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Archive for March, 2012

The witching hour

March 29, 2012 2 comments

Tonight is that horrible witching hour after the marking period has ended, but before teachers must turn in their grades. You may have been monitoring your child’s grades closely for the last nine weeks, and thought things were going well. But during the witching hour, you will suddenly see graded assignments pop up on the Home Access Center, assignments that you never heard of before, and never had a chance to discuss with your child. Or tests that you never knew about, and never had a chance to help or remind your child to study for. Or maybe even grades made up out of thin air.

If you are unlucky, some of these new assignments will have grades low enough to drop the letter grade that was reported by HAC only the day before. Or you may find out that an assignment you never knew about was not turned in. But it’s too late, there’s nothing you can do at the end of the marking period. Communication FAIL.

If only the teacher had posted the assignment when it was assigned, instead of procrastinating until the very last possible minute…

Check HAC every day this week. And now that the new marking period has begun, remind your teachers to enter assignments and tests before they are due.

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Why Delaware schools need a Parent Dashboard

March 26, 2012 2 comments

In those heady early days after Delaware’s Race To The Top grant was awarded, Governor Markell blogged about the Education Insight project, announcing a Teacher Dashboard as well as a Parent Dashboard:

Another significant element of our education reform plan is the improved collection and use of data. Teachers, school leaders and parents need real feedback in real time to determine how our students are doing, so we are building systems to make that possible.

This will eventually include a new Parent Dashboard that will enable parents to go online at anytime and see critical measures and data regarding their children’s progress. The “Insight Portal” will pilot in Fall 2011, starting with dashboards for teachers, and the Parent Dashboards should become available in the 2011-2012 school year.

Now in March 2012, the Governor’s 2010 blog post seems like a bit of irrational exuberance. The Teacher Dashboard is due this month (delayed by amendment), and the first public sighting is eagerly awaited. And a Parent Dashboard isn’t on the drawing board. According to DDOE last month:

The state will focus on the needs of parents in later phases. Currently work is not being done on a parent dashboard and planned work will take us thorough 2013.

In fairness, DDOE also points out that parents currently have access to the dashboard-like Home Access Center, but teachers don’t yet have an integrated view for all their data. So the first priority is the Teacher Dashboard.

However, the same amendment that delayed the Teacher Dashboard from August 2011 to March 2012 also promised with maddening ambiguity to “Complete the expansion of the Dashboard to support other user groups by March 2013.” Who are those other user groups, if not parents? Administrators, perhaps?

There is good reason to begin planning for a Parent Dashboard now, and a good reason to do it ourselves instead of continuing to rely on the proprietary Home Access Center (HAC). We should go through the exercise of defining requirements and scoping the work for a Parent Dashboard. Even if we don’t go through with building it, the exercise will help us understand how to use our current system to increase student performance and parent involvement.

The main requirement for a Parent Dashboard should be that it completely replaces all the features of the Home Access Center, and then exceeds them by adding new data and new features using the power of the Education Insight infrastructure.

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Hey kid – Forgot to write down the assignment? HA-HA!!

March 21, 2012 4 comments

Recently I went to a PTA meeting. I brought my son with me, figuring he could sit in the library and do his homework. The meeting started, and he opened up his books and found that for one class, he had not written down the assignment and didn’t know what it was. As teachers will freely tell you, there is a lot of activity packed into each class now, so it is not surprising that students sometimes miss this task as they are marched through their prescribed instructional paces.

So he checked the Home Access Center, where teachers record assignments, and found for that class, HAC had not been updated for two weeks. We got home around 9pm, too late to call around for information. It would be nice if the teacher lets him turn the assignment in late, but that’s not really what we want. We want to do it on time.

It’s time to move past the horse-and-buggy concept of flashing the assignment up on the board or even verbally, and expecting all 25 students to capture it in the brief time they are there. It is a cruel game of “Now you see it, now you don’t.” We are smarter now and have better communication tools – let’s use them.

Homework policies are all full of platitudes about “responsibility” but are pathetically indifferent to the school’s responsibility to communicate the assignments. Communication of schoolwork should meet three criteria: It should be persistent, asynchronous, and accessible. [Update: I’ll add a fourth requirement; communication must be timely. Which in this case can only mean one thing: before the due date].

All of these criteria are met by publishing assignments in the Home Access Center (or whatever your parent gradebook portal is) in advance of their due dates.

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Q: What’s the first thing parents need in order to be engaged with their child’s schoolwork?

March 19, 2012 6 comments

A: They need to know what the assignment is and when it is due.

I like Jay Mathews. He writes a Washington Post education blog called Class Struggle. Jay writes populist, parent-oriented posts that are accessible and deceptively easy to read, describing practical issues you may have experienced yourself.

Mathews wrote a post a few years ago called When teachers reject the Internet. It described the struggle of Tracy Thompson, a parent of two daughters with ADHD. Even with a 504 plan, Ms. Thompson simply could not get their teachers to use their Internet-based tools to communicate upcoming assignments in advance of the due dates.

In a way, it is unfortunate that Mr. Mathews’s post frames this as a special-ed issue. The web tools have improved and are so universal and easy to use now, that there is no excuse for every teacher not to use them to communicate upcoming assignments to every parent and student.

Today’s powerful web-based gradebooks offer home portals for parents and students to view assignments and grades online. Some – like Delaware’s Home Access Center (eSchoolPLUS) – even allow teachers to electronically attach handouts, instructions, or other documents, so they can be downloaded at home.

So to communicate assignments online, all the teachers have to do is enter them in their gradebook – which they are already doing. No more updating and formatting of individual teacher websites.

But unfortunately, teachers still do not consistently post assignments before they are due, often entering them only after they have been graded. That’s too late to help students or their parents who want to make sure tests get studied for and homework gets done on time.

Teachers have a variety of reasons for not communicating assignments online. These seem to fall into three categories:

1. “I don’t have to.” Okay, fair enough. Most districts don’t require teachers to enter assignments until after they are graded. This is an unfortunate waste of a powerful parent involvement tool that is already paid for, but is left on the table.

2. “It takes too much time.” No it doesn’t. Teachers are already required to enter the assignment and the grade into their gradebooks. It takes no more time to enter it before the due date than after it. And teachers might be pleasantly surprised that by providing this timely information to all parents, they might eliminate a lot of time responding to parents one-on-one with email and phone calls.

3. “Withholding this information teaches students responsibility.” This is the reason I have the biggest problem with. All it does is deny the tools for students to take responsibility. The important thing is to get the student to do the work, not to play out some moral drama about how the assignment was communicated.

Last week, Jay Mathews updated Ms. Thompson’s story with a new post, still focused on the ADHD accommodations angle for the younger daughter, now in fifth grade. Ms. Thompson had requested that teachers check her daughter’s backpack before coming home, to make sure all assignments were properly recorded and necessary resources were packed. Teachers were balking at this task and were not doing it consistently. I felt sympathy for everybody involved, but I kept wanting to shout “Use the online communication tools!! It’ll be easier for everybody!!”

I suspect a lot of students with and without ADHD would be helped by having timely access to assignments for themselves and their parents.

IB Diploma program approved at Dickinson

March 17, 2012 1 comment

Red Clay’s John Dickinson High School won approval Thursday to offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma, following a successful two-and-a-half year effort to prepare for the program requirements. Dickinson joins Mount Pleasant as the second high school in Delaware to offer the IB Diploma.

From Red Clay’s announcement:

Fifteen Dickinson teachers have been training for two years to teach the IB model, which emphasizes rigorous academics and students making a positive contribution to their school and community.

Approval also included a visit and interviews with a “validation team” representing the IB Board of Governors, a 17-member elected body based in Switzerland that has overseen and protected implementation of the IB model for 35 years.

The IB Diploma is a two-year program for grades 11-12. The diploma is internationally recognized and valued by top-tier universities, some of whom may allow IB graduates to skip freshman year and enter college as a sophomore:

The IB Diploma Programme is designed as an academically challenging and balanced programme of education with final examinations that prepares students, normally aged 16 to 19, for success at university and life beyond. The programme is normally taught over two years and has gained recognition and respect from the world’s leading universities.

The University of Delaware, for example, allows incoming students to skip many courses based on their IB test scores.

Dickinson will begin offering the diploma program next fall, with the first class graduating in 2014. Even prior to approval, a group of 23 students entered Dickinson as ninth-graders in 2010 with the intention of being the first IB Diploma graduates in 2014.

Other changes are coming to Dickinson too. Red Clay:

The school’s IB program was a main part of a redesign of the instructional offerings at Dickinson announced in January 2010. In addition to the IB program, the school is converting into a STEM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and is upgrading and expanding its Career and Technical (CTE) programs.

Congratulations to the Dickinson community, and to Principal Byron Murphy and everybody who helped bring the IB program to Dickinson!

Ed-Fi standard Version 1.0 released

March 14, 2012 1 comment

Version 1.0 of the Ed-Fi specification and some sample code has been released and is now open for public comment, according to an email from the project’s sponsor, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. If you are a developer or other person interested in Delaware’s Education Insight project, this should be of interest to you.

Ed-Fi provides a data specification sponsored by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and apparently developed by Double Line Partners and other members of the Shared Learning Collaborative.

Delaware uses parts of the Ed-Fi specification for the data that populates the forthcoming Teacher Dashboards (as well as any future dashboards). Ed-Fi also provides dashboard examples which define the types of reporting and analysis provided by the dashboards, and which were relied on heavily to develop Delaware’s Teacher Dashboards.

The comment period for Version 1.0 had been closed but is now re-opened following some changes. Unfortunately the Ed-Fi forum has been closed, and now the only way to comment is by a contact form that goes to MSDF. I’ve got a few comments, and I’ll post them here when I submit them.

Here’s the Ed-Fi tech docs, the comment form, and the code repository. Here is Delaware’s site for the Ed-Fi-based metrics that underlie the Education Insight project.

There appears to be some fast talking about whether the Ed-Fi code is open-source or not as promised by the Shared learning Consortium (looks like it’s not). So I’m not sure if there is a way for the public to obtain the code. But all the documentation is online, so at this point I don’t really feel the need to see the code.

DCASapalooza!

March 12, 2012 3 comments

Yes, there will be not one but two rounds of DCAS tests this spring, with the testing “window” opening today and not closing again until June 1, twelve weeks later. This means your child could have a DCAS test at any moment, quite possibly without warning or advance notice.

It may or may not be a good idea to allow students the opportunity to take the test again and maximize their score, since the spring score is the one that reveals growth since the fall. That is debatable.

My objection is in keeping the testing window open for twelve weeks. DCAS testing is enormously disruptive to a school, especially when you don’t know when the tests are coming. It’s like waiting for the cable guy to come. I would encourage each school to narrow their own windows as much as possible, and post the new dates prominently on all their available channels of communication. And then to notify each parent in advance of their child’s DCAS test dates.

In our school at least, at DCAS time computer labs are shut down for testing, stress placed on library computer facilities, class schedule shifted and instruction time lost, due dates skewed and miscommunicated, regular computer lab classes placed in holding rooms, and more. And then again for make-up testing.

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