School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “December, 2011”


In Rating Your Team Teacher, Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles provide a useful primer on best practices in team teaching. Boles is the director of Learning and Teaching Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Boles and Troen co-authored The Power of Teacher Teams (Corwin Press, 2011).

After 15 years of studying and observing classrooms across the U.S., the authors identified common barriers to successful implementation of team teaching. Here are some of the more significant barriers:

  • Absence of skills and support structures that would “allow them to orchestrate significant pedagogical and curriculum changes”
  • Building administrators who are not trained to supervise team teaching, and don’t have the time to guide teachers through it
  • Teams aren’t trained in the basic skills of team work, such as time management, goal setting, and conflict resolution

The authors describe a school culture that prefers affable exchange over constructive criticism as a major impediment to team teaching.

Since teachers are a congenial bunch, caring very much that everyone gets along, they tend to avoid conflicts and dismiss or ignore alternative ways of doing things.

Boles and Troen’s research reveal that in teaching, as in life, conflict is a necessary ingredient for progress; we can’t get better if we don’t know what needs improvement.

The culture of teacher of autonomy is offered as another barrier to team teaching’s effectiveness. Boles and Troen frequently observed that when one teacher asserts a leadership role by suggesting a new approach to a colleague, the “automatic response” is often “Who are you to tell me what to do?” The result? “Teacher teams often fail to make headway in improving teaching and learning because they fall into predictable pitfalls, such as poor use of common planning time, failure to pursue expert advice, a focus on issues that are peripheral to learning, absence of clear goals, or lack of team accountability for the success of all their students.”

How can team teaching be improved? Boles and Troen devised “Five Conditions” that should be in place to encourage productive use of team teaching.

  • Well-defined task focus that is centered on improving student learning, not crisis management
  • Leadership from all team members, regardless of veteran or novice status, recognizing that all teachers bring certain strengths to the table
  • A collaborative climate that recognizes the need for legitimate criticism, and sees the value of it
  • A level of personal accountability that holds members accountable for their performance, for the team’s success and for the success of all its students
  • Structures and processes that allow the team to measure whether its goals are being met

My Take – Successful team teaching looks and sounds a lot like special education. The lynchpin of special education is the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – a yearly plan developed by everyone working with the student, including the parent. It sets forth annual goals, describes how these goals will be measured and achieved, and in what settings. If the student does not make progress, the team revisits the plan, and looks to data and related information to determine what should be adjusted so that the child can make progress. These changes can include any number of remedies, e.g., more pull out instructional time, extra support in the classroom, new placement, etc. At the center of all this decision making is an IEP team composed of teachers, therapists and the child’s parent, all acting as equal partners, and all with vital roles to play. Thus special education, when done correctly, has always required the type of conditions Boles and Troen’s describe in their team teaching analysis. It’s a robust process that relies on constant examination of whether a student is making meaningful progress, and if not, why not.

Beth T. Sigall

December 28, 2011


Best of EduTech 2011

The end of the year inevitably brings out “best of” lists.  And continuing the trend of “Top 11 in 2011” is Michael Staton’s “11 Tech Factors That Changed Education in 2011.”  Staton’s company Inigral develops social software for student recruitment and higher education retention; it was named one of the top 10 innovative companies in education by Fast Company. Staton’s list picks trendsetters that are “quickly impacting how young people relate to and absorb education.”

I’m most intrigued by number 1 – the “Uncollege Movement.”  The “who really needs college” uprising gained steam this year when PayPal co-founder (and early Facebook investor) Peter Thiel announced the first winners of his “20 under 20” Thiel fellows.  From hundreds of applicants Thiel chose 24 entrepreneurs (he couldn’t narrow the field to 20) under the age of 20 to receive a $100,000 grant and access to a network of high-profile mentors so that, in two years, these budding entrepreneurs could turn their business hopes into reality, reports Jennifer Wang in Entrepreneur Magazine.  The only condition: Thiel Fellows cannot attend college while in the program. Why? Because Thiel believes entrepreneurship can’t be taught in a classroom, and that college with its commensurate mountains of student debt serve to hinder, not advance, young talent today. Hence the “Un-college Movement.”

So, if you aren’t Thiel Fellow, but traditional college doesn’t light your entrepreneurial fire, what do you do?  Writer Anya Kamenetz describes the way forward for “Uncollege” credentialing in her book The Edupunks Guide to a DIY Credential (is it too late rename my blog “Edupunks”?).  Kamenetz’s book offers a “comprehensive guide to learning online and charting a personalized path to an affordable credential.”  In assessing the impact of the “Uncollege Movement,” Staton wonders how soon (not whether) employers will accept un-collegians as readily as they do traditional graduates.

And my favorite trend is number 11 – “Schools are scaling, and so are professors.”  Staton recognizes how online university learning has the potential to democratize higher education by bringing name brand schools and degrees like the University of Southern California’s Masters in Teaching to a lap top near you (a huge development this year).  Readers of this blog will recognize the other trend – the scaling of instruction from world-renowned professors through popular online courses offered to anyone and everyone.  Stanford’s Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thru headlined this effort with their wildly popular online course in artificial intelligence.  “Now that the cost of distributing content is zero and the potential to reach anyone is limitless,” writes Staton, “all-star professors should be teaching every class.”

Beth T. Sigall

December 22, 2011

Report card time for states and online learning

The Foundation for Excellence in Education and Digital Learning Now! issued digital report cards this week. These report cards assess the effectiveness of each state’s online learning opportunities for K-12 students. States earned grades of “achieved,” “partial” or “not yet achieved” for each metric measured.

The grades reflected the extent to which states have adopted policies or practices aligned with these ten elements:

  • student access
  • barriers to student access
  • personalized learning
  • competency-based advancement
  • quality content
  • quality instruction
  • quality choices
  • assessment and accountability
  • funding
  • infrastructure

What grade did your state earn? Click here find out. You can also compare your state to the “ideal” digital learning state (as defined by Digital Learning Now!).


My take – The digital report cards provide of wealth of information about the state of play of online learning in each state, including citations to authorizing laws and regulations. Policy makers and others can learn much about the depth of online learning offerings across the U.S. (e.g., access for various grade levels, caps on enrollment, funding, etc.).

One metric used that didn’t quite make sense is this one:

“State law requires students to complete at least one online course to earn a high school diploma.”

Question – How does the requirement that students complete an online course to earn a diploma measure the effectiveness of a state’s online learning programs? Requiring online learning for graduation is a policy decision, not an objective measure of the quality of a state’s digital learning opportunities.

Upshot – The report card is still worth the click for those interested in what’s happening in the world of online learning at the state level.

Beth T. Sigall

December 15, 2011

Different path but same destination (part 3/final)

Over thirty five years ago Republicans and Democrats came together in support of the “simple yet profound” belief that students with disabilities are entitled to an education alongside their non-disabled peers. In passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress recognized that the public school system was not meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Prior to this, children with disabilities were turned away routinely from their public schools. Indeed, in 1975, more than one million students with disabilities were not allowed to attend public school.

Fast forward to today – millions of students with disabilities now receive a public education. In this respect, IDEA helped dramatically shift the paradigm of how we think about educating students with disabilities.

But, as explored in two previous posts, what happens to students with disabilities after they exit school? Are they ready for employment in the real world? And is the real world ready to employ them? The answers to these questions have substantial implications, given that an estimated 2.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. reported disabilities in 2008 (as described by Toddi Gutner in “How to tap talented students with disabilities”).

Some big-time companies are stepping up to help address this pressing need. And as is so often the case, parents continue to lead the way, primarily through the formation of non-profit groups that provide training, networking and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Here are some inspiring examples.


Lime Connect – launched in 2006, this program recruits students with “hidden” disabilities, such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia from top universities, including Princeton, Duke, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. Lime Connect helps these students land internships and ultimately careers at major corporations, such as Google, Target, PepsiCo, Apple, Cisco, McKinsey & Company and others, according to Toddi Gunter with Reuters. Students gain both networking experience as well as connections to other students with hidden disabilities; the connections to similarly situated students is one of the more popular features of the program, writes Gutner.

Unlike some job-training programs for students with disabilities, Lime Connect’s selection process is highly competitive; last year, 125 students applied for 20 fellowship slots. Once chosen, interns do not receive special treatment from their respective companies. According to Lime CEO Susan Lang, “they compete with everyone else. All they’re getting is the connection.” Many land jobs with their companies once the internship ends.  And these companies appreciate the unique qualities these capable students bring to the table. 

When these companies get exposed to our exceptionally talented men and women who have already climbed a mountain and overcome something in their short lives to be successful, they want them on their team

Tom Wilson, former head of global talent sourcing/recruiting at Merrill Lynch and Lime Connect board chairman.


Aspiritech – Founded in 2007 by two parents whose adult son with Asperger’s Syndrome had just been fired from his part-time job bagging groceries despite having a four-year college degree, Aspiritech is a non-profit with a mission to “provide a path for high-functioning individuals on the Autism Spectrum to realize their potential through gainful employment.” Based in Chicago, Aspiritech provides a path to employment by aligning “the unique talents of the autism community,” such as attention to detail and technical aptitude, with the needs of the business community. They provide software testing services to companies.


Specialisterne stands as one of the most-recognized global efforts at employing people with disabilities. Its stated goal is to create one-million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges “through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” Founded in Denmark by parents of a child with autism, (father) Thorkil Sonne mortgaged the family home to cover the start-up costs. Specialisterne trains people with disabilities like autism to do IT work, such as software testing. Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe writes that Microsoft pays “top dollar” for IT work done by Specialisterne“because the quality is superior.” The company recently was recognized as a “good practices” organization for its compliance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Specialisterne now has a U.S. presence in Minnesota.

How can state legislatures help? Massachusetts is considering a bill to revise licensure requirements for special education teachers, allowing them to seek certification in “transitional services.” According to Scott O’Connell of GateHouse News Service, advances in educating students with special needs have “boosted chances at finding employment” but without appropriate transitional support at school “those skills go to waste.” According to O’Connell, some students then “simply go on to receive state services” instead of working.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep Tom Sannicandro, seeks to improve the quality of transitional services offered at the high school level. “Right now they’re not adequately prepared for that transition,” says Sannicandro. “A lot of times there’s a drop-off.” Like IDEA over thirty-five years ago, this bill also has attracted bipartisan support among legislators.

Beth T. Sigall

December 12, 2011

Different path but same destination (part 2)

In a previous blog post I wrote about the challenges families face preparing their children with special needs for transition to adulthood. After a survey of the landscape of transitional services for young adults with disabilities, I came away with a positive outlook for the future of transition. Many programs now in their infancy are laying the foundation for a system of supports to help students with disabilities make that critical leap to adulthood.

First, some common themes from my survey. As is often the case in advocacy for children, parents are the driving force behind many of these initiatives. One parent went door to door until she found someone willing to help her start a first-of-its-kind program for students with cognitive disabilities at a state university in Florida. Another parent in Flint, Michigan fought to ensure her disabled son received the same education as his peers in public school. Both mother and son now are enrolled at the same community college, where the son who once struggled academically during his K-12 years now has a 3.0 grade point average.

Second, the types of transition programs available vary greatly, reflecting the diverse nature of the needs of students with disabilities. Some job programs and internships are (surprisingly) competitive. Others focus on the mentoring process and teaching general job skills. Still others aim to help demystify life at college or the workplace for those who might have some requisite job skills, but cannot handle the complex social skills demanded on a college campus or in the job market.

Third, resources and ideas for these programs come from many sources. In some instances legislative changes are needed, such as refining teacher training so that faculty can learn how to help students with transition planning. Private industry can also play a vital role, especially in terms of job training and hands-on, apprentice-style experience in the workplace.


At Florida International University, the Project Panther Life program kicked off this fall as a way for students with intellectual disabilities to attend college. As reported by WSVN-TV, through this program a group of eight freshman students, all with cognitive disabilities, enrolled in their first college classes this year. According to its founder, parent Liliana Demoya, the program was the first in South Florida to give access to college courses to students with intellectual disabilities. Her son attends the program. Demoya described the challenges she faced:

A program like this one was not available . . . so I started to knock on doors and meet people at universities and meet presidents and put together proposals.

Each student is paired with two mentors whose job is to teach them about life on a college campus, and help them stay on top of assigned work. The program’s ultimate aim is for students to learn how to interview for and land a job.


Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan set an enrollment milestone this fall when 274 students who self-identified as having autism, developmental disabilities, or learning disabilities signed up for classes. In a Flint Journal piece, Beata Mostafavi profiled Nicholas Pentecost, a student with autism who endured “vast academic struggles” in his traditional K-12 public school, but has thrived in a community college environment. Colleges are responding to students like Pentecost, considered by some as unqualified for college, with an increased focus on related services and extra help for this expanding community. For example, at some colleges students can request a private room for exams, a note taker, audio books, specialized software, or even weekly counseling sessions. 

At these schools, disability outreach is viewed as part of a broader mission of diversity. University of Michigan-Flint’s accessibility services coordinator, Zachary Tomlinson put it this way:

We talk about embracing diversity and maintaining diversity, and I think it’s important to offer these kinds of accommodations because it creates a level playing field for people. Disability doesn’t always come across people’s minds when you talk about diversity but it’s a huge piece.


Next up, how companies like Google and others are discovering untapped talent in the disability community.

Beth T. Sigall

December 7, 2011

Different path but same destination

Over the Thanksgiving holiday my family traveled to visit relatives, and we stayed in a hotel room. My children love hotel rooms – they love exploring the room, hiding in the closets and jumping on the beds. But every time I enter a hotel room, I recall a poignant conversation from many years ago with a friend of mine about her son who has autism (as does our oldest son). Her son’s version of autism meant it was difficult for him to communicate. Learning the basic routines of school and life was challenging for him. This mom, like so many other parents, was a relentless champion for her son’s needs.

One day this mom shared an inspiring idea she’d hit upon in thinking about her son’s future. She knew her son could replicate routines well once he learned them. In fact, once he learned a routine he pretty much never forgot it – it was hardwired into his brain. This is common for most kids with autism. They love routines, and they thrive in an environment of sameness.

And so the hotel connection. Every hotel room has a set menu of items that must either be replaced or returned in between guest stays (e.g., coffeemaker, note pad and pens, ice bucket, glasses, cups, etc.). It’s a predictable structure, and one that is replicated in hotel rooms everywhere. My friend figured that perhaps working at a hotel making sure each room was stocked and furnished exactly the same way every time a new guest arrived was a type of job that matched her son’s strengths. She was thrilled at the prospect of potentially discovering a way for her son to earn a salary at a job that utilized his skills. Not just a feel-good, volunteer experience. But a real job for real pay with real responsibilities. And even though her son was still in elementary school, this mom knew she needed to start planning for her son’s future early and often for him to have a chance to work.

Yes, every parent has the same goal for their child – a life with strong relationships and meaningful work. But when your child is disabled, it often means a radical realignment of how those goals will be met. It means you don’t start out with the same set of basic assumptions parents of children without disabilities have, because you can’t assume your child will master basic job or life skills. Or, even if your child can occasionally demonstrate these skills, learning to sustain them over time in a bottom-line, real-world environment that might not accommodate the ups and downs of life with a disability can be daunting. You worry that once school ends, your child will be stuck in a netherworld between childhood and adulthood — never quite transitioning to independence, and never realizing the satisfaction of being an adult.

For people with disabilities, there is often a substantial gap between school skills and real life skills. So, when school ends, the transition to the real world can be terrifying. That’s why, even with all the remarkable progress that’s been made educating children with disabilities, the sad fact remains that the employment rate for people with disabilities is unacceptably low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts.

I’ll spend subsequent blog posts examining how various entities are tackling this complex issue, with focus on some successful college and job programs for people with disabilities.

Beth T. Sigall

December 2, 2011

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