Monday, November 30, 2009

Changing the world, one student at a time – literally, one student at a time.

by guest blogger, Candice DePrang

The Tech Awards, given out every year to innovators using technology to benefit humanity, recently announced this year’s laureates in the categories of education, equality, environment, health, and economic development. Fifty thousand dollars are doled out to one laureate of three in each category to further the mission of the company, individual, or non – profit.

One of the education laureates, Salman Khan began what he calls the Khan Academy, a non profit organization “with the mission of providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere.” Underpinned with the belief that every student deserves excellent instruction, Khan posts videos on his website and a channel on YouTube. The digital lessons provide explanations and examples for the simple and complex math concepts, ranging from basic algebra to venture capital and capital markets. Students can pace themselves at the academy, and Khan publishes adaptive courses as well.

Perhaps Salman should apply for an i3 award, or perhaps the education community might take note of what these hundred of videos really mean – instruction matters. The quality of a teacher, and his depth of knowledge is significant in the context of a child’s understanding.

It will be interesting to see where this emphasis will surface in the ARRA money, if at all. Salman’s initiative includes innovation, technology, an aspect of professional development, and teaching excellence – his idea covers a spectrum of hot topics. How should states best use the money to ensure every child learns from an excellent teacher? In what ways could the Department demonstrate its own commitment to this mission?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Knowledge Ecosystems, a record of what works

by Augustus Mays and guest blogger, Candice DePrang

“I would hope that parents make decisions around this program because they feel that this is an educational option that their child really needs, as opposed to, ‘I have to get my child into this program because that’s the only place where they are going to get a good education,’ ” she said. “I just don’t think that’s true — we have a lot of really good schools.”

Those are the hopes of Anna Commitante, the head of gifted and talented programs for New York City’s Department of Education. During this recession, families less able to afford private schools are instead employing test prep tutors to help their students gain an edge on gifted entrance exams.

The desperation parents experience is desperation for choice, any opportunity to raise the caliber of their child’s education, knowing that education predicts life outcomes. As young minds earn entrance into top tier schools, that choice and life opportunity grows.

New York City’s Chancellor, Joel Klein, is known for his believe in this same concept, and for his drive to improve public schools at whatever cost, regardless of the initiative’s popularity. Yet, his innovations and accountability initiatives have yet to quiet parents still hungry for high quality schools across the board.

This commentary isn’t one of pointing fingers or making accusations. Certainly school success lies on the shoulders of strong leaders and teachers, with families carrying responsibility to provide emotionally healthy environments and support for children in their roles as student.

But the desperation, and fear to some extent, that drive families to gain this edge demands an answer to these questions: where are New York City’s reforms? What programs are working, and in which schools? Is their any kind of quantitative cultivation to measure the results over time? Are the testing sites ready for scale up? Why and why not?

If New York City – or any other school system – is to attain education excellence as a whole, not just in a few pockets or neighborhoods, then the external support system composed of test site locations, policy makers, product developers, and the general public must be fully invested in this local school improvement effort. The aim is to have this network of stakeholders participate in a process of sharing implementation experiences and results, designed to enrich and accelerate their school improvement efforts. This depth of understanding would build a knowledge ecosystem and would not only educate students and teachers, but also create a dynamic environment of sharing best practices, and inform policy panels on where investments – human and financial – might be better focused.

This cannot happen in a side bar on the website, or a press release for a successful one – time trial. An knowledge ecosystem in itself must be an initiative, to corral all of the reforms into one arena, and gather research on what’s working and what’s not in public schools. A parent or practioner’s access to information detailing what students are learning and how they best learn it is invaluable to more than reformers – anyone from citizen to chancellor that wants to see their neighborhood schools improve so that all children have life opportunities because they had an excellent education.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Easton and Shelton on the move

For those of you who participated in our Knowledge and Innovation summit last summer will recall the important words by both Jim Shelton and John Easton about the critical importance of repositioning the education R&D infrastructure and creating dynamic link between R&D and innovation in advancing education transformation. Well, the two seem to be working well together now. See this terrific blog discussion in the National Journal which demonstrates Shelton and Easton's combined efforts as well as the limited understanding among reformers of this knowledge-innovation dynamic. We have a long way to go but the start is promising. We said as much in our comments in Debbie Viadero's recent article on this topic>:

"For far too long R&D in education has stood on the sidelines in the innovation and improvement arena. For many reformers, research and innovation seemed to be opposing concepts. In other sectors --- like agriculture, defense, health, energy, business --- the R&D infrastructure has long served as a robust, well financed, , leading edge catalyst for innovation. But not so in education. Now the Obama administration is building on the groundbreaking work of the previous administration and pushing R&D and innovation TOGETHER to the forefront. Easton and Shelton working together can launch a new knowledge era in educational reform and transformation. Bravo"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Please don’t wa(i)ve.

by guest blogger, Candice DePrang

The wave is for pepping up a lagging baseball team, showing spirit at a large gathering. It’s not for Governors to circumvent the authority of school boards. Virginia’s newly elected Governor vowed the initiate an appeals panel for rejected charter schools. One such school, proposed by a literacy specialist and school counselor, is planning for an extended school year and the International Baccalaureate program. While the latter intimates high standards – certainly a criterion that most schools should possess – the former represents one of many reforms with a lack of evidence supporting results.

In a report published by the Laboratory for Student Success that synthesized the existing studies concerning extended school days and school years, the results proved inconclusive. “The research literature indicates that time is a necessary but insufficient condition for improving achievement. The crucial issue is how time is used, with quality of instruction being the key.”

The concern, then, rests with reform for the sake of reform. The education community compromises its integrity when it adopts an unproven innovation and then claims that this change is better, certain to improve already existing establishments.

An appeals panel in itself sounds like democracy – checks and balances, right? A charter school not accepted by the school board is entitled to know why their application did not get the green light. What’s equally as important, though, is that a school board or elected official not simply waive through charter schools – nor any other innovation – in the name of reform. School leaders must support these innovations with evidence before they label them knowledge, and begin to use them as reforms instead of waiving rigorous research in hopes of change.

Maintain High Standards, but Reallocate Resources

by Augustus Mays and guest blogger, Candice DePrang

How much of an impact does evidence make at the Department of Education?

In the context of the Department of Education and the latest i3 grants– it’s a heavy weight. Recently Aaron Pallas overviewed the increasing rigor of the four goals funded within IES, and he made clear that an idea does not stand to be scaled up if there is not an immense amount of proof behind it.

The Investing in Innovation Fund, known as i3, shares this high standard. Successful applicants would receive funds to support local efforts to start or expand research-based innovative programs that help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students.

Developing education innovations that work is difficult and chancy. It is quite possible that the pool of applicants meeting the requirements for Scale-Up grants (superb programs with the potential to be brought to scale) will be quite small. Thus, one could expect that the Department will allocate the majority of the grant awards to go to proposals that meet the requirements for Development (for promising but still unproven initiatives) and Validation (somewhat proven initiatives ready to grow at the State and Regional levels) grants.

In particular, the Development grant category represents a tremendous opportunity for the Department to develop new ideas based on research that could foster continuous improvement to the lowest performing schools and Districts in our public education system.

Should the Department of Education put a priority on funding proposals that meet the requirements for Development grants? Do you agree? How can the ED best use the i3 investment, knowing that very few applicants will meet the requirements for Scale-Up grants?

Match Seed Money with Seed Knowledge

by guest blogger, Candice DePrang

Austin, among many other cities across the nation, will apply for the grants. The Obama administration is looking to fund Promise Neighborhoods, based on the premise (and the success) of the Harlem Children’s Zone. One concern specific to Texas’ capital, however, is that the federal government might see other larger urban areas as more in need of the money, or perhaps smaller rural areas. The city straddles an interesting line.

As mentioned in the Statesman, Austin hosts high poverty and low graduation rates associated with explicitly urban cities – like Chicago or New York, in addition to a highly transient population usually linked to rural communities.

Still, parents, teachers, and community leaders might let the thrill of the possibility excite them. Just think what injustices could be met head on with $500,000! But before we, as Austin citizens, get ahead of ourselves, we must reign in the romance and realize…the money alone won’t “fix” anything.

The high achievement of a promise neighborhood in Austin will lie in scaling up exactly what works, not the program in general. And I wonder – do we know what works? What specific strategies are used in the HCZ to invest the families and the children served? How exactly are the services organized, and what qualifications are needed for someone to fill that administrative role? What is ineffective at the HCZ, and which parts of that program are unique to New York? Who will interpret all of the tracking to ensure that knowledge emerges from the data, not just numbers? Austin will need knowledge from that quantitative research to use and then scale up if it expects the money to make an impact.

Perhaps all of these details sound overwhelming, impossible to corral. But the success of the HCZ, and any promise neighborhood, lies in the answers. Surely our elected officials, the foundations, and non-profits involved, will use the tracking and reports to uncover exactly how the Harlem Children’s Zone serves families effectively, and use the information that emerges from that evidence as seed knowledge, so Austin doesn’t just rely on seed money.

Easy there speed-readers….

by guest blogger, Candice DePrang

UVA professor and cognitive psychology researcher Daniel Willingham took on an occasional column in the Washington Post that fact-checks educational tools for scientific validity. He didn’t know fighting off speed-readers was a part of the job.

In his most recent post, Dr. Willingham challenged the science used to support eyeQ, a product that claims to double the rate of reading in one month! Whoa! He addresses the fact that eyeQ links brain activity to efficient thinking, and corrects the company’s dichotomy of thinking; eyeQ purports that tasks are linked to one side of the brain or the other, not both.

The comments posted at the end of the article are fierce against the author. Speed-readers everywhere defended eyeQ and wrote that the software improved their speed reading ability, going so far to let Willingham know exactly why that’s important and what exactly he’s missing.

A fight about science? How could that be? It tells the truth, right? Something is either scientifically proven to work or it’s not.

A heated debate via the WaPo online tells a larger story. It’s unfolding in Congress, throughout the policy arena, and it’s arguably education’s new buzz word: data. Decision makers and educators want to know – am I making a decision, supporting and idea, or implementing an innovation that works, that’s backed up by data, and proven by science to work? Teachers are held to this standard in districts across the nation because administrators are asking for numbers, spreadsheets, and want to know a student’s growth patterns quantitatively – not qualitatively.

Numbers must not be the final or only word. As eyeQ’s CEO and other users point out, any strong curriculum that’s misused will not bear the intended results, no matter how convincing. Moreover, companies and scientists alike bend results in preference of their desired outcome.

But the big – A Administration is looking for numbers as well. The i3 Fund, and to a lesser degree the Department of Education’s other initiatives, request numerical data as part of a state’s application process.

Cheers to Dr. Willingham, willing to look critically into programs trying to hop on an evidence bandwagon that we hope becomes a constant, rather than a fad. When scientists, policy makers, and practitioners can make decisions with confidence, our students will be better served because the adults around them are paying less attention to hype, and more attention to sustain alternatives that have worked with statistical success.

“And change is essential. Put bluntly, we believe our education system needs to be reinvented.”

“We think of educational innovation not as a fad but as the prerequisite for deep, systematic change, the kind of change that is necessary—and long overdue.” This is the premise for the latest edition of Leaders and Laggards, a State-by-State Report Card on Educational Innovation written by the Center for American Progress, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

The most recent publication pushes for an entire overhaul of the education system, instead of promoting one the new fads that has long characterized K-12 education pedagogy and curriculum. Sound familiar? It should. Secretary Duncan has pushed for an entirely new system, instead of just “tinkering around the edges.”

Leaders and Laggards
graded a school’s innovation progress by considering the following categories: school management, finance, staffing, data, technology, pipeline to postsecondary education, and state reform environment. “More broadly, however, this effort must be complemented by giving new providers the freedom and encouragement they need to promote high-quality research and development, and to develop innovative “green shoot” reform ventures that pioneer more effective tools and strategies.”

We couldn’t agree more. Innovation stemming from research and development is the kind of purposeful improvement schools need and leaders are looking for to ensure an excellent education for every child. Critical to this research and development infrastructure, however, is the dissemination of this knowledge and information. Businesses and countries that survived the technology changes of the nineties and the struggling economy of today adapted and innovated by sharing information and democratizing decision-making.

Schools must imitate this change. Unlike businesses, the CAP report hopes that schools do not just survive, but rather undergo transformational change. But reform for reform’s sake cannot be the standard for this shift. Anchored by research, development, and dissemination of knowledge, “innovative educational practices are vital to laying the groundwork for continuous and transformational change.”

Find the report here: and more thoughts here:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Amplified Policymaking

Amplified Policymaking --- Read this spot-on issue brief by McREL and KnowledgeWorks Fdn that "examines a series of cultural shifts and how we are developing new ways of organizing, constructing, and managing knowledge. They describe a world in which we will increasingly collaborate, improvise, and work together to assemble meaning from vast arrays of data, while also creating new learning experiences combining physical and digital realities." Heavy topic, great stuff tied to many of the issues at last summer's summit in New Mexico.

Shooting the Moon

This interesting article in this month's ED Innovator speaks to the essential role of philanthropies in promoting innovation and change. It beckons back to the Mott Foundation's early involvement in a small new federal program in 1997 called 21st Century Learning Communities that eventually was parlayed into a $1 billion funding stream. Can this happen again? We think so in even bigger ways.

Tony Blair on community schools

Blair, Duncan, Hoyer, Weingarten, Rodriquez, Podesta, etc were all in one room together at this great event at Center for American Progress on community schools this past week. Tony Blair was terrific. We were particularly impressed with his comments about transformational change and the importance of structure in sustaining an innovation. The supporting cast wasn't too shabby either. Watch the webcast here