Archive for May, 2013

Expanded Learning Time

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Also called extended learning time, the term expanded learning time refers to any educational program or strategy intended to increase the amount of time students are learning, especially for the purposes of improving academic achievement and test scores, or reducing learning losslearning gaps, and achievement gaps. For this reason, expanding learning time could be considered a de facto reform strategy, since expanding learning time is typically needed or proposed only when students are not performing or achieving at expected levels. (One exception would be optional learning-enrichment programs, which may increase the amount of time students are learning, but that may also viewed as elective or nonrequired opportunities for students to enhance or further their education.)

Extended (or expanded) school days and school weeks are also used as a strategy for increasing the amount of time students receive instruction; engage in learning opportunities in areas such as sports and arts; learn through non-traditional experiences such as apprenticeships or internships; or get academic support as part of their school days or years.

While expanded learning time may take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school, the following is a representative list of a few widely used strategies:

  • Expanded school years add to the number of days students are required to attend school. While states generally determine a minimum number of required attendance days—and state legislatures or departments of education may pass legislation or create regulations that increase minimum school-attendance requirements—districts and schools may also independently elect to increase the number of days in their school year.
  • Expanded school days and school weeks are also used as a strategy for increasing the amount of time students receive instruction from teachers and other educators; participate in learning activities in such as clubs, competitions, and performances; learn through nontraditional learning pathways, such as internships and apprenticeships; or receive or academic support from educators and specialists. Moving from half-day to full-day kindergarten is one example, but public schools may also add an hour or more onto the customary duration of a school day. In these cases, the increase may be long-term or short-term, and schools might be seeking to improve the overall academic performance of the student body, or the objective may be more specific—e.g., increasing instructional time and test preparation in advance of a high-stakes test.
  • Increasing or supplementing instructional time during the regular school day is another common way that educators might expand learning time for students. For example, schools may eliminate study halls and replace them with academic courses, tutoring sessions, or other forms of academic support, such as learning labs, in which students are engaged in purposeful learning activities intended to help them meet learning expectations in an academic course. States or schools may also increase course and credit requirements for graduation (often in a particular subject area, such as mathematics or science), which require students to take more courses in particular subject area, thereby effectively requiring them to spend more time learning the subject. For example, some high schools require “five years” of math, which means that students are required to take and complete at least five year-long math courses (two courses would be completed during one year if they plan to graduate in four years).
  • Summer school, winter sessions, school-break programs, and summer-bridge programs are other strategies that states, districts, or schools can use to expand learning time for students. By requiring or offering additional learning opportunities during school breaks—usually the longer summer, fall, winter, and spring breaks—schools can support students who have fallen behind academically and accelerate their learning progress. In some cases, these school-break programs are required if students have either failed courses or failed to meet learning standards (as with many traditional summer-school sessions), but others are optional or encouraged for those students who educators believe would benefit from the opportunities.
  • Before-school programs and after-school programs are school-run or school-affiliated learning opportunities that happen before or after regular school hours, usually for the purposes of supporting or supplementing student learning (although some programs, particularly those in the elementary schools, may resemble child-care programs more than strict academic programs). While they can take a wide variety of forms, before- and after-school programs are often used to provide academic support to students—i.e., teachers, tutors, mentors, and educational specialists develop programming to help students improve their learning, catch up with their peers, meet learning standards, or generally succeed in school. The programs may be operated by districts, schools, community organizations, or charitable initiatives, and they may be designed to supplement or enrich student learning, often in the form of co-curricular programing—i.e., educational activities that are connected, in some way, to what students are learning in school (musical and theatrical performances, math teams, mock trials, debate competitions, or robotics clubs, among many other possible activities, are examples of co-curricular programming). In some cases, students who are struggling academically or have specialized learning needs may be referred to a before- or after-school program or required to participate in one. (It should be noted that some advocates of expanded learning time would not consider the programs to be “expanded learning” unless they were mandatory.)
  • Digital and online learning options can also be used to expand learning time. While students have long completed homework assignments or project outside of regular school hours, new learning technologies allow for instructional interactions that go well beyond reading and assignment completion. For example, students can watch videos and recorded lectures, communicate with teachers electronically, or use interactive programs that support students as they work through a problem, task, or assignment. For related discussions, see blended learningasynchronous learning and synchronous learning.

Debate

Expanding learning time throughout a state system of public education, or even within an individual district or school, can have complicated and far-reaching implications, which can give rise to criticism and debate. For example, expanding learning time may require significant changes in school operations, scheduling, and transportation, which can increase associated costs—from bus fuel, heating, and lighting to staffing, compensation, and benefits—and have a significant effect on school budgets, particularly during times when funding is being cut. And since teaching contracts typically stipulate the number of hours teachers are required or allowed to teach each week, extending the length of school days and years will usually have implications for collective-bargaining negotiations and contractual agreements.

Another source of debate is whether expanding learning time in public schools actually leads to improvements in student learning and academic achievement. If the additional time is not meaningfully, purposefully, or effectively utilized, schools may increase costs, complicate operations, and upset teachers and unions without realizing the desired benefits in student learning. In addition, while research studies have provided evidence that expanding learning time can lead to improvements in student learning and academic achievement, some observers have pointed out that some of the world’s highest-performing educational systems, notably Finland’s, have shorter school days and years than public schools in the United States, which suggests, in the view of some critics, that improving student achievement is more about quality than quantity.

Learning Experience

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Learning experience refers to any interaction, course, program, or other experience in which learning takes place, whether it occurs in traditional academic settings (schools, classrooms) or nontraditional settings (outside-of-school locations, outdoor environments), or whether it includes traditional educational interactions (students learning from teachers and professors) or nontraditional interactions (students learning through games and interactive software applications).

Because students may learn in a wide variety of settings and ways, the term is often used as a more accurate, preferred, or inclusive alternative to terms such as course, for example, that have more limited or conventional connotations. Learning experience may also be used to underscore or reinforce the goal of an educational interaction—learning—rather than its location (school, classroom) or format (course, program), for example.

The growing use of the term learning experience by educators and others reflects larger pedagogical and technological shifts that have occurred in the design and delivery of education to students, and it most likely represents an attempt to update conceptions of how, when, and where learning does and can take place. For example, new technologies have dramatically multiplied and diversified the ways in which students can learn from and interact with educators, in addition to the level of independence they may have when learning. Students can email, chat, or have video conversations with teachers, and they can use online course-management systems to organize and exchange learning materials (e.g., the assignments given by teachers or the work turned in by students). Students can use software programs, apps, and educational games to learn on their own time, at their own pace, and without instruction or supervision from teachers. Students can also watch videos created by their teachers, conduct online research to learn more about a concept taught in a class, or use tablets to record scientific observations in a natural environment—among countless other possible options and scenarios. While listening to a lecture, reading a book, or completing a homework assignment remain “learning experiences,” students are now learning in different ways than they have in the past and in a wider variety of outside-of-school settings, such as through internships, volunteer activities, or dual-enrollment programs, to name just a few examples.

For related discussions, see learner, learning environment, and learning pathway.

Seat Time

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When used in the context of education reform, the term seat time refers to the use of academic credits based on the 120-hour Carnegie unit. The term is typically a derogatory reference to the perception that course credits more accurately measure “seat time”—i.e., the amount of time students have sat in a classroom—than what students have actually learned or failed to learn. For example, high school students typically earn credit by passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same high expectations being applied to all students equally. And since grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on highly divergent learning expectations (i.e., some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”), it’s may be possible for students to pass their courses, earn credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills.

Critics of “seat time” typically argue that if credits are not based on some form of consistently applied learning standards—expectations for what students should know and be able to do at a particular stage of their education—then it becomes difficult to determine what students have learned or failed to learn. Some educators and education reformers argue that strategies such as proficiency-based learning and demonstrations of learning, among others, provide more valid and reliable ways to determine what students have learned, whether they should be promoted to the next grade level, and whether they should receive a diploma.

Mission and Vision

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A mission statement, or simply a mission, is a public declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their founding purpose and major organizational commitments—i.e., what they do and why they do it. A mission statement may describe a school’s day-to-day operational objectives, its instructional values, or its public commitments to its students and community. A vision statement, or simply a vision, is a public declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their high-level goals for the future—what they hope to achieve if they successfully fulfill their organizational purpose or mission. A vision statement may describe a school’s loftiest ideals, its core organizational values, its long-term objectives, or what it hopes its students will learn or be capable of doing after graduating.

The terms mission statement and vision statement often used interchangeably. While some educators and schools may loosely define the two terms, or even blur the traditional lines that have separated them, there appears to be general agreement in the education community on the major distinctions between a “mission” and a “vision.” Generally speaking, a vision statement expresses a hoped-for future reality, while a mission statement declares the practical commitments and actions that a school believes are needed to achieve its vision. While a vision statement describes the end goal—the change sought by a school—a mission statement may describe its broad academic and operational assurances, as well as its commitment to its students and community.

Reform

In most cases, mission and vision statements result from a collaborative, inclusive development process that may include students, parents, and community members, in addition to administrators and teachers. Schools may also be required to develop the statements, or modify existing statements, as an extension of an accreditation process or a grant-funded school-improvement project.

Educators and school-leadership experts contend that compelling, well-articulated mission and vision statements can:

  • Help a school community reflect on its core educational values, operational objectives, purpose as a learning institution, and hoped-for results for students. By asking tough questions about what the school was founded to achieve, and by looking at where it is in relation to where it wants to be, a school can become better organized to achieve its goals and more focused on the practical steps needed to achieve them.
  • Act as a “call to arms,” or a way to rally support for its core educational values or an improvement plan, or to mobilize the staff and community to move in a new direction or pursue more ambitious goals. By creating a “shared mission” or “shared vision”—that is, developing the public commitments with the involvement of teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members—a school can increase general understanding of what it hopes to accomplish, why it matters, and what may need to change to realize a stronger academic program.
  • Focus a school’s academic program on a set of common, agreed-upon learning goals. In some schools, teachers may work in relative isolation from one another, and each academic department may operate quasi-independently when it comes to making important decisions about what gets taught and how it gets taught. Mission and vision statements, therefore, have the potential to focus school leaders and educators on making decisions that are “aligned” with the vision and mission, that lead to greater curricular coherence, and that use staff and classroom time more efficiently, purposefully, and effectively.

A school may periodically review its mission and vision statements—such as every year or few years—to assess whether it is making progress toward its goals, reflect on setbacks that may have occurred along the way, and reconfirm its commitments. During this process, schools may choose to revise the statements to better reflect the school’s evolving educational values, operational strategies, and learning goals.

Debate

Mission and vision statements and their attendant processes—such as bringing people together to reflect on the “noble purpose” of education, spending time debating nuances of meaning and word choice, and publishing the mission statement on a school website or in course-of-study booklet—may be viewed with skepticism by some educators, students, parents, and community members, particularly if the resulting statements are perceived to contradict or be inconsistent with the existing culture and day-to-day learning experiences in a school. In other words, the statements may be perceived as inauthentic or hypocritical representations that might only serve to mask deeper contradictions. Others may question whether such statements are worth the effort or if they will actually effect positive change in the school. In many cases, however, criticism of mission and vision statements arises in response to previous experiences in schools that undertook the process, but then failed to enact substantive changes or honor the spirit and intent of the expressed commitments.

Systemic Reform

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In education, the terms systemic reform or systemic improvement are widely and commonly used by educators, reformers, and others. While education reforms often target specific elements or components of an education system—such as what students learn or how teachers teach—the concept of systemic reform may be used in reference to (1) reforms that impact multiple levels of the education system, such as elementary, middle, and high school programs; (2) reforms that aspire to make changes throughout a defined system, such as district-wide or statewide reforms; (3) reforms that are intended to influence, in minor or significant ways, every student and staff member in school or system; or (4) reforms that may vary widely in design and purpose, but that nevertheless reflect a consistent educational philosophy or that are aimed at achieving common objectives.

Like the teaching profession, education systems are, by nature, extremely complex and multifaceted, and the challenges entailed in reforming or improving them can be similarly complex and multifaceted. Even reforms that appear to be straightforward, simple, or easily achieved may, in practice, require complicated state-policy changes, union-contract negotiations, school-schedule modifications, or countless other conditions and actions. While it is not possible to describe all the many ways in which reforms may be considered “systemic,” the term is perhaps most commonly applied to proposed reforms that are intended to achieve a specific goal or set of goals. For example, the goal of increasing high school graduation rates may have systemic implications, and states or schools may present a reform package intended to address multiple factors contributing to undesirably low graduation rates. In these cases, the reforms may or may not represent a coherent attempt to improve a complex system, and they may not—in any strict definitional sense—be truly “systemic.” And, of course, proposed reforms may also be more aspirational than feasible, practical, or advisable.

In technical terms, the idea of “systemic improvement” is predicated on the generalizable fact that, in most cases, it is extremely difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to improve one dimension of a school or education system without addressing and modifying other dimensions (the large and ever-growing body of books, experts, and research devoted to “systems change,” in a wide variety fields, provides some evidence of the difficulties entailed). While there are countless complexities involved in systemic reform—far to many to usefully describe here—a simple example may serve to illustrate the general problem:

Say that school leaders want to give teachers more opportunities to collaborate, plan lessons together, and give each other professional feedback aimed at improving their instructional skills (a common school-improvement strategy known as professional learning communities). While a seemingly simple proposition, the process of adding or creating meeting time during the school day could require significant and difficult-to-achieve changes to a school’s schedule—e.g., teaching responsibilities, class times, and room assignments may need to be entirely reshuffled or the school may decide to adopt a new and better-suited scheduling structure. If a new schedule is embraced—for example, one with longer class periods (see block schedule)—teachers may need to modify all their lesson plans and the way they typically teach, which could then require specialized training to help teachers adjust to longer class periods. If administrators decide to start the school day at a later time so that teachers can meet early in the morning, another possible option, it could impact bus-transportation schedules and parents may complain because they will have to find and pay for additional childcare. If the school then creates a new early-morning program for students on those late-start days, to avoid the transportation and childcare issues, the program will need to be staffed and funded—another complicated and complicating issue. And given that teacher contracts typically define how many hours a teacher can be asked to work in a week, and how many hours can be devoted to specific kinds of activities, such as meetings, a proposal to create common meeting time could face resistance from unions or require changes in employment contracts and school policies. And, of course, the list of possible complexities could go on.

It should be noted that systemic reform is something of a buzzword in education, and the appearance or use of the term does not necessarily mean that a school or school system is actually executing, in any practical or authentic way, an improvement process that could be accurately labeled “systemic” in any of the senses described above.

For related discussions, see action plan and continuous improvement.

Capstone Project

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Also called a capstone experience, culminating project, or senior exhibition, among many other terms, a capstone project is a multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning-pathway experience. While similar in some ways to a college thesis, capstone projects may take a wide variety of forms, but most are long-term investigative projects that culminate in a final product, presentation, or performance. For example, students may be asked to select a topic, profession, or social problem that interests them, conduct research on the subject, maintain a portfolio of findings or results, create a final product demonstrating their learning acquisition or conclusions (a paper, short film, or multimedia presentation, for example), and give an oral presentation on the project to a panel of teachers, experts, and community members who collectively evaluate its quality.

Capstone projects are generally designed to encourage students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as oral communication, public speaking, research skills, media literacy, teamwork, planning, self-sufficiency, or goal setting—i.e., skills that will help prepare them for college, modern careers, and adult life. In most cases, the projects are also interdisciplinary, in the sense that they require students to apply skills or investigate issues across many different subject areas or domains of knowledge. Capstone projects also tend to encourage students to connect their projects to community issues or problems, and to integrate outside-of-school learning experiences, including activities such as interviews, scientific observations, or internships.

While capstone projects can take a wide variety of forms from school to school, a few examples will help to illustrate both the concept and the general educational intentions:

  • Writing, directing, and filming a public-service announcement that will be aired on public-access television
  • Designing and building a product, computer program, app, or robot to address a specific need, such as assisting the disabled
  • Interning at a nonprofit organization or a legislator’s office to learn more about strategies and policies intended to address social problems, such as poverty, hunger, or homelessness
  • Conducting a scientific study over several months or a year to determine the ecological or environmental impact of changes to a local habitat
  • Researching an industry or market, and creating a viable business plan for a proposed company that is then “pitched” to a panel of local business leaders

For related discussions, see authentic learning, portfoliorelevance, and 21st century skills.

Reform

As a school-reform strategy, capstone projects are often an extension of more systemic school-improvement models or certain teaching philosophies or strategies, such as 21st century skills, community-based learning, proficiency-based learning, project-based learning, or student-centered learning, to name just a few.

The following are a few representative educational goals of capstone projects:

  • Increasing the academic rigor of the senior year. Historically, high school students have taken a lighter course load or left school early during their twelfth-grade year, which can contribute to learning loss or insufficient preparation for first-year college work. A more academically and intellectually challenging senior year, filled with demanding but stimulating learning experiences such as a capstone project, the reasoning goes, can reduce senior-year learning loss, keep students in school longer (or otherwise engaged in learning), and increase preparation for college and work.
  • Increasing student motivation and engagement. The creative nature of capstone projects, which are typically self-selected by students and based on personal interests, can strengthen student motivation to learn, particularly during a time (twelfth grade) when academic motivation and engagement tend to wane.
  • Increasing educational and career aspirations. By involving students in long-term projects that intersect with personal interests and professional aspirations, capstone projects can help students with future planning, goal setting, postsecondary decisions, and career exploration—particularly for those students who may be unfocused, uncertain, or indecisive about their post-graduation plans and aspirations.
  • Improving student confidence and self-perceptions. Capstone projects typically require students to take on new responsibilities, be more self-directed, set goals, and follow through on commitments. Completing such projects can boost self-esteem, build confidence, and teach students about the value of accomplishment. Students may also become role models for younger students, which can cultivate leadership abilities and have positive cultural effects within a school.
  • Demonstrating learning and proficiency. As one of many educational strategies broadly known as demonstrations of learning, capstone projects can be used to determine student proficiency (in the acquisition of knowledge and skills) or readiness (for college and work) by requiring them to demonstrate what they have learned over the course of their project

In recent years, the capstone-project concept has also entered the domain of state policy. In Rhode Island, for example, the state’s high school graduation requirements stipulate that seniors must complete two out of three assessment options, one of which can be a capstone project. Several other states require students to complete some form of senior project, while in other states such projects may be optional, and students who complete a capstone project may receive special honors or diploma recognition.

Debate

Most criticism of or debate about capstone projects is not focused on the strategy itself, or its intrinsic or potential educational value, but rather on the quality of its execution—i.e., capstone projects tend to be criticized when they are poorly designed or reflect low academic standards, or when students are allowed to complete relatively superficial projects of low educational value. In addition, if teachers and students consider capstone projects to be a formality, lower-quality products typically result. And if the projects reflect consistently low standards, quality, and educational value year after year, educators, students, parents, and community members may come to view capstone projects as a waste of time or resources.

Learning Loss

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The term learning loss refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education. While learning loss can manifest in a wide variety of ways for a variety of reasons, the following are a few representative examples of widely recognized forms of learning loss:

  • Summer break: Perhaps the most commonly cited form is “summer learning loss,” which occurs when students take extended breaks in their education during the summer. Since most public schools typically take summer breaks that can last up to two or two-and-a-half months, summer learning loss is a fairly universal and well-documented issue in the United States. Consequently, schools may adopt a variety of strategies intended to mitigate the learning loss that occurs over summer breaks. If students are unprepared upon returning to school in the fall, for example, teachers may review content that was taught the previous year or schools may provide some students with additional instructional time or academic support. Districts and schools may also offer a variety of summer learning programs designed to help students make up lost academic ground, provide greater educational continuity, or accelerate academic progress. Another common strategy is generally known as expanded learning time, which encompasses any attempt to improve learning acquisition, or reduce learning loss, by increasing the amount of time students are in school and receiving instruction from teachers. For a related discussion, see transition.
  • Interrupted formal education: Students may experience significant interruptions in their formal education for a wide variety of reasons. One of the most commonly cited examples is the learning loss experienced by recently immigrated refugee students who, often due to societal unrest in their home countries, have been unable to attend school for extended periods of time—in fact, in some cases these students may never have attended a formal school or may not have attended school for several years. The term “students with interrupted formal education,” or SIFE, is often used in reference to these students.
  • Returning dropouts: If a student returns to school after dropping out for an extended period of time, even multiple years, the student may have experienced significant learning loss or gaps in their education. In these cases, students may need to repeat previous grades, complete additional coursework, or accelerate their learning progress in other ways.
  • Senior year: The senior year of high school is often considered to be a potential source of learning loss. Since high schools commonly have course-credit requirements that allow students to satisfy the majority of their graduation requirements in advance of their senior year, many twelfth-grade students elect to take a reduced course load or leave school after half a day. If students complete their credit requirements in math during eleventh grade, for example, and they do not elect to take math class during twelfth grade, they could be at a disadvantage when taking placement tests or a math course during their first year of college (in fact, these students may be required to take a full-priced remedial math course that does not allow them to earn course credit and satisfy graduation requirements). In addition, some educators and reformers feel that senior-year learning loss represents a missed opportunity for students, and many schools have pursued strategies aimed at mitigating senior-year learning loss, including capstone projects, multifaceted assignments that serve as culminating academic and intellectual experiences for students, or increasing graduation requirements so that students need to take “four years” of math, English, science, and social studies. For related discussions, see core course of study and credit.
  • School absence: A prolonged health-related absence would be another potential source of learning loss, as would any family decision to remove students from school or discontinue their formal education. Another common form of absence is the school suspension or expulsion, which can lead to either minor or significant learning loss. In some cases, districts and schools have explored alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, reasoning that the denial of formal education may not the best way to address behavioral issues or help troubled students who may already be on the path to dropping out or worse, such as choosing criminal pursuits over completing their education and finding gainful employment.
  • Ineffective teaching: Lower-quality teaching can, in some cases, lead to slower academic progress, which produce learning losses in relation to other students or in terms of where students are expected to be at a specific stage in their education. For example, some studies have found evidence that highly effective teachers can teach students up to a year and a half (or more) of content in a single year, while other teachers may teach students only a half year of content over the course of a full year of school. If students receive poor-quality teaching over multiple years, learning losses can compound and grow more severe, decreasing the students’ chances of catching up with their peers or completing school.
  • Course scheduling: While relatively rare, school schedules—if they are not properly designed and coordinated—can lead to learning loss for some students. Perhaps the most commonly discussed examples are certain forms of block scheduling, which can create half-year or yearlong gaps in the continuity of instruction in some subjects, such as in mathematics or world language (most schools that use block scheduling, however, will typically takes steps to avoid such gaps).