveness need updating to measure true student success based on outcomes,” said one online learning advocate.

A report released last week by university researchers is the latest to question the academic merits of full-time virtual schools run by K12 Inc.—and by extension, the promise of cyber education in general.

According to the report, students enrolled in schools run by K12—the nation’s largest virtual school company—have lower scores in math and reading on end-of-year exams than students in traditional schools, and parents are pulling their students out in droves. K12 disputes the report’s findings, saying they fail to measure student growth over time and are based on flawed research methods.

The report, titled “Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools,” was released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado. It comes on the heels of a recent class-action lawsuit against K12 claiming that the company misled investors (see “Online learning provider K12 faces class-action lawsuit”).

“Our findings are clear,” said Gary Miron, an NEPC fellow and the report’s lead author. “Children who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyber school, who receive full-time instruction in front of a computer instead of in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. These children are also more likely to move between schools or leave school altogether—and the cyber school is less likely to meet federal education standards.”

He added: “Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential. But, at present, our research shows that virtual schools such as those operated by K12 are not working effectively. States should not grow full-time virtual schools until they have evidence of success. Most immediately, we need to better understand why the performance of these schools suffers and how it can be improved.”

In analyzing federal and state data sets for revenue, expenditures, and student performance, the report’s authors studied all of K12’s 48 full-time virtual schools. Key findings include:

  • Math scores for K12’s students are 14 to 36 percent lower than scores for other students in the states in which the company operates schools.
  • Only 2.7 percent of K12’s schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2010-11, compared to 52 percent for brick-and-mortar schools in the nation as a whole.
  • Student attrition is exceptionally high in K12 and other virtual schools. Many families appear to approach the virtual schools as a temporary service: Data in K12’s own school performance report indicate that 31 percent of parents intend to keep their students enrolled for a year or less, and more than half intend to keep their student enrolled for two years or less.
  • K12’s schools spend more on overall instructional costs than comparison schools—including the cost of computer hardware and software—but noticeably less on teachers’ salaries and benefits.
  • K12 enrolls students with disabilities at rates moderately below public school averages, although this enrollment has been increasing, but the company spends half as much per pupil as charter schools overall spend on special-education instruction—and third of what districts spend on special-education instruction.

“Our research highlights a number of significant issues at K12 schools, and we recognize that these issues are also of concern at other full-time virtual schools,” said Miron. “We need a better understanding of how this new teaching and learning model can be most effective, so that full-time virtual schools can better serve students and the public school system as a whole.”

Bryan Flood, senior vice president of public affairs for K12, said NEPC’s report “contains serious errors and flaws, all of which certainly put the accuracy of any of its conclusions in doubt.”


News Corp. to launch tablet-based education pilot

In collaboration with AT&T, the company will offer a tablet-based platform that bundles curricular content with sophisticated analytic capabilities and 4G connectivity to facilitate personalized instruction.

In a further expansion into the ed-tech market, News Corp.—Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate that owns FOX News and the Wall Street Journal, among other properties—on July 23 unveiled its new K-12 education business, called Amplify, and said it was partnering with AT&T to fund a pilot project that aims to put tablet computers in students’ hands in the coming school year.

AT&T will provide tablet computers that work on its 4G and Wi-Fi networks. None of the schools selected to participate will have to pay for the program. The company did not say which schools would take part or how they’d be selected.

The idea is to put tablet computers into the hands of students for use at school and at home. The system tracks their progress and is meant to tailor lessons to each student’s level.

Amplify is being spun off from News Corp. along with newspapers in a planned reorganization of the company. It brings together the student assessment software business Wireless Generation with a new curriculum it is developing.

News Corp., based in New York, announced in November 2010 that it would take a 90-percent stake in Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Wireless Generation, a creator of software tools for educators, for $360 million. Last summer, New York’s comptroller spiked a $27 million deal with Wireless Generation because of the fallout from Murdoch’s phone hacking scandal in Great Britain.

For more news about tablets in education, see:

Seven iPad alternatives for schools

Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ tablet aims for productivity

Project to evaluate use of tablets in schools

Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who joined News Corp. in January 2011 to head up its education initiatives, will lead the company’s Amplify division.

Wireless Generation founder Larry Berger said the pilot project was not just meant to convert participating schools into future customers. He said it was a way to improve the system and prove it works.

“There’s no way to do high-quality research and development without working in schools,” he said. Once the pilot project is complete, the company hopes to market its services to as many schools as possible.

Wireless Generation says it currently provides mobile assessment and instructional services to more than 200,000 teachers and 3 million students in all 50 states. It supports different ways of paying for tablets. Sometimes parents pay for them, sometimes schools pay for them, sometimes school districts lease them, and sometimes schools rely mostly on students to bring whatever mobile device they have.


New math software targets ‘perceptual learning’


Focus on pattern recognition in math shifts emphasis from “what’s the answer?” to “how do you solve this problem?”

As schools struggle to balance conceptual learning and recall of simple facts, a new series of online math education products proposes a different focus: pattern recognition.

Insight Learning Technology, a startup company formed by a pair of academics, has created online math education modules that tap into not only adaptive learning, which uses computer interactivity to individualize students’ lessons, but also the lesser-known field of perceptual learning, which focuses on patterns and relationships.

By focusing on perceptual learning, the software aims to teach students how to learn math—in other words, what pieces of information are most important when tackling a problem.

Three modules, based on the cognitive development research of company co-founders Phil Kellman and Christine Massey, will hit the market in time for the fall semester: MultiRep Insight, Algebra Insight, and Best Basic Math.

Schools would pay about $3 to $5 per student for a year’s worth of each module, with potential discounts based on volume.

Cognitive scientists generally focus on building declarative or procedural knowledge—that is, putting into memory specific facts or steps of a process.

“Most people think that’s all there is, but there’s another [type] of learning for getting good at anything, and that’s pattern recognition,” said Kellman, who chairs cognitive psychology at UCLA.

He cited the example of a young child learning to classify an object as a cat. Through observation of many cats, the child begins to recognize which characteristics are crucial to being a cat—whiskers, pointy ears—and which are not as important.

The concept of perceptual learning applies across all fields: Kellman also has conducted studies in pilot training and medical education. But Insight chose to focus first on math education, a particular pain point in American schools.

Insight’s modules drill students on similar problems until they recognize patterns. The Algebra Insight product, for example, trains students to develop fluency in algebra transformations and operations.

Beginning students generally “know the rules” of algebra, but are very slow in recognizing and applying them, said Massey, director of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Solving algebra problems requires students “to be thinking about a lot of things at once—they have a high cognitive load,” she said.

When students crank through entire problems, they are often distracted by so many other concerns—such as mental math and completing all the steps in the correct order—that they often can’t see the larger patterns, Massey said.

She said Algebra Insight’s perceptual learning approach “takes a lot of the load off” of students by reducing the number of ideas they need to hold in their head at once and instead focusing on recognition of algebraic rules.

Insight’s math education products tap into the thinking processes required not only for learning, but also for developing expertise, Kellman said.


Teachers to attend ‘Finance University’

West Virginia University’s business school is teaming up with the state auditor’s office and a nonprofit economic literacy group called the West Virginia Jump$start Coalition to present a conference for educators to learn personal finance — and how to teach it to their students, the Associated Press reports. This year’s Finance University is the 10th annual event for middle- and high-school teachers. It will be held Monday through Friday at the Charleston Conference Center. Conference organizers say that participants will take a course to prepare for teaching their students personal-finance topics…

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Sally Ride remembered: Tributes to 1st American woman in space

Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died Monday (July 23) at the age of 61, reports. Ride made history when she launched aboard the space shuttle Challenger on the STS-7 mission in 1983. She became only the third woman to ever travel in space, after Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. Ride traveled into space once more in 1984, as a member of the STS-41G crew on the space shuttle Challenger. Over the course of her career, Ride logged a total of 343 hours in space. Sally Ride’s death came after 17 months of battling pancreatic cancer. Here are some tributes to Sally Ride from astronauts, scientists, historians, industry officials and other luminaries…

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Infographic: 91 percent of teachers have computer access

Remember when film projectors and PowerPoint presentations were considered cutting-edge in the classroom? As modern technology advances, so does innovation in schools across all levels, Mashable reports. In fact, about 91% of teachers in the U.S. have access to computers in the classrooms, according to data highlighted in a new infographic by Australian-based online course company Open Colleges. Mobile technology is also finding its place in education. About 81% of teachers believe tablets enrich classroom learning, and one in five students have used a mobile app to keep coursework organized. Meanwhile, six in 10 students have used a digital textbook, up from just four in 10 in 2011. As these trends continue, e-textbooks are expected to make up 11% of textbook revenue by 2013. Staying connected is top of mind at many U.S. universities — about 51% said they viewed wireless upgrades as a tech priority in 2011 and 2012. Not surprisingly, research has shown that embracing technology in the classroom is helping the learning process. For example, teachers that integrated digital games into lessons increased average test scores by 91.5% compared to traditional non-digital games (79.1%)…

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