the teacherati

A place for educators to steal their colleagues' best ideas

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The BetterLesson profile for sixth-grade Roxbury Prep Charter School teacher and BetterLesson celebrity Jason Armstrong

The most popular member of a new social network is neither Lady Gaga nor Ashton Kutcher, though Kutcher is a fan of the website.

The distinction goes to Jason Armstrong, a sixth-grade teacher in Roxbury, Mass., who has more than 6,500 total views and more than 1,100 downloads on a new website for teachers called BetterLesson.

BetterLesson’s circle of about 7,000 teachers are downloading Armstrong’s math lessons, grouped into six units: whole numbers, decimals, fractions, percents, geometry, and a year-ender called extensions and review. They can also download his quizzes and tests and become his “colleague” (the equivalent of a Facebook friend).

Armstrong’s former colleague and roommate, Alex Grodd, created the site — which Kutcher recently promoted in a Tweet, a stroke of generosity devised by a BetterLesson staffer. Grodd first came up with the idea for the site when he joined Teach for America in 2004.

Assigned to teach third grade science during his summer institute training at a Houston elementary school, Grodd went online to hunt for ideas. Surely one of the other hundreds of third grade science teachers in the world had come up with a smart way to explain his assigned topic, the solar system. Why should he have to reinvent the pedagogical wheel? The last remotely relevant class he’d taken was Harvard’s notoriously science-light “Natural Disasters.”

Hours of Googling later, Grodd came up with nothing. “This was 2004, it wasn’t, like, 1994,” Grodd told me today. “The Internet had been around for a while.”

BetterLesson is not the first attempt to solve the problem of teacher isolation, but it’s already catching on more quickly than many efforts. Those 7,000 users are up from just 200 in June 2009, when the site launched to a small group, and Grodd won backing from NewSchools Venture Fund, the philanthropically financed new-idea incubator.

Fueling the site’s success so far is its effort to learn from other attempts to bring teachers and their ideas together that have not caught on. These range from internal teacher-sharing sites launched by groups like the New York City Department of Education to public sites like Curriki, a Wikipedia for lesson-making.

Unlike New York City’s ARIS, BetterLesson is accessible to any teacher in the world who signs up. Unlike Curriki, BetterLesson’s curricula are structured intuitively — not as isolated documents but with an architecture to  distinguish units from lessons and a separate place for related documents like worksheets to hand out or a video to upload. Teachers can also tag lessons with relevant state standards that they meet.

The site also blends content-sharing with the social advantages of networks of real schools; teachers form networks and add “colleagues,” and the result — the site hopes — is that the teachers with the best lesson get their just reward.

Armstrong, for instance, regularly gets his students to produce top-notch sixth-grade test scores, and his teaching is recognized in Uncommon Schools director Doug Lemov’s book, “Teach Like a Champion.”

A quick browsing through the site today indicates its users are relatively active despite the summer holiday. Armstrong’s last activity, for instance: August 1. He added a colleague: another sixth grade math teacher, from D.C.

Newsroom

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.