April 6, 2020

Competency-Based Instruction, Now More Than Ever

My wife and I are privileged in lots of ways. We have books around the house, Wi-Fi, multiple connected devices, and a printer. We have flexible jobs that allow for remote work. We have a steady income and health care benefits.

Still, as the parents of two elementary-age kids in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, we were thrown into this new homeschooling experiment abruptly, as of 11:41pm on Thursday, March 12th. Two weeks later, the governor of Virginia closed schools for the rest of the year. We’re now starting week four.

Our school district has given us little more than links to the state’s grade-level standards plus some old YouTube videos. They are supposedly going to start mailing out instructional packets next week (this week is technically Spring Break from the district’s perspective.) That feels lackadaisical and insufficient, especially compared to some of the more organized responses I’ve seen elsewhere.

While I’m bitter about how little our district is doing, I want to be clear this is about district policy. My kids’ teachers have signaled that they’d like to do more but they’re being prevented from doing so.

To fill the void, my wife and I created one of those daily schedules going around social media, and we’ve been giving the kids workbooks, other printouts we find online, plus some “educational” videos like Bill Nye The Science Guy and the Mo Willems Lunch Doodles.

While there are more resources out there, particularly for online instruction, we are not anxious to plop our kids in front of a device or ask them to join Zoom meetings all day. Our priority has been keeping the kids safe and healthy, with structure and any educational benefits as secondary. Still, for my kids at least, they’re running ahead on the things they like and stagnating on things they don’t like. My second-grader, for instance, is doing fourth- or fifth-grade level work on some things while struggling with grade-level content in other areas. 

If this type of dispersion is happening among individual students, I can only imagine what it will look like at the classroom- or school-level. How will teachers handle these challenges? What systems and supports will districts put in place to identify student competencies and tailor their instruction accordingly? Will they assess students in the fall to know where they’re strong and identify areas where they need more support?

I continue to suspect that districts are mostly just trying to get through this. They’re hoping planning to re-open as normal in the fall. But if my family’s experience is any indication, we’re going to need something different. If anything, this experiment has made me much more interested in competency-based instruction, however that might be delivered.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 


April 1, 2020

The COVID-19 Learning Loss

I’ve been thinking lately about this Paul von Hippel piece  for Education Next on summer learning loss. After looking closely at the data, he does not find evidence for the idea of a “summer learning loss” that particularly hinders low-income students. 

While perhaps not as compelling, von Hippel writes that there is one finding that continues to stand up:

There is one result that replicates consistently across every test that I’ve ever looked at. It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook, but it’s still important: nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school years. That means that every summer offers children who are behind a chance to catch up. In other words, even if gaps don’t grow much during summer vacations, summer vacations still offer a chance to shrink them.

What does this mean for the extended break remote learning experiment being forced on us by COVID-19? My fear is that most education leaders will be content to take a breather this summer in the hopes that everything can resume as normal in the fall.

I think that would be a mistake on two levels. First, from a logistical standpoint, schools and districts should be preparing now for a potential second wave of outbreaks. Those outbreaks may not be as intense or as widespread, but school and district leaders have no way of knowing how bad it might be in their particular communities, and whether the coronavirus will again force them to close schools for extended periods of time. Regardless, given what we know, it would be irresponsible to blindly assume everything will be back to normal for the 2020-21 school year.

And second are the equity implications. Regardless of exactly how large the COVID-19 learning slide is going to be, there’s no question that students are losing precious learning time that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Education leaders should be thinking NOW about how they will make that up. Will they extend the current school year into the summer? Will they start the next school year early, or extend it somehow? Districts should be starting that planning process now.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Posted on Apr 1, 2020 @ 5:19pm

March 31, 2020

Greg Farrell

Greg Farrell, who founded what’s now EL Education and led the Fund for the City of New York among a variety of other roles in a packed and well lived life passed away earlier this week. He also worked for Outward Bound and founded NYC Outward Bound.

Here’s a remembrance from David Coleman.

And here’s Greg in his own words. He was as lively and interesting as you’d expect from reading that.

I didn’t know him well but was glad to cross paths and spend time outdoors with him. I first met him on the patio of some brewery in Colorado for dinner and he led off with some heavy questions – good questions. I was hooked. Later, when I found out he’d met Kurt Hahn, even more so.

One tribute going around says that he “left behind a coterie of Greg Farrell acolytes.” Seems spot on. He was generous and left an impression.

Update: Here’s Paul Herdman’s remembrance with a link to an additional one cited above.


March 30, 2020

The Summer Grinch

In The 74 I raise a real bummer of a question. Given the loss in learning that’s happening, shouldn’t we keep schools open, virtually or live as appropriate, this summer? It’s good for the economy, good for positioning the sector, and most importantly good for a lot of kids:

…the unavoidable fact is that school leaders have two choices. One is to essentially throw up our hands and say the novel coronavirus is just an act of God — what can you do? Let’s just muddle through. The other is to say that, yes, this is an unprecedented and remarkable situation in modern American education, but despite that, schools are going to live up to the warranties they make to students.

The first approach is seen in the blanket canceling of school with little thought as to what students will be doing between March and the fall, when the next school year starts. The rush to cancel all assessments rather than to parse which ones could be given, how, when and why. The impulse to close schools for multiple months rather than wait and see what happens one month down the road.

The warranty approach, by contrast, is seen in the districts and schools that are scrambling to figure out how to give all students the education they deserve despite this crisis. That’s not just about ensuring hot meals and food for children who need it; it’s also about making sure kids are learning even at this unprecedented time — and some districts, charter networks and schools are leading the way.

In March, schools closed across almost the entire country. Normal operations won’t resume until August or September — almost half a year. Even if that happens, cluster containment will likely be the public health strategy for addressing the novel coronavirus, so schools will have to contend with short-term closures until a vaccine is available, something experts say isn’t likely until early 2021.

This isn’t tenable, absent a real plan to continue the cadence of learning for students and to mitigate the effects of what is happening now and will continue this spring…

Entire article is here.


March 27, 2020

Friday Fish Pics!

Something you can do socially distant – and that lots of people like to do socially distant even when it’s not the norm? Fishing.

The husband and daughter of Commodore Roza, who has some smart analysis of possible financial impacts from this crisis, got out for a day last week in Washington.

And here’s Kevin “The Mayor” Kosar and his daughters a few weeks ago in Virginia.

If, just for one example say you have fourteen days on your hands, and you want to see a broader array of education types and education connected types with fish then click here and here.

Stay safe and healthy out there.


March 25, 2020

Edujob: ED @ Case Method Institute for Education and Democracy

Here’s an interesting opportunity to build an organization and advance a style of teaching: 

The Case Method Institute for Education and Democracy (the “Institute” or “CMI”) was formed to bring the highest quality education to America’s high school students—and to fulfill the democratic promise of that education—by empowering teachers to harness the case method in their classrooms. Long recognized as the leading instructional approach in business schools, the case method has now been shown to foster improved critical thinking, a deeper understanding of course material, and greater classroom and civic engagement in high schools across a broad range of students…

…Over the next ten years, the Institute aims to train at least 10,000 teachers in the case method, creating a network of social studies educators with the capacity to reach millions of young people at a formative time in their development.

Learn more about the role, the organization, and how to apply here. 


March 20, 2020

Covid-19 And Schools: One Story From New Jersey

Mike Piscal is founder of College Achieve Public Schools in New Jersey. We were talking about the challenges they are facing pivoting to this new situation with Covid-19 and I asked him to jot down what he was sharing. He’s a published poet and writer so not surprisingly I had an interesting story in my inbox a few hours later. Here’s one school story about the changes this week has brought:

Are Schools Closed for the Duration or Open for Learning, Which is It?

By Mike Piscal

A week ago, we thought we were probably going to have to close our schools for a couple of weeks.  We started to plan.  Our network – College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS) – operates seven charter schools on six campuses in Paterson, Plainfield, North Plainfield, Neptune, and Asbury Park, NJ. We serve over 2,200 students — the vast majority of whom are Black and Hispanic, and we have over 200 hardworking teachers and staff.  Depending on which campus, we serve free breakfast and lunch to 67% to 95% of our students each day.

There was more than a little bit of concern and fear as school leaders wondered whose call it was to decide if we could close our schools?  Do we wait for a student or faculty member to have a positive test for the Coronavirus?  But if there is a delay in receiving results, what then? Students and teachers were exhibiting cold and flu symptoms, and who can tell if it’s COVID 19? And again the question, whose call is it to make?  Is this just like a snow day or is the President going to say something? The governor? The mayor? Our school boards? The Health Department?  The question marks rang in our heads like nervous church bells, because we feared someone would make the call before we were ready or after it was too late.

In the end, we were told to do what we thought best, and the leaders at the top would support us.  The Governor and other public officials were weighing the necessity to close down other open public spaces and venues, and gave us the freedom to make the call if we were ready. We knew the Governor was weighing as we were what to do with the students who were homeless, who relied on our twice a day meals for food security, and the new question – could school districts pivot on a dime, and shift from learning in the classroom to learning online?  How do we reinvent our delivery system in a week or less?  Short answer, we don’t. Any way that was Friday.  On Monday, Governor Murphy announced all public and private schools would close the next day.

Seems bad, and maybe it was all of six days ago, but from my perspective where we were then compared to where we are today is astonishing.  Our Executive Directors leapt into planning – immediately sending out surveys via Class Dojo – an app every parent has on their phone – to all of our families to gauge who would need internet access at home and who would rely on our breakfast and lunch program. Our schools in Plainfield– serving well over a thousand students– closed on Friday so teachers could develop 15 online lesson plans. Our schools in Asbury Park and Neptune stayed open on Friday, as they serve only 300 students, but somehow not only got their online lesson plans done, but figured out how to get chrome books and hotspots for every student that needed one and set up a delivery system for free breakfast and lunch for our students with food security challenges.  Paterson did the same and shared their extra hotspots with Plainfield.  Not only were resources shared, but quick fixes for parents struggling with how to use the hotspots and access their child’s account on the chrome books were developed in Plainfield and shared across our network in real time.

We have at one of our schools a high percentage of homeless students who rely greatly on our schools as a safe haven and a place to get two meals a day. Yesterday, we sent out our staff to find these students without a steady home and offer them breakfast and lunch and to check on our students in public housing.  We brought an abundance and ended up with extra meals –  so our staff offered residents the extra 40 meals we had.  I don’t know if we broke any rules here, but we fed some people who were grateful, and we built a stronger and more caring community in the process.  We need to be kind to each other and help each other out in this time of need.  So far, I see people stepping up all over and sharing what they have.

Across the College Achieve network, we have distributed nearly 600 chrome books and hotspots for those families without internet access at home.  Most of our curriculums have online platforms such as Reading Wonders and other off the shelf programs.  We are looking closely at Khan Academy, and are already using Google Classrooms to deliver our own curriculum.  So when I said you can’t switch from classroom learning to online learning in six days maybe I was wrong. If it seems miraculous that we can deliver anything that is so well thought out in so short a span of time, it is only because of the enormous strides that have been made in the last twenty years by people like Sal Khan, and the innovators at Google, Audible, and so many other online learning platforms.  It will never replace the teacher in the classroom, but like or not, we are now offering our students a virtual online education.  We are building feedback loops for students, parents, teachers, and staff so we can constantly refine and improve our delivery.

We are also reaching out and learning from colleagues at Success Academy and Bellwether.  Success Academy advised us to keep it simple.  Encourage our students to read lots of books (remember books?) and for teachers to call each student twice a day for 5-7 minutes to discuss how they are doing in this brave new online world.  By the way, on most of these platforms, we can see how much time our students are spending online, how many questions they answer correctly, problems they solve, and short essays they write.  It is wonderful to have this data, but Success is right.  It is even more important that our teachers speak with our students twice a day for a few minutes. The human interaction is vital.  We believe now that we will succeed online more than most online platforms have done to date because these phone calls between teacher and student leverage (and even strengthen) the relationships that were built face to face in the classroom since September.  If we started the year online, I would not be so optimistic.  Without the prior relationships, the teacher would be just a voice on the computer.

Twenty years ago this pivot to distance learning would not have been possible. Ten years ago only the affluent would have been able to pull this off.  At one of our elementary schools, of our 400 students only 13 students have been unresponsive.  Tomorrow, day four of our school closure, we are going out to the homes of those 13 students to make sure they have internet access, food, and to let them know we care about them.

Guestblogger Mike Piscal is founder of College Achieve Public Schools 


March 17, 2020

Bellwether & COVID-19

We posted this on LinkedIn today.

Like many nonprofits, Bellwether’s operations are impacted by COVID-19. In particular, academic advising, strategic planning, and evaluation work we do inside schools is paused, and we’ve shut down team member travel.

Short term, this means we have unexpected surplus capacity which we’d like to make available, pro bono, to school districts and charter school networks that are figuring out how to address a variety of issues related to operations, strategy and decision-making, state and federal policy guidance, curriculum and instruction, and financial planning.

Across our team of more than 60 full-time professionals, we have former school leaders, nonprofit leaders, media professionals, and experienced strategy consultants. Our team members have worked at the Department of Education, The White House, top-tier management consulting firms, and state education agencies around the country. Three-quarters of our staff have worked in the classroom, some still teach part time now.

To learn more, please email , tell us about your district or network and what you need. We cannot service all requests but will take on as many as possible and farm others out to peers as we are able.


March 9, 2020

Pensions Just Don’t Work That Well for Most Teachers

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews has a new piece on teacher pensions with a headline that reads, “So you think teacher pensions are too big? Relax. Few ever get them.”

In other words, the truth is somewhere between people who think that teacher pensions are too generous and those who think they’re just fine. Jay lets original Eduwonk Andy Rotherham explain:

Rotherham, a former adviser in the Clinton White House and a former member of the Virginia state school board, has long been a leading expert on education policy. He told me more than half of people who teach never get any kind of pension. In 16 states, you have to be teaching for 10 years before you qualify.

“People say we should reward longevity, and I think we should,” he said. “But life happens to people and lots of teachers don’t teach for decades in one place, not because they don’t love teaching, or aren’t good at it, or don’t want to, but because they have to move because of their spouse’s career, military service, a sick relative, whatever.” 

Read the full column here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 


March 6, 2020

New York Keeps Cutting Teacher Pension Benefits

New York City’s teacher pension costs have nearly quadrupled over the last 15 years. If it were a state, its teacher retirement costs would be the highest in the country. Once you include the contributions employees make to the pension plan, plus Social Security taxes, New York City is paying higher retirement rates than Chicago, which is itself an outlier. In percentage terms, the New York City and its employees are contributing more than 50 percent of salary toward retirement benefits.

And yet, as I note in a new report out this week, New York keeps cutting the benefits teachers actually receive.* Compared to prior generations, members hired after 2012 pay higher contribution rates than their predecessors did (aka they will earn less in take-home pay), they’ll have to serve longer to qualify for any retirement benefit at all, and they’ll receive lower pension benefits when they retire.

Due to the most recent round of cuts, I found that New York City’s latest benefit tier (Tier 6) would provide adequate retirement benefits only to teachers who serve for at least 23 consecutive years in the city’s public schools. Needless to say, most New York City teachers do not remain that long.

In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, I write:

Continuing to cut benefits for generation after generation of teachers is an unsustainable path. Instead, New York City leaders should look toward alternative models to keep costs in check while ensuring that all teachers are on a path to a secure retirement, no matter how long they serve.

Read the op-ed for the short version of how New York City got to this place, or read the full report for possible solutions.

*Note: While the plans are technically distinct and the funds are kept separate, the benefit rules I’m describing are essentially the same for New York City teachers as they are for teachers across the entire New York state. 

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman