Teaching with technology

Will this digital library be an equity game-changer for Tennessee schools?

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
American Public Education Foundation president David Pickler addresses some of the teachers who helped create the new Tennessee Digital Resources Library.

One of the most visible manifestations of educational inequality can be found in crumbling, outdated textbooks with torn pages and broken spines.

But backers of a new digital library hope to change all that in Tennessee.

Launched Tuesday by the Tennessee School Boards Association, the library offers free digital textbooks, lectures and lesson plans for 14 high school courses that can be updated each year to keep up with current events and shifting standards.

The library is “absolutely about equity,” says David Pickler, president of the American Public Education Foundation, which paid for a group of Tennessee teachers to develop the resources.

“Most districts across the state are dealing with incredible budget challenges,” said Pickler, who served on the board of education for Shelby County Schools when the district merged with Memphis City Schools in 2013. “This is going to allow districts to be able to redeploy dollars that would have been used for textbooks and … invest in ways that can help every child get that great public education experience.”

The resources were developed by 58 Tennessee teachers nominated by their superintendents and were reviewed by the Tennessee Department of Education. Math and English course materials are aligned with the state’s new academic standards approved this spring and coming to classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.

Teachers can submit updates to the library, which will be reviewed by a new team of teachers working each year with the Tennessee School Boards Association.

The library’s launch arrives as technology is becoming more prevalent in classrooms. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education spearheaded a campaign to encourage states, school districts and educators to use openly licensed educational materials so that more students have access to the same resources.

Tennessee appears ready for the shift. Though the state’s first online standardized test was derailed this year, districts had invested heavily in computers, tablets and internet service for the transition — and are eager to use them. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen repeatedly has said that technology in the classroom is an important asset to prepare students for college and the workforce.

Even so, moving more online resources will present a barrier for poor Tennessee students who don’t have access to computers or internet service at home. Memphis, in particular, has one of the lowest rates of internet access in the nation, and Shelby County Schools has historically spent less money on technology than other urban districts. Last year, information technology was allotted 3 percent of the district’s overall budget.

Some districts already have made the leap to digital textbooks. In 2013, Tullahoma City Schools began using open-source resources — meaning that they can easily be shared and modified.

"This is going to allow districts to be able to redeploy dollars that would have been used for textbooks and … invest in ways that can help every child get that great public education experience."David Pickler

“The tools are out there on the internet that can deliver great content,” Pickler said. The new digital library ensures “a process to make sure it’s curated, that it’s aligned with Tennessee standards, so teachers can spend time their time, their focus on the needs of children.”

Pickler, who served on the state’s standards review committee, said the resources should help teachers transition to the new standards by providing new resources and lessons that are easily accessible.

“We truly are now just at the beginning the journey of life after Common Core,” Pickler said. “To me, this is a great example for other states to follow, on how we’ve created high standards, and now we’ve gone out there and curated content that will help teachers.”

The resources were designed with the help of Apple, and can be downloaded for free from iTunes U. They’re also accessible on non-Apple platforms.

Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

yeshiva findings

After 3-year probe into yeshivas, city admits it was blocked from visiting many schools, found little instruction in math and English

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of delaying an investigation into whether yeshivas provide an adequate secular education.

At some of New York City’s yeshivas, attendance was voluntary when it came time to learn secular subjects like math and English. Students said they didn’t learn math beyond basic division and fractions. None of the students reported receiving steady lessons in science. 

That’s according to a long-delayed probe by the New York City education department into whether some of the city’s private Jewish schools are providing an adequate secular education for students. But even as the city released findings on Thursday, it admitted that it was never able to go inside any high schools and never received a full set of curriculum materials to evaluate — significant gaps for a report that took three years to be released.

In a letter sent to the state education commissioner on Aug. 15, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza asked the state for guidance on how to proceed after a recent change in law that put the state education commissioner in charge of evaluating the schools. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter. 

“We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education. We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance provided,” Carranza said in a statement.

The letter marks a new phase of an investigation sparked by current and former students and parents who complained they received little instruction in math or English while attending the schools. The city has been accused of delaying the investigation to avoid angering a politically powerful community.

New York requires private schools to provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools, and that allows the schools to access public money for things like school security. Students and parents who were interviewed for the probe said they received instruction in math and English for only 90 minutes for four days out of the week, and all but two said they received “little to no” history lessons, according to the city’s letter.

The report finds that some schools have adopted new curriculums in English and math, but officials have not been able to evaluate the new materials because they haven’t received a complete set.

The city also said that officials at eight of the schools they were unable to visit recently gave word that they would schedule meetings.

Read Carranza’s full letter here.