State Sen. Mike Johnston: An Up and Comer in Education Reform

bigstock-education-reform-school-refo-48690005Why should Americans concerned about education know the name of a state senator from Colorado? Because he, and others like him who are willing to work across the aisle, are likely to be the face of American education reform of the future.

State Senator Mike Johnston has quite the pedigree: Ivy League undergrad (Yale), Teach for America English teacher for 2 years in the impoverished Mississippi delta and a book about the experience to boot, work for President Obama’s 2008 campaign on education, then Master’s degrees in education and law, followed by becoming principal of a new model school in Denver, finally followed by his entrance into politics in Colorado. At only age 39, Johnston should, in many ways, be the darling of corporate model education reform and the enemy of traditional public school advocates, yet the reality is different. Johnston has developed a reputation as someone who is willing to sit down and talk with anyone in hopes of helping American students. As such, he is a model for anyone concerned with American education reform.

As one example, when he was selected to give the commencement address at Harvard (one of his Master’s degrees is from there), some students spoke out aggressively against the choice. Rather than fight back or back out, he volunteered to meet those opposed to him the day before his commencement address. The session lasted two hours, and laid the groundwork for a commencement address that garnered a standing ovation.

The fact that he is diplomatic and a good listener does not, however, mean that he is not ideological. Here is a brief segment from a recently published article:

Johnston really got teachers’ backs up in 2010 when he spearheaded a law that mandated a new teacher evaluation regime, using tests to measure student improvement. It also remade the state’s teacher tenure law — a controversial form of job protection that a California court just struck down — making it easier to fire veteran teachers and changing how teachers are reassigned to new positions, prompting a lawsuit from the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union.

While this might seem like an ideologue out to punish teachers unions, don’t pigeonhole him so quickly:

The CEA is, however, working with Johnston and other supporters of the bill to implement the new evaluation system, which is still in the process of being rolled out. They also teamed up to try and pass legislation that would have fundamentally remade the school funding system in Colorado, directing more money to high-needs districts and students and raising taxes to bring in more cash for schools. The effort was rejected handily in a public referendum last fall.

Obviously more work and time are needed before united efforts at reform will have a chance to succeed, but efforts like this in which both parties discuss options and work together certainly offer promise for the future.

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Are Multiplayer Games the Future of Education?

gamification_wordle1Melanie Plenda at The Atlantic Education recently described a new trend in American education that shows promise to attract strong student attention and help engage long term memory: Gamification.

The idea of turning learning into games that students play is not new, but some of the research surrounding it is, as is the idea of completely integrating the game model into the entire makeup of the class. One of the biggest proponents of gamification is Lee Sheldon, an associate professor at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute’ Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences Program. When he began as a professor at RPI, he taught in the traditional lecture fashion.

“I got bored very quickly with myself,” he says. “If I was getting bored, you can imagine how the students were feeling. I thought, ‘Well, you dummy, you’re a game designer. Why don’t you make the entire class into a game?’ So I did that and things went really well.”

Another proponent of the gamification model is Joey Lee, a research assistant professor of Technology and Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. He says, “The goal is to change the student’s mindset to a mastery orientation­—to promote motivation, engagement, active learning­—and to cultivate 21st century skills like collaboration, problem solving, creativity and systems thinking. Learning looks very different today, so we need to move away from the Industrial Revolution one-size-fits-all model that still plagues much of education.”

Most gamified classrooms, although at this point there is much diversity within gamification, function under a system where students gain experience points (xp), which translate into grades but are more favorable at showing student progress. Another common feature is group problem solving.

Overall, one of the great benefits of the gamification model, if it is done well, is that the “incentives” or “rewards” are built into the system. In other words, what students get for success on one element of the game or one project is the chance to move forward into a new, more challenging aspect of the game, which is also of course the academic content of the class. This way, the real reward is learning, not just badges for completing tasks.

See the article in The Atlantic:

Following is a link to a more scholarly article about gamification (simply click on where it says “view raw”):


Shooting Bottle Rockets at the Moon: Overcoming the Legacy of Incremental Education Reform

Brown Center on Education Policy | Brookings InstitutionThomas Kane, of the Harvard School of Education and writing for the Brookings Institution, has recently penned an important article describing an aggressive plan for helping American students catch up with their international peers over the next 10 years. Kane produces calculations that reveal that incremental reforms are unlikely to be aggressive enough to allow American students to catch up. He instead proposes a combination of four reforms that, together, are likely strong enough in effect size to provide real solutions, not empty promises, to improving American education:

  1. Making better personnel decisions at tenure time
  2. Providing feedback to allow teachers to improve their practice
  3. Integrating more rigorous standards and assessments
  4. Offering a more personalized learning environment

On the first, while recognizing that methods of evaluating teacher success based on value-added measures comes with its own set of problems, Kane also believes that using data to “not retain” the lowest performing teachers is essential to progress.

Second, citing evidence from an interesting study in Cincinnati schools, Kane urges an increased effort to provide feedback to teachers based on classroom observations.

Third, Kane references the successes of Massachusetts and Washington D.C. at sustaining improved student achievement. He argues that their success sets them apart from other states because they have sustained success through use of effective testing.

Overall, these three reforms, Kane argues, should be pursued because their efficacy can be clearly proven through vetted data. The fourth one, he admits, is more tenuous, but he still believes shows a good chance for success.

On the fourth, Kane cites efforts in Houston to implement certain tactics employed by charter schools, such as new school leadership, selective retention of teaching staff based on prior evaluations (including value-added), providing better feedback to teachers, a longer school day and year, intensive tutoring, and data-driven instruction in public schools. What Kane calls “a more personalized learning environment” is in many ways another way to talk about bringing effective practices from charter schools into public schools.

According to Kane, a combination of these four reforms will provide documentable progress in the next ten years that will allow the US to reach the upper echelon of global student achievement.

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The Rise of Networks: How Decentralized Management Is Improving Schools

NYnetworks-report-coverMaureen Kelleher at the Center For American Progress has written an interesting piece describing how several urban school districts have experimented with different school networks. The preliminary findings suggest that other urban school districts should be willing to let their schools create networks of common interests to help those schools that need it most.

School districts across the country are shifting away from their traditional management paradigm-a central office that directs its schools through uniform mandates and policies-toward a new vision where district leaders support autonomous schools while holding them accountable for student performance. School-district leaders recognize that greater school autonomy requires rethinking their models of management and support. During a pilot program in New York City, an initial cohort of 26 schools organized itself into four networks of schools that worked together to solve common problems. Today, New York City’s public schools are affiliated in networks based on a common interest: a similar type of school; a common instructional approach; or a similar target population.

This report describes the current state of school networks in New York City and outlines the successes and challenges the city has faced in implementing school networks. It also explores how networks have been implemented in other cities-Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; and Denver, Colorado-to show how the school-network concept has been adapted to a variety of local contexts.

Here are some key preliminary findings:

  • Networks can deliver district supports more effectively than traditional central-office departments. Organizing district support by cross-functional teams responsive to a small group of schools builds greater trust between school leaders and their district and helps district-level staff better understand the needs of the schools they serve. Network teams can serve as a single point of contact between principals and district leaders, which gives principals more time to focus on teachers and instruction.
  • Networks can open the door to collaborative problem solving among groups of schools, leading to improved student outcomes. New York City educational leaders report that a handful of high-performing school networks used cross-school collaboration to make significant strides in school improvement during the 2011-12 school year. However, New York City’s networks have had varying degrees of success fostering such collaboration across their schools. In Chicago, an externally managed, voluntary network of high schools has improved graduation and college entrance rates for students. Other cities have made less effort to use school networks as a tool for cross-school collaboration.
  • Outsourcing can enhance networks, but locale is key. In cities such as New York, where robust educational nonprofit sectors exist, external partners can lead networks of schools in instructional improvement. However, New York City’s experience with outside networks indicates that external partners still need district liaisons to solve problems with operations. In cities with a weaker base of educational nonprofits, district staff must continue to lead both operational troubleshooting and instructional improvement.

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Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative

teacher poweredEducation Evolving launched the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative at the Education Writers Association’s 67th National Seminar’s “Teachers Take Charge” panel discussion.

The launch is especially timely given the release of Education Evolving’s new national survey data that that reveal overwhelming public support and teacher interest in a professional partnership model of teacher leadership, or “teacher-powered schools.”

This new initiative is laser-focused on improving student learning and making teaching a better job for teachers. Teacher-powered schools aim to transform K-12 education in the U.S. – not from the top-down, but from the ground up – by cultivating a collaborative school governance structure where teachers, principals, parents and community leaders are empowered to work together toward a shared vision of what students, schools and education could achieve.

Here are five ways you can learn more, get involved and spread the word today:

1.       Visit Visit the new website with critical resources for teachers, district administrators, charter authorizers and policymakers on ways to create a teacher-powered school and get involved.

2.       Read the latest research report: Check out new national survey data that illustrates the widespread public and teacher interest in the concept.

3.       Forward this blog post: Share information about teacher-powered schools with those who are interested in issues of teacher leadership and school-based decision making.

4.       Follow and share on Facebook and Twitter: Share the news about the initiative with your social networks! (#EWA14, #teacherpowered)

5.       Sign-up for email updates: Simply visit and submit your email for e-news updates on teacher-powered schools.

The new report from Education Evolving on Teacher-Powered Schools reveals first-of-its-kind national survey data on teacher leadership. It just may challenge your assumptions on teacher-led innovation in K-12 education.


Bill Gates and the Common Core

med_gatesfoundationRecently, Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post wrote a lengthy story concerning the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in fostering the Common Core State Standards. If you haven’t already seen the full article, you should read it (see below for the link). For now, we will summarize it for you.

The article is an important look into the way that charitable donations affect American education. The article is also timely because states will be officially rolling out Common Core this coming school year, even as South Carolina and Oklahoma recently repealed Common Core in their states.

While the article never openly declares a position on the Common Core or how it came to be so pervasive in American education, the subtext clearly is that Americans concerned about education should follow the money trail. In other words, the most compelling evidence given in the article is that advocacy organizations, states, school districts, and think-tanks that leaned toward both sides of the political spectrum have accepted money from the Gates Foundation, in the order of millions of dollars, to carry out research about Common Core. In an era of budget cuts since the Great Recession of 2008, Layton speculates that organizations and states had a financial incentive to accept the extremely well-funded Common Core agenda.

In addition to the article, there is a nearly 30 minute video interview with Bill Gates, which at times grows tense. Gates stands by his assertion that supporting Common Core has everything to do with philanthropy on behalf of American students who have been underserved by the American school system and nothing to do with any sort of political or business agenda.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the article, whatever your political and/or beliefs about the Common Core are, is its consideration of how swiftly such a sweeping change to American education was able to come about. What has taken place with Common Core since 2008 is staggering when compared with the incremental changes to American public education that have occurred in previous decades.

Following is the link to the article, which also contains the video:


Time for Teachers: Leveraging Time to Strengthen Instruction and Empower Teachers

National-Center-for-Time-Leaning-logoAs demands on teachers increase, schools across the country are expanding their calendars to give teachers more time to collaborate and develop new skills. Recently, NCTL unveiled its newest report at an event in Washington, D.C. co-hosted with Teach Plus.

Time for Teachers: Leveraging Time to Strengthen Instruction and Empower Teachers looks at how expanded-time schools leverage their schedules to support teacher leadership and development. This emphasis on effectively utilizing teachers’ time is particularly important as states implement the more rigorous Common Core State Standards, new teacher evaluation systems, and strategies to turn around persistently low-performing schools.

Time for Teachers examines 17 high-performing and rapidly-improving schools around the country that have taken advantage of expanded school schedules to provide students with more time for engaging academic and enrichment classes while providing teachers with more time to collaborate with colleagues, analyze student data, create new lesson plans, and develop new skills.

The report includes a series of recommendations for practitioners interested in implementing the strategies outlined in the report, along with recommendations for policymakers looking to support teacher excellence.

Three of the recommendations for policymakers include:  

  • Advance policies that enable schools to implement an expanded school schedule that offers teachers more time for professional learning;
  • Incentivize and fund high-quality, school-embedded professional learning communities; and
  • Support job-embedded professional development as part of the training for the Common Core

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Ten Years of Research on Teacher Quality

10 Year Focus on Teacher Quality - The Joyce Foundation



Ten years ago, education leaders, policy makers, and philanthropists caught on to what parents already knew: In a school, teachers are the most important factor determining whether a student succeeds in the classroom. A decade ago, the Joyce Foundation decided to fund research and advocacy on the importance of placing a highly effective teacher in each classroom, the best ways to identify and reward excellent teachers, and ways to support those who need additional help improving their work.

As momentum built and research made the case for reform, school districts across the country began to reexamine the role and importance of our nation’s educators.
Coinciding with The Joyce Foundation’s ten-year focus on teacher quality, the foundation commissioned Bellwether Education Partners to produce Genuine Progress, Great Challenges: A Decade of Teacher Effectiveness Reforms, a report that documents how the teacher quality movement took hold and propelled policy changes in dozens of states. The report also highlights key findings, best practices and case studies from a decade’s worth of research and action. And it details the work that lies ahead.

Here are the 5 key recommendations to policymakers that the report elaborates upon:

• You can’t people-proof systems in education. Current evaluation systems are a substantial improvement over previous policies. But are these the tools that will create a genuinely professional ethos for teachers? Evaluation systems should complement metric-driven systems with true managerial discretion. Districts should train and support managers and hold them accountable for their professional decisions.

• Professionalize professional development. The existing body of literature on professional development is extremely limited, but teachers must be supported in their work. Policymakers should identify and promote professional development that improves educator practice and student achievement. Evaluations should align with professional development for the purposes of growth and improvement, not just performance management.

• Open and expand teacher preparation. Teacher preparation is a difficult sector to reform, but doing so is key to improving teacher quality overall. Policymakers should increase rigor and quality in teacher preparation but also end protectionism of traditional preparation programs and open preparation to greater competition.

• Address productivity. Current education policy is often additive rather than productivity focused. Policymakers should find ways to promote productivity by better deploying the existing pool of teacher talent or improving how technology is used in schools and classrooms.

• Address the politics. Education is inherently political and the American debate about public education is special interest dominated. School improvement requires a robust political strategy to support its educational strategy.

It is comforting to see that a research report ten years in the making confirms many of the initiatives being championed by education reformers.

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Projected Statewide Impact of “Opportunity Culture” School Models

Opportunity CultureThe impact of “Opportunity Culture” schools could be students gaining years of learning, and teachers earning hundreds of thousands more over their careers.

In a major policy brief out, Public Impact estimates what a state would gain by implementing “Opportunity Culture” models statewide, using North Carolina as an example for analysis. Opportunity Culture models redesign jobs to extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, for more pay, and within budget—typically in collaborative teams on which all teachers can pursue instructional excellence together and are formally accountable for all of the students they serve.

Using conservative assumptions to analyze the cumulative impact over one generation of students, or approximately 16 years of implementation, in three-fourths of North Carolina’s classrooms, Public Impact’s analysis projects that:

  • Students on average would gain 3.4 more years’ worth of learning than in a traditional school model in the K-12 years.
  • Teachers leading teams would earn up to $848,000 more in a 35-year career, with considerably higher figures possible for large-span teacher-leader roles not included in this analysis.
  • Teachers joining teams to extend their reach could earn approximately an additional $240,000 over their careers.
  • State income tax revenue would be up to $700 million higher in present-value terms over 16 years of implementation.
  • State domestic product would increase by $4.6 billion to $7.7 billion in present-value terms over the next 16 years.

The authors project that teachers leading teams in states with pay closer to the national average would earn up to $1 million more in a 35-year career. Public Impact has separately suggested that a 10 percent average base pay increase is also needed for teachers in North Carolina, where pay is near the bottom nationally.

The brief provides an analytical framework that any state could use to estimate the benefits of transitioning to higher-paid school models that extend highly effective teachers’ reach. It addresses the ways a state could make the transition to these Opportunity Culture models, and some of the critical policy conditions needed for the transition.

Public Impact’s analysis projects that children would acquire more than three extra years’ worth of learning in a K-12 career-which would translate into average lifetime earnings increases of $100,000 to $130,000 per student, according to research showing the link between student achievement and lifetime earnings potential.

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School Districts Get Advice on ‘Doing More With Less': Report reflects new realities

Spending-Money-Wisely-AD-on-DMJWith America’s public schools unlikely to return to past funding levels in the near future, the District Management Council ( released a policy guide this week to help districts thrive, rather than just survive, within the constraints of their new fiscal realities.

In the main report, “Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most From School District Budgets,” the council lists 10 high-impact opportunities that it says helps school systems “do more with less.” The Boston-based nonprofit, which helps its member districts with management issues, will begin posting a set of papers outlining specific steps to implement the cost-saving measures, on its website.

The Top 10 steps that school districts can take to manage their funds more effectively, according to the District Management Council’s latest research:

1. Calculating the academic return on investment of existing programs

2. Managing student-enrollment projections to meet class-size targets

3. Evaluating and adjusting remediation and intervention staffing levels

4. Adopting politically acceptable ways to increase class size or teachers’ workload

5. Spending federal entitlement grants to leverage their flexibility

6. Adopting more-efficient and higher-quality reading programs

7. Improving the cost-effectiveness of professional development

8. Rethinking how items are purchased

9. Lowering the cost of extended learning time

10. Targeting new investments by eliminating inefficient and unsuccessful strategies

One overall conclusion from this list is that evaluating current systems to find flexibility and chances for reform is a crucial strategy.

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