You’ve probably heard by now that basketball superstar LeBron James opened a school for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Called I Promise School (IPS), it’s a joint effort between the I Promise Network, the LeBron James Family Foundation, and Akron Public Schools. The newly renovated building opened its doors on July 30 to 240 students in third and fourth grade, along with forty-three staff members. Though he’s taking his talents to Los Angeles, King James himself was on hand to dedicate the new school.
Just like students who are part of the I Promise Network that serves more than 1,300 children and their families across the district, IPS students were identified based on their reading achievement data. After identifying students who were a year or two behind grade level, administrators used a lottery to randomly select which children would be offered a spot at the new school. These students will receive free uniforms, transportation within two miles, tuition to the University of Akron when they graduate, a bicycle and helmet, and a variety of other resources. Their families will have access to GED classes, job placement assistance, and a food pantry.
James is being lavished with praise from the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama and Steph Curry, and he certainly deserves it. He could have done something else, or nothing at all, to help the kids of Akron. He could have chosen to just shut up and dribble. Instead, he did something remarkable that has the potential to radically transform lives.
As with all major media stories these days, folks are crawling out of the woodwork to offer their opinions. It should come as no surprise to those who work in education policy that there’s been a lot of emphasis on the fact that IPS is a district public school. Not a private school that accepts vouchers, or a charter school (which, for the record, are also public schools), but a “traditional” public school that’s part of Akron Public Schools, the sixth largest district in the state.
It doesn’t really matter what kind of school IPS is as long as it serves kids well. But anyone who’s done their homework can see that IPS is anything but a “traditional” public school. In fact, the school’s defining characteristics are similar to the schools of choice lauded by ed reformers. Extended school day and year? Yes, just like a lot of the country’s best charter networks. A serious emphasis on teacher professional development, with one day a week reserved for development? Yes, just like some other high-performing charter networks. A curriculum anchored in science, technology, engineering, and math? Yes, just like Ohio’s independent, non-district affiliated STEM schools. (IPS is already part of Ohio’s STEM Learning Network.) Alternative schedules and working conditions for teachers? Also yes, just like plenty of charter and private schools.
And then there’s the philanthropic aspect. At ISP, the LeBron James Family Foundation funds “critical elements” of the school, including technology, additional staffing, and professional development. That’s not necessarily unique, since traditional districts receive philanthropic support all the time, but it is worth mentioning because charter schools are the ones that are typically maligned for seeking charitable funding to provide extra help for disadvantaged children.
Despite these similarities, IPS is a traditional public school, and there’s a whole horde of people who are thrilled about this technical distinction. In a recent piece for Education Week, for instance, Jonathan E. Collins says that it’s a good thing IPS isn’t a charter school because “charter schools by design don’t require the same accountability to the public that traditional public schools do.” I’m no expert on the charter laws in other states, but I do know Ohio charter law—and Collins is wrong. Charters in the Buckeye State are evaluated based on the same state report card that traditional public schools are subject to. Charter sponsors—the organizations that are tasked with overseeing charter schools—are evaluated using a rigorous evaluation system that has stiff consequences for poor oversight. As a result of this sponsor accountability system, dozens of low-performing charters have been shuttered in Ohio within the past few years. In addition, should sponsors fail to correct chronic low performance, state law subjects charters to automatic closure. Moreover, as schools of choice, charters face competitive pressures. If families don’t like the way a charter school is run, they don’t have to stay there—and the school loses funding if they leave.
Collins also argues that charters’ “student-selection process has stirred controversy for being biased.” Because of the “mechanisms that some charter schools have used in order to peel off the most promising at risk-students,” traditional districts are left with “unimaginable challenges.” Although studies have shown that the success of charters isn’t attributable to “cream-skimming,” there are still folks like Collins who argue that the only way a group of “those kids” can possibly succeed is if charter schools recruit the “good ones” and leave all the “bad ones” behind. It’s a notion that’s not just offensive to the charter teachers and kids who worked their butts off to learn and achieve, but also to the kids and teachers who are “stuck” in traditional districts.
Collins isn’t the only one who seems to be concerned for the “other kids” who are stuck and left behind. Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss shared the same concern in her piece titled “Props to LeBron James and his new Akron public school—but what about the other kids?” She takes tons of jabs at school choice, including the accusation that charter supporters “no doubt would have preferred that James opened a charter.” As a charter supporter and an Akron native, I find that accusation so ridiculous that it’s not even offensive. All the charter folks I know are thrilled that there’s another high quality option available for Akron kids. Frankly, anyone who doesn’t feel that way should re-evaluate their priorities.
But what stands out most about Strauss’s piece is her supposition that if schools just had more money, then James wouldn’t have had to open IPS at all. “The fact that this school opened only because of the good graces of a very wealthy, civic-minded athlete underscores the continuing problem with education funding in this country,” she writes. “America’s public schools should not have to depend on any wealthy individual or private entity to be sustained or improved.”
She’s not necessarily wrong. It would be great to have a never-ending supply of cash. If there’s anything we can learn from this spring’s teacher strikes, it’s that there are places in this nation where schools and teachers are severely—almost criminally—underfunded. But many states and localities have limited taxpayer resources that can be used to support public education. So here, too, is a place where we can learn a lesson from charter schools. Across the nation and in Ohio, charters accomplish phenomenal outcomes with less government funding than traditional public districts enjoy. These high-performing charter organizations put taxpayer funds to good use—something that bureaucratic, big-city districts don’t always do. It’s less about how much money there is and more about how it’s spent.
Thanks to LeBron James and his partners, the I Promise School has plenty of funding. Its founding principles and leadership seem to be focused on the right thing—using resources to do what’s best for students. At the end of the day, none of us should really care whether IPS is a district, charter, or private school. What matters is what it can do for kids. And so far, the future looks bright.
I’ve long had a complicated relationship with screen time for my young sons, but have come to see its benefits, especially if the focus is on quality over quantity. This has inspired me to publish lists of my favorite TV shows for young kids and for families; a compilation of educational videos; and a list of recommended apps. Now for the next frontier: YouTube. My ten-year-old LOVES “Geography Now!” and “Extra History,” from which he’s learned at least ten times more social studies than he has from Montgomery County Public Schools. It feels like a miracle that there’s such good content being produced, and makes me wonder what else we should be sampling.
To that end, I had our Fordham Institute research interns take a spin around the yonders of YouTube, and I asked for help from our readers. Many thanks to those of you who responded.
Please note that I’m leaving off the list the channels for the major PBS shows—not because they aren’t worthwhile, but because there’s plenty of ways to access them beyond YouTube. Still, to be sure, if you’ve got young kids, check out Sesame Street, Word World, Word Girl, Dinosaur Train, Liberty's Kids, and all the rest. National Geographic Kids and TedEd are great, too.
Now, after checking out these offerings myself, and without further ado, here are the best YouTube channels for learning for tweens and teens, circa the summer of 2018.
History and geography
- Crash Course (8,010,109 subscribers). This is the granddaddy of educational YouTube, created by Hank and John Green, aka the Vlogbrothers, the latter of whom is already familiar to young readers as the New York Times best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars. They have built a huge library of videos across most major disciplines, including playlists of forty-eight videos on U.S. history, seventy-two on world history, and fifty on U.S. government and politics. Each episode is generally ten to fifteen minutes long and features John Green talking about the subject, mixed in with some humor and animations.
- Extra Credits Extra History (1,486,295 subscribers). Extra Credits started as a channel for gamers, especially those interested in historical war games, like Empire Total War (yes this is a thing). And it still has a lot of content about gaming, but its creators also now make videos about history itself. They are up to over two hundred at last count, ranging all across the world and various epochs. Many are focused on military history (understandable given the channel’s genesis), with occasional diversions. Their vast offerings allow them to deeply explore topics. They dedicate four episodes, for a total of more than forty minutes, to the Punic Wars, for example. Compelling narration and cute animations combine for addictive viewing for budding history buffs.
- The Great War (875,694 subscribers). The prize for in-depth coverage goes to this channel, which follows the history of World War I, one week at a time. Do the math and you get over two hundred videos, at about ten minutes a pop, looking at the war from every angle. Historical video footage, endless maps, and an informed narrator add up to a great experience, though the endless trench warfare can be a slog. (I know, I know, not as much as living through the real thing.)
- Geography Now! (1,016,565 subscribers). Affable host Paul Barbado takes viewers on a trip around the world, with fifteen- to twenty-minute episodes on a given country. He’s working his way alphabetically through all two hundred-plus nations; at last count he made it to the M’s. It’s a bit like a video version of an encyclopedia entry, but with dashes of humor and silly graphics to boot.
Science and nature
- Vsauce (13,375,579 subscribers). Founder and star Michael Stevens didn’t start out making educational videos, but his background in comedy and video editing makes his science-oriented channel hugely engaging, as his massive following demonstrates. He enjoys taking viewers “on a journey,” starting with big questions, like “How much does a shadow weigh?” and “What color is a mirror?” He’s Bill Nye the Science Guy for the YouTube generation.
- The Brain Scoop (468,108 subscribers). Host Emily Graslie got her start with Hank and John Green, and was recruited by Chicago’s Field Museum to be its “chief curiosity correspondent.” Yes, it’s a dream job. If Michael Stevens is the new Bill Nye, she’s the new Ms. Frizzle. And not surprisingly given her employer, expect a lot of videos on the living world—both today and in the ancient past.
- Crash Course Literature (8,010,109 subscribers). As noted above, this is the granddaddy of educational YouTube, created by Hank and John Green. Their video library includes a playlist of forty-five videos on literature. The classics covered include Romeo & Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, The Handmaids Tale, and many more.
- Khan Academy (4,069,528 subscribers). Surely the best-known educational outpost on the interwebs, Khan Academy’s YouTube channel is a gateway to the more extensive offerings on its own platform. But for quick refreshers and explainers, these videos are hard to beat.
- Vihart (1,255,570 subscribers). Created by Victoria Hart, a self-described “full-time recreational mathemusician,” this channel strives to make math cool. If Khan Academy is Microsoft, Vihart is Apple. It may not help you cram for your calculus test, but it will surely expand your mind. Her mesmerizing, almost poetic video “How I feel about logarithms” has over 1.2 million views at last count; “Doodling in Math Class: DRAGONS” has over 5 million. Not bad for videos of a hand scribbling numbers—and dragons—with thoughtful insights about math.
Did we leave a great channel off the list? Let us know at mpetrilli[at]edexcellence.net.
The Knowledge Matters school tour: A visit to seven schools adopting high-quality English language arts curricula
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on CenterPoint Education Solutions’ blog.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting a group of schools across the country distinguished by their embrace of high-quality curriculum. The tour was sponsored by the Knowledge Matters Campaign, which seeks to lift up the stories of schools that use knowledge-rich English language arts curriculum to promote educational excellence, provide equity, and inspire in students a passion for learning.
The campaign is particularly interested in drawing attention to schools and curricula that bring a joyous, knowledge-filled schooling experience to students of poverty, as they have been the ones particularly harmed by a skills-based approach that is arguably one of the most significant factors in reading scores remaining flat over the past twenty years (see this article published by the Campaign last month), to say nothing of driving out a love of learning in our young people.
Most of the schools we visited on the tour had adopted a curriculum highly rated by EdReports, the independent non-profit organization that, for the past four years, has served as something of a Consumer Reports on Common Core-aligned curriculum. Three key instructional shifts: regular practice with complex texts and their academic language; reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts; and building knowledge through content-rich curriculum, underpin the Common Core standards in English language arts and are what guide the reviews on EdReports.
The schools included on the tour employed a variety of instructional approaches and represented different geographic locations, demographic diversity, and governance structures. The common feature was their commitment to knowledge-rich schooling and their faith in comprehensive, high-quality curriculum, implemented school-wide, as a means of achieving it.
So, what stood out to us as we visited these schools? Without a doubt, the most salient feature—which was, in fact, a distinguishing feature (as it was in stark contrast to our experience in schools last fall that had not embraced the importance of knowledge-building)—was the fact that all students were engaged with grade-level complex texts. While we certainly saw the full range of student reading levels one would expect of a school serving high-need students (including typically large numbers of English learners), in each classroom we visited, texts were interrogated communally, thus exposing students, who may not have been able to read all the words on the page, to key vocabulary and content knowledge. Importantly, all kids got to discuss, amongst themselves, the ideas in the text. This is huge. As Jaden, a previously struggling reader at Monticello-Brown Summit Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, told me, “I like it when we read it (a book) together because you can get others’ opinions. I like being in book arguments.”
Another profound experience of the tour was the amount of content knowledge these students were exposed to. A recent survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that 56 percent of ELA teachers worry, “not enough attention has been paid to building students’ general knowledge,” with 46 percent saying their curriculum and/or instructional materials “do a poor job of building students’ general knowledge.” A brief review of the travel blog associated with the Knowledge Matters School Tour will reveal a very different story, with topics—mind you, for K–8 students—ranging from the War of 1812, Athenian governance, medieval Europe, the lost colony of Roanoke, Galileo, animal anatomy, patterns in nature, Greek mythology, etc.
It’s no wonder, given how much kids like to “learn stuff,” that a final standout feature of the schools we visited was virtually no disciplinary problems. The look and feel—what some would call the school culture—at Maryvale, a classical school in Phoenix, and Detroit Prep/Detroit Achievement Academy, which both use EL Education 2.0 (formerly named Expeditionary Learning), were studies in contrast. But the level of student engagement was uniformly high. In both cases, and indeed in each school we visited, there was a palpable sense—among kids and adults alike—that real learning was taking place, that knowledge was expanding.
The word I most associate with the Knowledge Matters School Tour is “confidence.” While teachers told us that learning the new curriculum was the hardest thing they’d ever done in teaching, they’ve also report it being among the best things to have happened to them professionally. After years of floundering, knowing they weren’t really meeting their students’ needs but not knowing what to do about it, they report now being more certain that they’re preparing their students for academic success in the future.
When we asked the teachers to give advice to colleagues around the country who might be at the start of their journey with a new, high-quality curriculum, we generally got some version of, “have faith in the curriculum.” For many, it wasn’t until they’d gone through the school year that they developed a full appreciation. “I had to see the whole picture” says a second-grade teacher in Dayton who added, “This is by far my best year of teaching in seventeen years.”
More importantly even than these teachers’ journey to professional confidence was what we saw and heard from the kids. As Aurora, a fifth-grade student in Riverside, California, told me, “We learn higher level things and we are not afraid to share what we learn.”
The enduring images of the Knowledge Matters School Tour are of deep and shared engagements with a wide range of quality informational and literary texts; a high volume of reading; students receiving far more science, social studies/history, and art instruction than is currently seen in the average public school; and near universal confidence among students—from the smallest kindergartners to students ready to advance on to middle or high school—that they were in good hands, and that their school was preparing them for the academic challenges that lay ahead.
Would that every child could feel this way about their school…
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week’s podcast, Gisèle Huff, executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the use of technology in education. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern covers Fordham’s recent study on reading and writing instruction in America's schools.
Amber’s Research Minute
David Griffith and Ann M. Duffett, “Reading and Writing Instruction in America’s Schools,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute (July 2018).
In a paper titled Ohio’s Plan to Raise Literacy Achievement, the Ohio Department of Education recently wrote that districts have “a limited understanding of how to build early literacy in young children.” This is manifestly troubling, as so much in life hinges on reading fluency—and it’s not as if there were a dearth of quality research on how kids learn to read. This is, in fact, one of the most thoroughly analyzed parts of schooling. (Fordham’s new literacy lifelines offer concise practical advice based in research.)
If this what-is-known and how-to-do-it knowledge isn’t well-lodged in the minds of district leaders and practitioners in Ohio schools, something needs to change. One can go back to Jeanne Chall’s 1967 book or the report in 2000 from the National Reading Panel. But a more recent and accessible review is a fine paper by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation. In what they call a “comprehensive tutorial review on the science of learning to read,” the authors review the major research findings and offer insight on how evidence can inform practice. The paper is organized around three general phases of literacy development, which they define as: (1) cracking the alphabetic code; (2) becoming a skilled word reader; and (3) learning to comprehend text.
The first building block of literacy is the ability to translate letters into sounds (or “decoding”). But studies indicate that children do not naturally intuit the relationship between letters and sounds; this must be taught explicitly through systematic phonics instruction. But why is phonics such a crucial foundation? Here, Castles and colleagues helpfully explain that an emphasis on phonics is not so much based on a “pedagogical philosophy,” but on the features of English itself. In an alphabetic language like ours, phonics enables children to pronounce the majority of words fairly rapidly. Once children can decode written symbols, they can direct their attention to making sense of word meanings.
A successful transition from decoding to skilled reading rests in large part on youngsters’ “lexical quality.” This term, the authors note, refers to readers’ ability to differentiate meanings precisely when spellings may be similar (face versus lace) or even the same (jam). How can schools promote strong lexical quality? Straight-up vocabulary instruction can help, but with thousands of words to learn, this can also be a daunting task. One approach the authors recommend is explicitly teaching “morphological awareness”—building a strong understanding of the predictable ways in which roots can be altered to change meanings (e.g., adding “–ed” to most verbs). The authors also make the commonsense point that more reading grows one’s vocabulary. “The single most effective pathway to fluent word reading,” they write, “is print experience: Children need to see as many words as possible, as frequently as possible.”
The ability to decode and understand word meanings is necessary but not sufficient for comprehending text. But how exactly do children learn comprehension skills? The authors admit that this is a complex question, in part because children’s background knowledge, cognitive processes, and memory interact and all bear on comprehension. Yet they offer useful insights here, too. First, they review the research on comprehension strategies and conclude that these can be effective in small doses—akin to learning reading “tricks.” Second, Castles and colleagues emphasize that “knowledge is fundamental to comprehension.” They make a helpful distinction between general background knowledge, such as familiarity with relevant historical contexts that can support inference making, and more specific linguistic knowledge—e.g., an understanding of idiom and figurative speech or grammar rules that help readers process text efficiently. Developing this knowledge base can be done through direct instruction. Moreover, as noted by the authors, it’s also closely intertwined with children’s own reading abilities, as well as their opportunities to read widely across various areas.
This timely paper reminds us that learning to read is complicated and gradual. But essential elements of it are firmly grounded in quality research, which provides a compass for educators and parents. Explicit phonics instruction is the critical foundation for fluent reading. Beyond decoding, children must build a rich vocabulary and broad knowledge base. While the authors don’t advocate for many specific reading strategies or interventions, their central message throughout is clear: To become good readers, children must read, read, read—and then read some more.
SOURCE: Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation, “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2018).
While the so-called “word gap” between children from low and high socioeconomic circumstances continues, as it has for decades, to get much attention, researchers are continuing to dig deeper into the quantity and quality of language with which young children interact. There is more to successful language acquisition than just pouring more words into their ears. A new study from a University of Miami (FL) team led by Lynn Perry adds some small-scale evidence to support the primacy of quality over quantity in language interaction, but also adds a twist.
The twist is perhaps the most interesting part. Rather than focusing on the much-studied parent-child interactions at home, Perry and company looked at language interaction for children in a daycare setting, recording and analyzing the quantity and quality of language in five-minute increments during forty-two recording days over a full year. This includes adult-child and peer-peer interactions in both structured and unstructured situations. Using the Language ENvironment Analysis (LENA) device, the researchers were able to collect data on the quantity of language expressed by each child, the quantity of language heard, differentiation of adult versus peer language, and language quality as defined by conversational turns between children and adults or peers (as opposed to passive language reception). No data were collected on content of language heard or expressed via recording.
All the children in the daycare center selected for study were between the ages of two and three, and all tested below the 30th percentile in expressive vocabulary size at the beginning of the study—just the type of kids whose exposure to language needs examination and perhaps intervention. Though only thirteen children ultimately participated in the full study, a sufficient number of recordings were collected to analyze the data. Children’s expressive vocabulary was tested at three time points—one month prior to the first recording date, approximately six months into the study, and one month after the final recording date—using the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory Words and Sentences form (MCDI). The goal was to determine which, if any, aspects of language interaction correlated with changes in children’s language usage as recorded on the LENA device and via MCDI scores over time.
Language usage patterns showed a significant relationship between children's input from peers and their own vocalizations; in other words, kids who vocalized more also tended to receive more from other kids. Talking begets more talking. There was also a significant relationship between children's conversational turn-taking with adults and their own vocalizations, such that children who spoke more also engaged in more turn-taking. However, the quantity of input that children received from adults was negatively correlated with their own vocalizations. Though it is necessary for adults to talk for turn-taking to occur, evidence suggests that simply directing more words at a child can be detrimental to his or her own usage.
Interestingly, vocalizations of all types occurred most frequently during periods of structured activity, especially the beneficial conversational turn-taking, both with adults and peers. The analysts determined that, overall, 72 percent of an average day in the daycare classroom was spent in unstructured activities (outdoor play, lunchtime, etc.) and just 28 percent in structured activities (storytelling, circle time, etc.). As the call for more and better preschool programming grows, this script may need to be flipped if such a setting is to contribute significantly to language acquisition and development.
All students greatly increased their MCDI scores from the beginning of the year to the mid-point; all but one child did the same from the mid-point to the end of the year. These results were not surprising but, consistent with other research, conversational turn-taking emerged as a prime correlate to both increased language usage and increased MCDI scores. This was true of both adult and peer interactions, although conversation with adults was more closely correlated than conversation with peers.
The sample here is too small—again, just thirteen young children—to generalize the outcomes, but these correlational results for youngsters previously known to have limited expressive language suggest that concrete steps can be made in the preschool setting to support growth in this area. As preschool programs become more widespread, encouraging structured activities that pay purposeful and frequent attention to conversational turn-taking with adults and plentiful opportunities for children to hear and use language together are must-haves.
SOURCE: Lynn K. Perry, et al, “A year in words: The dynamics and consequences of language experiences in an intervention classroom,” PLOS ONE (July, 2018).