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21st-century learning

The problems in public education are worrisome and well-documented: lagging math and science scores, shaky skills in reading and writing, growing numbers of students reaching college ill-prepared—or simply not getting there at all.

Eighth graders in Main Street Middle School in the Soledad (Calif.) Unified School District take honors Algebra I.

Algebra I has long served as a gateway to higherlevel math courses and science courses, such as physics, and has been required for high school graduation as well as admission to most colleges. But taking algebra also can turn into a pathway for failure, from which some students never recover. In 2010, a national U.S. Department of Education study found that 80 percent of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as the primary reason for leaving school.

• Establish clear expectations and
deadlines from the start

• Be in regular communication
with students, using whole group
and individual email, phone calls,
and chat features

• Guide students through projects,
activities and problems with
carefully-crafted directions

• Pay attention to online voice: be
positive, personal, professional,
and approachable

• Provide regular and timely feedback

• Model good online behavior and
encourage student reflection

• Listen to and learn from students

Students are doing less hand-raising and more clicking as online classes become increasingly popular in K12 instruction, both in combination with brick-and-mortar classrooms and in independent full-time virtual schools. “It’s exploding,” says Barbara Treacy, director of EdTech Leaders Online, a program of the nonprofit Education Development Center that works with educational organizations to develop online courses and professional development. “What we’re going to see in the future is a spectrum of blended courses, and the rare classroom that is 100 percent face-to-face.” 

So long, clunky desks. No more one-size fits all. Instead, cumbersome one piece desk-chair combos are slowly disappearing from classrooms. Institutional-style, heavy wooden desks dominated the school furniture scene for most of the past 100 years. However, as instruction shifts to a learner-centric, individualized approach with a focus on small group activities, heavy furniture that small hands cannot move on their own have become less desirable, according to John Musso, executive director for the Association of School Business Offcials (ASBO). 

Just 20 miles from Manhattan sits the community of Roslyn Heights, N.Y., where its 3,300 students are among the best and brightest, consistently scoring above county, state, and national averages on standardized tests and College Board exams. In the last few years, the Roslyn (N.Y.) Public Schools implemented the latest technology and exposed students to world culture. 

A great privilege early in my career was editing the original words of the Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher, Jean Piaget, for one of his few articles directed to teachers. As a doctoral student, I had been captivated by Piaget’s theories that children pass through four major intellectual development stages, which influenced the federallyfunded “lab-centered” curriculum programs of the era—particularly in science and mat —and I later wrote chapters on Piagetian psychology for three texts.

• Have regular classroom teachers collaborate with ESL counterparts to create lessons that help ESL students master the learning required by state standards.

• Focus in the classroom on project-based learning and small-group projects that call for the development of English language in areas from science to social studies.

• Provide aides in ESL classrooms who speak the most frequently occurring native languages of students in the district.

The University of Rhode Island (URI) has an ESL certification program that is growing like “mad,” with 90 masters candidates enrolled, according to Nancy Cloud, the coordinator for the program that leads to a masters’ degree in education and ESL certification.

ESL certification is so valuable in K12 education now because the demands for ESL teachers are growing while regular classroom positions are being eliminated in some districts, she adds.

Minneapolis Public Schools

English as a Second Language programs have historically focused on Spanish-speaking students, but the ESL map is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is challenging K12 schools to cope with a burgeoning number of different native languages—more than 100 in some locations—as new immigrants arrive in districts across the country.