Policy & Reform

Next Generation Science Standards are Smart

Earlier this month California became the seventh state to adopt a new brand set of K-12 science outlines, dubbed Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS. The “real world” approach to science mastery focuses on engineering, problem solving, modeling, and cause and effect experiments. Other states that are on-board with the science outlines are Maryland, Nevada, Kentucky, Kansas, Rhode Island and Vermont. The term “science standards” sounds like a positive one as far as learning is concerned, but do schools need really need another tier of learning accountability – and will students really benefi

What are Next Generation Science Standards?

Over the past year and a half, NGSS have been developed by education experts in several states. They are not an official part of the new Common Core standards but are meant to layer on top of the standards in place for stronger science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outcomes. These standards are intended to teach the overlapping nature of science subjects, rather than to present lessons in topic isolation. In states like California, the value of a strong STEM foundation is critical to individual and state success. Over the past decade, STEM jobs have grown at a rate three times faster than other industries. By equipping K-12 students with better STEM knowledge, the long-term economic outlook will improve.

Why are NGSS controversial?

A report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reveals a flaw in the enthusiasm for NGSS. The Common Core math standards and NGSS outlines do not align. The authors of the math review from the Institute say that while there are many strengths on the math side, there are also “a distressing number of weaknesses.” These include science expectations that have math components that are not grade-appropriate, according to an Education Week post by Erik Robelen,

Other critics believe the standards are actually subpar when compared to current state standards. There is also concern that implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to science neglects individual learning initiatives and also regional needs when it comes to science education. Some critics also believe there is a lack of computer learning in the standards which is a disservice to students with how rapidly science technology is changing.

The verdict?

Applying any cookie-cutter standards to any K-12 topic certainly comes with its share of potential problems, as NGSS critics have pointed out. Still, shining the focus on real world STEM learning in real-world settings is necessary to fully equip the present and future workforce. American students also need the extra focus in areas of math and science where they fall behind their peers in other developed nations.

Science, math and engineering topics are also less likely to be discovered by students, in the way that many find a love for reading or music, without some guidance from educators. Let’s face it – science and math are less romantic than other topics and so the “aha” factor takes some navigation. Once students have experienced a science spark of interest, they are more likely to maintain it, particularly if they can see the real-world ramifications.

Like other curriculum standards, NGSS need some tweaking to best impact K-12 learners. The foundation is there though and that is a step in the right STEM direction. The NGSS are a building block of a much larger cultural shift that needs to happen where science and math are concerned. Empowering students with better conceptualization of science in everyday living is necessary for career success and progression as a nation.

Do you like the Next Generation Science Standards? Will students ultimately benefit from these areas of focus?


Waivers, Blueprints and Reform: The Future of Educational Policy

Kids are taught from infancy that every person is special – that each child has his or her own talents and strengths to bring the world. Yet K-12 education policies tell a very different story by implementing blanket assessments and declarations that do not take the individuality of learning into account. How can today’s students be expected to recognize their strengths when they are all treated as one collective group by educators and policy makers?

Reforming NCLB. The Obama administration has made it perfectly clear that plans to redesign the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it has “reinforced the wrong behaviors in attempting to strengthen public education.” The current version of the law, No Child Left Behind, is already five years past its reauthorization date and the Obama camp believes that the “pass-fail, one-size-fits-all” mandates deter full learning potentials by punishing students and schools that miss their goals. Any spirited argument of NCLB has those who enthusiastically agree, or vehemently disagree, with the President. What is not up for debate is that NCLB is outdated and does not adequately meet the needs of the American K-12 student population.

In 2010, the administration proposed a Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that addressed the problems with NCLB and also made recommendations for closing the achievement gap. There has been no official move by Congress to modify and authorize NCLB, so the administration has moved forward with a system of granting waivers to states, and even individual districts, that can come up with a better plan for addressing their own weaknesses in teaching and learning outcomes. NCLB has provisions that allow exactly what the President and his education advisors have done in the way of waivers, making it possible for schools to take control of their learning experiences to meet the needs of their unique student bodies.

A look at NCLB waivers. In 2011, President Obama said that his administration would grant NCLB waivers to specific states that provided rigorous plans to benefit K-12 learning in their communities. As of last week, all but nine U.S. states have been approved for these waivers, along with the District of Columbia and some districts in California. Many of the districts that have been approved for ESEA flexibility have a heightened teacher evaluation system in place that is meant to override Obama’s goal of 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

Just this month eight individual California school districts were granted waivers with the idea that each one would create customized plans that take local influences into account. The eight districts banded together when the state of California decided against requesting ESEA flexibility for this school year. Each NCLB waiver is different. For example, the Colorado Department of Education was approved for a waiver of the 14-day notice requirement to inform parents of public school choice in 2009, while in the same year Hawaii was given a one-year waiver of the requirement to spend 20 percent of its fiscal yearly spending on choice-related transportation.

In the Colorado waiver documentation, the state agreed to still provide public school choice notices to improvement districts. In Hawaii’s application, the governing educational bodies of the state agreed to use the funds released by the waiver to fund specific student needs based on data. In all of the waiver requests, states were required to carefully craft their requests and provide a reasonable alternative. The idea of individual states and districts asking for control over their student directives when it comes to achievement is a smart one that makes up for some of the flaws of NCLB. Every student population is different so one federal mandate regarding assessment can never work for every district, school or student. Even with the NCLB waivers, individual K-12 students are grouped together but at least the waiver makes specificity of assessment and teaching a little bit more possible.

Future of educational policy. Waivers are a step in the right direction when it comes to policy reform simply because they give states and districts a voice in the teaching, learning and assessments processes. Even a complete overhaul of NCLB would mean applying monotonous standards to a diverse K-12 student population, assuming that it included federal mandates again. Giving more power to individual districts, right down to specific schools, is really the right way to address the needs of custom student bodies. But would accountability suffer if there were less demands from the top?

What should be included in educational policy reform to truly benefit the next generation of K-12 students?

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.

Avoiding School Reform Roadblocks

When initiating reform, an action plan must be developed before the school can determine how the reform will be carried out and how it will be measured. Too often, administrators become anxious and feel the need to change the reform before any data has been collected. More patience is warranted because if a plan is not working, it can be amended. The school team, which consists of educators, administrators, and other stakeholders, must make the necessary amendments without hindering reform efforts. Creating too many changes within one reform plan would be counterproductive and frustrating for all parties involved.

Many new administrators enter the field hell-bent on making a name for themselves and refusing to live in the shadows of their predecessor. Often, they feel as though their only choice is to go in a totally different direction, making the previous reform null and void. This situation creates frustration among the surviving faculty and staff. New administrators often make changes before they fully think about the consequences or repercussions of their actions. Perfectly competent adults massage their egos instead of thinking about what is in the best interests of the school and the children.

It is counterproductive to start one reform and then decide to start another several months later. Once a reform has been implemented, all parties involved must show fidelity to it until there is concrete data or evidence that indicates that it is ineffective. Reform is about creating an environment in which students are the priority and we as their teachers assist them in starting and finishing their journey to becoming educated citizens.

It is hard for many administrators and educators to grasp the fact that frustrations may worsen as the reform is being implemented. Often, issues arise because people do not welcome change. Some educators need to see that change is for the better before they completely support the reform. Once the rebellion to change has subsided and the reform has been implemented correctly, the waiting game begins. During this time, educators and administrators must go about the business of collecting data for analysis. The findings will give them a clear indication of whether or not the reform has served its intended purpose. If students are not progressing under the implemented reform, then it may not be fulfilling the needs of the students or faculty.

Strategic planning and the implementation of school reform sometimes require schools to absorb temporary setbacks in order to reap the benefits of long-term gains. Student progress might dip for a month or two before teachers and administrators see a significant gain in student learning and performance. Teachers and administrators need to allow change to take place and not panic when instant changes are not apparent. In many school reform efforts, educators and administrators must understand that policies and practices that met the needs of the past, do not necessarily address current needs or the needs of the future. They must realize that in order to obtain a great future you must let go of a great past.

Some administrators fall into the trap of emulating model schools. Model schools can be found in every major city, but when trying to recreate their success, many schools fail to achieve the same results. Trying to recreate another school’s success is potentially dangerous, even when schools share similar characteristics. This is because, regardless of the similarities, every district is unique. Often, after a large amount of time, energy, and money has been spent, the school declares the plan a failure and has nothing to show for the efforts.

Strategic planning, which is widely used in the educational arena, can assist districts in setting goals and implementing school reform. You would be hard pressed to find a school district that does not have one or more strategic plans awaiting execution. Strategic plans are a district’s consistent road map, even in the face of adversity. In the end, a strategic plan that reflects the culture and needs of each individual school is a better route than attempts to replicate the success another school.

Implementing and Sustaining School Reform

It is obviously hard to institute sustainable school reform when much of the reform undertaken in schools is the result of constant policymaking and changes mandated by incoming district administrations or temporary measures. Sustainability does, though, require changes to happen, as a “lack of change” speaks more of conservatism than reform. Essentially, sustainability means that improvements should be ongoing.

The evolution of transportation provides an instructive example. Transportation did not stop with the invention of the wheel. In the intervening centuries, transportation mediums were being developed, refined, and improved upon until they evolved into the industry we know today. The process has not stopped, nor should it. Innovation is always taking place, which means improvements are occurring. Our schools should emulate this type of process—school improvement should never end.

Let us consider five key points to sustaining school reform. The first of these is a substantial level of commitment, which stems from the belief that change is possible. There is, in fact, a great deal of power to be found in belief. Belief is what gives disadvantaged people the will to try to succeed and minorities the will to prosper. Conversely, the lack of belief can impede the success of reform efforts, regardless of how promising the proposed content of the reform may be.

If the will is not there, reform will not happen. Belief is just as important in school reform as in any other areas of life. If support, belief, and commitment are missing, then schools can paper over the gaps in the short term, but without the commitment of staff and faculty, the reforms lack stability. The likelihood of successful reform is, therefore, dependent on faculty and staff members embracing the implementation process of reform and sticking to it.

Reforms that originate outside of schools (e.g., reforms initiated at the district level) are by no means doomed to fail. Even so, district or other administrators need to make special efforts to assist teachers and other school staff in developing a feeling of ownership of the project in order to foster commitment and a belief in the efficacy of the reform.

Sustainable reform depends on the development of capacity. As our knowledge of cognitive science grows, we learn more about the ways individuals take in and process information. This knowledge has led to greater focus on how effective learning environments are built. Schools and districts are somewhat restricted in how they operate due to political, financial, and practical concerns, but they can still use their increasing knowledge to develop practices relevant to student learning needs and to structure learning environments to more effectively support these needs.

One absolutely vital aspect needed to sustain school reform is the time to accomplish it. It is a commonly reported issue that one of the most challenging issues schools and districts face is the need for time to plan and implement reform that would lead to improvements. No matter how successful the leadership of a school happens to be, leaders only have the same number of hours in a day as everyone else. Nonetheless, they likely have more demands on their time, which places them under pressure to maximize how their overcommitted time is used.

This issue often separates effective from ineffective leaders: the best ones will make much better use of their time, and have more control over it. Naturally, they will still come up against obstacles they can’t change, but they also have strict time management processes and will constantly evaluate how effective they have been in their use of time.

Sometimes the result of leader’s evaluation of time use will help them realize they are stretched too thinly.  Effective leaders are able to delegate some of their leadership responsibilities to other staff members who can perform those functions with support.  They also make sure that all the activities they undertake – particularly those relating to reform – will be structured around teaching and learning. Effective leaders will also make sure that their processes are efficient and that their actions will always work to further the goals of the school.

The actions of effective leaders may leave some staff or stakeholders feeling a little neglected or angry that they have not been given sufficient time with their leader. Ultimately, however, nothing comes without a cost, and it’s a case of weighing the benefits of spending time on reform against the costs of not focusing on other duties. The aim is to minimize the cost of actions while maximizing their benefit. This means that good planning and implementation are vital in order to manage time effectively.


3 Learning Problems Bigger Than Teacher Prep

Last week seven U.S. states announced intentions to revamp teacher-preparation and licensing requirements that essentially make it tougher to become and remain a teacher. Some of the new requirements include steeper admission requirements for teacher-training programs and licensing based on performance of a specific set of skills. The plan is intended to make for better teachers, and ultimately better students over time, but stricter teacher requirements will not necessarily lead to higher-achieving students.

There are still too many outside forces with which everyday teachers contend that make it difficult for them to be as effective as legislation and policy-makers would like. Training and education for teachers is not the problem; here are three issues in K-12 education that have a larger negative impact on overall learning for students:

  1. Lack of parental involvement. Of all the things out of the control of teachers, this one is perhaps the most frustrating. Time spent in the classroom is simply not enough for teachers to instruct every student in what he or she needs to know. There must be some interaction outside school hours too. Of course, students at a socio-economic disadvantage often struggle in school, particularly if parents lack higher levels of education. Students from middle and upper class families aren’t off the hook though. The demands of careers and an over-dependence on schools put higher-class kids at risk too when it comes to the lack of parental involvement in academics.
  1. Overcrowding. The smaller the class, the better the individual student experience. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of U.S. schools exceed capacity, but that does not include individual classrooms at schools that may not be overcrowded overall. At a time where children need more attention than ever to succeed, overcrowded classrooms are making it even tougher to learn and tougher still for teachers to be effective.
  1. Screen culture. I am an advocate for technology in the classroom. I think that by ignoring the educational opportunities that technology has afforded us puts kids at a disadvantage. That being said, screen culture overall has made the jobs of teachers much more difficult. Education has become synonymous with entertainment in many ways. Parents are quick to download educational games as soon as kids have the dexterity to operate a touch screen, and with the best of intentions. The quick-hit way that children are learning academics before and during their K-12 careers makes it even more difficult for teachers to keep up in the classroom setting, particularly since each student’s knowledge base and technological savvy varies.

I’m not saying that stricter teacher requirements are a bad thing – I’m just not sure that is where all the focus should be. What about a program that targets parental and community involvement in what kids are learning? Maybe even a seminar for parents on tangible ways to get more involved academically in what their kids do at school? There is no way to make parents attend these but perhaps there could be an incentive. With the right funding, I’m sure schools could find a way.

Instead of making it harder to become a teacher, why not spend money on making classroom size smaller and more manageable when those teachers start their careers? Or on technology programs and training that give teachers an advantage when it comes to educational gaming?

This pilot teacher-prep program seems like just another way to blame teachers for what they cannot control. More education can’t hurt, but there are so many other issues that deserve this spotlight instead.

What do you think about stricter teacher-prep laws?

P-16 and P-20 Initiatives: Critical for Education Reform

If the goal of P-12 education is to prepare students for success in the adult world that follows, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect when a high school diploma is handed over. Students are sent off to college as adults and there is a sharp separation between the support and guidance in all the classrooms they’ve ever visited and the new ones on the horizon. We seem to assume that our well-educated youth will know exactly how to act on their own when it comes to secondary education. That’s a problem. In this article, we will discuss how P-16 and P-20 initiatives are critical for education reform in the U.S.

A study from Harvard University found that only 56 percent of college freshman actually receive a degree within six years, and only 29 percent of students in two-year programs actually finish. If those numbers were applied to a P-12 system words like “outrageous” and “failure” would be tossed around, particularly if these were public schools. Yet, so far, the American public seems content to let these numbers lie. Culturally, there are many “acceptable” reasons why students make a goal to earn a college degree and then change their minds. They are, after all, adults right?

Enter the concept of P-16 education. The term used to describe the goal of creating a seamless education system of public education that spans the years from pre-school through college completion. One of the major themes of P-16 education is to reduce the number of high school graduates that need remedial education at the college level. This, in turn, will reduce college dropout rates and ensure a more qualified workforce.

Taking that concept a step further, P-20 initiatives support collaboration between academics and workforce training. Instead of handing over a college degree with a “good luck,” colleges and universities with P-20 programs strive to guide students in their early careers. Organizations like the P-20 Council of Connecticut offer readiness workshops and help college graduates find and keep jobs.

States and individual colleges that have put P-16 and P-20 programs into place have seen success. Things like achievement gaps narrow when students are given a more streamlined approach to their entire education and how it all amounts to workforce readiness. Education reform through these specific initiatives is the key to cultivating the life success of all students, regardless of their race and socioeconomic status. It seems like there is a lot of talk about supporting P-12 students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it quiets after high school.

Shouldn’t that be the time when students blazing a new family trail should have the MOST support? Additionally, if these students have always had support on their P-12 journey – how are they supposed to feel when they are suddenly on their own?

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds can certainly benefit from P-16 and P-20 programs, but I believe the value of these initiatives is even more far-reaching. Even young adults with a strong family support system regarding their educations, and successful role models, are coming of age in a time much different than previous generations. Workforce readiness is a whole different ball of wax than even a decade ago. Young adults cannot be expected to know or understand the full ramifications of their roles in the economy without close guidance, particularly in the early years of their careers.

College and the years that follow it should certainly be a time of self-discovery, and not everything should be taught or mandated by the country’s education system. Educators, from preschool through college, should do a better job of preparing students for what life will bring them, though. More focus on the immediate years following P-12 will result in better academic outcomes that translate into a better quality of life for students.

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.

3 Ways to Improve U.S. Students’ Standing Worldwide

The latest international report on student knowledge and success worldwide once again paints U.S. students in a bad light. This is not the first time American students have lagged behind their peers on the OECD PISA global education survey that tests and compares student outcomes in areas like math, science and reading. The results are really just more of the same.

While I take issue with particular parts of the test (leader China reportedly only tested students in elite schools in Shanghai), it is a wake-up call nonetheless. When it comes to American K-12 student achievement, it is not enough to be a big fish in a little pond. To really make a splash and gain international footing, a few things need to change in U.S. K-12 education. Here are just a few:

Teacher support. This starts from administration in individual schools and extends into the community at large. Parents must also respect the role of teachers in order for kids to follow suit. Unfortunately many times teachers are pitted as servants, and not put on the pedestal they deserve. Perhaps I’m biased but what is more important than imparting knowledge to our next generation? Today’s best teachers are not simply reciting facts and expecting their students to regurgitate them; the teachers in contemporary classrooms are “showing their work” so to speak by imparting the life skills necessary for students to find answers on their own and be successful citizens in other ways.

Teachers need backup from the other people in their students’ lives and from their own colleagues and superiors. Traditionally high-performing PISA countries like Sweden, Australia and Japan all have one thing in common – high levels of community support for teachers and involvement from teachers in the course of instruction and curriculum. When new initiatives are handed down in the U.S., like the Common Core standards, teachers should have access to resources to help them reach goals. Teachers need more input in decisions, more access to continuing education resources and more faith from the administrators and families impacted by their classrooms.

STEM emphasis. There seems to be a general societal consensus that science, technology, engineering and math subjects are somehow boring, or uncool. A lot of attention has been placed lately on young women and finding ways to encourage them in male-dominated STEM fields, but I’d argue that young men need the same opportunities. Overall, more American students need to take an interest in STEM topics if we want to be able to compete on a global scale. The rapidly changing field of technology makes this part of U.S. K-12 education even more pressing. As the digital age continues to modify life as we know it, the students in today’s classrooms must have the tools to lead the country in discoveries, inventions and communication technology the coming decades.

Equal opportunities. In country that claims to be based on equality for all, there are still too many achievement gaps in our classrooms. While it should be a non-issue, the color of a student’s skin does seem to impact his or her academic achievement. It is not a direct effect, of course, but still something that needs even more focus to overcome. The best work on closing the achievement gap is in individual schools and I think that makes the most sense. No blanket national program will be able to answer all of the intricacies of why an achievement gap exists in a particular place or school. From a federal standpoint, however, schools should be encouraged to develop programs for eliminating achievement gaps and reaching individual students where it is most effective – their own classrooms.

Why do you think American students lag the rest of the world? What would you add to my list?

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.

School Security: Just Smoke and Mirrors?

In theory, parents and educators would do anything to keep students safe, whether those students are pre-Kindergartners or wrapping up a college career. Nothing is too outlandish or over-the-top when it comes to protecting our kids and young adults. Metal detectors, security cameras, more police presence in school hallways, gated campuses – they all work toward the end goal of sheltering students and their educators and protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens. Emotions aside though – how much does school security really increase actual safety? And do school security efforts actually hinder the learning experience? It sounds good to taut the virtues of tighter policies on school campuses but is it all just empty rhetoric?

Recently the University of Kentucky came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union for plans to install 2,000 security cameras on campus. Representatives at UK say the move is a response to the increasing randomness of school violence at all levels of the learning process and a way to better ensure student safety. The ACLU says it is a blatant violation of privacy.

I say it is money wasted because all the security cameras in the world would not have prevented the largest school tragedies of recent history, from Sandy Hook Elementary to the Virginia Tech massacre. Security cameras and other monitoring devices give us a false feeling of security and an actionable course when there are no answers to pointless questions.

While extreme, UK’s camera monitoring plans are in sync with what is happening in K-12 schools across the nation. In the 2009 – 2010 school year, 84 percent of high schools had security cameras for safety monitoring. Over half of all middle and elementary schools had them too, with 73 and 51 percent respectively. Despite this, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage of high schools with controlled access to school buildings during normal hours is lower than that of middle and elementary students. Though not expressly stated in these findings, it would seem that in the case of high schools, cameras are more of a way to catch rule-breakers after the fact than a way to prevent violence and other criminal activities.

Students are not the only ones who are the subjects of safeguards like surveillance cameras.  Teachers, administrators and other staff are also vital when it comes to putting school safety into place – and in the case of teachers, they are on the front lines of what is going on with students. Limited access to K-12 campuses is meant to protect outsiders from harming the many people who are supposed to be there. But what about student-versus-student violence, or student-versus-teacher physical altercations? In 2011, 12 percent of high schoolers reported being in a physical fight at school that year. Nearly 6 percent reported carrying a weapon, like a gun or knife, onto school property in the month preceding the survey. By the time a security camera picks up on the fact that a student has a knife or gun, is there really any timely way to prevent the inevitable.

Given the fact that state spending per student is lower than at the start of the recession, how much should schools shell out in the way of security costs? Perhaps the best investment we can make to safeguard our students and educators is in personal vigilance. Perhaps less reliance on so-called safety measures would lead to higher alertness.

What role should school security play on K-12 campuses, and should it be a financial priority?