What’s a “Microcredential?” No one seems to know, but everybody wants them.

We don’t teach teachers to teach in the manner that we know learners learn. It reads like a typo, but the problem is as simple as that.

Cognitive psychology is clear about the manner in which children and adults learn. Humans are not blank slates, as was once argued. Rather, we know that individuals reflect on confusing phenomena they observe. They gather data, form hypotheses and test those hypotheses. They discuss their observations and ideas with others to gain multiple perspectives. When a hypothesis checks out, they adopt it as a theory and begin to build schema and conceptual frames that explain how related phenomena function. As their expertise grows, they form linkages between those conceptual frames.

Yet, we still teach as though individuals learn by listening to lectures. We teach as though all students have experienced the same things at the same time, and in the same ways. We still teach as if all the learners in a classroom are there for the same reasons and need the same knowledge.

Learning is more effective and fruitful if we take the lessons of modern cognitive psychology, and teach students they way they naturally learn, customizing lessons to the needs and experiences of individual students.

The currently emerging online platforms are poised to enable a revolutionary change in the ways we implement teacher education. It is for the first time in my decade and a half as a classroom teacher, teacher educator, and education researcher, possible to optimize the learning experience to not just match what is possible in a conventional classroom, but actually surpass it. In my experience, when taught with these methods, students respond with engagement and curiosity, and learn more effectively.

Using these methods I have seen students take risks, and feel ownership for their learning in ways that are unparalleled in the traditional high school or college environment. My students have reported that they are intrinsically motivated to participate in online coursework. While they may not use terminology like “intrinsic motivation,” what they describe about their learning experience conveys precisely that. When reflecting on a well-designed hybrid online course, students describe their desire for knowledge; the clarity they gained about the applications of knowledge; their total loss of a sense of time while they followed a thread of thought around curated sources on the internet for hours on end.

My ambition is to extend these online learning techniques to current classroom teachers. It is a professional and personal goal of mine to prepare teachers to recognize the individuality of students in their classroom, and to aspire to be more than lecturers. Yet, the obstacles to achieving this goal are numerous and deeply entrenched.

In various roles in multiple organizations I have witnessed two different avenues of teachers’ professional learning, and I see a clear path for a third way. Here, I lay out the challenges in these two conventional avenues of professional learning and development, and describe how they will be eclipsed by a high-quality, online microcredentialing environment.

In my role as a faculty member at Saint Anselm College, where we prepare teachers for the classroom, I have used flipped classroom environments to train preservice teachers to design curriculum and assessments rooted in an inquiry approach to learning. Students understand that a foundational objective of the class is to design student-centered curriculum, in which teachers’ set goals and objectives for students that require individually tailored activities and assessments. This approach to curriculum design requires teachers to meet students where they are in the classroom, and to scaffold learning experiences that will allow students to realize his or her particular ambitions while simultaneously demonstrating mastery of clearly defined competencies.

When students leave the class, and the program for that matter, they are prepared to teach ambitiously and with individual students’ needs in mind. However, the dominant teaching culture – to which those novice teachers were exposed through their own P-12 experience, and into which they will return as practicing professionals – is saturated with a traditional, transmissionist pedagogy. Studies of the socialization process for novice teachers demonstrate time and again that the pressure to return to a transmissionist stance typically overwhelms even the most ambitious graduate.

To exacerbate the situation, the typical “in-service,” professional development model can replicate this transmissionist stance. Workshops follow a predictable approach: Teachers gather in the audience where they remain seated throughout the day to listen to presenters describe their experience in the classroom. While nearly 100% of teachers engage in up to 30 hours of professional development a year, only a small minority of those teachers report satisfaction with development workshops (Grunwald Associates, LLC & Digital Promise, 2015).

In this fully uninspiring environment of teacher socialization and professional development, it doesn’t take a leap in logic to understand why teaching practices have changed so little over the last 150 years.

In my role as an inaugural trustee for the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education and as the principal investigator for a community grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, I have had several opportunities to design and execute professional development experiences for local history, social studies and civics teachers. We have worked hard in planning sessions to create experiences that break that mold, and which allow teachers to engage with and explore new material. To assess the quality of the workshops, teachers are asked to design lesson plans, in which teachers illustrate how they will integrate these new activities in their practice. A simple guideline for the lesson is that it must include the content of the professional development, and it must include inquiry-based activities that students can engage in. (Read: NO lecture!) The ultimate performance assessment for teachers is to actually observe teachers applying new learning in practice. This assessment model does not reach that gold standard, but it does provide an example of a promising practice that comes close.

Still, even in light of our efforts to have teachers apply new learning in practice, we also know that in service days like ours have a short shelf life. This is due to the “drive by” nature of the workshop. In other words, teachers come and go from these “one-off” development workshops. Without networking the teachers, without creating a community of inquiry, without follow-on communications and designing subsequent development opportunities with feedback from prior participants in mind, the new strategies gained in the workshop quickly fade with time.

We cannot logically demand access for students to a tailored education that meets their authentic and individual needs without first revolutionizing how teachers are trained, and how they think about teaching.

Geographically independent, asynchronous online microcredentials offer a third avenue for professional development and will mitigate many of these problems by providing lasting, meaningful content. Critical to this effort will be engaging leading thinkers in education who can consolidate knowledge from the fields of cognitive psychology, curriculum design and assessment, and instructional technology including digital platforms. An effort like this must also harness the content knowledge and expertise of leading teacher educators in critical shortage fields as well as those dedicated to working with high need populations. A leader on this project must also possess a deep and integrated understanding of the structures higher education and professional development, and local, state and national policies that govern teacher learning and licensure. In my analysis of this fluid but rapidly expanding industry, I have not identified an existing model for online microcredentialing that meets this high bar or integrates knowledge from these divergent fields.

Certainly, we know of several interfaces that provide online learning opportunities at low or no cost including Kahn Academy, Udemy, Lynda.com, EdX and Coursera. A survey of the MOOC offerings through these well-known platforms will quickly generate the conclusion that these spaces aren’t designed for educators who wish to improve their pedagogical practice. Rather, these sites largely serve the scientific and technological industries. Digital Promise and similar organizations are building a comprehensive and diverse online platform, but the buy-in from teachers hasn’t been significant. Something is missing.

In a recent study of a representative sample of teachers, Grunwald Associates, LLC and Digital Promise found that early adapters of online microcredentialing are open to using this system as a way to improve their teaching. However, their findings also suggest that teachers question both the credibility of the staff that design the curriculum as well as those evaluating the teachers’ work. Participants in the study, though intrinsically motived by the desire for more knowledge and better teaching, wondered how “badges” and “microcredentials” displayed on their LinkedIn and Facebook pages would garner the recognition the teacher desires and deserves for their efforts. State credentialing agencies in New Hampshire and other New England states have yet to respond meaningfully to the call to formally recognize teachers’ work on microcredential programs. Digital Promise is on the leading edge of the work to consolidate learning tasks, but we can also learn from the challenges that this business has faced and seek innovative ways to address those challenges.

First, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to standardize the language of “microcredentialing.” In traditional teacher education programs, the coursework and clinical hours required to earn an endorsement for a teaching credential are relatively uniform. By referencing a “credential,” whether “micro” or otherwise, the online microcredentialing industry is promising something that it seems ill equipped to deliver. The online microcredentialing industry must network with state education agencies to determine what commitment and what display of competency should be required of teachers to earn a “microcredential,” and this “microcredential” must translate to something meaningful and more precise with the credentialing agency. For example, to earn a teaching credential, typical teachers must complete an accredited teacher education program, pass the requisite state sanctioned high-stakes exams, undergo a background check and complete an application with the state. The component that calls for a completion of an accredited teacher education program alone requires several semesters of coursework where one course typically implies 120 hours of student work. Meanwhile, the “microcredentials” offered on Digital Promise take fewer than two hours to complete. There seems to be a mismatch in work demand and measures of mastery.

Second, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to diminish the variability in quality in the coursework offered. In my market research, I dug deeply into online offerings of various institutions and online companies that are gaining traction in my home state of New Hampshire. In my quest to determine who was designing and executing these online microcredential and professional development opportunities, I was surprised to discover that I could rarely determine who authored the content. In the instances where I could determine who authored the content, I was similarly surprised to find that it was not authored by teacher educators or education researchers. In other words, while the authors of this content may be highly regarded practitioners in classrooms, there was little to suggest that the pedagogical techniques they conveyed are evidenced-based. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire alone I could name highly regarded teacher educators who have been designing inquiry-based, evidence-driven coursework and training programs for teachers for decades. Why are these expert faculty members not solicited to generate content for online microcredentials?

Third, a robust online microcredentialing program must offer module templates that reflect what we know about how people learn. As detailed at the outset of this letter, cognitive psychologist and education researchers know quite a lot about how people learn – despite what we typically see in classrooms. We know that best teaching begins with the teacher identifying what his or her students already know, and then using students’ prior learning and experiences as a springboard to further learning. The teacher can curate sources of new information that provide scaffolds for students to acquire new knowledge and demonstrate new competencies. Students’ capacity to transfer and enact that new knowledge must be assessed by the teacher. My traditional and online course design has followed these guidelines for years. Yet in an examination of the assessments of current models of online microcredentialing, the assessment process appears quite uneven. While I commend current models that require participants in the module to demonstrate their knowledge on performance assessment, a lingering question for me is, “Who is determining what mastery looks like for this assessment?” To put the question in the language of a student, “Who is correcting my work, and how do I know they know what they’re doing?” This model goes beyond the transmissionist, one-way-street model of platforms like Lynda.com (which only provide the content to students) by trying to mimic the dialogical nature of the teacher student relationship. However, it stops short of more ambitious models in the sense that these offerings are unable or unwilling to guarantee the credibility of the assessor. Additionally, we know that when a teacher provides timely, direct and standards based feedback students have more opportunity to reach mastery. No models exist online where the back-and-forth conversation between student and teacher are present and sustainable.

Finally, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to leverage existing educator networks to identify common challenges with professional learning, and to develop innovative solutions which address those challenges and work to scale the service. Teachers want professional development that helps them answer the question, “What can I use in my classroom right now strengthen my content knowledge and enhance my pedagogical technique?” When teachers find professional development offerings that work for them, they naturally return to those sources for more, and the word spreads. Currently, New Hampshire finds itself in a position unlike any other state. All of the institutions of higher education that prepare teachers have voluntarily joined forces with the aim of improving teaching quality, and the equitable distribution of quality teachers in the state. During my time as the Secretary of the New Hampshire Institutes of Higher Education Network, it has become increasingly clear that this network needs an institution-independent platform to serve as a warehouse of content, training and resources for our region’s classroom teachers. Many of the teacher educators in this network have been training teachers for decades in the state. Their professional networks of practicing classroom teachers are experientially varied and geographically vast. Classroom teachers in New Hampshire are loyally connected to the programs that prepared them. Leveraging these existing networks through an online microcredentialing program is a first step to expanding these programs to scale.

It will take significant resources to realize these short and long term goals. A successful initiative must acknowledge the ongoing technological requirements for hosting a healthy online microcredentialing environment including costs to host the platform, the platform itself (e.g. Moodle or Coursera), the requisite storage for multiple media sources like video, infographics, sound and image files; and plugins to enhance user experiences and interactivity (e.g. Zoom, )

Though these technological costs are diverse and revolving, they are minimal compared to the investment an initiative like this requires in people power. Short-term goals like developing an interface with user experience design will require contracts with graphic designers and instructional technology experts. Developing a single module, stack and microcredential series requires contracts with experts in course management systems to ensure that course designers will be able to sequence their content and customize their modules with standard and emergent technologies contemporary students have come to expect.

Long-term goals including building and diversifying microcredential offerings require contracting with content area experts including course buy-outs or stipends for university faculty by module. Videographers will need to be hired and software procured (e.g. Camtasia or Canvas) to enable content authors to establish an online presence with their students. Administrative costs for this endeavor are extensive and include everything from pulling copyrights for supporting course texts to issuing acknowledgements that participants in the modules have demonstrate competencies. Leadership on this initiative will require at the very least summer salaries for professors, consulting costs to exchange ideas about design and development with intellectual property and contract lawyers (whose content is this?), business consultants (how do we market and scale our site), state education policy actors (how can we get teachers the recognition they deserve through the credentialing process).

Support from foundations to achieve these short and long term goals is crucial. In the absence of this support, individuals, agencies and businesses will continue to shape and define the nature of online professional learning opportunities for teachers. What is missing in this equation is the input, guidance and innovation of education researchers and teacher educators who have the content knowledge, the pedagogical expertise and the established networks to bring demands of high quality to this initiative. In the industries of higher education and online learning, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can continue to reproduce online faulty assumptions about how people learn and, it follows, how one should teach online. Or, we can recognize the convergence of research and capacity to scale online is presenting us with an opportunity to not just replicate what we have always done, but to surpass that work in a virtual environment. With help, we can work to teach teachers to teach in a way that reflects what we know about how learners learn.



Focusing on the “Opt” in the “Opt-Out Movement”

Like most others, I have had the good fortune to be alive and paying attention enough over the last ten years to bear witness to at least two major revolutions.

I never thought I would see the day when people could actually talk to other people with their wrist watch, and just last month the Supreme Court reaffirmed its’ commitment to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by safeguarding equal access to the institution of marriage. These are major changes – both of which were propelled by and, in turn, will have major implications for democracy.

Though not as long-in-the-making nor as groundbreaking, I’ve been watching the growing “Opt-Out” movement with a muted – but similar – enjoyment.

Is the Opt-Out Movement Truly a Movement?

The “Opt-Out” movement, where parents block schools from testing their children with high stakes standardized measures, is pretty fascinating. In a sense this small movement is akin to seeing hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation turn to each other with expressions of utter disbelief saying, “Wait … we can do that?”

For so long, parents have sent their children to school without asking many critical questions about what their children experience during the school day, including the decisions that administrators make about curriculum, or how data about their children’s performance on standardized tests are collected and used.

Parental disgruntlement has usually centered around their child’s new teacher, and concerns about particular “trouble-makers” in their child’s class. Research has shown over and over that some parents feel entitled to follow these conflicts through, while others feel disempowered or reluctant depending on their cultural or economic background. (See the book “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Class in Schools” by Richard Rothstein for full descriptions of how this plays out.)

Regardless, disgruntlement is minor and scattered. Parents experience and deal with these conflicts in vacuum, and the conflicts experienced by many individuals separated by space and time could never be regarded as a movement. 

So, the recent uproar about the over use of standardized tests, and calls for opting children out of said tests, in contrast, seems to be something of a revolution in the way that parents understand their role in their children’s education.

Why We are Suddenly Concerned about Over-Testing

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stipulated in 2002 that all children grades 3-8 & 10th or 11th be tested using a state-administered standardized test. The intent then was to reach “universal proficiency” on those standardized tests by 2014. So, all students in every state had to “pass” these standardized tests by 2014. This was an extraordinary lofty (read: unrealistic), but worthwhile goal.

Most states contracted to private companies to develop standardized tests, and the students’ tests were scored with the designation “Failing,” “Basic,” “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Students’ performances on those standardized tests were spread across the four designations. However, districts with pockets of poverty were more likely to have concentrations in the “Failing” and “Basic” categories, and districts with concentrated wealth and college-educated parents were more likely to be labeled “Proficient” and “Advanced.”

This gap in performance was predictable. Students have performed similarly on standardized tests since the national government started administering National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP – sounds like “nape”) in the 1960s. This gap in performance is the well-documented “achievement gap.”

Getting to “universal proficiency” by 2014, therefore, conveyed the expectation that states could close the achievement gap in 12 years. All schools had to show “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” toward this goal of universal proficiency. If they didn’t, all sorts of penalties ensued. NCLB required standardized tests as the preferred way to track changes in student performance.

Testing Mania

As lofty as this goal was, when the data from these tests were crunched it became clear that NCLB and standardized tests weren’t closing the achievement gap.

Many very smart people decided that the tests were probably not very good measures of what we want students to learn. (Others decided it was probably the teachers’ fault, but let us leave that for another post.)

So, since the tests were to blame, a few powerful organizations set new guidelines about what American kids should be learning, resulting in the Common Core State Standards or CCSS. With little time to vet the standards, states adopted CCSS and implemented them in their schools.

Then, some very lucky private companies were contracted and got a whole lot of money to design new tests to measure whether students were mastering CCSS. Two tests, the PARCC test and the Smarter-Balanced or “SBAC” test were adopted by most states.

This year, our nation’s schoolchildren in grades 3-8 and 10th or 11th had the sad misfortune of “piloting” these new PARCC or SBAC tests while simultaneously phasing out their state’s old standardized tests. The result was dozens of school days (out of a 180-day school year) spent penciling in bubbles on Scantron sheets and/or clicking through items on the computer.

Add together the state standardized tests; the new, and considerably more challenging, SBAC or PARCC test; for most 10th or 11th grade students their AP test and PSAT or SAT test; and, perhaps their ACT or other college-entrance tests and it’s pretty clear that this year we tested the hell out of American schoolchildren.

Opting Out

This year, the number of parents who said “Thanks, but no thanks” (or more accurately, “Take your test and shove it!”)  to standardized tests exploded155,000 kids opted out of tests in New York alone.

As an education researcher, I lament the lost data. As a parent, I totally get it.

On the one hand, I know our nation’s children are over-tested. According to education expert, Linda Darling Hammond, we as a nation focus more on testing than any other country in the world. We have too many standardized assessments. Some of them generate meaningful data, but others not so much.

On the other hand, I know standardized tests are a source of information about student academic performance. Schools can use this data, but it’s typically used most by education researchers and the national government to help track (some would say exacerbate) the gap in performance between different segments of the American population.

This summer is really the first time that I have thought about it on a personal level, because this school year my oldest daughter is entering third-grade. That is to say, this school year marks the first time NCLB and yearly testing is a reality for me as a parent.

I also live in New Hampshire where our state’s new parent trigger law allows parents to opt-out of any public school curriculum they deem inappropriate. Though our governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt-out of standardized tests specifically, many of our state’s districts are allowing it. It’s probably only a matter of time before NH’s House and Senate override her veto, so I expect the Opt-Out debate to surface again in NH by winter.

My husband and I take parenting decisions on a case-by-case basis. If I had a child who experienced tremendous anxiety over tests no matter how valiant our efforts were to calm her, I would probably pull her out. In that case, the tests would do more harm than good. I defend parents’ rights to protect their children in these cases.

I also happen to think there is a massive level of hysteria around parents opting their children out of testing right now. I don’t judge them, they have their reasons.Their children might react more strongly to taking a test too, where my child doesn’t seem to register a difference between taking a standardized test and taking the teacher’s weekly spelling challenge. Yet, the hysteria overshadows the advantage of standardized testing, which is their power as a source of information and a diagnostic tool about how their child is learning. 

Finally, I hope that the parent veto rights bill isn’t overused in New Hampshire. I have many misgivings about parents telling schools regularly what should be in the curriculum. Parent vetoes convey a certain level of distrust in our teachers and schools and they are often used to prevent teachers from teaching things that are widely accepted by scientists to be true (e.g. evolution and climate change). 

For all of those reasons, we will have both of our children follow the standardized testing schedule in our district for now.

Opting-in: With Reservations & Just for Now

Even having thought through all of this and made a decision (for this year at least), I will do several things to parent my kids through standardized tests.

First, and most importantly, I will make sure my daughter understand these tests are not high stakes for her and don’t measure her intelligence. Standardized tests are not tests of intelligence, and just to be clear, intelligence tests (IQ) aren’t even tests of fixed intelligence

Any standardized test should be treated as a diagnostic tool at most, which can help us identify areas where we can support children’s learning more, and areas where they are already demonstrating mastery of skills and content. So, I’ll try not incite further hysteria in my child when I talk to her about the tests. I hope her teachers and building principals do the same – as far as I can tell they do.

I will definitely be examining the testing results when they are returned, and in this manner the personal and the professional overlap for me since I have the training to make sense of test reports (which don’t make sense to many parents). This information can be useful to parents, teachers and schools, but test makers need to do more in the way of making test results meaningful for all.

I also plan to be very active in the school district to make sure that the standardized testing results are NOT used in a high stakes or inappropriate manner. Standardized test results have been used inappropriately in New Hampshire’s recent past as a result of NCLB, and continue to be used inappropriately in other states now (e.g. as a punitive measure for districts failing to meet AYP or as a measure of teaching quality – both so wrong). NH has a waiver from NCLB so these misuses are unacceptable. 

In short, my children will take the tests for now, because standardized tests are a useful tool when used appropriately, they are no-stakes for my children in New Hampshire, and I can parent my kids through the experience.

Focusing on the “OPT”

But, I have the option to change my mind and opt-out, and therein lies the sentiment that makes me a true geek for democracy and overjoys the social studies teacher still very much alive inside of me.

The Opt-Out movement is a movement, and as such has the power to get more parents involved in very important day-to-day educational decisions. It also has the added benefit of bringing the “public” back into “public education,” because people more so than ever before in recent history, seem to be paying attention to what’s going on in our nation’s schools.

So when the frenzy kicks back in again in the upcoming school year and people are debating who is opting in, who is opting out and who doesn’t really care one way or another… know there is at least one person in the nation who’s happy simply that people are recognizing there’s an “opt” in the discussion.

The children are watching and learning that civic participation in our nation’s schools is a democratic and meaningful act.

Posts in the cooker… Bringing research to the foreground

I have scores of ideas of things I’d like to blog about, but here’s the shortlist. If you’re interested in knowing the history behind features of schools, or what the “research says” about schools, please comment with your suggestions!

Cheers – Dianna

  1. What does it mean to “Opt-Out” of a standardized test, and should I do it?
  2. How do schools in different states stack up?
  3. Louis C.K. broke my heart when he called out the Common Core
  4. Is homework for kids or their parents?
  5. LGBTQ kids ARE our kids
  6. What’s the deal with 7 AM start times?
  7. Is there really a teacher shortage?
  8. My child’s report card makes no sense to me (& competency based grading)
  9. What’s the point of “group work?”
  10. Why is the site called “Our Kids?”
  11. Calling a truce in the mommy wars.
  12. Talking about American race relations with kids – a white momma’s work.
  13. The manner in which teachers are portrayed in the media is killing the profession.
  14. My friend says her kids are “totally average,” and I admire that attitude.
  15. The shocking reality about how few kids finish college.
  16. College shouldn’t be “four years at Hogwarts” (truthfully put by Martin O’Malley)
  17. The U.S. is actually not doing badly in international ratings – it just depends on how you slice the data.
  18. Should we lengthen the school year?
  19. Reforms that might work in our schools.
  20. How parents can support schools.
  21. Things *not* to say at the parent-teacher conference & questions to ask.
  22. Decoding the standardized test report
  23. The obesity epidemic and school lunch programs.
  24. The anti-Vax movement and CA’s new mandate for measles vaccine.

Why do schools start at dark-o’clock in the morning?

Our children’s sleep habits change almost immediately after school lets out for the summer.

It doesn’t matter how much sleep they’ve gotten or when they went to bed. One or both of them can saw logs through 7:30 am – no problem. This is, of course, in stark contrast to a typical school morning when we have to drag them both out of bed about an hour and a half earlier.

During the school year, I find myself missing the toddler days when they would bound out of bed at 5:45 am (and that moment at 5:46 am, when you realize you’re not going back to sleep, is hard to miss).

I’m not too different from my children. To be honest, one of the reasons I left high school teaching was because I found it emotionally draining to get up early enough to be prepared, functional and verbal at 7:25 am. This was the time that the “warning bell” rang at the high school and class began.

So let’s back this up: To be in my classroom at 7:25 am, I had to be at the copy machine at 6:55, at the computer making printouts at 6:45, in the parking lot at 6:30 (it was a big campus), leaving my house at about 5:30 (no later than 5:45).

To be in the classroom at the ready at 7:25, I regularly set my alarm for 4:45 am, and that’s assuming I knew exactly what I would be teaching the next morning before I went to bed.

Even after all that effort, it’s worth mentioning that if there’s one way to kill a love of learning in our nation’s adolescents, it’s talking to them about Jacksonian Democracy at 7:30 am on a Monday in February. Relatedly, if there’s one way to kill a love of teaching in an adult, it’s asking them to ignite in their students a love of learning at this obscenely early hour. 

Why do schools start so early?

In any effort to reform our nation’s schools – even something as simple as start times – we need to first uncover why it it is the way it is. Many folks know that the academic year was initially built around a farming schedule and leaves a wide berth during the long summer months for children to help their parents on the farm. I know how much you all rely on your children to bring in the harvest, so I’ll leave that one alone for now. Anyway, none of that history really explains the typical start time for a school day, and that’s because early start times are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Most studies attribute early start times to the increasing role that extra-curricular activities (e.g. sports and clubs) play in the lives of the American adolescent. Add to that the need to coordinate game schedules with other districts, busing schedules for all of the district’s children, complex teaching schedules that often have multiple teachers sharing expensive resources, and managing specialists’ schedules (i.e. art, music, phys ed.), and it becomes pretty clear why the easiest solution seems to be to start the school day earlier.  One look at a building principal’s “master schedule” might elicit some sympathy in even the staunchest opponents of early start times.

Despite the rationale behind the shift in school start times, there is overwhelming medical consensus about what it does to adolescents. Research has demonstrated time and time again how backward these start times are, and the toll it takes on adolescents’ physical safety, emotional well-being, and academic success.

The negative consequences of early start times

Many studies published in medical journals acknowledge how early start times work in cross-purposes to the naturally late “sleepy time” for adolescents. Several studies note that adolescents don’t produce enough melatonin to feel sleepy until about 11 pm. So, it follows that waking up an adolescent at 7 am is the equivalent of waking up an adult at 4 am.” I would add that most kids need to be in school at 7 am, not just waking up, so I would correct their statement to read, “waking an adolescent at 6 am is the equivalent of waking up an adult at 3 am.”

Either way you slice it, it is as unappealing to me as it probably is to you.

It’s not simply a matter of interrupting adolescent sleep cycles. One study found that sleep deprivation from early start times played a role in growing obesity rates and risk behavior in adolescents. This makes plenty of good sense to me, since I regularly see the link between exhaustion and risk behaviors in my own child. The clearest indication that our five-year-old is overtired is the rapid increase in her total defiance of our basic and most commonplace rules.

Early start times aren’t just inconvenient or annoying or impossible to get your body used to (owing, again, to the fact these are physiologically appropriate cycles). Early start times increase daytime sleepiness, depression and caffeine use in adolescents. At the end of the day adolescents are children – just older – and children + caffeine = negative health consequences.

Let us try to forget for a moment that later start times result in adolescents who are better rested, less moody and depressed, less stimulant-addicted and less likely to crash their cars. Let’s just push that aside and consider this: Later start times have the impact that decades of school reform have struggled to produce – they actually improve student academic achievement.

Everyone say it with me… “DUH!”

Later start times improve academic achievement

I think what I am saying here is that it’s a little easier for an adolescent to understand Jacksonian Democracy at 10:30 am than it is at 7:30 am. Most of this has to do with the very simple idea that it’s much easier to learn when you’re conscious. Another very simple thing is that kids who are well rested register fewer absences during the school year, and they even come to school on time. It doesn’t boggle the mind to understand how both of those behaviors lead to significant increases in academic performance. It’s not rocket science (though it is neuroscience).

So, the research on adolescents is incontrovertible. What about younger children? While very few studies exist on the impact of earlier start times for elementary-aged students, one of those few studies suggests that younger children don’t experience a significant impact in their total sleep time as a result of earlier start times. (Remember your toddler waking you up at 5:45 am on Saturday?)

Let’s also acknowledge the fact that younger children require less prep-time to get ready for school. There is very little social stigma for a child under a certain age – I imagine the cut off to be about eight – to literally roll out of bed, eat breakfast and go to school. Beyond that age, the time it takes to get ready in the morning grows longer and longer. We should be delaying start times for adolescents just to give them en0ugh time to perfect their emo makeup and manage their Bieber swoosh.

Some alternative models to the “dark-o’clock” start

So, why not just reverse the schedules so younger children are headed to school first and older children catch the bus after them? Some would voice concern here over their five year old standing in the dark at the bus stop. I would be among them, because we can’t settle for a model that endangers younger children.

But let’s be clear, if we can create a whole system of time zones so people on trains can remain diurnal, and if nearly our whole nation can change their clocks in unison twice a year, surely we don’t need to have our adolescents bearing the brunt in this totally wrong model. We are pretty smart people, there has to be a way to adjust that master schedule.

Aside from reversing the busing schedule and school start times between elementary and high schools, we might also consider a full-switch to athletic training in the morning. I would prefer to run two miles in the morning in September versus the mid-afternoon (the hottest hours of the day). These are only a few ideas.

Take it up with your PTA

An organization called StartSchoolLater.net chronicles the success stories that many districts have experienced in establishing later school start times, and every effort takes a slightly different angle to achieve success. You’d be surprised how many districts have explicitly adjusted their schedules in response to the overwhelming empirical evidence about adolescent sleep deprivation.

Parents can be pretty powerful in this regard if we stop aiming our outrage and exhaustion toward our parenting partners and start directing it in a focused way toward the people who can impact some real change. This would be an appropriate initiative for a well-organized PTA/PTG to appeal to local school boards.

Figure out what it would take. While you’re fighting the fight, just keep in mind the people that have to deal with that crazy master schedule. They’re not ignoring research out of malice, they’re dealing with the tough reality of managing multiple and often conflicting schedules. We’re all maniacs during the school year, and a special kind of maniac in the morning. This change is long overdue and research has shown it is worth the effort.

Why Douglas County, Colorado, Vouchers Were Ruled Unconstitutional

Diane Ravitch adds to the conversation on Colorado Supreme Court’s recent decision by grabbing the language from the state Constitution! It pays to follow the blog of an educational historian at dianeravitch.net The whole deal seems pretty cut and dry. Nevada next?

Diane Ravitch's blog

A few days ago, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the voucher plan adopted by the school board in Douglas County was unconstitutional. It was a split decision. It is puzzling that it was a split decision, because the Colorado state constitution explicitly prohibits any public funding of religious institutions.
Text of Section 7:
Aid to Private Schools, Churches, Sectarian Purpose, Forbidden.

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property, ever be made by the…

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Colorado’s Voucher Issue

Today the New York Times ran a front-cover story about Colorado’s state Supreme Court’s refusal to allow vouchers to fund religious schools. This might lead you to wonder, “Why is this happening? What’s so wrong with vouchers?”


Voucher programs are typically a municipal initiative (like in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Douglas County, Colorado), and sometimes a state initiative (like in Minnesota). Vouchers consolidate public money collected via tax revenue and then the program redirects the money intended for public schools back to parents. Parents are then able to use this voucher to offset the cost of private schools.

School choice proponents like this because it places control in the hands of parents. Courts do not like these programs because the most affordable private schools are often religious schools. Though vouchers typically hover in the $1,500 – $3,000 dollar amount, independent private schools often cost over $20,000 a year for tuition. Meanwhile, private religious schools average tuition is typically less than $7,000. So, if you’re a parent with a $2,500 voucher that clearly will go a lot further toward paying a $7,000 tuition rather than a $20,000 tuition.

Make sense?

At issue here is the separation of church and state, a maxim repeated often and implicitly addressed in the U.S. Constitution under the First Amendment, which decrees Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Many education reforms butt up against the Establishment and Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment (e.g. sex education in school, etc). What do you think? Are publicly-funded vouchers in violation of the First Amendment when they are applied toward tuition for religious schools?

Teacher tracking: Higher ed group worried about proposed legislation

Proposed federal legislation that would track teachers and the institutions that educate them after graduation has the New Hampshire Institutions of Higher Education Network concerned about its implications — specifically, that it’s too difficult to implement and that it will discourage teachers from working with special-needs populations for fear that there won’t be enough evidence to prove the teachers are making progress.

Dr. Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell, secretary of the IHE Network and professor of education at Saint Anselm College, said that on a federal level, there is increasing interest in teacher progress and regulating teacher education programs.
“They are being looked at in terms of, ‘how do we control what they are doing more?’” Terrell said.
The proposed legislation is still being drafted. It would see training institutes like Saint Anselm track teachers after graduation and into the classrooms by examining how their students perform, Terrell said.
“We’re not … equipped with the resources like that to track our graduates in their own classrooms,” she said. “It’s statistically sort of shady, the further and further you get out.”
Terrell likened it to Harvard Medical School having to track its graduates into their practices and measure them based on patient health status. Doctors who choose to work with cancer patients, for example, see a higher mortality rate in their caseloads. “It’s cumbersome for us to follow our teachers out of the classroom. It’s a stretch to say that everything that happens in the classroom is because of a teacher,” Terrell said, noting many other factors are at play.
She said it is even more statistically invalid to trace it back to the program in which the teacher was trained.
The federal government currently measures the quality of schools as a whole based on children’s scores on high-stakes standardized tests, like the Smarter Balanced test. The new legislation would put more of an emphasis on individual teachers — if a teacher doesn’t add value over the course of the year, the teacher’s quality will be called into question. “There are a lot of teachers who work with populations where it’s tough to move the needle,” Terrell said.
Terrell gave the example of the Head Start program, where it’s harder to gauge and show success on measures with standardized tests because of socioeconomic and learning challenges. “The implications [of the legislation] for teachers are [that] it’s not a good way of showing their quality. It’s going to dissuade people from working in populations with high needs,” Terrell said. “The ones that deal with the most at-risk kids are going to be the most at risk for not showing progress.”
The impact on institutions that statistically aren’t producing enough effective teachers could mean the loss of accreditation from the state and loss of Title I funds from the federal government.

As seen in the March 19, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

Common Core is NOT a Test

One thing that has made me crazy(er) in all of the media frenzy around Common Core is when media outlets refer to “Common Core Tests.” This is fundamental misdirection.

The Common Core State Standards are standards. Standards are guidelines that most districts and states develop to guide teachers and administrators in what should be taught during the school year. Standards focus on skills and content and are usually divided by grade levels. In other words, they list out what skills and content each child in that grade should be able to “show mastery of” by the end of that academic year.

Standards are listed by grade, and then they are often listed within disciplinary level. So, for example, in most states you could find list of grade level standards for math, English language arts (ELA), science and social studies. Less frequently you can also find grade level standards for language, art, music and other “extra curriculars.”

What media outlets have taken to refer to in shorthand as “the Common Core Tests” are a series of standardized assessments, often created by for-profit companies (others include Pearson and ETS) to assess, score, test or evaluate how well schools are meeting the Common Core State Standards. These tests are the subject of significant controversy across the nation. Two of the biggest standardized tests meant to evaluate whether the Common Core State Standards are being met are called PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

Now, to be clear, many folks have taken some issue with the Common Core State Standards. However, it’s the Common Core-based tests, like Smarter Balanced and PARCC, which are being piloted and administered in schools throughout the nation in Spring 2015 that are causing the biggest stir.

Parents complain that their kids should not be sent to school to take hours and hours of tests. Their children are stressed out. The tests are hard. The teachers and building principals are putting massive emphasis on the tests and often setting aside huge chunks of time to administer them. The results will take several weeks to compile and release and then it is unclear what actions the outcomes the results will bring. In other words, parents are worried that the test results will show their child is “behind.” School leaders might worry that test results will show their whole school is “behind.”

What no one seems to be worried about is why we’re so worried when it’s unclear if there will be any “real” repercussion in terms of funding loss for schools (there won’t be), or long term repercussions for students (there could be).

The point here is that when discussing whether you support or oppose these new Common Core State Standards, it’s worth separating the standards from the tests that are meant to assess whether the standards are being met.



What led to Common Core Standards?

The Common Core State Standards have a lot more going for them than most people realize. Surely school administrators, state commissioners and secretaries of education, state boards of education and professional associations including the National Governor’s Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers in the 45 states that have adopted the standards cannot all be delusional. There must be some reason to support the standards.

The CCSS are only one of a host of guidelines school administrators and faculty consult to inform curriculum, instruction and assessment.

In 1983, the Regan administration funded a research initiative which generated a report titled, “A Nation at Risk.” The report cautioned Americans that education in the United States was lacking compared to other nations such that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The repercussions of this report have reverberated in education policy and school reform since.  

Thirty years on, the results of international assessments (e.g. “PISA,” “PIRLS” and “TIMSS”) have consistently demonstrated the accuracy and the stubborn tenacity of the “Nation at Risk” findings. For example, studies released following the 2009 PISA test asserted that “out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math” (NCES).

Subsequent research since 1983 has clarified the fact that this poor testing performance is not present in all our nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools. That is to say, poor results on standardized tests occur in pockets, not throughout the nation.

In studies of nations where schools have gone from mediocre to excellent (as in the case of Finland), school reformers found that high quality teacher training and setting high standards are among the common factors that turn school systems around. Yet, studies have also shown state generated standards can be woefully unequal state-to-state. For example, a 2004 study published jointly by the Fordham Foundation and Accountability Works called “Grading the Systems,” the authors found that many states “did dismally and the averages can most charitably be termed ‘fair’ to ‘poor.’” In other words, after decades of standards writing, many states were still working to get it right.

The CCSS are an attempt to provide a quality set of standards. These standards are not imposed by the national government, but in some cases they are tied to Title I funding.  States may adopt these standards or not.  New Hampshire education officials (some elected, some appointed), have chosen to adopt the standards.

These standards are not perfect, but they are for the most part reasonable. So, I’d like to reiterate the point of my earlier letter: In the interest of balanced fact-finding, please take a look at the Common Core State Standards on your own.