Innovation is the new black. If you ever had a radical idea to improve your schools, now is the time to try it.
The ideas are old and new, controversial and common sense. If you want to improve your district—and who doesn't?—there's no one formula to try or any set of ideas that you should ignore. Long derided for not changing their format since agriculture set its calendars, and criticized for stubbornly clinging to the sit-and-get method of learning, schools are now at the epicenter of change. Green schools no longer seem radical, but practical, for staff, students, the environment, and the bottom line.
The idea that paying attention to the emotional needs of students isn't just the work of the kind-hearted is now seen as a proven way to improve the learning environment—and test scores—for all students.
Of course, the changes spill over into technology. Schools, which spend $8 billion annually on textbooks, are now shaping up as the best place for the new wave of e-readers to find mass acceptance. And the Internet is allowing teachers worldwide to share lesson plans as easily as they might a recipe for chocolate cake.
Augmented reality programs are being tested in Massachusetts and California to teach math, science, and 21st-century skills in maybe the only instance where schools are actually outpacing the technology students use in their free time.
The School of One is putting some of these ideas together in a single New York City building, creating specific daily lesson plans for each student, every day.
So as you look through these next five pages, remember that the only thing not allowed during this burst of education creativity is sitting on the sidelines.
1. All failing schools will get a do-over.
Call it Extreme Makeover: Classroom Edition. That's what the DOE is aiming to do by spending $3.5 billion to rehab the 5,000 worst schools in the U.S. within the next three years.
Of course, turnarounds aren't new. Districts have long employed at least some of the interventions that the DOE now mandates. But the new options—replace a school's principal and at least half its faculty; shutter a school altogether and transfer its kids to a higher-performing one; restart academies as charters; or radically alter a school's model, such as extending the school day or adopting novel teacher rewards-are generally more extreme than what districts have historically done on their own.
To bolster the case, the DOE holds up turnarounds in Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, and Hamilton County, Tennessee, as successes. As CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Secretary of Education Duncan himself oversaw the closing of 38 low-performing schools, and, as he has often said, "We saw strong results in all of our turnarounds and spectacular ones in others."
Do turnarounds work? The jury's still out. Using dramatic measures to fix broken schools is extremely controversial. But you're going to do them anyway if you want any of that Race to the Top or School Improvement Grant money.
2. Kids will be the first native e-readers.
Few districts have switched to e-textbooks. But as digital readers have become increasingly portable and affordable, that is beginning to change. And competing for much of that new demand will be rivals Amazon and Apple, each hoping their tablets—the Kindle and iPad, respectively—will take the lion's share.
So far, Apple has an edge: Macs are ubiquitous in education circles, and publishers such as McGraw-Hill are working on textbook apps for the iPad. But don't rule out Amazon yet—it has promised updates that will make the Kindle a more pliable tool to collect data, be it on field trips or in science labs.
For schools, which spend about $8 billion a year on textbooks and other printed educational materials, going digital will likely prove less costly and easier to update. An added bonus? No more heavy backpacks.
3. There is no building without green.
Once upon a time, for schools, green was just the color of Crayons and vinyl floor tiles. No more. Solar roof panels, waterless urinals, widened windows, low-gas-emitting carpeting, and Zen rock gardens are just some examples of how districts from Idaho to Georgia are building and renovating their facilities with sustainability in mind.
Consider the math: According to the U.S. Green Building Council, eco-friendly schools on average save $100,00—or about $71 per square foot—in energy costs annually. Add in that new school construction totaled nearly $80 billion in the past two years, and going green could save schools as much as $10 billion over the next decade.
If the long-term financial savings aren't enough, such initiatives can benefit students' learning and health, too. This includes better acoustics, more exposure to daylight, and improved air quality. Green schools commonly report reductions in both teacher and student absenteeism. And where better to learn about the science of decomposition than your campus's very own sewage treatment plant?
At the same time, green schools also use 30 percent less water and up to half as much energy—and that's a lesson sure to have Mother Earth smiling.
4. Schools must become more boy-friendly.
Are America's classrooms toxic places for boys to learn? The evidence is pretty damning: As early as pre school, boys are expelled at a rate 4.5 times that of girls. The gap grows in elementary and middle school as boys increasingly fall behind in reading and writing. Meanwhile, boys account for two thirds of learning disability diagnoses and nine out of ten discipline referrals. By college, girls have so far surpassed boys academically that in the next five years, only 40 percent of graduates will be male. Video games, prescription drugs, and standardized tests are often blamed, along with developmental differences that put boys behind during school years.
"Girls use more words, and are better at early literary skills and more social cooperation," says Anthony Rao, co-author of The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World. Boys' brains are wired to learn more by touching and exploration, according to Rao.
Measures to fix the problem aren't easy to find. Publishers have raced to offer gross-out texts aimed at boys, such as Scholastic's Captain Underpants series. Some districts, such as Columbia, Missouri, are trying single-sex classes. Other districts are seeking out more male teachers—federal data shows only one in six teachers are men in U.S. classrooms. A few districts are establishing single-sex schools for boys.
In her book The Trouble With Boys, journalist and Administrator contributor Peg Tyre suggests the problems run deeper. For instance, she states that many schools identify boys as lagging but political correctness prevents any change. Or that the end of recess and gym class could also have a direct correlation.
5. Teachers will get their content from the Web.
There are certain lessons teachers can't escape. For instance, how to dissect a frog, interpreting Romeo and Juliet, and teaching Civil War. Yet year after year, new teachers are expected to put their own spin on these tried-and-true topics, while using the same old sources.
Today's Facebook generation of faculty is saying enough is enough. Some three quarters of primary school teachers now regularly turn to the Internet to hunt for lesson plans and other materials, according to a 2008 survey by Interactive Educational Systems Design.
Still, rarely do these Web crawlers find high-quality materials that meet state standards. Enter Curriki, the Wikipedia of online curricula. Some 65,000 members have now signed up to access the searchable database of more than 64,000 classroom materials Curriki offers. Sorted by subject, grade level, and medium, all of its content is free, and a team of educators and technologists evaluates entries regularly.
As many as 34 states with virtual academies are getting in on the act as well, building online warehouses for best teaching practices. The National Science Foundation likewise offers math, science, and tech materials.
Other educators are relying on a little help from their friends. Lea Anne Daughrity, the technology facilitator at Bailey Elementary School in Pasadena, Texas, recently told Education Week that she uses tools such as Facebook and Twitter to connect with colleagues around the world. As Daughrity explained, "When we find something worthwhile, we share it, because there's no point in wasting time working in isolation."
6. Checklists save lives-can they save schools?
In science class, students learn the best answer is often the simplest. Yet few educators to date have embraced a very basic instrument already shown to improve quality: the checklist. Yes, checklists-airplane pilots rely on them, doctors should, and thanks to surgeon and author Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto, they are the latest craze in upping performance while preventing errors. The evidence is promising: When Gawande's research team introduced a checklist in eight hospitals in 2008, surgery complications dropped 36 percent and deaths plunged 47 percent. So if extra paperwork can save lives, what's stopping teachers from employing it to ensure struggling kids don't fall through the cracks?
The answer is complicated. For one, a checklist outlines for users a clear set of uniform standards and performance goals, requiring consensus both on best practices and outcomes. In medicine, that end goal is healthy patients. But in education, it's less clear.
"You have to be measuring results that are actually meaningful to teachers and students, " says Dr. Peter Pronovost, the Johns Hopkins University researcher who championed checklists in medicine. "So first we have to have that hard discussion about what is success in education and probably rethink No Child Left Behind legislation."
Pronovost agrees checklists could be put to good use in the classroom, and he has mentored superintendents hoping to do so. For documents to work, however, he notes they can't be static and need to be updated as research reveals how students best learn. Plus, there must be constant measuring to determine if a checklist works. "If you regulate the checklist, it is too slow to keep up with how knowledge changes," Pronovost says. In a field as stressed as education, he adds, "The worst thing you can do is value standardization but stall innovation."
7. STEM is growing quickly. But is it fast enough?
The hypothesis: America's schools have turned their backs on math and science so dramatically that the nation's global supremacy in innovation is done for. Will it prove true? Not on President Obama's watch, he has pledged. Since taking office, Obama has directed more than $500 million in public and private funds toward steering American schoolchildren to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. His partners in the endeavor include Time Warner Cable, Sesame Street, Discovery Communications, and NASA astronaut Sally Ride.
Indeed, Obama has vowed to train 100,000 new scientists and engineers during his presidency. He has his work cut out for him: The National Science Foundation reports American universities graduated about 460,000 engineers and scientists (most in the behavioral and social sciences) combined in 2005; China and India each produced 700,000 engineers alone. In its latest data, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked U.S. students 19th in math and 14th in science among its 31 member nations. So, in his Educate to Innovate initiative, Obama has focused special
attention on raising the quality (and quantity) of instruction in STEM subjects.
Last year more math and science teachers left the profession than joined it. In January, however, the administration committed $250 million to programs that help math and science majors earn teaching credentials, and presidents of more than 75 public universities committed to preparing 10,000 math and science teachers by 2015.
"We've debunked the myth that science, math, and engineering majors don't want to teach," says John Winn, chief program officer for the National Mathematics and Science Initiative, whose UTeach program Obama has singled out for praise. "And our retention rate after five years of teaching is 80 percent." Problem solved? The key will be how to scale up while also detangling the many federal agencies concerned with STEM education.
Still, "The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow," the president said last January. "Our future is on the line."
8. Emotional learning has to come first.
Reports of violence in schools are all too frequent. Just this year, in Columbia, Maryland, a second grader was arrested after he assaulted the principal. In New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, an 11-year-old boy fractured the wrist of a 10-year-old classmate in a fight over the contents of a passed note. In Waltham, Massachusetts, an 11-year-old was charged with two counts of assault and battery after bullying another student.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the vast majority of elementary schools, 81 percent, reported a violent incident during the 2003–04 school year. During the 2007–08 school year, 46 percent of public schools took "serious disciplinary action" against students for everything from fights to disrespect.
So, to create peaceful classrooms, schools and districts are turning to social-emotional learning (SEL) programs, which focus on teaching social skills, empathy, perspective taking, and problem solving. These programs, a combination of social skills and character education, are being used to improve school climate, reduce office referrals, and boost test scores. "There is now a growing realization," says Maurice Elias, director of the Developing Safe and Civil Schools Project at Rutgers University, "that student learning depends on the climate and culture of the school and the extent to which schools promote students' social-emotional and character development."
As children go through the school day, they're constantly assessing social information as good or bad. If they interpret a glance from a child across the room as mean, or a teacher's stern tone as anger, those negative, if incorrect, perceptions can result in aggressive behaviors. In grade school, children's hostile attribution bias, or their perception of other behaviors as negative, increases if they're not learning social-emotional skills, says J. Lawrence Aber, professor of applied psychology at New York University—and the more a child sees the world as hostile, the more likely he is to respond aggressively.
Social-emotional learning programs help kids correctly interpret and deal with the world around them. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as programs that help kids develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building, and decision making. Ultimately, when conflict does arise, instead of fighting or giving up, kids who have learned SEL skills have another option, says Stacie Smith, director of Workable Peace, in Cambridge, Massachusetts: "to negotiate and find some middle ground that gets them what they need and is also responsible and respectful."
A strong SEL program can have a dramatic effect on a school. When Aber and his colleagues studied the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility's 4Rs program (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution), they found that children who were involved in the program improved their interpersonal negotiation skills and reduced their incidence of negative behaviors. After two years, says Aber, children perceived the world as less hostile, were less aggressive, and reported less depression and fewer ADHD-related problems. Moreover, children in schools with the 4Rs program who had the most behavior challenges increased their academic test scores dramatically.
9. Will every child be a School of One?
Laptops, personalized curriculum playlists, lesson plan algorithms. Are these the signs of what schools will be in the future? At Middle School 131 in New York City's Chinatown, a pilot math program has educators all over the country talking. Rather than one teacher and 25–30 students in a classroom, each student participates in a combination of teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, independent learning, and work with virtual tutors. To organize this type of learning, each student receives a unique daily schedule based on her academic needs and recent progress. Students within the same school or even classroom can receive very different instruction, each lesson tailored to the concepts a student needs to learn and the ways she can best learn them. Teachers acquire data about student achievement each day and then adapt their lessons accordingly.
"Particularly in New York City, where students arrive at our schools from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with different skill sets and skill levels, we must offer students instruction that meets their individual needs," Chancellor Joel Klein told the New York Times. "The innovation at the School of One represents some of the most exciting and promising work being done in education today."
The School of One's innovative approach and use of collaborative technologies, coupled with improved educator development and curricular and assessment reform, is a road map for change that is working." Klein added.
"The world has changed dramatically over the past century, and using technology to expand learning opportunities for students is both necessary and promising," says Joel Rose, the founder of the School of One. "Our hope is to provide teachers with a powerful tool that enables them to meet the needs of each student and allows them more time to focus on the quality of instruction."
"The potential for School of One is enormous," says M.S. 131 principal Phyllis Tam. "My teachers are always looking for better ways to personalize their instruction, especially given all of the student data we now have available. School of One not only makes that possible, but it allows teachers to spend more time focusing what they do best—creating great lessons for kids. School of One has challenged my thinking on how technology can enhance the role of teachers by extending learning beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom."
10. Augmented reality is real learning for kids
At a suburban Boston middle school, aliens have landed. A team of seventh graders armed with global positioning systems (GPS) and handheld computers wander the school field trying to figure out why the aliens are there. The problem is fun, but the path to finding the answer is extremely challenging.
"It's asking us to do algebra," says one boy to another.
Solving math problems, translating Latin and Greek, interviewing virtual characters, and working with other students are all aspects of Alien Contact!—the augmented reality (AR) game that the students are playing. The game is the brainchild of the Handheld Augmented Reality Project (HARP) developed by researchers at Harvard, the University of Wisconsin, the School of Education, and the Teacher Education Program at MIT, with funding from the U.S. DOE's Star Schools Program grant. It's an effort to improve middle school mathematics and literacy by leveraging emerging technologies. HARP is one of the first university projects to study whether augmented reality—a simulated real-world environment through a handheld computer—can enhance students' learning.
For the past year, MIT professor Chris Dede, postdoctoral fellow Matt Dunleavy, and HARP researchers have worked on developing AR curricula aligned to national and state standards, and studying AR's effects on student engagement.
"Too often education is the last sector of society to incorporate new interactive media, even though students are already using these in the rest of their lives for entertainment, communication, and personal expression," Dede says. "We already know laptops can be valuable to students. And yet there are new, less expensive, and more portable technologies today that create interesting alternatives for learning."
While educators often fear technology, Dunleavy says it is critical to consider how emerging technologies like cell phones can play a role in education.
"Cell phones and video games are a large part of K–12 students' lives, but not within the regular school day," Dunleavy says. "A lot of students bring cell phones to school, but educators don't know how to leverage them for instruction."
In Alien Contact!, students use GPS–enabled Dell Axim handheld computers that correlate their real-world locations to their virtual locations in the game's digital world. As the students move around a physical location, such as their school playground or sports fields, a map on their handheld displays digital objects and virtual people who exist in an augmented reality world superimposed on real space. This capability parallels the new means of information gathering, communication, and expression made possible by emerging interactive media (such as Web-enabled, GPS–equipped cell phones with text messaging, video, and camera features).
Alien Contact!'s mission is to challenge teams of students to solve problems through proportional reasoning, justify their thinking with peers, and use technology as a means of representation and interpretation. In addition, the simulation also puts math into a more comprehensible format than writing an equation on a chalkboard might.
"I felt excited about the possibility of taking technology that students are intrigued by and fluent in and using it to teach mathematics in a way that simulates and enhances reality," says MIT doctoral student Rebecca Mitchell, a former math teacher who works on developing the game's curriculum.
"Students can act as if they are CIA agents trying to figure out why aliens have been found on Earth through augmented reality. At the same time, I wanted to make sure the curriculum is created carefully, as too often I have encountered curriculum that was showy or exciting but with little quality in terms of mathematics instruction," adds Mitchell.
Alien Contact! has been piloted in two Massachusetts schools so far. Based upon preliminary data, AR is a highly engaging environment for students who struggle within the limited instructional approach of a traditional classroom. The issue of engagement isn't the biggest concern, Dunleavy says. "Alien Contact! is driven by pop culture.... We thought about what interests kids and designed around these topics," he says. "The challenge is figuring out how to leverage the technology using good pedagogy that will translate into meaningful learning."
For MIT ed school researchers, another question is how to measure the effects of augmented reality on students' learning when, as Dede cautions, they aren't straightforward.
"What constitutes success?" Dede asks. "If the test scores are identical compared to conventional curricula, but the students are also mastering 21st-century skills and are excited about learning, then these are other important dimensions of educational quality to consider.