A Commitment to Every Child

Last month, I had the privilege of visiting a school recently recognized by the Department of Education as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. As a teacher, I was well aware of the high standards that the program requires of selected schools and the prestige associated with the National Blue Ribbon School program. Reading about the achievements of a National Blue Ribbon school is certainly impressive, but visiting one of these schools is a wonderful reminder of all the positive things happening in our nation’s schools.

Forestbrook Middle School, located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, serves more than 1,200 students. While the school’s motto of, “Excellence, Every Day, Everywhere” reflects what you find at Forestbrook, the school’s culture was perhaps best captured by a social studies teacher’s comment. The teacher said that he was motivated by the desire to “see every child grow,” and the collective commitment to this goal was apparent in each of the more than 20 classrooms I observed and in every conversation I had with adults and students.

To ensure the success of each child, the staff at Forestbrook has instituted a wide range of strategies and interventions. Two full-time instructional coaches assist teachers in analyzing student data from formative and summative assessments. As a teacher noted, “The entire point of evaluation and assessment should be to drive instruction,” and in planning sessions, I saw teams of teachers together crafting and developing instruction tailored to the academic needs of each student.

This data-driven instruction was bolstered by incredible use of technology to enhance instruction. Every Forestbrook student is assigned an iPad, which teachers use to create engaging learning environments and to gather real-time feedback on student understanding. The effectiveness of the technology integration is enhanced by a school culture that prizes and prioritizes collaboration, as exemplified by the redesign of the class schedule to provide space and time for teachers to engage in weekly planning by grade level and by subject area.

But more than anything, what makes Forestbrook an exemplary place to learn is that student success lies at the heart of everything teachers do. In a planning meeting, I heard a teacher comment that the driving force is not “ego, but in wanting to do what kids need.” This type of statement isn’t novel in education, but seeing it in the authentic commitment to every Forestbrook student’s success is a reminder of how powerful it can be when a staff and community rally to ensure that children receive the best possible education. The National Blue Ribbon program does a great job shining the spotlight on schools like Forestbrook, where the focus remains exactly where it should be every day in school …on the success of each child.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Applying for the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program: Reaching Beyond My Walls for Students

Early in my teaching career I remember wishing other people would just “leave me alone” to do my job. I loved working with my students and was wholly committed to their success, but often felt like the non-instructional components of my job—professional development, staff meetings, and so on—kept me from doing my best as their teacher. As a result, I had little interest in the educational world outside of the four walls of my classroom.

In recent years, however, through some discussions at the local and state level, I have come to realize the limitations of this mentality. So, I was intrigued last year when a former student’s parent forwarded me information about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship (TAF) with the U.S. Department of Education. In the past, I would have deleted the email, but I decided to submit an application. After several rounds of interviews, I was selected as a TAF for the 2015-2016 school year. Though only one quarter through my Fellowship year, I can now say that applying was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made.

I teach Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, so the opportunity to learn and participate in the federal policymaking process as a TAF simply can’t help but enrich my instruction. Also, through my TAF Team, I get to work with some of the most thoughtful, passionate and brilliant educators I have ever encountered and with staff members at the Department whose dedication to students is both energizing and inspirational. Most importantly, however, I have come to realize the simple reality that in 2015 it is no longer possible for a teacher to wall off his or her classroom from outside influences. As a TAF, I have an opportunity to lend my voice and experiences to shape education policy in our country and to better understand the decisions that are made in Washington, D.C., versus the state capital in Columbia, S.C., or at the district office here in Richland School District Two.

Moreover, as a result of my work as a TAF, I am finding myself slowly letting go of some of the focus on “my students,” not for any lessor commitment to their success, but, rather, because I am realizing how ALL students are OUR students. Our collective success as a country does not depend on your students or mine, it depends on all students being prepared to lead and thrive in our future world. Their collective success requires me to share my voice and expertise beyond the walls of my classroom. For myself, I can’t envision a better way to do this than as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and I encourage other educators to consider taking that step beyond your classroom walls and apply.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, S.C., and a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

A Call to End Racial Harassment on Campuses

Recently, the Department held a meeting with campus leaders from around the country — presidents, faculty, legal experts and student leaders — to tackle the issue of racial harassment on campuses and to lay out solutions to foster supportive educational environments. In the wake of recent incidents of racial harassment on college campuses across the country, Secretary Duncan penned an Op-Ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to share highlights from the meeting.

Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, was in attendance and wrote a statement in solidarity to the Rutgers community, sharing the university’s support for students calling for an end to racial harassment on campuses and for institutions of higher education to do their part to make social change.

Dear Members of the Rutgers University-Newark Community:

As the world continues to process the horror of the violence that claimed so many innocent lives in Paris on Friday night, we, too, at Rutgers University – Newark feel profound shock and bewilderment.  Our minds go to other places – to Beirut and Kenya, to the children lost at sea seeking freedom, to the lives lost that so mattered in Ferguson and Baltimore and on, to the seemingly endless instances in our daily lives, on our campuses – even ours – when difference cloaks bigotry or just ignorance, when we fail to listen to the other, fail to give the respect they deserve and manage instead, perhaps without intent, to hurt those with whom we should be sharing one community.  How can this keep happening?

We sit here, in a city made global by waves of migration over many generations, a place whose heart beats to a rhythm of opportunity-seeking that knows no boundaries of land of origin, language, race, ethnicity, a gathering of peaceful peoples pursuing different faiths and common desires.  Yet we see also around us the scarring consequences of decade after decade, group after group, strangers to each other, enemies even within the same land, separated by an architecture of segregation, an economy of inequality, a politics of polarization, a dogma of intolerance.  We witness the loss of a new future, struck down.  And we wonder aloud, what we can do differently?

We can take seriously what we all know to be profoundly true, the diversity of our university and its home community with all its ties to heritages far and wide is the power we have – arguably the only power we have – to make a fairer, safer, more just, less violent, more peaceful future.  This is it, so what shall we do to act together in that power?

We shall answer the call of our students to rally in solidarity with other students facing racial harassment on campuses from Missouri to Ithaca and on, as they stand here echoing the courageous voices of the Black Organization of Students at Conklin Hall and the Minority Student Program at the Law School.

Join me as I join too, and do so, as they call us to do, with an eye toward looking too at ourselves, for we have the benefit of numbers here, the vibrancy of much diversity, but not the luxury of complacency. We must examine how hard it is, every day, for each of us, to move from the insularity of difference to the breadth of real conversations, when we live with the ghosts of a long past with an even longer reach, as I wrote about in August.  Can we do this together?

We need to, as the strategic plan study group on leveraging diversity asked us to, and as a new Commission on Diversity and Transformation, following their lead, and co-lead by Jerome Williams and Shirley Collado, will do going forward – scholars, activists, students, faculty, and staff will articulate what it means for us to be a place that values the freedom of expression and the responsibility of listening, so that we too can move forward to the heartbeat of opportunity and the inspiration of excellence built on the power of difference coming together.  If we are the one’s we’ve been waiting for, let’s not wait any longer.

My best in hope,

Nancy Cantor

Nancy Cantor is Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark

How Elementary School Students Taught Me about Being Globally Competent

Marina in São Paulo, Brazil. She studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro in spring 2015. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

Marina in São Paulo, Brazil. She studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro during the spring of 2015. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

At age nine I had the chance to visit my father’s birthplace, a rural town in Guatemala surrounded by mountains. This trip, and many others that followed, would change the way I view the world and have inspired me to learn more about my heritage. Over the years, I have developed an affinity for international issues that led me to learn Portuguese and study abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Through these experiences, I learned important skills like flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and I gained greater self-knowledge. I didn’t realize it, but I was learning to be globally competent.

The Global Competence Task Force, established by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Asia Society, defines globally competent individuals as people who can “use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize their own and other’s perspectives, communicate their ideas effectively with diverse audiences, and translate their ideas into appropriate actions.”

During my first two-and-a-half years of college, I volunteered at a predominately Latino, bilingual elementary school in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Many of the students reminded me of myself, and some even had parents from Guatemala. But, unlike me, almost none of them had ever left the country, yet they were still very in touch with their heritage.

Marina with first grade students in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

Marina with first grade students in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

These students taught me two things. First, I learned that you do not need to go overseas to be globally competent. While the students I worked with faced many obstacles, they had already mastered several globally competent skills. All of them had at least a basic proficiency in a second language and were familiar with other cultures. Schools across the nation like the one at which I worked are recognizing that global competencies are vital to succeeding in today’s diverse world and that these skills can be learned in the classroom.

The second lesson I learned is that having overseas experiences, too often, is a privilege – it is not an opportunity that is afforded to everyone. Coming from an underserved community, many of the students I worked with would be lucky to meet their extended family in Latin America, like I did. This led me to design a service project to teach these students about study abroad as part of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship I received to go to Rio.

Before interning in the International Affairs Office at ED, I knew I had learned these lessons, but I did not know how to articulate them. This semester, I have been fortunate to participate in discussions about the future of global competencies. Something that will really stick with me from these conversations is that global competencies are not add-ons or “nice-to-haves,” but rather, components of a quality education that all students need. As Secretary Duncan said in his statement on this year’s International Education Week, “Let’s work together … to make global competence the norm, not the exception.”

Marina Kelly is an intern in the International Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of Education and a Senior at American University.

The Importance of an International Education for All Students

This week is International Education Week — a time when educators, administrators, students, and parents recognize and celebrate the importance of world language learning; study abroad; and an appreciation of different countries and cultures.

Recent tragedies throughout the world — including in Paris, Beirut, Yola, Sinai and Baghdad — serve as a reminder of our common humanity and our shared interest in building bridges of understanding.

For students who study a different part of the world, speak a second language, or study abroad, the experience can lead to a better appreciation of the complexity, challenges, and ambiguity, as well as the opportunities, of life in the 21st century.

These skills and aptitudes contribute to our young people’s global competency.

However, for too many of our students, global competencies — including mastery of a foreign language, cultural understanding that comes from studying abroad, or the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to solving global issues—are not always easy to obtain.

A continued lack of investment in world language programs and world area studies at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels have left many of our students behind the curve. Study abroad often also can be seen as a luxury and not as an essential and integrated part of an academic experience, even though research shows it can have a positive effect on college completion, especially for the most vulnerable students. The price of study abroad also can be prohibitive for students with modest means.

As important as global competencies are to building a robust educational experience for our students and increasing the cultural understanding of our people, they also are critical tools for individuals navigating a global job market. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that one in five American jobs is tied to global trade; and that number is expected to rise significantly in coming years.

As we work to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education, it is imperative that the experience they have, whether it is during their K-12 years, at a community college, or at a four-year university, gives them the skills to succeed in our increasingly connected, 21st century global economy.

It’s almost a cliché these days to note how interconnected our world has become—but we must not take this powerful dynamic and its implications for the future of our young people for granted. It simply isn’t sufficient for a small business owner to have a basic understanding of accounting and management. Increasingly, she must think about where her product is sourced, the competition from overseas, and whether or not she can communicate across borders with suppliers who may not speak her language.

The engineer tasked with working on a construction project in Iraq has an infinitely more difficult job without an understanding of the Arabic language and the local culture. Similarly, here at home, our healthcare professionals are treating patients from around the globe, and a knowledge of world regions, cultures, and language can help them diagnose a rare condition, be more conscious of a patient’s cultural sensitivities, or simply communicate “you’ll be just fine” in another language.

As we celebrate international education this week and every week, we must ensure that all students leave our classrooms and campuses with the skills to work with their counterparts in other countries and in our own increasingly diverse communities, for a safer and more prosperous world.

Mohamed Abdel-Kader is Deputy Assistant Secretary for International & Foreign Language Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Celebrating Disability as Diversity: The Importance of IDEA

Gallaudet University proudly celebrates diversity. Assistant Principal Heather Costner, Principal Debra Trapani, and ED intern Jacqueline Wunderlich pose on campus in front of the President's house. (Photo credit: Jacqueline Wunderlich)

Gallaudet University proudly celebrates diversity. Assistant Principal Heather Costner, Principal Debra Trapani, and ED intern Jacqueline Wunderlich pose on campus in front of the President’s house. (Photo credit: Jacqueline Wunderlich)

Imagine failing to respond to your own name.

Imagine going through school smiling and nodding and hoping nobody can see how little you really understand. Imagine struggling to survive school because it is not accessible.

Unfortunately, this is a reality for many students today. I know because this was my experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

At the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) in Washington, D.C., which serves students who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth to the eighth grade, Principal Debra Trapani strives to implement a philosophy of equity, acceptance, and celebration of diversity in every classroom. I recently had the privilege to shadow Debra during the Department of Education’s Principal Shadowing Week, and the stark difference from my own experience as a deaf student to the culture created for the students at this school was shocking. KDES is based on a foundation of bilingualism and biculturalism, promoting the equal usage of American Sign Language and English. Students here are proud to be deaf and hard of hearing, and of the culture and language that surrounds them.

Working in a school where every student has an individualized education plan, or IEP, may seem like a challenge to some educators, yet Debra looks at it as an opportunity. She is constantly moving from classroom to classroom, working with her teachers to support differentiated instruction that meets the needs of students, and encouraging her teachers to try new things. Collaboration is the key, Debra explained, crediting much of her school’s positive and welcoming culture to her leadership team and teachers.

As a deaf principal, Debra is a role model to her students, all of whom are determined to go on to college and have successful careers. These are dreams that might not have been possible years ago without the legislative turning points that were the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As the nation celebrates IDEA’s 40th anniversary, it’s important to realize how far we’ve come. For example, in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities was educated in public schools. Today, more than 6.5 million students receive special education services. However, there is still much to be done to ensure each student is able to reach his or her maximum potential. Looking at schools like KDES can help show us what is possible.

Jacqueline Wunderlich is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and junior at Gallaudet University.

Applying for the Principal Ambassador Fellowship: Seeing Education from a Broader Perspective

ED's Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

ED’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

I never imagined that one day I would be a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. When I look back to where I was a year ago, I was busy running my school—meeting with teachers, students, and parents. I was working with custodians to review blueprints of our newly renovated cafeteria. I was observing classes. And I was facilitating conflict resolution with my guidance counselor and our students.

One day last year, when I rode the train to work, I read my principals’ weekly newsletter and that’s where I first saw the information to apply to become a Teaching or Principal Ambassador Fellow. Although caught up in the day-to-day frantic pace of working in a school, I also am a learner. I am always reading education articles and thinking about what new ideas will help my students improve. I was interested in opportunities to learn and grow.

So, I applied.

Once in the thick of it, I realized that the application process was no joke. The written application required me to think strategically about who I am as an educator and what I have accomplished in my career. The phone interview that followed had me thinking on my feet, talking about what I believe matters in education and why being a fellow could make a bigger difference. The final round involved both an in-person, one-on-one interview and a fishbowl-style interview with other applicants. I had to exhibit all the skills needed to lead: communicate clearly, be a team player, and work in a fast-paced environment.

As a teacher, my first love was impacting my students in the classroom. Then, I found I could provide opportunities for all students’ learning by leading a school. Now, I am looking at what policies shape our educational landscape for the country. This is exciting work!

As a Principal Ambassador Fellow at ED, I get to share what has led me to be an educator for my entire career. It’s a unique opportunity, and well worth all the steps to get here. It’s why I want to pass the word along and encourage others out there to take a chance and apply.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

The Competency-Based Education Experiment Expanded to Include More Flexibility for Colleges and Students

As our students become more diverse in age, experience, and goals, we in the higher education community must take notice so that we can offer more diverse ways to serve and support them. Competency-based education (CBE) is one increasingly popular and promising delivery model for serving a wide range of students. These programs allow students to progress in their education based on mastery of skills and competencies, rather than simply hours spent in a classroom. Some competency-based programs have been shown to improve degree completion, reduce costs to students, and better align learning outcomes with the marketplace and society.

In July 2014, the Department of Education announced the Competency-Based Education experiment, which allowed institutions to access a new disbursement method for federal student aid in self-paced CBE programs. In September of this year, we issued extensive guidance for institutions participating in the experiment. Today, I am excited to announce an expansion of the Department’s Competency-Based Education experiment.

This modification of the original experiment is a response to feedback that we have heard from the field. Some institutions have indicated that they plan to go beyond charging tuition based on courses or even based on competencies, and instead charge tuition on a subscription basis. This means students can learn as quickly and as much as they are able to, without paying for additional courses in the same subscription period. This innovative model has tremendous potential to reduce costs and enable more students to access and succeed in higher education.

The expansion we are announcing today will permit more flexibility for subscription delivery models in which schools charge students a flat fee for a period of time, offering the benefits described above. Under this model, institutions would disburse Title IV aid based on the student’s anticipated enrollment for the subscription period rather than requiring completion of a specific number of competencies before subsequent disbursements are made. More details about this expansion are published in a notice in the Federal Register.

We hope that, with this expansion, the competency-based education experiment will provide even more opportunities, both for the field and for the wide range of students we aim to serve.

Ted Mitchell is U.S. Under Secretary of Education.

Celebrating 40 Years of IDEA

This month, our nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed by President Gerald Ford.

This law represents a landmark civil rights measure that has helped to give all children the opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to their communities. IDEA opened the doors of public schools to millions of children with disabilities.

Before the law was passed, children with disabilities in this country were not guaranteed equal access to a quality education. More than 40 years ago, nearly 1.8 million children with disabilities were excluded from public schools. In 1970, just five years before IDEA was enacted, only one in five children with disabilities had access to a quality education. In some states, many students with both physical and mental disabilities were denied an education—essentially shut out of classrooms across the country.

Education for students, including students with disabilities, has improved significantly since that time. Classrooms have become more inclusive and the future for children with disabilities is brighter. Significant progress has been made toward protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving educational results for students with disabilities.

Today, nearly 62 percent of students with disabilities are in general education classrooms. Early intervention services are now being provided to more than 340,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Before IDEA, these services were not always available. Today, over 6.9 million students with disabilities have access to special education and related services. These services are often designed specifically for students to meet their unique needs.

While tremendous progress has been made over the years, we must continue the hard work to address the challenges that still exist. Although we are able to help many individual students to achieve their goals, we must continue to work at ensuring that all children have the supports they need and to find ways to ensure they can reach their full potential.

For more information, visit the Department’s new website featuring resources developed by our grantees, instructional best practices, assessments, and information on student engagement, school climate, home and school partnerships, and post-school transitions for students with disabilities.

Hannah Smith is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and a Senior a the University of Missouri.

Addressing the Problem of Sexual Assault on College Campuses Together

As President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have both said many times, it’s on all of us to stop sexual assault.

This is why Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon and other staff at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently met with 11 college students from the Chicago area to discuss the issue of sexual violence and related policies. Student representatives came from Columbia College, Northwestern University, Moraine Valley Community College and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The group sat down for a roundtable discussion about sexual assault on college campuses, with the goal of ensuring policy makers are connecting the dots between students’ perspectives and needs with policy. Students provided thoughtful feedback about sexual assault trainings for students, the effect professors can have on bolstering or obstructing safe-space learning environments, the need for effective communication strategies for the disbursement of information to students, and what ED can do to help.

Many students voiced the concern that too often, college students don’t know about Title IX and the rights afforded to them until they have become victims. The students said that there should be structures to increase awareness put in place before a problem occurs. While colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required by Clery Act regulations to provide programming for students and employees about sexual assault, colleges and universities often choose to do this only at the beginning of the school year. A student from the University of Illinois-Chicago pointed out that Title IX training should be done consistently throughout the academic year, not only during orientation, when students are overwhelmed with new information and can be distracted.

Our ED team came away from the roundtable impressed by the professionalism and insights of the student participants. By engaging in this roundtable and hearing recommendations for improving the quality of learning environments, all of the leaders in attendance are better equipped with the knowledge and understanding necessary to continue to work toward the eradication of sexual assault on college campuses.

Jessie Brown is Senior Counsel in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Michigan Districts Team Up to Keep Kids from Falling Through Cracks

Mason Public Schools teacher provides math instruction. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Mason Public Schools teacher provides math instruction. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Educator Narda Murphy has taught an array of students over 30-plus years, from preschoolers to youth who were incarcerated.

Some of the latter “were very bright individuals who just learned differently,” said Murphy, superintendent and curriculum director of Williamston Community Schools in central Michigan. “There hadn’t been meaningful processes in place to reach these students, so they became disconnected. They became ‘throw-aways’ of the traditional school system. It made me want to go back to K-12 to find better ways to reach non-traditional learners as early as possible.”

On a Saturday six years ago, Murphy joined fellow superintendents from twelve districts throughout the Ingham Intermediate School District service area to make a crucial decision for all students:   They agreed to pool $11.7 million of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to build a system that would help teachers meet students’ individual needs. With an initial goal of addressing barriers to early literacy, Ingham’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports, is based on statewide systems in Massachusetts and Florida.

“Each district could have gotten its share of the funding to use for its own purposes, but we instead saw this as an opportunity to all move forward together. We took the approach that we’re all accountable for all students’ success,” said former Ingham ISD Superintendent Stan Kogut, who recently retired after ten years. Ingham ISD’s new superintendent, Scott Koenigsknecht supports MTSS and continues to work with local districts on its implementation.

Serving a diverse student population in urban, suburban and rural settings – some affluent and some poor – the system has shown across-the-board progress. Since establishing MTSS, the participating districts’ overall percentage of 3rd graders proficient in reading has increased 10 percent, and low-income, minority and special education students have all shown significant gains. Students’ early boosts have continued as they’ve progressed toward middle school: The percentages of 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders proficient in reading all posted increases from 2009-2013, ranging from three to 15 percent.

“If students are not performing at grade level or if they’re slipping behind, this system lets us see specifically what they need to improve,” said Murphy. Through collaborative training opportunities, educators serving 44,000 students throughout the twelve districts are now “speaking the same language.”

“Just think of the power of all of those educators, working together, helping each other and building on the same structure from year to year,” she said.

Kogut agreed that building consensus and infrastructures, and implementing aligned training throughout the county’s districts have been key to the system’s success. Previously, professional development had often been akin to a “flavor of the month,” with narrow focuses that only helped small groups of educators in single districts for a time before dying out, he said.

Today, “teachers can walk into other teachers’ classrooms throughout our service area and see them doing some of the same practices,” and work together to “build everyone’s capacity for using different ways to teach,” said Kogut. “This is a long-term journey. When a student doesn’t succeed, we can’t just toss up our hands and say that it’s a teacher’s fault or a principal’s fault. Everyone is responsible.”

Students’ individual needs met early

Melissa Usiak saw a need for a system like MTSS when she was first hired by Holt Public Schools seven years ago. She’s currently the principal at Holt’s Sycamore Elementary, where about 60 percent of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced rate lunches.

“We were desperate for a more effective core literacy curriculum as well as systems to collect data and intervene early. More and more of our students were coming from impoverished homes. Some children were entering kindergarten already a year or two behind classmates.” said Usiak, citing research that connects common by-products of poverty like poor nutrition and decreased exposures to text and vocabulary to low brain development.

A 13-year educator at Sycamore, Kathleen Kish provides extra academic support in reading and math to struggling Sycamore students as an academic interventionist, a position created through as part of the MTSS. Kish has seen striking changes since 2009.

“We were teaching everything in isolation, before. The big thing that happened with MTSS is that we started to look at how we teach. We looked at the data, started to use it to guide instruction, and we found that kids were way more capable than we thought,” said Kish.

“For example, I’m helping a student with a cognitive impairment this year. His IQ suggests that he shouldn’t be reading at high levels, but he’s on par with his age group. He’s getting a full hour of extra instruction, four days a week and that’s making the difference,” she said.

Waverly Public Schools teacher provided one-on-one literacy support. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District.)

Waverly Public Schools teacher provided one-on-one literacy support. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Federal investment ‘kick-started’ the system

As early as 2007, leaders of school districts throughout Ingham County had agreed that a tiered system of support was needed to provide differentiated learning for students at all levels, but the federal ARRA investment really “kick started” the county-wide system in 2009, said Kogut. This investment allowed local districts to hire coaches and implement a “train the trainer” model to get all teachers on board without interrupting student learning.

Signed into law by President Obama in February that year, ARRA included a one-time investment of nearly $100 billion to save education jobs, support states and school districts, and advance reforms and improvements aimed at long-lasting progress for students. While states and school districts were required to advance the ARRA’s short-term economic goals by investing quickly, they also needed to support the law’s long-term goals by investing wisely in foundational activities and resources aimed at strengthening education.

“We would not be where we are today without the ARRA funding. The additional boost in funding and our previous work building partnerships with local districts helped us achieve significant results,” said Kogut.

At the same time, the ARRA investment in MTSS has given naysayers in other parts of the state a reason to discount Ingham’s enviable success as being “all about the money,” said Kimberly St. Martin, assistant director of programming for Michigan’s Integrated Behavior Learning Support Initiative, which is partially funded by a federal State Personnel Development Grant.

“What they may not understand is that those (ARRA) funds have been gone for a couple of years, but the system it helped create continues to support teachers to do what they’re doing and maintain momentum across the county,” she said.

Smart financial planning key to county-wide success

“Knowing that ARRA funds were going away, Ingham’s finance director, Helen McNamara, used data to create an individualized portfolio for each district that illustrated the money recouped through the federal investment. This helped to convince school districts that MTSS needed to be sustained, and to invest local funding as needed,” said St. Martin.

That wasn’t too difficult a sell for the Williamston School Board, according to 13-year board member Marci Scott. Williamston allocated existing dollars to redefine roles and fit the MTSS framework. They used consolidated grant and categorical funding totaling approximately $320,000, and general fund dollars of around $90,000 to train middle and high school MTSS coaches.

“Funding is always a challenge, but this one (investment) will stick, I think, because it’s clear that the return on investment is huge,” she said, pointing to decreased discipline issues as an early outcome of the system. “Every parent hopes his or her child will be treated as an individual. MTSS allows educators to meet children where they are.”

While it’s too early to gage the long-term impact this approach will have on students, Williamston superintendent Narda Murphy is hopeful that MTSS is helping at-risk students and non-traditional learners who used to routinely “fall through the cracks” stay engaged in school.

“Some kids need a little help and some kids need a lot. MTSS gives us opportunity to work within a framework to provide all students what they need. It allows us to be very tight on our focus, but loose in how it gets done,” she said.

Julie Ewart handles communications and outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.

Providing Digital Pathways for Native Youth Success

Cross-posted from the Department of Interior blog.

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No matter who you are, where you grew up or what you want to do, we all know digital skills and connectivity are crucial for success in today’s job market.

And so, as part of the Obama Administration’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative to invest in opportunities for Native youth success and the President’s ConnectED initiative to provide access to digital learning and education technology resources, Interior is moving forward with a public-private partnership between the Department and Verizon to provide more than 1,000 Native American students nationwide with improved access to digital technology in their classrooms and dorms. The President announced this ConnectED commitment in his visit to Standing Rock last year, and it delivers on a recommendation from the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Blueprint for Reform that Interior invest in educational technology for its schools.

By early next year, thanks to this new partnership, 10 dormitories funded by the BIE will have high-speed wireless Internet and Microsoft Nokia tablets, enabling students to use vital tools for learning 24/7.

According to a recent White House report, Native youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools. Forward-thinking solutions like this partnership are critical if we’re going to change those numbers for the better. Improved access to technology helps meet some of the critical educational needs for Native students while empowering tribal communities to provide high quality, academically rigorous and culturally relevant education to their students.

On their tablets, students can access educational apps for STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math subjects — as well as programs that can preserve and strengthen their tribal identity and cultures. Verizon is also providing free wireless data to students for two years, which includes data use on the educational tablets donated by the Microsoft Corporation. And through a partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Indian Country, Verizon is hosting two years of free digital training, services and support for students — as well as teachers and dormitory staff.

In a few weeks, I’ll visit the Winslow dormitory on the Navajo Nation to see firsthand how these new digital tools are helping students learn and achieve their educational goals inside and outside the classroom. Through new investments, increased engagement, multiple partnerships, and a culturally appropriate approach, we’re working to ensure that Native youth have the tools they need to reach their full potential.

Sally Jewell is U.S. Secretary of the Interior.