Tag Archives: edtech

Are Bad Online Charter Schools the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Online charter schools are getting a lot of bad press recently. While their critics cheer the bad news, we might consider whether this actually signals broader problems within public education. The persistent failures of these schools aren’t just failures in accountability — they could point to larger ills in the education ecosystem.

Here are just three state-level online charter school stories from the past few weeks:

  • Canari_jaune_lipochrome_intensifK12 Inc.*, which manages a network of online schools enrolling 13,000 students in California, will pay $8.5 million to the state and forgo $160 million to settle claims it misrepresented student achievement, financial records, and more. Organizational finances and governance are also under scrutiny.
  • In Aurora, Colorado, the local school board attempted to end the district’s relationship with HOPE Online Learning Centers due to persistently low achievement, but the district was overruled by the state because “we have to give these parents options,” and “now’s not the right time” for accountability.
  • Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which enrolls 15,000 Ohio students and ranks among the worst performing schools in the state, lost a recent attempt in court to stop a state audit of their actual online attendance last year. The audit will check if student learning hours match up to what ECOT billed the state.

Add these stories to the results of a recent CREDO study, which found overwhelmingly negative learning effects in online charters the opposite of positive learning trends in charters overall. Even charter advocates know something has gone very wrong in the world of online charters: a “National Call to Action” from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50CAN called out “well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual public charter schools.”

Almost everyone agrees that authorizers and regulators should do a better job holding virtual schools accountable for results and protecting taxpayer funds from fraud and mismanagement. But when schools of choice with bad learning outcomes continue to grow, they are a canary in the coal mine, alerting us that things have gone awry in the school system as a whole: Continue reading

Education Technology Could Change the Game for Incarcerated Youth, But Students in Custody Don’t Have Access

This week, the education technology community is gathering in San Diego, CA for the 2016 ASU GSV Summit, a conference that the New York Times calls a “must-attend event.” There’s one group of students who will get very little airtime during these three days — and who generally get little airtime at all: young people attending school in locked correctional facilities.

EdTechEducators, innovators, and investors tout the power of technology to personalize learning, provide access to real-world experience, engage students, and accelerate skill development — four things that incarcerated students need most and get least. Most schools in secure facilities have no internet access of any kind, and some of them do not allow students to use computers at all.* For anyone who’s seen the power of good technology used well, the contrast in these settings is heartbreaking.

There are good reasons to be cautious about deploying technology resources in secure facilities. The concerns holding up technology integration are real and serious, but they’re not trump cards.

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

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.