2014 EduResolution #3: Let’s marry “high standards” with “whole child”

Most American parents recognize the importance of education and the need to improve schools. However, parents are torn between two very different narratives about what is happening in education.

One narrative decries American students’ mediocre performance on international tests. Poor scores, this narrative explains, demonstrate that young Americans are not developing the skills required to succeed in a highly competitive global economy. We all need to commit to higher standards for our children.

A second narrative objects to what it sees as an overemphasis on testing. Tests measure only a narrow range of what matters. By focusing so much on tests, the reasoning goes, we’re distorting our children’s education and our education system. Instead, we should be educating the whole child.

Advocates of the “higher standards” and “whole child” strands of thought are constantly battling one another in the public sphere. However, when it comes to the education and development of actual children, these two ideas are not in serious opposition. Young people have more opportunity when they acquire a high level of knowledge and skills, which will typically be reflected in higher test scores. At the same time, young people benefit when parents and teachers think holistically about their development, even though it’s harder to measure progress in domains like social-emotional learning. Education shouldn’t just be about acquiring knowledge and skills measured by tests; adults also need to help young people develop character strengths like persistence and help them discover their passion and purpose.

At GreatSchools, our strategy is to help break the impasse by advocating a vision of education that combines the best of the “high standards” and “whole child” philosophies. We aim to catalyze a groundswell of commitment by parents to guide their children to excel academically and to support their children as they become well-rounded young people.

Our research suggests this strategy meshes well with what parents need and want. We know parents want help being proactive with respect to their children’s education. They yearn to feel that they are leading their children in the right direction. They want inspiration and support in their quest to guide their children to education success. “High standards” meets “whole child” intuitively makes sense to most parents.

This is my third 2014 EduResolution for all of us working in education: let’s change our language so that “high standards” and “whole child” are friends, not enemies. And let’s inspire and support parents to pursue a vision for their children’s education that combines both ideals.

(This is the third post in a series of 2014 EduResolutions. See posts #1 and #2 here.)

Reaching Kids through Educational Media

Last week, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released an interesting study on children’s media use. The study surveyed over 1500 parents with children between the ages of 2-10 years old, seeking to estimate the proportion of children’s media time devoted to content parents considered ‘educational’.

A few highlights from the study:

1. TV still reigns.

Overall, kids spend an average of 56 minutes a day engaging with educational media, whether through TV, computers, smartphones, tablets, or video games. The majority of that time (42 minutes or 76%) is spent watching educational content on TV or DVDs. Parents report that 52% of their kids’ TV time is educational, a higher percentage than with any other platform.

2. Older kids aren’t learning as much from media.

As kids grow older, the total time they spend with media increases, from about 1.5 hrs between ages 2-4 to about 2.5 hrs at age 10. But even as their screen time goes up, the percentage of educational content they see plummets from 78% in the early years to 27% for kids ages 8-10.

3. Educational media plays a bigger role in lower-income families.

Parents from lower-income backgrounds have less access to every type of media platform, from TV and high speed internet to smartphones and tablets. Nevertheless, lower-income children (in their parents’ opinion) spend a greater proportion of their total screen time on media that is educational.

4. Minority families report benefiting more from educational media.

Across all platforms and nearly all subject areas (from reading and math to social skills and healthy habits), Black parents are more likely than White or Hispanic-Latino parents to consider interactive media or TV an important source of their child’s learning. For example, 91% of Black parents believe their kids learn “a lot or some” about math from computers, while only 79% of White parents and 63% of Hispanic-Latino parents think so.

5. Parents want more help finding quality resources.

More than half of all parents surveyed say they wish they had more help from experts on finding quality media to support their child’s education. For lower income parents, Hispanic-Latino parents, and less highly educated parents, that percentage is even higher. CommonSense Media and CFY are doing great work helping parents discover educational media options; however, more work is needed. At GreatSchools, we intend to play a bigger role in this regard beginning in 2014.

Finding Great Schools for Kids with Learning Differences

Imagine two parents, Linda and Jack, who live in San Francisco with their son, Daniel. Daniel is about to enter 6th grade, and he struggles with dyslexia. During his last year in elementary school, Linda and Jack search for information on local middle schools where their son will thrive, and they find a school whose test scores and extracurricular programs look great. But they still can’t answer a critical question: does this school have the right resources and environment for supporting Daniel with his learning disability?

As any parent who’s gone through a school search knows, gaining insight into specific issues – like how well schools support kids with learning differences – is not easy. It’s often difficult to find hard data that speaks to those issues, so instead parents rely on word-of-mouth. The reviews on GreatSchools.org go a long way toward helping parents find a good fit, with first-hand insights from other parents about their family’s experience at a given school. This month, we’re enhancing the value of reviews by offering parents space to address learning and attention differences in particular:

For example, here’s a recent review written by a parent at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Portland, Oregon. Imagine how helpful this insight could be for another parent of a dyslexic child:

“My dyslexic 10 year old has been supported really well in his school… [there are] tutors available to come into the classroom during teaching time and have one on one sessions with dyslexic kids. His classroom teachers are supportive of any intervention he may need to use to keep up with the rest of the class. The school also has a good special Ed team. I feel that they serve his needs well and he feels part of a community.” (You can find the full review here.)

Soon, reviews that reference how well a school supports children with learning or attention issues will be tagged accordingly so it will be easier for parents to find them.

Introducing specialized reviews and topical searches is just another way we’re trying to help parents like Jack and Linda assess the fit of a given school. We also hope this new tool will drive awareness and engage parents in a dialogue around the quality of services for children with learning differences in American schools.

New GreatSchools Ratings!

We developed the GreatSchools 1-10 rating to offer parents a quick and simple way to gauge academic achievement at schools. Historically, our rating has been based on test scores, which provide parents with insight into how well a school’s students are doing compared to other students in the state.

But this way of looking at achievement has its limitations. Test scores are influenced by factors outside the control of schools, such as parents’ education level or their ability to provide enrichment opportunities for their children.

To address this issue, we are beginning to consider test scores from a different angle: how much do students’ test scores grow  year-to-year? By looking at test scores this way, we can shed more light on the “value added” by teachers and schools.

Consider the case of Mark Twain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, which previously had a GreatSchools rating of 1 due to its low test scores. Mark Twain teachers, however, are among the best in the state at helping students improve year over year. Our new GreatSchools rating recognizes that fact and gives credit where credit is due.

Here’s what the Mark Twain rating looks like now:

For high schools, we’re adding information about college readiness as well. That includes data on how many students graduate within 4 years, and how well they perform on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.

The more nuanced high school ratings now look something like this one, for East High School in Denver:

Including multiple measures in our ratings helps parents understand the academic quality of schools more deeply. For now, enhanced ratings are available for public schools in Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, and Massachusetts. (Ratings are also available in three of the cities where we have local programs: Indianapolis, Washington D.C., and Milwaukee.) With the addition of these four states, GreatSchools now provides enhanced ratings for over 10% of the nearly 100,000 public K-12 schools profiled on our site.

We will be increasing the number of schools with enhanced ratings each year. To do that, we need cities and states to provide us with data about student growth and college readiness. If you are a state or district official and would like to see enhanced ratings in your state, please contact mgallaher@greatschools.org.

EduResolution #2: Let’s talk about the actual Common Core standards

2014 is the year for parents and teachers to start talking about the Common Core.

No, I don’t mean talking about whether they represent federal overreach or are sucking the joy out of our children’s education. I mean talking about what they say about what children should learn, and the implications for what parents and teachers need to do.

It’s impossible to overstate the value of these conversations. The Common Core standards are largely more demanding than previous standards, and students are going to need all the support they can get to meet (or exceed) them.

When parents understand the standards, they can work collaboratively with teachers to help their children master essential skills. They can support learning at home simply by talking to their children in certain ways. They can better support what teachers are trying to accomplish in the classroom. And they can know whether to worry (or not) that their children might be off track. In short, the more parents understand the standards, the more they can participate in their child’s education with the academic end goal in mind.

Here at GreatSchools, we’ve begun a project to help parents understand the standards more deeply. With the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, and in partnership with Student Achievement Partners, we’re developing videos that show parents what it looks like for their children to meet Common Core standards at each grade level.

We’re starting by helping parents understand what it looks like for their child to learn to read. See these four videos to get a sense of key first grade reading milestones: sounds and words, reading fluency, understanding, and knowledge skills.

The more parents explore the videos, the more they learn. For example, reading fluency looks very different between first and second grade. The first grade fluency video shows students who’ve mastered the process of sounding out first-grade words. In contrast, the second grade video shows a girl doing much more than sounding out second grade words; she’s expressing the emotion in the text. It’s a subtle change on paper, but one that bursts forth on video. Parents who understand this progression are in a far more powerful position to support and advocate for their children’s education in early elementary school. With this knowledge, for example, a parent can see the value of taking turns reading a text with their second grade child, practicing using a full, expressive voice.

As kids grow older, parents need help understanding the subtleties of the standards. For example, what does it look like for a fifth grader to organize his thoughts in preparation for communicating his ideas in writing? This is a critical skill for students in both college and the workplace, and it’s a consistent aspect of the Common Core standards. But what exactly would it look like for a fifth grader to demonstrate this skill? Our prototype video shows this process in action, fifth grade style. A fifth grade parent who watches this video can internalize the thought: “organizing ideas is a great skill for my son to work on this year,” and afterward can incorporate that knowledge into their interactions while walking down the street or having discussions at the dinner table.

Finally, parents of high school students need lots of help, too. The 9-12 English Language Arts standards are filled with general descriptions that are begging for concrete examples to show what it looks like for students to meet them. Take, for example, Informational Text Reading standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8. According to this standard, 9th and 10th graders should be able to:

“Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.” 

What would it look like for a 10th grader to do that? This is something we hope to address by undertaking high school videos later this year. Imagine the possibilities. Once your 16-year-old starts to complain that she never has enough freedom despite taking care of all her responsibilities, you can have fun with her: “Is that really true? Give me three solid pieces of evidence that you’re mature enough to drive my car to the mall.” It can go both ways too: “I think your reasoning about why you should get to take the car is really solid. Let me think about it.”

So let’s make 2014 the year that parents and teachers begin to talk in greater depth about the Common Core standards. (Of course, if you live in Texas or another state that has not adopted the Common Core, the conversation should be about the standards in your state.) These discussions will provide parents and teachers with the common language they need to help students succeed, and they’ll enable parents to assume greater ownership of their children’s education. 

2014 EduResolution #1: Clarify the purposes of education

This is the first in a series of 2014 EduResolutions blog entries. 

Look beneath the surface of any debate about education, in the halls of a school or in the halls of Congress, and often you will find, lurking beneath the surface, different ideas about the purposes of education.

Last year, I took a stab at describing three purposes of education. I wrote that we educate children so they can:

  1. Survive and thrive in a competitive world
  2. Understand and contribute to community
  3. Discover passion and purpose

I still like this list, but I’ve learned a lot listening to others over the past year. As I read and talk with parents, teachers and policymakers about education, I always have my antenna up, seeking to understand others’ beliefs about the purposes of education.

One thing I’ve seen is that some of the most thoughtful conservative critiques of Common Core State Standards are rooted in concern about the purpose behind them. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, wrote recently that the Common Core is deficient because it’s not really a “core” in the sense that it lacks a unifying principle “such as the idea that there is a right way to live that one can come to know.” He laments that the Common Core’s “only stated object is career preparation.” I understand this point and partially agree.

I’ve also noticed a big difference in focus between policymakers and parents. Watching Arne Duncan’s response to last December’s release of PISA scores, it’s easy to see that he’s heavily focused on competitiveness. Naturally, as the US Secretary of Education, he’s focused on national competitiveness. Parents, in contrast, are obviously much more interested in whether their own children will be able to compete in the world economy.

Over the past year, I’ve also seen how much it matters whether one thinks about education through the lens of national interest or “my child’s” interest. Policymakers and commentators with a national perspective on competitiveness are naturally drawn to standards. For America to be competitive, they say, American students must reach a higher bar and we must describe that bar so everyone knows what they should be shooting for.

Indeed, this is a worthy perspective for parents, too. If young people don’t reach certain levels of knowledge and skills, they are less likely to have access to opportunity. They’ll probably have more trouble making a decent living in our very competitive world. And they often won’t be able to understand or contribute to their community as much as a person who has reached a higher bar.

But standards are of limited interest for a parent or teacher thinking about how an individual child will cross to safety. Parents and teachers know that each child is different; children are motivated in different ways and they have widely varying interests and aptitudes. Standards are useful as a marker, but the real work for parents and teachers, as Madeline Levine says, is to “see the child in front of you” and help them develop to their full potential.

In practice, of course, this means that some students will exceed standards while others will never meet them. Moreover, it means complimenting academic knowledge and skills with “softer” skills like emotional intelligence that are essential for success in work and life.

So should our nation’s education system be designed to help the maximum number of young people reach high standards, or should it be designed to help each child reach their full individual potential? Any serious discussion about Common Core, testing or other controversial education issues must deal with this underlying issue.

My first EduResolution for 2014 is that we collectively clarify our answer, so we can pull together to improve our education system and build stronger working relationships between parents, students, teachers and policymakers.

Fresh thinking for 2014

It’s a new year and time to cook up some fresh thinking.

We desperately need it in education. Not that we don’t have lots of new ideas and innovations floating around; we surely do. Rather, we need new ways of thinking so we can have smarter discussions about controversial pedagogical and policy issues, build stronger partnerships between teachers and parents, and provide a better education for our children.

As the Fordham Institute noted a few days ago, this week is the twelfth birthday of the No Child Left Behind Act. Why is that important? Well, this is the year we were supposed to reach (near) universal proficiency:

Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year, all students in each group described in subparagraph (C)(v) will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement

– No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, section 1111(2)(F)

Everyone knows that didn’t happen. (Had it happened, it would have been a far more significant accomplishment than landing a man on the moon, the ambitious goal for the nation set by President Kennedy in 1961.) However, some good things did happen as a result of NCLB. For starters, parents now have access to much better information about how well students are doing on tests of reading, writing and mathematics skills. Moreover, as Mike Petrilli noted last week in his reflections on the 12-year anniversary, we have seen some significant gains in student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fourth grade reading and math, for example, students are about half a year ahead of where they were twelve years ago.

But the testing and accountability regime put in place by No Child Left Behind has lost its power to move us any further forward. Teachers are neither afraid of the sanctions (which have been largely removed) nor inspired by the vision of pushing all students to proficiency.

We need new ways of thinking. But what are they?

Starting next week, I’m going to take a crack at this. I’ll share some reflections about fundamental issues such as the purpose and scope of education, and who should be ultimately responsible for educating our children. I’ll propose some fresh ways of thinking about standards, testing, choice and accountability. And I’ll share some thoughts on implications for education policy-making and GreatSchools in 2014 and beyond.

Stick with me for the next few weeks; I promise an interesting ride!

Secretary Duncan and “White Suburban Moms”: Friends or Enemies?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stirred up controversy a few weeks ago with his remark that opposition to the Common Core comes primarily from “white suburban moms” upset over their kids’ poor performance on the new, more rigorous exams. “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought … and that’s pretty scary,” he said.  

While Duncan’s choice of words was poor, he struck a chord with me. The evidence is all around us that many middle class children are not acquiring the skills they need to succeed in higher education and later obtain a living-wage job. So while the results of the new tests might be disconcerting, they do tell the truth to parents, students and teachers so they know whether children are really on track.

And yet I also understand how Common Core raises concerns for many parents, not just white suburban moms. Leaving aside the conspiracy theories, I think the fundamental concern for parents is that they do not want their children’s education to be standardized.

Moms and dads see education not in terms of the future of the nation, but the future of their child. They know that children vary widely. Some have an easy time mastering high-level academics, while others struggle mightily. Some are bored in school because they’re ready for 8th grade math in 6th grade and their teacher is not challenging them; others are about to drop out of school because they’re in 10th grade and haven’t mastered the skills to pass English class. And kids naturally gravitate toward a diverse range of interests: art, sports, entrepreneurship, activism, and academics.

More than anything, parents want teachers who see the child in front of them and who they can collaborate with to reach, inspire and support their child to be the best they can be.

Common Core standards are not incompatible with this vision. In fact, we know that when parents understand Common Core, they support it. An online survey done by GreatSchools in October showed that the majority of parents who reported familiarity with the standards felt positively about their adoption. But for CCSS to get off the ground, more parents need to see and believe that this is the case. Were I in Secretary Duncan’s shoes, I’d be pursuing three strategies to reach parents.

First, I’d emphasize that we need Common Core because our kids deserve an education that expects and supports them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. The sample test items provided by the testing consortia are encouraging in this regard. Soon, new Common Core Visualizer videos from GreatSchools will also help make this point by showing parents what it looks like for their children to meet Common Core standards, grade by grade.

Second, I’d reiterate that the Common Core is just that, a Core. It doesn’t prescribe a specific curriculum. It just emphasizes the core things we want our children to know and be able to do, while still having opportunities for exploration in art, music, and many other areas. What’s more, the common core only points to the destination; there are many ways to get there. Duncan might highlight schools like Denver School of Science and Technology that are helping students reach high academic standards through engaging project-based curricula.

Finally, I would never miss an opportunity to affirm that the heart of education is teachers and parents working together to serve the children in front of them. Nothing about Common Core changes that. In fact, when we all commit to helping students reach high standards – the kinds of standards implicit in the Common Core – that formula becomes more important than ever. Secretary Duncan knows this, of course. But by repeating it over and over, he can assuage the concerns of parents that Common Core is about standardizing education.

Ultimately, more and more American parents, including white suburban moms, are likely to see that Common Core State Standards benefit their children. Secretary Duncan can help smooth out the process by speaking directly to these genuine and heartfelt concerns of parents.

Dave Levin on how parents think about education

Hint: differently from teachers.

Dave Levin, the co-founder of KIPP, a high-performing national network of charter schools, will be teaching a course on Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms over at Coursera beginning this February.

In his video intro to the course, he shares that one of the joys of his job is talking to parents about their hopes and dreams for their kids. Parents tell Levin that they want their children to be “successful, happy, and kind and curious and to work hard and to love learning and to be nice to others.” But when he asks teachers what they’re teaching, they say “reading, writing, math, science and history.”

Rarely have I seen such a crisp distillation of the differences in mindset between teachers and parents.

“This should not be an either/or,” he says. Teachers should teach both rigorous academics and essential character strengths like grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence and gratitude. “There is a way to combine academic rigor and character development,” he says, and that’s exactly what he’s planning to talk about in his course. I’ve signed up and you can sign up too here. It’s free.

Levin’s observation aligns strongly with one of our foundational beliefs at GreatSchools: parents and teachers must come together to teach kids academics and character. There is no way this ambitious agenda can be realized by teachers or parents working alone. And that’s the goal of our new GreatKids program: to inspire and support parents and teachers to work together on both.

The OECD Test for Schools

When kids graduate from high school in America today, they won’t just be competing with kids across town for good jobs. They’ll be competing with kids halfway across the world. So why should schools be satisfied with comparing themselves to other schools in the same city, or even in the same state? As the job market expands internationally, school leaders need to start making global comparisons to know whether their students are on track.

Good idea, you say, but how can they do that? Students in schools in different countries take different tests, and there is no way to compare them.

That was true up until last year, when the OECD partnered with America Achieves to offer the OECD Test for Schools, the first ever international assessment tool built to help high schools determine their effectiveness at a global level. The test has two parts: 1) an academic assessment based on PISA, which measures high school students’ math, science, reading, critical thinking and problem solving skills, and 2) a student survey that gathers first-hand student insights on school culture, climate, and engagement. Every school that takes the test receives a detailed report with the results of both sections, showing how the school compares to its international peers. Here’s just one example:

oecd thingy

Why are these kinds of comparisons important? An administrator at North Star Academy in Newark, NJ said it all: “we’ve had success at the local level, but for us to be able to compare our performance at an international level allows us to set a higher bar for ourselves.”

Since the academic and student survey results are paired together, school administrators can connect students’ academic strengths and weaknesses and aspects of their particular school’s environment and teaching methods. This provides important insight into where educators may need to focus their improvement efforts. Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Dale said of the test that “in our case, we were a little surprised to see that [student-teacher relationship] at best was average, and in some cases well below average… we haven’t necessarily focused on the relationship side with our kids, and so that’s an ‘aha’ for us.”

The test is an opportunity for educators to spark a dialog with parents around the importance of meeting international standards, and to discuss concrete plans for school improvement. It brings transparency and specificity to problems that might otherwise be masked by shallower assessments. And it helps American schools adopt a truly global perspective, setting high expectations for their students and themselves.

Interested schools, districts, or networks can learn more about the test through the OECD website or through America Achieves, and can sign up to take the test starting this fall.

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