How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTA

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How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTAs
Parents with socioeconomic resources are more likely to exert influence on school officials.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP

When Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, told parents in the fall of 2014 that it would allow students to use Chromebooks as a way to bridge the digital divide between low-income families and affluent families, there were mixed reactions. The plan was aimed at helping students become more adept at using technology, but the affluent parents, most of whom were white, were apprehensive about their children getting more screen time.

Alison Risso, then the president of the school’s PTA, said she was frustrated by the complaints those parents expressed at a meeting. “Everyone who could pay for that Chromebook with the money in their pockets was in the room,” Risso said. As Risso recalled, one parent said to her, “I don’t need my daughter to learn to make a PowerPoint.”

At Rolling Terrace, 68 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Sixty-three percent of its population is Hispanic, 15 percent is black, and another 15 percent is white. But the parents of that sliver of the student population that is white and affluent—most of whom were drawn to the school’s Spanish-immersion program—have outsize influence over what happens in the school

Risso explained to parents why it was important for the lower-income children to have access to the Chromebooks. Many of the school’s parents—mostly low-income people of color who didn’t attend the PTA meeting—were excited about the computers.

Despite the differences in priorities, the school’s parents are expected to make decisions as a community. That kind of unity rarely happens in gentrifying neighborhoods, however. When white, affluent parents come into a school that has a high percentage of less-affluent students of color, the more advantaged group tends to take over parent organizations and unintentionally marginalize the parent community that was already there. Ultimately, Rolling Terrace proceeded with its plan to use Chromebooks, but not all such issues are resolved in ways that give low-income parents a voice.

That’s unfortunate because parental engagement can greatly improve adolescents’ academic and emotional functioning, according to a 2014 study published in Child Development. A substantial body of research also indicates that parent involvement at home and school is an important factor in improving young children’s literacy and math skills. PTA membership was also associated with student achievement in a 2006 School Community Journal study authored by researchers at the University of West Florida.

Allyson Criner Brown, the associate director at the nonprofit Teaching for Change, said she has seen small groups of advantaged parents, many of them members of parent organizations, wield great influence on school policy. They often push for programs that would benefit their own children and not necessarily the kids of less means. When these parents don’t get what they want, they often make calls to someone higher up than the principal, such as the superintendent, to flex their muscle—something lower-income parents rarely do.

“[Affluent] parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think.”
The influence of the PTA depends a lot on the given school’s culture and in part on how big a role parents play in fundraising. It can be challenging for a busy principal to seek input from parent groups, especially when those organizations aren’t financially supporting a cash-strapped school.
“If the principal knows that the PTA is not a source for fundraising, depending on the principal they might not go to the PTA and ask parents if [a particular project] is a priority,” said Alexandra Freidus, doctoral candidate in urban education at New York University. In wealthy or socioeconomically diverse communities, on the other hand, “principals frequently count on parents to fill in budget gaps. Those parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think, to believe their opinions matters to the school, and they’re much more likely to be a dominant voice.” And while it’s true that kids of all backgrounds benefit from attending integrated schools, affluent and white parents tend to think they’re the ones bringing value to their school, according to research released earlier this year.

The imbalance of power has become especially clear in recent years as parents with means in gentrifying neighborhoods look for schools that will enrich their kids’ lives—schools with diverse student populations, for example, and supplemental-learning opportunities. Schools serving high numbers of poor children often offer Spanish-immersion or gifted-and-talented programs that attract affluent families, which often bring with them the ability to fundraise. (Although Spanish-immersion programs were initially meant to serve children who spoke Spanish at home and were still learning English, they have become increasingly popular across the country with non-Latino parents whose children speak primarily or only English at home, according to a 2015 dissertation for the City University of New York’s urban-education program.) But the ability can also mean wealthy families wield disproportionate influence on campus and in the PTA.

According to Freidus, the current body of research on parent engagement in gentrifying schools shows that schools tends to accommodate those parents’ interests and concerns. Freidus analyzed a decade of posts in a listserv for parents new to the school and neighborhood and discovered how quickly one unidentified Brooklyn school and its ostensible priorities evolved as the student population became whiter and more affluent. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch fell from 90 percent in the 2003-04 school year to 65 percent in the 2011-12 year. At the same time, the school spent much of its resources on the playground and other facilities rather than efforts to get classroom computers and support for the student prom.

Criner Brown said she has seen similar issues play out in Washington, D.C., schools. In some cases, according to Criner Brown, white and affluent parents begin advocating for their children before they even attend the school. “Yes, it is parent advocacy, but a more forceful and entitled version that is more of a demand than a request,” she said.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, an education advocate and former guidance dean at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Illinois, said PTAs rarely discuss race directly, instead using words that “refer to race while not referring to race” out of fear that they’d otherwise appear racist. When disadvantaged parents do try to speak up, they’re often dismissed by other parents or by administrators, Wickham Hurst said. Parents of color, she said, bring up concerns about testing and how to help students who are underperforming, but are sometimes brushed off. As one parent spoke, she recalled, a white PTO member who is considered an education expert by parents because she works in the district, sighed and rolled her eyes.

A mother of color also told Wickham Hurst that she and another nonwhite parent were dropping out of the PTO because their concerns were always left in the “parking lot” to be discussed another time—time that never came. “I’ve been cussed out many times in my career by a very frustrated parent who has never been listened to in school systems who would like to be heard but they never say it in the ‘right way,’” said Wickham Hurst, adding that black parents tell her they never hear from the school unless it’s about student discipline. Students of color are suspended at disproportionate rates, with some studies indicating teacher bias plays a role in determining discipline.

Alina Adams, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten, works with many parents of color who are trying to get their children into New York City-area elementary schools; she also helps parents adjust to the schools once they’re there. According to Adams, many parents of color express concern that they won’t be listened to at the school. “[Reluctance to speak up] gets magnified when it’s someone of a different race than you or different ethnicity or different economic background,” she said. “Maybe you don’t speak English so well and you feel intimidated by that. How do I challenge this person on this issue when I know that she’s a lawyer and I [just] have a high-school diploma?”

The data bears out some of Adams’s points about disadvantaged parents’ lack of involvement. Lower educational levels are a factor in their limited engagement, as is having a lower socioeconomic status and being an underrepresented minority, a 2013 study on Parental Readiness Empowerment Programs shows. Meanwhile, a 2014 paper that analyzed black parents at an urban middle school found that perceptions of racism and hostile parent-teacher interactions were significant barriers to their engagement at school.

“I get questions about how things work rather than complaints about why things are happening.”
Meanwhile, Myra Rivera-Blanco, the fundraising co-chair of the Rolling Terrace PTA, said that Latino parents tend to ask different questions about family engagement because, culturally, they see school participation differently. “I get questions about how things work rather than complaints about why things are happening,” she said. Many Latino parents believe they should trust the school to handle their child’s education appropriately and are less inclined to question teachers and administrators.

Rivera-Blanco is the main contact for many Latino families as one of few Latina members of the PTA; she also serves as the de facto translator at meetings. Rivera-Blanco said many of the school’s lower-income parents don’t have access to laptops and even cell phones, which makes communication especially difficult.

When schools are cash-strapped, the priorities of the members of the parent organization often become the priorities of the school as a whole. Rivera-Blanco says she sees this dynamic play out often at Rolling Terrace with the Spanish-immersion program, which is populated largely by students with means. For example, parents of kids in the program ensure that its teachers receive gift cards at the beginning of the year and during Teacher Appreciation Week to pay for supplies. “There are parents in our school that can’t put enough cents together to get a coat much less give their teacher their supply list,” Rivera-Blanco said. “That imbalance is huge. You can walk into a classroom and know which is a Spanish-immersion classroom and which one isn’t.”

The history of the PTA shows that these race and class dynamics have always been an issue. Christine A. Woyshner explores this context in her 2009 book The National PTA, Race, and Civic Engagement, 1897-1970, exploring how white affluent women who founded what is today known as the National PTA used their influence to achieve reforms. The “black PTA,” or the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, on the other hand, was more concerned with ensuring their schools had the basics.

school is diverse, the parents’ goals are usually too different. “It’s very hard in those situations to create an equitable school engagement and school governance model because ideally what you want in an integrated school is people are fighting together for all of their children,” Potter said. A model where all students are challenged and their particular talents are developed through similar approaches to gifted classes, otherwise known as a “schoolwide-enrichment model,” may be the best way to pursue true diversity, she said.

Parents, teachers, and administrators should state their goals clearly and work on fostering trust between low-income parents and parents of color, according to a 2013 paper from SEDL out of the Institutes for Research and the U.S. Department of Education. Schools could also increase communication through home visits, such as those made at William W. Henderson School.

As Potter said of Blackstone Valley Prep Academy, school administrators have to do more than hope families will get along. “They had to make sure that they were intentional about shared leadership,” Potter said.

We Need a Strategy—Not a Silver Bullet—for Student Success

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We Need a Strategy—Not a Silver Bullet—for Student Success

By Karen Vignare Sep 8, 2016

There is no disagreement that a great liberal arts education can be of value in the medium and long-term. However, the students from lower socioeconomic statuses do not have the financial resources to wait long enough to see the return.

As a pioneer of online, blended and emerging technologies within higher education, I know many of the people within higher ed leveraging new tools are looking for a silver bullet to help more students be successful. It is just as clear that it is going to require multiple tools or new digital pedagogy to improve student success for those students underserved in both of the lower socioeconomic quartiles.

Research from the Pell Institute and Institute of Educational Statistics shows the gap in bachelor’s degree attainment between the highest and lowest income groups has widened since 1970. Despite frequent attempts by politicians, regulators, educators and edtech to improve degree attainment for lower middle and lowest SES groups; nothing has changed.

Is there any hope for change? It is time to be more systemic and strategic. As most of us start a new academic year, we need to organize our thinking around multiple process improvements and innovations. Here are four places to start:

1. Create an innovation pipeline for teaching and learning.

Right now little innovation exists on the teaching and learning side of the university. If it exists at all, it is ad hoc—aided only by internal or external one-time grants. In “Creating a Learning Society,” authors Stiglitz and Greenwald explain the economics and incentives of innovation. The industry of higher education suffers under multiple inefficiencies to create a conducive environment for innovation. The inefficiencies on the teaching and learning side include: not enough sharing of best practices, a continued reliance on average practices (what has worked), lack of a competitive environment at the local level, and lack of R&D dedicated to improving teaching and learning.

2. Connect learning to jobs.

Lower SES students lack the time and funds, and are at constant risk from multiple potential setbacks (e.g., illness, loss of family income, transportation complications, lack of child/parent care) of having to withdraw, pause or drop out completely. Connecting the learning pathway to applicable job skills is critical. These connections can include institutions taking in prior learning, offering authentic projects that demonstrate evidence of business related skills, and virtual and physical internships. Virtual internships could be a better solution for lower SES students who cannot afford to participate in low or unpaid internships.

3. Improve the learner experience.

The learner experience starts with multiple interactions for students across services that often exist in silos. Even when best practices of marketing, usability and design thinking are applied, students will inevitably encounter the legal language of statutory regulation, which is always confusing to understand. This language is a barrier for students to be able to understand costs and fees, nuances of financial aid or even predictability of classes being scheduled. Adding to the learner burden is that best practices from the other fields aren’t regularly applied across campus websites.

Learners also need personalization. Most educators recognize that relationships with faculty help students stay motivated, but even relationships with any staff member can help students feel involved. Advisors will need to be trained and will need tools like early warning systems, customer/learner management systems and scheduling tools. Tracking students’ interactions amongst departments can provide critical insight into what is not working well for students and when and where institutional staff and faculty should intervene to help. The students who will benefit the most from advising are those who do not have a network of folks with successful college experiences.

It is equally important to improve learner experience in courses—especially gateway and early courses. One of the most promising aspects of personalization are that the tools help faculty identify through a dashboard struggling students and how to communicate in an empathetic and positively motivated way. Faculty may have to adjust to different cultural and economic backgrounds. Knowing when and how to communicate is critical to improving student success and we need to give faculty tools that will enhance the relationships they have with students.

4. Get better at lowering student costs.

Since students in the lower SES are continuously under pressure due to scarce resources, the reduction of education costs is critical to their success. Actions like lowering textbook costs through the use of open educational resources (OER) or digital courseware is a great start. Georgia State University recognized that students often need more financial help getting from one semester to the next. GSU can now prove that helping students with small loans is a better longer term return on investment, since more of these students then completed their degrees. Universities need to apply more return on investment and cost efficiency tactics to student success.

For students in the lowest SES who show ambition in high school by taking dual credits or AP courses, let’s really lower their costs by maximizing the transfer credit toward the degree. Along with strengthening dual credit, the streamlining of transfer credit is critical. The supply chain for students is broken. At best it works when a strong one-to-one relationship exist between two institutions (e.g. within CUNY or as mandated within the state of Florida), but for the most part students’ transfer credits depend on the registrar who depends on faculty to articulate the value in credit of a course. When credits are transferred they are often used as electives and not applied to a degree. Students are often acquiring more credits than they need.

It’s a student success strategy, not a silver bullet.

The need to leverage analytics is intrinsically tied to our improvements. There are huge amounts of data available. Leveraging it and using it to change the culture within an organization is still only practiced well by a handful of institutions, including St. Petersburg College, Sinclair Community College and Capella University, to name only a few institutions. What are they doing differently? The key differences are that their data is transparent and available, their leadership is collaborative with faculty and staff, and change is measured and successful interventions are scaled. We can only be more cost efficient if we know what interventions cost and are able to measure the success.

There is no one silver bullet for student success. Improved student success will need to be comprehensive and be a fit for the students at your institution. The big “aha!” is that improvement must be a coherent set of best practices, making student success a strategy.

Karen Vignare is a researcher and administrator leveraging emerging technology within higher education.

Classroom Wearable Report: What it means for K-12

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Digitizing education content and learning processes has  changed the way students learn and interact during classroom sessions, according to Technavio’s report, “Classroom Wearables Technology Market in the U.S., 2016-2020”.

So classrooms emphasize collaborative learning and visual learning, says Technavio analyst, Jhansi, Mary J.

Using wearable technology will significantly increase student engagement levels and improve content absorption abilities.

And K12 educators believe that by using these devices, they can effectively monitor potential health issues arising from obesity and even attempt to arrest them by designing suitable physical education initiatives.

BYOD will also increase demand for wearables in classrooms driving up significant curricular changes.

Potential applications of wearables in K12 classrooms are:

  • Virtual reality and augmented reality learning deceives that enable virtual learning.\, and also document videos from a student and faculty perspective.
  • smart watches to share information and alerts.
  • fitness bands in hopes or producing healthy eating habits and physical education activities.
  • headbands like Muse which track brain sensing activities, including each student’s response to a particular classroom session.

The most important advantage of using wearable tech in  the classroom will be flexible access to education content and amplifying learning processes.

With mass adoption and the right PD initiatives for faculty within the  next three to five years, says Jhansa, Mary J. educators could identify wearables and map them to integrate into respective subjects and learning models in K12 classrooms avross the nation.

 

New Bill Offers a Good Start on Defining Professional Development

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December 4, 2015 4:14 PM

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act by a 359-64 vote. While there is much to explore and discuss in the bill, Learning Forward’s advocacy efforts related to the reauthorization of ESEA have concentrated solely on professional development.

We believe that ensuring a clear and specific definition of professional development in federal policy, one that aligns with our Standards for Professional Learning, lays the groundwork for states, districts, and schools to create professional learning that has impact. The definition of professional development that appears in the bill is important because it applies to every example of professional development mentioned in the bill.

Overall, we are satisfied with the definition that is included in Every Student Succeeds Act, though we believe that effective professional learning requires more than what the bill describes.

We’re pleased with the first part of the definition. It begins: Professional development means activities that “(A) are an integral part of school and local education agency strategies for providing educators (including teachers, principals, other school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, and, as applicable, early childhood educators) with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in the core academic subjects and to meet challenging State academic standards; and

(B) are sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, classroom-focused….”

While there are additional ways to improve upon this part of the definition — it would be ideal to move away from thinking of professional development as “activities” rather than a continuous learning journey — it is affirming that the key words included within it tie directly to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. Congress has affirmed that educators’ professional development must be collaborative, job-embedded, sustained, classroom-focused, and data-driven. The definition is also significant because it so clearly focused on school- and classroom-level professional learning.

The legislation continues with this phrase: Professional development “may include activities that …” followed by a long list of professional learning elements, experiences, and topics. For example, professional development may include activities that “improve and increase teachers’ knowledge of the academic subjects the teachers teach.”

The placement of the “may” is significant. Everything before “may include” is essential and officially part of the definition. Everything after “may include” is dependent on the context and needs of the local educators planning and implementing professional learning. To define professional learning too tightly would overlook the differentiated needs of educators and could contribute to schools and systems addressing adult learning through one-size-fits-all solutions. We trust educators to use the key words before the “may” to assess their needs and design their learning objectives and processes, then identify the priorities that best fit their circumstances among those listed after the “may.”

As education leaders and policymakers make sense of the bill once it moves into law, which is expected to happen next week, we are hopeful that in implementing the definition of professional development, they will also consider the following:

  • Evaluation of impact must be a part of any professional learning, as it is part of so many other school improvement elements outlined in the legislation.
  • The cycle of continuous improvement is the ideal vehicle for making so much of this definition come to life in schools. Through collaborative, continuous problem solving, teachers examine data to understand what student and adult learners need, set professional learning goals and determine learning strategies, apply their new learning with ongoing support, and assess the impact of what they’ve applied in their classrooms.
  • Clearly defining the professional learning roles and responsibilities of educators throughout the system helps ensure meaningful implementation and collective accountability for results.
  • While the definition of professional development in the bill describes that educators gain “knowledge and skills,” intentionally addressing changes in practice is essential to achieving better results for students.

Defining professional learning meaningfully in policy is one key step. But the definition doesn’t equate to implementation. The hard work of planning, facilitating, implementing, sustaining, and evaluating professional learning happens every day in states, districts, and schools.

As always, Learning Forward is eager to provide educators the support they need to create learning that meets this definition and aligns to the Standards for Professional Learning. Please let us know how we can continue to do so.

Stephanie Hirsh – Executive Director, Learning Forward

Teachers integrate technology into classrooms with help from ISU online master’s program

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ISU’s online Master of Education degree program in curriculum and instruction technology has helped 67 educators in the last decade to incorporate technology into their classroom. The online program is part of ISU’s School of Education, and offers the same curriculum as another on-campus program at the university.

“The growing use of technology in the schools was really picking up. We realized that we needed to make available professional development,” said Clyciane Kossatz Michelini, the program coordinator. “Technology is everywhere, most people use technology. But what is effective or a way to really make a difference in their teaching? We don’t want to get technology for the sake of technology. It has to be meaningful, has to be motivating the students, has to be making an impact while they’re teaching.”

The program is offered every two years, with the next cohort beginning next summer, and students are in the program for three years. Students learn about trending uses of technology in the classroom, how to teach courses online and, because most participants are already teachers, students get to conduct their research in their own classrooms.

One course is offered each semester, and Michelini said it makes it convenient for full-time teachers, as they are not required to be on campus for their coursework.

Denise Schmidt Crawford, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, said students are asked to visit campus just twice a semester—once at the beginning of the program and once to present their final oral exam. Those who cannot attend are also able to use a video conference set-up to meet the requirement.+

Michelini noted that because the coursework is available online, the program has reached students even outside of the state, and working with teachers across the country has “really brought in another perspective.”Michelini said students leaving the program are entering new jobs that give them leadership roles in technology, and teachers are now “confident in what decisions they make and how they can help other teachers to step up and use more technology in a more effective way.”“Just because you have computers in the classroom, that doesn’t mean you’re making that better for the students,” Michelini said. “You have to really understand how to integrate that to the content and your teaching style and the way kids learn

STEM in a Chaotic Classroom

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Lydia Withrow uses a CSI-themed project, creating a mock crime scene to incorporate STEM into her English curriculum

Not many people would think to compare STEM and English to cops and robbers. Most see the two roles as total opposites in personality, goals, and demeanor, but without the “bad guys,” where would the cops fit in? In a way, the same can be said for STEM and ELA. While most teachers know the subjects as poles apart, when they are combined, their differences create a balanced learning environment that is not only educational but fun—what we like to call “organized chaos.”

As we shift into a new age of education, students are no longer sitting at their desks filling in bubble sheets and reading out of textbooks. Although there is a need for direct instruction in all classrooms at some point, my fellow teachers and administrators at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia, believe in—and have seen the benefits of—student-centered classrooms and project-based learning. After seeing a dramatic drop in face-to-face interactions with our youth thanks to social media and gaming, we must engage these young, impressionable minds in learning and explore new topics through teacher-guided self-discovery in a nontraditional classroom.

For an outsider looking in, my classroom might seem a bit chaotic, which I happen to love and embrace. Here, students are walking around, talking loudly, and asking each other questions, which is the exact opposite of what we’re used to as teachers. Handing students the reins isn’t letting go of control, and being a bit more hands-off doesn’t make me any less of a teacher. It’s a different style of classroom management that works by keeping students from falling asleep and zoning out during important lessons.

During our secondary education, teachers are conditioned to believe students must be sitting with their feet on the floor, eyes up front, and smiles on their faces for teachers to be in control. In other words, students should be silent and passive. That teacher-led classroom is missing the components that allow students to work together, a skill today’s employers see as necessary for all employees. While there is a time for both silent and passive, classrooms that are humming with excitement and action are often the most productive. Students who are engaged are involved. Involvement, to us, means action and application of learning.

Rotating Classes Are a “Win for Both Sides”
At Horace Mann Middle School, we have a rotating basic skills class built into our curriculum. As part of the daily schedule, each teacher chooses a performance task from the hundreds of cross-curricular, career-focused projects offered by Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement. Each class spends three weeks focused on a holistic project that not only tests students’ cognitive ability, but also teaches them life skills and allows for hands-on career exploration. After three weeks, when students complete the task, they rotate and start a new project with a new teacher. In 18 weeks, students complete six in-depth projects, and we (the teachers) perfect our skills and save valuable lesson-planning time by teaching the same lesson six times to different groups of students.

“It’s a win for both sides,” said Shandon Tweedy, our assistant principal at Horace Mann Middle School. “Students are always gaining new experiences, and teachers get the rare option to choose to teach lessons they are enthusiastic about. And they save valuable time by not reinventing interactive lessons every three weeks.”

As students rotate, we often hear conversations between students about how much fun the project was and what they learned. As teachers, we know we’ve done a good job if classroom conversations are happening outside the classroom.

This format is exciting for the teachers because it plays to our individual strengths. For example, the algebra teacher may choose a prebuilt Defined STEM lesson on creating a bakery, which includes the math and business skills students need to become entrepreneurs. A science teacher who is passionate about fish might choose a lesson about building a fish tank, which teaches ecology, physics, and design.

The Classroom Is a Crime Scene
As an English teacher, you would think my task of choice would involve research followed by a report and presentation, but that’s not the case. I’m constantly trying to think of ways to incorporate STEM skills like problem-solving, formulas, and tech into my word-filled classroom.

For example, I love CSI and the detailed processes that go into solving a crime, so I chose a lesson called Crime Scene Investigator. I thought, “What is the best way to give my students hands-on experience when they obviously can’t go to a real crime scene?” Soon, the stairway of our school turned into a life-size crime scene complete with caution tape, splattered fake blood, and a lone shoe next to a body outlined with spray paint. I’ll never forget my students’ faces when they walked into the elaborate scene.

“I was super excited because I knew the kids were going to be totally sold on the lesson, and they sure were. The reality TV that the kids see, and the mysteries they have read laid the groundwork for huge enthusiasm with the students,” said Tweedy. “I loved the creativity that Lydia brought to the project with her personal touches, such as the book our ‘victim’ was reading. Our seventh grade looked at the stairwell staged for the class with envy, realizing it was part of an eighth-grade lesson. They immediately got excited thinking about the lessons to come their way.”

Students were transformed from eighth-graders into forensic scientists tasked with solving a murder. Using graph paper, students had to draw the scene to scale, placing each blood splatter and piece of evidence in the correct area. Using the Defined STEM task materials, each group of students became experts in areas including bite-mark analysis using paper plates, lifting fingerprints using a fingerprint kit from the local police department, and collecting DNA samples. Each specialist group then presented its findings to the class so every student was able to learn different aspects of analyzing a crime scene. The class prepared its evidence as a full crime report as if it were going to be analyzed in court. To solve the crime as a team, they used skills from all areas of study, including collaborative problem-solving, making precise measurements, creative writing, and presenting their research and findings to the class.

Setting up a crime scene may seem like it required a lot of prep time, but it didn’t. At Horace Mann, project-based learning isn’t viewed as a dreaded part of the curriculum or “one more thing,” because teachers see firsthand the benefits to students. It also doesn’t have to be hard or drain a teacher’s personal pocketbook. In fact, if done right, it’s pretty easy, cheap, and fun for not only the students, but the teacher, too.

I live by the phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” I tell my students to go through their junk drawers to find things to use in their project, because buying new supplies won’t get them a better grade. Once grades are handed out and the projects are over, I deconstruct them and put everything in a box to use next time.

Experience Can’t Come from a Textbook
During the lesson, many students share what they’ve learned in my class with friends and family. Many go home and critically watch crime-scene shows on TV, pointing out “mistakes” producers make and debunking the “made-for-TV” reenactments. Becoming forensic scientists like the investigators on TV boosts the students’ confidence and empowers them to apply what they’ve learned in every situation.

Their biggest discovery? It takes a lot longer than 60 minutes to solve a crime. And while they are having fun trying to find an alleged murderer, they are actually refining 21st-century skills that textbooks can’t teach.

“Taking notes and reading about a crime scene, for instance, is nowhere near as powerful as creating a crime scene, and it is definitely not as engaging,” said Tweedy. “Plus, students have to work alongside others, which is a 21st-century skill they will carry with them far beyond high school. While the process isn’t always clean and quiet, the reward is cross-curricular career exploration and thinking in ways students never thought were possible.”

The basic skills rotation allows students to explore new careers they may have never known about. For example, when we started the crime scene lesson, students had no idea solving a crime involved so many people, from investigators to local police officers to the FBI to the BCA to forensic scientists and ballistics specialists. In their minds, everyone was a cop. By actually acting out each part in the scene, students were able to envision themselves as adults working in a careers. Because of the lesson, they can truly say they have as close to hands-on experience as they can get (as an eighth graders.)

While we don’t want our children growing up too fast (that’s the mom in me talking), we do want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible so they’re able to choose the path that fits them best. We also want students to be thinking about their futures far before they’re seniors in high school.

“I cannot tell you how many students have remarked to our teachers that they had no idea that some of the activities they are seeing with this program are actually options for a career,” said Tweedy. “To be able to inspire a student in that manner is, indeed, life changing, and that is what it is all about: inspiring the future.”

Teaching is not about theoretical knowledge. It’s about using everything at one’s disposal to accomplish one’s goals. Knowing the correct answer on a test or writing an essay doesn’t necessarily mean a student has mastered the content. Years of studying how to be the best cop on the force, or how to successfully rob a bank, doesn’t mean a person actually knows how to put those studies to use. He won’t know until he applies what he has learned and does it. The same goes for STEM and ELA: You can read all you want about combining the two in project-based learning, but until you actually try it, you’ll never know the outcome. So what are you waiting for?

Lydia Withrow is an eighth-grade English teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, WV

From Language Magazine OnLine.

School Testing 2016: Same Tests, Different Stakes

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It has been a high-stakes year for high-stakes standardized tests.

The debate over renewing the big federal education law turned, in part, on whether annual testing would remain a federal mandate. Republicans initially said no, Democrats said yes. Ultimately the overhaul passed with tests still in place.

On the other hand, this fall President Obama addressed parents on Facebook and released a “Testing Action Plan.” He wanted states to cut down “unnecessary testing” that consumes “too much instructional time,” creating “undue stress for educators and students.”

Meanwhile some parents, notably in New York state, opted out of the tests and made a lot of noise about it. The use of test scores in teacher evaluations was a big bone of contention. And many states dropped out of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the two Common Core test consortia, in favor of giving their own state tests.

The arguments for annual student testing come down to accountability and equity. If we have accurate data on the academic progress of each and every student, testing advocates say, we’ll be able to compare results and highlight gaps, whether between rich and poor kids or across states. That information, presumably, can spur effective, targeted action to improve.

The outstanding question is whether it’s possible to reform school testing in a way that gets schools, parents and leaders the data they need, while avoiding the problem the president is talking about: an overemphasis on testing.

And moreover, is that reform likely? Here’s what we’ve learned about testing in the past year, and some predictions of what’s to come.

Federally mandated testing is likely to increase, not decrease, next year.

Despite what the president said, the Every Student Succeeds Act still requires states to test at least 95 percent of students each year in reading and math for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Not only that, a higher percentage of students in special education will have to take the tests. The percentage who are given an alternative test because of cognitive disabilities can’t be higher than 1 percent.

The stakes will be lower, though.

Instead of a federally mandated (and widely seen as unrealistic) “100 percent proficiency” goal, each state will set its own targets and decide on its own path to improvement.

The opt-out movement may have some of the wind taken out of its sails.

According to two national polls last year, most Americans don’t support the opt-out movement.

The 95 percent testing rule continues to give school leaders a reason to try to hold the ceiling on parental opt-outs, which reached above 50 percent in some schools and districts last year. More important, one political justification for the movement may be fading: ESSA leaves room for states to de-emphasize test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

There’s been so much test turnover recently, most districts can’t track progress.

Chalk this up to an unintended consequence of the Common Core. According to a report this year by the Council of the Great City Schools, a full 65 percent of the biggest school districts in the country saw a change in their big state tests between 2011 and 2015. These changes, the districts said, made it near-impossible to track student achievement over time. And forget about comparing test scores across states: With all the states dropping out of the two Common Core tests, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, we’re back to a patchwork of tests and cutoff scores nationwide.

Many people agree there is too much testing, but where to cut back is not clear.

In a national poll last year, two-thirds of the American public agreed there was too much testing in schools. The Council of the Great City Schools study showed students take an average of eight standardized tests per year, often in overlapping subjects and at overlapping times. The director of the CGCS, Michael Casserly, called school testing “redundant and uncoordinated.”

The federal government’s “testing action plan” promises resources for districts and states to audit and streamline their testing programs.

But how, exactly, to cut back? Four out of 10 districts in the CGCS survey reported having to wait between two and four months before receiving their state test results. That lag makes it near-impossible to make decisions — like grouping students by ability or signing them up for special tutoring — before students pass on to the next grade.

So, if schools want timely data-informed decisionmaking, they’ll still need to give their own diagnostic tests. And if districts want to know how they’ll do on the state tests, they still need to give their own benchmark and practice tests.

States will turn to new forms of accountability.

Under the ESSA, states create their own accountability formulas. Along with test scores, which are mandatory, these may include graduation rates, measures of student engagement, teacher engagement and school climate (such as attendance or behavior). Some states and districts are also including student projects and surveys that try to measure noncognitive skills.

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