Bloomberg News

Robo-Truant Tech and Other Apps to Fix Education: Jonathan Alter

September 29, 2011

Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The education reform movement is at an important juncture. It will either peter out in platitudes or advance based on a new consensus. At this week’s Education Nation conference in New York City, I came away with some hope for the latter. My cautious optimism is rooted in two Ts -- technology and transparency.

In the pitched battles between reformers and traditionalists, I’ve been passionately on the side of the reformers for almost 20 years. With the help of the last four presidents, they’ve made progress against the education establishment in pushing for accountability, common standards, charter schools, merit pay and rigorous teacher evaluation.

But traditionalists in the unions and the business-as-usual bureaucracy have recently been successful in depicting reformers as teacher-bashers (not guilty) and as overreliant on test scores in reading and math at the expense of other subjects (guilty).

Even if they cordially despise each other, reformers and traditionalists will now have to work together to implement the new accountability laws enacted in the past few years in about a dozen states.

One way to do so is by embracing smart new technology.

For years, faddish tech fixes like computers in the classroom have yielded few results. But that could be changing. One of the most intriguing parts of Education Nation was the Innovation Challenge, a contest with shades of Donald Trump’s show, “The Apprentice.” Three young innovators presented their ideas on stage to a panel of judges moderated by Tom Brokaw:

Classdojo.com uses a competitive point system (always popular with students) to enable teachers to better handle the behavioral problems that so often impede learning. The idea is to build character by rewarding teams of students who work together to stay on task and avoid disruptions. Technology can’t substitute for a teacher’s class-management skills. But with as much as half of class time consumed by dealing with disruptive kids, it can help.

Kickboardforteachers.com creates a dashboard that helps teachers and administrators customize instruction for students who learn at different paces. It could offer teachers the ability to control more variables and deliver a more sophisticated classroom experience. This kind of “blended learning” was a theme of the conference. A related application, Edmodo.com, is already being used by 3 million teachers and students. It’s a Facebook-like tool, controlled by teachers, that streams homework assignments, distance-learning videos and other material to extend the classroom online.

Arguably the most practical if least transformational idea is Truanttoday.com. Founded by a brilliant 16-year-old named Zak Kukoff, this digital attendance book automatically contacts parents when their kids miss class. In the 200 schools now using Truanttoday, 50 percent of the students who ditch show up to class that day after their parents are alerted. As Brokaw quipped, we’ll all be working for Zak some day.

Classdojo won the $75,000 prize. Even if this and other 2011 innovations flop, we’re edging closer to the era when technology finally changes what is essentially a 19th-century system of education. In science, paradigm shifts follow technological breakthroughs. Education won’t be any different.

My sense is that the most potent tool will be the new transparency offered by the Web. The conference featured a lot of talk about “scalability” and “replication,” but that’s only possible with more information about which schools and teachers are successful and why.

The challenge is to break down what works so that at least some of the best practices can be more widely adopted. Like many others at the conference, former President Bill Clinton was focused on why two schools with identical poverty levels so often get entirely different results out of their students. “If every problem has been solved by someone somewhere, why are we so lousy at copying those ideas?” he asked.

A solution may be on the way. This month -- too late to be included in Education Nation -- the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research unveiled a sophisticated tool for learning which of Chicago’s public schools are working. Finally, someone is bottling the formulas for success.

To the dismay of principals, parents in Chicago can put their address or zip code into a website and see how their kid’s school stacks up on what the consortium calls the five essentials: a sound vision shared by the principal and teachers; collaboration among teachers who constantly critique each other’s instruction; a school’s ties with families and community; a safe learning climate; and classes that are demanding and engaging.

The university’s research (which goes much deeper than these rubrics) shows that improvement in even three of the five areas makes a school 10 times more likely to improve student learning.

These ratings, reminiscent of U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings (though much more substantive), are assembled through surveys of teachers and students. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent millions learning how to evaluate teachers and schools, only to find that brutally honest student evaluations correlate best with actual performance.

Timothy Knowles, a well-regarded education reformer who runs the Chicago program and worked on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transition, told me, “Rahm wanted to engage parents more and be transparent and I said, ‘Here’s a way to do both.’” Knowles will take his scorecard to Minneapolis-St. Paul this year and with any luck it will spread quickly to the rest of the country. Already, thousands of Chicago parents are checking out their schools, though results are incomplete because the survey was voluntary the first year. Emanuel is making participation mandatory in 2012.

Knowles angered the Chicago Teachers Union last year by opposing tenure, but now the union supports his five essentials scorecard. Maybe next year at Education Nation we’ll see reformers and traditionalists join together to explain how levers like this will help us scale up, replicate and change American education for good.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Brenda Batten.

Click on “Send Comment” in the sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the author of this column: Jonathan Alter at alterjonathan@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.


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