Monthly Archives: July 2016

Why Must to School Inspections

Educators have gotten used to poring over spreadsheets filled with test scores to get a sense of their students’—and schools’—strengths and weaknesses.

What they don’t often see: feedback from other teachers, administrators, and students who can offer a fresh perspective on where a school stands when it comes to instruction, resources, climate, financial efficiency, and more.

A handful of states—including, recently, Vermont—have worked to change that, using a model borrowed from other countries and known in Great Britain as “school inspections,” in which a team of experts or educators visits a school and offers objective feedback on teaching, learning, management and more.

Several states have experimented with the model for their lowest-performing schools, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York, said Craig Jerald, the president of Break the Curve Consulting, who has studied the strategy.

Vermont, by contrast, plans to eventually conduct inspections, which it calls “integrated field reviews,” in all its schools, whether low-performing or not. The state began piloting the program last school year in about 40 schools and is continuing to test it this year in about 50, with the ultimate goal of reviewing each school every three years.

Refining the Process

Vermont is still figuring out how the reviews could be used to support schools under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, said Josh Souliere, the state’s assistant director of education quality reviews. The reviews aren’t expected to be used for federal accountability, but they could be a component of state-level “technical assistance” for low-performing schools, he said.

But the true purpose of the reviews is to help educators and district leaders get a sense of how a range of factors—including curriculum coordination, instruction, personalized learning, and the social and emotional health of students—affect the overall success of a school and its “supervisory union” (Vermont’s term for local education agencies).

“These reviews are intended to measure the things that we can’t measure quantitatively, making sure students are experiencing an equitable education, both across the district and within a school,” said Lori Dolezal, an education quality manager at the Vermont education department, who took part in some of the reviews conducted last school year. “It’s not punitive, it’s exploratory. It’s OK to find problems of practice. That’s the whole point.”

Personalized Look

Under Vermont’s pilot, a team of 15 to 20 reviewers—among them teachers, specialists, central-office staff, officials from the state education agency, and even students—visit a particular supervisory union. Then they break up into teams of about three or four people and head out to individual schools.

Those teams will spend about half a day at a school collecting “evidence.” That can mean conducting interviews with teachers, students, and parents, and observing classes. Teams also consider supporting documents that get at how well the school is implementing the state’s education quality standards, including local tests, curriculum materials, budgets, and policies and procedures. A second team will visit the school for the second half of the day and perform a similar review.

A school can rebut anything in the formal report that leaders think is unfair or inaccurate.

At least for now, it’s up to local administrators and educators to decide what to do with the information.

School officials who took part in last year’s process generally say the feedback was illuminating and felt supportive—even if the prospect of reviewers coming in and judging a school made some educators nervous at first.

“It felt very personalized,” said Emilie Knisley, the superintendent of the 450-student Blue Mountain district in northeast Vermont. “It felt like you could take the recommendations and take action on them in a way that you can’t when you’re just getting a set of test scores.”

Knisley also served as a reviewer herself, visiting schools in other parts of the state. That was eye-opening, too.

“It ended up resulting in a lot of people being able to share experiences across schools” and get ideas they could take back to their own systems, she said. “It’s rare that you get to talk to people in other districts.”

Already, in some cases, the reports have helped nudge school boards, which often oversee supervisory-union budgets, to provide funding for resources reviewers felt were lacking.

For instance, the team visiting Knisley’s district noted that some students didn’t have access to the same classroom technology as others in the same school. That gave local leaders ammunition to ask the school board for money to install new interactive white boards in elementary classrooms.

How to Choosing a Perfect Bag for Your Child

A child totes his backpack around all year long, so finding the right satchel, knapsack, or carryall can be the difference between daily ease and constant discomfort. Find the very best backpack for your child by keeping three simple factors in mind.

Consider Your Child’s Life

How your child uses his backpack will determine the type of bag needed. Older kids who carry heavy books back and forth to school may need more supportive backpacks with ergonomic shoulder straps as well as belts that go across the waist and chest. Young children who typically only need to tote a few papers and a sack lunch can opt for lighter-weight backpacks. Remember to think about activities your child uses his bag for outside of school. If he takes his backpack camping or to swim practice, for example, you may want to select a bag with weatherproof fabric.

Make Sure It’ll Last

Kids go through a lot in a year, and it really takes a toll on their backpacks. Because of the rough-and-tumble student lifestyle, kids’ backpacks should be sturdy so that they last through the school year and beyond. Look for bags with water and tear resistant fabric, as well as reinforced shoulder straps.

It Has to be Cool

Lastly, it’s important for your child to have a say in the style and color of his backpack. A child will wear his backpack almost everyday of the school year, so finding a design that makes him smile is essential. Look for interesting patterns or colors that your child will like. And don’t forget that you can always make a backpack a little more special with a monogram of your child’s initials or a few pins and patches.

Focusing on these three backpack factors will help you find the perfect satchel for your child at the end of summer. Enjoy searching for the perfect backpack with your child, and have a great back-to-school season!

What is Micro-Schools

From San Francisco to Austin, Texas, to New York, new forms of schooling termed micro-schools are popping up.

As of yet, there is no common definition that covers all these schools, which vary not only by size and cost but also in their education philosophies and operating models. Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.

As Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, writes, “What makes a modern micro-school different from a 19th century, one-room schoolhouse is that old school schools only had a few ways to teach — certainly no software, no tutors, and probably less structure around student to student learning. In a modern micro-school, there are ways to get good data from each of these venues. And the great micro-school of the future will lean on well-designed software to help adults evaluate where each kid is learning.”

Several factors are driving their emergence. Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education. These families want an option other than home schooling that will personalize instruction for their child’s needs. A school in which students attend a couple days a week or a small school with like-minded parents can fit the bill.

Some trace the micro-school’s origins to the United Kingdom, where over the past decade people began applying the term micro-schools to small independent and privately funded schools that met at most two days a week. As in the United States, the impetus for their formation was dissatisfaction with local schooling options. Although home-schooling families have for some time created cooperatives to gain some flexibility for the adults and socialization for the children, the micro-schooling phenomenon is more formal.


One of the early U.S. micro-schools, QuantumCamp was founded in the winter of 2009 in Berkeley, California, out of a dare that one couldn’t teach quantum physics in a simple way. The result was the development of a course that would be accessible to children as young as 12. The school now offers a complete hands-on math and science curriculum for students in 1st through 8th grade, and serves about 150 home schoolers during the school year; double that number attend the summer program. Tuition ranges from $600 to $2,400 depending on the program and enrollment period. In 2013 QuantumCamp introduced language arts courses. Each academic class meets once a week for an activity-based exploration of big ideas and then offers out-of-class content that includes videos, readings, problem sets, podcasts, and other activities to enable students to continue exploring concepts at their own pace.

Acton Academy

At roughly the same time as QuantumCamp’s founding, in Austin, Texas, Jeff Sandefer, founder of the nationally acclaimed Acton School of Business, and his wife Laura, who has a master’s degree in education, launched Acton Academy. In creating the five-day-a-week, all-day school, the couple sought to ensure that their own children wouldn’t be “talked at all day long” in a traditional classroom. The Acton Academy’s mission is “to inspire each child and parent who enters [its] doors to find a calling that will change the world.” The school promises that students will embark on a “hero’s journey” to discover the unique contributions that they can make toward living a life of meaning and purpose.

With tuition of $9,515 per year, Acton Academy initially enrolled 12 students and has since 2009 grown to serve 75 students in grades 1 to 9. The school has learning guides—they aren’t called teachers—whose role is to push students to own their learning. The model enables the academy to have far fewer on-site adults per student than a traditional independent school and to operate at a cost of roughly $4,000 per student per year.

Acton compresses students’ core learning into a two-and-a-half-hour personalized-learning period each day during which students learn mostly online. This affords time for three two-hour project-based learning blocks each week, a Socratic seminar each day, game play on Fridays, ample art and physical education offerings, and many social experiences. The Socratic discussions teach students to talk, listen, and challenge ideas in a face-to-face circle of peers and guides. The projects require the students to work in teams to apply the knowledge they have learned. They also foster a ‘‘need to know’’ mind-set to motivate the online learning and provide a public, portfolio-based means for students to demonstrate achievement.

Early results appear impressive, as the first group of students gained 2.5 grade levels of learning in their first 10 months. Now the school is spreading. There are currently eight Acton Academies operating—seven of them in the United States. Twenty-five are slated to be open by 2015. The Sandefers are not operating them, however; they provide communities that want to open an Acton clone a do-it-yourself kit plus limited consulting and access to wiki discussion groups. They are developing a game-based learning tool to help prepare Acton Academy owners and the learning guides in the schools. Tuition at the academies ranges from $4,000 per year to $9,900.