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Technology in the classroom is nothing new. From overhead projectors to Smart Boards, teachers have always incorporated technology into their lesson plans. And since the invention of the iPhone (and subsequently the iPad and Android phone series), educators have developed apps to improve the educational experience for both teachers and students. Below is our list of the best apps for the classroom.

1. Noise Down

Noise Down

Noise Down is an app that automatically sounds an alarm when the noise level in the classroom reaches a certain decibel. This is an easy way for students, especially in elementary school, to learn how to use their inside voices. It also saves the teacher from having to scream at students to keep it down. Download Noise Down here.

2. Pocket

Pocket App

Have you ever been on a website on your phone and seen an article you would like to read later? Perhaps you’ve seen an intriguing headline while browsing the web during your lunch hour that you’d like to explore further after hours. Pocket helps you save these articles to be accessed later. Save a webpage on Pocket using a built-in bookmark on your browser or the Pocket app on your phone and access it on any computer or phone using your unique Pocket log-in. This is great for teachers to save long articles about education to read later at home. Sign-up for Pocket here.

3. Tales2Go

Like Netflix for audiobooks, Tales2Go makes reading fun for students of all ages. This app stores thousands of audiobook files, from The Diary of a Wimpy Kid to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to be played in the classroom. Perfect for K-8 students, the app can be purchased by an individual teacher on a subscription basis or by a school on an annual basis. See the Tales2Go website for a full catalog list and more information about subscriptions.

4. MyCongress

mycongress

Help your students “meet” their Congressmen through this handy app. Search by your zip code to find your elected officials and read their profiles. The app also links to articles, videos, social media sites, and the contact information of each official. Download here.

5. Socrative

Socrative

Give quick quizzes, conduct surveys, and track your students’ responses in real-time using Socrative. Great for use on the iPad, Socrative is an easy way for your students to ask anonymous questions too. Learn more by visiting the Socrative website.

6. ClassDojo

ClassDojo is an app and website that helps teachers reinforce positive behavior in their students, aiding in smooth classroom management. Students earn points for teamwork, participation, correct answers, and other actions the instructor chooses to reward. Teachers can text parents with their children’s ClassDojo report and include notes. Learn more on the ClassDojo website here.

7. Common Core Standards

Common_Core_App

Perfect for math and English Language Arts teachers in states with Common Core, this app puts all of the Common Core standards for your state in the palm of your hand. There is a specific app available for each state that offers Common Core. Click here to download the app for your state.

Teachers, did we forget your favorite app? Let us know in the comments below!

With all that principals have to do in the complex and fast-paced environment of today’s PK – 12 schools, teacher/instructional observation can often get lost as another item on the “to do” list. This is especially true in many current models of formal teacher observation where multiple extended observations of each staff member are often requirements that are built into the modules. While this reality exists, to be effective, principals must resist the tendency to relegate teacher observation to the “to do” list meeting only the minimum requirements to get them done.

As the instructional leader in the building, the principal must always focus on moving the school forward, which requires the constant maintenance and improvement of a high level of instructional practice throughout the building. Further, the instructional practice in a building must adhere to a standard/framework. This allows teachers and administrators to establish a culture based on an expectation of exemplary practice while sharing a common language on instruction and readily identifying practices that fit and do not fit within this framework.

The instructional observation is an essential key in the process of maintaining and improving a high level of instructional practice in the school building. The reason is that thorough and targeted observation connects principals to the classroom by providing insight into prevailing practices in the building and student engagement. The instructional observation also provides the opportunity for the principal to establish an ongoing dialogue with teachers about their practice based on what is observed. It is this dialogue and constant refinement of practice that provides the potential for improved student achievement. The absence of this dialogue also represents lost opportunity; this absence is also the focus of a 5/11/15 Education Week Article by Peter Dewitt Three Reasons Why Your Observations May Be a Waste of Time.    

In his article, Dewitt argues that the three main threats to teacher observation are: no new learning, too much talk, and surface level. In response to Dewitt’s threats, I argue that each is actually an opportunity for ongoing dialogue, improved practice, and teacher growth. Regarding no new learning, this only occurs in situations where principals do not give teachers low inference feedback on their practice and where principals are not listening to teacher’s expressed needs for growth and helping to make sure that those are met. As for Dewitt’s claim of too much or [not enough balanced talk] this is where principals must be sure to give teachers balanced feedback, acknowledging their exemplary practices while identifying areas for growth and providing the support needed to achieve it. Finally, in the area of surface level, principals must be sure that they are observing teachers at regular intervals at different times of the instructional day over time so that they can provide accurate appraisals of their practice that provide deep reflection on the work that has been done.

To close, while it can fall into the routine of the mundane, principals must not forget that instructional observation is one of the most important functions of the job. Observation is the lifeline that plugs principals into the practice that is occurring in their buildings; it forms the basis for ongoing conversation with staff about effective instructional practice. Because of its significant role in ensuring a sound instructional program, instructional observation must be given the appropriate focus and used as the tool that it is, for continuous improvement that results in increased student achievement.

Teaching is not for the faint of heart; it’s tough. This is especially true if you are a PK -12 teacher in a public school system. The reason is that public schools generally have no control over what students they are required to teach. Public school educators in the United States teach whoever shows up in their attendance zones or whoever is assigned to their schools. Public school teachers use their designated state standards and pacing guides as road maps and they are expected to deliver all of their students to at least the same minimum destination of proficiency. Further, the work of public schools takes place amidst the backdrop of ever daunting state accountability standards.

The problem with the current context of the profession, especially for new teachers, is that universally they [new teachers] are not being given the time to develop to a level of professional capacity that allows all of them the opportunity to effectively serve all of their students. Stated differently, teaching is a complex blend of art and science and no matter what preparation a teacher has had prior to beginning in his or her own classroom, it takes time on the job to perfect the craft.

A provocative 4/16/15 Education Week article by Gary Wiener titled Why Teachers Need Time to Succeed places the same argument made here in the context of the circumstances surrounding a recent New York law that denies tenure to teachers in the first four years of their practice. The new teachers in New York are denied tenure if they receive two consecutive ineffective ratings/annual evaluations during the first four years of their practice. The ratings that are used to inform these determinations are based in part on student achievement on standardized tests that have not been proven reliable or valid. Also, according to Wiener’s article, one of the most stinging elements of this system is that a new teacher cannot earn a satisfactory rating even if their classroom observations are good if the teacher’s student achievement data does not meet the required standards!

Uniformed accountability advocates and skeptics of public schools may say “All other professionals are expected to do their jobs at least proficiently at the time that they enter independent practice. Why shouldn’t teachers be expected to do the same?” The short answer is generally speaking, new teachers are proficient; they just are not experienced, yet. Remember my point about art and science; well this is where it comes into play. The situation is analogous to a newly minted airplane pilot, yes you completed flight training BUT you are not deeply experienced flying in every situation. You still need assistance before you are really ready to fly solo at any time in any conditions. The same is true in teaching; while most students have similar needs, every student presents different challenges, and at times these challenges are different than any you have seen previously. Because of this fact all school districts need strong induction and mentoring programs for all new teachers.

Strong induction and mentoring programs provide the support and knowledge of practice that new teachers need to make it successfully through the first three or four years in the classroom. Also, it should be understood that all new teachers will not have stellar performance across the board in their first years, but with the right support they can serve their students appropriately. As for New York’s law that will deny new teachers the right to tenure, it may potentially create an even larger rotating door of new teacher recruits, IF they are able to find them. I say if because the profession will certainly become less attractive to new teacher candidates in that state if they know the peril that faces the investment they have made in preparing for a career once they enter the workforce.

To close, we live in an era of accountability in PK – 12 education in the United States like none other before it. Tough laws and policies that hold educators accountable are a part of this environment. While the spirit of these laws might be well intended, their implementation in the real world must be given careful consideration. We certainly want all educators to give their very best to our students, they deserve it. However, we do not want to do this under the auspice of unreasonable practices that will damage the profession’s ability to attract quality candidates and to nurture those who may struggle initially, for indeed just as caterpillars transform into beautiful butterflies, given time and the right support a floundering new teacher of today may very well become the strong experienced teacher of tomorrow. We must acknowledge the obligate and awesome job responsibilities of the classroom teacher while providing the opportunity for newcomers to the profession to experience the growth they need.

Mass production and availability of computer technology since the year 1980 has forever changed the fabric of society throughout the world. As computer technology has become more and more pervasive, the cost of owning a personal computer has become more and more affordable. The emergence and subsequent prolific public use of the internet since 1990 has further amplified the impact of computers on our lives. Through the internet we now have access to an almost infinite worldwide network of information. Given this context, it is no surprise that computer technology and the internet have the potential to impact PK – 12 classrooms in ways that were unimaginable just 20 years ago.

A 3/30/15 article in the Atlantic titled The Deconstruction of the K – 12 Teacher explores the potential future impact of computer technology on PK – 12 education.  The article’s author, Michael Godsey, proposes that in as little as 5 – 10 years we may have classrooms that feature:

Fantastic computer screens at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The ‘virtual class’ will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers and it will feature professionally produced footage . . . Ted Talks, interactive games . . . and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.

This is very interesting to say the least. Godsey also goes on to assert that the shift from the teacher’s role as the knowledge disseminator to the facilitator of instruction is an initial signal of more significant changes to come. Godsey cites at least one teacher who laments this change in role. Godsey also explores the idea of how many of the new online platforms that allow educators to post and share lessons and all the needed related content are really the building blocks of a school in the cloud that bureaucrats will one day use to replace the current classroom teacher structure with a video monitor and a “tech” person to ensure that the technology is working and that students do not misbehave.

Godsey’s article is entertaining, and it certainly raises some interesting questions while also pressing the envelope on some concepts that are currently in practice, like virtual school in the PK – 12 arena, however, it is a bit far-fetched. I believe that computer technology and the coterminous use of the internet will never wholly replace classroom teachers in the PK – 12 setting. I base my assertion on three groups of necessary factors that are inextricably linked to the current structure of PK – 12 schools in the United States. These factors are the extracurricular programs offered by schools and their socialization of students, the necessary human assessment factor provided by teachers, and the serendipity of authentic learning.

Regarding extracurricular programs and socialization, these are two of the most important services/functions of schools in the United States. The extracurricular programs allow students to explore and develop their gifts in athletics, the arts, and in the academics. These experiences sharpen students’ real world problem solving ability while teaching skills like teamwork, leadership, and the ability to respond to adversity. These are things that cannot be learned on the internet.

In addition to the skills taught through extracurricular programs that teachers in schools lead, schools also serve as the socializing agent for the future adults in our society. School is the place where students learn to relate to and coexist with their peers. School is the great mixer where our children are exposed to the diverse perspectives and backgrounds of their teachers and peers. This experience is what sustains the social fabric of our nation as students learn that while they do not have to agree with others empathy, tolerance, and the need for a broad view of issues are needed in a society that justly meets the needs of its citizens.

Teachers also provide human assessment of students’ progress and development of skills. This takes place in real time in the classroom and throughout the course of the school day and year. An internet based course, no matter how thorough in design, does not provide the opportunity for real-time low inference feedback, which is what students need to continue to develop. Also, the absence of an assigned teacher within physical proximity does not allow the student the authentic ability to follow up on questions as they arise, outside of the assigned class time.

Finally, there is the serendipity of learning; embarking on one journey and discovering something totally unintended along the way. This experience is what helps to broaden and expand our knowledge. Teachers are crucial to this process as they help guide students when teachable moments arise and provide new information or reference points to explore as students develop questions that point inquiry in new directions. Limited access to an instructor in an online format does not provide the opportunity for this.

To close, technology is a wonderful tool. Advances in computer technology since the 1980s and the emergence of the internet since the early 1990s, have literally put the collective recorded knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips. In addition, the development of the online learning environment and databases for teacher lesson plans provide options for teaching and learning that have not been previously available. While all these advances certainly position the PK – 12 environment to better serve students through a variety of paths, with enhanced access to information, they certainly do not serve as an appropriate substitute for the current classroom teacher based model for schools. The extracurricular programs offered by schools and schools’ socialization of students, the necessary human assessment factor provided by teachers, and the serendipity of authentic learning are human factors that the online environment simply will not be able to replace.

teachers in a meeting room

As PK-12 education has evolved in the United States during the past 20 years, there has been an emphasis on creating career ladders for classroom educators. This is in response to two needs. First, as adult learners, expert or master teachers have a natural need to expand their practice beyond their classrooms in order to continue their own growth and to remain fulfilled in the profession. Also, in traditional school hierarchies there were only two basic instructional positions at the building level, teacher and principal. With all of the measured requirements for achievement and supports that students require in modern schools, the development of support positions, like instructional coaches, was an essential and necessary outcome.

Now that instructional coaching has emerged, the question is “What should coaches do?” Existing in a world between teachers and school administrators have a unique function and fill an important role. By definition, as coaches, the provide feedback instructive feedback to their partners, in this case classroom teachers, about their practice. However, almost unequivocally, coaches do not hold formal evaluative authority over teachers. This creates the need for skillful practice in providing feedback that will be used without have directive authority to command compliance. Coaches rely on relationships, the power of knowledge, and mutual respect to achieve their coaching goals. Because of the nature of their positions and their closeness with the instructional staff, coaches have the power to significantly impact instruction in a building, if they are properly supported.

A February 2015 article in the Journal of Staff Development titled Principals Boost Coaching’s Impact highlights the importance of the role of instructional coaches in school buildings and the conditions that must be present in order for them to flourish. Immediately, the author, Les Foltos, notes that coaching can only be effective in a school with the correct culture. Foltos identifies the optimal school culture as one that embraces collaboration, has strong teacher leadership, has two way communication for improvement, and one that supports innovation and risk taking. Foltos is right, in the type culture that he described, and ones that are striving to achieve these practices, instructional coaches exist as a natural part of a school culture that is focused on continuous improvement to support increased student achievement.

Once the culture is primed, principals and coaches must clearly define what the coach will “do” on a day-to-day basis. Foltos defines this as establishing a practice of collaboration, co-planning, modeling and team teaching, peer observation, and reflection. From my school experience, I can attest that this normally takes place in the form of routine meetings that are held by grade levels or content areas, depending on the organization of the school. These meetings are typically termed small learning community or professional learning community meetings. The function of these meetings is to bring teachers together to collaborate on instruction. Examination of student work samples, instructional planning, and development of common assessments are the meat of the work in these sessions. Team norms support the expectations which promote effective practice while embedding the normalcy of routine. When adhered to with fidelity, this format will improve instructional practice in the building and improve student achievement. Some of the strongest schools in districts that I have led had strong instructional coaching as a pillar of their instructional practices.

In closing, collaboration is the heart of effective practice in schools today. The dynamic relationships between school administrators/principals, instructional coaches, and teaching staff are directly impacted by the quality of collaborative practice in a school building. School principals must set the environment/culture for collaborative practice to take place. In setting this culture, school principals must collaborate with instructional coaches to clearly define their work and communicate this to staff so that all stakeholders understand the expectations and share in the responsibility for the work as it moves forward. With well-planned structures in place, and the support of principals, and trust of instructional staff, instructional coaches are positioned to have significant impact on student achievement in the schools they serve.

Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to hear back from one of our past students! Jalana Robinson completed the ABCTE program in 7 months and is now teaching at Genesis Promise Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. Here’s what Jalana had to say:

Where are you originally from?

Carrollton, MO

Tell us about your professional background and experience (etc. previous profession, job experience, alma maters, major/minor)?

My background includes over seven years in higher education where I did academic, career and immigration advising. I also was an adjunct instructor for Learning Strategies (a study skills course for academic at-risk students) and Health Sciences Seminar (a professional development course for Health Sciences majors).

I have a Master’s in Education from the University of Missouri, and a Bachelor of Science in Social Sciences from the University of Glamorgan in Wales, United Kingdom.

Why did you choose the teaching profession?

I always wanted to teach. Even when I was a little kid I would line my stuffed animals up in a row, pretend they were students and proceed to teach them out of a teacher’s manual my mom had. My mom graded papers for a local elementary teacher, so we always had teacher’s manuals around the house. In college, I was persuaded to take a different route with my major. After college, I substitute taught as I was job hunting, and the very first class I subbed in made me want to be a teacher. I continued to sub off and on for several years and explored getting my teacher certification. However, all avenues required between two to three years of college coursework along with observation and student teaching hours that would not allow me to work full-time as I needed. I longed to be a teacher and kept researching alternative options until I came across the American Board program which allowed me to pursue my yearning to teach.

How have you merged your real-life experiences with teaching?

Before working with K-12 students, I had the unique opportunity to work as an academic advisor that helped teach college students how to prepare for college. Every day, I try to instill in my students what it takes now to prepare for college.

I also traveled and worked with individuals from a lot of different cultures. These are experiences I like to share where I can in the classroom.

How did you hear about the American Board program?

I was at a college info session for a teacher certification program when they mentioned the American Board program. I immediately went home and researched it and attended an info session by Kim Polk the next week.

Why did you decide to have American Board help certify you out of all the available programs?

The American Board program was the most realistic option for me to complete while working full-time, and the most cost effective.

How long did it take you to complete the program?

About 7 months

What did you enjoy about the program?

That it was all online and at my pace.

What have been your most positive teaching experiences?

The most positive teaching experiences have been finding ways for struggling students to understand concepts, and then watching them catch on and seeing their self-confidence build!

What challenges have you encountered as a teacher?

Working in an inner-city charter school has been very challenging because of the behavioral and emotional issues the students bring to the classroom.

What is your advice to those who are considering becoming a teacher?

I would recommend that others considering the profession talk with current teachers to learn about the work teachers put in behind the scenes: e.g.  lesson planning, communicating with parents and using assessment data to develop differentiated learning groups.

What are a few misconceptions that people have about teachers?

People don’t realize how much teachers are working during their weekends and time off.

Do you have any tips for landing a job as a teacher?

Be willing to look for teaching jobs outside of your ideal area and comfort zone.

What books or resources would you recommend to other teachers?

The First Days of School by Henry Wong is an excellent resource and a fast read!

Name two apps that keep your life on track.

classdojo.com (wonderful classroom mgt resource for giving/taking daily points for good/bad behavior, plus parents can login and track their student)

Favorite quote:

What principles do you use to motivate students?

I use a rewards-based system, especially with inner city students. For example, if they earn a certain amount of weekly DoJo points for good behavior then they earn a prize. I also have found that telling students that I’m looking for their best work to publish on the bulletin board for the school to see helps motivate them.

Are there any hot debates in education you are currently tracking?

The transition to the new Smarter Balanced standardized test has generated a lot of discussion in how we teach students.

What is your philosophy of education?

I believe education should be tied to real world examples and experiences whenever possible.

Like Jalana, you too can become certified to teach in 7 months or less. Enroll now to positively impact your community!

A 2/11/15 Education Week article titled 5 Questions Educators Must Ask Themselves Daily, speaks to the heart of the challenge that many experienced teachers in classrooms across the United States face during their careers. How do you keep the passion going; especially when faced with the enhanced rigor of modern day teaching requirements that many feel work counter to the core purpose of the profession? This is tough to be sure. The article’s author, Starr Sackstein, frames it within 5 questions, with a focus on affect. I will expand on Sackstein’s theses while adding the element of best practice. My analysis follows:

•Am I excited about going to school today? Sackstein examines this question with the savvy of a teacher who knows that every day is not a good day. That said, her focus rests more on the preponderance of days in a school year. Were they mostly good or bad? This argument really speaks to an educator’s commitment to the profession. Indeed, there may be times, tough times, when the bad days outnumber the good. In these times, savvy educators have to determine if they are still making a positive impact in the lives of students despite present circumstances. In these times educators must also determine root causes of present circumstance, their ability to influence these, and what are the possible long term outcomes. Tough times will not last; tough educators will. The excitement will wax and wane but commitment to the profession keeps the best educators in the profession over the long haul.

•Do I still believe that I can learn new stuff about my content? Sackstein approaches this question from the perspective of student perspectives and spontaneity to provide new context for and approaches to the content. In addition, this question also speaks to the need for purposeful professional development for staff, including veteran teachers. By providing teachers with structured training on instructional methodology in general and as it applies specifically to their content areas, we refresh them with new ideas for delivery and equip them with pedagogical tools needed to provide effective instruction.

•Are my students at the front of everything I do? Again Sackstein focuses on affect here, which is important but does not account for the whole matter. In this area, Sackstein refers to student voice/feedback, efficacy, and decision making about their learning. These are certainly important factors, and they become more powerful when blended with a purposeful, data driven approach to student learning. Choices about learning activities should be based on a menu of options that appeal to the learning needs of students with different strengths. In addition, students must also be focused on their achievement data. This helps guide discussions about goal setting. This provides purposeful work for students as they move forward in their students. In this way students remain at the front of the work that is done each day.

•How do I implement student voice and choice in my decision making for learning? In this area, Sackstein advocates staying out of the way and being a great facilitator of student learning, while keeping the students’ ideas at the forefront of the teaching process. The ideas that Sackstein lists include writing on blogs, using social media, collaboration and reflecting on projects. To add current vocabulary to Sackstein’s recommendations, what is really being called for is differentiated instruction. This is certainly in line with what we know to be best practice. The key is to be sure that efforts in this area are focused based on students’ learning needs and readiness. Instruction can then be addressed through differentiation of content, process, or product.

•What risks can I take today that model the growth mindset? In this area Sackstein advocates teaching students to take risks for growth by modeling the process. This is an effective methodology and encourages students to press the envelope in their learning and to maintain an experimental mindset. All qualities that are needed for success in their continued education and in the workplace as innovators in their chosen fields of work.

To close, more than ever before, PK – 12 educators in the United States have a challenging job. However, this challenge does not have to run counter to the passions that fuel our professional engines. The key to keeping your heart in the profession is to compliment the affective elements that are needed with the best instructional practices that we know result in student learning. With this potent combination in place, educators are positioned to move their students to new heights.

Those who have followed education policy and improvement efforts in the United States for at least the past 15 years know that two of the major points of debate have surrounded curriculum and assessment. Policy makers, business leaders, educators, and parents have wrestled with questions of “What is worth knowing?” and “How do we know that students have learned it [worthy knowledge]?” Presently, the debate on these questions has centered on the Common Core Curriculum (Common Core) and state level assessments for the Common Core.

In the context of the current debate on curriculum and assessment in the United States, the 2/2/15 issue of The Atlantic features a provocative article by Jane Greenway. In the article Why Are American Schools Obsessed with Turning Kids Into Robots?, Jane Greenway tackles the thorny issues surrounding implementation of the Common Core and the use of standardized tests to assess student performance. Greenway’s article uses a review of the book The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be as the impetus for its assertions on the current state of affairs in curriculum and assessment in the United States.

While Greenway’s article makes some interesting claims, I feel that several of its major premises are misguided in regard to actual practice in schools throughout the United States each day. As such, I will address those misguided or incomplete premises here:

Why Are American Schools Obsessed with Turning Kids Into Robots? Through its title and content, Greenway’s article asserts that the move to standardize the curriculum in the United States and to assess student performance is harmful because it ignores then eradicates differences among students and that it serves no purpose to improve K-12 education. I am disappointed by this basic premise in Greenway’s article for nothing could be further from the truth.

The purpose of the common core is to ensure that all students have access to the same high quality curriculum needed to prepare for college and careers after high school. Is it perfect? No. However, it is the first significant broad scale unified effort of its sort in the United States and it does reflect a great portion of the knowledge and skills that students must possesses.

Testing has failed to fulfill its purpose. This premise is used to attack testing from multiple angles. First, Greenway asserts that testing should have the purpose of serving as an instrument to increase equality among students as we move toward a meritocracy. Greenway also argues that testing has failed because it lacks transparency and results in punitive consequences for schools. Regarding Greenway’s ideal of a meritocracy created through testing, she is half right. Education is one great equalizer and a tool for mobility in our society. Also, I acknowledge that tests can be biased in a number of ways. However, the previous facts, in and of themselves, do not make testing bad.

At its core, a test should measure student learning on the curriculum, and that is all. Tests serve as tools to inform teachers about next steps for instruction. Also, the transparency that Greenway speaks to is evident; as stated the tests cover the curriculum, nothing more or less.

Finally, the punitive consequences that Greenway noted are disconcerting. This is an area for improvement, where failing results should result in increased levels of support and oversight as needed. The fact that Greenway views this as “punitive” is baffling and in places where increased support in the face of waning scores is not the norm a change is certainly needed.

The solution is to opt out of testing. Community based testing should take precedence. Greenway’s premises here must be examined carefully, for used in the wrong context, they could have devastating results. First, I must state that I believe that schools should serve their communities [students] and I am a proponent of local control of schools. I also understand the potential for flawed systems to damage students’ educational experiences. That said, I do not believe that current testing efforts as they relate to common core are flawed to the point of malpractice or danger. Are they perfect? No. However, they are sound and serve a larger good.

Also, as a proponent for local control, I see the benefit in a common curriculum and common assessment options. Now more than ever before, we live in a global community. From the desert southwest to the peaks of the Appalachians, students are keystrokes away from the other side of the planet. Because of this fact, we must prepare our students for the global workplace. The Common Core offers this benefit, by positioning all students to receive an education that will prepare them for college or career entry at a globally competitive level.

To close, curriculum and assessment are two parts of the schooling triumvirate, instruction being the third. The fact that we have healthy debates about these in the United States signals that we are focusing on the right things. The key moving forward is that all stakeholders recognize that no system is perfect, but we can have perfect intentions. With the perfect intentions of improving student achievement and sound schooling practices to support them, we will survive and thrive after the evolution of our more globalized approaches to curriculum, assessment, and instruction.

The current era of accountability in education has placed increased demands on every level of the public school hierarchy in the United States. As a result of the focus on the measured performance of all students, pressure at the classroom level to ensure that all students are making progress and learning has increased. In response to this effect, differentiated instruction has emerged as an approach, or methodology, that allows teachers to reach all students in their classes. Also, differentiation is not new, for indeed it’s what good teachers have been doing for many years, without the one common defining term to identify it. However, differentiation, like any movement in education, is not without its detractors.

In a 1/6/15 Education Week article titled Differentiation Doesn’t Work, educator James Delisle lets differentiation have it, with both barrels. In his article Delisle notes that while differentiation is well intended it is a “failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.” Delisle asserts that it is easier to juggle with “one arm tied behind your back” than to differentiate instruction in a classroom of heterogeneous [ability level] students. Delisle goes on to state:

It seems to me the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are
those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors,
curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s in-the-trenches educators
who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school
districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to
his or her fullest potential.

Delisle further asserts that the two main reasons that differentiation will not work are: the inability to implement it effectively in a classroom of heterogeneous [ability level] students, and a lack of clarity on what should be differentiated, curriculum, instructional methods, or both.

I am baffled by the commentary in Delisle’s article. I believe his perspectives show a lack of insight and experience with good teaching. In addition, I view his attacks on school administrators as evidence of a lack of belief in the sincerity of their efforts to improve student achievement. It is my view that Delisle’s stance on differentiation, regardless of the minor statistics that he cites, is completely out of touch with best practices. To this end, I will briefly address his two arguments about differentiation.

First, Delisle argues that teachers can’t differentiate in heterogeneous classrooms. I believe Delisle’s claim in this matter is unequivocally false. While it is true one teacher cannot differentiate every lesson, every day, for every student that is not the intent or purpose of the practice anyway. To be effective in a heterogeneous classroom, the teacher must teach to the level of proficiency on the content standard when new information is introduced. After formatively assessing students to find out what they grasped, the next lesson in the same strand of instruction is then differentiated for students who are on, above, and below proficiency.

Further, schools are staffed with teachers to assist with adjustments/modifications for students with exceptionalities. Also the teacher can make minor adjustments to the three major differentiation levels to address learning styles as needed. The point of all of this is that the teacher has to provide the best opportunity for all students in the class to access the content at the level defined in the curriculum standards. Once this has been achieved, a teacher may continue with instruction at the level of proficiency on the standards with points for differentiation along the way as new concepts are introduced or opportunities for enrichment that go beyond the standard arise. In this way students who are below or on level receive instruction that allows them to at least achieve the requirements of the standard and students who are above level or perform above level on various concepts receive the enrichment that keeps them moving forward as well. This is a fluid method, with students moving between the three proficiency levels at any point in time based on formative assessment of the content that is being studied. It takes practice to implement. However, it is not impossible and it works.

Second, Delisle argues that differentiation fails because teachers don’t know what to differentiate, instruction or the curriculum. The confusion that Delisle cites may be true, especially if teachers have not received the appropriate professional development on differentiation. However, for clarity, we differentiate instruction in three ways, content, process, or product. Content should be differentiated based on student readiness. You still deliver what is described in the standard but at different levels of complexity. Processes should be differentiated based on how students learn best; all students do not have to engage in the same activity to learn the same content. Differentiated processes address the core needs of students with exceptionalities and students with multiple learning styles. Finally, products of learning should be differentiated based on the learning processes that were used and students’ proficiency levels on any given content. No matter which methods are selected, the goal is that all students will demonstrate proficiency on the standards.

To close, differentiation is like any other initiative in education, it requires appropriate training and fidelity in its delivery. These measures determine its effectiveness. Also, because differentiation allows all students to access the curriculum, it has significant implications for increased student learning and achievement. For these reasons we cannot “throw the baby [differentiation] out with the bathwater [confusion and/or discontent].” We must make a commitment to serve our students with our best efforts in the best ways that we know how. The future of our nation depends on it.

In a 12/17/14 Washington Post article titled Turning Around Schools with Low Achievement Rates Never Seems to Work, Jay Matthews offered an analysis of the success of the current turnaround school effort in the United States. Specifically, Matthews focused on the success of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) initiative, a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In his article Matthews argued the practicality, merits, and outcomes of the SIG program. While Mathews’ article was thoughtful and relied on some present research on the topic, it lacked a measure of first hand insight from practice. Because of this, I have expanded on some of the topics that Matthews highlighted.

First Matthews argued that SIG’s goals of turning around 1000 schools each year “are a harmful fantasy.” Matthews went on to explain the rationale for such goal setting as shrewd politics, offering that the current administration “knew” that it would not be able to get the money to help kids and schools, even if they did not meet the lofty goals of the grant; as a result, the bar had to be set high initially in order to get federal lawmakers to support the program.

Matthews’ logic is largely sound on this point. However, I also submit that the importance of SIG’s high goals extended beyond their political practicality to achieve funding. What Matthew’s failed to realize is that public schools are mission driven organizations. By defining SIG’s mission through quantifiable goals, the number of schools for turnaround and the expectation for the quality of results was given clear focus. As a result, SIG not only helped secure funds to help kids and schools, it has helped make a number of those schools significantly better than they ever would have been had SIG funds not been available. I know this from my experience in the field working with SIG principals throughout the United States. Given this reality, the question now is why hasn’t SIG experienced more consistent wide spread success throughout the United States?

In his article, Matthews argued that turnaround schools are rare. In fact he even likened them to the “unicorns” of federal education policy. While it may be true that SIG has not been wildly successful, it has had success in a number of places. I also submit that the reason SIG has not been more successful is that for it to truly be successful, SIG must operate within a specific political context and the leaders of SIG schools must possess certain prerogatives.

The entire school community must “buy in” for SIG to work because tough decisions have to be made, many that will cause discomfort for a period of time. Secondly, leaders at the school level must have the authority to make decisions in the best interest of the school without fear of reprisal. This fact is consistent with the findings in Matthews’ research calling for a change in leadership practice and I add instructional practice to this argument, and not necessarily a change in leaders [principals] or teachers as one of the “answers” in SIG schools. The accountability for this level of monitored autonomy is the achievement of required goals over a specified period of time.

Matthews also noted that there are no examples of successful [school] system wide turnaround school efforts. This may very well be true. However, system wide efforts are limited by the same factors that govern turnarounds at the school level. You must have system/community wide support and there must be support for necessary tough decision making until outcomes for students are improved and sustained. Absent these conditions, no SIG effort will be successful.

Finally, Matthews offers charter schools as a solution to improving student achievement on a broad scale. Matthews cites the success of KIPP and even parallels it to playing football. Mathews asserts why have an offense that uses the huddle when your hurry up [no huddle] offense is so successful. Matthews thinking here is deeply flawed. While I am not an unequivocal opponent of charter schools, as many do good work, we must be clear. Charter schools do not do the exact same work as public schools. Public schools educate everyone who is assigned to them. Typically, charter schools work with select populations of students. Charter schools serve an import role but they are not the self-contained solution to improving academic achievement on a grand scale throughout the United States.

To close, sustained school improvement is tough work, but not impossible. Programs like SIG offer one of the multiple approaches that are needed to improve outcomes for students in the United States. By using the tools that we have and working to refine elements that impact their effectiveness, we can and will improve student achievement for the long term.

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