ExtraCredit, the official blog of the Ohio Department of Education, offers commentary and insight on a wide range of education issues from department experts and guest bloggers from throughout Ohio’s schools and support organizations. We encourage your ideas, feedback and comments to promote a two-way dialogue. See our Comment Policy for more information.

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1/25/2017

GUEST BLOG: Innovation Begins with the Problem — Dr. Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio Department of Education

By: Guest Blogger

Straight-A-Fund.pngIn four years with the Straight A Fund innovation project, I have been gifted with the experience of seeing some highly creative and effective changes to the way we do school across the state. Ohio’s Straight A Fund supports ideas from local educators to promote better learning and cost savings within schools and districts. Working with our projects has led me to understand not only what works on the path to improvement, but also some of the pitfalls and distractions that may interfere with solid innovative thinking.

Successful change starts by defining a problem. A problem may be some nagging area that demands a solution, but a problem, in innovation terms, may also be something that is currently working but could be improved. Defining a problem before we look for solutions may seem quite simple, obvious even. However, without thinking about what we want an innovation to accomplish, it is very easy to become sidetracked into adopting some shiny new solution that does wonderful things—but is not a good fit for our situation. In education, just as in our personal lives with things we purchase, new bells and whistles can sometimes be very appealing. But like a Christmas toy that is only played with for a few moments before it is cast aside, some attractive new education toys also fail to live up to expectations. They may be too difficult in comparison to their value, poorly understood by the students who use them or offering a solution to a problem we don’t have.

As an example of innovation working well, the Straight A Fund has created a number of technology solutions. These projects have purchased hardware and software and trained teachers to be able to use them. As we consider how well these projects put their new technology to use, it is clear that the ability to successfully use these innovations and keep using them over time is increased by understanding the distinction between technology “toys” and technology “tools.” Successful projects have put technology tools to use in solving a problem they identified up front. Problems that have been addressed using technological tools include the need to teach students in a classroom who all have different strengths and abilities or the need for small and rural districts to connect their students to a wide variety of courses.

Defining a problem may require that we take a careful look at the way things are—even things that have always been and seem to be working as expected. Transporting students to and from school is an example. One of our innovative projects has improved transportation at a lower cost by merging across districts and using software to lay out the most efficient routes, compute idle time and even track when students are picked up and dropped off. This first required them to think outside the box of what they were accustomed to (that every district must have their own transportation system). A bonus associated with that project was the launch of a mobile app to communicate with parents on whether their student’s bus is on time, running late or on the way. And, the savings they experience from innovation can help expand on other education programs.

One final understanding that is helpful to the identification of a problem is look at it locally. Research and data can help us spot general trends in education to be on the lookout for. But, they may still need to be considered in terms of how they impact our own district. As an example, the cause and strategies to address chronic absenteeism will vary for each district.

In 2017, we hope to see continuing innovation in schools across the state, building on what we have learned in the Straight A Fund innovation program.

Dr. Susan Tave Zelman is an executive director at the Ohio Department of Education and oversees the Straight A Fund. You can reach her at Susan.Zelman@education.ohio.gov.

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1/10/2017

Reflecting on Our Practice: Setting Goals

By: Virginia Ressa

As a new year begins, many of us set goals for improving ourselves or accomplishing something we have always wanted to do. Yet, so many of these New Year’s resolutions end up unfulfilled. I’ve asked myself, year after year, was I not committed enough? Did I pick the wrong goals? Did I not try hard enough? Did I just get lazy or distracted?

Research tells us that setting clear goals that are “SMART” is important to our success. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Though the acronym can be defined multiple ways (the A can be attainable or achievable), the big idea is that we set goals that are clear and within our reach. When we set a goal that is too far beyond our current ability it is likely that we will lose our focus and commitment before we meet the goal. Is running a marathon a realistic goal for you? Or should you start with the goal of running a 5K?

video1.jpgWe also need to know exactly what we are working toward – goals need to be clear and specific. “Get more exercise” is vague and can’t be tracked and measured. A more specific goal would be: “Build up to exercising three times a week by the end of March.” That is more specific, measurable, time-based and likely achievable.

You’ve probably already guessed where I’m going with this line of thinking – we can apply this same to setting goals with students. “Do better in math” is not the same as “earn an average of 80% correct on math facts practice sheets.” When we help students set goals that are specific and measurable they are more likely to achieve those goals. One of the most effective strategies is to make learning intentions clear. When learning intentions are clear, students understand what the expectations are and can track their progress towards those expectations. Consider our math facts example: a student who improves from 50% correct to 65% correct on their practice sheets can see progress and know they are moving in the right direction. If the goal had simply been to do better in math, the student would have seen some progress but without the benefit of knowing what the measure of better would be. Has she met her goal at 65%? Does she need to get 100% correct to be better? This confusion is akin to our adult who makes a resolution to get more exercise – there is no clear goal to tell them when they are successful.

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As with every teaching practice or strategy we talk about, this one is not fool proof and will not work in every situation. However, it is a strong guideline to keep in mind when setting goals. If we want our students to be successful and meet high expectations, we need to be clear with them about what success looks like and what those high expectations are. Otherwise they are muddling through a vague set of criteria, trying to do better, not knowing if they are improving and lacking a clear destination.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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12/21/2016

Teaching Students to Think for Themselves, Solve Problems and Think Critically

By: Steve Gratz

I spent most of my teenage years working on the farm. My experiences there naturally taught me how to solve problems, and we referred to this as “common sense.” We would even use the term to describe our more astute neighbors and friends who used good sense and sound judgment in practical matters.

As I think about my days working on the farm, I realize the agricultural way of life was built on a solid foundation of solving problems. Confronted with a unique problem, I could engineer a solution or temporarily jerry-rig it until I could get back to the shop for a permanent solution. I also remember the time one of my friends made a delivery of construction materials to a client and during the delivery he realized that he forgot a large box of nails. Instead of driving 30-miles back to the company, he simply purchased the large box of nails at a competitor’s store. He used good sense and sound judgment – common sense.

Like many of my friends, I developed my problem-solving skillset through work-based learning experiences throughout high school. In fact, I can’t remember a time during high school where I wasn’t working and serendipitously honing my ability to solve problems in the context of real-world situations.

In my 30+ years of education, I have participated in my fair share of philosophical conversations. Most of these conversations focus on the teaching and learning process, but the conversations often bleed over to a more holistic discussion on education. Some of those conversations focus on how to teach students deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems.

One of the most authentic ways to help students develop deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems is through work-based learning experiences. Recently, I was meeting with education and business leaders at the North Central Ohio ESC. A local physician shared that one of his recent hires earned her medical assistant credential through her work experience and not through the traditional path of attending medical assistant training program.

Absent of the ability to have work-based learning experiences, educators can help students develop deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems by requiring them to solve realistic problems. This can be done easily by using the project-based learning approach promoted by organizations like the Buck Institute. Another example is the Southern Region Education Board’s Advanced Career model. Most project-based learning approaches call for designing and implementing challenging, authentic projects and assignments in the context of realistic problems, ideally with employer and business involvement.

The passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marked a major step toward ensuring all students are prepared to graduate from high school ready for college and careers. For example, districts may support efforts to integrate academic and technical content in the classroom that lends itself to students developing deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems. This can be done simply by developing and implementing coordinated instructional strategies that may include project-based learning and experiential learning opportunities for in-demand careers and occupations.

Here’s an example that provides a real-world application using the Pythagorean theorem. The picture below shows the formula for the Pythagorean theorem. In the picture below, side C is always the hypotenuse. Remember that this formula only applies to right triangles.

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Students may be taught the Pythagorean theorem as illustrated, or the lesson could be enriched by making it a real-world application or, better yet, as part of a project-based lesson.

And here is how the theory is applied to roof framing in the construction industry where the Pythagorean theorem is referred to as the 3-4-5 rule.

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This example is overly simple, but it is used to illustrate how connecting academic content standards to real-world applications can make the teaching and learning process more engaging and relevant for students. By helping students solve more real-world problems, students should begin to think more deeply about the standards they are learning.

One of the tenets of project-based learning is that the teacher helps students navigate through the learning process and assists students in solving problems, allowing them to take more responsibility for their learning – effectively teaching them to think for themselves. Teaching students to think more critically and to solve problems is a life skill that is immeasurably valuable to students.

I’m indifferent if it is called common sense, good sense and sound judgment, or the ability to solve problems; it is a life skill that needs to be integrated into all aspects of student’s education. It can even instill a sense of confidence in students, especially as they learn to apply this life skill to other aspects of their life.

Let’s teach students to think for themselves, solve problems and think critically.

Dr. Steve Gratz is senior executive director of the Center for Student Support and Education Options at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversees creative ways to help students in Ohio achieve success in school. You can learn more about Steve by clicking here.

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12/14/2016

Recognizing Educator Success on Ohio’s Resident Educator Summative Assessment

By: Julia Simmerer

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria congratulates the educators who finished with the top 100 scores on Ohio’s Resident Educator Summative Assessment.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria congratulates the educators who finished with the top 100 scores on Ohio’s Resident Educator Summative Assessment.

This fall, I had the pleasure of attending, along with nearly 300 other guests, an event at the Ohio Statehouse to honor the educators who finished with the top 100 scores on Ohio’s Resident Educator Summative Assessment (RESA) in each of the last 3 years. The event was hosted by Educopia, Ohio’s partner in developing and administering the RESA, and featured a string quartet from Dublin Jerome High School, refreshments and the opportunity for attendees to get to know fellow educators and administrators from all across Ohio.

So, what is the RESA? Successful completion of the assessment has been a requirement for all of Ohio’s Resident Educators seeking professional licensure in Ohio since 2013. In addition to required mentoring activities with experienced educators, this performance-based program includes four tasks that include submitting videos, lesson plans and student work from their classroom instruction. Successful completion is no small feat, as RESA tasks are less ‘busywork’ and more designed to capture and showcase the essential skills that make effective educators prepared for leadership in Ohio’s schools.

Congratulatory remarks were offered by distinguished guests that included State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Ohio Representative Andrew Brenner, national education policy expert and author Charlotte Danielson and Educopia CEO Mark Atkinson. The recognized teachers beamed with pride and graciously accepted this acknowledgment for their dedication to the teaching profession and Ohio’s children.  Following formal remarks, it was great to see the speakers and awardees discussing the program, networking and posing for pictures.

It was inspiring to gather with this truly select group of teachers — they worked so diligently to become the top performers out of nearly 16,000 teachers who have taken the RESA since 2013. It was clear to those in attendance that the best is yet to come from this dedicated group of Ohio educators and classrooms will benefit from their efforts for decades to come!

Julia Simmerer is senior executive director of the Center for the Teaching Profession at the Ohio Department of Education, where she oversees the implementation of policies and programs that support Ohio’s teacher and leader corps. You can learn more about Julia by clicking here.

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12/1/2016

Reflecting on Our Practice: Teaching Behavioral Expectations

By: Virginia Ressa

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) places strong emphasis on evidence-based practices. The intention is that educators should use practices that have been proven to be effective through significant research studies. For example, in October I wrote about effective feedback which has been shown through multiple studies to improve student achievement. We know this practice to be highly effective in making learning goals or expectations clear to students. Being clear about learning expectations helps students focus and provides them with goals to work towards.

As we begin our transition to ESSA, I suggest we think about putting together two highly effective, evidence-based practices. Through Formative Instructional Practices (FIP) professional development, teachers find the value of using clear learning targets to teach academic knowledge and skills. Ohio schools use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a proactive approach to improving school climate and culture that is evidence-based. PBIS helps schools establish positive expectations and classroom rules for student behavior. When we put FIP together with PBIS we have FIPPBIS… I’m just kidding we do not need an acronym or fancy name to implement effective practices. When we put them together we have evidence-based practices we can apply to the teaching and learning of behavior.

Here is a great video on teaching students how to speak respectfully to their classmates from the Teaching Channel!

Putting two practices we know are effective together – clear learning targets and behavioral expectations – would lead to the use of clear learning targets for teaching behavioral knowledge and skills. We could go beyond just posting “rules” to creating and sharing learning targets that would lead students to be able to meet the expectations of the rules. For example, we often post rules that are broad or even vague: “Complete classwork on time.” We expect students to meet this rule because we agreed on it as a class. And then, what happens when they don’t meet the rule? Students are often punished for not meeting classroom rules – a phone call home, maybe missing recess or detention.

But, what if we changed how we think of classroom rules? What if we thought of them like we do academic standards? When we have an academic standard we want students to meet, we make that standard clear to them and provide steps they can take towards mastery of the standard. If our expectation is for students to understand the causes of the Civil War, we would break that down into smaller steps, provide learning opportunities, assess student understanding and reteach if necessary. We can do the same thing with classroom rules.

Going beyond the posting of rules to breaking them into smaller behavioral learning targets can help us teach students how to meet the rule. We take the time to teach students academic content they don’t know, so why not take the time to teach students how to behave in a school setting? For instance, in order to complete their classwork on time, students need to know exactly what we mean – we need to make the expectation clear and possibly break it down into smaller steps. How do you make sure you complete your classwork on time? First, students need to know what “on time” means. Is it when class ends? What time does class end? Next, students need to practice budgeting their time and break large tasks into smaller steps. Students may also need to practice starting their work on time. Understanding and practicing these components will increase students’ ability to meet the behavioral expectation.

When I reflect on my time teaching middle school, I remember struggling with students not following rules. I thought my rules were clear and I even engaged students in writing the rules. After learning about PBIS, I realized that my rules were negative and included “don’t do” or “no” to this or that. Clear learning targets could have broken down vague and ambiguous rules into smaller, clearer expectations.

Take a minute to think about the rules in your classroom. Are your students meeting the rules? Are they stated positively? What if you thought of the rules as standards and taught students how to meet them? Could you increase students’ ability to meet the expectations in your classroom and school?

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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