Conversations (published in EdTech Digest)
Conceptua Math was conceived three years ago with a mission to complete a K-8 curriculum that is visually interactive and that serves students and their teachers.
A whole new generation of digital math products are focused on aligning math learning with the Common Core State Standards. If used properly, these products can be a great asset to school districts. While researching this topic, Conceptua Math caught my eye because unlike other products, it has not only the student, but the teacher in mind. I tracked down its very dynamic leader, Arjan Khalsa, who has devoted his professional life to education and the development of educational materials for over 25 years. He offers a unique approach as to why, even in our more sophisticated culture, it is still acceptable to be afraid of mathematics — a subject that is essential to the future of this generation.
Judy: Can you tell me about the origin of Conceptua Math?
Arjan: For years, our team — that includes the six founders of Conceptua Math — developed special education technology for children with disabilities so they could be included in the school process. IntelliTools provided visual and conceptual learning opportunities that united students with their teachers. We sold the company after 16 years to the Cambium Learning Group, and we wanted to do something else as powerful as what we had done with IntelliTools. We wanted to have another great experience.
Judy: How were you specifically involved with mathematics?
Arjan: Back in the ’80s I used to develop math and science curriculum at a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley. From there I went into the disability world, but after completing a 16-year cycle, I went back to the math world and found that math education had not improved much since 1986, when I worked on it previously.
In the ’80s there was something new published called the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards. I was on the team that first published them in the California Math Framework in 1986 or 1987. From my perspective, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that have recently been created are part of the same continuum of thought. We’re still in a place where we’re trying to help people live to those kinds of standards with regard to conceptual learning and great thoughtfulness in mathematics, which is extremely important.
Judy: Can you give a visual example of this?
Arjan: If a child only learned words but never read a book, it would not be fun at all. When they read a book they talk about it, and the teacher asks how they liked it, and would they recommend it to someone else, or how does it relate to their life.
Leaders of mathematics see math as a language as well. It’s a way of describing the world. For instance, I can say that the wall in front of me is white and has a slightly rough texture. I can also describe the height and width, and I can even measure the density. Mathematics is a way of describing the world around us. If math for kids is only ever a way to get answers right and wrong, and never a way to observe and describe the world around us, then who cares about it? It doesn’t have much meaning.
Judy: Can you explain how mathematics learning has gone wrong in schools?
Arjan: The purpose of math education should be to get everyone to participate in looking at the world mathematically. This purpose is greatly achieved in middle school mathematics – fractions and decimals and statistics and proportional reasoning. The problem is that we are not emphasizing and rewarding these critical years of math achievement. It’s highly documented that many people don’t know plain sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-grade mathematics. Most kids start turning off to mathematics right there. They start saying that it’s stupid and that it doesn’t relate to their life.
If we paid more attention to these pivotal topics and fostered more success at these middle school ages, that would increase the pool of people who are available to go into higher mathematics—things like calculus and trigonometry. That’s the problem.
Judy: How engrained is it in our culture that it’s socially acceptable to not like math?
Arjan: You and I can go to a party and someone will say, “We’re refinancing and I don’t understand that at all; my husband does it” or “my cousin does it.” But you would never hear anyone at a party say, “I heard there was a really compelling article in the New York Times but I can’t read the New York Times; my husband does that. He was away for the last few days.” It would be completely unheard of to abdicate the throne when it comes to reading, but when it comes to math it’s totally acceptable. This is true not just in the United States. It’s true worldwide.
We live in a more sophisticated age than we used to, and people are doing many things that they didn’t do before. It’s time now for more people to be in the successful pursuit of mathematics. It’s evolutionary, and research shows that the mathematics conundrum has been experienced by students and their teachers. The National Advisory Panel of 2008, a controversial panel put together by President George H. W. Bush, had one conclusion that was not doubted, which was that elementary and middle school teachers have a very difficult time teaching math.
Judy: Most of the curriculum-based technology that I write about seems to be student centered. Conceptua Math is oriented toward the teacher. Am I right?
Arjan: Technology is good for several reasons. Number one, it can deliver visual conceptual learning. It can show how math works in our world. Number two, it can give teachers support in real time right on the whiteboard in the front of the room. Number three, teachers don’t have to study ahead of time. They don’t have to wonder, “What am I going to say to my kids today?” It’s right there for them. What we generally believe in our world now is that we use technology “just in time.” Just-in-time information is how professionals work in their field, whether it’s doctors checking drug interactions while they are with a patient, or people using a GPS for directions while driving or walking to an appointment. Why shouldn’t we make this available for teachers? It’s really simple. Our mission with Conceptua Math is to deliver just-in-time curriculum for teachers and students and to do it in a visual and conceptual way consistent with the best way to teach and the best way to learn.
Judy: Teachers do not need to prepare before using this program?
Arjan: They shouldn’t. How can they? They are in a room with 25-30 kids 180 days a year. Let’s get real.
Judy: The fraction unit, which is the first unit completed in your K-8 curriculum, is aligned with the CCSS?
Arjan: We are completely aligned with the CCSS. It’s in our DNA. We live in and breathe the Common Core. We believe in it. It’s who we are.
Judy: How many students are using the program currently, and are there any similar products?
Arjan: Currently we’re in eight states serving 15,000 students. Our approach is unique because we’re so focused on keeping the teacher in the equation. Traditionally, software has been about bypassing the teacher and having a direct connection to the student experience that is “teacher proof.” We just don’t believe in that. We believe that the relationship between children and their teachers is precious, and that’s what’s unique about what we do.
Promethean’s World Turns (Dec. 2012)
The new CEO of Promethean World is moving the whiteboard, once the company’s mainstay, to a peripheral role in a full device-agnostic instructional delivery system.
Jim: This is a great question. The way students learn is changing—they are digital natives with an intuitive understanding about how to use technology. The opportunity being presented to Promethean is that we can empower teachers with a new way to engage students in learning activities. Just 10 years ago when 1:1 initiatives started popping up, teachers were freaked out because they were not prepared to teach to the back of kids heads and they no longer had control over what the students were doing. Teachers still want to have the ability to bring the whole class together, but they also want the flexibility to break students out into groups or have the option to personalize learning by child, by content or by lessons.
So, when we talk with educators about our vision of helping teachers change, how they deliver lessons in a fully integrated environment, they get excited. That is where we are driving. We are working hand-in-hand with educators to help them evolve how teaching and learning happens in their classrooms. This new approach leverages digital content and technology to create a fully immersive and interactive experience. And, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Last month at EdNET I told a group of folks that while I would prefer our new software solutions to run on an ActivBoard, we are looking at a software strategy that is device agnostic. They all looked at me funny because so many people in the industry see Promethean as only a hardware company. But we are much bigger than just hardware.
Our vision for the future is to help create a digital fabric in the classroom, if you will, an educational technology ecosystem that allows teachers to be more productive with how they use their time and resources, because anything they want to do will work seamlessly on any of the devices—an ActivBoard, ActivTable, mobile phone, etc. This is where we are setting our vision for the future.
Judy: Is Promethean working with any districts that are coming close to this transformed approach?
Jim: Yes. One example of how this looks is the new Middle School of the Future that Superintendent Richard O’Malley has introduced in Edison, N.J. Every middle school in the township will have two model 21st-century classrooms where teaching and learning activities will leverage the latest interactive technology to advance whole group, small group, or individual instruction.
Working hand-in-hand with us, the Edison middle school teachers are transforming science and social studies lessons so that the content, assessment and activities can be used on Promethean’s ActivBoard, the ActivTable, or any handheld devices. Teachers want to change what and how they teach according to the needs and progress of their students; we aim to support their efforts in this respect.
Judy: Promethean is associated with hardware, not software. How will this change your approach?
Jim: Sure, many would associate us more readily with our hardware solutions, but teachers know about our award-winning software, ActivInspire. Why do I say this? Over 1.5 million educators are members of Promethean Planet, that earlier this year reached two milestones. We now have five million learner response systems and the one-millionth sale of ActivBoards. Why is this significant? If our hardware were our only flagship product, why would we have more Planet members than ActivBoards in classrooms? The reason is that it is our software that is the glue that pulls everything together. It enables teachers to collect and analyze data. Our current students software solutions provide teachers with self-pacing functions to engage students and challenge them to answer progressively more challenging questions. In the coming weeks and months, we will be expanding our software solutions, as it is the lynchpin to helping us create a new delivery system for education. Once it is in place, teachers will be able to easily use digital content aligned with the Common Core State Standards to drive a higher level of learning.
Judy: Is there one thing you wish Promethean had done earlier?
Jim: My first introduction to Promethean was when I was with Apple, and I knew it first as an interactive whiteboard company. But if you look at more recent history, with the introduction of Promethean Planet and ActivProgress, the company has made a purposeful move from its original position of just providing technology pieces to the classroom, to being a company that helps teachers effectively use the technology in their classrooms.
Jean-Yves Charlier, my predecessor, was committed to investing in research and development, which has kept the company on the forefront of innovation. Robert Marzano has studied the impact that the effective use of our solutions has on student achievement. But that is not the only research that has been done. Dr. Omar Lopez from the University of Texas and a new study by the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at the University of York have reported the same gains that Marzano’s team found: Teaching and learning delivered with our integrated set of solutions and digital content can achieve in 9 months what typically takes 12 months.
We introduced software for laptops, tablets, and iPads before many districts were looking at these solutions. The latest hardware solution, the ActivTable, has been designed with a keen sense to how today’s students need to engage in-group work to build collaboration skills that they will need for the future.
When I joined the company in 2011, we began putting additional context around these innovations and connecting the dots between the plethora of innovations within the company to help us map out what the future could look like. This transformation is evident in our partnerships with Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt and Channel One News.
Judy: What do you see as the most important tech trends for education over the next few years?
Jim: I think over the coming years we will see more and more disruptions in the classroom as teaching practices evolve to include the use of digital content and modern technology. As districts relax policies around student-owned devices and as mobile devices become a more common learning tool, the flow of learning will change. But, I really believe teachers will still want the flexibility to choose how a lesson is delivered. They will want the option to bring all their students together for whole group discussion, debate and instruction, but also have the ability to break students out into small groups for project-based learning.
The biggest trends are going to be around personalized and collaborative learning. We believe teachers can more effectively deliver the right content to the right students at the right time when technology is used as part of the instructional delivery system. Simply put, this is personalized learning.
Chuck Amos Wants to Visualize Your School District’s Data (Nov. 2012)
In June of this year, Chuck Amos became the CEO of GuideK12. Amos has worked in the education technology field for 19 years, most recently heading up his own education-consulting firm. Previously he was the CEO of Atomic Learning until 2007 and a regional education manager for Apple before that. He is involved in national educational policy with organizations including ISTE, CoSN, SIIA, and SETDA.
GuideK12 was once a family-owned mapping company. GuideK12 now is a software-as-a-service, cloud-based solution that uses geovisual analytics, an emerging interdisciplinary field integrating perspectives from visual analytics and geographic information science. This is a powerful, web-based tool that can help districts solve critical educational challenges.
“The moment that I really enjoy, says Amos, is when we show an administrator information from a Student Information System and other district data sets, connected to household county data all displayed on an easy to read, interactive map. The potential impact of representing their data this way immediately resonates and the response is overwhelmingly positive.” By visualizing data it can save a district weeks or months of time, improve decision-making as well as increase transparency. With GuideK12, an administrator can map student learning success by neighborhood, create what-if boundary change scenarios, analyze demographic or socio-economic balance or evaluate the impact of school choice, among other tasks.
Q: What was it about GuideK12 that made you move from a successful consulting company to being a CEO again?
Amos: I love this market, and I’m absolutely passionate about it. I was running a successful consultant practice with a wide range of clients, including a major publishing firm on one end, to early-stage innovative companies trying to get their sea legs on the other end. GuideK12 struck a chord with me. I realized it was unique and very compelling and had the ability to help solve some thorny issues in education in a very positive way. I knew we had something game changing once I saw customer’s reactions to our product. The reaction from customers has been phenomenal and is what pulled me in to take over as CEO. It really is an “oh wow” product and I know will make a big difference in how educational decisions are made. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Can you explain how geovisual analytics can make significant changes for K-12 education?
Amos: Schools are awash in data. They don’t need more data. What they need is more insight into the data they already have, and they need that data available for the right decision makers at the right time. There have been really significant improvements in business with decision support tools and business intelligence tools. I have not seen that same positive impact come over into education.
N.J. Salary Caps Cause Superintendents to Flee
Roy Montesano had a distinguished career in New Jersey, where he had been a middle school science teacher and principal, a director of curriculum and technology, and for the past 12 years, a superintendent in the Westwood and Ramsey school districts. Montesano was the 2012 New Jersey Superintendent of the Year. In the 2012-2013 school year, he will lead the Hastings-on-Hudson (N.Y.) Union Free School District.
Q: Why did you retire after this past school year and accept a superintendent job in New York?
Montesano: The governor of New Jersey instituted salary caps in Feb. 2011 on school superintendents based on student enrollment within each district. For example, where I worked in Ramsey, student enrollment was approximately 3,100 students. The mandated caps regulate that the most that can be paid to a superintendent is $167,500 ($165,000 plus $2,500 because there is a high school). While there is an opportunity to get a merit bonus of an additional 14.9 percent, that money is not pensionable. My salary in Ramsey was $232,000. Based on the cap laws, at the end of my contract I would experience a $64,500 cut in salary, no matter my performance or success in the district.
I, like many other New Jersey superintendents, began exploring opportunities outside the state where salary caps do not exist. I was very fortunate to be offered a position in the Hastings-on Hudson district. It is a lovely community—a little smaller than Ramsey but with many similarities. The commute will be a little longer, but still within an hour of where I live. I am very excited to become part of this school district, but it is bittersweet, as I thought I would spend the rest of my career in Ramsey.
How will this change impact your career as a superintendent?
Montesano: Going to a new state, I am sure there will be some things that I will have to get up to speed on. Overall, I don’t see it as a major change from the day-to-day work that I do now. When all is said and done, it is still about children and what occurs every day in the classroom. That is the part of the job that is most exciting and really what matters most.
How will this change impact future superintendents and students in New Jersey?
Montesano: Hastings UFSD is considered one of the “Quad” districts, along with three neighboring districts. Out of the four districts, three superintendents are former New Jersey superintendents. In Bergen County alone last year, about 25 superintendents, or a third of the total, left to avoid caps.
I have heard statements out of Trenton, the capital, suggesting the salary cap is a good thing, as this is getting the dead wood out of the way and opening opportunities for fresh young minds to become leaders. While there may be some truth to that, I don’t think this is good for New Jersey schools or students. I am very concerned about the future of school leadership. There are some really good, young educators moving into the superintendent position. But many of them lack experience.
In Ramsey, the new superintendent will earn less money than the business administrator, curriculum director, and the high school and middle school principals.
Shaping a Digital Decade for Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Debbie Karcher has worked in IT with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools for 27 years. After seventeen years with the district, she worked in the private sector for Amadeus and Motorola, returning in 2001 as CIO. She manages 500 people; 250 technicians are assigned to schools to support students and staff, and the rest are in development, training and security. District Administration often references M-DCPS, one of the nation’s largest districts. We felt it was time to talk with the CIO.
Q: How closely do you work with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and how involved is he in making technology decisions?
Karcher: Mr. Carvalho drives major innovations; however we work closely together on technology decisions. The areas I support include Computer & Facility Operations, Assessment & Data Analysis, Data Security, Program Management, Systems & Programming, Network & Infrastructure, Field Support & Telecommunications, Accountability & Research Services, and Federal & State Compliance. We branch out into all areas and work with the superintendent as well as his curriculum group and IT curriculum group. So in that sense, we all march together in technology.
What do you see as the most important tech trends for education over the next few years?
Karcher: I think first and foremost is the capacity of school districts to be able to manage the content, testing and virtual initiatives that are taking place. Currently for every 1,000 students, you need 10 MB of bandwidth. And by 2014 or 2015, it will have increased tremendously. We have to figure out how we’re going to do that and how we will pay for these increases. That’s number one. The next most important tech trend is having devices for all our students. If we’re moving to digital content and away from textbooks, how are we going to manage that, especially in large urban districts? When they implement textbook replacements in a district that has 10 schools, it’s a lot easier than trying to do it in a district that has 360 schools. There are a lot of the same issues, but it doesn’t scale quite the same way.
To what degree is M-DCPS currently involved with online learning, and preparing for the 2014 Online Common Core assessments? How will this change in the next three to five years?
Karcher: We are totally immersed. As we enter the fall, we have an initiative that all students who are entering 9th grade take at least one course as an online virtual course that meets state graduation requirements. This was our way of harnessing virtual learning. In the district’s model, there are facilitators in the class who actually help the students as they progress through the course—if they have machine problems or even questions about the course itself—although they have their virtual teacher available. As for computer-based testing, by next year we’ll have more computer-based testing than paper testing. In M-DCPS right now, most of our textbooks are available through the student portal. We intend for that to grow even more. Students can enroll in virtual classes through Florida Virtual School, and they can take classes outside the normal school day. They just have to get approval from their guidance counselor. M-DCPS also has its own virtual classes, which students can take full-time or part-time.
What was the latest tech innovation you implemented?
Karcher: I don’t really get excited about products because we see so many of them, but one particular product, Guide K-12, is now giving us a geo-dimension to student data. It presents our data in ways that we’ve never been able to look at it before.
What does it enable you to do that you weren’t able to do before?
Karcher: Each year we redraw our boundaries based on demographics, the number of students in the schools, and how the community population shifts. This product allows us to do that much quicker. It also allows us to see—when we change a boundary—which we’re changing in terms of reading levels, ESE, ESL children, and how we could impact a school and its diversity.
Our district is comprised of regions, and representatives from each region present their own boundary recommendations for the year. With this product, they can do many simulations. It also allows us to see where our students are. If we pull a boundary for a specific school, we can see just by little dots on the map all the children that live in the boundary of that school. We can see whether they are actually attending that school or other schools in the area, which may be choice programs and magnet schools. It allows us to track student-learning gains, see what’s working or what’s not working to provide a more individualized curriculum geared to a student area of interest or needs at the home school.
We implement a lot of things people don’t want, trust me. This was one of the ones where we didn’t say, “You have to use it. You have to draw your maps this way.” It wasn’t even a sell.
How much does Miami-Dade embrace one-to-one? Do you see the whole district going one-to-one soon?
Karcher: One-to-one for our district, which has about 340,000 students, is a little daunting. And it’s really not going to happen without a BYOD technology model. We are going forward with trying to provide wireless in all our schools. This provides capacity for students to bring their own devices if they choose. One-to-one is not sustainable in this district without some type of BYOD initiative. Last March we surveyed our students to try to figure out who has devices and if they would bring them to school. Our response rate was about 27 percent, so we will be repeating the survey, but 80 percent said they had their own device, and about 67 percent said that they would be willing to bring it to school, which leaves less of a group to try to give devices to. We are very excited about this. The School Board just approved a new revised acceptable-use policy that incorporates bringing your own device. We want children to use their technology, and we’re excited about it. So we do embrace it. We just can’t afford it in the way that maybe other districts have been able to do.
I’ve been reading that you’re trying to expand the iPrep Academy, which is the M-DCPS technology-rich environment that combines online and face-to-face classes encouraging inquiry and creativity. How hard will it be to turn the ship around?
Karcher: If it’s not called iPrep it will be called something else. But it’s going to take some time. The demand for iPrep models is pretty high. But with BYOD, with teachers starting to move into that flipped classroom model, I think you are going to see shades of iPrep happening in different ways or in different clusters in our school district.
In five years, could all schools in Miami-Dade be using some form of the iPrep model?
Karcher: I think five years is a little bit aggressive. I would say five to 10, because from what I’ve seen from technology and new things, it generally takes three to five years just to really institutionalize technology. This is even bigger than that. This is a whole change in instruction and how we deal with our students.
Deborah Karcher checks information on the servers with David Burns, network analyst for M-DCPS. What’s one thing you wish Miami-Dade had that it doesn’t have?
Karcher: They say money’s not everything, but for us it is. We implement very well, and we are ready for wireless and for one-to-one. But a lot of our schools don’t have the wireless capacity and the number of devices we need to do that. It just comes down to a money issue.
Of all the technology you have implemented, what’s one thing that you would never give up?
Karcher: I would never give up our portal and our model for our portal. It allowed us to do a lot of things I don’t think other districts can do as easily. We did it piecemeal. This wasn’t something that was built in a couple years; it’s been built over 10 years. The superintendent embraced it and used it to do his Links to Learning initative. Links to Learning provides supplemental online curriculum content to support student learning with individualized student learning paths beyond the school day, enabling anytime learning. It is accessible to students via their portal and provides links to the appropriate software through single sign on. The portal is role based. It is specifically tailored for the teacher and their students, and it provides student academic information for multiple years and individual students’ achievement scores. It also flags individual students into categories that are color coded—red (needs major assistance), yellow (may require additional assistance) green (student is progressing). This model allows for a more personalized instructional program for our students. The parent portal provides our parents a way to communicate and see how their children are doing. It has allowed us to present our data on any device. That’s the key to one-to-one.
Diane Ullman has been the superintendent of the Simsbury Public Schools, a nationally recognized top-performing district, since 2004. Prior to this, she served as the assistant executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). She also served for seven years as the assistant superintendent of the Farmington (Conn.) School District. Ullman earned a PhD in educational administration from the University of Colorado in Boulder, a master’s degree from Northeastern University in Boston, and an undergraduate degree from Regis College in Weston, Mass. She is a commissioner for the NEASC Commission on American and International Schools Abroad in addition to other leadership roles. Ullman will soon become the director of the Principal Preparation Program at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. I had a chance to catch up with her at the District Administration Leadership Institute’s Superintendents Summit in early April.
Q: You’ve been teaching and leading in K12 schools for almost 40 years, and you were elected as the superintendent of the year for 2012 by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS). What are a few of the accomplishments you are most proud of at Simsbury Public Schools?
Ullman: Being named superintendent of the year for Connecticut is a highlight of my whole career. It is quite an honor; I work among many distinguished colleagues in the state and was quite surprised to receive this honor. Anything that I have achieved has been a result of the team that I work with, and at the top of that list is the board of education, which has an unyielding focus on what’s good for kids. We have worked together collaboratively and created many great opportunities for students in Simsbury.
Another part of that team is my administrative group, which is extraordinarily dedicated and up for the challenges that I have set before them. They have really embraced the change that has come and have brought that change to their schools. There are so many things that I am proud of that I’ve accomplished with this great team. One that stands out most in my mind is the notion that continuous improvement is a part of how we do our work. Every year we examine where we are and what we need to do next, and we’ve been able to increase our effectiveness as a school system.
Aside from continuous improvement, I’m extremely proud of the work we have done in curriculum. We now have a comprehensive K12 curriculum across all subject areas that is documented and used by teachers. Most curriculum sits on shelves, but our curriculum lives and breathes in classrooms, and we are continuously working to refine it.
The last thing I would say is that we have made some really significant improvements in our elective programs for students at the secondary level. Particularly, our fine and performing arts programs have grown substantially in terms of student involvement and opportunities.
What recent technological innovations have been implemented at SPS?
Ullman: Technology implementation has been a big part of my agenda as superintendent. It started in 2006 when we designed a five-year plan to bring all of our classrooms up to what we consider a model classroom status. We developed a plan that not only included the equipment that would be in classrooms but also included professional development and a funding plan so that we would have a sustainable technology infrastructure. We are now wireless in all of our schools, and our teachers are able to collaborate with each other through user groups. They are exploring with all kinds of tools, including social media tools and applications for iPad, and they have really blossomed. The use of technology by teachers is expanding exponentially, and it’s expanding because teachers are taking the lead.
As you leave the superintendency, how do you envision your new role?
Ullman: A true part of my core beliefs is that schools get better under good leadership, and having learned a lot over a long career about how to develop leaders, I want to take that and be part of developing the next generation of leaders. There is nothing we need more than strong leaders in our schools that can shape a school community and bring high levels of achievement for all students. I think the Neag School is particularly suited to produce high-quality leaders, and I’m thrilled to be part of that work. I currently teach in the Executive Leadership Program, and creating a continuum between those two programs is one of my goals.
The Case for Integrated AV
Michael Peveler has been vice president of education sales for AMX for five years. An education major in college at Texas Tech University, he taught for eight years. He has been exposed to the industry and the transition toward a networking type technology over the course of the 13 years that he has worked for AMX. At the same time, he is receiving an Executive MBA in International Business at the University of Texas at Dallas. Because of both his educational focus and his role at AMX, Peveler has been able to visit various countries around the world and work directly with those people who are putting technology into schools.
Q: Why would overall AV standards be important to K12 school districts?
Peveler: Right now, there are no standards across AV. So unlike IT where they have established communication standards, AV doesn’t have a lot of standards.
And when you look at building standards for AV, the challenge is that there’s an integration piece to it. So if you are going to do a sophisticated AV like a Fortune 500 boardroom or 200-person Higher Education lecture hall, there’s most likely going to have to be some level of customized programming. This creates a second problem—that you have a financial difference in K12 schools.
You have some schools that are dependent on the federal government to provide AV funding for them. As a result, it’s the old rule of the cheapest bid wins. Quite often, the cheap equipment isn’t equipment than can truly be integrated. You end up with a product that may not have a high performance level. We see a lot of equipment out in the field that is made very cheaply to keep the costs down because of the “low bid wins” mentality that has existed in education for so long.
The other side of that paradigm is when you have schools that do have money—whether it’s through bonds, or funds, or funding—and they end up being able to go for more sophisticated systems. Those systems tend to require customized programming to really separate themselves, and typically the coding can cost as much as the hardware and software.
Technology alone cannot impact student achievement. How can an integrated AV system really make a difference?
Peveler: I talk to people a lot about how long they can talk to their kids before the kids quit paying attention to them. I’ve got an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, and it doesn’t take very long before they drift off into their own social world.
The same thing is true in the classroom. When a teacher is struggling to use the technology like it needs to be used, the kids drift off. If the teacher is having to find a remote control because it wandered off, or the batteries don’t work, or the projector doesn’t work because nobody knew that the bulb was about to burn out, or whatever the case is, then that downtime costs student retention.
That’s the real value of having controlled technology that’s truly automated in a classroom environment.Ultimately, the faster the teacher can move from one technology to another while keeping the students engaged, the more effective the learning environment.
With the need for school districts to economize as much as possible, energy efficiency has become key. How compatible are energy efficiency and an integrated AV system?
Peveler: Most school districts have energy policies designed to minimize the use of devices. I’ve heard everything from pulling cappuccino and coffee machines out of teachers’ classrooms to rainwater collection.
Four of the areas that cost a lot of money in schools are lighting, HVAC, projectors and computers. With an integrated system, if you go in and combine multiple systems, there isn’t one that will do all of these by itself without significant investment. But having a system like ours does allow a centralized management of all of those because we are able to communicate over the network using a centralized controller with present code and interfaces.
For instance, if I have three people in the district responsible for all of the AV in 36 schools—which seems like an unrealistic ratio, but it’s not unheard of—it can be very hard.
Having a system that’s truly taking advantage of the network infrastructure not only gets information to teachers but allows us to manage and monitor the activity so we can see if teachers are using the technology that’s in place, if they know how to use it effectively and if it’s being turned on and off like it’s supposed to be.
Digital signage is another example. If you can just go online and see the statuses of all the devices and remotely turn on the ones that need to be turned on, that’s a much more cost-effective and also time-effective method when most school districts are struggling to find ways to communicate to their students and parents.
What about school safety? I’ve read a lot about how an integrated system can change emergency procedures.
Peveler: One of the gentlemen I work with was the chief of police for the New York City schools on 9/11. One of the key things he discusses is that he doesn’t want the principal to become the fireman. He doesn’t want the principal to become the police officer. But he does need the principal to gather enough information to be able to communicate to the authorities, who can bring the right people on site.
Most principals nowadays don’t really sit in their office very much. They’re out and about on the campus. Imagine a principal sitting in Spanish 2 evaluating the teacher, and suddenly something horrific happens in another part of the building.
In most systems today, what has to happen first is that they have to find that principal. His phone may be on silent, so they have to physically find the principal. The principal then has to check out the situation to see what’s going on, and then call the local authorities. Somewhere within this process, he has to initiate some form of communication for the rest of the building.
This is a very time-intensive process, especially if you go out to some of the campuses that are huge. With our integrated solution, instructors have a panic button on their audio microphone system and/or at their desk. When they execute the panic button, it notifies the front office staff. But it would also go off on the mobile applications—email, etc. So if the principal is doing a teacher observation on an iPad, for example, up is going to pop the application, and there’s going to be a notification that there’s been a panic button pushed in room 246.
The camera comes up when the panic button is fired. On that same iPad, the principal or any of the other appropriate staff can see what’s going on. They’re still sitting in the same seat, and at that point they can make a decision. It could be that a child had a seizure and they need to call the ambulance. It could be that they see a student with a weapon, and then they can lock down the entire building and send out a notification to every display in the entire school. At the same time, the principal is on the cell phone calling the police.
In this economy, how are school administrators able to justify the costs of a sophisticated AV system?
Peveler: Let’s go back to the basics. Whether you’re a CTO, a CIO, a superintendent, or an assistant superintendent, your first responsibility is to provide a safe and effective learning environment. Your second responsibility is to do that within a budget.
We believe the value of our solution is that it uses one network infrastructure. In most cases, it’s the infrastructure that the school already has in place.
When a district CIO looks to put in a system for distributed video because he is interested in the distribution of information and management of systems, he is often looking at putting proprietary systems in that have their own infrastructure and their own user interface. This means a separate warranty, service agreement and training process.
But that’s the main cost that’s killing schools today. When you put all the things in, in many cases, you’re putting in the infrastructure in 10 systems, or five systems, or 12 or 15, or whatever the case is, which means 10 installation crews, 10 sets of wires and cables, multiple drops. All of that drives up the cost that ultimately makes it not cost-effective to do the things they want to do. Schools end up having to sacrifice, and they don’t get to provide as much as they want to because they can’t afford to.
Budgets in education tend to be cyclical. For most districts that means even if they don’t have money to grow their systems today, they will at some future date. The fact that our system is digital and is built on the network, which I think we can all say we believe is safely going to be the standard method of communication to most devices for the foreseeable future, means that even if they start at a simple Bell and PA solution, they are going to be able to grow, when they have money again, without putting in a new infrastructure.
I have struggled to find anything out there you can just add on to without there being massive costs and no real consideration for what you’ve already purchased. Having been a teacher, I’ve seen administrators struggle with knowing that they need something but not being able to afford it.
You’re obviously very passionate about this subject.
Peveler: I honestly believe that this type of product has the potential to change the way schools are built. We have a growing population. I look at Texas and the population growth that we’re seeing down here, and I know that this is true in many areas across the United States. But in many cases, the buildings were built just after World War II; they don’t have good infrastructure, and they’re not going to be able to last for long without some repairs and upgrades.
Ultimately, something has to change. I think it will be the single infrastructure, single-user interface. To be blunt, we’re seeing this across every vertical. We just had in the team from the Sochi Olympics, the next Winter Olympics in Russia, and they’re looking for centralized management—multiple solutions over a single network. It’s the exact same thing we’re doing for schools.
I want to be a part of something that creates a better learning and teaching environment. Administrators can get what they need for their students and teachers at an affordable price. That’s a cool thing to be a part of.
Jerry Weast is the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest and most diverse school system in Maryland and the 16th largest district in the nation. For the past 12 years, Weast has navigated the district through a comprehensive school reform effort that has improved student achievement and narrowed racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. The district’s 25 high schools are all in the top 3 percent in the country, according to Newsweek.
In November, MCPS received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the highest Presidential honor a school district can receive for performance excellence. Weast has served as superintendent for 35 years, overseeing eight school districts in five states. He has been in public education since 1969 and also has been a professor and instructor at several universities.
Q: Over the last eleven years as superintendent, you have become known for your whole district transformation of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, included raising academic standards and narrowing the achievement gap for over 145,000 students. How were you able to accomplish this?
Weast: In America, our blessing is diversity. And we have children here in our county from 164 countries, who speak 123 different languages. The largest group that we have is only 35 percent, and that’s our Caucasian group.
The question becomes not blaming or pointing out those differences but saying, “Under what conditions can we get these children college-and-career ready?” What we found was the key to helping the child was supporting the people who work with the children—giving parents clarity about what children ought to know and be able to do and how to check for that. And that’s why we developed a value chain that keeps track of our kids all the way through college, beginning in preschool.
You do that best when you get the child engaged and the teacher engaged. When you open up school the first day and see the kindergartners come in, they’ve got a twinkle in their eyes and they think they all can be President of the United States or do anything. And when you open the year and you visit with all those new, young teachers, they have a twinkle in their eye and believe they are going to change the world.
Organizationally, you have to channel that energy in such a way that it uplifts people. And so organizations that involve their employees build a great deal of trust. That trust is translated into compassion. The compassion is understanding the difficulties between the jobs. And that’s why we have differentiated staffing, differentiated kinds of funding, differentiated kinds of training—because that shows that we do understand.
The district’s gains in student achievement, including having the highest graduation rates of any large district in the nation, provide evidence in support of your vision that academic achievement is not limited by family income, race, or ethnicity. What have you done to make the difference?
Weast: Everybody who has a yard understands that there may be areas of the yard that don’t grow green grass as well. And so if you get areas that aren’t growing as well, or where it doesn’t look as pretty, you try to green those areas, and you don’t take that away from the other areas. That’s where we got the idea of Raise the Bar and Close the Gap in 1999. Our original idea was a call to action. Part of our district was doing very well, and part of it wasn’t doing as well, and the part that wasn’t doing as well tended to be heavily populated with children of color, children who were affected by moving around, and children who were affected by poverty.
We did not say those were bad things; rather, we believed those were conditions that we could create remedies for that would help those children grow at the same rate, or even at a more accelerated rate, so our grass would be green all over the district. And that’s what educators have to do. They’ve got to look at where they’re having their problems and then do like you do with a lawn. That’s what we did, and it worked.
How has the repositioning of resources to where they are needed most impacted test scores across the district?
Weast: We have 12 years of data to show that we have not only raised the bar, because we set the highest SAT scores in the history of the district this year, but we have done that in spite of more poverty, more diversity, more mobility, more growth.
For example, we went up over 57 percent in the number of kids on free lunch, doubled the number of kids that don’t speak English, and increased the system by more than 15,000 students. And all the time that we’ve done those things, we’ve set higher scores every year. Last year we had our highest SAT scores, highest ACT scores, and had the most Advanced Placement Exam scores of 3 or above. In addition, our students took nearly 30,000 Advanced Placement tests, which is triple what we were doing in 1999.
There is evidence all the way up and down the line. Of our kindergartners, 90 percent are ready, reading on the running record at a level 6 or greater, which on our trajectory, means they are on track for college readiness. Our 25 high schools are in the top 3 percent in the country, according to Newsweek. And no district has more schools in the top 100 than we do. And these are large, very diverse, comprehensive high schools with 1,800 to 2,000 students, not small or magnet schools.
We’ve been visited by the last three presidents. President Obama asked a group of children who were highly impacted by poverty if they wanted to go to college when they got out of school. All of them automatically raised their hands and yelled out that they did.
MCPS adopted a value chain approach to the K12 continuum to provide a logical framework for strategic choices.
Weast: One of the things we discovered along our way is that many of the textbooks, supplies and materials were not designed to work with each other and they don’t create a coherent pathway. The writing program and the reading program and the science program could actually be good programs by themselves, but if you put them all together, they’re not coherent. And they’re using multiple principles of pedagogy. So we had to fix all of those structural kinds of things.
We also found that we had to offer a lot more support to our teachers and the leaders within the building. We developed programs for how to select leaders within the school system and give them the proper support and the proper training, and we developed a four-year program of training for our leadership and a two-year follow-on training.
For our teachers, we found different ways to select them, put them in a pool, distribute the pool to the children whose schools were most impacted first, meaning the schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged children, and also give them support in the buildings.
We created the position of staff developer — coach, if you will — whose job was to help teachers within a given building so they had somebody to turn to and say, “I don’t know,” and there would be no repercussions.
They had a better-trained principal who was trained to be an educational leader. We had a common language and a common database that we used throughout the entire district. We had absolute things that predicted vertically how a child would do and be prepared not only to graduate, but to go to college and get through college.
We also created different ways of scheduling, with a scheduling university for all of our principals in which they learn how to schedule differently so teams of teachers will have time to talk to each other, because we found that our employees felt isolated. They didn’t have enough chance to interact with each other and teachers are the best teachers of other teachers.
With awareness of teacher quality on the rise, and the bar set as high as it is at MCPS, how do administrators handle teachers who do not make the grade even with extensive support?
Weast: Even after we scheduled differently and put in place the embedded staff developers, we found that we needed to help some employees either improve or find another profession. Together with the unions we created consulting teacher positions.
We went at it by not trying to get people or put people down, but to find out what we could do to support them, help them get more engaged, and help them gain a better understanding about teaching and learning. And if they weren’t successful, we involved the staff developer, the consulting teacher and the principal.
If that was not successful, then they would go in front of a peer review and assistant panel consisting of eight principals and eight teachers. The teacher would either be given more targeted support or a choice to exit the classroom.
That’s how we were able to exit nearly 500 people over the last several years, probably more people than exit many other large systems in America, without the acrimony that usually goes with the exit—and with the support of our teachers’ unions.
Your reform initiatives are well known for using technology as an accelerator in realizing high expectations for student and organizational performance. How have these systems been a game changer for the district?
Weast: In order to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, and squeeze it within the six-hour-day, 184-day year that we have, we had to have a tremendous database. We looked at databases throughout the country, including the Walmart database. Walmart is able to run multiple stores in multiple countries and be able to tell you what is on each shelf and how the turnover is. We didn’t have that type of a data system. We had a lot of stand-alone data systems, so we had to build one that had an interface with the others and that would give us a relational database we could use to keep track of it all, right down to the child—by name, by grade, by everything—because children move around.
Once our students hit college we needed a way to measure how they were doing, and if they graduated within a six-year period. We were able to lay down what we call the “Seven Keys”—targets that children needed to strive to hit to stay right on the pathway all the way through college— because we had data on 33,000 kids who went through college, including what academic classes they took and how they did.
Where did your vision and passion for education originate?
Weast: In the 1930s, my mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Her school bell now sits on my desk. My mother not had only to teach the music and the physical education, but to stoke the fire in the stove. And she had to adapt her different strategies for teaching to multiple age groups.
We’ve got 145,000 children, but the issues are the same: Are we organized to make all children thriving citizens? Can we keep them engaged where they really become learners and want to continue their learning? Can we do that at a level that prepares them for college and university training? Our country needs that.
Weast: My one regret after 35 years is that I wish I had known this stuff in my first 20. Nobody teaches you that it’s about engagement and structure. In 35 years, I’ve been through lots of different training and lots of different things. What I’ve learned in the last 15 years is that you really have to have the people and their energy to execute any plan. A plan is nice, but if you can’t get your people engaged, then it will not be successful.
As you move closer to your retirement, what do you see in the future?
Weast: I hope to continue to help in any way that I can in education. And I hope to be able to help in the area of leadership, especially among systems that are changing in a rapid fashion, in demographics, levels of poverty, or population size.
My last question.
Weast: You can ask me anything.
With all the talk of the movie Waiting for Superman, are you who we’ve been waiting for?
Weast: I’m not Superman. I’m a teacher on special assignment.
During the Association of Latino School Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) conference this past fall, we caught up with board member Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school district. Carvalho has been with M-DCPS since 1990, first as a science teacher, then as a vice principal, a school site administrator and national advocate for secondary school reform, an associate superintendent, and since 2008, superintendent. Next fall, Carvalho will be taking the reins of ALAS from current president Carlos Garcia.
Last year, Carvalho chaired several statewide education committees, including one that helped the state win Race to the Top funding. Carvalho accepted the ALAS position cognizant that what he has done as M-DCPS’s superintendent—taking a district with a predominately poor Hispanic population and propelling it to one of the highest performing urban districts in the country— can be used as a model for the nation.
Q: Latino students are twice as likely to drop out of high school than African-American students and four to five times as likely as their white counterparts. What are you doing in Miami-Dade that’s made a difference?
Carvalho: Our investment and belief is in bilingual education, but also ESL programs that quickly promote children into English-language proficiency without necessarily sacrificing their home language—preserving the rich cultural attachment to their own heritage.
In addition to that is the issue of choice. We are a very large district —345,000 students. One-third of our students are benefiting from parental choice options in academies, in schools of choice, in specialized programs that provide a best fit to their individual needs.
Is providing technology for learning a major initiative for Miami-Dade at this time? How big a difference do you see it making with the achievement gap?
Carvalho: Some folks look at technology in our industry of public education, as an add-on or as a supplement to what happens in the classroom. I don’t. I actually see technology as an environment. And the reason why I say that is, I’m a father of a 19-year-old daughter who has allowed me to see the impact that technology has had on the digital natives of today. We older folks approach it, first and foremost, as entertainment, or via a utilitarian perspective that helps us do our job better.
They don’t. They live it. This is their environment. So we as educators should leverage their existence in this communication environment that is technology rich. We should leverage that to benefit public education.
How have you leveraged technology in Miami-Dade?
Carvalho: We talk about differentiated instruction in a classroom environment— meeting each child based on his or her own proficiency level. Technology can actually do that and individualize it outside of the classroom, anytime, anywhere.
Just imagine this environment. A virtual environment where the child walks into the classroom and automatically, wirelessly, the work that the child has performed at home, in a 24/7, anytime, anywhere approach, uploads automatically to the teacher’s computer. And automatically, it provides an assessment that updates itself daily, not quarterly, to the teacher, and automatically spits out an email to the parent providing feedback on academics, on behavior, on the effort on the part of the child, forcing the parent, and incentivizing the parent, to open up this e-mail and connect directly to the progress of their child.
This sounds like something to watch for in the future.
Carvalho: No. It’s in operation right now. We call it “Links to Learning.” It is a compilation of independently running software titles and companies that agreed to collaborate in putting together a platform that, from the user’s perspective, is seamless, providing 24/7 anytime, anywhere expanding of learning opportunities.
With what resources were you able to do this, and how has it changed the way learning looks?
Carvalho: Everybody talks about the fact that our school calendar is based on the agrarian system. If we believe it to be arcane and archaic, why don’t we do something about it? We spend so much time talking about these things that often we convince ourselves we actually did something about it.
So I don’t have time to wait for one individual entity to come up with a solution. I wanted something to be put together quickly. Why? Because we lose children as a function of our treating time and space as immutable factors in education—time and space meaning Carnegie Units, minutes in attendance in a school, bell to bell, in a school building in a classroom.
So this was the solution for me to break away and expand the school day in a dramatic way without investing any additional dollars. Time and space are variables in our system. The last bell no longer signifies an end to the learning part of the day. It can be expanded to wherever students go, anytime.
Is that a pilot program in the school district now?
Carvalho: I don’t believe in pilot programs [laughs]. I really don’t. You know, I believe if it’s good for a kid, it’s good for every kid.
You’ve got a lot of kids, though.
Carvalho: So now it’s just a matter of having these two systems—my data system, which is tracked by the state, and what the corporate providers bring, a matter of forcing them to talk and lift the individual needs of the children to the surface, providing the equivalent of an IEP for every kid—the equivalent of an IEP that’s rich, that’s exciting, that speaks a language that kids not only understand but actually like to connect to.
With Links to Learning in place, and up to- the-minute assessment data available to parents, are administrators sensing more parental involvement?
Carvalho: Ideally, the connection of parents to what children are doing in school is an important one. I have a different perspective on what effective parental engagement is. It’s not based on a spaghetti dinner or open house night. This must be an ongoing level of participation on the part of parents in the everyday life of a child in school. In the best-case scenario, they actually know what their children are learning and are able to support it.
Wasn’t there a good bit of controversy when you became Miami-Dade superintendent in 2008?
Carvalho: Sure. I came into the superintendency at a time when, from a financial perspective, the system was nearly bankrupt, with a total budget in excess of $5 billion, protected with a reserve of $4 million. Health-care costs were expected to grow by $73 million in one single year, we had a bond rating with a negative outlook, with no contracts negotiated, acrimonious relationships between the workforce and the board, between staff and the board, a lack of public credibility in the school system, sagging test scores, and nine schools in the pipeline to be taken over by the state for performance, every one of these schools minority, high poverty schools.
What were your first steps in turning around district finances and school performance?
Carvalho: I don’t believe in ever letting a crisis go to waste. We leveraged the beginnings of the economic recession to our benefit. And we forced our system to transform itself very, very quickly on the basis of efficiency and innovation.
When you are a new leader in a community, the initial thrust that you had put behind your vision is important in order to overcome the gravitation pull of the status quo. You need to prove your naysayers wrong. You need to subdue those voices that say it cannot be done.
I knew then that the initial effort had to accomplish two things. One, it had to be dramatic and had to produce results very quickly. Two, the pace of reform was important, and there was no time to waste.
I’m proud to say that we did not fire a single teacher because of economic conditions, unlike every other urban district across America. We protected world languages and elective programs such as arts and music. How? We went after every single other element and renegotiated every single contract.
During that time, we took our reserve from $4 million to $141 million. That’s our reserve today. During that same time period, we lost $450 million worth of funding from the state and from local sources.
Every single school improved. We had examples of F to A performance. The lowest-performing senior high schools in our community—Central Senior High School, Edison Senior High School, for example—improved dramatically.
So this has been a progression that we’ve tracked in terms, first and foremost,of student achievement gains and financial improvement, but always looking toward the future, looking toward continuing to innovate the school system.
Your constituency must be feeling optimistic with the results so far. You have propelled M-DCPS to be one of the highest-performing urban districts in the country according to fourth- and eighth grade NAEP results in reading and math.
Carvalho: We had a lot of conversations across the community. I’d go and have “Carvalho Unplugged,” you know, coffee conversations with the community, into bookstores, into coffee shops. I established my Superintendent’s Business Advisory Council—about 20 very powerful businesspeople that I consult with. And then I have monthly CEO briefings that I organize by industry—real estate agents, insurance brokers, software and textbook publishers, construction companies, manufacturing, the legal world.
It’s been important for us, for two years in a row, to roll out new products, a new product line. And I like to talk in that type of fashion. So what is it that our client base is asking for? What are the specific needs from the client’s perspective, rather than our own?
As an example, we created Secondary Success Centers for overage middle school kids. It is one of the specialized types of schools that we created. We bring middle school kids to a high school setting, where we’ve created a school within a school for them. Only they know that they’re middle school kids. But they are in an environment where they are around ‘like’ kids of ‘like’ age but with a very strong, very robust social network of protection for them, providing an acceleration pathway for them to land in the school where they already are in attendance.
I’ve never heard about something like this.
Carvalho: Yeah, well, that’s why it was innovative [laughs]. After the 51 percent, 52 percent reduction in administrative spending and headcount downtown, now we have a lot of free space. So I created two schools in the downtown building. One is a primary learning center, which houses kindergarden through second grade, the other, iPrep Academy, a high school, is a hybrid model between teacher-and-knowledge-facilitated instruction in a very rich digital, virtual environment, where I played with light, time, space and sound as elements for a new type of school. The school is a childcentric inviting environment. Everything is comfortable. Everything is cool. Everything is colorful. There is background music playing.
Our Autism Laboratory Schools are also defined by their environment: sensory rooms with highly trained teachers, coupled with psychologists, and the best technology available. We call it a “laboratory” because it provides an opportunity for us to bring in teachers and principals and train them on site.
I, by the way, appointed myself as the principal both of the iPrep Academy and the Primary Learning Center, so I am superintendent of schools, but I’m the principal of both an elementary and a senior high school.
Last question. The question of pulling ELL kids out of classes comes up often. Your thoughts?
Carvalho: I don’t believe in pulling kids out of anything. I believe in pushing in great opportunities, whether it’s professional development for teachers, great educational supplemental solutions to kids, or the creating, above all, of the environments that meet kids where they are, based on who they are, how they communicate, their own learning style and visibility, their own language, their own socioeconomic level.
And that requires new and agile work in education. It’s hard work, but it is doable. It is very doable.
Teaching for America
Elisa Villanueva Beard is the chief operating officer for Teach For America, a non-profit organization which addresses teacher shortages by sending graduates from elite colleges, most of whom do not have a background in education, to teach in low-income rural and urban schools. The organization’s influence is expanding as a player in education and politics as the Obama administration calls for education reform, but TFA is not without controversy, as some have questioned its methods and effectiveness.
Q: Can you describe how you came to the organization and became Chief Operating Officer of Teach for America?
Beard: In 1998, as a new college graduate, I was accepted to and joined Teach For America’s teacher corps. My group of 600 recent graduates set out to teach in rural and urban public schools in low-income communities across the country. I was placed in Phoenix. My experience teaching for two years affirmed what my life experiences had led me to believe so early on in my professional career, which was not only how big this problem of educational inequity really is, but how solvable it is as well.
After fulfilling my two-year commitment to Teach For America, it was not a hard decision for me to stay and teach for an additional year. After my third year of teaching, Teach For America asked me to head up its Rio Grande Valley region in South Texas, which is where I grew up and now live. For four years, I served as the region’s executive director, and during that time, I worked to maximize our impact by doubling the number of new teachers we brought to the area. In 2005, Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach For America, asked me to head up our regional operations team, which basically means leading and managing the executive directors who run all of our regions across the country.
Teach For America’s 2010 incoming corps is the largest and most selective to date, with a record 46,000 applicants. How are you able to sort out the people who are truly committed to education?
Beard: Our acceptance rate was at about 12 percent this year, and we attribute much of this growth to our belief that many young people believe educational inequity is really our country’s greatest civil rights issue and that they see Teach For America as a high-impact way to help tackle this pressing problem. We have a rigorous selection model that we’ve studied over the past 20 years, and we’ve really been able to sort out the characteristics such as leadership, achievement and perseverance, that we’re looking for as we think about who we’re accepting to the corps. Based on rigorous research showing that corps members are effective classroom teachers, we believe that our selection and training models are working.
Many Teach For America corps members go into schools without any previous education classes or real experience. I’ve heard complaints that Teach For America does not really teach corps members to teach. Your thoughts?
Beard: We invest heavily in making sure our teachers are prepared to teach. We know our approach works because rigorous research shows that our teachers are making a significant impact in the classroom. There are five components to our training and support. First, corps members are required to complete reading assignments and classroom observation hours. Second, corps members attend Regional Induction; they travel to the region where they will be teaching and spend time learning about the region and Teach For America. Third, corps members attend an intensive five-week training program called Institute. During Institute, corps members spend time attending sessions and workshops on a wide variety of instructional topics, as well as teaching summer school. Fourth, corps members attend Regional Orientation, where they spend time preparing for the school year with the support of our staff. This involves setting goals for their students and developing unit plans and assessments. Finally, we provide ongoing support to every single corps member. While teaching, our corps members receive continuous support and professional development from members of our staff and our university partners.
Simultaneously, Teach For America corps members work to obtain necessary certifications. These requirements vary from state to state, but they range from coursework and exams for state certification to enrollment in master’s degree programs. Our focus is to ensure that we’re having a significant and positive impact on students. Earlier this year the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a study that found that students taught by Teach For America corps members in North Carolina outperformed students taught by traditionally trained teachers in high school science, math and English. And according to an internal survey, 94 percent of the principals who work with our teachers report that they’ve made a positive impact in their schools.
We have a strong approach of really rigorous selection, rigorous training, and rigorous ongoing support of our teachers. We see that independent studies show that we are having a positive impact on student achievement, and for us, that’s a good indicator that we’re on the right path.
What is your perception of how traditional teachers and teachers unions feel about Teach For America corps members coming into the school districts?
Beard: Teach For America shares the same goals as teacher unions across the country, which is to provide all students with the very best education possible. Our corps members teach side-by-side with many union members, and many are union members themselves.
Each year we work very closely with district leaders to determine what their hiring needs are, and we bring in teachers accordingly. We have found that even in tough economic times, many school districts have open teaching positions in high-need schools and subject areas. In these cases, Teach For America corps members are considered alongside other new teacher candidates for available positions. We are one of multiple sources of high-quality teachers for low-income students in the districts where the organization places teachers.
We work hard to build partnerships with the unions, with the districts and all parties to ensure that we are all working collaboratively toward our goal of providing every child with a great education.
In the long term, what effect does Teach For America have on education? I understand that many corps members eventually become leaders. What percentage stay in education?
Beard: We have 20,000 alumni now, and about two-thirds of them continue to work in education. Ninety percent of alumni working in schools serve in low-income communities. We believe that one of the most important aspects of our work is to ensure that our alumni stay within education. And what’s especially interesting about this is that while only 1 in 6 corps members say that they’re interested in the teaching profession before doing Teach For America, nearly two-thirds of our alumni stay in the field of education after fulfilling their two-year commitment to Teach For America.
How would you say Teach For America’s mission aligns with the Obama administration’s aggressive school reform model?
Beard: By the time kids are in fourth grade in low-income communities, they’re already three grade levels behind their peers in more affluent communities, and only 1 in 10 will end up graduating from college. The achievement gap is a massive problem, and it impacts the academic and life prospects of 14 million children in the U.S. that are living in poverty. We believe that by increasing the number of high-quality teachers and leaders in the nation’s public schools, we can alter the education landscape and close our nation’s achievement gap for good. Our corps members have a strong commitment to and impatience about the achievement gap, and they figure out how to best fuel their energy in their future careers. Some are fueled by staying in education, others are fueled by working in policy or law—whatever their calling is to impact children in low-income communities.
We believe that the name of the game is recruiting talented people and fueling that talent pipeline to be able to then have this perspective to take on major leadership roles and ultimately change the system.
The Obama administration has taken a number of bold steps, all with the same end goal: eliminating educational inequity. We align with the administration in a number of key ways, including looking for ways to bring outstanding teachers into the classroom, and using data to help identify and support effective practices.
Last thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
Beard: Closing the education gap is my life passion. Twenty years ago, when Teach For America was founded, the national education debate was centered on whether it was possible for children in low-income communities to achieve at the same levels as their wealthier peers. Today, highly effective teachers in low-income communities across the country are proving every day that the achievement gap can be closed. e question our country faces now is how to scale these successes. It will take all of us to effectively answer this question, and I challenge each of us to remain impatient about the problem we are working to solve and determine how we can each contribute to ensuring that one day all children in this country will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Manny Rivera and Rudy Crew, two nationally acclaimed educators, have transitioned from the role of superintendent into that of consultant with their new company, Global Partnership Schools (GPS). Global Partnership Schools’ mission is to accelerate school performance so that young people graduating from school are college and career ready. They have three major initiatives: (1) the Graduation Advancement Program, for ninth-grade overage and under-credited students at risk of dropping out, (2) an extended learning program offering unique supplemental educational plans, and (3) an approach to transform low-performing schools by implementing international best practices.
Rivera, CEO of the company, served as New York’s deputy secretary for education and was the 2006 AASA National Superintendent of the Year while serving in Rochester, N.Y. As president of the company and a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Crew brings with him years of administrative expertise from his time as chancellor of New York City Schools and superintendent of Miami-Dade County Schools.
Recently, Global Partnership Schools collaborated with CORE and was named one of 11 education service providers eligible to turn around low performing schools in Washington state by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Global Partnership schools and CORE will assist schools recognized as being “persistently lowest achieving schools.” The consultants will raise the bar for student performance by establishing on-the-ground coaching, high-leverage educational strategies, and structures to promote effective teaching and learning. DA recently spoke with Crew and Rivera.
Q: How has the transition been to your new role as consultants, no longer responsible for the day-to-day duties of being in charge of large urban districts?
Crew: There’s always been a role for private enterprise in the discussion about schools. Most of the time that role has been played out in the context of people who are buying something and people who are selling something. Part of Global Partnership Schools’ uniqueness is that it really offers—in a deeper way—a thought partnership. It’s not just about work that we want to do, and work that we can do because of our own backgrounds and expertise. It’s recognizing that part of the landscape here requires us to be partners with other superintendents, district personnel, and school principals whose work is very much alive with the thinking and the vision with what is Global Partnership Schools. The transition has actually not been a difficult one at all. It’s effectively about the kinds of things we’ve been trying to do as superintendents, but now we’ve stepped into a space where we actually offer kinds of services and a menu of offerings that we believe superintendents and district- and executive-level personnel really need.
Rivera: (laughs) That’s a good question. Both Rudy and I have a number of experiences over the last 30 years in public schools. Since leaving the superintendency, we’ve remained very passionate about children and improving the quality of education. We came together about a year ago and said, “Look. We’ve both had some successes and we’ve also had some failures.” We wanted to take the best of what we’ve been able to develop and to bring that to creating a company that could help fill the gap. We felt that by aligning ourselves with some of the top educators that we’ve known that have worked with us and building a company around our core values, their improvement indicators can move to a higher level than they might be able to do on their own.
RC: But the synergy between these two roles is actually quite suggestive, if you will. In some way, we are creating a kind of connection between a body of new work that people have rightly defined as being global. It’s not so much just about whether you can make AYP, but whether you can function in a global community. The combination of working at a university, specifically USC, and doing the actual work is a perfect complement to dealing with superintendents, and that is really where they’re struggling. It’s also about recognizing that education is going to be the American problem to be figured out. It isn’t just that there are discrete districts here and there. This is America’s problem.
What are your thoughts about the Common Core State Standards Initiative?
Rivera: It goes way beyond learning standards. For us it means, what are our standards of excellence for schools? What are some of the schools that are performing incredibly well? What are some of the standards of excellence that guide those schools? So we’ve actually been developing our own body of standards of excellence, globally benchmarked, as a starting point. In terms of a set of common standards, nationally, it’s almost ridiculous to try and compare graduation rates from one state to another. They all use different assessments, and they all have different performance metrics. They have different standards.
Crew: We need a way of being able to define at a much higher level the specific learning standards that make us uniquely a more intelligent nation. The hard part about this conversation is not so much can you get common core standards; it’s can you get the assessments right? Can you create assessments that actually build conscientious students? We haven’t done that a lot. We’re just coming off an era with a lot of “testing, testing, testing, testing” for the sake of getting a better number. And we call that accountability. I’ve never quite been hard on that theory. I think we’re going to need to have a greater conversation about what particular strategies are needed to get these assessments. This is no longer about can you just get them to take and pass the test. It’s got to be about whether there’s something greater than that. I think this is an important movement, but it’s got to go hand in hand with the assessments and with the strategies.
Regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), do you feel the federal government is going in the right direction?
Crew: I think that there’s a component of this that is missing when you talk about redefining the federal role. Right now, the way I look at the stimulus money and the money that we’ve been putting out is that it has all gone to stimulating the wrong side of the equation. I think they’ll need to stop thinking about investing in just the supplier side. They have got to create demand for public education. To a large extent, to hear us talk rather rhetorically about globalization and the impact on public schooling comes with no real vision. This is our Sputnik moment right now. This is our opportunity to come up with a vision to get a person in space. We’re underleveraged on the idea side, but we’re highly leveraged—at least theoretically—on the money side.
Don’t you think this is what Secretary Duncan is trying to do?
Crew: I suspect it is, but we’re two years down the road.
And it hasn’t happened yet?
Crew: I’m not so sure I’m seeing it. I don’t see smoke coming out of those chimneys.
Rivera: I believe we need to rethink our own governing structure because you’re pumping money back into the same one that has failed to meet the needs of, specifically, poor children year after year. We need to do something fundamentally different in certain communities.