Friday, June 18, 2010

Will Innovative Education Technology Raise Scores & Balance Budgets?


An Interview with 3PlusLearning CEO, Michael Hehman


Bionicteaching, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Almost every state and major city in the U.S. is facing a shortfall in their overall budget. California is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy if the state does not get bailed out by the federal government or if its leadership doesn’t start taking decisive action on big spending cuts and probably raising taxes at least once more.

Whenever any state or local government mentions having to make the politically charged decision to cut spending, you immediately hear the outrage that if teachers or education programs are cut “it’s the children that will suffer”. NJ Governor Chris Christie has taken a hard line with teachers and their union displaying an amazing conviction to the reality of what is needed to balance a state budget billions in the red.

And dare I say it out loud – public service can be an honorable profession; yet the economic reality is public employee pay, benefits, and pension plans must be in line with the private sector, not in an unsustainable class of its own.

President Obama asked Congress just this week for $50B more federal bail-out money to send to states so teachers, and other public employees, won’t have to take pay-cuts or won’t have to be laid-off due to local government budget woes. Even federal help for local education expense is a hard sell to Congress right now, for they know Americans have deficit spending fatigue - especially after the huge deficit stimulus spending has not had any significant impact in creating actual wealth producing private sector jobs.

Private sector employees have seen pay-cuts and massive lay-offs as companies struggle in this economy to balance their budgets. Private companies cannot just deficit spend forever or just raise taxes to ensure no consequences for poor money, resource, and technology management. Americans have hit the wall on taxpayer funded government jobs, including teachers, being the only jobs Washington seems to care about saving or creating in this recession.

Of course states could make significant budget cuts in pork barrel special interest projects that would not involve cutting teachers, or police and firemen for that matter; yet that seems to be a long-shot for most politicians to consider let alone actually do. In regards to the education budget, the average taxpayer does see value in looking at cutting the duplication and failed programs that should have been eliminated years ago.

A good teacher is someone a child will remember for life, yet the unnecessary layers of expensive bureaucracy empire-building in education frustrates everyone. So does outdated and globally noncompetitive instruction methods.

Americans want more efficiency and effectiveness for their education dollar. There are 54M public school students in K-12 and half again as many in private, faith-based and home school. Throughout the U.S. there continues to be serious under achieving levels in all of the basic skills areas. The thing is the education system has shown for decades that spending more does not equate directly to raising student test scores in K-8 or lowering the high school drop-out rate in some districts.

According to a recent McKinsey & Co. report, “The United States has the smallest proportion of 15 year olds performing at the highest levels of proficiency in math.” Internationally, U.S. students ranked at a dismal 25 in math in a 30 country test score comparison – all while the U.S. spends more money on education than all but one of the 30 test countries.

The average cost per student continues to rise every year. The DOE’s 2010 Comparative Spending Guide  reveals - “The CSG comparative average cost per pupil is $13,835 for the 2009-2010 school year, up 4.3 percent from the average cost in the previous year. This is slightly more than the average increase in the previous year, which was 3.4%. ‘It is important to note that this is the cost per pupil based on the CSG elements, not the total cost per pupil,’ Commissioner Schundler said. (Actual cost-per-pupil numbers can be found in the State Report Card for each district.)”

Americans are clearly not getting their money’s worth in education spending evidenced by very poor results globally. Is the American education system, and taxpayers that pay for it, finally ready to do what the private sector has shown works in increasing competitiveness and lowering costs – updating with innovative technology? The current education delivery system has not changed significantly in 200 years.

In the last 18 months a paradigm shift has been slowly occurring. There has finally been openness to change and to innovative technology having a place in all levels of education. It is at last being acknowledged updating education technology may be the answer to raising student test scores and lowering cost in the classroom. Saving money and increased cost containment is good - thinking like this could go a long way in helping balance state and local budgets.

One promising sign is the $4.35B “Race to the Top” contest program sponsored by President Obama and supported by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in which states compete for millions of education dollars. In phases 1 and 2 of the program, 47 states and the District of Columbia applied. Delaware won $100M and Tennessee $500M in the program’s first phase.

According to the DOE, the program asks states to advance reforms around four specific areas:

1. Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
2. Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
3. Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
4. Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

One of the ways innovation is getting high marks is in changing the delivery of education. Let’s face it; children of all ages, especially those in high-school, love the computer, instant feedback, and social networking. With state budgets tight, teachers could also use a helping hand with updated education technology that can create an E-portfolio for each student. The E-portfolio would include student specific information, past course scores, present test scores, pinpointed areas for improvement within tests, strength areas and more.

Teachers can create tests, surveys, evaluations, polling, blog study groups, chat live, and post photos in communities set up by them. Teachers can save time and money by having student work graded automatically with a few key strokes and observe comparison charts instantly. Education administration and management can develop custom online teacher development programs, webinars, and teacher evaluations.

3PlusLearning is a company leading the way in providing education technology that is changing the paradigm. Their system currently offers all of the above features and more. 3PlusLearning is a web based online practice testing service that provides a diagnostic and prescriptive solution for K-12 students. Teachers and parents are able to quickly see the strengths and weaknesses in the basic learning areas of concentration individualized to each student. Their standardized tests are aligned to the state standards, and the results are scored relative to the standards and remediation.

3PlusLearning isn’t resting on their laurels having just completed version 2.0 which they are installing now with their clients. 3PlusLearning systems ensure their client schools stay up with the technology curve. The 2.0 version has enhanced community function features that include social networking – something students already like using and highly value.

Ultimately, use of the 3PlusLearning system, or similar education technology, has the potential to fulfill all of the requirements set forth by President Obama and the DOE as top priorities for schools as noted above.

An Interview with Michael Hehman, CEO, 3PlusLearning:

BKH: Who are your clients and size of your market place?
MH: Our market is the K-12 students in public, private, faith based and home school networks in urban, suburban and rural areas. Our market for our formative and summative testing technology is schools, school districts, State Department of Education, and individuals who want to purchase as consumers such as parents, tutors and educators.

BKH: So you work with public and private schools as well as home schooling?
MH: Yes.

BKH: Has there been any push-back or resistance to change by administrators, teachers, or their union?
MH: There is far less resistance by the educational system now than ever before. We provide an accurate service to assist all who are involved in the future of educating our students. We give them student results using a diagnostic and prescriptive solution to find the deficits in their basic skills. Scores that are broken down by standards with remediation provides more time for student intervention. Everyone in education appreciates the effective solution this technology allows.

BKH: What do the school administrators, teachers and parents like most about using the system?
MH: Everyone wants to have the ability to measure the cumulative progress of each student’s strengths and improvement areas during the school year. Parents with computers are engaged via email and printouts of the formative diagnostic and prescriptive progress. Reports are also mailed to parents.

BKH: What do the students like most about using the system?
MH: Students like computers. They like to click "submit" and then to see immediate results. To receive instant remediation is fun and engaging for them as well as educating. Also, teachers can cluster students into communities to address the specific improvement areas, and they can work together and help each other while learning. The system has social networking attributes as well for studying and collaborating additional help.

BKH: Have test score comparisons been made before and after use of this new education delivery system? What were the results?
MH: By providing practice tests online throughout the school year, with time in between for remediation, achievement levels have increased dramatically. Research shows if you practice before a high stakes test, scores will increase. Students and teachers like practicing with the system.

BKH: What type of cost saving has been realized with use of the system?
MH: Cost savings come in the efficiencies of the system. The test scores rise when each student’s extra attention needed areas are targeted. Higher scores reflect better education results and create more federal dollars to the schools. There’s also more time to teach with less time spent preparing and scoring end-of-chapter quizzes, mid-terms, and final exams. The scores are pushed up into the teacher’s grade book automatically.

BKH: Does the system provide specifically for the needs of at risk children?
MH: We are working with politicians, advocacy groups, foundations, specialized interest groups, corporations, and educators in the inner cities aimed at the at-risk students. We have a system which specifically spirals back to find a student's reading ability and brings the students forward in reading and math. Some of our best successes come from these children.

BKH: Does the system provide specifically for the needs of “English as a second language” learning?
MH: Our computer adaptive service enables 3PlusLeanring to design and build a specific site for customized needs and demands of the districts, metropolitan areas and states in any number of languages.

BKH: Does the system provide specifically for the needs of special needs children?
MH: We have heard special needs students are much better suited to a key board response than a paper and pencil test. Using a computerized test system often results in higher scores for them. .Special needs students are accommodated by turning the timer off – there is a "stop and save" feature. They have the ability to come back at a later time and finish at their own pace.

BKH: I have heard 3PlusLearning is talking to the Big Shoulders Foundation in Chicago?
MH: Yes, we have discussed the benefits of online assessment, and Big Shoulders Foundation offered to share our unique services information with the 93 member primary and secondary schools they work with in their June ENews letter. The need is great in these schools to provide updated tools that can assist the students to work toward entering high school and college at a competitive level. We want to be an asset to their worthy cause by helping in every way we can to bring our technology to these schools.

BKH: How does online technology in education relate to other technologies in other areas?
MH: Online technologies and assessments are completely consistent with the current trends in social networking and information sharing between peers. Think about it, today’s children are completely wired in to their own social networks through online technologies. Online assessments associated with online curriculum are the next logical steps in self directed learning.

BKH: 3PlusLearning has grown very quickly in the last few years. What do you attribute this to especially in this competitive market?
MH: When we started the company 8 years ago, we made it our value proposition to be efficient and responsive to what our clients needed and wanted. We knew a system has value when it is incorporated into daily use by clients and when they see the results gained from its use. To achieve these goals with them, we knew our system must be easy to use and be flexible enough to have changes and customization be nimble. We have credibility with our clients by meeting their educational goals and funding realities.

BKH: Visit http://www.3pluslearning.com/ to learn more.

Bob Demish, a teacher with DuPage Country Schools (in the western suburbs of Chicagoland) notes, "3Plus' testing site is very easy to use and intuitive. The reporting really makes a difference."

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary U.S. Department of Education, a national expert on education technology, Ken Meyer explains it well, “There is a lot of confusion in the education marketplace about what assessments actually are and how they are used. Historically assessments and data have been used solely as a means to meet rules and laws of compliance about schools and school districts. 3PlusLearning has crossed the chasm into the realm of providing a powerful formative assessment tool which can be used to impact individual student performance. Compliance rarely leads to performance. Performance always leads to compliance. This is exactly the direction that education needs to head and is heading.”

The paradigm shift is gaining momentum. Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, and Virginia are already moving closer to being completely converted to online technology for low and high stakes assessments in grades in public schools. There are a dozen more states seriously considering doing the same. These early adopter schools have found significant gains in efficiency – accurate teacher evaluation and student accountability. Measuring results (data) by utilizing an online diagnostic and prescriptive method can only be accomplished with updating technology.

Education cost savings and containment, which is a large element in balancing state and local budgets, has a direct relationship to scalability which private companies have known and utilized for years. Scalability allows for testing of small, medium, and large amounts of students inexpensively. Taking advantage of innovative education technology allows for scaleable testing with many different permutations and variables including state standards, different curriculums, end of chapter quizzes, mid-terms, finals, state achievement tests, and more.

And most important of all – knowing “exactly” where a student needs help within a subject or skill set leads to addressing these needs specifically and directly. This better enables a child to have more meaningful instruction. This type of customized focus will go a long way in raising student test scores and enhancing a student’s ability for increased scholastic success. Using innovative technology for budget balancing cost cutting will in fact also ‘benefit children” by raising their scores and global competitiveness.

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