Tech-Savvy Kids?

In 2011, what exactly does it mean to be tech savvy?  Over at USA Today, the front page boasts an info-graphic of a recent survey conducted by Research Now for AVG.  They surveyed 2,200 mothers in 10 nations, asking about the tech skills of children ages 2-5.

The data came back on five categories: 1) operate a computer mouse; 2) turn a computer on/off; 3) play a basic computer game; 4) make a mobile phone call; and 5) open a Web browser.  Research Now found that 69 percent of kids ages 2-5 are reported as being able to operate a computer mouse.  Fifty eight percent are playing a basic computer game, while just 25 percent can open a web browser.
All lovely cocktail party statistics (as if parents of kids in that age bracket have time to go to cocktail parties), but it begs an important question.  Are those the right measures for being a U.S.-based, tech-savvy kid in 2011?
While I am not a mother, I am the parent of two kids that fit that age bracket.  The edu-son will be five this April.  The edu-daughter is almost three and a half years old.  Both are fairly tech savvy.  So how do they stack up?
They are both pros at playing computer games, and both can make a mobile phone call (the edu-daughter has also made an emergency call in French, for what it is worth).  Neither has opened a Web browser because there has never been a need, but I’m guessing they could if it meant accessing the game or song they wanted.  Neither has turned a computer on and off because we only use laptops in our house, so they know how to wake them up.  And neither operates a mouse … again because we are using laptops with touch pads.
The issue of using a computer mouse seems so 1998.  My edu-kids are quite adept at using both the iPhone and the iPad.  They know how to flip between apps.  They know how to adjust the volume on whatever technology they are using.  They know how to scroll the screen.  And our edu-son even knows how to download his own apps (assuming we can’t stop him in time).  They’ve mastered the tablet and the touch screen.  They know how to flip through an electronic photo album, believing that is that is the only way to look at pictures.  They know how to use technology circa 2011.  So where is the credit in that?
Believe it or not, the edu-wife and I have had conversations about this very issue, following a discussion on age-appropriate ed technology she was having that day (yes, you can imagine how exciting it is in Eduflack’s house).  The issue of the computer mouse was issue 1.  Are we equipping our kids with age-appropriate technology when they don’t know how to use a mouse?  Should we set up a desktop computer so they know a mouse and a full-size keyboard and one of those CD-ROM drives that can double as a drink coaster?  Are we missing the mark in preparing them for the tech they’ll need when they enter school?
I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I answered a resounding NO.  We are using age-appropriate technology, based on the games and apps we let our kids have access to.  We are helping them by providing access to the latest technologies, instead of teaching them on the machines I first learned on.  We are using tech as it will be used, not as it has been used.  And yes, we are using technology to supplement what they are learning in preschool and at home, not supplant it.
So I want to see the tech-savvy kids survey that looks at the wee one’s ability to use a touch screen.  Or to toggle between apps.  Or to enter a password to get past the welcome screen.  Flipping a computer on is so War Games.
And for those of you worrying my kids are simply glued to the glow of a microchip powered screen, don’t.  Our trampoline still gets more use than the iPad, and next month I start my great “teaching” adventure as coach of my son’s T-ball team.  But know I’ll be tracking stats on my iPad …    

College-Ready E-Learning in the Sunshine

When it comes to education improvement, do little things happen in small packages?  Thanks to the past two years, we are used to looking for megadeals.  Race to the Top offered up four billion dollars; i3 another $650 million.  The Gates Foundation often drops tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on the latest and greatest.  Even the recent News Corp. deal for Wireless Generation caught many by surprised, based solely on the size of the deal.

So why is Eduflack so taken by a couple of million investment that crossed the electronic desk?  Today, the Florida Virtual School announced a $2 million award from the Gates Foundation.  The project?  Florida Virtual School will use the funds to develop four college readiness courses in English and math.
In its announcement, Florida Virtual states, “the courses will emphasize 21st century skills such as authentic skill development, critical thinking, contemporary research opportunities and real world experiences.”     
Most who follow digital education know that Florida Virtual School is the king of e-learning.  So it should come as no surprise that it is trying to get out in front, developing the next generation of college-ready K-12 curriculum.  So why is a $2 million announcement so interesting?
1) It appears Florida Virtual is trying to get out in front of the Common Core Standards effort.  If Gates is funding this, it is a relatively safe bet that the courses developed will align with the new CC standards (particularly since Florida has to adopt them as part of its RttT win).  So after all the hand-wringing on how far behind we are in moving the CCSSI into practice, Florida Virtual is now planning to beta test its ELA courses by January 2012, with math coming the following year.
2) Surprise, surprise, but 21st century skills may not be dead after all.  With STEM coming forward a few years ago and the Obama Administration now pushing college and career readiness, most assumed that 21st century skills had gone the way of the dodo.  But by emphasizing curriculum based on such skills (with Gates money no less) it seems the softer side of instructional improvement — 21st century skills — may be back for a second policy go.
3) We are reminded that e-learning is not just about delivery.  Florida Virtual is reminding us that content remains king.  The leader in digital education continues to make clear that buying curriculum off the shelf is not how you build a world-class e-learning platform.  Florida Virtual is not just teaching it, they are building it.  Faculty will have ownership in it.  It will be relevant to the program and to its goals.
It is rare for Eduflack to truly embrace something, praising virtues instead of picking on failings.  But this is one instance where I want to accentuate the positive.  Julie Young, the President and CEO of Florida Virtual School may just be right here.  If done correctly and with fidelity, this effort could be “a win-win, especially for students.”

National Skill Standards, Again??

Earlier this year, ACT released its Breaking New Ground: Building a National Workforce Skills Credentialing System report.  In the paper, ACT looks at the current state of the economy, the role that community colleges in particular can play in better preparing Americans to effectively hold the jobs of the future, and the specific job and personal skills one needs to work in a given sector in the 21st century.
Sounds like a good idea, huh?  Linking postsecondary education to career paths.  Identifying the skills employers need to fill the jobs they have.  Making clear to workers what they should know and be able to do if they are to be successful in the workforce.  All terrific goals.  It is a wonder we have never thought of this before.
Funny thing is, we have.  Back in the mid- to late 1990s, Eduflack worked with a little outfit in the U.S. Department of Labor called the National Skill Standards Board.  NSSB was tasked by Congress to identify and develop the basic and advanced skill standards necessary to work in about a dozen industry sectors.  First out of the gate was manufacturing, with NSSB working with the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing, along with a slew of educators, labor unions, and industry voices.  NSSB then proceeded to develop basic standards for the education and technology sectors, before the effort was shut down by the Bush Administration and efforts to fund it outside the government couldn’t quite come together.  Almost wiped off the electronic records, NSSB is actually best described on Wikipedia these days.  
Of course, NSSB itself wasn’t even a new idea when it was created in 1994.  The National Skill Standards Board was the offspring of SCANS, or the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.  SCANS began in 1990, and led with its What Work Requires of Schools report, which outlined a range of skills, qualities and competencies needed to perform in the workplace of the 1990s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to what ACT is doing.  it is important for our nation and our educational institutions to continue to look at issues of relevancy and how best to connect the classroom to the workplace.  The credentialing framework offered up by ACT looks remarkably like the frameworks that NSSB built and advocated for.  ACT mentions SCANS at the end of its report (explaining that SCANS resulted in the development of ACT’s terrific Work Keys effort), but there is no mention of NSSB (even though ACT was involved in the NSSB movement).
Why must we re-invent the wheel on this again?  NSSB had its positives and its negatives, sure.  But if we are serious about better preparing folks for work and ensuring a higher level of skills in the workforce, can’t we build on previous successes and learn from previous setbacks?  
I’ll be honest.  I lived NSSB from 1998 until it was shut down in 2002.  I’m not sure I’d want to wish that total experience on many others.  But I’d love to see someone benefit from the work a lot of good people put into NSSB, particularly in the early years.  If ACT is serious about moving Breaking New Ground forward and changing policy and behavior, it needs to take a close look at the NSSB case study.  Otherwise, we should just prepare for yet another “new” skill standards movement to surface in a decade or so.   

Those “Disengaged, Lazy Whiner” Students

Hollywood does a pretty good job of depicting the ideal teacher.  Such an educator instantly connects with even the most struggling of students, seeing past his or her faults and quickly converting the student into valedictorian/doctor/Broadway star or general success of one’s choice.  Long hours and incredible patience are always involved.

But if recent events up in Pennsylvania are any indication, some teachers aren’t quite following the Mr. Holland’s Opus/Stand and Deliver/Lean on Me model.  Reports out of the Philadelphia area have a Central Bucks East High School teacher suspended for calling out her students on a blog (which is no longer available).
What did Natalie Munroe, the teacher in question, say?  Did she talk about struggling students or the challenges of high-stakes testing?  Did she worry about classes that were too hard or out-of-date books?  Did she demand smaller class sizes or better-paid teachers?  No, not quite.
According to the Associated Press, the 10th through 12th grade noted on her blog:
“My students are out of control.  They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.  They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.”
Or how about this highlight:
“Kids!  They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs.  Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy LOAFERS.”
We don’t even hear such criticism from Sue Sylvester on GLEE these days.
Obviously, Munroe has every right to think what she thinks.  And for those of us playing catch up on her tale, we are just starting to fill in the blanks and learn the story.  Teachers’ jobs are incredibly stressful, and we should expect that such sentiments will surface, particularly after a bad day or a bad series of days.
But aren’t those the instances where screaming into a pillow may be the best approach?  As a high school teacher, one has to realize that students will read your blog, check out your Facebook page, and generally know your e-life.  Perhaps Munroe’s intention was for students to see these posts.  A little tough love now could turn around students’ approach to the classroom in the future.  Or maybe she just got frustrated.  Regardless, is this really the way she now wants her career defined publicly, full of rants?
What can we learn from this?  If anything, instances like this demonstrate the need for a code of conduct on how educators use new media and social media.  The last thing we need is a complete overreaction, with administrators saying that teachers can no longer blog because of the possibility of something like this happening.  Teachers make terrific bloggers, and I am constantly learning from those practitioners who are posting their experiences.  We shouldn’t shut down those educators out of fear of a few screamers joining in the fun.

Are TFA Teachers Well-Trained Teachers?

We all know Teach for America.  We know them to be some of the best-selected new teachers.  Some of the most committed.  Some of the best intended.  But at a time when we still struggle to identify what is effective teacher preparation, can we really say that TFA teachers are “well-trained?”

This is the question I explore this week over at Education Debate, Are TFA Teachers Well-Trained Teachers?  Check it out.

Presidential Education Budget Redux

Yesterday, President Obama released his FY2012 Budget.  And it was hardly a “the new phone books are here” sort of moment.  In an era of supposed budgetary belt-tightening, we all knew that the U.S. Department of Education was facing a budget increase.  The major question was how much of that increase would go to Pell and how much to P-12.

So when the details of the budget were revealed, Eduflack’s primary response was, “didn’t we just have this discussion last year?”  New rounds of Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.  A handful of programs eliminated.  A good number of programs “consolidated” into a series of competitive buckets.  So while some of the specific dollars may be a little different (more for RttT this year than last, less for i3), Eduflack comments on the FY2011 budget seem to be fairly evergreen, all things considered. 
Of course, there are a few things that make this year a little different:
* Political realities — For those eagerly waiting to cash checks based on FY2012 presidential projections, please remember we still haven’t passed the FY2011 budget yet.  FY2012 is largely a do-over because FY2011 never became law.  The Administration is to be commended for sticking to its guns and staying with the same policy priorities.  But we can’t forget these priorities couldn’t get passed in a Democratic Congress in 2010.  If the current fight over the FY2011 continuing resolution is any indication, Congress (particularly House Republicans) have a VERY different view of where our education budget should head.  So let’s realize that the President has essentially put forward a “ceiling” for education spending.  The House will drive it down some, and both the House and Senate will swap out some of the president’s programs for their own favorite funding recipients.
* Reauthorization — Much of the “big thinking” in this year’s presidential budget is based on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Based on yesterday’s ED presentation, all those interesting new programs and the continuation of RttT and i3 are all linked to successful ESEA reauth.  What happens, then, if reauth rolls out at House Education Committee John Kline (MN) wants — incrementally?  Or what happens if Dems in the Senate can’t agree on a strategy?  Another year of ED CRs means none of these big ideas are funded.
* Early childhood education — Kudos to the Administration for the creation of the Early Learning Challenge Fund.  The President is now addressing his 2008 campaign pledges about the importance of ECE.  Even more important, he is placing the responsibility for 21st century early learning with the U.S. Department of Education (instead of over in HHS with the Head Start office).  Could it be we may actually see a P-20 education continuum run through Maryland Avenue?  One can only hope.
* Title I Rewards — Perhaps the most intriguing new idea is that of a Title I Rewards program.  And it is interesting because of what we know, and what we still don’t.  Based on yesterday, it seems that ED will provide $300 million in new Title I dollars directly to the states, based on current Title I formulas.  It will then be up to the states to divide that money up among those Title I districts who are demonstrating the most progress in student achievement improvement.  So will dollars go to a select few districts or most?  Are rewards simply the thanks of a grateful nation, or are they to be designated for specific interventions or to scale particular improvements?  Lots of questions, with lots of opportunities.
* Teacher training — Last year, the Administration took a beating for the perception that it was scrapping its commitment to preservice education for teachers, instead handing the keys over to alt cert providers and programs like Teach for America.  This year, the President is offering up $975 million for the recruitment, reward, and retention of new teachers.  We’re looking at recruitment programs, scholarship efforts (particularly those targeting minorities), and an emphasis on science and math teachers.  This seems like an awful lot of real capital to begin supporting the initiative.
And who is getting condolence cards today?  Those 13 programs slated for elimination (including the Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners, which is experiencing another year of life and another $8.8 million under the CR).  The 38 programs targeted for consolidation, while a few are destined for greatness in the competitive grant process (I’m looking at you, TFA), most may go the way of those Whaling Partners.  Career and Technical Education, which seemed to be the big loser, as some well-meaning program had to sacrifice to make this year’s number, and CTE seems to be the recipient of such cuts.  And I’d also put ARPA-ED on the list, simply because after all of the build up it received in the week leading into the budget, the total dollar figure allotted to our very own DARPA seems small by comparison.
Now the fun begins.  Anyone willing to bet more than half the new funding makes it through the House of Representatives this fall?

Celebrating the Science Fair

During his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama showed the love for the science fair, saying winners of the science fair deserve the same kudos as winners of the Super Bowl.  But this week, The New York Times has an article detailing how the American science fair is on the decline, placing the blame at the feet of the U.S. Department of Education and its policies on student achievement and accountability and the fact that science fairs take up a lot of work, both for the teacher and the student.

Personally, Eduflack is sick and tired of hearing accountability (and its bastard step-sister AYP) for being blamed for all that ails our schools.  Anyone who has been a part of a successful science fair experience knows that doing so improves both student learning and student achievement.  Done effectively, science fairs can spur a love for learning, better engage students in the classroom (beyond just the science classroom), and instill the sort of 21st century skills we are seeking from our students.  And we won’t even talk about those pesky science accountability requirements that are supposed to be coming online any year now.
Believe it or not, Eduflack knows of what he speaks this time around.  Yes, I am a former science fair geek.  In fact, I once was the grand prize winner for the West Virginia State Science Fair.  I competed in the International Science and Engineering Fair (and even took home an award).  My project?  A study in behavioral science, looking at the impact of verbal conditioning (both good and bad) and human subjects of different ages.  (And for those who care, I found that positive verbal conditioning had far more impact than negative, even on my youngest test subjects.)
There is no doubt that science fairs can be time consuming.  A good project requires a great deal of work from the student, from the student’s science teacher, and from all of the teachers and community members who help assemble and judge the fair itself.  But it is one of those efforts where the payoff far exceeds the cost.  Students learn to work beyond the textbook, thinking critically and solving real problems relevant to them.  They are experimenting and writing and orally presenting and figuring out how to visually depict their project and its findings.  They are seeing something through from start to finish, and they are getting supports from their teachers every step along the way.  In many ways, it is instruction the way we all intended it — project based, relevant, comprehensive, measurable, and with long-term impact.
Perhaps President Obama is wrong.  We shouldn’t be celebrating the winners of science fairs … we should be celebrating all of those who take the time to experiment and compete in the first place.  We should be finding ways to support teachers in the process, giving them the time and resources to integrate fairs into the instructional day.  We should be projecting the value of the science fair, not seeing it as an extracurricular burden but rather as a terrific tool for inspiring creativity and exploration in students, particularly those who are not the science “whiz kids” as defined by test scores or AP classes.  And we should be thanking all of those teachers who continue to do whatever it takes to keep this wonderful practice alive, despite the added burdens and added hours associated with the science fair.
As a former competitor and a former winner, Eduflack thanks you.