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News from ComFit Learning

An update of what's going on with our company, our partners, and in the education world at large

A Credit Recovery Success Story from a ComFit Learning Partner in Rochester, NY

October 16, 2012.  The ComFit Learning Center was a key component of a recently completed—and highly successful—8-week credit recovery pilot program that was targeted to 21 high school dropouts from the Rochester, NY area and was developed and conducted by our Rochester-based academic support partner, Excel Education Services.

“Credit Recovery” is a catchall phrase that refers to any academic intervention program whose mission is to help high school dropouts earn an accredited high school diploma—but without necessarily having to re-enroll and take traditional classes in the schools they dropped out of.

Many such programs have materialized since the passage in 2001 of No Child Left Behind, and the majority of them offer an individualized curriculum that replaces one-size-fits-all “classes” with a strategic, often boot-camp like mix of workshops, one-on-one coaching, and online assessment, instructional, and skill-building resources.

The Rochester program (officially known as CODE—Career and Occupational Development Education) is a textbook example of this blend, but with two major differences: (1) the use of the ComFit Online Learning Center as the centerpiece of the academic support component of the program; and (2) an emphasis throughout the program on not only academics but on life skills and work readiness training.

“Our overall goal from the start was to do more than simply hand each student a diploma at the end of the program,” says Josh Mack, the president and founder of Excel Education Services. “We sat down with every student at the beginning of the program and helped them formulate a ‘transition goal’, and we worked hard to make sure that the instruction and the counseling each student received was tailored to that goal. We also made it a point to have outside professionals from the Rochester area come in on a weekly basis to speak to the students about the career opportunities that would be available to them once they had earned their diploma.”

The results of the pilot CODE program are impressive and encouraging. On graduation day (September 8, 2012), 20 of the 21 students received not only an accredited high school diploma but also a Job Readiness Training Certificate. More than 25% of those students were able to pass the CPAT College Entrance Exam and are attending the Bryant & Stratton College, in Rochester. And the majority of the other students, reports Josh Mack, are pursuing their own “transition goals,” which range from military service to trade schools to full-time employment.

Putting the “Assimilation Factor” to Effective Use in Classroom Teaching and Academic Support Programs

August 14, 2012.  Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur has come up with what seems to us to be an important idea for teachers looking for new ways to help students become successful learners. And we’re happy to report that ComFit Learning has begun to incorporate a core element of his idea into the more than 1,400 mini-lessons on the ComFit Online Learning Center.

The idea in brief. Mazur’s idea, roughly speaking, is to have classroom teachers spend less than they may now be spending on the “information transfer” component of teaching—i.e., lecturing—and spend far more time focusing on the assimilation process: the mental actions that need to occur if we are to absorb and take long-term ownership of recently transferred information. As Mazur points out in the September issue of eSchool News (“Ending the ‘Tyranny of the Lecture’”, by Dennis Pierce), there was indeed a time—prior to the invention of the printing press—that lecturing was the only effective way to impart information to many people simultaneously.

He maintains however, that because of the abundance today of non-lecture dependent information transfer sources (books, the Internet, etc.) classroom lecturing, in his view, is “outdated and largely ineffective.” He advocates instead a “flipped” model of instruction. Rather than leaving it up to students to go through the assimilation process on their own—largely through homework assignments—Mazur would like to see students spend more time, during the school day, discussing, practicing, and applying what they have been exposed to in class and to do so under the guidance of an instructor.

Practical Implications. Eric Mazur has begun incorporating his “flipped” model of instruction in his physics classes at Harvard; and, with two of his colleagues, he has developed software specifically designed to help instructors conduct the sessions in ways that enhance assimilation.

ComFit’s software utilizes our own version of the “flipped” model of instruction—and primarily with two assimilated-related components of our mini-lessons: (1) A Put-it-in-Writing activity in which students are given an opportunity to express in their own words (as often as necessary and with immediate feedback) the key concepts of the mini-lesson they’ve just read; and (2) A Walk-me-thru-It activity in which students are led through the “step-by-step” thinking process required in order to solve a problem relating to the concept they’ve been introduced to.

In addition, we have been emphasizing in our training sessions an assimilation-related technique known as “retrieval practice”—the use of tests and exercises not simply as a grading device but as a way of reinforcing material that needs to be mastered. As science writer Annie Murphy Hall observed in a recent New York Times editorial, “Testing doesn’t simply measure; it changes learning. Every time we pull up a memory we make it stronger and more lasting.”

Directing the Focus of the Standardized Test Debate to Where it Matters the Most

Note: The comments below were prompted by an article (“Something Worth Fighting For”) that appeared in the New York Times on January 18, 2012.)

February 12, 2012.  We have a suggestion for the negotiators seeking to break the long-running stalemate between New York City and its teachers union over the rating formula that should underlie the teacher evaluation system that needs to be set into place in order for the city to receive its share of the $700 million was awarded to New York state last year as part of the Race to the Top program. Have Cheryl Tyler—the principal of Public School 277 in the Bronx— join the negotiation process as a mediator.

As we learn in the interview that appeared earlier this week, Ms. Tyler, like every other principal in the city's 1,700 public schools, has a vested interested in this issue. And she has ample reason to be concerned about the stickiest of the sticky points that surround the issue: the extent to which the rating a teacher receives each year is influenced by the standardized test scores of her students. Her school, after all, came perilously close this past fall to being shut down because of how poorly its students performed on last year's statewide standardized tests.

Ms. Tyler makes it abundantly clear in this interview that neither she nor her teachers view the anemic performance of her students on the state tests as an accurate reflection of either the grade-level academic capability of her students or, for that matter, the quality of the PS 277 teaching staff. So in this respect at least she is expressing a criticism commonly voiced by educators who view the growing emphasis on standardized testing as a destructive force in education.

That said, however, she doesn't make excuses and doesn't rail against the testing system itself.

What she does instead is to describe--in detail, not platitudes-- the specific steps she and her teachers are aggressively taking, as a group, to overcome what she views as her school's biggest, immediate challenge: figuring out and seeking to counteract what factors are undermining the ability of her students to put to successful use in the test-taking environment the same subject-matter knowledge and critical thinking skills that they routinely demonstrate in their P.S. 277 classrooms.

Only time will tell, of course, whether the steps Ms. Tyler and her teaching staff are taking to raise the standardized test scores of her students will prove successful--and, on a broader scale, whether the overall policy of using standardized test scores as a measure of teaching effectiveness will either help to solve or simply deepen the multitude of problems that currently envelop the educational system in our country.

In the meantime, Ms. Tyler's determination to focus on the here and now--the learning needs and career aspirations of her students--stands in merciful contrast to the rhetorical warfare now being waged by both sides in the standardized testing debate. As such, it might create a sliver of common ground that could enhance the likelihood of a resolution that may not be entirely acceptable to either of the opposing camps in this debate but might--just might!-- serve the best interests of the people who count the most: the students.

UCO Study Validates the Benefits of Combining the ComFit Online Learning Center and Guided Study

December 15, 2011.  The ComFit Online Learning Center figured prominently—and positively!—in a study conducted earlier this year by the Academic Support Center at the University of Central Oklahoma.

The study involved 300 entering freshmen whose college placement test scores had fallen short of the minimum requirement in certain areas—and who were consequently obliged to take the test for the second time.

The ComFit Online Learning Center was the ideal support resource for what we were trying to accomplish...The purpose of the study was to compare the effectiveness of three approaches to helping students prepare for the retest: (1) letting students simply "sit out" the four-week waiting period; (2) giving students access to study materials of their own choice but not providing any personal guidance; and (3) administering a four-week "blended program" that combined the resources of the ComFit Online Learning with at least one hour of "guided study."

The results in the specific content area analyzed in the study—Elementary Algebra—were striking. The number of students in the "blended group" whose scores on the retest increased by 20 points or more was three times as high as the number of students in the first group who made similar gains—and nearly 50% higher than students in the second group.

"The ComFit Online Learning Center was the ideal support resource for what we were trying to accomplish," says Bathsheeba Cantrell, the Academic Support Center staffer who oversaw the study. "It produced far better results than any other study software programs we've used in the past—and mainly because of the range, the simplicity, and usability of the mini-lessons."

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