Author Archives: Carolyn Chuong and Sara Mead

25 Years Later, 5 Teach For America Myths Linger

Thousands of Teach For America alumni will pour into DC this weekend for the organization’s 25th anniversary summit. With the spotlight on Teach For America, it’s worth looking at some misperceptions about what has become one of the biggest players in the ed reform movement. Last year at Bellwether we carried out an independent case study of Teach For America’s efforts to scale, including its accomplishments, missteps, and lessons learned along the way. Based on our work, we want to share five myths about Teach For America that continue to linger.

Myth #1: Teach For America primarily recruits white affluent graduates of elite universities.

It’s true that in Teach For America’s early years, a high proportion of the corps hailed from Ivy League universities. As the leadership began seeing the impact of corps members who shared the backgrounds of the students they served—both in the classroom and the broader community—it began changing the organization’s approach to recruitment. Today, nearly half of all corps members identify as people of color, 47 percent come from low-income backgrounds, and 34 percent are first-generation college students.

Myth #2: Corps members are unequipped to teach given that they only receive five weeks of training.

A common criticism of Teach For America is that the summer institute doesn’t adequately prepare individuals for the classroom—and is an affront to traditional teacher prep Continue reading

What Does the NCLB Rewrite Mean for Personalized Learning?

On Monday federal lawmakers released the final text of the bill to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expired in 2007. While this week’s buzz on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has revolved around state accountability (or lack thereof), it’s also worth looking at how the billNCLB—over 1,000 pages long—affects other aspects of schooling. Education technology, in particular, has undergone dramatic changes since the last reauthorization, but federal and state education policies haven’t kept up and have even created barriers to tech-based innovations.

Will the long-awaited rewrite of NCLB create an opportunity for personalized learning? Yes, but only for states willing to take charge. Here are four takeaways:

  1. A proposed edtech program that was hailed by personalized learning champions didn’t make the cut.

Previously, the Senate version of the bill established the I-TECH program (in the House bill, it was called the Schools of the Future Act) to create dedicated federal funding for edtech, with an emphasis on professional development for educators. In October nearly 20 senators and representatives voiced strong support for keeping this standalone edtech program in the final bill.

Personalized learning advocates will be disappointed that I-TECH didn’t make it into the final bill. Continue reading

California Has a Chance to Fix Its Teacher Diversity Problem

Could tackling California’s teacher shortage also increase the state’s teacher diversity? It’s no secret there are vast race differences between California’s students and teachers. More than half of K-12 students in the state are Latino or Hispanic, but less than one in five teachers share their racial/ethnic background. This is troublesome because teacher diversity matters: Diverse teachers may provide more culturally relevant instruction and could have a greater impact on improving academic outcomes for students of color.

CA teacher diversity SY14-15

Source: DataQuest, California Department of Education, Continue reading

Hard Fun: Q&A with Greg Toppo on Educational Gaming

What do World of Warcraft and Henry David Thoreau have in common? In his new book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, Greg Toppo, a K-12 education journalist for USA TODAY, explores the educational gaming movement. Toppo highlights different types of gaming used in the classroom, including a video game simulation of Thoreau’s Walden and a World of Warcraft humanities curriculum.

Game Believes in YouWhile skeptics might think this is just another book about the “next big thing” in education, Toppo makes an effective argument for why games are a powerful tool that help students learn while keeping them engaged. He explains the cognitive science behind gaming and dives into less commonly explored ideas, like how gaming might benefit students with ADHD.

I recently chatted with Toppo to learn about his book and hear his take on the potential of gaming.

Let’s start with the basics: How do you define educational gaming? And what distinguishes an educational game from instructional software?

I would define educational gaming as using game principles to teach pre-determined content. Students have direct access to the material and can learn the material at their own pace. A good game can teach content really well so that it’s “sticky.” Something else that’s key is that games give you the ability to fail and try again right away without any judgment or audit of your worth as a person.

I would maintain that a good game doesn’t rely on bells and whistles. It relies on getting you into the material, keeping you in the material, and giving you satisfaction when you get through it. Whether it’s a game or not, it doesn’t matter. If it’s instructional software—and not a game—and it’s keeping the user on the edge of their ability, then great. I just haven’t seen a lot of examples of that working well.

What role can gaming play within classrooms? Can teachers use games to supplement, or even improve upon, their existing curriculum?

A principal once said to me that games are really good at helping people figure out what machines can do and what people can do. Smart teachers are not afraid of that distinction. They’re not afraid to ask the question, “Is there something a computer tool can do better than I can?”

I want to be crystal clear that we’re not talking about replacing teachers with machines. This is about helping teachers refine what they’re good at and giving them more of an opportunity to do that. Continue reading

SXSWedu Recap: District-Charter Partnerships, Diversity in Edtech, Better Teachers

Howdy from Austin! It’s been a jam-packed week at SXSWedu, an annual conference promoting education innovation. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten to engage in conversations I’m not hearing anywhere else. Summaries and takeaways from three of my favorite panels and events below:

  1. Effective Partnerships: Charters and ISDs panel with Dr. Daniel King (superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District), Tom Torkelson (co-founder of the charter school network IDEA Public Schools), and Bellwether’s very own Mary Wells.

Those wanting to understand how to advance district-charter collaboration can look to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The partnership between IDEA Public Schools and the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA) is a rare example of a partnership that’s been fruitful for both sides and should ultimately benefit children throughout the Valley. Together, the two entities have designed joint human capital systems for functions such as staff recruitment and new teacher training. Although other cities can look to the IDEA-PSJA district-charter partnership as a successful model, panelists cautioned against underestimating the time, effort, and stakeholder buy-in this type of collaboration requires. IDEA attempted a similar partnership with Austin ISD in the past, but the political dynamic became ugly—and they eventually had to end their partnership. And elsewhere in the country, including New York City, you often hear about charter and traditional district schools as hostile competitors.

  1. Diversity Need in Educational Technology panel with Jaime Casap (Google), Timothy Jones (Martha’s Table, a DC-based nonprofit), and Stephanie Cerda (Manor Independent School District).

The panelists discussed what we know about the lack of diversity in tech companies—Google released abysmal stats last year—and why we must ensure edtech companies don’t follow that same route. Despite the ample discussion around how edtech and personalized learning have the potential to close academic gaps for historically marginalized students, there’s little discourse around why edtech companies are often not diverse from a human capital standpoint. The panelists and audience discussed a few strategies: encouraging tech companies to be more inclusive through staff trainings, raising parent awareness of tech careers, and supporting teachers in high-needs communities to better articulate opportunities in coding and computer science to students. The breadth of these strategies—and the fact that they’re aimed to influence different stakeholder groups—shows there are no silver bullet solutions. But if the edtech industry can develop a more diverse workforce, it could ultimately act as a leader for the rest of the tech sector.

  1. Great Instructors: Are They Born or Built? keynote session with Elizabeth Green (co-founder and CEO of Chalkbeat) and David Epstein (reporter at ProPublica).

If you’ve read Green’s Building a Better Teacher, you know her argument that teaching is a science that must be taught—teachers are made, not born. Yet Epstein argues just the opposite: there are some people who are innately better at teaching, and the profession would benefit if there were more teachers with the cognitive skills that make one born to be a teacher. The two of them duked it out, each one offering research studies and anecdotes to support their theory.

Although both had compelling arguments, I took issue with a couple of their points: Green pointed to Teach For America as proof that the best and brightest don’t always become great teachers, but the research evidence she cited was not rigorous. And Epstein used sports analogies to bolster his argument, noting that professional athletes are born with certain raw skills, but it doesn’t make sense to conflate cognitive and physical skills. I walked away thinking about the policy implications of each of their arguments—Epstein’s stance, for instance, implies that the teaching pipeline must change, by creating different or more selective entrance requirements into teacher prep programs.

SXSWedu continues through Thursday afternoon; follow @SXSWedu for more updates.