Law and Politics

Michelle Rhee’s new ed-reform lobbying effort “StudentsFirst” released a report card this week, with grades for all fifty states plus Washington DC based on their education laws and policies. The best grades went to Louisiana and Florida — they earned B-’s. No relation between these grades and how well students perform. Just how well politicians there conform. Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker has a great read on the Rhee-report-card meaning and methodology.

The first to take full advantage of California’s “parent trigger law,” the parents at the Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California have voted to convert their neighborhood school into a charter school. The Hechinger Report has a more detailed look at the two-year battle to do so.

St. Vrain Valley School district in Colorado plans to implement a GPS-tracking system on students’ bus passes so that the district will be able to tell when and where students get on and off the bus. The system will cost about $131,540. Parents will be able to sign up for messages alerting them to their children’s whereabouts. Train ‘em young to accept the surveillance state, right?

And in other tracking-kids-like-cattle news, a student who was suspended from a Northside ISD school in San Antonio for refusing to wear her RFID’d ID has lost her lawsuit against the district. The student and her family had sued the district, claiming that her first amendment rights were being violated (she claims the RFID tag is “the mark of the Beast”), but the school removed the RFID chip from her ID and the court found that that was a reasonable accomodation.

Launches and Upgrades

One of my picks for the top ed-tech startups of 2012, Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation, has announced that its new Tech Center will be a site for the Maker Education Initiative’s Maker Corps.

One Laptop Per Child demoed its latest device at CES this week (The Verge has the nice glossy photos of its hands-on.) The biggest surprise might not be the look or feel or “oomph” of the machine, but the fact that it will appear in U.S. retail stores in March.

Also timed with CES, LEGO Education unveiled the next generation of its Mindstorms Robotics Kit: the EV3. You can read my write-up on the news here.

Also at CES, McGraw-Hill demoed its “SmartBook,” a textbook that promises adaptivity to the needs of individual students. According to The Wall Street Journal, “All readers essentially see the same textbook as they read for the first five minutes. But as a reader answers review questions placed throughout the chapter, different passages become highlighted to point the reader to where he or she should focus attention.” McGraw-Hill says the adaptive textbook will be available for about 90 courses in the spring.

Edmodo says it’s updated and clarified the language in its Terms of Service. (Wow, still pretty unclear to me. And it says that schools and not Edmodo are responsible for complying with COPPA — is that right?!)

Free online graphing calculator Desmos has added a very cool new feature: tables of data. Creating tables of data is an important step in understanding and solving equations, statistics, and so on. And this is definitely something your handheld TI calculator doesn’t do.

The education startup Pathbrite can made a marketing deal with Pearson so that its portfolios will be available to those who use Pearson LearningStudio. More details on investor Tom Vander Ark’s blog.

The learn-to-code site Codecademy has added new lessons with training on using the YouTube, NPR, Stripe,, and other partner APIs.

RRKidz, the startup that now runs the Reading Rainbow brand, has announced that it’s partnering with National Geographic Kids to bring more content to its iOS apps. The School Library Journal has more on the news — and let me editorialize here that I’d sure rather listen to the old Levar Burton who told kids to find books in their local library than the new Levar Burton that tells them to find them on their iPads.

The digital textbook app-maker Kno has added a new feature, Kno Me, which offers students a dashboard to track their own reading engagement as well as ways to follow other students to compare and contrast study habits.


Barry Diller-owned media company IAC has acquired (Terms of the deal were not disclosed). IAC already owns a lot of great domain-name-businesses, including and Some folks in the tech press seemed awfully excited about this, arguing that this means that the algorithms used in IAC’s dating sites (including OKCupid) would now be used to match students and tutors. Cue lots of usage of the word “revolution,” something that seems to overlook the fact that private tutoring services aimed at parents are apt to increase the achievement gap.


The Chronicle of Higher Education now hosts the data from the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced project to identify the pay and working conditions for higher education’s mostly adjunct labor force. Inside Higher Ed also took a look at adjunct labor this week, which was a big topic at this year’s MLA. (Thank you, Michael Bérubé and MLA.)


Because it wouldn’t be a weekly news roundup without some MOOC news: Coursera unveiled SignatureTrack — its plans to verify students’ identities so that it could confidently award “certifiable course records” (for a fee). How will it identify you? In part through “your photo ID and unique typing pattern.”

“The University of Wisconsin System is experimenting with a new ‘flex’ program that allows non-traditional students to obtain course credits through massive open online courses (MOOCs), online classes, and assessment. The first 100 students to participate in a pilot program may receive those credits free,” writes Campus Technology’s Dian Schaffhauser.


Kudos to the teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle who are refusing to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to their students. The teachers cite flaws with the reading test’s design (“the test’s margin of error is greater than the gains … students are expected to make”) as well as what it covers. The MAP test is given two to three times per year to Seattle students and is used to measure student and school performance — and starting this year, teachers’ performance too.

Research and Data

Statistics guru and FiveThirtyEight blogger Nate Silver held an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit this week, and interestingly, the most popular question was in regards to using data to evaluate teachers:

Q: What are your thoughts on data-driven metrics for teacher evaluation? Do you think a system that accurately reflects teacher value could ever be created, or will it always be plagued by perverse incentives (teaching to the test, neglecting certain types of students, etc)?

A: There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.

In my job out of college as a consultant, one of my projects involved visiting public school classrooms in Ohio and talking to teachers, and their view was very much that teaching-to-the-test was constraining them in some unhelpful ways.

But this is another topic that requires a book- or thesis-length treatment to really evaluate properly. Maybe I’ll write a book on it someday.

According to the latest Babson Survey of Online Learning, more than 6.7 milion university students — about a third — took an online course for credit in the fall of 2011. The increase in enrollment — 9.3% — is actually the smallest percentage increase since Babson began tracking this figure a decade ago. And despite all the MOOC-related frenzy from last year, just 2.6% of higher education institutions say they offer one with just 9.4% more saying they’re planning to do so. The full report is available here.

After spending $45 million on a three-year research project, the Gates Foundation says it’s figured out what makes a good teacher. And as such it says it’s recommending its own special blend of assessment tools to identify them: test scores plus classroom observation. More from Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker on the methodology and politics.

Because K–12 teachers shouldn’t be the only ones who have all the fun of being rated and evaluated, Rick Hess and Education Next have released this year’s “RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Presence” rankings. “The metrics, as explained here are designed to recognize those university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about K–12 and higher education.” It’s a weird list, definitely skewed with some disciplinary biases (no one from the MLA — no Michael Bérubé, for example, and no Kathleen Fitz — and nobody from the MOOC-hoopla — no Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, or Anant Agarwal) — but hey, who am I to suggest Hess has biases, right?

The longer students stay in school, the less engaged they are. That’s the finding of a recent Gallup Student Poll which found that while 76% of elementary school students are engaged, just 44% of high schoolers are. (I can’t tell how they defined “engagement” in their polling questions or analysis but hey, with a headline like “The School Cliff” and a downward graph like this one…)


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott have launched a “Gap App Challenge,” a contest with over $104,000 in prizes that asks developers to submit games and other applications to help middle schoolers learn math. I’m sure that these apps will end “The School Cliff,” aren’t you?

Accreditation (Or Not)

Buried in the fifth paragraph of a story by Bloomberg News on the latest earnings from Apollo, the parent company of the University of Phoenix: “The company is also expecting to receive a draft report from its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, said Gregory Cappelli, Apollo’s Chief Executive Officer, during a conference call with analysts and investors. He said the company believes it will be placed on notice, which would require follow-up reports and action.”

Image credits: Tony Bowden

Audrey Watters


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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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