Florida County Uses Technology to Engage Students and Innovate in the Classroom

Three students sit at a table together during a class lesson. One of the students holds an IPad, and all three students are looking at the device to engage in the lesson.

Citrus Spring Middle School students work with their devices as part of Citrus County School District’s technology initiative. Photo Credit: Dan Koch.

States and districts are investing in technology to support students’ progress towards college and career readiness.

Citrus County School District in rural central Florida is among a growing number of school districts across the country giving students opportunities to take control of their own learning, collaborate with others, and explore entire digital libraries of content by providing them with iPads or laptops. These “one-to-one” initiatives allow teachers to customize students’ lessons to their needs, blend outside of school and in-class learning, and monitor students’ progress in real time.

Citrus County is earning high marks from State officials, students, and teachers for ensuring that technology is actually transforming teaching and learning. In school year (SY) 2011-2012 the district used a Race to the Top grant to put high-speed wireless Internet in all of its schools.  The iPads came a year later, but only for students in grade seven in one school.  The following year the pilot was expanded to various grades and schools. Through the pilot, school leaders and educators gained insight on how to use the technology to improve instruction, ways in which teachers can benefit from related professional development, and ways to encourage responsible use of the iPads, such as with a terms-of-use agreement.

After the initial investment, Citrus County has used local funds to provide iPads for about 30 percent of its students; the district plans to expand the program to all 15,000 students by 2018 using local funds. As the program grew, administrators heard from teachers about the kind of professional development they wanted, and tried to meet those needs with targeted training and time.

“We didn’t want these to simply be used for things like note taking or as a place to go for electronic worksheets,” said Kathy Androski, a media specialist at Citrus Springs Middle School who coaches her fellow teachers on how to use the technology. “We wanted the students using technology to really ratchet up their learning experience.”  Citrus County educators say that might mean students going outdoors for a science lesson and using the iPad’s camera, video camera, or audio recorder to document their observations.  Then, they might come inside and use the same iPad to create a PowerPoint or a spreadsheet, or make a movie about what they learned and observed.

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Georgia Innovation Fund Projects Open Students’ Minds to What is Possible

Sixth grade students conduct a water testing experiment in a Soil, Water Quality, and Weather course. This class serves as an introduction to environmental studies through STEM. While this class is designed to allow exploration in STEM, the primary focus of student learning coincides with sixth grade curriculum in Earth Science with an emphasis on weather, soil/water quality. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

Sixth grade students conduct a water testing experiment in a Soil, Water Quality, and Weather course. This class serves as an introduction to environmental studies through STEM. While this class is designed to allow exploration in STEM, the primary focus of student learning coincides with sixth grade curriculum in Earth Science with an emphasis on weather, soil/water quality. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

Many of the projects focus on boosting students’ interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Last year at Rockdale 21st Century Academy of Environmental Studies, eighth grader Yasin learned about magnetism, electricity and circuits in his Energy and Sustainable Technology course. His classmates, Imani and Max, figured out how to create solar power through wind turbines and solar panels. These hands-on learning experiences are part of a rigorous sequence of courses (others include biomedical engineering, meteorology and forensics) at Rockdale, one of only two STEM-focused middle school programs in Georgia.

The goal of the middle school, located east of Atlanta in Rockdale County, is to encourage students to enter a rigorous STEM-focused high school and ultimately go into science-based careers. That is just what Max, Yasin and Imani want to do: Max, a medical professional; Yasin, an engineer; and Imani, a pediatric neurosurgeon.

The students spoke about their school and their plans in a video that describes the academy’s program and its founding.

The academy is one of 23 projects launched or expanded since 2011 with financial support from Georgia’s Innovation Fund, which was in turn underwritten by the State’s Federal Race to the Top grant. Projects include the opening of four new public charter schools with a STEM focus, the development of new STEM curricula, the recruitment of STEM educators to teach in rural areas and new approaches to teacher and principal preparation and support. While not all of the projects were STEM-focused, all of them were designed to increase college and career readiness.

It is still too early to fully assess the impact of the programs, but initial indicators are positive. A survey of 928 students who participated in innovation fund projects found significant increases in self-management skills and motivation to pursue STEM-related careers. Some of the programs are reporting notable gains in on-time graduation rates and the number of college credits earned by participants.

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High-Quality and Easy-to-Use Resources Draw Educators from Around the Nation to EngageNY

Through technology, more teachers have the tools and resources they need to help them prepare more students to succeed in college and careers.

Mathematics coach Lori MacDonald has spent a lot of time getting to know the material available on EngageNY, a comprehensive website for New York State’s educators, parents, and other interested stakeholders run by the New York State Education Department. The thing is, MacDonald lives and works in Berkeley, California, 2,922 miles away from Albany, New York’s capital.

“In our district, we are using exactly what schools are using in New York, and we’re using it for free,” MacDonald said. “A lot of what we need is on EngageNY.”

MacDonald is not alone in looking to the New York website for resources she can use to support the kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in her district. Across the country, educators and school leaders are turning to EngageNY as a source for comprehensive classroom materials aligned to new college- and career-ready standards adopted by most States. The website also is home to both free high-quality professional development resources, such as a library of instructional videos for teachers, and practical tools for parents including suggestions for educational activities they can do with their children.

This graphic information related to visits to the EngageNY website. The text of the graphic includes the following.  From launching in August 2011 through October 12, 2014, EngageNY.org had: Total visits: 15,722,855 Total unique visits: 6,692,597 Total page views: 89,794,493 Average weekly visits: 26,000 Average weekly unique visitors: 22,000 Average weekly page views: 142,000

New York State launched the site in 2011 with funding from Race to the Top, as well as other sources. Since then, the site has become a national resource and has attracted more than 6 million unique visitors from every State in the nation, averaging 22,000 each week. Not surprisingly, after New York, the State that had generated the most visitors as of August 2014 was California. Louisiana, which ranks 25th in population, generated the third highest number of visits, followed by Illinois, Washington and Arizona.

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Illinois Surveys Teachers, Students and Parents on the Essentials of School Success

More schools are using survey data to identify barriers to school improvement and increased student learning.

When Kenneth Scott became principal of Mae Jemison Elementary School in Hazel Crest four years ago, there was little parent involvement and few after school activities for children. To change that, he started a basketball team and cheerleading squad. But, because the school only had 15 uniforms for each, not many students could participate.

Scott knew he needed to do more. That recognition was strengthened by data from a first-ever survey about the school’s culture and learning environment, administered in spring 2013 to the school’s students, teachers and parents. “The parents wanted their children to be part of the school culture and community even if they didn’t have a great jump shot,” he said. He started clubs for art, chess and computers as well as groups to mentor girls and boys. The response was gratifying. Thirty-one of the school’s 400 students signed up for the chess club alone, and whereas he had previously set up 250 chairs for parents and students attending the school’s Christmas or Black History presentations, he now needed more than 600. The growth in parent involvement was “exponential,” he said.

“The survey results made me really put my foot on the gas and get things going,” Scott said.

The Essentials of School Success

The survey Scott is referring to is the Illinois 5Essentials Survey that asks teachers and sixth- through twelfth-grade students about their perceptions of school leadership, safety, teacher collaboration, family involvement and instruction. Although not required, some districts, such as Prairie Hills School District 144, where Scott is principal, chose to survey parents as well.

Versions of the survey of learning conditions have been used for 20 years in Chicago. An in-depth analysis conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium for School This graphic provides information about the five essentials for school success. The graphic includes the following text. An analysis of 15 years of survey and achievement data by researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research revealed that schools strong on at least three of the Five Essentials are 10 times more likely to improve in mathematics and reading. They are: 1. Effective Leaders: The principal works with teachers to implement a clear and strategic vision for school success. 2. Collaborative Teachers: The staff is committed to the school, receives strong professional development and works together to improve the school. 3. Involved Families: The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning. 4. Supportive Environment: The school is safe and orderly. Teachers have high expectations for students. Students are supported by their teachers and peers. 5. Ambitious instruction: Classes are academically demanding and engage students by emphasizing the application of knowledge.Research found that schools with strong showings in just three of those five areas are 10 times more likely to see growth in student achievement than similar schools with weaker results; such schools also are 30 times less likely to see student achievement stay the same or decline.

Recent Illinois legislation required all public schools in the State to survey teachers and students every other year beginning in 2013 to provide teachers and leaders with data to help them create a school environment conducive to teaching and learning. The State is covering the survey’s cost for three years with funds from its Race to the Top grant and requiring the 32 Race to the Top partner districts to conduct the survey annually.

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New Jersey Teachers Lead the Way in Expecting More from Students

Teacher Laura Sandy is at the front of her room learning over a table of three male students who are working on a hands-on geometry project. Two other students work in the background, and a Smart Board at the front of the room presents the problem for the students to solve.

Teacher Laura Sandy working with her sixth grade students at West Deptford Middle School. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laura Sandy.

Teachers helped develop model curriculum aligned to college- and career-ready standards.

When beginning a lesson on area and perimeter earlier this year with her students, third-grade teacher Michele Elliott turned to New Jersey’s model curriculum for guidance on how to teach what students should know and be able to do under new, more-rigorous college- and career-ready standards. Then she set about having some fun.

Elliott, who teaches at Green-Fields Elementary School in West Deptford, New Jersey, and her students, applied masking tape to the tiled floor of their classroom to make rectangles of various sizes. The children then used the rectangles as the starting point for discussions about perimeter and its relationship to area.

This is just one example of how New Jersey teachers are using the State’s model curriculum, which the State’s teachers helped develop.

“The model curriculum guides you by expanding on the standards, but you have a lot of freedom with it in how you teach,” Elliott said. “It gives you a goal, but how you get there is based on whatever you think will work best for your students.”

The State’s Race to the Top grant helped support the development of the model curriculum, which covers English language arts and mathematics. The image is a quote box with text, it quotes teacher Michele Elliott and reads: "The model curriculum guides you by expanding on the standards, but you have a lot of freedom with it in how you teach. It gives you a goal, but how you get there is based on whatever you think will work best or your students." An estimated 300 teachers volunteered to work with the State to create the model curriculum in 2012.

“They were very excited about putting something together that was coherent and made sense, that reflected what they wanted good instruction to look like,” said Meghan Snow, who helped lead the effort in mathematics for the New Jersey Department of Education.

Elliott’s district, which is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, opted to use the mathematics model curriculum in all five of its schools because of its high quality.

New Jersey’s 75 Priority Schools, which have student outcomes that put them in the bottom five percent of the schools in the State, are required by the State to use the curricula unless they can show they have other alternatives that are also aligned to the new standards.

The State’s Regional Achievement Centers provide teachers at Priority Schools with coaching and professional development opportunities. The Priority Schools also benefit from a technology system provided to them by the State that allows teachers to view and analyze student performance data in real time throughout the school year using formative assessments embedded in the model curriculum.

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Boston Public Schools Engage Families to Help Turn Schools Around

Strengthening the bond between parents and schools increases learning.

Three students are seated on the floor of their classroom. Two of the students work together on a project, and the third is looking up towards the not pictured teacher.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

When family and community outreach coordinator Ana Contreras walked into John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Boston’s Jamaica Plains neighborhood in fall 2010, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The school was low-performing, and Massachusetts had provided it with a Federal School Improvement Grant to raise student achievement.

One of the main strategies for improving performance at John F. Kennedy and other low-performing schools in Boston, such as William Blackstone Elementary in the South End and Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Roxbury, was to involve parents and the community in students’ learning and the daily life of the school.

“We view parents as partners and a necessary piece of the puzzle for improving student achievement,” said Meghan Welch, director of operations at Orchard Gardens. “We want parents to be involved, so our school is open to families. Parents see teachers and know them. They see staff in action. It helps avoid misunderstandings. And if something is not going well, parents know it is okay to come in and talk because they have been here before for positive events.”

It is widely recognized by educators that parents who support their children’s learning both in school and at home, communicate regularly with teachers, and have high expectations make a big contribution to student learning. In Massachusetts, policymakers believe the potential of parent and community engagement is so great that the State insists that engagement is included as an indicator in evaluating the performance of teachers and principals.

In Boston Public Schools, educators are betting that parent and community engagement can help put entire schools that have had a history of low student achievement on the road to improvement. The district’s Office of Family and Student Engagement launched a Parent University in 2009 to support parents’ involvement in their children’s education. The district also has placed an outreach coordinator at each school to help faculty and staff build productive relationships with families and community members. Five years later, this investment is paying dividends, with schools across Boston seeing increases in proficiency rates for English language arts and mathematics.

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Bracken Academy Runs on STEAM Power

A Bracken STEAM Academy teacher, Michelle Wheatfill, stands at the front of her class. presenting a lesson to students seated at tables around the room.

Teacher Michelle Wheatfill introduces a lesson to her 5th grade class. (Photo Credit: Clark County School District)

The Bracken STEAM Academy of Las Vegas is helping students reach higher standards. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics — an extension of what is commonly known as STEM.  Through the integration of new STEAM technology and opportunities for hands-on learning, the school is enhancing instruction to place a renewed focus on holding all students to rigorous, college and career ready standards.

With the help of an Any Given Child grant from the US Department of Education and federal Title I money, students are being exposed to a wide variety of STEAM opportunities. They had the opportunity to attend out of school events like the Las Vegas Philharmonic and The Science Guy performances, and are now able to access computer labs before and after school. Experiences like these are helping teachers provide students with hands-on learning experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to provide.

“We are re-engineering the way that we teach,” said Principal Kathleen Decker, who has been in her position for 13 years. “I do see the teachers using a lot more hands-on, a lot more project based learning, and a lot more differentiated and individualized instruction than in the past.”

The expanded opportunities and the move to higher standards has led to a change in culture in her school. “Our expectations are much, much higher than they were before [the current standards],” Decker observed. “And the children are accomplishing way more than what we had expected of them five or six years ago.”

Teachers are seeing firsthand the difference teaching with heightened standards makes.

“The students are learning exponentially,” said fifth-grade teacher Michelle Wheatfill, who has been at Bracken for nine years. She notes that with changes happening in her school, her role as a teacher is changing. “Because of the technology we have, [the students] take charge of a lot of their learning. We’re there just to help guide them, instead of teaching every lesson with direct instruction.”

With teachers and leaders raising the bar, students are feeling more engaged and challenged by the new standards. Wynn, a third grade student, said that “Bracken is so good because the teachers don’t stop you at certain levels. They keep pushing you so you can keep going higher and get better.”

To read more about how Bracken STEAM is transitioning to more rigorous, college and career ready standards see the full post on our Homeroom Blog.

Colorado Teachers Helping Build State’s Educator Effectiveness System

System focuses on continuous improvement to better prepare students for success in college and careers.

Lisa Rossi is a fifth grade teacher at Bethke Elementary in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has taught elementary school in the same district for 25 years and, for 20 of those years, has served as a mentor for her colleagues, helping them hone their craft.

This image is a “Race to the Top Snapshot” titled “Colorado State Model Evaluation System.” The subtitle is “Annual Performance Evaluation for Teachers.” The graphic is divided into two sections. The first section provides an overview of the model. The section shows that the model is divided in half. 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations are based on Statewide Quality Standards for professional practice. Components of the Statewide Quality Standards are content knowledge, classroom environment, instruction, reflection and leadership. The other 50 percent of teachers evaluations is based on multiple measures of student growth including end-of-course exams, State assessment (CMAS) results, teacher developed measures and benchmark assessments. Based on the teacher evaluations, teachers receive one of four effectiveness ratings: (1) ineffective, (2) partially effective, (3) effective, and (4) highly effective. The second section is about the observations and feedback, and there are four statements about the observations and feedback. First, probationary teachers receive at least two documented observations per year. Second, beyond the requirement of two observations per year, districts determine the frequency and scope of observations and feedback. Third, evaluations focus on meaningful feedback and continuous professional growth. Finally, data supplies critical information but human judgment is also important to ensure the process is fair and accurate.

The Colorado State Model Evaluation System is used to provide annual performance evaluations for teachers.

Three years ago, as a member of Bethke’s School Improvement Team, she took on a larger challenge: leading an effort to help her school district develop a new system for evaluating and supporting teachers. Her work has focused on implementing a framework for teaching and learning that provides a shared definition of what it means to be an effective teacher as well as the tools to measure this. The framework, which was developed by the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, is being used to help all teachers in the district analyze and improve their practices. Among the framework’s elements are student engagement, classroom culture and assessing student learning. “We all have areas we’re really strong in and areas we need to grow in,” Rossi said. “Now, we can be much more specific about what our growth areas are.”

Hundreds of teachers like Rossi across Colorado have been similarly engaged, working with their local districts on the details of new evaluation and support systems designed to give teachers better feedback on how to help prepare their students for success in college and careers. Thousands more have participated in surveys, feedback sessions and focus groups, or served on a statewide advisory council.  By listening closely to feedback and proactively enlisting key stakeholders in the design process, Colorado has created an evaluation system by educators for educators.

A 2010 State law, Senate Bill 10-191, required districts to develop new systems for strengthening the connection between teachers’ performance and student learning. Like other States, Colorado used part of its Federal Race to the Top grant to develop and implement its new system and conduct extensive stakeholder outreach.

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Educator Portal Plus is Go-To Source for District of Columbia Teachers

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

Teachers are getting support they need to improve their practices and deepen students’ knowledge and skills.

When geometry teacher Robert Athmer started working in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) four years ago, he was disappointed with the way the school district communicated and shared resources with educators. At the time, DCPS’s online portal provided only basic information and was difficult to navigate.  He found it “lacked inspiration.”

But today, after a major overhaul in response to teacher input, the portal gets frequent use.  Athmer now considers the revamped version of the portal an essential way of connecting with school district officials and fellow teachers, accessing meaningful professional development materials, viewing high-quality lesson plans and staying up-to-date on key professional learning opportunities.

“It’s a one-stop shop,” Athmer said. “I tend to use the resource tab all the time for things like pacing guides, unit plans, lesson ideas and formative assessment ideas. The resources for secondary mathematics are great. Everything is up there.”

The site is called Educator Portal Plus and it was redesigned with support from grants that included the district’s Race to the Top grant. It is being used by 90 percent of DCPS teachers and is also open to teachers at charter schools in the district who can see lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards or tap into other professional learning resources on the site.

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Engaging Educators to Design and Improve New Systems of Evaluation and Support: 5 to Watch

This graphic highlights five initiatives of States and districts to engage educators. At the top of the graphic with the title is a map of the United States with five States highlighted: Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, Florida, and Connecticut. In the body of the graphic, there are five images with text next to them. The first image is two people talking. The text next to the image is “Denver Public Schools: Union leaders and teachers from pilot schools helped secure 92% support for the new system.” The second image is comment bubbles with a question mark. The text next to the image is “Tennessee use an online rapid response system to answer educators’ questions about the new system within 48 hours.” The third image is a picture of a survey. The text next to the image is “Hillsborough County (FL) is using feedback from teachers to adjust communications and solve technical problems with its system.” The fourth image is a person speaking to an audience. The text next to the image is “Illinois proactively involved the two statewide teachers’ unions and the nonprofit Teach Plus to get input from teachers at the front end.” The fifth and final image is two hands in a handshake. The text next to the image is “New Haven (CT) teachers are helping to craft the educator evaluation and support system, which is seen as a model of labor-management collaboration.” Under the body of the graphic is the sentence: “More online in Engaging Educators: A Reform Support Network Guide for States and Districts.” 	 The link to the publication: http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/implementation-support-unit/tech-assist/engaging-educators.pdf

Many States and school districts are proactively engaging educators in helping to shape key reforms, including evaluation, feedback and support systems. Five to watch are:

Denver Public Schools (CO) avoided the “happy talk” that often undermines credibility with its “keep-it-real” communications campaign, focused on successes and challenges. Union leaders and teachers from evaluation pilot programs traveled to nonpilot schools to articulate first-hand experiences, an effort that led to 92 percent of schools joining the pilot evaluation program.

Hillsborough County (FL) created educator advisory panels and surveyed teachers (“pulse checks”) to assess their understanding of and attitudes toward the evaluation and support system. The district is using this feedback to adjust communications with teachers via e-magazines and podcasts, publish updates to address confusion and efficiently solve technical problems with the system.

Illinois proactively engaged two statewide teachers’ unions through early discussion and advisory roles to co-create its teacher evaluation, feedback and support system. And the State worked with the nonprofit Teach Plus to organize several feedback forums across the State.

New Haven Public Schools (CT) teachers are helping to craft the educator evaluation and support system, which has been held up as a model of labor-management collaboration. A teacher’s overall evaluation is based on classroom observations (conducted by peers or administrators) and student learning goals (including student assessment data) that teachers set with their supervisors.

Tennessee set up an online rapid response system to answer questions about the new teacher evaluation and support system. The department fielded up to 75 questions a day and responded within 48 hours.

Details in Engaging Educators: A Reform Support Network Guide for States and DistrictsTo view a more detailed version of this graphic, click here.