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Friday, August 31, 2012

2 School Systems, 2 Approaches to Distance Learning

Distance learning has its benefits. Two of the ones named in this week's “E-Learning in the Age of Choice” webinar aired by Education Week were:
  • Providing a consistent education for students no matter which school building they attend
  • Providing flexibility for such things as credit recovery and summer courses

Representatives from the Davis School District in Utah and the Memphis School District discussed the benefits and challenges of online learning in their systems. In Utah, distance learning options for students were mandated by state law. In Memphis, administrators saw distance learning as a valuable tool to address inequalities among the district's schools.

Under Utah's law, students are able to choose any two credits from any provider or program in the state. The state's education dollars follow students to those online providers. The Davis district, which was already providing online courses to its students, now works in a consortium to provide a wide array of courses for students. This allows them to use curricula the state already knows matches state standards and to keep state dollars in public schools.

In Memphis, administrators were concerned with providing the same quality of courses and course delivery throughout the school district. For instance, some high schools had too few students signing up for AP calculus to make it feasible to teach. Distance learning allowed them to provide all students access to the course, with the same level of teaching delivered to all.

In addition, the Memphis school system now requires all students to successfully complete one online course before they graduate The reasoning? Whether a student is going to career or college after school, they are likely to face online work training or online college courses as they pursue their futures.

Another surprising benefit -- both said that  the student-teacher connection often is stronger in online courses because emails, chat rooms and Skyping often provide for or even demand more one-to-one interactions between the two.

To view the entire webinare, link here:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Distance learning webinar today

Last week we wrote about businesses -- including First Class Communication -- moving into the digital world, a world that lets your office be wherever you are.

That same move is inevitable for education systems. And many are looking at ways to pursue it -- the University of Arkansas recently announced that it will offer distance learning especially for non-traditional students who would rather live with their families than on or near campus. And we have a friend at Arkansas Tech who is teaching one marketing class half-and-half: half in the classroom and half online. Another of his courses is totally through emails and online chats.

Still, most K-12 and higher education systems are operating largely with the same organization and calendars as they have for many, many years.  The school calendar, after all, remains great for kids to be able to help out on the family farm each summer ... or let's just say that for the majority of us, it's pretty darn outdated.

So, at noon today, we will be tuning into “E-Learning in the Age of Choice,” an Education Week webinar that will offer examples of how educators have stepped, if ever so gingerly, into the 21st century.

"Now that many students have the opportunity to take online courses, schools and districts are starting to offer more choices when it comes to providers and accessing virtual education," the webinar blurb says. "Some districts are adapting online courses so they can be accessed by smartphones. States are also making sure students have choices in how they use virtual education. Several states—including Florida, New Mexico, and Utah—have passed recent legislation requiring that districts allow students to choose their own online learning providers, whether that means state-run online schools, virtual charters, or private providers. This webinar will provide useful tips for school administrators and K-12 policymakers on how to navigate this choice-filled world of virtual options."

If you would like to join in, you can sign up for the hour long session at

Also, we'll try to take good notes and write more about this later this week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

5 Likes Away from our Goal

I set a personal, arbitrary and almost achieved goal of having 100 likes on First Class Communication's Facebook page by Aug. 31. Today, we're a week out, with only 5 likes to go to meet that goal.

If you haven't liked us yet, Dauphne and I would really appreciate your linking to our Facebook page and giving us the thumbs up!

Thanks! And have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

So, where's your office?

It's funny.  Almost always, one of the first questions when you meet someone new is, what do you do?  When one of us explains that First Class Communication is our new business (where education and communication conspire!) the question that invariably follows is, so, where's your office?

At this point in the conversation, we've tried a number of answers, usually delivered in an apologetic tone -- "We work virtually, so out of our homes." "We have home offices, but we Skype every morning at 9 o'clock and are in contact throughout the day."

Here's the answer we've decided on -- and we're losing the apologetic tone. "Our office is wherever we are."

And though we're not alone, our virtual-not-physical workplace is on the cusp of a change occurring across the world today. The industrial age is giving way to the digital age, so the constructs of the industrial workplace (think 8-hour day, time clocks, set lunch breaks) are losing their relevance.

In many lines of work, it's not necessary for workers to gather at one location to get the job done. And that's a positive all the way around.

Consider these stats for businesses (pulled from IABC's Communication World magazine):
  • At IBM, 40 percent of the workforce operates without a dedicated space, saving the company more than $450 million a year.
  • Deloitte reduced its office space and energy costs by 30 percent through distributed workplace strategies.
And for workers,  the plusses are flexibility and the ability to work where you live (or travel). Younger workers (particularly Gen Y and younger) are coming to expect this, and research finds that all workers in this environment enjoy their work and tend to actually work more.

So, the next time you ask one of us where our office is, expect to hear, "It's wherever we are." No apologies.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

5 Reasons to Welcome Common Core

Public schools get underway this week, and with the new year comes an expansion of the Common Core curriculum into grades 3-8. Younger students got their first taste of the Common Core last year.

The Common Core State Standards is the college- and career-ready curriculum developed by national experts at the request of states via the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Forty-four states are using the Common Core.

The Democrat-Gazette's Cynthia Howell wrote an excellent story for Sunday's paper about how the Common Core is being implemented in Arkansas. In it are at least five reasons identified by state education officials, school district administrators and teachers that the Common Core is a good thing for Arkansas:
  • The new standards will help ensure that Arkansas students are able to enter higher education without the need for remediation, according to Laura Bedner, assistant commissioner at the Arkansas Department of Education.  Pre-Common Core learning standards, both in Arkansas and across the country, have failed to do that.
  • The concepts and skills our students are mastering match the concepts and skills students in the other 43 Common Core states are learning at the same grade level. This will be a big advantage for students as they seek success after high school, and it will enhance Arkansas's ability to create a workforce that attracts well-paying jobs to the state.
  • The emphasis is on depth not breadth. As math teacher Stephanie Muckelburg told Howell: "We have so many Arkansas (curriculum) frameworks. It's kind of like we just skim the surface of them. With the Common Core, there are not as many standards and we can go deeper and teach students more about equations and how they are used in the real world and why they are going to need them."
  • Students will use technology a lot more in their lessons. "We will be expanding our classrooms into the technology world," literacy director Karen James said.  The value of that is obvious.
  • Students will master concepts through "doing."  As Linda Remele, a deputy superintendent for learning services put it, "This is all project-based learning. This is a differnt way. It is not stand and deliver and lecture -- not even in first grade."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Legislators to superintendents: Spend your money

When Arkansas's House and Senate Education committees heard this week how school districts were spending -- or rather NOT spending -- categorical funds, they were not happy.

Categorical funds, as opposed to the foundational funds discussed in the previous post, are state monies to help schools provide extra support for certain students:
  • Poverty (called "NSLA" funds in legislation) monies are distributed to schools based on the number of students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program
  • Alternative Learning Environment funds target students with behavior, academic, health or similar issues who do not succeed in the regular school setting
  • English Language Learner funds are meant for students whose first language is not English
School districts receive those funds based on the number of students they have in each category.

The Legislative Bureau of Research reported the findings to the committees on Tuesday as they continued their discussions to set future education spending by the state.

On average, by the end of the 2011-2012 school year, school districts only spent:
  • 81% of their funds designated to help students in poverty
  • 92% of their funds to help English language learners
  • 82% of their funds to help students who require alternative education environments, largely due to behavioral issues. 

No doubt, school districts sometimes have good reasons for not spending all their funds in a certain category. Even so, as legislators pointed out, the legislation was designed to give school districts an extra pot of money to spend THAT year.

For instance, poverty funding is meant to pay for things like year-long tutoring, summer and after school programs and transportation to and from those programs -- all geared to help students' achieve higher.

No wonder legislators were appalled that the school districts with the highest amounts of poverty funds remaining at the end of the school year in 2010-2011 also had some of the highest percentages of low-performing students.

Legislators also were upset with the low spending on alternative learning environments.

Alternative schools are meant to be a place where students can learn in a more personalized environment and receive help for specific problems, be they family circumstances, substance abuse or something else. It's meant to keep kids from falling off the educational radar and produce productive citizens instead of potential criminals or deadbeats.

How those schools are set up, run and funded by school districts is very likely to be a topic legislators study in the next General Assembly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Education Adequacy: Funding it and paying for it 2 different things

Arkansas's Constitution promises an equitable and adequate education for the children in our state, and since the post-Lakeview ruling by the Supreme Court, our legislature has used a school funding formula that stems straight from those two goals.

But it can be more confusing than it sounds.

The important thing to get your head around when listening to school funding conversations is that the legislature outlines a set of expenditures for schools each year that represent the amount it takes to educate each student to an "adequate level." The state then distributes funds to school districts according to that formula.

That process is separate and apart from how school districts budget and spend that money.

For example, Arkansas's House and Senate Education Committees began considering the state's "foundation formula" for schools for the 2013-14 school year. You may hear legislators and educators refer to the "matrix" -- that's the chart that includes costs like average teachers' pay, technology needs, day-to-day maintenance, substitute teachers -- basically everything that goes into providing an education for a child.

The catch here is that those costs, for efficiencies' sake, are calculated for a student in an enrollment of 500. That's fine for schools and school districts of 500 or more, but, in 2010-2011, Arkansas had 36 schools with enrollments less than 500.  That means the money in those districts has to stretch farther.  It seems unfair, but there's a back story.

In the same 2004 special legislative session when the funding formula was developed (and taxes were raised to support school funding) Governor Huckabee and many legislators agreed that some efficiency of spending had to be guaranteed for the state's taxpayers. At that time, Arkansas had well over 300 school districts, many of them very small.

Because it's easier to spend money more efficiently in larger districts, Governor Huckabee proposed an enrollment base of 1,500 for school districts. Smaller ones would be consolidated to make larger ones. The outcry was deafening, with a good bit of it coming from superintendents who were facing the fact that they'd be out of a job.

The proposed 1,500 enrollment base dropped to 500, then to 350. But, remember, the funding formula was based on 500. To keep their small districts open, superintendents at that time promised legislators they could make do.

So that's one piece of confusion that has to be explained each year by legislators like Sen. Joyce Elliott and Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, who were around when all that happened.

The other piece of confusion occurs when the actual expenditures of schools are looked at and don't measure up to the matrix expectations.  For example, the matrix earmarks $209 per student for technology, and the average expense by districts in that category is only $129 per student. The thing to remember here is that the foundation money is given to schools to ensure they have enough funds to provide an adequate education to their students. School district administrators get to decide how they must spend the money to provide an adequate education.

That makes sense.  Just think about the $209 per student for technology.  A school district that has just used a lot of federal money to invest in technology -- Smart Boards and computers and such -- for its schools can use the bulk of those state technology dollars for something more needed, perhaps additional staff or a reading program.

One last point for this long blog posting that was made eloquently by Sen. Elliott yesterday.  The matrix funding is not based on what it takes to build an ideal school and education for Arkansas students, but an adequate one. So while our state can and should be very proud of the strides we've made over the last decade, we need to remember that there's a world of difference between ideal and adequate.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thank goodness for Smart Core

I don't hear Smart Core -- the state's high school graduation requirements -- being talked about as much as they were during the years I worked at the Arkansas Department of Education. I hope that's because everyone accepts the value of that curriculum whether students plan to immediately enter college or instead find a job.

Even just five years ago, though, it was difficult to convince some people that everyone really benefits from Smart Core. The story that most convinced me was a young man we interviewed who hadn't been encouraged to take challenging courses in high school, found work after leaving 12th grade and realized 10 year later that to have the kind of job that paid the level of income he needed to support his family meant he needed some sort of degree.  He got one, but wished he had done so earlier when it would have been easier.

My thought was why not prepare all students to be ready for higher education (we know the majority of jobs now require it) and let them decide to opt out of college on their own after they finish high school?

This all comes to mind because I'm on a college-visiting trip with my son.  At the first out-of-state public university we visited, I perked up (a little nervously) when the admissions staff started listing the core set of classes students must have on their transcripts to be admitted.

I was thrilled when they practically sang the old Smart Core 3-4-3-4 jingle -- three sciences, four maths, three social studies and four Englishes.  (Of course, this university also required two years of foreign language. Luckily many Arkansas high schools -- including my son's -- require that as well, even though Smart Core doesn't.)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Treating teachers in style

Here's a great event we just learned about that perfectly illustrates the kind of community support and partnership we've been writing about in the last few entries.  Lakeside School District (Chicot County) teachers will be celebrated with a reception sponsored by Simmons First Bank at the local country club.

What a great way to recognize the importance of teachers!

Let us know if your community has something special planned as the first day of school draws closer.