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Reinventing Summer School

by Lauren 19. July 2013 11:34

 In the past, summer school has been  used solely as a  remediation tool, where  students who have  failed classes or  missed much class time come  to make up their work in order  to proceed to the following grade level. Not so today. 

Many large school districts, like New York City,Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Providence, Charlotte, and LEP’s nearby Cincinnati Public School System, have decided to use summer classes as a means of preventing summer slide, bolstering knowledge, and reaching students in a more fun and relaxed learning environment.

In these reinvented summer schools, students cover the basics, like reading, writing, and mathematics, but they also benefit from creative activities, like art and music classes, as well as trips to local museums or theaters. This gives teachers the opportunity to truly make learning “fun” and work without the constraints they have placed upon them during the school year. In Jacksonville, a large number of students attend summer school not to make up classes, but to continue their education and prevent falling behind their classmates.

To fund these programs, many schools, especially fiscally challenged districts in Baltimore, Chicago, or Pittsburgh, have looked to philanthropic organizations. In Jacksonville, schools used federal stimulus dollars and a Wallace Foundation Grant to fund summer school programs. They also partnered with several nonprofit organizations, which helped the school set up a variety of field trips. It’s clear that many of these schools have had to get creative with funding, but no matter the source, students will reap the benefits.

In fact, summer slide can be truly problematic for teachers and students. Research shows that summer break causes students to lose at least one month of instruction per year. Low-income students are often disproportionately affected by summer slide. While students from higher economic backgrounds are often able to travel, go to camp, or even enroll in educational classes over the summer, low-income students might be stuck at home or daycare, where they often experience little to no educational stimulation.

With these factors in mind, many educators have long been pushing for a year-round school year, where students have short breaks throughout the year. Having the summers off was logical when students were affected by harvest time, but honestly, it doesn’t make much sense any more. Now, many students live in large cities or suburbs and both parents hold a full-time job, so summer break means sleeping in and spending the day at the pool, watching cartoons, or playing video games. However, summer break seems to be so ingrained in our society, it might be hard for students or parents to give it up. In the meantime, it looks like summer school may be students’ and teachers’ best bet to level the playing field and increase knowledge and engagement.

What do you think about reinvented summer school programs? How will they help students? What are the downsides to summer school? Is year-round school something our government should consider?

Common Core: Testing the Test

by Julie 26. June 2013 16:47

As the school year wrapped up, students were busy taking tests and showing how much they learned. According to Education Week, some students dropped the paper and pencils and instead used new online assessments, which is how the Common Core assessments are expected to administered. Like most practice rounds, some things went well but some problems crept up.

First the problems. Not all computers were created equally. Those that have been in use by schools for a number of years might not be able to use the same programs as more recent computers. If the assessments that are distributed to students are developed using recent technology, either all schools need to upgrade their systems or test makers need to keep in mind that not every student will have access to the same things. Although the tests are able to incorporate more, such as videos, by being online, there are still limitations.

Online tests bring other unique problems. Instead of having a piece of paper in front of them, students have to log in to access the test. They also have to be able to stay logged in. That didn’t always happen. Some students got kicked out of the system. The problem could be anything from the connection with the internet (especially for laptops) to the massive numbers of students in the system at one time. This is what testing the tests is for: to find and fix the problems.

Not everything went wrong though. Students seemed to easily get the hang of testing on the computer. But with the amount of exposure to different kinds of technology, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Many students are growing up learning how to use computers, smart phones, and tablets.

The practice tests also gave teachers a preview of what the Common Core assessments will be asking. Though the standards have already been provided, examples have not, and as we all know, interpretation can vary from person to person. Without sample questions, teachers are struggling to come up with a common understanding of what the standards are asking and the types of questions that students will encounter. Having seen examples, they should hopefully be able to better prepare their students.

Are you concerned about online testing? Or do you think that the capabilities outweigh the possible issues that come with it? How will you prepare students for the new format?

You can learn more about the results of the test here: http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2013/06/12/03commoncore.h06.html

Parent-Trigger Laws: Giving Parents a Voice in the Public School System?

by Lauren 21. March 2013 11:59
If your child is stuck in a failing public school system, new parent-trigger laws may force the under-performing school district to make drastic changes. Parent-trigger laws, laws that allow parents to officially request an overhaul at their child’s school, are now being considered in twelve different states. Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma legislatures are currently reviewing parent-trigger bills. Other states that have these in place already, like Texas, California, and Indiana, are looking at revising their parent-trigger laws. While advocates for the laws believe they help parents make necessary changes for their children’s education, opponents are concerned about the privatization and corporatization of public schools, as well as the disruption it causes for communities.

While there has been concern over parent-trigger laws, California is the only state that has actually put the law in use.  No other schools across the U.S. have been the subject of a parent-trigger bill. Those who support parent-trigger, however, say that the law’s existence alone is a boon to parents.  These laws let parents know they can have a voice in their child’s education. Regardless of income and visibility in the district, all parents will all be able to have a say.

However, parent-trigger could also cause some problems. For instance, if a school is underperforming, will transforming it into a charter school really provide the answer to the problem?  Some charter school operators are just looking for business opportunities and care more about money than they do about education.  Additionally, charter schools could bring more expenses to parents in the long run, where they might be required to foot the bill for their children’s education. While charter schools can often be a positive thing, it seems like turning every government-funded school into a charter school is ignoring the real question: how can we improve public schools?

In Georgia, the parent-trigger bill is close to becoming a reality. This bill allows a majority of parents and teachers in the community to sign a petition in order to change the nature of the underperforming school, most likely to a charter school or other model. Interestingly, the bill highlights the importance of parent and teacher support. If the petition gets support from 60 percent of parents or teachers, two-thirds of district school board members would be required in order to reject the proposed turnaround model. A simple majority of board members, however, could reject a petition from a simple majority of parents or teachers. This idea really seems to keep parents and teachers as the guiding voice of parent-trigger laws.

Comment below! What do you think about parent-trigger laws? Will it cause many public schools to become privatized? Will they give parents and teachers more of a voice in the school district’s style of education? Are charter schools really better for kids? How do you think public schools can improve?

Improving Preschools: Education Priority Number One

by Lauren 14. March 2013 09:50
In order to improve the American education system as a whole, educators are now emphasizing the significance of early childhood education. These early years set the standard for how children learn and how they handle classroom expectations. Even President Obama has spoken about the importance of early childhood education, recognizing that it can help bridge major achievement gaps in higher grade levels. Sadly, recent findings show that many kindergarten students are unprepared for their classroom material. In order to bring kindergartners up to speed, educators point to the need for more high-quality preschools, where students can develop the cognitive skills to succeed in kindergarten, as well as elementary, middle, and even high school.

In fact, the state of Kentucky recently conducted a screening that measured kindergarten readiness; the results showed that quality preschools are needed to help students succeed in kindergarten. Access to good preschools is often based on level of income, where low-income families have less opportunity to send their child to preschool, let alone one that will prepare their child for the rigors of kindergarten. In Louisville, Kentucky, The Courier-Journal reported that two-thirds of the city’s kindergartners were unprepared for academic demands. Only thirty-five percent of students knew the information they needed before entering kindergartner-information that includes knowing numbers, shapes, letters, and being able to differentiate between right and left.

In Louisville, the differences in kindergarten preparedness varied between the city’s 90 elementary schools. Some schools reported 77.3% readiness, while one school reported only a 6.5% readiness rate. The results reflect the wide income and racial gaps in the school district. The Courier-Journal reported that, “Forty percent of white, non-Hispanic students and 58 percent of Asians were prepared for kindergarten districtwide, compared with 30 percent of African Americans, 24.5 percent of low-income students and 16.3 percent of Hispanics.” These results clearly reflect the need for high quality preschools that are available for all students. If students have to play catch-up as soon as they start school, it only makes things more difficult for them in the future. There needs to be a way to level the educational playing field, so every student receives the best education possible.

Interestingly, Kentucky is one of 39 states that offer government-funded preschool to low-income 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds with special needs. However, as budgets have tightened across the U.S., programs like these are receiving less funding than ever before. For example, the Head Start programs and state-subsidized preschool programs in Louisville aided 5,813 kids during the 2010-2011 school year. This year only 5,326 kids are involved. So, what exactly happened to these 500 kids that were removed from the program? Although educators want to make sure programs like these are available to every student who needs them, it is unlikely that more money will be headed their way any time soon.

So, the question remains: how can low-income students receive the same opportunities as higher-income students? What can be done to improve access to preschool for all kids? How much do state-subsidized programs help students? Are they as good at preparing students for kindergarten as private preschools might be?

Sequestration to Drastically Impact Education Budget

by Lauren 6. March 2013 14:34
As of March 1, over 2 billion dollars will officially be cut from the national education budget after politicians failed to reach an agreement over the burgeoning deficit.  The sequestration involves a series of automatic budgetary cuts, which will total to about 1.2 trillion dollars over the course of 10 years. The cuts will be split evenly between defense and domestic areas. These cuts are particularly harrowing in light of the need for educational improvement in the U.S. How can the education system improve when budgets are being slashed? Obviously, these massive cuts will result in teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and delayed purchases of needed technological equipment. Additionally, the cuts are occurring at a particularly hairy time for teachers, since the Common Core State Standards will soon be initiated in classrooms across the U.S. Either way you slice it, these cuts will impact the ways students learn in the classroom.

Although all schools that receive federal funding will be affected, schools in low-income areas will be hit the hardest by the cuts. The sequestration slices Title I spending on low-income students by $725 million. According to eSchoolNews, this will affect nearly 1.2 million students and put nearly 10,000 teachers at risk for their jobs.  Special education spending has also been dramatically cut, and the federal government expects local districts and states to make up for the loss. This will affect 7,200 special education teachers. Sadly, many state and local governments are not in a place to alleviate the educational budget. Ultimately, it seems grossly unjust that schools who need funding the most will be impacted in the worst way. In response to the cuts, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated, “Doing that to our most vulnerable students is economically foolish and morally indefensible.” Indeed.

While K-12 students will be impacted, college students are also facing roadblocks.  In a recent statement, the Education Department pointed out that nearly 29 million college kids with student loans will be affected by the cuts. Likewise, lenders might have to lay off staff or close their doors entirely. Clearly, the sequestration is bad news for students, educators, and the U.S. education system as a whole. Something needs to be done to combat the cuts and promote responsible spending. Unfortunately, most politicians are playing the blame game, and students will be the ones to suffer in their wake.

In a recent report conducted by the American Association of School Administrators, over 400 administrators from 42 states detailed what the cuts would look like at their school. Administrators said they would have to eliminate between 3.7 and 4.8 teaching positions. Increased class sizes, less spending on educational materials, and a decrease in academic and professional programs were also common responses.

What’s your opinion about the cuts? How do you think they will impact your school? What can politicians do to fix the educational budget? Will politicians be able to agree on educational spending?

Controversy and the Common Core

by Lauren 20. February 2013 11:59
While Common Core seems to be pushing forward full-steam ahead, there could be trouble lurking on the tracks. During the past few weeks, Common Core has been making headlines, but mostly all take a negative view on the new standards. In The Huffington Post, 2010 Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling questions if the Common Core “demoralizes” teachers. The state of Indiana is working on legislation where they could ensure the standards are no longer taught in their schools. Former Texas Education Commissioner, Robert Scott, has made it his personal mission to speak out against the Common Core. GED students are also being encouraged to complete their degree in 2013, before the test is drastically changed to the Common Core version. So, with all the negative press, it is clear that many educators are concerned about the inability of the standards to meet the needs of students.

For example, in her article, “Does the Common Core Demoralize Teachers?,” Wessling hashes through some of the major concerns surrounding the standards. She lists her concerns as follows: teachers already have too much to worry about, and the standards just add to the pile; the standards were written by people who are clueless about how a real classroom works; the standards ignore the needs of the student as a whole; and the standards take away teachers’ creativity. Wessling acknowledges the legitimacy of these concerns, especially for teachers who work in districts where funds and resources are limited.  Her article, however, takes a different tone when she encourages teachers to not let the Common Core get them down. Although it is bound to cause some issues, she gives some pointers for making the Core work in the classroom.

Other news, however, has been much more severe. Robert Scott, a past Education Commissioner in Texas, (one of the states that did not accept the Common Core), has been speaking against the standards. He believes the standards are not right for Texas, and he has been encouraging other states to follow suit. In fact, he once called the Common Core a “perversion” of what a real education should look like. In a recent testimony in Georgia, Scott said that he was pressured to sign on to the standards before they were even written. He feels the standards are more of a power grab by the national government and that the Common Core lacks transparency, since it was written behind closed doors. You can see his speech on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=WcpMIUWbgxY In fact, this entire YouTube channel is dedicated to appealing the Common Core, where individuals hope local government will obtain control over local schools.

Leave a comment below! What do you think about the controversy surrounding the Common Core? Is the Common Core too much of a top-down approach, where the national government dictates what schools must do? Or is it necessary for the national government to have a set of standards that keeps education the same for all students? Would local government be able to better meet the needs of a local school?

Best High School Graduation Rates in 34 Years

by Lauren 23. January 2013 16:56
Approximately 78.2% of public high school students are completing high school in four years, a percentage that hasn’t been this high since 1976. The National Center for Education Statistics revealed yesterday that over 3.1 million high school students graduated in 2010 (which is when the most recent data is available). The center bases their data on the averaged freshman graduation rate, which is an estimate of students who graduate in four years. While this is positive news, there has been much speculation on the underlying reasons for this change.

Although the center does not analyze why graduation rates are up, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made it clear that the economy is the underlying reason.  He stated, “If you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there out there for you? None.” He also mentioned that 15 to 20 years ago, non-high school graduates could easily find a job, buy a home, and provide for their family. This isn’t the case today. Finding a job is usually highly competitive, and because of the economy, part-time jobs and internships can often be hard for students to find. Thus, more students are recognizing the importance of graduation-and how it can set them on the right track for the rest of their lives.

Other education officials thought the growth was promising but still see obvious room for improvement. For instance, the NCES showed that graduation rates are still lower for many minorities, like American Indian and African-American students. Interestingly, the statistics show that Asian/Pacific Islander students graduate at the highest rate at 93.5%, then Caucasian students at 83%, Hispanic students at 71.4%, American Indian/Alaska Native students at 69.1%, and African-American students at 66.1 percent.  Secretary Duncan was particularly pleased, however, that the graduation rate for Hispanic students has improved. Their rate jumped nearly ten percentage points. Most educators believe that closing these gaps is the key to raising the rate overall.

In the same strain, many states have dramatically different graduation rates. Nevada only has a 57.8% graduation rate, and Washington D.C. students are only at 60%. Vermont, on the other end of the spectrum, has a 91.4% graduation rate, and Wisconsin also has 91%. Additionally, the national drop-out rate is about 3%, with Arizona being the highest state for drop-outs at 8%, and Mississippi following closely behind at 7%.

Why do you think the graduation rate has increased? What can be done to close the graduation gap between minorities? What about the gap between states? Is there a financial link between a state and its graduation rate?

The State of Texas Assessments for Academic Readiness (STAAR) Take Center Stage in The Lone Star State

by Lauren 9. January 2013 09:10
In the spring of 2012, the state of Texas overhauled their student assessments and introduced the new State of Texas Assessments for Academic Readiness (STAAR). Unlike the TAKS, the state’s old testing system that had been in place since 2003, STAAR is much more demanding and requires students to use their critical thinking and application skills, as well as demonstrate their knowledge.  Since this immense change requires time for teachers to adjust their lesson plans, the final requirements for STAAR are being slowly phased in. The testing requirements will grow in rigor each year until 2016, when the final performance requirements will arrive. After the first year of STAAR’s implementation, most educators find the new testing system promising. Throughout the state, students met expectations and, oftentimes, outperformed them.

In order to create this new testing system, public school & college educators, as well as testing experts, came together to develop new educational standards. Students are now tested on the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), which are composed of Readiness Standards and Supporting Standards. Although Texas has not accepted the Common Core Standards, the TEKS are designed specifically to meet the increasing educational demands in a globalizing world. Most importantly, STAAR and the TEKS are meant to assess students’ college and career readiness. Educators believe this will help students make the transition from high school to college a little smoother. With more students taking AP courses and attending college, it is easy to see that STAAR is intended to take students to the next level.

In fact, the most significant changes between STAAR and the TAKS occur in high school.  Instead of the four tests students were required to pass in order to graduate, students will now have to pass twelve different subject exams. It is easy to see that this will require much more time and preparation, both for teachers and students.

Although college preparedness is vital, some teachers believe too much class time is spent on state testing.  Instead of gaining important skills, teachers often have to spend time focusing on assessment-specific material in order for their school to receive the grade or funds they need. Unfortunately, testing can often be more about making the school look good than ensuring that students are actually learning and growing. Likewise, general testing cannot always assess students’ knowledge accurately.  Students’ brains works differently; it seems almost silly to believe that one basic test will meet everyone’s needs and be able to accurately determine what a student has learned.

What do you think about state testing? Does it help students and schools in the long run? Or is it too broad and general? What do you think about Texas’ plan to gradually introduce STAAR requirements?

For more information on STAAR: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=2147504081&menu_id=692&menu_id2=796 

Check out our new test preparation system for STAAR, including student workbooks, parent/teacher editions, and flashcards.

Will Fiction Take a Hit Under the Common Core?

by Lauren 2. January 2013 13:23
Although a new year has started, concerns still surround the controversial Common Core standards. During the last few weeks, several major news outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, NPR, and The Washington Post, have reported on the Common Core’s standards for English, which emphasize a large percentage of nonfiction reading over fiction reading. In fact, younger students are encouraged to divide their reading in half (50% fiction and 50% nonfiction); the reading ratio for high school students is a shocking 30% fiction and 70% nonfiction. Educators are worried this new emphasis on nonfiction and informative writing will eliminate the use of many pieces of great fiction in the classroom. As the editor at The Los Angeles Times so adeptly put it, “This has led to allegations that T.S. Eliot will make way for Environmental Protection Agency reports and that "Great Expectations" will be dumped in favor of, well, lower expectations.” Unfortunately, with these percentages, it seems clear that the Common Core will alter the way fiction is taught in the classroom.

Of course, advocates of the Common Core say that the standards are not intended to eliminate the presence of literature in English classes. Instead, in history, science, and math classes, students will read many nonfiction and informative pieces. The standards focus heavily on primary sources, where students are meant to critically analyze texts. The creators of the standards believe this approach will better prepare students for college, where the majority of the texts college students read and analyze are nonfiction. Although readings of Thoreau’s Walden along with The Gettysburg Address show some hope for nonfiction reading, the 70% percent rule will surely eliminate some of the great classic pieces of English literature from the classroom.

For instance, at the high school level, students are given ten major standards in order to learn about nonfiction. These ten go hand-in-hand with the ten fiction requirements. Surely, as the editor at The Los Angeles Times points out, one piece of nonfiction will not cover all the requirements. To cover them thoroughly, the editor estimated that 40% of English class time will be devoted to nonfiction. In the same strain, since the Common Core tests are only for English and Math, English teachers will have to take on the burden of these changes. If students do not test well, English teachers will be criticized. Similarly, history and science teachers might be less likely to add nonfiction pieces to their class, since frankly, their students will not be tested on it. This means English classes might bear the brunt of the nonfiction changes.

While students who learn to analyze and write about what they read, whether it is nonfiction or fiction, are able to be more successful in college, taking out staple pieces of literature is not the answer. Great literature is universal, it teaches students about the world around them, and it enables them to see the world in a different light. Surely, nonfiction cannot help students grow, develop, and mature in the same way.

What do you think? Should nonfiction be taught more than fiction? What would be the consequences?

For further information be sure to check out this recently published editorial piece in The Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-1227-fiction-20121227,0,5254333.story

Or listen to NPR

More Class Time for Children in Five States

by Lauren 19. December 2012 15:37
In order to keep U.S. education competitive, five states have recently decided to extend classroom hours. As part of a three-year pilot program, certain schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee will all see longer hours, a drastic change that will affect 20,000 students in 40 schools. In fact, starting in 2013, these schools plan on adding over 300 learning hours to the calendar, either by extending the hours of a normal school day or by adding extra days to the calendar. This change stems from the desire of educational leaders, who believe spending more time in the classroom will give students access to information they might not have received before, particularly in more “critical” areas like math and science.

For the past several years, discussions have revolved around the quality (or lack thereof) of the American public school system. Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes American students have fallen immensely behind their counterparts in China and India, who spend much more time in class. Earlier in his career, Duncan mentioned that American schools should be open six or seven days a week and run 11 or 12 months out of the year. It is clear that other educators feel similarly. With the rise of charter schools, new student testing (like the Common Core Standards), and teacher evaluations, it is clear that some educators and parents want reform.

Additionally, education officials also believe that extended school hours are the best way to prepare students for success in the workplace. With extra time, teachers can craft a well-rounded education plan. For instance, instructors can emphasize the importance of art and music and aid students who have fallen behind. Educators also hope students will be able to become intensely familiar with technology by learning specific software programs or receiving training on how to write computer code.

However, these extra hours can be costly. In general, federal, district, and state funds are covering these schools’ extended hours. In Massachusetts, schools are also getting funds from the state’s expanded-learning program, and in Connecticut, a recent education reform law will help provide extra support. Not only is it more costly, but extended hours have also been a major point of contention for teachers. Earlier this year, the teacher’s strike in Chicago was due in part to longer school hours. Eventually, Chicago schools’ hours were extended.  It remains to be seen how teachers’ unions will work with these extended hours. Perhaps, if teachers were paid and valued more, like in many European countries, American schools would not have to worry about extending hours at all.

Is It Worth the Money?

While extending hours is clearly pricy, others question the actual benefits for students. In the high-performing countries of South Korea, Finland, and Japan, students spend much less time in the classroom. These schools often use unique approaches to learning, where quality is emphasized over number of hours.

What do you think about extending hours in the classroom? Will it be more beneficial for students? Will it make the American education system more competitive? What would you change about U.S. schools?

For more information, check out this article about education in Finland, one of the world’s top-performers in educational testing: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

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