App of the Week: Better parent-teacher communication

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

ClassTag is a messaging tool for teachers and their students’ parents. Teachers set up a free account and create a class, and they can add parents directly or send parents an access code to sign up on their own and join the class. Then teachers can use the app to create two types of posts: Announcements and Activities.

Price: Free

Grades: 5-8

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Excellent how-to info makes it easy for teachers to get oriented and get creative.

Cons: Some features may be redundant with communications tools your school already has in place.

Bottom line: A fabulous way to coordinate the little sign-ups that make a big difference.


Infographic: The ed-tech challenges faced by immigrant students

Despite sizable challenges in technology and internet access and experience, immigrant Hispanic families are among the most likely to prioritize technology purchases that will support their children’s education, according to a new survey.

Although technology’s presence is growing in classrooms, students from lower-income families often face connectivity and access challenges at home. What’s more, Hispanic families headed by immigrant parents face even steeper challenges, according to research from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Access is still a troubling issue among this group. Families headed by immigrant Hispanics are less likely to have a broadband internet connection or own devices that connect to broadband internet–just 35 percent of immigrant Hispanic families have broadband access and only 63 percent own a computer.

The research also shows that 43 percent of immigrant Hispanic parents purchased their most recent devices for their children’s education, compared with 30 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic parents, 23 percent of white parents, and 18 percent of black parents.

The data could indicate that immigrant Hispanic parents see technology as critical when it comes to increasing their children’s opportunities, because these parents are more likely to have limited education and income and are less likely to have lived in the U.S. for a long time.

(Next page: View the infographic)


Why education needs strong advocates now more than ever

Spring time is invigorating, especially in my home town of Gastonia, North Carolina. Gastonia is very southern; its roots are in the textile business, and in many ways, it is a very conservative traditional southern town. After a particularly hard Winter that included almost three inches of snow and several days with highs only in the 40s, the town is in full bloom. The flowers. The trees. The birds. Everything comes alive here in the Spring, and it reminds me that anything is possible.

For those of you in the North, you are probably laughing at my description of our hard Winter. My friend Larry Jacobs, who is the host of Education Talk Radio, lives in Maine. When we talked last week, he was still getting snow. Maybe Winter is relative. If you don’t know Larry, he is one of the many strong voices in the education space. From his home studio, Larry interviews many of the most interesting people in education. His show has really caught on, and gets more than 50,000 downloads a month, mostly from superintendents, CAOs, principals and other admin types in the education biz. I’ve known Larry for years now, and have appeared on his show many times. He is a genuine character, and about as northern as I am southern. It’s pretty amusing when I am on his show. My southern draw is so thick and I speak so slowly that it is all Larry can do to let me speak. His “northernosity” gets the best of him and he jumps in.

Prisons, Schools and VR for Inmates

Because it’s Spring and all things are possible, let’s tackle some big issues. I remember reading that since 1979, we have spent three times more on prisons than schools. That’s a pretty telling statistic. As educators, we should be alarmed. As a nation, we should be ashamed. But that’s where we are. The real question now is, what is the way forward? With three million of our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters incarcerated and one in five people in this country having some type of arrest, we need strong voices and real solutions. One of our brightest and best in that arena, and someone you should know, is Dr. Turner Nashe. I called Turner in his Nashville office a couple days ago to get a bead on this issue. He was his usual passionate self, and a whirlwind of activity. Turner is a force of nature. He was among the first to dream of putting tablets with education programs in the hands of inmates – way before we were talking about 1:1 schools – and he made it a reality.

Now, Turner is working on virtual reality to teach inmates trades and technical careers. They don’t have access to training facilities or equipment to learn on. So Turner is working to bring equipment and training facilities to inmates through virtual reality. These are real-world, sophisticated programs that will prepare inmates for real-world careers.

Tradition Gives Way to Progress

Even in my small town of Gastonia, tradition is giving way to real-world learning. I am constantly surprised at how progressive the learning is here. Our 15-year-old, Stone, is a freshman at Forestview High School. I watched as he completed an assignment to research a point of view, form an argument and craft a speech to deliver his argument. His speech was cogent, well-formed and thoughtful. In the 9th grade, he is learning how to research with discernment and document his work using Google tools. In his future, documenting work and proving skill sets will be infinitely more important than presenting a transcript of letter grades. He’ll have to display competencies. The fact that he earned all A’s will have little meaning. He’ll have to work in groups, solve problems and document the process.

One of my Canadian friends, Chris Besse, is a strong voice in that area. If you don’t know Chris, he lives Toronto and is, hands down, one of the smartest people I know. For the last four years, Chris has been on a mission to improve learning. His company, FreshGrade, documents and shows the learning process every step of the way – involving parents, teachers and students. I am probably not doing FreshGrade justice here, but the nation of Canada has gone gonzo for it. They have whole districts that have eliminated letter grades and even report cards in favor of this type of assessment. Chris is doing a good bit of work in the US as well, and from what I understand his company is improving not only the way we assess learning, but how that assessment translates into action. It’s real-world and it’s working.

The co-founder of FreshGrade, Lane Merrifield, tells a funny story about why he started the company, and it’s one every parent can relate to. He used to sit at the kitchen table and ask his son, “What did you do at school today?” The answer was always the same, “Nothing.” He got so frustrated that he started FreshGrade, and now he and Chris are helping millions of learners.

Pretty cool stuff, huh? Chris, Turner, Larry. Just three of the many strong voices out there in education today. Like springtime in my home town of Gastonia, the education world is coming alive with ideas and strong voices that refuse to take no for an answer. So, what did you do in your district today?


3 keys to student success with early college programs

Like a growing number of school districts, North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools (GCS) has early college programs that allow students to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. But what’s unique about GCS is the number of choices the district offers: 14 altogether, including nine high schools that operate on college campuses.

GCS has offered early college options since 2001 and has seen remarkable success, despite serving a largely urban and low-income population. All but two of its early college high schools have a 100-percent graduation rate—and the lowest rate among the other two is 97 percent.

What’s more, these programs aren’t just serving the top students in the district, who would already be on a college track. Some of them target students considered at risk of dropping out, making college both attainable and affordable for students who otherwise would not attend.

“We take pride in offering choices for our students,” said Nakia Hardy, chief academic officer for the district. “Our early college programs are having a phenomenal impact on students. All of them are smaller than traditional high schools, and students are performing exceptionally well.”

How the Programs Work

In all of these programs, students take high school courses taught by GCS instructors during their first two years. During their junior and senior years, they take college-level courses taught by college instructors, and they can graduate with up to two years of college credit tuition-free.

At the STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T University, for instance, students can focus on one of three career pathways: biotechnology, engineering, or renewable and sustainable resources. “For many of our students, this program is their ticket to reaching their goals,” said Principal Jamisa Williams. “Their tuition is covered, and they are two years ahead of their peers when they graduate. That’s money in the bank for them.”

Focusing on the Disengaged

While the STEM Early College program attracts traditionally high-achieving students who want to get a jump on their college experience, the Middle College at North Carolina A&T is very different. It focuses on young men who feel disengaged from school and are in danger of failing. The program seeks to reengage these students by accelerating their learning so they are no longer bored with school, while connecting the skills they are developing with practical careers such as entrepreneurship or app development. (The Middle College at Bennett College is a similar program just for young women.)

“We accept students from all academic tracks, and not just the ‘A’ students,” said Marcus Gause, principal of the Middle College at A&T. “Students who are struggling in a traditional school setting often benefit from a smaller learning environment. We have class sizes of 10 to 15 students, so we can focus on students as individuals. This gives us a chance to work more often with them one-on-one.”

Guilford County’s early college programs are changing students’ lives. Williams described one senior in the STEM Early College program who wants to be a doctor and was accepted into his top choice of universities. “He has shared with me that, had it not been for this school, he would not be going on to college,” she said. “He would not have been able to afford it. We have students whose dreams are being fulfilled because of this opportunity.”

It’s not only academic achievement that defines the success of these programs. “The social-emotional skills and confidence that students are gaining are tremendous,” Hardy said. “They are able to advocate for themselves—and that’s ultimately the real benefit.”

(Next page: 3 lessons schools can learn from Guilford’s early college program success)


5 reasons why blended learning programs fail-and how to save them

[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 1 of our April series on Blended Learning. Check back every Thursday this month for the next installment!]

Too often, educators who are considering investing in blended learning pull back after hearing horror stories of good programs gone bad. Whether it’s botched rollouts, network snafus, or general apathy that kills an initiative, many telling signs can be traced back to the planning and initial support stages.

We won’t pretend that our district has everything figured out, but after seven years of blended learning, going 1:1 at our four secondary schools and all fifth grades, and having our model elementary school recognized by the International Center for Education and Learning, Meriden Public Schools has seen rising graduation and attendance rates, and we are better off than we were before our blended journey began.

As we have discovered through trial and plenty of errors, without staff and community buy-in, many otherwise well-intentioned programs hit the skids before they’ve really gotten up to speed. We are proud to share some of the challenges we’ve encountered, along with best practices for ensuring that your program remains on the road to success.

1. Some programs start too fast.

Creating a successful blended learning program isn’t a race, and ours has taken nearly a decade to achieve. When we began our foray into blended learning about seven years ago, nobody was even talking about a device program, and the thought of going 1:1 seemed light-years away from where we were. Instead of jumping in feet first, we laid the groundwork and did the small things we thought we could accomplish.

We upgraded our WiFi, making it more robust than ever, and prepared for future growth. Then we implemented a district-wide BYOD program where kids as young as kindergarten were bringing in devices to share with their class. But as a district with a large free-and-reduced meals program, we knew BYOD was leaving gaps in access that were best addressed by going 1:1.

Now, all secondary students are issued a Chromebook that is theirs to keep—even during the summer. We use Chromebook carts for K-5 students and offer iPad carts that teachers can check out on demand.

teacher buy-in

2. There’s no staff buy-in.

Teachers are understandably wary about fly-by-night initiatives that take time and attention away from their teaching and give back little appreciable benefits. We wanted to make sure our teachers would embrace the change, see its benefit, and be comfortable with what we were asking them to do.

In response, we created a tech team from among our staff to help advise the teachers and students with questions as they came up. We also used students as on-site coaches to help teachers and peers with any tech issues. Providing that on-site support allowed us to offer tiered interventions for our staff.

We were clear and upfront with sharing the data collected. We want our teachers to see the success. By sharing this information openly, we showed teachers that students really were progressing at higher levels.

(Next page: 3 more ways blended learning programs fail)


The 5 components of a future-proofed technology initiative

As students move through different phases of their education, the shape of their learning spaces changes. Young students see brightly-colored bookshelves and reading areas, where middle school students have lab tablets and desktop computers. Just as the atmosphere in the classroom changes to suit the students’ age and learning requirements, the technology in the classroom also has to accommodate the learning requirements of that age group.

According to a survey from Front Row Education, elementary school students mainly use iPads whereas middle school students are using Chromebooks. But what happens when students bring iPads into a room designed to work with Chromebooks? How does a school future-proof its classroom technology?

The Power of Interoperability: Use and Budget

The technology in the classroom has to be interoperable as students pass into different grades and their personal technology evolves. This is essential to meeting the needs of students in different phases of learning and to ensuring that the classroom technology is a worthy investment of tight school budgets.

As new technology is available and students’ personal device preferences evolve as they grow, classrooms need to be able to adapt. Costly equipment could be virtually unusable if the students’ devices are incompatible, and schools don’t often have the budget to purchase new systems every few years—to future-proof the classroom for whatever technology students prefer to use, schools can’t afford to bet on predictions about the winner of the battle for the classroom and if it will be Windows, Google or Apple.

Identifying the Components of a Great Technology System

1. An education technology system should be able to work with any device or platform so students and teachers aren’t limited to what and how they can share content now and in the future.

(Next page: 4 more components of a great technology system)


Greatest lesson: Teacher buy-in is overrated

One of the greatest lessons my 30 years of experience in education has taught me is that teacher buy-in is, sometimes, overrated.

There, I said it.

Now, before you stop reading, note my use of the word “sometimes.”  As a former school administrator, I realize there is a time and place for buy-in.  However, as one of my mentors, a seasoned middle school principal once explained to me, while consensus and collaborative decision-making is important, it can also be paralyzing to innovation.  Understanding the balance between growing buy-in and launching innovation has never been more important than in today’s era.

As new ideas about teaching and learning go in and out of style, teachers have a right to feel some initiative fatigue. From organizational concepts like Open Classrooms to pedagogical trends like Madeline Hunter’s Essential Elements of Instruction [I have to admit that I still love this one], great new ideas that will transform education seem to come and go with stunning regularity.

In my role working with school districts across the country as Vice President of Learning and Development at Discovery Education, I sometimes meet teachers who are not ready to make the transition from using textbooks as a core instructional resource to using digital content to create dynamic learning environments.  They feel the digital transition is a fad, or that they, their students, or their school district is not ready for such a change.  Here is a sample of the pushback I hear:

“My colleagues and I aren’t ready for a digital textbook.”

“Our students don’t have access at home, so we can’t go all digital.”

“We don’t have the budget to go 1:1, therefore, we can’t go with digital textbooks.”

“Our students are losing their ability to communicate effectively because they have too much technology already in their lives.”

3 Reasons Why Teacher Buy-In is (Sometimes) Overrated

1. The Real World Isn’t Dependent on Teacher Buy-In

I recognize these are all legitimate challenges that need to be addressed.  However, the fact remains that today’s world is a digital world, and in order for our students to be successful beyond graduation, they need an education that prepares them to operate productively in our society as it is.

This reality makes the digital transition not a fad or something we might be able to get to, but rather, an immediate necessity that cannot always wait for optimum levels of teacher buy-in.

(Next page: 2 more reasons why teacher buy-in is sometimes overrated)


Education policy check-up: 7 things to know

It’s a busy–and tumultuous–time in Washington.

With daily developments in the U.S. Education Department, it’s often difficult to keep pace with new education policy recommendations, staff updates, and news.

We’re here to help. Here are 7 developments, discussions, and education policy issues you might have missed:

During an AEI panel discussion on the Every Student Succeeds Act and the federal role in U.S. Education, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) shared lessons and insights learned from his 40 years in education policy:

1. The national school board is inappropriate. A small federal department of education, filled with well meaning people, simply doesn’t have the capacity to evaluate teachers, rate schools, set standards and approve tests in 100,000 schools in 50 states.

(Next page: Five more education policy developments)


Why Gen Z needs librarians now more than ever

[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 2 of our month-long series on “What it means to teach Gen Z.” Click here to read Part 1 on Gen Z and parents. Check back every Monday in April to read the next installment!]

Librarians and media specialists are in a unique position within schools, since they are very often the person responsible for introducing students to new technologies, and are also on the front lines when it comes to connecting students to meaningful sources for research.

Today’s students have never known a world without the smartphone or tablet, and many of them have been using these devices independently since infancy. The answers to their questions have never been more than a click of a button away. In this brave new world of technological innovation and free-flowing information, librarians are now tasked with teaching these digital natives how to navigate these waters with discernment, while still taking full advantage of the opportunities these tools afford them.

Kids are curious, and they soak up new information like a sponge. Gen Z has grown up with access to more technology than any previous generation, so they have a hard time waiting for information because they can so easily find it online. Even the youngest learners know that you can find out the answer to a question right now on the internet.

Guiding Research

With increased access to technology comes unique challenges such as increased access to inappropriate content and fake news.

As an elementary school, we are very concerned about inappropriate content. Our district’s web filters do a great job of making sure students don’t have access to unsafe content at school, and we also teach safe searching so that even when students are outside of school they can find appropriate content.

Even before “fake news” became a buzzword, we taught our students about vetted content. At school, they have access to trustworthy databases and we teach them that these databases contain researched information that has been proven to be accurate, as opposed to what they might find with an open-ended internet search.

(Next page: Vetting tools for Gen Z, introducing new technology)


App of the Week: Thoughtful sex-ed

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Amaze is a website designed to help kids learn about sexual education, their changing bodies, and positive relationships. Created by three health and sexual information advocacy groups, the site serves as an online education resource for kids age 10 to 14. Short videos, which are released first on the site’s YouTube channel, then hosted on Amaze, focus on topics ranging from puberty for boys to STDs and HIV. Category listings have been included for pregnancy and personal safety, although there currently aren’t videos on those subjects on the site.

Price: Free

Grades: 5-8

Rating: 4/5

Pros: A fun visual style, solid information, and easy-to-understand info make tough questions a lot easier to ask.

Cons: The irreverent tone and frank content may challenge parents’ and teachers’ expectations on what’s appropriate in this context.

Bottom line: An appealingly down-to-earth way to help kids face tough questions about navigating the challenges of puberty.