Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teacher Turns 'Crazy Idea' Into New School

Condensed from an article by Thom Patterson posted on CNN.com, September 9, 2009

"I have a crazy idea": Those five words changed a simple meeting of school officials into the realization of Kim Ursetta's dream.

Ursetta, then president of a local teachers' union, blurted out those words 18 months ago during a meeting in the office of Denver, Colorado's, schools superintendent.

The other officials in the room leaned in as Ursetta leaped into a sales pitch that would turn an ordinary day into a highlight of her career.

"I want to start a new kind of school," she said, a union-sponsored public school led by teachers, not a principal.

"I started talking about 21st century skills and wanting to prepare our kids in math and science, especially our low-income and ethnic minority students," Ursetta said. "We've been doing schools the same way in this nation for 150 years, so if we don't step up, then nothing is going to change."

Superintendent Michael Bennet -- now the state's freshman U.S. senator -- did not say no to the idea, and Ursetta walked out the door "excited" and "shocked."

She immediately started "pulling together a group of teachers to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and ask how you would do a school differently."

Three weeks ago, Ursetta's dream became a reality, as Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy opened its doors to 142 kindergartners and first- and second-grade students in Denver's mostly low-income, largely Hispanic Athmar Park neighborhood.

A board-certified, 16-year teaching veteran, Ursetta, 38, believes the lack of teacher flexibility ranks among the top barriers blocking the nation's children from receiving the best education possible.

As a teacher at traditional schools, Ursetta said she and her colleagues weren't allowed to change the order of their lessons.

Two of the school's 12 teachers take on administrative duties as "lead teachers," performing the traditional role of a principal.

Although they follow school board-approved curriculum and standards, instructors can easily rearrange lessons to "make better sense for the kids" -- making better connections between different subject matter, Ursetta said.

Sometimes, for example, it makes sense to group Ursetta's kindergarten students with first-graders working on the same subject.

"You normally would have to ask permission to do that," she said. "But here, we just do it. We're able to try different things to teach them instead of just following a script."

The lack of quality school leadership is a big reason that experienced teachers leave their schools, Ursetta said. "Studies show when you take accomplished teachers and allow them to have a leadership role, that's when they see the most success. Scores just soar. That's how we're focused here."

Friday, September 11, 2009

NYT's Steve Lohr on Online Education

Steve Lohr, a New York Times reporter, posted this account of online education on August 19, 2009. Note how it emphasizes online learning's potential for teaching collaboration...

Study Finds That Online Education Beats the Classroom
By Steve Lohr

A recent 93-page report on online education, conducted by SRI International for the Department of Education, has a starchy academic title, but a most intriguing conclusion: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The report examined the comparative research on online versus traditional classroom teaching from 1996 to 2008. Some of it was in K-12 settings, but most of the comparative studies were done in colleges and adult continuing-education programs of various kinds, from medical training to the military.

Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses. The analysis for the Department of Education found that, on average, students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile. That is a modest but statistically meaningful difference.

“The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” said Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International.

This hardly means that we’ll be saying good-bye to classrooms. But the report does suggest that online education could be set to expand sharply over the next few years, as evidence mounts of its value.

Until fairly recently, online education amounted to little more than electronic versions of the old-line correspondence courses. That has really changed with arrival of Web-based video, instant messaging and collaboration tools.

The real promise of online education, experts say, is providing learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms. That enables more “learning by doing,” which many students find more engaging and useful.

“We are at an inflection point in online education,” said Philip R. Regier, the dean of Arizona State University’s Online and Extended Campus program.
The biggest near-term growth, Mr. Regier predicts, will be in continuing education programs. Today, Arizona State has 5,000 students in its continuing education programs, both through in-person classes and online. In three to five years, he estimates, that number could triple, with nearly all the growth coming online.

But Mr. Regier also thinks online education will continue to make further inroads in transforming college campuses as well. Universities — and many K-12 schools — now widely use online learning management systems, like Blackboard or the open-source Moodle. But that is mostly for posting assignments, reading lists, and class schedules and hosting some Web discussion boards.

Mr. Regier sees things evolving fairly rapidly, accelerated by the increasing use of social networking technology. More and more, students will help and teach each other, he said. For example, it will be assumed that college students know the basics of calculus, and the classroom time will focus on applying the math to real-world problems — perhaps in exploring the physics of climate change or modeling trends in stock prices, he said.

“The technology will be used to create learning communities among students in new ways,” Mr. Regier said. “People are correct when they say online education will take things out of the classroom. But they are wrong, I think, when they assume it will make learning an independent, personal activity. Learning has to occur in a community.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What the College Rankings Won't Tell You

Thanks to Scott Tilden for passing along this article and making us take a closer look at “what you get for the money” when choosing your college or university.

New website and report grade universities on education, not reputation

WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 19, 2009)—How much will it cost? How is it ranked? And how hard is it to get in? Many college guides and rankings answer these questions. But there is one question that none of them even ask: What will students learn?

A new, free website for parents and students,
WhatWillTheyLearn.com, does just that.

Launched today by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni,
WhatWillTheyLearn.com will be featured in a full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 college rankings, which are released tomorrow. The website evaluates colleges and universities based on their general education curricula: the core courses aimed at providing a strong foundation of knowledge.

WhatWillTheyLearn.com assigns each institution a grade from “A” to “F” based on how many of the following seven core subjects it requires: Composition, Mathematics, Science, Economics, Foreign Language, Literature, and American Government or History. Only a handful get A’s.

“Employers are increasingly dissatisfied with college graduates who lack the basic knowledge and skills expected of any educated person,” said ACTA president Anne D. Neal. “If our students are to compete successfully in the global marketplace, we simply can’t leave their learning up to chance. As it is, thousands are paying dearly for a thin and patchy education.”

Mel Elfin, founding editor of U.S. News & World Report's college rankings, praised the website as “an invaluable and unique additional resource for parents.” “By focusing on what students are getting in the classroom, this new resource highlights what in the long run is far more important than the name of the institution on a graduate’s diploma,” said Elfin.

ACTA simultaneously released a printed
report on general education, also entitled What Will They Learn?, which grades 100 leading colleges and universities in the same manner as the website. The low marks received by many institutions show students are graduating without math, science, and other fundamentals and underscore the urgent need for parents, students, and policymakers to focus on what colleges expect of their students.

How do the 100 colleges and universities fare?
• 42 institutions receive a “D” or an “F” for requiring two or fewer subjects.
• 5 institutions receive an “A” for requiring six subjects: Brooklyn College, Texas A&M, UT-Austin, University of Arkansas, and West Point. No institution requires all seven.
• Paying a lot doesn’t necessarily get you a lot: Average tuition at the 11 schools that require no subjects is $37,700. At the 5 schools that get an “A”, it’s $5,400.
• “Flagship” state universities do a
markedly better job with general education (average grade of “C”) than the top liberal arts colleges and national universities (with an “F” average) while charging much lower tuition and fees.

Which important subjects are not being required?
• Only 2 out of 100 require economics (University of Alaska-Fairbanks & West Point)
• Only 11 out of 100 require American government or history
• Barely half—53 out of 100—require mathematics

“This study demonstrates that our colleges and universities have abdicated their responsibility to direct their students to the most important subjects,” said Neal. “No eighteen-year-old, even the brightest, should have to determine which combination of courses comprises a comprehensive education. But most colleges are offering nothing more than a ‘do-it-yourself’ education.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is an independent non-profit dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability. Since its founding in 1995, ACTA has counseled boards, educated the public and published reports about such issues as good governance, historical literacy, core curricula, the free exchange of ideas, and accreditation in higher education. For further information, visit