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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

Category: Guest opinion
September 15, 2014 at 4:08 PM

Guest: Project-based classrooms help kids become active learners

Michael Golden

Michael Golden

With the new school year under way, a major initiative related to class size on the ballot in November, and an unrelenting race-based achievement gap across the country, how we educate our children and prepare them for the world is under the microscope. It should be a wake-up call that we continue to fall behind other countries in educational outcomes. The world is changing at a remarkable pace, yet how we educate our youth remains largely the same.

Kids today live in a world that engulfs them in stimuli, changing the way their brains process information and how they learn. What might have worked in the classroom 20 years ago does not work today, but it is still widely used.

To engage today’s students, lessons have to be truly meaningful to them. One effective approach is the use of project-based learning.

What does project-based learning look like? It could be a language arts teacher facilitating a student-initiated project to write a screenplay about a local female rapper. The students would need to learn the mechanical structure of a screenplay, research the nature of the music industry, identify a handful of venues where rappers perform and who some of her fellow musicians might be. Their teacher would guide them through the project and connect them with experts such as screenwriters and music-industry executives in Hollywood.

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September 3, 2014 at 4:00 AM

Guest: How to set up evaluations that help teachers improve

Rosaline Zhang

Rosaline Zhang

In March, Washington state lawmakers ended the legislative session without passing a bill to incorporate student test scores in teacher-principal evaluation systems. As a result, Washington became the first state to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver, along with control of $40 million in federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education requires states that have received waivers to use statewide standardized tests as a factor in evaluations.

Legislators need to move past the debate on whether to use testing data in evaluations. The failure to pass the bill puts Washington’s evaluation system behind the rest of the country. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia Public Schools have already changed their laws to require that measures of student achievement be a significant or the most significant factor in teacher evaluations. The new generation of evaluations is here to stay.

Critics can argue over what measures of student achievement are the most accurate, or how much these measures should factor into evaluation ratings. But these arguments miss the bigger picture: When executed properly, evaluations can help guide teachers’ professional development. Only after Washington state law is changed can lawmakers and district leaders begin focusing on what will really make a difference for our teachers and students: evaluations that help teachers get better.

So what is the key to maximizing an evaluation system’s potential to help teachers improve their craft? Important lessons can be drawn from early adopters of the new generation of evaluation systems. In the 2012-2013 academic year, an urban school district serving Houston piloted a system that incorporated both classroom observations and student learning measures.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Rosaline Zhang, teacher evaluations

August 30, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Guest: Special-ed programs fail to meet needs of immigrant families

Ginger Kwan

Ginger Kwan

Research has demonstrated that meaningful family engagement leads to better student performance, and yet our local schools still struggle to engage families from racially, ethnically and culturally diverse communities, particularly when it comes to parents who have limited English proficiency or have children in special education programs.

As a result, many special-needs students from these diverse backgrounds end up getting left behind as their peers advance.

At many school districts in King County, more than 50 percent of students speak a language other than English at home. Serving and communicating with parents who have limited English proficiency should not be a new thing for schools. And yet, many parents are left wondering why it is so difficult for schools to engage diverse families of children with special needs. Is it because the schools lack knowledge of the best family engagement practices? Or because schools do not value special-needs students from other cultures? Or are schools simply unwilling to make needed changes to correct their own cultural bias and the institutional racism against this target population?

The answers are multi-faceted and not easy to answer. The challenges from schools to engage these diverse families are no less than what these families encounter when trying to interact with schools.

Across the system, schools generally lack the language and cultural capacity to engage these families meaningfully. School-hired interpreters are often not trained properly, are not familiar with special education, or speak different dialects than the family. Some families are also told to bring their own interpreters or have their children to interpret for them. In addition to verbal communication challenges, written information has been primarily printed in English or posted on school websites only. All of these obstacles can prevent meaningful communication between families and schools.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Ginger Kwan, Open Doors, special education

August 28, 2014 at 4:37 PM

Guest: Educators must do more to reach young men of color

Amy Saxton

Amy Saxton

It’s my first time at the New Schools Venture Fund conference, and I’m excited to exchange ideas with entrepreneurs, educators and policymakers. The day will be brimming with innovative approaches to transforming public education for underserved students. But what strikes me first is that, for once, my reflexive search of the room for brown and black faces comes up full.

The conference won’t necessarily be better or worse, the discussions more or less fruitful, but that simple moment of recognition, the feeling of an invisible but meaningful weight lifted off of my shoulders — that I don’t have to represent, and I can, just a little more than usual, simply be— gives me a powerful moment of connection with a subject never far from our minds at Summer Search: reaching and serving more young men of color.

Despite our best efforts, Summer Search, a national non-profit focused on creating opportunity for low-income and underserved students, has enrolled only three males of color out of every 10 students. Over the last two years, we have focused on recruiting and retaining more of these young men through pilot programs and innovative strategies, but it remains an uphill battle.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Amy Saxton, Summer Search

August 8, 2014 at 3:29 PM

Guest: 7 ways to help kids with summer reading

The Shaw Island library has a cozy reading section for children. Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times 2012.

The Shaw Island library has a cozy reading section for children. Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times 2012.

Summer is a perfect time to start a new habit in your home: reading together. Here are a few simple tips that can help parents support their young readers as they are learning, and then practicing, how to read. It is never too young to start. Even toddlers can benefit from these ideas.

1. Let them shine

Watch eyes light up when she or he corrects you! Pretend to not know a word. Mispronounce a word. Look to the child for the answer.

2. Take turns.

Take turns reading pages. “I will read one page to you, then you read one to me!” Books like Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series are great to get started with.

3. Point to words

Point to the words as you read to your child. Use your finger to help the child keep pace. This can even help toddlers learn basic words. As she or he is sounding out a word, use two fingers to keep the child’s eye on the part of the word being pronounced.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: reading, summer learning loss

July 30, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Guests: The critical role of doctors in early learning

Jill Sells

Jill Sells

Mary Ann Woodruff

Mary Ann Woodruff

Equal opportunity is at the heart of many civic discussions, from preschool to the minimum wage. Rarely is it emphasized that a child’s chance to reach his or her potential is greatly impacted by what happens before he or she utters a word.

The stark reality is that inequities related to both economics and race are present in infants. Brain and economic research unequivocally demonstrate that the earliest experiences matter the most.

As pediatricians, we’ve shared the joy as families welcome newborns into their lives. We’ve helped them understand that babies are wired to learn, innately attracted to their parents’ voices and faces, and actively engaged with the people around them.

The latest University of Washington study from Patricia Kuhl at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) demonstrates that “babies practice speech long before they can talk.” Helping parents support their child’s learning from birth should be among the highest of our priorities as pediatricians. Children’s doctors are trusted by families and are uniquely able to support parents through each stage of their child’s development.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: early learning

July 24, 2014 at 3:33 PM

Guest: Teachers need more than one formula for student success

Andrew E. Kelly

Andrew E. Kelly

The battle around “what works” in education continues to rage nationally and in our great state. What is the best way to ensure that each of our kids, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and personal background are able to successfully meet our educational standards and move through elementary, middle and high school to graduate prepared for college and a career?

One argument centers on whether schools should use direct instruction, a teacher-centered approach that commonly uses call-and-response, or a more free-flowing structure where students talk out their thinking and make sense of what they already know to build the scaffolding for their future.

Yet, as I work to support our state’s lowest-performing schools through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, I see more similarities than differences when it comes to what goes on in the classroom. Across the state, schools are succeeding with kids using both explicit instruction and constructivist learning. The bottom line: Great teaching is great teaching

Lakeridge Elementary School within the Renton School District is one school in our state experiencing phenomenal results. After receiving a federal school improvement grant three years ago, Lakeridge has taken on a new approach that emphasizes not just teaching content but, just as importantly, teaching kids how to think.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Andy Kelly, direct instruction, Lakeridge

July 14, 2014 at 6:06 PM

Guest: Getting students to talk out ideas works in science, too

Jessica Thompson

Jessica Thompson

As educational researchers at the University of Washington, myself and many other colleagues in the College of Education are excited to re-define the role of research in improving systems of K-12 instruction. We have built partnerships with schools and believe that improvement comes from working in classrooms, elbow-to-elbow with students, teachers, coaches, principals and district leadership.

Along with successful efforts in improving math instruction at Lakeridge Elementary, UW researchers have also seen impressive results from a similar approach in science education.

These collaborations mean that we think differently about our role as professors at a university and about the purposes of data in educational reform. We see our new role as sharing research about how students and teachers learn best, building teacher development models that support learning, and generating evidence that can be used for continuous improvement. At Lakeridge, for example, researcher Elham Kazemi and the school’s teachers, coaches and leaders work in teams to collect and analyze data about how students are learning.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Math and science, Opinion | Topics: Jessica Thompson, Lakeridge, science instruction

July 10, 2014 at 4:19 PM

Guest: STEM education relies on innovation from all disciplines

wierusz headshot2

Mike Wierusz

As a former engineer and current high-school teacher, STEM is a frequent buzzword in my lexicon. But, like many others, I have found myself thinking that the STEM acronym is somehow incomplete. What about art? What about English? Many other disciplines play a vital role in developing our next generation of innovators. Outside of the education world, STEM does not exist in a vacuum.

Like a true engineer, I couldn’t shake the riddle. So I approached it as an engineering problem, taking a systems approach: looking at all the inputs and outputs. At that point I realized the source of confusion. Your definition of STEM depends on whether you are talking about the input or the output of the system. When looking at STEM as the output, to ensure economic development and global competitiveness, everything makes complete sense, and science, technology, engineering and math are the key disciplines of concern.

However, when looking at STEM from the input perspective, things get messy; the acronym breaks down and actually creates undue tension. And this is where I begin to worry.

The Northshore School District has worked hard to create a variety of courses, from composites engineering to biomedicine, that are at the nexus of theory and application. The design and engineering courses I teach are cross-credited and count as math and science credits for high school graduation. They also earn the students college credit. My students work alongside industry partners on real-world sustainability-focused projects ranging from off-the-grid vaccine storage for developing countries to supporting the design of a new high school for the district. People visit and like the STEM they see.

This is all exciting and important, but I’ve found it critical to keep in mind that the core STEM skills utilized in my classroom are developed and honed in all the other classrooms around the school. The students develop creativity and critiquing skills in art class. They learn research skills in English class. They learn teamwork and leadership in PE, clubs and sports.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Mike Wierusz, Northshore, STEM

July 1, 2014 at 11:38 AM

Guest: In pursuit of a stronger model for parent engagement

Ishimaru-105

Ann Ishimaru

As a parent, it’s hard to know how best to support your child’s education. While Oprah shares tips for getting involved in the classroom on her website, a host of other commentators send competing messages to parents who want to ensure their child’s academic success.

Indeed, sociologists Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris recently have argued that parents can actually harm their child’s academic achievement by being involved in the wrong ways. Their arguments have prompted heated discussion about whether we’d be better off if parents stopped helping their children with their homework, attended fewer school events and so forth.

Unfortunately, this argument oversimplifies the story. It confuses causality with correlation and focuses on an outmoded approach to parent involvement. That’s not only poor social science, it can have negative consequences for children and families if policymakers reduce investments in parent engagement.

Robinson and Harris imply parent involvement causes academic achievement. We know shoe size and measures of intelligence are positively related to each other — but it makes no sense to argue that larger feet cause greater intelligence (hint: age has more to do with it!). In the context of parent engagement, jumping to causality would mean parent help with homework harms academic achievement. Some scholars suggest parents step up their homework involvement when children are struggling — so poor achievement might cause homework involvement.

Beyond methodological considerations, there is another way to view Robinson and Harris’ findings.

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Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: Ann Ishimaru, parent engagement, parent involvement

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