Back-to-School Bus Heads to the Great Lakes

During last week’s #AskArne Twitter Town Hall, Sarah, a third grade teacher, asked if it is possible for Arne to “tour and sponsor real town halls with educators.” This week, ED announced that Secretary Duncan and his senior staff will be holding more than 50 such events next week.

Secretary Duncan stops in New York during last year's back-to-school bus tour.

Starting on Wednesday, September 7, Secretary Duncan and senior ED staff will head to the Great Lakes Region for a Back-to-School Bus Tour. Arne will be making stops in Pittsburgh, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Merrillville, Ind., Milwaukee and Chicago, and senior ED officials will be hosting dozens of events throughout the Midwest. The theme of the tour is “Education and the Economy: Investing in Our Future.”

Arne will be meeting with educators and talking with students, parents, administrators, and community stakeholders. Among the topics that Secretary Duncan and senior staff will discuss include the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, K-12 reform, transforming the teaching profession, civil rights enforcement, efforts to better serve students with disabilities and English Language Learners, Promise Neighborhoods, the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, STEM education, increasing college access and attainment as well as vocational and adult education.

Click here for additional details on Secretary Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour stops.

You can follow the progress of this year’s Back-to-School tour right here at the ED Blog, by following #EDTour11 on Twitter, and by signing up for email updates from ED and Secretary Duncan.

Participate in a Robotics Competition—in Space!

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

What could possibly make an already super cool robotics competition even better? The zero-gravity environment of space!

NASA and DARPA, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyTopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences, recently announced the Zero Robotics competition, an event open to all high schools in the United States that form a team and complete the application process.

Zero Robotics is a student software competition that takes the idea of a robotics competition to new heights—literally.  The robots are basketball-sized satellites called SPHERES, and they look like something straight out of Star Wars.  The competition is kicked off by a challenging problem conjured up by DARPA and NASA.  After multiple rounds of simulation and ground competition, a final tournament will be held onboard the International Space Station!  The 27 finalists will have their robotic programs run by an astronaut in the microgravity environment of space.

The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, and team work. Teams participate by programming a SPHERES satellite using a simplified programming environment to achieve the game objectives while competing or collaborating with other contestants.  The tournament stages during the fall season give the teams an opportunity to develop and improve their programs and test them with and against the other teams.

This competition embodies three initiatives that are priorities of the Obama Administration:

  • President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which was launched with the goal of improving the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM);
  • Using challenges to increase participation or achieve progress in a certain area of need;
  • And the President’s recently announced National Robotics Initiative, focused on strengthening the robotics capabilities of our Nation.

All three of these initiatives involve the Federal government, educational institutions, and private corporations working together on America’s science and engineering challenges.

If you are interested in participating in Zero Robotics this fall but haven’t already sent in an application, the deadline for teams to apply is September 5.  The application is available online at

So if you think that robotics is cool, and space is cool, then get involved in the 2011 Zero Robotics Challenge. You, your child, or your student could control a satellite in space!

Chuck Thorpe is Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

English Learners Key to a Multi-lingual STEM Workforce

Future U.S. competitiveness will depend on how well we prepare our students and provide them the proper skills to be college and career-ready, especially when it comes to careers in the STEM fields.  In the K-12 education setting, this means providing ALL students, including English Learners (ELs), access to a high-quality STEM education.  Unfortunately, recent data indicate that ELs often do not have the same access to quality STEM instruction as their non-EL peers.  To highlight effective practices and resources for promoting EL achievement in the STEM subjects, ED’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) recently hosted a one-day forum entitled, “High-Quality STEM Education for English Learners”.

Held in Washington, DC on July 11, the forum was attended by more than 65 participants who listened to presentations from individuals representing research, practice, professional organizations, and business in the STEM fields.  Notable speakers included Congressman Rúben Hinojosa (D-TX) and Michelle Shearer, the 2011 National Teacher of the Year.

One big take-away from this forum is that perceptions about English Learners need to change.  Rather than seeing English Learners in terms of their academic underachievement, we need to see them as an untapped resource for developing a multi-lingual STEM workforce that has the potential to keep the U.S. competitive in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Congressman Rúben Hinojosa opened the meeting by sharing a motivating and inspiring personal story about his own experience as an English Learner growing up in 1940’s south Texas. Hinojosa highlighted his work to support greater educational opportunities for residents of south Texas and his efforts to support and strengthen minority-serving institutions (MSIs), especially in south Texas, in hopes of creating an education pipeline for students living in the mostly agrarian region.

During the forum I shared several key findings from the recently released Civil Rights Data Collection biennial survey.  The survey’s Part I findings show that English Learners are still being denied access to the kinds of classes, resources, and educational opportunities necessary to be successful in college and career.  Among other things, the data shows that English Learners have lower rates of enrollment in Algebra I, which is a critical gateway course for other advanced math and science courses that act as hurdles that slow or halt a student’s progress towards a college degree.  The data also show that English Learners tend to enroll in advanced placement math and science courses at lower rates than their non-EL peers.

During her remarks at the forum, National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer, who teaches chemistry in Frederick, Maryland, shared some effective teaching practices she has used with deaf students that teachers can use with EL students such as using examples when teaching a new concept, using visuals, making lessons relevant to students’ lives, and validating students’ use of their native language. She spoke enthusiastically about her teaching experiences and emphasized that besides the basic 3Rs, students will need the 4Cs: critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

Besides teacher education and effective practices, other presentations focused on data collection, data analysis methods and research; parent, family and community engagement; and the potential impact public/private partnerships can have for reforming and transforming STEM education for ELs.  Those interested may view the presentations online at

Rosalinda B. Barrera, Ph.D. is assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education.

Staying Competitive Through Education: The President and American Business Leaders Announce New Commitments

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

President Barack Obama hosts an education roundtable in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with business leaders and America’s Promise Alliance Chair Alma Powell, center, and Founding Chair General Colin Powell, left, to discuss what the business community can do to ensure we have a skilled, educated and competitive US workforce, July 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama hosts an education roundtable in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with business leaders and America’s Promise Alliance Chair Alma Powell, center, and Founding Chair General Colin Powell, left, to discuss what the business community can do to ensure we have a skilled, educated and competitive US workforce, July 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On July 18th, the President hosted an education roundtable with key leaders in both the private and public sectors to discuss ways we can ensure a competitive American workforce. The attendees, including business leaders, Secretary Duncan, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, and General Colin and Mrs. Alma Powell of the America’s Promise Alliance, talked about expanding strong industry-led partnerships that are working to transform the American education system.

The President’s meeting with America’s CEOs builds on his continued focus on addressing the pressing needs of educating our children:

“A world-class education is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs but whether America can outcompete countries around the world. America’s business leaders understand that when it comes to education, we need to up our game. That’s why were working together to put an outstanding education within reach for every child.”

The private sector is responding to the President’s challenge with more than financial support: Corporations have made commitments that take advantage of their areas of expertise and the skills of their employees. These undertakings include programs like Change the Equation, which focuses on corporate investment in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, Skills for America’s Future with its support of business partnerships with community colleges, and the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

President Barack Obama hosts an education roundtable in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with business leaders, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and America’s Promise Alliance Chair Alma Powell and Founding Chair General Colin Powell to discuss what the business community can do to ensure we have a skilled, educated and competitive US workforce, July 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama hosts an education roundtable in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with business leaders, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and America’s Promise Alliance Chair Alma Powell and Founding Chair General Colin Powell to discuss what the business community can do to ensure we have a skilled, educated and competitive US workforce, July 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Four major commitments are being announced today:

1) Community Engagement and Investment to Transform the Nation’s Lowest-Performing Schools: America’s Promise Alliance Grad Nation Community Impact Fund will raise $50 million to support the goal of ending the dropout crisis and prepare young people for college and career. The first planning grants from this social venture fund will be awarded in the fall to communities that demonstrate a commitment to local action aligned with the goals of the Grad Nation Campaign, including student supports for our most vulnerable young people.  Applicants will be communities with a low-performing school and a willingness and capacity to build a multi-sector, collaborative approach that includes partnerships with the business community and local school system, and the capacity to raise matching funds to promote local investment to sustain this work.

2) Expanding Opportunities for Students to Prepare for Livable Wage Jobs: Bank of America will announce a $50 million pledge to education over the next 3 years, launching this goal through $4.5 million in grants. The investment will support programs that bridge the achievement gap to post-secondary education completion and connect the underserved and unemployed, as well as returning veterans, and individuals with disabilities, to workforce success in high-growth sectors, in particular through community colleges.  Recognizing the need for knowledgeable and skilled workers to compete in the global economy, Bank of America is investing in education as part of its comprehensive lending, investing and volunteer activities aimed at strengthening the economic and social health of communities.

3) Research and Development for Next Generation Learning Models and Resources for Students and Teachers: Building on its history of commitment to education and recent $25 million STEM Scholarship grant program in Washington State, Microsoft Education is announcing a new $15M investment in research and development for immersive learning technologies including game based instruction and the creation of a lifelong learning digital archive. Through the creation of these innovative solutions, the disengaged can become passionate problem solvers and the struggling student can be offered other pathways to success.  Rooted in this investment is the understanding that technical innovation alone will not help. Therefore, over the next 3 years, Microsoft is committing to train over 150 thousand educators and leaders and provide access to professional learning communities and training to every teacher in the United States through the new Partners in Learning Network.

4) Supporting a Statewide Focus on Education System Redesign: In the past four years, the Nike School Innovation Fund(NSIF) has provided $7 million in innovation grants and thousands of volunteer hours by senior Nike leaders and other employees to support students, teachers and principals in three Oregon public school districts. The Fund is announcing a new commitment as a primary partner of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and his initiative to help make the state’s entire education system more nimble, innovative and supportive of the key grades of 9 to 12. With this news, Nike’s commitment to strengthening education in Oregon totals $10 million. The NSIF will now provide a year of funding, expertise and policy guidance that is expected to serve as a model for the Governor’s larger statewide education transformation plan.

The President is dedicated to keeping America’s workforce competitive, an achievement that can only be reached through addressing the pressing needs of American education. This week’s education roundtable is a clear example of the President’s dedication, and these new commitments are evidence that America’s business leaders share his concern and his belief that change is possible.

Math Teachers: The Nation Builders of the 21st Century

“It doesn’t matter what the academic subject is – or the age of the student. From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is the teacher,” said Secretary Duncan earlier today at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Indianapolis, Indiana.

In the speech, the Secretary once again pointed to South Korea and Singapore, two countries that revere teachers as “nation builders.”

“In those countries, everyone understands that teachers are preparing the leaders and workers who will ensure the country’s long-term economic prosperity. In America, our teachers aren’t treated like the nation builders that they are.”

Math, as part of well-rounded education, will be key to America’s success in the 21st century. Students who have completed Algebra II in high school are twice as likely to earn a degree as those who didn’t. Secretary Duncan noted that Algebra provides a foundation of using logic to solve problems and to make connections between multiple pieces of information.

Young students learning multiplication tables today will be this country’s future mechanics, engineers, doctors and nurses. The Secretary explained to the math teachers at the meeting that whatever today’s students do 30 years from now:

The mathematics they’re learning today will provide the foundation for their success – and for the long-term prosperity of our country. Thank you for being the nation builders who are making that happen.

Tools to Help Students Become Financially Literate!

Join educators and students across America to participate in the National Financial Capability Challenge, where high school students can learn about how to take control of their financial futures. Lesson plans in the Challenge can help students make positive decisions about spending, saving, borrowing, and protecting against risk.

The program, which includes a free, voluntary, online exam, runs through April 8, 2011 and includes valuable information for students to learn about their finances. Certificates will be given to participating educators, and to top scoring students who take the online exam. For more information, go to and check out the video message from Secretary Duncan encouraging teachers to sign up.

Linda Yaron
Linda Yaron is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Los Angeles, Calif.

Click here for an accessible version of the video.

Where Engineering Is the Most Popular Discipline

Last week President Obama visited a school in Baltimore County, MD, where engineering is the most popular discipline.

At Parkville Middle School, teacher Susan Yoder explains…

“Our students don’t just learn about STEM concepts; they apply them by designing their own roller coasters to demonstrate the laws of physics and taking water samples from nearby Chesapeake Bay tributaries to practice environmental science.”

Read Yoder’s blog post about the President’s visit to her class.

How to Play Catch Up in Math (While Moving Students Forward)

Guest Blog:  John Seelke, High School Math Teacher

This item comes from John Seelke, a high school math teacher and 2007 Presidential Awardee in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in Washington, D.C..  I met John at a teacher town hall with Secretary Duncan at SiriusXM in July.  At the time, I was struck by his passion for teaching and reaching at-risk students.  He recently passed along a strategy called “Remediation through Acceleration,” which he uses to help students who are behind in math while teaching the regular curriculum.  –Laurie Calvert, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow

How to Play Catch Up in Math (While Moving Students Forward)For years, math teachers have faced the conundrum of what to do with students who are in their class but are not fully prepared to tackle the grade-level material. For some teachers, the solution has been to focus on remediation (for example, spending weeks on positive and negative numbers in an Algebra I class). I found this strategy unsatisfying, however, because it continually leaves students with gaps in their knowledge, and those gaps are simply passed on to the following year’s teacher.

As a new teacher at McKinley Technology High School, I struggled to get kids caught up while also teaching them the material within the curriculum.  Fortunately, my principal introduced to me the idea of “remediation through acceleration.” The concept introduces students to higher-level thinking and higher-level problems. Within the context of those problems, the teacher offers remediation to students who need it.

On the first day of the school year, I adopted this method in the first lesson for my pre-calculus class. Instead of spending the class on review, I had the students create a unit circle, using concepts they should have learned from previous classes (plotting points, using a protractor, etc.). By the end of the second day of class, students had used the assignment to create a unit circle and a sine and cosine graph. By monitoring each student’s progress at every step, I could tell which students struggled with math concepts, and I targeted them individually. Most importantly, the students moved ahead with important material in the pre-calculus class and felt proud that they were learning something new.

Download from the IES Clearinghouse: Research on Helping Struggling Students in Math.

Letter from Award-Winning Science Teacher

PAEMST Awardee writes to the Secretary

Last month Secretary Arne Duncan met with Presidential Awardees for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST).  As a follow up to that discussion, science teacher Megan O’Neill sent this letter to the secretary, affirming their mutual commitment to STEM education.

Dear Mr. Duncan:

Dear Mr. Duncan,I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your packed schedule to talk to the Presidential Award Winners for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.  I am a high school science teacher and represented Alabama with the award!  The entire week of recognition activities was so incredible and made me feel so honored, and meeting with you was a truly memorable part.

With the current publication of the 2009 PISA study and the low ranking of the U.S., Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) obviously need to be a large focus area for our Nation.  Your obvious concern for the PISA study rankings of the U.S. makes me hopeful that we can make strong progress with STEM.  The educational methods that we will need to be successful in the 21st Century are going to need adjustments to keep up with our changing world.  I am confident with your vision and willingness to listen to the teachers on the “front lines” in the classrooms, we can move forward.  During our meeting you also provided meaningful insight about how money is being spent in education and where funding is or is not providing effective results. Thank you also for keeping a pulse on this.

Hopefully we can all work together to find solutions to our Nation’s current educational challenges, as our children’s future success relies upon it.  I will be glad to assist in any way that I can and appreciate your lifelong dedication to these topics!

Most sincerely,

Megan F. O’Neill
Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching – AL
National Board Certified – Science
Fairhope High School
Fairhope, Alabama

Answering the Essential Student Question: Why Do We Need to Learn This?

Answering the Essential Student Question:  Why Do We Need to Learn This?

Mark Fairbank is a 2009 PAEMST Awardee who teaches science in Paso Robles , Calif.

Teaching the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is more than something we ought to do.  It’s the key to providing a thriving economy in the United States.

Directing our educational focus toward improving student knowledge in these areas both will provide students with a greatly needed knowledge, and it will enhance their understanding and appreciation of the world.

Perhaps my colleague Mark DiMaggio best explains why future generations’ ability to understand and appreciate the world depends on our ability to view the world through another’s eyes, through the eyes of all other living creatures.  DiMaggio says,

As my career as an educator continues, I find myself more and more frequently taking time to reflect on the ever-present “why do we need to know this” question with my students.  And you know what?  I NEVER tell them it’s because you’ll need to know this for a question on the April state tests.  What do they care about state tests?

Why should we learn about the oceans?  Because they feed about 600,000,000 people every day, regulate climate, cycle the nutrients you need to stay alive, and they provide a source of mineral wealth  a vital shipping link.  On top of that, the ocean provides water to sail, on, makes waves to surf, and are endlessly beautiful and inspiring!

We are required by law to teach the standards; but let’s not lose sight of our real task, to inspire, encourage, support, care for, and help mold a citizenry of thoughtful, compassionate, hopeful, caring people.

STEM education is pivotal because these fields changes the direction of humanity from generation to generation.  Understanding how we affect the natural world is critical in creating both balance and sustainability.  Science exploration and research provides the very knowledge of drastic changes that are occurring in the natural environment of the world’s ecosystems.

Without fundamental knowledge of human and natural systems, our very culture will eventually collapse.  Education provides humanity with a means to share previous knowledge with future generation through discovery and interactions.  Teachers provide the very thread that sustains and enhance our very existence.

Mark Fairbank

Read about Secretary Duncan’s reform discussion with 2009 PAEMST Awardees.

Read Paul Karafoil’s blog about the PAEMST awardees’ week in DC.

Teaching Fellows Ask, “How do we make sense of the PISA results?”

Earlier this month, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) released the results of the 2009 PISA assessment. Every three years, PISA assesses the reading, mathematics and science literacy of 15-year-old students in 65 countries and education systems around the world. PISA seeks to answer the question that many educators grapple with daily, “How well can students…apply their knowledge to real-life situations?”

Though our average science score is up from 2006, U.S. performance on the PISA has been largely stagnant in reading and math. Currently, the United States ranks 17th among all participating countries and education systems in reading scores, with Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia among the top performing. There has not been a change in the average reading scores of American students since 2000.

Though the U.S. spends more per student than almost every other OECD nation, we do less to target spending on low-income schools and students. There are other major differences between the U.S. and the highest performing systems as well, especially when it comes to teacher recruitment, compensation, evaluation and professional development. We want to hear what educators and students think about these findings:

How much emphasis should we place on these results? How might they help shape reform efforts in the U.S.?

~Antero, Edit, Jemal, Jeff, Katie, Laurie, Leah, Linda, Lisa, Nick, Pam, Patrick, Tracey, Stephanie and Steve
Teaching Ambassador Fellows

To read Secretary Duncan’s speech in response to the PISA results, visit:

Award-Winning Teachers Revel in a Scarce Resource: Time To Talk

Award-Winning Teachers Revel in a Scarce Resource: Time To Talk

Teachers and PAEMST award winners Paul Karafoil and Leanne Yenny swap classroom stories, professional experiences, and best practices during their week-long stay in Washington. On Wednesday they spoke with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and on Thursday they met President Obama.

In a week filled with terrific presentations from world-class scientists, lively and informative panel discussions, and the honor of meeting President Obama, the most memorable times for me will be the hours we spent on the bus.  Where else could you hear 50 math and science teachers debating new standards, sharing lesson ideas, or explaining the pros and cons of their latest textbook?

Wednesday morning’s trip to the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides a perfect example.  Boarding the bus at 6:45 AM — before most of us had had our second cup of coffee — I found myself sitting next to Leanne Yenny, a middle school mathematics teacher from Bozeman, Montana.  Before long, we were immersed in a discussion of the UCSMP (University of Chicago School Mathematics Project) textbook series, which her district is considering, and of which I’m a co-author.  Was it appropriate for midlevel students, she wanted to know, and how could she use it to challenge her strongest and fastest-learning kids?  “Yes,” and “yes,” I said.

Then the topic turned to assessment, and I discovered that, over the last six years, Leanne had implemented a standards-based assessment system in which kids’ grades reflected what they had learned–not just what homework they had turned in, or how much partial credit they had scraped together on the test.  Our conversation covered everything about her system’s underlying philosophy, from the most useful feedback helps kids figure out what they know and what they need to learn to the nuts-and-bolts of implementation in system-wide grading software.  By the time we arrived at NSF, I was ready to propose a similar system to my fellow geometry teachers back home; I was also ready for breakfast, and that second cup of coffee.

After a day’s worth of meetings and presentations at NSF, we still weren’t done talking about teaching.  It turns out that Leanne is one of Montana’s few practitioners of lesson study, the Japanese professional development strategy in which teachers collaboratively design a single lesson, then observe a class as the lesson is taught, and debrief to reflect on student thinking and ways the lesson could be improved.  “What a coincidence!” I said, having recently helped form a Chicago-area group, the Lesson Study Alliance, aimed at promoting and supporting the effective use of lesson study.  And off we went, discussing strategies, connections, and the benefits each of us had seen in using lesson study in our own schools.

Over the week, there were many more bus rides–and at least fifty times as many such conversations.  Of course, there was “downtime”:  talk about evening plans on Thursday, our excitement about meeting the President, or even just swapping stories about our kids.  But surrounded by so many outstanding teachers, it was hard NOT to keep talking “shop”; and while I learned a tremendous amount from the mathematicians, scientists, and researchers who led our sessions, the off-line discussions were just as exciting, informative, and inspiring, and sometimes even more so.  I look forward to keeping in touch with my fellow awardees now that we’re back in our respective states, whether by email, Skype, phone, or Wiki; and I hope that these first encounters are the beginning of many more conversations to come.

Paul J. Karafiol

Paul Karafiol is a 2009 PAEMST Awardee and the Mathematics Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago, Ill. He is also co-author of the 3rd editions of Advanced Algebra and of Functions, Statistics, and Trigonometry.