Monthly Archives: June 2009

Changes to national teacher education standards announced

Inside Higher Ed reports:

Teacher education programs are now required to meet higher standards or increase their emphasis on classroom training in order to achieve accreditation, according to new guidelines being announced today by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

One of the organization’s new requirements asks teacher education programs to “demonstrate continuous improvement toward excellence.” This means they must meet NCATE’s highest — not just “acceptable” — levels of achievement in six areas, ranging from candidate knowledge and diversity to faculty qualifications.

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Public school districts must pay for private special education, Supreme Court finds

NPR reports:

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that school districts could be required to reimburse students who choose special education programs at private schools even if they did not try the public school’s special education offerings first.

NJ high school, focused on learning communities, achieves 100% graduation rate

The AP, via MSNBC, reports:

MetEast [High School in Camden, NJ] graduated its first class of seniors on Friday.

It opened in 2005 as a laboratory for education in a city where the schools are part of an entanglement of problems.

It’s one of about 60 schools nationwide established with the help of Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit with offices in San Diego and Providence, R.I. Three Big Picture schools are scheduled to open in Newark this fall.

The schools are small and very different from traditional schools. MetEast has just over 100 students — less than one-tenth the enrollment at each of the city’s comprehensive high schools. The educators are called “advisers,” not teachers, and they advise the same group of students all four years.

Classes are built around the idea that students will learn by following their passions. Students do internships. Graduation requirements include a senior project with the aim of doing some good for the community.

“Our students have the same issues, dilemmas and challenges as students at the larger high schools,” says principal Timothy Jenkins. The graduating class includes students who became pregnant or homeless but still made it through school.

All 30 students who began as freshman at MetEast four years ago have graduated from high school somewhere, including a handful that have moved or transferred, Jenkins says.

Fighting social stereotypes with the aid of video games

Note: this is cross-posted with my Cognitive Science Blog

Science Daily reports:

Social problems like bullying and stereotyping involve thoughts, feelings and reactions that resist change. New research shows that when students play active roles in virtual dramas their attitudes and behaviour can change.
In 2006, a group of European educators, psychologists and IT specialists realised that emotionally driven problems, such as bullying, stereotyping and scapegoating demanded emotionally compelling interventions.
The researchers set out to create virtual worlds with characters that children could interact and empathise with powerfully enough to change their own attitudes and behaviour.
The EU-funded research project eCIRCUS (Education through Characters with emotional-Intelligence and Role-playing Capabilities that Understand Social interaction) has now produced two programs – FearNot! and ORIENT – that give students helpful roles in interactive virtual worlds, where they can learn to change their thoughts, feelings and actions.
Finding new ways to resolve such problems is important, says eCIRCUS coordinator Ruth Aylett, because they are pervasive, hurtful, and can cause lasting psychological damage.
“Knowledge-based interventions don’t necessarily succeed,” says Aylett. “If we’re able to reduce victimisation, we’re giving people a way to get out of a very painful situation and improve the quality of their lives.”
FearNot! – help for bullied children
The eCIRCUS researchers first focused on primary school children who were the victims of bullying. They drew on recent psychological theories that highlight the importance of feelings for changing how people treat each other.
“Emotion is an essential part of human interaction,” says Aylett, “so education about human social interaction must include feelings.”
The theories led them to expect that if they could get children to empathise with and try to help victims of bullying in a virtual world, the children could try out different strategies, experience the results, and develop better ways to deal with bullying in their own lives.
The researchers used a computer program, called FearNot! (Fun with Empathic Agents to Achieve Novel Outcomes in Teaching), that had been developed as an initial small prototype by an earlier European research effort called VICTEC.
The eCIRCUS team made FearNot! much richer in content and more open-ended. For example, they provided virtual bullying victims with the ability to remember strategies that they have tried. Those memories allow the virtual characters to reject approaches that have failed and ask the children who are helping them in the simulation to come up with better ideas.
“We are the first people to produce software for dealing with bullying that is not pre-scripted,” says Aylett. “We’ve produced something that is genuinely interactive to the individual responses of each child.”
To test the effectiveness of FearNot!, the eCIRCUS team tried it out with close to 1000 students in 30 primary schools across Germany and the UK.
The researchers tested FearNot! by comparing a group of users and a control group of non-users, similar to the method used for testing medical treatments.
Students in selected classes spent a total of 1.5 hours playing FearNot! over the course of three weeks.
The results were encouraging. “It definitely reduces victimisation in the short term,” says Aylett. “It has a significant positive effect even at this low exposure.”
Although further work is needed to demonstrate long-term effects, Aylett is confident that if all the children in a school experienced FearNot! over a longer term, and as part of a social learning curriculum, bullying and victimisation would be reduced.
“FearNot! has achieved its objectives very well,” says Aylett. “You’d need a games or educational software company to take it further.”
ORIENT – empathising with newcomers
While FearNot! has younger children interacting with cartoon-like characters in a simple world, ORIENT immerses older students in a much more vivid and complex virtual world, where they learn to empathise with and accept newcomers from other cultures.
In ORIENT, three students are equipped with various handheld control devices and “beamed down” as a team to save the planet Orient.
Planet Orient is populated by aliens called Sprytes, who look rather like large bipedal tree frogs and who have their own language and customs. Students have to learn a lot about the Sprytes and empathise with them in order to help them.
“We wanted users to feel adrift in this alien culture,” says Aylett. “How can you empathise with new people in your own culture if you’ve never experienced being adrift yourself?”
The software that shapes what happens as students interact with the Sprytes acts like the director of an improvisational drama. The software starts and ends scenes, chooses which characters appear, and can impose challenges such as a storm.
Each Spryte has its own goals, feelings and memories that control what it does and that can change based on experience. The interaction between the Sprytes and the students produces an unpredictable “emergent narrative”.
“There’s no fixed plot,” says Aylett. “Our characters are acting autonomously, making up their minds as they go.”
According to Aylett, students standing in front of a large screen and interacting with these psychologically believable aliens soon respond as if they were real. “ORIENT produces the feeling of really being there,” she says.
Although ORIENT needs further development and testing, Aylett believes it has the potential to help solve a major social problem by spurring students to change their attitudes toward students from other cultures.
“It’s the attitudes of the host community that can either make new students welcome or make their lives miserable,” she says.

Social problems like bullying and stereotyping involve thoughts, feelings and reactions that resist change. New research shows that when students play active roles in virtual dramas their attitudes and behaviour can change.

In 2006, a group of European educators, psychologists and IT specialists realised that emotionally driven problems, such as bullying, stereotyping and scapegoating demanded emotionally compelling interventions.

The EU-funded research project eCIRCUS (Education through Characters with emotional-Intelligence and Role-playing Capabilities that Understand Social interaction) has now produced two programs – FearNot! and ORIENT – that give students helpful roles in interactive virtual worlds, where they can learn to change their thoughts, feelings and actions.

The eCircus Web site is here.

California schools face potentially devestating budget cuts

The AP (via USA Today) reports:

California’s historic budget crisis threatens to devastate a public education system that was once considered a national model but now ranks near the bottom in school funding and academic achievement.Deep budget cuts are forcing California school districts to lay off thousands of teachers, expand class sizes, close schools, eliminate bus service, cancel summer school programs, and possibly shorten the academic year.

The unprecedented budget cuts mark a new low for a once highly regarded public school system that began its decline in 1978, when voters approved Proposition 13, which undercut counties’ ability to raise property taxes and generate revenue. The ballot measure shifted the responsibility of funding schools to the state and made it more difficult to increase education funding.

California schools now rank at or near the bottom nationally in academic performance, student-teacher ratios in middle and high school, access to guidance counselors and the percentage of seniors who go directly to four-year colleges, according to a February report by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

In its annual survey this year, Education Week magazine ranked California 47th in per-pupil spending and gave the state a D in academic achievement.

Phoenix-area district faces elimination of its ethnic studies curriculum

The Arizona Daily Star reports:

A Tucson lawmaker and the state’s schools chief are moving to make ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District illegal.
If a bill set for a hearing in the state Legislature next week is approved, the city’s largest school district would have to get rid of the ethnic-based programs in four of its high schools or risk losing 10 percent of their state funding each month.
If the classes were eliminated, the money would be returned.

“Ethnic studies programs … are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said in a news release Friday. “I have tried for two years, using publicity and persuasion, to attempt to convince the Tucson Unified School District to put a stop to this dysfunctional program. They have refuse

New report argues that K-12 teacher evaluations are flawed

The Denver Post reports:

Excellent teaching goes unrecognized and poor teaching is ignored across the country and in Denver, according to a national study that says failed policies make teachers as interchangeable as widgets.

The two-year study called “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness” examined four states and 12 school districts, including those in Denver and Pueblo. It found common patterns: that teacher effectiveness rarely factors into decisions, such as how teachers are hired, fired or promoted.

“If you ask a superintendent and head of a union to name the top teachers and the bottom teachers, they couldn’t tell you,” said Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy for the New Teacher Project — the national nonprofit that conducted the study. “It goes back to the widget effect, which is the flawed assumption that each teacher is as good as the next.”

The study released Monday recommends districts adopt fair evaluation systems; train administrators to conduct the evaluations; tie evaluations to compensation and dismissal; and give poorly performing teachers a dignified way out.

The full Widget Effect report is available here.