App of the Week: Nonfiction reading for all levels

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated with help from Graphite by Common Sense Media. Click here to read the full app review.


What’s It Like? Newsela is an online news-as-literacy platform that features current articles in seven categories: War & Peace, Science, Health, Kids, Money, Law, and Arts. Content is updated daily, with stories from a wide range of sources (from the Associated Press to Scientific American to the Washington Post) in both English and Spanish. On top of this, all articles are Common Core-aligned and available in five Lexile levels, ranging (roughly) from third to 12th grade. Each leveled text features a quiz tailored to that particular article plus a writing prompt that asks kids to write and respond to what they’ve read.

Price: Free/paid

Rating: 5/5

Grades: 2-12

Pros: An innovative tool for delivering high-interest, cross-curricular nonfiction texts to students, right at their reading levels.

Cons: Expanded search and recommendation features could help kids connect with articles tailored even more to their interests and reading levels.

Bottom line: Up-to-date, high-interest articles meet kids right at their levels: Use this robust tool to bolster students’ nonfiction reading practice.


The 4 essential elements of any successful one-to-one program

Not all successful one-to-one programs are alike. But they do share some common ground

As more and more schools and districts set goals to provide one-to-one access to technology to students to meet teaching and learning goals, district and school leaders are faced with the task of planning and implementing technology resources at levels that they might not have experienced in the past. My district, Santa Ana Unified (SAUSD), is increasing access to students through a program called “Access for All,” a well-received iPad and Chromebook initiative. Through this experience, we have developed a model for planning and implementation. Here’s how we got started.

Establish your vision

It is important that any plan to increase levels of access to technology to students does not move forward as a “technology for technology’s sake” effort, but that is integrated as part of the district or school vision for teaching and learning. At SAUSD, the goal of expanding access to technology to students is aligned to the district Framework for Teaching and Learning and has been established as an essential part of the district vision. This vision is centered on establishing a growth model with expanding choice options for students, enhancing personalized learning pathways, and providing a wide variety of blended learning opportunities to support increased student engagement and improved student learning outcomes.

Provide opportunities for stakeholder engagement

One of the first considerations when planning a one-to-one initiative is establishing support and funding. The Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) is a critical part of California’s Local Control Funding Formula. As part of establishing the LCAP plan, school districts must engage parents, educators, staff, and the community.

At SAUSD, the decision to expand access to students emerged through the district’s collaborative discussions with its community groups as part of its LCAP planning. Through the feedback provided by parents, students and teachers at over 100 facilitated discussions, increased access to technology to students was identified as an important district goal to support student success, and was established as part of the district’s funding plan.

Another example of engaging our stakeholders emerged when deciding which mobile device model to select for purchase for schools. The district held a “technology roadshow” to give students an opportunity to voice their opinions on their preferences for specific models of mobile devices. This roadshow was held at representative elementary, intermediate, and high schools in the district, and students “road tested” a variety of mobile devices and gave feedback about selection. As a result, two mobile devices (iPads and chromebooks) emerged as choices for school selection.

Plan for network readiness

Network readiness is an essential component of any one-to-one plan. All district-level Erate and all additional wireless upgrade plans were aligned to support the implementation of our “Access for All” initiative. During our first year, the district’s intermediate schools were identified as the first schools to implement one-to-one mobile devices with their students. This decision was based on earlier experiences in expanding technology-rich learning environments at the intermediate school level. Due to these earlier efforts, the infrastructure at some of these schools had already been updated and served as a model for expansion to other schools.

Build site-based support and leadership capacity

After district planning had determined the grade level focus for implementation and hardware and infrastructure plan, the implementation focus shifted to building and supporting site-based planning capacity. One of the key elements for supporting school planning was established by putting in place bi-weekly “Tech planning Tuesday” meetings. The planning areas of focus include:

  • Communication to students, staff, and parents
  • Mobile device implementation
  • Professional development
  • Digital citizenship for students
  • Support
  • Sustainability planning

The school’s communication efforts focused on providing information on the “Access for All” initiative and to provide a roadmap of the school’s implementation plan. At school meetings held for parents, this information also included a review of the district’s mobile device use policy, and parents were given the opportunity to choose whether or not their child would bring the mobile device home to extend learning. The mobile device implementation planning focused on how the school would check out the mobile devices to their students, and how their support staff would manage and facilitate repairs. As part of our professional development planning, the district created required courses for teachers, which schools scheduled to be held at their school sites. The district also provided an online digital citizenship class for students, which they completed as part of their process for receiving the mobile device.

As schools moved through the implementation process, their planning needs shifted. We received a lot of positive feedback from principals and their planning teams regarding these meetings because they were able to share their experiences and strategies with each other. The capacity of our leadership expanded and grew, with many of our principals emerging as “digital leaders” well equipped to lead schools in purposeful innovation and technology-rich teaching and learning.

[image via flickr]


2016 math gaming competition kicks off

EdGaming math competitions can be a driver for engaging students

Educational games developer DimensionU has launched the 2016 Spring Tournament Season for its DimensionU Math Video Game Competitions in partnership with a variety of local education agencies and STEM Outreach organizations.

Math-based video game competitions provide a compelling environment to support student learning across a broad range of skill levels, offering the opportunity, regardless of academic background, for students to participate and achieve academic success.

The spring tournament season kicked off this month in Dallas Independent School District at its annual STEM Day event on February 6, 2016.

The tournament season slate continues with math competitions in the following locations:
Honolulu, Hawaii – Fort Lauderdale, Florida – Charleston, South Carolina – Champaign, Illinois – Rome, New York – Huntsville, Alabama – Picatinny, New Jersey – Tampa, Florida – Garland, Texas – Washington, D.C. – Austin, Texas – Fort Worth, Texas – New York, New York.

The competitions are typically conducted as live physical events involving elementary, middle, and high school students under a team-based and/or individual-based structure with curriculum differentiated according to a student’s current grade or performance level. This unique feature of the DimensionU Gaming platform, combined with its action-oriented game format, enables and fosters participation among a more inclusive base of students.

“Aside from educational excitement, what is most significant about our competitions is that they can be a key to unlocking the academic potential in students who may otherwise not be engaged in the classroom,” said Steven Hoy, CEO of DimensionU. “ We are creating positive change for many students and lighting a path towards the opportunity for higher education by establishing educational success through non-traditional means,” added Hoy.

DimensionU games are available to individuals, classrooms, schools, after school programs and school divisions via web, mobile and desktop applications and are usable cross-platform. The DimensionU competitions are scalable from classroom to national levels in both virtual and physical environments. Visit to learn more.


Technology can help states meet learning, leadership goals

Catch up on the most compelling K-12 news stories you may have missed this week

Every Friday, I’ll be bringing you a recap of some of the most interesting and thought-provoking news developments that occurred over the week.

I can’t fit all of our news stories here, though, so feel free to visit and read up on other news you may have missed.

In this week’s news:

Closing the 30 million word gap
To cancel the effects of poverty, school systems are extending literacy programs to the larger community

3 computer science policy goals for states
The push for computer science education, including making it more accessible and making it eligible for high school science or math requirements instead of only counting as an elective, is growing.

3 LMS adoptions that go way beyond the basics
These districts and schools are drawing more benefits out of their learning management systems.

School leadership toolkit targets digital equity
A new toolkit aims to improve digital equity in school systems across the nation by helping district leaders develop thoughtful and measured strategies to narrow the homework gap in their communities.


Report explores 3 college, career readiness strategies

A white paper from Pearson is designed to help educators navigate different approaches to students’ college and career readiness

A new white paper introduces three “readiness models” designed to gauge students’ preparedness for college and workforce success.

On Track: Redefining Readiness in Education and the Workplace,” from Pearson, was written by David T. Conley, Ph.D., Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., and researchers from the Pearson Research & Innovation Network Center for College & Career Success.

Over the years, the authors assert, educators, employers, and policy makers have changed their expectations. Instead of wanting to assess students’ current knowledge, these stakeholders want to know more about students’ potential to achieve impactful and successful outcomes in the real world.

This has led to evolving student assessment systems, as well as new definitions around what readiness means.

The white paper presents three readiness models, providing the foundations of each model and comparing and contrasting their structures and objectives.

Next page: Three readiness models in the report


Shmoop releases computer science, technology courses

Courses target beginners and aspiring programmers

The White House recently took aim at the lack of computer science education in the U.S., with a proposal to spend $4 billion to turn up the volume.

Digital publisher Shmoop has launched a suite of computer science courses in an effort to give students the skills they need to land a job.

In the core Computer Science course, students will start by writing simple programs that can type and doodle. Once they’ve mastered the basics, they’ll work their way up to writing programs that take charge and teach them computer science—or something like that. In Introduction to HTML and CSS, students will find out how CSS is the web-equivalent of the stylist who takes off the female protagonist’s glasses and discovers she was beautiful all along. And both coders and luddites will benefit from courses like The History of Technology and The History of the Internet.

“Going forward, it’s going to be a tough slog for English majors,” says David Siminoff, founder of Shmoop. “The job market will require computer science know-how, and anyone without it might just be replaced by a robot…which was engineered by the folks with the CS background.”

As states continue to decide if computer languages fulfill foreign language requirements, Shmoop will release more computer science courses, including Java, Python, Boolean Logic, Raspberry Pi, Foundations of Web Design, Introduction to Computer Science Principles, Web Scripting Fundamentals Using JavaScript, and more. Individual students and teachers can subscribe to Shmoop and get access to every course for a monthly rate.


School Specialty unveils intervention program for low-level readers

Interactive intervention tool aims to engage learners in a digital classroom

According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress — the Nation’s Report Card — only about 35 percent of U.S. fourth and eighth graders perform at the “proficient” level in reading.

To help schools close the achievement gap with students performing significantly below grade level, EPS Literacy and Intervention, a division of School Specialty, announced the debut of iSPIRE, an interactive reading intervention program incorporates phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency to accelerate literacy skill development for the lowest performing students in grades PreK-8.

iSPIRE is powered by Exploros, a streamlined online teaching platform designed to connect teachers to students in a digitally transformed classroom with the teacher at the center of mastery based instruction.

“Closing the literacy gap for U.S. students continues to be a challenge for schools across the country. In order to conquer this challenge, it is critical that teachers have access to effective and engaging learning resources that will help students’ build the reading skills requisite for success in school, college and careers,” said Bodie Marx, senior vice president, School Specialty Curriculum. “We developed iSPIRE based on the proven S.P.I.R.E.® 10-Step Lesson and multisensory approach to reading instruction, and designed it to work on technology that is increasingly prevalent in classrooms to provide a powerful platform for engaging struggling readers and put them on the path to mastery. Schools now have a choice between an online approach and a print-based approach, with the teacher always at the center of the instruction.”

The dynamic structure of iSPIRE’s 10-Step Lesson Plan allows for digital, teacher-led instruction that lets districts increase traditional reading intervention group sizes of two to four students to five to eight, resulting in a cost-effective solution for districts and making it more efficient for educators when working with struggling learners.

Through the use of a variety of digital manipulatives and drawing tools, iSPIRE builds engaging classroom experiences that promote phonological awareness and phonics-based skills. Students also participate in daily fiction and nonfiction reading activities, which help them master comprehension skills.

Other interactive student activities reinforce vocabulary, comprehension and fluency and the embedded formative assessments ensure that students master key concepts to promote acceleration through the six levels of iSPIRE.

Teachers and administrators who use iSPIRE will find meaningful student progress reports that deliver assessment data in real-time, allowing teachers to either immediately accelerate students who have mastered key reading concepts or pinpoint areas for remediation. Clear and explicit lessons help teachers provide targeted instruction, while on-demand professional development ensures that teachers receive continuous support.

For more information about iSPIRE, visit


The benefits of adding video to teacher evaluations

A Harvard researcher shares her national perspective on improving professional development

One of the biggest challenges in K-12 education is finding an effective and productive way to evaluate teacher performance. In a world where technology is rapidly reshaping the classroom, it’s natural to look to its potential, especially considering that many schools now have the technology to do classroom observation via video. However, these same schools aren’t yet convinced whether the investment will change status quo evaluations. To find out, in 2012, the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, where I work, piloted the Best Foot Forward Project (BFF), a study that grew out of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project.

BFF began with pilot programs in large districts in Georgia and North Carolina as well as Relay Graduate School of Education. In an effort to gather data from large and small districts in both urban and rural areas, we then expanded the study to include Los Angeles Unified School District, the state of Delaware, and a number of districts in Colorado.

We randomly selected half the teachers to be in a treatment group that would take videos of themselves in the classroom. These videos were then passed along to their principals for evaluation purposes. We also had remote peers provide our treatment group teachers with formative feedback on their subject matter. The control group did “business as usual” when it came to their evaluations.

To capture the video, we used a camera that had been manufactured specifically for the project. It had two lenses so that it could record two different views of the classroom at the same time. In the last year of the project, we wanted to use technology that many teachers already had and knew how to use, so we also recorded with an iPad connected to a microphone and mounted on a Swivl tripod. We have since published a toolkit, available on our website, which advises educators on how to pick the right video technology for their district. It includes recommendations for cameras, microphones, and viewing platforms, such as Insight ADVANCE. As we had done in the MET study, we had teachers choose which videos they would submit to the principal for evaluation.

The results

Our two-year impact study ended in May 2015, and we found that teachers in the treatment group had a better experience of evaluation than those in the control group. Here are the top three reasons why:

  1. The conversation was less adversarial. As anyone who has ever sat through a job evaluation can tell you, they can be combative, and it is hard to change the way you do your job based on a conversation in which you are constantly on the defensive. Using classroom videos as a common reference point, teachers and principals in our treatment group found that they agreed more during their evaluations, which made teachers more open to constructive feedback.
  1. They got more specific and more actionable feedback from their principals. Audiovisual documentation made it clearer what teachers were doing right, as well as the areas in which they could use some improvement.
  1. They saw more of what their students were doing. In today’s tech-enabled classrooms, there’s a lot going on at once, and teachers can’t always take it all in. Videos helped them see what they were missing. One great example of this was a teacher who recorded a class, and only when watching the video realized that a student had been bouncing a golf ball against the wall throughout the entire period.

Principals benefited from video observation as well.

  1. Their conversations with teachers were more fruitful. In the less adversarial atmosphere I described above, the door was more open to collaboration between principals and their teachers.
  1. They spent more time observing instruction and less time doing paperwork. Although the principals in the treatment group did spend more time overall on the evaluation process than their peers in the control group, a greater percentage of that time was spent watching their teachers teach.
  1. They had more flexibility in when they did their observation. Rather than taking time out of their school day to be in a certain classroom at a certain time, principals could watch videos at home, during lunch, or whenever was most convenient for them.

Interestingly, one of the areas in which principals struggled when watching videos was in seeing student behavior and performance.

District size matters

From the focus groups we held with Best Foot Forward participants, we observed notable differences among the different districts. Teachers from smaller districts, where they were accustomed to frequent observation, were less satisfied with the results of their video observations than teachers from big districts who had had fewer observations. This is probably because larger districts have more difficulty delivering quality feedback at scale. Principals are responsible for evaluating many more teachers within the same period of time.

Since completing BFF, we have had a great deal of international interest in video observation pilots from countries like Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, and South Africa. No matter where we continue our work, we look forward to finding ways to make teacher evaluations less about recrimination and more about collaboration.