Friday, October 1, 2010

Recently Reviewed by NSTA (National Science Teachers Association)

Walch Education title "Hands-On Science: Introduction to Biotechnology" was recently reviewed by Professor Susan Behrens for the National Science Teachers Association:
Read the full review here.
To purchase the title, visit Also, browse through Walch Education's entire Hands-On Physical Science series and download a free "Teachable Moment" pdf here.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Frustrating Reality of Test Scores

Yesterday's New York Times had an article on plummeting test scores in New York City. The state has recalibrated and made tougher its expectations on state English and math exams. As you might expect, the results have been dramatic. Schools in New York City that were flying high saw their passing rates plunge. Not a pretty picture.

Teachers and principals interviewed for the article put a game face on the situation, and what else can they do? Any school looking for state or Federal funds has to play according to state or Federal rules, which means measuring results on test scores and pass rates. Of course, one of the many challenges of this dynamic comes in situations like these, when those measurements change and schools and districts scramble to face a new reality.

One solution, as discussed in a recent Time cover story, The Case Against Summer Vacation, is to do away with the notion that public schooling is a nine-month affair. In this scenario, June, July, and August are culprits in the unintended crime of helping students to forget, during the summer months, much of what they learned the previous year. Keep 'em in school year-round, this argument goes, since we don't need them out in the fields helping with the farm anymore (the original logic behind a September-June school year).

Perhaps the answer is indeed more summer school, or versions of summer school. But as another New York Times article notes, "The scoring adjustment could raise questions about the precision of educational testing." In a word, precisely. Let's use as a baseline the assumption that there are many components to improving success in public schools. Better materials that reflect specific student populations, smaller class sizes, improved teacher pay, more coordination and sharing among educators -- the list can grow, but it's hard to argue with the basics.

Living (and sometimes dying) by the score, however, can be a hazard. It's a natural human desire to look for some objective measurement against which we can compare ourselves to one another. That makes sense in sports, in science, and in other fields. But in education, the variables are so many, and they so deeply depend on the human response under varying conditions, that a strict numerical assessment can be limiting.

Especially when Those On High alter the rules by which the assessments are made. That's what happened in New York, and it regularly occurs across America. If there is a lesson or a moral to be derived from all of this, it's that there is no sure, single solution to educational progress. Students need many approaches, many avenues to success. What works for one often doesn't work for the next. And measuring success is rarely as easy as pointing to a test score.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thinking about dropouts

Here in Portland, Maine, where Walch Education is headquartered, we have a new superintendent for our school system, Dr. Jim Morse. One of the interesting things about Dr. Morse is that, as a child, he attended Portland High School -- and he dropped out of PHS for much of his junior year. Obviously, he worked his way back into the system, thence into a career in education, until today he runs the state's largest school department.

But the dropout issue is one that Dr. Morse understands all too well. Currently, the city's three high schools graduate about 78% of their students, a figure slightly better than the recent national average. Another way to look at it: according to the America’s Promise Alliance, U.S. high schools lose close to 1.3 million students every year. By now, we're all far too aware of the importance of a high-school education (not to mention a college degree), so those numbers represent a huge loss for our country and individuals involved.

What to do? Here's one place to learn more: Clemson University hosts the National Dropout Prevention Center which, at this link, showcases 15 strategies for increasing graduation rates:

From Walch Education's perspective, we get involved, obviously, at the curriculum level. And it's interesting to see, from the NDPC's web site, the importance of active learning. Much of the language from this site is virtually identical to what we've been saying for years:
"Research has shown that not everyone learns in the same way. Some of us are visual learners that need to see to understand; while others need to hear or verbalize information. Others are hands-on, kinesthetic learners. Some learners prefer to work alone, while some like to teach each other in small groups. Some need time to quietly reflect, while others need to move and be active. Teachers know that they need to use a variety of activities to meet the learning styles of their students."

The site goes on to discuss cooperative learning, project-based learning, and other strategies that we likewise champion. It's important to note that these strategies are not useful solely to prevent students from dropping out. Rather, they're an approach that assumes that a one-size-fits-all style of educating doesn't do anyone any good. Students are as different and unique as the adults they grow into being. Similarly, how we teach them should be unique to each student.

Many of our programs, such as our Academic Support Programs, or our Expeditions series, or our Real Life series, do just that. They give the educator a variety of ways to instruct, and students a variety of ways to engage the content. No one single program or approach will lower dropout rates, but there are ways to help to turn classrooms into environments that students will want to return to, next week, next month, and next year.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summertime, and the schoolin' ain't easy...

Interesting article in today's Washington Post on new ways of looking at summer school. 1 in 4 American students attends a "summer learning program." But there's a still a great stigma attached to summer school, and it isn't just from the students' perspective, either. Parents are often loathe to send their kids back to school over the summer, reasoning that June-July-August is a time for relaxation, for getting away from school, etc. etc.

As the article points out, summer school takes many forms, and is not necessarily a remedial environment. Many summer school programs are enriching, offering students curriculum choices unavailable during the academic year.

But it's more serious than that. "Summer learning loss" is a real problem -- students who arrive back in classrooms in September having forgotten far too much from the previous year. For teachers, that means that the new year doesn't necessarily pick up where the old one left off. Rather, there is often too much time spent reviewing what summer vacation erased.

Many Walch programs and materials are specifically designed for use during summer school. We've long recognized that learning is a flexible concept; it doesn't magically begin when the first leaves fall or end when the yellow buses pull away. Increasingly, we're seeing school districts across the country extend and broaden their academic calendars, to provide alternatives for students who simply need more.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A new way of approaching Accuplacer

If you're a high school senior, then you're likely aware of, or will soon be aware of, the Accuplacer test. The College Board administers the tests, usually given to seniors or incoming college freshman. The Accuplacer, in math, reading, or English, helps academic advisers and counselors place college freshmen in the appropriate courses.

Many students find out, after taking the Accuplacer exams, that they need (non-credit) remedial courses in college. It's to everyone's advantage if those students can instead take the classes in high school that help them to catch up, rather than in college. So more and more schools are now giving the Accuplacers in (high school) junior year, so that any remedial work can happen in 12th grade.

We've just entered the Accuplacer universe with a new set of six units of math instruction we're developing. The units will be administered in junior or senior year, and students can then do any necessary remedial work before they hit college.

Here's the cool part: these six units aren't a book. They aren't a PowerPoint. They're digital instruction that will be delivered via iTunes U, the Apple-developed curriculum program, downloadable right onto an iPhone or iPad. We're piloting them here in the state of Maine, and iTunes U will make them available free of charge to Maine teachers.

Using the digital technology, students will be be able to work through math problems and, depending on their answer, get directed on-screen to resources that help them tackle and resolve any particular issues.

We're developing this program in partnership with the Maine International Center for Digital Learning, through a grant funded by the Davis Family Foundation. As part of our development work, we recently conducted a focus group with Maine educators currently administering the Accuplacer (that photo was taken at our focus group session). Plans are to have a working pilot by this winter, make refinements to it in the spring, and have it available as instructional material for the 2011-2012 school year.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A day at Poland Spring (Academy)

For many years, Walch Education has been a fan and supporter of Poland Spring Academy (PSA). They're located in the town of Poland Spring, Maine, about 45 minutes or so northwest of Portland. Yes, that's the same town that gave rise to the "Poland Spring" brand of bottled water.

PSA is a small private school, focused on providing an individualized education to each member sof its student body. They offer many different programs to accommodate different lifestyles and educational requirements. They refer to it as "Individualized Learning At Its Best."

A couple of weeks ago, we accepted PSA's offer to visit the school and observe their graduation exercises. Upon arrival, we were greeted warmly by PSA parents, students, and staff, and we quickly felt at home. It was clear that this was a place where everybody was invested in the common purpose of supporting and nurturing students.

The graduation ceremony itself was highly inclusive, personalized, and student focused, and it reinforced our satisfaction at supporting this fine school through the years. In our business, we have the opportunity to see close at hand many hard working, dedicated educators and administrators. They work conscientiously all year long, often in very challenging circumstances. But year after year, in school after school, teachers do manage to inspire and educate their students, and prepare tomorrow's leaders. It's a delight for us to say that PSA’s staff ranks at the top of the list.