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Robo-Truant Tech And Other Apps To Fix Education

Memo Pad

Robo-Truant Tech And Other Apps To Fix Education


Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) — The education reform movement is at an important juncture. It will either peter out in platitudes or advance based on a new consensus. At this week’s Education Nation conference in New York City, I came away with some hope for the latter. My cautious optimism is rooted in two Ts — technology and transparency.

In the pitched battles between reformers and traditionalists, I’ve been passionately on the side of the reformers for almost 20 years. With the help of the last four presidents, they’ve made progress against the education establishment in pushing for accountability, common standards, charter schools, merit pay and rigorous teacher evaluation.

But traditionalists in the unions and the business-as-usual bureaucracy have recently been successful in depicting reformers as teacher-bashers (not guilty) and as overreliant on test scores in reading and math at the expense of other subjects (guilty).

Even if they cordially despise each other, reformers and traditionalists will now have to work together to implement the new accountability laws enacted in the past few years in about a dozen states.

One way to do so is by embracing smart new technology.

For years, faddish tech fixes like computers in the classroom have yielded few results. But that could be changing. One of the most intriguing parts of Education Nation was the Innovation Challenge, a contest with shades of Donald Trump’s show, “The Apprentice.” Three young innovators presented their ideas on stage to a panel of judges moderated by Tom Brokaw:

Classdojo.com uses a competitive point system (always popular with students) to enable teachers to better handle the behavioral problems that so often impede learning. The idea is to build character by rewarding teams of students who work together to stay on task and avoid disruptions. Technology can’t substitute for a teacher’s class-management skills. But with as much as half of class time consumed by dealing with disruptive kids, it can help.

Kickboardforteachers.com creates a dashboard that helps teachers and administrators customize instruction for students who learn at different paces. It could offer teachers the ability to control more variables and deliver a more sophisticated classroom experience. This kind of “blended learning” was a theme of the conference. A related application, Edmodo.com, is already being used by 3 million teachers and students. It’s a Facebook-like tool, controlled by teachers, that streams homework assignments, distance-learning videos and other material to extend the classroom online.

Arguably the most practical if least transformational idea is Truanttoday.com. Founded by a brilliant 16-year-old named Zak Kukoff, this digital attendance book automatically contacts parents when their kids miss class. In the 200 schools now using Truanttoday, 50 percent of the students who ditch show up to class that day after their parents are alerted. As Brokaw quipped, we’ll all be working for Zak some day.

Classdojo won the $75,000 prize. Even if this and other 2011 innovations flop, we’re edging closer to the era when technology finally changes what is essentially a 19th-century system of education. In science, paradigm shifts follow technological breakthroughs. Education won’t be any different.

My sense is that the most potent tool will be the new transparency offered by the Web. The conference featured a lot of talk about “scalability” and “replication,” but that’s only possible with more information about which schools and teachers are successful and why.

The challenge is to break down what works so that at least some of the best practices can be more widely adopted. Like many others at the conference, former President Bill Clinton was focused on why two schools with identical poverty levels so often get entirely different results out of their students. “If every problem has been solved by someone somewhere, why are we so lousy at copying those ideas?” he asked.

A solution may be on the way. This month — too late to be included in Education Nation — the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research unveiled a sophisticated tool for learning which of Chicago’s public schools are working. Finally, someone is bottling the formulas for success.

To the dismay of principals, parents in Chicago can put their address or zip code into a website and see how their kid’s school stacks up on what the consortium calls the five essentials: a sound vision shared by the principal and teachers; collaboration among teachers who constantly critique each other’s instruction; a school’s ties with families and community; a safe learning climate; and classes that are demanding and engaging.

The university’s research (which goes much deeper than these rubrics) shows that improvement in even three of the five areas makes a school 10 times more likely to improve student learning.

These ratings, reminiscent of U.S. News and World Report‘s college rankings (though much more substantive), are assembled through surveys of teachers and students. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent millions learning how to evaluate teachers and schools, only to find that brutally honest student evaluations correlate best with actual performance.

Timothy Knowles, a well-regarded education reformer who runs the Chicago program and worked on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transition, told me, “Rahm wanted to engage parents more and be transparent and I said, ‘Here’s a way to do both.'” Knowles will take his scorecard to Minneapolis-St. Paul this year and with any luck it will spread quickly to the rest of the country. Already, thousands of Chicago parents are checking out their schools, though results are incomplete because the survey was voluntary the first year. Emanuel is making participation mandatory in 2012.

Knowles angered the Chicago Teachers Union last year by opposing tenure, but now the union supports his five essentials scorecard. Maybe next year at Education Nation we’ll see reformers and traditionalists join together to explain how levers like this will help us scale up, replicate and change American education for good.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Copyright 2011 Bloomberg.

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is a bestselling author and journalist who served as senior editor for Newsweek from 1983 to 2011. He is currently a lead columnist for Bloomberg View as well as a contributing correspondent to NBC News. Alter's 2010 book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, reached #3 on the New York Times Best Seller list.

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  1. ochavoya October 1, 2011

    I have witnessed, first hand, the work of the “reformists,” for ten years now, using taxpayer’s money to buy those classroom new computers, software, graphing calculators, and wireless networks (developed by a well known American Company): which they don’t know how to use and, as a consequence, they never teach the teachers how to use.

    I have had ten years of “professional development” experience allowing me to have an informed opinion. Recently I saw two of those enthusiastic reformists “team teaching” the teachers how to use a KWL chart to teach the concept of data analysis: they started the K section with statements about data analysis, and, surprisingly, the L section was filled with statements about mollusks. I saw another, and this was the most enthusiastic of the same group, defining a square as a quadrilateral that has equal sides (perhaps he has never heard about the rhombus). In other words, I won’t say that all of them, because I have not seen all of them, but the “reformists” I have seen crying to stop lecturing, and even lecturing about stopping lecturing, are the academic incompetent. I had one of them recommending the use of a software she had just discovered, which I have been using about fourteen years now to create semantic networks.

    Is a robot going to help to control class disruptions using a “system of points.” There are some things to try first: classrooms have been overcrowded. Is it more difficult to manage more students than less, just because they are more? Well, the classrooms have been overcrowded without improving the facilities and, in many cases, whilst the facilities deteriorate: temperatures go higher; the amount of ventilation per student is reduced (not the amount of “points”); air quality is worst; and, yes, students start misbehaving. That’s something that we, the traditionalists have known for a long time, but the “reformists” decide to ignore, perhaps because it is better to spent tax payer’s money in making copies of the most superficial graphic organizers than in improving school facilities. (Have you ever tried to teach a pre-calculus lesson with a classroom temperature of 83F? If no, try, you will get to know what’s funny!) Take a look at this (http://www.coe.uga.edu/sdpl/researchabstracts/thermal.html) then go to a school check the cafeteria, the students’ restrooms, the classrooms, you will understand why the students misbehave after seeing the clean office of the principal and the rusty desk of the teacher, crowned with a Windows 7 quad core computer connected to an LCD which the teacher does not know how to use.

  2. JosephSmith October 2, 2011

    Personally, I Like ” Truanttoday”.com !

  3. bioedbarb October 2, 2011

    I have the privilege to work with inner city high school students and their teachers. Every day they need to overcome situations such as science classrooms with 38-45 students (this is a decrease from when the year started with some classrooms having 55 students); new technology (grant provided– but not supported!) that often has technical “glitches”, making the best planned lesson fall apart and necessitating “plan B” arrangements for every lesson; classroom temperatures that in the warm spring and fall days can rise into the upper 80’s and 90’s (teachers and students come down from the 3rd floor rooms drenched in sweat);and additional burdens being placed on teachers to justify why their students “are not passing classes”. I am amazed that these teachers continue to teach each day in the face of these difficulties and devote countless hours after school to work with their students. I am also amazed at the resilience of the young people who continue to show up for class, despite being packed into overcrowded rooms, often without enough desks (and definitely no “personal space”)and the patience to deal with all of the “glitches” that occur. I also commiserate with those students who start school, perhaps with the best of intentions, who then find the conditions and climate in the classroom to be so unbearable that they check out and don’t return. However, that does reduce the numbers in the classroom– so I guess it’s a win-win situation!


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