Category Archives: Education – general

Supreme Court Renders Decision in Special Education Case

The current eight-member Supreme Court has handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Endrew F. v Douglas County (Colorado) School District.  The decision vacated the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling.  The Tenth Circuit had decided in favor of the school district,  ruling that “the child received some educational benefit while in the District’s care and that is enough to satisfy the District’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education.”

As the case was argued before the Supreme Court, that standard of “some educational benefit” was a central issue.  Had the district in fact done enough to provide Endrew the legally-mandated free and appropriate public education (FAPE)?  If not, the parents would be able to recoup the cost of tuition for the private school Endrew began attending.

The Supreme Court’s opinion establishes that merely providing “some educational benefit” for a student does not meet the district’s obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

My thoughts…

  • How on earth did every lower court rule in favor of the school district?  This fact shows me that we still face a great number of people, in and out of the education world, who believe “every kid deserves a good education… well, but not THOSE kids.  They can’t handle it.”
  • Even in ruling for the student in this case, the Court left plenty of indication that it’s perfectly acceptable to settle for a lesser level of achievement for students who have a disability solely on that basis.  This is flat wrong.  If the student’s label were one of race, religion, or socio-economic status, there would be outrage about low expectations for the student.  Presence of a disability should be no different.
  • In its opinion, the Court holds that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  That last phrase will be taken as permission to greatly reduce expectations for students with disabilities, but doing so violates the first part of the statement.  Defining “appropriate” progress is the core of any IEP meeting for any student with a disability.  But, wholly discarding the state’s regular academic standards is not required for developing an IEP.  In fact, the IEP should outline the steps that will be taken to permit the student to reach those standards, not what the student will do instead of them.
  • Even the NEA filed an amicus brief in support of the student, against the district.  Bravo, NEA.  In a case where many typically-vocal proponents of high-quality public education have remained strangely silent, the NEA stood for the student over the system.  I appreciate the political volatility of speaking up in this case (either speaking against a public school district, or speaking in favor of low academic expectations), but silence cannot improve this struggle.
  • The Supreme Court’s opinion in Rowley was that students with disabilities must be offered educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities,” and that standard has not been changed.

The conclusion of the opinion of the Court states, “At that point, a reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”  And because the Court didn’t (and shouldn’t) define appropriate progress, it is imperative that every parent and every educator strongly advocate for appropriate progress towards the same standard every student is expected to achieve, and not a barely-more-than-minimum substitute.


Ten Best Math Instruction Tools

In his excellent TEDx talk, “Math Class Needs a Makeover”, Dan Meyer affirms some basic truths about math class: 1) anyone can learn to be successful in math, 2) traditional approaches to math instruction have poorly served a large number of our students, and 3) making math instruction practical is the key to making it “stick”.  He never uses the term “UDL” in his talk, but the changes he proposes are all about changing how we represent material, how we express our conclusions, and how we engage with the curriculum – the three principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Here are my ten eleven twelve favorite sites to use to support math instruction.  None of them are procedural guides or electronic worksheets.  They all involve building an environment that the student can manipulate and get immediate feedback on their efforts.  Some of them can be done quickly.  Some take longer.  But, they all make effective use of the “problem-based learning” model.

  1. NLVM
    A vast array of math manipulatives, indexed by grade band and by sub-topic (Number & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, and Data Analysis & Probability). This is a long-time favorite of mine.  Most of the applications are built on the Java platform, which unfortunately means they will not work on a Chromebook.  If you have a teacher station with a browser that still runs Java, some of the manipulatives work extremely well with an interactive whiteboard.
  2. iSolveIt
    CAST provides two iOS apps that keep the goal of developing logic and reasoning skill at the focus, beyond simply providing a right answer.
  3. Interactivate
    Interactivate includes the standard fare of manipulative activities and stock lessons, but goes the extra step of providing ideas and material for Class Discussions.  Also has an associated iOS app.
  4. Illuminations
    The National Council on Teaching Mathematics provides this set of manipulatives, titled “Illuminations”.  Searchable by grade band and sub-topic.  Includes Common Core and NCTM standards.
  5. PhET Interactive Simulations
    Colorado University provides this set of modern HTML5-based manipulatives.  Math is the basis for some, and is a strong undercurrent for many of the science activities.  Because of the modern platform, these work well on just about any device or screen size.
  6. NRich
    Includes printable support materials for class and teachers.  And, it gives you a chance to explain to the class why the word “maths” shows up all over the place!  Don’t get thrown off by the UK terminology, the activities are indexed for US grade levels as well.
  7. SolveMe Math Mobiles
    Without using the words “equation” or “algebra”, this interactive puzzle game provides a great introduction to those concepts, while reinforcing number sense and application of basic operations.
  8. Cargo Bridge from Limex Games –
    The guy has to push the box home.  But, there’s a chasm in the way!  Build a bridge to support the guy and the box, with the limited supplies you have available.  You’ll never hear the question, “When am I ever gonna need to know about triangles in real life?”
  9. “Full Steam Ahead” game
    Math abounds in a set of physics and engineering problems based on the real-life advances designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  As you progress through the early tasks, more types of challenges are unlocked.  Build, Test, Tweak, Repeat.
  10. Math Playground
    Somewhat limited set of resources, but the ones that are available are very useful.  Geared more for upper elementary.  Should work well with modern browsers.
  11. Desmos Graphing Calculator
    A graphing calculator for your browser!  Powerful save, overlay, and editing tools.
  12. Geogebra
    Online graphing calculator, and a host of additional tools for math instruction, including geometry, algebra, calculus, statistics, and more.  Downloadable materials as well as online activities.

ECET2 is Still Amazing

This year was my 3rd straight year attending the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative regional convening of Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2).  I have been honored to be invited to present breakout sessions at each of the events.

This year’s convening was once again held at the beautiful Salt Fork State Park Lodge, near Cambridge, Ohio.

ECET2 is special for several reasons.  The premise for the event is, as the title suggests, celebratory.  The ECET2 format prides itself on opportunities for teachers to learn from colleagues, and that is the “secret sauce” for ECET2.

What did I take away from the 2016 Ohio Appalachian Collaborative ECET2?

  1. “because i said i would” – Our opening keynote was from Amanda Messer, CTO of because i said i would, an “international social movement and nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept”.  Amanda did two important things: 1) She reminded us that we are, first and foremost, humans who are designed for relationships and interdependencies; and 2) She modeled vulnerability (and the opportunities for growth it brings) when those relationships and interdependencies spit in our collective face.  Teaching is, after all, about relationships – with our students, with our colleagues, and with our communities.  At the heart of every meaningful relationship is a factor of trust, and personal responsibility for one’s own word is at the atomic level for building that.  Many years ago, I read Steven Covey’s “Speed of Trust” as part of a work-based book study.  I enjoyed the book, but I kept finding myself getting knocked off-balance by what felt like relegating trustworthiness to “means” status, rather than “end” status.  In other words, if “being trustworthy” is your strategy for increasing market share, or profits, or stakeholder dividends, you’ve already lost sight of the real reason for being trustworthy, and you’ll abandon it when it doesn’t feel like (or when the data suggest it no longer to be) the most productive option.  “because i said so” restores that simplicity and genuineness to the power of a kept promise.  Watch Alex Sheen’s TEDx Talk.
  2. Colleague Circles – As I tweeted to one of the participants this year, Colleague Circles are “the most dangerous, and the most valuable” part of ECET2.  At other types of conferences, learning from colleagues happens in the margins.  Some participants have learned to seek those interactions out and harness them.  But at ECET2, significant formal time is set aside for participants to gather in small groups to discuss pertinent questions and reflect on what they have learned so far.  Building these relationships, and sustaining them through the use of communications technologies like a shared CMS, social media like Twitter, or even just good old-fashioned e-mail, keeps the fire burning to put into practice what has been learned.
  3. Problem-based Learning – For my second presentation of the event, I wanted to breakoutedu-collaborating-on-cluesmodel an innovative strategy that teachers could take and use in their classrooms.  Back in May, I was introduced to BreakoutEDU by my new boss, Katie Siemer.  BreakoutEDU replicates the “Escape Room” experience without actually locking anyone in a room.  Our workshop participants had thirty minutes to decipher the clues and unlock the box.  They did so with about 5 minutes remaining!  BreakoutEDU is a great example of “The Ill-Defined Problem,” in which participants are actually given as little information and direction as possible, and are then allowed to interact and collaborate on their own to come up with possible courses of action and try them to find out what works and what doesn’t.  This type of learning often feels messy, disorderly, slow, and risky.  Learning that really sticks is usually all of those things.
  4. Animals, Artifacts, and Archery! – A regional convening of ECET2 has the advantage of incorporating local interests for the participants.  Two years ago, Ohio State Parks Naturalist John Hickenbottom was at the inaugural ECET2 at Burr Oak State Park, and he brought along a rat snake that I got to hold!  On Monday morning at this year’s ECET2, John was at Salt Fork along with a large display of animal artifacts, some live animals, and some nature-based educational resources.  It was great reconnecting with John and talking with  He loves his work, and he’s very good at it – much like the teachers attending the conference with me.  In the same space where John was talking about the animal artifacts, there was an indoor archery setup, called SAFE Archery.  I haven’t shot a bow in ages, and I really wasn’t sure I’d know how.  But, I was fairly convinced I wouldn’t do much damage from the seven-foot range we were shooting plastic balls hovering on a column of air.  So, I stepped up.  Bam!  Four for four!  If I ever have to hunt plastic balls with foam-headed arrows for food, I won’t starve!
  5. The world is really a pretty small place sometimes.  One of the organizers for OAC ECET2 in 2014 is a rockstar teacher named Sara Beardsley.  I have known Sara since we were kids, but neither of us figured that out until after I showed up at Burr Oak to register for that inaugural event.  The next school year, Ms. Beardsley wanted to conduct a book study with her class using the book “A Path Appears”, but she didn’t have access to enough copies for her entire class.  So, she did what any 21st Century teacher might do… she crowdsourced it!  As one of the contributors, I received a collection of original (not photocopied) thank-you notes from the students, many of them hand-written.  I have carried those thank-yous in my backpack with me ever since, and anytime I am having a pretty rough day, I pull them out and read through them.  It doesn’t take long for me to remember more important things than whatever temporary ill has befallen.  One of Ms. Beardsley’s colleagues, Mr. French, was one of the organizers this year, and I was more than happy to show him the collection of thank-you notes.  He knew each of those students personally as well, and we had a great time looking through them over breakfast.  The book and the project hopefully made a lasting difference in those students’ lives.  Their kindness to me has made quite a difference in mine.

I have posted blog articles with my reflections on the 2014 and 2015 convenings previously.  [2014 ECET2] [2015 ECET2]  If you would like to bring an experience like this to teachers in your region, check out the National ECET2 site for more information.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Musician Marty Stuart tells this story about a famous fellow Mississippian:

Marty Stuart.“Now there was a young man from DeSoto County, Mississippi, who found himself a mentor in one Dr. Robert Khayat, who at the time was a professor of law at the University of Mississippi.  One of Dr. Khayat’s greatest gifts is recognizing and unlocking the greatness in people.  In this particular student, he saw a gifted writer.  And it all started with a law exam.  The student was given four hypothetical situations.  The assignment to the young lawyer-to-be was to analyze the situations, identify the legal issues, and then elaborate.  Out of the four questions, the young man wrote three great answers.  But on the fourth question, he wrote his best answer, but it had nothing to do with the original question.  Doctor Khayat graded the paper, and in red he wrote, ‘You missed all the issues, but you write great fiction,’ and gave it a B-plus.  Here’s the verdict: the good Dr. Khayat went on to become the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and the student who made the B-plus on the examination paper, well, he framed it and hung it on the wall in the room where he continues to write book after book to this day.  His name is John Grisham, the author of over twenty books. Every one of them is a multi-million seller, now printed in over 30 languages.  And it all started  with the right words of encouragement from a great mentor.”

Every day, we have oodles of opportunities to shine a light on people’s strengths, even in the shadow of their shortcomings.  The kind word invested today can pay off in great rewards later.  Be the bright spot in someone’s day today.

I Hope My Kids Never Have This Classroom

Classroom wall hanging, for student cell phones. “A teacher decided that in order for his students to be marked ‘present’, they have to put their cell phones into one of these slots at the start of class, which they will get back after class is finished” reads the caption on this image of a pocket-chart hanging from a whiteboard in the front of a math classroom.

I hope my children never have to endure being in a classroom like this.

Those who like the idea of the wall-pocket-chart seem to have one universal foundational rationale: “They’re too distracting.”

“They’re too distracting” really means, “The students find their phones more engaging than my lessons, and I don’t know how else to compete.”

Let’s think about the situation a little closer, shall we?  Is it really the phone itself that students find more engaging than Mr. Anonymous’ carefully-worked whiteboard math examples?  Probably not.  Just about any device would do, as long as it presents the students with entertaining snippets of video and audio, and permits them to interact with other individuals (both familiar and strangers).

Call me crazy, but a device that allows us to 1) consume information in a wide variety of formats, 2) create information in a wide variety of formats, and 3) collaborate with others inside and outside the classroom on authentic products for a worldwide audience… that’s a device I want in my kid’s classroom, and I want it heavily used!

How about this for an alternate script for this teacher?

“Who has a cell phone?  Let’s see them.  Great!  You have a device in your hand that is thousands of times more powerful than the computers NASA used to put a man on the moon.  You have a computer, a camera, a video camera, a microphone, and more.  You can take pictures, write poetry, record video, write songs, publish books, connect with people all around the globe, and more.  If you think I’m going to let you bring that sort of power into my classroom and just launch cartoon birds at pigs, or text your friends ‘im bord hmu’, then you are sorely mistaken.  We’re going to create documentaries, write poetry, mix and release albums, invent solutions to world problems, author books, connect with people who know much more than we do about some things, and teach some people who want our expertise on topics I can’t even imagine yet.  Get your cell phone out, and let’s start learning.”

That’s the classroom I want my kid in.  I promise you, Mr. Anonymous, you won’t have to spend all your time trying to sneak up on my kid to see what he’s actually doing with his phone when he’s supposed to be filling out a worksheet.

(And if you’re suddenly thinking, “But some of the kids don’t even have cell phones.  What about them?” then that’s great.  You’re ready to help become a world-changer.  The best changes in this world usually started with the question, “How might we…?”)

“No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State”

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has just published a report of its findings from an 18-month study of education systems known for high PISA performance.  The focus of the study was to identify areas of commonality in those programs, compare them to current practice in the United States, and make recommendations for how real change can be implemented.

The report is available at the NCSL website (28 pages, PDF).

The report spotlights the following four common elements of world-class education systems.

1. “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” – Early identification is not enough.  An important set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills is fostered in children before they reach school age, without necessarily immersing them in a school environment at earlier and earlier ages.  What educators commonly refer to as an “achievement gap” would be more accurately called a “support gap”.  When students are given the necessary tools and supports to achieve high standards, they consistently meet those expectations.

Tech application:  This isn’t about making sure kids know how to use a certain device before they reach school age.  The state-of-the-art device when a child is born will be obsolete before they start school.  Providing opportunity and access, however, go a long way toward developing skills that effective instructional methods rely on in 21st Century learners.

2. “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” – There are two complementary ideals here: 1)  high expectations for teachers, and 2) high expectations for students.  These would seem to be intrinsically aligned goals, but we sometimes find them to be in conflict.  No teacher wants to see their students’ efforts end in failure. Sometimes, this results in backing off of high expectations and setting an artificially low bar, especially for students we desperately want to feel some sense of accomplishment.  When this becomes a pattern or a habit, the student’s performance lags further and further behind, but their academic evaluations may still say “straight-A’s.”  Every student deserves a system of educators who help them genuinely succeed, in a system that does not lower performance expectations for certain students.  Great teachers have students who sometimes fall short.  Great teachers find new ways to help those students keep trying and find a new path to success.

Tech application: Every student should have the opportunity, with classroom technology available right now, to learn from people in their school building, their community, their state, across the nation, and around the globe.  Highly effective teachers are not the ones who know (and give) all the answers, but the ones who ask the right questions to help students along the path of discovery.  Today’s best teachers are not gatekeepers of information, they are facilitators of learning processes that go beyond the textbook curriculum and the four walls of the classroom, for every student – not just the ones who are easy to reach.

3. “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” – Why do we perpetuate the idea that K-12 education is preparing kids for college or a career?  Surely, we expect those who are going to college to find themselves in a career eventually, right?  High-quality career and technical education is in no way inferior to high-quality traditional academic instruction. Advantages like instilling useful workplace skills, fostering collaboration and problem-solving skills, and increased student engagement with real-world projects and situations make career and technical education a great and equal option, not an “alternative pathway” for kids who don’t fit traditional approaches.

Tech application: While “Technology” may be a separate class for some students, that class should not be the only place where technology is explored.  Skills learned in project-based learning, problem solving, global collaboration, and content creation, go beyond individual subject areas and develop a sense of efficacy and persistence in students.

4. “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and  carefully designed comprehensive system.” – Everything we do, every policy we put in place, every practice we promote, every procedure we require, should be measured against the core purpose of the education system.  And that core purpose cannot be simply to perpetuate the existence of the system.  I believe every student can learn to define and achieve what the highest level of success means for them.  Any “rule” that we put in place that prevents a student from receiving the kind of education they deserve is a rule that needs to disappear.  Education, like life, must be about one thing (YouTube video, strong language).

Tech application: We have to stop teaching kids to use a word processor.  We have to stop teaching kids to create multimedia slideshows.  We even have to stop teaching kids to produce Hollywood-quality videos.  Those are tools to be used in accomplishing a higher end.  In order to publish a book of original poetry, a student might learn to use a word processor.  In order to make a persuasive presentation to a board or council, a student might learn to use a presentation program.  In order to document findings of an investigation, a student might learn how to shoot, edit, and publish video artifacts.  It’s not about the tool, it’s about the end product.

So, what can schools do with this information?  As I see it, schools have two options: 1) sit back and wait to see whether their state or federal government implements any of the recommendations of this report, or 2) examine the parts of the report that are wholly within the school’s realm of influence and start making the changes now that result in improved results for all students.

In Defense of “Participation Trophies”

So-called “Participation Awards” are getting a lot of flak these days.  When the subject is pilloried in mainstream advertising, you know a chord has been struck.  However, I firmly believe that there is a valuable place in what we are trying to teach kids.  But, only if we use it for the right purpose.

Keeping score, tournaments, championships, and even the nature of competition itself are all about one thing: are you better than your opponent(s) at something?  You don’t have to be the best ever.  You don’t have to be the best today.  You don’t even have to be as good as you were last week.  Just as long as you are better than your opponent today, you will win.  You will succeed.  You will get the trophy.

However, if that is all we are trying to teach kids with our sports programs, we have missed the most valuable part of learning to play a sport by a million miles.  Learning to play a sport is not about being better than our opponent on any given day.

Yes, that’s what we hand out championship trophies for, and that’s absolutely okay.  But if that is our only focus in whatever sports season is going on, we’re wasting a great opportunity.

The so-called “Participation Trophies” aren’t about making sure nobody’s feelings are hurt, and they aren’t about making everyone feel equal (even when it’s obvious that they are not).  Or at least they shouldn’t be.  Participation Awards are about recognizing that every individual athlete who participated to the best of their ability got better at something.

The “Participation Trophy” by itself does nothing.  It might even do more harm than good, if kids get the notion that they don’t have to put forth any effort at all, and they will get the same award everyone else gets.  If that’s how you are awarding “Participation Trophies” in your team or league, fix it!  “Participation trophies” are meaningful when they are accompanied by specific, meaningful feedback about how the athlete has improved, how they have gotten better during the course of the season.

I can already hear someone protesting, “But, you don’t need to get a trophy for that!”  And you’re right.  You don’t need to get a trophy for that.  The Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup don’t really make winning the NFL or NHL championship any greater of an accomplishment either, but I can’t imagine a championship game ending without the winning team hoisting that trophy.

So, why is it important?  The trophy is important because it is a symbol.  It is a symbol of the fact that this individual or this team to which the trophy has been awarded was better than their competition at the required moment.

There is nothing wrong with awarding symbols to individuals (in athletic competition or otherwise) for improving their skills, for being better than they were a year ago, a month ago, a week ago, rather than just being better than their opponent.

Should we give out participation trophies?  Absolutely.  But, every kid who receives one should understand why they got one.  It isn’t just because they were present for all or most or some of the games and practices.  And it isn’t to keep them from having hurt feelings that someone else got a trophy and they didn’t.  And it is absolutely not to give mom and/or dad the illusion of their little one being a superstar prodigy.

Try this scenario on for size.  At an end-of-year team celebration for a youth basketball league, every player on the team was due to receive a trophy.  A participation trophy.  The object of so much scorn and scoffing.  But, in this case, rather than just handing the trophies out and giving a generic “good job, everyone,” the coach took a few seconds to tell everyone something specific about how that student had improved during the season.  It was meaningful for each of the students, it was meaningful for the parents, and it was meaningful for the coach to go through the process of assessing each student’s skill development during the season.  These were not glib, general statements.  “When Bobby started this season, he couldn’t dribble a basketball with his left hand.  Now, he is able to dribble with his left, and switch hands while dribbling, and that has helped him do better at getting closer to the basket and scoring!”  Is Bobby the best left-hand dribbler out there?  No.  Did Bobby win a championship?  No.  But Bobby did something important.  Bobby worked hard to get better at something, and there is no harm in identifying and acknowledging that accomplishment.

For participation trophies to have any meaning, a coach (or teacher, etc.) must be constantly evaluating students’ skills and development, providing support and direction when needed.  Otherwise, participation trophies become just an equally-distributed expense with no impact.  A symbol, with no substance.