24 March 2009

CAL 2009 - Access to University Success for Dyslexic Students: Mobiles, Old Computers, and Free Software

(At CAL 2009 - Learning in Digital Worlds - and I will try to share this week or next. But here is my presentation...)

Can used computers, free software, and mobile phones provide the support needed which allows for post-secondary educational success for dyslexic students?

A year-long investigation of the use of ubiquitous computer and mobile phone technologies to support dyslexic and dyslexic/attention-challenged learners transitioning from secondary to post-secondary education. Student reading comprehension levels ranged from grade 4 (age 9) to grade 8 (age 13) and none had any technology support in secondary education, relying on teachers as readers and scribes. Half of the twenty students had limited or no interaction with “regular education” curriculum in Michigan schools, a state which, until the 2008-2009 school year (after these students graduated), had no secondary completion requirements.

Students were evaluated, both for reading and attention skills and for attention/organization skills, shown a group of appropriate technologies, and were, through [a US funded] “vocational rehabilitation service,” supplied with computers and/or phones which had free software solutions installed. The students were trained in the use of these devices and supported in learning how to adapt these supports for their individual needs. They were assisted in applications for disability accommodations (digitally supplied texts and testing using text-to-speech software) at their colleges and universities. Software installed on rebuilt used computers included free text-to-speech systems, free web-based support structures such as Google Docs, Calendar, and Notebook, and Click-Speak in the Firefox Browser, as well as mobile-based speech-to-text systems. (all links are in PowerPoint)

One year results indicate significant success. Eighteen of twenty students were continuing their education. Of 113 classes begun by these students, 96 were completed and 85 passed successfully. This 90% persistence rate and 75% course completion record must be compared with overall (students with and without disabilities) US 2-year college first-year persistence rates – which average only 65%, and overall US “comprehensive university” introductory course “drop, failure, and withdrawal” rates of 22% to 45%.

- Ira Socol in Brighton, England

21 March 2009

CSUN 2009 - FreeTech - Ubiquitous, Universal Toolbelts

(As the CSUN 2009 - Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference goes on I will post my three presentations and add short posts about what I see and hear. You may want to also follow the CSUN Twitter feed at #csun09)

Schools often complain about the costs of high-tech accommodations, but many of the best solutions are free, if schools would just allow them.

Mobile phones can offer speech recognition, or can convert the speech of others into text. Free text-to-speech systems can provide digitized reading support on any computer. Google calendar and organization tools can solve many student issues. MP3 players already in student pockets can offer effective instructional backup. Auto-Correct in Microsoft Word can solve many student keyboarding issues. The best spell checking systems are free online. Free add-ons to Firefox can provide right-click definitions and translations. There is no better predictive spelling system than the iTap (and similar) software on mobile phones.

But in classrooms across the US, and in many other nations, these tools are either not available or are actually banned – making many schools, in the words of Alan November, “reality free zones,” where the students who need them most are denied the ubiquitous tools of contemporary society.

This situation hurts everyone. Schools pay for systems and software that either they or the students themselves already own or could download at no cost. Students go with supports that are available to anyone outside of school. And students miss the chance to learn either about the learning tools which will support them throughout their lifespans, or the best ways to choose those tools.

These free and ubiquitous technologies work in every educational environment, from pre-school to universities, and in almost every kind of employment situation.

Best Practices with these technologies take them from distraction to support:
Mobile phones
improve student reading, writing, and academic engagement.

Twitter-like systems bring the classroom “back-channel” forward

Best group of free text-to-speech systems. (and when to “trade up” to full-featured purchasable systems)
Student-centered input systems

Supportive features in the software you already have (Mac O/S, Windows, Microsoft Word)

Ghotit’s spell-check system
– online or within Microsoft Word - to build writing confidence

Google Apps, Google Accounts in your school.

Google Calendar and your students’ organization.

Firefox, Google, and CLiCk-Speak supporting student reading and writing in school and at home.

Online text-to-speech sites.
Available free USB-“key” technology.
What is “next” in ubiquitous technology?
ow to argue for technology effectively within your control-obsessed school.

These technologies link to “Toolbelt Theory,” the art of teaching all students to develop their own systems of supportive tools. Creating a learning environment which supports, within classroom parameters, student experimentation and student use of multiple tools, for differing tasks and environments. And which teaches the ability to respond to changing skill levels and rapidly changing environments and technologies in ways which create lifespan tool learners and tool users.

- Ira Socol in Los Angeles

20 March 2009

CSUN 2009: Text-To-Speech from the Start

(As the CSUN 2009 - Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference goes on I will post my three presentations and add short posts about what I see and hear. You may want to also follow the CSUN Twitter feed at #csun09)

Text-to-speech software is not just an accommodation for struggling readers, it can support primary literacy instruction in ways that prepare all readers for lifelong learning. And it can build literacy skills from the very beginning of school, if only schools would bring these systems in.

There is often a bizarre fear of this. I constantly hear that using text-to-speech systems will, "make students lazy," or "mean they will not learn to read." These arguments make absolutely no sense - if they were true, parents or teachers reading to children would be a bad thing - and yet, we know this is not true.

Exposure to text, through text made accessible - via parent bed-time story, teacher story time, or computer text-to-speech, builds vocabulary, builds comprehension and understanding of literary form, builds an understanding of grammar, and perhaps most importantly, builds an understanding of the value of reading. Computer text-to-speech can do even more, increasing sightword recognition, improving the understanding of the idea of sentence and paragraph, and offering support for the idea of independent reading.

The pressure for literacy success in schools is a worldwide policy event that has as much potential for harm as it has potential to improve human progress. Literacy initiatives, be they national or multinational, the work of governments or NGOs, based in theories of democracy or theories of capitalism, certainly have the ability to transform the lives of millions. But they can do something else: these initiatives can place unrealistic expectations on a wide range of young people – those with cognitive issues, those with dyslexia, those with vision issues, those with attentional issues, and those who, simply are developing, physically, emotionally, or cognitively, in a way different than medically-determined norms suggest.

In addition, there are unrealistic expectations placed on the families least likely to be able to provide in-home support for literacy instruction – families where the parents are English-language-learners themselves, families with all parents working multiple jobs, and families where the parents lack their own literacy competencies.

If you are teaching in a primary classroom, you are be faced with students with literacy issues. You are faced with students who are failing to master literacy as expected. And you have students who will be blocked from many forms of educational and social success because they are struggling with this single skill.

In some US states a student who might be on top of his class in every other measure of academic achievement may be retained in third grade simply because of reading test scores. In EU nations students with high potential fail to achieve sufficient scores on secondary school entrance exams because of literacy issues. In classrooms everywhere students who fail to master effective literacy are isolated, fail to progress in other subjects, suffer with significant self-esteem issues, and within a few years, are far more likely to find themselves as drop-outs, and even as convicted criminals.

Sophisticated text-to-speech systems are often thought of as accommodations for readers who have already fallen behind their classmates, and these systems are rarely employed with students in the primary grades, yet these are the very supports which might make massive differences in school success, right from the start.

Software such as Freedom Scientific’s WYNN (chosen for its ease of use with even very young readers) can dramatically increase "read-to" time, can enhance the connection between word shape and word sound, can offer content, information access, and sophisticated story access, can support student writing, and can assist in effective student evaluation.

Bringing these text-to-speech systems into primary schools, from the start of the literacy learning process, is an idea whose time has come. Combining the sophisticated tools in premium software such as WYNN with free web-based and computer-based home supports, will create best early literacy practices which can support most students.

Time-stretched teachers may build “read-to” time for students by converting any type of book into a WYNN document, and creating custom toolbars and settings which provide the best starting points for young students.

Teachers needing effective tools for evaluating reading comprehension and content knowledge may use the interactive structures within WYNN to bypass decoding problems.

Teachers with students struggling with sight words may use the bi-modal (see/hear) text-to-speech system to build these essential skills. They may also use WYNN’s dual-highlighting system to emphasize sentence and/or paragraph structure.

Teachers with students whose decoding capabilities lag behind their cognitive and academic capabilities may use WYNN to make content (book or on-line) accessible, and through WYNN’s voice notes can allow interaction even if writing and keyboarding skills are minimal.

And teachers concerned about preparing any students for lifelong learning may use WYNN’s tools, and it’s web browser, to help young students learn to interact effectively with digital text.

WYNN is not the only software capable of these supports. Text Help’s Read-and-Write-Gold and Kurzweil 3000 both offer similar support structures, but WYNN was chosen for the case studies which underlie this research for its simplicity of interface. This interface seems the easiest to learn at a young age, although the software remains a lifespan learning tool.

There is not enough current research on utilizing these newest reading and writing support technologies with very young students, a failure of both academic imagination and proof of the limitations of traditional research "rules" as applied to a rapidly developing field, but research into literacy issues raises the likelihood that high-tech accommodations can provide significant and effective support.

[Warning! A few paragraphs of insufferable academic-type writing follow...]

Florida State University's Joseph K. Torgesen, in Individual Differences in Response to Early Interventions in Reading: The Lingering Problem of Treatment Resisters (2000), stated, "What is the best method, or combination of methods, of instruction for these children, and how much special instruction will they require? At this point in the development of our field, we have the beginnings of a consensus about the first question but are still far from a consensual answer to the second. For example, we know that approaches featuring systematic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonetic decoding skills produce stronger reading growth in children with phonological weaknesses than do those that do not teach these skills explicitly (Brown & Felton, 1990; Felton, 1993; Foorman et al., 1998; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Lovett, Borden, Lacerenza, Benson, & Brackstone, 1994; Torgesen et al., 1997; Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, Rose, et al., 1999; Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985). It also seems clear that these phonemically explicit approaches should include careful instruction to help children apply their phonetic decoding skills to real words and that they should provide many opportunities to read connected text for fluency and meaning (Foormanetal., 1998; Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O’Hara, & Donnelly, 1997; Lovett et al., 1994; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Tanzman, 1994)."

Russell Gersten, Ph.D., and Scott Baker, Ph.D., in Reading Comprehension Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Research Synthesis suggest that, "Finding ways to help students generalize their newly acquired reading comprehension skills is essential. It's important to learn how these skills can be transferred to other academic areas and what needs to be done to make sure that students either continue using the specific strategies they've learned after the instructional intervention ends or internalize the essential parts of the strategy so that improvements in reading comprehension continue." They also say the following, "Students with LD often show signs of giving up too quickly when faced with a difficult passage. This so-called task persistence, a skill that must be acquired by all readers, is especially important for successful reading of expository text, such as history and science textbooks, newspapers, and voter pamphlets." They continue, "Children with LD, who have a history of academic difficulties, have documented gaps in grade-appropriate knowledge of history, geography, and other subjects. These knowledge gaps interfere with their understanding of material they encounter in new texts and compound their reading comprehension problems."

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's James Gee speaks of research indicating that a kindergartener's spoken specialized (non-vernacular) vocabulary correlates with 3rd/4th grade reading comprehension levels, and that "The only realistic chance students with poor vocabularies have to catch up to their peers with rich vocabularies requires that they engage in extraordinary amounts of independent reading."

Faced with these facts, and a classroom of between twenty and thirty primary students, how can a teacher start to compensate for hours of missed parent-child reading sessions, or at-home exposure to specialized learning? How can a teacher make sure that struggling readers stay engaged with content learning so that students do not fall behind in every subject area? How can teachers provide extra phonological support, writing skill support, and reading support without cloning themselves and providing one-on-one work with a dozen students at a time?

It is the need to meet these needs for these students which drives the need to bring Text-To-Speech into early primary classrooms, and to integrate these systems into the very start of literacy learning. Put WYNN in your primary classrooms, and if you can not afford to send WYNN home, develop a dual-system with WordTalk and CLiCk-Speak, DSpeech or NaturalReader, or just PowerPoint Books linked to PowerTalk providing out-of-school support.

Microsoft PowerPoint:How To Create A Talking Book In Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003

If your students begin to read, they will have reason to continue reading, to work on reading, and they will learn the value of written human communication. If not, they may become that typical 'book hating' fourth grader.

- Ira Socol in Los Angeles

18 March 2009

CSUN 2009 - Writing Tools - Supporting All Writers

(As the CSUN 2009 - Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference goes on I will post my three presentations and add short posts about what I see and hear. You may want to also follow the CSUN Twitter feed at #csun09)

If you could offer your students technologies which would support their writing skills, and could do it for free, would you?

Suppose your students could slip past small muscle control issues to begin getting their thoughts onto “paper?” Or that they could read and edit their words without struggling with decoding? Or could effectively spellcheck their own work no matter how much accent or first-languages impacted their initial spelling attempts?

What if you could watch – and support – your students as they wrote collaboratively, while tracking every change? Or if students could collaborate on homework without being in the same neighborhood? Or could track and record sources without the difficulty of writing complicated notes?

slideshare powerpoint has links if you download

When Englert, Manalo, and Zhao wrote I Can Do It Better on the Computer: The Effects of Technology-enabled Scaffolding on Young Writers' Composition, documenting the success of computer supports in 2004 most of the solutions studied had to be purchased by schools and students. Today free downloadable and online software allow us to offer every student technology which can improve the core elements of their writing: spelling, organization, editing, and understanding of authorial voice.

Text-To-Speech systems allow students to independently listen to their own writing while editing, even if they are weak readers. This not only helps them to identify wrong words, repeated words, and omitted words, it offers a way for them to compare their phrasing, descriptions, and explanations with their intentions and their aspirations.

Content-based spell-checking with word definitions allows struggling readers and writers of English to find the right word and the right spelling without losing their thoughts during long, frustrating trips to a print dictionary.

Online document software allows peer collaboration and teacher support of the writing process.

And online graphic organization tools and notebooking systems support writing organization.

Up to two years worth of functional research with WordTalk, Firefox with CLiCk-Speak (and other add-on tools), Ghotit, Google Docs, Google Notebook, Webspiration, and Microsoft Vista’s Speech Recognition in both educational and job training situations underlie this presentation which will look at best practices for using these free tools across student environments.

Particular emphasis will be placed on how to combine these tools to support the writing process, focusing on carrying students from engagement through persistence to editing and production for audience, all with software that is already on most school computers or which can be accessed at no cost.

These are the critical issues in creating and supporting emerging writers. Students must have ways to begin writing which do not generate massive frustration. They must have ways to complete writing which do not exceed their ability to persist in the task. They must have effect ways to edit even if their reading decoding skills are week. And they must discover that writing has a purpose beyond teacher-defined school success: without this feedback, engagement and persistence will inevitably wane.

In their 2004 article Englet, Manalo, and Zhao state, “Without access to these functions, the memory or cognition of a problem solver might be overwhelmed (Pea, 1993; Stone, 1998). In this manner, technology serves as a type of social actor or intellectual partner. Together the individual-operating-with-the-mediational-technology can participate in a process that, barring this support, might lie beyond his or her attainment. (Pea, 1993; Salomon, 1993; Wertsch, 1998).” Five years later we can provide this functional support on any internet-connected computer, and on many “smart” mobile phones. Offering our students the opportunity to use their cognitive efforts for the learning of writing skills, rather than overcoming capability differences.

- Ira Socol in Los Angeles

Englert, C.S., Manalo, M., Zhao, Y. (2004) I Can Do It Better on the Computer: The Effects of Technology-enabled Scaffolding on Young Writers' Composition. Journal of Special Education Technology. Volume 19 Number 1.

13 March 2009

David Brooks: Fighting Words

David Brooks tried to write a column about education in today's New York Times. In doing so he made a number of statements which sound right:

"We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience."

But is this right?

David Brooks is part of an American aristocracy which actually hates teachers. He is usually joined in this by the whole New York Times organization, by high profile school bosses like Joel Klein (NYC) and Michelle Rhee (DC), and of course by the Ivy League's darlings - the KIPP and Teach for America organizations.

if only the teachers were better...

They hate teachers and they blame teachers. They hate students too, and they blame students as well. If only teachers were better. If only students worked harder. Who escapes blame? Well, the system does. They system which actively opposes child development and human learning patterns. The system which prevents the necessary personalization of learning. The system which strips most teachers of the ability to support their students through an absurd, antiquated system of school organization, through withholding of essential resources, through a focus on the nonsense of standardized testing.

I've got news for you Mr. Brooks: When I was in schools with fundamentally different structures - a "School Without Walls" alternative high school, an ungraded (as in A, B, C) and collaborative university experience, all sorts of people became "great" teachers because they had room to be that. All sorts of students became incredibly hard working, because the work was relevant and appropriate. The simple fact is - it is the system - not the teachers or the students - which is failing.

Of course if David Brooks admitted that, if Joel Klein admitted that, or Michelle Rhee, or Arne Duncan, the responsibility would shift to themselves. And they no more want to held responsible than their friends at Citibank and AIG do.

A paragraph later in his column, Brooks falls off the reform cliff:

"Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not."

No, Mr. Brooks, we are not "a lot better." No, Mr. Brooks, these assessments can not "tell you."

What these assessments do - all they do - is eliminate the possibility of real reform. Oh sure, they might measure the ability to take standardized tests based in a specific oppressive world view. And certainly they measure socio-economic status and maybe - within socio-economic class - they might measure a teacher's test prep capabilities. But they say absolutely nothing about actual student progress, about the quality of teachers, or about the quality of schools.

The problem here is that David Brooks is part of the "faux reform" establishment. They talk reform but by ensuring that blame goes on everyone but the causal factors: American poverty, the lack of American social mobility, the lack of properly distributed educational resources in America, and - most importantly - the American structure of education - they ensure that nothing changes and that the elite hold on to their power.

Twitter friend Chris Harkness (@haretek) says, "Let's fight then. We have a smart president now and smart people around him. That gives us at least more of a fighting chance." And she is right. We have this opportunity , and we cannot let only David Brooks and his ilk have the ear of this new president.

- Ira Socol

my response to Brooks on the Times blog: [an "Editors' Pick"? how remarkable]

Mr. Brooks,

I wish you understood anything about "measuring student progress," but unfortunately you continue to embrace an absurd attitude - that standardized tests based in the notion that all children learn at the same rate represent a logical way to gauge human learning. This will lead you to what might be called "CNBC" solutions - merit pay based in short term gains on meaningless assessments - school districts encouraged to lie (as I just read in the NYT) - and an absolute commitment to the 1/3 success rate in US education which maintains the social status quo.

Real education reform would begin with a fundamental re-thinking of our industrial model based in age-based grades and "objective" testing. http://speedchange.blogspot.com...
The UK is embracing "personalised learning" and cutting testing of younger students, strategies based in the kind of authentic educational research which the US has refused to fund in its fraudulent commitment to some "gold standard" "medical model" of research.

Let us hope that those of us who favor actual reform, those of us who want to give teachers the tools and resources they need, those of us who believe that students are individuals, get some kind of hearing in this process, and that the debate is not hijacked by the Joel Kleins and Michelle Rhees of the world.

Ira Socol East Lansing, MI

11 March 2009

Five Changes to Education (This One's for You, President Obama)

It's a meme. And I don't do these often, but this isn't your typical one. And I've read a couple of great entries: Lisa Thumann and Paul Blogush, plus I've been thinking a lot about Tricia Buck's "Paperless Tiger" post, and education conversations on Twitter.

Blogush says two things that I love: "Get rid of age level grades, mandatory year-by-year curriculum, and graded assignments. Let’s mix up the ages. Even put the pre-schools and senior centers in the schools. If a kid really want to spend a year learning about DNA and doesn’t learn about Saturn, will society really crash and burn? Or get a kid with a passion for science. Graded assignments! Nothing is worse…but that is another post."

And, "Last but not least, Make a law that says whenever anyone is writing, talking, or meeting about changing the educational system that they start off with no school buildings or teachers in their plan. It restricts creativity when you start brainstorming about how to improve a system but keep the two largest components of it."

Thumann suggests two more: "I would like students to play a larger role in the writing of curriculum. If we give our students more opportunities to take ownership of their education, then maybe there will be more success stories. Students need to invest in their futures as well and this is one way for them to do so."

And, "I would like all teachers to “be teachable“. Mandated professional development is not always the way to go. Educators, and people in general have to WANT to learn in order to truly learn. I would love it if all teachers were open to trying new things, open to doing what they already do well - more, and willing to share resources. How do we accomplish this? Well, I do believe that enthusiasm is contagious…"

And Buck? Well, "Does this jettisoning of time-honored titles mean that the paperless classroom is also lacking a creator, controller and grader? Is the paperless classroom also a teacherless paradigm? The answer is in some regards, yes. I have removed myself from center stage. I have relinquished the need to control every class. I have stopped seeing work as stagnant…completed and submitted by students and then graded by me. I have let go of my need to pre-plan months at a time, in favor of following the path that unfolds as we learn together. My classes are not, however, teacherless, just less about the teaching and more about the learning. The students know that I am ready and willing to be student to their insights, that they can teach, create, control and even evaluate their own learning. This shift has inspired a true spirit of collaboration, critical thinking, and communication in B304–it has been an amazing semester and has changed the course of my career for good!"

So there are five I could easily steal and grasp as my own. They all move toward breaking our ties to a failed industrial educational formula. But I don't just want to "steal," I want to contribute. I want to suggest to our new US government that they must think much bigger when they think about education, that they must think in transformational ways. I want to suggest that "tinkering" will not get us anywhere.

"Merit pay" is ridiculous until we understand what "merit" means. Is it better test scores this year? Or is it an evaluation of student progress ten years after they've left school? (Isn't that the only real measure?) Is it based in some "absolute achievement"? Or is it based on individual student progress?

"Charter Innovation" can also be nice, but it tells us nothing until we know what it is that we're trying to achieve. "I thought [teachers] were supposed [to] develop grown-ups but [the President] wants us to develop better students. We don't need a nation of competent testees," tweeted SpedTeacher. And that is the point. Up till now all US educational reform efforts since Ronald Reagan have been aimed at the idea of creating students who do "better" in school (behave better while sitting in a chair all day, do better on multiple choice tests, repeat information better). But none of that improves "actual education" which must be geared toward helping people reach their own life goals and potential - outside of school. Which is why we're never offered real choice in classroom style, instructional paradigms, and assessment for every American student. And we have no attempts to match students to the most appropriate environment. No efforts to empower (and train) student decision making. And no attempt to truly allow the kind of personalization which the British government at least claims to be committed to. Instead they let us choose between disastrous poverty-wracked public schools and KIPP boot camps or between local untrained teachers and Harvard-educated untrained teachers or between stupid tests in New York and stupid tests in Texas. Faux choices because America's leaders (including Barack Obama) still can't really explain why education matters, or what we want it to be.

So what transforms?

1. Eliminating age-based grades and grade-level expectations. We can not truly embrace individualized education,or true inclusion, until we get rid of the absurd notion that all students learn all things at the same rate and progress in the same way. Neither can we truly allow project-based learning until we accept that in projects, students will follow paths outside of grade-determined subject areas. The return to the K-8 "one room schoolhouse" model, typically with multiple teachers and larger classrooms, is the first change we need in primary education. The interdisciplinary, no grade-level, structure is what we need in our secondary schools. And only a massive trial will start to prove this.

2. Universal Design must be universal. For education to "work" information and communication must be routinely, and efficiently, available to every student. And whatever the school environment is must be welcoming and safe for all students. So this is not just about laptop and tablet and handheld computers and smart mobiles everywhere, linking students to the world's resources and converting media into personally effective formats. It isn't just about going paperless most of the time to create flexibility. It isn't just about teaching students how to make the best choices for themselves. It is also about recreating educational environments so students can work, move, relax, and communicate safely and comfortably, changing those environments, and offering choices of spaces, so that cognitive energy is not wasted on comfort issues.

3. Labels Jars not People. Students are individuals. They need help sometimes and they need encouragment other times. On some tasks they need supervision, but most of the time they need freedom. We need to stop labelling. Students aren't "Special Needs" - unless we apply that to everyone - the slow runner as well as the slow reader. The one with poor rhythm identification and the one with poor numeral identification. The one who can't understand an urban street scene and the one who struggles with writing. And students aren't "gifted and talented" unless we apply that to everyone... well, you get the point. When we diagnose we pathologize, and that is completely destructive. Instead, we must simply support all of our individual learners. Opening our classrooms up, trading control for the wonder of learning across the spectrum of child and adolescent development. (Lisa Parisi)

4. Change teacher training - and change those who train teachers. Today, most educational planning and design lies in the hands of the minority of people who have succeeded in "education as we know it." That's a problem. From the US President on down to your average classroom teacher, the leaders "see" a model which has "worked" for themselves. When you get to the faculty at most teacher training institutions - their entire lives, since they entered pre-school, have been spent - mostly successfully - in school. So while they may "understand" the problems - the problems are mostly abstract - and typically - the solutions are doing 'the sames things better.' Thus we worry about everything from pedagogical fidelity to the silliness of "well qualified teachers" (as opposed to creativity and "very effective teachers"). So we need teacher training focused on student individuality - not curriculum and control, and we need teacher training institutions focused on fundamental change and prominently including those for whom school has been a struggle. New teachers need to hear what's wrong with school from the failures, not just the successes.

5. Assessment must change. Stop talking about standardized scores. Stop talking about "grade inflation." Stop talking about how schools are doing "on average." There's no average student. No one knows what "B" means. We should not be in the business of producing "standardized" humans. Assessment must be individual, detailed, and student-centered. This is essential, because two fundamental attitude changes are essential: First, the "customer" in every school must be the student - and our students need assessments which help them move forward, not which compares them to some unknown "norm." Second, "failure" must be understood to be of real value. It is not a bad thing, it is how humans learn. When failure is perceived as "bad," people will not risk it, so they will not extend themselves the ways they otherwise might.

What are your five? What would you tell the Obama Administration to focus on?

- Ira Socol

10 March 2009

Word Accessible: WordTalk and Ghotit

Sure, we can all hate Microsoft. There's so much they do that annoys us. But let's face it - they make the products that make most of our computers go. XP was a great operating system (is still for Netbooks), Vista - for all the complaints - is even better if you turn off "User Account Control" and stop it from indexing everything. I think Windows7 - as bloated as it will be - will be better still.

And Microsoft Office is the standard. Yes, OpenOffice copies it well, but Word, Excel, OneNote - these are fantastic applications - and applications which are incredibly easy to use with all kinds of accessibility applications. And, chances are, your school has already bought and paid for Microsoft Office. It is there, waiting for you to make it better.

And now, we have new ways to make Microsoft Word much more powerful, with two free add-ons - the newest version of WordTalk and the new Ghotit plug-in.

This doesn't mean to forget about the built in supports: You should be teaching your students about options from Equation Editor (math symbols), to altering Grammar Check settings as they need it, to using Auto Correct to simplify text entry (on my computer, typing "msucoe" produces "Michigan State University College of Education" - saving a great deal of time for this one-fingered keyboarder), to altering fonts, font sizes, colors, spacing and whatever else is needed to make the screen comfortable. We need to be offering those options 'every day.'

But these new systems, these can make huge differences for virtually every student.

WordTalk converts Microsoft Word into a text-to-speech system. This supports reading in many ways, and because it uses synchronized word-by-word highlighting, it dramatically builds sight-word recognition. Obviously, content becomes accessible and students become independent - they no longer have to wait for people to read to them. And because WordTalk now converts text to .wav and .mp3 files, text becomes supremely portable - put it on a CD, an iPod, your phone. (see the CALL Centre's guide to creating content accessibility)

But WordTalk also supports writing. When writers hear their words read back to them they recognize problems in ways they simply can not while reading print. They hear misspellings, they hear repeated and missing words. They hear repetitive words. They hear issues with rhythm, even issues with description.

And WordTalk, when combined with AutoCorrect shortcuts, even creates an elementary AAC device. Build key short-cuts for phrases, and WordTalk turns Word into a speech synthesizer.

Ghotit adds another powerful tool - context-based spell checking with definition-support and text-to-speech access. Adding Ghotit to Word changes the spellcheck experience completely. No longer do you have to be "very close" with your initial spelling. You can be way off and, chances are, Ghotit will find the right word. And then Ghotit will give you a list of word choices - with definitions. It will read those choices and definitions to you. And not misspelled words - but misused words as well, it notes words "out of context" (in a different color) and offers the same choices. So it is not just correcting spelling, it is building knowledge of the English language.

When Ghotit is in use, students begin to show more confidence in their writing, they begin to take more chances with an expanded vocabulary, because they know they are less likely to look foolish - to fail in spelling - to use the wrong words.

There is an online version of Ghotit, but with a simple, free sign-up, your school can add Ghotit for Word to every computer

There is a simple fact: Just as there should not be a school (or university) computer anywhere without Firefox with Click-Speak and Accessibar installed, there should not be a Windows/Office equipped school computer without WordTalk and Ghotit installed. These are free solutions which allow schools to meet some of their civil rights obligations under US and EU laws. They are a basic move toward making educational success possible for a wide group of students currently "left behind." And they are a first step toward bringing a school in line with Universal Design.

To not have these software systems available everywhere is nothing less than educational malpractice.

- Ira Socol

04 March 2009

One Third Bored, One Third Behind

Asked to create a policy brief regarding any reauthorization of the US "No Child Left Behind Act." I thought about all the ridiculousness of that law, but what I wanted to focus on was the essential fallacy, of NCLB in particular, but of our educational structure in general.

In the mid-19th Century many nations, including the US and Britain, adopted the Prussian notion of "age-based grades." Age-based grades are "efficient," as an educational solution, and they echo the form of industrial processing, but age-based grades, as well as the kinds of exams mandated by NCLB, assume that every child learns at exactly the same rate, in every subject. And we know that's a ridiculous idea.

Of course those age-based grades do more: They require special education because many children fall behind. They require "gifted and talented" and "AP" classes because so many students are bored. In fact, age-based grades were truly designed as a filtering system, geared to getting rid of students who "couldn't keep up" and would thus be consigned to "capitalism's dustbin" - the low skill, low wage jobs, and the poverty which market-based economies need as a cautionary tale for the potentially lazy.

The ideas of breaking students up by age, or of breaking lessons up by subject, are not "natural." These strategies replaced the tutor and "one room schoolhouse" which preceeded it. Whether or not it was a successful strategy for 20th Century industrial societies can be answered elsewhere. But what's important now is knowing that we no longer live in the world our educational systems were designed for. And it is time to change.

- Ira Socol