Successful Parent Engagement Program

By Deborah Williams

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One Cleveland educator is engaging parents in a unique way.   Education Week writer Karla Scoon Reid’s report describes the work of Tracy Hill, executive director of the Office of Family and Community Engagement for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  Ms. Hill’s office seeks parent involvement “early and often and at all levels…whether it’s for systemwide school improvement plans or implementation of new statewide reading benchmarks.”  The department has done this with several parent-engagement initiatives through the Parent University.

The Parent University seeks to provide parents the tools needed to guide their children to academic success by providing information “on topics ranging from the common-core standards to children’s transition to kindergarten.”  More than 1,500 parents or caregivers have attended Cleveland’s Parent University.  One of the most successful endeavors has been the Parent University College Tours. Since all Cleveland students come from families that qualify for free and reduced lunches, the college tours for parents often mean the first time many parents have even been on a college campus.  These free tours have been taken by more than 300 parents who visited 18 colleges and universities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.   Tours include information on the admissions and financial aid processes as well as meetings with college recruiters.

View this video about the program:

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Too Much Homework, Not Exactly

By Deborah Williams

Responsible parents do their best to ensure that their children complete homework in an accurate and timely manner.  They make every effort to provide their children with adequate space, resources, and time because they know that homework helps to solidify understanding for their children.  Often, this seems to take up a good bit of time, and in an attempt to provide their children with a well-rounded childhood, those same children often have other worthwhile pursuits—scouts, sports, music lessons, etc.  The hours of work each day leads many parents to wonder if their children have too much homework.  Christopher Ingraham, writer for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, shared the findings of  a new study from the Brookings Brown Center on Education about the amount of homework most students have each night, and the results are mixed.  “With one exception, the homework  load has remained remarkably stable since 1984.”

The findings show that middle and high school students are doing approximately the same amount of homework that they did 30 years ago.  However, the survey showed that in 1984, 64 percent of nine-year olds reported that they had homework the night before.  By 2012, that percentage had risen to 78.  For the most part, this rise reflected homework that took less than an hour to complete:  from 41 to 57 percent.  Also, within this reporting group, those reporting a heavy homework load remained the same at about five percent.

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The Thinking Behind the SAT Changes

By Deborah Williams

By now, you probably have heard about the changes to the SAT that will go into effect in the spring 2016, and you might wonder why such a turnabout so soon after the last major change in 2005.  In his article, “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul,” Todd Balf lays out a historical background that explains the thinking behind this new version of the test.  Almost all stakeholders—students, parents, educators, and admissions officers—were not happy with the current test.

Students did not like the test for reasons that you might expect and for reasons that might surprise you:

Many teachers were not fans either.  They felt that the test was not based on  the curriculum that hey teach, but their own state education departments published the average SAT scores.  Even though they were teaching state-mandated curricula, it seemed to put the blame for poor scores on them.

Families of disadvantaged students seemed to be most seriously affected by the need for students to successfully navigate the SAT testing.  SAT officials felt the need to change the test because more affluent parents often enrolled their children in expensive test-prep courses or with tutors that poorer families could afford.  The new test aims to create a more level playing field for all students.  This inequity in educational opportunities is a major driver in this change.

Colleges found the changes made in 2005 to be very little.  Consequently, many of them eliminated the SAT and the ACT, its competitor, as a requirement for admission.

Administrators of the SAT, The College Board is not just a testing organization.  It does also, “take part in research, develop education policy, [and] create curriculums.”  In response to research findings about the advantage that affluent families had over their disadvantaged counterparts, the College Board grapples with how to address the complaints of all concerned parties.  These upcoming changes to the test are an attempt to do just that.

Here is David Coleman, College Board president, talking to NBC’s Education reporter Rahema Ellis about the need for easy access to the SAT:


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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Superheroes for Learning Math

By Deborah Williams

An article on The Elkhart Truth website reports on the creation of comic books to help students learn math concepts.  Created by math teacher Jim McClain, the comic book series called Solution Squad focuses on math problem solving skills that are a part of the Indiana state standards and the Common Core.

Students are enthusiastic about the comics.   McClain leverages that enthusiasm with his classes. Recently, “he used just one character’s birth date to kick off a discussion about leap year and to introduce several math problems.”

Made possible by a $10,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, an expansion of his comic book series to a webcomic is planned to be released in October.  It will provide free access to any teacher or student who wants to use it.  McClain is hopeful that Solution Squad will become an animated series.

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Avoiding Remedial Courses in College

By Deborah Williams

In recent years, college enrollment has been on the rise, but an alarming number of applicants are not ready for the rigor and demands of higher education.  Consequently, many institutions have had to require that their enrollees take remedial courses to address those deficiencies.  Of course, that costs the students more money, and it extends the amount of time it would have taken for them to graduate.  Caralee Adams, blog writer for Education Week, reports that several states and school districts have implemented transitional coursework for high school students who are not ready for college.

These transitional courses take many forms.  In Tennessee, for example,  high school and community college faculty have created an online math course for those who did not perform well on the ACT.  The goal is for this course to help them catch up in math before graduation.  Another 13 states assess the ability levels of all their high school juniors, and most of these states offer corresponding courses to close the gaps in proficiency.    Generally speaking, “transitional curricula being offered by states and districts typically consist of a course, a set of instructional units, online tutorials, or other educational experiences offered no later than 12th grade to students considered at risk of being placed into remedial college courses,” according to a recent review by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The transitional curricula are being implemented all over the country.  An early advocate of these college “readiness” courses has been the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.  The SREB worked for three years to create a math course and a literacy course for at-risk high school students.  Tennessee has a severe gap in college readiness.  It’s where “70 percent of students entering college after high school graduation require remediation in math,” and “ the three-year graduation rate for students placed in remedial math upon entering community college is 5 percent.”  Tennessee has taken a hybrid approach with it Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS model.  SAILS presents content online in a high school computer lab with a teacher, and a community college instructor comes in weekly to assist.

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Give Prizes, Reduce Bullying

By Deborah Williams

A New Jersey middle school rewards appropriate behavior with the chance to win prizes; the result is fewer discipline problems and better academic performance.  An article on the CBS New York website reports that the principal, Frank Connelly, of Westwood Regional Middle School in Westwood, New Jersey believes that their High 5 drawings encouraging good behavior is working.

The High 5 program allows students the chance to win prizes each week.  Anyone who works at the school can give any student a high-5 ticket whenever he or she sees the student doing something good.  Students put their tickets into the birdhouses, and they hope to win a prize during the Friday drawings at lunchtime.  That’s not the only chance to win; the tickets are put into a larger bin to win one of the bigger prizes.  Weekly prizes may include pizza, lunch in the courtyard, or the field.  Monthly prizes might be a gift card from iTunes or the movies.

The program seems to be working.  Not only has it reduced discipline problems, it has increased empathy.  One seventh grader remarked that in addition to prizes for homework completion, students might get a prize for being kind to their peers. Principal Connelly reports, “Our discipline has decreased; our bullying has decreased.  Just them feeling comfortable in the classroom has helped to improve grades and so on.  So we’re proud of that.”

Learn more about this program here:

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Parental Concern About Teens on Social Media

By Deborah Williams

Parents of teenagers who worry about their children’s access to social media have scientific evidence to justify their concern.  The Science Daily website reports the results of a study from the University of Southern California (USC), which revealed the following caveat: “Teenagers who see friends smoking and drinking alcohol in photographs posted on Facebook and MySpace are more likely to smoke and drink themselves…”

The study’s outcome is a mixed bag.  Clearly, this finding is alarming, but all exposure to social media is not problematic.  Researchers noted that the number of people in a teen’s network was not associated with risky behavior.  However, those images of people “partying or drinking” within his or her online network significantly increased the chances of  smoking and consuming alcohol.

The social media platform seems to be an  important indicator as well.

Facebook-only users had higher grades…and were more likely to have a higher socio-economic status.  They were likely…to have ever smoked or drank alcohol.  While Facebook use did not seem to affect smoking or drinking, the study found that higher levels of MySpace use was associated with higher levels of drinking.

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Snow Days and Student Performance

By Deborah Williams

The winter of 2014 has been memorable.  A large swath of the country has struggled for weeks under a seemingly endless barrage of snow.  While children enjoy the many unplanned breaks  of many snow days, their teachers and parents may be concerned about the effects of these missed days on student achievement.  Valerie Strauss, writer for The Answer Sheet, The Washington Post’s, education blog, reports that the results of a 2012 study might alleviate their concerns.

Harvard University researcher Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government concluded in the study,  “Flaking Out: Snowfall, Disruptions of Instructional Time, and Student Achievement,” that weather-related school closures do not affect student achievement; however, the number of individual absences do have an impact on achievement.  This conclusion was based on student performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System results.

Here is Dr. Goodman discussing the study:

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Leading Students to STEM Careers

By Deborah Williams

Over the last several years, the nation’s educators have been touting the need for more students to pursue careers in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  While a student may possess the aptitude for one of the STEM fields, many do not persevere and complete the training needed to pursue a career in a STEM field.  A recent article on the Science Daily website reports that the results of a new study indicate that “students exposed directly to work environments in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are more likely to decide to follow paths that will lead to such careers…”  This conclusion came from findings published online in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research in a report, “Vocational Anticipatory Socialization of Adolescents:  Messages, Sources, and Frameworks that Influence Interest in STEM Careers.”

The study examined other things, too.  One aspect included the kind of communications that high school students receive from adult stakeholders, such as their parents, and how those communications affect their pursuit of STEM careers.  Lead researcher, Karen K. Myers, associate professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara concludes, “Students don’t learn enough about STEM careers unless their parents work in STEM areas, and the messages they receive from parents, teachers and counselors frequently fail to address how students think about and evaluate potential career paths.”   The article points out that many students reported that they had not received specifics about why they might enjoy STEM fields.  Students were also asked how they think about potential careers:

Those with specific career goals reported that they “were willing to work hard, even sacrifice, to enter the career.”  These students, the authors suggest, would be  the most receptive to messages from adults in STEM fields.

The authors advise parents to make sure that their children have job-shadowing opportunities in STEM fields to help students have details that would move them closer to participating in STEM careers.

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The New Kindergarten Experience

By Deborah Williams

Researchers from EDPolicyWorks, the center for education policy and workforce competitiveness at the University of Virginia have compared the changes in expectations for kindergarten students in the 1990s and for kindergarten students today.  The Science Daily article, “Kindergarten Is the New First Grade, Researchers Find,” summarizes their work and reports that the increase in accountability has created a more rigorous curriculum for kindergarten.

The most prominent change is in literacy.  “In 1998, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers indicated that most children should learn to read while in kindergarten.   By 2006, 65 percent of teachers agreed with this statement.”  It is not surprising, then, that the amount of classroom time spent on literacy increased about 5.5 to seven hours a week of instruction time.

The increased academic focus has caused some problems, too.  Less time is available for “play, exploration and social interaction.”  Additionally, there is more “homework, worksheets, and pressure to learn to read as early s possible, and heightened levels of stress.”  With the increase in time spent on literacy, other subjects receive less time.  Time spent in physical activity, very important for kindergarten students, is also greatly reduced or eliminated in some cases.

It is possible to address the increase in literacy instruction while incorporating the hallmarks of kindergarten curriculum, but it requires a new, creative restructuring to achieve a workable balance.

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