Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Options in Education Outside the Public Schools

My oldest niece started kindergarten this school year.  Between my sisters-in-law and I, there are seven grandchildren in my husband's family, ranging in age from 17 months to 5 years old.  Four girls and three boys.  To my knowledge, none of the grandkids will be starting school next school year, but three will be starting kindergarten the 2013/2014 school year.  Needless to say, all our thoughts are beginning to turn toward our schooling options.

You would be hard put to find anyone in the United States who is not familiar with the largest and most prevalent school model in the country:  our public school systems.  Public schools are funded by taxpayer and federal (read: more taxpayer) monies that are allocated to the districts to pay for the cost of educating students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.  As a result, these schools are "free" in a sense.  There is no tuition per se.  Every taxpayer, young or old, whether he/she has children or not, pays into the public education system, though some districts allow individuals who are elderly or childless to pay a reduced rate in taxes because they are not directly benefiting from the public education system.

Because of their status as public, they are open to all children who reside within that school district who are of school age.  Since the United States, like most industrialized nations, has compulsory education laws mandating that all children attend school, public schools are typically the most susceptible to over-crowding because they are unable to turn any student away unless they have a very good reason.

While there are some very good public schools in the United States, the American public school system has been taking a beating in the court of public opinion because of low test scores, harassment, over-crowding, violence and other various issues that have parents wondering, "Do I really want to put my child in that kind of situation?".

Are you one of those parents?  Are you looking around at the school your child(ren) is/are zoned for and questioning them as a center of education?  Do you want other options?  They do exist, and this list is a just a few of the alternative educational opportunities that may be available to your student.

  1. Charter Schools.  First, understand that charter schools are still a part of a school district's public school system.  They still receive state money, but can also obtain money through private donations.  However, because they are a public school, they cannot charge tuition.  Charter schools can be started by teachers, parents, non-profit groups, universities, etc.  The school applies for a charter from either the school district or state which states that they will achieve certain goals and meet certain requirements in exchange for certain educational waivers.  Usually these waivers have to do with things like maximum class size and teacher training and certification.  Charter school students are still required to take their state standardized tests (some things are just unavoidable).  Pros:  One of the biggest pros of the charter school is that they don't answer directly to the school system's board of education.  Instead, most charter schools are headed by a board of directors that usually are comprised of school administrators, parents, teachers, and a couple of members of the local school board.  Decisions regarding the school are generally made by the board of directors.  Charter schools are frequently smaller with a smaller teacher-student ratio than their public counterparts, and because of this they are usually able to do more with less money.  Cons:  Good charter schools have good reputations and it isn't unusual for these schools to have fairly significant waiting lists.  Like all public schools, they can't turn people away because of money, race, sexual orientation, or religion, but they do usually have a cap on their enrollment.  Acceptance to the school is generally based on a lottery of the applicants.  In other words, getting in can be very difficult.  Also take into consideration that if a charter is not renewed for whatever reason, your child(ren) is/are suddenly thrust back into the regular public school population.  Finally, not all charters are required to provide either transportation to or from school, or nutrition services.  
  2. Montessori Schools:  Montessori schools are based upon the theories and methods of Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori.  Montessori believed strongly in emphasizing independence, freedom within limits, and a healthy level of respect for a child's natural psychological development.  Good Montessori schools stress a constructivist or discovery approach to learning where students learn by working with materials rather than through direct instruction.  Students are allowed to choose which activity that want to do within a limited set of activities, and they are given an uninterrupted block of time to learn the concepts they are working on.  Pros:  Most children do exceptionally well in Montessori schools.  I tutored a girl once who attended Montessori from kindergarten through fifth grade, and she was the hardest working student I've ever had.  She learned that you never give up just because something may be difficult and she excelled where her peers were falling behind.  Having said that, Montessori education is not a miracle cure and some children simply do not do well with the Montessori structure which tends to be comparatively loose.  Teachers assume the role of guides or coaches more so than that of a figurehead.  Montessori schools tend to embrace technological advances and might allow your child access to technology that he/she would not be able to use in the public school system.  Cons:  Many Montessoris are private schools, which is their biggest drawback, though according to the Association Montessori International (AMI) eight school districts throughout the country are attempting the Montessori approach in some of their schools.  While Montessori high schools exist, the vast majority of Montessoris are k-5 (or pre-k through 5) or k-8.  This might cause a difficult transition for your child at an all ready difficult time in his/her life.  Additionally, there are many schools out there that use the Montessori name, but who do not strictly adhere to the Montessori method of education.  You're paying too much for your child's education to throw it away, so check out the AMI website to find a good school.
  3. Private Schools:  Obviously, private schools are the first thing people think of when they think of a non-public education for their child(ren).  Private schools can run the gamut from insanely expensive to fairly inexpensive.  They can be religious schools or have no affiliation whatsoever.  Pros:  Few people can argue that, for the most part, the level of education your child will receive at a private school is going to be better than the education he/she receives in most public schools.  This doesn't mean that bad private schools don't exist, but a private education is a competitive business and the bad schools simply don't last long.  Because they charge tuition, private schools tend to have a smaller enrollment than your local public school and, thus, smaller class sizes.  Cons:  The biggest drawback to a private education is the expense associated with it.  Private schools receive no funding from either the state or the federal government, thus they are on the hook for all their own expenses.  Some schools are well enough off that they can offer a few scholarships.  Unlike public schools, some private schools have their own admission standards which can include auditions, intelligence testing, interviews, etc.  If you're looking for some private school options (including Montessori), you can visit the National Center for Education Statistics which will allow you to search according to your criteria.
  4. Homeschooling:  Last but not least is the homeschooling option.  In modern America, homeschooling seems a little strange and unusual, but prior to compulsory education laws most teaching occurred inside the home.  The laws regarding homeschooling vary from state to state, but students are still expected to master the same curriculum as their public school counterparts, and they are generally required to take standardized tests to demonstrate the mastery of this knowledge (though these tests may or may not be the same as the ones their public school peers are taking).  There are many companies that sell homeschool curriculums, though correspondence schools and online schools are completely valid and increasingly popular options.  What if, however, you are not comfortable teaching, say, algebra?  Or physics?  In many areas, especially more metropolitan areas, homeschool co-ops exist that provide support and knowledge to the local homeschooling community.  Sometimes these co-ops are merely warehouses of information to allow homeschooling parents to connect with people who are more qualified to teach their children a certain subject.  Other co-ops are taking the shape of umbrella schools.  That is, locations that offer some classes, field trips, sports, and standardized testing.  The fees for umbrella schools vary and the classes often are fluid, frequently depending on who is available to teach.  The umbrella schools I have seen will offer a given class once per week and allocate their in-class time for discussion or lab.  The majority of the student's work is expected to be completed outside of class.  Pros:  Homeschooling is amazingly flexible.  As long as your child meets the state requirements, the state generally leaves you alone.  You can tailor your curriculum to your child's interests and needs--a point that even the most progressive public or private school can't boast.  Frequently, individuals who have had interactions with homeschool students report they are extremely polite and intelligent.  I worked once with a set of brothers who were competitive gymnasts, and, additionally, they were incredibly talented gymnasts.  There was no way to reconcile their training and competition schedule with traditional schooling so they were homeschooled.  They were some of the most intelligent, polite, and hard-working high schoolers I have ever had the opportunity to work with, and I am fairly certain they both received college scholarships for gymnastics.  Cons:  Most of the cons of homeschooling are more or less parenting pitfalls to avoid.  It is very important that, if you should choose to homeschool, you go out of your way to ensure that your child has adequate social interactions with children his/her own age.  We sometimes forget how important good social development is to a child so don't overlook this aspect of you child's education.  A good social background will help your child if he/she should choose to attend public school at any point in his/her educational career, and it is not unusual for homeschoolers to enter public school in the ninth grade.  As a result, I have interacted with a variety of formerly homeschooled students.  The biggest problem I have seen is a tendency of parents to intervene in their child's education rather than see them struggle through a problem.  I had one student who started ninth grade unable to read at all.  His mother had simply read his schoolwork to him, but there was no underlying disability preventing him from learning to read.  By the time your child gets to high school, the inability to read has become a disability.  This student had to learn how to read in ninth grade and it was not easy.  Other students suffer from an inability to complete assignments and we later discover that frequently their parents were completing their schoolwork for them or simply telling them the answers.  Though these behaviors come from a good place, resist the urge to save your child unless they truly need saving.  Finally, understand that teaching your child requires advance planning.  Some of the best lessons can be taught off-the-cuff, but do not plan on using this approach to teach your child all the time.  Even if you intend to teach addition at the grocery store the next day, have a basic gameplan in mind before you get to the store.  Lack of planning is the number one killer of otherwise good lesson ideas.  Likewise, throwing a couple of workbooks on the dining room table and having your kids work for a couple of hours makes you a no better teacher than some of the ones all ready in classrooms who occupy their students with endless worksheets.  There is a place for worksheets and workbooks, and these can be good tools for assessing your child's mastery of a topic, but if you are dedicated to a quality homeschool education they should not make up the majority of your instruction.
As with all major decisions, do your homework and know your child.  Some kids will excel in almost any educational environment while others truly do respond best to one specific environment.  This list is certainly not exhaustive and some options may exist in your area that are not included here.  For even more alternative education options, visit the Alternative Education Resource Organization.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Paying for Our Future

Cash for Grades Programs:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Perhaps you've heard of this.  In April 2010, Time magazine ran a huge article about the subject which you can read here.  Whether you like the idea or not, we all knew kids in school whose parents would pay them for good grades.  Five dollars for an A, four for a B, and so on and so forth.  Times have changed and the pay scale may have changed, but the concept has not, and some schools are taking the idea and running with it.  These programs, largely privately funded, have ignited the passions of parents and educators on both sides of the issue.  The real question, though, is do they work?

Roland G. Fryer of the Harvard University Department of Economics published his findings in the Quarterly Journal of Economics on Financial Incentives and Student Achievement:  Evidence from Randomized Trials in May of 2011.  Fryer and his group conducted three large randomized experiments in three of the nation's largest school districts:  Dallas, New York City, and Chicago.  Each experiment focused on students in different age groups and had a different target goal.  While the results were mixed, they have certainly illuminated some of the pros and cons of the programs.  Significantly, the schools selected to participate in the experiment were typically low-performing, low-income schools.

Ninth-graders in Chicago were paid every five weeks for their grades in five core classes (math, science, social science, English, and gym).  The pay was significant:  $50 for an A, $35 for a B, $20 for a C, $0 for a D, and $0 for an F.  Additionally, a student who received an F in any one subject in a five-week period also temporarily "lost" any other money earned by passing other classes (so a student who had four A's and an F temporarily forfeited the $200 they earned from their four A's) until the F was made up  in either credit recovery, night school, or summer school.  While the results did not show a significant improvement on student scores on the 10th-grade PLAN test administered at the beginning of the following school year, students who were in the experimental group did on average receive 1.9 more credits than their peers who were not in the treatment group (in Chicago, this is equivalent to passing 1/2 more of a class than their peers).  If you have ever taught in an under-performing school, you realize that this result is somewhat significant.

Second-graders in Dallas were paid $2 for every book they read, up to 20 books per semester.  Students would read the book and would take a computerized quiz to prove that they had read the book.  Each student was only allowed to take the quiz once and required to pass it with a score of 80% or better to receive the $2.  At the end of the school year, students were given the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and results indicated that native English speaking students significantly improved their scores in reading comprehension.  Interestingly, it was discovered that these results were not the same in English Language Learners.  Despite the fact that the ELL students read more books than their native-speaking counterparts, they actually performed worse in reading comprehension on their end-of-year test, the Logramos.  Fryer has some interesting theories about what may have caused this, but you'll have to go read his journal article to find out what those theories are (you can find it on pages 14 and 15 in his article).

Finally, 4th and 7th graders in New York City were paid to increase their test scores on ten assessments given throughout the school year.  Six tests were computerized and four were paper and pencil tests.  Fourth graders participating in the study were given $5 for completing the exam and $25 for a perfect score; seventh graders were given $10 for completing the exam and $50 for a perfect score.  Test scores, however, did not reflect any marked change in either math or reading.

Again, Fryer has some interesting thoughts on the results of the NYC and Chicago experiments, including the fact that asking a student (especially those from underprivileged neighborhoods) to simply improve their grades or test scores can be a monumental task, and one that these students don't inherently know how to do.  Perhaps the programs would have been more successful to pay students to complete and turn in their homework everyday, or attend X number of tutoring sessions, etc.

Critics of the Cash for Grades programs point out that we want our children to be intrinsically motivated to learn.  Psychologists warn that all extrinsic reward programs (money, stars, stickers, etc.) will eventually fail once the reward is taken away and there is no motivation to continue the desired the behavior.

I think all parents probably want their child to desire intrinsically to learn and succeed.

Proponents of the programs, however, say that perhaps it is time that we teach our children to view learning as their job.  Mom and Dad go to work and get paid so why shouldn't little Tommy or Suzy?  One junior high Bronx principal said, "We're in competition with the streets.  They can go out there and make $50 illegally any day of the week.  We have to do something to compete with that" (citation here). Perhaps this principal makes a valid point.

Like all programs, there are going to be some students who simply won't play ball.  I have spoken to many parents who tell me desperately that they have tried everything to make their child do better in school--including pay them for grades--to no avail.  I suspect, though, that there are usually deeper issues at work in situations such as these.

As Fryer says in his paper, these rewards programs are not a panacea.  They are not going to "fix" the education system overnight, but our system wasn't broken overnight, either.  Perhaps we should view our Cash for Grades programs as one more small tool we can use to repair a damaged structure.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's Goin On...

Amongst the many viral videos out there on YouTube, a new one has popped up simply entitled Whats goin on by a 13-year-old named Jonah Mowry.  The video was originally posted right before school started in August.

I don't normally post about YouTube videos, but this one is worth taking a look at by educators and parents alike.  Get your hankies ready.

There is currently an on-going debate on YouTube about whether or not this kid has made up this entire thing as a prank.  If it is a prank, he's got to be in the running for Best Lead Actor in a Short in the next Academy Awards.  Jonah did post an addendum of sorts which you can see here:

 You can decide what you think.

Whether or not his video is a prank, I think it's important to realize that this is the reality for many, many students in our schools everyday.  Regardless of the comments posted on YouTube, anyone who has ever been the focus of bullying realizes that it's not simply a matter of just "toughening up" or "learning to defend yourself".  Besides being hurtful, bullying is emotionally draining.  Young elementary schoolers may not know how to tell their parents or teachers that they're being picked on which will cause the bullying to continue.

The most startling insight into Jonah's video is that he claims the bullying started in first grade and he first cut himself in second grade.  I will admit that this is much earlier than even I expected, and it breaks my heart to think that a seven year old would be in such pain that he mutilated himself to feel better.

Even though Jonah's bullying has been focused on the fact that he is gay, our kids go to school and are bullied for various reasons everyday.   It is not practical to believe that our kids are going to make it all the way through school, kindergarten through twelfth grade, without experiencing bullying at least once.  Our kids should realize that those same differences that are likely to get them bullied are also what make them special, and our children need to learn to value differences in others.  Likewise, it has been my experience that those who are the worst offenders when it comes to bullying are either bullied themselves or have other on-going issues that cause them to lash out.

I have to give props to Jonah.  If this is some sort of hoax, while it might be in poor taste, it has managed to shed some light on the sad, inner feelings of our bullied students which are so much more desperate than we have ever imagined.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Middle Schools: Educating Our Pre-Teens

I was a good student in elementary school.  I didn't have to work hard at it, I just was.  I attended a very small elementary school, and I was fairly popular.  I was comfortable in my elementary school.  I knew who I was, who my friends were, what was going on, and, most importantly, where I was going.

I started middle school in sixth grade.  Suddenly, all of my good friends were ripped away from me and sent to other teams, I was moved to a school with about 1200 other students, assigned a locker, and given a schedule that included changing classes in crowded hallways.  I was devastated.  And I hated the book that we were reading in my reading class (still do, actually).  When grades for my first six weeks as a middle schooler were recorded, my usual A's and B's were replaced with C's, D's, and (gasp) a U.

For those of you unfamiliar with modern-day grade reporting, a U stands for "unsatisfactory" and is the PC way of saying "F".  You find it most commonly in elementary and middle schools.

My mom recognized immediately that there was a problem and we had a heart-to-heart.  From then on, my grades improved generally, but I never did quite get back what I had all ready lost in math.  I have struggled with math off and on since then.

Why do I share this information with you?  A journal article by Guido Schwerdt and Martin West, both of Harvard University, was published this past September.  The article is entitled "The Impact of Alternative Grade Configurations on Student Outcomes through Middle and High School".  In short, what does it mean to your child's long-term educational growth by moving them into middle school in sixth grade versus moving them into middle school at another time or not at all?

Most people in my generation who have attended a public school have probably attended the most popular school model in the United States:  K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.  Students of my parent's generation overwhelmingly attended schools based on the junior high model.  My husband attended a private parochial school so he skipped middle school altogether as his school was a K-8 school.  

Early in American education, most school districts had a single K-8 elementary school and a 9-12 high school.  As more and more parents began sending their children to school, though, many school districts responded by creating junior high schools to accommodate grades 7-9.  It was an interesting experiment in American education, supporters arguing that a junior high school could prepare students for the rigors of high school while maintaining separation from older students.  This, of course, was at a time in American education when a high school diploma was a big deal, and enrollment at American colleges and universities was no where near what it is today.

In the 1960's, however, a reformist group began arguing that students as young as sixth grade (or, in some cases, fifth) had special social, academic, and psychological needs that necessitated separate schooling.  Thus, the junior high was replaced by the middle school, and the middle school model has been the prevailing educational model for going on sixty years now.

But how effective is it?  This was the question that Schwerdt and West sought to investigate, and their results more or less confirm what high school teachers have suspected for a long time.

  • Students who attend a K-5 elementary school, have greater statistical gains in math and reading prior to entering middle school compared to their peers who attend K-6, K-8, and K-12 schools.
  • However, when those students enter middle school in sixth grade, their math and reading scores drop and this loss follows them through the first two years of high school.
  • Students who attend a K-6 elementary school show a similar pattern when they enter seventh grade.
  • K-8 students do not show the initial statistical gain that their K-5 peers do, but they tend to overtake and surpass their peers by the eighth grade.
  • The sharpest decrease in scores is found in schools located in urban areas (as opposed to suburban or rural areas).  This is not a surprise, but it is probably more closely linked to socioeconomic issues, and less with the transition into middle school. 
My oldest child is three and a-half, and, even though middle school is years away, thinking about sending him to middle school makes me somewhat panicky.  Partially because I remember how miserable my own middle school experience was, but partially because I've always wondered why school districts thought it was a good idea to cram a bunch of pre-adolescent lunatics into one school together.  Between the hormonal changes taking place, the social upheaval, and the shift in organization and structure, it's no wonder that so many middle school students struggle.  Additionally, more and more policies are making it difficult for middle school teachers to retain those students who truly need it, and middle schoolers are smarter than we give them credit for.  They learn quickly that they can simply not do the work and they will be passed on anyway.  This is what harms them the most when they transition to high school, and it creates behavior problems.

So, what can we do?  As a parent, you obviously need to make the best choice for your family and your budget.  Some students move on to middle school and do exceptionally well.  Your child might be one of those.  This research seems to suggest that there is absolutely no benefit to transitioning a sixth grader into middle school.  If this scares you, then look at your school district's options for charter schools, some of which are K-8.  You might also request to send your child to another elementary school in the district that is a  K-8 school.  This will probably mean that you have to take your child to school yourself, but that might be a small price to pay.  If you can afford it, most private elementary schools are K-8 and may also be a valid option.  

But what if the only option for you is a traditional 6-8 middle school?  It is tempting as a parent to breathe a sigh of relief when our children graduate elementary school and relax ourselves and our interest in school.  After all, by the time they hit middle school, most of them are 11/12 years old; they've been at this school thing for going on seven years.  But I think that the reality is that middle school is the time when our kids need us to be the most involved.  They'll hate you for it, I promise, but I'm not advocating that you become a helicopter parent--just an involved parent.  Join the PTA, chaperone middle school dances or field trips, let your child know that you know what's going on.

As for school districts, maybe it's time we revisited the K-8 model.  Or, at the very least, admitted to ourselves that middle schoolers need more supervision and structure than we like to think they do, and transitioning them more slowly might be the better option if we absolutely must stick with this middle school model.  I don't feel that most 11-year-olds are emotionally equipped to handle the social pressures associated with middle school in addition to the structural and organizational changes that come with it.

It also wouldn't hurt to hire more male middle school teachers.  Pre-teen boys are hitting adolescence and they need good male role models around them.  Sadly, many of them don't have one at home.

Let's do our best to ensure that our children have a better middle school experience than we did.

If you want to read the full-text of "The Impact of Alternative Grade Configurations on Student Outcomes through Middle and High School", you can read it here:  It's a little math heavy, but there are tons of figures, and the authors do a pretty good job of explaining their results and examining their methods.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How South Korea gets it Right

Education in America has changed.  I say this like I'm some kind of wizened old spinster teacher who has seen fifty school years come and go.  I'm not THAT old, but my initial statement still stands.  Even since my days in elementary school (which started in 1986), I have seen a drastic shift in instructional methods, curriculum, and disciplinary policies within our schools.  Students today face a much more challenging educational environment than I did.

Once upon a time, the United States was one of the top nations in the world in mathematics and science, putting us in the driver's seat when it came to space exploration.  But as the years have past, the memories of our competition with the Commies have faded, and our students are becoming less and less able to compete internationally with the new rising stars.

One of those rising stars is South Korea.  I ran across an article last week on CNN by Fareed Zakaria entitled "Why all of South Korea went silent".  It's a short article, maybe running 500 words, quickly discussing the South Korean equivalent of the SAT.  Students study for years for this exam which lasts a grueling nine hours.  For such a short article, I was surprised to see that it illicited 264 responses.  The average Korean school day lasts from around 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.--approximately an hour longer than most American public schools, and the average Korean school calendar has 25 more school days than the average American public school calendar.  After school, many students attend a hagwon--a private, after-hours tutoring academy--until 10 p.m. or later.  That's a 14 hour school day.  Average tuition for a hagwon?  $2,600 per student per year.

Since shortly after World War II, South Korea has placed a strong emphasis on educating its children, improving its literacy rate from 22% in 1945 to just shy of 98% (97.9%) in 2002 according to the CIA World Factbook.  In 2009, South Korea placed 4th in mathematics according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Additionally, they ranked 6th in science proficiency and 2nd in overall reading proficiency.  The United States, by comparison, ranked 31st, 23rd, and 17th respectively.  That was in 2009 and South Korea has only done better since then.

Success, though, usually comes at a price.  As of 2010, South Korea also holds the highest suicide rate of any OECD nation at a shocking 22 deaths per 100,000 individuals.  The current population of South Korea is approximately 48.8 million people, so you can do the math.  To put that in perspective, countries with the lowest suicide rates (such as Italy and Spain) tend to hover in the 3 per 100,000 range.

Critics of South Korea's educational system point out that there is a heavy emphasis placed on rote memorization to allow students to do well on their exams, and that critical thinking goes largely untaught.  Students routinely sleep in class because they are up late studying, and because they realize that anything they miss can be learned at their hagwon later in the day.  Parents have chosen to have fewer children, unable to reconcile the costs of education with their pocketbooks (in 2009, South Korea had the world's lowest birthrate with the average South Korean woman giving birth to 1.2 children in her lifetime).

Despite some of the ugliness that has been caused by South Korea's education system, one thing that simply can't be denied is that South Koreans care about the education of their youth.  Perhaps they are a little overly zealous in some respects, but South Korean parents, teachers, and politicians all emphasize education, and, clearly, their approach is working.

That's not to say that Americans don't care about their children's education, but the days of education being a privilege rather than a right are well behind us.  Even the Supreme Court says so.  Every person in the United States is entitled to a free public education up through high school.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  We are fortunate to live in a country that views education as so important that it commands all individuals to be educated up through age 18.  Traditionally, denying education to a population has been used as a means of control.  A means of keeping the population ignorant and illiterate.  Unfortunately, by commanding that all individuals be educated, we have to accept that not everyone wants to be educated.

If we want to see a shift in education, we need to understand that it starts with us--the parents--and the expectations that we have for our children.  We don't have to go as far as the South Korean parents, but we could take some tips from them.  Be involved with your child's school beyond elementary school.  Help your child with their homework.  Be willing to hire a good tutor if your child is struggling even if they're only in elementary school.  Early intervention is the key to helping your child be successful.  Be an advocate for your child and education in your community.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and this holds true in education, too.

Parents can't change everything, but we can change how we approach education.  If we make education a priority, then so will our children.,9171,2094427,00.html

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Final Countdown

Getting the Most Out of Your High School Education or How to Best Prepare Yourself for College

Several of my former students are receiving their college acceptance letters in the mail.  I've seen the Facebook posts:  "Accepted to UT!"  or "Just got my acceptance letter from ETSU!".  Well, it is, after all, that time of year.
This time next year, my charming little freshmen will once again be freshmen, but the stakes and the cost this time will be much higher.  So, how do I, as a teacher, ensure that these students begin their college careers with the best possible start?
The College Board (henceforth called The Board) recently released the results of an interesting survey.  The Board, if you aren't aware (as I wasn't), is the creator of several large, well-known exams (the SAT being the most prominent) and the curriculum and tests for AP classes amongst other things.  Blood-sucker status aside, the results of this survey shed some very interesting light on what we can do to better prepare our students to be successful in their post-secondary lives.
Here's a break-down of some of the numbers:

  • The Board surveyed 1500 students who graduated with the class of 2010.
  • 74% of those 1500 students immediately enrolled in some form of post-secondary education upon graduating from high school.
  • 47% of the respondents said they wished that they had worked harder in high school, and many of those said they wished they had taken different classes.
  • Only 49% said they felt like high school adequately prepared them for both college and work.
  • 58% of students say that they rely upon their family to help them in setting goals after high school.
  • 86% said they believed that a college degree was worthwhile, and 76% of them were not enrolled in any type of degree program at the time of the survey.
  • 54% said that their college classes were more difficult than they expected them to be.
  • And, sadly, of the 74% who had enrolled in some form of post-secondary education immediately out of high school, 81% did not complete their first year.
Let's take a look at that 81% who didn't complete their first year of PSE (post-secondary education).  There are many reasons why a student may not complete his/her first year:  not enough money to complete the year, an unexpected accident or death, but I suspect that for many students it comes down to a lack of preparation.
There are many ways a student can be unprepared for college.  Certainly a lack of academic preparation is the first thing that jumps to my mind, but some students simply choose the wrong college or the wrong career path.  Did you catch the statistic above that said that 58% of students rely on their family for advice?  I know that's probably a shock to some parents whose teenagers have essentially ignored them for the past four years, but they don't necessarily seek out the opinions of guidance counselors, teachers, or friends.
Knowing this, the next question is:  What can parents do to help ensure that they guide their teenagers in the right direction?

  • Encourage your child to take harder classes.  I say this with a caveat.  There is a fine-line between encouraging/insisting that your child take harder classes and being pushy.  Only do this if you are certain that you child has both the work ethic and the skills to be able to handle the class.  Otherwise, you could do more harm than good.  One of the best things my mom ever did for me was insist that I take a fourth math my senior year of high school.  Math was never my strong point, and I had completed the state graduation requirements (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2).  In my mind, I was done with math.  However, my mom insisted that I take the extra math class, and in the spring of my senior year I found myself sitting in a statistics class.  I didn't appreciate at that time, but when I found out that the ONLY math class I had to have to graduate college was statistics, I was grateful when I could stop doing the homework for that class in October because I knew everything we were covering all ready.  I guess my mom decided (correctly) that if I could handle Algebra 2, then I could handle statistics.
  • If you are not familiar with the college application process, take the time to learn.  I have never met a guidance counselor who couldn't find time to talk to a parent.  Attend informational meetings that your school or community is offering.  
  • Know what schools your child is considering, and what career path he/she has in mind.  There is no law that your child has to stick with the major that he/she enters college with.  My college didn't require you to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year, but if your child is considering a highly specialized career, this information should color his or her choices pretty heavily.  If your child has trouble with large classes, perhaps sending him/her to the largest university in the state is not the best idea.  
  • Go with your child to tour some of the schools on the short list.  Get a feel for the campus and the people. 
  • Encourage your child to apply to multiple schools.  We all had our first choice schools, but there is always the possibility that your child might not get in to that first choice.  Like most things in life, he/she needs to have a back-up plan.
  • Take the SAT and/or the ACT more than once.  As of a couple of years ago, ACT allowed students to take the ACT exam for free once.  Use this to your advantage as a test-run.  Once the scores have returned, you will know what areas you REALLY need to focus on the next time you take it.
What can teachers and schools do to prepare our students?

  • Teachers, if you're ever given the opportunity to be trained to teach an AP class, take it even if you don't think you'll use it right away.  I know that in the case of biology, the teachers must first be trained to teach AP Biology and these training classes are expensive.  You would be amazed at the number of schools that don't have AP classes because their faculty lacks the proper training.
  • Encourage your students to consider some form of post-secondary education.  No, not every student needs to attend a four-year university, but many students are oblivious to the fact that there are other options out there.  
  • Don't be afraid of making your class challenging.  Your students will thank you for it later.
  • Contact professors at area colleges and find out where they feel their in-coming freshman are lacking.  This type of collaboration will allow you to see where to focus your efforts.
If you want to read the College Board survey results, you can view their pdf document here:

Monday, November 14, 2011

How do we stop a bully?

I recently had a lengthy Facebook discussion with a friend of mine from middle and high school regarding bullying.  Her son was being bullied on the bus, and the situation had reached the point  where he no longer wanted to go to school.
This scenario seems to be replaying itself across the nation as the school year progresses and our students begin to crack under the burden.  We’ve all seen the stories of students, tormented so extremely by their peers  that they feel they have no other choice but to take their own lives, and parents and schools are left asking the same question:  “What can we do?”.
A study released this month by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) attempts to address some of these issues.  Though the study, Crossing the Line:  Sexual Harassment at School, admittedly focuses primarily on sexual harassment in grades 7-12, it highlights some valid points that apply to bullying in general.
  • Forty-four percent of students said the reason why they had harassed another student was because they didn’t think it was a big deal.  Bullying and harassment of any kind should be a big deal. 
  • Fifty percent of all students didn’t do anything about being harassed.  They didn’t speak to a parent, a teacher, a friend, or the police.  Most bullying occurs in the seedy underground of the American public school—in the hallways during class changes, in the gym locker room, in the bathrooms, on the bus, or at the bus stop.  The places out of reach of or only loosely monitored by teachers and administrators.
  • Thirty-six percent of girls and 24% of boys reported some form of cyber-harassment via text message, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means.
  Ladies and gentlemen, we have to do better.  All of us.  Parents, teachers, and administrators.  This is affecting our children’s education.  After being sexually harassed, students reported that they didn’t want to go to school, they had difficulty sleeping, they had actually stayed home from school, and, in some cases, been forced to change schools.
                Many students throughout the study reported that they felt their teachers didn’t care or wouldn’t do anything if they brought up the issue.  We need to know the school’s and school district’s policies on bullying/harassment and be able to speak to a student intelligently about what he/she needs to do if a student does report bullying to us.  Giving a student who has been harassed or bullied a step-by-step approach to taking control of the situation is a way to empower your student. 
           All complaints of sexual harassment/bullying need to be taken seriously by the administration.  There have been too many instances lately where a student has committed suicide, only for us to later discover that the school was perfectly aware of the bullying and not enough was done to stop it.  If a student is involved in a bullying or sexual harassment complaint, parents need to know immediately.
Finally, parents have the unique difficulty of striking the delicate balance between privacy and a lack thereof.  While middle and high-schoolers expect a certain degree of privacy, there is nothing wrong with a parent checking their child’s cell phone, Facebook account, or email occasionally.  Maybe that doesn’t make me popular, but, in this day, it could mean the difference between your child living and dying.  Experts have told parents for years that we should keep our family computers out of the kid’s bedrooms and in the living rooms.  There’s a good reason for that. 
If you want to read the full study Crossing the Line:  Sexual Harassment at School by Catherine Hill and Holly Kearl, you can read it here: