Published Online: April 5, 2011
Published in Print: April 6, 2011, as Blogs of the Week

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21st-Century Pet Rock

The new “Pet Rock” seems to be adding avatars to instructional software.

In sound educational software, avatars represent a user, and provide what the research community refers to as “immersive situated learning.” The user can really connect with the screen environment. This has been found to be especially beneficial for students with Asperger syndrome or autism. It allows them to learn how to empathize and detect and express emotion in a safe environment.

In our district, teachers have reported an increase in student participation that goes beyond a superficial level when they are functioning as avatars; the use of avatars supports risk-taking and participation. Students have reported that they are more likely to share their ideas, ask and answer questions, when their identity is concealed.

However, some software companies overuse or include avatars in a suspect way. For example, there are math games where students can make their own avatar; however, after students spend time building their avatar, it is parked alongside the interface and in no way supports the learning experience. The function of the avatar needs to be transformational—it should extend the learning to levels of experience and identity that could not be reached without it.

As educational leaders, purchasing the best program for our students can be overwhelming. When making the decision, ask yourself one question: Is this an extension of the self that assists the learning experience? If the answer is no, then you might as well save your money and give students a rock and some paint.

—James Yap, Teresa Ivey & Peggy Sheehy



Maybe it’s my natural inclination to be suspicious of anything “market-based.” But I’m just not sure what good it will do for schools and kids to unleash a multitude of “teacherpreneurs” on America.

The predominant policy thrust right now is toward using public education as a springboard for the realization of policy “innovations” connected to recognition and profit. Merit pay. Boutique schools in gritty urban settings. Competitive federal grants. Are these ideas we want to nurture?

Think about the $125,000 teacherpreneurs Zeke Vanderhoek hired for the Equity Project charter, willing to take the risk of working without tenure for the big bucks. Or the windfall profits enterprising educators will reap from creating new curricular materials and assessments based on the common-core standards.

As Whitney Tilson might say, there’s some insane leveraging going on in public education—and your tax dollars are helping to fund it.

—Nancy Flanagan


Test Yearly or Not, Mr. President?

Have you heard? President Barack Obama thinks we should test students less often. Maybe not even annually. His comments on the subject, made at a town hall meeting last week, zinged around the globe.

“Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools,” the president said. “And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years ...”

Our own Politics K-12 bloggers wondered whether these thoughts squared with what Obama’s own education department has been saying, so they asked the department for clarification. Oh no, came the response, annual testing is very much a part of the administration’s vision.

Others in the blogosphere picked up on the possible disconnect in the messaging, too. blogger Anthony Cody opined that Obama was blasting his own education policies.

The president’s comments surely rippled through the assessment consortia, the two big groups of states that have $360 million in federal Race to the Top funds to design testing systems for the new common standards. Whether their visions will result in more testing is something that intelligent people can argue about, but they are certainly going to feature annual tests.

The consortia are closely monitoring the assessment dialogue on Capitol Hill as reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act nears, because they have to adapt to whatever Congress requires for federal accountability. How and when the accountability-and-testing policy takes shape with ESEA will have a huge impact on the consortia, which have to put out requests for proposals for test design as all of this is unfolding.

Tricky questions, tricky policy, tricky timing.

—Catherine Gewertz

Vol. 30, Issue 27, Page 20

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