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Over the last three weeks, Washington has seen a flurry of activity around federal higher education policy. Updates to the Negotiated Rulemaking schedule will extend the negotiations on higher education accreditation and innovation into early April. The House Committee on Education & Labor held their first hearing on college costs, with four more hearings to come this spring. And, of course, everyone has (rightfully) become an expert on college admissions following the nation’s most shocking and maddening college entrance scandal.

Your eyes may also be on this week’s Executive Order, which calls on universities to adhere to free speech standards in exchange for federal research dollars, publish program-level data in the College Scorecard, and directs the U.S. Department of Education to share recommendations about how colleges and universities can share risk in the provision of federal aid dollars.

But even before he signed the Executive Order, President Trump released his proposals to reform the federal Higher Education Act. Predictable themes around affordability, accountability and innovation dominated the headlines, but buried in the text are a three key proposals to watch closely.

1. President Trump is proposing to redraw the map for accreditors. Currently, accrediting agencies—the “gatekeepers” of federal financial aid and the entities responsible for “quality” across our higher education institutions—are designated by their national, regional or specialized functions. President Trump has called on Congress to “eliminate the archaic distinction between accreditors with a geographic scope and those with a mission-based scope.” Arguing that educational institutions operate by mission and not geography, he asserts that the agencies that review and accredit them should operate in a similar fashion.

There is some sound reasoning behind that proposal. But dismantling the current structure doesn’t address the decades-old concern that agencies spend too much time on inputs (such as faculty degrees and governance structures) over outcomes (like graduation rates and job placement rates). While the proposal asserts the change will result in a more market-driven system, it does not address the fundamental issue that accreditors should be geographically responsible to approve programs that reflect the unique demands of local labor markets and the priorities and preferences of education consumers.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup and Strada Education Network, when it comes to interest in education and training, not all states are equally enthused. Interest level in education and training ranges from a high of 67 percent in the District of Columbia to a low of 28 percent in South Dakota. Without further details, I fear the proposal puts us one step closer to a single, national accrediting agency for higher education.

2. President Trump calls on Congress to reform the Federal Work Study program and ensure that the federal aid program “better aligns to workforce and career-oriented opportunities for low-income undergraduate students.” For decades, the work-study program has provided students with subsidized campus employment as a means to financial aid. However, many of the on-campus jobs have had little connection to a students’ program of study or career aspirations.

There are efforts today to connect students’ on-campus work experiences to future employment opportunities that are worth a look. Through their contact center model, the nonprofit Education At Work is connecting students with on-campus employment opportunities that allows them to graduate with less debt and valuable workplace skills. To further illustrate the opportunities that exist in on-campus student employment, NASPA, an association for student affairs professionals in higher education, published a landscape report which recognized that institutions make significant, on-going investments in campus jobs, and have incredible opportunities to maximize the impact of those programs to focus on student learning, engagement and career readiness.

This is perhaps the most common sense proposal coming from the White House. It makes good use of taxpayer dollars and capitalizes upon the opportunity for student engagement, improved retention and completion and financial aid support.

3. As previous administrations, and decades of legislative proposals, have called for, President Trump is pushing to simplify the awarding of financial aid by facilitating a data match between the Department of Education and the Department of Treasury (through the IRS). The data match—with the consent of the student—would allow income tax data to be used “in the application, renewal and administration of Federal student aid programs and income-driven repayment plans.” What better way to ensure that students have up-to-date information on their eligibility, while also ensuring that the government can conduct real-time analysis on the costs of these federal programs?

As a Congressional staffer in the early 2000’s, I met with countless members of Congress and Administration officials on this very idea. The idea had bipartisan support then. It has bipartisan support now. Imagine where we would be if the “IRS Data Match” had been fully realized almost two decades ago. The time is now to enact this proposal.

Given that Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has committed to deliver a Higher Education Act reauthorization by the Christmas holidays, the next nine months are certain keep higher education leaders, policy wonks and pundits quite busy.

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What’s the latest from the Y? Over Monday and Tuesday earlier this week, entrepreneurs from 189 startups took the stage for Demo Day, the de-facto graduation ceremony for Y Combinator, one of the technology industry’s most recognizable startup accelerator programs.

Among the graduates were a half dozen education technology companies. And if you were to ask their executives about what problems they’re trying to solve, “community” is a word you’d likely hear. From K-12 classrooms to professional sales training, many entrepreneurs would say that learning is better together, with peers and instructors. That also applies to “bootcamp” models of online learning, which made up half of the six edtech graduates.

Here’s a glance at the newest players in the edtech industry.

Career Karma

According to Course Report, there are nearly 600 coding bootcamps in existence. And because many operate on different terms, it’s not always easy to find answers to basic questions like: Which one should I pick? Should I pay tuition upfront, or try an income-share agreement? How long will this bootcamp take? Which ones are even any good at helping me get a job?

Ruben Harris, the CEO of Career Karma, believes his app can provide some answers. A quiz matches users with applicable bootcamps and peer groups. Students connect with volunteer alumni who can questions and concerns. “We’re building the program we wished we had,” said Harris, one of three co-founders and also the man behind the “Breaking into Startups” weekly podcast.

Students use the app for free while bootcamps pay to join. He declined to disclose the exact price, but said it’s a fraction of the roughly $4,000 most programs pay to generate leads and land a student. He added that bootcamps can’t pay for preferential treatment on the app. Currently the app has about 5,000 users, who exchange roughly 6,000 messages a week among peers and mentors. Schools that have signed up include Lambda School, Flatiron School and Trilogy Education Services.


The growing number of Chinese e-commerce companies and their fight for eyeballs has created a business opportunity for Ruiwan Xu and her team at New York-based CareerTu. The online bootcamp of sorts focuses on teaching Chinese students how to sell online.

“Nobody knows how to use” digital marketing tools, Xu claims. “We make sure their dollars are spent effectively.” Xu, 28, formerly served as growth marketing manager for acquisition at Amazon subsidiary Audible. She ran a blog about self-taught digital marketing before launching the online school in April 2018.

CareerTu has grown to 160,000 users, according to Xu. In 2018, it claimed about 6,000 paying one who altogether brought the company $500,000 in revenue. Courses on the platform range from one on fashion marketing (for at least $790) to one on Google and Facebook ads (for at least $4,500). Xu aims to add more engineers to its current staff of about 20 full-time employees and freelancers.


Online learning has a loneliness problem. So says Vasu Sriramdas, who’s trying to tweak the traditional coding bootcamp model to encourage more collaboration and peer-to-peer problem solving. That’s one of the core philosophies behind his company, Edyst.

“That’s the power of the platform,” said Sriramdas, 44, who worked for Deloitte for over 10 years and is one of three Edyst co-founders. “The students help each other.” According to Sriramdas, peer collaboration makes it possible for one instructor to teach up to 700 students on the Edyst platform at once. Users spend about 85 minutes a day on the platform, he boasts.

Edyst currently lists two course packages on its website. One is focused on skills related to jobs at companies like TCS and Infosys, which costs $173 plus one month’s salary after a student lands a job offer. The other is designed toward skills for companies like Amazon and Uber and costs about $216 plus one month’s salary after the job offer. Both courses last about 14 weeks.

Most of Edyst’s revenue to date has come from another line of business in the company, charges Indian colleges fees to place their students in jobs. The Hyderabad, India-based company is profitable, Sriramdas said. Edyst is seeking money to add courses in areas like e-commerce and digital marketing, and expand to other parts of Southeast Asia and the Middle East.


Online educational platforms are a dime a dozen. But not too many focus on sales training—which is where Shaan Hathiramani wants to build the kind of learning community that has eluded other sales education platforms. “The sales content out there is from another era,” Hathiramani charges. “It’s in a voice that doesn’t resonate with the next generation of sales leaders.”

Enter Flockjay, which offers 12 weeks of tech sales training—eight weeks of live online videos through Zoom and Slack with sales professionals, and four weeks of sales projects. Currently, the company runs 3-hour classes in the evenings, Monday through Thursday, with recordings available and office hours.

Students can pay $5,000 upfront, or finance their way via an income-share agreement, in which they give Flockjay 10 percent of their salary—up to $9,000—for a year after they finish the program. They also receive a year of mentorship after they complete the 12 weeks. The inaugural class of 17 students finished in January. The next class starts in April.

Hathiramani, the 32-year-old CEO, said his San Francisco-based company of three employees is already profitable. But he’s seeking funding to grow the team. He believes his company’s main revenue will come from businesses contracting with Flockjay to train existing employees and provide a pool of diverse job candidates. He plans to charge employers a fee “in line with the industry.”


After Surya Paneerselvam graduated from college in 2011, he faced a problem common to many other engineering graduates in India: He didn’t have the right skills to land a job.

He eventually went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he got a master’s degree that helped him land a job. But his current venture, Skill Lync, wants to ensure that other students don’t have to make a similar trek before finding employment.

Skill-Lync, based in Chennai in India, offers about 30 online courses in subjects including mechanical engineering and aerodynamics. Students graduate with a portfolio to make them more marketable to job recruiters. Paneerselvam and his team offer live office hours to answer students’ questions.

It took him awhile to figure out the right product. Initially, he tried selling the platform to colleges, but they were slow to adopt. Paneerselvam then tried offering live classes but then learned that students much preferred watching the video recordings.

Since its launch in 2016, Skill-Lync has served about 2,800 students, who each pay about $250 on average for a 12-week course. The company is profitable, he claims, and is experimenting with offering an income-share agreement payment option with a new batch of students in the U.S. He’s raising funds to add more support staff and branch into new content like electronics and chemical engineering.


To Maayan Yavne, social interaction drives learning more than any computer program. That belief is partly what guided her to start Tailor-ED, an online platform that helps teachers group students based on attributes like proficiency and confidence in the subject matter, and have them collaborate on math lessons and exercises.

The platform recommends activities best suited for each group, and after each lesson, the students complete an exit ticket and report on how they felt about the lesson and what they learned. When Yavne invited teachers to beta test the tool about four weeks ago, about 750 responded. Today, Tailor-ED boasts usage by 2,500 students across 120 schools, mostly in the U.S.

So far, teachers have used the tool about three times a week on average, says Yavne, who previously worked in product marketing for Edmodo. Tailor-ED is free for educators to try; a subscription is available for schools that costs about $30 per teacher per month.

Tailor-ED, staffed by four people including 37-year-old Yavne, is involved in a yearlong efficacy study with a New York University research team. The company is not yet profitable and seeks funding to help grow its footprint and add to its library of content. For now, Tailor-ED only offers math lessons for grades three to six.

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This is a picture of me at almost three years old. That is my mother laying face down on the ground, grandpa’s cowboy boot frames the shot of me looking up at the camera with a weight in my soul. This was one of the days my mother went back to the hospital.

When I was growing up, my mother struggled with mental illness, my stepfather was abusive and I lacked the stability I needed to become a successful student. Like many kids, part of my survival mechanism was to hide what was happening inside the walls of my house. A home visit would have fundamentally changed my life, but no one from my school ever came.

When I was in third grade, my teachers began sending me to the resource room for reading. By fifth grade, I was acting out in class and rarely turning in homework. I started cutting class in middle school and regrettably, by high school, I stole some cash from the lunch line register, skipped school regularly and failed nearly half my classes. By that time, I was dragging everyone who came within arms length into my downward spiral of dysfunction.

The schools I attended missed every opportunity to catch these issues early, and sadly I did not graduate from high school. All was not lost. Luckily, I had some friends whose parents stepped in along the way, providing me a place to stay and encouraging me do homework. Eventually I received my GED, went on to graduate from Gonzaga University and founded a marketing agency.

In 2017, I sold my company and my wife quit her job so we could pursue our dream of creating a school for at-risk students together. One of the first commitments we made was to visit every prospective student’s home so we would understand each individual in broader context. Because of my own troubled history at school, this element was crucial for me. Looking back, I realize that many of these early life experiences have prepared me for the journey I’m on now as we launch our school.

Behavioral issues and even low test scores in the classroom are often the result of experiences that occur outside the school. This research study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), investigates the correlation between chaotic homes and children’s behavior, and in it, researchers make a strong case that conducting home visits has a net positive impact on the school, as they can provide valuable information about the student.

In the early planning phases for Sisu Academy, our all-girls tuition-free boarding high school, we realized that in order to capture the full needs of our students, we had to understand the world they live in. Sisu is designed to meet the needs of underserved and underprepared students. Because our program focuses on fragile communities, the context of our student’s family situation plays a major role at the starting line of each student’s experience.

How Home Visits Help Us Serve the Whole Child

Despite being a residential program, we know that the more support we can provide the families of our students, the more success we will have in the long run. What if a student is the primary child care provider for their three younger siblings? What if the family doesn’t have a bank account? What if there is no healthy food in the home? Answers to these types of questions are nearly impossible to discover until you step into someone’s home.

If a student ultimately ends up at Sisu Academy, the system has probably already failed the child in some way. Whether the child’s obstacles stem from difficult family dynamics or their school environment, the vulnerable population we serve needs more services than a traditional day school can provide. With negative life experiences arising all around them, these students are not in a position to fully participate in their learning, often leading to unfavorable social issues, problems with self-confidence and attention-seeking outbursts at school.

So, as we embarked on the planning phase of our new school, we spent a great deal of time connecting with experts in a number of fields to better understand how to address educating students who are failing in school because of out-of-school obstacles. We met with social workers, mental health professionals, individuals who work in the foster care system and in our local juvenile court. Everyone we talked to had suggestions about creating wrap-around services and support structures for our students. Almost in passing, the majority added, “and, if you could possibly stop by the house to visit, that would be amazing.”

We decided that home visits would become part of the admittance process for Sisu and began planning out what these visits would look like. We considered scripting our questions, meeting with kids and parents separately and administering short surveys to learn more about the child’s living conditions, but because many of our students tend to have challenges at home, we take a conversational approach to keep things casual and non-confrontational.

Staying Present

Mindy Ahrens, principal at Sisu, who has been on almost a dozen home visits says, “Home visits allow you to see a student in a way that she would never allow you to see at school.”

It’s not just the conversation that illuminates our understanding of a child in broader context, it’s also the atmosphere. “Home visiting is shown to be a deeply embodied practice in which all the senses and emotions come into play and movement is central,” Harry Ferguson, professor and researcher of social work and child protection writes in his research paper on home visits. That’s why the biggest key for a successful visit is to be observant and present in the moment.

It’s not always an obstacle or challenge that you find—sometimes a home visit can provide a school with invaluable information about a student’s interest, offering a strong foundation for building a relationship.

Take Sarah for example, a prospective Sisu student. On a recent visit to her house, we gathered much of the information we needed nonverbally, just after entering her home. On this home visit everyone showed up: Sarah, both of her parents, her grandmother and her younger brother. As we walked through the door, we took in the surrounding environment, and as the eight of us sat around the kitchen table, we noticed an old guitar propped up against the wall near the fireplace. The markings on the face of the guitar revealed years of use. In the room to the right of the kitchen, we saw two pianos.

After niceties were shared and we were all settled in, I asked Sarah’s mom who teaches piano and plays the guitar. It turns out that in addition to his day job, Sarah’s dad is a music teacher on the side—and Sarah is a talented musician. This visit helped us discover that one of our prospective students had a passion for music, which allowed us to connect with her in a more meaningful way.

If we are going to build strong relationships with our students and truly create lifelong learners, we must start the process with genuine care, zeal and curiosity for learning about each one. Finding out what makes an individual tick requires understanding the environment they spend most of their time in when they’re outside the classroom.

Home visits typically uncover opportunities for us to develop deeper relationships—whether by helping us learn about a student’s passions and talents, or deepening our understanding of the challenges a student is facing and related stressors.

There is power in knowing more about our students than what we see on paper. Although these visits are time consuming, they’re critical—getting into the home can make a world of difference in the kinds of learning experiences we can provide for students in school. When we enter a student’s home, we demonstrate a commitment to understanding each child’s circumstance, we show children and families that they are valued and we help school staff build relationships with students that are rooted in trust.

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The following is the latest installment of the Toward Better Teaching advice column. You can pose a question for a future column here.

Dear Bonni, My question is how to prepare yourself for a doctorate in leadership in higher ed, even when you are over 50! I am a former high-tech executive with an MBA, turned severe special needs elementary educator, mother of 7 (4 in college, 3 in high school) who is looking at that next step in my career. I am entering a doctorate in Leadership in Higher Ed program in the fall and am working hard at preparing myself. I have created what I’m calling my “prep syllabus” and hope to set a solid foundation for myself. I’ve filled my podcast app with 5 plus podcasts to learn about various challenges, trends and best practices. I would love to get your feedback on what should be in my "prep syllabus” and how to make that transition. Thanks so much!

—Maureen McLaughlin, returning student

While this column typically is focused on teaching, it is great to get to have it shift to learning for this question. How wonderful that you are taking these steps to be ready for this big transition. Here is some guidance on how to approach this season of preparation.

Conduct a Tools Audit

When I teach a course to doctoral students, I begin by inviting them to perform an audit on their technical skills. This process helps them discern the most essential features within the various applications that will best help them through their coursework and completing a dissertation.

The document I created for the doctoral students specifically identifies those applications that they will use most in pursuing their doctorates with that institution. Download this sample tools audit and customize it to meet your needs. Below are some links to help strengthen your capabilities in some of the fundamental applications I mention in the tools audit:

If possible, correspond with someone at the institution where you will be attending to see if they have requirements about what word processor or references manager you need to use and be sure you maximize the time you spend learning those.

Develop Your Knowledge of Structures, Research and Writing Styles

In a doctoral program, the structures of your written work will be similar. You will develop many literature reviews and will regularly need to create similar structures for research papers. I have found the following people and organizations essential to growing my research writing skills over the years.

As you prepare to begin this journey, equip yourself with the tools you’ll need to support you in the process, re-orient yourself with the kinds of writing you will be doing and be ready for good enough to be good enough."

Purdue Online Writing Lab: this website is one I keep open on a regular basis when writing in a formal, academic style. It features guidance on various citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, and more) and on how to list references properly. There are also exercises to practice the art of the academic citation. This video (by Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody) on developing outlines for larger writing projects is another great way to prepare for the kind of writing you will be doing.

Raul Pacheco-Vega’s website: This assistant professor in the Public Administration Division of the Center for Economic Teaching and Research in Mexico has written extensively on his website about academic writing. I suggest exploring the entire resources section here, including the advice on writing literature reviews, guidance for graduate students, and approaches for writing a research paper, book chapter or dissertation.

Oregon State University Research in Action podcast: one to consider adding to your queue, if it is not already there. Katie Linder, the host, has gathered together scholars who share about all different types of research methods, as well as how to deal with common challenges that occur (such as writer’s block, choosing a dissertation topic, setting research goals, and keeping yourself organized).

Acquire a ‘Good Enough’ Mindset

I used to travel to instruct in the doctoral program I teach in a couple of times a year. Once, I did not set boundaries well enough and found myself in a conversation with a doctoral student about her final paper, at the same time as I was supposed to be returning to the airport to fly back home that evening. I had told the class that I would not be able to stay after class, but that I would be available to answer any questions they had, once I returned home. But I did not stick to my word, and 45 minutes later, was frustrated at what had happened.

The student was unhappy with her grade and kept flipping through all the pages she had printed out with her highlights marking the discrepancies between my perceptions and her own. Flying home, without having had enough time to grab lunch on my way to the airport, I was angry with myself for not having left after the class was over.

Once I was back in our house and able to access wifi, I took a look at her situation. It turned out that the small number of points she was missing from the assignment had absolutely zero impact on her overall grade. She was still at well over the range of what was required to earn an A in the course. This was already evident to her through the grade book. The entire time we had been talking, I was assuming her goal was to earn a higher grade in the class. Instead, it was regarding a single paper and her wanting to have earned 100 percent in the class. To be clear, this fact would never have shown up on her transcripts or anywhere outside the LMS.

That example is a bit more extreme than what I typically witness. However, we can all struggle with knowing what is “good enough” on something and knowing when we should move on to other priorities. As harsh as it may sound, there are times when we need to do that with our families and friends. Being fully present for our loved ones is essential, but during this season of your life, it may be more helpful to think in terms of quality over quantity.

I came into my doctoral program thinking I was going to read every word that was assigned (I didn’t). While I did maintain my desired GPA, I had to think more transactionally than I would have liked to about finishing papers and working collaboratively with other students.

One of my doctoral professors used to tell us that he wanted us to be “famous by Friday,” in reference to writing our dissertations. His use of the word ‘famous’ was delivered dripping with sarcasm. Most people’s dissertations won’t wind up being highly cited. Once we finish them, however, we are freed up to have the time to do the work that may be more meaningful to us and potentially be more visible. The goal is not to try to change the world with our research. The aim is to be done.

As you prepare to begin this journey, equip yourself with the tools you’ll need to support you in the process, re-orient yourself with the kinds of writing you will be doing and be ready for good enough to be good enough.

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In Jill Armstrong’s social studies classes, when students learn about other countries, they don’t just learn from textbooks and news articles, which she says can seem abstract and elusive to teenagers. Armstrong, who teaches at a high school in Eastern Kentucky, likes to weave in “that human aspect, because it makes it more real,” she says.

Case in point: About once a week for the last several months, Armstrong’s humanities students have participated in an hour-long conversation with Ghenwah Kharbeet, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee—only, the students are in class in the tiny town of Greenup, Ky., and Kharbeet is 5,000 miles away in Turkey.

During their time together, Kharbeet, whose face is projected on a SMART Board at the front of the classroom, urges the students to ask her anything, and they do.

They ask her about home (“What do you miss most?”), about life in Turkey (“Have you made many friends?”), about her religion (“If you’re a Muslim, why don’t you wear a hijab?”). They ask about her favorite foods, music and hobbies, and about the civil war in Syria. In return, she asks them about America—about the traditions of Halloween and Thanksgiving, the sports they follow and how the fast food tastes.

“I tell them about my dreams, my kids, what I want to do and where I want to go,” Kharbeet says. “At the end, a lot of them say, ‘Thank you, it made me realize you’re a real person like us.’ It’s really a lot of fun.”

Ghenwah Kharbeet, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey, tells high school students in Greenup, Ky., about her life and family. (Image credit: Jill Armstrong)

To Armstrong, the experience her students get from their regular video calls with Kharbeet is invaluable.

“I really have become more passionate about global awareness and getting my students to see the world beyond what we have here, in Eastern Kentucky,” Armstrong says. “I tell them, you know, the whole concept of why we learn about other countries is to understand and be knowledgeable. You don’t have to agree. But it’s about understanding and learning and growing.”

Through Kharbeet, at least 55 students in Greenup County High School have gotten a glimpse of what it’s like to be a refugee, which has challenged the stereotypes and generalizations they may have picked up online or in their communities about Islam and Arabic culture.

They’ve learned that Kharbeet was studying English literature at Damascus University when she fled the country three-and-a-half years ago. That she was passing through Turkey on her way to France, but never made it to her final destination because she met and fell in love with another refugee, Awad, who is now her husband. That Kharbeet is now a mother to two little boys.

Armstrong met Kharbeet through NaTakallam (Arabic for “we speak”), an organization that connects displaced persons with learners all over the world who want to practice their language skills or find out more about a different culture, then compensates them for their work.

NaTakallam was founded in 2015, when Aline Sara, a Lebanese-American graduate student at Columbia University, was struggling to find someone with whom she could practice her conversational Arabic.

“[Sara] saw so many Syrians who were qualified and well-educated but unemployed because of discrimination or weren’t legally allowed to work,” says Christina Meyer, the K-12 programs officer. So Sara brought together an informal network of friends who wanted to improve their language abilities and matched them with displaced persons whose native tongue was Arabic.

Since then, NaTakallam has expanded to offer lessons in four different languages and has hired displaced persons from more than 10 countries, including Syria, Iran, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In late 2017, it launched its K-12 program, which delivers language and cultural lessons in Arabic and Spanish (with Persian and French available soon) to students on platforms such as Skype and Zoom.

“Our goal is to challenge the narrative about what it means to be a refugee, an asylum seeker, and to create narratives of empowerment and dignity rather than victimhood,” Meyer explains. “To be able to talk to someone and hear [about] their passion for drawing, their degree in Turkish literature or that they’re a professional volleyball player, helps build empathy and has provided really touching experiences for students.”

In the year-and-a-half since the K-12 program launched, NaTakallam has served more than 4,000 students in 120 different schools across the globe. Some turn to the company to support language learning, especially when native Arabic speakers are uncommon in the area, like in Kansas or North Carolina, Meyer explains. But a lot of schools use the service to “combat anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia,” she adds. “Now we’re trying to do that with Latin American displaced persons.”

The primary purpose of NaTakallam is to meet a global need—and not the one for language services. “Our goal is to help provide a stable and substantial income to displaced persons,” Meyer says. The company sells K-12 sessions with “conversation partners” (CPs)—its term for people like Kharbeet—in one-, three- and 10-lesson packages, which cost between $125 and $150 per session, depending on how much is purchased at once. Depending on the partnership, she says, between 35 and 75 percent of that price goes directly to the CPs.

For schools, that’s a steep price. Grant funding from the Qatar Foundation International has allowed NaTakallam to provide lessons to 86 schools in nearly a dozen countries, at no cost to the schools, Meyers says. That’s how Armstrong’s students in Kentucky have been able to meet regularly with Kharbeet.

But when that option is no longer available, Meyers suggests schools look at it like this: Each session costs about the same as a field trip for a U.S. school. Is NaTakallam not, in many ways, its own kind of field trip?

Kharbeet says that NaTakallam has been a “real life-saver” for her family. Once they settled in Turkey, her husband enrolled in Istanbul University to finish his Arabic literature degree. When he graduates, Kharbeet will go back and finish her own degree. But until then, she’s grateful to have a source of income that allows her to stay home with her 2-year-old and 6-month-old sons.

“For me, it’s a perfect job,” she says, adding that she genuinely enjoys talking with the students every day. “When I see schools trying to learn Arabic, I feel very happy. Our language is accepted there. Our culture is accepted there.”

She adds: “The kids always ask me, ‘What do you want us to do for you?’ And I say, ‘Just be nice when you meet a Syrian. We need your kindness.’”

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It’s common these days to hear that free online mega-courses, called MOOCs, failed to deliver on their promise of educating the masses. But one outcome of that push towards open online courses was plenty of high-quality teaching material.

Now, one of the first professors to try out MOOCs says he has a way to reuse bits and pieces of the courses created during that craze in a way that might deliver on the initial promise.

The idea comes from Robert Lue, a biology professor at Harvard University who was the founding faculty director of HarvardX, the college’s effort to build MOOCs. He’s leading a new platform called LabXChange that aims to let professors, teachers or anyone mix together their own free online course from pieces of other courses.

The key innovation, he says, is to stop focusing so much on courses, and start letting people get at the smaller pieces within them. “The course was actually starting to get in the way,” he says, calling courses large and “relatively unwieldy.”

As the name suggests, this platform is focused on scientific disciplines, starting with biology and biotechnology. Here’s how his system will work:

“Let’s say you want to do something on sickle cell anemia,” Lue says. A search in LabXchange would one day pull up a list of videos, text descriptions, infographics and other materials.

From that list of results, he says, you might pick three videos and an infographic, and then add a case study focusing on a really moving human story. “You drop these into a learning pathway, and you resequence them the way you want to,” he says. And the platform lets you add your own videos or texts as well. It then presents you with a unique web address you can share with students.

The end result, he says, is a “mini-MOOC—perfectly customized with your content and other content out there.”

The platform is under construction, and is expected to be released in September. And since it’s built on top of the open-source software released by edX (called OpenEdX), it will be free for anyone to use. Lue will present the project next week at the OpenEdX conference in San Diego.

A key to getting this vision to materialize, though, is getting the creators of courses to agree to put their pieces into the platform. Most MOOCs require users to sign up for them before they can even see what the course consists of. As Lue puts it, “all of the content is locked into courses.”

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, said that the ability to share and remix content within courses is still being developed, and that he expects that each university and professor will be given the choice of whether or not they want their course material to be available for remixing. He noted that edX already allows professors to specify the copyright preferences for their courses, including allowing easy use of Creative Commons licenses that specify that the author grants free permission for others to use it.

“There are many ways in which people have to give permission for remixing,” Agarwal said. “It’s not something we’re going to turn on and suddenly, Woops, everything is shared.”

Lue says that he hopes the LabXChange system will be a prototype of a next-generation learning platform, and that future versions could include adaptive learning features that would offer students different material based on their demonstrated skill level. Should such features emerge, that would make the platform a free competitor to systems like Knewton, the for-profit company that was an early player in adaptive learning and now focuses on selling low-cost textbooks built around open content.

“It’s a little hard to tell how Knewton works because it is so proprietary,” says Lue. He said his hope is to help build an open source alternative.

The LabXChange team says it has been building partnerships to encourage content creators to add their materials to the platform.

One of those partners is Fanuel Muindi, who leads the nonprofit Stem Advocacy Institute, which has created a library of educational materials called The Journal of Stories in Science. The nonprofit has collected and edited about 120 stories from both scientists and nonscientists about how science has impacted their lives. “A lot of textbooks and any other scientific texts don’t have this story component,” he says. “Science is much more than just facts and numbers, it’s about the people who do the work.”

One popular story in the collection is told by a father who relates how his eight-year old daughter has become fascinated by science. “There were moments like when I brought home a microscope,” it reads. “It was Daddy’s new toy and she wanted to play too. She wanted so badly to be able to touch it that she was always very careful to follow instructions when I let her operate it. I guess she wanted to show me that she respected the equipment. It wasn’t long before she was able to operate it independently.”

Muindi says that once LabXChange is up and running, all of the stories in the Journal of Stories in Science will be included for people looking for content to add to their personalized courses.
Other partners listed on the site include Hubble Studios, which creates virtual science experiments, as well as HarvardX and edX.

The LabXChange project is supported by a $6.5-million grant from the Amgen Foundation.

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University students in California could soon be able to delay paying college tuition until after they graduate and land a job.

California’s Assembly Committee on Higher Education approved a bill on Tuesday to pilot income-share agreements at the California State University and University of California systems. The legislation passed with a 12-0 vote and now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Proposed by Assemblyman Randy Voepel (R-Santee), the bill would provide funds to enable students and their universities to enter income-share agreements, which require students to pay back a portion of their salary after graduating instead of paying tuition up-front. The two-year pilot program would begin in the 2021-22 academic year, and the university systems would be required to report back about the pilot to the California Legislature in 2023 and 2026.

Advocates of the income-share model say it provides an alternative to traditional student loans and the sticker shock of college. The bill states that the “agreement is not a debt instrument and “the repayment obligation of the student under the agreement may not be dischargeable under bankruptcy law.”

On Tuesday, Voepel said that “ISAs provide another financing option to alleviate the monetary burden on students earning their bachelor’s degrees,” adding that the pilot would serve to “examine the effectiveness” of the model.

Critics, however, say income-share agreements could favor students who are projected to make higher earnings by not offering the option to students in lower-paying fields, that students could pay back much more than standard tuition, and that allowing private investors to fund ISAs can create new risks to students and institutions.

If the university will experiment to provide additional assistance to students, that better be done with public resources.

The California Faculty Association is against the bill, saying it would be better to provide more financial aid to students, and that it risks learning on private industry. “This is innovative in the idea given there is no interest on it, but if the university will experiment to provide additional assistance to students, that better be done with public resources and not tools backed by private investors,” a representative from CFA said on Tuesday.

Lawmakers have tried in the past to regulate the ISA model, albeit many of those efforts have fallen flat. Voepel proposed a similar ISA bill in the 2018 legislative season. That bill also passed unanimously in the Assembly but did not pass the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Meanwhile, New York prevents schools from charging different amounts for the same program, which would hinder income-share agreement providers from collecting different amounts from students after graduating.

And at the federal level, senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the Investing in Student Success Act, S. 268 in 2017, with the aim of providing legal structure for income-share agreements. The proposed legislation has yet to move forward in the Senate.

The income-share agreement model has become a popular pitch among for-profit coding bootcamps, which seek to train students in tech skills over a short period. (A recent study, however, shows only around 1 percent of bootcamps offer ISAs.)

Lack of regulation hasn’t stopped several non-profit institutions from giving the income-share model a try. In 2016, Purdue University launched its Back-A-Boiler program, which offers students $10,000 per year to cover the cost of tuition before they pay back a portion of their income after graduating. Colorado Mountain College offers ISAs for undocumented studnets, who can take out $3,000 per year and do not pay back more than the ISA amount they take out.

The California pilot would require students to pay back a percentage of their income for a maximum of 10 years, and payments would not begin until a student makes at least $20,000. If a student makes less than $20,000 during that period say, to go back to school or take time off, the payment period pauses.

Voepel’s 2018 ISA bill attempted to allocate $600,000 for CSUs and $250,000 for UCs, according to a legislative assistant for the assemblyman. The amount funded for the bill will be determined in the Appropriations Committee, and those funds would be distributed among California universities that choose to participate.

Private investors and companies would be allowed to inject more funding into particular programs if the pilot is deemed successful. “I anticipate corporations funding this in the future,” Voepel said.

Casey Jennings, COO of nonprofit 13th Avenue funding, which advised Purdue’s ISA program, pointed out on Tuesday that nothing currently prevents higher-ed institutions from offering ISAs, and that the bill would regulate a model that already exists. Students in California already take out ISAs at coding bootcamps, or in public programs such as UC San Diego Extension and at the two-year Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif.

“ISAs offer the potential to move some of that [student debt] risk from the students to a party better able to bear that risk,” said Jennings. But “there’s no oversight, there’s no regulation.”

Students in their sophomore, junior or senior year would be eligible to participate in the pilot program. To discourage universities from prioritizing majors that could lead to higher-paying salaries, the bill states that “students approved to participate in the pilot program be enrolled in a wide variety of baccalaureate degree programs.”

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Inviting Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak to a gathering of thousands of educators brought together by the annual ASCD Empower19 conference might have seemed like a surprising choice at first. Over the past four decades, Goodwin has earned her moniker, “Historian of the presidents.” She’s written a half-dozen best-selling books, including ones on Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

But when ASCD board member Ben Shuldiner introduced Goodwin, he underscored that choosing her was no happy accident. Goodwin studies presidents as leaders, and today, those are needed more than ever in education. “Decisions are being made by people who haven’t been inside of the classroom,” he told the assembly—and those decisions are frequently “not being made in the best interests of our children and our teachers.

“Your voice needs to be heard. In the classroom, but also in the capitol,” he urged.

With that introduction, Goodwin explained how after many decades in what she called an “odd profession—spending time with dead presidents,” she decided to see what traits they had developed in common. Her 2018 book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” has “no master key for leadership,” she said. But it does identify a collection of strengths, habits and behaviors that presidents cultivated to become authentic leaders during some of America’s toughest periods—including the Civil War, which literally tore the country apart, to the Depression and through the turmoil of Vietnam.

With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”
Abraham Lincoln

“They all made themselves leaders through their work ethic,” she said.

Here are 10 lessons Goodwin has gleaned from studying the minds and habits of each of the four presidents—as well as some of the choice examples she shared from their lives:

Doris Kearns Goodwin (Source: ASCD)Leaders Grow, Through Adversity, Humility and Empathy

Lincoln’s family thought he was lazy because he wanted to read books instead of do physical work. As a politician, he lost more races than he won. (The presidency was the exception, she noted wryly.)

Roosevelt had so much self confidence, Goodwin said, quoting one contemporary, that “he wanted to be the baby at the baptism, the bride in the wedding and the corpse at the funeral.” But when he realized he lacked allies and couldn’t get legislation through Congress, he “moderated his language and became a bipartisan leader,” she recounted. FDR learned humility when he fell victim to polio which paralyzed the lower half of his body. Other polio patients who joined Roosevelt at the mineral springs spa in Warm Springs, Ga., said: “He changed our feelings about ourselves.”

Leaders Have the Self-Confidence to Surround Themselves With Strong-Minded People

LBJ, never one to mince words, said it was “better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent, pissing in.” Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong leader and frequently held different views than her husband; even so, she was “a welcome thorn” in FDR’s side and so helped advance equality for women by continuing to press their case—including holding regular press conferences in which only women reporters could attend, prompting newspapers to hire their first-ever female reporters.

Leaders Can Inspire and Motivate Others, Creating a Culture of Respect

Lincoln was generous in crediting others with success; his papers are filled with notes complimenting others. FDR’s capacity to inspire and encourage his staff and those around him made it possible for them to carry on when the challenges of the Depression weighed heavily on them. “He didn’t solve their problems,” but cheered up the team so they could continue to forge ahead, Goodwin said.

Leaders Are Ready to Take Full Responsibility and Shoulder the Blame for Their Decisions, Especially When Things Go Wrong

After listening to his advisors argue about whether and when to emancipate the slaves, Lincoln finally announced: “My mind is made up. There will be no more debate.…” He was ready to accept responsibility. But because he had listened deeply enough, no advisor publically disagreed once the decision was made.

Leaders Can Transcend Past Slights and Resentments

As a young lawyer, Lincoln was thrilled to have the chance to work with the famous Edwin Stanton on an important case. Before the case was tried, however, the brief was transferred away from Lincoln without his knowledge. He continued to trail after Stanton, even stopping him on a street corner to discuss the case. Stanton turned to an associate and remarked: “We have to lose this long-armed ape because he will lose the case.” Years later, when President Lincoln needed a Secretary of War, advisors strongly advised Lincoln to hire Stanton. He did. In the end, Stanton said he’d come to love Lincoln more than anyone in his own family.

Leaders Are Approachable and Accessible, and Establish Direct Connections With the People Around Them

In the days before the civil service was established, Lincoln held hours-long daily meetings where anyone could ask him for a job. On the day when he was slated to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he had shaken the hands of more than 1,000 people—so many that his own arm was shaking and unable to sign the document. (He waited until his signature would look strong and bold for all future generations.)

Teddy Roosevelt spent more time on the road than any other president—six weeks in the spring and in the autumn. LBJ invited every Congressman and his wife to dine at the White House in groups of about 30. He then “never stopped calling them,” to coax support for his plans.

Leaders Communicate Simply and Directly Through Stories—and Through the Media of Their Time

Lincoln could tell entertain an audience with a story—with enough detail and richness that everyone would remember (People remember stories more than they remember facts or figures, he said).

Teddy Roosevelt had the knack of coining soundbites and slogans, such as a “square deal for the rich and the poor.” (He even gave Maxwell-House coffee—“Good to the last drop!”—its slogan.) FDR “had the ideal voice for the radio age,” Goodwin noted, and people listened. Writer Saul Bellow once observed that he could stroll down a street in Chicago during one of the weekly broadcasts and not miss a word as FDR’s words poured out of every window.

JFK and Reagan mastered television, Goodwin observed. And Trump, more than any other candidate, dominated Twitter. “But as so many people have learned,” she observed, “spontaneous words can have unintended consequences.” Although Lincoln was a master of debate and speaking extemporaneously, “he knew his words mattered,” she said. Once elected, Lincoln only spoke from prepared scripts.

Leaders Find Ways to Control Negative and Unproductive Emotions

Lincoln would vent rage in a letter—that he would neither sign nor send, including a scathing missive to Civil War General George Meade, which Lincoln shelved because it might damage morale. Roosevelt went through four or five drafts of his weekly fireside chat: The first version would rage at his foes; all the bile was washed out by the last version turning it into “sweetness and light.”

Leaders Take the Time to Think, Relax and Replenish Their Energy

Lincoln went to the theater 100 times during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt exercised two hours a day, including taking vigorous hikes through the then wilds of Rock Creek Park. (He even led the ambassador from France wading through a stream naked except for a pair of lavender-colored gloves that the ambassador insisted on wearing for etiquette.) And FDR hosted a cocktail party, which forbid discussion of the war every night, packed with friends who were long-term guests at the White House.

Leaders Transform an Ambition for Self Into Ambition for a Greater Good for All

All the presidents were driven by different ambitions and, in part, by how history would judge them. But they channeled those personal ambition into something bigger. Although LBJ’s advisors whispered that his social campaigns would destroy him, he ignored them with a terse: “What the hell is the Presidency for?” People around the world knew of Lincoln not as a great general but for “his moral fiber and integrity.”

The role of historians is to remind us of how we navigated the past. But even though she has spent her life studying the presidents, Goodwin emphasized that it’s a country’s citizens who matter deeply—and its teachers who will mold the sentiment of each new generation.

“Every important change has begun with citizens,” Goodwin advised. She cited Lincoln, who praised the soldiers, not himself, for emancipation: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

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Ashton Kutcher is not one of those celebrities who has his own name-brand school, or who used to be a teacher. But he is one who lobs plenty of critiques about education, and thinks he can do it better.

For one, he thinks “schools are doing an abysmal job at raising capital.” If he ran one himself, he’d call up Elon Musk asking for a free Tesla X, and maybe some starter cash to see if his students could create something of value for the car company. He’d also buzz his buddy Brian Chesky, who runs Airbnb, a company Kutcher has invested in, and try to strike a similar deal.

In a sometimes rambling and out-of-touch—but always entertaining—interview with author and educator Robyn Jackson at ASCD Empower19, an education conference, Kutcher oscillated between sharing his personal struggles as a student, and proposing far-fetched ideas that some called privileged. (Hey Ashton, mind sharing Elon’s number?) It’s no wonder that some teachers were a little confused by his talk.

Kutcher may not be in touch with today’s teachers. But he’s not to be entirely dismissed, either. He’s funded classroom projects, edtech startups and started nonprofits to protect children. During the keynote, Kutcher offered a glimpse into the personal experiences that shape his involvement in education.

Growing Up Kutcher

In the years since he graduated high school, Kutcher, 41, has become one of the most popular actors of his generation, and has circled back to education in recent years as an investor through his firms A-Grade Investments and Sound Ventures. For much of the conversation with Jackson, he drew from his own checkered history at school to loose a quiver full of criticisms on where schools should do better.

Kutcher’s point about Musk and Chesky, which he later clarified on Twitter, was that schools and businesses could do a better job incentivizing what he called purpose-driven, project-based work. The idea, he said, is to get kids working on things that matter to them.

“I think schools are abysmal at helping kids find their purpose,” he said, repeating an adjective he’d return to often when searching for how to explain the many, many ways schools are failing students.

Among his gripes: Teachers aren’t vulnerable enough with kids. Guidance counselors don’t have good answers for students who don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Schools don’t do enough to help kids take down compromising selfies. And education too often incentivizes getting the answers right, instead of rewarding students for trying their best.

Yet Kutcher also admitted he didn’t make much of an effort himself at school. He was noticed for his talent in the arts, but was kicked out of the school play for drinking. He started a school-wide petition so that he could wear his baseball cap indoors. But he also broke into his own school and received a third-degree burglary charge. He worked odd jobs during the year and said—fittingly enough for a venture capitalist—that he was motivated primarily by money.

“I was trying to rush through my homework during school so I could go to work so I could buy something,” he said. He briefly attended college but dropped out and moved to New York to become a model.

Kutcher took time to praise teachers as “superheroes” for taking on the challenge of raising kids as parents work longer hours, and for giving him attention when his own parents were busy attending to his brother, who has cerebral palsy. But it seemed as if Kutcher never truly connected with teachers or his education experience.

Cautioning that he is “a data-set sample of one,” he said he didn’t “think teachers were ever vulnerable with me so I was never vulnerable with them. And you can’t even start to get a sense of purpose until you’re willing to get vulnerable.”

Five And A Half Investments

Kutcher lamented that as a teen, he was never exposed to careers in technical or artistic fields. The jobs around him—being a butcher, construction worker, police officer, doctor—were the only ones he really considered growing up. That could pose a problem in the economy of tomorrow. As an investor, he noted that he sees companies aiming to use technology to replace many of the manual, repetitive jobs that exist today.

“In the future you’re going to have jobs where you’re telling a computer what to do, or a computer is telling you what to do,” he said. The better jobs, he added, will be for those in the former category—which in his mind involve solving issues that computers haven’t yet figured out, and which will involve a lot of trial and error, and failure.

That idea then reminded Kutcher of how bad schools were at the twin goals of helping kids find purpose and dealing with failure. Kutcher has notably failed at least once, by his own admission: when first starting the nonprofit Thorn, which uses software to track human trafficking in children, with ex-wife Demi Moore. (Notably, Kutcher did not mention his 2013 Steve Jobs biopic, “Jobs,” which was panned by critics.)

Inspired by a “Dateline” special, they launched a confusing, ineffective public awareness campaign around “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex.” It never took off, but it spurred them to look into how technology might be used to locate victims in tandem with local law enforcement. And it was made possible because he believed in it.

“Purpose comes first,” he said, “and how to deal with failure comes second.”

Kutcher also shared how he values new ways of thinking in those he works with—specifically the concept of “up thinkers.”

“One of the things I look for in entrepreneurs and mentors are people who come across a fork in the road, and instead of thinking immediately the two choices are to go right or left, they also realize we can go up,” he said. “And once you go up, you can see where right and left terminate.”

On Twitter, reactions to the talk were mixed. Many praised Kutcher for his willingness to tackle tough questions and for pushing educators to do more for their students. Some were confused by the talk, and called it out of touch and privileged—comments Kutcher has since replied to personally.

At the end of the session, Jackson asked him for his favorite tech tools for teachers. Kutcher, who was once banned by CBS from displaying stickers of his investment companies on the show “Two And A Half Men,” dutifully rattled off a list of his choice picks. There was Albert.io, a resource bank for test questions, and Lambda School, a coding bootcamp. He also plugged Clever, Imbellus and Panorama Education.

All five, of course, are companies he has personally invested in.

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Amalia Lopez became a high school English teacher because she thinks functional English is one of the greatest gifts you can give anyone trying to navigate life in the United States. So it may have been fate that she landed a job in the low-income, heavily immigrant California Central Valley community of Lindsay in 2009. That year, after decades as one of the most underperforming districts in the Valley, the Lindsay School District was embarking on a bold and pioneering project to switch from a traditional education system to its own community-sourced, performance-based learning system. Out went A-F grading, social promotion and even the terms “student” and “teacher.” In came competency-based structures, student empowerment, and terms like “learner” and “learning facilitator.”

Literacy for us is the gateway to equitable access to literally every other subject.

At the heart of the Lindsay system is literacy. “We view literacy as the wheel in the middle that every other spoke comes off of,” says Lopez, who now manages a $28 million federal grant that was awarded to the district in October of 2017 to develop teacher and leader capacity.

EdSurge recently asked Lopez to share insights into Linday’s transformation from a chronic underachiever to a nationally recognized model of competency-based education whose four-year college entrance rate is twice the national average for low-income communities. She discussed the role that Reading Plus, an adaptive reading intervention program, has played in her district’s literacy success. And she emphasized the impact of text choice on reading motivation and why that is especially powerful in a community where 75% of the residents are both English learners and living below the poverty line.

EdSurge: What motivates you as an educator?

Amalia Lopez: Here in Lindsay, we need our children to be literate because they are taking care of the older generations who did not come here with English skills. Watching kids become more literate and start to feel good about it is a really powerful motivator for a teacher.

We do senior exit interviews every year where the seniors stand up in front of a community panel and talk about the future and the challenges. I remember my last year at the high school I had a learner who stood up and said, “I was an English learner. I came here from Mexico at eight, and I never thought I’d be able to stand up here and speak in English and read in English like I do.”

I was his teacher for about three years; it’s a powerful moment to realize every door has opened to him because he can read and write in English. That’s a huge thing for me. That has always been my motivation.

How important is it for your students to be successful readers?

If students want to be engineers, they are going to have to be proficient readers.

It’s huge. The reason our district was underperforming for many years was literacy. If learners can’t read, they can’t access content instruction. For us, literacy is the big thing, because we are always going to have a population of students who have language acquisition needs.

Our community is predominantly Hispanic, and we have a growing population from Yemen, as well as a contingent of Hmong students. A lot of our teachers intentionally try to work with texts that are going to be culturally relevant, and Reading Plus does a great job of including those texts in their offerings.

Literacy for us is the gateway to equitable access to literally every other subject. If students want to be engineers, they are going to have to be proficient readers.

Can you explain how your reading intervention program works?

After an initial reading assessment, learners read texts that automatically adjust depth, pace and difficulty to an individual’s vocabulary, comprehension and fluency levels.

I think of Reading Plus as a vitamin. It doesn’t replace good instruction from a teacher. It’s meant to give every single learner personalized reading support, and that completely matches our model. The program gives students that daily dose—sometimes two—if they want it. They are reading at a level that is instructionally challenging but is in line with their development, so the vocabulary is leveled to them, the reading passages that they choose are leveled to them, and there is a fluency rate that they are working towards.

How does students’ ability to choose their own texts impact their motivation to read?

Amalia Lopez

We find that learners are really motivated by it. The neat thing about the text choice in the program—and this is the English teacher in me—it includes excerpts of touchstone novels such as the “Canterbury Tales.” That’s a huge deal because those are texts that our kids might not have had access to in their main content instruction.

We’ve tried to teach kids to be advocates for their own learning. Reading is a really good example. They know their reading goals. They know why they are trying to become better readers. They know they have different avenues to improve their reading: They can check out books, they can work with a teacher, they can do Reading Plus. The motivation comes when they really start to get into the stuff they read. Some of the librarians tell me that the kids will come in and say, “I read this thing on Reading Plus. Is that a book? Can I check that out?”

Do you see kids’ enthusiasm for reading blossom outside the classroom, too?

Absolutely. If kids are English learners and their homes do not have English newspapers and books, that lack of print leads to a lack of ability to think about reading choices. Because our program is giving them those daily personalized choices, it’s actually teaching them to think about what they want to read.

When we first started the program at the high school, I had the struggling readers who were 10th and 11th graders but reading at about the fourth or fifth grade level. One of the first things I noticed with Reading Plus was that the kids wanted to go on to the next lesson because it’s the next part of the story. I think that’s one of the scaffolds that the program does really well.

Have you seen students’ confidence in reading affect other areas of their lives?

In our model, there’s peer interaction, lots of voice, setting goals. I always tell people, 'It’s beautiful chaos.'

In our model, there’s peer interaction, lots of voice, setting goals. I always tell people, “It’s beautiful chaos.”

We have some of the most vocal kids in the world because we have done nothing but build their confidence. They’ll say things like, “This lesson isn’t working for me today.” We want that! We don’t want passive, compliant kids.

We see the confidence in lots of areas, but we see it particularly with Reading Plus because the learner will tell you, “Wow, I’ve already gotten two Combos this week—I’m on fire!” (To earn a Combo, a learner has to achieve 80% or better on two lessons in a row.) They tell you because they are empowered to know their data. They are empowered to make decisions about their learning. Reading Plus is an extension of this idea that confidence comes when you let kids have a voice in what’s happening to them for six or seven hours a day.

Reading Plus develops reading efficiency in order to free up mental energy for comprehension, and make reading more enjoyable and rewarding.

How does the program fit into the goals of Lindsay’s performance-based system?

Resources from Reading Plus

After testing it at the high school level, we implemented Reading Plus district-wide in 2016. Every school has some autonomy in how they use it, though most use it during their ELA blocks.

It quickly became a powerful tool for us, especially in our six third- through eighth-grade classrooms, because it does a couple of things very well. It’s structured with high-interest choice texts that learners can pick from at their own level. Also, the analytics you get from the assessments kids take for placement are really comprehensive. For example, a sixth grader taking the reading placement test might have a third-grade vocabulary and a fifth-grade comprehension, and he might be reading way too fast from a fluency standpoint. You get a reading profile for each learner.

Our coordinator of research and evaluation crunched all the data and he found that a learner in Lindsay who did 80 or more daily reading exercises moved more than a grade level in a year.

Can you share any specific success stories?

Last year we had four or five eighth graders go all the way through the program, get to the 12th-grade level and basically exit out of the program. When we looked at their district data, we saw this massive increase in reading ability and reading confidence because the learners had really engaged in the program and found a way they liked to read—which then lent itself to success in other areas.

Having students who no longer need the program is an okay problem to have!

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