After beefing up broadband, Kentucky upgrades web filtering

Customizable filtering system to be installed in every school

filtering-lightspeedKentucy’s Department of Education is implementing a new content filtering system for all  173 K-12 school districts statewide, as a followup to a massive connectivity push that’s seeing faster internet in schools across the state.

Recently, Kentucky made headlines when it announced that, thanks to a partnership with AT&T, it would be providing schools with access to high-speed, fiber-based connectivity of more than 480 Megabits per second—the first state in the nation to promise such speeds. The new connectivity exceeds a national network infrastructure benchmark of 100 Mbps, which was set by the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

Now the state is partnering with Lightspeed Systems and will begin using that company’s Rocket Web Filter to provide on- and off-campus content filtering for 1,233 Kentucky schools (that’s every school in the state). The filtering system lets schools target mobile and stationary devices with customizable policies and drill-down reporting.

“The Lightspeed Systems solution allows each of Kentucky’s school districts to customize its own experience regarding Internet content management, and also provides the granularity and reporting capability district and state leaders require for future online capacity planning,” said Chuck Austin, Product Manager for the Kentucky Department of Education.

“The Kentucky Department of Education’s efforts to bring technology into schools have made Kentucky a model for 21st-century learning,” says Lightspeed Systems President Brian Thomas. “We are proud to be part of their successful mission to make safe online access available to every K-12 student.”

Material from a press release was used in this report.


Is competency-based learning the next big thing in school reform?

A new proposal out of Georgia is betting it is, and supporters hope schools will implement it soon

competency-basedIn a typical Georgia school, kids like Sean Prisk would have to abide by a kind of classroom speed limit, forced to learn at the same pace as others his age. But no one stopped this Henry County seventh-grader when he stomped on the gas.

He accelerated two years ahead of his classmates in math and is now doing freshman-level work. “Math comes naturally to me,” he said.

Sean entered Locust Grove Middle School as it was implementing “competency-based” learning, which tailors schooling to each child’s ability. Students who excel move on. Those who are struggling slow down and try different methods, like exploring math or science concepts through art.

The school’s computer-based approach could be replicated across the state if education reformers appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal get their way. There’s no conclusive evidence that it works better than traditional methods, but there is a growing group of proponents in other states. Many wonder whether it will prove too expensive, widening the gap between schools that can and cannot afford it, but advocates say it doesn’t have to be costly.

Locust Grove Principal Anthony Townsend believes his students are more engaged and learning more under the new approach. He says test data back that up. In 2014, students who participated in the computerized component of the program had 2 percentage point higher pass rates in math, English and reading than students who did not. The pass rates in social studies and science were each 9 percentage points higher.

The school is drawing attention. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving Henry County Schools more than $4 million based in part on Locust Grove, and people who have the ear of Gov. Nathan Deal see something worth emulating.

“It’s really hard to argue against it,” said Matt Arthur, deputy commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia. He led a subcommittee of the governor’s Education Reform Commission tasked with finding ways to improve graduation rates and preparation for college and careers. Arthur’s subcommittee, of which Townsend is a member, recommended that Deal create an educational system based partly on the work being done in Locust Grove.

Observers, including teachers advocates, say the idea sounds promising but warn it could be too expensive.

A school full of students progressing at different rates could “wreak havoc” on classroom management, said Craig Harper, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. He and others say the proposal would require new money for training, technological support and more teachers.

But Arthur, who until last year was director of education reform at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, did not recommend more money. “The state can’t afford that, and local systems can’t afford it either,” he said. “So you have to figure out a way to do it.”

Arthur’s panel proposed one change that could make it easier: Give the Georgia Milestones Tests, which are administered in the spring, more often. Arthur’s subcommittee wants multiple testing windows across the school year, so students can pass and move to the next level sooner.

The concept of competency-based learning has been around for decades, but was hard to pull off until the proliferation of two things: computers and universal educational standards.

Standards — the knowledge and skills students must acquire to master a subject — became universal under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandated annual tests and penalized schools with low pass rates.

Computers have become less expensive and easier to use, giving students a way to learn at their own pace while automatically tracking their progress.

Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago says the effectiveness of competency-based learning is unproven, but it is worth exploring because the traditional way of teaching, with lectures and books, isn’t effective with many students. “The reason everyone is trying to find something different is because there’s a clear problem with what we’ve been doing,” said Farrington, a senior research associate.

Zirka Franko, a veteran teacher at Locust Grove, likes the way she can tailor assignments to each child. On a recent afternoon in her bustling seventh-grade science and math class, students were choosing whether to take a computerized quiz or draw a diagram of a concept they were learning. Students are more engaged if they can make choices, she said. On one earlier assignment, for instance, some wanted to demonstrate what they’d learned by making a movie trailer. “I wouldn’t have thought of that,” she said. “Some of them are artists, some of them like computers and some of them just like books.”

Franko, who has been teaching more than two dozen years, said her students have “blossomed” under the new model.

The Education Reform Commission approved the proposal this month and will forward it to the governor. If Deal chooses to run with it without state funding, schools with less money might find it difficult to implement, said Jimmy Stokes, who leads a Georgia advocacy group for school superintendents, principals and administrators.

“It’s going to be a situation, unfortunately, of the haves and have-nots,” said Stokes, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.

Townsend, the Locust Grove principal, said resources were not a constraint for him, and this model doesn’t have to be expensive. The school district supplied computers, but he didn’t hire more teachers and he didn’t get more money in the beginning. The Gates money came later.

Like most principals, he already had a teacher-training budget. He just spent it differently. The hard part, he said, was identifying quality programs for his teachers and getting them, and the parents, to accept something new and untested.

He worked smaller classrooms into the schedule with the help of computers. How? He rotates kids through a big digital lab where about 70 students work independently on assignments, with help from a teacher and some aides. That frees up other teachers to run classrooms of 15 to 20 students — about two-thirds to half the typical size.

The computer focus caused a backlash from some parents. Kimberly Del Rosario, the PTSO president at Locust Grove, said her daughter struggled to adapt to the online coursework. Del Rosario ultimately decided that the benefits were worth it, though: her daughter came to feel an ownership over her education, Del Rosario said. “I have seen confidence in my daughter that I have never seen before.”

Aydan Smith, a sixth-grade student, likes the way his teachers run school now. Before, he had to wait while the other children caught up to him, and sometimes he’d get confused by the time they did.

“I feel much more comfortable with this because I’m able to go at my own pace,” said Aydan, 11. “The teachers won’t hold me back, and they will catch me up if I fall behind.”

©2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


How tech can make selecting the right college easier for students

2 companies use data to make it easier for selecting the right college to fit student needs

finding-collegeUnlike the discerning “sorting hat” featured in Harry Potter—which takes its time to analyze every budding wizard’s brain to figure out which of the four houses of Hogwarts is right for him or her—the college selection is a pretty arbitrary process.

Most of the time it’s based on geographic location, availability of specific majors, a family attachment, or even a favorite collegiate sports team. Unless students are proactive about seeking help, most receive very little support in this area; middle schoolers get even less attention.

Yet when 17- or 18-year-old high school graduates get to college, they’re supposed to know not only what they want to do for the next four to five years—but also for the rest of their lives.

“There are so many higher education choices for students to pick from, how are they supposed to make the right selection?” asks Lily Matos DeBlieux, superintendent at the Pendergast Elementary School District in Phoenix. “These decisions are difficult enough for adults, let alone for kids. What if the school isn’t a good fit? What if it’s not a good socioeconomic match? What if the culture isn’t what you thought it would be? These are important questions that can’t be answered by taking a college tour.”

No snap decisions

These things can bog down the average student, who at such a young age really doesn’t understand the long-term implications of his or her decision. “This is a lifetime commitment,” said DeBlieux, “and they need tools that can help them make the best possible decisions.”

A couple of companies are taking a stab at the problem and using technology to help students make better choices when selecting a college. In Washington, D.C., vibeffect has developed an algorithm-based, college-decision framework platform that students and families can use to scientifically narrow down their choices. This “unbiased, fact-based lens” costs $96 (per report) and uses a list of 66 different variables associated with the individual and measures those variables against the features of over 1,000 colleges.

vibeffect’s individual variables include things like whether a prospective applicant has held a job, whether he or she likes working independently or on a team, and if the person is apt to ask for help (or not). On the college side, vibeffect factors in a school’s use of innovative teaching techniques, transportation options, and social opportunities. “Through that,” said Elena Maria Cox, co-founder and CEO, “we’re able to create correlations between an individual and the campus features that will help them thrive.”

Next page: Technology eases student-counselor conversations


Every Student Succeeds Act shifts more power to states

Much-anticipated bill attempts to satisfy all stakeholder groups as it moves away from NCLB mandates

every-student-succeedsWhile a “new and improved” version of the hotly-debated No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) would still require reading and math testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, states would have much more leeway when it comes to defining teaching and learning objectives and outlining accountability measures.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states the power to determine their own academic goals and measure progress toward those goals–a departure from NCLB, which aimed for 100 percent math and reading proficiency by 2014.

States or districts will be in charge of determining how to improve persistently underperforming schools. Previously, NCLB gave the federal government a strong voice in what happened to those schools. Now, under Every Student Succeeds, schools requiring much intervention would be among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state.

Every Student Succeeds also prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from providing incentives for participation in the Common Core State Standards.

Reaction to the bill came quickly, with critics worrying that states will have too much leeway and too little accountability. Supporters’ statements echoed the sentiment that a change has been a long time coming.


Is your library going Future Ready too?

Modern librarians can take charge in making their schools Future Ready

Ed note: This is the first in a series of columns from digital library expert Mark Ray discussing the changing role of librarians and the Future Ready Schools initiative.

digital-libraryDuring the past year, more than 1900 superintendents have signed the Future Ready Pledge, part of a broadly-defined initiative to promote digital transformation in American schools. Superintendents across the nation are signing on the dotted line with a commitment to promote and support digital ways of teaching, learning, and leading. As the Future Ready Schools project enters its second year, districts are seeking to operationalize innovation from the classroom to the central office.

My district, Vancouver Public Schools in WA, is among a growing number of districts that have identified teacher librarians as partners to provide the necessary leadership to help schools make future readiness more than just a promise.

Working collaboratively with other Future Ready districts—including Lincoln, NE, Washington D.C., and Mooresville Graded School District in N.C.—Vancouver has been part of a national team sponsored by the Follett Project Connect advocacy initiative. A team of district library leaders has developed a simple framework which builds on the Future Ready Schools initiative to identify what makes for a Future Ready library. This framework is based on a simple question: What do students (and teachers) need to be future ready?

Next page: How librarians are leading the charge