Experts: 5 elements for a winning, data-informed district

Data, data, data. Most school leaders know how important data is to every part of a district’s operations, from bus routes to PD and student achievement. But sometimes, capturing and interpreting that data proves challenging.

Still, when data is collected and used to drive transformational change in a district, the results are nothing short of eye-opening.

During an ISTE 2017 session from eSchool Media and BrightBytes, a panel of ed-tech experts discussed how the ability to collect, access and easily interpret data has allowed them to personalize student learning and track achievement.

Panelists included Chuck Holland, director of technology integration in South Carolina’s Richland School District Two; Donna Teuber, innovation program designer in Richland School District Two; Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer of the Calcasieu Parish School District in Louisiana; and Jeff McCoy, associate superintendent of South Carolina’s Greenville County Schools. Here are some of the things attendees learned:

1. Technology is a must-have part of learning

“We’ve turned the corner so technology isn’t the cool thing anymore–it’s the necessary thing,” said Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer in Louisiana’s Calasieu Parish Schools. “Twenty years ago, if we didn’t have email or if the internet went down, nobody cared but [technology staff]. Now, if it bleeps for one second, our phones start blowing up, and it’s because the internet is mission-critical. This innovative practice of using technology as an anchoring part of the total learning environment has been transformational. It’s not a revolution–it’s an evolution. The innovative piece is that you change teaching and learning with technology–the innovation is technology not for technology’s sake, but for the sake of advancing learning.”

(Next page: 4 more reasons data is essential in today’s districts)


These educators know how to make PBL work for teachers

Project-based learning (PBL) is a trend that’s spreading faster than a wildfire during a drought. Why? Because research on PBL proves that it increases student engagement and achievement, and helps students develop the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in their future careers.

For PBL to reach its full potential, though, educators must learn to step back and be facilitators in the classroom, a change that requires thoughtful and ongoing professional development. Here, three educators offer their insights on what it takes to roll out and support a successful PBL implementation.

Give Teachers Autonomy, Flexibility

Art Fessler, superintendent, Community Consolidated School District 59

Learning in District 59 reflects the real work being done in the world, empowers the learner, solves real-world problems, and provides for student agency. We are moving from a traditional means of education to an environment where kids are empowered to learn. PBL has been used in classrooms throughout our district for many years.

However, as we shift into a modern learning environment, I wanted to ensure educators had a shared understanding of what PBL looks like. We made visits to local programs engaging in PBL and worked closely with their administration and coaches to help us identify a path to implementation and develop our own PBL opportunities.

We attempt to build teacher buy-in by allowing voice in the process and autonomy in the design. As a leadership team, we spend a significant amount of time discussing and building a shared understanding of best practices in instruction and leadership so leaders have the requisite skill to inspire and lead. Both building and district leaders are required to spend a portion of their day in classroom and grade-level meetings to gain understanding of the challenges staff face. Asking good questions, collecting data, and providing meaningful feedback all play an important role in building leadership credibility and empowerment.

We have used multiple professional guidance materials and resources including the Buck Institute and Defined STEM. While Buck Institute has helped us kick-start our PBL program by providing educational blogs and actual units, Defined STEM’s project-based learning resources have saved us valuable time spent curriculum planning.

We ensure every resource we provide allows teachers the flexibility to modify and really personalize lessons to meet the needs of their students and provide some level of choice in learning. The bottom line is that we provide educators the tools to make the learning applicable and engaging, and to prepare our students to be successful for life.

(Next page: More advice on PBL success)


This is how you build the library of the future

When looking towards the future of education and instruction, hardware will not be the catalyst for change. The people behind the technology will be the ones who transform student learning. Media specialists operating within the demands of 21st-century innovation find themselves tasked with the responsibility not only to be as tech-savvy as possible, but to tap into their creativity to create an inspiring library learning environment. The 4 C’s (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity) will drive our pioneering approach to developing the libraries of the future.

As teachers, today’s librarians and media specialists bring a valuable understanding of the potential that both information and technology have to support an effective learning environment. Innovative librarians tend to be at the forefront of identifying, modeling, and implementing the latest technologies in ways that allow students and teachers to see and garner the benefits.

While innovation is often associated with the latest gadget or software, it doesn’t always equate to a high-tech solution. More important is a strong foundation for the approach to learning.

The four C’s encourage us to be thoughtful in our projects, striving to embed instruction within assignments that are authentic and have real-life relevance for students. Collaborating with classroom or content-area teachers and designing creative project-based learning opportunities to tie in information-seeking, problem-solving, and communication can extend and promote learning in powerful ways.

As a full-time teacher librarian, I teach technology in a specials rotation at High Plains Elementary in Englewood, CO. My instruction delivers a combination of information literacy skills and technology skills.

At High Plains, we are gradually bringing makerspace elements into our traditional library setting, starting with a 3D printer. When we first acquired the 3D printer, there was quite a learning curve on my part. Before I could offer it as a lesson tool for our kids, I had to first learn how to use the printer myself. This involved not only figuring out how to use and instruct on a 3D design tool, but how to teach more creatively with projects that students would find meaningful and authentic.

(Next page: Real-world lessons in 3D; independent learning with digital libraries)


App of the Week: Video analysis of performance

Ed. noteApp 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? 

The Coach’s Eye video editor is like being your own sports broadcaster. It allows detailed, visual feedback thanks to powerful analysis tools and superior playback ability. Record video in the app or import clips from a camera roll in slow motion, real time, and frame-by-frame scrubbing (precise rewind/fast-forward). Find exact moments in a performance, tap Analyze to open a variety of analysis tools, and then tap Record to capture your analysis. Layer drawings or text on the video, add voice-over commentary, and make side-by-side video comparisons. Then share as a YouTube URL via social media, text, or email.

Price: Paid

Grades: 2-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Offers athletes, scientists, and fine arts performers inimitable feedback for self-reflection and improvement.

Cons: High and hidden costs in add-on tools and subscription fees; teachers need to be careful sharing videos since privacy defaults to public.

Bottom line: Cool video-analysis tool is great for the sports field and beyond, but prepare for an onslaught of hidden costs to access all features.


Media specialist: 3 ways to break down barriers between students and reading

What do you picture when you think of a librarian? If you have an image in mind of this little old woman, stamping books in her half-rimmed glasses, then you would be one of many still drawing on this archetype. Many people today would be surprised by how much librarians have shifted from the stereotype I just described. In fact, we’ve changed so much that the title “librarian” barely applies anymore.

Now, with so much technology as an interwoven part of a library’s infrastructure, my fellow ex-librarians and I are more frequently referred to as “media specialists,” though I sometimes go by “library media specialist” to help people gradually adjust to the new identity.

As a media specialist at Southside Middle School in Tallassee, Alabama, my responsibility is to oversee the distribution and use of most of our school’s technology—both in the library and out. Much of this tech is already integrated into the classroom environment, with every teacher having their own smartboard and projectors and all the middle schoolers in the district carrying their own iPads as part of our new 1:1 program.

It’s safe to say that both the environment and expectations for library media specialists have certainly changed, but what’s remained true is our mission to break down the barriers that stand between our students and their reading. Here are three ways I am supporting literacy throughout the school.

1. Combining Print and Digital Books

When I made the shift from a librarian to a media specialist, the transition required me to keep an open mind when it came to balancing traditional print media with the new digital resources. I still enjoy reading books the old-fashioned way, as do many of our students, but I also understand the value of having a vast array of texts readily available through a digital library on school-issued iPads and MacBooks.

In order to keep students fully engaged and reading both in and out of the library, we use several digital literacy programs, including Epic! and Reading Horizons. We use Epic! with our accelerated readers, granting them access to loads of books to download onto their devices and read on the go. Reading Horizons helps us with some of our Response to Intervention (RTI) students, providing them with additional reading and foundational phonics through a vast array of books and instructional lessons that they can access any time they like. Both platforms were used primarily with our fifth and sixth graders.

This new level of access to reading was wonderfully effective for out-of-class student engagement, but we wanted our kids to know that the library, and the physical books we carry, still remain a valuable resource. Through a partnership with ABDO and Bearport Publishing, two of our digital partners, we were able to offer our students the opportunity to interact both physically and digitally with the books they wanted to read. Each Capstone book came with a QR code printed on its cover. After scanning each book and making laminated prints of the coded covers, our students now have the ability to come into the library, scan the code with their iPad, and instantly have the book downloaded for them to read.

This allowed us to share one book with any child interested to read it, while still bringing them into the library to see what other print options were available or of interest to them. With these tools and approach, we’re able to grant access to a multitude of books both in print and digital form to best serve our student’s needs.

(Next page: 2 more ways to break down reading barriers)


15 real classroom uses for Minecraft

These days, it seems like Minecraft is second-nature for many kids. The beauty of Minecraft lies in its sandbox structure–students can create anything, with limitless resources, and often their creations are astounding. Is it any wonder, then, that educators are incorporating the popular block-based game into their curriculum?

With a little creativity, educators can use Minecraft with history, math, writing and language arts, foreign language, and more.

And getting students active in Minecraft makes them more likely to participate and engage, because they’re having an impact on a virtual world shared by their peers.

During an ISTE 2017 session, Dr. Chris Haskell showed attendees how he and faculty at Boise State have created an expansive Minecraft virtual campus and how that virtual campus gives students a safe place to have fun, be creative and connect with others.

“Students love spaces they have a voice in, spaces they can contribute to,” Haskell said. “They want a space where they can belong–it’s that belonging that ties things together. Being a part of something that matters makes you much more likely to be successful.”

(Next page: 15 classroom uses for Minecraft)


How a focus on teachers helps a charter district serve the most challenging students

When charter schools do well, they often have a lot to brag about. The best-performing charters boast of well-behaved students who earn top grades, high scores on standardized tests, and astonishing college-acceptance rates compared to neighboring district schools. Charter school critics, however, attribute many of these gains to the practice of cherry-picking students.

When a charter can choose only top-performing students through selective admission or else cull under-performing students through arbitrary zero-tolerance behavior policies, they can better control the students that ultimately matriculate. This claim has been discussed at length, but remains a hot topic among charter school communities around the country.

At George Gervin Academy in San Antonio, Texas, the conversation has never been about competing with the city’s best schools by selecting the students most likely to succeed—in fact, quite the opposite.

The academy actively seeks out the city’s most challenging students, the ones who might otherwise fall through the cracks. A full 100 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a metric commonly used to mark students from lower-income backgrounds. Minority enrollment is pegged at 96 percent.

If George Gervin Academy cherry-picks students, it is to select the ones who need the most support.

The Impact of Serving At-Risk

Opened in 1995 as a dropout recovery high school and one of the first generation of charters in Texas, the George Gervin Academy is actually six campuses in one—with five campuses in San Antonio and one in Phoenix. There are traditional elementary and middle school students spread across the charter district’s five campuses, as well as an alternative credit recovery. The alternative programs offer special services for pregnant students and actively reach out to the juvenile justice system to recruit students. All told, the schools serve about 1,500 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Serving so many at-risk students has certainly had an impact on the Academy’s evaluation scores.

Just two years ago, the school met state accountability standards, but the school leadership was not happy with the performance of certain population sub-groups. According to Jesse Villanueva, the Principal and Director of Schools at the Academy, “the mobility of students and teacher retention were the major problems.” Mainly because the new teachers wanted the traditional school experience and salary, 35 to 40 percent of teachers were leaving the district each year.

With this rate of turnover, Villanueva says, “Academic scores were up and down, not stable, because one year you had a good teacher, the next year you had a poor teacher.” And, he adds, “It takes a special person to take on the responsibilities of working with an at-risk population. When students come from low-income families with one person working, it made it hard to get parents involved.”

(Next page: How the charter district began to thrive)


10 of the best and worst school systems

For the majority of US families, public education is the only option for their child’s education. But the quality of public school systems varies widely from state to state and is often a question of funding. Public elementary and secondary education dollars traditionally flow from three sources: the federal, state (state governments contributing nearly half of public-school funding) and local governments. According to EdCentral, states contribute nearly as much as local governments, while the federal government supplies the smallest share of the total. Some researchers have found that more resources — or taxes paid by residents — typically result in better school-system performance.

Because of the variances in funding for public school systems, the personal-finance website WalletHub recently conducted an analysis of 2017’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems.

Unlike other research that focuses primarily on academic outcomes or school finance, however, WalletHub says their analysis take a more comprehensive approach, accounting for performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials.

To determine the top-performing school systems in the US, WalletHub’s analysts compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 21 measures of quality and safety. The data set ranges from pupil-teacher ratio to dropout rate to median standardized-test scores. [For full methodology, click here.]

The Top 10 School Systems

1. Massachusetts

2. New Jersey

3. New Hampshire

4. Wisconsin

5. Vermont

6. Virginia

7. Minnesota

8. Connecticut

9. Iowa

10. Maine

(Next page: The 10 worst school systems; more in-depth data)


5 AR & VR tools for social skills

Virtual and augmented reality, once far-off on the classroom horizon, have moved with relative speed into the realm of possible classroom technologies.

In fact, recent data indicates that while few teachers are using augmented and virtual reality, it does show some promise. Speak Up Survey data shows that 5 percent of teachers say they are using virtual or augmented reality in their classroom. Higher percentages of high school computer science and technology teachers (11 percent) and science teachers (9 percent) are using augmented or virtual reality.

Twenty-five percent of district administrators in small districts would like to see augmented reality apps in their schools, and 43 percent want virtual reality experiences and hardware in their schools.

Twenty percent of district administrators said augmented and virtual reality professional development is a priority this year.

Beyond the technologies’ cool factor, however, lie a handful of promising uses, including uses in social and emotional learning and with students who have special needs.

Teachers report that life and academic success and college preparation are heightened by solid social competencies, but teachers also say they feel their ability to teach these competencies is limited, said Dr. Amber Rowland and Dr. Sean Smith, both of the University of Kansas, during an ISTE 2017 presentation.

(Next page: 5 augmented and virtual reality resources)


How to navigate the new device-agnostic classroom

Technology in the classroom is nothing new; most of today’s educators have embraced the ability to draw upon an increasingly diverse array of digital tools and programs to enrich their lessons.

With the advent of more device-agnostic digital classrooms, many tech-savvy teachers and schools are taking a step back and reevaluating how best to use technology to support their goals. In the new device-agnostic classroom, educators are taking the opportunity to ensure they are focused on purposeful applications first, with a secondary emphasis on the device itself.

So how can schools ensure that they are creating effective, purposeful learning environments in a device-agnostic classroom? Ultimately, it helps to begin by asking three questions:

  • Why am I exploring a digital learning ecosystem for my students?
  • How can I ensure my digital learning ecosystem will support my students?
  • What platforms and applications need to be in place to accomplish our goals?

For many successful districts, questions like these have become guiding principles, helping to frame the conversation around the “why” when architecting, choosing and implementing digital platforms and the devices that support them.

“Why am I exploring a digital learning ecosystem for my students?”

As with any complex undertaking, it helps to first take a step back, evaluate motivations from stakeholders and set flexible goals, which will continue to evolve over time. It’s important to identify your goals by asking: What, ultimately, are you hoping to achieve? Increased student engagement? A more seamless classroom flow and better time management for teachers? Easier access to performance data across multiple learning solutions? The ability to facilitate differentiation? Increased student agency and achievement?

Once these questions have been asked and high-level goals are identified and established, it’s easier to work toward them and identify the right digital platforms and applications that can help you meet those goals.

When considering these questions, it’s also critical to think about interoperability and how different digital systems can be fully integrated and work together, even if they are built by different companies.

When school districts build interoperable, device-agnostic learning ecosystems, they offer students access to a wider range of digital learning tools and curricula, as well as provide more effective ways for schools to manage their digital programs. Ultimately, these systems help students take ownership of their own learning, inside the classroom and out.

No matter what their device or internet speed, students can readily engage with their lessons, review their progress in real-time and draw upon a wide variety of supportive materials to help keep them on track. Teachers, meanwhile, can track student progress in a meaningful way and introduce any outside learning materials that they deem relevant, from supplemental readings and activities to wikis, OER (Open Educational Resources) and videos.

Still, the ability to deliver all of these capabilities depends on the specifics of the implementation – which brings us to “how.”

(Next page: The ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the device-agnostic classroom)