There Was and There Was Not

Meline Toumani was one of the first employees I hired at GreatSchools sixteen years ago. Fresh out of UC Berkeley, Meline did a little bit of everything in the early days of our organization, but the best thing she did was write.

She left GreatSchools after a few years for graduate school and a successful career as a journalist. A few months ago, she published her first book. There Was and There Was Not is a personal journey into geopolitically sensitive territory: the relationship between Armenians and Turks. Armenian-American, Meline was motivated to explore this territory by a feeling that the long-term campaign for recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey had crowded out other layers of Armenian identity.

The book is a delight to read. Mel, as we used to call her, deftly layers engaging personal stories on top of lessons about a part of the world that I know little about. I learned a lot about the Armenia diaspora, modern-day Turkey, and the history of relations between Turks and Armenians.

Meline’s book is equally significant as an example of what it means to be a “lifelong learner.” After all, what does this phrase — all the rage in education circles these days — really mean?

Yes, lifelong learning certainly means constantly learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge. But reading Meline’s book reminds me that it means so much more. How to keep an open mind even when you have been programmed from a young age to toe a certain ideological line. How to throw yourself into experiences that will challenge what you already know. How to be open to new experience while remaining true to your core principles. And even how to find hope when the evidence might be weighted toward disappointment.

Meline’s personal story encompasses all of these ways of being. This is the kind of lifelong learning that leads to the salvation of the world.

Kayla Mueller: A Life of Purpose

What anguish. And underneath it, what pride and gratitude.

Kayla Mueller was the young American aid worker  killed while being held by ISIS. The news of her death was reported  last weekend, soon after her parents received photographic confirmation.

“We are heartbroken to share that we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller has lost her life,” her family wrote in a statement, as quoted by by the New York Times.

“The common thread of Kayla’s life has been her quiet leadership and strong desire to serve others…We are so proud of the person Kayla was and the work that she did while she was here with us. She lived with purpose, and we will work every day to honor her legacy.

“She dedicated the whole of her young life to helping those in need of freedom, justice, and peace,” they wrote.

What a remarkable life that was: by the time she was 26 years old, she had taught English to Tibetan refugees, stood in front of bulldozers in an effort to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes in Israel, studied mindfulness with Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, volunteered at a summer camp for African refugee youth, and founded the student chapter of Amnesty International at Northern Arizona University.

The story of Kayla Mueller has got me thinking. I hear many parents — and sometimes myself — saying that what they want most for their children is “happiness.”

But what if I was in the unenviable position of Kayla’s parents, receiving word that my twenty-something daughter had been killed. Would I rather be thinking “She lived a happy life,” or would I rather be thinking “She lived a life of purpose?”

I’ll take the second. Which has got me wondering: do my actions as a parent reflect my priority? How can I inspire and support my 12- and 15-year-old daughters to find their passion and purpose?

“Here we are. Free to speak out without fear of being killed, blessed to be protected by the same law we are subjected to, free to see our families as we please, free to cross borders and free to disagree,” Kayla wrote on her blog. “We have many people to thank for these freedoms and I see it as an injustice not to use them to their fullest.”

In another blog entry, she wrote: “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.”

May you rest in peace Kayla Mueller. And may we all learn from your example.

Announcing Milestones!

Today is a big day at GreatSchools: We’re announcing Milestones for grades K-5, a free collection of videos that show parents what children should be able to demonstrate, by the end of the year, in order to achieve grade-level standards in critical skills like reading, writing, and math. They help parents answer the question “Is my child on track in school?” by showing what success looks like.

Each Milestone video is accompanied by articles, videos, activities, and worksheets that parents can use to help their children “catch up” or “speed up” as the situation requires. More details:

  • There are 63 videos for grades K-5 (grades 6-12 will be added soon!)
  • Videos are available in English and Spanish
  • Videos can be searched by grade, subject, or skill

These videos are a big deal because they help transform an abstract concept – college- and career-ready standards – into a concrete vision for parents, beginning in the early grades. Let’s say I’m the parent of a second grader. From Milestones, I can learn the following:

This kind of information is power in the hands of parents. When parents have a concrete image of what success looks like, grade by grade, they are better able to support their children’s learning at home and advocate for their children at school. They can feel more confident in their understanding of where their children stand, and whether they are on track for college.

Patti Constantakis, our fabulous Director of Product Management for Curriculum and Content, led our effort to develop Milestones. She recently shared with me her secret to capturing these essential moments on video. “The teachers we worked with showed the way,” she said. “They knew how to pinpoint the critical ‘lightbulb’ moments — the moments when you can see that kids really get it.”

Special thanks to the star teachers at Champlain School in Burlington, VT, Hunsburger Elementary in Reno, Nevada, Diedrichsen Elementary in Sparks, Nevada, and Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA for their wisdom and partnership. Equally important, the folks at Student Achievement Partners, starting with Sue Pimentel, helped us conceptualize this project and identify which skills were most important for us to focus on at each grade level. In addition, the team at the Vermont Writing Collaborative played an essential guiding role, helping us find our way with the writing Milestones. Thank you all for your generous contribution of time and expertise!

Finally, I would like to thank our funding partners for this project: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, America Achieves, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. In addition, the Walton Family Foundation provided core support that enabled us to undertake this and many other projects. Thank you!

If you would like to share milestones with your community, or promote milestones, please access our Milestones Supporter Toolkit. And please do let me know what you think of Milestones by leaving your comments here.

GreatSchools Delaware Set to Launch!

Delaware may be one of the smallest states in the union, but it’s big news here at GreatSchools.

Our newest GreatSchools Local, GreatSchools Delaware is an innovative collaboration with the Delaware Department of Education (DOE) and a great opportunity to connect First State families with the best, most current information about their school options.

I’m excited about this effort because it marks the first time that GreatSchools is partnering with a state government. Delaware DOE and GreatSchools are working together to leverage and improve upon the existing GreatSchools site so that it will be an even more valuable and useful tool for parents in Delaware. Double Line Partners is working with us to ensure that accurate data is transferred from Delaware DOE to GreatSchools.

This three-way partnership has allowed us to build an improved site for Delaware families that includes:

  • Enhanced data, including post-graduation tracking of students per school, and more accurate and timely school information.
  • A new mobile-friendly design that makes for better display on mobile devices.
  • A guided-search interface that makes it easier for parents to explore different options and search for things that matter most for their families.
  • Integration with the existing Delaware DOE administration system to enable school leaders to easily update information about their school, such as academic programs, extracurricular activities, photos, and what the school is best known for.
  • Ability to translate into 15 languages.

GreatSchools Delaware is online now, but our official launch will be October 27th. Over the next month, we will build community awareness in the state through partner organizations that serve and support families, primarily low-income families, in the Wilmington area. Through a series of coaching and training sessions, we will share best practices with local groups to help parents use GreatSchools Delaware to find and apply to schools that are the best fit for their families.

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.

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