How Does the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) Affect Schools?

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Most Americans have heard of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), even non-teachers and parents. It was a controversial piece of law, designed to increase school accountability through an emphasis on annual testing and teacher qualifications, reports on academic progress, as well as changes in funding. However, it was blamed for an increase in “teaching to the test,” where teachers focused on readying their students for test questions so that they could demonstrate the required amount of academic progress, at the cost of achieving an in-depth understanding of the curriculum. It also failed to recognize great strides classrooms were making with struggling students if they didn’t quite reach what NCLB considered “proficient.”

Near the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeed Act was signed into law, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. The question of course becomes: What has this new act changed?

What is the Every Student Succeeds Act?

This new piece of law replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and returned a lot of the power to the states and school districts. Rather than the federal government mandating when and how testing must be administered, states now have the power to break the assessments into smaller sections and find a variety of tests that more accurately capture what students have learned. States are also empowered to create their own accountability goals and plans, which are then approved by the Department of Education.

One of the biggest criticisms of NCLB was what happened when a school was unable to meet achievement goals. In order to continue to receive federal funding they had a variety of choices that ranged from firing the principal and most of the staff to closing the school entirely. Under ESSA, the intervention methods are much more flexible. It’s up to the state to determine how they want to help schools that are at the bottom 5% of assessment scores or have less than a 67% graduation rate.

How Does ESSA Empower Schools to Use Digital Education?

Also included in ESSA is the authority for states to pursue innovative educational technology solutions. Up to $849M of the funds granted through ESSA can be used to pursue educational technology, which is 60% of the funding provided through grants. This is a reflection of the growing interest in technology. A recent study found that 56% of teachers surveyed reported that digital tools make them better educators. By streamlining the lesson planning, reporting, grading, and personalization process, education technology allows teachers to spend more time being highly effective  working with struggling students, designing creative solutions, and engaging in professional development.

By handing over much of the control and decision-making to the states and school districts, the federal government has realized that a one-size-fits-all approach to education is unfair to both teachers and students. ESSA is one step closer to providing a solution that is flexible and encourages approaches such as education technology that are being embraced by teachers and administrators.

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Solutions for Overwhelmed Principals

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There’s no doubt that principals have a profoundly stressful career as the leader of a school, responsible for typically dozens of teachers and hundreds of students. Much of the focus has been put on teacher burnout, but the pressure of long hours and competing priorities typically travels up the ladder and rests on the shoulders of principals as well. Any principal can tell you that their days are often full of a stream of teachers coming and going, and the burden can quickly become overwhelming.

The incentive for keeping good principals is evident. A recent study showed it often costs more than $75,000 to replace a principal. Mind you, this doesn’t include their salary. This is simply the cost of recruitment, training, mentoring, professional development, and all the other factors that go into hiring principals. Therefore, the focus should be on finding ways to manage the everyday stress and pressure that comes from being the leader of a school.

Find Ways to Save Time

One of the main complaints from principals is that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to address all the work they need to get done. Finding ways to save time on certain tasks is essential. One solution is to take advantage of technology to cut out busywork such as creating reports, checking on overall classroom progress, and sending home report cards. All these tasks can be done automatically and with the touch of a button using the right digital curriculum implemented school-wide.

Focus on Teacher Empowerment

When a teacher comes to his or her principal with an issue, they’re often looking to offload an issue they don’t feel equipped to handle. Instead of collecting these issues until the principal becomes overburdened, it’s important to empower the staff to solve problems as well. When a teacher surfaces an issue, the typical steps are to first have the teacher fully describe the issue, assign a person to deal with the issue, recommend a course of action, then check up on the issue at a later date and readjust as needed.

Assign Priorities and Goals

Teacher burnout quickly leads to principal burnout. When a school has too many competing priorities, it becomes impossible to focus on any one goal. By identifying school-wide priorities each year and supporting these goals through focused and long-lasting professional development and regular check-ins, large improvements are much more likely. These goals can be easily supported through technology to track progress and encourage collaboration.

Find Your Stress Relief

Some stress is inevitable. In a high-stress career as a principal, it’s important to find a source of stress relief. This could include taking a walk and visiting some of the classrooms, listening to music, trying out new educational games, taking an art break, spending time with staff outside of school, or even just planning regular vacations. Whatever your stress relief, recognize when stress is building up and don’t be afraid to combat it by taking a break from work, even if it’s just a 5-minute break in an empty classroom.

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Creating More Effective Professional Development

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Much of the conversation around education and schools revolves around how students learn, what they’re being taught, and how much time they spend in the classroom. However, just as important is the topic of what additional training and lessons teachers receive. Besides being mandated in many states and schools, professional development can be an essential piece in creating highly-effective teachers and classrooms. Unfortunately, a recent survey conducted by researcher Linda Darling-Hammond reported that although 90% of the teachers they surveyed had received some form of professional development, a majority of them found it totally useless. An additional survey done by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that principals share these same concerns and don’t feel the professional development they provide adequately prepares teachers for the changing nature of their jobs, including the increasing focus on technology and digital learning tools.

Clearly, the current method and information contained in professional development is not working for today’s teachers. In order to deliver more effective training, experts have come up with the following tips:

1. Professional development must be ongoing with a significant amount of time dedicated to follow-up training.

The current method for delivering professional development is often in a lecture-type setting. Teachers sometimes call these training sessions “spray and pray” where a large amount of information is thrown at them, then they are told to go implement it without any additional support. In order for any information to be truly useful, any professional development needs to be immediately followed up with support for implementation. This could include time with the teacher in the classroom, collaboration with colleagues, or at the very least, an additional session where teachers can share what they’ve tried so far, and any challenges they’ve encountered.

2. Training sessions need to be appropriate in size and scope.

Many professional development sessions include upwards of 100 teachers, which means they are typically not personalized and do not allow the structure to allow teachers to ask questions or understand how to apply the ideas to their individual classroom. The content presented during these sessions is rarely useful when it is generic. Instead, it needs to be specific for the teachers who are attending (for example, grounded in their discipline or grade-level). Purely lecture-type instruction is also not as effective as allowing for discussion with their colleagues and including activities that show teachers how they could use the learnings in their classroom.

3. Goals and priorities for teachers need to be clearly communicated and focused.

Teachers often report that they receive too many goals that all compete for their time and attention. As a result, they are unsure what to prioritize and don’t truly focus on any of them. Professional development can add to the problem if they already have too many other issues on their plate. To create more effective classrooms, administrators need to communicate which goals teachers should focus on for the year, and their professional development should relate to and support these goals.

Professional development represents a lost opportunity for most teachers. Instead of thinking as these sessions as just another requirement that needs to be met, it can become part of a much larger objective. By providing personalized training for small groups that focuses on prioritized goals and includes follow-up training for implementation, professional development can become an invaluable part of teachers’ careers.

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Solutions for Overwhelmed Teachers

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The average teacher spends over 50 hours per week working, which often results in an overwhelmed, stressed-out workforce. It’s also one of the leading causes of new teacher burnout within the first few years. Studies estimate that around one in 10 teachers quit the education profession by the end of their first year, and around 50% leave within five years. It’s difficult to find another profession with the same amount of turnover, and it’s clear that passionate, talented teachers are being driven away. So, what can be done about it?

First, it’s helpful to see where this time is being spent. The average school week is 33 hours long in the United States, which leaves over 17 additional hours that teachers are spending at work. Much of this time is taken up by planning future lessons, grading papers and projects, filling out report cards, communicating with parents about their child’s progress, attending training sessions, and helping struggling students with extra tutoring. Obviously, these are all important parts of being a teacher, so it’s not like any can be cut out. However, incorporating a digital curriculum and learning management system can easily cut back on the time it takes to accomplish these tasks.

Planning Future Lessons

Instead of spending hours browsing through textbooks, writing quizzes, and searching the internet for lesson plans, a digital curriculum can automatically create an individualized learning plan for each student based on what they already know, their speed of learning, and what concepts they’re currently struggling with. This requires zero time from the teacher on a day-to-day basis, freeing up valuable time.

Grading Papers and Projects

Instead of grading each student’s work by hand, which can take hours upon hours, a digital curriculum that includes a learning management system can either make this process automatic or much faster. For straightforward assignments and assessments, grades are often calculated instantly for each student and reported to their teacher in real-time. For longer projects that require long-form explanations and creativity, the learning management system typically includes a rubric for teachers to follow, and allows for grades to be entered directly into the system, keeping everything in one place, which brings us to the next point.

Filling Out Report Cards

When all of the students’ work and grades are kept in a learning management system, a variety of report cards can be generated at any time. For example, parents may want to just know their child’s letter grade, while principals and other administrators want to see how the entire classroom has grown over the course of the year. Better yet, some digital curriculum programs allow administrators and parents to log in at any time to see these reports. Instead of realizing at the end of the quarter that their child is struggling with a particular subject, parents can check in much earlier on, often resulting in more focused attention.

Attending Training Sessions

Any valuable digital curriculum program will include plenty of professional development and teacher training. Although this won’t cover all the training teachers are responsible for taking over the year, it will make some of it much easier to find and implement. Plus, many programs include customized webinars, training via video or phone, and dedicated staff that can answer questions via chat.

Tutoring Struggling Students

Perhaps the largest time-saver available with digital curriculum is that it allows teachers to multi-task much more efficiently. When all students are receiving personalized curriculum and teachers are instantly alerted to which concepts students needs additional assistance with, it makes it faster and easier to pull aside small groups or individuals for targeted intervention.

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Blending Learning Environments Help Engage Different Types of Learners in the Classroom

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Lately, we’ve been giving blended learning classrooms a lot of attention because of the benefits they provide for students. One of these benefits is how digital learning can incorporate different styles of learning, but just what are these different types and how can they be used? Although the number of different styles of learning varies depending on the source, most people can typically agree on the following four:

Visual Learners

This is the most common type of learner, encompassing around 60% of students. Students who are visual learners typically prefer demonstrations or descriptions of how something works. These students tend to be easily distracted when a lesson requires physically moving around the classroom. Digital learning can help these students by enhancing the types of visuals shown. Instead of simple diagrams in textbooks, it can show animations and the flow of how concepts relate. For example, these students would understand the concept of surface area best by seeing three-dimensional animations of different shapes and how they have different numbers of faces and can unfold into a net.

Kinesthetic Learners

These students learn best when moving and acting out new lessons. They need to be highly involved in learning and often have a lot of energy. This type of learning tends to be more common in younger students, but can still be found in some older classrooms as well. Kinesthetic learners have trouble sitting still and don’t retain information well in a traditional lecture. Many programs include hands-on activities for these students. For example, these students would understand the concept of surface area best by physically measuring and counting units on different shapes. When sitting at their desk is necessary, digital learning makes it easier on these students by providing virtual manipulatives and engaging them often through clicking, dragging, and interacting with their computer or tablet.

Auditory Learners

Students who identify as auditory learners usually learn best through dialogue, discussion, and lecture. These are the students who can memorize content through repetition and solve problems by talking them out. However, they can be easily distracted when there is a lot of excess noise in a classroom. In a digital program, these students thrive when all instructions and explanations are read aloud to them, and they can focus better when wearing headphones. They typically do best when this approach is combined with the traditional methods of group discussion and teaching others a concept they have already mastered. These students would understand the concept of surface area best if it was explained aloud to them, step-by-step, and they then discussed it as a group.

Tactile Learners

Tactile learners are similar to kinesthetic learners, but don’t need to get up and act out concepts. Instead, they learn best by taking notes, drawing, or tinkering with objects. These are often the students who doodle during lectures, but still seem to retain the information instead of being distracted by the process. When learning through technology, these students need a program that asks them to follow along with new concepts by answering frequent questions and writing out responses. To understand the concept of surface area, tactile learners would follow along as it’s explained to them, drawing their own diagrams with accompanying notes. It’s important that if these students are using a digital program that they are still provided with a place to write and take notes.

What type of learner are you? It takes a lot of practice for teachers to teach in a way that reaches all these types of learners, which is why blended learning classrooms are so valuable. It’s an easy way to reach students who may be distracted or unengaged in a purely traditional classroom.

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How Blended Learning Programs That Include Test Prep Help Students Get Ready for “High-Stakes Testing”

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Just talking about “high-stakes testing” raises the stress level of most teachers. The idea of trying to summarize everything a student has learned into a single test is a terrifying proposal, particularly with students who are easily distracted, overwhelmed, or unengaged. Now that most testing programs are done through a computer, this adds a new level of complexity for students who may be unfamiliar with the format. In order to get the most accurate result possible, test prep programs help prepare students for these tests in a few simple ways.

Familiarity

Test prep programs have put a lot of research into the types of questions students will run into on high-stakes tests. By familiarizing students ahead of time with these types of questions, students won’t run into the time-consuming process of learning how to use digital tools and manipulatives during the test itself. By practicing and learning how these tools and questions function ahead of time, students become more confident in their abilities and are able to show what they really know, which is the ultimate goal. Probably the most frustrating part of high-stakes testing is seeing students struggle because although they know the answer, they don’t understand how to input it correctly.

Extended Response Practice

Long-form questions, where students explain their process or defend their answer, is becoming a large part of high-stakes testing. Although students practice basic concepts on a daily basis, the act of writing out their thought process is less common and less practiced. A good test prep program includes a variety of extended response questions, where students can practice transferring their knowledge into logical, sequential text. As an added benefit, this type of practice allows teachers to analyze whether students are truly understanding new concepts, or whether they have simply memorized the necessary steps.

Review

Most high-stakes testing covers content over a long period of time, sometimes even years of learning. Practicing with a test prep program beforehand allows students to review the content and brush up on concepts they might have forgotten in the months since they last used it. By reviewing each student’s scores, it’s possible to revisit this content before the real deal. This type of analysis also highlights whether the classroom as a whole missed an important concept, and what would be beneficial to review.

Rather than leaving students to fend for themselves, creating a stressful environment where they are setup to fail, test prep programs give all students a fair chance to truly demonstrate their knowledge and abilities to the fullest.  

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