Fake News and Media Literacy: A Student-Driven Journey

“When you can’t distinguish between the truth and fake news, you have a very much more difficult time trying to solve some of the great issues that we face” (Amanpour, 2017).

The future of democracy rests on our students’ abilities to interpret and respond to the world around them effectively.  Media literacy stands as a crucial pillar among the myriad of objectives we hope to achieve through our formal education systems – from life skills and reading strategies to content standards and performance frameworks. Ultimately, teaching students about media literacy is about preserving institutions of freedom and self-determination around the world.

This paper aims to demonstrate the significance of news and media literacy skills in contemporary affairs and thereby underscore the value of engaging in rich, meaningful learning experiences about news literacy skills with our students.  As a case study, an example of how my students embarked on a unique media literacy instructional unit is described.  Considerations for future learning and instructional opportunities are reflected upon.  Finally, broader considerations for practitioners are offered to further enhance the study of news media literacy.

Impact and Context: Fake News Examples, Incentives, and Technology

The significance of these efforts is a crucial starting point to consider.  No matter where they are or what topic they’re studying, our students must possess the skills to reliably decipher the sea of information they find at their fingertips.  Students must carefully apply critical thinking practices in order to analyze news media content and make informed decisions accordingly. Conversely, if our students lack a robust understanding of media literacy skills, their ideas and perceptions on any number of topics can lead them toward actions that have profoundly negative effects on democratic institutions.

Consider several recent examples in the United States.  In 2012, following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, fabricated claims arose within online networks and social media outlets suggesting that rogue citizens had perpetrated a fraud.  Perhaps they didn’t actually have children who attended the school or, the writers alleged, the shooting didn’t actually occur at all, but rather was a false-flag or entirely fabricated event.   Conspiracy theorists sent death threats to parents, forcing them not only to re-experience the trauma of losing a child, but also to begin fearing for their own physical safety (Berman, 2017).

More recently, when chatter within online communities falsely alleged that a pizza restaurant was also housing, “a vast child sex-trafficking ring,” one convinced reader took it upon himself to enter the restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle to “rescue” the children.  Several shots were fired, but luckily no one was physically harmed in the event.  Upon realizing that he had been fooled, the assailant plead guilty to several crimes (Berman, 2017).

Perhaps the most prominent example in American political discourse – an issue that at the time of writing continues to be the subject of a Special Counsel investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation – is the issue of using news media to manipulate public opinion in order to influence a national election.  Indeed, compelling evidence suggests that state-sponsored actions have sought to sway readers toward one political party or another – demonstrating the importance of media literacy in sustaining democratic institutions (see Confessore and Wakabayashi, 2017; Cox, 2017; Darby, 2017; Davey-Attlee and Soares, 2017; Howard et al., 2017; and Rutenberg, 2017).

In each case outlined above, misleading and manipulative information fueled misinformed actions.  Certainly, additional examples have pervaded classroom activities during current events lessons or real-world discussions, causing teachers to address misconceptions or question assumptions of the original claim.  Berman (2017) has documented how government officials have similarly spent substantial time and energy addressing concerns and upholding confidence in bureaucratic institutions during public dialogues about false news stories.  Helping our students build deep understandings about media strategies and news literacy will hopefully limit future cases.

Unfortunately, additional context only confirms that strong incentives will continue to underwrite an endless swarm of deliberately false, so-called “fake news,” organizations, making steeper the mountain educators must help students climb.  Numerous commentators have noted how lucrative the fake news business can be.  Ohlheiser (2016) asserts that by selling ads on false content, writers can make thousands of dollars a month by pushing stories on Facebook.  Berman (2017) shares the story of a Maryland political consultant who earned $22,000 during the 2016 American presidential campaign.  At it’s height, the consultant’s website was valued at $125,000.

Davey-Attlee and Soares (2017) interviewed a young Macedonia writer using the pseudonym “Mikhail” who stated, “At 22, I was earning more than someone [in Macedonia] will ever earn in his entire life.”  These stories highlight how, particularly for writers living in developing areas around the globe, there is a strong potential for financial incentives to overcome moral or ethical considerations when producing fake news media. Mikhail, a law school dropout, stated that he was using his profits to send his younger sister to school and purchase a house. So how will Mikhail and others like him respond to increased attention to fake news and media literacy?  During his interview he noted, “My primary goal is to prepare a site like I was having before, to be ready for the next election in America.”

Technological advancements also exacerbate the trend by empowering the production of fake news.  Indeed, Joseph Cox, a cybersecurity journalist, describes assembling a digital fake news team of up to 45,000 proxy accounts on Twitter for only $100 per week (2017).  Methods to combine numerous facial images together to create a high-resolution portrait – an image of a person who doesn’t actually exist in the real world – have been fine-tuned (Shah, 2017; Karras et al., 2018).  As these digital technologies continue to advance, the authenticity of visual texts and information will come into question.  A team of engineers from the University of Washington have likewise developed a program that aligns former President Obama’s voice with lip-synced videos of him speaking, allowing them to create videos of Obama saying statements he didn’t necessarily say, using his own voice (Suwajanakorn, Seitz, and Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, 2016). To an untrained eye, these videos can be extremely convincing. When it comes to contemporary digital media, the old adage that “seeing is believing” no longer applies.

Anecdotally, teachers are well aware that students are not immune to misinformation and misleading information.  Students often struggle to determine fact from fiction when reading, but a seminal study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) determined just how critical these challenges are (2016). SHEG researchers assessed a sampling of middle school, high school, and college students and came to particularly dismal results.  One extraordinary finding noted that over 80% of students failed to determine that information was an advertisement, even when the information contained a label reading “sponsored content” within it (2016).  Qualitative evidence confirmed that students believed such content was an actual news story rather than a paid advertisement. The report described student’s abilities to evaluate information as “bleak,” noting that students are “easily duped” (2016).

Even when students are able to utilize social media to access online information, their savvy in navigating social media websites often does not match their actual media literacy skills.  SHEG notes, “despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information” (Stanford History Education Group, 2016). Furthermore, such skills are not randomly distributed, but tend to be favor traditionally privileged populations.  Empirical evidence confirms that socioeconomic status can be a strong predicting factor in determining media literacy and using the internet in informed ways (Hargittai, 2010).

Experts don’t agree on whether these conditions will improve over time. A study by Pew Research Center (2017) canvassed over a thousand “technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and others” about the following issue:

“The rise of “fake news” and the proliferation of doctored narratives that are spread by humans and bots online are challenging publishers and platforms. Those trying to stop the spread of false information are working to design technical and human systems that can weed it out and minimize the ways in which bots and other schemes spread lies and misinformation. The question: In the next 10 years, will trusted methods emerge to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem? Or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?”

Respondents then had to pick between one of the responses below:

“The information environment will improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will be IMPROVED by changes that reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.”

Or, alternatively:

“The information environment will NOT improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will NOT BE improved by changes designed to reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.”

The responses were split 51% to 49%, with the majority selecting that they did not expect improvements to our environment (Pew Research Center, 2017).

The examples above demonstrate the significance of media literacy.  Moving forward, more stories of misinformed actions will undoubtedly emerge. Until incentives change, the actors who are creating misleading information are here to stay.  Technological developments will only exacerbate avenues for manipulation.  And as our students already struggle to build and maintain media literacy skills, the future seems grim.  Each illustration serves to underscore the imperative nature of teaching media literacy skills.  Indeed these efforts not only benefit the private good of each individual student but also, in the longer-term, the collective, public good.

Instructional Activities: A Case Study

How ought educators respond to this environment?  How can we best-prepare students to overcome such bleak circumstances?  What instructional activities and educational experiences might we co-create to address these concerns?  What follows is one example of an instructional unit for practitioners to consider.

Introductory Activities

The following instructional unit is designed for a secondary-level English Language Arts course in the United States.  It was taught in a small-classroom setting, with a group of seven students.  We had ample access to technology, though our primary digital tool was 1:1 laptops.  I had originally planned a framework of activities aligned to various sets of learning standards used in the United States, though our objectives and experiences broadened as students took more ownership of the unit.  All in all, we focused on our media literacy project for four weeks of class time.

To begin, I utilized the term “fake news” as a hook to lure student attention.  I designed a provocative slideshow of “fake news” examples and progressed through them as my students and I discussed the perils of being tricked by misleading information.  At the conclusion of the slides, I stated that we were opening a unit about media literacy and stated several objectives.  In short, our goals were to determine what it meant to demonstrate media literacy, practice various media literacy tasks, and showcase our skills by creating a summative learning product that demonstrated high literacy skills.

Given the inherently political nature of “Fake news,” we next proceeded to discussing group expectations and mores.   I told my students that I foresaw moments when our topics would include current events and activities that would deconstruct practices of major political parties, even those they might consider themselves to be followers of.  We discussed ways to give and receive feedback that would allow them to express their views while still demonstrating respect and empathy.  I noted that we were studying this because it was both a current event as well as an important collection of skills for students to master.  We talked about how at some point we would undoubtedly have moments where they disagreed with their peers, and I asked them how we should handle those moments.  What does it look like to respectfully disagree?  What are some statements you can use to acknowledge a person’s perspective but state appropriately that your opinion differs?  How can we show that we like and respect a person even if we disagree with their ideas?  We practiced several examples where a student would be provided with information that contradicted one of their longstanding beliefs.

These conversations were crucial to the success of this unit. I was fortunate to have students of all political stripes in my class.  The diversity of perspectives enabled us to have many back-and-forth respectful conversations about politics.  One early takeaway for me was that these types of conversations don’t happen enough in schools today.

Direct Instruction

After our initial discussions, the students completed a carousel activity, which had them read a bank of articles about fake news, fact-checking, and news validity.  Instead of using the hypothetical situations we discussed in the introductory section above, our discussions now focused on real world, factual, historical events.  We reviewed evidence, including the Stanford History Education Group’s seminal study (2016), that demonstrated the extent many students lack news literacy skills.  As we discussed the resulting implications, some students were initially skeptical and perhaps overconfident in their own abilities.  But, after reading some additional examples from other articles, the class reached a verbal consensus that the recent boom of fake news was clearly a problem – both in terms of upholding journalistic integrity as well as in the demonstrated lack of student abilities. These activities established buy-in for the students.  In this way, they had agreed with and helped identify the significance and rationale for our learning.

Group Instruction & Independent Activities

To build initial background information, we began with a modified version of instructional materials designed by iCivics, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  iCivics creates a multiplicity of instructional materials and games for students, including several documents on journalism, bias, and misinformation.  These activities were traditional tools to build reading comprehension by asking students to review a selection of engaging information and then complete a brief written response activity to demonstrate their understanding of a news literacy concept.

Ultimately, I adapted these materials so we could use them briefly to build some common vocabulary about media literacy.  Additionally, in assessing student’s answers, I quickly learned where student’s preconceived ideas about certain media topics were.  As such, the iCivics materials served as a pre-assessment of student understanding, a measure of what students understood at the beginning of the unit.

Our next activity involved a mix of whole-class and independent, self-paced modules to develop news literacy skills.  I utilized Checkology, an interactive program designed by The News Literacy Project to facilitate hands-on practice activities.  Checkology includes four instructional modules which each contain a variety of videos and activities for students to complete.  The modules teach many different skills and are titled, “Filtering News and Information,” “Exercising Civic Freedoms,” “Navigating Today’s Information Landscape,” and “How to Know What to Believe,” respectively.  During this stage of instruction, my role was that of a facilitator.  I assisted students to navigate the interface of Checkology and I received invaluable qualitative data as students progressed.  Once students submitted work, I was able to provide individualized feedback by commenting on student’s answers and provide tips and tricks to student who needed assistance.  Students received these comments as notifications within the Checkology system.

At times, we completed Checkology tutorials as a group because our conversations enriched everyone’s learning.  Sometimes students completed aspects of the tutorials separately, but over time we gravitated together as everyone seemed to have similar questions as they progressed independently.  Many times, we would pause our individual work on the fly to engage in whole class discussions about the tutorials.  As students made connections between class content and the real world, our conversations often drifted into political commentary as we reflected on how news literacy and truthful, diligent reporting has meaningful consequences on citizenship and public opinion.  On more than a few moments we found ourselves reeling the conversation back to the topic of the lesson, but never did I feel like we hadn’t taken a meaningful sidetrack.  Students need practice talking about politics.  Students need assistance to engage in political conversations respectfully and to complement their arguments with evidence and reason instead of merely appealing to emotions.  If nothing else, we created a space for these conversations to happen.

Summative Assessment: The Birth of a Media Library

This was a new unit for me.  Instead of designing a final project or writing assignment I simply asked students what we should do with all of our new understandings as we approached the end of instructional activities.  Having met our initial goals of building background knowledge about what it meant to demonstrate media literacy and completing an array of practice building our news and informational literacy skills, I empowered students to create a final assessment to showcase their new skills.

One student – a kid who wasn’t even in our class but had heard about our discussions from a peer – floated the idea of creating some sort of website to list authentic, trustworthy news sources.  Another student asked if, in jest, we could also include some satirical or outright “fake news” outlets, as long as they labeled them as such.  Frankly, I thought this idea was clever and would test each student’s ability to locate and choose an appropriate source.  Nevertheless, I asked them to refine their idea.  After all, the scale and pace of digital media outlets is daunting.  A stagnant list would only be accurate and of value for a short time.

After some brainstorming, one student proposed using an RSS feed to collect articles from our approved sources.  An RSS feed pulls new articles from a source and aggregates that content alongside other sources within a standardized reader.  For example, a few students shared their favorite RSS apps, which allowed them to read updates from some of their favorite websites all in one place (the app), without having to manually open the webpage of each site.

This initial idea quickly led students down a self-driven path.  It was a moment when, as the instructor, I could feel the excitement in the room as the students recognized how they could implement their new learning into a real-world, applicable product for themselves and others.

At first, the students wanted to collect reliable news websites and aggregate their content into an RSS reader.  This would allow students to demonstrate their skills and also review the information from each source on an ongoing basis.  Regarding the satirical and “fake news” sources, students would know the source needed to be updated or removed if the feed stopped producing content, which addressed my initial concern.

But quickly we realized that there were access issues with this approach, as typically an RSS news aggregator is an individualized product, not something shared by a group of readers.  Not only did this problem highlight an initial concern, but it also raised an important question and new line of inquiry.  Students began researching how to create a public RSS feed that they could edit and others (i.e. the general public) could view on an ongoing basis.  Feedly, an RSS news aggregator and reader had recently created a “shared collections” feature that allows specific feeds to be broadcast to a public website.  This empowered my students to create folders of specific sources (i.e. their favorite blog, YouTube playlists, CNN, teen magazines, etc.) and broadcast their information all in one easy-to-find spot, which we branded as a school media library.  This product not only far-exceeded our learning goals, but it granted students with a way to extend their learning far beyond the classroom.

Students chose topics of their interest and searched far and wide across the internet to find websites and media sources about that topic.  We added trustworthy sites to specific categories of their interest (i.e. Automotive Trends, Crime News, Health & Wellness, LGBTQ*, Music, etc.) and even added some of our favorite unreliable ones to a “Satire, Fake News, & Outrage” category! We quickly built a robust library of high-quality reading sources on topics of student interest.  The students recognized the power of such a project and remained engaged throughout the process.  Numerous times, students floated category ideas and customized the project to appeal to their skills and interests.

Extension Activities

The students demonstrated their skills at effectively and accurately analyzing media sources – but their curiosity didn’t stop there.  The students wanted to share their learning with the rest of the school and include methods for other students to participate.  To make it easier to find our media library, students learned how to create short links and QR codes, which were strategically pinned to flyers and placed around the school. To allow other students to suggest media library sources, we created a digital form and embedded it within the media library website.

One student wondered aloud how we would use the media library in the future.  Aside from using it for personal reading or for finding current events articles, was there a way we could share information from the media library with others?  How could the media library foster ongoing learning and school activities? Another student interjected to ask if we could clip highlights from the media library and create a school newspaper.  As the discussion continued, we shifted the idea of a newspaper to a blog and quickly realized that a blog could be used to share media library information, but also for a whole range of other activities school-wide.  After some searching we found the EduBlogs platform through WordPress and we began designing our space together.

All in all, students had each demonstrated mastery in a variety of media literacy skills not only through practicing the Checkology modules, but also by constructing a school media library full of reliable news sources which would be automatically updated using the digital technologies of RSS and a news aggregator site.  To launch our efforts into action, the students presented the project to their peers during lunch.  They explained the purpose of each component of the project and taught their friends how to contribute to the blog and media library themselves.

Student Reflections

Before transitioning to our next unit, I asked students to briefly reflect on our experiences. Some students remarked on the plague of “fake news” in America (and across the world).  A common thread in student comments noted that so many students and adults lack common sense and have very poor skills at recognizing the authenticity of digital information, whether it be memes, infographics, or articles.  One student wrote about people on Facebook or other sites online that knowingly share false information saying, “They’re living a lie and it’s disgusting.”

Another student reflected on our process and stated, “This unit was meaningful to me because it contributed to bringing students together to do something positive.  We made a place where everyone has a voice.” A different peer replied, “The whole class was in charge and helped form everything.  It felt like we had a lot of responsibility and also more freedom to express our interests.”

Keeping The Republic: Where Do We Go From Here?

My students started with a hot topic and a small collection of supporting texts.  We paired our background knowledge with an extremely well designed series of tutorials and ongoing discussions about different media sources.  Throughout our time we maintained a respectful ongoing dialogue about the political implications of media literacy. Eventually we practiced our new skills by building a digital media library and school blog, all the while learning about tech tools that enhanced our communication and showcased our learning in a clean, organized manner. Students controlled the pace of this entire unit and chose the instructional activities and outcomes of over half of it. Suffice it to say I was extremely proud to step back and reflect on what the students had created and how far we had come.

But this example is only one story of how educators – and the broader public – can respond to these developments.  What steps can we take to build news literacy skills and limit the spread of “fake news” media?

On the classroom front, recent findings suggest that teachers are utilizing outside resources and new-era, digitally-rich texts to create new curriculums about news literacy (Jacobson, 2017).  Stanford History Education Group researchers likewise plan to create a series of videos to, “mobilize educators, policymakers, and others to address this threat to democracy” (2016).  In Italian schools, the Ministry of Education is currently implementing a collaborative initiative with Google and Facebook to train students in 8,000 high schools about news literacy (Horowitz, 2017).  Commenting on this effort, Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook stated that, “education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal” (2017).

Discussing general practices for educators, Miller (2016) shares several important insights.  Initially, it is crucial to confront biases and acknowledge how those beliefs influence our perceptions.  Part of teaching news literacy involves deconstructing preconceived notions that students hold.  Miller also notes the value in teaching students to approach news with skepticism rather than cynicism.  Entering these learning activities with a proper mindset is necessary, especially for young students.  Finally, he highlights the importance of teaching students about the role of algorithms in limiting access to information.  In other words, an algorithm will sometimes restrict a student’s perspective by steering content that reinforces their biases.  Instead, Miller suggests methods for enriching and widening our “information diets” (2016).

The wider community beyond the classroom also plays a role in combating fake news and bolstering media literacy.  In the Pew Research Center study referenced above, though slightly less than half of the experts believe the “fake news” situation will improve, researchers provided a notable summary of their reasoning, stating that:

“It is…human nature to come together and fix problems: The hopeful experts in this canvassing took the view that people have always adapted to change and that this current wave of challenges will also be overcome. They noted that misinformation and bad actors have always existed but have eventually been marginalized by smart people and processes. They expect well-meaning actors will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment. They also believe better information literacy among citizens will enable people to judge the veracity of material content and eventually raise the tone of discourse” (2017).

Whenever possible, educators should work to support these efforts.

Indeed, progress is already underway.  In early 2017, investors filed a shareholder resolution with Facebook asking the company to address fake news articles on the site (Sterne, 2017).  Soon thereafter, Facebook introduced a new button for users to push that would provide additional contextual information on news articles (Anker et al., 2017).  Though initial observations question the benefit of such a button or cautionary label, the strategy is a trend in the right direction nonetheless (see Pennycook and Rand, 2017).  Following this pressure, executives from both Facebook and Twitter testified before Congress on the subject of foreign governments using those platforms to display manipulative media, and Facebook submitted over 3,000 ads to the United States Congress that were linked to or paid for by a foreign government (Shane and Isaac, 2017; Kang et al., 2017).  Speculation has also rose regarding potential changes regarding political ad disclosure laws during national elections in the United States (Fischer, 2017).

These efforts are crucial to the continuation of democratic ideals around the world.  Changes to benefit media literacy and reduce manipulative information are necessary at all levels of public life – from our laws and procedures to our classroom activities.  In my time working on this subject with youth it has become abundantly clear that students don’t enjoy being fooled.  Upon realizing their apparent misconceptions, students were highly motivated to engage in meaningful classroom activities that had resounding benefits beyond their immediate private gains.  Educators and policymakers would be wise to follow their example.



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Five Ways Common Curriculum Keeps Me Organized

Over the past two years I’ve had the distinctly gratifying and simultaneously terrifying experience of beginning my teaching career. As teachers, we begin our journey by assessing our learners and defining high growth targets, developing a robust arsenal of standardized less on plans and technology-aligned learning experiences, and creatively differentiating those activities for each of our students. Molding all of those goals into a comprehensive year-long curriculum is another challenge entirely. As it is with so many new educators, within weeks of beginning the school year I found myself lost in the abyss of faculty meetings, library resources, and professional development seminars – to say nothing of parent calls and meetings, progress monitoring, and the special education annual review process.cc-logo-ea8345429ede54f5e4d960950659bd25

Common Curriculum rescued me from uncharted territory. I had encountered CC early last summer buried in some random blog post or Pinterest board and, after giving it a shot this past year, I’m convinced I’ll never plan any other way. Common Curriculum focuses on the tactics of teaching: daily lesson plans. Scope and sequence mapping, unit plans, and inquiries obviously have their place in planning, but when it comes to actually crafting the minute-by-minute workings of the classroom, I found Common Curriculum to be invaluable to my own organization and my growth as an educator.

Here are five straightforward reasons you should consider getting an account:

1) It’s easy. Their website’s interface is simple and easy to navigate. After quickly setting up a Planbook you’re able to start tinkering around within a few minutes. Once you begin, you’ll notice that you can shift assignments around throughout your lesson, move them to a new day, or delete them entirely. If something comes up and you need to shift plans to the next day, CC allows it with the click of a button. Each day is totally customizable – including which classes you teach in a given day and the activities you plan for each period or block – meaning that you can implement your own style when designing your lessons. Creating these lessons is literally as easy as typing on your keyboard, and the web-based platform automatically saves your progress as you go. Upload files (just like you would to an email) and now your materials or resources are saved as well! Common Curriculum also links to my Google Drive, and seamlessly uploads materials I had already organized.

2) It’s safe. In addition to having my progress saved automatically, it’s highly comforting knowing that my curriculum isn’t living on a thumb drive or school-based software that can be discontinued next year if our district doesn’t renew our subscription. Like any geek, I live in a constant state of fear and anxiety, dwelling over whether or not my files are safe and accessible. Using Common Curriculum allowed me to save my work on the cloud, export it as an Adobe .pdf file, and still have it backed up on CC’s interface. My materials aren’t going to disappear from being lost, broken, or unsubscribed from. Relatedly, my lessons are saved so I can easily reference them next year, which also means next year I’ll be adapting my plans instead of starting from square one again. Some teachers have filing cabinets and drawers full of old handouts and workbooks that they’ve used (which is totally fine), but as a new teacher I have to admit that having every resource I used last year safely linked on a single document is pretty convenient.

3) It prompts me to use best-practices. When you begin setting up your Planbook you’ll be prompted to choose a lesson plan template for each course you teach. Some people like the Minimal template with the quick “Agenda” and “Notes” sections. Some people like the Basic or the 5E templates that each give a little more guidance when designing. Both of those are fine, and admittedly many of my own plans ended up utilizing the Minimal template, but what really intrigued me (and pushed me to write better lessons) was the Extra Detailed template. In this case the detailed sections include: Objectives, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Materials, Intro to New Materials, Direct Instruction, Guided Practice, Independent Practice, Extension, Assessment, Homework, Accommodations & Modifications, and Reflections. Obviously every lesson may not include all of those sections (CC allows you to delete, combine, substitute, or reorder them as necessary), but I found that something as simple as just having them listed as a rough guide reminded me to think about each one as I planned the daily activities of the classroom. My teaching improved because of this template.

4) It links to about a billion sets of standards. As I mapped out the skills, strategies, and content I wanted my students to explore, Common Curriculum helped me design my instruction to the specific standards aligned to my course. I teach social studies, so for me that meant the New York State Social Studies Framework’s Key Ideas, Conceptual Understandings, and Content Specifications, the New York State Common Core Learning Standards for Literacy in Social Studies, the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework, as well as frameworks and standards to reference from the National Center for History in the Schools, the National Council on Economic Education, the National Standards for Arts Education, and the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. All of these are available on Common Curriculum to reference and link to your daily lessons.  With a Pro or Schools account, teachers can even utilize a standards tracker to map course outcomes over the course of the school year.

5) It’s digitally accessible to my students. I can seamlessly export all of this to my students’ iPads, the classroom SMARTBoard, or any computer/laptop. As a Pro user, I’ve linked my lessons to a website that I share with my students. I can choose which sections are visible to them, allowing them to browse the lesson’s materials independently. If a student is late to class or misses school, they can review the materials on their own time using this resource. I can link assignments online for students to complete, whether they’re printed handouts, webquests, or simple instructions for classwork. This also allows students to access a visible agenda for class, even previewing future classes if I mark them as visible in the CC interface. Not only does this lead toward a paperless classroom – it prompts students to seek and utilize digital resources, a timeless and necessary skill to build in the digital age.


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A Cathedral of Champions

I remember filing into the Alamodome with 40,000 other teenagers who would rather be sightseeing or carousing the Riverwalk.  The dense Texan air weighed heavily over us even in the early morning hour. The short walk from our hotel left a glaze of sweat across most of our faces, and we greeted the arena’s climate-controlled radius as the Israelites had embraced Moses.

The entire thing was my grandparents’ idea.  Four friends and I were attending a national youth conference organized by an expansive network of churches.  Some of us were there for the spiritual resonance, others for the leadership experience.  I had never left New York State and needed some fresh lines on my resume to find a good job that summer.  While the travel experience and excitement of meeting new friends from across the country were certainly appealing, I had egregiously low expectations for the entire affair.  Get in, get out, add to resume.  A mantra repeated by too many, and I was guilty as charged.

So here I found myself dragged out of bed, entirely decaffeinated, geographically discombobulated, jet-lagged, sweating profusely – all before the sun had crossed the sky.  Note To Self: Never again travel south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Like ever.  Except maybe in the winter when its under, say, 115 degrees.  Maybe.

We were all herded inside to our pocket-sized division of floorspace and proceeded to engage in the awkward spectacle of introducing ourselves to other teens, which (in fact) consisted of sitting next to each other with our arms crossed or in our laps as we psychologically wrestled over the use of the arm rest and maintained verbal silence.  We earned bonus points because it was the era before smartphones.  Kids these days have it easy.  No electronic whatchamacallit distractions in my day. Those lucky enough to sit next to friends continued regularly monotonous conversations – rating hotel pillows, critiquing airport security measures, praising the air conditioning, and repeating, “I just can’t believe we’re finally here…in  San Antonio… my god, what a thing.”  I was sitting next to a stranger, gracefully receiving a headlock regarding the armrest.

Needless to say I was less than enthused. As I contemplated bargaining leg room for the arm rest I reminded myself that my community had fundraised for months to pay our expenses in their entirely – I had better get something out of this.  And while the running shuffle of Newsboys had potential to spark an outright total war between my seat-mate and I, I managed to govern my annoyance and made small talk until the opening act – some big shot fancy-pants Christian dude I had never heard of.

Now, I had known for some time that I was going to become a teacher. The summer job I was angling for was a stepping stone and the youth conference itself was supposed to be an insignificant passing moment in my life. For a long time it was.  I sat through 4 or 5 days of speakers, bands, and group exercises before catching our flight home and returning to my beloved Yankeedome diaspora.  My mind quickly dismissed the majority of the message and though I swaggered proudly in my Hard Rock Cafe San Antonio t-shirt for years afterwords, the larger dogma of the conference itself was entirely Greek to me.

But one thing did stand out.  That opening speaker (who it turns out was/is a major celebrity in the Christian community) spoke in depth for some time on service.  After commending us for traveling across the country to meet and encouraging us to continue furthering our education he slammed on the breaks – pulled a full 180 – and began lecturing (in the damn-why-doesn’t-this-dude-just-shut-the-hell-up kind of way) about OUR lives and how WE needed to step up and do something about the world around US.  So at that point I was thinking, “Pleeeease… I’m like 16….stop blaming me for the problems the global generation before me has caused.”

The blowhard continued on to dismiss perfectly honorable people for not doing enough.  And what did stick past that week was the way he stood in front of a crowd of fully-motivated youths and proceeded to critique the plan I was formulating for myself. In a heroically impassioned moment he pleaded, almost yelled, at us that while it was fine and well to be an educator, the most devoted among us went for more.

“If you are going to teach, serve those that are in the most need among us. If you are going to teach, go to the south side of Chicago.  Go to the inner schools of Detroit or Los Angeles. Travel to the poorest, most impoverished schools in cities across the landscape. Camp there for your entire career.”

I just wanted no part whatsoever in that.  And even as I learned more about teaching, learning, and how the American political and education systems cofunction I strayed even further from exploring a career in a high-needs setting.

First of all, I didn’t appreciate having my commitment challenged by some stranger.  I wanted to teach.  Who cares where?  And who is this loud-mouthed guy to somehow weigh or rank the merit or do-gooderness or whatever of one teacher/school/setting over another???  On top of that I knew from growing up in a rural setting that while poverty in less-dense areas may get less attention, it is nonetheless crippling and likewise needs attention of educators and other health and human services providers. And besides, smart wealthy kids need good teachers, too!

So I resolved to reject that path entirely.

Over the next several years I continued the status quo.  I finished high school toward the top of my class, double-majored through college while acing my way through an established teacher-certification program, completed a handful of relevant internships, worked part-time in a ground-level human services role with adults with disabilities, and scored a scholarship to attend an accelerated masters program at a “new Ivy.” By all measures I had the paper experience to land that cushy suburban gig I was looking for – some small school nestled in the wooded hills with a robust menu of after-school clubs, top-tier sports, arts organizations, and parental involvement.

But alas, a good story always has a conflict.

The summer that I finished my graduate degree program I began an internship at a public interest law firm working on some education policy and advocacy projects.  Concurrently, I lunged into an expansive job search, knowing that many districts (for a variety of totally bizarre and archaic reasons) don’t hire teachers until toward the end of summer.

After assembling my application packet online (the schools in our area use sort of a “common application” system) I began to peruse through openings in all of the nicest suburbs.  Searching to match my certification areas to openings was surprisingly easy and at the same time disappointing – there were none.  I did have some contacts in nearby schools and reaching out to them confirmed that no openings were pending in my list of preferred schools.

So, I moved on to plan B and began searching at all of the schools within an hour of my home.  That’s when I started getting nervous.  The search yielded a small handful of opportunities, between 10 and 20 in my area.  But I knew 70 or 80 people who had graduated with me who would also be applying to those jobs, to say nothing of the hundreds of other graduates that I didn’t know.

At the same time, I started doing some financial planning and learned that I would basically be nuts if I didn’t fulfill the requirements of my TEACH Grant and take advantage of some loan forgiveness incentives for teachers.  There were a variety of programs available, each of which would free up thousands of dollars of potential debt.  However the strings attached to these programs also limited which schools I could teach at.

So I applied to the jobs that I was both A) eligible for, and B) would qualify for the programs that lowered my debt.  It was a slim list.

Several weeks went by and I heard no response.  Not a single school was interested. Despite being aware of the hiring context I mentioned above, I was getting extremely nervous.  I started hand-delivering printed applications with a CV and personalized cover letter directly to principals.  I drove around to 10 or 12 specific schools that I had applied to and dropped into the principal’s office to shake hands and chat about the opportunity.  Not a single person bit. Zero phone calls, zero emails, zero interviews.

As the summer was winding down my wife and I began discussing contingency plans.  These were not fun conversations.  We both weighed taking on second jobs. I considered calling former employers to check for openings. Dark days abound, many filled with arguments. I couldn’t understand how, after working so hard, no one was interested in giving me a chance to put my skills into practice.  We’ve all heard stories of college graduates having trouble finding jobs but the trend has a whole new meaning when it becomes applicable to you.

In a fit of anxiety one afternoon I began applying for scores of jobs in districts across the county.  In addition to the positions I had already applied to I started jumping into roles I had almost no interest in filling.  Per diem, substitute, aid, behavioral assistant, and float were all words I embraced that day. And at that point they were all Hail Mary plays.  School was beginning in just a few short weeks.  I had talked to countless friends who had already landed jobs and I watched the openings online disappear.

My summer internship had ended and school began on Wednesday of the following week.  I had no plan whatsoever, which is extremely out of character for me. As the weekend was beginning I could feel myself slipping into a bit of a panic, but just as I was about to resolve to go to bed at 9:00 on Friday night my phone rang.

The voice on the other end was indeed an HR representative of some sort from a school that I had applied to and she was stating that she’d like to offer me an interview.  I said I could be available anytime, and we scheduled a meeting for early the next day, some 11 hours later.

When I arrived, I learned that the position that she had called me for was one that I had applied for in my frantic episode a few weeks earlier.  She acknowledged that I had applied for multiple positions, but the current interview was not for a teaching position, but rather for a spot as a one-to-one aide for a student.  That was a serious blow, considering I had earned a Master’s degree with a 4.0 and the position only required a high school diploma.  But what was I to do?  I would be entirely unemployed otherwise.  I aced the interview and took the job.

In a short period of time I had gone from being a very successful student to working a job that I could have attained without attending college entirely.  I had gone from trying to pick and choose which type of setting I’d work in – from suburban paradises to ones that would fulfill my loan forgiveness documentation – to taking any job I could get.

Notably though, I couldn’t help but notice that the setting I was working in was strikingly similar to the one that the opening speaker in San Antonio had described to me years earlier. And despite all of the grief I had given him for saying it at the time, I would soon come to agree with his statements.

I enjoyed working directly with one student but it wasn’t the job I ultimately aspired to have.  In a wave of opportunity there was a long-term substitute teaching opportunity in my building just a few weeks into the school year, and I was granted permission to transfer from my 1:1 role into the teaching position with the understanding that I may be laid off once the regular teacher was able to return.  It was a risk I was willing to take, as I urgently wanted to teach.

The experience was entirely magical. My long-term assignment was eventually extended to fill the remainder of the school year, I stayed on for the summer, and in September I began as the permanent teacher for the room. I can honestly say that its the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t imagine ever teaching in another setting.

The program is housed by a regional educational service agency in our area. Students with severe and multiple disabilities are referred to our program from around a dozen school districts in our area.  We provide a 6:1:1 therapeutic day program in which the curriculum and environment are substantially modified to meet the needs of each student.

The more I think about it, the closer I am to the guest speaker of my youth.  Rochester is one of the top 5 poorest cities in the country, ranking number one in childhood poverty nationwide.

And as any educator will tell you, a job like this is rich with stories.  In my short time here I’ve met kids who have been through more in a decade than most people go through in a lifetime.  Kids who have been forgotten, kids that have been abused.  Kids who come from broken homes, kids who have no homes at all.  Kids who are genuinely trying to better themselves, but lack support from their families to follow through.

I’ve met kids that are hungry.  Kids that steal and hoard food.  You start to learn that the first kid in the door on Monday morning may not have gotten dinner on Sunday night.  And the kid that asks for extra food constantly might be going through a growth spurt, or maybe he’s just hoping to be fed while he can.

I’ve met kids that come from strong, supportive families who – due in part to the nature of their disabilities – have dramatically shifted the functionality of their households.  Kids that take medicine, and sometimes choose not to.  Kids that struggle with substances and addiction. Kids who are wrapped into a life beyond the law. Kids who, like any other teenager, are simply struggling to cope with the intricate workings of adolescence.

I’ve met kids that are ill. Physically, socially, and mentally ill.  Many kids that are ill.  Kids that are dirty.  Kids that can’t hold a conversation with another human.  Kids that have been hurt inside so badly that they just don’t want to talk anymore. Kids that are so hurt that they act out in all sorts of confusing and irrational ways.  Kids that have hurt so bad for so long that sometimes they aren’t sure if they’ll ever feel better again.

I’ve met kids that need champions.

And I have met a building full of champions.

I’ve met both kids who persevere through their obstacles and adults who never give up on them.  I’ve watched kids succeed and other times I’ve seen them persist to try again tomorrow.  I’ve seen adults who, despite facing emotionally taxing scenarios on a daily basis, continually live to fight another day. I’ve seen kids and adults planning their future together, supporting success in every way we can. I’ve seen kids make it out of their toughest times.  This is a place I can camp.

We’re a team. We win together. We lose together. We celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories are sweetened because we do them together. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other. We’ve built a cathedral of champions.

It’s a long way from that cushy job I had first envisioned, but its also more fulfilling than I had ever hoped a career would be. Sometimes you find your path.  Sometimes your path finds you.


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8 big ideas for reforming college in the U.S.

Thought-provoking to say the least…

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Brain teaser resources








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A Selection of Motivational Classroom Posters

(Feel free to steal… these were all found using a Google image search)

Quotation-Sheri-L-Dew-leadership-service-Meetville-Quotes-264138 download b954d3c013acdddb66ed95c4ea9cb136 15346-you-have-power-over-your-mind-not-outside-events-realize 8265567dccb72d8ff22935a1f9609b67 19821456f8a888546c9175955b5f1dd4 swami-sivananda-quotes_12020-0

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Apps for Engagement

Originally printed in the September ’14 issue of Educational Leadership, found here (subscription required): http://www.educationalleadership-digital.com/educationalleadership/201409#pg13



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4 Keys to Student Engagement





Originally printed in the September ’14 issue of Educational Leadership, found here (subscription required): http://www.educationalleadership-digital.com/educationalleadership/201409#pg21 

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8 Steps to Great Parent-Teacher Communication

Originally found here: http://www.edudemic.com/8-steps-ensure-great-communication-parents/


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7 Learning Zones Every Classroom Should Have

7 zones

Downloadable .pdf file: 7 learning zones

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Updated Bloom’s Taxonomy with Verbs

bloom with verbs

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Obama Signs Autism Act Renewal



August 11, 2014

Original Article Here: http://www.disabilityscoop.com/2014/08/11/obama-signs-autism-renewal/19573/

With little fanfare, President Barack Obama signed a reauthorization of the nation’s primary autism legislation that includes more than a billion dollars in federal funding for the developmental disorder.

Signed on Friday, the law calls for $260 million annually through 2019 for autism research, prevalence tracking, screening, professional training and other initiatives.

The measure known as the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act, or Autism CARES, serves as a renewal of what’s previously been called the Combating Autism Act. That law, which was first enacted in 2006, was set to expire September 30.

read on for more details: http://www.disabilityscoop.com/2014/08/11/obama-signs-autism-renewal/19573/ 



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Seven Characteristics of a Digitally Competent Teacher


Full article here: http://www.edudemic.com/7-characteristics-digitally-competent-teacher/

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A Glossary of Federal Housing Initiatives


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Top 10 Ways Districts Can “Do More With Less”


Found on pg 8 of Education Week’s May 7, 2014 print edition.

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Autism Prevalence Is Now 1 in 68: Ten Things to Know About The New Stats

The full study is available (open-access) here, and a general news roundup on this issue is accessible here

Summary from Autism Speaks:

“Washington, D.C. (March 27, 2014) – Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data on the prevalence of autism in the United States. This surveillance study identified 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD).”
Source: http://www.autismspeaks.org/news/news-item/prevalence-autism-rises

10 Things You Need To Know About CDC’s Latest Report from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network:

The following estimates are based on information collected from the health and special education (if available*) records of children who were 8 years old and lived in areas of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin in 2010:

  1. About 1 in 68 children (or 14.7 per 1,000 8 year olds) were identified with ASD. It is important to remember that this estimate is based on 8-year-old children living in 11 communities. It does not represent the entire population of children in the United States.
  2. This new estimate is roughly 30% higher than the estimate for 2008 (1 in 88), roughly 60% higher than the estimate for 2006 (1 in 110), and roughly 120% higher than the estimates for 2002 and 2000 (1 in 150). We don’t know what is causing this increase. Some of it may be due to the way children are identified, diagnosed, and served in their local communities, but exactly how much is unknown.
  3. The number of children identified with ASD varied widely by community, from 1 in 175 children in areas of Alabama to 1 in 45 children in areas of New Jersey.
  4. Almost half (46%) of children identified with ASD had average or above average intellectual ability (IQ greater than 85).
  5. Boys were almost 5 times more likely to be identified with ASD than girls. About 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls were identified with ASD.
  6. White children were more likely to be identified with ASD than black or Hispanic children. About 1 in 63 white children, 1 in 81 black children, and 1 in 93 Hispanic children were identified with ASD.
  7. Less than half (44%) of children identified with ASD were evaluated for developmental concerns by the time they were 3 years old.
  8. Most children identified with ASD were not diagnosed until after age 4, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age 2.
  9. Black and Hispanic children identified with ASD were more likely than white children to have intellectual disability. A previous studyExternal Web Site Icon has shown that children identified with ASD and intellectual disability have a greater number of ASD symptoms and a younger age at first diagnosis. Despite the greater burden of co-occurring intellectual disability among black and Hispanic children with ASD, these new data show that there was no difference among racial and ethnic groups in the age at which children were first diagnosed.
  10. About 80% of children identified with ASD either received special education services for autism at school or had an ASD diagnosis from a clinician. This means that the remaining 20% of children identified with ASD had symptoms of ASD documented in their records, but had not yet been classified as having ASD by a community professional in a school or clinic.

    Source: http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsautismdata/index.html


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Reform Goals I Stand By: ASCD’s 2014 Federal Legislative Agenda

ASCD recently released their federal education agenda for 2014, which is pictured below and is available as a .pdf download here. Plenty of strong ideas including: access to high-quality learning, public accountability of achievement data on a SCHOOL level (not student level), increasing various resources and supports to both teachers and learners, flexibility at the local/district level to implement federal policies, use of formative assessments and nonacademic assessments (see details) for schools and students.  Now for some policies to get the ball rolling….

ASCD 2014 Legislative Agenda

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A great way for schools to use extended time!

Adelphi students and teachers pursue passions side by side — Gazette.Net


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Poster: Teacher Superpowers


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Russell Baker Poster/Quote: The importance of punctuation


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Poster: The Story Coaster


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What Didn’t Happen in Edtech in 2013 | EdSurge News

Strong summary of edtech happenings:

Four CEOs share thoughts on what we can do better in 2014

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Beyond tests: How to foster imagination in students


November 23 at 11:30 am


Guest Post by Marion Brady

The emphasis on using standardized tests are the chief metric of student progress (not to mention teacher effectiveness) is leaving behind one of the key purposes of education: to stimulate the imagination. Here’s a post on the subject from Marion Brady, a veteran classroom teacher, who has written history and world culture textbooks (Prentice-Hall),  professional books, numerous  nationally distributed columns (many are available here), and courses of study. His 2011 book, “What’s Worth Learning,” asks and answers this question: What knowledge is absolutely essential for every learner? His course of study for secondary-level students, called “Connections: Investigating Reality,” is free for downloading here. Brady’s website is www.marionbrady.com.

FULL ARTICLE HERE: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/11/23/beyond-tests-how-to-foster-imagination-in-students/

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Ten Commandments of Logic


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EdWeek: Want Passion? Re-Think the School Day

Guest post by Lauren Hill, English teacher at Western Hills High School, Frankfort, KY & Community Organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality

We all know school can bore students to death. OK, not actual death, but something that looks and feels much like it to a kid. Bill Ferriter reminds us in his blog, Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored, that students who follow their passions, learn. Yet, how can teachers carve out time in the school day to guide students through the thoughtful, and sometimes arduous task of finding those passions, much less to pursue them? The Common Core State Standards encourage the depth and discipline needed, but they must be supported by a restructured school day set up to infuse passion into our students.

In our adult work, we don’t do English or Science or Social Studies or Math. We use all of these (and many other dynamic elements) to create, to lead, to build, to manage, to sell, to understand our task and produce products that meet a need. Some of us even love our work – passionately. Do our young people deserve any less? What better model to prepare them to love their work in the future?

I first saw this approach when I was 15, which would make it 1981, when I visited The Urban School of San Francisco. My first impression? These teenagers looked like the kids my parents told me to avoid. Long hair. Lots of leather. Cigarettes. At my school, these kids cut class and hung out in the parking lot. Yet, at Urban, these kids adored school.

At Urban, instead of English, kids took “Utopian Societies” or “Dialects and Culture.” In the two-hour block I spent with my friend, I discovered more about language and history than I had in a year in my own high school classes. Teachers and students learned together in a collaborative environment where students took responsibility for their learning – and they took that responsibility very seriously.

We cannot restructure our way to many of the variables at The Urban School. The staff’s accepting attitude and the administration’s creative and effective approach to discipline, certainly created the environment that allowed for other academic gains. But what became a permanent part of my memory and later, my educational philosophy, was the school’s organization.

Our high school in Frankfort, KY, has begun movement in this direction by adopting a Senior Project that asks kids to begin freshman year uncovering interests and learning research skills, and culminating senior year with a project, paper, presentation and community outreach program. It is a solid start. But we can do better. We can devise new models like the public magnet Brown-Barge Middle School in Escambia County, Florida, which organizes staff into “streams” that teach students in thematically organized groups focused on engaging kids in work toward authentic simulations. Since the restructuring, Brown-Barge Middle has earned “A” level status for more than ten years in a row – the only middle school in the district to achieve this honor. Also, the number of 6th grade applicants doubles the available spots.

One BBMS eighth grader says:

The reason why our subjects are combined is to make it easier to learn at school, so easy that students might not realize we’re learning. Instead of learning by subjects, we learn by streams, which is basically learning big topics at a time. At the same time we’re learning all of the school traditional subjects. We have big topics which are broken into many lessons which is good for each subject. 

Teacher Lalla Pierce currently teaches in the Ancient Worlds stream, which is described like this: From earliest civilizations, recurring motifs have inspired great art, literature, drama, science, math and music. By making connections with the past, we begin to understand the universality of creative expression.

Mrs. Pierce says:

I love teaching at Brown-Barge Middle School because seeing students participating in simulations where they are fully engaged in the learning process is incredibly rewarding. Whether building a model of an outer-space colony or putting on a musical performance written by the students themselves, the process is fun and exciting! I am always learning, never bored. 

To create and cultivate this environment, the school has provided:

  • Streams built around teachers with a variety of certifications.
  • Teachers in each stream with a common planning time to collaborate around the stream.
  • Flexible scheduling within each stream to accommodate a project when it requires extended time with a teacher.
  • Teachers of Record who keep track of the work and maintain records for a group of students, who can see the bigger picture evolve and provide support.
  • Collaboration between teachers and students in the development of new streams that meet the interests of the students. (Most requested? History and culture of music, leading to a final performance.)
  • Evaluative reports that take the place of “in progress grades”.
  • Math every morning.

When teachers at Brown-Barge are asked what they teach, they say “Students!’

A new structure like this one that starts with real-life, project-based learning that flows in a natural, progressive stream is a shift that doesn’t require substantial funding, just ingenuity, persistence, and passion. And, given the education professionals I know, there is no shortage of that.

The Common Core State Standards present us with a blueprint for the natural integration of subjects at every grade level. It challenges us to reimagine how we organize our traditional schools. Student agency and depth of study can add the passion needed to make our students soar. The CCSS emphasize critical thinking and 21st Century skills and give us a strong foundation; now, let’s redesign our schools to make them worthy to stand on it.

Categories: Classroom Management, Common Core, Education in the 21st Century, Reform Policies, Teaching Resources | Leave a comment

Bloom’s Taxonomy meets the internet

This is an extraordinary site that aligns layers of Bloom’s Taxonomy to digital websites and apps for students to use.

Browse the site: https://sites.google.com/site/bloomsdigitalwebtool/home

Categories: Online Learning, Teaching Resources | Leave a comment

Edweek: The Making of Common Core Creation Stories: Myth or Fact?

By Anthony Cody on December 11, 2013 1:50 PM

FULL ARTICLE HERE: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2013/12/the_making_of_common_core_crea.html?qs=The+Making+of+Common+Core+Creation+Stories:+Myth+or+Fact?

Perhaps because Common Core standards originated in a secretive process, and were adopted with little public discussion, their origins have become a subject of great interest among educators. As with ancient mythology, we care about where things come from, because the method of creation can reveal the nature of the creator, and the intentions at work. Critics of Common Core have complained about the way the standards were created – in secret, without significant teacher involvement.  Many proponents of Common Core have, for this reason, felt compelled to offer some version or other of “Myths Vs. Facts about the Common Core,” attempting to resolve the complaints. The trouble is that, as we learn the true origins of Common Core, we find that most of these “Myths vs. Facts” documents offer up more myths than facts. Here are some examples:

Categories: Common Core, News & Current Issues, Reform Policies | Leave a comment

HBR: The Fine Art of Tough Love

by Joanne Lipman  |   8:00 AM December 17, 2013

FULL ARTICLE HERE: http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/12/the-fine-art-of-tough-love/

What does it take to achieve excellence? I’ve spent much of my career chronicling top executives as a business journalist. But I’ve spent much of the last year on a very different pursuit, coauthoring a book about education, focusing on a tough but ultimately revered public-school music teacher.

And here’s what I learned: When it comes to creating a culture of excellence, the CEO has an awful lot to learn from the schoolteacher.

The teacher at the heart of the book Strings Attached is on the face of it an unlikely corporate role model. My childhood music teacher Jerry Kupchynsky, who we called “Mr. K,” was strictly old school: A ferocious Ukrainian immigrant and World War II refugee, he was a tyrannical school orchestra conductor in suburban New Jersey. He would yell and stomp and scream when we screwed up, bellowing “Who eez DEAF in first violins?” His highest praise was “not bad.”  He rehearsed us until our fingers were raw.

Yet ultimately he became beloved by students, many of whom went on to outsize professional success in fields from business to academics to law, and who decades later would gather to thank him.

My coauthor and I both expected pushback against Mr. K’s harsh methods, which we describe in unflinching detail. But instead, the overwhelming response from readers has been: “Amen! Bring on the tough love.”  And nowhere has that response been stronger than in the business world, among corporate executives.

Indeed, Wall Street Journal readers responded in force to an essay I wrote about the book and Mr. K’s methods. “Time to move beyond the ‘self-esteem’ culture and get tough. The world is an increasingly competitive and dangerous place,” as one reader wrote, echoing many others.  He added, “I have numerous advanced degrees, but the toughest and best education I ever had was from the Irish Christian brothers in high school. They did not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Clearly, Mr. K’s demanding methods have tapped into a sea change that we’re just starting to detect in the culture, away from coddling of kids and the “trophies for everyone” mentality that has dominated parenting and education. It’s a shift that is equally evident in the workplace.  But trying to offer more honest feedback, and set higher standards, at work is tricky.  It’s especially difficult in the case of newer hires, those recent young college grads who were raised on a steady diet of praise and trophies and who never learned to accept criticism.

So, how best to put those “tough love” principles into action when it comes to inspiring excellence in the workplace?  Mr. K’s methods offer an intriguing roadmap:

1. Banish empty praise.

Mr. K never gave us false praise, and never even used words like “talent.” When he uttered a “not bad” – his highest compliment — we’d dance down the street and then run home and practice twice as long.

It turns out he was on to something.  Harvard Business Review readers will recall the landmark 2007 article written by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, “The Making of an Expert.”  That piece is most often cited for his pioneering work establishing that true expertise requires about 10,000 hours of practice.

But Ericsson also cited two other elements, both of which Mr. K seemed to know intuitively. One is “deliberate practice,” which requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, as opposed to going through the motions.  The other, as Ericsson wrote, is this : True expertise “requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback.” And “real experts … deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who could challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”

2. Set expectations high. 

There’s a tendency to step in when a less experienced colleague is having trouble. Sometimes it seems it’s just easier to do the work yourself. Or to settle for less.

Not in Mr. K’s world.  His standards were uncompromising – and while at first we students found that intimidating, we ultimately understood it was a sign of his confidence in us.  He never wavered in his faith in his students to achieve more and better.  When he first began teaching me the viola, his most frequent admonition was “AGAIN!” most often marked in capital letters on my lesson assignments. But his students knew that he was hard on us not because we’d never learn, but because he was so absolutely certain that we would.

3. Articulate clear goals –and goal posts along the way.

Mr. K insisted that his students audition and perform constantly. He constantly kept us focused on the next challenge.  How would we prepare, and what would we do to improve the next time?  By articulating these intermediate goals, he encouraged us to continually stretch our abilities a bit further while reaching for objectives that were challenging, but ultimately achievable.

4. Failure isn’t defeat.

Mr. K never penalized us for failure. Sometimes we succeeded at auditions; sometimes we failed. But Mr. K made it clear that that failure was simply part of the process – not an end point, but simply an opportunity for us to learn how to improve the next time. And he transferred responsibility for figuring out the solution to the student. His favorite saying wasn’t “Listen to me!” It was, instead, “Discipline yourself!”

Years later, his former students – now doctors, lawyers and business executives – would credit that approach for instilling self-motivation.  As one of his former students told me, “He taught us how to fail – and how to pick ourselves back up again.”

5. Say thank you.

This is the one we often forget. My old teacher had witnessed unspeakable horrors as a child growing up in Ukraine amid bloodshed and destruction during World War II.  He didn’t reach the U.S. until after the war, as a 19-year-old who spoke no English and had never had the opportunity to learn to read music despite his passion for it.  He never lost his sense of gratitude to this country for the opportunities he had, despite a catalog of horrors in his own life, including the disappearance of one of his beloved daughters.  He passed that gratitude on to us, with a huge heart, empathy for the underdog, and a commitment to public service, taking us frequently to perform at hospitals and nursing homes and then insisting we stay to visit with the patients.

In the press of business, that sense of gratitude is often the first casualty. Recently I complimented a young journalist on a well-researched article, telling her, “You must have gotten great feedback.”  She looked embarrassed, then confessed she had heard nothing from her boss. Her news organization, like so many others, has been financially hobbled, with a handful of reporters doing the work that was once shared by several dozen.  Her supervisor is spread so thin that he is putting out proverbial fires all day.  “He has the time to tell us what we did wrong,” she said. “He doesn’t have time to tell us when we do something well.”

*  *  *  *  *

Tough love has fallen out of favor, and it can be a jolt especially for younger workers. But properly applied – with high expectations along with a sense of shared vision and gratitude for a job well done — it is the highest vote of confidence anyone can offer.  Mr. K’s old students ultimately figured that out too: At his memorial concert, 40 years’ worth of them – myself included, toting my old viola – gathered in my hometown, old instruments in tow, creating a symphony orchestra more than 100 members strong.

I asked many of those students why they had returned.  They listed the qualities he had taught them: Resilience. Perseverance.  Self-confidence. He didn’t just teach us in the classroom; he inspired us to strive for excellence in our own lives when he was no longer in the room with us.  And that’s the mark of a true mentor: a leader who creates a culture of excellence, and whose confidence in us makes us better than we ever dreamed we could be.

Categories: Classroom Management | 1 Comment

Fascinating happenings in vocational education

The Future of Shop Class

How a high school in Georgia is reinventing vocational education
DEC 16 2013, 2:09 PM ET

What used to be the woodshop at Georgia’s Dalton High School is now free of dust. Instead, it’s filled with welding stations, a 3-D printer, and a computer-controlled plasma cutter. Students work with the engineering students across the hall on robotics projects, building their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

FULL STORY HERE: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-future-of-shop-class/282389/

Categories: Education in the 21st Century | Leave a comment

Food for thought on international education

From the NYT editorial board: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/opinion/why-students-do-better-overseas.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=OP_WOC_20131218&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1385874000000&bicmet=1388638800000&fblinkge0&_r=1&

Categories: Education in the 21st Century, Reform Policies | Leave a comment

Richard Rothstein: How High School Text Books Indoctrinate Youth With A False and Dangerous Sense of Our Racial History

In the US, we do a horrible job of facing up to our racial history, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality. 

Photo Credit: John Vachon for U.S. Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress) via Wikimedia Commons

December 13, 2013  |

In the last week, we’ve paid great attention to Nelson Mandela’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation between South Africa’s former white rulers and its exploited black majority. But we’ve paid less attention to the condition that Mandela insisted must underlie reconciliation—truth. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela established, and that Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired, was designed to contribute to cleansing wounds of the country’s racist history by exposing it to a disinfecting bright light. As for those Afrikaners who committed even the worst acts of violence against blacks, they could be forgiven and move on only if they acknowledged the full details of their crimes.

In the current issue of the School Administrator, I write that we do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality. We have many celebrations of the civil rights movement and its heroes, but we do very little to explain to young people why that movement was so necessary. Earlier this week, the New York Times described how the Alabama Historical Association has placed many commemorative markers around Montgomery to commemorate civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, but declined—because of “the potential for controversy”—to call attention to the city’s slave markets and their role in the spread of slavery before the Civil War. Throughout our nation, this fear of confronting the past makes it more difficult to address and remedy the ongoing existence of urban ghettos, the persistence of the black-white achievement gap, and the continued under-representation of African Americans in higher education and better-paying jobs.

One of the worst examples of our historical blindness is the widespread belief that our continued residential racial segregation, North and South, is “de facto,” not the result of explicit government policy but instead the consequence of private prejudice, economic inequality, and personal choice to self-segregate. But in truth, our major metropolitan areas were segregated by government action. The federal government purposefully placed public housing in high-poverty, racially isolated neighborhoods (pdf) to concentrate the black population, and with explicit racial intent, created a whites-only mortgage guarantee program to shift the white population from urban neighborhoods to exclusively white suburbs (pdf). The Internal Revenue Service granted tax-exemptions for charitable activity to organizations established for the purpose of enforcing neighborhood racial homogeneity. State-licensed realtors in virtually every state, and with the open support of state regulators, supported this federal policy by refusing to permit African Americans to buy or rent homes in predominantly white neighborhoods. Federal and state regulators sanctioned the refusal of the banking, thrift, and insurance industries to make loans to homeowners in other-race communities. Prosecutors and police sanctioned, often encouraged, thousands of acts of violence against African Americans who attempted to move to neighborhoods that had not been designated for their race.

By the time the federal government reversed its policy of subsidizing segregation in 1962, and by the time the Fair Housing Act banned private discrimination in 1968, the residential patterns of major metropolitan areas were set. White suburbs that had been affordable to the black working class in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were now no longer so, both because of the increase in housing prices (and whites’ home equity) during that period, and because other federal policies had depressed black incomes while supporting those of whites. It was not until 1964, for example, that the National Labor Relations Board for the first time refused to certify a union’s exclusive bargaining status because it openly refused to represent black workers as it did whites.

The myth of de facto segregation denies this recent history and prevents us from adopting policies to undo it. If we understood the important role that our government played in segregating our nation, we would feel a greater obligation to press our government to integrate it. But if we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it.

We promote this result by mis-teaching our young people about our history. For example, in the more than 1,200 pages of McDougal Littell’s widely used high school textbook, The Americans, a single paragraph is devoted to 20th century “Discrimination in the North.” That paragraph devotes one sentence to residential segregation, stating that “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods,” with no further explanation of how this happened or how public policy was responsible. Another widely used high school textbook, Prentice Hall’s United States History, also attributes segregation to mysterious forces: “In the North, too, African Americans faced segregation and discrimination. Even where there were no explicit laws, de facto segregation, or segregation by unwritten custom or tradition, was a fact of life. African Americans in the North were denied housing in many neighborhoods.” History Alive!, a popular high school textbook published by the Teachers Curriculum Institute, also teaches students a distorted view by suggesting that segregation was only a problem in the South. “Even New Deal agencies,” it says, “practiced racial segregation, especially in the South,” failing to explain that the New Deal’s Public Works Administration established, for the North, a “neighborhood composition rule” in public housing (it could not alter the racial composition of a neighborhood where it was placed) or that the New Deal’s Federal Housing Administration instructed appraisers in the North to recommend denial of mortgage insurance in neighborhoods if natural barriers (rivers or highways, for example) failed to prevent the “infiltration” of “incompatible racial groups.”

Such indoctrination of today’s high school students with racial falsehoods minimizes the possibility of progress towards equality when these students become our country’s leaders. Nelson Mandela understood that glossing over the past undermined the possibility of reconciliation. It is a lesson from the celebration of Mandela’s life that we should not ignore.


Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley.

Categories: News & Current Issues, Reform Policies | Leave a comment

Online and Blended Learning Policies in K-12 Education: The Case of Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP)

Nicholas M. Lind

December 14, 2013

Policy Analysis written for course EDU413 – Contemporary Issues in Educational Policy at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester


Online and Blended Learning Policies in K-12 Education:

The Case of Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP)

Policy Overview


            According to some educators, online and blended learning initiatives currently taking place in K-12 schools across the country offer a prospective glimpse into an inevitable future of learning.  As the availability of technological resources in districts continues to grow – from internet connectivity and computer access to smart phones and tablet apps – students increasingly possess the opportunity to shift their education to new digital technologies which empower them with revolutionary learning capabilities.

Online and blended learning programs afford educators, learners, citizens, and policymakers alike with various luxuries.  These incentives have driven the online and blended learning movement toward new educational paradigms.  To be sure, as with many new educational policies, these transitions have been viewed unfavorably by some in the educational community and have certainly involved costs for stakeholders to consider.  These new benefits and concerns will be reviewed below, specifically focusing on Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) as an educational policy case study.

Several observations form the basis of this analysis.  Although Florida’s Virtual School continues to be recognized as a leading K-12 online learning institution, similar initiatives in Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah are moving in similar paths (Watson et. al., 2013).  Due to the recent development and subsequently limited supply of literature on these programs, this review will concentrate on the learning scene in Utah while drawing from broader literature on the topic.

Second, rather than placing these initiatives within the matrices of Race to the Top, Common Core, and teacher evaluation policies taking shape across the country, the scope of this analysis is limited to the development of online and blended programs independent of alternative educational policies.  Similarly, although the Statewide Online Education Program stems from a school choice approach of educational reform, the synthesizing of seminal research on school choice will not be pursued by this analysis.  Instead, this report will investigate the policy process for SOEP in Utah and will describe the design and goals of the program according to the academic literature on online and blended learning programs.  To be sure, school choice – and in SOEP’s case course choice – will perhaps have significant effects both on student achievement and on standing educational institutions in Utah, especially when compounded by other state and federal policies.  But these outcomes will be more recognizable and measurable in the longer term, once SOEP has been fully implemented.

Defining Digital Learning Terms

Before proceeding, it is appropriate to define what constitutes “online” and “blended” learning programs.  The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the leading policy organization devoted to blended and online learning opportunities, defines these terms in the following ways:

“Blended learning (also hybrid learning): Learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and is based on transparent communication amongst all parties involved with a course” (Wicks, 2010, p. 48).

“Online learning (also cyber learning, elearning, and virtual learning): Education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the Internet; online learning is a form of distance learning.  The term does not include printer-based correspondence education, broadcast television, or radio, videocassettes, and stand-alone educational software programs that do not have a significant internet-based instructional component” (Wicks, 2010, p.48).

Whereas blended learning programs deliver instruction within traditional brick-and-mortar settings and supplement with internet-based activities and assignments, online programs deliver the entirety of the learning process digitally.  And while both models depend highly on strong communication between teachers and students, instructors of blended courses effectively tailor the balance between the amount of time spent in traditional settings with time spent online specifically according to the needs of their students.  Although their teaching style may inform the initial balance between in-class and online activities, blended programs allow teachers to respond to their students’ progress and provide in-class support as necessary (Digital Learning Now!, 2010).

Internet-based modes of learning are often delivered through a Learning Management System.  Wicks (2010) describes these systems as software programs that provide a platform to create, edit, share, communicate, and assess course content.  Instructors can upload course materials onto the platform for students to access, or can simply provide links to media available on the internet.  Students can communicate with each other via these systems and often submit assignments for instructors to review.  In most cases, students are able to log on to these systems using a username and password, which allows them to access the course materials from anywhere with internet access.

Policy Problem & Issue Definition

Benefits of Online & Blended Learning

Online and blended learning models are promoted essentially for their potential to increase equitable access to high-quality educational services.  This principle transcends various dimensions of educational policymaking including: challenging the norms of traditional teaching and learning, adapting the curricular and technical structures of education, and providing constituents – both voters and learners – with equitable and democratic schools.

Challenging traditional teaching and learning. Anthony Picciano, Professor at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, CUNY, has served as principle investigator on multiple analyses of online and blended learning programs nationwide.  Picciano et. al (2011b) found that, “high schools in Illinois and nationally use a number of external providers rather than develop[ing] courses in house” (p.1).  This separation of the design of curriculum from the delivery of instruction aims to ensure high-quality learning materials for all students, but to be sure depends entirely on the quality of coursework a third party organization provides.  Ideally, only high-quality course providers would be authorized by state departments of education to supply materials.  But this is not always the case, as is evident from recent controversy and outcries in New York regarding low quality Common Core modules widely purchased by school districts.

Online learning programs allow students to access certified teachers delivering subjects who wouldn’t be available for face-to-face instruction (Picciano et. al. 2011b). Personally speaking, I graduated from a rural high school that didn’t offer any Advanced Placement courses and only offered Spanish as a foreign language.  I would have kindly greeted any opportunity for more diverse course offerings.  Consequently, online programs provide teachers with career options to reach more students in more productive ways.  Highly effective teachers can be reached across geographic areas, perhaps even facilitating online courses from their own homes (Lips, 2010).  Downes (2004) also suggests that online and blended programs offer students an opportunity to learn and communicate using blogs, which encourage formative writing exercises and personalize writing in a way that directly increases its relevance to students.

These new programs are also uniquely positioned to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners.  Muller (2009) explains how state-level virtual K-12 public school programs have developed ways to offer accommodations, assistive technology, and related services to students with disabilities according to their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).  Muller also notes that at-risk students who are prone to dropout, incarcerated students, students who are homebound, and migrant youth are all empowered by online learning opportunities (p. 3).  While these programs require innovative solutions, states are continually expanding online and blended opportunities in ways to benefit diverse learners.

            Adapting curricular and technical structures. Online learning programs introduce diverse opportunities for schools and students.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) noted that, “offering courses not otherwise available [such as]…Advanced Placement or college-level courses,” attracted school administrators to explore online and blended models (p. 128).  The flexible format of online coursework also decreased scheduling conflicts for students seeking to meet graduation requirements.  Students who previously failed a course could retake it through an online program to receive credit promptly rather than waiting an entire year for the course to be offered again.  Similarly, courses that would previously have been overscheduled – inappropriately increasing the student-faculty ratio beyond best-practices for effective class sizes – now could be offered through online or blended programs in order to accommodate schools with, “growing populations and limited space” (Picciano et. al., 2011a, p.129).

            Providing democratic education.  Providing freedom to students who seek to choose specific courses is an important driver of online and blended programs.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) explained that in addition to offering additional courses, online and blended programs individualize educational services to best-fit the needs of students.  For example, some district administrators reported that research pointing to the pedagogical strength of online programs as well as testimonies of students’ preference of online coursework played a role in developing programs within their schools.  Lips (2010) writes that instead of grouping students according to their age, online learning can group them by achievement level or learning style.  Additionally, students can learn at their own pace, providing advanced students with an infrastructure to accelerate ahead and allowing struggling students to receive ample support in order to reach total proficiency at their own pace rather than learn “enough” to pass a course while still lacking proficiency.

iNACOL (2009) notes that quality mathematics and science teachers, who are critical to the nation’s future economic competitiveness, are in short supply in many districts.  Online programs can eliminate the geographical discrepancies currently experienced across the country.  They also point out that, “online college prep, Advanced Placement, credit recovery, and dropout prevention programs ensure that more American students are ready for college” (p. 1).  These opportunities can decrease the cost of college for students by minimizing remedial coursework necessary in their first several semesters or by covering coursework requirements altogether.  Furthermore, research has shown that online and blended learning environments, “can produce significant cost savings for states and districts” (Bailey et. al., 2013c)

These programs additionally have more practical benefits.  Online courses provide hands-on training using technology and computers, widely perceived as an essential twenty-first century literacy skill (iNACOL, 2009).  Also, if local colleges are authorized as course providers, students may build linkages in a way that encourages future college attendance (Picciano et. al., 2011a).  Students who take courses online within a flexible time frame can now use their time within traditional school settings – roughly speaking, between 7am and 4 pm – in ways that better-fit their personal interests.  Since they’re taking a required science course online, perhaps their schedule allows them to take an elective arts or music course in school or perhaps they use their new flexible time to join an organization like student council or join a new sport (Lips, 2010).

Finally, administrators noted that the financial benefits to offering blended and online courses – such as offering credit recovery opportunities through an online program rather than offering a whole course for a few students – enticed them to begin programs.  In this way, online and blended programs benefit student achievement, but also school efficiency and taxpayers’ return on investment.

Barriers to Online and Blended Learning

In addition to implementation challenges that will be addressed later on in this report, there are several factors that hinder the development of online and blended learning programs.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) found that a small number of districts hesitated to introduce blended learning programs both due to “restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies” (p. 130).  Other administrators cited a lack of human capital in terms of technological and online teaching pedagogical skills.  Without federal or statewide grant programs covering the initial costs of preparing for online and blended courses, districts are short on the capabilities required to implement online programs.

Inadequate funding – both for teacher professional development and to purchase technological infrastructure – compounded with uncertainty regarding the sustainability of programs financed according to student attendance, both in terms of district contributions as well as the ambiguous resulting effects an online program would cause on the supply and demand of teacher labor markets.  Nevertheless, online and blended learning programs have increasingly been developed throughout the country, as demonstrated by reviewing annual editions of Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Blended Learning, a seminal review of online and blended programs released annually since 2003.

Policy Design & Formulation

Background: Online and Blended Learning in Utah

            The 2013 Keeping Pace report identifies Utah as a national leader of online and blended learning (Watson et. al., 2013 see also Parker, 2013, April 2).  According to Keeping Pace, Utah offers student choice at both a school and course level through four fully online charter schools, a fully online public Utah Electronic High School, and through the newly developed  Statewide Online Education Program. Keeping Pace identifies Utah’s efforts as, “among the first and best-known course choice programs in the country” (p. 150).  Despite this attention, Utah’s SOEP remains small.  Total enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year served 1,279 course enrollments to only 664 unique students.  However, the Electronic High School served 10,308 course enrollments in the same period, rendering the public school’s course choice program significantly more popular (Watson et. al, 2013).

Setting the Agenda: Formulating Policy in Utah

            Given Utah’s existing access to online and blended courses, the process of developing the SOEP aimed to expand opportunities beyond those offered by traditional public institutions.  Salt Lake Tribune journalists Lisa Schencker and Ray Parker chronicled the SOEP’s journey through the state legislature, with various contributions from writers at The Deseret News, and The Daily Herald offering alternative perspectives.

Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson, a Republican representing the Draper district, sponsored the original bill in the state legislature to create the SOEP.  Stephenson argued to other senators, “I urge you to set our children free.  Allow them to take more online courses and serve their needs rather than serving the needs of institutions” (Schencker, 2011, February 18).  By creating an infrastructure for authorizing private institutions to deliver courses, Stephenson’s bill expanded student choice beyond public institutions, a controversial policy in education circles and public education advocates.

An initial vote failed 13-10-6 to send the bill to the Utah House of Representatives.  But although some opponents were vocally opposed to the bill, labeling it as a “school voucher bill,” Democratic Senator Karen Morgan cautioned only against the cost of the proposal and offered that, “maybe this is something we shouldn’t do this year” (Schencker, 2011, March 6).  Optimistic editorials were soon published in The Deseret News, a major daily paper based in Salt Lake City, and Stephenson revised the bill and redoubled awareness of the program’s perceived benefits prior to introducing it again for a vote (see Horn, 2011, March 2; Daw, 2011, July 24; and Odell, 2012, June 16).  A later vote passed the Senate 17-12-0, moved on to the House where it passed 48-27-0, and was signed by the Governor on March 30, 2011 (S.B. 65, 2011).  Stephenson amended S.B. 65 to expand the regulations of the SOEP in Senate Bill 178, which easily passed through the state legislature and was signed by the Governor on March 20, 2012 (S.B. 178, 2012).

Opponents of the bill feared the unintended consequences of SOEP.  Stakeholders were concerned with harming public school systems by transferring public funds to private organizations, the logistical challenges of providing a location to supervise students completing online coursework during their normal hours at brick-and-mortar schools, and the implications for public schools when an influx of students decide to drop courses in September in favor of alternative online courses on school finance, which typically is prepared months in advance (Farmer, 2011, June 15).

Tami Pyfer, a representative of District 1 on the Utah State Board of Education and Clinical Instructor of Special Education and Rehabilitation at Utah State University, speaking prior to the passage of S.B. 178, noted that S.B. 65 actually limited student choice by capping the number of courses students may take.  For every course students enrolled for through SOEP, they would have to drop a course at their traditional school (Pyfer, 2011, September 23).  Senator Stephenson noted that the provision was included in order to manage the costs of SOEP, but adapted it in S.B. 178 to allow the number of courses students may take to gradually increase over the next several years (S.B. 178, 2012).

S.B. 178 also differentiated the cost of each course a student takes.  Whereas districts initially would credit online course providers with $727 per course, S.B. 178 initially set the price of courses between $400 to $700 depending on the type of class, but Stephenson compromised to allow districts to negotiate the costs of each course with authorized online providers in order to solidify support to pass the bill (see Schencker, 2012, February 22 and Schencker, 2012, March 2).

Interestingly, a bill originating in the Utah House called for the establishment of a state-wide voucher program for students.  Under House Bill 123, a pilot program would be established to fund “savings accounts” for students to use toward their education on a course-choice level at authorized public, charter, private, and online institutions.  The bill’s sponsor, Representative John Dougall, supported the measure in terms of transparency of funds spent on education, but the bill failed to clear the House, losing a vote 26-46 (Hesterman, 2012, March 6).

Although in-depth descriptions of the policy process are largely limited to press reporting and floor speeches, the ultimate format of the SOEP in its current existence is more straightforward.

Summary: The Statewide Online Education Program

            Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program complements the wide array of online learning policies already established in the state, as referenced above.  S.B. 65, the bill that initially created the system and S.B. 178, which slightly amended the program, established an infrastructure for educational agencies authorized by the Utah Board of Education to deliver online courses to students across the state (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Students may choose individual courses to take through SOEP, and those courses replace requirements they would otherwise complete within their traditional school district (Watson et. al., 2013).  Provider agencies may be programs created by public LEAs or may be provided by outside third parties, as long as the agency is approved by the LEA (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Students may currently only enroll for a maximum of two credits per year through SOEP – unless they elect to pay out-of-pocket for courses – but that figure increases annually over the next five years and students (Murin, 2011).

The SOEP is provided an annual appropriation of $250,000 from the Utah State Legislature to sustain the infrastructure and support staff.  Funding typically allocated to students’ local education agency (LEA) through local tax dollars follows them to the provider of any online courses they take through SOEP.  The costs of each course are between $400 and $700, with the exact price negotiated between the traditional school district and the authorized providing agency.

Provider agencies receive half of the funding when students enroll in the course and receive the balance when students successfully complete the course.  There are specific stipulations regarding the amount of time students may take to complete a course. Agencies receive only 80% of the total negotiated price if students fail to complete the coursework within an agreed upon time frame.  This deadline is typically congruent with traditional class schedules of roughly nine months for a full-year, one-credit course, and four months for a one-semester, half-credit course (Watson et. al, 2013).

Policy Effects

            It is too early to generalize the effects of Utah’s SOEP to form broader conclusions regarding statewide course choice programs.  Indeed, measuring student outcomes can arguably only produce reliable comparisons once the program is fully implemented, which won’t be for several years.  Even then, researchers and policymakers will likely find themselves arguing the classic nature versus nurture debate of educational choice: Does course and/or school choice increase student achievement or are the students who choose naturally better-equipped to achieve higher?  An expansive 2010 meta-analysis completed by the Department of Education found that online learning, particularly blended learning, has statistically significant positive effects on student achievement, but this review did not include the element of course choice (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).  Barbour (2010) similarly notes that,

“while online learning may allow for educational improvements such as high levels of learner motivation, high quality learning opportunities or improvement in student outcomes, it certainly did not guarantee any of these potential benefits would be realized” (p. 7).

These questions and more can’t be answered until the nuanced details of SOEP and other online learning policies in Utah are fully implemented and subsequently analyzed from an academic perspective, as the current literature on Utah is limited to private institutions and local newspaper testimonies.  Still, there are a number of evident preliminary outcomes that future studies might consider.

            Utah has set a precedent for public choice on a course level.  By offering these courses entirely with public tax dollars, no additional cost is accrued to students.  This allows students to make individual course choices which in turn pressures schools to compete on a lower level for students.  Whereas traditional choice models pushed schools to be more attractive as a whole to students, Utah’s SOEP course choice program pressures schools and outside agencies to offer individual courses that entice student interest.  The effects of this shift on student achievement, teacher labor markets, and the financial sustainability of public schools have yet to be realized.

As previously mentioned above, Utah’s SOEP program empowers students with diverse course offerings that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them in their traditional brick-and-mortar schools.  Teachers working in high-need fields, offering foreign languages, college preparation courses, or Advanced Placement courses can now provide geographic equity to students in Utah.  For example, Brigham Young University offers courses for college credit through the BYU Independent Study Program, which can be transferred from high schools to cover coursework at any college accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (Watson et. al., 2013).  Similarly, The Juilliard School began offering music education courses to students through the SOEP, expanding world class instruction to rural residents in Utah free of charge (Parker, 2013, March 19).  This confirms Picciano’s suggestion that students will form bonds with higher education institutions (2011a).  Whether these relationships transition into increased college attendance is also yet to be measured.

Researchers have also pointed out the potential for online learning to allow traditional schools to transition away from cohort-based organization and instead focus on competency education.  Bailey et. al. (2013a) argues that the traditional “factory model” of education limits students in two fundamental ways: “It holds back students who could be excelling,” and “it moves on students who aren’t ready” (p. 125).  Under competency education models, students advance upon subject mastery rather than on proficiency and seat time.  Their achievement is based on “explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students” (p. 128).  Assessments are used as a tool to diagnose rather learning challenges and students receive “timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs” (p. 128).

Researchers point out that competency education does not rely on online learning, but may be easily facilitated through online and blended programs that already allow students to advance as they reach mastery, such as Utah’s SOEP program.  Patrick and Sturgis (2013) importantly note that the terminology associated with competency education varies and has been referred to as “proficiency-based education,” “standards-based education,” and “mastery-education” (p. 5).  Regardless of its terminology, researchers have acknowledged the potential for online and blended learning programs to offer evolutionary changes to traditional education paradigms.

Implementation Issues

The implementation process for Utah’s SOEP remains in progress.  With the amount of credits students may enroll in increasing annually, a more holistic perspective of the program’s implementation must also be analyzed by future researchers.  But much like the effects of SOEP, there are several early points worth noting regarding SOEP’s implementation as well as the implementation of similar online and blended learning programs noted by researchers thus far.

The role of Senator Stephenson in adapting the program to accommodate the concerns of fellow legislators, educators, and community stakeholders shouldn’t be overlooked.  Datnow and Park (2009) note that within the co-construction model of policy implementation, stakeholders and policymakers actively work to design and implement educational policies in ways that benefit specific school environments.  In this way, Stephenson’s response to criticism, and resulting sponsorship of S.B. 178, provided stakeholders with an opportunity to contribute to the policy in a way that would benefit its implementation and ultimately to support educational agencies to deliver high student outcomes.

Muller (2009) offers several general implementation challenges associated with online and blended programs.  In addition to adopting a co-construction mindset during the design and implementation stage of policymaking, educators and policymakers must educate parents about online education and the market of choices available to students.  Also, as new technologies arise – including learning management systems, computer software, and internet-based programs – both educators and policymakers must remain well-informed in order to provide the most effective learning opportunities to students.  Muller also notes that funding issues can hamper implementation, but the sustainability of Utah’s SOEP has yet to be systemically analyzed.

Bailey et. al. (2013d) explains that schools can take several steps toward implementing blended learning including: placing computers in classrooms, delivering a digital curriculum, experiment with flipped classroom strategies, increase access to computer labs and tablet devices.  But importantly, although “these strategies may be beneficial…if they do not change instructional practices, schedules, relationships, and resource allocations, they are not considered blended learning (p. 19).  Bailey et. al. (2013d) also include a set of practices to assist schools in transitioning from some of the strategies mentioned above to fully online or blended environments, often based on competency education.

Including successful testimonies from around the country, Bailey et. al. (2013d) include a variety of extensive frameworks for schools to adapt.  Each plan includes strategies which address challenges made to a school’s infrastructure, broadband capabilities, network equipment and management, electrical power supply, facilities management, and hardware and software acquisition.  Furthermore, schools must address challenges posed by professional development demands as well as the existing school culture, which in some cases can hinder policy implementation.  Bailey’s implementation guide provides an in-depth primer on issues schools face when implementing online programs, including several ways schools can overcome these challenges.  The insights provided by the guide are highly recommended for policymakers, researchers, and educational leaders alike.

Policy Recommendations

As legislated by S.B 65 and S.B 178, Utah should continually reflect on the SOEP implementation process and make changes as necessary to address financial and academic concerns that may arise (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Researchers and educators must also analyze the SOEP and reflect on its effectiveness for student achievement, as well as its financial sustainability, and its impact on the traditional public school system.

Policymakers should introduce online and blended learning policies which support the transition to competency education.  Under these models, students are more likely to achieve mastery of subjects rather than advance merely as a product of their seat time.  Policies that adopt a co-construction approach to implementation and provide schools with flexibility to fit their students’ needs are most likely to deliver those outcomes (iNACOL, 2012).

Providing incentives, especially state and federal grant programs to districts that adopt online and blended learning models will catalyze the transition.  iNACOL (2012) suggests these incentives are translated to the course level, allowing students the optimal choice.  Funding structures that simply transfer funding from one educational entity to another allow this transition to be more financially viable, although future studies must analyze the long-term sustainability of such approaches.

Lips (2010) offers a number of general actions educators and policymakers can take to support online and blended learning programs.  Lips calls for every state to develop a statewide virtual school, enabling course choice on a supplementary or full-time basis.  Lips also suggests expanding hybrid (blended) learning programs to support learning out of the classroom.  Specifically, districts should share best practices with each other regarding how to implement digital curricula into existing programs.  Importantly, Lips notes that federal policymakers should amend and revise federal policies to support online learning by providing control and flexibility to state education agencies.


             Online and blended learning programs such as Utah’s SOEP offer a prospective glance into an inevitable future.  Although some states have forged ahead of others in this educational opportunity, as technological infrastructure and awareness of existing programs continues to increase online and blended programs will become available to more and more students.  These programs have numerous benefits – from increasing access to equitable learning opportunities to balancing district budget sheets – but uncertainty about the long-term challenges to implementation sustainability continue to hinder broader involvement across the country.

Future researchers must analyze these outcomes including comparing design techniques, implementation procedures, and measures taken to adapt policies over time to fit the needs of students.  Researchers must also carefully design studies to compare student achievement within online and blended course choice programs against their peers in an effort to determine the most effective learning structures and environments for a given population of students.



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Farmer, M. (2011, July 3). State gears up for new online education program that begins this fall.

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Felix, J. P. (2007). Edublogging: Instruction for the Digital Age Learner (Doctoral Thesis). University of

California, San Diego.

Halverson, R. and Smith, A. (2009). How new technologies have (and have not) changed teaching

and learning in schools. Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, Vol 26 (2). pp. 49-54.

Hesterman, B. (2012, March 6). House rejects Dougall’s education savings account bill. Daily Herald.

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Hesterman, B. (2012, September 28). Follow the money – if you can. Daily Herald. Retrieved from


Horn, M. B. (2011, March 2). Michael B. Horn: Utah online education proposal would expand

access and accountability. Deseret News. Retrieved from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700114966/Utah-online-education-proposal-would-expand-access-and-accountability.html.

International Association for K-12 Online Learning (INACOL). (2009) K-12 Online Learning: A

Smart Investment NOW More Than Ever. Accessed November 9, 2013. http://www.inacol.org.

International Association for K-12 Online Learning (INACOL). (2012). Statement of Principles for

Model Legislation in States. Accessed November 9, 2013. http://www.inacol.org.

Lips, D. (2010). How online learning is revolutionizing K-12 education and benefitting students.

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programs. inForum: September 2009. Project Forum, National Association of State Directors of

Special Education. Alexandria, VA

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Odell, S. (2012, June 16). At the crossroads of education reform. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved

from http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=21359217&itype=storyID.

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Parker, R. (2013, March 19). Utah teens can take Julliard’s groundbreaking virtual music classes free.

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(4). pp. 60-64.

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online learning studies. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

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November 9, 2013. http://gettingsmart.com/2013/11/10-lessons-florida-virtual/.

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blended learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Evergreen Education Group.

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Learning, Second Edition.

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Categories: Education in the 21st Century, News & Current Issues, Online Learning, Reform Policies, Writing Samples | Leave a comment

Classroom Poster: Roberta Ford


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Teaching is an Art

Enjoy this brief but warranted post by Carol Hunter at SmartBlog on Education: http://smartblogs.com/education/2013/11/25/balancing-the-art-and-science-of-education/

Balancing the art and science of education

As we continue to fight to keep the arts in education, it is time to realize that the real fight is keeping the art in education. When I first started teaching many years ago, teaching was primarily seen as an art — an innate ability to use creative skill and imagination to communicate and build relationships that facilitate learning. The curriculum guide was a small gray book covering all subjects. Now, teaching is seen primarily as a science. Attention is paid to specific teaching techniques, core curriculum, testing and narrowly-focused results. Data is collected, analyzed and used more for accountability than to personalize student programs.

We need to create a balance of art and science as we nurture the students in our care. Granted, research over the past few decades has provided us with evidence of how the brain functions, how students learn in different ways and that they have multiple intelligences. This valuable information has only found its way into the education debate in limited instances. The focus has been more on defining what students need to know, how they should be taught and measuring results. This is much easier and more scientific than using brain functioning, learning styles and multiple intelligences to empower teachers to personalize education and create safe and caring learning environments.

The science of teaching helps us to understand concepts such as that the brain remembers information when it is relevant and evokes an emotional response, that we have a basic human need for safety and that living in poverty has a definite impact on a child’s ability to maximize his potential. Science creates the structure underlying the art of teaching.

It takes artists to see the big picture, think creatively and critically, and begin to shape the future of education. Artists celebrate human individuality. The art of teaching requires that we:

  1. Apply what science teaches us in a holistic way.
  2. Know our students as individuals.
  3. Empower students to be the best they can be.
  4. Understand that students must first feel safe and secure if they are to take the risks necessary for them to become the person they want to be.
  5. Focus on creating positive, supportive school cultures.
  6. Engage students in their learning at the deepest level possible by creating an emotional response.
  7. Ensure that curriculum is personalized and meaningful.
  8. Focus on building connections and relationships.
  9. See the big picture by dealing with the whole child.
  10. Seek the complexities and depth in the big picture.

Although this blog post may evoke a response of: “Yeah, but we’re accountable for raising test scores through processes and programs that come from above…,” I hope you will let your inner artist shine through and see what you need to do as a teacher and as a leader. It is only when we find the balance between the art and science of education that we will begin to make a real difference in the lives of our students.

Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change”. She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education. Learn more atwww.impactleadership.ca.

Categories: Education in the 21st Century, News & Current Issues, Reform Policies | Leave a comment

Writing Tips: “How to write good”


Also see: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edtechresearcher/2013/07/ten_things_i_teach_about_writing.html113637_700b_v1

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Classroom Poster: Ninja Turtles “Say no to drugs”



This is definitely one of my favorites…


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Tell your students that hard work (not genetics) determines math ability! #edchat

The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’ – Atlantic Mobile


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Legislator, educator challenging ‘testing juggernaut’ By Valerie Strauss

This is a great primer to the problems (on multiple levels) with high stakes testing trend we’re seeing in the United States.


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The Council on Foreign Relations weighs in on Student Debt

Student Loans and U.S. Prosperity

Author: Steven J. Markovich, Contributing Editor
October 17, 2013


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25 Ideas for Online Learning Success

A conversation with three veterans:
25 Ideas for Online Learning Success – K12

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School Poverty—More Than Race—Affects Students’ College-Going, Study Finds By Sarah D. Sparks




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Edweek: On the changing state of assessment

Education Week put together this 18-page collection of articles on assessment, largely centered on the Common Core:

Ed Week Spotlight – On the Changing State of Assessments, Sept. 2013

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Education Week: Managing the Digital District

EdWeek recently published this 28-page special report on K-12 education technology, available here:

Managing the Digital District – Education Week Special Report – Oct, 2013

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Education Week Spotlight on Literacy and the Common Core

EdWeek has assembled a 15-page document featuring a variety of articles on Literacy and the Common Core, available for download here:

Ed Week Spotlight – On Literacy and the Common Core – March 2013

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“Social Studies Texts” Category has been moved!

The Social Studies Texts category has been moved to an alternative blog, which I’m putting together here as an ongoing project: http://socialstudiestexts.wordpress.com/

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Editing and Proofreading Tips

Share this 5 page document from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina

Editing And Proofreading Tips

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Interesting article (and linked policy brief) on data driven instruction

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post

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Review: Race to Nowhere (2010)


Written for EDU 413 – Contemporary Issues in Education Policy, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester.


“I think success in America is defined by how much money you make not by how happy you are with your life.  That’s just not how it is in other countries.  They’re like, ‘Oh, okay so they have a modest living: cool!’  But here it’s like, ‘Okay, so if you don’t earn a lot of money, something went wrong.’”

-Student (Abeles et. al., 2010).

“The common force that drives kids toward so many negative behaviors is stress.  It’s coming from schools, it’s coming from colleges, and it’s coming from all of the places that it’s always came from during adolescence.  Don’t forget: adolescence is a tough time!”

–Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Abeles et. al., 2010).

Vicki Abeles’ 2010 documentary, Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, aggressively cautions against the staggering emotional and psychological effects that have rippled behind contemporary measures of education reform.  Positioned within a culture intensely focused on “student achievement” and college admissions, Abeles assembles a defended narrative of stressed and over-pressured kids through interviewing a broad assemblage of students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, and medical personnel.  But despite the passionate convictions from interviewees with soppy eyes and the seemingly comprehensive representation of stakeholders in the film, Abeles nonetheless depicts an incomplete explanation of how achievement culture has been manifested in American education.

The message argues that growing measures of accountability, specifically standardized testing and an increased amount of homework, have created additional pressures on children that are resulting in unintended negative effects.  Interviewees explain how the pressure to perform has forced teachers to give more homework, decreased the free time students have (including time to sleep), has induced insurmountable stress, and has likewise caused various psychological, emotional, and health concerns from spending less time with friends, to depression, eating disorders, insomnia, self-mutilation, and, in one case, to suicide.  John Merrow, reviewing the documentary for the Huffington Post lamented,

“In my thirty-five years of reporting for NPR and PBS, I have covered these issues more times than I care to remember.  In the late seventies I spent several weeks in mental institutions for children and met kids like those in this movie.  In the late eighties I reported on adolescent suicide…a segment that still wakes me up in the middle of the night from time to time.  And in 1995 we produced ‘A.D.D.: A Dubious Diagnosis?’ for PBS and saw some of the same pressures being put on kids.  I promise you that this movie is telling the truth” (Merrow, 2010).

The problem is aggravated by performance standards for teachers who are increasingly pressured to “teach to the test” and by the enormous pressure placed upon students and their families to get into top tier university programs.  Parents arrive at high school orientations and are bombarded with information about college readiness, the college admissions process, Advanced Placement courses, and the necessity of extracurricular activities.  One parent concluded, “I guess this is what everyone is going to be doing.”  A teacher added that, “We’re all caught up in it, we’re all afraid that our children won’t be as successful as we are.  It’s out of love, it’s out of concern, it’s out of fear, it’s out of all of these things that parents normally have.”  Echoing the quote preceding this review, role models push students be the best in high school in order to get into a great college so they can land a great job so they can make a lot of money.  The connection is sometimes dubious and misguided, but the pressure is very real.

Race to Nowhere warns viewers of the consequences of this phenomenon.  Numerous students point out that, “high school is about learning how to pass tests.”  With fewer than three percent of students refraining from cheating, it has “become another course,” for many students.  The private tutoring industry has boomed in the United States, largely around tests that predict college success such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  Notably however, the study in the film referred to students who had never cheated rather than students who regularly cheated and, to be sure, many college admissions offices have in recent years decreased their value of standardized test scores when considering applicants.

Despite these more recent trends, Clinical Psychologist Wendy Mogel regretted that students are trained to always look for the next step, continually focusing on the next level.  “We’ve stolen eleventh and twelfth grade from them,” Mogel said.  One student, speaking before a forum of peers, commented that the worst question a parent can ask is: “And?”  A simple conversation may go:

Student: “I made the honor roll!”

Parent: “And?”

Student: “I’m the President of the Drama Club!”

Parent: “And?”

Student: “I joined the soccer team!”

Parent: “And?”

Conversations like these push successful kids to the brink by continually pressuring them to do more.  In the eyes of the student, “Everyone expects us to be superheroes.  I think sometimes parents just need to step back and say, ‘you know what, you’re doing a really great job.’”

While Race to Nowhere masterfully layers striking testimonies of students who are increasingly placed under stress, it’s portrayal of homework as a significant factor in the race is perhaps misguided.  As Jay Mathews at the Washington Post pointed out, according to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, students age 15-17 spent roughly three and a half hours a day on leisure activities such as watching television while spending only forty-two minutes on homework.  When Abeles countered that the study also showed that homework for students aged 6-9 tripled in the 1990s, Mathews replied that the documented increase was (in real terms) only from eight minutes in 1981 to twenty-two minutes in 2003, which is, “less time than watching an episode of Hannah Montana.”  The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute similarly found that two-thirds of high school students did less than sixty minutes of homework per night (Mathews, 2011).

Later on in the film, a teacher comments that when teaching a class for the first time, he cut the amount of homework previously assigned in the curriculum in half and saw AP scores increase.   Seemingly portraying a causal relationship between decreasing homework and increasing test scores, the film overlooks a much more important variable: the new teacher.  Having a higher-quality teacher in the room is far more likely to cause an increase in test scores, regardless of the amount of homework assigned.

Another speaker claims that, “Parents need to educate themselves about the fact that homework is not going to make their kids any smarter.”  Without distinguishing between specific goals of assigning homework (i.e. for independent practice, to check for understanding, to introduce to new content, for formative assessment, etc.) or citing any evidence for her case, she continues,

“The schools have our kids for seven hours a day.  That should be plenty for them to impart the kind of knowledge that they want to and then the kids should go home and there is so much more to a child’s life than what’s going on in school.”

This is a classic characterization of the “banking model” of education, whereby students are merely “‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher” (Freire, 2003).  Possessing all knowledge, the teacher is the hegemonic authority of the classroom.  The teacher teaches and the student are taught.  The teacher talks and the students listen.  The teacher chooses content and the students comply.  Freire (2003) writes, “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.”  The idea that teachers merely impart knowledge to students is irreconcilable with the types of educational philosophies and models Abeles encourages, such as The Blue School in New York City.  While it is admirable to encourage students to spend time away from the books, the film seems to support a “learning is only for school” mindset which is grossing outdated for twenty-first century learners.  Furthermore, the film fails to acknowledge how contemporary practices in curriculum development, especially flipped classrooms and blended learning, might negate some of the criticism of homework or how assigning homework as a strategy for engaging parental involvement may be a valuable practice at certain grade levels.

Critics have also mentioned the limited scope of participants in the film.  “Most of the families in ‘Race to Nowhere’ are suburban and privileged, and the film has found its audience in those communities where parents often move for excellent schools,” wrote Trip Gabriel in the New York Times (Gabriel, 2010).  Indeed, a significant portion of the film’s interviewees are from upper-class suburban neighborhoods in southern California.  The narrow group of speakers leaves out the many perspectives of oppressed students who already face significant hurdles to high school completion and college readiness, a group whose race to achievement is undoubtedly more complex.

After documenting the effects of the achievement culture, Race to Nowhere finally (belatedly) begins to address possible ways to turn things around.  Cautioning that there are no simple solutions and that many small changes can make a significant difference, the film’s interviewees call for a reform of college admissions expectations, a shift in priorities as parents, and a general change in the culture of achievement.  Building on previous claims to decrease homework, Race to Nowhere calls for the education community to rethink achievement and learning.  Current incentives align multiple layers of schools and their participants against the actual learning process.

While this theme is accurate and well-received by educators, the film seems to leave specific strategies for post-screening discussion sessions.  But to the filmmaker’s credit, copies of the documentary come with a thick 246-page facilitation guide filled with handouts, fact-sheets, planned audience activities, sample surveys, and answers to frequently asked questions.  If the film falls short of advocating specific policy solutions, it nevertheless provides facilitators at the local level with the necessary guidance to begin brainstorming solutions that would best-fit the needs of their districts, which has been a common theme of education reform policies in recent years.

Advocating changing culture, both in respect to parental and collegial practices, is, as the film notes, a challenging task.  Abeles is wise to include such an expansive package of screening materials in order to use the documentary as a vehicle for conversations and reform, but the change process is nonetheless slow.  All in all, Race to Nowhere is a striking, though incomplete, critique of achievement culture in America education.  The takeaway message is encompassed by Stanford Professor, Denise Pope, who says, “When success is defined as high grades, test scores, and trophies, we know that we end up with unprepared, disengaged, exhausted, and ultimately unhealthy kids.  It’s no longer about learning.”



Abeles, V. and Congdon, J (directors) & Attia, M. (writer). (2010). Race to nowhere (DVD). ReelLink Films (producer).

Cataldo, J. (2010, September 6). Film review: race to nowhere. Slant Magazine.

 Catsoulis, J. (2010, September 9). The overscheduled child. The New York Times.

Freire, P. (2003). From pedagogy of the oppressed. In A. Darder, M.

Baltodano, & R. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (pp.57-68). New York: Routledge Falmer.

Gabriel, T. (2010, December 8). Parents embrace documentary on pressures of school. The New York Times.

 Linden, S. (2010, September 9). Movie review: ‘race to nowhere’. The Los Angeles Times.

 Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J., Lindkvist, H. (2013). “What would make this a successful year for you?” How students define success in college. Liberal Education, 99 (2).

Mathews, J. (2011, April 3). Why ‘race to nowhere’ documentary is wrong. The Washington Post.

Merrow, J. (2010, October 10). ‘Race to nowhere:’ it’s no ‘waiting for superman’, ‘but it’s honest. The Huffington Post.

 Rifion-Meisels, G. (2011). Editor’s Review. Harvard Educational Review, 81 (4).

[1] Some of the sources in the bibliography are not directly cited in the review, although they were referenced while I was researching the film in order to assess what aspects of opinion have already been established and what I could build upon and expand in this paper.

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