Writing Samples

College Writings, Essays, Research Papers, etc.

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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Anker, A., Su, S., and Smith, J. (2017), “News feed fyi: New test to provide context about articles”, Facebook Newsroom, available at: https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/10/news-feed-fyi-new-test-to-provide-context-about-articles/. (Accessed 5 November 2017).

Amanpour, C. (2017), “How to seek truth in the era of fake news”, published interview proceedings of TEDGlobal>NYC, available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/christiane_amanpour_how_to_seek_truth_in_the_era_of_fake_news (accessed 5 November 2017).

Berman. N. (2017), “The victims of fake news”, Columbia Journalism Review, available at: https://www.cjr.org/special_report/fake-news-pizzagate-seth-rich-newtown-sandy-hook.php (accessed 5 November 2017).

Confessore, N and Wakabayashio, D. (2017), “How Russia harvested American rage to reshape U.S. politics”, The New York Times, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/technology/russia-election-facebook-ads-rage.html. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Cox, J. (2017), “I bought a Russian bot army for under $100”, The Daily Beast, available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/i-bought-a-russian-bot-army-for-under-dollar100. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Darby, L. (2017), “Russian trolls didn’t just flood facebook with fake news – They faked accounts of real organizations”, GQ.com, available at: https://www.gq.com/story/russian-trolls-facebook-accounts. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Davey-Attlee, F. and Soares, I. (2017), “The fake news machine”, CNN Money Interactive, available at: http://money.cnn.com/interactive/media/the-macedonia-story/. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Fischer, S. (2017), “Scoop: The FEC’s plans for political ad disclosures”, Axios, available at: https://www.axios.com/exclusive-the-fecs-plans-for-political-ad-disclosures-2489542282.html. (accessed 5 November 2017).

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Miller, A. (2016), “Confronting confirmation bias: Giving truth a fighting change in the information age”, Social Education, Vol 80 No. 5, pp. 276-279.

Ohlheiser, A. (2016), “This is how Facebook’s fake-news writers make money”, The Washington Post, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/11/18/this-is-how-the-internets-fake-news-writers-make-money/?utm_term=.78ed64b49e63 (accessed 5 November 2017).

Pennycook, G. and Rand, D.G. (2017), “Assessing the effect of ‘disputed’ warnings and source salience on perceptions of fake news accuracy”, Working Paper, available at: ssrn.com/abstract=3035384. (accessed 5 November 2017).

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Rutenberg, J. (2017), “RT, Sputnik, and Russia’s New Theory of War”, The New York Times Magazine, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/magazine/rt-sputnik-and-russias-new-theory-of-war.html. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Shah, S. (2017), “Neural network creates photo-realistic images of fake celebs”, Engadget, available at: https://www.engadget.com/2017/10/30/neural-network-nvidia-images-celebs/. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Shane, S. and Isaac, M. (2017). “Facebook to turn over russian-linked ads to congress”, The New York Times, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/technology/facebook-russian-ads.html. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Stanford History Education Group. (2016), “Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning”, Executive Summary, available at: https://sheg.stanford.edu/upload/V3LessonPlans/Executive%20Summary%2011.21.16.pdf. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Sterne, P. (2017). “Facebook investors ask company to deal with ‘fake news’”, Politico, available at: https://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2017/02/facebook-investors-ask-company-to-deal-with-fake-news-234560. (accessed 5 November 2017).

Suwajanakorn, S., Seitz, S., and Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, I. (2017), “Synthesizing Obama: Learning lip sync from audio”, ACM Transactions on Graphics, Vol. 36, No. 5, Article 95. available at: http://grail.cs.washington.edu/projects/AudioToObama/siggraph17_obama.pdf. (accessed 5 November 2017).


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

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.


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

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.

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

Exploring Techniques to Enhance K-12 Educational Policy Implementation

Nicholas M. Lind

ED406 – Master’s Research Methods, Summer 2013

What I have learned in my many years is what happens from legislation to the school level is a very torturous path…One might as well have traveled to another planet where they speak another language and have another worldview.

– State Department of Education staff person (Datnow, 2006)

An ever-growing divide between policymakers and educators continues to complicate efforts to research, design, implement, and evaluate educational policies at the K-12 level.  Despite a growing body of research aiming to enhance the implementation process of new policies, serious attempts to create meaningful legislation are increasingly met with hesitancy, uncertainty, and reluctance from educators.  Researchers have addressed multiple aspects that positively impact these reform programs, but only the most recent findings have placed those reflections within an accurate understanding of policy formation and execution processes.

In contributing to the ongoing project of advancing educational policy implementation strategies across the United States, the following proposal will provide a historical summary of developments in K-12 educational policy implementation studies and will ultimately advocate for a qualitative case study analysis of educational policy implementation procedures in a selection of schools.  As will be further demonstrated, factors such as a given school environment, the research paradigm used, the agency of stakeholders at multiple levels, or the use of communication and effective training can play a significant role in the successful implementation of educational policies.

An abundance of recent studies have concentrated on designing broad-ranging policies at the K-12 level.  Spillane, Gomez, and Mesler (2009) noted the current, “unprecedented appetite for influencing the core work of schools – teaching and learning (p. 409).”  Datnow and Park (2009) remarked that, “within this decade, we have witnessed several types of large-scale reform efforts…including district-driven change initiatives, state and federal systems of standards and accountability, and comprehensive school reform” (p. 352).  Richly layered with academic underpinnings and data-driven evaluation processes, these policies have greatly impacted educators, administrators, students, and stakeholders.  Honig, a prominent educational policy researcher at the University of Washington, has similarly commented that policies have also become far more broadly inclusive, that is, aiming at guiding all students toward high standards rather than simply at bringing struggling students toward an established academic denominator (2006).

Whereas agents in the policy process had previously employed more distant mechanisms of influence, more recent efforts have suggested and at times even insisted specific instructional methods and content.  This expansion of scale has shed light on the importance of policy implementation studies.  Furthermore, there has been far less focus placed on generalization of results across school environments.  Crucially, as will be expanded upon at length later in this paper, there has been an acceptance that policy outcomes are highly dependent on implementation processes within state and local environments.  Therefore, results of implementation strategies may not be successful across diverse environments even when proving effective within isolated scenarios.  In addition to a growing recognition of the importance of specific actors, environments, and policies in the implementation process, Honig calls for greater inquiry into how and why specific factors influence the execution of policies.  Given early paradigms of implementation research, “critics might consider that confronting complexity has been a positive development,” Honig optimistically remarks (p. 22, 2006).

The earliest paradigm of educational policy implementation research was coined the technical-rational perspective of implementation (Datnow and Park, 2009).  Under this model, policies crafted by legislators were handled in a strict top-down manner to educators for implementation.  Policymakers designed laws and practitioners in the classrooms implemented them.  Concerns that spurred political action were largely determined by legislators rather than educators.

This viewpoint, although accurately describing the perception of contemporary teachers who are frustrated with current policies and implementation strategies, fails to encompass several aspects of the policy process.  Notably, it disregards prior negotiations made by stakeholders during the formation of policy (McLaughlin, 2006).  In many cases, educators or administrators played a significant role in forming policies through directly or indirectly advising relevant policymakers.  Although policies were in some cases presented to schools in a top-down manner, prior communication with stakeholders at regional, state, and local levels played a significant role in the policy process as well, calling into question the authenticity of a supposedly rigid top-down model.  Indeed, a three-year study by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Pennsylvania found that communication throughout the implementation process produced markedly more successful programs (Weinbaum and Supovitz, 2010).  Communication between policymakers and educators is an integral part of the implementation process.

A revised outlook acknowledged the interaction between actors during implementation.  This modified research embraced a mutual adaptation perspective, which recognized the inevitable and indeed desirable practice of contact when crafting and executing policies (Datnow, 2006).  In many cases, these ongoing relations are inseparable from the implementation process and aim to clarify specific aspects of policies.  In some situations, deficient policy communication has produced unwanted policy outcomes.  Ali (2011) described a case in which, “improper communication of policy severely compromised the achievement of intended policy objectives” (p.1).  Lacking ongoing support from policymakers, educators were unable to implement all aspects of a policy, thereby hindering change and yielding unreliable evaluations of the policy.  Mutual adaptation perspective recognizes deficiencies in communication as well as their potential to influence policy implementation.

Indeed, mutual adaptation perspective was significantly more reflective of current policy implementation practices.  Nevertheless, it failed to place enough emphasis on the role of educators in policy implementation.  Cohen, Moffitt, and Goldin (2007) point out that policymakers typically don’t face the problems in education so much as they merely make solutions based on knowledge of the situation.  While, as noted above, that knowledge is informed by practitioners in the field (i.e. educators), it lacks the primary experience of daily classroom activities that truly dictate how policies are implemented.  Honig (2006) similarly writes, “If such information and recommendations gloss over public school systems’ complex day-to-day realities they run the risk of missing their mark and actually undermining progress” (p. 3).  Genuinely-effective policies must embrace a deep understanding of the conditions within which policies will be implemented, a perspective that most policymakers simply are not accustomed to providing.

In this way, the process of making policies is both a top-down as well as a bottom-up process.  Mutual adaptation recognized this movement in the design phase, but failed to acknowledge bottom-up agency during the execution process as well.  Honig (2009) reiterates that the primary factor determining the successfulness of a policy is the, “interaction between that policy, [the] people who matter in its implementation, and the conditions in the places in which people operate” (p. 333).  Spillane, Gomez, and Mesler (2009) as well as Datnow and Park (2009) both emphasize the role of local educational actors in this interactive implementation process.  Feedback from teachers and administrators, when evaluated by actors working to implement policy from a top-down perspective, plays a significant role in shaping how specific initiatives take root in schools.

Most recently, researchers have captured this significant phenomenon in the co-construction model of educational policy implementation (Datnow and Park, 2009).  Co-construction, as defined by Datnow (2006), embodies a “premise of multidirectionality: that multiple levels of educational systems may constrain or enable implementation and that implementation may affect those broader levels” (p. 107).  In a fluid and ongoing process of implementation, policymakers and educators at various levels of bureaucracy and schools work together to develop and apply policies to classrooms as they fit best in those environments, and simultaneously work together to provide feedback and support to other levels of the field.  Policymakers can reflect on this feedback and apply successful strategies to similar environments so long as they carefully implement measures to address diverse school districts and don’t over-value generalization of strategies (Cohen-Vogel and Ingle, 2013).  Weinbaum and Supovitz (2010) posit that policy designers must consistently emphasize and engage with school officials in terms of how programs will impact their practices and in turn establish early nonnegotiable principles of the reform innovation up front as well as maintain an ongoing communication relationship with school clients in order to best-ensure that the programs are implemented effectively.  By gathering a better understanding of the essential practices of teachers, policymakers are better-equipped to create policies and likewise by maintaining ongoing dialogues with teaching professionals, they’re better-able to address incoming and otherwise unforeseen concerns as they develop.

Research in the co-construction model has recently highlighted several growing concerns in policy research.  Honig (2007) reviews the role of central office staff in the K-12 setting as facilitators of feedback from teachers as well as learning organizations tasked with supporting educators when new policies are implemented.  In an ongoing process of searching for relevant methods to support educators, encoding those materials into circulation among teachers for review and professional development, and subsequently applying it to their professional repertoire, central office staff work to establish practices and cultures in schools for teachers to retrieve relevant information in order to maintain support as new policies are implemented and adapted.

Another aspect that forms the basis of ongoing construction of policies is the strain between policy expectations and realistic capabilities (Spillane, et.al. 2009).  Policies are often deemed unfeasible if they stretch the capacity of schools in terms of excessive financial burdens, human resource constraints, or seemingly unreachable academic outcomes.  Schools have especially struggled to provide resources with recent policy trends that aim to set exceedingly high expectations for all students (Cohen, et.al. 2007).

In spite of these problems, educational policy implementation research at the K-12 level has nevertheless made significant strides in recent decades.  Contemporary research has increasingly shifted the focus of implementation strategies from top-down approaches to collaborative efforts amongst the education community and throughout schools.  Researchers have gradually acknowledged that implementation is far from a straightforward dissemination of instructions.  Reform measures include a highly complex and ongoing process between stakeholders in roles of policymaking, researchers who inform and analyze recent trends, school administrators and mediators who synthesize feedback from teachers, and of course teachers and students who work to implement new innovations and techniques into daily life in classrooms throughout the country.  Educators play a significant role in forming, adapting, and evaluating how policies impact learning, and policymakers are increasingly more successful as that feedback is incorporated into the ongoing policymaking process.

Honig (2009) reflects on the state of implementation research and suggests three specific avenues for further inquiry.  Whereas variation is recognized across diverse settings, which greatly impacts the success of specific policies and implementation methods and strategies, researchers should attempt to identify patterns in distinctions in order to better-understand environmental aspects that impact policy implementation.  A key problem faced by school reformers is the plague of improperly or incompletely implemented policies, which are unreliable or unfeasible to measure in terms of effectiveness.  These patterns may inform Honig’s second recommendation, which is to further-develop theoretical frameworks for analyzing policy implementation.  Co-Construction presents a compelling case that policies are crafted on an ongoing basis according to the needs of actors as state and local levels of education.  Further research should aim to distinguish how and why those actors impact implementation efforts.  Finally, Honig advocates that further-developed theories work to document the process of policy implementation in order to build the understanding of how to craft policies in such a manner that implementation is more accessible at a district level where they can be easily adapted to fit the needs of the given environment.

Whereas Honig (2009) suggests that further studies review the policy implementation process at the K-12 level in order to determine practices policymakers can take to craft policies that are adaptable to fit the needs of diverse school environments, this research proposal will aim to examine contemporary policy implementation techniques, distinguish specific practices adopted by a sample of districts, and highlight pragmatic methods for policymakers to adopt to ensure feasible policies are designed and implemented in a manner that respects the needs of teachers and learners within diverse settings.

A qualitative case study approach will be adopted wherein the unit of analysis for the case is represented by one group of three school districts located within a similar environment.  Observing Yin’s (2009) suggested steps in developing a case study design, the process begins with an appropriate research question which is: What are the steps in communicating educational policies from policymakers (widely defined) to school administrators and teachers and how do (rural) school districts adapt policies to best-fit the needs of their diverse school settings?

It is expected that this analysis will determine that, often times, too little information is provided to educators when new policies are implemented.  This in turn produces confusion and places limitations on implementation procedures.  Additionally, policies are crafted which do too little to respect the needs of diverse school districts, which also limits implementation and necessitates practices to adapt policies ensuring the most-effective results within any given district.

To limit the scope of this research, a sample of districts from a similar environment will be evaluated in order to suggest methods for that particular setting.  Further research must focus on alternative environments to suggest methods most-effective within those specific settings as well as to highlight methods to differentiate between district environments in order to continue building a framework for policy implementation studies.

Given the importance on environment in implementation procedures, this research will focus on specific school districts as independent case studies.  The initial analysis will focus or rural districts whereas subsequent case studies will evaluate urban and suburban environments.  Contingent on approval from specific districts, the study will analyze three rural districts in the Greater Rochester region.  Upon approval, data collection from each district will proceed, which will include information Stake (2005) recommends such as: the nature of the case; its historical background; the physical setting; other contexts such as economic, political, legal, and aesthetic; other cases through which this case is recognized; and those informants through whom the case can be known.

The collection of data will require the use of multiple methods in order to produce the most holistic perspective of policy implementation practices.  After introducing the research project and gaining permission from district administration, researchers would conduct a documentation review of any available paperwork involving the implementation of policies specific to instruction and curriculum, especially those involving the recent Common Core State Standards.  These documents may include communiqués from state education officials, announcements from teacher’s union officials, memos between educators, minutes from meetings, and other documents related to communication of recent educational policies.  This information will vary per district, but will nonetheless provide useful information regarding implementation practices within each school.

All information gained from reviewing documents would be used to inform researchers how to proceed.  As the data are analyzed, researchers will tailor the qualitative methods in order to work toward approaching a comprehensive understanding of policy implementation procedures within each district.  One proposal researchers will consider will be to design a survey to be administered to all district educators seeking their personal and professional insights into the implementation process.  The survey results may form the basis for interviews with specific individuals who provided especially insightful reviews such as administrators or educators particularly involved in the process.  Alternatively, researchers could conduct focus group interviews depending on which style is most appropriate and productive within each district.

A complete analysis of the document review, survey results, and interviews will provide researchers with important insights on the K-12 policy implementation process from the perspective of educators in rural school districts.  As stated above, subsequent case study analyses would be conducted observing similar methods in urban and suburban districts order to evaluate perceptions from educators in those settings.  All of the knowledge and materials gained from these data collections will allow researchers to draw conclusions of the implementation process within the specific case studies, which will be further analyzed for generalizable practices for educational policy implementation research.  Once vetted against the growing body of research in K-12 educational policy implementation, this research will afford substantial insights into factors that influence the execution of policies from the perspective of those who implement them: educators.



Ali, S. (2011). Deficient policy communication deficient outcomes – capacity building policy under education reforms in Sindh, Pakistan. Bulletin of Education and Research, 33(1), 1-19.

Cohen, D., Moffitt, S., & Goldin, S. (2007) Policy and practice: The dilemma. American Journal of Education, 113 (4), 515-548.

Cohen-Vogel, L., & Ingle, W.K. (2007). When neighbours matter most: Innovation, diffusion and state policy adoption in tertiary education. Journal of Educational Policy, 22 (3), 241-262.

Datnow, A. (2006) Connections in the policy chain: the “co-construction” of implementation in comprehensive school reform. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in education policy implementation: confronting complexity (pp. 105-123). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Datnow, A. & Park, V. (2009) Conceptualizing policy implementation: large-scale reform in an era of complexity. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.348-361). New York: Routledge.

Honig, M. (2006) Complexity and policy implementation challenges and opportunities for the field. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in education policy implementation: confronting complexity (pp. 1- 23). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Honig, M. (2007) Policy implementation and learning: How organizations and socio-cultural learning theories elaborate district central office roles in complex educational improvement efforts. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Honig, M. (2009) What works in defining “what works” in educational improvement. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.333-347). New York: Routledge.

McLaughlin, M. (2006) Implementation research in education: lessons learned, lingering questions, and new opportunities. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in education policy implementation: confronting complexity (pp. 209-228). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mead, J. (2009) The role of law in educational policy formation, implementation, and research. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.286-295). New York: Routledge.

Spillane, J., Reiser, B., & Reimer, T. (2002) Policy implementation and cognition: Reframing and refocusing implementation research. Review of Educational Research, 72 (3), 387-431.

Spillane, J., Gomez, L., & Mesler, L. (2009) Notes on reframing the role of organizations in policy implementation. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.409-425). New York: Routledge.

Stake, R. E. (2005) Qualitative case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 443-466). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weinbaum, E.H., & Supovitz, J.A. (2010). Planning ahead: Make program implementation more predictable. The Phi Delta Kappan, 91(7), 68-71.

Yin, R. K. (2009). Case study research: Designs and methods (4th ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Using Zombies to teach STEM (and other awesome zombie stuff)

I’m not a huge fan of FOX News, but this story caught my eye and I just had to read on.  Texas Instruments and The National Academy of Sciences have teamed to produce STEM Behind Hollywood, a series of highly entertaining activities aiming to facilitate real-world problem solving in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  The website for the project includes many activity plans which are accessible via download.


The project also uses superheros, forensic investigations, space inquiries, and neuroscience experiments to hook kids’ interest, but really it’s all about the zombies these days.  Speaking of zombies, I can’t help but mention two pieces of Zombie literature that are awesome resources to use in the social studies classroom.  The first is the novel (wayyyyy, wayyyyyy, indescribably better than the movie) World War Z, by Max Brooks.  The book is a series of interviews conducted by Max Brooks following a global war against zombies.  Brooks interviews a long list of exotic characters from around the world to gain a retrospect of the events that took place during and after the war.  A variety of (real-world) global conflicts are touched upon (i.e. Israel & Palestine, sex trafficking, rampant unrestrained consumerism, and Kashmir just to name a few…) within a narrative that will capture the attention of anyone remotely interested in the world around them.  I’d especially recommend the audiobook version, which used a different reader for each character.

I also must recommend Theories of International Relations and Zombies, by Daniel W. Drezner.  Although this is definitely an academic book, the topic brings a serious text within the grasps of accessibility to many adolescents.  To be sure, this is a type of book I’d only recommend to students who were already interested in the topic of global politics and/or international relations because hidden beneath the zombie narrative is a very clear analysis of real-world international relations theories.

As much as I admire the content and the analysis of theories, what really caught my attention with Drezner’s work was his incredible ability to organize an argument and convey it in concise yet highly elegant terms.  If I wanted to teach a kid who already likes social studies how to write more effectively, hands down this is the number one resource I would use.  This is a skill that (unfortunately) not enough adolescent students really excel at, and Drezner’s work provides us with an opportunity to teach students how to form a really fantastic argument.  Drezner’s own comments on this book, including how to use it in an undergraduate setting and how he managed to write it without “drowning in puns,” are available here.

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Proactive Solutions in Behavior Management

Both teachers and students face challenges in their classroom daily.  Difficulties in teaching and learning can stem from an infinite number of sources, but many can be prevented.  The Resource Center, of Chautuaqua County, New York, shares these tips for preventing issues when working with other individuals, especially children and people with disabilities.  So, before a situation grows out-of-hand, ask yourself these simple questions…

1.) Communication
-Have you offered an opportunity for the individual to communicate using objectives, signs, symbols, or speech, and have you responded positively?

2.) Choice
-Have you offered another activity and encouraged the individual to choose?

3.) Physical Needs
-Have you considered hunger, thirst, pain, heat, cold, tiredness, activity, or need of the toilet?

4.) Interaction
-Have you offered a change of staff member and responded to the need for attention?

5.) Therapeutic Alternatives
-Have you offered music, aroma therapy, or massage?

6.) Relaxation
-Have you tried deep breathing, slow breathing, or yoga?

7.) Calming Techniques
-Have you used verbal and non-verbal calming to include: reflection, empathy, reassurance, redirection, incentives, and rewards?

8.) Listening Techniques
-Have you listened, read the signs, picked up cues, and given prompts rather than hurrying to give advice?

9.) Sensitivity
-Have you helped restore the individual’s confidence and dignity by sensitivity rather than being confrontational and have you offered a constructive functional activity?v

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The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Essential Skills for K-12 Educators

Written for  EDU446 – Entrepreneurial Skills for Educators at the Warner School of Education, Summer A, 2013 

Entrepreneurship in Education

To many educators, the initial connotation of entrepreneurship is likely associated with a less-than-desirable practice for our schools and learning institutions.  Seemingly representing market-based reforms and the corporatization of an essential public service, the perception of entrepreneurship threatens the foundation of public education and challenges the basis of equality of opportunity.  It’s another uninformed technique decreed by another uninformed legislator.

I, too, was at first victim of that notion.  Skeptical of applying a business framework to a public service, I greeted the concept of “entrepreneurship in education” as a dangerously unwelcome misnomer.  However, the more I confronted the subject, the less incredulous the idea became.  As it turns out, entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with privatizing the public school system or eliminating opportunities to learn.  Put simply, entrepreneurship is the mindset that empowers leaders to think strategically about decision-making opportunities in order to achieve the optimum result.  Successful entrepreneurs have both obvious and unapparent roles in our schools.  Although K-12 administrators will certainly benefit from possessing entrepreneurial skills, the focus of this review will be on K-12 teachers.

As teachers, we must be entrepreneurial to effectively coach our students as learners in the twenty-first century classroom.  An endless wealth of information and ever-increasing access to it has flipped education in the past decade.  “Why can’t I just look this up on my phone,” is the mantra of the millennials.  Simply telling students the information isn’t enough (and, really, never was).  Highly effective educators must engage their students in the learning process, create new environments for learning, and evaluate opportunities to enhance student interaction.  Let me show you how.

The following sections explain what it means to be entrepreneurial as educators.  First, I will discuss the mindset entrepreneurs adopt.  This involves embracing a specific outlook on learning as well as communicating a vision for learning expectations.  Then I will explain how entrepreneurial educators deal with opportunities and risks.  Too often, educators shy away from uncertain or ambiguous chances to adapt their styles and techniques.  One key entrepreneurial value is to strategically reevaluate those risks. Third, I will analyze strategies for dealing with resources in the educational setting and gaining support for new initiatives.  Next, I will review methods for initiating an innovation and will offer suggested approaches for dealing with growth.  Finally, I will conclude by analyzing the instrumental benefits of embracing entrepreneurial skills in education.

Developing the Mindset

Successful entrepreneurial educators develop a strategic and analytical mindset.  This mindset embodies every opportunity that they encounter and is projected throughout year-long instructional goals as well as daily learning activities.  Each aspect of instruction is purposeful, is directed to ultimately advance long-term goals, and is clearly expressed to students through an accessible vision.

Entrepreneurial teaching necessitates that educators constantly recognize changes to the playing field that have arisen in the twenty-first century and analyze how those adaptations will impact learning.  Developing a plan to capitalize on new challenges, teachers must act proactively to employ these modifications to their benefit and the benefit of their students.  Realizing alterations in societal, economic, political, or technological forces, entrepreneurial educators must evaluate how former teaching techniques will be affected and inspect the environment for potential teaching opportunities to embrace.  These teachers don’t do something because, “it’s always been done that way,” or because, “it’s the easiest way to get it done.”  They choose their methods and resources based on what will immediately best-fit the intellectual, emotional, and creative needs of their students.  These needs, as well as the available resources, change constantly over time.  Entrepreneurial educators are prepared to respond to those changes before they happen.

Furthermore, teachers must not only craft exceptional learning activities that guide students through an engaging experience, but they must also communicate the vision to students in a manner that involves them in the process.  Students must be invested in their learning, and this task is best completed by sharing a well-crafted vision with them.  When a student asks an entrepreneurial teacher, “Why do we have to learn this?,” the teacher responds with clear and concise reasoning that explains how the activity at hand corresponds to greater learning goals.  Moreover, entrepreneurial teacher hear that question far less-often because the activities they choose are designed to inspire students to learn rather than simply reveal a piece of information.  Students are engaged in a metacognitive process that draws together their curiosity and motivates students to embark together on a carefully-designed learning experience.

Creating Opportunities

Successful entrepreneurial continually create learning opportunities for their students.  Pulling from a wide variety of resources, these teachers hunt and find the most engaging materials to use with their students and implement new techniques into their instruction that fit the needs of their classroom.  Importantly, entrepreneurial educators review risks must differently than many other teachers might.  Whereas some instructors are focused on the risks associated with adopting new practices or materials (i.e. student confusion, necessity of extra time to introduce methods, etc.), entrepreneurial educators also consider the risks of not adopting them.  In other words, these teachers consider the risks posed if their students miss an opportunity to learn as well as the risks associated with taking the opportunity.

Often times, teachers elect to pass up on learning opportunities because they would be challenging to implement into the classroom, difficult to manage, or intellectually unseemly to some of the class.  Entrepreneurial teachers may review the same new techniques or materials and justify implementing them because, although they may be difficult, they are simply opportunities that the students deserve to experience.

That is not to say however that entrepreneurial educators necessarily do more with their students.  Contrarily, they conduct a more in-depth analysis of what opportunities are available to them and their students, they analyze the possible outcomes of those experiences, and they make a strategic analysis of what opportunities to implement into their instruction and which ones to bypass.

Likewise, these teachers are innovators.  When assessing the value of a new opportunity to the learning environment they will consider any potential to adapt the idea so that it provides a better-fit for the need in the classroom.  If a change in the environment produces a good opportunity to learn, entrepreneurial educators will carve a great opportunity out of it.

 Gaining Support

 Teachers know all too well that schools have scarce resources.  Purchasing instructional materials has become more difficult for districts in recent years and the availability of smart phones and tablets has introduced a whole new debate on how to best-spend money allocated for materials.  To be successful, entrepreneurial educators must be aware of free resources available to them (often online) and implement those into their curriculum wherever appropriate.  Sometimes the best materials aren’t free, but many times they are, and entrepreneurial educators recognize the importance of saving money on materials that could be better-spent on experiences such as field trips, equipment, or in-school learning events.

Not all resources are monetary though.  Teachers must also have the support of many individuals within the district to successfully conduct entrepreneurial instruction.  In many cases this involves gaining permission for specific activities from appropriate staff members, recruiting volunteers for out-of-class experiences, or seeking professionals from the community to share some insights with the class.  In all of these circumstances, the entrepreneurial educator must be proactive in seeking challenges to any plans and must have an established goodwill in place to ensure the success of the opportunity.  Sometimes, educators must act politically through a willingness to reciprocate help or compromise on certain issues in order to achieve the involvement of others, but these are issues entrepreneurial educators will evaluate to determine whether an opportunity is feasible.

 Implementation & Growth

 Feasible opportunities rarely present themselves as ready-to-go.  Entrepreneurial educators must act strategically to implement them into practice and monitor their use for effectiveness.  This process involves continually refining an idea or innovation, making changes when beneficial, and seeking feedback from students to gauge their perception of the activity.  Any time a teacher implements a longer-term innovation into their classroom, it is essential to seek feedback from the students to ensure that the opportunity is fitting the needs of the students.  Unforeseen consequences will often arise and must be taken into consideration when evaluating the effectiveness of a new innovation.

Furthermore, innovations must be implemented carefully.  Whereas an activity might work well with one group of students, it might be totally inappropriate for another group.  Likewise, teachers must act strategically when implementing new innovations into their instruction and classroom environments, conscious that spreading the idea to other classes will not necessarily always be successful.  Growing innovations or sharing them to alternative environments must be done carefully and strategically in order to assess the value of a given innovation to each group of students.  Entrepreneurial educators value an innovation within its current environment and must be willing to either stop it entirely or share it with other classes or teachers according to its level of success.

The Market for Entrepreneurship in Education

Benjamin Franklin once quipped that, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”  Entrepreneurial educators move.  Making informed decisions based on a habitual observation of their environment and a strategic vision for guiding students, entrepreneurial educators facilitate learning experiences that inspire creativity, motivate further understanding, and empower future citizens.  These professionals are capitalizing on new challenges to teaching and are changing the playing field of learning.  Taking multiple levels of risk into consideration, they ensure their students the optimum learning experience.  They work with those around them to gather resources to support new innovations.  They fine-tune ideas to fit the needs of their students and they monitor the implementation of those ideas as they progress.  No, entrepreneurship isn’t a misnomer to education; entrepreneurship is education.

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Lecture at The College at Brockport – Thursday, March 7: Glenn Greenwald “On Liberty and Justice in the Twenty-First Century”

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Constitutional rights author to speak at Brockport

 By Carly Vair


Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 08:02


The College at Brockport’s History Forum has joined forces with several other campus clubs and organizations to bring journalist and author Glenn Greenwald to lecture on American liberty and justice in today’s world. Greenwald is a contributing writer for The Guardian and a New York Times bestselling author. He practiced litigation law until 2005.

Nicholas Lind, former president of the History Forum and current chair of lecture and website committees, said he first heard Greenwald speak on an independent news program called Democracy Now.

“I liked what he was saying and I read some of his articles online,” Lind said. “I thought that he was somebody I’d want to bring to campus.”

In the past, Greenwald has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. His blog, “Unclaimed Territory,” won the Koufax Award for “best new blog” in 2006, shortly before he began working for Salon. He currently writes for The Guardian and is on the board of directors of the newly-formed Freedom of the Press Foundation.

According to Freedom of the Press Foundation’s website, its mission is to help promote “aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking government.” Daniel Ellsberg, known for turning over the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, is also a member of the board, along with actor John Cusack and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The foundation currently supports organizations like WikiLeaks, Truthout and the National Security Archive.

“Sometimes we don’t realize when they [our rights and liberties] are being infringed on because of the way that they’re being infringed on,” Lind said. “Those are some of the things Glenn talks about. Different government programs can have access to our information, like on cell phones … without our ever knowing it.

“Constitutional rights are important, but there are other human rights that Glenn writes about, so he writes a lot about drone warfare and different overseas campaigns, overseas wars that we have going on that we just don’t hear about.”

Lind said the lecture will probably be based somewhat off Greenwald’s latest book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, but what attendees take away from it will be completely up to them.

“Hopefully we’re going to have a better understanding of things that are going on around the world that we have a potential to change or get involved with, whether that’s different surveillance programs to be aware of and organize against, or maybe military or CIA programs that are going on around the world that we could organize against as well,” Lind said. “I think the main problem is that people just aren’t as aware of a lot of these things that are going on, so just awareness is the first step. Then it’s up to the students to decide how to act on that.”

The lecture is free and open to the public. The History Forum, S.O.U.L., English Club, Brockport Student Government (BSG), The American Democracy Project, the college’s history department, The Stylus and the Society of Professional Journalists are all sponsoring the event.

“I started in the fall, going to individual meetings and talking with professors and trying to see who would be interested in helping with this and who would have the resources to bring him in,” Lind said. “I got a few clubs interested, but the most important part that really set us forward and got the History Forum committed to the lecture was a grant from the American Democracy Project. That was enough to ensure we would be able to hold the talk, and from then on it was just a matter of getting additional sponsors.”

The lecture will be held in the New York Room in Cooper Hall at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 7. A brief book signing will follow.



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The Stylus – The College at Brockport – 2.27.13

March 7, 2013 – NY Room, Cooper Hall, 7pm – Glenn Greenwald – On Liberty and Justice in the Twenty-First Century

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Economics: Enhancing Financial Literacy in the Twenty-First Century

*Reprinted below from college assignment for EDI 468 – Teaching High School Social Studies Inclusively, Fall 2012


Economics: Enhancing Financial Literacy in the Twenty-First Century

Our tendency as social studies educators to approach economics according to its prescribed definition, “a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services,” fails to genuinely engage students in the rigorous practice of logically conceptualizing both the simplicities as well as the complexities of the day-to-day decision-making process that cumulatively generates our aggregated perspective of global economic affairs in the twenty-first century.[1]  In striving to instill the national, regional, and local principles of economics in our students, we must pursue an inclusive model both in the respect that our instruction is differentiated to empower the strengths and abilities of each individual student, but also in that it insists on making connections between course content and specific actions or events students will encounter in their future in a manner that is encompassed by the prior inserted classic definition.  This style provides a direct incentive for purposeful interaction with an organized curriculum by intrinsically motivating students through the use of empathic and insightful learning materials and allows for authentic instructional techniques to personalize students’ learning experiences according to specific goals, interests, and talents while referencing the traditional terms and concepts that constitute economic thought.

Pericles noted that, “just because you are not interested in politics, does not mean that politics is not interested in you.”  Similarly, and perhaps to a greater extent, too many students leave the comforts of high school without adequate knowledge of economics, remaining extraordinarily vulnerable to the financial challenges they will face in their futures.  According to the most recent assessment, Survey of the States 2011: The State of Economic and Personal Finance Education in our Nation’s Schools, “thirty percent of 18-24 year olds income goes towards debt repayment,” “seventy-five percent of credit card carrying college students were unaware of late payment charges,” and “in 2010, more individuals filed for bankruptcy than graduated from college.”  To combat these challenges, only fourteen states have mandated coursework in personal finance as a prerequisite to graduation and only twenty-two states require an economics course at all.[2]  To make matters worse, “fewer than twenty percent of teachers report feeling competent to teach personal finance topics.”[3]

So, to be sure, the first step in enhancing financial literacy is to actually teach it.  To that end, the Council for Economic Education has vigorously managed an “Advocacy Tool Kit” guide, complete with statistics from the 2011 Survey of the States report, national contact information to begin organizing campaigns, and a ten-step checklist to help teachers, parents, students, and community members propose increasing economics education in their districts.[4]  However, as we already know, in order to develop comprehensive understandings of economic decision-making, we must develop instructional techniques that engage students and inspire learning.  Too often, teaching activities focus on identifying key terms and concepts rather than applying specific principles within a framework that is meaningful to students.  Expecting students to seemingly memorize definitions is not only inauthentic and evidently difficult to comprehend but also embodies an extreme disservice to the students.  We must strive to apply such abstract concepts to real-world topics.

– – –

No economist has received as much attention in the past half-decade as Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago.  Levitt coauthored Freakonomics with journalist Stephen J. Dubner in 2005, “a book about cheating teachers, bizarre baby names, self-dealing Realtors, and crack-selling mama’s boys,” which made the New York Times best-seller list and was eventually translated into thirty-five languages and made over four million sales worldwide.  The sequel, Superfreakonomics, has also sold almost one million copies and a third edition is currently being written.  Additionally, a blog, radio show, and documentary have developed an ongoing engagement with readers.[5]

So why has Freakonomics been so successful?  How did Levitt and Dubner manage to write a bestselling book with Economics as the topic?  As Dubner wrote upon meeting Levitt in a New York Times Magazine article,

“As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.  His particular gift is the ability to ask such questions.  For instance: If drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers?  Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?  What really caused crime rates to plunge during the past decade?  Do real-estate agents have their clients’ best interests at heart?  Why do black parents give their children names that may hurt their career prospects?  Is sumo wrestling corrupt?”[6]


Levitt’s work lies at the core of how we must teach economics in our classrooms.  Throughout the book he provides insights into professional terms and concepts as they’re applied to specific stories and topics he’s addressing.  Rather than explaining terms by supposing isolated examples he uses terms as an application to make sense of real-world examples, which is exactly what real economists do and is exactly what students must do in order to build financial literacy.  Levitt captivates his readership by addressing controversial topics, an essential aspect of any social studies lesson, within a page-turning narrative format.  Readers and learners remember Levitt’s arguments because he makes his writing memorable.[7]  The editors importantly note, “What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a great deal of complexity and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and – if the right questions are asked – is even more intriguing than we think.  All it takes is a new way of looking.”[8]

Charles Wheelan, author of Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, approaches the topic similarly.  Wheelan captivates reader’s attention through the use of provocative subtitles to traditional chapter headings. For example, chapters titled, “Incentives Matter: Why you might be able to save your face by cutting off your nose (if you are a black rhinoceros),” “Government and the Economy II: The army was lucky to get that screwdriver for $500,” “The Federal Reserve: Why that dollar in your pocket is more than just a piece of paper,” and “Trade and Globalization: The good news about Asian sweatshops,” are just a selection of titles aimed at attracting readers attention.[9]  Wheelan implements economic concepts within contemporary real-world problems by shedding light on small sections of the social studies curriculum.[10]  Like Levitt, Wheelan confronts why Economics matters as an incentive to learn specific material rather than as an afterthought typically addressed only as a response to student complaints.  After captivating readers with relevant world events, learners are passionately engaged in discovering more about ‘the dismal science.’

When teaching economics, we cannot limit our students’ understandings merely to the exchange of goods and services, but instead follow the assertions of Wheelan and Levitt that economics is much more than that.  Indeed editors announce that,

Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work.  It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties.  But Freakonomics can provide more than that.  It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.”[11]


That is the type of learning that motivates students.  It is the outlook we must subscribe to and embodies the method our instruction must follow.  So, how do we design such a curriculum?  What resources are available?  How ought we to inclusively engage students in the twenty-first century in learning principles of economics?

– – –

            The power of living in the Digital Age has truly not yet been discovered by the education enterprise.  With classrooms that are technologically connected to resources across the globe and teachers and students with the expertise to find them, the possibilities are virtually endless.  The place to begin for any economics educator is the website for the Council for Economic Education.[12]  In addition to providing the latest news, research, and professional development activities regarding economics education, the Council maintains a robust database of content material.  Interactive tools may be filtered by over one-hundred various concepts, targeted grade level, type of material (video, handout, quiz, PowerPoint presentation, etc.), or simply searched for via title.[13]  Furthermore, additional websites have been approved by the Council as excellent sources and have been sorted by topic for further use.  This not only provides additional sources to develop curriculum with, but also could serve as potential databases for student inquiry projects.[14]

Students demand interactive forms of learning.  Recent developments have created multiple platforms for hands-on learning, but perhaps none have been as successful as gaming.  The Council for Economic Education has designed Learning, Earning, and Investing, a “multi-faceted, comprehensive, investor education program for students in grades four through twelve” that includes lesson plans, online training on how to incorporate the material into the classroom curriculum, and a fifteen-mission online game for students to apply their knowledge.[15]  Students learn personal financial skills while competing against classmates on science-fictional missions.  Each mission takes less than thirty minutes to complete, making it ideal for either class time or a homework assignment.  More experienced students may be more interested in The Stock Market Game, developed by the SIFMA Foundation, which allows students to invest a fictional $100,000 in an online portfolio.[16]

Despite the remarkable transition to digital activities that enhance instruction, authentic hands-on trips remain invaluable experiences within a curriculum.  Visits to the local farmers market provide a wealth of material to teach students how economic principles affect their hometowns.  Preparing students for these experiences is essential to increasing comprehension, whether students are traveling just down the street or to national competitions such as the Personal Finance Challenge held annually by Wells Fargo or the National Economics Challenge (also held annually) across the country.[17]  Students even have the opportunity to contemplate global economic issues at weekly “summits” of the International Economic Summit program that travels regularly across the country.[18]  Although planning for national competitions requires adequate funding resources and inspired students who are up to the challenge, the benefits of participation far outweigh the costs.  Not only are informed students, “more likely to display positive financial behaviors and dispositions,” but also are, “more likely to save [money] and less likely to max out their credit cards… or be compulsive buyers.”[19]

It is evident that the state of economics education falls far below expectations.  With relatively few states genuinely striving to develop financial literacy skills, it is no wonder that so few students (or adults) truly grasp neither the simplicities nor complexities of how economic decision-making affects our day-to-day lives.  In improving comprehension of economics, educators must seek a variety of sources that integrate content material into meaningful, purposeful, and authentic exercises rather than simply expecting students to memorize specific concepts and ideas independent of one another and their connection to actual real-life applications.  This method presents an honest portrayal of the benefits of financial literacy and has the effect of intrinsically motivating students using potential rewards for learning.  Most importantly, it follows an inclusive model that caters to all students and expresses a complex subject using a memorable approach.


[1] For definition see: economics. Merriam-Webster. retrieved 10/24/12. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/economics.

[2] To view the interactive report, see http://www.surveyofthestates.com/. Full citation: Survey of the States 2011: The State of Economic and Personal Finance Education in our Nation’s Schools. Council for Economic Education. Funded by: The Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation. March 2012. http://www.councilforeconed.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2011-Survey-of-the-States.pdf.

[3] Survey of the States 2011: The State of Economic and Personal Finance Education in our Nation’s Schools. Council for Economic Education. Funded by: The Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation. March 2012. http://www.councilforeconed.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2011-Survey-of-the-States.pdf.

[4] “Advocacy Tool Kit”. Council for Economic Education. Retrieved 10/23/12. http://www.councilforeconed.org/about/policy-and-advocacy/toolkit/.

[5] Bourree Lam, ed. Freakonomics.com. “The Freakonomics Story”. retrieved 10/20/12. http://www.freakonomics.com/about/.

[6] Stephen Dubner quoted in: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. William Morrow: New York, 2005. p.x.

[7] For the importance of incorporating “conflict” into curricula, see James A. Percoco. Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 2001.

[8] Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. William Morrow: New York, 2005. p. inside front dust jacket.

[9] Charles Wheelan. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 2010.

[10] Admittedly, I disagree with several ideological claims made in Naked Economics, but respect the reality that good teachers do not limit content based only on what they do and do not agree with politically.  Nevertheless the book does a fantastic job of explaining content in an exceptional format and my disagreements can be used for class discussions or counter arguments to help students develop additional perspectives and to provide an additional layer of “conflict” in the classroom.

[11] Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. William Morrow: New York, 2005. p. inside front dust jacket.

[12] Council for Economic Education. Retrieved 10/24/12. http://www.councilforeconed.org/.

[13] “Interactive Tools”. Council for Economic Education. Retrieved 10/24/12. http://www.econedlink.org/interactives/economic-interactive-search.php?type=educator.

[14] “Web Links”. Council for Economic Education. Retrieved 10/24/12. http://www.econedlink.org/web-links/approved-economic-web-links.php.

[15] “Gen iRevolution”. Council for Economic Education. Retrieved 10/24/12. http://www.genirevolution.org/.

[16] “The Stock Market Game”. A Program of the SIFMA Foundation. Retrieved 10/25/12. http://www.smgww.org/index.html.

[17] See: “National Economics Challenge”. Council for Economic Education. Retrieved 10/26/12. http://www.councilforeconed.org/events/national-economics-challenge/. and “National Personal Finance Challenge”. Missouri Council on Economic Education. Retrieved 10/26/12. http://www.financechallenge.org/index.html?s=26&l=12.

[18] “International Economics Summit”. Boise State University. Retrieved 10/26/12. http://www.econsummit.org/index.cfm

[19] Survey of the States 2011: The State of Economic and Personal Finance Education in our Nation’s Schools. Council for Economic Education. Funded by: The Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation. March 2012. http://www.councilforeconed.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2011-Survey-of-the-States.pdf.


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Citizenship Education

*Reprinted below from college assignment for EDI 468 – Teaching High School Social Studies Inclusively, Fall 2012


Citizenship Education

 Enacting a systematic framework that genuinely strives to educate students is essential to the future of democracy.  By failing to construct educational institutions that efficiently and adequately prepare students for public life in the twenty-first century we are not only failing those specific students at an individual level, but we are also systematically limiting critical reasoning skills, relevant background knowledge,  and student engagement, and are thereby threatening the long-term security of our nation.  If our purpose for educating students is to prepare them for life in society – to provide them with the necessary skills and strategies to successfully function as a member of our democratic culture – we must recognize the constraints our system is under as well as the consequences of our potential failure.

In working to enrich the future of our democracy, we must strive for honesty on several levels.  It is critical that we recognize the impossibilities of “covering” all of the “material” within the constraints of our current institutions.  While we cannot hope to adequately encounter “all” of history, neither shall we selectively eliminate topics or time periods based on controversial interpretations nor shall we shy away from topics that may shed a dim light on some of our not-so-proud moments in history.  We must tell the whole truth of each story yet we need not aspire to tell the entire five-billion year story.  Instead it is necessary to select topics that are most relevant to the creation of the world we live in today, and work with students to build understandings.

Importantly, we must examine the relevance of specific individuals.  Notably this should not be misread as the typical rich white Anglo-Saxon Protestant history of yesterday, but indeed must include the underrepresented characters of our past as well.  This approach not only embodies an authentic method of studying history, but perhaps more importantly provides students with a meaningful and personal narrative of the American story.  Instead of memorizing facts and details, students will comparatively examine how their own life fits into the American idea.

Developing background knowledge of history not only affords students a sense of analytical and critical thinking skills to contemplate issues in contemporary society, but it also enables them to act on their beliefs with some understanding of how dissent, protest, and civic engagement have succeeded (and failed) in the past.  In fact, against the backdrop of historical ideals and unrealized ambitions, insights into history play a significant role in motivating action.  Such actions are perhaps even more common when students develop some gauging of chronology against themes such as racism, class conflict, and democracy.  By understanding the accomplishments of the past, students are simply more prepared to interact with present and future ideas.

It is evident that student are fulfilling neither common state expectations nor their own potentials within the societal mindset of standardized high-stakes tests.  By limiting the curriculum to what will be asked on the test, educational institutions are systematically eliminating creative inquiry opportunities to students who may seek further comprehension of abstract topics in history.  Instead of working with students to develop interests and build learning skills, educators ask students to memorize answers to questions that a professionally specialized intellectual environment continually debates what the answers to those hundreds-of-years-old questions actually are!  This method is neither genuine nor effective.

To be sure, as numerous educational commentators have recognized, educating democratic citizens is a highly complex duty.  Nonetheless, it is essential to the prosperous survival of our society and therefore must be carefully examined, critiqued, and adapted to fit the needs of a quickly-developing interconnected globe.  In the future as we collectively rethink our education system, these are considerations we must value highly.

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Reflections on American Federal Budget Non-Defense, Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security Spending

American Politics Essay_Federal Budget Simulation Paper on Non-Defense Spending


Reflection essay for a budget simulation exercise for Political Science 113 (American Politics) course at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Spring 2011

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African Nationalism: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Perspective

African Nationalism-Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Perspective


Reflection on The River Between, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o for History 324 (Modern Africa) course at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Fall 2011.

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Spanish-American Perceptions of National Identity

Modern Latin American History Midterm Essay


Response to midterm exam article for History 376 (Modern Latin America) course at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Spring 2011

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Strategic Planning Process: Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejercito del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army)

Strategic Planning Process-Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army)


Essay on United States National Security Strategy regarding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army for Political Science 444 (National Security) course at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Spring 2010

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Learning Reflection (Focused on Assessment)

Learning Reflection (focused on assessment)


Learning Reflection for Education 431 (Teaching Literacy Strategies in Middle and High School Content Areas) course at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Fall 2011

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Classroom Observation Reflection (Focused on Instruction)

Classroom Observation (focused exclusively on instruction)


Reflections on a classroom observation assignment for Education 431 (Teaching Literacy Strategies in Middle and High School Content Areas) at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Fall 2011

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African Agency: Diverging from European Colonial Aspirations

African Agency: Diverging from European Colonial Aspirations

Dismissing some of the myths surrounding African involvement during the exploitation of their states.  Specifically, I examine how Congolese responded to Belgian control over the rubber industry in the Congo and compare how other Africans responded to similar acts of colonialist, imperialist, and mercantilist policies set forth by expansive European powers.

Essay for: History 324 (Modern Africa) course at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Fall 2011

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