Archive for April, 2012

Cups, Computers and Calculus at Virginia Tech

This post was written by Beth Sigall and published on the School House Wonk blog

Large plastic drinking cups have always played a pivotal role in college life, but up until now that role mostly involved the consumption of cheap keg beer. But the math department at Virginia Tech has developed an entirely new use for these cups – and for an abandoned department store – all in the name of providing better math instruction to more students at a lower cost.

It’s called the Math Emporium, and according to Daniel de Vise of The Washington Post, it’s a place where “computer is king” and math course pass rates are rising.

Faced with massive overcrowding in required freshman math courses such as pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, Virginia Tech University decided to try something new. They renovated an old department store for $2 million, converting it to 60,000 square feet of teaching space with 537 computers arranged in six-person clusters. According to De Vise, there are no professors in the classroom – just a “sea of computers,” red plastic cups and four roving instructors. Students work at their own pace using a mastery-based program; when they need human help students place a red (beverage-free) cup on top of their computer monitor. That cup signals a math instructor to provide in-person assistance.

De Vise writes that Math Emporium is open 24 hours a day, offering seven courses with 200 to 2,000 students enrolled. Instead of the traditional model of 100 or so instructors teaching hundreds of class sections, a staff of 12 rotates the lab and provides instructional help to any student who needs it. De Vise reports that the lab serves 5,000 students in the fall, and 3,000 in the spring. This frees up precious classroom space for other courses using the more traditional approach of instructor or professor-led instruction and discussion.

The results so far are promising. Virginia Tech is saving money. De Vise reports the model cuts per-student expenses by one-third, and pass rates for those introductory math courses are higher now than 15 years ago.

Since its creation in 1997, the Math Emporium model has popped up at the Universities of Alabama and Idaho, and Louisiana State University.

Peter Haskell, math department chair at Virginia Tech, recognizes the inevitability of this new chapter in higher education given the game-changing nature of computers and technology. Says Haskell:

How could computers not change mathematics? How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.

My Take: Virginia Tech’s approach is in keeping with its stated mission to “Invent the Future.” While many initially were skeptical, De Vise reports that students now seem happy with the quality of their instruction. It appears to be a good match for certain types of courses and subjects where mastery depends mostly on practice. I liked this analysis from the senior instructor who runs the Emporium, Terri Bourdon: “You don’t have to have the big staff we have. You just have to have the philosophy that we have, which is that you learn math by doing math.” While this model won’t work in other types of courses or subject areas, it resolves a pressing need for large universities faced with overcrowded math class.

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Opinion: Public needs to be part of vetting process for school-chief finalists

This editorial originally appeared in the Seattle Times on Sunday, April 22nd.

MORE than six degrees will separate the public from the three finalists for Seattle Public Schools superintendent arriving in town this week.

During the next three days, each candidate will come into town for a highly scripted day of school tours and brief meetings with carefully chosen community leaders.

The Seattle School Board made the wrong decision in changing the process for superintendent searches. Unlike in previous searches, the board decided this time around not to let members of the public meet the finalists or have the opportunity to question them directly. Instead, the finalists will meet with 25 carefully selected members of a community focus group — people such as former Mayor Norm Rice and state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

Read more of the story here.

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Department of Education honors Green Ribbon Schools

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in D.C today to announce the first ever U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. The program, introduced in the fall of last year, was created to honor schools using “a comprehensive approach to creating ‘green’ environments through reducing environmental impact, promoting health, and ensuring a high-quality environmental and outdoor education to prepare students with the 21st century skills and sustainability concepts needed in the growing global economy.”

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a press release, “Today’s winners are protecting our children’s health and opening up environmental education opportunities for students. The EPA is proud to help recognize the Green Ribbon award winners and will continue working to improve the environment of our nation’s schools and helping prepare students to succeed in the emerging green economy.”

The schools recognized in Washington state are:

Tahoma Junior High School
Ravensdale, Washington

Camelot Elementary School
Auburn, Washington

Secondary Academy for Success
Bothell, Washington

The Overlake School
Redmond, Washington

To see the complete list of Green Ribbon Schools and to find out more about the program, click here.


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Study reveals college enrollment pattern

Harvard University’s Strategic Data Project partners with school districts to create Strategic Performance Indicators (SPIs). The project recently released an SPI titled Demographic Factors and College-Going Rates which found that if economic and academic qualifications are controlled, the college enrollment gap between Black and White students and White and Latino students narrows, disappears, or in some cases reverses.

By analyzing  data from five school districts across the country (Boston Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, FortWorth Independent School District, Fulton County Schools  and Gwinnett County Public Schools) researchers were able to compare the unadjusted enrollment gap, gap adjusted for FRPL (free and reduced price lunch) status, gap adjusted for prior achievement (higher-level course work before entering high school), and gap adjusted for prior achievement & FRPL status. The study found that with each adjustment, the college enrollment gap between Black and White students decreased. In some districts, when using the gap adjusted for prior achievement & FRPL status, Black students enrolled in college at higher rates than their White counterparts.

While there was a decrease in the college enrollment gap between White and Latino students after adjusting  for FRPL status and prior achievement,  it was not as pronounced when compared to the White-Black student gap.  Researchers believe that this data suggest that Latino students may face additional barriers to college enrollment besides income and high-level coursework.

While the analysis does not unpack the data, the Strategic Data Project hopes that the findings from this particular SPI enables school district leaders to find solutions so that they can “better understand students’ posts-secondary aspirations, improve the academic preparation of students prior to high school, and understand barriers to college access and match strategies to target those barriers.”

Read the summary of the findings here.

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Costs of living near a good public school

The Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute published a study exploring the relationship between housing costs, city zoning and access to high-quality education. The study examines the costs associated with living near any given public school and compares zoning data with school test scores.

The study shows that nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that ranks in the 42nd percentile, while the average middle- or high-income student attends a school in the 61st percentile, based on state exams. While the study notes many possible reasons for this disparity, one main explanation is the cost of living near high-scoring schools.

Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school. This housing cost gap reflects that home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools. Near high-scoring schools, typical homes have 1.5 additional rooms and the share of housing units that are rented is roughly 30 percentage points lower than in neighborhoods near low-scoring schools.

The study found that of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, those in the Northeast had the largest gaps in academic performance between low and middle- and high-income students, while schools in the Southeast and Northwest (including Seattle) had lower-than-predicted gaps. Seattle’s metro area–including Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue and surrounding areas–had a predicted gap of 26.4, but an actual gap of 18.8.

Read the full study from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings here.

We also recently posted about a similar study from the Schott Foundation that focused on the issues of access to high-quality public schools based on location in New York City. That study called the lack of access to quality schools “redlining.”

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Obama administration to re-authorize Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is in Iowa today to announce the Obama administration’s plan to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006.

Holding a town hall on the re authorization of the Perkins Act,  Secretary Duncan said,

“In the knowledge-based economy, lifelong learning is so critical. And that means that the traditional mission of career and technical education has to change. It can no longer be about earning a diploma and landing a job after high school. The goal of CTE should be that students earn an industry certification and post-secondary certificate or degree — and land a job that leads to a successful career.”

The Obama administration plans transform Career and Technical Education (CTE) in four main areas:

Alignment: Ensuring that the skills taught in CTE programs reflect the actual needs of the labor market so that CTE students acquire the 21st century skills necessary for in-demand occupations within high-growth industry sectors.

Collaboration: Incentivizing secondary schools, institutions of higher education, employers, and industry partners to work together to ensure that all CTE programs offer students high-quality learning opportunities.

Accountability: Requiring CTE programs to show, through common definitions and related performance measures, that they are improving academic outcomes and enabling students to build technical and job skills.

Innovation: Promoting systemic reform of state-level policies to support effective CTE implementation and innovation at the local level.”

The Obama administration has already made some headway in these transformations by investing in relationships between high schools and job training programs and community colleges and businesses. One such example is the administration’s $1 billion proposal to encourage student participation in Career Academies, a high school program which combines “college curricula with a career emphasis.”

Washington state Senator Patty Murray welcomes the move stating, “The economic struggles we’ve faced as a nation have made clear that it is more important than ever that students have access to quality CTE programs. These vital programs give them the skills and credentials they need to meet the demands of 21st century careers.  So now more than ever, we can’t afford for the critical programs funded through the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act to lapse.” You can read more of Sen. Murray’s response here.

President Obama highlighted the need for Post-secondary education and job training in his recent State of the Union address.

You can read more about the Perkins Act re-authorization here.



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New company allows thousands to take college courses for free

Four universities, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and Stanford are all going to work with a new company which enables thousands of people to take courses for free. The company, Coursera, was started by Stanford University computer science professor Andrew Ng who decided to offer his course online.

Ng’s online students took quizzes and had access to online forums where other students, teaching assistants, and Ng interacted with each other. Over one hundred thousands students signed up to take this course.

Ng’s Stanford colleague and Coursera co founder Daphne Koller states,”By providing what is a truly high-quality educational experience to so many students for free, I think we can really change many, many people’s lives.”

Although originating with the sciences, Coursera is not limiting itself to STEM courses. University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis will be teaching American poetry next fall.

“In his class this fall, Filreis will discuss poetry with a small group of students while potentially thousands make comments online. Coursera is building a system like Yelp that will let these students value each others comments; the most valued and respected will rise to the top.”

Read (and listen) to the story over at NPR.

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Schools That Work Contest Winner!

All across our state schools are doing innovative and amazing things to help our students reach their highest potential, and we want to hear about yours! That’s why we held a contest for students to tell us about what works at their schools. We wanted to know what they thought made their school successful. The winner of the contest, selected by a panel of LEV judges, won a pizza party worth up to $150 from their local pizza place.

We’re excited to announce that Katie and Megan of Stafford Elementary School in Tacoma, WA are our winners! Check out their winning entry below.

Katie and Megan with their schools that work submission poster

Schools That Work poster submission

Schools That Work poster submission

Didn’t get a chance to enter? Don’t worry, students can still get their ideas for schools seen at the Seattle Center’s Classroom of the Future exhibit! Learn more about how to enter and have your art displayed near the Space Needle here.

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Study shows early learning is an economic power

Many studies have shown that for every dollar invested early learning sees up to an eight dollar return. Featured on Education Week, a new report from America’s Edge  proved just that. Focused on Kansas, the study reveals that “early learning programs bigger pound-for-pound effect on economic activity in Kansas than transportation, construction, or the retail trade.”

“The major finding from America’s Edge report is that for every dollar spent on early-learning programs in Kansas, an economic benefit of 68 cents in additional spending is generated within the state. That matches the economic impact of farming, logging, hunting, and fishing, and beats out the impact of the retail trade (65 cents for every dollar spent), mining, oil and gas (49 cents), and manufacturing (46 cents).”

Although the long term educational benefits of high quality early learning (more likely to graduate and have gainful employment) are often (and rightfully touted) they are short term ones as well. Interviewed by Education Week regarding the new study, early childhood coordinator at the Kansas State Department of Education Gayle Stuber stated, “A lot of it is related to the child care industry that allows parents to work.”

According to America’s Edge, Kansas’ $141 million in early-learning programs has generated $96 million in economic activity.

Read the original article on here.

Have your own questions on early learning? Join us for Universal Pre-Kindergarten: Why Each Child Deserves A Great Start, an event on Thursday, April 19th.

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Teachers talk teaching on The Conversation

LEV board member and 16 year teacher Kristin Bailey–Fogarty spoke with Ross Reynolds on KUOW’s the Conversation regarding education in Washington state.

Kristin, along with Chris McQueen, a history and philosophy teacher at Inglmoor High School discussed issues like teacher morale, merit pay, teacher evaluations, flexibility in curriculum and much more.

Ross kicked off the conversation by asking both teachers if there was anything that kept them “from doing the best job?”

For Kirstin,  “the hardest thing is when you have a really wide gap and the more students you have, the more difficult  it is to close the gap between kids that are low skilled and kids that are high skilled in the same class.”

When asked by The Conversation host if there was any way to alleviate that difficulty, Kristin responded with, “the more control a teacher has over the curriculum she’s teaching, the more she’s able to target instruction to specific students. So I think teacher control over what’s being taught in the classroom is really important.”

Listen to the full Conversation here.

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