Monthly Archives: January 2012

Student Grade Privacy

An interesting bill in California is set to “explicitly prohibit public schools in California from issuing ID cards and other items that reflect students’ classroom performance.

I certainly get where they’re coming from, and I very much agree that doing this sort of thing on a year-long basis is a bad idea. High school is an incredibly fast-changing environment, and pigeonholing someone for a year is unlikely to be productive. In public schools, there are also privacy laws to consider – student grades are normally only given to students and their legal guardians. Color-coding people by GPA violates the spirit of such laws.

I do have an interesting example to share regarding this. When I worked at Hyde, we made student effort grades public. Everyone was rated at Honors, Transitions, or Warnings several times per year. A big list of who got what status in what class was posted near the front desk. Study hall status was based on these ratings, and those lists were posted in most dorm hallways to assist duty faculty. Anyone who cared to look could tell how you were doing. I could be wrong, but I also remember a big chart of everyone’s achievement grade (the usual percentage rating) being publicly visible on occasion.

Naturally, students looked not only at their own ratings, but at their friends’ as well. Let me tell you, this was generally not hidden information. As a teacher, when I hand back a test, I mentally schedule 3-4 minutes for students to show each other what they got and talk about their scores, because that’s what happens. Many teenagers love to compare themselves to others, and it’s very rare for someone to refuse to show others what they got (though some folks will quietly hide the paper and just shake their heads in shame).

I’m not sure that making the standings public put any extra pressure on the students by itself. I rarely saw students calling each other out about their poor performance, even at a school that encouraged calling out. It did encourage us teachers to spend a minute or two looking through for our students. It was a good way to start conversations like, “Hey, I saw you have Honors in every class but mine, where you have Warnings. What gives?” or “You have Warnings in every class but English. What are you doing in that class that you could bring to your other classes?” It also made it harder for students to lie about their scores – they were there for all to see. You had to face the fact that half your teachers were telling you that you could do better.

So, in short: year-long “failure” tag? Bad idea. Short-term “knucklehead” tag? Potentially a good way to start a conversation. Obviously it’s something that requires support from the surrounding school culture.


Online High Schools?

I’ve said recently (though not here) that within five years we’ll see the first major, commercially successful, online high school. Here are a few things that are taking steps toward that:

And here are some who’d like to be that school:

A search for “online high school” will yield many more. I was pretty surprised at how many there are; it goes on for pages and pages, and many of them look legit. I need to go through and see how many are accredited. I’m hoping to do a more detailed post on this later on.

Naturally, one of the big issues with an online high school is the “where will my kids be” question. Some parents don’t trust their kids at home while they’re off at work; clearly, online high school is not for them. I think most 14-year-olds can actually figure out how to make themselves a sandwich for lunch and dial 9-1-1 for emergencies. Others worry about the social aspect, which I personally think is overrated and can be found elsewhere (especially if communities actually want to make it happen), but I can at least understand the concern.

The Idaho site is both interesting and a little confusing; it was a little tough to figure out exactly what they’re doing, but the information is there. Some of it I think is great (dual enrollment, raising teacher pay), some parts I’m interested to see how they go (the potential for online courses, the computer program), and other parts I just think are awful (paying teachers for student performance). My alma mater had a laptop program; it wasn’t terrible but it really just went nowhere after freshman year. None of the upper-level courses actually took advantage of the computers. I could do a whole post about that; perhaps I should as it’s sort of tangential here.

The U.S. ED, part 2

Here’s a link to part 1.

So what exactly is the US Department of Education? It doesn’t directly set or enforce policies, so it’s actually rather dissimilar to many other federal agencies. It’s much more like an advisory body, except that it also hands out money in fairly specific directions.

The largest amount of the ED’s money, from what I can tell, goes towards people who might not otherwise get an education. Students with disabilities. Students with significant financial needs. Career and technical education. Programs with names like “Ensuring Equity.”

I think it’s important to do that. I don’t know whether there needs to be a full Department for that purpose. I’m not saying that in the way that some peoples’ “I don’t know” is really a “clearly not,” I’m genuinely saying “I don’t know.” Right now President Obama is asking for the authority to combine some federal agencies in much the same way that Homeland Security was created out of the Coast Guard, TSA, FEMA, and so forth. No matter how I might dislike Homeland Security these days, the combination was a great idea. Maybe Education could get combined with Labor, Health & Human Services, the NEA and NEH into some general “quality of life” bureau.

As for the advisory part of the ED’s job, I’m clearly biased. I think that education, being most of our lives from age 5 to age 21, is an incredibly big deal, and that there should be someone in the president’s cabinet who brings those matters up. Getting rid of the Department of Education entirely, without folding it into some other group, seems like it would remove a voice for 20-25% of our life experience.

I do believe that states need more ability to work independently. The ED’s current approach encourages grants applications to be written in very specific ways, effectively creating direction without creating policy. I’d rather that they consider grant applications on the basis of potential merit rather than on the basis of alignment with current departmental goals. I’m aware of how tough it is to define “potential merit,” but education is tough in general and we shouldn’t shy away from such approaches just because they’re difficult. If we need to do more research on what “potential merit” means in education, so much the better.

More than just state-level independence, however, I think that individual schools need the opportunity to try new things. Most of the opposition to that comes from the states themselves, not from the federal government. I don’t think that getting rid of the ED would free up individual schools at all.

So that’s where I am right now regarding the Department of Education. I think it does many worthwhile things, but that we might do well to combine it with another couple agencies and focus it away from broad trends and toward individual excellence.

Guns in our schools, teacher edition


NO! No no no, no! No! BAD! Bad.

And, as if you couldn’t figure out why it’s bad, a short piece of interrupted dialogue from a grade school teacher about to die:

“Jimmy, get your hands out of my bag – – – “

The U.S. Department of Education

I recently received a challenge from a friend of mine to write a post about the U.S. Department of Education – their policies and general existence. Since I should really know more about said department, I set about working to… uh, educate myself.

One of the problems I ran into quickly was that there is essentially no non-biased information available on the ED (ED = Education Department; DoE = Dept. of Energy). Nearly everyone who writes about education is fairly biased, as you may have garnered from my own work here. Most of the stuff I read was either very pro, very anti, or very bland. Even things like the General Accounting Office’s report on the ED get criticized, and the criticism gets taken apart, and the whole thing is a giant cluster where you can’t tell who’s being honest and who’s running for office or protecting their cash cow. So a lot of what I say here will be matters of general principle rather than responding to what the Department does right now.

One of the major arguments against the ED is that  it is inefficient, either by its very existence or internally. Arguments go both ways here; the department itself claims to give 99 cents on the dollar to its beneficiaries, while the aforementioned GAO study claims that there are serious inefficiencies when it comes to the student loan program.

Several GOP candidates this year have talked about “giving the money directly to the states,” thus cutting out the ED as a middleman. However, the ED doesn’t give public schools that much money overall. According to the department itself, “the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 10.8 percent” and “89.2 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources” for elementary and secondary education. So it’s a fairly small amount, percentage-wise. In terms of the department’s overall discretionary budget, “Title I Grants” (which are for local educational agencies, be they state departments of ed or regional school boards) take up about 21%, and IDEA grants (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, given to states) are another 17%. Those two large programs account for about $26 billion. Given the department’s own figures, a total of about $122 billion is contributed to local education by the federal government. Since I can’t find that in the ED’s discretionary budget (which is only about half that), the rest of it must either be coming from other departments (NSA, DoE, DoD) or from mandatory rather than discretionary funds.

The ED also gives a large amount of its budget directly to students: Pell Grants are another third of the ED’s budget at $23 billion or so. Student loans are not part of the budget, exactly; they make money when things are working right.

The Department of Education does not set curricula or develop standards; however, they do give money to local education agencies for such purposes. Because part of the ED’s mandate is to “identify the major issues and problems in education and focus national attention on them,” they are a major policy-driver through indirect means. The department’s choice of what a “major issue” is naturally shapes how states will write applications for Title I grants.

At this point in my research, I think this needs to be a two-part post. I don’t want to shortchange it, but I think there’s enough here to chew on (mentally speaking) for a day or two.

Useful links:

A Tough Call, Made

This post follows up on an earlier one.

In short, I made the call: I’m not going to be working toward creating a school this year. The plan has been put on the shelf; the dream, deferred.

It’s strange to sit here on MLK Day and write about how not following up on a dream is the right thing to do, especially a dream about education and helping others and making an impact. However, I still know it’s not the right time. I don’t have the resources I would want or the support I would need. In addition, there are still things that my wife and I want to do in our lives that would preclude starting this next year.

It makes me sad to leave this for another year (or three, or ten), even when I know that walking away is the right thing to do. It makes me feel like I’m not putting my time and money where my mouth is, and it makes me wonder whether I’ll ever get up the courage to do it. Regardless, I still know that the conditions are not right, and so it stays on the shelf. Even Dr. King didn’t try to march on Washington right away.

As for what I will be doing, I’m not sure yet. I’m employed through the end of September, and at that point I’ll be moving to the UConn area to spend more time with my wife. Hopefully I’ll find a job to take over at that point. If not, I’ll be looking at some local non-profits and independent schools, and doing some volunteering. I might also spend some more time writing; as many of you know I’m also an amateur game designer. I’m not sure exactly what the plan will be yet, but at least it’s narrowed down.

Textbooks on iPad

Apple just had their big textbook announcement, and I figured I’d make a comment or two.

First, I’m looking forward to trying out the iBook Author tool. I don’t think it will revolutionize the field of textbooks, in much the same way that GarageBand did not revolutionize the music industry, but it’s always nice to have another free tool. I’m fairly experienced with InDesign, so my guess is that I’ll run into a lot of frustration with the limits of the program. I’m hoping that it will easily do things that InDesign does with great difficulty.

As for textbooks on the iPad, it’s particularly great that they’ve managed to wrangle the prices so low. If you’re thinking, “But iPads are expensive,” let me put it in perspective for you. The average textbook costs between $100 and $150, sometimes up to $200. You need to buy about four of them per semester, twice a year, for four years. That’s between $3200 and $6400. An iPad and some $15 textbooks seems pretty cheap in comparison, even if you replace the iPad after two years. I have no idea how they’ve convinced publishing companies to get on board with this. I’m looking forward to seeing some college textbooks there.

The iTunesU portion of the announcement is just a delivery system for things that are already out there. The integration is good; there’s nothing else new there.

All in all, it’s certainly not revolutionary; it will not “change the face of education.” Actually, that’s not a bad analogy, now that I think of it: this changes the face without changing the rest of the body. It’s still people doing the exact same thing as before, but on the iPad. It’s not a revolution, but it’s a nice evolutionary step. Streamlining, if you will. Apple’s fairly good at streamlining things.


Nearly all of this is about college-level admissions rather than private school admissions.


General information:

Student athletes in the Ivy Leagues and the Academic Index:

Admissions About Admissions:

People Fighting the Good Fight:


Others’ Lesson Plans

Ran into a blog from the Washington Post with this item:

I’m actually on the “provide resources” side on this argument. When I started teaching boarding school, my department had a “course coordinator” for each course, who provided me with a complete set of homework sets and lessons for the year. It was a huge help – the job is overwhelming, and teaching is by far not the biggest part of the job. Having that out of the way allowed me a little time to breathe. I went on to designing my own courses basically the next term, but I also had a lot of experience teaching before I ever started that job.

I do believe that everyone needs to create their own course and tailor it to their students, but training wheels are a huge help when you’re swamped in that painful first year. Sometimes it’s the folks with no idea of how to proceed who come up with the most amazing new methods. Other times, they drop out of the profession. I think we need to keep more teachers.

How to provide teachers with course resources is a good question, though. The suggestion that there is one single lesson plan that works out of millions, or a “best possible lesson plan for each subject” is just wrong. Again, teachers need to tailor their lessons to their students and to their own strengths, and a pre-fab lesson only does that by happenstance. Perhaps schools could provide an active mentor, or a co-teacher – pair experienced teachers with inexperienced new folks. Most mentor situations I’ve seen simply don’t work; you need someone who gets involved every single day. I realize that this won’t happen because of money issues, but it does seem to me that it would be better for the quality of education. Evolutionary pressure strikes again.

I should also note that this adds to a growing pile of anecdotes I’ve heard about Teach for America basically just tossing unprepared teachers into the deep end. I’m less and less enamored of this organization.


Today’s post is all about AP courses. For those who don’t know, AP (Advanced Placement) courses are high-level courses offered at the high school level. They are intended to be more difficult and intense than regular courses, or even most honors courses. Teachers go through a certification process that helps them develop syllabi and find course materials. If you’re familiar with the IB (International Baccalaureate), AP courses are often compared to IB courses, though the IB is much more all-encompassing and interconnected. The AP are courses, the IB is a curriculum.

When I was in high school, I took two AP courses: Physics B, and Calculus AB. I liked both of them, though this probably had more to do with the teachers than with the course material. I almost took AP Chemistry my senior year, but dropped it in favor of an independent study in particle physics. (Wouldn’t you?)

Despite my own good experience in AP courses, I argue against them these days, and wouldn’t want to teach one. Here’s why.

First, the level of difficulty in many AP courses is achieved not only through increased depth, but through increased breadth. The number of different topics covered in AP Calc (for example) is very large, and has been expanding for years. I’m a fan of deep coverage and improved learning through review and reuse, and there’s a lot less time for that. The sheer breadth of topics in a single AP course goes against some of my educational philosophy. It also proves to be a problem for students who think well but not quickly, as they get swamped by having a new topic every two weeks. I’d much rather teach a course that covers fewer topics in greater depth, because I think that students learn better then.

Second, partly because so many topics are included, and partly because of the high-stakes test at the end, AP courses are restrictive. Teachers have little opportunity to do things that don’t fit into the standard set of topics. Would you rather take that extra week you’ve squeezed out and learn about something outside of the required material, or do something that’s relevant to the test? Perhaps a science fair or a history project that uses primary documents? I love cool and unusual things like that. I also understand the need to do well on tests. As a teacher in my own courses I can strike the balance I want; in an AP course that balance is set for me. Everything has to go toward the test, or you might be cheating your students.

Third, AP courses aren’t considered as strong as they once were. Many, many more students take AP courses than did ten years ago. Those who do take AP courses take more of them. When I was in high school, students were warned seriously against taking more than two AP courses in a year. Now it’s not unheard-of for someone to have three or four AP courses at once. I’ve run into students taking AP History in their Sophomore year; APs used to be primarily for seniors. I have to suspect that the courses are less intense than they used to be. Because of this, fewer and fewer colleges are accepting AP credit, either as just numerical credits or to substitute for required courses.

Unfortunately, APs are still valued in the college application process. If you’re applying to selective schools, having AP courses on your transcript has gone from being a really good idea to being completely vital. I worry that this is a left-hand-doesn’t-talk-to-right-hand issue, where folks who work in college admissions and high school college offices don’t know how the view of AP courses is shifting. Perhaps instead it serves as a way to numerically differentiate students with nearly identical GPAs and SATs. Regardless of the reason, the fact that high school college offices encourage students to take more APs in order to boost their transcript makes removing AP courses an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, some schools (including some fairly big names in the private school world) have removed AP courses from their curriculum. If you’re curious as to how, there’s a page here that has things like FAQs, some of which include responses from college counselors in those schools. The short version is that students coming from schools without AP courses are generally not penalized for lacking them on their transcripts. Very much worth reading.