Would you hire IBM’s Watson as a teacher’s aide?

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Does being a “Jeopardy!” champion make you an education expert? Not necessarily.

But, in the case of Watson, the IBM computer platform that famously knocked-off trivia phenom Ken Jennings from his record-breaking quiz show pedestal, the notoriety doesn’t hurt.

According to a recent New York Times report, Watson’s next role could be as a virtual assistant to America’s school teachers.

Over the past two years, the IBM Foundation has worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build Teacher Advisor, a program that uses Watson’s artificial intelligence to answer teacher questions and help them develop personalized lesson plans.

The IBM Foundation plans to release a version of the program for third-grade math teachers by the end of this year.

Proponents say the program marks a big step toward strengthening the relationship between technology and teachers, some of who are still reluctant to embrace new innovations in the classroom.

As the relationship between technology and teaching evolves over time, school district leaders must strike a balance between the pressure for change and the due diligence needed to ensure that every investment has a positive desired impact on student learning.

Teaching coach of the future?
The hope is that IBM’s Teacher Advisor and other fringe AI innovations will help teachers navigate the vast amounts of available education information for different grade-levels and subject areas and help them craft customized lesson plans that fit students’ needs.

As IBM Foundation President Stanley S. Litow told the New York Times:

The idea was to build a personal adviser, so a teacher would be able to find the best lesson and then customize the lesson based upon their classroom needs. By loading a massive amount of content, of teaching strategies, lesson plans, you’d actually make Watson the teacher coach.

In some cases, educators and administrators say the new technology could aid teachers in complying with their state’s Common Core standards.

Remember, before the Common Core became a pariah to…pretty much everyone, it was, at its core, a set of standards for the lessons that students need to learn at the end of every grade level. Watson aims to not only help teachers understand what skills they’re required to teach, but also what prerequisite lessons students will need to foster those skills.

Teachers who’ve piloted the program tout its time-saving potential and its ability to constantly adapt, the New York Times reports.

As more teachers use the platform, the Teacher Advisor algorithm will adapt to better answer teachers’ questions and to provide more customized content. In other words, Watson learns.

Make an informed decision
It’s an exciting time for education technology. New initiatives like Teacher Advisor give us an eager glimpse into the future.

But no matter how exciting the possibilities, it’s important to step back and ask that all-important question: In the end, will Teacher Advisor and other solutions like it help students learn?

As you consider the answer to that question, don’t forget to ask students and teachers and parents what they think of the idea.

Do they think it’s worth it? Are parents equipped to support students when it comes to integrating these solutions in schools? What does your staff think about being asked to embrace an entirely new way of working?

Once you have made an informed decision, make sure your students, parents, and staff understand the path you’ve selected and they have the skills and resources to make it work.

That means comprehensive training for each new program as well as ongoing support from content experts.

There’s great technology on the horizon. Watson is one shining example. The question is now: “Are we ready to move forward?”

How do you engage your community before high stakes technology deployments? Tell us in the comments.

Planning a digital transformation in your schools? Here are a few ideas to consider first.

Room for improvement: High-performing schools can do better

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“Nobody’s perfect.” Cliché? Yes. True? Also, yes.

 Need proof? Look no farther than America’s public schools.

New analytics and specialized data enable educators to more easily track where our school districts are excelling—and where they still need work.

Even the best-performing schools have their share of poor-performing students.

Enter the turnaround schools model, a progressive approach to resource allocation and education funding that focuses education investment on targeted areas of weakness, as opposed to across-the-board spending.

Every school, no matter its graduation rate or average test score, has groups of students who require special attention. In high-performing schools, it’s often easy for these students to get overlooked. The challenge is to identify those students and develop strategies for pulling them up, as this article in Education Week explains.

While no one strategy will work for every district, the article outlines some areas where high-performing school districts should consider focusing their attention. Here are three that stand out:

School leadership
New learning strategies only work provided you first identify the problem.

This can prove difficult, especially when a school performs well on holistic indicators, such as graduation or class attendance.

The federal Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA) focuses heavily on using aggregated data to recognize subgroups of students who are underperforming, as Education Week points out.

The idea: to close achievement gaps along socio-economic lines in all schools, rather than focus solely on under-performing schools.

With new definitions of school and student success and better access to data, it’s up to school and district leaders to identify those students who need help and provide solutions to effectively level the academic playing field.

Instructional transformation
Schools that are most successful at closing achievement gaps customize teaching approaches for struggling students.

Case in point: When Brimhall Elementary School outside Minneapolis set out to tackle its widening achievement gap, principal Penny Bidne and her staff knew they had to rethink their instructional approach.

“We put our heads together,” Bidne told Education Week, “and we really work hard at figuring things out and what we need to have in place for all of our students to be achievers.”

That included the development of grade-level staff teams who discuss specific student performance and new ways to engage struggling students. The school also instituted small-group instruction to give struggling students more focused attention. And it implemented a 1-to-1 instructional program for students falling behind in reading.

So far, those efforts are paying off. In four short years, the school has been designated a “reward school” for the progress it has made to close the achievement gap in Minnesota.

Culture shift
Closing student achievement gaps requires more than new program and initiatives. In many high-performing schools, it requires a culture shift.

High-performing schools get used to trumpeting success. That’s good. But it doesn’t preclude them from also admitting weaknesses.

The worst mistake a strong school can make is to overlook or undervalue vital support and resources that lagging students need to succeed.

Peers and parents can play a vital role in this change.

For example, as Education Week reports, Brimhall Elementary implemented a buddy system that empowers successful students to help their struggling peers.

School leadership also held fairs that encouraged student achievement as well as parent nights to make sure parents were equipped to aid their children at home.

Note: Parent and student engagement is vital to the type of student turnarounds we’re talking about here.

Does your school or district provide different ways for struggling students and their families to reach out in search of help when and where they need it? Giving students and parents a voice will help you identify weak spots early and prescribe interventions before students fall off the pace.

Do you work in a high-performing school or district? What approaches do you take to encourage student improvement? Tell us in the comments. Want to give students and parents a way to help you identify and close weak spots in your schools? Start by asking for their feedback.

5 steps to achieve stronger school climate

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By now, you understand how vital a positive school climate is to school success.

Throughout this week’s special series on climate, we’ve discussed the role that school climate plays in encouraging student achievement and we’ve offered up some suggestions for how to effectively assess perceptions in your school community.

But how do we take what we know about school climate and use it to affect concrete, long-lasting change in schools?

It’s important to understand that improvements in school climate or public perception don’t happen overnight.

Effective change requires a change in attitude, a commitment to community engagement, and careful strategic planning and execution.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of new policies and initiatives, especially as new rules and regulations from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act begin to take shape in your schools, you’re not alone.

School climate has become such an important issue in schools that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a guide to help.

“Research shows that when schools and districts effectively focus on improving school climate, students are more likely to engage in the curriculum, achieve academically, and develop positive relationships,” the authors write.

ED’s Quick Guide on Making School Climate Improvements outlines 5 steps school districts can take to improve the climate in their schools:

1. Create a comprehensive plan of action
Before jumping into anything, create a timeline and strategy for tackling your school climate issues. This includes forming a dedicated team to lead those efforts. It also means thinking through what resources are required to effectively gather data and engage and inform your school community.

Speaking of engagement—it’s important to draft a comprehensive communications plan to ensure your community understands your goals and how their participation can help.

Whenever possible, make sure to align any new school climate initiatives with ongoing strategic school improvement planning measures.

2. Engage stakeholders
No school improvements stick without buy-in from the community.

Invite students, parents, and staff to weigh in on your strategy ahead of time. Kick off a running dialogue between your community and your school district. Do this both in person and online.

Help your community understand your information-gathering process and provide training, so that school leaders can use the data and information collected during school climate surveys to make meaningful change.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to partner with community members and outside organizations to help power your reform efforts.

3. Effectively collect data
How you choose to collect data is as important as the data you collect.

Will you use a survey or focus groups to understand community concerns about school climate? Or, do you have other means of collecting candid feedback from your school community? Maybe a combination of all of the above?

Whatever your approach, make sure you’ve thought through the data-collection process to ensure you’re asking the right questions—and getting reliable answers.

Analyze that data and use it to create a clear plan of action, or to otherwise inform ongoing strategic initiatives. Let your community see and comment on the findings

4. Set your strategy
You have data and input from your school community. Now, it’s time to develop interventions that lead to lasting change.

Review all current and past reform efforts. For example, did your last teacher training program improve student attitudes? Was that the goal? If so, you might choose to continue that work. If not, the data might be telling you to try something new.

Decide what’s possible. Then, with input from your school community, develop next steps to turn your plans into a reality.

5. Evaluate your progress
Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s important to understand that not every action you take will lead to a stronger school climate—not right away.

That’s why you need to constantly assess your progress.

This means having a community-wide dialogue about school climate and constantly gathering new data.

Have you implemented strategies for achieving stronger school climate in your schools? How’s it going so far?  Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas for how to assess school climate in your district? Join us for our upcoming webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality, Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!

You can’t buy good school climate

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“She’s a smart kid, if only she’d apply herself more…” Sound familiar?

You’ve no doubt uttered this well-worn phrase at some point in your career. Few things are more frustrating than wasted student potential.

But students aren’t the only known squanderers of opportunity; schools have this problem too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that quality environments (aka schools) are as integral to student success as the desire to learn.

Unfortunately, as educator Jim Bellanca posits for the Solution Tree blog, many schools don’t fully understand the role of climate, particularly the importance of trust and familiarity, in the success paradigm.

Making climate matter
Turns out, the term climate is an apt way of describing the culture and environment of a school.

When students feel unsafe or disconnected from their teachers and other students, their school environment becomes “toxic,” writes Bellanca. Neuroscientists have done some digging into this, he says. What they found was essentially this: Toxicity pollutes students’ learning and negatively affects their success.

On the other hand, schools that promote a positive climate, often through better parent, student, and teacher engagement, display such qualities as creativity, innovative learning, and increased academic success and happiness.

Translation: How students perceive their schools goes a long way toward how they perceive themselves—and, by extension, their potential.

Time for an attitude check?
It might be tempting to think: “I don’t have to worry about school climate. We have new facilities, the latest security technology, and a healthy budget to spend.”

But money can’t buy everything, writes Bellanca.

Facility safety and strategic learning design can contribute to a positive school environment. But no amount of money can counteract negative staff attitudes or limiting teaching strategies or methods.

To prove this point, Bellanca and a team of researchers recently analyzed the results of student surveys from two schools, both of which enroll students of similar economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

One school was deemed to have a toxic climate via student feedback; the other was deemed to have a positive, healthy one.

“With all other things equal, the positive, healthy climate allowed teachers and students to wade into the deepest learning waters and enjoy the fruits of instructional practices, which evidence tells us get the most powerful results,” Bellanca says.

The biggest difference between these schools? Simple, says Bellanca: attitude.

After analyzing the curricula and lesson plans of school districts with both negative and positive school climates, several patterns emerged.

For example, schools with negative climates over-emphasized memorization and test-taking. Schools with healthy climates emphasized problem-solving and investigation. Schools with negative climates relied primarily on traditional teaching methods, such as lectures. Schools with positive climates tended to promote collaboration and choice.

Make no mistake: Modern learning facilities and new technology can contribute to a positive school climate, assuming those resources are used the right way and with the right intentions. But the attitudes and perceptions of teachers and parents and students matter just as much, if not more.

That’s why it’s so important to ask your community what it thinks about your schools before you start writing checks. Here’s one way to start that conversation.

For more on the link between school climate and student success, don’t miss our webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality , Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!

States keep their eyes on school climate

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It’s hard to believe, but 2017 is fast approaching.

In the waning months of 2016, states and districts are working hard to develop plans for evaluating school performance under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA rethinks how schools are assessed. While the law’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), depended almost solely on standardized tests to measure school success, ESSA seeks a broader, more flexible system.

Schools will now be held responsible not only for how well their students do on tests, but also for the learning environments they offer.

As states and schools decide what non-academic factors they’ll use in their school accountability plans—school climate is just one option—they’ll also have to decide how to measure them.

Several states are experimenting with good, old-fashioned observation—what they call school inspections—to evaluate school climate and environment, as a recent article in Ed Week outlined.

Observation and feedback
Modeled after school assessment in England and other countries, the school inspection approach invites a group of educators or education experts to observe a school’s climate, culture, and engagement, and provide feedback to teachers and leadership.

The goal is to go beyond blind data—and get a real sense of how a school functions.

“It felt very personalized,” Emilie Knisley, superintendent of Blue Mountain School District in Vermont told Ed Week. “It felt like you could take the recommendations and take action on them in a way that you can’t when you’re just getting a set of test scores.”

As Ed Week points out, Knisley not only received feedback, but also observed another Vermont school district as part of the state’s pilot program.

While on the surface it may seem invasive, Knisley and other school leaders said allowing outside observers to take an unbiased look at their schools helped them see opportunities for improvement that they had overlooked. And the observations have encouraged leaders from different districts to share their successful approaches to common problems.

Measuring school climate
School inspections are not designed specifically to measure school climate, but they may prove to be a great way to assess an area of school performance that is not easily measured.

While the National School Climate Center acknowledges there is no consensus on how to measure school climate, it breaks down what the assessment should measure into four broad categories:

  • Safety
  • Relationships
  • Teaching and learning
  • External environment

It’s impossible to identify a single set of data that will accurately measure a school’s climate. That’s why states and schools that want to use school climate as a non-academic accountability measure under ESSA need to develop a comprehensive strategy.

School inspections are one approach.

But school climate shouldn’t be assessed without input from staff members, parents, and students.

Engaging your community through school surveys, focus groups, and other methods will help ensure your community’s voice is included in whatever assessment you do.

Make sure to check back tomorrow as we continue to explore school climate issues and ways districts can evaluate their school environments.

And don’t miss our webinar “Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality” on October 12.  We’ll explore the link between school climate and student success, and the best ways to measure them. Space is limited, so sign up now!

Why online learning doesn’t work for the disadvantaged

Since the first dial-up modem blinked to life, the internet has helped shatter information hierarchies the world over.

Schools are no exception.

Free, easy access to online learning in schools has helped educators roll back the have, have-not culture that has for too long plagued America’s poorest classrooms.

But there’s a catch, as a brilliant new article in the Atlantic points out. While access to educational technology has done its part to eradicate long-held inequalities in the classroom, the advantages of online learning do not always extend beyond the school building to homes, where they can ostensibly do the most good.

Perhaps even more frustrating, it isn’t a lack of access that’s often the problem.

Instead, researchers point to a lack of “digital readiness” among disadvantaged families as the main roadblock to widespread student adoption of online learning inside and outside of school.

As online resources become a more familiar ingredient of classroom and take-home work, educators must do their part to ensure students and families have both the technology and the digital know-how needed to excel.

Are they ready? Get them ready.
“The data show that there are real barriers to drawing people to use digital resources for learning,” John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center told the Atlantic.

Horrigan is the lead author of the Pew study that first introduced the concept “digital readiness.”

The study found that more than half of Americans with internet access still aren’t equipped to use the internet for learning. Not surprisingly, the study found that the unready majority consisted primarily of disadvantaged populations, including minorities, women, and low-income households.

When it came to online learning, these groups often lacked key digital skills and confidence in their ability to find accurate, trustworthy information online.

Parents are key
We often think of K12 students as being digitally savvy.

But it’s the digital readiness of parents that often dictates how prepared students are for online learning.

Betsy DiSalvo, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, took a look at low-income families and their interactions with online learning.

DiSalvo found that the challenge of providing for their families precluded a lot of parents from getting more actively involved in their child’s education.

When parents were actively engaged in their child’s education, many simply were not equipped to support or encourage online learning from home.

“Their first priority is getting their kids to do well in school,” DiSalvo told the Atlantic. “They’re so focused on that that they aren’t necessarily focused on looking at what’s fun engagement, or what’s going to spark their interest.”

Supporting parents
To encourage more productive digital learning, our schools have to give parents the skills and confidence to support that learning.

How’s that going to happen?

The Atlantic suggests that makers of online resources and policymakers start by ramping up outreach to low-income families.

What steps does your school or district take to include parents from disadvantaged or low-income households in critical discussions about online learning? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for feedback ahead of your next online learning pilot or programs? Here are three ways to start a conversation about the importance of digital transformation in your schools.