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Nine-year old McKenzie Adams was “a real sweet girl,” a “straight-A student” who wanted to be a scientist, family members told ABC News. She held so much promise, but now McKenzie may be added to the small and alarmingly growing number of black children between the ages of 5 and 11 who are committing suicide. On December 3, she was found in the home where she lived with her grandmother in Linden, Alabama. The Linden Police Department have yet to rule the cause of death a suicide but are investigating the death as such.
Between 1993 and 2012 suicide rates doubled among black youngsters ages 5-11, while rates declined among white children in same age group, according to a 2015 article published in the academic journal JAMA Pediatrics. The suicide rate cited in that study is roughly twice as high as for black children as it is for their white peers. In absolute numbers, that’s 657 young black children — 553 boys and 104 girls — who took their own lives.
The growing number of suicides among black children demands deeper inquiry into the state of black kids’ lives and why a small but growing number are compelled to choose death over their circumstances.
McKenzie’s relatives wonder if racist taunts she received at school over her friendship with a white boy were a factor. Her mother, Jasmine Adams, said the school system let her family down, alleging that teachers and administrators ignored the girl’s complaints. The school denies receiving any reports of bullying.
Notwithstanding the particular details of the case, we know interactions between students, teachers and families at school can spark, aggravate — or improve — the mental wellbeing of students. Black children are more likely to be bullied in schools. All school leaders must see themselves as a significant source of prevention and detection.
On Nov. 20, 2017, Rylan Thai Hagan of Washington, D.C., was at home. The 11-year-old’s mother, Nataya Chambers, had gone out to run some errands and said that she would return in a few hours. She called Rylan on his cellphone while she was out and said, “When I return I want you to help me bring groceries into the house.” He said, “Okay.”
Chambers came home and knocked at the door. She called out, “Rylan, come help me with these bags. I told you I needed some help.” Rylan didn’t respond.
So she set the groceries down and went to his room, and discovered he had killed himself.
Michael A. Lindsey, executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research (and a co-author of this column) recently interviewed Chambers to understand the circumstances surrounding Rylan’s suicide. His mother didn’t know of any mental health issues. He was an honor roll student and participated in sports.
Instead of showing despair or withdrawing, a child may display somatic symptoms, complaining for instance about how their head or stomach hurts.
But symptoms of depression manifest differently among adults and adolescents. School personnel should be aware of the symptoms that parents might not be equipped to recognize.
For example, instead of showing despair or withdrawing, a child may display somatic symptoms, complaining for instance about how their head or stomach hurts. Teachers may also see persistent boredom or increased irritability, anger or hostility that children may not present or parents may not see at home. The long periods of time that students spend in school give educators an opportunity to see irregularities. They should be able to spot potential underlying issues behind a students’ trouble with schoolwork or a disciplinary problem that needs to be explored.
However, many schools don’t facilitate what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls “school connectedness,” which it defines as “the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals.” When student feel a part of a positive community, they are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, including seeking help when problems and conflicts arise. Schools may or may not be a part of the problem, but they most certainly have to be a part of the solution.
So much more work needs to be done to discover what is at the heart of the rise in suicides among black children. Last week, in a congressional staff briefing hosted by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D, N.J.), Dr. Lindsey called for the creation of a national taskforce to look at and try to understand the reasons why black boys, in particular, are committing suicide at higher rates than boys in other groups, and why it is happening at an increasing rate. A national taskforce would help to raise awareness and direct resources toward research and solutions, including guidance that educators and school personnel could use to spot suicidality in black children, and address it before the worst happens.
Suicides are not a failure of youth’s ability to cope as much as they are a catastrophe of adults’ inability to respond.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or the Crisis Text Line — text TALK to 741741 — are free, 24-hour services that can provide support, information and resources.
First-generation college students are less likely than their peers whose parents graduated from college to have a mentor who is a college professor.
It’s a finding that got less attention than it deserved following the recent 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, which reports on new college graduates’ experiences with mentors during their time as students.
Higher-education leaders need to take steps to better support their first-generation learners. While the mentoring gap is modest — 61 percent of first-generation students’ mentors, compared with 66 percent of continuing-generation or “college-experienced” students’ — it is symptomatic of the ways that higher-education institutions are failing first-generation students.
The accepted lexicon for discussing college students is “traditional,” meaning those who attend college full time right out of high school, and “non-traditional,” meaning those who attend when they’re older than 24, have a family, work, are financially independent from their parents or have been in the military.
Today, a whopping 74 percent of college students have at least one “non-traditional” characteristic. Significantly, 44 percent of students are “first-generation” — that is, they have parents who did not earn a bachelor’s degree.
In some respects, that’s encouraging, suggesting that classrooms in 2018 enjoy a greater diversity of perspectives and experiences than those of the past, which can enrich learning environments in many ways.
The problem, though, is that higher-education institutions haven’t quite caught up with the changing demographics of their student bodies, and it shows: only about half of first-generation college students earn bachelor’s degrees within six years of enrolling, compared to 64.2 percent of their college-experienced peers.
When you dig a little, that gap is hardly surprising: only 58 percent of schools report offering any targeted support services for “non-traditional” students.
Which brings me back to the Strada finding: in addition to lacking formal, school-sponsored support, first-generation students are also less likely to enjoy informal support from a professor-mentor. That’s problematic because professor-mentors have been shown to help students in both the short term (greater academic achievement) and the long term (improved self-confidence).
It’s not hard to guess what might drive the gap: first-generation students didn’t hear stories growing up about their parents chatting in a professor’s office after hours. They may not realize that seeking one-on-one relationships is encouraged and beneficial. More practically, they may have responsibilities like jobs or family support roles (indeed, the median family income for first-generation students is less than half that of their peers, and they are more likely to work while enrolled in college).
Luckily, there are concrete steps that higher-education institutions can take to better support these students and help them earn degrees.
Schools need to acknowledge the reality of their “post-traditional” student bodies — and adjust.
Student-focused resources may — and probably should — take many forms. Vassar, for example, offers a support program for first-generation students that includes a pre-orientation period to acclimate them to the campus, introduce them to resources, and let them get to know one another to develop support networks.
That’s an admirable start. But developing in-house programs is resource- and time-intensive.
To support first-generation students on an ongoing basis, schools should also consider partnering with third parties who can provide services more flexibly than faculty or staff can.
Because first-generation students are more likely to work outside school, they are less likely to be able to attend professors’ office hours for one-on-one instruction or visit the health center when it’s open. Partnering with providers that offer on-demand or round-the-clock services (like the app TalkSpace, which offers the ability to access mental-health counseling 24/7) can make essential support available to students on their own schedules, regardless of their other commitments.
Partnerships also help colleges scale new services cost effectively, a crucial consideration as student populations evolve.
But student-focused support is only one piece of the puzzle. Families could also benefit from orientation. Schools could create literature, online tutorials and in-person events to educate families about what will be expected of students in a college setting.
Professors, too, should receive instruction in the challenges unique to first-generation students. Part of this might include the recommendation to reach out to these students proactively, to initiate the kinds of relationships that might lead to mentoring.
In other words, the current problems for first-generation students are mostly problems of poor communication.
In a way, that’s encouraging: bridging communication gaps is a relatively straightforward task. To ensure that bridging happens, though, universities must acknowledge the changing composition of their student bodies, communicate to their faculties the implications of these changes, and recognize that success at scale will mean adapting the services they make available.
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!
The number of Mississippi families receiving assistance from “evidence-based” home visiting programs grew by 350 between 2015 and 2017, but almost 230,000 children in the state who could benefit from the visits are still missing out, according to a new report by the National Home Visiting Resource Center (NHVRC). A program is “evidence based” if a rigorous evaluation of the program reveals that it produces positive results.
In 2017, staff from the four programs, operated through 20 local agencies, made 14,682 home visits to 1,058 families and 829 children in the state. Home visits differ in scope depending on the program, but most are conducted by trained staff members or, in some cases, nurses, who visit families on a regular basis, including while a mother is pregnant. The programs promote child health, encourage nurturing relationships between children and family members and strive to increase parent knowledge of child development and parenting strategies. Some programs focus specifically on preventing child abuse and neglect and identifying developmental delays in children at an early age.
Nationwide, many home visiting programs have been proven to lead to positive outcomes for parents and their children, with some programs reducing behavioral and emotional problems in children, decreasing child abuse and neglect, increasing the percentage of women receiving prenatal care and even improving breastfeeding rates. The NHVRC reported that more than 3.5 million home visits were provided nationwide to 304,259 families and more than 334,000 children, although the group estimates some 18 million families and pregnant women could benefit from the visits. More than a quarter of these families — 26 percent — are led by a single mother and 8 percent are led by a parent with no high school diploma, the report stated.
NHVRC Deputy Project Director Allison Meisch noted that many families could benefit from home visiting. In a statement, she highlighted the impact the programs can have beyond working on parenting skills. “Decades of research tell us that home visiting can improve outcomes for children and help parents achieve their own education and career goals as they strive for financial self-sufficiency.”
In Mississippi, the majority of children who benefited from home visiting in 2017 were black, and nearly 20 percent of caregivers who received home visits had no high school diploma. The majority of children who were served ranged in age from infants to age 2.
A child in a classroom for the youngest students at Hill Country Montessori sets up his workspace. Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
AUSTIN, Texas — Mallory Foster was relieved when she, her husband and her stepson’s mother agreed that a local Montessori school would be the right fit for their 4-year-old. They weren’t specifically looking for a Montessori program, but that style of learning appealed to the three parents; it was a sort of added bonus to a school that advertised itself as a “Montessori garden” where kids would spend most of their time outside. Located in a south Austin home, the daycare center boasted more than half an acre of land for children to explore and on which they could grow vegetables in their own gardening plots. Inside, the living room was filled with wooden toys that Foster was told were Montessori supplies.
But after only a few months, Foster started to have concerns about the school’s safety and the quality of the education. Long emails from the director, the only adult on site, came during the middle of the day while the children were awake. Foster wondered how the woman could monitor children while writing. And Foster’s stepson didn’t seem to be learning much. Around Christmas, he told Foster he was spending his days sitting in a room playing with puzzles alone while the other kids were outside. When Foster confronted the owner, she refused to let Foster into the school and wouldn’t sit down for a parent-teacher conference. The parents pulled their child out of the school. A few months later they enrolled him in a public preschool program through their local school district. Within a year, and after multiple bad reviews on social media sites, the self-described Montessori school closed and the owner left town.
“This woman was not interested in Montessori education,” Foster said on a recent afternoon. “She was really just trying to exploit it.” Now, several years later, after pursuing a degree in psychology and taking courses in child development, Foster is more educated about Montessori education and realizes little about the “Montessori garden” actually adhered to Montessori practice. “It’s an attractive label to set your little private daycare apart from the umpteen other ones that are within a mile radius of yours,” Foster said.
Foster’s experience in finding a “Montessori school” that didn’t actually adhere to Montessori ideals is not unique. At a time when many critics of public schools say young children are pushed into academics too quickly and don’t get much time to play, the Montessori approach appeals to parents – and schools are quick to take advantage of that interest. Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been impressed by the idea of Montessori, recently dedicating $2 billion to a fund that will support, among other things, the creation of a Montessori-inspired chain of schools.
But many critics have pointed out that “Montessori-inspired” does not guarantee authentic Montessori.
Montessori is not a trademarked name, which means it is a label often given to thousands of daycares and preschools across the country — whether or not they follow the Montessori method. This can mislead parents who are not aware that all Montessori schools are not created equal. “We Montessorians call that ‘Monte-somethings,’” said Sandra Karnstadt, founder of Lake Hills Montessori, an American Montessori Society member school in the Texas hill country just west of Austin. “We don’t know what they are.”
A Google search of preschools in any major city will return dozens of “Montessori” schools, but that doesn’t mean the schools follow the teachings of the method’s founder, Maria Montessori, or feature some of the key classroom tenets of Montessori — like an uninterrupted three-hour “work time” — or have teachers trained by an accredited Montessori teacher-training program. And even fewer schools are affiliated with an accrediting organization, like the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori International, which some experts say is the only way to guarantee the highest level of authenticity. Out of more than 4,000 so-called Montessori schools across the country, only 1,250 are affiliated with the American Montessori Society (and only 204 are AMS-accredited) and about 220 are recognized by AMI.
For parents, the free use of the Montessori name could mean the “Montessori” program in which their child is enrolled will not provide the type of education they want or expect. And some Montessori advocates say this indiscriminate use of the word is damaging to the Montessori reputation and approach, which has been proven to lead to academic benefits for young kids.
Two students work together in the primary classroom at Hill Country Montessori. Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
For years, many middle- and upper-class parents have clamored for spots in private Montessori preschools. These programs, when done right, are led by specially trained teachers who preside over multi-age classrooms in which self-discipline is encouraged and which feature unique materials that aren’t seen in other preschools. Many parents think a Montessori education encourages creativity and benefits children by providing unique teaching methods aimed at respecting young children and giving kids more control of their learning.
Supporters say the Montessori approach gives children the materials and time to learn independently and at their own pace. It strives to teach peace education, help children develop concentration and to learn without the promise of extrinsic rewards or grades. This approach helps children “develop a love of learning,” said Rachel Rodriguez, a certified Montessori teacher at Hill Country Montessori just north of San Antonio, Texas. “It honors each child’s interests and sparks that sense of wonder so learning sounds really good to them.”
5 things to look for in your child’s Montessori school:
1. Trained teachers: Teachers should be trained in the age group they teach by a teacher-preparation program accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education.
2. Multi-age classrooms: Montessori classrooms traditionally feature age groupings of three years, meaning one classroom will serve ages 3 to 6, another will serve first through third grade, etc.
3. Montessori materials: Montessori materials are extensive and grouped into different areas of learning, including sensorial and practical life. Usually made out of a range of materials including fabric and wood, the materials include real objects like pitchers and are meant to be used in multiple ways and at several stages of child development and learning.
4. Three-hour uninterrupted work time: During this time, students direct their learning as they work at their own pace either alone or with peers, while teachers provide individual and small-group instruction.
5. For the most “high-fidelity” schools, look for membership in or recognition by an association like the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori International.
The method spread to America in the early 1900s, but its popularity waned during the 1920s. It was revitalized during the 1960s and grew quickly after one of the nation’s Montessori schools was featured in a Time magazine article titled “The Joy of Learning.” Parents were intrigued by the schools, which seemed to offer an alternative to traditional public schools. Recently, Montessori has received another revival as public Montessori schools have become increasingly common.
While many parents are drawn to the creative nature of Montessori, the method is steeped in order and consistency, which Maria Montessori found essential for helping children learn. There are specific procedures for everything: how to roll up your rug, how to pour liquid from one pitcher to another, how to draw lines on a paper. Materials are arranged on shelves in order of difficulty and students are not allowed to move from one activity to another until they have received instruction.
“Everything has a correct name, everything has a place where it lives on the shelves, everything has an exact way to carry it from the shelf,” said Tim Seldin, president of The Montessori Foundation, who added that this sense of order and focus is what Montessori educators are trying to develop in children. “All of this can feel very, very rigid to a parent who thinks creative chaos is a way for kids to learn. We would argue that’s exactly the way you do not want kids to learn. That does not lead to executive functioning skills.”
Research shows a Montessori education can affect a student’s achievement. One study found students who attend Montessori have higher achievement levels on math and literacy tests than their peers in non-Montessori programs, including private preschools and Head Start programs. Another study, of older students, found that children who attended Montessori schools showed significant differences in story writing and social skills compared to their peers who were not enrolled in Montessori. That study also found 5-year-olds in a Montessori program performed better on academic skills like letter-word identification and math skills compared to their non-Montessori peers.
Rachel Rodriguez teaches a small-group lesson in her classroom at Hill Country Montessori. Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
But authenticity matters. One study compared student gains in classic Montessori programs, “lower fidelity Montessori,” and other preschool programs. It found children in classic Montessori programs had “significantly greater school-year gains” in executive function, reading, math, vocabulary and social problem-solving than their peers in Montessori schools that were not as authentic or schools without any Montessori affiliation.
But many parents may struggle to identify an authentic Montessori school. One of the first signs is association with or accreditation by a group like the American Montessori Society, Association Montessori International or the International Montessori Council, all of which may differ in their requirements for schools, leading to slight variations in accredited Montessori programs. Teachers should be trained in the age group they are teaching through one of the 137 teacher-training programs accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) so they are versed in theory and know how to use the materials correctly. That training time is also when teachers work on their “albums,” or lesson plans.
“You can’t really call yourself a Montessori school unless you have trained teachers,” said Rebecca Pelton, president of MACTE. “They have to practice with the materials; they have to be able to set up the shelves; they have to be able to know how to use the materials in teaching.”
Montessori classrooms are organized into several distinct work areas, each displaying unique Montessori materials. In the practical life area, students may learn how to sew, water a plant, arrange flowers, iron fabric and wash dishes. In the sensorial area, students work with geometric figures, match fabrics and sort materials by size or color. In the math area, students touch sandpaper numbers, group strings of colored beads to learn about numerals and the decimal system and learn multiplication using bars of beads attached to a wooden frame. The language area provides picture books, a sand tray for tracing letters and a large movable alphabet with consonants and vowels in different colors. The cultural area introduces students to puzzle maps, flags and globes.
During a daily three-hour work session, students are encouraged to interact with whatever interests them. Materials are “self-correcting,” which means pieces fit together in a specific way, and children must discover the correct way to stack or replace materials in a box. Students receive individual or small-group lessons and can work individually or with peers, ideally staying with an activity for an extended period of time rather than moving quickly from one item to the next.
Materials for children in the preschool classes, which serve kids ages 3 to 6, and for the elementary and middle school classes, should include purposeful, authentic Montessori items like the infamous “pink tower,” a series of cubes that introduces children to geometry and volume; blue geometric solids and puzzle maps. And the school should adhere to several key aspects of Montessori, like the uninterrupted three-hour work time and multi-age classrooms, in which, ideally, older children will guide and teach younger children.
Foster now realizes that not only did her stepson’s first school lack the qualities of a decent daycare, it also lacked many of the traits that could have made it a high-fidelity Montessori experience. Although a local newspaper article claimed in 2006 that the faux-Montessori school was affiliated with AMI, officials at AMI said they have no record of the school in their database. And the wooden toys Foster believed were Montessori materials were the types of toys she now says one would see on a Google search for Montessori toys. “A lot of wooden stuff shows up,” Foster said. “It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Montessori approach.”
Some experts say that’s why accreditation is so important. If parents find a Montessori school they like, but they aren’t sure if it’s authentic, accreditation — or at minimum an affiliation with an accrediting organization — offers some sort of quality control. Accreditation is a long, time-consuming and expensive process, which means while schools may affiliate with an accrediting society as a “member school,” not all pursue full accreditation.
Montessori materials sit on a shelf in a primary classroom at Hill Country Montessori. Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
Hill Country Montessori in rural Boerne, Texas, about 35 miles north of San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country, is one of only two fully-accredited Montessori schools in the Austin and San Antonio, Texas area. An oasis for Montessori purists, the school is located on 10 acres of land. Paved pathways weave between flowers and grassy areas to connect the six different cottages that house the school’s early childhood through middle school classrooms, library, and administrative offices. As children and school officials walk to their classrooms, butterflies flutter along the paths.
The school sticks closely to the vision of Maria Montessori. Play is referred to as work and learning is accomplished through activities like cleaning shells and pouring liquid from one pitcher to another. There are no noisy electronic toys or books featuring fantastical ideas like talking animals. Students will not find a laptop or tablet program here; the school has three computers available in the library for older students. At this school, encyclopedias and books are preferable to screens.
On a recent October morning inside the classroom for the youngest children, which houses students aged 18 months to 3 years old, eight remarkably calm toddlers were in the middle of their uninterrupted work time. In the center of the room, one child lined up colorful bears on a blue carpet. To the side, a teacher showed the youngest student how to push in her chair at the table. Around the corner, a little girl examined pinecones in a wicker basket.
In a nearby classroom, 15 diligent 3- to 6-year-olds worked silently. One little boy arranged pink cubes of different sizes on the ground. “See if you can stack them. See if you can do it vertical,” said his teacher. “That means up and down, big to little.” The little boy nodded and quietly began to stack the boxes. Nearby, another student poked holes in a piece of white paper with a large push pin to create outlines of shapes. Another student sat at a table practicing drawing lines. “Start at the top and go down,” the teacher reminded him. “Go down, every time.”
Low bookshelves in every classroom at Hill Country Montessori hold dozens of Montessori materials, from beads to pink and blue “moveable alphabet” sets to colorful cubes that introduce children to algebraic equations. Access to true Montessori materials is one element that research shows makes a difference in the success children have in Montessori. The study that examined the fidelity of Montessori found that engaging with authentic Montessori materials led to higher achievement than working with non-Montessori equipment.
Researchers point out that these studies do not definitively prove that Montessori materials are critical to a child’s potential success in Montessori. Differences in teacher interactions in the high- and low-fidelity Montessori classrooms also may have made a difference.
At Hill Country when teachers aren’t teaching, they often alternate between sitting back and observing, waiting for the right moment to prompt a child, and teaching individual or small-group lessons. Montessori educators credit this dynamic as one of the most important aspects of a multi-age classroom.
On a recent morning in Rachel Rodriguez’s 3-to 6-year-old class at Hill Country, the class of 12 students felt more like a peaceful yoga studio than a preschool classroom, with soothing classical music playing in the background as children tended to their activities, cleaning seashells, coloring pictures, and building rocket ships out of wooden blocks.
Students work independently in a classroom at Hill Country Montessori. Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
While the assistant teacher taught an individual lesson, Rodriguez sat down on a blue carpet with three students. “These are called geometric solids. Can we say that?” she said in a calm, quiet voice.
“Geometric solids,” the students echoed.
“This is a cylinder,” she said, holding up a blue cylinder. “Can you say cylinder?”
Each child took turns rolling the cylinder between their hands and practicing saying the name. Rodriguez repeated the process with a cube and sphere.
As both teachers worked with students, the remaining children continued with their own lessons, clearly understanding some of the key tenets of Montessori: Work on a small, individual rug. Roll up and store the rug when work-time ends. Put materials back in their exact spot on the bookshelf when you’re done. Don’t disrupt another student’s materials or lesson.
Of the 1,250 schools affiliated with AMS, only 16 percent are fully accredited, which means parents who want a Montessori school with full accreditation may not have access to one. Melanie Thiesse, director of school accreditation at the American Montessori Society, says that Montessori-affiliated schools can be high-quality, even if they lack accreditation or don’t meet all of the hundreds of elements that make up truly authentic Montessori practice. “There are going to be times when those things aren’t possible,” Thiesse said. State licensing requirements, for example, are often are at odds with some essential Montessori elements like multi-age groupings.
And there are different levels of association within accrediting groups that still point to Montessori schools that are on the right track and attempting to be high-fidelity schools. Lake Hills Montessori, just west of Austin, hasn’t pursued full accreditation, although it is recognized as a “full member school” by the American Montessori Society. Founder Karnstadt believes the school would meet accreditation standards if it embarked on the AMS accreditation process, which can take one to two years to complete and cost a school more than $1,100 in fees alone. Karnstadt has meticulously designed the school, tucked in an area of rolling hills 45 minutes outside of Austin, to pay homage to “true” Montessori. Children roam freely in multi-age classrooms. The..
Exhibit 4.6 of The Investing in Innovation Fund: Summary of 67 Evaluations, Final Report, U.S. Dept. of Education, 2018
As part of the federal recovery effort to boost the economy after the 2008 recession, the U.S. Education Department suddenly had a big pot of money to give away to “innovations” in education. Since then, more than $1.5 billion has been spent on almost 200 ideas because Congress continued to appropriate funds even after the recession ended. Big chunks went to building new KIPP charter schools and training thousands of new Teach for America recruits to become teachers. Other funds made it possible for lesser known programs in reading, writing, math and science instruction to reach classrooms around the country. Many of the grant projects involved technology, sometimes delivering lessons or material over the internet. One “innovation” was to help teachers select good apps for their students. Another was for a novel way to evaluate teachers.
In order to obtain the grants, recipients had to determine if their ideas were effective by tracking test scores. Results are in for the first wave of 67 programs, representing roughly $700 million of the innovation grants and it doesn’t look promising.
Only 12 of the 67 innovations, or 18 percent, were found to have any positive impact on student achievement, according to a report published earlier in 2018. Some of these positive impacts were very tiny but as long as the students who received the “innovative treatment” posted larger test score gains than a comparison group of students who were taught as usual, it counted.
“It’s only a handful,” said Barbara Goodson, a researcher at Abt Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm that was hired to analyze the results of the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund for the Department of Education. “It’s discouraging to everybody. We are desperate to find what works. Here was a program that was supposed to identify promising models. People are disappointed that we didn’t come up with 20 new models.”
“That’s the dirty secret of all of education research,” Goodson added. “It is really hard to change student achievement. We have rarely been able to do it. It’s harder than anybody thinks.” She cited a prior 2013 study that also found when education reforms were put to rigorous scientific tests with control groups and random assignment, 90 percent of them failed to find positive effects.
Why is innovation so hard in education?
To Goodson, who has specialized in early childhood education research for 40 years, the problem is that learning is ultimately about changing human behavior and that is always difficult for adults and children. And so many other things — like nutrition, sleep, safety and relationships at home — affect learning. “We’ve known for the longest time that economic background characteristics swamp any education intervention,” she said. “We’re starting out with only being able to make a small difference in how people do. The lever of education is only operating on a small slice of the pie.”
In some cases, the current measures of effectiveness, generally standardized assessments, may be too broad to capture the targets of these innovations, Goodson said. For example, a phonics program might help some kids read more fluently. But the ability to read more fluently might only be indirectly captured in a reading test that’s focused on comprehension and vocabulary. An intervention aimed at soft skills, such as the ability to persist and try again, can’t be measured at all on these conventional tests.
Many interventions target kids who are several grade levels behind. A seventh-grade math test might not pick up on how a student progressed through two year’s worth of math from third-grade multiplication of single digits to fifth-grade addition of fractions. Instead the test might suggest a minuscule academic improvement because the student flubbed most of the seventh-grade questions on solving for x and graphing equations.
A more sensitive yardstick for measuring innovation would require creating and administering more tests to students. That’s a hard sell to principals, teachers and families who may already feel that there’s too much testing in schools.
Saro Mohammed, a partner at the Learning Accelerator, a non-profit organization that supports using technology to tailor instruction to each child, says that it’s sometimes hard to prove that an innovation works is because of unintended consequences when schools try something new. For example, if a school increases the amount of time that children read independently to try to boost reading achievement, it might shorten the amount of time that students work together collaboratively or engage in a group discussion.
“Your reading outcomes may turn out to be the same [as the control group], but it’s not because independent reading doesn’t work,” Mohammed said. “It’s because you inadvertently changed something else. Education is super complex. There are lots of moving pieces.”
Mohammed said the study results are not all bad. Only one of the 67 programs produced negative results, meaning that kids in the intervention ended up worse off than learning as usual. Most studies ended up producing “null” results and she said that means “we’re not doing worse than business as usual. In trying these new things, we’re not doing harm on the academic side.”
Mohammed also pointed out that learning improvements are slow and incremental. It can take longer than even the three-to-five-year time horizon that the innovation grants allowed.
Eighteen of the studies had to be thrown out because of problems with the data or the study design. In some cases, too many students who tried the innovation were ignored in the final figures. When you exclude kids with disabilities, for example, that can skew the results upward. Too many of the early-stage innovations weren’t tried on enough students to produce statistically significant results. That means even when the students in the intervention produced larger test score gains than those in a comparison control group, the researchers still had to call it a “null” result if the odds of reproducing such a positive result were no better than flipping a coin. (One of the reasons that many small education studies cannot be replicated is because they were lucky flukes in the first place.) In more recent grant making, Goodson says the small studies have been “powered up” so that the results will be statistically useful. (They’re now called Education Innovation and Research grants.)
This grant program was also a first test of using rigorous scientific evidence as a way of issuing grants in education. Proven concepts received the largest $25-50 million grants. Ideas with the least evidence received less than $5 million to help them build an evidence base. Ideas in between might get $15 million. Among the 48 least proven ideas, only 4 were found to increase student achievement. That’s a low 8 percent success rate. (Links to all the publicly available evaluations for each program are here. Appendix D of the report lists the academic results for each program.)
But programs in the highest tier were supposed to have a proven track record and only two of the four — the KIPP charter school network and Reading Recovery — generated stronger test scores.
Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, characterized the results as “discouraging” but cautioned that high failure rates are not a reason to give up on educational innovation. “This is the nature of R&D,” he said. “If we stop giving out grants, then we stop innovating.”
This story about innovation in education was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Businessman Paul Campbell speaks before students at the Academy of Seminole, a charter school he founded in rural Oklahoma. Campbell said the “thesis” of the school is that “on day one of your ninth grade, literally hour one … we start talking about what you want to do with your life.” Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
SEMINOLE, Okla. — Within the walls of the Academy of Seminole, eight rented rooms in a community college library, it can be hard to see why the little school has kicked up so much dust in this former oil boomtown, population 7,300. On a recent Friday, businessman and school founder Paul Campbell addressed the students, just 29 freshmen and sophomores, to tell them what it’s like to run a business.
What he dislikes? Making small talk at political events and “firing people.” What he enjoys? “I love doing something that no one thinks can be done. That’s why we’re sitting in this school.”
Campbell said the “thesis” of the school is that “on day one of your ninth grade, literally hour one … we start talking about what you want to do with your life.” Speakers have included a health care CEO, professional dancers and a speech pathologist. Academy students mapped out various careers they might pursue, and spent their first semester doing a research project on their chosen path. That focus on jobs is a direction in which more schools are headed, amid rising concern that young people are graduating unprepared for the workforce, especially in rural towns like this one. Last year Oklahoma joined a growing list of states requiring students to develop a career plan in order to graduate. And, in a sense, Campbell’s can-do, pro-business attitude fits in with the ethos of this working class, Trump-supporting town.
But while Campbell may dislike politicking, he’s had to do a lot of it to get his school off the ground and keep it going in the face of a chorus of concern from local residents. That’s because the Academy of Seminole is a rural charter school; its establishment is part of a small movement to bring this taxpayer-funded version of school choice to more remote corners of the country.
Paul Campbell is an outsider who moved to the state in 2015 to lead an aerospace manufacturing company in town, and then had trouble finding qualified workers. He blamed his difficulties, in part, on the school system, and believed he could offer students something better. When he proposed the idea for his school, divisions quickly formed between some community leaders, who felt a charter could attract employers and skilled workers to the struggling city, and those who worried it would peel away students and state dollars from what many see as Seminole’s severely underfunded schools and prioritize business needs over those of the city’s poorest children.
Supporters, many of them from the town’s business community, praised both the idea of giving residents a new educational option and the school’s stated focus on workforce preparation. That focus was part of the worry for locals, concerned the school might be used to provide labor for Campbell’s company, Enviro Systems, and that it could inappropriately blur the lines between schools and the workplace. Opponents also felt that Campbell, who had no background in education, had put together a proposal pockmarked with problems, one that didn’t offer students any opportunities they couldn’t already get from existing programs. Church services grew tense. Friendships soured. Campbell said he received a death threat in the form of a note left on his truck.
Seminole school board members twice rejected his application before the voucher- and charter-friendly state education board overrode their decision and approved it. This fall, a year behind schedule, the Academy of Seminole opened. Now, Campbell’s success at making an end run around local leaders could test the popularity of charters in Oklahoma, and the role of the state in overruling community decisions. More broadly, it’s a test case for whether these privately operated, publicly funded schools can open in small communities without eroding public education.
While charter schools have taken root in many cities since the first charter legislation passed in Minnesota in 1991, in rural areas they are still “unicorns,” as Michael Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, puts it. Only about 2 percent of rural public school kids attend charters, according to an analysis of 2014-15 federal data, compared with 10 percent in urban areas. Of the 6,747 charter schools nationwide that academic year, roughly 11 percent were rural.
The Academy of Seminole is housed in this library on the Seminole State College campus. For now, it serves 29 students, but its founder hopes to add pre-K through fifth grade and additional high school grades. Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
Rural parts of the country don’t have the economies of scale to support big charter operators, like KIPP or YES Prep. Nor do they tend to have the political alliances that have helped bring charters to cities like New York, where centrist Democrats have often lined up alongside market-minded Republicans to back charters. And some states have limited charters to big cities. That was the case in Oklahoma until 2015, when the legislature passed a law to spread charters beyond Tulsa and Oklahoma City and give the state board of education the right to overturn local school board decisions denying charters.
“More power to him,” said Petrilli of Campbell and his vision of helping lift local school performance with market-style inducements. “Here is a person who is trying to bring up the quality of education in the community. He’s an employer; this is where a lot of the energy for education reform has come from, the employers who find they are just not getting the workers they need or they don’t have the schools to recruit people into the community.”
But others say residents are right to worry about the sprouting of charters in their hometowns. Schools often play an integral role in the life of a small community, offering a central meeting place, social services and additional support. If a charter grew popular enough to draw hundreds of kids and capture those students’ share of funding allocated by the state, it could erode not just schools but the fabric of communities. Bryan Mann, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s college of education, has studied charter schools in Pennsylvania and noted that, while the research on rural charters is still new, these schools could pose a threat to public education.
“Choice is great, but if having choice is undermining the dominant choice that the majority of families rely on and have relied on for decades or longer, then what good ultimately is that doing?” he said.
Even some who are generally sympathetic to charters say the schools may have limited applications in rural areas. Juliet Squire, a senior associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners, who produced a report on the role charters could play in rural America, said they are no “silver bullet” for the problems ailing rural schools, such as low rates of college attendance. But she said charters might offer a tool in certain circumstances, such as when a particular student body isn’t being served well, a rural community is large enough to sustain many schools, or when a charter replaces a school being shuttered.
In the eyes of the Oklahoma charter’s critics, none of these conditions exist in Seminole, but Campbell sees it differently.
Three years ago, Campbell moved his family to Oklahoma from Los Angeles for a job leading Enviro Systems. Campbell’s wife had reservations about putting their youngest children in the Seminole school district, so the family settled in Norman, about 48 miles away. Then Campbell started to recruit workers to join him at the company — and he said he ran into trouble right away. In Seminole, the median household income is less than $35,000 and good jobs are scant. With few skilled people to hire locally, he had to recruit beyond the town’s borders. One engineer he’d worked with in the past turned him down for the job, a promotion, because she said she couldn’t justify sending her son to a school where the ACT scores were significantly lower than those in their district in Florida. “That hit me really hard,” said Campbell.
Superintendent Alfred Gaches stands with Seminole High School students outside a school gymnasium. Gaches recommended that the Oklahoma state board of education reject an application for a rural charter in Seminole, but the board disagreed. Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
He began to think that if he were to meet his business goals for Enviro Systems — doubling its size and turning it from one of the “best kept secrets in Oklahoma” into a company with a global profile — something would have to be done about the Seminole schools. Campbell said he met with a few school board members about ways his company could help improve the district’s scores and give kids career guidance, but he was largely rebuffed. (School board members dispute this characterization.) Determined, Campbell began to refine plans for starting his own school, and in August 2016, he submitted an application asking the Seminole School District to approve what would have been one of Oklahoma’s first rural charter schools.
Working in his favor was the timing. Campbell, who was raised in rural western Kentucky, had arrived in Oklahoma just as Seminole Public Schools was hurtling toward a tempest. Some business and city leaders, including the city manager, Steve Saxon, had lined up in support of a bond issue to construct a new high school building by a major road on the east side of town, with an eye toward attracting businesses to the area. (Saxon declined an interview for this article, writing in an email that the charter school “provokes about as many opinions around here as Donald Trump.”) Not long after the bond issue failed, an engineer’s report identified structural problems with the green-trimmed, Art Deco building that had housed the district’s high school since the 1930s, and students were sent to school in a former grocery store down the road as the district explored other options.
Meanwhile, some of the supporters of the first bond issue decided to get behind the charter school, eventually writing letters to the state board arguing that the school could help “drive economic development” and “revitalize 21st-century manufacturing in rural America.”
Members of the school board were unimpressed. Jack Cadenhead, a lawyer and former school board chair, said he didn’t see any evidence that a school would prompt new businesses to set up shop in Seminole. “I just think that’s a farce,” he said recently while sitting in his office on brick-lined North Main Street, which is home to a library, a former train depot turned Mexican restaurant and a bunch of burned-out storefronts. “Is there any research proving this theory?”
Cadenhead also worried that Campbell lacked knowledge of education and that his attacks on the school system were ill-founded. As Superintendent Alfred Gaches noted, the district’s relatively low average ACT score — which Campbell touted as demonstrating the need for a charter school — could be explained by the fact that at the time Seminole was one of just a few places in the state requiring all its juniors to take the test, not just those who were college bound. Cadenhead added that the charter didn’t seem to offer any technical opportunities that kids couldn’t get through the area’s existing vocational education system, and students already had a form of school choice through the state’s open-transfer policy.
Seated in her office across the street from Cadenhead’s, lawyer and former school board member Amie Rose Colclazier said she worried the charter school would be a private school “in sheep’s clothing,” benefiting only students of families with the means to sort out the school’s application process and ferry their kids to and from school. Charters in Oklahoma, like other public schools, are not required to provide transportation, but the Seminole district buses its students.
Statements like this one, from the school’s initial application, also troubled some residents: “Students will be engaged from 40-50 % of each day with local industry environments.” (Wren Hawthorne, the Academy of Seminole’s genial Oklahoma State- and Harvard-educated head of school, said the institution has moved away from the idea of students spending so much of their day in workplace environments.)
Amie Rose Colclazier is a lawyer and former school board member in Seminole. She voted along with the rest of the board to reject an application for a charter school in the town, amid concerns that the charter did not have sufficient community support. Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
After several hearings at which board members said that school representatives failed to provide direct answers to their questions, the board twice voted unanimously to deny the application. Among other reasons, they said the Academy of Seminole had not demonstrated “community support,” as required under the state charter law, because it had only gathered 124 signatures on written and online petitions from school district residents, a tiny slice of the population. Charter supporters said those numbers weren’t fair because the school is open to kids from districts beyond Seminole and its current class has enrolled students from nine districts.
The next month, the state board overrode the school board’s decision, as it has done in two other cases involving charters. The state superintendent of education, who in an interview following the vote cited Seminole’s failure to fund the building of a new high school, declined to speak for this story.
The state board’s actions, meanwhile, are starting to generate pushback: This year, a Republican state legislator introduced a billto rescind the board’s authority to approve charters over local objections.
Once Academy of Seminole opened, the school’s enrollment ended up below projections — its application stated the school anticipated serving 60 students in the first year and up to 700 by year five, but ended up with just 32 enrolled. Three left within the first weeks of the semester because, according to Hawthorne, the school wasn’t the best fit for them. About 45 percent of the remaining students in the academy’s inaugural class qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, which is a significant share of the study body, but still far lower than the 73 percent in the Seminole district.
Michael Hobbs, the Academy of Seminole’s history teacher, coaches students in Speedfest, an aerospace design competition. The school, founded by the leader of a local aerospace engineering company, will have a focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
Still, much of what inspired the charter’s supporters, and troubled its opponents, hasn’t yet come to pass. The small size is good financial news for the Seminole district, which stands to lose between $3,500 to $9,000 in state funding for every student who departs for the charter, according to Gaches. To critics, of course, the small enrollment is evidence that there was never much demand for a charter school in the first place. For his part, Campbell is pointedly unsympathetic to worries over the charter school’s financial impact on the district: “Adapt,” he said.
Hawthorne said he thinks some families didn’t want to take a chance on a new school and enrollment will rise over time.
For now, students and teachers appreciate the small size. On a fall morning, English teacher Sheri Bray guided her 16 freshmen through an exercise envisioning wedding vows for Romeo and Juliet. Bray joined the school after two years teaching special education in Oklahoma City, where she said her classes were impossibly large. Her regular classes at the tiny Academy of Seminole, she said, feel more like what special education was meant to be — individualized — and she has plenty of opportunity to experiment and innovate.
The same morning, teacher Charity Hobbs leaned over a desk to coach her sophomores through math problems in preparation for the ACT. As ACT scores are one of the reasons the school came to being, preparing students for the college-readiness test is a major focus, and all sophomores will take it, their test fees paid through private fundraising. Down the hall, Hobbs’ husband, Michael Hobbs, who teaches history and supervises some extracurricular activities, was working with students on model airplanes for an aerospace design competition.
Students, most of whom come from the smaller districts that surround Seminole, talked about choosing the school for the chance to take dual credit classes at the community college, Seminole State, or because they wanted a change from home schooling.
Cognitive science can tell us a lot about how students learn to read.
Reading failure affects more than half of U.S. students, contributing to a persistent achievement gap. The time to learn about that science and put it to better use is now. But to do so, we must first shift the focus of our national discourse on reading instruction from what is learned to how it is learned.
In a recent article, Emily Hanford reported that many educators rely on ineffective means of teaching students to read and ignore substantial research that demonstrates better outcomes from phonics instruction than from the whole language approach. While Hanford’s arguments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to teach reading, researchers and teachers have noted that not all students respond the same ways to specific educational approaches.
Indeed, there are a variety of approaches used to teach early reading development. In many cases, these programs are supported by evidence that demonstrates success for some but not all children.
These approaches come in various forms, from pre-packaged, scripted programs delivered by educational publishers to teacher-developed lesson plans and countless others. The development of phonic skills (sound-symbol relationships) is an undeniably essential component to successful reading, serving as an organizing hub for differing approaches. But the way each approach provides phonics instruction varies from a tightly controlled sequence of phonics rules to an unstructured exposure to these rules through immersion in rich literature.
The experiences, skills and knowledge that children bring to school place them at different points, suggesting they might need differing amounts and/or types of instruction. It isn’t enough merely to know the phonics rules. Research tells us that skilled readers not only have good decoding skills but go beyond decoding to recognize words automatically. Students who can flexibly use and generalize the “code” are able to transfer these skills to read known and even novel words in connected text. This transition shifts the cognitive load from focusing on the structure of words to accessing the meaning of words. Children who develop what is known as “automaticity” can move on to focus on fluency and comprehension while others continue to struggle, laboring at the word level.
So rather than focusing primarily on what students need to know, we should instead focus on how they learn. Understanding exactly how automaticity develops — thereby opening the door to reading fluency and comprehension— can provide a window into more effective reading pedagogy. Fortunately, research in cognitive science has already identified powerful principles of learning to help us get to answers for these and other important questions.
In 2014, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel published Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, in which they examine examples of learning across several domains and explain how educators can translate notable findings in cognitive science into best practices for instruction. An important principle of cognitive science with direct relevance to the development of reading skills is “systematic variation.” Practicing a skill over and over in the same way may teach students to acquire the skill, but it won’t necessarily lead them to apply that skill to other contexts. Rather, students need to practice the skill in a variety of different ways to be able to retain, generalize and apply that information.
A significant body of research about how people learn demonstrates the clear benefits of systematic variation. For instance, in one study on the impact of variation in learning to identify dialects, one group of participants was trained to identify six different dialects by hearing just one talker in each of six dialects. Another group was trained to identify the same six dialects by hearing three different talkers of each dialect.
The second group learned far more quickly to correctly identify dialects. Why? This group experienced systematic variation that “made it stick.” The benefits of systematic variation have also been demonstrated in a diversity of other domains, including first language acquisition, word recognition, facial recognition, landing a plane, tossing bean bags at targets and even identifying artists by their painting styles.
When it comes to reading, traditional phonics teaches skills one at a time to mastery, intentionally limiting variation to emphasize the rule being taught, whereas whole language introduces the learner to almost unlimited (and unstructured) variation with the belief that immersion in age-appropriate literature leads to a natural understanding of phonics. But cognitive science tells us that some degree of variability is important to cement skills so that they stick and become truly automatic.
Indeed, systematic variation offers a consistent benefit to students learning to read, as demonstrated in this study by Keith Apfelbaum and colleagues. Specifically, it teaches students to retain, generalize and use their skills. With this in mind, educators should consider the following when planning reading instruction for their students:
1) Before beginning reading instruction, teachers should conduct a high-quality baseline assessment.
2) Identify assessment tools that determine what students know about phonics and whether they can flexibly use their knowledge.
3) Assess students who have gaps in foundational skills, such as phonics, syllabication and automatic word recognition.
4) Vary the ways in which students learn foundational skills like phonics so they can become automatic readers.
5) Match the amount of variation in both content and tasks, and types of feedback should be matched to the student’s needs.
6) Students who have reasonably good decoding skills but still lack automaticity may be prime candidates for an approach that emphasizes systematic variation.
7) Teachers should periodically evaluate growth and fluency, and compare to baseline results.
Principles of learning, studied extensively in cognitive science, could and should inform solutions to our national reading problem. We should not get stuck in the past and in arguments about methods of teaching. Practitioners and scientists should embrace and exploit the recent, relevant findings in cognitive science to understand how students learn and which instructional approaches best fit each learner.
This story on phonics instruction was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Carolyn Brown and Jerry Zimmerman are co-founders of Foundations in Learning, a provider of research-based tools designed to assess struggling readers, address their foundational skill deficits and empower them to achieve significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension.
Oliver Francis, who was placed in foster care because he was truant, graduated this year from George Junior Republic, in Grove City, Pennsylvania. A new report says the state of Pennsylvania ought to be doing more to oversee such facilities serving foster and delinquent children. Photo: Caroline Preston for The Hechinger Report/HuffPost
Residential facilities in Pennsylvania are doing an inadequate job of educating foster children in their care, according to a new report from Children’s Rights and the Education Law Center. The advocacy groups are calling for greater state oversight of these facilities, which were the topic of an investigation last month by The Hechinger Report/HuffPost.
Children attending school in these facilities are often taught in classrooms with multiple grades, sometimes by uncertified instructors, and very often receive assignments that are below grade level, the report says. If students exit the facilities and go on to attend public schools, their credits may not transfer over.
“Pennsylvania’s residential facilities have not only put these children in harm’s way, but have severely undermined their educational opportunities and in many cases deprived them of a meaningful education,” Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, said in a statement. “Pennsylvania is failing our most vulnerable children, and PA-DHS and PDE [the state departments of human services and education] must work together to fix this.”
The report cites a 2013 study commissioned by the School District of Philadelphia that identifies “major concerns” with the quality of education provided by three residential facilities in the state. The internal report, first obtained by The Hechinger Report/HuffPost, cites “lack of academic rigor and linkage to academic standards” and says that education in these institutions is a “missed opportunity” for students. It also cites lack of compliance with special education laws and other concerns.
In Pennsylvania, 47 percent of young people in foster care ages 14 to 21 spend time in these facilities, compared to 34 nationwide, according to a study published in November by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Pennsylvania state law guarantees foster children in institutions the right to attend public schools under most circumstances.
But the report released today suggests that many of these foster children are attending on-grounds schools in lieu of public schools. A 2013 study cited in the report, issued by the state Educational Success and Truancy Prevention Taskforce, found that of 42 county teams that responded, nearly 79 percent said that foster youth “sometimes” or “rarely” enrolled in local public schools. Only 2.4 percent said that children in institutions “always” received education that was equal to that provided in public schools.
In addition to examining schooling, the study also explores safety concerns at residential facilities. Children in institutions in Pennsylvania were physically maltreated at least 156 times over an eight-year period beginning in May 2010, including 114 times by staff, according to a review of publicly available data.
To improve the schooling of foster youth, the report recommends that the state education agency ensure that kids can attend public schools, adopt clear standards and curriculums for residential schools and step up its monitoring of these institutions.
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!
Most of an average student’s waking hours are spent somewhere other than school. That means out-of-school activities offer a powerful opportunity to either mitigate or exacerbate gaps in student achievement. Historically, wealthier students have had greater access to enriching out-of-school experiences, compounding their privilege.
The Chicago Learning Exchange supports out-of-school programs that are trying to change that, particularly those using technology to offer innovative opportunities for kids in Chicago who historically haven’t had them. The new nonprofit helps programs take advantage of the time before and after school, as well as over the summer, to level the playing field for the city’s disadvantaged youth.
Given that goal, the nonprofit commissioned a study of out-of-school programs to see how they use digital media tools and technologies with students. Are they giving students chances to be creators and have meaningful interactions with technology that will prepare them for future work and their adult lives? The project surveyed almost 250 Chicago organizations offering about 1,000 programs that use digital media tools and technologies, which they defined as hardware, software and other digital tools and resources. The programs vary widely, giving students the opportunity to do things like design new products with digital tools or use software to study music theory or produce videos about community events.
While digital technology has become ubiquitous in most communities, there is a hierarchy in how it is used for learning. Simply putting students in front of computers or other devices and letting them be passive consumers is a missed opportunity. The real value of using technology as a learning tool, according to researchers, comes when students use it for active learning. Studies of tech use in schools, however, show passive consumption is exceedingly common.
But as it turns out, the out-of-school providers surveyed in Chicago say they are primarily using technology for active learning. According to the Chicago Learning Exchange’s report, prepared by Outlier Research and Evaluation, based at the University of Chicago, young people are most commonly using digital media technology and tools for collaboration, creation and active engagement in out-of-school programs.
This finding wasn’t particularly surprising to Sana Jafri, a program officer at the Chicago Learning Exchange. She said out-of-school programs are freer to design learning experiences that are more engaging to students, because they don’t have the same pressure to teach certain academic standards.
“The out-of-school-time space is more ripe for innovation because there isn’t as much structure,” Jafri said.
The Anti-Cruelty Society’s After School Advocates program is one that’s helping students make the shift from consumers to creators. Its student participants create adoption campaigns for shelter animals on social media. Students interviewed for the report described feeling empowered by the opportunity to use social media as a tool to advocate for things they care about.
Supporting youth empowerment is one of the top purposes Chicago programs cited for digital media technology tools, along with supporting youth expression, building 21st-century and lifelong skills, and fostering civic engagement.
One opportunity gap the study identified in Chicago’s out-of-school learning community is that there are far more programs introducing students to digital media technology and tools than teaching more advanced skills.
“It’s a super-important piece of the work to increase awareness and exposure,” Jafri said. The next step, though, is preparing students for higher-skill jobs. “There is still a lot of work to be done to build out the learning experiences for young people.”
The study, at least, provides a starting point to measure progress toward this goal.
Teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever had. Keeping teachers in the classroom might be the second most difficult.
I began my educational career as a fourth-grade teacher in the Compton Unified School District in Southern California and, like most new educators, the first months were a struggle to master the topics and basic classroom skills. As I gained experience and improved, helping 35 students learn every day was still a challenge that was rewarding and fun and exhausting — often all in the same day.
And as exhilarating as it was to see children make progress, it was easy to understand why so many talented teachers left. Some of the reasons were obvious: the high cost of living in Los Angeles, for example. But it was also clear that many were leaving because their love of inspiring children had been overwhelmed by their sense that they were part of a large, top-down bureaucracy that didn’t value them. In short, they became teachers because they wanted to be the next Jaime Escalante but ended up feeling like Dilbert.
At my next job, recruiting teachers for KIPP LA Public Schools, I found many of the same obstacles. While teachers were often intrigued by the idea of living in Los Angeles, they were often stunned by the cost of renting an apartment or intimidated by the long commute. Concerns like this undoubtedly contributed to California’s educator crisis; three out of four districts reported a teacher shortage last year, according to the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute.
But as I and other KIPP LA team members tried to convince educators that they could find great jobs and great places to live in L.A., we noticed a trend: Some of the best teachers were already familiar with L.A. because they had grown up here or had ties to the city.
This meant that they already had a strong sense of commitment to the city and had an understanding of their pupils’ lives and how to motivate and inspire them. As an added bonus, many also looked like the students they were leading, something that can have profound effects on student learning.
When Great Public Schools Now, the nonprofit grant-making organization where I’m currently the director of talent, put out a call for proposals for teacher recruitment and retention programs, all of the responding organizations included a plan to target L.A. natives and minorities in their proposals.
We at Great Public Schools Now were also delighted to see that many organizations were also thinking creatively about how to keep their best teachers after they’d been hired.
“As I and other KIPP LA team members tried to convince educators that they could find great jobs and great places to live in L.A., we noticed a trend: Some of the best teachers were already familiar with L.A. because they had grown up here or had ties to the city.”
Instead of expecting educators to follow a plan handed down from headquarters, charter school organizations like Aspire Public Schools empowered their best educators by encouraging them to choose a field of independent study, much like how a college professor would select a topic for a sabbatical. Projects ranged from jiu-jitsu training to slow-cooking, but Aspire administrators were sure the projects would rejuvenate teachers and lead to better student results.
Other charters allowed their teachers to pick extra training to design health and wellness programs that would improve their work-life balance.
The common thread in all of the programs is a desire to elevate the teaching profession and treat educators the way companies like Google or universities treat their employees: by giving them the benefits they deserve and the responsibility to make decisions.
Early results have been promising. Overall, about 10 percent of teachers targeted by Great Public Schools Now funding left their school or the profession, compared with 18.4 percent of charter-school teachers who either moved schools or left the profession between 2011-12 and 2012-13, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Whether these trends will continue or can be replicated on a larger scale remains to be seen, but they are worth developing further as ways of establishing a long pipeline of talented educators who will serve their communities and students.