In a shaky political climate, here’s why students are more important than ever

Politics is a funny beast. Being a journalist, I watch the gyrations and positioning with interest. When I was coming up in the business, I used to cover town council and school board meetings. It’s amazing; even then you could go to any town council or school board meeting anywhere and find remarkable similarities. With all the changes in the world over the last 30 plus years, politics still look the same to me.

Because I’m staunchly southern, one of my restaurants of choice is my local Waffle House. I remember a recent conversation I had there over a cup of coffee and hash browns, smothered, covered and chunked. My companion and love of my life, Kristy Holloway, remarked that you could go to any Waffle House in the country and see the same customers, same waitresses and same kitchen staff. The same well-defined personalities playing the same roles. And the same holds true for politics—the big-time politics you see in the news and the politics you don’t see in every school district in America.

Education Bigger than Politics

There are big changes afoot in education. So big in fact, that these changes are eclipsing the political quagmire that generally maintains the status quo.

In my conversations with teachers, principals and supes, I am sensing a realization that there is a better way forward. The encouraging part is that everyone seems to be seeing and saying the same things.

From our southern outpost in Gastonia, North Carolina, I am regularly on the phone with education-types from sunrise until well into the evening. We have some very engaging conversations, often getting into the weeds about some very common themes.

What I find is a remarkable passion among these educators. What I find encouraging is that almost everyone not only sees the same problems, but they see the same solutions to these problems. What I find even more encouraging is that they all seem to be at the same place: it’s time to act and get this thing done.

Hopefully, I’m not being overly optimistic. We southerners tend to look at things differently. We are very polite, and perhaps there is a bit of Pollyanna in us (it may be a result of all the sweet tea we drink—which we simply call tea, since drinking unsweet tea is akin to southern treason and unthinkable in polite society). What I see through my tea-soaked journalistic lens is a nation of educators and administrators who are ready to turn the education ship around, away from politics and the status quo and towards a new education reality, one in which summative testing and federal funding and district requirements take steerage and the abilities and needs of the learners are now in first-class.

Virtually everyone I talk to is on board. Republicans, democrats, independents, teachers, principals, superintendents and parents. Feelings are very strong and the realization is that we have been so focused on the business of education that we forgot to focus on our learners—the very reason we do all this in the first place. The simple truth is that our jobs don’t matter. What the federal government thinks doesn’t matter. What the unions think doesn’t matter. What the school board thinks doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters, and the reason we’re in this business at all—is that each and every one of our precious children can learn and flourish and be the best version of himself or herself that they can be. It is not about the aggregate. It is about the one.

True Change is on the Horizon

If we understand that, and from my conversations I think we do, then we are truly at the place where wholesale changes can and will take place.

Learners today are very smart. They understand their place in a global society of learners. They have an innate sense of community, and a real desire to give back and make their global community a better place. I hear that from my conversations, and see the evidence in the work that they do and the incredible things they can accomplish when they work collaboratively to solve real-world problems.

I have believed for a long time that learners are much smarter and more capable than we give them credit for. Generally, when we lose students it is because they are bored and not because they are incapable.

There are some amazing tools out there that can meet kids where they live and take them to great places in the learning journey. My friend Gina LaMotte is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called EcoRise. Gina worked around the world in places like Brazil, India, Nepal and Guatemala, as well as Harlem and Taos, New Mexico before finding a very southern home in Texas. Her organization, EcoRise, teaches learners about sustainability through a project-based curriculum that has the kids working together to help their districts become energy independent and environmentally sound, saving districts like San Francisco and Austin millions of dollars that can be directed back to the kids for education.

What Gina knows, and what all the educators I talk to around the world seem to know as well, is that the future of education lies in the strengths and abilities of our students to direct their learning, to work with their peers and to fix a system you and I have perpetuated for far too long.

The world looks different now. It is so much larger and so much smaller at the same time. The traditional roles we play in our town council and school board meetings are giving way to a new environment where territorial land-grabs and ego power-plays will be replaced by the satisfaction of accomplishment and the elimination of the fear of change.

30 years from now, I won’t look back and see the same politics and the same players. My (hopefully) still keen journalistic eye will see a very different scene. Learning will be a self-directed and collaborative exercise, jobs will be for the most part global and done by a remote workforce, and educators, students and industry will work together to advance the quality of life for everyone.

And God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll still be in Gastonia sipping my tea.


Want to save your district $3 billion on edtech?

School districts are routinely being overcharged by at least $3 billion on ed-tech products, including hardware and software, each year–the equivalent of 54,000 first-year teacher salaries, according to a new study from the Technology for Education Consortium (TEC).

The study on ed-tech purchasing reveals schools spend an estimated $13.2 billion on ed-tech products each year. This includes $4.9 billion on hardware such as tablets, laptops and desktops, along with $8.38 billion on instructional and non-instructional software and content.

The authors note that a lack of price transparency makes it difficult for districts to find cost-efficient options to fund their technology initiatives, resulting in over-spending.

It analyzes pricing data from 130 school districts around the country. TEC found that prices varied between 20 and 40 percent for hardware and software products, with no correlation to district size.

Next page: Huge price discrepancies when different districts purchase the same iPad, Chromebook bundles


Chromebook takeover signals major shift in education…but not in the way you may think

According to the New York Times, the massive adoption of Google and its Chromebooks in U.S. classrooms (accounting for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools) is signaling a “profound shift in American education;” and they’re calling it the “Googlification of the classroom.” But is Googlifiction spurring a much bigger shift in today’s K-12 classrooms than simply switching devices?

Though the low-cost of Chromebooks, free apps offered, and marketing to teacher and admin rather than high-level district officials are all reasons why Google is in almost every classroom today, one of the most massive underlying reasons for the tremendous adoption rate is a fundamental shift in how students are learning: from test-specific memorization of facts to harnessing online tools for problem-solving, collaborative learning.

In essence, the use of Google in the classroom is true Googlification, or modeling learning off of Google’s own employee skillset, in that the use of Google and Chromebooks in the classroom aims to turn today’s students into creative and collaborative problem-solvers that know how to intuitively harness online and in-hand technologies.

“Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education—prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas,” writes the New York Times. “It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.”

The article also argues that Google may have a larger, more consumer-based motive for targeting education: get students hooked on Google products and they’ll be consumers for life. It also emphasizes that use of student data is quickly becoming a thorny issue among parents and school officials.

Read more about Chromebooks and the Googlification of the classroom in the New York Times article here: “How Google took over the classroom.

Read more about Chromebook adoption here: “Incredible: Growth of this technology crushes Apple, Microsoft in K-12 classrooms.

Read about Microsoft’s new education endeavor here: “Breaking: Microsoft just made its biggest education investment in history.


4 things DeVos said during her ASU+GSV keynote

During her keynote address at the annual ASU+GSV Summit in Utah, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos didn’t stray too far from her usual focus topics.

DeVos covered a range of familiar education topics, and she also touched on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a key federal higher-education law that has languished for years during talks of reauthorization.

Despite ASU+GSV serving as a good platform for DeVos to talk about educational technology and innovation, she instead focused on school choice and reducing the federal role in education.

During a fireside chat with Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools, DeVos glossed over a general question about technology and compared it to “a thousand flower,” adding that we “haven’t planted the whole garden.”

(Next page: 4 things DeVos focused on during her remarks)


Startling: New report reveals 10 ways students are outpacing their schools

Although technology changes at a rapid pace, one thing is constant: today’s students have a deep desire to learn using digital tools and resources that engage them and help them develop real-world skills.

From mobile devices to gaming and online learning, students are ready to take charge of their learning, often outpacing their schools in their use of these digital tools for learning.

More than one-third of middle school students say they have already taken an online class in math, science and English. But they want more options, and said they would take more courses, and take a variety of subjects, if possible.

“Students have always self-directed some of their own learning, but with the explosion of mobile devices, 24/7 connectivity and digital resources, students are leaving adults behind as they explore subjects that interest them in the ways they learn best,” said Dr. Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow. Through Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up 2016 Research Project for Digital Learning, students shared their digital learning preferences.

“Despite all of the opportunity at their fingertips with the growth in educational technology access in schools, more than half (56 percent) of students say they use technology more often for learning outside of school than in school,” Evans said.

(Next page: The 10 most important things you should know about digital learners)


App of the Week: Students find their STEM passion!

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? 

Couragion is a website that helps match students to STEM careers. Kids begin by answering a questionnaire that asks them about their values. They then use sliders and drag and drop their choices to signify the importance of things such as travel, recognition, creativity, and variety in their work.

Price: Annual subscription is $30 per user. Education volume discounts are available upon request.

Grades: 7-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Well organized and quickly exposes kids to a broad variety of STEM careers.

Cons: Videos and web quests cannot take the place of actual role models and mentors.

Bottom line: Students identify career values and use them to evaluate STEM options.


Teachers speak: What PD actually works?

Even with the best technology in the world, there is one key element that determines student success: a high-quality, highly-effective teacher.

In fact, some research estimates that teachers can impact students’ lifetime earnings by 10 to 20 percent, which can increase the U.S. gross domestic product by tens of trillions of dollars.

And professional development (PD) is critical in helping teachers as they continue to hone their skills and evolve as educators. But what kind of PD is most effective, and does the kind of PD that helps teachers best change as teachers become more experienced?

A new study series tackles those very questions.

The report, Investing in What it Takes to Move From Good to Great, is the third in a series that (the third in the study series) summarizes findings from a 2016 survey of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) and builds on the results of a similar survey of State and National Teachers of the Year in 2013–2014.

(Next page: PD approaches, along with policy recommendations, for teachers at every stage of their careers)


7 go-to apps for students with special needs

When used properly as a teaching tool, technology has the power to engage students and elevate their learning.

High-quality, effective teachers know this–and they also know that students of all abilities can use technology to assist with learning.

A plethora of technology tools, including apps for tablets and mobile devices, can meet the varying needs of students with disabilities and other special needs.

The apps in this list can be used by students with dyslexia, students with autism, those who need social assistance, and more.

[Editor’s note: While these apps may meet certain instructional needs, eSchool News has not used or reviewed the apps in this list.]

(Next page: 7 apps for students with special needs)


Best practices for rolling out tech in the classroom—an administrative perspective

At The Shipley School, we’ve embraced how technology can aid in the learning process for all of our students, particularly in our Middle School (grades 6-8) and Upper School (grades 9-12) classrooms. With laptops, students can quickly access information while in class, use audio and video tools to complement traditional assignments, and collaborate more easily on group projects.

We’re a Pre-K-12 coeducational independent school located in the competitive Philadelphia education market, so we’re always looking for ways to differentiate ourselves, and we pride ourselves in providing a world class education for our students.

Shipley has always been interested in student technology use, and for years that meant laptops available via computer labs and carts for teachers to reserve for their lessons. As computer use and personal laptop use became more common, we allowed students to bring their own devices to school, but recognized not every student comes from a family with the financial means to buy an extra laptop for their child.

This created a disparity, and we wanted to level the playing field by giving all students access to the best resources and learning tools, including technology. In 2013, Shipley made the integration of technology a priority, and the Board of Trustees approved a 1:1 program—a program where we provide each student (grades 6-12) with a school-leased laptop. 

Training for Teachers

Tech Training

Long before our students had laptops in hand, we began working with our Middle School and Upper School teachers. We balanced specific technical training on our learning management system and particular web tools with discussions about best practices for classroom management and room design.

We had honest conversations about how to exist and teach in this new environment.

Time Management

Having a classroom full of students with laptops can be a challenge for even the most seasoned teachers, especially for those who may feel less confident with technology. So when providing professional learning for our colleagues, we discussed different challenging classroom scenarios, like how to tell when laptops are becoming a distraction or determining if a student’s laptop “emergency” is actually something that warrants time out of class to visit the tech department.

Physical Space

On a practical level, teachers had to rethink how their classrooms would be configured. For instance, would they want to be able to get behind screens to check their students’ work? Where should the teacher’s desk be? When students collaborate on digital work, do all of them need an open laptop or is one enough? What tools are easiest for student collaboration and teacher supervision? Since we had many teachers who were already doing great work with technology, we were able to take advantage of many in-house experts.

(Next page: Where to begin; 1:1 pains and successes)