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The idea of “closing the gap” conjures up vivid memories in my life.  One of my favorite winter break positions while I attended Indiana University was that of a “seasonal employee” at the retail store, THE GAP, in Bloomington, Indiana.  For those of you that have worked retail over the holidays, you know it can be an arduous time- physically and psychologically.  Sure, there was extra holiday spending money and the deep discount on much needed spring attire, but…make no mistake…it taxed the body and the soul.  We, as employees, counted down the minutes until closing, celebrated the ushering out of the last customer, and rejoiced in bringing down the chain-clad mall door.  We felt relief coupled with excitement because we knew that when the last penny had been counted (as long as we were within $10.00 of what the register stated) we had closed the GAP, and University nightlife awaited us.

 Almost twenty years later, the term “closing the gap” takes on a far different meaning in my life, but I have learned to attack this closure with far more fervor.  Now, I spend my days developing academic/curriculum frameworks in the urban Indianapolis school setting.  The “gap” in achievement that separates economically disadvantaged students from less disadvantaged students has been the focus of research for almost forty years. While the achievement gap narrowed considerably through the 1980’s, particularly between blacks and whites, progress since then has been marginal.  Below-par achievement of minority students remains one of the most pressing problems in education.

Today (2010 data), the average black student currently achieves at about the same level as the average white student in the lowest quartile of white achievement. Black students are much more likely than white students to fall behind in school, and much less likely to graduate from high school, acquire a college or advanced degree, or earn a middle-class living.

So how, as we all aspire to be socially responsible and culturally sensitive members of this academic culture, work together to close this achievement gap?  Research suggests that there are a number of strategies that schools should be implementing in their school-wide community plan.  However, the strategy that most research proposes as the foundation for all of the remaining initiatives is the school’s ability to develop the “school-home relationship.”  What are we as members of our school doing to build a bridge between the school and home?  Here are some steps to consider:

(1)    Time should be reserved to educate families, along with their children, on the school’s discipline and academic frameworks.  Parents should know the “why” regarding what we do at school.

(2)    A culture of community must be created.  Schools need to consistently send the message to families that we are here to nurture, support, and facilitate their children’s social and academic growth.  This is why we chose this profession, and also why we chose this community to serve.

(3)    The positive as well as the negative should be communicated whenever possible.  When students are doing well, on any level, we should do our best to communicate that to the families.  When discussing a student’s area of refinement, we should still take time to celebrate the student’s successes.

(4)    Listen.  Listen to family concerns…empathize…consider how both parties can work together to do what is best for the child.  People are far more likely to work with us when they feel as if they’ve been heard.

In closing, I have many fond memories of my undergraduate years and my seasonal servitude to THE GAP.  Yet, I am infinitely happier today serving our students and parents.  I also know that from an employee’s perspective, as we moved closer to closing THE GAP, there was an air of excitement that was palpable.  That feeling, however, in no way compares to being a part of “closing the achievement gap” in our local schools.  I am proud to be part of a school with teachers and administration that feel the same, and who are working so diligently to see this goal become reality.

Race and Schools: The Need for Action, by Gary Orfield, Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, University of California–Los Angeles, is a Research Brief from the NEA Research Visiting Scholars Series, Spring 2008, vol. 1b.
Lake, R. and Hill, P. 2005, November. Hopes, Fears & Reality. A Balanced Look At American Charter Schools in 2005, p.2. Seattle: National Charter School Research Project, Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Smith, N. 2006. “National State of the Movement.” Presentation at the 2006 National Charter Schools Conference, held in conjunction with the 13th annual California Charter Schools Association Conference,
Feb. 28–March 3 in Sacramento, California.


Scott Frye
Indianapolis, IN

 
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Earlier this month, President Obama said he wanted to make high quality preschool available to every child in America. This would be financed through federal funds for all 4-year-olds from low and moderate-income families.  Many people question whether a federally funded daycare with preschool curriculum would be a better National goal than public preschool.  However, investing in public preschool will benefit children and families, and will increase the probability of these students finishing school and going to college and/or joining the work force.  

Regardless of their backgrounds, children who enter kindergarten with early literacy, social, language, and fine motor skills are better equipped to succeed in kindergarten compared to children who don’t.  Furthermore, expectations have changed greatly over the years for children.  Now, with the common core standards, children are expected to have a sound foundation in reading skills by the time they leave kindergarten. Children who are “not” ready to read going into first grade struggle greatly to “catch up” to other students.  By the time these struggling students enter third grade (when high-stakes testing is mandatory) they are a grade level or more behind, and their confidence is low.

Research has shown that early literacy skills (letter knowledge and decoding skills) are crucial for developing proficient reading and writing skills.  Additionally, early exposure to text and print concepts support literacy development and result in long term academic success (Barnett, W. S., Young, J. W., & Schweinhart, L. J. (1998).)  So, having a high-quality preschool program would provide students with these early literacy skills and better prepare them for kindergarten. In addition to early literacy skills, another important factor in determining a child’s school-readiness is vocabulary.  Early development in vocabulary has been found to predict word recognition skills. (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). Students who enter school having developed the necessary components for early literacy skills and vocabulary development will be confident learners and will carry success with them throughout their educational career.
 
Though federally funded day care is also very important for working families, providing a high quality preschool program is even more critical.  To ensure these programs are high-caliber, they must be led by certified, well-trained teachers who will provide children with the skills necessary to be successful students throughout their entire educational career.  So, while there are many facets to early childhood education related to ensuring the growth and success of our nation, it is becoming increasingly important to consider investing in a high-quality preschool for all children. 

References:

Barnett, W. S., Young, J. W., & Schweinhart, L. J. (1998). How preschool education influences long-term cognitive development and school success. In W.S. Barnett, & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results (pp. 11–44). Albany, NY: State University of NewYork Press.)

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Pathways to reading: The role of oral language in the transition to reading. Developmental Psychology, 41, 428–442. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.41.2.428


Samantha Lingeman
Indianapolis, IN 

 
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It’s been mumbled in the halls, whispered behind closed doors, and exaggerated by a younger, less patient teaching corps. “Older teachers just can’t handle new technology”. It’s simply too complicated, and too hard to grasp for those who came before the Internet generation. Well, research may argue a different point.

In an attempt to address how new technologies are affecting an aging teaching corps (who may not have had exposure to technology during their collegiate training or early formative teaching years), Eshet-Alkalai and Chajut's review of personal research followed age-related differences with three groups of twenty participants. Groups ranged from late high school to 40 years old with equal pairs of males and females. The main focus of the research was to measure functional ability with modern technologies through tests of photo-visual thinking skill, reproduction thinking skill, branching thinking skill, and informational thinking. They found that the younger participants performed significantly better than the older participants in skills that required mastery and experience with computer programs. On the other hand, the older adult participants performed significantly better in tasks that required critical and creative usage of technology. In other words, it’s a draw. There seem to be equal advantages to both age groups, which neutralize the theory that younger learners are more apt to be successful in the use and integration of new technologies.

Based on the results from this research, it is evident that experience with technology, and not age-related development accounts for the observed changes in digital literacy skills. Results also show that the ability to find information using technology or digital tools does not guarantee an educated or smart use of the information or digital tools. Or, in simple terms, provided adequate time for experience and learning, you “can” teach an old dog new tricks.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN


 
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A charter is written.  The ground is broken.  A new charter school is opened.  Eyes gleam with the promise of school reform and the goal of student success.  But will the school succeed without highly effective teachers?  Research would suggest that the answer is no.  So, how then do schools retain and develop teachers of quality? 

To find some clarity on this topic, I read ASCD’s infobrief “Understanding and Responding to the Teacher Shortage” by Heather Voke, 2002.  In this article, I found that sadly the teaching profession is compared to a revolving door.  In high-poverty areas, the teacher turnover rate is often as high as 50 percent.  Alarmingly, the most intelligent and effective teachers are often most likely to leave.

So what reasons do teachers cite for leaving their positions?  According to this article, the majority do so because of job dissatisfaction, personal/family matters, and improved career opportunities elsewhere.  Those dissatisfied with their jobs cited low salaries, lack of administrative support, poor student discipline and motivation, and lack of classroom autonomy as reasons to leave.  Often new teachers are overwhelmed and do not receive the guidance and encouragement that they need.  Although most teachers enter the profession for its intrinsic rewards-- helping children, making a difference, etc.—these seem not to be enough when they do not feel rewarded and appreciated by students, administration, and society in general.

Why is teacher turnover a problem?  Every time new staff is added, they must be trained.  For a school to be effective, a common goal must be established, and in order to get new staff “on board”, there is a cost—time and resources.  Most importantly, though, student learning is directly affected.  Many children need the consistency of a committed, effective teacher. 

What can schools do then to retain teachers of quality?  Here are some research-based strategies suggested by the article that I read.

1.   Increase salaries for all teachers and develop differentiated pay scales that reward expert teachers and those who take on specialized roles and responsibilities (Johnson, 2000; Grissmer & Kirby, 1997).

2.  Create high-quality induction programs for new teachers, require districts to offer these programs, and provide funding to support the programs. 

3.  Develop regulations prohibiting out-of-field teaching, implement practices that place experienced rather than novice teachers with the students with greatest need, provide new teachers with additional release time, and limit their extracurricular responsibilities (Goodwin, 1999).

4.   Adopt policies that include teachers in school-based decision making. Increased faculty control over school policymaking, as well as greater teacher autonomy in the classroom, are associated with increased teacher commitment (Ingersoll, Alsalam, Quinn, & Bobbitt, 1997; Grant & Murray, 1999).

5.  Grow your own teachers. Rural and high-poverty districts and schools should encourage graduates and paraprofessionals already familiar with the culture and challenges associated with those environments to become certified (Collins, 1999).

6.  Encourage or require universities to develop teacher education programs that focus on providing potential teachers with the specific skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in schools with high turnover rates (NASBE, 1998). For example, require schools of education to develop teacher education programs that focus on the challenges associated with teaching in urban schools (Claycomb, 2000).

7.  Implement policies that support reduction of class size and increase funding for quality resources, facilities, and materials in high-poverty schools. Teachers in such schools might be given additional preparation time, as well as access to additional professional development that focuses on the particular challenges associated with teaching in a high-poverty, urban environment (NASBE, 1998; Claycomb, 2000).

A school is only as strong as its teachers.  It is vital that schools retain teachers of the highest quality so that true reform may take place and the ultimate goal of student success is achieved.

Krista Bridenthal

Indianapolis, IN


 
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In our current social climate, it’s quite fashionable to have a theme for every party.   In the world of education, data use is analogous to these thematic soirees, as data digs must be intentional and have focus.  Could you articulate your data investigative process?  Could you walk a peer through your data digging steps? 

An important parallel between thematic galas and data digs is the critical element of first knowing the objective that you will specifically address. For example, in the film Old School, Bernard and Frank’s aim was to inspirit and encourage their depressed friend, Mitch- the goal was clear to them before the planning started; the result- “Mitch-a-palooza.”

Data mining should start the same way- with a goal, a direction. Fruitful application of data to drive decision-making is not coincidental and does not occur through a “browsing” process.  It’s the outcome of having a strategic theme…a strategic plan. To build our capacity to use data, we must not only review data; but more importantly, we must use our skills of inquiry, such as devising questions and interpreting results.    

Researchers (Heritage & Chen, 2005) suggest these steps to successful data use:

 1.     Before you start digging into the data- determine what you want to know (For example, which students are more than a grade level behind in number sense, which students would potentially Pass+ the ISTEP+ ELA test, which students need refinement/intervention in the area of informational text comprehension, the effectiveness level of your specific standard-based instruction, etc.)

 2.     Collect and access the data (Understand which standardized data tools you have at your disposal to access this information efficiently- this is also an opportunity for you to cross-test your classroom assessment reliability)

 3.     Analyze results (What does this mean in regards to your student readiness and your classroom instruction? Which students fit the original criteria/search?)

 4.     Set priorities and goals (How many students should be addressed?  What is a realistic goal?  What are we using to measure our success? Is the goal S.M.A.R.T.? )

 5.     Develop strategies (What strategies will I implement?  Who will I seek advice from (administrators, lead teachers, teachers that are showing strength in your area of refinement)?  How will I be held accountable?  How will I formatively assess to adjust my instruction?)

The accountability piece in the fifth step is critical to success.  This allows you to reflect and discuss with peers or mentors just how successful you were (or are during the process) in the utilization of the appropriate strategies.  The idea of accountability and follow up implies that the steps to successful data use are part of a cyclical process that doesn’t end…but that is in perpetual use to drive, not just instruction- but to drive our students forward academically in the most effective and efficient ways!  TOGA! TOGA! TOGA!

Scott Frye
Indianapolis



 
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ALL FOR ONE, 
ONE FOR ALL! 


The Inspirational Role of a Team Lead          
Perhaps the vision of being a team lead does not inspire you with the grandiose words of the Three Musketeers. In both business and education environments, the team lead model has become commonplace.  Yet, the role does have inspirational elements.     
        
Having been a team leader in a variety of settings, I have personally learned about the role through some training, my own research, and the pure experience of my own successes and failures.  The majority of what I have learned, though, has come through the careful guidance (perhaps “inspiration”) of mentor teachers and administrators.    
         
When looking to the experts, I came across an article outlining characteristics of highly functional teams. Here are a few of the highlights from Larson and LaFasto Teamwork: What Must Go Right, What Can Go Wrong (1989).  Highly functional teams have…
1.     A clear elevating goal or vision
2.     Results driven structure
3.     Unified commitment
4.     Competent team members with right number and mix 

5.  A collaborative climate aligned towards a common purpose
6.     High standards of excellence with group norms
7.     Principled leadership
8.     External support with adequate resources          

“All for one, one for all!”  Perhaps the most famous line from the Three Musketeers is a bit over the top, but many of the characteristics of a highly functional team do engender a vision of an inspirational leader.  A team lead not only must support, guide, delegate, and manage, but must also inspire and motivate his/her team.  A team lead must seek to unify his/her team for the good of all—in this case, our students.

Krista Bridenthal
Indianapolis, IN 

 
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Our world is constantly changing.  In order to innovate our way into opportunities of change and avoid problems, we need to be prepared.  The Harvard Business Press 2011 recently published an excerpt from the book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (by Clayton Christensen, Jeff Dyer, and Hal Gregersen) outlining the five skills leaders relied on during this time of change.

The five skills are:

1.     Question-Ask challenging questions that take on common wisdom to create new directions.

2.     Observe-Watch the behavior of customers, suppliers, and competitors the way an anthropologist would identify new ways of doing things.

3.     Network-Talk to people with different life experiences and perspectives to spark new ideas.

4.     Experiment-Construct interactive experiences and build prototypes to provoke unorthodox responses and gain new insights

5.     Associate-Draw unexpected connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields.

These five skills are very relevant to educational leaders because, like the world around us, education is constantly changing.  Embracing skills like these will help ensure that we are influential drivers of educational reform in the future. 

Samantha Lingeman
Indianapolis, IN 


 
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While practical experience can be invaluable for the US educator, it is important for teachers and teacher leaders to utilize tools and techniques proven to be successful through research. In their article, “How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular and Instructional Decisions”, Paula and Keith Stanovich (2003) point out that teachers are just like research scientists. Consider the following scenario presented in their article:

“…they (teachers) evaluate their students’ previous knowledge, develop hypotheses about the best methods for attaining lesson objectives, develop a teaching plan based on those hypotheses, observe the results, and base further instruction on the evidence collected.”

This cycle very closely resembles the scientific method. Moreover, when laid out in this manner, it should seem very familiar to most classroom teachers. Therefore, if teachers and research scientists share a similar scientific process, it would seem a probable conclusion that both would rely on the latest research to guide their process. This however is often not the case in the classroom. With the pace and demand of a classroom, teachers find it hard to manage time in a way that allows for their own education.

In a 2006 survey* including 21,000 teachers in the state of Kansas, 61% of the teachers didn’t think they had enough non-instructional time to do their jobs, let alone consider spending time researching best practices. 98% percent of teachers surveyed also said they spent time on school-related activities outside their regular workday. Thirty-seven percent of those said they spent more than 10 hours a week outside their regular workday. Given those statistics, one can easily see how our teachers struggle with time. It is also easier to understand why teachers struggle with keeping current on educational research. There is clearly very little time available for more than their own instructional process.

So, how do we help our educators apply the latest research to their classroom instruction when time limits their ability to do more than teach? This question does not come with a package answer, but there are many ways to address the issue. Consider the following strategies:

1.     Utilize school administration and staff leadership to source and present “relevant” educational research to the teaching staff.

2.     Ensure a percentage of all staff professional development is dedicated to the study and discussion of the latest educational research.

3.     Establish a Professional Learning Community (PLC) utilizing goals for learning established by the learning community. (Rotate PLC responsibilities so that the study and  
learning is done by rotating groups, and then shared out for discussion.)

4.     Build connections in the greater educational community so that educational research can be presented by outside experts to the teaching staff as a service to the school.

5.     Create a staff newsletter designed to highlight the latest research in education.

6.     Create partnerships with local colleges or universities, offering up classrooms for potential educational research projects.

7.     Encourage staff members pursuing a masters or doctoral degree to conduct their research at their own school site.

While it may never be possible to create a system where educators have extra time to spare, it is important to ensure our educators still have access to current information revealed by the scientific research community. Likewise, it is also important to find ways for our true field-researchers in education (our teachers) to share their work and discoveries with those in the more traditional scientific realm.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN

* 2006 Kansas Teacher Working Conditions Survey


 

I am honored to be a part of an organization that provides opportunities for teachers to demonstrate their educational knowledge and a passion for teaching in the urban community. Just recently I was awarded a fellowship with Teach Plus and I will be participating in a research cohort that focuses on educational policies. During my tenure with Teach Plus I will be sifting through educational documents, after educational documents, after educational documents! While this may sound like a daunting task to most, I am excited about the challenge. I know I will learn a great deal about my profession, but more importantly I will be able to use my knowledge to help other educators understand the ins and outs of education. One topic that seems to be in the news quite often is the evaluation tool called the RISE. 

Now, while I am a supporter of performance evaluations and I find evaluations helpful, I do understand why teachers are the concerned with the evaluation process. The Indianapolis Teaching Policy Fellows of 2012 published a white paper titled "The Six Principles of Teacher Evaluation". The fellows published this paper in hopes that the recommendations " will help guide proactive communication between districts and teacher and enable a positive transition to the new evaluation system" (The Six Principles of Teacher Evaluation, Summer 2012). So, here are the six principles the group decided on: 

1. The basics of the evaluation should be laid out clearly at the start of the school year and should not change. 
2. The student assessments that will be used in the evaluation need to be identified by the start of the year. 
3. The tests that will be used in the evaluation must measure the growth that occurs in a teacher's classroom. 
4. Evaluations and observations must be linked to meaningful professional development. 
5. Evaluators should be trained to ensure inter-rater reliability, and teachers should know how evaluators are selected and assigned. 
6. Teachers should know how evaluations will impact their career. 

The paper goes into further detail by providing teacher perspectives on the new teacher evaluation system, suggestions for districts leaders, and essential questions that should be answered in advance before a teacher is evaluated. These principles prompt a dialogue that should be taking place between administrators and teachers. Administrators need to continue to be transparent with their teachers and teachers need to be well educated on how they are being evaluated. Furthermore, teachers need to welcome the evaluation rather than fear it.  Once both sides are on the same page, the uncertainty behind the evaluation will vanish and everyone can get back to why most individuals go into education--to teach our kids. 

Megan Cooper 
Guest Blogger
Indianapolis, Indiana 
 
Making a difference in others lives and guiding them towards change is the essence of leadership. We can all think of someone that has guided us and made a difference in our lives. However, we don’t think about the lives that we may have guided and changed.   We are all leaders in some way, and should embrace this and encourage others to do the same. This video makes you realize that YOU have made a difference in someone’s life. We all have been and can be leaders. 

Samantha Lingeman
Indianapolis, IN 

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